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Nintendo desperately wants its audience to Switch back

The lack of young people in the reveal indicates a firm determined to reconnect with grown-ups, lapsed fans and the industry

Since the console-handheld hybrid design surprised few who have been following NX rumours, what was most interesting about last week's big reveal was not the games or the hardware but the complete lack of children in the marketing material.

Nintendo has famously built its fortune on being a provider of family-friendly entertainment, with its biggest audience typically being young people. Certainly, this was the case prior to the Wii, which dramatically expanded not only Nintendo's audience but that of the industry in general.

But watch the Nintendo Switch reveal trailer and you'll find yourself following a man in his twenties for much of the three-and-a-half-minute video as he takes his new Nintendo device to the park, on a flight and everywhere else in his daily life. It's not just him or the woman he meets at the airport, either; all of the Switch owners depicted are in roughly the same age bracket.

It's an understandable move given that the youngest game-playing audience has been almost entirely swallowed up by smart devices. Kids are far more likely to be seen playing on phones or tablet than a Nintendo handheld these days, with parents no doubt preferring to download free apps on devices they already own than forking out a couple of hundred for 3DS. Granted, Nintendo's increased mobile strategy to bring its IP to these devices - most notably with the forthcoming Super Mario Run - should serve as cross-promotion for its own platforms, but whether it will lead to conversion remains doubtful to many. Why would a parent spend £40 on New Super Mario Bros, when Run is just a few pounds?

The Switch trailer's adult cast is also a direct contrast to the Wii and Wii U reveals, both of which showed a much broader age range amongst their actors posing as customers. In particular, the first footage promoting the Wii, then codenamed Revolution, shows everyone from small children to elderly couples enjoying the new motion controller, with plenty of variety in between. Of course, this was to signify a step-change in who Nintendo was appealing to, but even the Wii U's confusing debut trailer featured full families rather than just younger adults.

With the Switch, Nintendo is reaching out to its core and perhaps lapsed audience. The people that had moved on by the time the Wii U launched.

The initial messaging of the Switch appears to be part of the company's efforts to counter one of the side effects both consoles had: polarising the traditional Nintendo audience. While Wii in particular appealed to the platform holder's oft-touted "aged five to 95" audience, many who grew up with the NES, SNES, N64 and even GameCube felt left behind. With Nintendo pouring more and more resources into all-encompassing titles like Wii Fit, while third-party publishers focused on producing reams of shovelware, much of the company's core audience made the jump to Xbox or PlayStation. They had grown up, and sought more mature gaming experiences elsewhere.

With the Switch, Nintendo is reaching out to its core and perhaps lapsed audience. The people that had moved on by the time the Wii U launched: the missing sales from the last four years.

It is admirable that Nintendo is appealing to this audience - which will be crucial if the platform holder has any hope of recovering from the hugely troubled Wii U - based purely on nostalgia.

Affection for properties of the past is arguably at an all-time high at the moment - and not just in video games. The upcoming Power Rangers movie, return of The Crystal Maze, the Ghostbusters reboot and Disney's slew of live-action remakes all point to companies cashing in on fond childhood memories. Closer to home, even Warner Bros targeted adults with its commercials and licensing agreements for Lego Dimensions, and many a Kickstarter campaign has reached its goal thanks to nostalgia for its source inspiration - just look at Yooka-Laylee, Mighty No.9 and Bloodstained. Nintendo fans have already been targeted; it was no accident that Pokémon Go is restricted to the original 1996 generation of critters rather than the more recent X/Y Pokédex.

While a Nintendo device that matches specs of Microsoft's and Sony's machines might be too much to hope for, depicting it as such is a surefire way to get the attention of consumers who already converted to those platforms.

But with Nintendo Switch, the company is promising convenience and contemporary gaming experiences rather than relying on nostaliga. The careful choice of third-party titles in the reveal trailer is interesting: Skyrim, unarguably a core RPG game and one of the best-selling titles of the past generation, and NBA, played in the video by a group of adult sports fans. Again, this is in direct contrast to the Wii U debut, which showed nothing but first-party titles and tech demos all in the almost clinical and often cartoonish Wii style. Even a demo for a sniper game showed the player picking out Miis of Miyamoto, Iwata et al rather than something grittier like Call of Duty.

The inclusion of Skyrim is also noteworthy as it teases - but crucially doesn't promise - parity with Xbox One and PS4. While the gameplay footage is rarely full screen, it seems to be more in line with the upcoming remastered Special Edition than the 2011 original - although tellingly Bethesda has not confirmed this. While a Nintendo device that matches specs of Microsoft's and Sony's machines might be too much to hope for, depicting it as such is a surefire way to get the attention of those lapsed gamers that already converted to other platforms.

In fact, much about the Switch's apparent structure puts it more in line with rival platforms than its two forebears. True, the form factor is markedly different, with the video playing up the console-handheld hybrid nature, but the games are still controlled with analogue sticks plus face and shoulder buttons. Throughout the reveal, there is no hint of motion sensors or touch screens, but the more conventional Pro Controller features regularly.

It's a sign that perhaps Nintendo has stopped trying so hard to be unique, and is now keen to be more akin to the games platforms that older consumers expect, delivering the best-selling experiences that were lacking on both Wii and Wii U. Financially, bringing Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed - both age-restricted franchises - to the latter made no sense, requiring extra time and resources to build unique SKUs for a much smaller userbase. If Switch games control exactly the same as those on Xbox, third parties will face less risk and Nintendo's appeal to more mature players, and their lapsed fans, will increase. Hopefully, the fact that almost 50 publishers are already on board with Switch indicates this in indeed the case.

Even the design of the device is more, for want of a better word, "adult". Gone are the glossy, hardened plastic and stark white designs that wouldn't look out of place in a Fisher-Price range.

Of course, none of this is to say Nintendo has turned its back on the younger audience. Why would it? Teasers for new Mario, Mario Kart and Splatoon titles show that the company still has families firmly in mind when it comes to its first-party output - although notably Splatoon was seen as played by adults during an eSports tournament, perhaps further indications that Nintendo is keen to realign itself with the rest of the industry.

Even the design of the device is more, for want of a better word, "adult". Gone are the glossy, hardened plastic and stark white designs that wouldn't look out of place in a Fisher-Price range - and that reference is by no means disparaging as, much like Fisher-Price, Nintendo products have always promised safety and quality to unsure parents. Instead, the sleek design, matte finish and darker colour scheme puts it more in line with the iPad, Kindle Fire, Chromecast and all manner of consumer electronics that appeal more to cash-rich tech enthusiasts than children. We're already accustomed to seeing people use tablets while commuting or in public, and the Switch is designed to blend right in.

The growing dominance smart devices have over the kids markets also shows that children are more keen to play the same "grown up" devices their parents uses, rather than products designed for and marketed directly at younger age groups. So designing Switch for an older audience is by no means going to diminish Nintendo's appeal to that younger audience it has always thrived on. If anything, it could even help.

It's not unlikely that the overall demographic Nintendo appeals to with the Switch will be as broad as its predecessors - why would they turn away such a large audience? But to begin with, the initial messaging suggests its primary concern are users who were already playing games before anyone had seen a Wii Remote. That is, after all, the audience that would have been crowding around their screens yesterday waiting for the reveal. It makes sense to cater to those already interested to see what the NX was, those who might consider coming back, than the mainstream that will most likely learn about it when Switch arrives on shelves.

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James Batchelor


James Batchelor is Editor-in-Chief at GamesIndustry.biz. He has been a B2B journalist since 2006, and an author since he knew what one was