The Nintendo Switch has been Nintendo’s most successful home console of all time, and is rapidly approaching the Nintendo DS’ lifetime sales. Bouncing off the failure of the Wii U, Nintendo pulled us all back in with their first hybrid system. It’s now been six whole years since the launch of the Switch, as we get increasingly closer to whatever comes next. We think it’s time for a reflection, taking a look back at how Nintendo launched the Switch, and what they should learn for the launch of the Switch successor.
For those unaware, the Nintendo Switch launched on March 3, 2017, alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The launch was massive, selling 330,000 systems in Japan in its first week, and 2.74 million systems globally in just the first month. That’s 20% of the Wii U’s entire lifetime sales in a single month. The Switch was selling out around the world, with its unique hybrid approach to being both a handheld and home console being well received by new and returning Nintendo fans alike. It was more than a novelty, and people were interested. A system is only as good as its games, and that’s where the Switch’s first hit comes in.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a big deal. Releasing on both Wii U and Nintendo Switch, Breath of the Wild reinvented what it was to be a Zelda game, and what it meant to be open-world. The game received critical success, but perhaps more importantly for Nintendo at this time, it had commercial success too. In the first month the Switch sold 2.74 million systems – Breath of the Wild sold 2.76 million units on Switch in the same period. This attachment rate was unprecedented. Nintendo President at time time, Tatsumi Kimishima, boasted about just how high this attach rate was, and the potential it had to smash franchise records (which it did).
For the first few months of its life, the Switch was a Zelda machine. There were other launch titles lined up, like 1-2-Switch, Super Bomberman R and Just Dance 2017, but none of them could compete with Zelda. Until April 28, when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe raced onto the scene. This re-released Wii U Mario Kart entry would go on to become the best-selling Switch game of all time. The hits kept coming, as Splatoon 2 solidified the series as a mainstay Nintendo IP in summer, followed by Super Mario Odyssey’s October launch making us all a “1-Up Girl”. 2017 was Nintendo’s unstoppable year, and it catapulted the Switch to new Nintendo heights.
After one year, the Switch was the fastest-selling console of all time in many regions, including Japan with 3.2 million sales, 4.8 million sales in the USA, and millions more in Europe. The Switch had a growing third-party gaming library too, with FIFA 18, NBA 2K18, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and more drawing new types of gamers to Nintendo’s hybrid system. Its successes were big, and the reasons were plentiful. The stars aligned for the launch of the Switch, and Nintendo is surely waiting with bated breath to see if lightning can strike twice with whatever comes next.
The playing field the Switch successor will be launching into is vastly different than what the Switch released to. The Switch was a last-ditch effort by Nintendo to succeed once again in a changing gaming industry, and the first mainstream hybrid console of its kind. That’s not the gaming landscape anymore. Nintendo has dominated the market for the last six years, outshining even the latest PlayStation and Xbox consoles thanks to their floundering supply issues.
Nintendo couldn’t wait to cut off the Wii U and move onto the successful new market of the Switch, but they likely won’t be as hasty this time. At time of writing, the Switch has shipped over 122 million consoles globally. That’s a market of more than 100 million people with the means to buy their games. Making a year’s worth of games exclusive to the successor of the Switch might make the sequel system sell well, but they’ll be leaving behind the biggest audience they’ve ever had at their disposal.
We can see this in practice with the launch of the PlayStation 5. Sony’s PS4 shipped 117 million systems, and whilst they wanted the new system to sell, they couldn’t abandon that audience. Some of the PS5’s biggest games have been cross-generation, including God of War Ragnarök, Horizon Forbidden West and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Despite this, the PS5 is still selling well. The technological improvements make these consoles undoubtedly the best place to play, and that’s reflected in the 32.1 million PS5 sales so far over the last 2.5 years. As the market share of the PS5 grows, we see more and more exclusive titles appearing to make the most of that power. The upcoming Final Fantasy XVI will be exclusive to the PS5, as well as the highly anticipated Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Marvel’s Wolverine.
