PlayStation and Xbox fanboys that have come to burn my house down, I kindly ask you put your torches and pitchforks down. I’m not here to rain on your parade. PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S are great new systems in their own right. It is cool to once again see the turn of another new generation. However, there’s a feeling I’ve been having ever since these consoles were revealed and throughout the road to their release. The special “pizzazz” that a new console generation is supposed to have just doesn’t feel present to me. And I guess that’s because we have the Nintendo Switch. Allow me to explain.
Unlike in the rest of the tech world, hardware launches in the gaming industry are infrequent — happening once every half-decade or longer. As a result, a new generation usually brings major advancements as engineers have so much time to implement their new ideas. Looking throughout console history, it’s easy to pick out huge improvements that were made, such as the transition from 2D to 3D, analog sticks and triggers, rumble, online services — the list goes on. These were all major deals when we first saw them because they introduced exciting new possibilities for the entire console industry. But even so, hardware power has been the one consistent focal point. In a way, this is to be expected considering that technology advances quite a bit in the time it takes to build a new console. That said, the last two generations have stood out for this very reason — and not in a necessarily great way.
As has been established many times before, the jump from the seventh to eighth generation was not as grand as all of the prior transitions. That’s because the industry went from HD to… more HD. Certainly, the games do look far better than they did 10 years ago when PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 were still hot, but the difference is far less noticeable than comparing modern titles to those of PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox. And now, the ninth generation has all but cemented this trend.
New graphics, old formula
The buzzwords surrounding the launches of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S consoles have been “4K,” “HDR,” “ray tracing,” “120FPS,” and, of course, “SSDs!” However, out of these five key selling points, the only one that truly matters to most people right now is SSDs.
Solid-state drives aren’t anything new, but until recent years, they’ve been far too expensive for the average consumer. SSDs also certainly would’ve been expensive to include in a mainstream product like a console, until recently. Now, developers can optimize their games for SSDs. Additionally, the operating systems of both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles are made to take full advantage of this technology. Although, while lightning-speed load times and Xbox-specific “Quick Resume” functionality are all fantastic, it’s going to become really typical really quickly. So of course, what will be left to enjoy are the shiny next-gen graphics. Ah, yes — the high-frame-rate, high-resolution new games. Exciting, right? Well, yes and no.
As I’ve mentioned, next-gen games don’t look leaps and bounds better than the last gen. Even though it’s still early, the jump that we’re going to see throughout the rest of this new generation will be fairly marginal in comparison to the last. For the most part, the industry has formally hit the point of diminishing returns when it comes to visual fidelity. Games will make advancements, but they already look so great that there’s only so much further we can push it. And even with these advancements, chances are you and many others aren’t even going to get to enjoy it — at least not yet.
For all of the awesome tech that’s in the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles, a lot of it is inaccessible unless you have the right display. The high frame rates, huge resolutions, and richer color technology all require very high-spec TVs / monitors. Right now, the average TV may have some of these features, but there are very few on the market that check every last box to utilize the full potential of any of the next-gen systems. So, chances are you’re going to have to buy a new TV to gain access to everything the new systems have to offer. And that means that’s another few hundred dollar bills sucked out of your wallet on top of these pricey new boxes.
For the die-hard graphics junkies who do want the purest experience, they will make that sacrifice. But what about everyone else? The casual consumer is still the majority. So, are they too going to run out and buy a new TV? Of course not. Not only because they most likely don’t want to spend the money, but also because they simply don’t care that much about the new features. Thus, the full scope of what these new consoles have to offer is going to be partially left on the table for millions of their customers, at least for the next few years.
Now, compare all of this to the situation of the Nintendo Switch.
The hype around the Switch hybrid
By comparison, Nintendo Switch (and especially Nintendo Switch Lite) is an almost comically modest system in terms of specs. It cannot stand anywhere near the new systems in a power match. But it still has the one thing that none of them have: hybrid functionality. This is what Nintendo banked on when it made and marketed this system, and it has paid off astonishingly well. The sales numbers speak for themselves: As of the time of writing, the Wii is the only Nintendo console to have sold more than the Switch. That is a massive milestone that this system has achieved in just under four years of being on the market.
Unlike the tech that’s inside of the next-gen systems, the Switch’s hybrid concept is stupidly simple to understand and extremely easy to utilize. It’s a system that can adapt to any and every situation, and that is its key feature. It appeals to any and every kind of gamer, explaining why it has sold so well.
I remember when the console was first revealed back in October 2016; I was sitting alone in my apartment, and the YouTube video dropped. I literally screamed in excitement when I saw the hybrid functionality in action. That same wave of excitement came back when I picked up the console in late 2017, astonished at its compact size. Fast-forward to now and I’m still happy with my purchase. Though I don’t take it out of the house often, having the ability to do so has come in handy many times. I’ve played the Switch on the plane, on a cruise ship, in a car, and more. Even just having it in my bed is convenient. I also recently jumped into Nintendo Labo for the first time, and I’m totally shocked and impressed at how intuitive it is.
These are all things that only Nintendo Switch can do. And while you may argue that with the rise of cloud gaming and streaming that the other systems can do it too, that still requires you to use your phone and a controller and also be tethered to an internet connection (which isn’t free). And if you happen to live in a country where your preferred service isn’t supported (like how Xbox’s Cloud is not available here in the Bahamas), then this isn’t even an option at all. Switch totally eliminates all of these extra hoops that need to be jumped through.
Power is only part of the story
Is the Switch weaker? Yes. But it still captures the spirit of fun, and it seems like that’s what is most important to a sizeable number of consumers considering the unit sales.
So, yes — the fancy new consoles are all fine and dandy, but their novelty will wear off more quickly than I think it has for any other system prior. They’ll still sell well and be enjoyed for several years, of course. But in terms of innovation, they really are just better boxes than what we had before. That’s fine, but really, that’s all it is — it’s just fine.