When Should You Buy A Switch Game From Nintendo?

Vending machine image from the Edmonton Journal

When buying a game from Nintendo these days, you have to channel your inner Dirty Harry and “ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?”

Back in the day, when large, clunky cartridges were all the rage and much of the world had yet to discover the Internet, games had to be finished products before they were shipped out the door, or the company would be stuck with an inferior product and the backlash it engendered. As Shigeru Miyamoto put it, “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”

Once companies adapted to the Internet’s rise, however, the calculus changed: A delayed game might eventually be good, but a rushed game could be first to market, and barring a complete meltdown on the level of Cyberpunk 2077, a company could patch and update their way to respectability. More recently, Nintendo (as well as other companies) have conceded the inevitability of game updates, and instead tried to turn them into a selling point by marketing the “free DLC” and streams of new content their games would receive.

It’s an intriguing approach to game releases, but the problem is that additional content is an unknown and unguaranteed entity, and it complicates the decision-making process behind buying a new game: What will the title have at launch? What might be added later, and at what point will the developer stop adding content? Will this new content be any good, and if they are, will anyone still be playing the game when it arrives? It’s turned video games (especially ones that are reliant on online multiplayer functionality) the equivalent of $59.99 lottery tickets, where consumers take on the risk and hope that the eventual payoff is worth it.

Lately, Nintendo’s track record in this regard has been a bit mixed at best. Consider Mario Golf: Super Rush, which was released a mere month-and-a-half ago. I found the game to be surprising underwhelming (which ended up being the general consensus online), and had barely picked it back up since completing the Adventure Mode. (It wasn’t quite the buyer’s remorse I felt with NBA 2K18, but it was close.) Despite strong sales numbers, the game felt like it was dead on arrival, so Nintendo quickly pushed out a massive new DLC update, with a new character, a new course, and a new online ranked mode. Even this, however, felt rushed and uninteresting: Sure, I was happy to see my Mario Kart 8 main Toadette make an appearance, but the much-hyped New Donk City course was nothing but a endless grind of par-3 holes that felt like a half-finished near-pin challenge, and the ranking system classifies players by quantity of play rather than quality, making it a pointless, self-defeating system (and adding different-colored Yoshi skins doesn’t seem like much of a reward). I played a round with Toadette, a second round on New Donk City, and returned the game to the back of the closet where I’d left it.

Unfortunately, this incident isn’t an isolated one, as Nintendo can’t seem to get the balance right between quantity and quality. For example, Super Mario Maker 2 (a game that I enjoyed for a while, but wore out its welcome really quickly) got several major updates that incorporated elements from The Legend Of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. 2, but the Big N ended updates less than a year after its release, leaving both a frustrating online multiplayer experience in place and a ton of unrealized potential on the table. Super Mario Party was released with extremely limited online play…and then got a surprise update two and a half years later adding online play to the main boardgame option. Even Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that has received a consistent stream of updates since releasing last year, still takes a lot of flack for failing to add a fair bit of content available in previous titles such as AC: New Leaf, an issue more rooted in consumer expectations than anything else. (The company has had better luck with paid DLC options, such as the Cindered Shadows story of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the Octo Expansion of Splatoon 2, and of course the fighter passes of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.)

I know that Nintendo enjoys surprising its players, but there’s a lot of room between fans knowing nothing and fans knowing everything, and with the company trending towards the former state with its DLC plans, they’ve introduced an unnecessary level of uncertainty to their games, making people wonder if a) a title will have sufficient content from the beginning, and b) if the answer to a) is “no,” will that be rectified with DLC sooner, later, or not at all?

I’d like to see the company take a more-structured approach to their DLC rollouts, be a bit more upfront about their longer-term plans for each title, and at the very least frontload their releases with enough modes to satisfy players during the wait. SSBU and its Fighters Passes are a great example of this idea: They provided the framework for what folks could expect without giving away the individual surprises, gave people a sense of the relative timeline (the pandemic may have slowed down the new fighter rollout, but players still knew what would be coming eventually), and oh yeah, there were over seventy characters and a whole bunch of different game modes ready on Day 1. Imagine how the reaction to a game like SMM2 would have changed if they had known how much different functionality was coming, or how Mario Golf: Super Rush might have been received if a decent ranking system and a rough estimate of the number of additional characters were available out of the box (or at least a Day 1 patch). Having this kind of information would at least give consumers a better sense of what their money would get them in the end, and thus allow them to make more-informed decisions about how to spend their money. It’s not guaranteed protection against making a bad decision (what/how much you get doesn’t matter if it isn’t implemented well), but it helps make game purchases feel a bit less like scratch tickets.

Unfortunately, I don’t see Nintendo adopting such a strategy (they’ve never listened to me before; why would they start now?), so the consumer’s only recourse is patience: As much fun as it can be to get in on the release-day hype, it might be best to adopt a wait-and-see approach when buying new games. Sure, you may be able to make some reasonable assumption about a game if you’re familiar with the series, but those assumptions would have led you astray on a game like Mario Golf: Super Rush. Take your time, gather as much information as you can from the company, media outlets, and other players, and don’t rush in just because the game will be all over the Internet for a week or two. It’s advice that can be applied to any game, but it’s especially true when DLC and rushed releases leave the Day 1 details a bit murky.

When should you buy a game (especially a first-party title from Nintendo)? Only when you’re reasonably sure you know what you’re paying for.