The Second Age of Uncertainty for the Nintendo Switch

And (probably) the second-last article I’ll write about it. But we can’t be certain…

In late 2016, the questions were made of ‘if’s. Plenty of takes were ready to answer those questions with doom and gloom predictions, sure. But mainly, it was ‘if’s. Nintendo was back in the home console doghouse after a string of Wii U-tinted flops and an ambitious handheld/home hybrid seemed like an uncertainty at the very best. As a period in the Big N’s history, it’s been well-covered – although it still seems a little surreal to think about. If the Switch made a real sales impact, Nintendo would have pulled off yet another unlikely comeback. If it didn’t, the company was in for some real trouble.

Of course 2017 gave us a definite, emphatic answer. The Switch did just about everything right all year, dropping a steady stream of compelling titles without a single delay. But by 2018, the ‘where’s started to creep into the online chat. Any serial Switch YouTuber subscriber will remember the hysteria at the beginning of the year: Where was that Nintendo Direct? Then later, as the wave of ports and DLC expansions gathered momentum, where were all the brand-new games? Where was the launch content in the new Kirby and Mario Tennis games? Though nothing in Nintendo’s history suggested a year like 2017 could ever be properly backed up, their new console’s success made pundits ravenous.

In 2019, we got a nice big serving of ‘why’s in the air. Some of Nintendo’s announcements that year inspired heavy-duty communal head-scratching: A portable-only Switch that couldn’t switch? A poorly-justified ‘dex reduction in the new Pokemon games? A new fitness game with a plastic ring accessory costing north of $100? Why? Of course all of these sold super well – 2019 was ultimately a strong year for exclusive games and big third party support alike – but no one could accuse the Big N of resting on their laurels to get there.

As we all know, 2020 was a very different story. The releases dried up when an already light year collided with a worldwide pandemic, and the ‘how’s came out to play. How would Nintendo stay relevant amid such a climate when new Xbox and Playstation consoles were set to dominate headlines and interest all year? But the Switch had its most successful year of hardware sales ever, with periods of unavailability easily trumping its launch year as Animal Crossing finally smashed into the top tier of Nintendo franchises. Incredulous analysts could only ponder how such serendipity had lined up for Nintendo.

Now here we are, coming up quickly on that magical (usually final for Nintendo) five-year mark in a console life cycle. As hardware sales settle down again in 2021 and restless 4K Switch successor rumours refuse to go away despite an unprecedented global chip shortage, the ‘if’s have returned. There have been valid questions asked of the Switch throughout its life, but the ageing technology within what is functionally a handheld console now compares even less favourably with its beefy direct competition. Will it be able to hold its own or is another Nintendo nosedive coming up? Is the Japanese giant about to abandon support in favour of its next console, as it has done so often before around that half-decade point? Not since that first trailer five years ago has such an air of uncertainty hung around the hybrid gaming platform.

Allow me to present two points suggesting that probably shouldn’t be the case.

Cracking That Cadence

A few months ago I was enjoying a lively discussion with a mate over the health of the Nintendo Switch’s release schedule in 2021 (as you do), but we didn’t really come to any definitive conclusion, so I joked that I might have to collate the history of the Switch’s major exclusive game releases into tables to make my point. Of course I love tables, so it wasn’t a joke for long – but it did take time and effort to make them, so they’re going right here.

What?

Below is a collection of each major Switch-exclusive (or timed exclusive) game released at or over the Aussie $50 price point (most Switch games down here cost $80 AUD) since the system launched, to try to get a feel for where Nintendo’s momentum is at right now – as well as where it’s been. Not all of these games are published by Nintendo, but all of them have had pride of place in the company’s marketing at some point – After all it just felt weird not including the likes of Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and the Monster Hunter games (handled by Ubisoft and Capcom respectively). By exclusive I mean “not on a Playstation or Xbox console at launch”, so games are included even if they also released on Wii U, 3DS or PC.

This list does not include indie exclusives or DLC expansions – many of which are as substantial if not more so than their full-release cousins – but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. There is no filter for any metric of perceived quality either; the goal here is simply to see how Nintendo themselves views the health of each of their annual release schedules. Each “year” starts with March and ends with February, just to make things as neat as possible given the original worldwide Switch launch date. Finally, it’s as exhaustive as I could make it but I may still have missed some releases.

For my personal rundown of what defines a port / enhanced port / remaster / remake, click here.

