When Nintendo recently announced their latest console – a home system/handheld hybrid named Switch – gamers around the world were almost unanimously positive about the reveal. With a confident swagger that was almost entirely absent from their announcement of the Wii U, Nintendo let everybody know that with the Switch they’re going to try and do things properly this time, and that’s great for fans of the Japanese gaming company and the types of experiences that only they create.
But while the reveal was certainly entertaining, showing off games like the new Zelda and a brand new Mario title, there was one aspect of the announcement that made my eyes light up as a fan of retro gaming – it uses cartridges instead of discs.
The return of cartridges is interesting for the system for a number of reasons, but as a man with a penchant for nostalgia and looking back on the past with rose-tinted glasses, seeing a cartridge being popped into a brand new games console brought memories flooding back that put a smile across my face.
Picture the scene: you’re in your pyjamas on a Saturday morning in the early ‘90s and you’ve slapped Super Mario World into your SNES. Disaster strikes! You hit the power and nothing happens. The screen is just a mess of weird characters. It’s broken. Never fear, the solution is at hand. You rip the cartridge out of the console, flip it upside down and spend ten seconds blowing into it to dislodge any dust that could potentially be causing your problem. You put the cartridge back in, and hey presto, you’re stomping on goomba’s heads in no time.
Blowing on cartridges was basically the solution to every problem with gaming back in the ‘90s. Today games ship broken and require sometimes hefty day one patches to download and sort them out. Online multiplayer modes often don’t work at all for a day or two while servers buckle under the pressure. DRM can lock gamers out of titles they own and the PlayStation Network can crash and make some games unplayable. But back in the day, whenever your game didn’t work, simply blowing on the cartridge would more often than not have you up and running in seconds.
Switch using cartridges gets the nostalgic juices flowing for anyone who grew up playing video games in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s not the only reason that the Switch looks to be a console that retro gamers will love. While the cartridges themselves might look old school enough to raise a smile, Nintendo’s decision to ship games on them comes with some other added bonuses.
When gaming moved to disc-based storage in the mid-‘90s the new technology allowed for higher quality graphics and music at the expense of the instant loading that cartridges could provide. N64 stuck with cartridges opting for the faster load times and a lower risk of piracy but that caused them to miss out on huge games like Final Fantasy VII that needed to be bigger than cartridges would allow. The N64 was handsomely bested by the original PlayStation, partly down to Nintendo’s decision to continue using cartridges, and they switched to discs for their next console.
The cartridges of today are a much different story. They provide comparable storage to discs, allowing similar production values in games, while still keeping load times down to a minimum. As an added treat, cartridges also allow the player to make game saves directly onto the cartridge itself, meaning if you take your game to your friend’s house you can carry on right from where you were without having to bother with a memory card or cloud saving.
In another ode to the gaming of yesteryear, Switch seems to be aiming to make local multiplayer an important part of the system. Since the rise of the Internet, local multiplayer gaming has taken a backseat to online co-op and competitive gaming. While being able to play a game of FIFA with your friend on the other side of the globe is certainly something that should be applauded about modern gaming, along the way we seem to have lost sight of the joy of inviting a few friends round, each grabbing a controller and having fun in the same room, without Internet connections and online chat.
Local multiplayer gaming has all but disappeared in recent years, with even titles like Halo - a series famed for its split-screen multiplayer – going online only in the most recent version. Switch seems to be designed in such a way that multiple gamers can get together with their consoles and play online while they’re in the same room, and that’s a very exciting idea.
Sure, today you could disconnect your TV and PS4 from your surround sound and bundle them into the back of your car, drive over to see a friend and set up a little gaming station in their living room to get some multiplayer action on the go, but it’s not exactly intuitive, and it’s definitely a chore. The hybrid nature of Switch means that you can put your console in a bag and you can go see a friend, playing on the convenient screen that is built into the console while your friend plays on their console either as a handheld or on the television.
Out of the console manufacturers still in the game today, Nintendo is the one with the most appeal to retro gamers. They’ve been around two generations longer than Sony, and three generations longer than Microsoft. Most of us who consider ourselves retro gamers grew up with some form of Nintendo hardware, or at least we saw other people with Nintendo hardware while we foolishly proclaimed SEGA to be the true kings of gaming. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and that’s something Nintendo hasn’t been capitalizing on recently while they’ve been chasing wacky new ideas with the Wii and Wii U.
Switch looks like a console that will appeal to gamers both young and old. It’ll have more games on it since they’ll be joining their handheld and home console game libraries together going forward, but it also looks like it’ll capture that magic of video gaming that many retro gamers feel is lost with modern systems. The portable nature of the system means that it can bring people together in ways that the competing consoles can’t, and will allow Dad to play Mario on the big screen after work, and his daughter can carry on the game while they’re in the car.
It’s a novel idea, and it’s nice to see Nintendo embracing some old school sensibilities when approaching this new system. Will it be a success? Only time will tell. But Nintendo needs a new direction, and sometimes, going back to basics is just what the doctor ordered.