Cue the establishing shot: a suburban home at night. Its window drapes are open. In the distance, a skyline looms over the horizon like a mountain peak. Inside, a man sits in the dim glow of a television. He’s slouched low, pushed back by the emanations. The marketing rhetoric leans into classic entertainment images: The first 10 seconds of your favorite syndicated situation comedy; The Maxell TV ad of a man getting blown backwards by the cassette tape’s hi-fidelity sound. He’s playing a game. Light strains of composer Koji Kondo’s classic Overworld Theme from The Legend of Zelda (1986) mix with discordant piano tinklings. The camera gets closer to the man’s stubbled face. He’s focused. On the television, Link is on horseback swiping his sword at goblins in a field.
A dog’s bark breaks the atmosphere. Silence. A striking red-and-white logo fills the screen: NINTENDO SWITCH. The music flips to an upbeat guitar-driven rock track. We see the man snap his controller into pieces and connect them to a screen, now showing the same moment he was playing on his TV. He takes his dog out to the park, sun’s first rays just peaking over the trees, and he’s carrying his digital adventure with him. “From the moment we met,” the rock singer sings, “you could see that I was filled with desire.”
This is what Nintendo is chasing—desire—with their next home console, now named the Switch (but known simply as “NX” until yesterday’s three minute tease). They want players to want Nintendo again. The 80s and 90s saw “Nintendo” become the generic term for “videogame.” That mantle has been passed to “PlayStation” or “Xbox” or, perhaps, “Phone.” Games are very much everywhere now. But from the beginning of videogames, location has always dictated your play. In the arcade, you stood at a cabinet. In the car, you took out your Game Boy or Vita or iPad. At home, you grabbed your WaveBird or DualShock. Nintendo aims to break down these invisible boundaries. The teaser video is transparent in showing use case after use case: Play the Switch at home, in a car, on a roofdeck, at a park. The only obstacle now is your rolodex (and the system’s undisclosed battery life).
The trick here is its modular components: At home, a tablet-looking device sits in a cradle, beaming the image to your TV. Need to take off? Your controller snaps into two separate pieces, officially named Joy-Cons, that attach to the screened device, effectively making like Voltron to turn into a handheld device. Arrive at your destination and the Joy-Cons can be taken off and used as simple controls. Flip the system’s kickstand open and now it’s an upright monitor. Where before Nintendo pushed for change in our basic inputs—swinging the Wii Remote to strike a tennis ball, or tapping a touchscreen to pet a Nintendog—the addition here appears to be, rather, a subtraction: A removal of environmental limits. Play as you have before. But wherever and whenever you want.
Nintendo is fond of latching onto philosophical maxims—in the form of business strategies or social trends—as guiding principles. The Wii was famously an example of applying the lessons of W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy (2005) to the videogame market. The subtitle says it all: “How to create uncontested market space and make competition irrelevant.” Sony and Microsoft were sharks in the blood-red waters of HD graphics and processing power; Nintendo dipped their toes daintily into a calm, cool, placid lake of motion control, making games simple and accessible for all. The strategy worked.
When the late Satoru Iwata introduced the Wii U 2012, he mentioned Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011), a book about our increasing reliance on technology and its isolating consequences. He wanted the Wii U to solve the problem we’ve all seen and participated in: a room full of people, each staring down at their individual screen. The Wii U was meant to coalesce our attentions, like some magnetic Bluetooth tractor beam; Kimmy looks at the GamePad while Tommy looks at the TV, but they’re playing the same game so we’re all having fun! Iwata ended the video with a simple tweak on Turkle’s warning: “Together. Better.”
The strategy did not work.
And so here we are again, launching another consumer product into the electronic entertainment stratosphere. There is no blue water anymore. There’s only the open-air of outside. Or the closed-off interior of your living room. Or your bed. Or the plane. Though no direct mention was made in the tease, Nintendo appears to be guided by another pop psychology message: “Wherever you go, There you are.”
The book of the same name, written by Jon Kabat-Zinn and published in 1994, is a layman’s guide to meditation. Playing the latest Zelda game while your dog tugs on its leash does not strike one as anything Zen-like. Indeed, the idea of a portable, mutable videogame console that can follow you everywhere evokes something closer to the emotional suffocation of a persistent friend who won’t take no for an answer. But in Nintendo’s ineffable way, they take the incessancy of stalking and flip it into charm. Cock-fighting becomes Pokémon. Implied beastiality becomes Donkey Kong. Insatiable cannibalism becomes Kirby. Their ability to tap into themes and symbols in playful, safe, and fulfilling ways is unmatched. Nintendo has a way with everyday voodoo.
Better yet, we do the dirty work for them. Mere minutes after the reveal video, on-lookers were already anthropomorphizing—noting the main controller, a grey tri-slab of sticks, buttons, and handles, looks like a puppy’s face. Or a penguin.
“From the perspective of meditation,” Kabat-Zinn writes, “every state is a special state, every moment a special moment.” The Switch wants to be your own portable meditation machine, imbuing daily tasks with an aura of Nintendo magic. No need to wait until you get home. No need to bargain over TV time. No need to pause while the dog does her business. Wherever you go, there you are.