Link, the elfin hero of the Legend of Zelda series, has been rescuing the princess for over 30 years and 17 games. With the latest installment, Breath of the Wild, he ventures to a new place: Nintendo’s next-generation console, the portable Nintendo Switch.
After the tepid sales of Nintendo’s Wii U, released for the holiday 2012 season, the Japanese game giant announced in March 2015 that it was working on new hardware that featured a new concept, codenamed NX. In October, via a teaser trailer, it revealed the Switch.
And last week, at an event in Tokyo, the company showcased the features of the device, games coming this year, and the all-important launch details. The Switch will be released March 3 for $300 and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the flagship game available on day one.
From the very first glimpses of the hardware via that teaser video, it was evident that Nintendo was once more embracing the blue-ocean strategy that has taken the company to uncharted waters far away from its competition in the gaming industry.
“Our competitors are going down their own strategy, Sony and Microsoft, arguably, very similar strategies,” says Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. “They need to figure out how they are going to compete with each other, and they need to figure out how they are going to compete with us.”
“From a Nintendo perspective, we believe in creating products and experiences that are unique and really can’t be copied by our competition. That’s our mentality. I don’t really care what our competitors do. We need to do what plays best to our strengths, and what we believe is going to motivate the consumer to engage with our products.”
Rather than take on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with another expensive box packing high-end processing power, Nintendo will release a device that looks like an iPad Mini tablet, but with detachable controllers on the sides. The whole thing goes in a dock, letting you play games on a TV as with past living-room consoles. But it can be removed to continue playing on the go–seamlessly, in mid-game.
That means that the Switch isn’t just Nintendo’s successor to the Wii U. It’s also the company’s newest handheld, following the successful Nintendo 3DS, which had sold over 60 million units.
Beyond launch details and upcoming game releases, the presentation from Tokyo last week included multiple surprises. The Switch’s detachable controllers, Joy-Con, include motion sensors, allowing for experiences reminiscent of those found on the blockbuster Wii console. One of them has an embedded camera that can capture images of the world and recognize gestures. The other has an NFC chip for use with Nintendo’s popular Amiibo smart figures. Both the left and right Joy-Con controllers have “HD Rumble,” letting them provide intricate vibration feedback all along the unit to different areas of your hands.
Inventive little details like these are what has made Nintendo…well, Nintendo. With 1996’s Nintendo 64, for instance, the company added an analog thumbstick for more precise control. Other gaming companies soon released controllers with their own analog sticks. 2006’s Wii would bring motion control to gaming, and both Microsoft and Sony would try to capitalize on its success with their own motion-sensing technologies. But neither Microsoft’s Kinect camera nor Sony’s PlayStation Move would have anywhere near the Wii’s impact.
Nintendo’s focus on innovation extends all the way back to its founding in 1889, as a maker of Hanafuda–playing cards, with floral illustrations, used for Japanese games. “Nintendo was the first to have plastic-coated Hanafuda cards,” Fils-Aime says. “We were the first to have a licensing arrangement with another IP holder, which happens to be Disney, to have branded Hanafuda cards. So we’re always thinking about how to be differentiated and not do what our current competition is doing. That is a core part of our history.”
More recently, through 30 years of consoles and handhelds, Nintendo has developed innovative hardware and then leveraged it to create new and memorable gaming experiences, from Tetris to Super Mario 64 to Wii Sports. Even its failures, such as 1995’s idiosyncratic Virtual Boy, are products that only Nintendo could have come up with.
The Switch is new proof that this approach lives on, even though the company is now also releasing its own smartphone games, in partnership with mobile gaming company DeNA, starting with last year’s Miitomo and Super Mario Run. (Nintendo is also part owner of the Pokémon franchise, which made a mobile splash last year with Pokémon Go, developed by Niantic.)
“With Switch, you are able to bring the game anywhere you want,” says Eiji Aonuma, a director and producer of previous Zelda titles and the producer of Breath of the Wild, via an interpreter. “And because we created a game that the users get really into, I am hoping that everybody will be able to bring it anywhere. They can start playing it at home and then bring it out to wherever they want to.”
That’s only possible because Nintendo kept Apple-esque control over the entire Switch platform. “People that work on the software and the people who work on the hardware all work in the same building,” says Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and many other classic Nintendo franchises, via an interpreter. “So people that work on the graphics engine, the physics engine, the CPU, they all communicate with each other. Specifically speaking about Breath of the Wild, people working on the basic programming language were in close proximity with people who were building the system. And producers had opportunities to really check out and test out some of the interface.”
Ever since the first Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo Entertainment System console back in 1986, players have traveled through a world, found hidden places, and slain monsters. With 1998’s Ocarina of Time, players finally got to journey in a 3D environment. In 2011’s Skyward Sword, they swung the sword themselves, using motion controls. And now with Breath of the Wild they have freedom to truly explore.
For the first time, the entire land of Hyrule is seamlessly traversable. That cliff to your side? You can climb it. That volcano in the far distance? You can go straight there. You’ll probably want to grab a horse first–the world is twelve times larger than the already huge Twilight Princess.
