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Are Nintendo playing the long game with the Switch launch?

Stage one of the Nintendo Switch embargo has just been passed, and already my YouTube and Twitter feeds are full of unboxing videos and images along with an extensive run through of everything the console can do right now.

Like every other video game system launch during this decade, the system that people get hold of on launch day may as well have a giant “beta” sticker on it. This has varied with each system, and whilst they can do the main thing they are designed for, that being to play video games, other features – especially those linked to online connectivity – require some sort of day one patch or one that is in the works during the “launch window”. Sometimes, it’s much later.

Even when pre-announced features do arrive to a system via an update that does not mean that it is finished. The PS4 and Xbox One have been out for over three years now and neither system performs in the exact same way as they did at launch. Both have some notable updates coming soon further changing how its users can interact with them.

Nintendo is no different here, the Wii U – despite having felt abandoned for quite some time now – used to receive consistent updates such as the addition of quick launch functionality and folders. It is the 3DS which has received more significant updates throughout its long lifespan, so much so that the original Operating System is barely recognisable.

The trials and tribulations of the 3DS provide a good, yet worrying, insight into the Switch launch. When the 3DS launched the system functionality was pretty bare. It didn’t even come with the eShop or a web browser; these came a few months later, around the time that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D launched on the system.

Nintendo Switch Red and Blue JoyCon

The Switch technically does come with the eShop, but this won’t be activated until March 3, 2017, along with all the other online features, so even if you are lucky enough to have one arrive a day early you will likely have to wait a bit longer. But it does launch with a Zelda game, something that couldn’t be said for the 3DS or Wii U, and what’s more it isn’t a remake like both other systems received during their launch windows.

Furthermore, whilst the launch line-up for the Switch is on the light side, Nintendo appears to be focusing on quality over quantity. Unlike the Wii U launch, which whilst sizeable, had a glut of unnecessary ports that attempted to make use of the systems unique features, the Switch is mostly a Nintendo-only affair (so you better like The Legend of Zelda) backed by a small selection of “Nindies”. As of writing Fast RMX and Shovel Knight Spectre of Torment and Treasure Trove (the latter contains the original game and all subsequent DLC) have both just been confirmed as launch titles on the eShop.

However, it hasn’t helped that Nintendo has been overly secretive about the Switch since its first proper reveal towards the end 2016 and its main reveal at the start of 2017. This reluctance has fed intense fascination with the online community ravenously flocking to leaks showing the Switch’s OS in operation, from what ultimately turned out to be a stolen system.

With less than a week to go until the Switch launches worldwide on March 3, Nintendo has, overall, been very quiet about a system that the public will soon have their hands on. The press might be slowly disseminating information, but collectively we are in the dark almost as much as the public, trying to draw out some more clarity from Nintendo over what to expect and when.

Nintendo Switch gif

Nintendo has announced that it will be hosting a video presentation the Tuesday before the system’s launch (February 28,at 9 AM PT in the US, 17:30 GMT in the UK) but will take the form of a “Nindies Showcase”. It will be good to learn about more games that are coming to the system, yet it is a shame that it is currently looking like there will be no further concrete details until after launch.

In the meantime, Nintendo also nonchalantly revealed that the Virtual Console will not be available for launch and that further details about it will be coming soon. This is not unprecedented as both the 3DS and Wii U launched without the Virtual Console, but its presence helped the Wii’s release stand out, and given Nintendo’s remarks that the Switch represents elements of all its systems makes it absence at launch seem more apparent.

If it is increasingly sounding like the system isn’t ready, you might not be mistaken. It seems more apparent that the true Switch launch will be the Winter months, by which point key Nintendo titles such as Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will have all been released and Nintendo’s paid multiplayer system will be in place. Until then, like some apps, or even crowdfunded hardware, the Switch is having something of a soft launch, albeit one to satiate diehard Nintendo and Legend of Zelda fans, as well as serving as a testing ground to gather better information how the system is being received and how to market it efficiently during the Winter months.

This is almost like the Nintendo version of Early Access, complete with obscure bug reports, like the left JoyCon suffering sync issues when not connected to the unit. This is just really expensive Early Access, with a really cool product.

Nintendo Switch Pro Controller

This will also give Nintendo some indication as to how many units they need to manufacture to meet demand but without creating an excess. In other words, trying to avoid the difficulties of the Wii launch and the calamity that still afflicts the NES Classic, as well as not seeing a repeat of the number of Wii U consoles that they struggled to shift. Then, perhaps just as important, launching in March gives Nintendo a nice cash injection at the end of the financial year, pleasing the all-important shareholders.

With the 3DS, Nintendo managed to turn around its initial flagging sales, but only after a price cut – and a gift of ten NES games and ten GBA, referred to as the Ambassador Program, to those who had already purchased the system – and a very strong Winter line-up including Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land. The approach with the Switch already looks like it might be purposefully imitating this, except with the 3DS release Nintendo were genuinely surprised by the low sales, expecting that the true DS successor that also displayed video games in 3D (which was also big in the cinema at the time) would be a major selling point.

The Switch still has its gimmicks, it wouldn’t be a modern Nintendo system if it didn’t, and it’s only once the Switch is in the hands of players that Nintendo – and third parties – will find out what works, what doesn’t, and what can be adapted. This is not a traditional approach to releasing a new system, with Nintendo at odds with itself over how it wants to move forward, but it has already shown (and did so during the life of the Wii U) that it is not short of ideas. It’s problem is implementing them properly and more importantly getting the message out there to a fickle marketplace.

On March 3, 2017, we will know whether fans are satisfied with the initial Switch launch, and if they are? Then Nintendo’s efforts to get everyone else on board needs Nintendo’s full attention.

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