Hands-on with the Nintendo Switch

At a recent hands-on event, we got an early look at Nintendo's brand new console. Here's what we made of the Switch...

This Nintendo Switch preview originally appeared at Den of Geek UK

It’s fascinating to think that, a decade ago, Nintendo turned the games industry on its head with its hand-waving, vase-breaking, cat-frightening Wii remotes. Suddenly, rival companies Microsoft and Sony were clamoring to introduce their own answer to that control system – the kind of simple yet effective idea that made the Wii one of the most accessible and best-selling consoles of all time.

A decade’s an unfathomably long time in tech, though, and the Wii U comprehensively failed to capture the same audience as its predecessor. You could blame the branding (as with the 3DS, some would-be consumers initially assumed that the Wii U was an upgrade, not a brand new console). You could blame the marketing, or the relative lack of must-have games at launch. Admittedly, the games Nintendo and a handful of loyal third-party publishers actually made for the system were often wonderful: Super Mario 3D World, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Mario Kart 8, Lego City Undercover, Super Smash Bros, Splatoon – the Wii U was party to some spectacular and unique titles.

After the Wii U’s tepid sales, you might be forgiven for thinking that Nintendo would back away from its quirkier tendencies, and come up with a console that competes more directly with Microsoft and Sony: a more conventional, powerful system capable of taking on the PS4 and Xbox One on an equal footing. But once again, the Japanese firm has remained true to its roots: Switch is another system that dares to look and feel different from its peers.

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If anything, Switch takes some of the design ideas explored with the Wii U a step further. The outgoing console had a tablet-controller hybrid, the GamePad, that allowed you to play games away from the family television, but it was far from a true handheld system – head much more than a room away from the core console, and you’d lose connection.

Switch takes the idea of a flexible home console-handheld hybrid to pretty much its logical conclusion: you can play it on a television, or you can take the screen out of its dock, attach a controller – or Joy-Con – to either side and enjoy it as a handheld. Or you can detach the controllers again, flip out a kick stand, sit the screen on a flat surface and play it like a mini arcade, say, at a kitchen table or on a picnic bench. 

It’s an example of Nintendo’s cute, utopian thinking. The firm thinks of its consoles not just as boxes onto which games can be loaded, but as tactile experiences in themselves: Nintendo evidently loves thinking of the different ways and situations its consoles can be played, and some of these – particularly the function which allows eight consoles to link up for local multiplayer gaming – could be downright delightful if they’re exploited fully.

So now that we know exactly what the Switch is, how does it actually feel? Our immediate impressions were positive.

Held in the hands, the Switch feels about the same width across as the Wii U’s GamePad in its handheld configuration, albeit slimmer and fractionally heavier. That added weight is a true positive. Where the GamePad felt a little flimsy, with its acres of bendy plastic, the Switch feels sturdier, more grown up – closer to the build quality of an iPad or a rival quality tablet. The screen, with a resolution of 1280×720 (versus the Wii U screen’s 854×480) is pin-sharp, and the buttons on the Joy-Con fall nicely to hand.

Played as a conventional home console, the Joy-Cons can be connected up to the Joy-Con Grip to create a single gamepad. For some reason, the controller actually feels smaller than we were expecting in this mode; not uncomfortably so by any means, but it’s far less chunky and ungainly than it might look in photographs, feeling closer in feel to the PlayStation’s DualShock. The analogue sticks fall nicely under the thumbs, though in our experience, it felt a little too easy to accidentally depress them while rolling them around. The shoulder buttons feel great, though, and again, feel more sturdy and comfortable than the ones on the outgoing Wii U pad.  

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The Switch’s docking station, which allows the device to connect to your television, is a rather plain-looking rectangular slab, though again, it’s not as large as it might appear in photographs. The only question we have is where it would actually fit in our living room. The Switch tablet slides in and out of the dock from the top, which means it can’t sit on a shelf under a TV like a conventional console. Our first thought was that it’d have to sit on the floor somewhere – a small nitpick, perhaps, but a not unreasonable one for those of us who already have two or three other consoles and a Blu-ray player already crammed into their living room.

