Nintendo started 2018 with a bang, an enormous, megaton mic drop in the form of the most arrogant press release I may have ever read. And, well, it wasn’t exactly unjustified. The Switch has only been out for around ten months, and Nintendo is boasting that, based on its numbers, the hybrid handheld/TV console is the fastest-selling game console in the history of video games in the United States. That’s pretty crazy to think about, especially considering the ridiculous numbers the Wii pulled in a couple generations ago. The Switch, as of the press release, beat the Wii by nearly a million units. Not only that, but the software attach rate is ludicrous, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey hitting over 50%. But how did this even happen?
The Switch is coming off of years and years of doom and gloom from the gaming world, springing from the sharp decline of the Wii (huge hardware sales but horrible software attach rate) and the Wii U (awful, awful sales in general). People have been convinced Nintendo is Doomed for nearly all of the 2000s, and frankly while that’s certainly hyperbole, Nintendo wasn’t looking so great for a long time. Between third party support all but vanishing, and even Mario and Super Smash Bros. not moving tons of copies, nobody seemed to care about Nintendo on a scale larger than the lifelong diehards at all.
But, I think, people still wanted to like Nintendo. Even with all the weird hardware, lack of outside support and drip-feed of games, that latent nostalgic appeal was lying dormant. There was a movement of people who really wanted Nintendo to make mobile games, or perhaps pull a Sega and make games for other companies’ consoles. It feels like a lot of this was relevant to the economic downturn of the late 2000s – taking risks and having more stuff just wasn’t an option for so many people. Nintendo attempted to prop itself up as a “second console” next to a PS3 or 360, and that just wasn’t an appealing prospect.
The 3DS continued to do well, however, after a rough start. When the great handheld software, like the inevitable Pokemon titles, began to roll in everything was fine. Again, the innate quality and draw of Nintendo was still there, but it manifested more easily in the safer, more familiar handheld realm. It didn’t hurt that the Vita ultimately fizzled, drowning in Sony’s own Nintendo-like list of odd decisions. But for a while there was a vibe of, “why do both?” from gamers. Did Nintendo need to compete with itself? Was it? Seemed like it.
A few things then happened, almost like a perfect storm for Nintendo to make a comeback. Nintendo started embracing licensing again, giving out the rights to make more merchandise like toys, shirts, novelty coffee mugs and cheap candy. People who maybe left gaming in the previous five to ten years saw a Mario shirt at a Hot Topic or whatever and remembered they like them some Nintendo. The economy has recovered a bit, and we’ve seen the effects on video games big time. Games are selling more than ever across the board, and the massive success of both the PS4 and Xbox One have brought more publishing risks than we’ve seen in the past. Finally, the craze over things like amiibo figures and the NES Classic really got people in a frenzy about the brand.
When the Switch came out and was actually an appealing device that didn’t feel split between two separate platforms, it was game over for any doubts. Even Nintendo’s frankly dreadful stream first introducing the thing didn’t scare people away from trying the thing out. And anyone who has played a Switch can attest to just how great it looks and feels in your hands. So through the more aggressive licensing, economic factors, and content streamlining, the hype built to such a level that everyone, even third party publishers, had no choice but to jump on board with. We’re still going to have to see how this pans out in 2018 and beyond, but for now, it’s really no surprise to see the Switch reaching numbers nobody ever would have expected, including the folks at Nintendo themselves.