It was important to the team working on the game to instill a sense of freedom. “When we developed the very first Zelda, it was a game built with freedom,” Miyamoto explains. “But as the Zelda series developed it became more and more like a singular, linear path. At one point I had people ask me, ‘What do you think about games with freedom?’ We decided to stop and go back to the origins of what really makes a Zelda game a Zelda game. It’s the idea of freedom. Within that freedom, you decide where you want to go, how you want to tackle the game.”
Such open gameplay is fitting for a device that gives players real-world freedom of their own. Using the Switch, they can game from their home or outside. They can show their friends the quest they are on, continue defeating enemies on an airplane flight, or solve various puzzles and riddles while hanging in a park.
Another unique thing about the Switch: It enables multiplayer gaming all by itself. The left and right Joy-Con controllers can be removed and turned sideways so that two players have their own small game controllers. Which means that you can challenge anyone you meet to play Mario Kart 8 on the fly. It’s multiplayer console gaming anywhere, something that has never been offered by another gaming company.
The original Legend of Zelda starts with you walking Link into a cave where an old wizard gives him a sword. In the opening moments of Breath of the Wild, Link wakes up from a long slumber and soon meets a mysterious old man, who gives him a torch–telling him it can either be a weapon or light his way forward.
This homage to the original is not the first time the series has made call-backs to previous titles. Often, Zelda games feature reimaginings of previous enemies, dungeons, and other elements. And they usually have the hero Link rescuing the princess Zelda from the evil Ganon.
“I want to make sure the Zelda fans really love the game,” says Aonuma. “That’s one of the core thoughts when I am developing the game. I believe that when I create a Zelda title like that, then newer fans will come along and also enjoy the game. It doesn’t necessarily happen that way; because the Zelda franchise has such a long history, a lot of new players think that you need to know the history to enjoy the new title. And getting rid of that doubt is one of the most difficult things.”
One only needs to look at this past holiday season to see how much Nintendo capitalizes on nostalgia. The company’s highest-profile release was the NES Classic, a shrunken re-creation of the original Nintendo console that comes with 30 games installed. It lets people who grew up in the 1980s relive the games of their youth on modern televisions–including the original Legend of Zelda–and even introduce them to their children. So many folks have found the proposition irresistible that Amazon was forced to run a banner across its shopping site alerting customers that the Classic was sold out.
But Fils-Aime argues that rather than relying on nostalgia, Nintendo wants to be a force that helps push gaming forward. “Our passion for innovation leads to such progress for the industry in total. Imagine the concept of a first-person-shooter game without the invention of the joystick,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that if you look at all of the controllers out there, they may call it something else, but it’s ABXY buttons and a directional pad. It has shoulder buttons. It has thumbsticks. These are all things we’ve driven into the industry.”
“When we’re developing hardware, we are not trying to cater a specific age range or demographic,” says Miyamoto, who emphasizes that Nintendo aims to create a platform with universal appeal. But he adds that the company can’t just keep doing what’s worked in the past, or grow dependent on veterans such as himself and Aonuma. (Their combined Nintendo tenures add up to nearly seven decades of experience.) “It’s…important to let the younger generation take the reins in our game development process, being really open to all of the ideas that the younger generation has,” he says.
As Nintendo has become all too aware in recent years–a period when its financial performance has often disappointed–it’s no longer just competing within the game industry. Its real rivals are all the other entertainment companies jockeying for people’s time and attention. That’s why it’s breaking out of its own hardware ecosystem in a way that’s new, most notably with its smartphone games, but also on other fronts.
Nintendo merchandise has always been out there, but now the company is working with more partners to spread its characters and franchises. There is the deal with Vans that resulted in Nintendo sneakers last summer. In partnership with Universal, Nintendo is also planning to open a Nintendo-themed area at the Universal Studios amusement park in Osaka in 2020. Outposts at Universal’s Orlando and Hollywood parks will follow.
“We believe there is this symbiotic effect, whether you’re engaging in our licensed merchandise business or mobile, that it all gets reinforced in the dedicated gaming experience,” says Fils-Aime. “Our goal is to continue creating those type of examples, where you love a particular IP, you play it on your smart device, engage on the dedicated console, wear branded shoes–it all fits together.”
The psychology reflected in Nintendo’s new willingness to change with the times can’t help but influence its games, even when they’re new installments in venerable franchises. In Breath of the Wild, Aonuma says, “there is morning and night, as well as rain, snow, and different weather elements. Depending on the time of the day, you experience different things. So these changes are a big thing in this world. There is the physics engine too. So this overall direction that we created, it wasn’t something I aimed for, but because of all the things that were involved, this continuous change is something we organically created.”
He further explains, “This a game where I had to go back to zero and revisit the game and make changes again. I had to do that so many times. But honest to God, I never felt tired of replaying the game. And this is because every time I play it is a different experience. I would remember, ‘Last time, I found this there, so I’m going to go back there.’ And then I would go back and then I can’t find it. And so I’m basically lost there, but then while I’m lost, I will find something new and then get sidetracked.”
Like Link, Nintendo itself is about to explore the boundaries of gaming once again, with new ideas, new tech, and new gameplay. Along the way, it could discover untapped riches, a la the jewels that Link collects. Or it might be badly defeated in a boss fight against the monster that is the attention-drained public. Either way, the journey begins now.