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Nintendo NX to Return Cartridges to the Living Room?

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By Nelson Schneider - 05/08/16 at 06:42 PM CT

The rumor mill is currently churning away to itself, working on half-baked “facts” coming out of a very tight-lipped Nintendo about their upcoming platform, codenamed NX. With Nintendo foolishly all but skipping E3 this year and supposedly launching the NX in March 2017, the rumor mill is willing to take any minor thread and run with it.

The thread with the most immediate interest is that the NX will supposedly be a discless platform. A few months ago when the term “discless” started floating around, people immediately began jumping to the conclusion that the NX would follow in the ill-fated footsteps of Sony’s PlayStation Portable GO and be a digital only platform. This line of reasoning was supplanted this past week with a new idea: Nintendo won’t be taking a bold misstep into an all-digital future, but will be taking an even bolder step backwards into a time when game consoles and game cartridges were gaming’s proverbial bread and butter.

Nintendo famously held onto cartridge-based consoles for an entire generation after the benefits of optical media became overwhelming for the older tech. Cartridges typically held only a fraction of the data an optical disc could hold, and the slightly-faster load times did nothing to counter cartridges’ lack of capacity, especially in an era when CD-based games came on multiple discs.

As with most things, the worm has turned, and optical media is no longer the incredible technology it used to be. While capacity has continued to increase greatly with the move from CD to DVD and the move from DVD to Blu-Ray, read speeds have practically stagnated. Games that come on BD-ROMs for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One consoles don’t actually play off the discs, but go through a tedious, PC-like installation (and patching) process, using the disc as a form of physical DRM, while games that come on BD-ROMs for the WiiU do play from the disc, but suffer from abysmal load times and sluggish world streaming in open world games (which matters little, as the WiiU is fairly devoid of games overall, let alone open world ones).

With the NX, Nintendo seems to have a desire to return to old, familiar, reliable tech that has continued to evolve on its own. Cartridges are no longer the huge plastic monstrosities filled with circuit boards that they used to be. Nintendo has never abandoned the cartridge format for its handhelds, and companies like SanDisk have continued to improve their cartridge-style memory cards. If the NX does indeed use cartridges, they will likely take a similar form to 3DS game cards or SD cards.

I really like the idea of Nintendo returning to cartridges for their next home console. Cartridges and their basic function have always been one of the foundations of console gaming that helped it to stand apart from PC gaming as a bastion of simplicity. The cartridge is the game. The game is the cartridge. No installs. No separate patches. No extra DRM. No nonsense. Stick the cartridge into a machine, boot straight into the game, and play. Saves are kept on each cartridge, so there are no extra steps involved when playing the same game on different consoles without losing progress. And modern cartridge technology is definitely up to the task, with capacities nearly as high as a dual-layer BD-ROM, much higher read speeds, and the ability to write saves to a discreet partition. The only possible downside is cost, but considering the ridiculous licensing fees attached to Blu-Ray, optical media isn’t as competitive in that department as it used to be.

Even better, if the cartridges used by the NX are the same basic form-factor as the DS’ or 3DS’ game cards, we might finally get the kind of mobile-to-living-room cross compatibility I’ve been demanding since the WiiU was revealed to have two screens. Of course, regardless of the media format the NX uses, it’s going to have to have a better library of both first- and third-party titles if Nintendo doesn’t want it to find its way into an early grave like the WiiU.

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Wrote on05/09/16 at 08:25 AM CT

Prices have been dropping on flash media, and I would imagine that it will continue to decline. Currently a 32 GB SD card goes for less than $10 retail on Amazon. Indeed a BD disc would cost less, but I am sure Nintendo would get a very decent price directly from the manufacturer.

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