Nintendo had a wildly successful December in the U.S., the market research company NPD said on Wednesday. Both Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Switch hardware itself sold in quantities that could legitimately be called “record-breaking.” Nintendo’s dream of selling Wii-like quantities of the Switch is looking more likely today—and it didn’t have to have a Wii Fit or a Wii Sports to get there.
While the data-tracking analysts of NPD don’t release specific sales numbers to the public (they’re locked behind an expensive paywall), they do share some relative statistics each month. December is usually the biggest month of the year for console sales, and Nintendo sold more Switches last month than any game machine has ever sold in a December this generation, NPD said.
That means PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or even 3DS at its peak never had a December this big. In fact, you have to go back to December 2010, when Nintendo sold a whopping 2.5 million Nintendo DS systems, to find a higher December sales figure.
Even more beyond expectations was the blasting-out-of-the-gate success of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which released on December 7. First, let’s look at the top 20 best-selling games for the entire year (by dollars, not units), as reported by NPD:
- Red Dead Redemption II
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 4^
- NBA 2K19
- Madden NFL 19^
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
- Marvel’s Spider-Man
- Far Cry 5
- God of War 2018
- Monster Hunter: World
- Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
- Grand Theft Auto V
- Mario Kart 8*
- FIFA 19^
- Battlefield V^
- Super Mario Odyssey*
- Call of Duty: WWII^
- Dragon Ball: Fighterz
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
- Super Mario Party*
- Pokemon: Lets Go Pikachu*
*Digital sales not included
^Digital PC sales not included
In less than 30 days on shelves, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate became the fifth best-selling game of 2018 in the U.S. That’s staggering—more so when you consider, as NPD pointed out in its report, that the figure does not include download sales, but it’s being matched up against figures that do take them into account.
NPD didn’t release the exact sales number for Smash, but it gave us enough to roughly figure it out. It said that Ultimate exceeded the launch month sales of Super Smash Bros. Brawl by over 70 percent. Since that number is known (2.7 million), we can add 70 percent to it to get rough first-month sales for Ultimate at a little over 4.5 million units—again, not counting download sales.
In fact, Ultimate’s debut was, NPD said, the best launch month for a console-exclusive game in “video game history.” The strength of the Switch overall also boosted the sales of its major games, sending 2017 games Mario Kart 8, Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey into 2018's top 20. Overall, NPD said, Nintendo made more money on software than any other publisher this year, a feat it hadn’t achieved since—you guessed it—the salad days of Wii, in 2009.
Wii ended up selling over 100 million units, all told. It’s hardly a sure thing that Switch will get there, but it’s well on the way.
What’s interesting about this success is that Nintendo achieved it with Mario, and Smash, and Zelda, and Pokemon. The successes of Wii and DS were thanks to Nintendo’s canny “blue ocean” appeal to casual players, lapsed players, your mom, et cetera. It was games like Wii Fit and Brain Age that were tearing up the charts. That meant that Nintendo’s software library on Wii ended up leaning pretty heavily towards trying to find that next big casual hit (hello, 30-minute Wii Music presentation at E3) and was ambivalent at best about core games.
Nintendo has tried to find a casual hit on Switch, first with 1-2 Switch and this year with Labo. But neither of these took off. Instead, these millions and millions of hardware units that Nintendo is selling are to people who appreciate open-world Zelda and 3D Mario. And Nintendo knows that if it wants to keep selling software to these people, it’s going to have to make more of the things they want. If these are the sorts of games you want from Nintendo, then Switch’s success is good for you.
This is not to say that Nintendo won’t keep trying to swim into that blue ocean again for Switch. When one of these novel experiments does catch on, it opens up a whole new profit stream. Now that core Nintendo fans are making Switch a huge success, that means Nintendo can safely invest in games for them, too.