Nintendo. You probably know this name from their NES, GameBoy, or Wii gaming systems. But do you know that Nintendo has actually been around for more than one century? They started from producing traditional Japanese playing cards, then toys and eventually video games. It is a company that values entertainment above all else.
Today, Nintendo unveiled their newest console, successor to the Wii U system. The Nintendo Switch is a device that can be used both as a home entertainment system and a portable device. Details of the console are most likely all over the internet already, so I won't go to deep into the technical specs. But one thing I would like to say is, the Nintendo Switch is an idea that embodies the Japanese spirit more than any other console.
Nintendo’s code is to create innovative ways for people to enjoy themselves. They do not compete by making more robust hardware with higher specs, but rather by implementing different and unique features. Their hardware rarely touts impressive graphics, but they make up for it with fun and immersive gameplay. This leads to Nintendo's reputation as a company that targets a younger demographic, whereas competing consoles that boast better graphics can produce gritty visuals that appeal to an older audience.
And this is where I'll argue that in Japan, Nintendo's charm transcends age.
Historically, Nintendo devices have sold better than their Sony or Microsoft equivalents in Japan compared to everywhere else in the world. The Wii, especially, was a great success whose sales eclipsed that of the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, two consoles of the same generation, combined. There is no doubt that the latter two had more powerful hardware, but the console that captured the hearts of the Japanese was not the physically superior one.
The difference, in my opinion, comes from the accessibility and shareability of the Nintendo system. It may be hard to get your father or your grandmother to hold this gamepad in two hands and make them learn the controls. Nor should it be easy to convince them to try out your games with busy, ultra-realistic visuals. But if the games you play have easy-to-understand, colorful presentation, and if the control involves holding a remote in one hand and swinging it around, then it is intuitive even for the older generation.
The result is a very family-oriented system, enjoyed by even members at each extreme end of the age spectrum. The audience is clearly larger than what you can define in a dichotomy of "kids" and "adults" - it is also everyone in-between. And amid the busy schedule that encumbers people of all ages in Japan, a quick, accessible catharsis with an easy learning curve is more highly valued than complex games with intricate control schemes.
Clearly, Nintendo is trying to recapture this magic with their newest offering after the lukewarm reception of Wii U, a successor to the original Wii that somehow made the control scheme more complicated than its previous iteration. With the "JoyCon" controllers, which conceptually improved upon the Wii remotes while remaining simple and intuitive, Nintendo must have even more creative playing styles in mind. It is also evident from the fact that the Switch has two of these controllers by default, that they are trying to share this creativity with as many as possible.
But while ingenuity is like Nintendo's calling card, what sets Nintendo Switch apart from even its predecessors is the fact that it is portable too. You can connect it to the TV and play it like a normal home console, or bring it with you like a handheld tablet. And I believe this will be an important feature for the Japanese.
You see, Japan is a highly mobile society. Many adults do long commutes to work, spending like one-tenth of their day in trains, and even more still move around after their work hours to socialize with their colleagues. Students, too, leave home early in the morning, spend half their day at school, then partake in many extracurricular activities and spend time with their friends before taking the train home. This is a big part of why mobile games are so popular in Japan, simple and solitary as they are. They fill the gaps between the hectic schedules so well.
So imagine the appeal of a gaming system that allows you to play serious games on the go, which also doubles as a socializing tool. The versatility allows you to bring and finish whatever you couldn't while hooked to the TV the day before. You can also bring this on gatherings, introducing some light games to play to your friends and relatives and getting them to play with you. The fact that Nintendo Switch is an inherently multiplayer system definitely gives it points in this aspect.
There is a saying in Japanese: "よく学び、よく遊べ” (yoku manabi, yoku asobe), which literally means "study hard, play hard". I believe this reflects the Japanese mentality of taking their work and pursuits seriously, but also having the most fun when time allows. Nintendo Switch is the epitome of this concept: instead of coming home to have fun after an exhausting day, they can bring the fun with them and share it outside. Socializing and gaming do not have to be separate at all - "一石二鳥" (isseki nichou), two birds with one stone, right?
Of course, there is an air of careful pessimism about the Switch's lack of launch titles right now. But if Nintendo follows through with their idea of making a truly social and yet serious gaming system, we may see a second coming of the Wii effect, at least in Japan. After all, this may be the thing that truly sates the Japanese’s internal quota for being playful.