Nintendo Counting on High Praise for Zelda to Fuel Switch Sales

  • Almost 60 percent of Japanese Switch buyers picked up Zelda
  • Latest Zelda installment is highest ranked game since 2008

Nintendo Co. is earning early accolades for making sure that its new Switch console debuted with a strong gaming title, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The big question now is whether that will translate into sales.

So far, signs are good. The latest iteration of Zelda has received almost universal praise among critics, becoming the fourth-highest ranked game ever on review aggregation website Metacritic.com. That makes it the best-reviewed title since 2008, when Grand Theft Auto IV was released for the PlayStation 3.

The Nintendo Co. Switch Grip, configured to be a traditional-style controller with the Joy-Con controllers.

The Nintendo Co. Switch Grip, configured to be a traditional-style controller with the Joy-Con controllers.

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

About three out of every five Switch buyers in Japan are purchasing Zelda, according to industry magazine Famitsu, suggesting the game is helping to drive Switch sales. Hit titles are critical for fueling early shipments of consoles, because they can get enough machines into people’s hands so that other game publishers are attracted to an expanding user base. Halo drove early sales of the Xbox when it debuted in 2001, while Metal Gear Solid 2 played a key role in making the PlayStation 2 the best-selling console of all time.

“The long-term success of the Switch is still a little murky, but without Zelda in the lineup we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” said Jeff Gerstmann, editor-in-chief of online gaming publication Giant Bomb. “Right now, the Switch is a Zelda machine. Hopefully they’ll fill out the lineup with a healthy mix of first- and third-party offerings sooner, rather than later.”

The Switch is a risky bet for Nintendo, which is going up against two entrenched platforms, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox One. The new machine is essentially a tablet with two wireless controllers that can be used anywhere, on its own in the park or plugged into the living room TV. Most potential buyers are already used to playing games on smartphones and TVs, and that has fueled skepticism over whether Nintendo will find a market for a combined experience.

It’s critical that the Switch succeeds for the Kyoto-based company after the flop of the Wii U, its worst-selling modern console, which was retired after just four years. While Nintendo is known for its compelling first-party properties, it has long had trouble courting third-party developers to publish games on its platforms, one of the key reasons for the Wii U’s flop.

To address that issue, Nintendo has taken steps to make it easier to develop games for the Switch. The architects behind the product made sure the machine works with popular game-development tools such as Unity and Unreal Engine. Nintendo had initially said the device would launch in Japan with eight games, but that grew to 20 titles by the March 3 debut, underscoring the ease with which developers could port their games to the new console.

While Nintendo has many of the pieces in place, a lot is riding on the success of Zelda, which was designed to appeal both to long-time Nintendo fans and modern gamers accustomed to the greater freedom of Western-designed role-playing games. Breath of the Wild is the latest release of the three decade-old Zelda franchise and has been in development for about four years. In fact, the company began marketing Zelda well before divulging any details about the Switch, which was code-named NX.

“Nintendo’s software is only available on their hardware, so gamers looking to play the No. 1 game of the generation will certainly be picking up a Switch to play this title,” said Daniel Ahmad, a U.K.-based games analyst at Niko Partners. “Breath of the Wild is the must-have game for Nintendo Switch and is the obvious choice for new buyers of the system.”

Nintendo’s other big first-party games for 2017 are thin, but strategically positioned to boost console sales through the year. The company is releasing Splatoon 2, a followup to the hit squid/kid shooter on the Wii U, this summer and will release Super Mario Odyssey, the next main entry of the Mario series, right before the Christmas shopping holiday.

Until then, Zelda will have to carry the weight. Reviewers are confident that it can, because of the game’s enormous scope and ability to try different play styles, offering hours upon hours of gameplay. The variety of experiences is perhaps one of the game’s strengths -- certain characters only come outside at different hours and the map is littered with hidden puzzles and collectibles. Nintendo also plans to release additional downloadable content for the game.

Compared with other titles that have debuted at the launch of Nintendo consoles, Zelda is doing well. About 55 percent of Japan’s Wii U owners bought New Super Mario Bros Wii U on launch weekend, according to Famitsu. About 48 percent purchased Wii Sports with the device when it debuted in 2006, the magazine said. Still, it’s also important to note that Zelda has little competition, being among just a handful of titles available at launch.

As of Wednesday, Breath of the Wild was the third-most concurrently watched game on Twitch, the streaming website. Zelda is the only single-player game on the Twitch leader-board, with most of the rest being competitive multiplayer games such as League of Legends, HearthStone or Overwatch.

“Breath of the Wild is a huge leap away from the usual Zelda formula, but it still manages to maintain the magic of the previous titles,” said Austin Hargrave, a popular Youtube personality known as PeanutButterGamer with over 1.6 million subscribers. “I’m not sure if you could have much stronger of a launch title.”

— With assistance by Gearoid Reidy

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