Nintendo Switch: A parent’s view of the new console
"When's our Nintendo Switch coming, when's our Nintendo Switch coming, when's our Nintendo Switch coming?" I'd been hearing this – on an almost hourly basis – from my six year-old son since the new console was announced. On Friday those questions stopped when the home/portable hybrid arrived and we finally got to start playing. Here we'll look at what we think of the system so far, and whether you should welcome a Nintendo Switch into your family.
Before we get going, please note that this is not our full Nintendo Switch review. Following on from our early and then launch day impressions, we'll be penning that one as soon as we can get out of Hyrule for long enough. Instead, this article will focus on the family-friendly nature of the Nintendo Switch, and how we're finding it after spending a week in its company.
We'll look at things like parental controls, different ways to play, kid-suitable games, online safety, and other things Nintendo has done to make the Switch as good for kids as it looks like it will be for older gamers who want to play Skyrim on the go.
It's worth stating that our Switch arrived into an already Nintendo-friendly house. My son and I regularly play on our GameCube, 2DS, 3DS XL, or Wii U. For us, gaming is a communal activity with Mario Kart and Splatoon being our most-played games in recent months. When his friends visit we'll break out party games like Nintendo Land or Mario Party, the sort of titles some "real" gamers turn their noses up at.
The Nintendo Switch hardware is a lot better built than the Wii U's. Gone is the Fisher Price look and feel, and instead Nintendo has produced a premium-feeling product. The touchscreen tablet section is solid and sturdy, though the risk of scratches meant we installed a screen protector within minutes of opening the box. It's also surprisingly compact compared to the old Wii U gamepad.
Before we'd got the console up and running, my son was eager to repeatedly connect and disconnect the neon Joy-Con from the screen, which was more fiddly than he expected. Younger children should probably be supervised when doing this as it could easily result in one or both parts being dropped.
We'd already, accidentally, tested the ruggedness of the Switch at a preview event last month, when my son dropped one (to gasps and looks of disgust from grown-up gamers). Luckily, it survived unscathed, and the unfazed Nintendo staff said it was built to survive far worse than that.
While some users have complained the small Joy-Con aren't the most comfortable controllers, they're ideal for kids and those with smaller hands. My son found them much easier to hold and use than a Wii-remote, though the included wrist straps are still advised if a game involves waving them around. He's also pretty stoked that the right one can be used with his growing collection of Amiibo.
Other kid-focused design features of the Switch include its rear kick-stand which initially felt slightly wobbly to me. However, the first time my son tried to dock the Switch with it still out I realized why. It simply snapped off, and could be easily clicked back in place. In grown-up hands the docking and undocking process is incredibly smooth with pleasingly fast transitions between screens.
Nintendo also made Switch game cartridges taste disgusting, to stop kids chewing them. The result of this: Well, we passed the 1-2-Switch cartridge around taking it in turns to lick it (don't judge). If you prefer your games digital, the built-in 32 GB of storage can be extended via microSD cards and digital games mean kids don't need to fiddle with a docked Switch to swap cartridges.
Games to play now
Once we'd finished fondling the hardware and set up the dock with our TV – which took all of five minutes – it was time to start playing. Unfortunately, while most buyers will be starting their Switch experience with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the first game we played was 1-2-Switch, which is more suitable for a six-year-old.
We'd actually already tested a few of the mini-games at the preview event, including Quick Draw and Milk, so we knew what to expect. Some of the 28 mini-games in the full game weren't quite as good as those, but most were at least mildly fun to play together. I can see 1-2-Switch fitting into rotation with Nintendo Land and Mario Party 10 when we want a group/party gaming experience.
While the aforementioned Zelda title could be one of the best games ever to launch with a new console, and is great for older kids (it's rated 12+), there are precious few games otherwise. Especially if you want something for younger gamers. I'd hoped plenty of Nintendo's classic games would be available to give my son a retro-game education, but the planned Virtual Console isn't yet available on the Switch.
So, after looking at the very sparse eShop we downloaded the surprisingly good co-op puzzle game SnipperClips, and the F-Zero-like racer Fast RMX, just to have something else to play together which didn't involve milking cows.
Given the lack of games currently available, it's safe to say our Wii U will still be getting a fair bit of use for now. However, the situation is only going to get better, and we'll look at some of the upcoming family games later on in this article.
Ways to play
The most interesting thing about the Nintendo Switch is the different ways in which it can be used. For parents, this means the console could fit in with your family life in ways previous systems couldn't.
