A $400 Zelda machine: Nintendo Switch launch day impressions
After a short, whirlwind courtship, the Nintendo Switch is now in the hands of the public. Overall, our initial impression hasn't changed too much. We still think it's an exciting piece of hardware, oozing with potential that may or may not be reached. And now that we've had more of a chance to explore its quirks, we've found plenty of little touches that we like – and just as many that have us scratching our heads.
Brief recap: the Switch is Nintendo's latest gaming console, and the successor to the poorly-implemented interesting idea that was the Wii U. The central concept here is that the Switch can quickly morph between a handheld device like the 3DS, or be docked at home to play on a TV. The Wii-remote-like controllers, which Nintendo calls Joy-Cons, can slide onto either side of the screen for a single-player handheld mode, fit into a "grip" to make a more conventional controller, or be used individually, for either motion control or a horizontal stick-and-buttons configuration.
Back in January, we spent a few hours playing with the device in all of these setups, and while the overall experience was a good one, we didn't get a chance to test the system's interface, its performance over time or how it transitions between its various configurations. A more in-depth look will follow later, but here are our initial day one thoughts.
All the small things
The Nintendo Switch is tiny. This isn't news to anyone who's seen videos of it in action, but pulling the core unit out of the box, sans Joy-Cons, you really get the impression that this is more "large phone" than "small tablet." Likewise, the Joy-Cons themselves are barely palm-sized, and at about the size of a thick SD card, the game cards are ludicrously loseable.
Small as it all is, the hardware feels really solidly built, and definitely a leap forward over the plasticy toys that were the Wii and Wii U. In fact, we'd go so far as to say that this is the first Nintendo device that actually feels "sexy," while ensuring that the company's trademark playfulness is kept intact.
By the same token, the UI is just as delightful. The click sound as you dock Joy-Cons is immensely satisfying, the home screen is tidy and no-nonsense, and loading times between menus and games are basically moot. It's a welcome change from the Wii U, which gave enough time after powering it on to make a cup of tea and be down to half a cup by the time it got going.
Playing solo, handheld mode (with the Joy-Cons attached to either side) is still the most comfortable for games like Zelda. If you're making use of a TV, the Joy-Cons in the grip do a decent enough job, although its wide square face makes it a little awkward to hold.
Passing individual Joy-Cons out to friends works well for multiplayer in something like Bomberman, although if the hand-cramps don't get you, the eye strain will. Crowding around the tablet is fine in short bursts, but for longer sessions, you'll want to have a TV handy.
In a game like 1-2-Switch though, the screen doesn't matter at all, and in terms of motion input and haptic feedback, the Joy-Cons blow anything else Nintendo has done out of the water.
Sadly, the software really lets the hardware down. We predicted that 1-2-Switch would get old fast, but we were surprised just how fast that happened, after only a few rounds in the office. Lacking any real meat, the bite-sized games are more WarioWare than Wii Sports, and cramming more of them into the package – 28 to be exact – doesn't make it any more of a meal. Paying full price for it just salts the wound.
Super Bomberman R fares a bit better, but it still feels a little light. We can see ourselves whipping it out for a rowdy Friday night with a few friends and a drink or two, but we're not sure that honeymoon will be long-lived either. A 50-level campaign mode could stretch the magic for another weekend or so, providing you can wade through the unbearably-cheesy story and voice-acting.
Most of the rest of the launch lineup is just as spotty, with one clear, shining exception: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. We can't wait to spend the weekend getting lost in it, and from our brief time with it so far, it's almost worth the price of admission alone.
Odds and ends, pros and cons
We've noticed a couple of other little nuggets about the system, both good and bad. With so many moving parts, the Switch does get a little awkward at times, and it's not always clear which controllers are synced and what layout they're in. The Joy-Cons don't always clip in or slide out of the console or grip as easily as they should either, but maybe it just takes a little getting used to.
The worst offenders though are the nigh-on useless straps that slide over the connecting edge of the Joy-Cons. While they add some needed comfort, a safety strap and meatier shoulder buttons to the little controllers, they're frustratingly fiddly to remove, and if you're hot-swapping control schemes, it's better not to bother with them.
Another little gripe: with the charging port on the bottom, you can't play in tabletop mode and charge the device at the same time. It's hard to see a way around that, given that's how it connects to the dock, and we're not sure yet if this will be a problem that comes up or not, but it is something we noticed.
On the plus side, Nintendo has obviously put thought into some scenarios that might normally go unnoticed. The little kickstand on the back that props up the console for tabletop mode is made to fall out somewhat easily. If you knock it over, or forget it's poking out and snap it off trying to dock the console, it clicks right back into place.
Nintendo also deliberately added a bittering agent to make the game cards taste terrible. Why? To keep kids and pets from putting the supremely-swallowable cards in their mouths.
Niggles aside, we're fairly impressed by what the Switch could provide, but not entirely with what it currently offers. At launch, it essentially boils down to one question: Are you willing to spend US$300 (or $400 for a bundle) just to play Zelda?
As it stands, this may be the strongest game to ever launch alongside a Nintendo console, but set it aside and that all-too-familiar worry creeps back in. It'd be downright disappointing if neither Ninty nor third party developers make proper use of the portability, the wide range of control options or the (finally) intuitive motion controls. Zelda's a great start, but we hope the Switch hasn't peaked already.
Product page: Nintendo Switch