Nintendo's Switch Lite puts the company's console lines at a crossroads

The company improved its hit-and-miss home console record with the Switch while the Switch Lite is heir to its portable device legacy. With those products covering the range of console gaming settings, Nintendo will have to push something aside as it considers future consoles.

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Before the release of the Nintendo Switch, the company had a hit-and-miss record with game consoles that stretched back to almost a quarter-century, with a hit (Nintendo 64), a miss ( GameCube), another hit (Wii), and another miss (Wii U). Contrast that with the company's long-standing dominance in portable consoles, a turf it long defended from early competitors like Sega and a late run from Sony before finally acknowledging its need to start developing for smartphones.

The Switch entered both of these timelines. Since it was capable of portable play, Nintendo placed de facto limits on its graphic sophistication compared to rivals. Early ads for the Switch played up its many gaming modes, but its two main configurations were as a gaming tablet and a docked TV console. But its detachable Joy-Con controllers were subpar as home console controllers. And because portable play opened more gaming opportunities to gamers on the go, the Switch quickly gained more attention as a portable console. And the more attention it received as such, the more ardently Nintendo insisted that, no, it wasn't a portable console since the Nintendo 3DS and its variants served that role.

With the Nintendo Switch Lite, the handheld console that wasn't a handheld console has become a handheld console. In getting the price of the device below $200, Nintendo has removed TV output as well as integrated the standalone Joy-Cons into the body of the unit, thus axing many of the more novel if fringe play modes  The Switch Lite will be compatible with the overwhelming majority of Switch games, but they must support "Handheld Mode." Nintendo is also doing more to make the flagship Switch a better mobile gaming platform, with its Japan division announcing an updated version of the screen-equipped console that upgrades its battery life

The Switch Lite's embrace of its handheld identity has again turned the spotlight on the 2DS/3DS, which represents the latest incarnation of a platform that began 15 years ago with the first DS. For now, Nintendo says it will continue to support the 3DS for as long as there is demand, but the writing is on the wall for the aging platform.

The Switch Lite not only disrupts the company's traditional handheld platforms, but it also leaves the company's home console picture murky. Remember that the Switch was the replacement for the Wii U. With a cheaper Switch requiring handheld game modes, developers may be less inclined to support the Switch's TV console mode. On the other hand, it would be challenging for Nintendo to launch another home console unless it was comfortable with retiring the Switch as a TV device. In that case, the Switch would inherit the Game Boy legacy. That positioning has some appeal as the product is sufficiently different from smartphones -- even if the Switch Lite's display is sized more like a smartphone's than a tablet's.

In the living room, Nintendo's new thing would face the daunting world of ray-tracing 8K consoles armed with the franchises that have accompanied every Nintendo console launch. Faced with that prospect, the Switch becomes less of a particular model and more of Nintendo's path forward, an ongoing merging of its home and handheld console lines.

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