It’s the quirkier touches that separate Nintendo’s best devices from rival console makers. From old Game & Watch titles with dual screens to the Gamecube’s funny little handle, which allowed owners to carry their console around like a hat box, Nintendo has long thrived on its flourishes of quirkiness and individuality.
In some instances, Nintendo’s quirkiness can reap dividends. In Japan, the Family Computer (or Famicom) was an odd-looking console with wired-in controllers that helped turn Nintendo into one of the industry’s biggest videogame companies. In the 2000s, the Wii’s motion controls proved so popular that Microsoft and Sony found themselves in an odd position of trying to mimic its success.
On the other hand, Nintendo’s ideas can occasionally leave would-be customers nonplussed. The Virtual Boy was an odd experiment that didn’t pay off; the Wii U, despite some great games, failed to capture the same mass appeal as its predecessor.
Which brings us to the Switch. In some respects, it could be regarded as a refinement of the Wii U, since they both allow games to be played on a small handheld screen or on the television. But the Switch is, in many ways, a far more bold system than the Switch was; where the Wii U’s GamePad felt lightweight and ‘toyetic’, the Switch feels somewhat closer to an Apple product: weighty, sleek, and, for the most part, robust-feeling.
Switch’s big selling point is its flexibility. Open the surprisingly compact retail box, and you’ll be confronted by the system’s 6.2-inch screen, which contains the guts of the Switch’s hardware. A pair of small controllers called Joy -Con slide on either side of the screen to create a pure handheld system akin to the PSP; alternatively, the Switch’s screen can be docked with its charging cradle, which also connects the system to your TV. The little Joy-Con can then be used either as individual pads, like tiny Wii Remotes, or attached to an bit of kit called a Grip, which turns them into one, full-size controller of a similar size and weight to a Sony Dual Shock pad.
Admittedly, you’ll probably know all this from Nintendo’s ads. But how does the Switch stand up to day-to-day use? Extremely well is the answer – albeit with one or two caveats.
The user interface
Turning the system on, the first thing that springs to mind is how bare and uncluttered its user interface is. The soft background muzak has given way to a deafening silence; the scurrying Miis and cuddly icons have been replaced by a stark white background and plain grey text. It’s clear, simple to use, yet maybe a little too business-like. At the time of writing, Nintendo’s new eShop wasn’t up and running, and neither could we import our Miis; we’ll have to wait and see whether the more grown-up look also extends to Nintendo’s online support.
Not that the old Nintendo approachability has departed altogether; you can still create Miis with the old creation system, while your user ID can be accompanied by an image of classic Nintendo characters – Samus, Mario, Tom Nook, and the like. Selecting all this stuff, either via the physical buttons or the Switch’s touch screen (which is capacitive for the first time on a Nintendo system) feels precise and pleasant to use, and indeed, the UI’s so stripped down that you’re never likely to get lost navigating through the various screens; as the system’s booted up, the games you have either downloaded or plugged in via the game card slot (more on this later) are presented on a large panel in the middle of the screen.
Beneath them you’ll find a row of six simple icons; the first is a news section (largely empty at the time of writing); the eShop, an album, where all your screengrabs are stored; a facility to check the energy level of your Joy-Con or pair new controllers; and finally, a sleep mode option. Actually capturing screengrabs is made simple thanks to a dedicated button on the left Joy-Con – once a screengrab’s in your album, you can enter text or share via social media (another function unavailable to us before launch).
Never mind the menus, though. What about the games? Our review unit came bundled with a pair of launch titles – The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Just Dance 2017. You can probably guess which one we were most keen to crack open, and it rhymes with ‘welder’.
Switch games come in slim cases roughly the size of the ones PSP games used to come in – in other words, much smaller than a DVD case, and thinner and narrower than the ones for the DS and 3DS.
It’s a further indicator that Nintendo wants to blur the lines between a home console and a handheld device; going right back to the era of the Game Boy and Sega Game Gear, it quickly became the convention to bundle handheld games in much smaller boxes than their home brethren. The message from Nintendo seems to be: Switch offers a bit of both.
