Nintendo remains a puzzling phenomenon for a lot of modern gamers. The company never makes powerful consoles, or cool consoles; it never pushes the processing envelope, and it always seems a little eccentric when it comes to online infrastructure. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, it isn’t trying to make gaming PCs designed to resemble dedicated games machines — it just makes games machines.
The Switch is the latest evolution of an idea Nintendo has been playing with since the arrival of the Wii in 2006 — a console for everyone, with an interesting, accessible and flexible interface. The console itself is basically a tablet, and completely portable, but plug it into the stand and the action immediately appears on your TV. It is a weird hybrid, a new mid-point between home and hand-held.
The big question is — is it fun?
Priced at £280 (Dh1,265), the Nintendo Switch is a hybrid system — a cross between a home console and a hand-held. When you buy one, you get the console itself, as well as the two JoyCon controllers, the stand for plugging the device into your TV, and a controller grip. HDMI and power cables come too.
Games are on small cartridges (that rattle rather suspiciously) and they slot into a port at the top of the console. Unlike with PS4 and Xbox One, you don’t need to install the software on to your hard drive, which is just as well as the Switch drive is a measly 32GB. There’s a Micro SD slot at the rear of the Switch, which adds additional storage capacity.
Optional accessories include a wired LAN adaptor and pro controller which offers a more refined and traditional interface for £65. Extra Joy-Con controllers (necessary for multiplayer games like Arms) cost £75.
Size: 10cm x 24cm x 1.4cm (with Joy-Con attached)
Screen: 6.2-inch LCD Screen, 1280 x 720 resolution
Processor: Nvidia Custom Tegra processor
Storage: 32GB (with Micro SD card slot for additional space)
Connectivity: Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac) and Bluetooth 4.1
Weight: 300g (400g with Joy-Con attached)
A design of two halves
The Nintendo Switch looks like a very small, budget-conscious tablet, with the same sort of build quality (ie solid and kind of sleek). The capacitive touchscreen is not as precise as you’ll find on your new smartphone, but it’s a definite step up from the spongy Wii U GamePad and reacts to the slightest touch rather than a frustrated jab. The experience really does merge the accessibility of playing on a tablet with the added controller accuracy of a hand-held. It’s like a modern take on the multifaceted approach of the DS and 3DS, but with a larger screen and much more granular control.
When you want to plug it into your TV, you slide the Switch into the dock, until it clicks into the port. This is a smooth, seamless procedure, but the console does rattle a little in its toaster-like home. The dock has HDMI, three USB ports and a power socket but that’s all. It’s just a hunk of plastic.
The Switch’s built-in 6.2-inch display is 720p HD, and the picture quality is usually very good, with rich colours and a nice sharpness. When you plug the console in to your TV, Switch can output in full 1080p (though not 4K). On a larger display, it’s very clear this console is far behind Xbox One and PS4 in terms of visual fidelity — the graphics have that familiar Nintendo look; cartoony, slightly hazy, but also artful. Titles like Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart and, later, Super Mario Odyssey do look beautiful, but in a more stylised way than the photorealistic aspirations of the other consoles.
Once charged, the Switch can be taken wherever you go — and this is a key feature. With this console, you can put the screen down wherever you are, slide the Joy-Con off, hand them out and start multiplayer sessions with friends. The fact that the controllers can be used independently means Mario Kart, Bomberman, Just Dance and SnipperClips can all be played without the need to buy extra pads. It’s the whole games-for-everyone philosophy of the Wii, joyously emancipated from the home.
On top of this, the console offers ad hoc local networking for up to eight Switches. The idea of being able to meet up with pals wherever you are and play Mario Kart or Splatoon 2 together in big team sessions is an enticing one — and the concept becomes even more interesting if/when we start seeing community-focused titles like Monster Hunter and Pokemon coming along. It was the former that more or less kept the Sony PSP alive, exploiting the machine’s ad hoc connectivity; and we saw how powerful Pokemon Go was as a roving social experience. If Nintendo can harness this potential, it would be a major plus for the console. Sitting in a park with a whole bunch of people playing Mario Kart is a really fun proposition.
Joy or con?
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the Switch is its two Joy-Con controllers, which can be used separately, or snapped either side of a plastic grip to make a standard pad. Each Joy-Con has an analogue stick, a button array on the front, and four shoulder buttons along the edges. They also have built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes for motion control, while the right Joy-Con has a motion-sensitive IR camera, which can sense movement in front of it. There’s also a Capture button which lets you take, store and share in-game screenshots (but not video just yet).