(The +1 comes from the two ‘half-game’ expansions that year)

Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Breaking down these release calenders not only reinforces some common beliefs within the wider Nintendo sphere – such as 2018’s focus on reinvigorating older games that didn’t initially get a chance at a decent audience, as well as 2020’s understandable slowdown – but it also reveals an undersold consistency within the steady pacing of Switch game releases for the last half-decade. No year has featured more than three months without a highlighted exclusive game, and there hasn’t been a single instance of back-to-back empty months.

The kicker, though? The 2021 list is stacked, with a clear lead in both overall and new games – coming out at a steady, virtually gap-free pace. Even allowing for the likely possibility that some of the games were planned for 2020, and regardless of your personal take on the individual titles (old GBA / DS enthusiasts like me are absolutely loving the Switch life right now), it’s hard to deny that Nintendo is pretty far from viewing the Switch as a sinking ship right now. Compare this release schedule to the fifth year of any past Nintendo console – portable or TV-based – and it will compare extremely favourably. It’s also true that Ninty games are receiving far more post-launch support than ever before, a trend I wrote extensively about last year.

Just what Animal Crossing needed: RGB gamer lighting.

At the time of writing, 2022 already looks like a healthy continuation; it promises heavy-hitters like the meaty but terribly-titled Triangle Strategy, an ambitious new Mario+Rabbids adventure, the long-awaited Splatoon 3, the longer-awaited Bayonetta 3 and Breath of the Wild sequel, and the even longer-awaited debut of a proper 3D Kirby game. Even if the biggest triple-A third party titles start to skip the Switch more often than they already have been (or go cloud-based instead), that’s half the year already laid out with follow-ups to major 2017/18 releases. It almost feels like another cycle is upon us, which brings us to…

OLED on, Macduff

Wow, that was forced even by this site’s questionable history.

With evidence of a strong schedule fresh in our minds, we turn to Nintendo’s best hardware refresh since at least the New 3DS XL – the not-so-elegantly-named Nintendo Switch OLED Model (or SwOLED for short) – to take us into the next phase of the Switch’s life. Though it isn’t the more powerful hardware upgrade that was rumoured into (not quite) existence earlier this year – and again years before that – it’s a premium piece of kit with the potential to revitalise just about any game you play on it by the sheer additive force of all its tiny improvements over the standard Switch. This thing won’t actually make any of your games run better, but it may just help you enjoy them just a tiny bit more; it doesn’t do anything to threaten the existence of the flagship Switch, but it’s mighty difficult to go back after you’ve spent an hour or two in OLED land.

Let’s get the big mention out of the way straight away: For the few of us who experienced them, this is a return to the glory days of the original PS Vita, which overcame a limited library through the beauty of its own trailblazing OLED screen (not enough to sell well, but it was nice anyway). When the Switch Lite came out I compared it to the Vita as well, but that was to drive home how novel it was to have a properly portable-focused Switch. The OLED model can’t quite match all of the significant advantages the Lite still holds, but it comes a lot closer to them than I thought it would; and it sure makes things awkward for the first Switch.

Lite, middle child, SwOLED

Much like it was in the early Vita days, that OLED screen is probably the hardest feature to explain to people with words or even photos – you need to see it for yourself to grasp its impact. Luckily, a whole lot more people are familiar with OLED technology in 2021 than they were in 2012. Plenty of modern phones use OLED panels, and they’ve been the gold standard in HDR TVs for years now. The ability to turn off an individual pixel completely when it’s meant to show black simply does wonders for contrast, the pop of colours, and smooth perceived motion. The tech has also improved in leaps and bounds as far as minimising the spectre of burn-in – which remains a risk but probably won’t happen to anyone not playing the same game for weeks on end without breaks.

The SwOLED ships with a new exclusive setting allowing you to choose a basic colour profile between “Vivid” and “Standard”. Deviously, it defaults to the former, which makes all game colours more saturated than they normally are and helps a ‘difference’ show up better in photos. That’s where the smoke and mirrors end, thankfully, because the first thing I did when I set up my OLED Switch was change to the Standard profile and I could still see a clear difference in Eastward, a game I’d been playing on my regular Switch that uses a SNES-inspires CRT filter without much need for true blacks. The UI in the game immediately appeared clearer and more vibrant, and animations ever-so-slightly more pleasing to the eye. This is likely due to the fact that even compared to the original PS Vita and even many phones, the Switch OLED has a higher-grade true RGB screen.

Are we sure “vividness” is a real word?