If Switch game boxes look small, wait until you see the game cards. They’re absolutely tiny – larger than a Micro SD card, but still far, far smaller than Nintendo’s proprietary cards for the 3DS. (Another thing to note: Switch games don’t appear to come with manuals anymore, if our review copies are anything to go by.)
It’s here that we come to the first of those caveats we mentioned above. Slotting a game in the Switch required you to open a little flap on the top of the screen; in our experience, this little plastic hatch is fiddly to prise up and worryingly delicate. It doesn’t appear to be hinged, but rather, appears to be held on by a thin piece of plastic – we do wonder how well this will stand up to repeated opening and closing.
We also wonder whether Nintendo have made something of a prediction here: that physical media is on the way out, and that the majority of consumers will download their games from the eShop. Putting a game in the Switch certainly isn’t as quick and instinctive as it was on the DS or 3DS.
The benefit of moving from optical discs to solid media does, however, mean that load times are rapid, and indeed, everything about the Switch feels far more efficient and quick than the Wii U. The stripped-down UI means menus load quickly, and when a cartridge is inserted, you’re only a click away from getting right into the game. While loading times still exist in Breath Of The Wild, they’re far from as distractingly long as an open-world game on the Wii U like, say, Lego City Undergound – an otherwise delightful game which took what felt like an eternity to load.
Up and running
We’ll get into the specifics of Breath Of The Wild in a separate review, but for now, it’s sufficient to say that it looks and handles beautifully on the Switch’s hardware. The Switch is no technical powerhouse, inevitably, and with the PlayStation 4 Pro and Project Scorpio offering 4K output, Nintendo’s latest system is again behind the mark if you really want to compare it to the current generation of home consoles.
The reality, of course, is that the Switch isn’t specifically a home console, and Nintendo have at any rate resisted competing with their rivals in terms of technical power. This might frustrate the section of the internet who want a Nintendo console with the grunt of an Xbox One, or simply think that the House of Mario should give up on hardware altogether and make games for other systems.
The Switch does, however, offer something that its rivals don’t: portability. The Switch’s screen docks and undocks from the charging cradle with ease, with the system’s image automatically flicking from the built-in screen to your television as soon as it’s docked, and vice versa. By sliding the Joy-Con onto either side of the Switch – which provides a satisfying ‘click’ as you do so – you can simply lift the system out of its cradle and wander off with it, meaning you can go from playing Zelda on the big screen one minute and be in a car or in the loo playing the exact same game with barely a break in the action. There’s perhaps an element of novelty in its appeal, but the slickness of the design makes it thoroughly pleasing to use.
One stranger aspect of the Switch’s design rears its head when you have to remove the Joy-Con from either the main controller or the main unit itself. Detaching the Joy-Con requires you to hold down a tiny black button located behind the trigger on each device as you slide them off a small rail. This is made rather more difficult due to the Joy-Cons’ miniscule size and Nintendo’s warning that you shouldn’t touch any of the other buttons as you undock each device – if you have large hands or clumsy fingers, this can make the process far less satisfying than slipping them back on again.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Switch’s cradle, although neatly designed (cables are neatly tucked away behind a hinged section of its case) is also quite light when the screen isn’t docked. We found that it had a tendency to topple over was we took the screen out – something to bear in mind if you plan to stand the Switch somewhere relatively high up, like on a shelf.
These gripes aside, the controls feel solid and comfortable in any of the Switch’s configurations. We played Breath Of The Wild in both TV and handheld mode, and it felt intuitive and pleasant in both configurations. Played as a portable device, the Switch feels comfy in the hands, and the buttons feel far more pleasant to use than those on the Wii U’s Gamepad. We would say that the Switch feels a little wide at first, particularly if you’re used to playing a smaller system like the Vita, though again, it’s something we soon got used to.
