What Nintendo's next-gen system needs to rival, maybe even surpass, the PS4 and Xbox One
It's been less than three years since the Wii U first arrived on shelves, but Nintendo is already gearing up for a new hardware release. Codenamed NX, the new system is rumored to be launching as soon as Q4 2016, but it's currently shrouded in mystery. What form might the system take – and can it successfully combine both home console and portable gaming into one machine?
One system or two?
Rumors strongly suggest that the NX will be some sort of hybrid system, replacing not only the Wii U, but also the 3DS line. From a developmental point of view, that's a great idea for the company, but would it be practical?
Nintendo's biggest problem this generation is its lack of support from third-party publishers. This is partly due to the underpowered nature of the system compared to the Xbox One and PS4, and partly owed to the company's lackluster approach to online gaming – one of the key pillars of Microsoft and Sony's console businesses.
Either way, Nintendo has been forced to come to terms with the fact that there's only one company consistently making quality, full-length titles on the Wii U. That company's name is Nintendo.
On the other hand, while the Wii U has struggled to 10 million units sold, the company's handheld division is utterly dominant, selling more than 50 million 3DS systems to date. The success of the handheld makes developing for the 3DS over the Wii U a financial no-brainer.
The result? Even fewer quality titles hit the Wii U.
So the answer is obvious, right? Just combine its home console and handheld arms into one product? Well, maybe.
The biggest issue is horsepower. If the system has to be portable, then cooling, battery life and size constraints will lead to an underpowered (perhaps drastically so) home console – which brings us back to one of the biggest reasons the Wii U has tanked. For that reason, a combined system seems unlikely.
What's more likely is that the NX will be a purebred home console, but with a portable element included, acting as the controller. Like if Sony had made the PS Vita the PlayStation 4's default controller, or if you could take the Wii U Gamepad out of the house and play its own native games on it.
If both components of the system – the core console and the portable controller/system – were somehow running on the same operating system, then it's possible Nintendo could develop for them simultaneously, creating two versions of the same game, allowing the user to move between them as desired. Maybe the home version would kick the graphics up a notch or two, but the core game (on both an experience and code level) would be the same.
We've actually seen this cross-platform approach before on Nintendo's systems. Capcom's Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate was released simultaneously on the Wii U and 3DS, and allowed users to switch between the two versions by transferring data between the systems over WiFi. If the architecture of the handheld and console components of the NX were to be similar, then it's conceivable that cross-platform play could become the norm, at least for first party titles.
In this way, the NX could be a truly groundbreaking product.
There's one more element in play here. While third-party publishers like Ubisoft, EA and Bethesda have largely abandoned the Wii U, the console-maker won't want to maintain that status quo moving forward. The release timing of the NX (assuming it hits its rumored 2016 launch) screams one word: disruption.
Arriving roughly halfway through Microsoft's and Sony's current console cycles, Nintendo will want to steal as much attention away from its two rivals as possible, with the goal of pushing them onto the back-burner for the next couple of years. Make a console that's so forward-thinking that gamers start to see the Xbox One and PS4 as relics from another era.
Given the company's recent focus on unusual hardware (motion controls with the Wii and tablet controller with the Wii U) rather than raw power, it seems unlikely that the NX will outstrip the PS4 or Xbox One in terms of processing grunt (or at least not significantly), but as long as it's in the same ballpark, paired with an innovative groundwork, then Nintendo could start luring third-party developers back to its pastures.
The positive reception to Microsoft's E3 announcement that you'll soon be able to play Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One shouldn't be surprising. Go figure: users want to be able to play their old games on a new system – something both Sony and Microsoft dismissed all too casually when their systems launched in late 2013.
The Wii U, however, got an A in this class, with full backwards compatibility for Wii games. Given how few people have bought a Wii U, we'd love to see the NX support Wii U, 3DS (and perhaps even original Wii and DS) games. If the new console proved popular, it could introduce titles like Mario Kart 8, Pikmin 3 and Super Mario 3D World to people who would have otherwise missed these brilliant games.
It also couldn't hurt for Nintendo to drop the "Wii" branding with the new system. The Wii U moniker was a disaster, leading many consumers to think that the console was simply an add-on for the original Wii, or a slightly new version of that system (like the DS Lite, DSi or new 3DS), rather than an all new home console. A fresh brand will announce to buyers that Nintendo has something new and exciting, with no room for confusion.
These are all just theories, but it would make a lot of sense for Nintendo to bring the two arms of its hardware operation closer together. If the system combined raw power with a unique portable/home nature, that could perhaps be the magic formula to disrupt Sony's and Microsoft's systems and put Nintendo back on the home console map.
Would such a system create too many compromises on both sides of the fence? Is Nintendo up to the technical challenge of making such a hybrid platform? Well, the company has promised to tell us about the NX next year, so we won't have to wait too long to find out exactly what it's been cooking up. E3 2016 could be very interesting.