I feel like Nintendo has been lost for a while. The runaway success of the Wii left them complacent—its very success largely bought by a fickle casual crowd that soon moved on to the next hot tech trend. When the Wii U arrived in late 2012, it was already woefully behind the times, both in its style and its tech. Nintendo barely managed to pull the 3DS out of the fire with a steep price cut and a lineup of great games, but Wii U was not so lucky. Despite playing host to some legitimately excellent games, the console passed into obscurity and now has the dubious honor of being Nintendo’s least successful hardware release since the Virtual Boy. It’s almost as if Wii U was destined to fail.
I always felt like Nintendo never really knew what to do with Wii U. Its bottlenecked CPU and PowerPC architecture made it difficult to develop for. Its multifarious collection of Wiimotes, classic controllers and the bulky GamePad itself gave you a lot of ways to play, but also made organizing local multiplayer a headache. You could do a lot with Wii U but it all felt stymied; a collection of half-measures and half-hearted features, like even Nintendo wasn’t even trying their best anymore. While some of their legacy IP got plenty of attention—I got fairly sick of seeing Mario’s face—Nintendo left other franchises like F-Zero and Metroid to collect dust.
Which brings us to the Nintendo Switch. This is it, the Hail Mary, the saving throw. With both consoles in hand, the Wii U feels sloppy and muddled, while the Switch feels like a high-class tech product. Nintendo has thrown everything they’ve got into this little handheld-console hybrid, to the point that it feels a bit like the Dreamcast from a technical perspective. It has that same last ditch, best-foot-forward quality the Dreamcast had, but it remains to be seen if Nintendo will match the prolific software support Sega gave their ill-fated love letter to gaming. In any case, the Switch is the hill Nintendo has chosen to die on, possibly the most important piece of hardware they’ve produced in a decade. So let’s jump right in, shall we?
The only Nintendo Switch retail SKU available, which costs $300, contains the following: the Switch console itself, two Joy-Con controllers, the Joy-Con Grip, two Joy-Con Straps, the Switch Dock, an AC adapter and an HDMI cable. The Switch console is basically a miniature tablet, about half an inch thick and with a 6.2 inch, 10-point multi-touch 720p LCD display. The power button and volume rocker are placed along the top edge, as is the game card slot. Incidentally, the game cards are very small; about the size of a PS Vita card, or roughly the same dimensions as a standard-sized SD card. The Switch’s USB-C charging port is at the center-bottom edge of the device, and the micro SD slot is nestled behind the Switch’s rather flimsy kickstand.
So far I’ve been impressed with the console’s form factor and performance; it’s quiet, relatively cool-running and although it’s only 720p, the screen is clear and bright enough for comfortable, eye-strain-free gaming on the go. It’s far and away the best-looking screen Nintendo has ever produced, with good latency, clarity and little-to-no ghosting. The UI is simple and easy to use (perhaps a bit too simple; I miss Miiverse), and swapping or pairing new controllers is completely seamless. This is a huge advantage over the clumsy, multi-step process on Wii U. The only issue is that with the USB-C port on the bottom edge, it’s impossible to charge the Switch in tabletop mode with the kickstand extended.
The left and right Joy-Con controllers slide onto the Switch console’s side-edge rails, and snap into place with a satisfying “click” effect that plays on the console’s screen and speakers. When paired with the Joy-Cons, the Switch is a large-ish but sleek and stylish dedicated gaming portable. My fiancé affectionately refers to the Wii U as “the prototype” for a reason; compared to the Switch, Wii U’s GamePad is a clumsy monster with a dim, fuzzy screen.
When separated from the Switch console, the two Joy-Con are versatile controllers in their own right. Held separately they feel and function like smaller, sleeker and more comfortable next-gen Wiimotes. Each Joy-Con contains Nintendo’s touted “HD Rumble,” a kind of haptic feedback that can simulate highly detailed sensations, for example steel balls rolling around in a box. I’ve tested them in the racing game Fast RMX and while the effect is not terribly pronounced in that game, you can feel the gravel scraping the undercarriage of your racing machine, and collisions have an extra “crunch” to them. I’m excited to see what else Nintendo can do with the tech, but I flat refuse to buy their $50 tech demo, 1-2 Switch—more on that later.
