Japanese game manufacturer Nintendo has always done things its own way. Its best-known character, Mario, embodies this. He’s a short, plump Italian plumber with a penchant for dungarees who lives in a kingdom of mushrooms and whose nemesis is a giant, red-headed turtle. So far, so strange.
In the mid-2000s, while Sony and Microsoft were promoting their powerful and expensive gaming hardware – the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 consoles respectively – Nintendo released the Wii (pronounced “we”).
Where its rivals’ products courted the existing gaming community by offering elaborate gameplay, massive processing power, cutting-edge graphics and button-laden controllers, Nintendo’s Wii offered simplicity.
The Wii was comparatively cheap, its processing power limited – and thus its graphics simplistic – and its motion-sensitive controllers could be operated one-handed by anyone with the hand-eye coordination of a three-year-old.
That turned out to be a winning formula. To say the Wii was a massive success understates things drastically. Nintendo sold over 100 million units globally in a decade.
Not only was the Wii cheap enough for gamers loyal to other platforms to consider adding to their arsenal, but it was so easy to play, so charming and such fun, even the non-gaming community took to it. The Wii was a console you could genuinely play with your grandma.
How could Nintendo follow up that sort of success? It turned out it couldn’t. The successor to the Wii, the Wii U, was more expensive, more complicated and crippled by a limited roster of compelling games at launch and a buggy user interface. It sold around 13.5 million units in five years before Nintendo called time on it in January.
Nintendo suffered as a result. Big-name game developers turned their backs on the company, the share price took a pounding and critics predicted further calamity.
Then came the Nintendo Switch. Announced last October and released in March, the Switch consists of a screen with a pair of removable controllers that slot onto the sides and a dock for connecting it to a TV.
It’s a mobile console, it’s a TV console and it’s a multiplayer device all in one, for almost half the price of Microsoft’s latest console, the Xbox One X.
More importantly, it launched with one of the best-received games of recent history, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with similarly lauded titles following consistently every couple of months since launch.
Nintendo can barely keep up with demand for the Switch. Since launch the company has revised its sales estimates repeatedly, settling on an estimated 14 million unit sales in the first year. That’s more than the Wii U managed in five.
Like the Wii, the Switch isn’t the most potent console. But it’s the one that takes itself the least seriously (you can get it with mismatched, luminescent controllers), it’s packed with Nintendo’s brand of quirky titles, peculiar characters, and novel gameplay mechanics, and it’s the most welcoming to casual gamers.
That’s not to say dyed-in-the-wool gamers aren’t catered for. They are. Zelda isn’t just a good Switch game, it’s the sort of game that changes the medium. Whether combining strange ingredients to see what powers the resultant concoction offers, or pushing the logical limits of the game’s physics, Zelda is a revelation.
More importantly, like the Switch itself, it’s incredibly engaging, satisfying and wholesome fun. And that, after all, is what gaming’s meant to be about, right? Otherwise, we’d call it working.
This column originally appeared in The Times on 6 November 2017 and is republished here with permission.