The Nintendo Switch’s success has been attributed to a wide range of factors, and a lot of them boil down to its quality as a console. That’s a completely fair assessment; the Switch has both novel and well-crafted hardware (barring some expected first-iteration issues) AND spectacular software for such a new system. What is often overlooked as a result of these stellar features is the amount of thought put into the release strategy of both the Switch and its games in the console’s first year. I’ve been raving about Nintendo’s approach to this issue to anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t) for a year now, and this theme week is a perfect chance to rant to some people that may actually care.
To begin, the Switch had the strongest launch lineup in recent memory thanks to exactly one game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may go down as the single greatest launch title ever, especially if enough people forget it was actually a port of the Wii U version. That detail is pretty relevant though, as it’s obvious that Nintendo delayed the release of Breath of the Wild to coincide with the release of the Switch. I have no doubt that the finished game could have been released on the Wii U months earlier had the Switch not been almost ready to ship. Some might denounce this decision as slightly scummy, but really Nintendo should be applauded for recognizing the importance of a quality launch title. That importance is often overlooked, and paying heed to it granted the Switch a hugely successful and buzzworthy release. Couple that with the release window of early spring, boldly forgoing a more typical holiday window in favor of an isolated hardware market, and Nintendo had a recipe for a near perfect system launch.
Releasing the Switch in March certainly granted it less competition from other consoles, but it put Nintendo in a position where momentum was absolutely critical. The system’s launch generated mountains of media attention, but Zelda alone was not going to maintain that hype going into the holidays. This is where Nintendo’s marketing genius really became apparent. Less than two months after the console’s launch they released Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. The upgraded port of the Wii U game was excellent on its own, but it also communicated two things to current and prospective Switch owners. One, great first party releases were not to be an uncommon occurrence. After all, two of them were released before the system was even two months old. Two, those who missed out on the good games trapped in the sorry mess that was the Wii U would get a chance to experience them on the Switch.
These assurances were a good start, but Nintendo really showed their good faith that summer with the back to back releases of Arms and Splatoon 2. Arms showed that the Big N was still willing to experiment with new intellectual properties, and Splatoon 2 confirmed that they were willing to commit to those newer series once they did make them. Even more importantly, these games helped round out the Switch’s fledgling library. By July of 2017 the Switch had noteworthy entries into the adventure, racing, fighting, and shooter genres, with release dates spaced out perfectly to prevent any long game droughts. As summer started to come to a close, all Nintendo needed was a big fall release to clinch the holiday rush and capitalize on the hype that they had been carefully preserving.
Of course, Nintendo had already set one up. The crown jewel of their strategy was made apparent at the end of their E3 presentation: Super Mario Odyssey would release at the end of October. If this game was a hit, the Switch would assuredly dominate the holiday season. As we know now, Odyssey received near universal praise and was placed on a similar pedestal to Breath of the Wild. These two titanic achievements of game design served as bookends for the Switch’s incredible first year. Zelda generated the initial buzz that Mario amplified to seize the holiday crown. Then, like placing an extra cherry on top of an already perfect sundae, the (in my opinion) excellent Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was released in December to finish out the year and capture the hearts of any still-skeptical JRPG fans.
We have now reached the end of the Switch’s first year at market, and Nintendo is still going strong. The Super Smash Bros. announcement last week was the perfect jump start for a new year of excitement, as that series has generated seemingly impossible amounts of hype before . The popular (if occasionally overlooked) Kirby series receives a Switch entry today, which should at the very least tide Switch owners over for a while until Nintendo’s next big title. So, over the course of a year, Nintendo managed to maintain excitement for their new console by using an extremely intelligent release strategy. They calculated exactly which titles needed to be released when, and they have been rewarded with an incredibly successful product. Here’s hoping the next year is even more impressive.