Nintendo's been acting kinda funny lately. No, not their normal shenanigans like prentending the internet doesn't exist, and producing low quantities of high demand items. This is a lot more subtle, something you have to look a little closer to see.
We all know that new hardware is planned years before anything is released, but usually companies are hush hush about it, until they have something concrete to demonstrate. But Nintendo has actually been surprsingly vocal considering the Wii U is only a couple years old.
First off, they have already admitted to having production lines working on ideas for the next system. But what's strange is that they've also said they already have a clear direction on what their next system will be. They've even gone so far as to talk about the "fusion" of a handheld and console in one.
So I want to know what is: what is Nintendo planning? I can say this much, historically Nintendo changes direction every two generations. (If you've already heard my explanation of this bear with me.)
The NES, SNES and Game Boy all share a similar philosophy on hardware: a compeitive piece of tech that has the end user and developers in mind. These are the systems that had the best third party support, and were generally well made and without gimmicks.
Pure, simple, fun
The N64, Gamecube, GBC, and GBA were more focused on "less is more". They were all about delivering more powerful hardware, cutting back features deemed unneccessary or superflous to get the bottom line price while giving optimal game performance.
Pretty impressive for a $200 box back in 2001
The Wii, DS, 3DS and Wii U take the opposite approach. They forego power in lieu of features, innovation and price. They make every attempt to stand out from their compeitiors and have far less consideration for third party.
Where else can you do this?
While you could call out the pros and cons in each approach, it's hard to deny that in many respects Nintendo needs to adjust their thinking for their next system. I think it's pretty apparent from their comments, that this is very much what they intend to do.
So, what of this fusion? How can they possibly combine two technologies that are so different? Believe it or not, this might be something we start to see in the current generation. In, case you haven't noticed, Nintendo often starts implementing their next gen ideas late into the current gen cycles.
The FX chip and accelerators put into late SNES games show Nintendo was pushing towards a 3D future. Look at Star Fox, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, the Donkey Kong Country series, and Killer Instinct. Late into the Gamecube we saw things like Odama. Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Donkey Konga and Mario Party 7 & 8 which used new interfaces to bring some new ideas to the table. Should it be any surprise that we start seeing some of the fusion ideas implemented into Wii U?
The one consistant is that the handheld and console will no longer be distinct. Games like Smash Bros and Monster Hunter 3U already allow for you to use the 3DS as a controller. Add the fact that the "new" 3DS is implementing better specs (possibly to accomodate better Wii U functionality) the homogenization of features between the Wii U gamepad and the 3DS with the current information that we do have and I believe the fusion idea isn't as far off as you might think.
What does surprise me a bit is to see Nintendo not implementing any kind of 3DS player into the Wii U. After all, the Wii U gamepad already has all the features of the 3DS and then some, all it would take is a simple USB adapter to make the connections complete. The biggest obstacle would be updating the firmware to acccomodate to the 3DS cards, but other than that it would be totally feasable. It's not like Nintendo is new to the idea of letting you play handheld games on the console.
The obvious and clear advantage to making this fusion is development. No longer would Nintendo's fanbase be divided between handheld and console, nor would there need to be seperate marketing and development. Not only could this allow for an incredibly broad range of software, but would also help fill in the gaps so there wouldn't be months of dry spells. I've always said, there's plenty to play on Nintendo systems as long as you have both their handheld and console. The gaps releases is what turns people off.
So why not do it? The elephant in the room is the technology gap between handhelds and consoles. Nintendo traditionally is two generations behind on their handhelds; GBA emulates SNES, DS emulates N64, 3DS emulates Gamecube. So even with a potential next gen system being able to produce graphics on par with 360 and PS3, that would still be really far behind for a 9th gen console. Even with all the other tech, it would be a hard sell for consumers to buy system that's so dated.
Then comes this issue of price. Imagine if they made a system like the Wii U, where the 3DS XL was the controller, how much would that cost? Even with Sony somewhat implementing that tech with the PS4 and Vita, they aren't bundled together. At best they might be able to sell them together for $500. I can't see Nintendo going that high to combine them.
And even then, what would you do if you did manage to make a beast like this? Would there be 50GB games on a handeld? How would you design the games, the interface, and the world? Like it or not, handheld games are designed differently than console games, and for good reason. It just wouldn't make sense to make a game like The Evil Within on a handheld. It could be done, but that's not why people like handhelds. Pokemon would be terribly boring on a console, grinding is only tollerable becaus it's a distraction. I could see possibly making games that would only be playable on the handheld aspect of the fusion, but then doesn't it lose its advantage. Why not just have them seperate then?
The only legitimate solution that I could see to most of these problems is cloud computing. Theoretically, you could store everything in the clould and use a 4G connection to play these games on the road. But given Nintendo's historical reluctance to implement online features (let alone pioneer them) I'm not sure that's a step they themselves would be comfortable making.
Could it be anything like this?
The fusion sure is an interesting idea, but I don't see how it could work, even with technology 3-4 years into the future. One thing is for sure though, Nintendo's next system will be very interesting to see.
Post Script: Just for some futher speculation and food for thought, here's a video from Review Tech USA that might be on to something.