The thing above the brightness sensor and below the volume buttons. Can’t miss it.

It’s a goddamn mystery, that’s what this is.

The Nintendo Switch’s touchscreen isn’t exactly unwelcome, but it’s a strange addition to the console, especially with its focus on transitioning between a home gaming machine and on-the-go experience. If the Switch’s greatest influence is the Wii U Gamepad, then it makes some amount of sense. But why add a touchscreen without announcing anything that relates to it?

There are a surprising amount of questions revolving around the touchscreen’s inclusion:

  • The Wii U’s touchscreen (and the 3DS’s and the DS’s) was resistive, not capacitive like the Switch’s. Capacitive touchscreens are most prevalent in smartphones and have been widely used since the iPhone was released in 2007. (This is sometimes called Multi-Touch.) Nintendo’s been content to use obsolete touch technology for a decade. Why the tech upgrade now?
  • None of the games showed off at Nintendo’s events last week involved the touchscreen in any substantive way. If the touchscreen is important enough to mention in the initial reveal, why not show off any games or even the system UI using it?
  • Nintendo has said in press interviews that the focus of the Switch is a dedicated gaming device, not a tablet competitor with apps like Netflix or Hulu. Why include a touchscreen if it’s not competing with tablets?

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All of these questions alone would seem innocuous and inconspicuous, but put together it just seems like the touchscreen’s inclusion is a pointless waste of money. Which is incredibly surprising for a console already packed with technology like the motion-sensing, IR-camera, HD rumble JoyCons. Nintendo has also stated that one of their lessons with the Wii U was not to sell a console at a loss, so every feature included means inflating the Switch’s tenuous price.

As far as I can tell, there are a few possibilities as to why Nintendo included a touchscreen in the Switch.

Start your speculation engines!

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DS and 3DS games are coming to the virtual console

Nintendo’s been very tight-lipped on the Switch’s Virtual Console situation, to the point where they’ve repeated “We have nothing to announce at this time.” to four questions in a row in a recent Q&A.

It’s a relatively safe assumption that Nintendo won’t abandon the Virtual Console for the Switch entirely, especially since the online service they’re promising will give us an NES or SNES game a month, but they’ve been quiet about what platforms will actually be present in the eShop for purchase.

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Wii U games would require both screens to be available for play, and Nintendo has stated with the Switch it’s either the tablet or the TV, never both.

However, this does leave the possibility of DS and 3DS games coming to the switch. (The Switch’s 720p display has more than enough resolution to display games from both systems.) The downside? It’d be awkward as heck to control.

  • Capacitive touch screens are built for the finger, not a stylus, which both the 3DS and DS’s resistive touchscreens needed.
  • Using the Switch in landscape orientation will fill the screen with blank space (or a generic background). Using a portrait orientation would remove non-touch control options, especially since the Switch’s kickstand only works in landscape orientation.
  • Using “TV Mode” would be impossible without some sort of accessory like a drawing pad or tablet. (Granted, they could just disable TV Mode since these games were originally made for portable devices.)
  • You could effectively write off “Tabletop mode” when playing these games as the distance to read text or menu elements will be worse than playing Xbox 360 launch games on a standard definition TV from 6 feet away.

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Which brings us back to the point: If DS and 3DS games are coming to the Virtual Console, why include a capacitive touchscreen?

Nintendo wants popular iOS and Android games for the Switch

None of the games present at the Switch’s presentation and press events were famous touchscreen games from the likes of smartphones and tablets. But that doesn’t mean that Nintendo will turn their nose up at developers with popular games from those platforms looking to port to the switch.

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A possible shot of the Switch’s user interface, which is hopefully touch controlled!

This certainly fits with the reasoning for the capacitive touchscreen, but we run into the same portrait vs. landscape orientation problem. Plenty of popular mobile games like FRAMED and Hitman GO already function just fine in landscape mode alone. There would be a difference in resolution, but nothing more drastic than making sure the game runs as well on an iPad Air and an iPhone SE. However, other popular games like Threes or Device 6 run in portrait mode, and the only feasible way to play these games is with the Switch in one hand like a tablet.

Another problem? Nintendo already has Miitomo, Super Mario Run, and the upcoming Fire Emblem Heroes either already on those platforms or soon to release there. Nothing’s really stopping them from accepting mobile ports or remasters, but after a few months of a strong marketing push, crossing the streams like this seems odd.

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Besides, do you really want to play Fruit Ninja Again or Angry Birds Switch?

Nintendo is lying about something

Nintendo’s straight-up lied to the press in the past, most recently about the end of Wii U production as the Switch’s launch approaches.

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So what are they denying now that might mean they’ll change their tune later?

  • The Switch is competing with tablets after all. This seems the most likely. Without the dock and JoyCon, the Switch looks like an Amazon or Android tablet, and it’s easy to pitch it as one if they ever add more entertainment apps. Why get your household another iPad when you can get a Switch with more/better games that also runs Netflix in a pinch?
  • There will be more touch-focused games, some from Nintendo themselves. While not specifically a lie, it would be a change of tune for Nintendo to suddenly show off a game with a large touch focus. The press events didn’t have any touch interactivity and no hint at a larger incoming glut of games with touch controls. But there’s a new Fire Emblem coming to the Switch in 2018 and that franchise is no stranger to touch controls...
  • Nintendo is going to kill the 3DS after 2017. Nintendo’s gone on record saying that the 3DS will continue to get games throughout 2017, and they’re releasing Fire Emblem Warriors on the 3DS and Switch simultaneously, but aside from that and a few spring releases, it seems like the 3DS’ future lineup is getting a bit more dry. The Switch’s touchscreen could be included because Nintendo’s moving games with a core concept of touch control from 3DS development to the Switch.

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But the most likely?

Nintendo is banking on the technology being useful someday

Remember the Wii Remote’s speaker in the controller? Remember the Wii Vitality Sensor? Remember the GameBoy Player? Remember the Wii Fit Balance Board? Remember the titular feature of the 3DS?

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Sure not all of those were released, or used by third party developers, or even included with the game they were designed for. But Nintendo loves its features and accessories. Every piece of Nintendo hardware goes through a period where games try to use the hallmark feature of that platform, and then we see games just use the feature when it fits and we get better games as a result.

Nintendo is as much a gadget addict as any writer for a tech blog, but the problem is that they keep making their own. They might have some games in the future with touch controls for the Switch, but it’s more likely that Nintendo saw an opportunity to keep their options open for themselves and for developers by including the touchscreen. It may not be very smart, but it does feel very Nintendo.