The Nintendo Switch is unmistakenly Nintendo. It combines all the good ideas from their previous consoles but doesn't remove of all it's previous mistakes. While it still lacks big online features it lays a very good gaming foundation to build on.
If you haven’t heard it yet, the Nintendo Switch is now available. We have had several of them for a while now and are ready to pass judgment. This is for the post-release Switch, so after the day-1 patch. This means that we have seen the eShop but also are aware of all the news regarding hardware issues. Before we get going, a little disclaimer: I will be comparing the Switch to other Nintendo consoles and not the PS4 or XBox One. With that out of the way, let’s get going.
When Nintendo announced the Switch they said it was the culmination of everything they had done before it. This statement rings quite true with the final hardware and system software. The Switch not only combines ideas and concepts from previous home consoles but also Nintendo’s handheld systems. The latter mainly shines through in the Switch’ OS and how it handles gaming on the go.
I got my first taste of the Switch a few weeks ago at a Nintendo press event. After playing with it for an extended period my impression of the hardware stands. Overall the system and its accessories are very well made. They feel solid and premium but I doubt the Switch itself is made of Nintendium, so I got a carrying pouch to feel a little bit safer. What I did notice is that the Joy-Con straps, or more precisely their sliders, felt a little loose which degraded the premium feel a bit. I’m tempted to get color matching straps to see if they are better, but I already have straps extra (I got an extra pair of Joy-Cons with my Switch) so that seems really unnecessary.
Control-wise the Switch is Nintendo’s most versatile console yet. What I really like is that Nintendo keeps the door open to all configurations. It’s not forcing a particular type of control like it did with the Wii nor is it not providing the hardware for some control types like it did with the WiiU. With the Switch you get all options with the main unit allowing developers to choose the type of control they prefer. One game, Voez, already makes use of this freedom by offering non-TV gameplay only. I’m very curious to see what developers will do with this freedom moving forward.
What I really appreciated with the Switch is how much simpler it handles the various controllers. On the home screen you can basically use whatever controller you want and they will all work. It does struggle with how you’re holding the Joy-Con but it provides a helpful icon in the bottom-left corner showing what controller (configuration) it’s responding to. In game it’s usually similar when you activate multiple controllers it will ask you to press (Z)L+(Z)R on the controller you want to use. Adding controllers is also a simple affair. All you need to do with Joy-Cons is slide them onto the Switch and you’re done. The Pro connected without issue, so much so even I can’t remember what I had to do to get it working.
Out of the controller options the Switch has, there are basically two main options: the Joy-Con and the Pro controller (sold separately). The Joy-Con come with the Switch and they are the reason for the versatility of the console. They can be played connected to the main unit, connected to a grip for a more tradtional controller layout and individually as tiny standalone controllers. Nintendo had to make some design compromises to accommodate all these different ways to play. These compromises are main in the button layout of the controllers. Most noticably the control sticks aren’t symmetrically placed like they were on the WiiU. Now they follow the Gamecube/Xbox layout. This was done to keep the layout of the buttons mostly the same when using the Joy-Cons individually. The other example is that the Joy-Cons do not have a directional pad, a first for a Nintendo controller.
But while the Joy-Con may represent some compromise they make up for it with the tech that’s inside of them. They are both fully equipped with motion sensors and Nintendo’s new HD rumble tech. The right Joy-Con goes even further by containing not only a distance detecting camera but also the NFC reader for your Amiibo. The camera sees very little use in the games seen so far, though. Only 1-2 Switch seems to be using it thus far. But there have been games announced that will use HD rumble but none for the Switch’ camera. I’m still hoping for pointer controls but I’m not holding my breath.
The other controller the Switch supports is the aptly – but not surpisingly – named Pro controller. This is basically a traditional controller, albeit a very nice one. It has the same asymmetric button layout as the Joy-Con which makes adjusting to this potential change in layout very easy. What’s also very nice, and a big improvement over the WiiU’s Pro controller, is that it contains all the bells and whistles the Joy-Con offer (except for the camera, but I’ll let that one slide). This means it has motion control, HD rumble (allegedly, as I haven’t been able to confirm this myself) and an NFC reader. This last one proved very handy while playing Zelda. While the Pro isn’t exactly cheap (70 to 80 bucks depending on where you live) it does offer the best way to play the more traditional games like Zelda and probably the upcoming Splatoon 2. I went out and got me the Switch with an extra pair of Joy-Con, a charge grip and the Pro. Looking back I’d probably hold out with an extra pair of Joy-Con as with the current games I’m getting a lot more use out of the Pro than I am with an extra pair of Joy-Con (meaning that the set of Joy-Con that came with the Switch suffices, not that I’m not using the Joy-Con).
