About two weeks ago, Nintendo announced that the company formed a partnership with DeNA to bring Nintendo IP to mobile devices. With the announcement, company President Satoru Iwata slipped in a detail about a new Nintendo console with a “brand-new concept“, currently codenamed “NX.”
Last Monday, I told you what to expect from this mobile expansion and the new membership service that is launching this fall. I also spoke somewhat about what NX will not be. Many people seem to assume that the combination of console and handheld hardware teams under Nintendo signifies the end of dedicated handheld platforms and the formation of a hybrid console that combines both in one. Iwata himself made note that if anything, placing both teams under one roof would lead to more platforms, not less. Iwata spoke to the fact that Apple is able to release new devices each year that are compatible with one another because of a common architecture and software between them. Specifically, Iwata believes that the pairing of the teams means “home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.”
If NX isn’t a hybrid, and it isn’t the end of dedicated hardware from Nintendo, then what is it? I um… I don’t know.
Nintendo is Unpredictable, Kind of…
I don’t know because we never know with Nintendo. When any other company announces a new console, or even when one is rumored, we know that it will essentially be a more powerful version of the last console. It might come with a new feature that we couldn’t predict, but we always have a rough idea of what that commercial release will look and feel like. With Nintendo, it really is a surprise whenever new hardware is finally announced. Who could have predicted the shape of the N64 controller? The handle on the GameCube? The motion controls on Wii?
When Project Cafe was circling the internet back in 2011 and we heard that the controller would have a screen in it, we never pictured the Wii U GamePad. We wouldn’t have guessed that the controller would have had the screen in the first place, and our imaginations once we learned that it would really only allowed us to see a traditional controller that had a small screen placed within it.
Nintendo is a company that continues to surprise us. When we thought we would surely see a 3DS Lite, they jumped right to the 3DS XL. When we heard they would be iterating on the 3DS and adding a second analog slider, they gave us the eraser tip on the New 3DS. Somewhere in between all of that, they released what we all mocked and called the slice of cake: the 2DS.
Once we see the new console, we can typically understand where its conception formed. The Wii U makes so much sense after staring at the DS for years. Nintendo took the two-screen concept and applied to it a home console. The DS’ roots can be seen in the Game Boy Advance SP. The clamshell design was widened a bit, with the second screen added to the bottom half of the machine.
Even the 3DS can be traced back to well before the DS family launched. Of course, and most obvious, Nintendo tried their hand at 3D technology with the Virtual Boy in 1995. However, almost a decade before the Virtual Boy flared red images into our eyes, Nintendo released something in Japan called the Famicom 3D System. Released in 1987 for the Famicom, the 3D System was a peripheral that plugged into the home console, allowing games to be played in stereoscopic 3D.
Iteration, not Innovation
In many ways, Nintendo hasn’t been the innovators that we see them as. A lot of the hardware surprises that have been released are less innovations and more iterations on what was previously created. In addition to Nintendo returning to past failures to introduce in new ways, the company has had examples of conceding to the market demand.
Since the launch of the Super Famicom and Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990 and 1991, the 6-button controller designed for the console has been the basis for how every other company models a controller. As controllers have added more buttons and complications, they can all mostly be traced back to the SNES controller. Nintendo moved past the design, immediately with the N64, and went further away from it with each succeeding console.
Recently, with the Wii U Pro Controller, we see Nintendo failing to innovate. In almost every way, the controller is an Xbox 360 controller. There are slight variations, but it is the first example in a long while that isn’t something obviously original.
Taking into consideration the Wii U Pro Controller, the Wii U as an extension of the 3DS design, and the recent move to mobile, you can argue that these choices are concessions and represent a following Nintendo, not a leading Nintendo.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with iterating on what works, be it your own or someone else’s idea. The problem lies only within what that iteration shows itself as. If something is a blatant copy, with no originality then there is nothing to celebrate. Despite the examples above of Nintendo iterating, the company does still display originality more often than not.
It’s more that looking at how everything is relative to another product or feature can show us a glimpse at what NX could be, or what we should hope that it is. We wouldn’t have guessed the DS nature of the Wii U, but that correlation is entirely apparent now that the console has been in our homes for years. While the 3DS came along during the 3D fad that occurred in the late 2000s, its roots can be traced back to the 1980s. So where could NX be finding its inspiration? What should the NX be?
