Review: Nintendo Switch feels like the successor the Wii deserves
Ever since it was first announced back in October, our feelings on the Nintendo Switch have been a bit up and down. We've praised its core idea – a console that blends the power of a home console with the portability of a handheld – but lamented its lackluster launch lineup of games. We've found the controllers both comfortable and cramp-inducing, in different configurations. Now, after two weeks with the Switch, we've found it's an utter joy to play, despite a couple of early niggles that might make it worth waiting before you take the plunge.
First, the basics: The Switch is the latest gaming console from the traditionally-trailblazing Nintendo, who usually builds its machines around an interesting idea rather than a focus on graphical grunt, like its competitors at Sony and Microsoft. This time around, the core idea is for a hybrid system that can quickly transition between a home console connected to a TV, and a tablet-like device that can be played virtually anywhere.
The system supports a wide range of controller setups, mostly revolving around the detachable remote-shaped Joy-Cons. These can slide onto the side of the tablet, connect to a "Grip" to make a kind of classic controller, or be used individually, either for motion control or turned sideways into a thumbstick-and-buttons configuration.
Since its release on March 3, we've looked at the Switch from a parent's perspective – given that families and children are a key part of Nintendo's usual target audience – and seen how it stacks up against the Wii U and the handheld 3DS, since the new machine looks set to replace both.
The Switch feels like a natural progression of both the Wii and Wii U, but it finally feels like Nintendo is in a position to deliver on the promises it started selling us 10 years ago: namely, the Wii's motion controls and the Wii U's off-TV Play. Most of the best Wii games ignored motion controls almost entirely, and the system had some trouble tracking players' wild waving, but it did the job for bowling and tennis in Wii Sports. Later, the Wii U's GamePad controller let you play console-quality games sans-TV, but the system threw a hissy fit if you dared venture more than a few feet away from the box.
On both of those fronts, the Switch excels. As both normal controllers and motion-sensing wands, the Joy-Cons are smaller, comfier and far more responsive than their Wii remote ancestors. On the mobility front, players can now freely take the console to bed, the backyard, parties, on trains, road trips, vacations, or virtually anywhere.
Improved as it is, motion control still doesn't feel crucial to the overall experience. Sure, 1-2-Switch does a great job of showcasing the potential gameplay possibilities it opens up, but we'd expect that, like the Wii and Wii U, the Switch's best games will probably be those that stick to conventional control schemes.
The difference here is that when you strip away that gimmick, the console underneath has plenty more to offer. In terms of raw horsepower it's a far cry from the PS4 and Xbox One, but that's never fazed Nintendo before, and its products are better for it. The company has always prioritized gameplay over graphics, although the Switch is more power-focused than Nintendo's ever been – best evidenced through the flagship launch game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It's stunning on a big screen (even at the relatively low resolution of 900p), and though the game will occasionally stutter a little, it's nothing too jarring.
But the Switch truly shines when it's not tethered to a TV. Zelda is undoubtedly the biggest and best-looking game Nintendo has ever made, but it's also likely the biggest and best mobile game in general. Since the days of the GameBoy almost 30 years ago, Nintendo has ruled the go-anywhere gaming arena, and while smartphone and tablet games have taken over that space in recent years, the experiences they offer aren't in the same ballpark. It's comparing apples to expired orange-flavored candy from the bargain bin.
That makes the Switch feel more like a handheld that can sometimes be played on a TV, as opposed to a home console you can take anywhere. But that's definitely a good thing – the games on offer here are far more satisfying commute-killers than a mindless Candy Crush fix.
The dream of playing on the go, coming home and continuing on the TV is undermined a little by the fact that the cable used to charge the Switch is the same one that powers the dock. That means that any time you want to take the machine with you for any stretch of time, you'll have to dismantle your at-home setup, which can be a pain given the mess of cords that lives behind our entertainment unit.
Of course, you could buy a second cable – it uses plain old USB-C, after all – but that's another accessory to buy in an already-crowded ecosystem orbiting the Switch. It's great that Nintendo has given us the option to use a widely-available, non-proprietary cable, but some users are reporting that the Switch is such a power-guzzler that even playing with it plugged into a battery pack, the battery can still drain.
