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Happy Birthday, Nintendo Switch: 5 Years Went By Fast

Commentary: The Switch is still going strong, despite newer, faster competitors. But is the time coming for an evolution?

nintendo-switch-5th-anniversary
Scott Stein/CNET

The Nintendo Switch is five years old, having first gone on sale March 3, 2017. Back then, I marveled at its wild design and wondered how successful it would be. A half-decade later, it's become Nintendo's most successful gaming hardware ever, and one of the best-selling game consoles in existence.

It's still my favorite game console, even with more advanced hardware all around it. But 2022 feels like a moment where the Switch could be ready to evolve again. Already, the gaming world has evolved to mirror its influence and hint at where the Switch might transform again.

Sometimes Nintendo does wild and crazy things. I remember when the Nintendo DS first emerged, oddly two-screened with its own stylus, looking like a strange gaming mutation. Nintendo's Wii remote and nunchuck controller? It looked like an idea pulled from the distant future. But the Switch, when it was announced in 2016, just looked like obvious genius.

I'd seen the idea before. Tablets were striving to become convertible devices. In 2013 Razer made its own gaming tablet called the Edge that had a case with its own built-in controllers. The tablet could be docked in front of a TV. It was handheld and couch-playable all at once, but it was also bulky and weird. Nvidia's Shield tablets explored this idea further. Heck, even the idea of smartphones and tablets, the way they can connect to monitors or cast to TVs, anticipated the move.

So the concept wasn't exactly new. But What Nintendo did was fuse the idea into mainstream brilliance. I saw a gaming tablet with ingenious side-dockable mini-controllers, like tiny Wii remotes. I saw something like what Nintendo attempted with the Wii's less successful successor, the Wii U: a satellite gaming pad. In the Wii U's case, the tablet controller was large, not portable. At best it was an odd but promising first step in search of something better.

I initially thought the Switch wasn't a great device for kids, though.

When I looked at the Switch in demo sessions in January 2017, and again before its launch on March 3 that year, I saw a really versatile device that was big and slightly fragile-feeling. I felt like kids wouldn't understand how to handle it, compared to the more durable-feeling Nintendo DS and 3DS. What an idiot I was. The DS was a weird idea that everyone accepted. The Switch turned out to be exactly the same.

Five years went by fast. In 2022, the Switch is still my favorite game console. I love it because it goes with me, and that's how I use devices. I watch shows on iPads. I read on Kindles. I check messages on my phone all the time. I don't use the TV much. The Switch is a device made for a life of moving around.

My kids play the same way -- on iPads, sometimes on the Xbox, sometimes on Switch, sometimes a laptop, grabbing whatever's near and running to another place. We do play living room family games on a docked Switch from time to time. But it's a personal device. We've had our Switches multiply. Several are around the house now, remnants of pandemic deep dives into our Animal Crossing islands in 2020.

nintendo-switch-5th-anniversary-purple
Scott Stein/CNET

Despite multiple iterations of the Switch, including last year's OLED-screened upgrade, there still haven't been real changes to the formula. That's probably just fine, since I still love the proposition. But will Nintendo change things up again soon? Every five or six years, Nintendo has tended to throw a new piece of hardware in the mix. The Nintendo DS was followed by the 3DS. The Wii was followed by the Wii U. The NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, Wii, Wii U, and Switch were all separated by about five to six years.

What comes next? Nintendo could (and should) keep the concept the same, a strategy that worked when the 3DS still played DS games, or the Wii U worked with Wii games and Wii controllers. The hardware needs better graphics, though. As the PS5, Xbox, phones, computers and tablets all keep getting better, the Switch is aging. Nintendo's own games still look good, and so do most indie games, but some third-party games have started shifting to cloud-streaming versions that need an online connection to be played on the Switch. It's a band-aid to fix the graphics disparity on Nintendo's hardware that will only grow until the Switch's chips are upgraded.

Despite falling behind internally, on the outside, the rest of the tech product landscape still feels like it's catching up to what the Switch did five years ago. While it's still sometimes strange that the Switch can't do things online as easily as an iPad (that's what my 9-year-old son's friend told me last week), iPads don't have the modular, easy-to-configure design that the Switch does, either. It's a Kindle for my games, as I said years ago. I still feel that way. And just as I can read books everywhere but still enjoy the Kindle, I feel the same way about the Switch.

Nintendo got weird during the Switch's first five years, for sure. The Nintendo Labo was a freaking folding cardboard construction set that turned the Switch into programmable kinetic machines. Ring Fit Adventure is like an exercise hoop that measures your heart rate with a Switch controller. The Switch's infrared camera, built into one of its Joy-Con controllers, was used to simulate eating hot dogs with Nintendo's first bizarre multiplayer game, 1-2 Switch. Nintendo even turned the Switch into a cut-rate VR headset.

Even so, after those weird stops along the way, the Switch ended up being most successful as an affordable, portable, purpose-built game machine. It's been my destination to play PC games that eventually made the move to Nintendo's handheld. I use it to dive into games I wouldn't have the patience to play sitting down somewhere in front of a TV.

Even now, other companies still feel like they're playing catch-up. Valve's recently released Steam Deck, designed as a portable way to play Steam games, only reminded me more of what the Switch does so well, but it also points to where Nintendo needs to keep evolving its hardware. Qualcomm's Razer-made gaming handheld design, based on phone chips, is trying to find a better way into mobile gaming that, once again, leans on the Switch's handheld success. It's not easy to make modular products, it turns out. Motorola failed, Google failed and Apple's own Smart Connector accessories never seemed to take off. Microsoft's multiform tablet dreams for the Surface seemed to settle down.

And yet the Nintendo Switch, simple and successful, lives on. Don't change, Nintendo. But don't get too complacent, either. The Switch feels ready to evolve to a more advanced form, and with the way the rest of the gaming industry is changing, it seems perfectly positioned for the challenge.