What I noticed playing the Switch is that different games favored a certain control type. For Zelda, the Pro controller worked the best for me but using disconnected Joy-Cons felt nice as well, even though the right stick wasn’t as comfortable to use as it was on the Pro. Surprisingly, Fast RMX played very well with a single Joy-Con. While SnipperClips and 1-2 Switch both require using single Joy-Cons. What I also liked is that playing in handheld mode alway seemed to provide the next best configuration to play, making all the games I played easy to bring on the road with me. Most importantly all configurations mostly performed well. Most of the time…
This brings me to the left Joy-Con. As you may have heard there have been reports of the left Joy-Con losing its connection to the Switch. Unfortunately, this problem seems very real. I’ve experienced issues getting it to connect and have had instances where buttons or the stick seemed to get stuck. This happened regularly and proved quite annoying. So much so, that I think Nintendo can’t ignore the issue. They have already acknowledged the issue but it remains to be seen how they will address it.
One of my main concerns I had when I heard about the Switch was how long the battery would last. Playing Zelda the Switch will run out of power is 2-3 hours. This is fine for a daily commute but will prove to be quite short when your playing untethered at home. Luckily, you can use any existing powerbank solution with the Switch thanks to it’s USB-C connection. If you buy either the Pro controller or Charge grip you get a USB-A to USB-C cable you can use to not only charge you controller (which you can do from the dock even in sleepmode, unlike the WiiU) but also for the Switch itself. If your powerbank is able to provide 2.1A (or able to charge a tablet) the Switch will charge even while playing. While this does mean carrying another item around it is a simple and effective solution you might already have.
The Switch also ditches the optical drive in favor of gaming cartridges. To my surprise, these tiny carts contain the entire game. If you don’t like physical media you can also purchase a digital copy and store it on the Switch’ internal memory of 32 Gb (which can be expanded through a MicroSD card). I played Zelda both from a cart and a (UHS-I) MicroSD card and didn’t notice any difference in loading times between the two. The Gamecards (as Nintendo calls them) are an appealing option as they provide all the sharing and reselling benefits of physical media, all the while providing the same speeds as digital games, arguably even faster, as you don’t need to wait to download the game. With a Gamecard you are playing your new game in seconds, literally! Nintendo have never liked optical media and have made a triumphant return to their medium of choice with the Switch.
The main thing I didn’t get to experience before I got my own Switch out of the box is the Switch’ operating system (OS). Nintendo doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to system software with their most recent attempt for the WiiU proving to be a rather sluggish experience. While they improved on WiiU’s OS greatly over various updates it never became particularly quick. On the Switch, however, this is a completely different ballgame. The Switch really is amazingly fast and responsive. Thanks to the absence of an optical drive the games load very quickly. Jumping in and out of games is nearly instantaneous. Similar to the 3DS, jumping out of game puts you back in the main menu and not the limited screen the WiiU gave you. Jumping into the central menu items (like the eShop) doesn’t shut down your game making trips to the settings, eShop and Album things you can do on the fly if you want to.
The system’s main screen is very minimal. In the middle is a carrousel of the games you have played in the order you last played them. While this works well, I do wonder how this scales when you have dozens of games but this is similar to the WiiU and 3DS home screens. At the top-right there is a system tray, if you will, displaying time, wifi strength, battery status and such. In top-left corner are the users registered on the system. User management has been revised since the WiiU, and for the better in my opinion. The WiiU gave users each their own home-screen, requiring you to switch users before picking a game. On the Switch, there are no dedicated home-screens just user screens that show their friendcode (yes, friendcode) and games they’ve played. When you start a game you get the choice for what user this will be. For me, this works a lot better as it avoids the problem I had where my kids would start a game and realize after it had started that they were on my account (if they realized at all). Users also seem to be available to games as well as Fast RMX gave me the option to choose from the system users, another improvement in my book. What’s also nice is that the user icons also show how many of that user’s friends are online and if there are new friend requests. You can also see what games they are currently playing and have played.
To complete the home-screen overview is the row of icons below the games carousel. Here you’ll find the News, eShop, Album, Controllers, Settings and Sleep mode options. News is pretty self-explanatory. What is interesting to note here, is that in its first week on the shelves Nintendo have been pushing regular updates drawing me back to this menu. While the news items haven’t been overly interesting to me it should provide a solid way for Nintendo to keep its users informed. News items also appear on the screen you get when you wake the system from sleep mode which is a nice, unintrusive way to keep users informed. Next up is the eShop. Similar to the OS as a whole, the eShop has gotten a profound overhaul. Making it both easier to navigate and much (much) faster. On the main screen you can search, see new releases, upcoming releases and enter codes. While entering codes works fine on the ystem, the web-based eShop you can access from a browser doesn’t seem to be accepting Switch codes just yet. While entering download codes might not have been regular business for people thus far more and more (online) retailers are now selling them outside of the eShop. I even noticed that Dutch retailers (like Nedgame) have started offering these, which is good news for gamers from The Netherlands who like their games digitally distributed. The offering at this moment is pretty sparse but this should gradually improve over the coming weeks and months (Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, for example, hits on April 28th).