You might not have to worry about battery life too much if your time with the console is a balanced diet of both docked and portable play, since it's constantly topping itself up. Out and about, we managed to squeeze more than three hours out of it playing Zelda, and closer to four with some 1-2-Switch thrown in, which isn't bad. A portable charger could keep you fueled for longer trips, but again, that's a separate purchase.
Since launch day, we've also decided that – after handheld mode – a Joy-Con in each hand is now our preferred setup for playing Zelda. It feels like the old Wii remote/nunchuck configuration, but your hands aren't tied together. Sliding the Joy-Cons into the Grip does the job, but the placement of the sticks and buttons just doesn't feel quite as natural as the controllers it's mimicking. The same goes for holding one 'Con sideways, but overall it feels like a compromise, but one we're willing to make, given the versatility of these controllers. And for those not willing to compromise, there's the Pro Controller, which has the conventional console controller form factor - again, that's an extra purchase.
There are a lot of moving parts to the console, which might give some younger users a little strife. Docking and undocking the Joy-Cons and, in particular, sliding the additional "straps" onto the controllers, can be a fiddly affair, and you might want to supervise the kids during this process. While we haven't had the guts to try a "drop test" on our new toy, the Switch is apparently designed to withstand more punishment than its fragile tablet appearance would have you believe.
In our first impressions post, we called the Switch a "$400 Zelda machine," and for the most part, we stand by that – Link's latest outing is almost worth the price of the hardware alone. The rest of the launch lineup may be slim, but it's not dire: Snipperclips is a charming, ingenious co-op puzzle game, and a true team-building (or friendship-testing) exercise for two, three or four players. Super Bomberman R, on the other hand, is not worth the US$50 price tag: it's fun, but far too repetitive.
We've warmed up to 1-2-Switch, though, even if we maintain it should've been bundled in with the console. Its mini-games are very hit and miss, but the good ones are better than the bad ones are bad, and the fact that there are so many of them balances the package out to a worthwhile purchase. This is the one to break out at a party, and challenging your friends to a dance-off, eating contest or cow-milking duel is a great way to show off the Switch's capabilities.
And those capabilities have us excited for the future of the console. Waving our arms around in a mock wizard battle or playing an invisible match of table tennis brings back the simple gaming joy that made Wii Sports, and by extension the Wii itself, such a massive hit. Playing it at a party, we had a big group of not-really-gamers giving it a red-hot go, with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for people in ads.
In terms of appealing to hardcore gamers, Nintendo is still playing second fiddle to the likes of Sony and Microsoft, but that's not the battle the company is fighting. That said, the Switch holds its own far better than the Wii or Wii U ever could, and if Nintendo can seduce more independent developers and third parties, it could, for the first time, find itself the preferred console for playing multi-platform games. Think about it: If the only difference is that one system lets you play a game just about anywhere, that's the version of that game you'll want to get, right?
For people who may have bowed out after the Wii, or have watched from the sidelines as video games have grown ever more complex, the Switch looks set to be the best place to jump in. And while we can't be sure of what the future holds, the situation looks like it should only improve from here. By year's end, the Switch will boast a Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart and Splatoon, with a Fire Emblem game due in 2018. Pokémon is rumored to be in the works, and it's a pretty good bet that stalwarts like Donkey Kong, Kirby, Mario Party and Super Smash Bros will be trotted out at some point in the system's lifespan.
Technologically solid and simply oozing potential, we've had a blast with the Switch so far. It feels like the successor the Wii deserves, and if you have fond memories of bowling with the kids or having Nana beat you at golf, it's worth a look.
The main problem is simply the fact that it's so new, there's not a whole lot to do with it just yet – although we can see ourselves getting lost in Hyrule for dozens more hours – but the good news is that this is only a temporary issue. Fence-sitters might be better off waiting a year or so, and by then we should have a clearer idea of where it's going, and the deal could be sweetened by a bigger library and possible price drop.
Product page: Nintendo Switch