Here’s something I never thought I’d be saying in 2016: Nintendo is having one hell of a year. The 127-year-old Japanese company has earned some of the splashiest press on a near-quarterly basis, and it’s well deserved. The trend started when the company used augmented reality to create the mega-successful Pokémon Go. In the early fall, Nintendo partnered to bring the classic Mario franchise to Apple’s range of products.
Best of all: This week, it announced a brand-new offering with an all-in one gaming system that seeks to combine the at-home console with the portable gaming device.
The Nintendo Switch, which will be released in 2017, is notable for a number of reasons. First, the new console will enable franchises like The Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart to consolidate, instead of releasing some titles exclusively on the handheld and others for the home console. It marks the long-awaited return of third-party games to the Nintendo ecosystem. And of course it means that instead of having to buy two systems, you can just buy one. But there’s one change in particular that serves a reminder of just how innovative and agile the brand—which spent the last decade struggling–can be. Nintendo is going old-school.
If you pay close enough attention to the release trailer that came out on Thursday, you’ll notice that the players aren’t inserting discs into the console. Instead, they’re doing the most 20th-century thing ever: loading cartridges into a gaming system. But while it might look like an eyeroll-worthy attempt to pander to the bizarre strain of ’90s nostalgia, this isn’t just a gimmick. It’s smart for Nintendo and good for consumers.
The shift away from cartridges and toward optical discs began in 1992, with a failed attempt at an add-on CD-ROM drive for the Sega Genesis, but took off in earnest with 1993’s 3DO and 1994’s PlayStation. Companies began moving to disc out of the belief that they could contain more data and would ultimately cost less to produce. But with the discs emerged a whole host of problems that can’t be solved by simply blowing on a hunk of plastic and inserting it again (a trick that has questionable merit but somehow seemed to work a fraction of the time, if you just believed). A little smudge can cause the system to give an irritating error message. A scratch from a stray pet hair can ruin your favorite game or movie. Plus, optical drives (and their accompanying discs) aren’t agile enough to handle the GPU/CPU data needs that accompany those mind-blowing graphics in your latest gaming purchase, which can lead to a Netflix-like bout of buffering and pixilation when you least expect it.
But the biggest downside of the shift affected systems like Xbox and Playstation: Saving a game requires storage that doesn’t come built into the disc. The Wii U is the only current platform that enables disc storage. With other systems, you have to pay for extra memory for the console, or else you’ll spend a lot of time rage-quitting due to an overexhausted processor.
Cartridges, on the other hand, create a much more pleasant user experience: Not only is the game physically more durable, it also means that when you buy the console, you buy the storage. It also means that the high-quality look and feel of a game won’t be compromised by a flaw in an optical disc or disc reader, which comes as a huge relief after a decade of products with an identifiable lifespan.
It gives me hope that for the first time in recent memory, Nintendo might, might release a console that is not a disappointment. Here’s hoping that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the much-anticipated release which has now been bumped to 2017 to coincide with the Switch release, is the follow-up to Ocarina of Time that we—OK, I—have been waiting for all these years.