With just under a week left until the release of the Nintendo Switch, it’s time to talk about the system’s beautiful, neon-colored Joy-Con.
The name might be silly and the way they have a knack for losing sync with the system is no small thing, but the mini-controllers mounted to the side of the Switch are the most eye catching part of it. Especially when one’s bright orange and the other’s the kind of blue you only find in a 7-Eleven slurpee. Together they completely subvert the Switch’s attempts to look grown-up and sophisticated in the best way possible. While the rest of consumer electronics are caught in an arms race to look more sleek and elegant with each new iteration, the Joy-Con stand out. They don’t look like cool gadgets. They look like fun toys.
The first gaming system I ever owned was a magenta Game Boy Color. After months of watching me playing Pokémon on everyone else’s Game Boy, my parents decided to get me my very own complete with a copy for Pokémon Yellow for Christmas. It was the end of 1999. I had a small battery-powered device that would let me play video games wherever I wanted. And the damn thing was as beautiful a piece of technology as I could have imagined: bright, violet-red like an electric crayon with a lightning yellow cartridge wedged perfectly into the back. Gaming was fun and eccentric, and Nintendo’s handheld wore those convictions on its sleeve.
Jump forward a decade later and things changed. The Wii was a giant success for Nintendo, appealing to every segment of the population, from grandpa to granddaughter and everyone in-between. Its kitchen counter white and and jet black variations giving it more in common with a home appliance than a traditional gaming machine. The success of Apple’s iPhone set in motion a tech stampede in the direction of chic design and an industrial color palette emphasizing sterile cleanliness. Metallic grays and matte blacks colonized the world of smartphones the same way they took over the market for family sedans. People were of course encouraged to personalize their devices with patterned protective covers and colorful accessories, but the technology itself was defined by an austere rejection of anything more playful.
Prior to that sea change in industrial design sensibility, Nintendo had been releasing Game Boys, Game Boy Advances, and Game Boy Micros in as many different colors and variants as possible. Line them all up and they look like a bunch of mutated Skittles, a candy whose enjoyment is as much in the way it affords you the ability to palm the rainbow in your hand as taste it. We’re told not to judge books by their covers, but the appearance of an object and how it feels in our hands informs the way we interpret and interact with it. That’s why car companies spend millions redesigning the look and feel of the combustion engine each year. The shiny, golden NES cartridge The Legend of Zelda was encased in was not responsible for making it into such an iconic series, but it certainly helped.
Nintendo, perhaps encouraged by the success of its numerous handhelds, began experimenting with introducing more color into its home consoles with the N64. Its already odd-shaped controllers were released in a number of colors besides the standard grey, with the system eventually following suit. The console’s translucent fire orange variant took the excesses of the Game Boy Color era and magnified them, and while the N64 signaled the beginning of Nintendo’s fraught relationship with new hardware, the fire orange variant still goes for over a hundred dollars.
The company built on that colorful daring by releasing the base GameCube model in indigo and literally grafting a handle to the back of it. There were jet-black and silver models as well, but both seemed like pale imitations; bootleg consoles scattered throughout strangers’ basements in an alternate reality. Nintendo even released “spice” orange-colored versions of the GameCube controller. But of course the console was a failure relative to the company’s past successes and the dominance of its competitors less idiosyncratic, grey-scale machines. Once it came time to release the Wii, Nintendo retreated into the dull norms defined by its rivals.
White liked bleached bones, the Wii and Wii U traded whimsical looking hardware for gimmicky software. Eventually the Wii Mini would release with a pitch-black center and blood-colored border, but compared to earlier generations of hardware the Wii remained extremely conservative throughout its lifespan and different iterations. The Wii U was no different, except that it was also a failure, selling only a fraction of the more than 100 million its predecessor had.
Nobody know’s what the future holds for the Switch, but whether it succeeds or fails, as a consumer electronic or a toy, I can’t help but relish the “zero fucks” attitude exuded by the neon-colored Joy-Con. I bought a shimmering, deep purple 3DS because I wanted a gaming console that looked like an eggplant, and the secret appeal of the new Switch is similar. When I pick up a slab of circuit boards encased in glass and plastic constructed for the purposes of having a plumber jump down pipes or race in go-karts, I want it to be wholly dedicated to the child-like foolishness of those conceits.
The iMac, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive’s first big, successful collaboration together, took a similar approach to home computing. Instead of just another black box to do your taxes on or store recipes in, what if the computer was more personal and less business-like? In a retrospective on its creation, the tech writer Walter Isaacson recounted the development of the machine’s playful design in detail.
“We were trying to convey a sense of the computer being changeable based on your needs, to be like a chameleon,” Ive told Isaacson. “That’s why we liked the translucency. You could have color, but it felt so unstatic. And it came across as cheeky.”
Ive and Jobs went to a jelly bean factory to study translucent colors and even put a handle nestled into the top of the box.
“Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared of something, then you won’t touch it,” Ive said. “I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of its deference to you.”
That’s in large part what Nintendo’s ongoing contribution to the development of gaming has been. Xboxs and PlayStations are built to resemble modern day VRCs and audio receivers, complex and expensive fusions of hardware and computing that signal modern luxury and refinement. Nintendo, on the other hand, helps make gaming more approachable by situating the devices that make it possible as avatars for the imaginative worlds residing in them.
The world of consumer electronics is no longer the intimidating spectacle it once was. Your grandmother is just as likely to use a smartphone as your nephew. In fact, high-end computers are so ubiquitous, and the lines between play and work so blurry, that Nintendo’s job has come to be reversed in recent years. It doesn’t need to make a gaming machine magenta or translucent to signal how benign and approachable video games can be. If anything, it needs to put bright, neon-colored controllers on the side of its new gaming tablet to help designate it as a place solely for imagination and play. You won’t be answering work email or doing your taxes on the Switch. Who knows when you’ll even be able to watch Netflix. Instead, the unlikely contraption is a reminder that it’s okay to retreat into an object whose purpose lays outside the boundaries defined by work and efficiency.