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Can The Nintendo Switch Save The House That Mario Built?

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Nintendo has become a bipolar brand; a pop cultural pendulum swinging between extreme highs and intense lows.

Now in the wake of their failed Wii U console -- which sold 13 million units, a fraction of its 101 million-selling Wii predecessor -- they're launching the innovative console-meets-handheld Nintendo Switch in hopes of a much-needed 1Up.

For all its turbulence, Nintendo remains one of the best-known names in the world. It's still synonymous with the video game culture it brought into our homes and hands in the 1980s, though it was actually founded more than a century earlier as a playing card manufacturer.

Atari was actually first to move the arcade to the couch, but their "E.T." game was so terrible, the company had to bury millions of unsold copies in the desert, went out of business and ushered in the great video game crash of 1983. The industry shrunk from a $3.2-billion business to $100 million by 1985 when Nintendo single-handedly resurrected it with the landmark NES and its still-iconic "Super Mario Bros." and "Legend of Zelda" franchises. Later in the decade, they pioneered handheld gaming with the Game Boy, which would go on to sell nearly 120 million units.
They're launching the innovative console-meets-handheld Nintendo Switch in hopes of a much-needed 1Up.

Nintendo continued making both form factors, hitting even higher heights in 2004 with the 154 million-selling Nintendo DS, which boasted two screens (one of which was a touchscreen three years before the first iPhone).

They would later evolve their handheld into the glasses-free 3DS, but smartphones and tablets eventually ate into the market so Nintendo started releasing mobile games, most notably "Pokemon Go," which was downloaded 650 million (!) times, and "Super Mario Run," which saw a record 40 million downloads in its first four days.

pokemon go
The mobile game 'Pokemon Go' became a viral sensation around the world in 2016. (Photo: Getty)

"Pokemon Go," however, was licensed to Niantic, a standalone developer. This led to another bipolar burst last July as Nintendo stocks gained US$17.6 billion in two weeks only to drop US$6.7 billion in a single day. Still, it paved the way for record-breaking sales of "Pokemon Sun and Moon" for 3DS, which in turn helped double the handheld's sales from 2015 to over 6 million.

But there was no similar good news for the Wii U, which sold only 760,000 last year. It completely lost the current-gen console war against Sony's PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox One despite dominating the previous generation and offering an innovative tablet controller and pretty great first-party games.

Which brings us back to the Nintendo Switch, their seventh console in the past two decades.

nintendo switch
A woman plays 'Mario Kart 8 Deluxe' on a Nintendo Switch games console. (Photo: Getty)

It is essentially a solution to a problem that Nintendo has more than a problem that we have -- a mash-up device to address their faltering handheld and console operations -- which is still a promising evolution in gaming.

Nintendo has long ignored hardware specs in favour of hardware experimentation that literally changes the way we game. The Wii was underpowered graphically, but introduced motion-sensing controls. The DS added a second screen and swipe controls, while the Wii U brought the second touchscreen to consoles.

The Switch brings all these various concepts together in a single device that can be used as a handheld or dropped into a dock to send its signal to your big screen TV. It's maybe not the most impressive console, but it is the most impressive handheld ever.

No portable gaming device has ever been able to play console-calibre games, but Nintendo's universally acclaimed "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" is a sprawling open-world masterpiece that I've predominantly been playing on the Switch's small screen. (I should note the handheld is far more fragile than the 3DS and has less battery life.)

It's not the most impressive console, but it is the most impressive handheld ever.

Switch has two "Joy-Con" controllers that slide onto the tablet in handheld form, can be taken off and combined into a typical console controller (though it currently has syncing issues) or used separately for motion-control games like "1-2 Switch."

Nintendo is hoping it'll become a party staple like "Wii Sports" thanks to 30 very silly minigames which have you doing everything from milking imaginary cows and playing imaginary ping pong, to spinning plates and holding yoga poses.

My seven-year-old son loves it, though I'm not convinced that the game's differentiator -- for the most part, it wants players looking at each other rather than the screen -- will have the same visceral impact as seeing onscreen graphics.

nintendo switch
WWE wrestler John Cena plays "1-2 Switch" on the Nintendo Switch console (Photo: Getty)

Much of the device remains TBD. Online capability has been introduced, but the eShop has only a handful of games and there's no word if previously purchased Wii U games will be downloadable on the new system. Even Virtual Console, which sells Nintendo games dating back to the '80s, remains in limbo, and the software launch line-up is meager at best. Anticipated titles like "Splatoon 2" and "Super Mario Odyssey" still have no release dates.

The bigger question is whether this gamble will provide the boost Nintendo needs. Perhaps, but not right off the bat.

The CA$399 two-in-one device will be snapped up by Nintendo's core fanbase, but there aren't enough games yet to make it a must-buy unless you need to play "Zelda" and don't have a Wii U. Still it's a tech do-over that fixes that underrated console's failures while adding revolutionary new portability and avoiding direct competition with Sony and Microsoft.

The trick Nintendo now has to pull off is to capture the public's imagination. They've done it before thanks to their tendency to experiment rather than iterate, but they've failed at it before, too. The potential is there, but now they have to get out enough great games to convince the masses to switch on this time, not off.

Disclosure: The blogger was provided with a review console.

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