Word is on the street that the Nintendo Switch has sold half a million copies in Japan faster than the PlayStation 4 sold half a million copies. This is pretty interesting, although its relevance to the North American market is debatable. However, the Switch is also at the very least breaking internal Nintendo records over here, so the bottom line is this: the Nintendo Switch is an early success to a degree nobody expected. Especially when you look at the Japan numbers, it’s clear there is something special about this little device. Now the question is, what? In my eyes, the answer is this: the Switch fills a niche. It’s not just another device that plays videogames like the Wii U and Gamecube were. It’s a unique piece of hardware that takes up tangible space in a spot where the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One don’t reach, just like the Wii.
In this prior piece, I jumbled some thoughts around in my head about the Xbox brand, particularly since the Xbox One has struggled since launch to capture the gamer hivemind. It’s doing well enough financially, but the PlayStation 4 is maintaining a shocking advantage that nobody saw coming. The more I thought about it and the history of these consoles, the more I attributed it to demographic appeal.
This is holding true with the Switch. After all, looking through Nintendo history, you can see a thorough line of unique hardware appeal in each of its successes. The NES, the Game Boy, and the Wii blew everything else out of the water because they offered something the competition didn’t. Whenever similar devices are smashed together, like the SNES and Genesis or Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the numbers get closer and eventually the hunk of plastic with the more popular games wins out.
With the Wii and the Game Boy, things were different. The devices sold themselves even without comparable software. Portable gaming, even on the super underpowered Game Boy, was revolutionary, and Nintendo made it work at a lower cost and with a longer battery life than the competition. The Wii brought a totally unfamiliar style of play when the timing was right and the casual market exploded. In a similar vein, the Wii U failed because Nintendo tried a more pure gaming machine with some Wii-like trappings, but failed to distinguish it from its competition and even its predecessor.
But the Switch is different. It’s capitalizing on the guaranteed success of the Nintendo portable and the popularity of mobile devices. It’s a lightweight machine you can flip and change around on the go, but still use for console-level games. Despite weird sales numbers regarding consoles vs mobile games (especially in Japan!), we know the market still wants hardcore-style experiences, especially in the West. The Switch appeals to both with its unique software support and space-conscious and comfort-minded hardware.
That unique appeal is selling the Switch, not the new The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The Wii U couldn’t even move units with Mario Kart 8, or a Super Smash Bros. You have to do more than be another box that plays games today. There’s only room for one of those, and the PlayStation 4 is the clear king. The Xbox One is useless as a second pillar, exclusives or otherwise. The Switch goes places the PlayStation 4 doesn’t or can’t. It doesn’t have universal appeal, but it has that tangible niche, that secondary market that still loves the idea of portable gaming, as long as it’s cool and affordable.