A Look At How The Nintendo Switch Is Doing In Japan

All gaming systems were once referred to as a different type of Nintendo. Now? We're all waiting to see if this new system will be the company's last. Here in Japan, the future could easily go either direction.

Launch window reception, while hot, isn't exactly scorching over here. Yes, it reportedly sold out quickly on Amazon and yes, next week we'll probably see some high overall sales figures, when the official numbers come in. You'll read stories about how someone "Can't find a Switch anywhere!" Just as the company did with NES Classic and every amiibo, Nintendo is going to make sure there are not enough Switches to go around. That's what they want. They want the headlines. They want the anecdotes. They want the artificially manufactured hunger.

But as my favorite Days 'N' Daze song says, "When the fire dies down, what the fuck will you do?"

I'm way more curious about Nintendo Switch hardware and software sales from, let's say, April through January. March is interesting, but it won't tell much of the tale. This first summer and first holiday season will be crucial proving grounds, and I'm skeptical as to Switch's chances.

Want to know another quick secret about 99% of game sales posts and pictures that end up representing all of Japan? They come from the same handful of places. Photos of the same couple of Yodobashi and Bic Camera stores, taken on phones by shoppers who generally don't realize how many other places one can buy a game. So you see "sold out" signs which are of course an indicator of success, but those tell nothing of what's going on in other stores. That said….

This is anecdotal — as most things in these glorified diaries we call "blogs" are — but no one around here seems to give a damn about Switch. From children to adults, I can only find the most lukewarm of hype levels. The junior high school kids are mostly aware of what it is, but only a handful have expressed interest; most commonly, lack of software is the cited reason. Another common complaint is not seeing the need for it. They're happy with their 3DS and/or phone. So many teens in this country spend more time away from home than in it, so the hybrid nature of Switch doesn't offer them much.

Me finding out the system needs a $30+ adaptor for a physical ethernet connection.

They're in their school classrooms, attending their (usually daily) club meetings, going to cram schools, taking school trips for both class and club, practicing sports, going to music lessons, and so on. When at home, they'll spend hours on homework and studying for way too frequent exams and even extra tests such as the "Eiken."

When I was a young'n and new here, I got in an argument with a 10-year-old girl about who was busier, me with my full-time job, or her with her extracurricular activities. I thought with adult commitments like paying bills and a job that included some 12-hour days, I'd smoke this kid. But no. We threw down our schedules and holy shit, I lost, hands down. Tennis, piano, school, other school, studying for those third-party tests, and so on added up to give this kid barely enough time to eat and sleep, let alone sit in front of the TV.

She's just one of millions of examples of people who, if they hope to game at all, have no choice but to do it on a portable device. In that way, Nintendo Switch is nice, but it'll be viewed as a portable rather than a hybrid. That's not bad on its own, but then we get into what else it can do. In this modern world, a cellphone is viewed as a practical necessity. Nintendo's own 3DS, meanwhile, is still the go-to for those looking to get a dedicated portable gaming device; Vita has carved a respectable silver metal of a following as well. The Switch, with its inferior battery life, bigger size, and smaller selection of games, could have rough time convincing Japan to game portably on it rather than a phone, Vita, or 3DS.

Sure, you can say that this applies to people about 10-18 years old, but think back to when you first started gaming. You were probably that age or younger, and Nintendo needs that demographic to succeed, especially since PlayStation 4 seems to have a strong hold on the console-gaming adults.

Then, again, perhaps that hold isn't as strong as it looks? PlayStation 4 is blowing away the other current consoles, but its competition is only the Wii-U and Xbox One, the former of which is a universal flop while the latter never had a chance in Japan. PS4's worldwide sales numbers are impressive, but in Japan, it's not reaching crazy heights. Nintendo being a household name and many of its characters beloved cultural icons here, it's not unreasonable that this generation could have the company bouncing back from Wii-U's disappointing performance.

Below are the findings of a launch-day survey by popular Japanese streaming service Nicovideo, with English edited screencaps by Kite Stenbuck. It received about 55,000 replies, making the sample size a lot bigger than surveys of most magazines like Trashmitsu.

In the data above, it looks like Nintendo is selling an awful lot of its first-run Switches to people who would've bought just about anything Nintendo made; which is nice, but it doesn't build confidence for long term viability.

Story Time! "I Know a Guy Who…"

I sat in an English class and asked my four students if I should pick up my Switch before or after our next class, which would be on launch day. I got blank responses, not because they didn't care, but because they didn't know what the hell a Nintendo Switch is. These 12-year-olds looked at each other for backup, but found none. It was only after I added more detail that one said, "Ah! Ah!" with a raised finger and a nod. But during both the description the motion-control heavy games and an official trailer, none of them looked enthusiastic. I don't think these kids will be begging mom and dad for a Switch.

Across the street from me lives a rare type of Japanese gamer family: one who owns not only a Wii-U, but an Xbox 360. Sure, there are 3.3 million of the former and almost 2 million of the latter, but I've personally never met someone out here who has both. Sadly for the three of them, the household money just isn't there, and if it were, it'd go to the PS4, for the sake of Final Fantasy XV. The Switch doesn't have any appealing software yet.

The only other Japanese Wii-U owner I know also won't be picking up a Switch. She says the Wii-U itself didn't disappoint her, but owning it made her realize that with two exhausting jobs, there's simply no time for games. Her Wii-U spent most of its time in the box, reaffirming the fear that had caused her to skip the previous generation entirely: she's done with gaming. Once upon a time, she marathoned Final Fantasy V on a Super Famicom, but now? Apart from some rare dabbles in free-to-play phone stuff, she can't justify the time anymore.

Group of high school guys I talked to, all of whom have Vitas, ain't go no interest in Switch. Heck, some told me they don't even play their Vitas anymore, as their focus has shifted to a combination of studies, phones, and trading card games.

One last acquaintance is a PS3 holdover who, predictably, is primed to pick up a PS4 in the near future. He likes shooters and third-person action games primarily, and his favorite franchise Call of Duty has, as you know, been traditionally stronger on Sony's platforms than Nintendo's.

Looking at a mix of market patterns and the above anecdotes, I get the feeling Switch might have a strong launch week or even month, but struggle through much of the year. Even this, however, wouldn't spell the end for the system. You can never count Mario out.

The 3DS stumbled out of the gate as well. For months, its sales figures were the biggest joke in online discussions. When Ocarina of Time came along and didn't lend it much of a hand, many were carving out the handheld's tombstone. Its turning point was a proper Mario game alongside a substantial price cut; it followed that up with a barrage of software tailor made for Japan, such as Animal Crossing, Pokemon, Tomodachi Life, Yo-Kai Watch, and so on. Vita had a similar rough opening and first year. Once Vita's price went down and it got the software rolling, it secured a respectable audience. Though I don't expect any price cuts to Switch in the near future, my bigger point is that systems have overcome initial failures.

Even saying that, however, it's tough to keep a high amount of caution from creeping into my optimism, when looking at the currently barren release schedule. Still, to flip-flop one more time, it's hard to bet against Super Mario. Most of us thought the Wii was gonna fall flat on its face, but that sucker proved us all wrong. Chart monkeys like you and me will get a hell of a show to see if Nintendo has another… some kind of Mario item… thing… with them.

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