The Album menu is tied directly to the shiny new share option. This share option basically takes a screenshot of your current screen and that’s pretty much it. I wanted to try this for reviews so all the screenshots you see here are from my Switch directly (that’s also why they’re in Dutch). This should give you an idea about the quality of the shots made. From the Album you can edit the images and post them to social media (Facebook & Twitter). The share button itself works flawlessly taking a snapshot without any delay in gameplay. Apart from posting to social media, you can also access the pictures on the SD card but that requires taking the card out first. While the share option is very basic it is nice to be able to capture proof of gaming achievements. Nintendo have said they will be expanding this option and while that does sound appealing I do hope that it will remain the non-intrusive experience it is now.
Finally, there are the controller menu and system settings. Given how well the Switch handles its controllers I haven’t used the controller menu at all, apart from looking at it to see what it does. The system settings also require little explanation, except for the fact that Mii creation is hidden here. I’m glad Mii creation hasn’t gotten an “app” of its own as it was one more icon to manage. What I didn’t like is that I had to create my Mii yet again. While it lists the option to download a Mii from an Amiibo I haven’t figured out how to load one of my existing Mii’s onto an Amiibo. Let’s hope Nintendo will start storing your Mii with your account.
Speaking of accounts, for the Switch you will need to register yet another user-id. This ID can then be used to log onto your Nintendo Account (but you can still use your Nintendo Network ID if you want). They aren’t the same as your screen name so you’re not stuck playing as Joe123456. Friend codes still haven’t been axed either. While using a code makes sense beneath the surface Nintendo really need to stop harassing their users with it and start linking them to their friggin’ accounts. It would be very nice if my WiiU friendlist was still there showing me who had upgraded and who didn’t. This lack of cloud backed up data is somewhat of a surprise, beacause when Nintendo launched My Nintendo last year they promised “common use of data”. Things like a friendlist or Mii data would seem obvious choices. What’s even stranger is that save data isn’t backed up either. While Nintendo explicitly mentioned it when they announced the new account system almost two years ago. My guess (and hope) here is that this will be added later.
The omission of online back-up extends to online as a whole. The eShop is the only (centralized) online component currently available. Nintendo have said they will be rolling out a new online service somewhere in the year (presumably before either Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2 launches). It could very well be that extended user data storage (like save data) will be part of this service but at this point this pure speculation. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no online play currently available. Developers apparently have the option implement their own online component. Fast RMX is one of those games available now that offer this and when I tried it, it worked fine.
To finish this off I want to address the lack of non-gaming software on the Switch. Basically, the Switch only plays games. No Netflix, no browser, no nothing. While the OS does have an internal browser to handle stuff like signing in to Facebook and such it isn’t available to browse the internet at this point. Personally, I really don’t mind. If this is the price I have to pay for the buttery smooth experience I have now, I’m happy to pay it. Watching Netflix or web browsing I can do on many other devices and probably better too. For people that do care, however, Nintendo have said that services like Netflix might come in the future but nothing has been announced yet.
Not including “non-gaming” components in the Switch itself seems to be a conscious choice by Nintendo. It seems they are opting to push non-core functionality to companion apps on smart devices. For example their online features like (voice) chat will become available through these kind of apps and they have also already released an app to handle parental controls (onthe Switch itself you can only enable/disable parental controls). Again, if this helps keep the core running as smooth as it is, I’m all for it but I do worry how things like online communication will work with an additional smart device.
The Nintendo Switch truly is the culmination of the last generations of both Nintendo’s home and handheld consoles. Nintendo have successfully made true console gaming portable in a fairly uncompromised way. On the road, the Switch is great to play but when you get home it offers an upgrade to the experience through other control options and a bigger screen. All wrapped in a simple, silky smooth package. That said, the Switch does feel like a minimal viable product. It is fairly barebones, mainly lacking online features. Luckily, the foundation it has currently laid is very good. Stepping in now does mean you need to be ready for early adopter issues but it also means you can play the new Zelda. Picking one up might prove to be slightly difficult though, as the Switch is apparently, 5 days in, outselling the Wii in the US. If you can get your hands on one you’ll be getting a great dedicated gaming machine you can play anywhere which promises to only get better.