The launch of a new console is always an exciting time for those of us who care at all about video games! Waiting in line in hopes of snagging a system, despite supply shortages, watching the Internet bicker over whether or not the new hardware is ‘worth it’, cowering in fear as rumors of technical issues and defects arise…what a great time to be a game fan!
Joking aside, I have to admit I was more than a little excited to check out the Nintendo Switch, the Japanese gaming giant’s latest attempt to innovate on how we play games.
Let’s get the obvious of the way first: none of the games I’ve played on the Switch have had the graphical muscle to keep up with the PS4 or Xbox One, much less the beefier PS4 Pro. That includes the much-vaunted The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which runs into framerate issues on a fairly regular basis when playing while docked. Other, less intensive games tend to run fine, but the point is the Switch isn’t a graphical powerhouse on that level.
If you’re buying a Nintendo console, however, you probably weren’t expecting one to begin with. This is a “next-generation” system for reasons other than sheer horsepower. Let’s take a look!
The Concept: There and Back Again
Stepping back a minute, let’s talk about what I mean by “docked.” The Switch essentially takes the Gamepad controller-tablet concept from the Wii U and applies it to the entire console, making it a console/handheld hybrid. The key to this lies in the Joy-Con controllers, which are essentially a pair of mini-Wiimotes that attach to both sides of the console; these can be used while attached to the console, removed and used separately or attached to an included mount to create a more traditional controller. By removing the Joy-Cons and cradling the Switch in the included dock, it’s possible to play on a full display in a more traditional console style.
Let’s not forget that everything from the Wii U Gamepad like accelerometer, gyroscope and “HD Rumble” are built in each Joy-Con, while the right side have the motion IR camera and near-field communication (NFC) for Amiibo functionality carried over as well.
The ability to change how you’re playing is central to the Switch. It’s entirely possible to play a game via TV, walk up to the console, snap the Joy-Cons back into place and have the game automatically shift to the console’s screen, allowing you to continue where you just were when you start using the device in portable mode. The Switch doesn’t just change outputs, it actually downscales the output to 720p resolution; this can result in interesting quirks like the aforementioned Zelda actually running smoother (for the most part) in portable mode. The change is quick and painless, and when you’re done being mobile you can remove the Joy-Cons, dock the Switch and continue where you left off on your TV.
Design: Slimmer, Trimmer
It’s an interesting idea, to be sure, one that makes the Switch a much more friendly device for travel, family use and other real-world applications. You’re getting the same game in both console and portable modes, so nobody has to miss out when you take the Switch out of the dock so others can use the TV. At 9.4″ x 4″ x 0.55″ fully assembled device is also fairly small when carried around in portable mode, and quite travel-friendly at a scant .66lbs (and a slightly heavier .88lbs with both Joy-Cons attached). This is roughly the same height and width of the Wii U’s Gamepad while much thinner, so it’s easy to take it places. A kickstand on the back of the device allows it to be propped up while playing with the Joy-Cons removed in portable mode, which is a nice touch.
The Switch’s small profile might be a source of consternation to some users, though. If you’ve got big ol’ ham-hands, for instance, you may have some issues with the Joy-Cons, which are fairly tiny in comparison to your average controller. They’re about half the size of a Wiimote, which is bound to cause cramps if you can’t get a decent grip on them. Along with that, while the Switch itself feels nice enough in portable mode, rumors of the device’s screen and shell being fairly delicate make me loath to recommend carrying it anywhere without a case, and probably a screen guard. You wouldn’t want to risk scratching that pristine screen, after all.
Menus and Miis: Using The Software
The design of the Switch immediately calls to mind the 3DS, Wii and Wii U, with its rounded kid-friendly edges and soft off-white tones. It’s all fairly intuitive; you start games from the home screen and can also access news, a photo album for screenshots, controller setup, other settings and the eShop from the same screen. The right Joy-Con has a home button you’ll use to return here at any time.
As for games, you’ve got the option of getting them physically or online. Physical Switch games are small SD-card-sized chips that you pop into a slot on the top of the system. As we know from pretty much every mainstream games journalist making a fool out of themselves over the past few weeks (not like that’s anything new), Switch games are covered in a ‘bittering agent’ that makes them taste, from what I’m told, a little like hand lotion. If you’re worried about accidentally eating your games, you might want to consider going digital instead; the eShop is present and accounted for here. I found the Switch to be a little less janky when it comes to downloads, with speeds generally remaining higher than what you’d see on the 3DS or Wii U.
Speaking of online components, well…it’s hard to say much about the rest of them, because they generally aren’t present yet. You can play Fast RMX or Super Bomberman R online, which is nice, but neither are really defining experiences for the Switch. What I can tell you is that the Switch continues Nintendo’s obstinate insistence on friend codes, though there’s also a system for directly inviting your friends. Otherwise, it’s hard to talk about features that aren’t available to be tested yet. Hopefully the Switch brings Nintendo into the modern age when it comes to online, and while the friend code thing is worrying, the Switch’s faster downloads are a good sign.
