7 Years Later, The Switch’s Best Feature Is Something Nintendo Got Right in 1980

If Nintendo’s smart, the Switch 2 will have this same feature, too.

A Nintendo Switch game console with two Joy-Con controllers that can detach
Lais Borges/Inverse; Nintendo

The Nintendo Switch celebrated its seventh anniversary on March 3. It’s a notable milestone, not because of the number, but because of the timing. Nintendo was, until recently, widely rumored to debut the successor to the Switch this year. And when you have a console as popular and ever-present as the Nintendo Switch, sequels matter.

Seven years later, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the kind of impact the Switch would have. Nintendo introduced the Switch as a brand new hardware concept called “the NX,” the year before its launch in 2017, and didn’t fully explain what made the device special until it published a trailer that teased its ability to “switch” from a home console into a handheld you can take on the go. It seemed like a novel idea, but could it be more successful than the Wii? That seemed unlikely.

It’s true that people dunked on the imaginary use cases Nintendo proposed at the time. A scene with a rooftop party received an unusual amount of scrutiny, for example. But if anything has borne out in the last seven years, it’s that the Switch’s core gimmick — letting you play true console-quality games on the go — was powerful. And if there’s any feature the Switch 2 should hold onto when it reportedly comes out next year, it’s an idea that Nintendo has returned to again and again: portability.

The Handheld That’s a Home Console

A surge in new PC handhelds and a renewed interest in handheld gaming have made Nintendo’s handheld feel commonplace, but the Switch seemed kind of like a dream when it launched in 2017. By somehow combining aspects of its previous consoles, Nintendo had made one that worked better than all of them. The Switch had the option for motion controls from the Wii, the relatively compact size and touchscreen of the DS, DS Lite, and 3DS, and even the ability to play “console-quality” games away from your television from the Wii U.

In fact, the great irony of the Switch is that, in some ways, it’s another run at what Nintendo was trying with the Wii U, except this time people liked it. The Wii U was the successor to the ultra-popular Wii, but it didn’t make nearly the same kind of impact. Whereas there were over 100 million Wii consoles sold in its lifetime, the Wii U sold under 14 million, which made it the worst-selling Nintendo console of all time, performing even poorer than the GameCube (22 million) and Nintendo 64 (33 million). Some credit the confusion over the Wii U name as part of the problem, or that it wasn’t clear enough that the Wii U GamePad wasn’t an accessory for the Wii. Whatever the reason, Nintendo couldn’t repeat that failure with the Switch.

The Wii U was more powerful than the Wii and could pump out HD graphics, but it still supported motion controls. It could play all Wii games. With the Wii U, Nintendo tried to introduce control schemes and concepts from its other successful products into a home console, such as the dual-screen mechanics of the DS, or the ability to play games without turning on another screen, like all of the company’s handheld devices. The major difference between the Switch and the Wii U is that the Switch did it all in one device rather than needing a console box and controller with a screen. It’s the Wii U, but truly portable.

Taking Games On the Go

The Game & Watch uses what amopunts to calculator components for a much more entertaining experience.

Photograph by Xabi Vazquez

Portable gaming has been in Nintendo’s DNA since the early days of the Game & Watch. The standalone handhelds shipped with a single black and silver LCD screen, a few buttons, and the ability to tell the time and play one or two games. Variations with more buttons or dual screens were produced later, but all Game & Watches were basically calculators that played games. And in 1980, the simple idea of a pocketable device that had everything you needed to play games would prove to be wildly popular in the years that followed.

Nintendo built on the idea with the various iterations of the Game Boy, introducing a cartridge system that allowed you to change games, and eventually colored screens. With the DS, Nintendo took things a step further with two screens (one of which was a touchscreen), weirder input methods (like a microphone primarily used for blowing into), and unique ideas about communicating between devices. With all of the love for the Switch, I think it's fair to say that making games that you can take with you anywhere is a strategy that’s continually paid dividends for Nintendo. Some of the company’s handhelds sold more than others, but nearly all of them have been bigger hits than the dedicated home consoles Nintendo has sold.

... making games that you can take with you anywhere is a strategy that’s continually paid dividends for Nintendo.

I think there is also legitimate reason to believe that having a handheld console that’s really two consoles in one has changed behavior around buying and playing games in general. It’s much easier to purchase a game if you believe you’ll be able to play it in multiple places. It’s more convenient to try a new game if you can rationalize downloading it quickly for a work trip or a summer vacation. The shift towards digital downloads has certainly helped, but the Switch has made games feel more valuable while making them easier to buy.

The same logic has applied to the handheld game consoles that have come out since the Switch. The Steam Deck doesn’t offer quite as simple a docking experience as the Switch, but buying a game for Valve’s handheld PC gives you that similar feeling of getting away with something. If you’re not playing it on your Steam Deck now, you could be playing it on your PC later. At its best, besides the added convenience, that’s what portability gives you: one of the few instances of something that feels like it shouldn’t be possible being very possible.

What Is There Left to Switch?

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

In some ways, the Switch feels like Nintendo’s platonic ideal. It has the playful control methods and exclusive access to the company’s first-party games starring Mario, Link, and Pokémon. Third-party developers are still interested in releasing their games on it; titles from two console generations ago, like Red Dead Redemption, which first came out in 2010 during the PS3/Xbox 360 era, just came out on Switch in 2023. And, of course, the Switch’s magic ability to function both as a handheld and a home console is something you can’t get with a PS5 or Xbox Series X. You’d have to think that any kind of successor to the Switch, whether it's a Switch 2 or a Switch Pro, would try and keep everything the same and just deliver on more powerful internals.

Early rumors suggest that might be what happens in March 2025. The next Switch is expected to ship with a bigger screen, but not necessarily a better one with OLED like in the Switch OLED. It should be capable of playing more visually demanding games through some combination of improved processing power and software upscaling. Ideally, it'll be backward compatible with existing Switch games, too.

It’s possible the next Switch could be a curveball.

Nintendo has a history of zigging where others have zagged. A large part of the company’s history has been devoted to pursuing hardware development that other companies might view as a non-starter. It’s possible the next Switch could be a curveball. Plenty of handheld PCs have copied what worked about the Switch, from the basic form factor, to the touch screen, to the detachable controllers. Maybe the next Nintendo game system has to be completely different. Wherever Nintendo lands, the Switch's basic function as a portable game console above all else feels like the one thing that it should never give up.

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