When the Nintendo Switch launched last year, one of the earliest complaints was that its system UI is “bland” and “boring.” People were also disappointed with the eShop’s silence. I didn’t think any of this was a big deal; my initial reaction to these statements was: “So what? It’s just menus.” Now that I’ve had a Switch for a few months, I still stand by that statement, but I’m beginning to see what everyone else was getting at. The Switch lacks that sweet ‘aesthetic’ that past Nintendo systems had.
The Switch’s UI has a rather flat look — literally. None of its icons have any sort of depth; they’re just tiles. It’s similar to that of Microsoft’s ‘Metro UI’ we’ve come to know on Windows, Xbox One and the final edition of the Xbox 360. But not only is the Switch’s UI flat, there’s no music or sounds outside of a few little fun effects sprinkled in here and there. This is a far cry from past Nintendo themes. The Switch UI is bland compared to past Nintendo systems. Let’s take a quick look at the characteristics of past system themes.
The first true ‘system UI’ we got from Nintendo would have to be the Gamecube. It was a simple transparent cube that had a few options and some nice ambient soundscape that played in the background.
For the Wii’s user-interface, Nintendo went with a TV channel-like theme. Navigating through the various menus and software with the Wii Remote was similar to using a TV remote to flip through channels. The Wii Menu Music complemented the UI, which was more of a tune than the Gamecube’s ambient noises, but still not really a “song.” It matched the whole TV theme quite nicely since it sounded “networky” (if that makes sense).
The Wii U’s interface is notorious for being very slow, but it did look very nice. Its icons had a glossy style reminiscent to that of the Gamecube’s transparent Cube UI, but the format looked more like a giant tablet/smartphone. That made sense, given the Gamepad navigation. There was a subtle ambient tune that played in the background and would change depending on what you were doing. When in use, the tune would play along at a normal beat, but if you left the system inactive for a few minutes, it would slow down and become more dream-like. Once you started moving around again, the tune would return to its normal speed. Blurred system icons would gracefully float around in the background, creating a very simple, yet beautiful overall look. It was a lot more modernized than the Wii’s menu, which looked dull in comparison.
Even the Wii U’s slow OS had more visual flare than Switch.
Why has Nintendo toned things down?
We can also throw in the DS’ and 3DS’ interfaces into the discussion. They share a similar design, but the original DS had a more pixelated theme that’s reminiscent of old phones. The 3DS’ UI is a lot more modern with 3D floating icons, and a nice ambient tune playing in the background (which the DS also had). The big difference with the 3DS’ UI over all the other aforementioned systems is that it had customizable themes. Some themes are based on retro consoles (non-Nintendo ones), while other themes are based on video game characters and specific games. The 3DS’ UI was the most charismatic from Nintendo. The range of all of these different interfaces is about 15 years. So, it makes sense that after such a long time, people have noticed the Switch’s lack of any of the same ‘creative flare’. So, what’s up with this drastic change after such a long time? Well, think about it—isn’t the Switch’s “minimalist” UI similar to that of the majority of devices today?
As technology has become a normal part of society, the visual themes of the various devices we use have started to blend into one similar look: clean and simple. While there may be some smooth transitions, a few menu pops and window-warping, the majority of UIs from popular operating systems like Windows, Mac, iOS and Android share that same general idea of being clean. This design theme has pretty much become the “look” of modern culture: “simple elegance”.
Think about how many things have a minimalist design that just sort of ‘blends-in’ with its surroundings. This characteristic can describe most modern devices. They’re meant to look fancy, but not stand out; you’ll notice just enough to recognize what it is, but not to the point where it screams: “Hey, look at me!” This very design philosophy ties into the aforementioned ‘simple and clean’ interfaces; it all blends together from the exterior to the interior. So, looking at it from this perspective, all Nintendo did was follow the crowd (which is still surprising since this is the company known for not being afraid to stand out).
Nintendo has basically followed the crowd: most modern UIs are simple, clean, and ‘boring’.
Now, let’s bring things back to the Switch UI. Here’s the question: is it bad that it’s so simple? Admittedly, it’s a bit boring, but again, think of the UIs of Android, iOS, Windows and Mac. Like those, the Switch UI is simple and flat. There’s no background music while you’re navigating through the menus of devices that run on those operating systems. Still peeved about the lack of music in the eShop? Well, there’s no music when you’re shopping on Amazon or eBay, either. Even in brick-and-mortar stores, a lot of the times the volume of the music is so low that you can hear it just enough to know there’s music playing, but usually it’s hard to identify the exact songs unless you’re standing right beneath one of the speakers.
All things considered, the Switch UI really is a big departure from past Nintendo systems, but only because the design philosophy of technology as a whole has changed so much. Even the Switch’s exterior design matches up with the theme of ‘simple and clean’, as it really does have a very muted look, especially with the gray Joy-Cons. If Nintendo releases all-black Joy-Cons, the Switch would look like virtually every other tablet-like device out there: another ‘blend-in’.
Still, there is a chance that Nintendo will build upon the Switch’s UI design later on. The two current themes are called “Basic White” and “Basic Black”. Either that’s a sign that more ‘premium’ designs are coming, or Nintendo is very self-aware that the current Switch UI is as simple as it gets. But even if the Ui does end up staying in its current form for the rest of the system’s life, at least it has the benefit of being incredibly snappy.