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It’s a distinct possibility, because with its latest console, the Switch, arriving in stores across around a handful of countries on Friday, the Japanese gaming company looks set to once again change the face of gaming — something it has been doing consistently over the past three-and-a-half-odd decades or so.
Before we take a trip down memory lane, however, it’s worth looking at why the Switch is likely to be another game changer.
Here’s a brief rundown:
Detachable control paddles — or Joy-Cons, as they’re called.
The ability to take your game out on the road without so much as skipping a beat.
The whole concept of docking the console with your TV.
The return of party gaming.
And although early reviews have been less than complimentary — with most citing glitches with the Joy-Cons, connectivity issues and the complete absence of an online element, it should be borne in mind that the first batch of games consoles are usually glitchy. Remember the first lot of PlayStation 3s or Xboxes? It takes at least till the second batch to iron out problems.
And now, here’s that trip down memory lane.
The 128-year-old company started life as Nintendo Koppai, a manufacturer of playing cards. Over the decades the firm experimented with a chain of ‘love hotels’, taxi services, a TV channel, a food company and more. But it was in 1964 that the playing card business began to slow down and Nintendo was forced to diversify.
Enter Gunpei Yokoi.
Nintendo’s resident inventor extraordinaire had already created the Ultra Hand in the 1960s, but it was in 1980 that Yokoi pulled the first major rabbit out of his hat — the hugely successful Game and Watch series.
Legend has it that Yokoi once spotted a bored commuter on a bullet train idly punching buttons on his calculator and was inspired to come up with something that would allow people to play games while on the move. And with that thought, mobile gaming was born.
These Game and Watch devices — around 60 of which were released between 1980 and 1991 — featured a single game loaded onto it and played on an LCD screen with a specific scene printed across the back. And while most of them sported Left and Right buttons on either side of the screen, a few Game and Watch devices (like Donkey Kong) had on them one of the greatest innovations in video gaming: The D-pad.
According to Yokoi, a joystick was too clumsy when it came to precision control and that is why the D-pad came into being. And ever since then, not a single games console has been manufactured without a D-pad on its controller.
Another major innovation that the Game and Watch series brought to the world of gaming was the concept of difficulty levels. Most Game and Watch titles featured buttons titled Game A and Game B, where the former was the normal game and the latter was a more difficult version — possibly sped up a bit or featuring more enemies than Game A.
Over the years the genius of the one-time conveyor belt operator (in the playing cards-manufacturing factory) and the innovation of Nintendo became synonymous with each other.
The next big thing was the Nintendo Entertainment System or the NES, as it was popularly known.
The NES brought arcade-style gaming into homes after the North American Video Game Crash of 1983 that saw revenues of the video game industry fall by around 97 percent. The 8-bit NES that would go on to sell over 60 million units was the perfect combination of arcade style gaming in the comfort of your home and a massive roster of action and adventure games, particularly some of the most genre-defining RPGs created in the 20th Century.
The 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System or SNES — launched a few years later —built on the strengths and ironed out the wrinkles of its predecessor.
But it was in 1989 — when competitors were popping up with home gaming systems — that Nintendo once again changed the game by returning to handheld consoles with the Game Boy.
Eschewing the sort of fancy bells and whistles other handheld consoles were packing, the Game Boy prioritised battery life and performance over screen size, colour displays and sleek looks. And the gambit paid off as the success of the classic Game Boy and its numerous future incarnations — the Color, Advance, DS, 3DS variants — would show. Over the years, the Game Boy would also add various peripherals to its arsenal such as the camera and printer. A unique aspect of the Game Boy was that since it — like the NES and SNES before it — used cartridges to store games, piracy was minimal. In fact the cost of trying to make counterfeit cartridges was prohibitive and not really seen as being worthwhile.
By incorporating twin screens, touch screens, shoulder buttons and 3D displays, the Game Boy’s evolution outshone that of any and every other competing handheld gaming console.
But that isn’t to say that Nintendo’s focus had veered completely towards handhelds. After all, the company had one massive trick up its sleeve — the Nintendo 64 gaming system.
The company’s sole foray into the world of 64-bit gaming was also its most innovative (until then, at least) in the world of gaming. While it was the first time haptics were introduced in console gaming — courtesy the Rumble Pak that could be bought separately, the most eye-catching innovation was the trident-esque N64 controller. This was the first time console gaming had seen such an elaborate controller that gave you the option of using a D-pad or a joystick for control, as well as a third trigger (down the middle) apart from the shoulder buttons.
That said, the system owed its success in no small part to the quality of games on offer. From such staples as GoldenEye 007 and Super Mario 64 to the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Perfect Dark, there was no shortage of quality across the spectrum. With the booming success of the N64, hopes were high for Nintendo’s 128-bit offering. After all, the PlayStation2 had entered the market — and Microsoft’s Xbox was on its way — and more-or-less wiped out the 64-bit generation of games consoles.
Unfortunately, the GameCube proved to be a failure. For such reasons as poor launch titles, tiny discs (that could hold a fraction of the data the PS2 and Xbox discs could) that compromised game quality and the lack of a DVD player, the GameCube can be filed in the same category as Nintendo’s ill-advised foray into virtual reality, the Virtual Boy.
Redemption would come in the form of the Wii.
As Sony and Microsoft were taking home gaming in increasingly serious directions, where trophies collected and completion percentage began to matter more and more, Nintendo’s masterstroke was to bring the fun back to gaming.
With a motion-detection system of control, the Wii made gaming accessible to people of all ages with all levels of gaming experience. We often take for granted how confusing it can be for first-time gamers to make sense of how to use a controller, and Nintendo’s motion-detection based controller took away all that confusion.
Playing a tennis game? Don’t worry about button combos, just swing!
The Wii and to a lesser extent, its successor the Wii U — which would introduce the concept of a tablet that’s tied to the console, much like the Switch — would prove to be monumental successes.
And now, with the Switch, Nintendo appears set to build on it with another gaming innovation… after that is, all the launch day glitches have been ironed out.