My Mushroom Kingdom for a Nintendo Switch: How the Console Supply Chain Broke Down

     July 15, 2020

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If you’re here to find out how to get your hands on a Nintendo Switch, I’m sorry to tell you, they’re still sold out. Pretty much everywhere. My intent here isn’t to trick you into clicking on affiliate links to stores that may, once upon a time, have had one actual Nintendo Switch or Switch Lite in stock but whoops you were too slow and a scalper bought it, but rather to commiserate with you, my fellow Switchless, and try to explain why the early 2017 gaming system is so hard to find in mid-2020.

I, like you, am in the same boat, a boat that is leaky and confusing and frustrating and not at all like the King of Red Lions. Maybe you’re like me and aren’t an early adopter of technology, especially the pricey hardware that often accompanies video games, be it PCs, consoles, or even the latest mobile phone or VR device. Or maybe, also like me, you didn’t have the spare few hundred bucks to drop on a Nintendo Switch, its peripherals, and games between the time it came out and when it started to simply disappear from the market. Whatever the reason, you want to and are able to get a Switch now, but can’t find them for Hyrule or high water. It’s frustrating, but what’s causing all that frustration?

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Image via Nintendo

Well, this could be a simple case of supply and demand: Everyone wants a Switch, Nintendo doesn’t have the supply to meet it, so those who do have one (private owners and retailers alike) are opting to double the price or offer expensive bundles to take advantage of that opportunity. (I’ve had offers to buy a “gently used” console from folks in my social circles outright. I’ve also been “advised” to, “Just meet with a guy in a gas station parking lot who said he was selling a Switch on Craiglist,” which I strongly, strongly discourage, dear reader. Also, double check those sites that are offering Switches at ridiculous prices, high or low; if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.) The fact remains that there currently just aren’t enough legit Switches to go around.

Perhaps Nintendo didn’t expect a surge in demand more than two years after launch. They certainly didn’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic; no one did, except of course scientists and epidemiologists, but who listens to them anyway, right? So one reason the demand side is higher right now is because folks are stuck at home, likely with little ones, and the Nintendo Switch brand and library of titles is fun, family-friendly, and rather diverse. Plus, the console comes with the added bonus of having a portable option. So even if Junior is gaming on the big living room TV, Suzie can play on the handheld version of the Switch. (Though I hope the whole family can get along stuck on one island per Switch in Animal Crossings: New Horizon …) In theory, a Switch would be the perfect, versatile gaming system for the family, and Nintendo pitched it as such way back in late 2016 and early 2017. The iconic gaming company then thought that adding a secondary portable-only system would add to the fun, which brought us the Nintendo Switch Lite.

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Image via Nintendo

“So what’s the problem? If the Nintendo Switch is out of stock, just pick up a Lite! It’s even $100 cheaper!” Sure, but what you save in dollars you give up in gaming experience. I don’t particularly want a handheld-only console when, for a Benjamin more, I can play the same games on my big-screen TV and have the option of going portable. The Lite’s a good option for a family that already has a standard Switch and wants to get the games (or islands) into more hands without breaking the bank. Again, good in theory, but the problem is that even the Nintendo Switch Lites are sold out pretty much everywhere.

Why hasn’t the megalithic Nintendo simply turned on their production machinery to 3D print out more Nintendo Switches and Switch Lites? Well, for one thing, that’s not how industrial production works yet, I don’t think. But for another, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has thrown a microscopic wrench into the global supply chain. That’s a big reason for the shortage, make no mistake. Another reason? Lawsuits.

Soon after the Switch came out, Gamevice filed a suit against Nintendo for presumable patent violations of their own game controllers, to which the Switch’s detachable Joy-Cons were, well, pretty similar. The initial lawsuit was dismissed, followed by a second lawsuit a few months later in March of 2018. Surprising no one, perhaps not even the legal team over at Gamevice, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board declared Gamevice’s tech unpatentable“:

After considering the parties’ arguments and supporting evidence, we determine that Nintendo has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that claims 1–10 and 13–21 of the ’119 patent are unpatentable.

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Image via Nintendo

That legal hurdle was cleared just a few months ago, but another one remains. This time, a class-action lawsuit filed in the summer of 2019 addressed the “Joy-Con ‘drift'”, a purported defect in the controllers that registered movement without input from the player. Nintendo responded by offering to repair broken Joy-Con controllers “at no charge” to customers, which Vice Games revealed via an internal memo from Nintendo, though that did not stop the lawsuit from moving forward. That September, Nintendo launched the Nintendo Switch Lite, which was promptly added into the ongoing lawsuit as well.

The quality control issue for the Joy-Con ‘drift’ was further addressed at the tail-end of June 2020 as Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa apologized to any customers affected by it. But the statement stopped short of tackling specifics (as Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku translated):

“Regarding the Joy-Con, we apologize for any trouble caused to our customers. We are continuing to aim to improve our products, but as the Joy-Con is the subject of a class-action lawsuit in the United States and this is still a pending issue, we would it like to refrain from responding about any specific actions.”

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Image via Nintendo

A mess, right? So that’s nearly three years worth or litigious troubles surrounding the launch of Nintendo’s latest console, specifically targeting the all-important controllers themselves. Lawsuits certainly aren’t new for Nintendo, but they’re also not something the company can just ignore. It speaks to common sense that the leadership may have taken their foot off the gas for production on the Switch during this time, or at least not doubled down on increased production of units while lawsuits over technical matters were ongoing, hedging bets against a worldwide recall; that’s all speculation, of course. But when the perfect storm of legal troubles, a global pandemic, and a late-stage demand that outpaces supply hits like this, it’s no wonder the Switch has become such a hot commodity and a veritable unicorn at the same time. And then there’s always the idea that high demand will translate into guaranteed sales come the holidays this year, so perhaps more consoles are simply waiting in the wings of warehouses.

Maybe I’m just unlucky or dumb or likely a combination of both of those things, but I still can’t wait to get caught up on years’ worth of Switch games. So if you’ve found your Switch in recent months, be sure to let me know if it was worth the wait!

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