The Right Joy-Con also has an IR camera that can discern depth, direction and distinguish between various shapes. So far, I don’t know of any software that uses this camera, but it’s an exciting feature nonetheless. The Right Joy-Con also has an NFC sensor located directly under its analog stick, so scanning Amiibo is as simple as popping them onto the stick. Both Joy-Cons can be slotted into the included Joy-Con Grip, which turns them into a traditional but funny-looking controller.
Some critics have complained about this makeshift controller being too narrow, square or generally uncomfortable to play for extended periods. Personally I haven’t run into these problems and I’ve found the Joy-Con Grip perfectly functional for extended play, but then again I have rather small hands. I was surprised by how miniscule the face buttons on the Right Joy-Con were—much smaller than the buttons on the Switch Pro Controller (review coming soon). They’re even smaller than the buttons on the 3DS. I did some casual comparisons to other controllers and handhelds and found that the Joy-Con’s buttons are identical in size and layout to the DS Lite. I played my DS Lite extensively back in the day so I don’t think the Switch’s buttons or the Joy-Con Grip will cause any problems, but it could be an issue if you have larger hands. It’s also important to note that the Left Joy-Con does not have a traditional D-pad, but four separate directional buttons. This could be an issue with fighting games, so it’s something to keep in mind.
I did run into comfort and usability issues when handling the Joy-Con as separate, distinct controllers. Much like the Wiimote, Joy-Con can be turned sideways and used like old NES controllers. This is a cool concept—multiplayer at a moment’s notice, at home or on the go—but in practice, it’s awkward. To make the shoulder buttons accessible the Joy-Con needs to be slotted into the included Joy-Con Strap, which adds some much needed grip space to the tiny controllers, along with a wrist strap. Try as I might though, I just couldn’t get comfortable using the Joy-Con this way.
They’re just too small, and again I have Hobbit hands and I was still cramping up, so I can imagine anyone with larger hands will be even more uncomfortable cradling the tiny Joy-Con. Worse still, the straps bite down too hard on the Joy-Con rails, making them extremely difficult to remove. The “lock” switch on the straps is in an awkward place, and it’s too easy to absentmindedly slide the strap on backwards, which makes it even harder to pull off again. I like the idea behind the Joy-Con; having two highly advanced controllers for multiplayer right out of the box is a great idea. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, though.
Despite these drawbacks, the Switch works well overall as both a handheld and home gaming machine, even if it’s too big to slip into a jeans pocket. The Switch Dock, which is little more than a charging and display pass-through for connecting to your TV, feels light and flimsy but at least it’s unobtrusive. Its back panel opens up to reveal an HDMI out, USB 3.0 port and a USB-C plug, which is where you plug in the AC adapter. The side of the Dock also has two USB 2.0 ports, which are handy for charging secondary controllers. Switch, Joy-Con and Dock form a straightforward but versatile system that allows for a lot of ways to play with minimal fuss and set-up. That said, like any new device the Switch has its share of problems.
Let’s get the ugly ones out of the way first: hardware flaws. It turns out that the Switch Dock can actually scratch the Switch’s screen. If you aren’t extremely careful slotting the Switch into the Dock, the plastic rails inside will scuff up against the edges of the screen and hairline scratches will accumulate there. I’ve got a cheapo film screen protector on there for now and I’ve got a tempered glass one backordered, but a screen protector shouldn’t even be necessary. The dock shouldn’t scratch the console, and the Switch shouldn’t have a soft plastic screen. Seriously, can’t Nintendo splash out for some Gorilla Glass?
The other major issue early adopters have been reporting is flaky connectivity with the Left Joy-Con. After some investigation this unfortunately looks like a hardware flaw: the Left Joy-Con’s internal Bluetooth antenna is situated so that it’s easy to block or interfere with the signal. Personally I haven’t experienced this, but I did lose signal on my Switch Pro Controller when the aforementioned fiancé briefly walked in front of the TV. I’ve never experienced this with any of the multitude of pro controllers, Wiimotes and Wavebirds I’ve owned over the years, so maybe Nintendo is sourcing low-quality Bluetooth antennas for the Switch.