The greater question is whether the Switch will be accepted as a truly portable handheld device like its smaller forbear, the 3DS. On paper, the battery life doesn’t sound great (a game as power-hungry as Zelda will reportedly drain the Switch in as little as three hours – an estimate that seems to chime with our experience), though less processor-hungry games will last for around six or so hours. Measuring approximately 23 cm across (or nine inches), the Switch isn’t the kind of device you can simply slip into a jacket pocket – though admittedly, it’s still far more compact than, say, a typical tablet. The Switch certainly isn’t a relatively cheap portable device like a 2DS, which you could throw into a bag without worrying too much about – if you’re going to take Nintendo’s new console out on your daily tube to work or on a plane, you’ll probably want to invest in a case to keep it in.
What the Switch could prove to be, however, is a rather different kind of handheld device. As well as the benefit of being able to play the same game in the living room or in bed, there’s the added appeal of using the Switch as a kind of mobile multiplayer system. Flip out the kickstand on the back of the screen, detach the Joy-Con, and you have a console that can be played on, say, a kitchen table or maybe in a work canteen.
Since each Joy-Con functions as its own miniature controller, you can hand the other to a friend and play a multiplayer game; we tried Bomberman R using exactly this set-up a month or two ago, and we were highly impressed by how natural it felt. The Joy-Con are a bit too small to play a game with complex inputs like Breath Of The Wild, but for a simple game like Bomberman R or Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – out on March 3rd and April 28th respectively – they’re perfectly usable. The Joy-Con also have motion controls and an accelerometer, so they can also be used a bit like Wii Remotes – the quirky party game 1-2-Switch is one early game that makes full advantage of the Joy-Con’s features.
Over the past week or so, you may have read some reports of synch problems between the Joy-Con and Switch. We can’t say we experienced these ourselves, and we’re hoping it’s just a teething problem that’ll be addressed with a software update rather than a fundamental hardware problem.
One curious thing we did encounter, though, came within a day of first receiving our review unit. After five or so hours of play, we turned the system off, and discovered that it flatly refused to turn on the next day. Holding down the power button, we were met with an error screen which refused to go away when we restarted the machine again. After a bit of persistence, the error eventually cleared and, in the week we’ve used the system, it’s operated perfectly. Other users don’t appear to have encountered this problem, so we’re hoping we were either unlucky or that it’s another glitch that can be patched via an update.
It’s still early days for the Nintendo Switch, of course, and there are still lots of things we haven’t had a chance to try out. As we mentioned above, the eShop isn’t up and running yet, and neither have we had a chance to preview the online support Nintendo has lined up – as you’ve likely read, the Switch will introduce a subscription service for this aspect of the system in the near future. There’s the question, too, of whether the price of the console and its accessories might be a bit off-putting for some; the base console retails for around $300, while extra Joy-Con cost a steep $69.99 per pair. With rival systems and their controllers costing less than that, we do wonder how the wider gaming public will respond to the Switch, even as the Nintendo faithful will almost certainly flock to support it.
But as it stands, as a piece of hardware, we must say we’re impressed with the Switch so far. That flimsy cartridge hatch aside, the system feels like a proper step forward from the Wii U – more solid, more versatile and, while we do miss Nintendo’s quaint menu music, more sophisticated in terms of design.
Best of all, the Switch doesn’t feel like a compromise in any of its configurations. It feels natural and intuitive to use as a handheld or a home console, while the ability to use the Joy-Con as separate controllers for the screen, rested on a table via its kickstand, suggests all kinds of multiplayer possibilities in such games as Mario Kart and Splatoon. It’s this latter touch that is quintessentially Nintendo – a quirky idea still lurking behind the trendy exterior. Based on the decidedly weird mini-games we’ve glimpsed in 1-2-Switch – milking cows and the like – we’re looking forward to seeing how else the versatile Joy-Con can be used by imaginative developers.
With the weight of Breath Of The Wild behind the Switch at launch – a game that’s shaping up to be a great Zelda in our time with it so far – Nintendo’s new system is off to a really strong start. If the games continue to live up to the quality of the console itself, then the future could be bright for the Switch.
Nintendo Switch is out on the March 3rd. We’ll bring you more coverage of its eShop, games and online support very soon.