The Nintendo Switch has had a weird 2020 so far. After releasing the new Pokemon games in late 2019, we didn’t really see a lot on the horizon in terms of AAA, first party Nintendo output. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, slowing news and announcements to a crawl. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a huge hit, even for that series. A new Paper Mario is on the way, but that isn’t a guaranteed hit. Meanwhile, a lot of space has been filled with ports. Games from last gen and even the current gen have been landing on Switch from various porting studios, to mixed results. In some cases, I’m getting a serious Vita vibe, and not in a good way. Is Nintendo making similar mistakes? Probably not. Here’s why.
First of all, I have no beef with the Vita. I still have my Vita, and love to use it for what it does best. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t do best is console-tier games. What does that even mean? Well, for our purposes here, by “console-tier” game I mean a game of substance and high fidelity, the kind that needs power both in the device and in the marketing. With the Vita, Sony tried to burst out of the gate with all guns blazing. Properties like Killzone and Uncharted were the big focal points, along with ports of PS2 games like God of War and Sly Cooper. This was when Sony was trying to push the “ecosystem” idea, including things like cross-buy.
Unfortunately, most of the time this just didn’t work out. Some of the bigger-feeling games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Gravity Rush were great. But they had their issues that held them back. And all the ports? Plagued with more issues than boons. The Vita, despite its awesome screen and diverse feature set, was deceptively underpowered. Considering how much multiplatform content arrived on the Vita, none of it ran well. Frame rate issues, muddy visuals, and other compromises were common. Games needed to be tailored specifically for the Vita to look good and play well, and after Sony jumped ship as early as it did, nobody else seemed to figure the investment was worth it.
Like the Vita, the Nintendo Switch came out of the gate with some heavy hitters, then quickly became a great destination for smaller games from indies, Japanese developers, and ports of previous-gen games. Some recent ports have been pretty dreadful, such as 2K Sports’ infamously bad WWE 2K18 port, and for a more recent example, 2K (pattern?)-published The Outer Worlds also caused fan backlash due to performance and visual problems. At the same time, other hefty port jobs such as Dark Souls Remastered, Rocket League, and even The Witcher III have been received with positivity, even despite flaws.
If it came out a few years earlier, an idea like the Nintendo Switch probably wouldn’t have worked out, for many reasons the Vita didn’t. It’s underpowered next to the other consoles, but it’s also based on mobile hardware that’s strong enough to do some really impressive stuff. And since the demand is there, developers are putting real time, money, and effort into making ports work, and figuring out how to do them better. Native or exclusive Switch games are also generally impressive, even if there are some tricks behind the scenes to make them feel good in player hands. A lot of folks see the Switch as a spiritual successor to the Vita, but thanks to timing, flexible hardware and measured expectations on either side of the business, we aren’t seeing history repeat itself. And that’s great for fans of portable gaming.