Closing the Clamshell
Recent releases on the 3DS, combined with very few examples on the Wii U have shown that the second screen isn’t a necessity. Most titles use the GamePad as an afterthought, and any bottom screen features on 3DS games really aren’t anything that couldn’t be done by pressing the START button. If we look at games that release on both 3DS and PS Vita, we can see that the bottom screen on 3DS typically replaces some menu functionality on the Vita. It’s been years since a 3DS game has really required the second screen to make a game work. In fact, it’s likely been a challenge for developers who struggle to decide what should go there at all.
If NX is the next handheld console from Nintendo, I don’t see it staying with the clamshell design. There’s no reason to. We’ve been attached to it for over ten years with the DS family, and a few extra if you incorporate the GBA SP. It’s time to break the top half off and leave it behind. If Nintendo is going to continue to iterate rather than innovate, lets see them take the best aspects of the Vita and the Game Boy Advance and combine them into one new idea. We can still have a touch screen, but leave the stylus in the landfills with the rest of our discarded PalmPilots.
Nintendo should focus on what they excel in: software. Copy the Vita in the ways that make sense and add something Nintendo to it, then deliver the best games possible. Take the same approach that the company is taking with mobile games, and use any and every IP. We’ve been through two handheld console lifespans, and over ten years without a traditional Metroid, F-Zero, or Star Fox game. We’ve never seen Pikmin on a handheld console. There are so many examples of neglected Nintendo IP in the handheld space that should have seen multiple releases, not zero.
Killing the Wii
If NX becomes the new home console, it too should focus on software. We haven’t cared about what consoles look like for some time. Sure, we complain when Sony shows off the controller and makes us wait six months to see the box, but once it’s revealed and we have it in our homes- the design matters the least. The controller, the way that we interact with what we are doing each time we sit down to play, and the software, what we are sitting down to play: these are the important parts.
Nintendo needs to focus on making something that we don’t want to put down. I love the Wii U, and the GamePad has been nice, but after a while it just becomes bulky and uncomfortable. My DualShock 4? I can hold it easily in my hand forever. Even the GamePad I can withstand, because I’m typically playing a game that I don’t want to stop playing. While software may be scarce at times on the Wii U, the games that are released typically hold my attention and keep me invested for a long while.
If NX is a console, it cannot be called “Wii.” Not only because of the brand confusion surrounding the Wii U when it launched, but more specifically because whatever NX is, it needs to separate itself entirely and let consumers know that this is a brand new thing. It shouldn’t use Wii Remotes as controllers. Super Smash Bros. for NX should not ship with a GameCube Controller adapter. NX needs to do what the GameCube did to the N64. What the N64 did to SNES. What the SNES did to the NES. The Wii U took advantage of the number of Wii consoles in family homes across the globe. The NX doesn’t have that luxury with the Wii U, or even the remaining Wii consoles.
Not One, But Two
The “brand-new concept” that Iwata mentioned is yet to be seen. If I had to guess, I would look a little bit deeper at the fact that “X” stands for “cross” in Japan. “Nintendo-Cross” doesn’t necessarily mean a hybrid console, but it should be a little closer to the idea that the next handheld and home consoles will be brothers within the same family.
Ultimately, NX is two consoles. The new concept is iterating on an experiment we saw in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, allowing the 3DS to be used as a controller. This idea is another look back to the past, when the GBA could be used as a controller for certain GameCube titles. With NX acting as two platforms instead of one, and with both running comparable operating systems and hardware, it would allow Nintendo to open up interactivity between each platform. It would allow owners of the handheld console to use it as a controller for the home console. It allows development teams to make versions of the game easily for both home and handheld. It gives Nintendo the opportunity to make sure that there are no software droughts during the lifespan of either version of NX.
The new concept is not a new concept. It’s exactly what Iwata meant when he talked about the iPhone and the iPad. NX as a handheld and as a home console won’t be the exact same device, they won’t have the same power, they won’t be the same size. They won’t necessarily have identical software libraries, capabilities, nor features. They will make sense upon picking them up. When you learn to use one, the other will be innate and natural to use. When you download software that either device can handle, you’ll receive it on both platforms. When you sync both devices, you will enhance your experience.
We won’t hear anything on this platform until sometime next year. By then, we’ll surely have begun to hear small rumors and speculation that will change the way that we consider what Nintendo will be launching. In a year’s time, this entire article might seem silly, or future readers will think I was a fool (or a visionary). I think that whatever NX ends up to be, we should focus our thoughts on what Nintendo has already done, rather than trying to guess what they will do. Chances are, NX won’t be something entirely unfamiliar once we learn more about it.