The Nintendo Switch has one of the strangest, and most interesting, libraries in modern gaming. That wouldn’t have happened if it were closer to its competition in terms of hardware power.
Nintendo has always been comfortable doing its own thing, but the Switch’s design itself means that developers can’t approach it with the same strategy they bring to other consoles.
While there will be very little difference between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of Far Cry 5, for instance, the Switch isn’t powerful enough to run the game at all. If Ubisoft wants to do something interesting on the Switch, it has to change up its strategy and create something suited specifically for that console.
Would we still have gotten Mario + Rabbids if Ubisoft could just port all of its existing games to the Switch? It’s very possible, but the end result is that the Switch has a Ubisoft game you can’t get anywhere else.
It also feels so natural that you rarely see Mario + Rabbids brought up when people talk about exclusives. A PlayStation 4-exclusive Assassin’s Creed title would be discussed endlessly, but Mario + Rabbids doesn’t seem artificial or forced. It just feels like Ubisoft took a step back to create something thoughtful, something that worked with the strengths of the platform and its partner in Nintendo.
The relatively underpowered hardware and the portable nature of the Switch’s design are a double whammy for big publishers. The fact that you can bring the system anywhere means that players have a strong incentive to purchase games on the Switch rather than on other platforms. Buying a game on another console doesn’t mean you gain better visuals; it means that you lost portability. That’s what separates the Switch from the disappointing Wii U, and why it might have better longevity than the Wii. Nintendo has been chasing this sort of strategy for a long time, but the Switch may represent the first time all the pieces have fallen into place.
The lack of hardware parity with the PS4 and Xbox One also means that developers and publishers can’t just look at their current slate of games and begin porting to the Switch.
This has led to a fascinating situation where the Switch’s library of games consists mostly of must-have Nintendo titles alongside a variety of indie games that don’t require the full power of the other modern consoles, and often take advantage of the portable or multiplayer nature of the Switch hardware.
Even ports of older games, like the Switch version of 2016’s Doom, feel more like an event than yet another version of a game that already been around the block a few times. While it’s hard to know how heavy a hand Nintendo has in choosing which games are coming to the console, there also seems to be a focus on catalog games from other publishers with a strong emotional connection to players.
A Blizzard game coming to Nintendo hardware would be news regardless, but there’s a reason fans are so excited about the possibility of Diablo 3 coming to the Switch. It’s a modern game with a twist of nostalgia, and the addition of portability helps it stand out from the many other times the game has been released on various platforms.
The Switch’s lack of power further separates a system that was already not interested in a direct competition with its peers, and it helped keep the cost of the system down, which is fueling sales. While it was frustrating to try cover the Switch during launch, when Nintendo refused to give many detailed specifications of the hardware, it ended up being a good strategy for the company. Let Sony and Microsoft get bogged down trying to explain HDR; Nintendo was perfectly willing to allow the experience of playing the Switch sell it, without relying on arcane numbers.
Nintendo has found an effective way re-energize publishers’ back catalogs and entice indie devs who want to compete on a different playing field than PC and the other consoles, while also making sure the game catalog of the Switch itself is both high-quality and idiosyncratic.
A more expensive, and more powerful, version of the Nintendo Switch that matched the big game releases of the Xbox One and PS4 note for note might have been just as successful, but I doubt it. It also would have been much less interesting.