January 13th, 2017: Nintendo has its first Switch hands-on event and as we make our way around the booths at the Hammersmith Apollo venue, there’s a pervading sense of dj vu, a feeling that we’ve seen it all before. Much of the Switch line-up consists of Wii U ports or enhanced sequels. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is by far the most impressive title at the event, but at its heart, that’s a Wii U conversion too. We look to hardware launches for new gameplay experiences, and it’s hard not to feel disappointed, but suffice to say, once our Switch hardware arrives two months later, the mood changes dramatically. The hardware is great and the software impresses to the point where what is effectively a Mario Kart 8 GOTY release becomes the fastest-selling title in the series’ 25-year history.
The reaction to Platinum Games’ strong hints that Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101 are coming to Switch is also telling – whether users have played them or not, they’re eager to check them out on Nintendo’s new console. The reality is that the Wii U ports haven’t compromised the library as we feared they might – Nintendo and its partners’ grasp on graphics and game design is the closest we’re going to get to evergreen in any industry where the triple-A focus is arguably more on raw technology over gameplay. Combine Nintendo’s unique game-making attributes with the idea of a console/handheld hybrid piece of hardware and it’s easy to see why the majority of the Switch ports work.
The conversions also serve a strategic purpose for Nintendo too. Put simply, the firm didn’t have the developmental resources to supply software for the Wii U and 3DS in the kind of volume required by the market. By effectively combining handheld and console into one device, the amount of quality first-party titles should increase – but it’s going to take time to transition all internal teams onto the new hardware as the 3DS winds down. In the meantime, bolstering the Switch line-up with well-chosen ports gives the platform holder’s studios the time they need, without compromising the frequency of releases for the players. Thus far, the strategy has paid off remarkably well.
Just the concept of a portable Mario Kart 8 with a fully mobile local multiplayer is a stroke of genius, the docked 1080p mode the icing on the cake. On top of that, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that given the time and effort, ports can be much more than simple conversions with frame-rate bumps or resolution boosts. Compare Lego City Undercover with its Wii U predecessor and the reality is that it’s actually a conversion of the PlayStation 4 version, significantly upgraded from the Wii U original. Shin’en Multimedia’s Fast RMX demonstrates that given the right coding talent, Switch ports can offer a revelatory increase in visual quality too – Fast Racing Neo was a technical masterpiece on Wii U, but RMX is on another level.
It’s evidence like this that also fuels the hopes and expectations for the teased Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2 and Wonderful 101 ports: not only can we take them with us and play them wherever we want, but the docked mode potentially offers the raw horsepower to level out the performance dips found in the Wii U versions and to better hit their 60fps target. What’s been particularly pleasing about the Switch line-up so far has been how many of these games attempt to lock to 60 frames per second – of course, there are a fair amount of emulated titles in the line-up, but based on our count, around 80 per cent of titles on the Switch’s online store targets full frame-rate.
All of which leaves us hungry for more. Nintendo’s back catalogue across the last couple of console generations is rich in titles that deserve a comeback. Take Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, for example. This title is an example of how Nintendo’s dedication to incredible art direction creates a kind of timeless artwork style that transcends the technology it’s built on. What stands out here are the incredibly interactive levels – the way that they animate, sometimes in time to the music, and how in many cases the level builds in front of you as it play, plus the utilisation of a dynamic camera that switches predominantly 2D gameplay into a 3D showcase. It’s the kind of game where a bump to higher resolution would add extra polish to an already brilliant title. And yes, it’s another flawless, locked 60 frames per second title.
Pikmin 3 is also highly deserving of a Switch revamp. It was released fairly on in the Wii U’s lifecycle and it’s one of the few Nintendo franchises that locks to 30Hz instead of the usual 60Hz. The reason why is self-evident – the visuals here are exceptional, with stunning art direction, brilliant effects and superb texture work. A straight out-of-the-box port would work just fine – indeed, just the ability to turn this into a pick up and play game with full sleep mode functionality would be a game-changer here. Nintendo is working on Pikmin 4 for Switch right now, but reintroducing users to the franchise with a port seems like a no-brainer, particularly as there’s precedent here: the first two games in the series already moved from one Nintendo generation to the next.
It’s a similar story with Metroid Prime 4 – it’s so early in development right now that all Nintendo could show at E3 was an animated logo. Meanwhile, the original trilogy would play out beautifully on Switch. We know that GameCube Virtual Console is en route, potentially offering an easy route to the Wii/Wii U style of re-release for the three existing games, but a resolution bump and graphics upgrade would be hugely welcome. Super Mario Odyssey is due before year’s end, but who wouldn’t want to play Super Mario 3D World on Switch? In fact, even Wii’s Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel would work beautifully on the new hardware. Emphasising Nintendo’s mastery of visual design, we ran the latter two titles at full 1080p60 (a viable target for Switch) on the Dolphin emulator and they still hold up.
On paper, the notion of filling out Switch’s library with old games may seem desperate – particularly in an era where the HD remastering of prior-gen titles on Microsoft and Sony consoles has now run its course (we’re moving on to full-on remakes now, such as Shadow of the Colossus and Modern Warfare Remastered). However, it’s a different story on Switch. The console hybrid concept turns yesterday’s most celebrated Nintendo classics into today’s handheld wonders, to the point that old games can feel new again. Not only that, but it helps to address a basic, fundamental problem prior Nintendo consoles have faced: these games take time to complete, and the development teams quite rightfully refuse to be rushed. Strategically chosen, refreshed titles from the last-gen Nintendo catalogue actually seem to add life and vibrancy to the Switch line-up.
More new titles are preferable of course – and with Nintendo’s teams now focused on just one piece of hardware rather than two, that’s what we’re likely to get in the fullness of time – but as a holding pattern until the new development cycle is established, the return of celebrated classics works for us, particularly as the Wii U’s lack of sales success means that a generation of first party classics didn’t quite get the exposure they deserved. Seven months ago at the Switch hands-on, the notion that we’d be advocating more ports for the hardware post-launch would’ve been met with disbelief. But now, with Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 apparently returning for Switch, we can’t help but hope that Konami are watching – and that Platinum’s Metal Gear Rising will be next in line for conversion.