At the Switch hands-on event, the big draw was inevitably The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the game really didn’t disappoint. From the moment Link emerges first from a mysterious resurrection chamber and emerges into the lush expanse of Hyrule, Breath of the Wild brings with it a renewed sense of freedom. Link can now climb, chop down trees, gather ingredients to cook food, and generally attack the game in whatever way he likes. Admittedly, Breath of the Wild isn’t a Switch exclusive – it’s also coming out on the Wii U – but as launch-day games go, it’s a great opener for the console’s library.  

This is just as well because, looking around the rest of the offerings at the Switch event, few other titles felt quite as essential. Super Bomberman R gave us the chance to try out the Switch in another of its configurations: with the kickstand flipped out and the screen placed on a flat surface, it becomes a kind of miniature arcade machine.

In a unique touch, the Joy-Con’s two halves each functions as its own independent controller, which means in a game like Bomberman, you can hand over one Joy-Con to a friend for some quick two-player action. Rotated 90 degrees and held in the hand like the old Nintendo Entertainment System’s gamepad, the Joy-Con is tiny yet perfectly formed. Playing something simple like Bomberman was a breeze, and it’s pleasing to see that Konami’s finally chosen to revive this classic game for the Switch. 

Those little Joy-Con have other hidden abilities, too. Not only do they have motion control facilities, so they can be operated like the old Remote and Nunchuk, but they also have something called HD Rumble, which is best showcased in a mini-game collection called 1-2-Switch. This is the closest the system has to a Wii Sports equivalent, and its core idea is that rival players face each other rather than the screen. In Quick Draw, for example, players hold their Joy-Con by their side and then mimic shooting each other when the signal sounds, like a cowboy in the Old West.

The HD Rumble gets its chance to shine in a really odd game involving marbles. Each player picks up their Joy-Con, slowly rolls it around, and tries to guess how many marbles there are rolling around inside. It’s a fluffy, silly bit of fun, but the sensation is quite uncanny: it really does feel as though there are marbles knocking around inside the controller. There’s also another mini-game that involves milking a cow as rapidly as possible, which, if you’re of a juvenile mindset, looks like utter filth. 

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Other games at the event included Arms, a motion-controlled boxing game not unlike that old mini game which came with Wii Sports. The difference here is that the rival boxers’ gloves are on telescopic arms, which can be sent flying off on weird curves to catch opponents even when they’re on the other side of the ring. With multiple characters to choose from and the ability to move and jump, Arms has more depth than it might initially sound, though how much longevity it has remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, there’s the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which adds new levels and characters, but is still basically a port of the Wii U game. Likewise Splatoon 2, which, despite the number in its title, feels very much like an update of the Wii U version rather than a major leap forward. It’s worth adding that both of these games remain a lot of fun, but if you already own them on Wii U, then you may want to think twice about buying them all over again for Switch. 

This brings us to our main beef with the Switch so far. The system itself feels like a rock-solid system, but based purely on the games available at its hands-on event, we can’t see too many reasons for splashing out on one at launch. Yes, the Nintendo faithful will almost certainly buy one anyway, but the line-up of games available on day one feels disappointingly thin.

Indeed, the Switch appears to be aimed specifically at gamers who didn’t buy a Wii U – which, admittedly, is a lot of gamers. If you already own a Wii U, you probably have Splatoon and Mario Kart 8, so you probably won’t be in a rush to buy the Switch versions. Breath of the Wild looks and feels lovely on Switch, but from what we’ve seen and heard, the Wii U version isn’t that much of a downgrade, and by purchasing it for your existing system, you’ll save $300 on new hardware. 

On the topic of pricing, we don’t necessarily begrudge the $299.99 Nintendo’s asking for the Switch, but couldn’t they have at least bundled it with one measly game? We can’t help thinking the Nintendo of 10 years ago would’ve included 1-2 Switch or maybe Arms as part of the deal. Instead, you’re expected to pay $50 and $60 for them respectively. That’s an awful lot of money for what are effectively some fun games to play with friends after a beer or two.

The Switch won’t be the first Nintendo console with a thin launch line-up, of course, and knowing the Big N, it has plenty of games in the pipeline: the great-looking Super Mario Odyssey was conspicuous by its absence at the event we attended, save for a trailer playing on a screen in front of a Mario diorama.

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Once again, Nintendo has produced a piece of hardware that positively bulges with possibilities. Here’s hoping that the months after the Switch’s launch turn it from another console with promise to a downright unmissable purchase.

Nintendo Switch launches on March 3.