There are few companies so simultaneously exciting and confounding as Nintendo.
The storied Japanese video game maker on Wednesday announced that its next console, code-named the NX, will be arriving worldwide in March, 2017. Official details beyond that are sparse, other than Nintendo confirming that it will not show off the machine at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in June – an event that typically serves as the launching pad for new consoles.
Company executives have previously dropped hints about the NX, suggesting it will be radically different from previous Nintendo consoles, as well as Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One.
“I can assure you we’re not building the new version of Wii or Wii U. [NX] is something unique and different,” chief executive Tatsumi Kimishima told Time magazine in December. “It’s something where we have to move away from those platforms in order to make it something that will appeal.”
The company has filed a patent for an oval-shaped, all-touchscreen controller that could allow game developers to create custom buttons with animated graphics. Such a controller, if it indeed forms the basis of the NX, could also perform other non-game functions, such as web browsing.
A Wall Street Journal report from back in October, meanwhile, suggested the NX will have a portable component, offering gamers a two-in-one proposition where they can play games at home and then take them to go as well.
For gamers, this is all very exciting – but Nintendo’s reluctance to explain any of it, as well as its long-standing insistence on marching to its own drum, is confounding at the same time.
For starters, the March release date is odd. Just about every console released this millennium, regardless of manufacturer, has launched in the run-up to Christmas, obviously to take full advantage of the busy gift-buying season.
Waiting till the dead of winter, or even spring, is risky since it misses that key period. It may have to do with Nintendo not being able to produce the NX in the quantities it wants in time, or that a decent slate of launch games won’t be ready for the 2016 holiday season. The company did announce that the next Legend of Zelda game will release in conjunction with the NX, as well as for the Wii U.
Another possibility is that Nintendo might be waiting on Sony to release its rumoured PlayStation 4.5, also being referred to as “Neo,” a slightly more powerful version of the hot-selling PS4 released in 2013.
With its last two consoles, the Wii and the Wii U, Nintendo fell out of sync with Sony and Microsoft. Its machines featured comparatively underpowered processors and graphics capabilities, a major reason for why third-party game developers stayed away.
Without those third-party games, the Wii quickly faded after its hot start in 2006, while the Wii U never really took off from its launch in 2012.
Sony is rumoured to be wanting to boost the power of the PS4, possibly to provide more horsepower for virtual reality games as its PlayStation VR headset releases in October.
Nintendo might be waiting to see what the full specifications on such an upgraded console might be before locking down the NX, so that it can finally match up and bring its console into some level of alignment with rivals. It would be a good move from the perspective of getting third-party developers on board.
On the other hand, it could also be that Nintendo is planning none of this and it just wants to be different for the sake of being different, which it has a habit of doing.
With the Wii, the company chose not to focus on graphics and instead concentrated on simple gesture-controlled games. The Wii U follow-up featured a tablet-like controller that allowed for unique “asynchronous” gameplay that was innovative, but difficult to explain to players.
In both cases, third-party developers steered clear and Nintendo’s consoles became veritable ghost towns.
In the video game business, it pays to be different, but not too different. There’s reason to hope Nintendo has learnt that lesson – an exciting proposition, to be sure – but with what has been revealed about the NX so far, the opposite has an equal chance of being true.
Nintendo may very well end up confounding everyone yet again.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.