Sunday, 7 August 2016

Nintendo NX: Thoughts, Hopes, Fears and Speculations

As we inch towards an official unveiling of the NX the hype train and rumour mill are getting increasingly active, and whilst a metric tonne of salt needs to be taken with each report until Nintendo give us an official announcement, certain things appear to be clarifying. Or at the very least, looking more and more likely.

Over the past couple of weeks we had the big story from Eurogamer claiming that the NX would be a portable console with detachable controllers. Citing multiple sources it also said that the device would come with a TV docking station to allow users to play games on their TV, as well as using cartridges instead of discs. This ties in with the prevailing thought on the console, that it is a portable/home console hybrid, borne out of Nintendo's decision to merge their handheld and home console hardware divisions back in 2013.

Combining Portable and Home Consoles

I was initially less than enthused by this hybrid prospect. Whilst I own both a 3DS and a Wii U, they both offer very different experiences, and I was wary of a device that tried to consolidate those experiences into one machine, fearing it could be to the detriment of one or the other. Much of it depends on the focus of the device and how well Nintendo can amalgamate those two different disciplines into one product. There needs to be the sprawling adventure games like Zelda and Metroid, as well as the big hitters like Mario, but equally there will be a place for games that are better suited to a portable platform. Games like Animal Crossing and Tomadchi Life. Interestingly, certain franchises already span that divide - your Mario Karts and more recently Smash Bros - but a franchise like Zelda currently offers vastly different experiences across the disparate platforms. However, the more I've thought about it and the more information that appears to be coming to light about this console, the more excited about it I have become.

Breaching the gap: Smash Bros on 3DS and Wii U

One of the big issues though is storage. The Eurogamer piece mentions that Nintendo initially considered a digital only platform before opting for cartridges. As someone who traditionally has always favoured physical media, I've increasingly found myself moving towards digital versions of my games. Especially when it comes to 3DS, as it removes the need for carrying a load of cartridges around with me whenever I'm gaming on the go. But I've also found myself moving towards digital on Wii U too, especially for games where I may only want to jump in for a quick session. I have digital versions of 
Splatoon and Starfox, as well as numerous indie titles, but have also found myself wishing I had purchased the likes of Mario Kart 8 through the eShop too. If NX is indeed this portable hybrid, it will need a large storage capacity in order to optimise the 'take your games on the go' experience. Traditionally this has not been an area where Nintendo has excelled. The Wii had a tiny hard drive, the larger version of the Wii U also fills up very quickly, never mind the 'core' model, and I know of few people who didn't immediately put a larger SD card in their 3DS. The NX will need a large hard drive, especially if the reports of Nintendo's recommended 32gb cartridge size prove to be true. That's worryingly small given the size of many modern games.

Keeping Third Parties On Board

This is where the third party issue comes into play. The biggest problem the Wii U had was it's sporadic software releases. Nintendo can only turn out so many games a year and it needs third parties to fill those gaps. Unfortunately, the technical limitations of the Wii U made it difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to port games from the other consoles in the market to Nintendo's hardware. Nintendo badly needs to learn from this with the NX. Without the support of third parties, fewer people will buy the console, and if there isn't a worthwhile install base, fewer developers will make games for it, leading to fewer users and so on and so forth. Ensuring they don't get trapped in this cycle will be the overriding goal of Nintendo going into launch. This is the reason President Tatsumi Kimishima has given for eschweing a holiday release, and aiming for a March 2017 launch of the console. Nintendo want a strong launch line-up to get a healthy install base secured from day one. 

Happily, Nintendo are seemingly positioning themselves to lead the charge on this, with MCV reporting that, as well as Zelda, new Mario and Pokémon games are slated for the first six months of the console's life. Add to that Pikmin 4 which Miyamoto has said is all but finished (I'd be surprised if that wasn't now an NX title, maybe even a launch game alongside Zelda?) and the titles third parties have already confirmed are in development - Dragon Quest from Square Enix and the new Sonic title for example - and the NX should have a rather strong launch. Longer term though, architecture will also play an important role.
Nvidia's Tegra X1 chip, rumoured to be in NX dev kits

On this point, much has been discussed about the Nvidia Tegra chip the console is reportedly using. Dev kits are apparently sporting the Tegra X1 chip, currently found in the Shield Android TV, which would put the NX's power somewhere in the region between PS3 and PS4. This would give the NX some impressive visuals for a handheld, but would still leave it under cooked when compared to it's biggest competitors. Whilst Nintendo have eschewed the arms race and going toe to toe with Sony and Microsoft over the past couple of generations, this does give third parties a headache when it comes to developing for Nintendo's system alongside Playstation and Xbox.

The other option would be Tegra's X2 chip and as well as being more desirable, looks increasingly likely. Rumours have circulated that the NX will be operating on Nvidia's Pascal architecture, which the X2 utilises. What's more, the X2 is also much more power efficient. This will be crucial when you consider the importance of a decent battery life in a handheld console. It would also put it approaching the region of Xbox One in terms of power, at least when docked. The prospect of a Supplemental Computing Device (something Nintendo was recently granted a patent for) within the cradle for the NX to increase it's power when in docked mode could mean a power level that allows it to at least not be unduly disadvantaged when compared to it's competitors, making it easier for third parties to port their games to the NX and keep that crucial software library well stocked.

