Games

Nintendo Switch hands-on: Great fun, but still second fiddle?

Nintendo Switch hands-on: Grea...
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Nintendo Switch
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Nintendo Switch
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New Atlas goes hands on with Nintendo's new console, the Switch
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New Atlas goes hands on with Nintendo's new console, the Switch
Up to eight Nintendo Switch consoles can be linked locally or online
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Up to eight Nintendo Switch consoles can be linked locally or online
The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con is surprisingly comfortable in the hand - at least, in short bursts
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The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con is surprisingly comfortable in the hand - at least, in short bursts
The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con provide what feels close to 1:1 motion control
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The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con provide what feels close to 1:1 motion control
Handheld Mode, where the Joy-Con are connected to the sides of the screen, is by far the most comfortable way to play the Nintendo Switch
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Handheld Mode, where the Joy-Con are connected to the sides of the screen, is by far the most comfortable way to play the Nintendo Switch
Each Joy-Con has a stick on the left, four face buttons on the right, and a couple of shoulder buttons and triggers
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Each Joy-Con has a stick on the left, four face buttons on the right, and a couple of shoulder buttons and triggers
In Tabletop Mode, two players can take one Joy-Con each and play split-screen multiplayer on the smaller Nintendo Switch screen
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In Tabletop Mode, two players can take one Joy-Con each and play split-screen multiplayer on the smaller Nintendo Switch screen
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Nintendo Switch
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New Atlas goes hands-on with the Nintendo Switch

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.

In Tabletop Mode, two players can take one Joy-Con each and play split-screen multiplayer on the smaller Nintendo Switch screen
In Tabletop Mode, two players can take one Joy-Con each and play split-screen multiplayer on the smaller Nintendo Switch screen

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.

The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con is surprisingly comfortable in the hand - at least, in short bursts
The Nintendo Switch Joy-Con is surprisingly comfortable in the hand - at least, in short bursts

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.

New Atlas goes hands on with Nintendo's new console, the Switch
New Atlas goes hands on with Nintendo's new console, the Switch

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

3 comments
KungfuSteve
The thing looks pretty much like a Phone / Phablet. If Nintendo was smart... they would have baked phone functionality into the thing... and it would probably have been the biggest selling phone of all time. (esp if it came with a pressure sensitive stylus) At 720p... unless shutterglass vr headset is used... then vr using the stupid vertical aspect split-screen, is not a good option. Personally, Ive never understood why VR was not developed using fast-switching shutterglasses. The flicker would be so minimal... and the field of vision would be so much more immersive and useful. Of course... phone themselves could have had the potential to destroy all the consoles... Had they developed a gamepad controller status early on... and included even bare-minimum controllers with the phones. They still have this potential.. but the companies are filled with non-creative minds... that simply do not get it. As a result... multi-thousands of Apps/games... are basically crippled and unplayable crap. Crap that people will soon realize... they dont need or care about anymore... and cease using them altogether...
Jacob Shepley
KungfuSteve on why this should not be a phone 1) Making it a phone then makes a lot of people not buy it since they have no need to upgrade yet or are still stuck in their current phone plan. 2) This thing has a maximum use time of around 6.5 hours. No word on its standby time but either way it wouldn't last as long as current phones. 3) This is a first of its kind - home console that is portable while not being ridiculously expensive. New phones are significantly more expensive than this. For it to compete with phones it would be so expensive that no one would buy it as a console.
Jimjam
This console is not quite DOA, but I expect to be reading stories in March 2018 about how it is not selling well outside of early adopters. It is just a bit to compromised. It is not powerful enough to be an acceptable home console, and it is a bit too expensive to be acceptable as a handheld console. But the real kicker was that it had to be within striking distance in terms of power of the PS4 pro in order to get decent third party support. Although the fact that the Switch is running on ARM and Xbox One and PS4 are running on x86 might have ruined that anyway. If they'd have stuck an extra GPU in the base for more home power, they might have been on to a winner. Whether or not that is economically possible while still hitting a USD 299 price point is unlikely.