When docked, the Switch works like a traditional games console: You play it on your TV using the included Joy-Con controllers, which can be joined together with a grip. Depending on the game you are playing you might be making use of motion controls, like on the Wii (but much more accurate) or more standard controls. On the TV, games run at up to 1080p and look very similar to the Wii U, so there's no massive jump in graphics, and the Switch isn't even trying to compete with the PS4 or Xbox One.
There are also two ways to use the Switch away from the TV. With the Joy-Con connected to the tablet in handheld mode it acts like a traditional portable console. That said, if you are used to a 3DS, you'll likely be blown away by the graphics. At 720p they are far more detailed than Nintendo's previous portables, or even the Wii U Gamepad. Tabletop mode sees you disconnect the Joy Con and use them separately from the screen, which can then be stood up using the built-in kickstand.
We see these portable modes as important for families, as well as gamers who want to play Zelda or Skyrim on the go. For starters, it can free-up the family TV without meaning children are banished to their bedroom or somewhere else with a second TV.
However, for us it was the tabletop mode which impressed most as it allows couch-style multiplayer gaming anywhere. Sitting and playing together around the small screen felt much more social than each holding a device like a 3DS XL for multiplayer. That said, if you've got multiple devices, the Switch offers local as well as online multiplayer.
While there have been some complaints about battery life, this appears to be very much dependent on the game being played. While we only got around three hours playing Zelda, SnipperClips was still running after four hours use throughout a weekend.
Parental Controls and Online
Given all modern games consoles are internet connected devices, parents will obviously want to give this some thought when leaving a child with one unsupervised. Luckily, the Nintendo Switch offers some pretty good parental and online controls.
While you can set basic limits in terms of what age-level games can be played, and online purchases direct, on the Switch, the best control comes via the Nintendo Switch Parental Controls app which is available for Android or iOS.
Here you can set limits not only in terms of game age restrictions, but also whether users can communicate with others, and most screenshots on social networks. You can also limit the time the Switch can be played each day, and at what times, complete with a bedtime alarm. When the set time's up, the switch can either display a note on-screen, or suspend play.
Given how I can remember sneaking up after bedtime to play Donkey Kong with the volume turned down low, this feels a bit cruel. Parental controls can be temporarily disabled by typing a PIN when you want to play something more mature yourself. The app also logs how long the Switch has been used for each day, and what games are proving most popular.
As we mentioned earlier, there are currently very few games available for the Switch, and even less which will be suitable for families to play. However, there are a number of titles due for launch which are likely to appeal.
Upcoming games from Nintendo over the next few months include a Deluxe version of Mario Kart 8, Arms (a quirky cartoon fighter with motion controls), and Splatoon 2 (the follow-up to the ink-squirting multiplayer shooter). Given how much time we've spent playing Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon on the Wii U, we'll certainly be getting the Switch iterations of those games.
There's also the upcoming sandbox-style Mario Odyssey which is due to come out towards the end of the year.
Other family-friendly games which have been confirmed for the Switch include Minecraft, LEGO Worlds, Lego City Undercover, FIFA 18, NBA2K18 and Puyo Puyo Tetris. This means that by the end of the year there should be a good number of games to keep your little ones occupied, or for you to play together.
While on the surface the Switch doesn't seem to be as kid-focused as some other Nintendo consoles, it looks like it'll be the new go-to console for families wanting something they can use to play games together, or for kids to use on their own. At $300 for the console before you've got a game or any accessories, the Switch isn't cheap, but then again when has a new console ever been cheap? If you want to save a bit of cash, why not see how the Switch stacks up against the Wii U or 3DS XL.
The hybrid games console concept makes the Switch suitable for families who want the flexibility this allows, whether it's freeing up the TV, giving the kids something to do on a long car journey, or the ability to play a console-grade Mario Kart at the local coffee shop. The combination of parental controls and the number of child-friendly games which are due to launch also makes the Switch a more tempting prospect than a PS4 or Xbox One might be.
You also still get the chance to play things like Zelda yourself, though we'd suggest picking up the optional Pro Controller, which we found was a much better fit for adult hands. As such, we think the Nintendo Switch is shaping up to be the best games console for families.
However, as with any new console, you might not want to jump in straight away. With so few games available right now, you could hold off for a few months without missing out. Meanwhile, until the end of April all I'll be hearing is, "When's Mario Kart for the Switch coming, when's Mario Kart for the Switch coming, when's Mario Kart for the Switch coming?"
Product page: Nintendo Switch