It's a fact often stated, but no less true for the repetition, that videogames as a whole owe a great deal to Nintendo.
Time and again over the past 30-odd years, Nintendo has defined and redefined core parts of what a game, or a games console, is meant to be. It hasn't always been the first to invent an idea, but so often it has been the first company to take a rough idea and turn it into something so accessible, so useful and so necessary that, in hindsight, it ends up feeling obvious.
The D-pad, the analogue stick, the handheld console, the 3D platformer, the often copied but never equalled Mario Kart formula... Even when Nintendo's innovations haven't been immediately well-received, as was the case with the Wii's motion controls, they've still had the power to shift the course of the industry. Thus, when Nintendo launches something that appears to have inertia behind it, it's best to pay attention.
It's fairly certain that some of the touches that made Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild so magical will start showing up in other open-world games over the coming years, for example. Of course, we shouldn't ignore the debt that BOTW itself owes to many other open world titles; Nintendo is a very productive part of an ongoing discourse within games, both receiving and creating ideas, not some wizened sage on a hilltop passing down gems of insight to the unwashed masses. Often its greatest innovations have been built upon foundations laid down by others; it's just that Nintendo turns out to be a pretty damned fine architect, given such foundations upon which to work.
"People who have played games on Switch are frequently and vocally adamant that this is now their preferred way to play games"
Few would deny that Breath of the Wild has been a landmark software release; quite a number of you, though, will likely consider it a bit too early to consider Switch to have earned a place in Nintendo's grand hall of hugely influential products. The console is off to a roaring start, with its second month sales (and ongoing stock shortages) demonstrating very high demand. While next month's big title, ARMS, is an unknown quantity - it could be an amazing driver of console sales or a damp squib - July's Splatoon 2, a sequel to the company's biggest new IP in years, is absolutely certain to drive demand for Switch further into the stratosphere.
That's all well and good; but yes, it is still early days. The console is yet to complete its first quarter, let alone its first Christmas; projections are good and anticipation is high, but talking about the influence of Switch at this point feels a bit like counting chickens and planning an extensive chicken dinner menu based on eggs still far from hatching. There is, however, one further factor to take into account - the word of mouth around Switch, which is almost uniformly positive and which has a characteristic I'm not sure I've ever seen with a console launch before.
The unique thing about the way in which people discuss Switch is this; people who have played games on the console are frequently and vocally adamant that this is now their preferred way to play games. There's a bizarre level of clamour for games from other systems to be ported to Switch, because the console offers a preferable way to play for so many people. Nobody is actively dumping on PS4 or Xbox One in these comments; rather they tend to be wistful "oh, how I wish Persona 5 (or whatever) was on Switch, I'd much rather play it on that."
There is, no doubt, some degree - however small - of simple excitement with a new shiny thing reflected in these comments. However, combined with the strong market demand for the console, it does make one wonder: is Nintendo on to something quite revolutionary here?
It's clearly struck a chord with a pretty wide audience, and the appeal of the Switch form factor is playing a major role in its early success. It's absolutely true that, as a general rule, games sell consoles, with the hardware itself being of (distant) secondary importance, but with Switch representing such a major overhaul of the whole console paradigm, there's certainly some extent to which the hardware is selling itself.
A couple of months before Switch launched, I argued that one of the reasons for the console's design - and for the much less successful attempt at executing a similar concept with the Wii U - is that the number of young people who have a large TV in their home is declining, most notably in Japan, as people turn to smart devices and laptops for a large portion of their media consumption. This limits the market for consoles, especially for those which are concerned largely with ultra high fidelity graphics on very large, up-to-date TV screens. This trend is less advanced in other territories, but it does exist, and may catch up with Japan.
"If Switch is as big a success as many people seem to expect, it's likely to precipitate a major internal change of direction in its competitors' plans for the future"
That may explain part of the appeal of Switch, but I don't think that market is the one getting excited about the console right now; early adopters are largely going to be people who own a high-end console (or consoles) and a high-end TV, with those who don't own a TV being a market Nintendo may tap later as its success grows. What I think we're seeing instead is a slightly different, albeit related trend; people are used to their media being mobile, and that makes the existing console paradigm a little frustrating.
Many of us rolled our eyes slightly at Nintendo's painfully lifestyle-marketing-agency videos of people turning up to parties with Switch consoles, but in truth we have all become accustomed to bringing our media experiences with us, sharing them easily (often by simply handing over a phone or tablet to someone) and never feeling tethered by them. That applies within the home as much as outside; watching an episode of something on Netflix on your TV until you feel a bit tired and decide to finish out the episode on your smartphone, curled up in bed, is pretty much how a whole generation finishes its weeknights right now.
In tapping into that, Nintendo may have created something that's going to change our expectations about how we interact with games. That capacity to treat games as being just as untethered and portable as other media is a bigger change than many give it credit for, as is the capacity to link the undocked consoles together easily for local multiplayer - an absolutely enormous part of the appeal and success of the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable consoles in Japan, where school and college kids getting together to play Pokemon or Monster Hunter in public social spaces was a pretty huge thing for many years.
The question is, if Nintendo is really on to something massive here - and if it is, then those slightly eyebrow-raising projections showing the Switch selling in volumes comparable to the Wii might not actually be so crazy after all - what is the impact on the wider market going to be? How do Microsoft and Sony react to this?
If Switch is as big a success as many people seem to expect, it's quite likely that it'll precipitate a major internal change of direction in its competitors' plans for the future - just as previous successful innovations by Nintendo have done. There are various models a future Xbox or PlayStation could pursue in order to give a comparable experience to Switch without sacrificing their cutting edge performance; a tablet-style console with a dock housing a much more powerful GPU is perhaps the most obvious example.
The crucial thing is to deliver a console that has a portable experience on a par with its tethered-to-the-TV experience; a lower pixel count and perhaps some toned down graphic effects, but essentially the same game, just as playable and fully featured, available to pick up and play anywhere you want, whenever you want to be away from the TV.
It's a model that's likely to make sense to more and more consumers as behaviours shift away from the monolithic television-centric media experiences of previous decades, and if Switch is a breakout hit (and perhaps even if it's only a moderate success), it's a model to which both Sony and Microsoft will need to think very carefully about their response.