One Weekend With Nintendo Switch

by Dustin Bailey,
Nintendo's latest console is exactly what we wanted from the company—at least in theory. A unified platform combining a handheld and a home console, focusing all of the company's development efforts on a single system. The core conceit, “switching” between console and portable modes by simply pulling a screen out of a dock, is fantastic both in concept and execution. The rest is a bit sketchier, but after a solid weekend with the hardware I think the good outweighs the bad—or it will, in six-to-twelve months.

In the box you'll have the Switch tablet, two Joy-Con controllers, a controller grip, wrist straps, a dock, HDMI cable, and AC adapter. The console itself is tiny. The screen is about the same size as the one on the Wii U gamepad, but it's without the bulky plastic and Fisher-Price aesthetics of Nintendo's previous handheld. With Joy-Cons removed, it's only slightly larger than a 3DS XL, and about a third the size of a more traditional tablet like the iPad. It has a weight that feels good in your hands, and I find it a bit more comfortable to hold than any flavor of the 3DS.

Though the console is theoretically comparable to a modern home console in terms of power, it doesn't have any discernible heat or noise issues, which is wonderful for a handheld. It's a little warm when you pull it off of a fresh charge, but I haven't noticed any heat build up while playing, and the fan whirring below the exhaust port on the top of the console is only noticeable when your surroundings are dead quiet. The only mark against the construction of the Switch is the kickstand, which is a cheap bit of plastic that barely feels attached to the console when you pop it out, and constantly seems to be on the verge of snapping off with just a bit of extra force.

Swapping between handheld and TV play is just as seamless as the happy millennials in those ads made it seem. Even as someone who rarely brings a handheld out of the house, the Switch's portability has been surprisingly useful, and the ability to take the console to bed and get just a bit more Zelda adventuring done has alone sold the concept for me.

I'm less sold on the Joy-Cons. They feel fine as part of the console in handheld mode, but ergonomics feel slightly awkward outside of that context, even with the grip accessory. It took me far longer than it should've to get used to the controller—I blew myself up more than once in Zelda—and even then playing on a TV with the grip leaves the buttons feeling too tightly packed and has your thumbs getting too fiddly with conspicuously arrayed analog sticks. Plus it require just a bit more force than it should to get the controllers on and off the console, or the grip, or the wrist strap accessories. I thought I could avoid the $70 purchase of Nintendo's pro controller, but after just a few hours with the system, I was desperate to buy one. I haven't gotten ahold of that controller yet, but for anyone looking to spend significant time with the console on a TV, I would describe that extra purchase as “not optional.”

Also, the Joy-Con desync problem is very real, and very much an issue even with the firmware update. I sit about five feet away from the console, and if I hold the controller in a way that obscures the left Joy-Con even a little, I'll start to see the problem crop up. I'm admittedly using the Switch in the worst possible setting for wireless problems, as it's in a large room surrounded by a half-dozen other consoles all plugged in and running wireless operations. But the widespread reports about the issue from other folks—and the fact that the right Joy-Con has had no issues—has me a lot less willing to forgive the problem. Sometimes, it means I just won't see a full analog range of motion from the stick, but other times I'll completely lose control for a second—which has indeed meant at least one cliff-diving death in Zelda. Early PS3 adopters will recognize the issue as the same one which plagued first-generation Sixaxis controllers, and that issue was only fixed by hardware revisions—not new firmware. One more reason to get a pro controller, right?

Controller issues aside, the interface is slick and easy to use. The main screen is a PS4-style horizontal line of tiles representing your games, and it's a single tap or button press to launch whatever you want. Notifications, eShop, screenshot capture—there's not much to say about any of them, which is a good thing because they simply work. Holding down the home button in any game pops open a quick menu that lets you adjust things like brightness or airplane mode, which is a tremendous convenience I wish more traditional tablets offered. The only quibble I have is that it's occasionally troublesome to reconfigure controller options when, say, switching from a two-player Joy-Con game like Snipperclips to a traditional control option. Not a huge problem, but the resyncing screen always seems to take a few more button presses than necessary and the instructions aren't self-explanatory.

