A new report says that Nintendo’s new game machine is indeed a hybrid–that is, a combination portable gaming machine and a TV-based console. I hope it’s true, because it’s Nintendo’s best possible move in an unstable world.
The report from Eurogamer, citing multiple sources, says that the machine codenamed “NX” is a “high-powered handheld” with a tablet-style screen and detachable controllers, that can “connect to your TV for gaming on the big screen.” It’ll be powered, Eurogamer says, by the Tegra, the powerful Nvidia chip that runs its Shield line of Android-based gaming devices. (The Nvidia partnership was initially reported some months ago by SemiAccurate.)
I couldn’t tell you for a certainty that Eurogamer is right. I admit to a certain level of confirmation bias insofar as this precise scenario is what I’ve been predicting for a while now. With that in mind, assuming arguendo that this is the NX: This is a great move.
As much as it has been assailed by the arrival of smartphones, Nintendo is still much stronger in portable than it is at home. It’s sold over 58 million units of its handheld Nintendo 3DS, compared to 12 million home Wii U machines. It expects to sell 55 million pieces of portable software this year, but only 15 million home games. Merging the two products–having a single install base for software makers to address and only one piece of hardware to buy to enjoy all Nintendo products–would be very attractive.
Would a Tegra-based handheld hooked up to a TV be able to pump out graphics competitive with PlayStation 4? Of course not. But Nintendo gave up on that battle long ago, and the idea that it would somehow want to take up arms again is frankly ludicrous. The hardcore gaming market is fully satisfied with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; there’s no market opportunity in that end of the pool for a third box. Meanwhile, look at that screenshot above of Resident Evil 5 running on the Tegra-powered Shield console. Does it look as good as Xbox One? No. Does it look good enough to run Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Yeah.
A move from the Wii U’s PowerPC architecture to the Tegra would almost certainly mean a loss of backward compatibility. That sucks for Wii U owners, but let’s be frank–there aren’t many of us to disappoint. If you have to lose back compat at some point, the most painless time to do it is right after a console with depressingly low sales. Moving to low power draw, low cost, portable chipsets is worth it. (I do think that Nintendo should at the very least get emulators running on NX that will let us transfer our classic Virtual Console game purchases on day one. That is a technologically feasible and reasonable ask from someone who’s spent a thousand bucks on digital content.)
A hybrid of portable and console would require compromises on both sides. But here’s the rub: For as much as it’s been noted that Nintendo has ceded the high-powered graphics war, there’s also another war that it’s lost, and shouldn’t try to win. Nintendo has lost the battle for your five minutes at the bus stop. Look, I am a fan of Nintendo’s games. I love to play their stuff on 3DS. But I don’t need to carry a portable Nintendo system around with me anymore for those brief diversions. If I have to kill time, I’m playing a mobile game–or, more often, on Twitter. Or eBay. Jury’s still out on whether spending more time on either of these apps is healthy. But the point stands: Nintendo’s portables used to be a great tool for that quick hit of free time. But they’re not necessary anymore.
So that’s why I’m not much bothered by Eurogamer’s mockup drawing, which shows something tablet-sized. Will the battery life be more iPad Pro than Game Boy? Maybe. Will it be impossible to throw it into my pocket when I go for a walk? Perhaps. Does this really matter anymore? Consider this: Players of smartphone games say they’re more likely to play these games on the couch, bed, or toilet than while commuting. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo’s research indicated that the numbers for 3DS are even higher than that, in the post-smartphone era. Having a personal, private game experience that moves with you from the living room to the bedroom–that’s still a compelling product, even if it doesn’t fit in a pocket.
None of this guarantees NX’s success, of course. Even if it’s all true, Nintendo could still mess it up somehow. And even if Nintendo does everything “right,” it could be the case that the market for a lower-powered dedicated gaming machine simply doesn’t exist at all anymore, not even if Nintendo merges its two machines into one. The fact remains, though, that this would be its best possible move in an increasingly dangerous game.