I pick up the Nintendo Switch, and within moments I'm Link running through the grassy hills of Hyrule in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It's been 10 years since I've owned a Nintendo console, and after just 20 minutes that old Nintendo feeling is back. I'm buying a Switch.
The Switch is Nintendo's latest console, and it promises to be a transformer -- literally. It's a mobile gaming device that can seamlessly morph into a home console.
Nintendo has pulled the nostalgia heart strings hard lately, releasing the Nintendo Classic Edition (aka the NES Mini, aka the one you still can't find to buy) and bringing Mario back in the Android/iOS game Super Mario Run. But the Switch isn't about reliving the past. It's about translating the essence of Nintendo into a modern and unique console, and it's caught my interest big time.
My Nintendo resume
When I was a kid I had the original NES and games like Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, Double Dragon II and Final Fantasy. My favorite was The Legend of Zelda -- yeah, the original. The first time I played as Link, I couldn't believe how quickly I became absorbed in the game.
Zelda was the first NES game to let you save your progress. Its distinctive gold-colored cartridge housed a battery and memory chip -- a first for Nintendo. This save feature made Zelda unlike any other video game I'd played. Zelda's story stretched for weeks, making the overall game experience more immersive and complex, like reading a good book.
The original NES was an entertainment Swiss Army knife capable of solo game play, while also being a compelling crowd-pleaser. I spent hours in the rec room huddled with friends around a wooden cabinet TV watching and playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, Duck Hunt, Tecmo Super Bowl, Kung Fu and Excitebike. The NES defined that Nintendo essence with its balance of fun, approachability, social magnetism and quirkiness -- remember the NES Zapper and the NES Power Glove?
Years later, the GameCube similarly had that Nintendo essence. Initially, I bought it to play Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Which I did, at every opportunity -- yeah, who needs a girlfriend? But there were also games like Mario Kart: Double Dash which easily became the centerpiece at group get-togethers for epic two player competitions, especially when hooked up to a projector.
In between the NES and GameCube, I had the original Game Boy that made console style games portable. I went through so many AA batteries that my parents' house probably has a half life now.
My brother and I each had Game Boy systems and we had a cable that tethered them together so we could play against each other in games like F-1 Race.
There was nothing like the Game Boy when it came out; that green display was definitely one of the reasons I needed glasses as a teenager. But the Game Boy had the same Nintendo essence the NES did. While the graphics were crude, I was still playing console style games on something I could pretty much take anywhere.
Though I haven't owned every Nintendo console, I've enjoyed games on other ones that friends had: Super Mario World on the Super NES, GoldenEye 007 on the Nintendo 64 and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii.
As I got older, I was drawn toward other consoles that roommates and friends had, like the PlayStation and Xbox. It's not that Nintendo lost its way, it was just that I grew away from Nintendo -- which felt more geared toward kids than someone in his 20s. Nope, I never got into Pokemon; I avoided it and over time simply lost interest in all things Nintendo.
That Nintendo essence
In the video game industry sandbox, Nintendo is off in its own corner, building sandcastles -- even if the princess is in another one. I own a PlayStation 4 Slim and to me a game like Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is absolutely brilliant. It is honestly one of the best games I've ever played. But it's still not Nintendo -- which is fine, because it's not trying to be. Nor is Nintendo trying to be a PlayStation or an Xbox. This is like when people try to argue Star Wars versus Star Trek -- they're very different things and -- despite what some fanboys would say -- one isn't necessarily better than the other.
Nintendo is the fun two-seater convertible car, ideal for joyrides. And while there are faster, better-made cars a person can own, the pure essence of Nintendo is unique. It's an intangible that's difficult to explain. Yet like so many tech products, when that connection is there, you can feel it.
I don't want to buy the Switch to relive great memories of my past; that's for the Nintendo Classic Edition. I want a Switch because it's filled with the same Nintendo essence the original NES and Game Boy had: fun gameplay, approachability and the whole bringing people together thing.
The Switch also does something else I have always dreamt about: it's a handheld gaming device powerful enough to double as a living room console. Nintendo figured a way to do this that is seamless. It's so much fun switching from a handheld console to a tablet with Wii-like controls to a living room console on a large-screen television. This versatility will appeal to both kids and adults.
The Switch's controls and buttons at first felt a bit small to me -- the Joy-Cons are each about the size of a biscotti. But, I quickly adapted to them and within minutes the console disappeared the more I played Zelda.
Then, there are the small Nintendo pleasantries like the satisfying click sound when you mount the Joy-Cons to the display! Even the blocky slotted TV dock is pure Nintendo wizardry. Who would make such a dock for a game console? It reminds me of Apple's PowerBook Duo dock from 1992.
To me, the Switch brims with the best of Nintendo's DNA. It appears capable of delivering a wonderful single player experience and I can't wait to try a two player game like "Mario Kart 8 Deluxe" on it -- the Joy-Cons snap into steering wheel controllers, just saying.
Now that the Switch has renewed my interest in Nintendo, I just hope that by the time I'm finished playing Breath of the Wild, other Switch games will be ready to buy and play -- or perhaps Nintendo will add some of those old NES games to it in the meantime.