That isn’t to see the Vivid mode doesn’t look amazing at times; it seems tailor-made for Metroid Dread, for example. If you don’t have any issues with strobe effects and really want to see what this screen can do, I implore you to grab Tetris Effect Connected from the eShop, turn auto-brightness off, max out that slider on Vivid mode and plug in your best headset. It’s no coincidence the game released on the same day as the new console.

My best attempt to show off the difference in black levels – with a 256-colour NES game.

But this unit is so much more than a better screen. Much like the Lite, the OLED Switch just feels better to hold than the classic model. Higher-quality plastics combined with significantly more metal and (naturally) glass see to that improved feeling, and they’re aided by some Lite-inspired changes to the upper cooling vent and newly out-of-sight undercarriage speakers. The less circular power button, smoother volume controls and sharper cartridge gate pair well with the glossy metallic screen bezel, and the classy matte finish on the improved console-width kickstand seals the high-end appeal. The best part, however, is the sturdier joy-con rails, which now hold onto the detachable (still unimproved) controllers with much more confidence. That slight wobble you’d notice going from the Lite to the original Switch? It’s not completely gone, but it’s significantly reduced, and that’s a huge plus for a heavy portable user like myself.

Sharp.

But as long as we’re talking about its chassis, there’s no doubt where the SwOLED’s headlining improvement lies. The new Microsoft Surface-esque kickstand is so much better than its snap-happy predecessor that it feels like a brand new feature, and I’d bet money that for a huge chunk of the people who upgrade it essentially will be. Not only does the hinge come with some proper resistance, its width and huge range of possible angles means you can prop the console up on all manner of uneven surfaces. It doesn’t just make every previous external kickstand accessory nigh-obsolete (save for the still-present charging dilemna), it does a better job than any of the options I’ve owned.

Even works on a couch arm!

There’s a reason the back of the new console’s box advertises tabletop mode first: The SwOLED marks a massive second wind for the Switch’s underrated third play style. It certainly doesn’t hurt that this particular OLED panel is the largest Switch screen yet, boasts impeccable viewing angles, and an array of ever-so-slightly clearer speakers. It’s also rather well-timed that all Switch consoles received a recent patch to allow the (limited) use of Bluetooth headphones; in the last month or so Nintendo has effectively speed-cleared a mess of roadblocks getting in the way of tabletop play. I’ve always enjoyed the novelty of it, but in recent years even the small additional effort required to set up a tabletop session properly has meant I usually just play handheld mode (or leave the house with the Lite, to be honest). Things are now a bit more competitive in that arena.

It’s wonderful to see.

The SwOLED also comes with a new dock design, and while it’s certainly better than its predecessor, we’re not quite talking about the same level of all-around improvement as the console itself can offer. For example, it looks much sleeker in black or white, with a bold full-gloss interior and everything; but it’s a looser fit for the Switch itself (either dockable model fits in either dock design despite the OLED’s every-so-tiny body width increase, by the way), meaning more room for imprecise motion to scratch the console’s front panel on any of the same old ridges. Given the screen’s larger size, it’d be a mark on the screen itself, too – not nearly as much bezel to save the image this time around. A screen protector might actually somehow be more necessary on the new Switch model, which feels like a step backwards to go with the forward-facing aesthetics.

Looks great, though.

The cable management situation is a big improver, as the back plate on the new dock just falls away instead of staying attached via hinge; the plate also packs a more elegant curved window to eliminate frustrating unseen cable snags. A LAN port replaces the rear USB socket, and it’s been moved away from its baffling former post between the theoretically always-plugged-in power and HDMI ports. This is great for all kinds of reasons, except by necessity there are now only two USB ports total on the dock. If you want to charge more than one pro controller at a time or use Gamecube controllers for a Smash Bros session, but you have, I don’t know, an mClassic upscaler? Afraid you’re out of luck.

Then there’s the most important caveat: The dock doesn’t do anything to improve TV mode performance in any Switch games. That probably goes without saying given the actual console doesn’t provide any extra power, but it does mean people who are still unsold on the improved portable and tabletop play styles because they mostly play on their TV or monitor can move along FOMO-free.

There are some added surprises that Nintendo did not advertise within the Switch OLED box, but they’re so nerdy and ultimately inconsequential that I’ve folded them into a spoiler tag like I did for my Switch Lite review.

Click here to read them, or just keep going.

.