The most salient tech issue is the battery life. In portable mode the Switch will last anywhere from 3 to 6 hours, largely dependent on the game you’re running, how high you have the screen brightness and whether or not Wifi is enabled. This is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. The Switch has a fairly hefty 4310 mAh battery—it takes up a full third of the inside of the case—but as with most smartphones, power-intensive apps and games will burn through that battery in no time. If you plan on using your Switch primarily for portable gaming, just be sure to have a power bank handy and keep the WiFi off unless absolutely necessary.
Of course, until Nintendo gets their online service in order, you won’t have much need for WiFi. The Switch’s online suite is a ghost town right now, with only a news board (basically just ads from Nintendo) and an eShop with less than a dozen games on offer. No online streaming services like Netflix, YouTube or Hulu. No web browser. The Virtual Console isn’t even up and running, which cuts off a huge, cheap launch window revenue stream for Nintendo. I think this is a serious oversight.
If Nintendo is smart, they’re taking the time to give the Virtual Console a launch on Switch to remember. With a unified portable/home console hybrid, the service can finally meet its original potential, and long-time patrons of the Virtual Console can actually get their due. When the Virtual Console arrives on Switch, Nintendo needs to make sure there’s a hefty lineup of classic games on offer, instead of the pathetic drip-feed we’ve had to deal with since Wii. Even more, they really need to make sure players can transfer all of their previous purchases from 3DS and Wii U over to Switch, at no additional charge. All of that purchase info is logged to a player’s Nintendo Account anyway, so it just makes sense. I’ve bought Super Metroid, A Link to the Past and Mario 64 a total of three times from three separate online Nintendo storefronts. No more of that, no more nickel-and-dime service fees and upcharges.
The reason the Virtual Console is so important, and why it needs to show up soon as a competitive, rewarding service, is because the Switch has a pretty thin game library for the foreseeable future and an even slimmer launch lineup. Of course The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is probably the biggest launch title in Nintendo’s history, but you can get it on Wii U and I have a lot of friends who are doing just that instead of plunking down the cash for a Switch. There are a couple of other great titles like Snipperclips and Fast RMX, but there’s no killer app to push the Switch into impulse buy territory.
And that brings me to the most important part of any review: value. Like it or not, Switch is not a very good value proposition right now, and its peripherals and games even less so. What you get in the basic box is everything you need to play…except a game. 1-2-Switch would be the perfect pack-in title—heck, it should even come preinstalled—but instead this collection of 30 tech demos costs an eye-watering $50. There’s no reason for that other than sheer, unadulterated greed. It’s a shame too, because 1-2-Switch is the perfect way to introduce the Joy-Con, HD rumble and a number of the Switch’s other features.
The Switch’s various accessories are also needlessly expensive. The Charging Grip for the Joy-Cons costs an absurd $30, and it’s essentially just a Joy-Con Grip with a USB-C charging passthrough; it doesn’t even have an internal battery and must remain tethered to a USB port to be of any use. The Switch Pro Controller is a much better purchase—it’s a legitimately excellent control pad—but it’s a whopping $70. Similarly if you want another pair of Joy-Con that will run you $80; each Joy-Con is $50 separately.
With so many pricey peripherals, a $300 price tag for the basic bundle and a meagre launch window game selection, I just can’t recommend that you buy a Nintendo Switch right now. It pains me to say that because the Switch is a truly remarkable piece of hardware. It’s extremely versatile and at the same time very user-friendly, something Wii U never managed to achieve. As a result is has immense potential, but potential, no matter how great, can’t make up for a dearth of quality software. It’s all about the games, and it always has been, and as we’ve seen time and time again a publisher ignores this stubborn fact at their peril.
I hope the Nintendo Switch becomes a must-have gaming device before the year is out. I hope Nintendo has a positively crazy E3 packed with phenomenal games that they have yet to announce. But as it stands, the current and projected game library does not justify purchasing a Switch. If you absolutely must play Zelda Breath of the Wild right now, pick it up for Wii U. For now, keep a close eye on the Switch. It has the potential to unify the home and portable arenas like no device before it. I just hope Nintendo has the synergy and foresight to capitalize on that potential this time.
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile