According to the first official numbers from Nintendo, the Switch has sold ten million units in nine months. Ten million! That’s insane! Except that it isn’t. Once you get your hands on the Switch, it’s an obvious hit, but it was destined to do well before that, despite all the nay-saying.
It Was Always Going to Be Hard to Follow the Wii
Before the Switch came out, worries about its viability were based on a couple of key factors. First, there was serious concern it couldn’t compete with other consoles on the market. Second, it was widely believed it would be repeating the mistakes of the Wii U from the previous generation. Put simply, why would anyone want a Switch with its crappier graphics and relatively few games instead of an Xbox or a PlayStation, when everyone so clearly rejected the home/portable hybrid model the Wii U offered a few years prior?
However, the Switch had one major advantage over the Wii U. It didn’t come out right after the Wii. Historically, Nintendo hasn’t sold a ton of consoles. Even the Nintendo 64, one of Nintendo’s most popular consoles, only sold 33 million units after it came out in 1996. By comparison, Sony’s Playstation, which came out in 1995, sold 102.5 million units. It wasn’t until Nintendo built the Wii, which had solid motion controls and an entirely new way of playing games, that it finally reached Sony-level numbers, selling nearly 102 million units.
The problem is…what do you do after that? The Wii U supported HD graphics, but clearly Nintendo players didn’t care too much, since they bought the Wii in droves. The tablet controller was a cool (if slightly bulky) innovation that let you play games on the couch while other people used the TV, but you couldn’t leave the house with it. Beyond those two changes, it was basically a Wii. There was little reason to upgrade and most people didn’t.
By the time the Switch landed this year, however, that was no longer the case. It’s been long enough since the Wii came out in 2006 that it felt outdated and replaying the same old games isn’t as fun anymore. Plus, anyone who didn’t upgrade has missed out on a bunch of games. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was massively popular for the Switch, even though it’s technically an older game. Why? Because Mario Kart 8 was originally a Wii U exclusive, and most people didn’t have a Wii U. For them, all those Wii U games getting ported to the Switch are as good as new games. That’s one more reason to upgrade.
The Technology Is Finally There to Realize Nintendo’s Vision
Mobile processors like the kind found in tablets are also much farther along than they were in 2012. The Switch capitalized on this to fulfill the promise that the Wii U only half-delivered on: a truly portable home console.
This is a much a bigger deal than it sounds. The Wii U and the PS Vita tried this before, but the Vita required you to also own a PlayStation, making it incredibly expensive. Meanwhile, the Wii U tablet couldn’t leave the house. It was barely portable to the bathroom, much less across town. On the other hand, the Switch works seamlessly. It’s comfortably small and great as a portable device, but it’s powerful enough in the dock to output solid HD graphics.
The only reason this concept wasn’t mind-boggling to us at first is because we all thought it was fake. We’d heard this song and dance before and been left unimpressed. Surely it wouldn’t work the way Nintendo claimed. Either it would be a decent portable, but crap at playing in the living room, or it would be a great living room console that’s unbearable in portable mode. Previous attempts gave us plenty of reason to be skeptical.
Nintendo doesn’t sell cutting edge hardware. Nintendo sells fun.
It may not have been possible before, but it is now. In fact, it’s not even that far-fetched. The Switch uses an off-the-shelf NVIDIA processor that, with some customization to the software, can run games like Breath of the Wild on what is effectively a very powerful tablet processor. Nintendo didn’t overcome some impossible feat of engineering to make the Switch succeed where the Wii U failed. It just waited until mobile technology was powerful enough to do what it needed to do.
The Switch Succeeded Because It’s Fun
For Nintendo, there’s one golden rule above all others: is it fun? Nintendo fans aren’t as worried about graphics, or weird controllers, or whatever other superficial stuff professional internet talkers think they care about. All the fans want to know is whether they’re going to have fun playing with it.
For the Switch, that answer is a resounding yes. You can take it anywhere and it feels just as natural in portable mode as it does in the dock. To the point that handheld usage is actually slightly more common than TV usage. Put another way, remember those commercials that showed people playing in their living room before picking up their console and taking it on the road? Yep, that’s exactly how it goes down in real life.
There’s also been a steady stream of fun games that play so it never gets boring. Some games are entirely new, like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey. Others are new-to-you type games for anyone who never owned a Wii U, like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. There’s even a third category of games that are new-to-portable. Games that existed before, but now you can take them with you. Games like Stardew Valley, Skyrim, and Doom have been adapted and even scaled down to work on the Switch. You might think might make them less fun, but there’s something about being able to check in on your farm, slay dragons, or tear into demons with the handheld in your bag that’s appealing enough to buy a new console.
Finally, and this might be the best thing Nintendo has going for it right now, the Switch is just cool. Gaming as an industry isn’t exactly dying or anything right now. In fact, the past couple years have brought some fantastic new games. Consoles, on the other hand, are pretty boring. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are pushing 4K gaming which is nice and all, but not everyone has a 4K TV yet. Besides, graphics are already incredible on those systems. That’s great for the long term, but it’s not quite as cool as being able to fire up Doom on the subway, or drop in on Stardew Valley during your bathroom break. As long as Nintendo keeps releasing fun games—even if some of those games already existed on other platforms—they’ll probably keep beating sales expectations for a few years to come.