Once again, 2022 asks us to recalibrate our expectations of the game industry hype machine. This summer, megatons are out; minitons are in.
Nintendo pointedly swerved the vestigial hype bandwagon that was Summer Game Fest (otherwise known as not-E3) earlier in June, choosing to wait a couple of weeks before previewing the imminent Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and then another week before springing today’s heavily qualified Nintendo Direct Mini Partner Showcase on us. The show, Nintendo stressed in advance, would be short, and about third-party games.
Our expectations having been so thoroughly managed, it is hard to feel either over- or underwhelmed with the Mini Direct. We have been taught to expect huge news every summer and huge games every winter, and Nintendo’s PR, along with many other game companies’, is looking for ways to gently tell us that things don’t work that way any more, at least for now.
Nintendo and its partners are suffering the same post-pandemic production issues as the rest of the industry, and the Mini Direct’s announcements leaned disproportionately on the news that old games were coming to Switch. Portal! Nier: Automata! Persona 4 (and 3, and 5), at long last! Mega Man, Bomberman, Pac-Man — all the video game mans of old were present. Not that any of this is to be sneered at. Taking much-loved classics on the move on Switch never gets old, while maintaining the availability of classic games on new platforms is as key to the health of video game culture as it is to the health of publishers’ balance sheets in the lean times between new releases. It might be money for old rope, but rope was better back then anyway.
The lineup also showed how good Nintendo has been at identifying and nurturing a lower-key, less noisy kind of success story on Switch. There’s a category of game here that might not classify as AAA in terms of its production values, budget, or hype factor, but can be counted on to quietly sell by the bucketload on such an accessible platform with such a demographically broad player base. Minecraft Legends, Sonic Frontiers, and Monster Hunter Rise — the major new expansion for which, Sunbreak, opened the show — are perfect examples of this. It’s games like these that mean Switch can thrive without Call of Duty or FIFA (proper FIFA, anyway).
Another great example of this phenomenon is the stealth Nintendo game that was sneaked into this partner showcase under a technicality. Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope is developed by and co-published with Ubisoft, but it’s still a Mario game. Its predecessor came out of left-field with an apparently niche concept best summed up as “what if XCOM, but Mario?” It was also an excellent game that sold 8 million copies. It’s the sort of game that looks like filler, but is in fact a sturdy, load-bearing pillar of the release schedule. Who’s to say Harvestella or Disney Dreamlight Valley — both glossy, corporate takes on indie hit Stardew Valley — won’t be the next game to fit in this category? On Switch, such things are possible.
The Switch 2022 lineup taking shape here may not seem that exciting — in part because we have been specifically instructed not to be excited about it — but it is more solid than it looks. It is at least a little more solid than Xbox’s. A shaky release schedule doesn’t matter too much to Microsoft because it is in the process of persuading people to subscribe to a catalog of games on Game Pass rather than buy them when they come out. Nintendo, by contrast, is still very much in the retail business, but it has insured itself against the lean times in a different way: by spreading its bets.
Whether internally or with its partners, Nintendo likes to line up lots of smaller teams making small-to-medium-scale games. The space between indie games and AAA mega-productions can feel squeezed on other platforms, but this space is exactly where Nintendo thrives. With lower overheads and less riding on them, these games are simply easier to get out of the door. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 is delayed to spring 2023 and could conceivably be pushed back even further, but you can bet that Splatoon 3 will make its September release date.
Nintendo does something else that it’s hard to see any other publisher doing: It finishes games, sometimes completely in secret, and then shelves them until the time is right to release them. A Switch remaster of Metroid Prime reportedly wrapped up development as early as summer last year; this week, Giant Bomb’s Jeff Grubb said he had been told “pretty definitively” that the remaster existed and would be released in November 2022, to coincide with the game’s 20th anniversary. That has a nice resonance to it, but it also helps fill out a quieter year, as well as capitalizing on the momentum built by Metroid Dread.
Add in Bayonetta 3 and the guaranteed monster hit Pokémon Scarlet and Violet — which it is strangely easy to forget about, perhaps because Nintendo allows The Pokémon Company to do all its own PR — and Switch actually has what is, at least in the game-starved environment of 2022, a heavyweight lineup. Nintendo’s relatively modest approach to developing games, signing partners, and promoting itself may not be sexy, but it delivers. It’s the embodiment of the philosophy of the Switch hardware itself: Size isn’t everything.