Nintendo Switch hands-on: Great fun, but still second fiddle?
Nintendo has built its empire on doing things its own way, and the Switch is no different. The idea of a console that can seamlessly transition between big-screen play at home and on-the-go gaming is a great one in theory, but how does it hold up in practice? After a few hours of hands-on time with the system, we believe the experience is as cool as it looks – although it probably won't solve some of Nintendo's chronic issues.
First impressions first: The Switch is small. Really small. If you saw the initial reveal video back in October or the main presentation this week, you already knew that, but just how petite it is won't hit you until you see it in person. And it'll hit you again even harder when you hold one lone Joy-Con, the detachable Wii Remote-like controllers, for the first time. You could probably crush it if you squeeze too hard, and the candy-colored controller options don't help its toy-like feel.
That said, the motion controls on the Joy-Con finally feel 1:1, unlike Wii Remotes and even the Motion Plus add-ons.
For our first game, we chose 1-2-Switch, the Wii Sports equivalent that will probably be the first port of call for most new players. If the Wii U was (at least in theory) all about playing across two screens, the minigames inside 1-2-Switch focus on the off-screen experience. They're motion-controlled party games meant to be played without needing to look at a screen, like the PlayStation Move-enabled JS Joust.
Central to most of the minigames is the new "HD Rumble" feature, which boils down to a more detailed haptic feedback system. Sure, that sounds like a pretty dull tick on the back of the box, but HD Rumble is, surprisingly, one of the Switch's coolest capabilities.
In Ball Count, players shake and tilt their Joy-Con around in their hand, and try to guess how many marbles are rolling around inside. To the game's credit, it's easy to tell, simply because the haptic motors do a pretty amazing job of simulating each individual ball. In Safe Crack, players slowly rotate the Joy-Con until they feel the ever-so-subtle click of tumblers falling into place in a lock. Friday's presentation simply can't do HD Rumble justice: It's something you need to try for yourself to fully appreciate.
But as impressive as it is, 1-2-Switch feels doomed to the same fate as Wii Sports and the Wii U's pack-in minigame compilation, Nintendo Land. They're all great at demonstrating to new players what their respective consoles could do, if Nintendo or third party developers chose to take advantage of their uniqueness, but if the last two generations are anything to go by, those gimmicks will quickly fall by the wayside. And to cap it off, they aren't very replayable long term.
The difference here, as we've said before, is that it doesn't matter if the Switch follows suit in that respect. It doesn't need to rely on motion or HD Rumble when its best feature – the portability option – is baked right into every game on the platform. And playing console-quality Mario, Zelda and even Skyrim anywhere is an exciting prospect.
Like the Wii Remotes of old, the Joy-Con can be turned sideways and used like a standard controller. In that configuration, there's a thumbstick on the left, four face buttons on the right, and a couple of shoulder buttons and triggers on top. The Joy-Con feel even smaller with two hands wrapped around them, but games like Mario Kart are perfectly playable on a controller that makes you feel like Andre the Giant: three buttons are all that's needed to accelerate, drift and shoot, while the stick steers. They're surprisingly comfortable – but only in short bursts.
After just two or three races, my grizzled gamer hands did start to cramp up, and crowding around a tablet for split-screen multiplayer is a fun novelty, but this setup isn't how you'd spend an entire lazy Saturday afternoon. Instead, true to the reveal video, it should work just fine for hot-swapping short sessions at a party.
For longer sessions, you'd want to stick to the general Handheld Mode. With the two Joy-Cons clipped to the side of the screen, the device is as comfortable to hold as a 3DS or PlayStation Vita, albeit a little weightier, and in that configuration it should be playable for as long as the battery allows. Nintendo says that all-important figure is anywhere from 2.5 to 6.5 hours, depending on the game, and although we couldn't get much of a sense of that in our few hours with it, we'd expect it to mostly trend towards the lower end of that spectrum.
That's because power-wise, the Switch feels like a home console squeezed into a handheld. Even though the 6.2-inch screen is only displaying at a resolution of 720p (by comparison, many high-end smartphones squeeze 1440p resolution into 5.5-in screens), it looks crisp and sharp, and in our time with it there were no stutters or frame drops. When it's docked, the console outputs to a TV at 1080p, and it can switch between modes in an instant: We tested it several times mid-game, and the transition never took more than two or three seconds. You'll probably want to pause the game while you dock or undock it, but it is as seamless as it looks.
On a technical level, the Switch is an exciting piece of hardware, and our afternoon playing with it has left us wanting more. But there are issues, and they're the same ones that have been plaguing Nintendo for years: Namely, the new console still isn't likely to convert core gamers who don't have time for gimmicks, and it's no replacement for an Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
It all comes down to software, and in that respect the Switch's launch lineup is looking pretty scant. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the big ticket day-one must-have, and 1-2-Switch will keep early adopters occupied for a couple of days, max. Then it's mostly indies, obscure Japanese titles and ports of existing games until bigger releases, like Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, follow a few months later, with Super Mario Odyssey waiting to prop up Nintendo's holiday 2017 sales.
If Nintendo can make good on its promise to attract more third-party developers, the new console might just turn the company's fortunes around. As it stands, the Switch looks set to be a great little machine, even if it's still playing second fiddle to the likes of Sony and Microsoft.
The Nintendo Switch launches worldwide on March 3, for US$299.
Product page: Nintendo Switch