Under The Hood
The technical specs directly from Nintendo are sparse, but it’s not hard to decipher how powerful the Switch actually is. We know that Nvidia supplies the semi-custom Tegra system-on-a-chip (ODNX02-A2), which is nearly identical to the Maxwell-based X1 unit that powers the current SHIELD TV microconsole — albeit de-tuned with a single quad-core ARM Cortex-A57 processor.
Unlike the SHIELD TV, which does raw performance, everything else hardware-wise on the Switch comes optimized for portability instead. Expect 4GB of LPDDR4 memory, onboard 802.11ac Wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.1 (for Joy-Con connectivity), a microSDXC card slot, and a 16Wh lithium-ion battery that can supposedly last up to seven hours (anticipate much less in graphically-intense titles). Charging is done by cable or on the dock all via USB-C connector, the latter option of which has three USB ports and HDMI (1080p/60) on HDTVs.
Storage options are slim thanks to the default 32GB of internal NAND flash circuitry (aka non-replaceable), which kind of sucks as that space will surely be eaten up quickly. A microSDXC card will most likely be in your future and can theoretically support up to 2TB (no manufacturers make one that size yet), but external USB HDD options are disabled as of this writing, for reasons…
As usual with the launch of hotly-anticipated hardware, the rumor mill and outrage farms are in overdrive lately. You can’t go to any gaming community, it seems, without being flooded with talk of Switches crashing, bricking, being scratched by the dock and so on. I’m not one to deny that hardware launches can have problems – after being afflicted with not one, but several Red Ring of Death-afflicted Xbox 360s for years, I know better. But during my time with the Switch I’ve encountered none of these issues, and my device remains scratch-free and has never crashed; games run like a dream on it, both in and out of the dock.
The sole Switch-related rumor that I can confirm to some degree is that the Joy-Cons, particularly the one held in the left hand, don’t have fantastic wireless reception, and doing things that might obviously cause them to drop connection will in fact cause them to drop connection. Trying to play underneath a glass table, for instance, can cause problems, and I had issues trying to play with a Joy-Con behind my back as well. You’d expect issues in those situations, but I also found that having my PS4 Pro controller on and in front of the Switch caused interference that were immediately resolved once I moved the controller. This is an irritation to be sure, but not a game-ending problem, and I could see future revisions of the hardware addressing these communication issues.
For now, you’ll want to set the Switch dock as close to where you’ll be sitting as possible, keeping a clear line of sight between the console and yourself when playing on TV. Following these guidelines has resulted in an experience that’s been pretty great 95% of the time.
Games: A Legendary Zelda and…
Another issue with the Switch worth considering is the relative paucity of games available for the system at the moment. The Switch’s heavy hitter, Breath of the Wild, is quite possibly the heaviest hitter to ever launch with a console, on par with legends like Super Mario 64 and Wii Sports. Frankly, it’s a must-have that I’d be okay stating as one of the best video games I’ve ever played. If it were exclusive to the Switch, I’d be recommending the console as an instant buy based solely on access to that game. The fact that it’s also available on the Wii U (R.I.P.) is a sign of Nintendo having unprecedented mercy for a modern game company (but realistically intended for the prior console).
Sadly, even the majesty of a new Zelda adventure isn’t going to last forever, so we should talk about the other options available for the Switch as well. There are a few standouts at the moment; Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove is an obvious second game, with tons of retro content to keep you playing and a classic style that works perfectly with the Switch’s portable mode. Square Enix’s depressing JRPG I Am Setsuna makes an appearance and runs well on the Switch – why they ported this in particular I’m not entirely sure, but it’s a decent enough fit.
If you’re after multiplayer, you might want to check out the co-op-focused Snipperclips or the probably-too-expensive-but-still-good-fun Super Bomberman R. They’re not all winners; the Switch’s other “headliner” game, 1-2-Switch, is a largely forgettable collection of minigames that costs too much for too little and should probably be skipped. Why Nintendo didn’t just pack the game in, apart from obvious monetary reasons, is a little baffling.
It’s kind of silly to give a game console a score right from the outset before the kinks are worked out and we really see what it can do, but Popzara’s unique take on review summaries makes this easy: the Switch earns a solid YAY.
The Switch is fun and you should probably pick one up, if you can find it. It’s a solid little piece of kit that does some interesting things with its hybrid style, and while it doesn’t have an extensive game library at the moment, there’s enough to keep you interested while you await more content. There’s plenty of promise of good things; this is a Nintendo console, after all, and even the Wii U, generally considered a “failure” by some, had plenty of high-quality exclusive releases that make it worth a look. I’d say based on performance at the moment, the Switch is a superior device and certainly has a brighter future ahead.