The Joy-Con are small, but they’re very comfortable in the hand and the plastic is good quality. To make them more sturdy, there are wrist strap sections that slide on to the side of each controller, clipping into place. They’re easy to get on, but removing them is an unnecessarily fiddly process of lifting a small locking mechanism, pressing a tiny black button then sliding them off — it takes some practice (and brute force) and if anyone accidentally puts one on the wrong way round — which really shouldn’t be possible — they become wedged pretty fast. It doesn’t really feel like the neat, graceful, child-friendly industrial design we’re used to from Nintendo.
But they’re definitely good fun to use. Gripped in your hands they become almost invisible facilitators of ridiculous interactions. Whether that’s milking a cow or pretending to scoff sandwiches in 1-2 Switch, or cutting out shapes in Snipperclips — they take on the forms that each game requires; like the computer mouse, they simply become extensions of your own movements. This could (and in Nintendo’s hands should) lead to whole new interactive experiences
The Zelda box?
The Switch is launching with eleven games, but many of these are updates of already released titles like I Am Setsuna, World of Goo, Skylanders Imaginators and Just Dance 2017. One exception is Super Bomberman R, a re-invention of the classic multiplayer maze battler.
Of the two major Nintendo titles, 1-2 Switch really should be bundled with the hardware. This collection of competitive mini-games is fun for a while, but its purpose is to exhibit the capabilities of the console and with no lasting challenge to any of the 28 tasks, you’ll soon tire of it. Even a limited demo of the game would have been a welcome addition to the console package.
The key draw right now is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and honestly, what a draw it is. Expansive, refined and exciting, it could well be one of the greatest launch titles ever released.
Later in the year, we’ll get Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey, Arms and Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which all look wonderful; then there will be Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and a Fire Emblem title, pretty much capturing the RPG market. Nintendo claims there are 100 games in development from 70 publishers — highlights include the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim conversion, a Dragon Quest, a Sonic game, Ultra Street Fighter II, and follow-ups to cult titles like No More Heroes and Shin Megami Tensei. That’s a lot of fun to be had.
Nintendo has announced 60 indie titles as well: successful releases like Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, Cave Story and Overcooked are on the slate, as are newcomers Yooka-Laylee, Snake Pass and Wargroove.
The big test of course is whether the big hitting franchises will come over. We know EA is making a Switch version of Fifa, and there’s a Switch Minecraft, but will there be a Switch Call of Duty (and if the series goes back to WWII this will really matter), a Switch Red Dead Redemption?
So far it feels like there’s more industry positivity around Switch than there ever was around Wii U. If Zelda starts shifting machines, the big publishers will want a part of that — especially with the costs of producing high-end Xbox and PlayStation titles exploding with every new hardware iteration.
The end of the Miiverse
One disappointing aspect is that two favourite connected services — Street Pass from the 3DS and Wiiverse from the Wii U — will not be returning on Switch. Instead we’re getting a more conventional online subscription service offering multiplayer gaming and other content including monthly free titles.
At the same time, online lobbies and a voice chat app will replace the community hub that made your Wii U desktop feel like a thriving virtual town rather than a staid menu system. Indeed, the Switch desktop is rather sparse, so far consisting of large icons for any games you’ve played, as well as smaller options for the eShop, photo album and controller settings. You’ll be able to import your Nintendo Account ID, make your own Mii character and set up friends lists, of course — but currently the UI is very bare and uninspiring (although you could also see its simplicity as a bonus, especially as it also has to function on a smaller, portable display).
In many ways, Switch is going to be a lot more like Xbox and PS4 in its connected philosophy — and that’s a shame. And what’s missing from this more conventional set-up is apps: currently there are no video on demand options like YouTube or Netflix, though Nintendo has said its considering them. Furthermore, we still don’t know how much the subscription will cost, but it will be free until the autumn. On a more positive note, the eShop looks to be getting some excellent support from indie developers who are looking to support and explore the unique feature-set of the console.
The Nintendo Switch is a brave and fascinating prospect. While the Wii U hinted at a dual screen future (and provided some truly brilliant games), this update truly gives us a strong stand-alone hand-held platform as well as a home console that produces beautiful visuals and trademark Nintendo experiences. Those who well say “buy a PC/Xbox/PS4 instead” are too entrenched in conventional wisdom to understand the appeal of Nintendo hardware, which has always stood slightly to the side of the industry product pipeline. The Switch is playing in a very different space, a space of its own, and we now need to see if the rest of the industry, and a large enough audience of “casual gamers”, will join it.
Whatever happens, Nintendo has once again done its idiosyncratic best to challenge the way we think about games hardware. Right now, it has the best launch game in at least a decade, and enough compelling possibilities on the horizon to warrant enthusiasm and hope. At GBP280 it is a gamble; when the price drops, as it inevitably will before Christmas, it may prove irresistible.
Pros: Fascinating hybrid concept; interesting controls; good quality
screen; some excellent games on the way
Cons: Areas of fiddly and below-par hardware design; limited launch
line-up; unclear digital strategy