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Is the Nintendo Switch our Virtual Boy?

Nintendo’s always been a trendsetter: from the D-pad and the shoulder buttons to the motion control craze. I assume they know what they’re doing. Being founded in 1889 and surviving WWII and Atari ought to count for something. Aside from the nauseating Virtual Boy (I’m kindly striking the N64 CD peripheral from the record), Nintendo’s hardware hasn’t hiccuped.

With news of the Nintendo Switch escalating as we approach the New Year, I have to ask why Nintendo’s in such a hurry to kill the Wii U. I mean, is that it? No big releases, no obligatory hardware update, just a shameful slink into the TV cabinet of hardware obscurity to join the TurboGrafx and the Sega Nomad? I know it sold fewer consoles in three years than the Wii sold in nine months, but surely the sequel to one of the industry’s biggest success stories has more to say? By comparing the Nintendo Switch to Nintendo’s only real flop—the berated Virtual Boy—I want to talk about trends that may prepare you, the Nintendo buyer, for another possible letdown.

Virtual Innovation

Nintendo Virtual Boy and ControllerThe Virtual Boy is really the first time Nintendo constructed hardware that wasn’t designed to be playable. Someone standing shrine-like in the sacred Pantheon Nintendo calls executive management decided VR would be the next newest future of video gaming. I imagine them dismissively waving off the contention of designers while having no idea themselves what might play well on their imaginary console.  The result: a two-toned game of Mario Tennis that was like playing ping pong with your head stuck in a centrifuge and the ball stuck in your head.

The Virtual Boy was a well-deserved failure. But miraculously, the AAA development regime has taken its philosophy of hardware design as a scheme for the whole industry, and I’m not just talking about new advances in virtual reality. Nowadays, creative sparks don’t kindle fun games and clever devices. Instead, management decides preemptively what kind of game they want, essentially making design a formality—the nasty business at the end of the day that always gums up delicate release schedules. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sports game, a movie tie-in, a military FPS, or a crafting simulator. These go-to gaming clichés that drift down off management mountaintop direct the whole scheme of game development in the modern AAA market.

Now, the Virtual Boy didn’t start this: it just exemplifies it on the hardware front. VR wasn’t feasible from a soft or hardware design sense; yet, design obviously wasn’t the priority. Whether it was management protocol, marketing, or plain old hubris, Virtual Boy failed because it was built without anyone knowing what games would go on it. And with Wii U, a disturbingly similar failure has repeated history. It hasn’t come out of nowhere, though.

Nintendo vs. their Fans

Miyamoto laughing with kidsThe N64 was cutting-edge artistically but archaic with its lack of a disc drive and any of Sony’s pre-rendered pretties. Gamecube was a bold but overcompensating concept that just didn’t sell, due either to its challenging shape, the expense of its elvish DVDs, or perhaps owing to the industry-wide maturation of game content and Gamecube’s reputation as a kiddy console (from people who apparently never played RE4, Eternal Darkness, or Killer7). It didn’t sell, and when Nintendo leaned on tradition to climb out of their hole, they unwittingly looked back to the Virtual Boy. Instead of coming up with great games and engineering the tech that would run them, Nintendo designed tech on a whim and reverse-engineered the games.

Importantly, this time the result was not the death of VR but the renaissance of motion control, the little white beast called Wii.

Some of us assumed the Wii would fail since its motion controls were barely beyond the level of the light gun peripherals we had on the NES. Nintendo had to update the hardware just to fulfill its original promise, and even then it brings chuckles to my mind to think of Miyamoto’s exasperated attempts to get Skyward Sword’s bombs to work at their own tech demo.

But unlike Virtual Boy, Wii software acknowledged the hardware’s limitation by building in safeguards like a forgiving difficulty level, multiplayer deniability, and games that were designed not as immersive fantasies but interactive facades of daily activities (I call these “menial task simulators”). The Wii was inundated from launch day on with trashy tie-ins and gimmicky party games balanced by few hardcore gaming experiences, most of which only passingly acknowledged the presence of the newfangled hardware they’d stumbled into. Very few games ever challenged the Wii’s limits; most were content to make a single control gimmick their whole game.

None of it mattered because Nintendo learned that games weren’t the problem: we were. The Wii retracted from the gaming public and found a new target audience in the weird uncles and church ladies and the kids too young to know that interactivity is the means, not the ends, of video gaming. This seemed to empirically prove the policy of putting hardware gimmicks first.

But come eighth generation and Wii U, Nintendo was investing in an audience that wouldn’t buy up. There were no weird yoga-pants-wearing aunts at the Wii U debut. They were at home, re-calibrating their Wii Fit boards.

Meanwhile, the gaming public looked at a huge gamepad with a portable screen and asked good questions like: what goes there? For what type of game does that exist? A lack of answers foreshadowed more of the same from the Wii U lineup, more games with painfully obvious effort devoted to utilizing hardware they had no real use for (if this sounds like it applies equally to the Nintendo DS, the pattern is starting to make sense to you).

Observe that the best Wii games, like Super Mario Galaxy, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Monster Hunter Tri, acknowledge motion controls like you timidly nod to a hooded guy on your way home. Aside from a few gems, the third-party deluge on Wii turned the entire lineup to schlepping out chore simulators. Nintendo’s gamer base had no choice but to drink from other springs, and even though the Wii U was out a year before Xbox One and PS4 to pucker up and apologize, all we got was some Smash Bros. teases and first party development tumbleweeds.

Developers had no idea what to do with this gimmicky hardware, which played like doing triceps extensions with a VCR. The Wii had used the same design philosophy but the difference was that this time there was no stampede of yoga pants to save the day.

So what does this mean for 2017?

Moving Forward Without Going Anywhere

MIyamoto thumbs upWhat we know about the Switch indicates that Nintendo still puts uniqueness ahead of playability. But even if Nintendo somehow learned its lesson with hardware, the fact remains that the entire industry hasn’t learned how this lesson in hardware applies equally to software design. Good game design comes from prioritizing structure rather than marketing strategies or hardware gimmicks, meaning that technology is a result of making game concepts work, not a cause. The reverse only makes messes. For a while now, Nintendo has been one huge Frankenstein’s mess of stitched-together gimmicks. The last ten years of their game development are much more accurately represented by WarioWare than The Wind Waker.

When any company saturates the market with tie-in games or military FPS titles they think people want, or when development teams are obligated to throw in crafting simulators or city-building because that’s what kids are into these days, the spirit of the Virtual Boy is there, dragging creativity through the gutter of executive management. It’s no wonder that the Indie market’s laissez-faire development style is producing groundbreaking and gorgeous innovations in game design, while the AAA market is under-performing our expectations and underselling its own.

There’s a chasm opening between the niche gamer and the main market, and if the industry doesn’t unite the expectations of its gamer base with its own initiatives, it’ll finally split. If you want a few last headshots, by all means: ride down your modern military FPS machine as it calves from the bloated Mounts Sony and Microsoft into the vast sea of out of work managers and TurboGrafxes. But personally, I’ll be waiting for the creative force of the Indie structure building up from within the AAA machine to finally emerge into the sunlight. Nintendo laid the foundation for that structure in the days when a bad Pac-Man port was an industry-killing move. Where they’ll end up in the coming years depends on whether the Nintendo Switch is the spiritual successor to the NES or the take-two on the Virtual Boy no one asked for.

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Michael Myers
A geek before it was in vogue. Writer, editor, and full-time vicarious adventurer.
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