Sitting here, four months before a new Nintendo console potentially appears, I’m filled with two very incongruous emotions. On the one hand I’m practically bursting with elation – a new Nintendo console! One that doesn’t rely solely on motion controls! Stuffed with HD graphics! Open-world Zelda!
Then there’s the dread – a wall of seemingly insurmountable panic that a company whose pedigree represents the core of my gaming childhood, could drive themselves out of both the handheld and the console market if the Nintendo Switch fails to compete in a world dominated by PS4.
And Nintendo really is betting a great deal of its future plans on Switch. Nintendo’s handheld output has always been a strong branch of its brand, but it’s now bringing it in from the fringes and combining it with the extra power of a home console.
Lest we forget Sega – now a publisher, but once a mighty console giant in its own right – which hedged its bets on the forward-thinking Dreamcast before it failed spectacularly, driving them out of hardware development forever.
Can Nintendo really pair too seemingly polarising facets of the industry? Sony tried something vaguely similar with PS Vita – envisioned as a companion tool for both PS3 and PS4 (remember that being able to play any PS4 title on your Vita was, and still is, an amazing feature that no one seems to recall), it ultimately faded into Western obscurity as gamers failed to validate the pairing of the two.
The ol’ Switcheroo
We’ve yet to get a hands on with Switch (that’s resigned to a special playtest event in January), so since speculating on hardware none of us have any real frame of reference for won’t help, let’s instead delve into the potential software that Nintendo will use to launch and support Switch.
A new Mario? Almost certainly. Everyone loves Mario, he’s a videogaming icon, but there’s no huge technological leap to make the presence of the moustachioed plumber to make a Switch Mario feel as momentous as an N64 Mario.
How well the soon-to-be-released Super Mario Run performs compared to Pokémon Go will prove how well the Mario brand sells outside of traditional Nintendo hardware.
How about Zelda? Link and co are gaming royalty, cast members of some of our industry’s most cherished titles, spanning decades and countless platforms.
Breath of the Wild has clearly been designed to represent a powerful and confident step forward, but we wouldn’t call its embrace of ubiquitous open-world and RPG elements to be anything close to revolutionary (at least not from what we’ve seen so far).
Because to make Switch work, Nintendo needs two things working in perfect harmony: a revolutionary concept that rides the crossover appeal of a franchise that anyone can get into.
Switch, unequivocally, needs a Pokémon title.
And since we’re barely a month into the arrival of a new, full-fat Pokémon title, that role falls to charming and wonderful Pokémon Sun and Moon.
Need proof? Remember when Nintendo announced it was moving into mobile development, much to the infantile cries of ‘core’ Nintendo gamers?
Remember when Nintendo worked with Niantic to create one of the biggest mobile sensations ever?
Pokémon Go was (and potentially still is) a phenomenon, and on the eve of a huge new update – one that’s going to add in a raft of potential new features and Silver/Gold Pokémon – that’s set to reignite that mainstream fire it burned so brightly back in the summer.
No other Nintendo franchise has the crossover appeal of Pokémon. Countless mainstream media outlets were covering it. And how often do games really break into the mainstream press without some unfounded link to a mass shooting?
Shops, monuments and attractions saw signage erected in an attempt to stop hordes of people milling about ransacking Pokéstops. Parks were filled with waves of backpacked students chasing an elusive and totally made up beast. It was incredible. It was silly. It was Pokémon to a tee.
That’s why Pokémon is the only candidate that can make Switch work. It can make it work because it’s the quintessential handheld series. Bar the return of a Tetris reboot that seemingly takes the world by storm, no other franchise has remained almost entirely on Nintendo handheld devices and continued to be a financially and commercially viable licence in both the East and the West.
It sparked a TV show phenomenon. It sparked a collectible card game phenomenon. And every time a new full-fat Pokémon title comes along, it sells like Pikachu-shaped hot cakes.
Sure, no Pokémon title has sold as well as Red/Green/Blue/Yellow did in 1996 (with sales totalling nearly 50 million units), but let’s not forget that was riding the wave of all of those brand booms.
From Silver and Gold to the most recent arrival of Sun and Moon, Pokémon is a unit shifter and, more importantly, a system seller. 3DS sales always skyrocket when a new title drops and it’s a trend that could work wonders for Switch.
There are, of course, plenty of speculative caveats to consider. If Nintendo did release Pokémon Sun and Moon to Switch, would it just be a straight port?
For newcomers, that’s a buy-in route right there. But for the 10+ million people who have already bought a copy in the last month or so, where’s the big selling point?
Finally being able to play Pokémon at home, on your big screen telly is a huge deal, but long-serving Poké fans are going to need something else to justify the purchase of Switch and another copy of a four month-old Pokémon game.
This is where we we come back to Pokémon Go. A Switch version of Sun/Moon needs to address what worked with Go and the 3DS handheld as a whole. Perhaps you’ll have the full Pokémon game at home, but in order to complete your Pokédex you’ll need to head outside and play the game in handheld form.
Will Switch have a step counter of sorts? 3DS certainly did, so why not build on that concept and have players explore dungeons and battle Pokémon that are only available out there in the wild?
However Nintendo does it, Pokémon needs to embrace what Switch represents in order to make the port work. Leave the third-party titles to do their own thing, but for Pokémon, Mario, Smash Bros and more, those first-party brands could be just the vanguard Nintendo needs to make Switch the gamechanger it promises to be.
And with news that of code being unearthed deep within Sun and Moon that points towards a potentially real Switch version (allegedly being developed under the name Pokémon Stars), our hopes and dreams may yet transform into reality.