The Nintendo Switch is the company’s biggest, boldest gamble in years

Behind every Nintendo product is a story of heritage, a tale that can be recounted by moving back through time to a point in the company’s meandering and storied history. For Shinya Takahashi and Yoshiaki Koizumi, two of Nintendo’s most senior executives, the story of the Nintendo Switch console goes back to the very beginning.

virtually sold out for months. Its Amiibo figurines featuring classic franchise characters inspire fans to wait in line for hours. And the 3DS handheld remains a hard-to-obtain gateway to the Game Boy era— as well as a way to play the new best-selling Pokémon games.

Super Mario Run was downloaded 40 million times in its first four days.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Even still, Nintendo is charting new frontiers, using smartphones as a way to generate renewed interest in its core products. Niantic’s Pokémon Go, while not made by Nintendo itself, dominated headlines, enthralled millions, and boosted Nintendo’s stock price this past summer. Super Mario Run, a mobile version of its trusty side-scrolling formula, was downloaded 40 million times in just four days back in December. By channeling its inner Disney, the company is also moving into theme parks attractions. Nintendo can, and clearly plans on, moving forward regardless of the Switch’s success, with the same characters and game design players cherish.

, the record-breaking Wii launch game that brought motion control to the mainstream. 1-2-Switch may not be prove to be as successful; unlike Wii Sports, which came free with the Wii, Nintendo is choosing not to bundle 1-2-Switch with its respective console. (Koizumi says they chose not to bundle a game with the Switch because it might restrict how players think the console should be used.) The game nonetheless serves a similar purpose. It is both a demonstration of the technology packed inside the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers and a guiding principle for how Nintendo would like modern games to be played.

A hallmark feature of 1-2-Switch is that many of its games can be played without looking at the screen. Unlike most modern multiplayer games, these activities demand you look at your opponent’s eyes and fully immerse yourself in the action. Using the Joy-Con controllers in place of a number of real-world objects, you face off against one other player in wide-ranging contests of skill, creativity, and an affinity for bizarre hand gestures. Thanks to some sophisticated tech inside the peripherals, the Joy-Con controllers can do nearby object detection and even simulate sensations like holding a glass filling with water.

One game asks you to milk a cow’s udder more efficiently than your opponent, while another makes players place a Joy-Con controller near their mouth and pretend to voraciously chomp on submarine sandwiches. There’s a dance off, a runway walking competition, and a yoga contest. “I do believe that Wii Sports did a good job of explaining the function of the system,” says Takahashi. But what Nintendo wants to do with 1-2-Switch is go beyond just sports and give people an “unexpected experience,” he adds with a laugh, “like the milking game.”

If 1-2-Switch is a multi-course meal designed to show everything the Switch has to offer, than the Joy-Con controllers are the secret sauce. In the same way the Wiimote became more emblematic than the console itself, the Joy-Con is designed to do the same for the Switch. Koizumi says it was “deliberate on our part” that the Switch’s logo contained only outlines of the Joy-Con controllers, without a screen in between.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

The controllers are also what enable the device to function in different environments and in a variety of different ways — from a big screen to a tablet to a mobile multiplayer experience. Because the Switch comes with two of them from the start, any situation becomes an opportunity to pop out the console’s kickstand, remove the Joy-Con, and start a game, especially with those that don’t own the Switch themselves and perhaps never once considered buying it.

“The ability to pick it up and hand it to someone else was a very important part of the hardware,” Takahashi says. “We began to look at how can we leverage these technologies to create new experiences that will appeal to that wider range of ages and a wider range of interests than even the Wii audience had.”

This idea of superseding the Wii, the best-selling game console of its generation with more than 100 million units sold, is a common theme for Nintendo. “Talking about Wii and Wii U, particularly with the Wii we had a very broad audience that played and a very wide range of ages from kids to adults, including seniors,” Takahashi explains. “With the Wii U, we saw that [broad] audience really declined.” It’s a somber admission, suggesting that Nintendo has no delusions about the toll its wayward experiments have taken on the company over the years.

Like the Wii U, the Switch could sink. The console is arriving with a new Zelda game and a moderate price tag of $299, but it’s an open question whether Nintendo has the good will and consumer trust to court the kinds of casual gamers it’s seeking out. On the other end, Nintendo has yet to disclose key details about the Switch that matter to more serious players, like how its online service and virtual store will work. For the hardcore fans, the core conceit of the Switch — its ability to morph from one form into another — might be seen as just another gimmick in a long line of goofy Nintendo experiments.

“One of the things we’ve continued to consider for a long time,” Takahashi says, “is how we can give an audience that played Wii another opportunity to come into contact with Nintendo software.” In that context, the Switch’s purpose starts to become more clear: its portability and design is supposed to urge players to create their own play spaces wherever they like, and invite others to join. “Adding this level of freedom to a game console means more people will see it in use,” Takahashi adds. “They’ll have more opportunities to have contact with games in general.” Nintendo’s mission — to get as many people playing games as possible — doesn’t get more succinct than that.