In keeping with the ‘wholesale redesign’ theme of the Switch OLED model, it’s not just the screen, the body and the dock of the console that have been refreshed. Everything else that comes in the box has enjoyed some kind of minor change, with the exception of the joy-con grip (at least as far as I can tell). The most significant of these changes by far is the included HDMI cable, which has had its first physical form change since Nintendo entered the world of high definition – Yes, the HDMI cable we’ve been getting in every Switch box since launch is basically a recoloured Wii U cable with the same capabilities. But the online Nintendo community confirmed rather quickly after OLED launch that the smoother finish at each end of the cable isn’t just for show – this is indeed a “high speed” HDMI cable, a.k.a one capable of HDMI 2.0 signal speeds (up to 4K at 60FPS) rather than the former HDMI 1.4 speeds (up to 4K at 30FPS). The new cable is pictured above the older one here:

PXL_20211009_013228490.PORTRAIT

Now for various reasons the Switch doesn’t have the capability to output a 4K signal, so some people are understandably raising their eyebrows as to whether this is a method of future-proofing the dock for a more powerful Switch successor in the future; indeed much more dedicated enthusiasts than myself have already torn open the dock itself and speculated something to that effect. I’m more inclined to believe that high-speed HDMI cables are just more cost-effective for Nintendo to order by now, and even if the faster capabilities are never needed I just think it’s great to have another HDMI 2.0 cable around for the next inevitable rearrangement of home tech that comes up (I never seem to have enough).

An even less relevant improvement is woven into the joy-con wrist straps, which are once again made of black plastic as they have been since the Switch launched. The rope-like bit of the straps, however, has a subtle black-and-white design (inside the box of the white OLED variation, anyway) that I think modernises their look nicely. Nintendo has been including themed weaving in their special edition consoles / joy-cons for a little while, but their standard Switches / solid-colour joy-cons have still shipped with all-black straps for the most part; it’s cool to see this kind of small touch included in the model at the forefront of the OLED model’s marketing. What’s more, Nintendo’s officially-branded black / white SwOLED carry case – which is otherwise near-identical to the one that launched in 2017 – comes with a pair of convenient finger loops that make zipping it up way less annoying – and they flaunt the same two-tone weave. Cool touch.

PXL_20211009_005356878.PORTRAIT

PXL_20211009_010946418.PORTRAIT

Finally, I initially thought this might have been all in my head, but I’ve confirmed with three friends who bought the OLED model that the included AC adapter is now a more rigid fit in USB-C ports. Whether plugging into any of my Switches, docks, or other USB-C devices, more effort is required to engage the plug, and that slight wobble you used to get is gone. It’s a change that fits neatly with the OLED’s better joy-con rails, but it remains to be seen if it will show up in individual AC adapter boxes you can buy at retail. 

You might be inclined to believe this all-around concerted effort to improve the Switch experience from top to bottom is a sign this variation was supposed to be more powerful before the global chip shortage cut that plan short. You might think that’s a bit of a reach given Nintendo’s long and successful history of putting the same internals into prettier and sturdier shells – particularly with their portable consoles. Either way, what it does reveal is Nintendo’s desire to refresh the Switch line and persist with the console for a little while yet. Even if they can’t quite sell as many accessories to you anymore.

These poor lads are out of a job.

Not So Uncertain Now?

The very morning of this article’s publication, Nintendo did a Nintendo yet again by announcing the left-field pricing structure of their new Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack membership. This extra tier essentially doubles the AUD cost of the base package in exchange for adding a catalogue of online-capable Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games, as well as a substantial paid DLC expansion for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s amazing value if you love Animal Crossing, decent value if you want to play a lot of N64/Genesis games, but not all that great if you just feel like dabbling in one or two of the newly added retro titles (unless you’re in a fully-stacked “family group” with friends, in which case it’s still an absolute pittance compared to the competition). It’s a weird old choice. But it’s just the latest in a long line of regular reminders that the Big N has always defied prediction, for better and for worse.

I don’t see a period in my lifetime where Nintendo won’t attract some form of uncertainty. Hey, even if the OLED Switch and the slate of 2021-2022 games ignite another significant sales increase, the ‘when’s will still come. When is the time to say goodbye to the Switch and bring in the Switch 2? When will all those years of reports and rumours at last reveal a 4K-capable model? When will a new Mario Kart game finally release? When will F-Zero, Golden Sun, and Rhythm Heaven be allowed out of the Nintendo dungeon?

That’s what makes Nintendo so much fun to write about, after all. And yet, at least by their standards, it looks like the Switch is safe and healthy for the next couple of years. Enjoy it!

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