The 3 March 2017 will go down in history as the day Nintendo was forced to risk it all. Battered from Wii U’s wobbling sales, the House of Mario’s only remaining option was to go back to the drawing board, rethink its place in the market, and return with something so magical that it would forever silence its nay-sayers. Five years since that risk was taken, we can safely say that the Switch has done exactly that. Not only has it helped cement the Japanese publisher’s relevance at a time when other consoles prioritised souped-up SSDs and power-pushing graphics processors, but it has since gone on to sell more than 103 million units worldwide. Switching up the strategy has paid off, it turns out.
A lot of promises were made in the Switch’s reveal trailer released five months prior, and much to the surprise of us all, most of them were largely fulfilled. The Legend of Zelda? On the go? What is this magic? We’re still left pondering these questions half a decade on… But it wasn’t just first-party exclusives that provided a launchpad for Nintendo Switch to become what it is today.
CUT IT OUT
“Learning about the Nintendo Switch and its features was a real thrill because it was all top-secret at the time,” reflects SFB Games’ Adam Vian, who’d later direct the hit launch title, Snipperclips. Nintendo recognised early on that in order to convince players of its new console’s unique hybrid capabilities, it would need to team up with a raft of creative talent. Said talent would help take some of the pressure off in-house Nintendo studios while it was still winding down Wii U and 3DS development, filling out the Switch’s launch line-up with exciting releases that weren’t just first-party triple-A titles.
“We had a single contact at Nintendo who we’d met at a games event in London,” Adam continues. “When Tom [Vian] and I had finished the prototype demo of Friendshapes [the game that would eventually become Snipperclips], we tried our luck and sent Nintendo the demo.”
The brothers were never sure whether their boldness would pay off. Soon after, however, they discovered that “Nintendo really liked the prototype and said they were interested in working with us. It was quite a surprise”.
Asking two players to work together by cutting and trimming one another into different shapes to solve countless puzzles, it’s hard to believe that Snipperclips wasn’t always designed with the Switch in mind. After all, it’s the type of launch title that ties perfectly into Nintendo’s family-friendly image, and also showcases the fun that can be had by detaching the console’s distinctive dual Joy-Con. “I remember being excited by the idea of the detachable Joy-Con controllers, because they were a way to get people easily playing local co-op right out of the box,” Adam says. “I could see why Snipperclips would be at home on the console.”
Tom, one of the game’s chief programmers concurs: “At the time, Nintendo knew what we didn’t: that the Nintendo Switch was going to have this really unique focus on local multiplayer. I think when we sent them our prototype that was about co-operative local multiplayer at its core, they saw the potential for showing off that aspect of the Nintendo Switch.”
With a bit of tweaking to the gameplay to suit two-player co-op using Joy-Con, SFB Games quickly got to work reformatting its game into what would go on to become Snipperclips. It was always intended to be a wholesome experience, true, but with first-hand support from Nintendo, Tom, Adam, and the rest of the team pushed themselves to make its launch title as charming and as polished as possible. It wasn’t lost on them that Nintendo’s own titles are of a very high standard. “They really helped us all throughout development to reach for that level of quality and appeal to all ages,” says Tom.
SWITCH ‘N’ SLITHER
Equally as wholesome, though opting for a more nineties-style approach to puzzle-platforming, was another launch game: Snake Pass from Sumo Digital. The Sheffield-based studio had already established a relationship with Nintendo with its work on various third-party and licensed titles, but the release of the Switch presented another opportunity. “If I recall correctly, we had to release a little earlier than anticipated to line up with the Switch launch window,” says designer Sebastiaan Liese.
Snake Pass wasn’t in a Nintendo exclusive, yet Sumo Digital saw speeding up its timeline as a way to capitalise on its hype. The playful puzzler – in which players must guide an ever-growing snake through various windy scenarios – was one of a few digital titles downloadable from the Nintendo eShop in the console’s first month. Couple this with the cutesy character design of Noodle himself, the charming way he must navigate and swerve around levels, alongside legendary Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 composer David Wise on music duties, why would you want to play Snake Pass anywhere else?
“I’ve personally been a fan of David Wise’s work since I played these ‘wholesome classic platformers’ as a kid,” Liese notes about trying to capture that old-school Nintendo tone during Snake Pass’ development. “It had always been a dream of mine to create a game good enough to be scored by him.”
Snake Pass may not have made use of the Switch’s Joy-Con as Snipperclips and others did, but its tone and look still emphasised the new platform’s universal appeal. Snake Pass was another early Switch indie title born from humble beginnings, starting off as an in-house game jam at Sumo Digital, until eventually being given centre stage on Nintendo’s exciting new platform. Even Liese himself openly admits that this wave of hype was core to making this relatively small-scale snake puzzle game the success it ended up being. “Being in the genre that traditionally resonates well with the Nintendo audience, as well as being one of the first Switch releases, most certainly added a lot of hype and publicity for our game,” he sums up.
NEED FOR SPEED
While most players were likely absorbed by Breath of the Wild, anyone who wanted a break from scaling mountains and battling Bokoblins could find alternatives on the Switch’s eShop. They’d be treated by the likes of I Am Setsuna, the throwback Square Enix RPG, and the modest but fun Super Bomberman R, among other bite-sized titles. It would be just over a month, however, until Nintendo’s premier racing juggernaut would speed its way onto the hybrid console in the form of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Fortunately for driving fans, then, another arcade racer was there at launch to offer Switch owners fast-paced thrills.
Styled in the same vein as Powerdrome, WipEout, and F-Zero, Fast RMX is Shin’en Multimedia’s third entry in the Fast series. Beginning life as a WiiWare title with 2011’s Fast Racing League before following it up four years later with Fast Racing Neo on Wii U, it only seemed right for Shin’en to helped launch the Switch. It turned out to be a blazingly fast and slick anti-gravity racer that pushed the console to its limits right away, presenting a stylish driving experience capable of running at 60 fps – either in docked (or more impressively) handheld mode.
“When we visited Nintendo in 2016, we realised quickly that a successor to Fast Racing Neo would be a perfect launch game for the Switch,” recalls Shin’en CEO Manfred Linzner. Fast RMX development began soon after that meeting, where the team prioritised getting the game on the eShop on day one despite having an internal mandate against crunch. Features such as HD Rumble, motion controls, and single Joy-Con play were added part-way through development as additional knowledge on the new devkit came in, with support for up to four players to play locally.
“Fast RMX was designed as a technical showcase,” Linzner continues. “Nintendo said it would be great if the game could be released on the launch date of the Switch, which was twelve months ahead. We knew we could do that, and so we agreed to make it possible. We had to plan carefully, but everything worked out nicely in the end, and the game had the quality we aimed for.” According to Linzner, all this effort was worth it, too, as even five years on “it still sells nicely on the eShop”.
STILL ON TOP
Though nobody could have predicted the platform’s worldwide popularity (likely not even Nintendo), something else that’s become quite apparent the more time has passed is just how much its hybrid nature has made Switch an indie developer’s playground. And while new tech innovations such as Microsoft’s xCloud on mobile – and most recently Valve’s Steam Deck – may challenge Nintendo’s dominance in the portable (and indie) space, they’ll have a hard job undoing half a decade’s worth of goodwill.
Adam Vian likely sums it up best: “I think one reason the Nintendo Switch has become a good home for indie games is because it’s a really great console, and popular with all ages,” he says. “The mix of portable gaming and playing at home on your TV is genius; why wouldn’t you want your game on there?”