We can probably expect Nintendo to take the same approach. Cross-generation titles will frontload the next generation of Nintendo hardware, with major technical improvements for both past titles and new ones on the Switch successor. As people buy into the Switch follow-up, that’s when we’ll get the exclusives that make the most of that power. But what games can we expect?
The Switch had success with its launch thanks to Breath of the Wild and the other hits that followed. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom launches this May, so another big Zelda game can’t drop with the next Nintendo system. Splatoon 3 also only launched six months ago, with DLC on the way, so it seems far too soon for a new Splatoon game too. There is one thing we’ve been waiting a while for, and that’s the plumber himself.
Super Mario Odyssey was the Switch’s only exclusive 3D Mario game (excluding the Bowser’s Fury add-on to the Super Mario 3D World port), and it launched six years ago in the Switch’s launch year. We’re hugely overdue a new Mario game, and we’ve not yet heard of one coming at any point this year. Whether that’s a direct Odyssey sequel or an entirely new adventure, potentially inspired by the upcoming Mario movie, it would be very interesting to see a Mario title used as a technological performance piece for Nintendo’s next-gen hardware.
Perhaps a far better fit to highlight the real power of a Switch successor would be Metroid Prime 4. The upcoming Prime entry was announced five years ago in 2018, and is still yet to materialize in any meaningful way. Perhaps the Switch hardware was holding it back, or maybe development has just been troubled (we know it got restarted), but what better way to show off the power of the next Switch than with a visually impressive Metroid game? Metroid Prime games are much closer to realistic graphics and effects than Mario games, so it would be an effective title to show off pure hardware power. It’s also a game that has six years of hype behind it, and could really push interest in the new platform. The elephant in the room of course is the franchise. Metroid has never really been a huge seller, but perhaps with all the spotlight of new hardware on it, and years of development time, Prime 4 could push the series to new heights.
Maybe Nintendo won’t rely on too many new releases to transition gamers to the new hardware, and will instead focus on what it has. The Switch has some beloved games that are hindered by their hardware, such as Xenoblade Chronicles 3 or Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. What could make a huge splash would be day one patches for all of Nintendo’s Switch exclusives, boosting performance and visual quality, maybe even using DLSS upscaling to hit 4K, as has been rumored.
That brings us to power. The Switch wasn’t a particularly powerful system, but back in 2017 it was mind-blowing. Running Breath of the Wild handheld without stuttering, or having high-action battles in Splatoon 2 in smooth 60fps in the palm of your hands. It was impressive stuff. Nowadays, not so much. Some of the latest Switch releases, like Pokémon Scarlet and Violet or Kirby and the Forgotten Land, run at 30fps even while docked. In the case of Pokémon, it gets even lower than that.
If Nintendo wants a stellar launch like the Switch was, it needs to wow us again. Technology isn’t there yet to give us a light, efficient and affordable handheld PS5, but there’s still options to make it better. As mentioned earlier, rumor is that the Switch successor will use Nvidia’s DLSS technology. DLSS allows a game to run internally at low resolution and high performance, and then uses clever AI technology to upscale the resolution of the final image, giving the player both high performance and high visual quality. My personal hope, and it’s not entirely unfounded, is that the Switch successor will mark the end of 30fps Nintendo gaming. Much like the latest games on the PS5 or Xbox Series consoles, there should always be a 60fps option from here on out.
DLSS also adds the potential of ray tracing. Honestly, I can’t see the Switch successor being that level of powerful. Ray tracing would put Nintendo’s newest platforms in line with the latest gaming PCs and consoles, and Nintendo are known for being a generation behind with their hardware. Where they should be aiming then is that PS4 sweet spot. Using DLSS to get PS4-quality games running in your hands with good battery life would certainly give that ‘wow’ factor to the next Nintendo system, and allow them to keep up their competition with increasingly more powerful consoles, including Steam’s own hybrid system.
We don’t know yet if the Switch was lightning in a bottle for Nintendo, or if it was the start of their long-term domination in the gaming space. We imagine that they’re aware of this too. They’re certainly in no rush to release new hardware, but when the time comes, we think Nintendo will have learned from what the Switch had. Good games and impressive hardware were a recipe for success the first time around. Time will tell if Nintendo can do it again.