I see on the internet all the time and am even asked about it in person a lot. That is, everyone says something along the lines of “I don’t understand why Nintendo make such weird consoles and dumb decisions. Why can’t they just make consoles with good graphics. GRAPHICS, GRAPHICS GRAPHICS!”
Firstly, just improving graphics is super boring, and Nintendo is all about doing something the competition isn’t. Unfortunately, most people have that, “if it doesn’t have good graphics than it’s not a good game” mentality. Interestingly, Nintendo’s unique consoles probably have benefited not only themselves, but Sony and Microsoft as well, for many people have a Nintendo console plus one of the “high-powered” consoles, and some people have all three!
But all one needs to do to understand Nintendo’s console decisions is look at the console sales.
Doing a quick wikipedia search, the original NES sold just under 62 million units, which blew literally everything that had come out prior to it completely out of the water and revitalized a dying industry. There wasn’t really any competition against this console, hence it’s high sales.
The SNES, as the name implies, is really a super version of Nintendo’s original console. Sales dropped to 49 million units, probably due to the stiff competition from the Sega Genesis. It was during this rivalry that the “Bit Wars” really took off. Sega kids and Nintendo kids constantly argued about graphics and processing speed. This takes us right to modern day, where nothing seems to have changed. PC, Xbox and PlayStation fans are always talking specs and obsessing over graphics and frame rates. I believe this stems from the veterans of the 90’s bit wars, and most people heavily involved in today’s arguments and technical interests were probably kids in that era. And since current kids always look to be more adult, they have fallen into the same tech-obsessed attitude.
Winning out against the Genesis and it’s many add-ons, Nintendo’s next console, the N64, ushered in the first 3D-gaming and four-player multiplayer. This new console sold around 33 million units, seeing even more decline in sales. Sega might have had something to do with this, but the monster Nintendo created is actually to blame.
After backing out of a deal with Sony to make a disc-based gaming console, Sony made their own. The PlayStation took the world by storm for some reason. Probably due to it’s discs, which allowed for bigger games and full-motion video. The console got a lot of exclusivity from third-party developers and also brought a lot more mature games to the industry. At this time, a lot of the kids who played Nintendo and Sega consoles were now teenagers and young adults, so I imagine, like humans inevitably do, they associated those companies and their games to stuff only kids play, like watching Power Rangers and Nickelodeon. It was time to move on to something for big kids. Hence PlayStation became by far the highest-selling console of all time (at that point).
Seeing how the world was absolutely obsessed with power, Nintendo entered into the next generation with a powerhouse…the GameCube. From what I understand, this was the most powerful console on the market, surpassing Microsoft’s new Xbox, and Sony’s PlayStation 2.
Nintendo had the power, but not the third-party support I suppose, and this one only sold 21 million, coming in third just behind the Xbox. The weakest of the consoles, PS2, for reasons unknown, sold an enormous amount and is still to this day the highest selling console of all time.
So with an overcrowded market of everyone competing with power, Nintendo, at an all-time low, must have said, “Clearly it isn’t just all about power, the heck with it, let’s do our own thing.” Thus they birthed the Wii, a console that sacrificed power for innovation. The Wii, especially in it’s first few years, completely obliterated the Xbox 360 and PS3. This was due to the fact that the console was half the price of the others, and more importantly, because literally everyone was curious about the first fully motion-controlled system. The Wii targeted casual gamers like no other console has done before as well.
But after a while, people reverted to criticizing the graphics, thanks to it’s significantly lower power and lack of HD. And casual gamers didn’t really do all that great of a job supporting it through it’s lifespan. Third-party support began to dwindle due to this as well, not to mention the extra work required to put their games on the console.
But that didn’t stop it from becoming by far the highest selling console of the generation and one of the highest of all time, destroying even the NES sales with almost 102 million units sold. But unfortunately, by the end of it’s lifetime, the masses lost interest in the console.
Which is probably why no one cared about the Wii U. This console tried to capitalize off the commercial success of the Wii, keeping it’s focus on casual gamers, but also putting more of an effort to please serious gamers as well.
While it was the most powerful console out for a year, the new Xbox and PS4 were just around the corner, which again completely overpowered it. This, with the lost interest of the Wii, led to low sales, which basically made the console lose almost all third-party support after it’s first year. That and again the difficulty to develop on and lower power. This became the lowest-selling console ever for Nintendo with only 13.5 million sales.
The Switch fixed a lot of the problems with third-party and they relaxed on some of the rules as well. The console is easy to develop on, they got rid of region-locking, and are far more open to putting third-party games on the console. And the console was deliberately weak from the start, so no one can really complain that it was failing to compete with the other consoles, because by now, clearly they don’t care. Though this does still create issues with development, for the Switch is missing out on some big AAA releases, though it does seem to get ports with all DLC included years later, so clearly it’s powerful enough to run the big guns.
But the biggest appeal to the Switch is the fact that it can be played as a home console, or as a handheld, something people have been wanting for a long while.
For whatever reason, while Sony generally dominates the home consoles, Nintendo has always been king to the handheld market ever since the original Game Boy came out in the late 80’s.
There has never really been serious competition in this market, save for the PSP, which sold very well, but the DS, it’s competitor, nearly sold double. While the 3DS fell short of of even PSP sales by just a little, it’s main competitor, the PlayStation Vita, sold practically nothing at all. I don’t know really anything about this handheld so I can’t imagine why.
So with the Switch giving both handheld and home gamers something to love, with all the support from other developers one could hope for, the system has become very successful and is currently the second best selling system by Nintendo to date, and will likely rise to be one of the highest-selling consoles of all time.
I have no idea if anything I said is true, but just looking at the sales and the consoles and their competition, it’s not hard to come up with these theories, and it’s easy to see that this was what Nintendo was thinking, at least to some degree. I’m sure they put a whole lot more thought into it, but this is the gist.
Maybe. But I think it’s clear a hybrid console will be what Nintendo will be sticking to, at least for a while. They might realize they made more money with separate home and handheld consoles and probably will eventually switch back to that, but at least the next gen console will be a hybrid as well.