Then, of course, there are the games. There's no way around the fact that there just aren't a lot of options, especially in North America. There are literally nine listings in the whole of the eShop, and two of those are different flavors of Shovel Knight. The only available game not listed there is Skylanders: Imaginators, and it along with Just Dance 2017 and I Am Setsuna are all available on other platforms. It's worth noting that it's incredibly easy to create a Japanese account and access that region's eShop, and I understand that games like Disgaea 5 even have English language options built in—if you can get your credit card company to accept the foreign transaction. Downloading free demos was completely painless. You should be aware, though, that having a Japanese account on the system will fill your news feed with notifications in both languages. (But hey, it's a great way to enjoy the latest Nobunaga's Ambition trailer.)

You might call this a one game system for now (though that's unfair to some great indie stuff), but that “one game” is absolutely incredible. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is without a doubt the best game to launch alongside a Nintendo console since Super Mario 64, and certainly the only “killer app” on a system's first day since Halo. Even just over the weekend I've lost track of the hours I've played, and I've barely scratched the surface of this thing. Each new discovery feels like a revelation, and everything from the scripted enemy encounters and story bits to the open-ended exploration and multi-solution puzzle design feels so damn good.

The overwhelming praise coming at this game from every direction might seem like hyperbole, but it's not. It's a reinvention that makes the Zelda series feel as fresh and relevant as it did when Ocarina of Time was new. There's far too much to cover here about what makes this game so good—and I've got a lot more of it to play—but so far it's everything I could've hoped for. It's also out on Wii U, which makes its position as a system-seller a bit less tenable. If you don't already own a Wii U, then the quality of Zelda starts to make the case for the Switch's purchase price—provided, of course, that you're interested in other Nintendo games like Splatoon and Super Mario Odyssey.

Though Zelda has eaten up the majority of my Switch time, I have checked out most of the other exclusives, and some of them are pretty terrific. Snipperclips is a must if you've got somebody to play co-op with, and still a fun puzzler in single-player. You've got two papercraft people who can snip and clip pieces out from each other to solve various puzzles, from filling in vague outlines to popping hard to reach balloons and gently guiding fragile eggs to their nests. It's a great time, it's adorable, and it's probably the best thing on the system outside of Zelda.

Fast RMX is also worth checking out for F-Zero fans. The simply-named Fast series has been a staple on the eShop since the Wii, and though I've only played a few tracks this seems to be a great futuristic racer with a fantastic sense of speed. There's an Ikaruga-like color flipping mechanic that sees you swapping hues to hit colored boost pads and jumps. It all feels great.

Specter of Torment is the second expansion campaign for Shovel Knight, and it's a temporary exclusive for the Switch. It's also pretty great, adding bits of Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden to the game while keeping up on the better than retro shtick that made the original terrific. It'll be coming as a free update for previous Shovel Knight owners on other platforms, though.

Lastly, there's 1-2-Switch, which seems to be entertaining precisely as long as you've got new people to show it to. I haven't had the alcohol-heavy party this game seems to be made for, but I did have a great time playing a few of the minigames with my wife. They're well-produced, there's some nuance to the controls, and the live action video is stupid in an incredibly entertaining way. But there's no depth, even compared to something as relatively simple as Wii Sports. I can't foresee any situation where I'd play any of these games a second time with any individual person. Whether it should be a pack-in is debatable, but even as well-produced as this thing is it has no business being $50.

The core promise of the Switch—the versatility, portability, and ease of switching between mobile and console modes—is exactly as advertised. It's great, and from a hardware and interface perspective certainly a better console than the Wii U was at launch. The controller issues are frustrating, but there seems to be a perfect solution to them—in the form of a $70 accessory. That's a bummer, as is the slim selection of games and the lack of Virtual Console. Those problems are made more apparent by how terrific the rest of the console is, slickly designed, solid in construction, with an efficient and easy to use interface. I'm likely going to move all my future indie game purchases to this console and I can't wait to play whatever Nintendo is cooking for it. But as cool as it is, it's not a slam dunk, and if you have another option for playing Zelda right now you should absolutely wait. By the time this holiday rolls around, the system will have many of the Wii U's best games, Mario, what looks to be a fantastic indie lineup, and maybe—just maybe—they'll have fixed the Joy-Con problem. It's a promising start for Nintendo's new system, and I think it will be a great console by the end of the year, but early adopters will be paying the price as the kinks get worked out.

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