Games, Games, Games

As mentioned earlier, that library will need to be stellar from the get go. Breath of the Wild, if it turns out to be a launch title, would certainly be a strong start, especially if it delivers on it's early promise. The sheer hype surrounding it's E3 unveiling could really give the NX launch the pizzazz it needs. Naturally there will be a Mario game at some point. If the one rumoured to be coming within that six month launch window turns out to be something in the vein of a Super Mario Sunshine or Galaxy then that will certainly help carry any Zelda generated momentum forward. As for the Pokémon game Game Freak are apparently working on, it's difficult to say. If it is indeed coming within that first six months, I'd be very surprised if it was a full-on adventure. More likely it's a Pokémon Colosseum type game that maybe links somehow to the upcoming Sun and Moon games for 3DS. Further down the line though, if NX does end up replacing both Wii U and Nintendo's portable hardware, this raises the prospect of a fully fledged Pokémon title running on powerful hardware that can be played both on the go and on your TV. The much sought after Pokémon MMO could finally be on the horizon.

Pokémon Sun and Moon. The final portable only, mainline Pokémon games? 

This switching between the two throws up interesting ideas for other series like Animal Crossing too. Pottering around my town on the TV whilst still being able to check in to harvest fruit on the go sounds like the perfect way to play that game. It will be interesting to see what fun gameplay mechanics Nintendo and other developers come up with that utilise the unique features of a hybrid console like this. Streetpass style rewards for taking NX on the go, that unlock things when you next dock to your TV perhaps? 

It does throw up some dilemmas for other series though. 
Take Zelda for example, Would NX see an end to top down titles like A Link Between Worlds, or does this portable characteristic mean that Breath of the Wild will end up being a one off? Ideally of course we'll get both experiences, though how they will be marketed will be interesting. The thought of a top down Zelda with beautiful HD art direction however, certainly has me excited.

Ultimately, there will need to be a good balance of the sprawling adventures we're used to seeing on a home console, titles that traditionally are better suited to a portable, and indeed games that work just as well in either environment. This latter type of game is why I think a
Smash Bros. Championship Edition would make a perfect launch title. Porting the Wii U/3DS game complete with all DLC and perhaps even with all the Wii U and 3DS maps in one place, would demonstrate the features of the console perfectly. Train on the commute to work, before heading home, jumping online and taking on the world on your TV. Given the long development time of a Smash Bros title, I imagine this is the most likely scenario. Sakurai and his team put a huge amount of work into that game and the development time on a new entry from the ground up for NX would put it several years into the console's life cycle. They could even dangle the promise of future DLC for the Championship Edition to entice Smash fans who own the game on Wii U and 3DS to make the switch to NX. This would also be easier to do than creating a whole new entry.

Other Wii U ports we could potentially see 
include Super Mario Maker - assuming the NX's screen has touch capabilities - and Splatoon. Personally though, I think Splatoon would benefit more from a direct sequel instead of a port, taking advantage of the unique features of the NX. Smash Bros has been perfected over 17 years and five iterations. Splatoon on the other hand has only it's first title to it's name. A Spla2oon that improved on the formula of the first would make for a great addition to the NX's library. There's no reason why it couldn't include a few fan-favourite maps and weapons, much like Mario Kart's retro tracks. It would even be a system-seller in Japan where Splatoon is huge.

Nintendo rarely fails to deliver on software though. The Wii U may have flopped as a console, but it is home to some of the best software the big N has produced. The key for me is that third party question. I want to be able to play FIFA and Call of Duty and other multi-platform titles on my NX. Especially as cross-platform play becomes more prevalent. And whilst the hardcore FPS fans are unlikely to play the likes of COD on NX, if Nintendo can ensure those multi-platform staples come to their hardware, then they'll be in a much stronger position than they have been this generation.


If the software issues are kept in check, then the biggest challenge will be how the device is marketed. The Wii U suffered horrendously from poor messaging. Consumers were baffled as to whether it was a new device, an addition to the Wii, or something else entirely. Similarly, Nintendo need to think about how they are pitching the NX. Is it a successor to the Wii U, the 3DS or both?

The Wii U. Confusing branding.

Nintendo needs to make a decision as to whether to sell the NX as either a games console you can take on the go, or a portable console you can play on your TV. For what it's worth, I believe the former sounds like a more exciting proposition, but it does put it in more direct competition with PS4 and Xbox One than taking the latter approach. Regardless, if it's priced right, has the right library and isn't hugely under powered when compared to those big hitters, a simple message - devoid of any Wii branding - could be a big hit with that strong USP. If pitched similarly to the Wii as a second console to accompany the Xbox or Playstation, it even has the potential to hit the sort of highs the Wii did. Especially if Nintendo's goal of using mobile to introduce consumers to their brands in order to entice them over to more traditional experiences comes to fruition.

In conclusion, despite initially being lukewarm on the idea, I've grown to be rather excited by what the NX might entail. If it does manage to kick out some decent power, ensuring it isn't abandoned by gamers and developers alike, then the prospect of consolidating my home console and portable gaming into one device is an enticing one. Regardless, Nintendo will undoubtedly kick out some great software - Breath of the Wild means it will be a day one purchase for me anyway - but if everything lines up, the NX could be one brilliant console indeed.

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