Nintendo has, so far, had an amazing 2020. The Switch is selling at a record-breaking pace, Animal Crossing New Horizons went mainstream in a way that very few games ever manage (its timing coinciding with the pandemic really helped), and in general, this is the year the Switch solidified itself as a lifestyle gadget in the mainstream, on par with a Kindle or an iPad, with a mainstream appeal that goes beyond just that of a gaming console.
The thing is, all of this has happened without any actual action from Nintendo. I mean, yes, releasing Animal Crossing, as well as smaller releases such as Paper Mario or Xenoblade, does count as action, but I mean action more in the sense of any actual moves made by Nintendo to help push hardware. On one level, this makes sense. The Switch is routinely out of stock throughout the world, which seems to imply Nintendo can’t meet current demand – so trying to increase that demand even more when they can’t fulfill the deficit is a fool’s errand.
The problem, though, is one of long term engagement. Nintendo has always been a secretive company, and with rare exceptions, likes to announce games very close to their release – but that has been stretched to absurd degrees this year. Coming into 2020, the only Nintendo first party games with confirmed release dates were Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Recore and Animal Crossing New Horizons. The expected Nintendo Direct that is broadcast in January or February every year, revealing most of the lineup for the next 12 months? Didn’t happen. Instead we got a smaller scale Nintendo Direct Mini at the end of March, which only confirmed the release date for two additional first party games (none beyond June), though it did admittedly include a fair few exciting first party announcements.
Then, randomly in May, Nintendo announced Paper Mario The Origami King, due out in just a little over two months. And, that was it. Paper Mario came out earlier this month, and as of right now, there is absolutely no Nintendo first party game with a concrete release date. Things are a bit dire as far as communication from the platform holder goes.
Now, the Switch, unlike its predecessors, is an actual healthy ecosystem, with an ongoing stream of third party and indie releases, and a library literally numbering in the thousands – so it’s not like there’s any shortage of things to play. But if you are a fan of Nintendo’s own output (which I have to assume you are if you own a Switch), then the rest of this year looks… empty. Blank. There’s nothing lined up. In the absence of the regular early year and E3 Directs, Nintendo has decided to give us absolutely nothing except stone cold silence.
Obviously I’m not saying Nintendo doesn’t have first party releases planned for this year. This is a company that will often stack the last three months of its release calendar at the expense of literally every other part of the year, so it seems really unlikely that they wouldn’t have anything planned for the Holiday season (especially one in which they were aware new consoles would be launching). But the only problem is, we don’t know what those games are. And Nintendo isn’t talking. At a time when the company was expected to break its silence with a new Direct highlighting the next few months of releases, they instead held… a smaller form of a Nintendo Direct Mini (so a mini Mini), which featured a total of four new games, one of them a budget WWE game, one a free to play hero shooter, and okay, admittedly Nocturne HD and Shin Megami Tensei V look awesome, but neither is releasing until next year at the earliest. So… 2020 remains blank.
The problem here appears to be COVID-19 (obviously). With the pandemic, and the resulting shelter in place orders leading to everyone scrambling to have to work from home, it goes without saying that there must have been some disruption in Nintendo’s development cycle. And given how tenuous their ability to actually stick to a timeline can be under circumstances like that, it makes sense, from their perspective, to not announce a game unless they are absolutely, completely, fully 100% sure it will meet its release date beyond a shadow of doubt.
The problem is that this has led to a lot of latent frustration with a fan base that has been left high and dry, a problem that has been made worse by the fact that the few times Nintendo has chosen to communicate, it has absolutely mismanaged fan expectations. This goes all the way back to January this year, when the final fighter for the first Fighter Pass of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was revealed to be Byleth from Fire Emblem Three Houses (I like Byleth, but it was absolutely an anti-climactic pick after getting such hype generating inclusions as Joker, Hero, or Banjo-Kazooie). The earlier Pokemon Unite reveal was probably the worst instance of not reading the room, with The Pokemon Company first holding a stream where they confirmed the existence of the long-requested Pokemon Snap sequel, before announcing another stream for a week later, that would have a “very special announcement.” Obviously, for that one week, expectations rose sky high, as fans speculated what this very special Pokemon game might be, before it was revealed to be… a free to play MOBA for mobile devices. People were definitely not pleased.
Then there was the Paper Mario Treehouse stream Nintendo held earlier this month, where they promised the world premier of a third party game. Which, again, builds expectations, expectations that absolutely were not met when said revealed ended up to be Bakugan: Champions of Vestoria, a new game based on the popular anime. Once more, people were not happy.
You can imagine a timeline where the response to the Bakugan reveal, or the short Nintendo Direct Mini we got earlier this month, was more positive – if they hadn’t been Nintendo’s only fan facing communication in months, people wouldn’t have cared that much that they didn’t live up to their expectations. The problem is that Nintendo hasn’t communicated anything at all, so every single new announcement or reveal from them has the pressure to live up to the expectations of fans who are hoping for an announcement worth the now more than seven months that they have been kept in the dark. And smaller scale fare, no matter how good, simply cannot live up to that kind of pressure. Hell, most of Nintendo’s own franchises probably couldn’t.
Nintendo needs to be less afraid of the possibility that it might have to delay a game because of development troubles. People have been pretty understanding of game delays this year – with The Last of Us Part 2, with Ghost of Tsushima, with Cyberpunk 2077. If Nintendo announced Super Mario 3D World Deluxe for September, but then had to push it by a few weeks because of last minute disruptions caused by the unusual working conditions we are all currently subject to, the sky would not fall. I’m sure people would be disappointed, but it would be a far more moderate disappointment than the latent fury of a blue-balled fanbase that they currently face.
I’m hoping that they consider the response to their last few streams, and decide to actually let us have a peek beyond the curtain for a little while longer. Announce games that are more than a few months out, show off stuff that might be out next year (such as Bayonetta 3 or the new Zelda), and build some hype. Get your fanbase energized again. Because there are almost 60 million owners of the Nintendo Switch at this point – unlike the Wii U days, Nintendo can’t afford to ignore fan expectations for too long, because they have literally four times as many eyes on them. So here’s hoping that they speak up again, and soon – and that they don’t put their foot in their mouth again when they do.
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