The ultimate console/handheld compromise
Having ushered in the modern console landscape back in the day, in more recent times Nintendo’s focus has been on trying out weird and wonderful ideas with each new hardware release.
Whether it’s introducing second-screen gaming or motion-controls to the world with the Wii U and Wii respectively, or creating a handheld with a 3D display in the shape of the Nintendo 3DS, with each of its recent consoles Nintendo has gone out of its way to try something new.
And it’s a trend that’s continuing with its latest console, the Nintendo Switch. Here the idea is that it’s one piece of hardware that can function as both a console and a handheld, allowing you to seamlessly transition from playing your games at home to taking them on the go.
It’s a neat idea, and it’s one that intuitively makes more sense than the Wii and Wii U’s premises. After all, both consoles relied upon developers finding interesting uses for the new form factors. Wii Sports did this magnificently for the Wii, while developers had to work a little harder to make use of the Wii U’s Gamepad.
The Switch’s central premise, meanwhile, is something that can benefit literally every game. After all, who hasn’t wanted to take their console with them in the past to enjoy full home gaming experiences on the go?
For the most part, the console delivers well on this premise. It’s a solid, premium-feeling handheld, and works more or less as you’d expect a home console to work when you need it to.
It’s not perfect, and there are a couple of issues that prevent it from being a complete success, mostly related to the fact that it’s a console that’s trying to do multiple things at once; but for the most part the console finds a good compromise between its dual personalities.
Nintendo Switch price and release date
What is it? Nintendo’s newest console
When is it out? March 3, 2017 (pre-orders open now)
What will it cost? $299.99 in the US, £279.99 in the UK, $469.95 in Australia
Three form factors; handheld, console (docked) and tabletop
Lots of accessories, which are at risk of being misplaced
In the Nintendo Switch box you get the main body of the console, complete with two detachable controller sides, a grip which enables you to combine these controller portions into a more traditional gamepad, two straps which can be attached to these sides to make them into two individual controllers, and a dock that allows you to plug the console into your television.
You also get a USB Type-C power cable (with a non-detachable power brick) and an HDMI cable for connecting the device to your TV.
If you think that sounds like a lot of accessories then you’d be right, and we suspect a lot of people are going to end up misplacing at least one or two of them after some months with the console.
We’ve taken to wrapping our Joy-Con straps around our Joy-Con grip just to keep everything together, but it would be great if there was some way of attaching them to the console so they don’t end up getting misplaced.
It’s a pretty novel (not to mention somewhat complicated) setup, so it’s worth delving into each of the different ways you can use the console.
Bigger than traditional handhelds
Slightly cramped for the right hand due to right analogue stick
Split D-pad on the left side
First up is handheld mode, which is the form factor that’s most like the hardware that’s come before it.
In this configuration you attach the two controller portions (the Joy-Cons) to the left and right edges of the screen, and you use the console much like the PlayStation Vita.
In fact, the size and shape of the console’s analogue sticks make it feel a lot like a modern Vita, although it doesn’t feel as solid because of the joints that exist between the Joy-Cons and the screen.
Along the top of the device you’ve got a slot for game cartridges, a headphone jack (bluetooth headphones/headsets are not supported), a volume rocker and a power button.
The bottom of the device is a much more spartan affair. You’ve got the kickstand for using it in tabletop mode (more on this later) concealing a small microSD slot which provides the console’s expandable storage. Internal storage is limited to just 32GB, so if you’re planning on downloading games rather than buying them then you’re going to want to invest in a microSD card (capacities up to 2TB are theoretically supported).
The detachable Joy-Cons have a lot going on. The right hand side has the classic A, B, X, Y button configuration that Nintendo has used on and off since the SNES, an analogue stick (slightly awkwardly placed underneath the face buttons) and two shoulder buttons. There’s a small plus-shaped button which acts as the equivalent of the Wii U’s ‘Start’ button, and a home button for reaching the console’s system-level menus.
Across on the left Joy-Con it’s a very similar story. You’ve got a minus button that acts as the console’s ‘Select’ button, a share button for taking screenshots (which is set to be upgraded in the future to allow it to record video clips), an analogue stick, two shoulder-buttons, and the most un-Nintendo D-pad we’ve ever seen.
Instead of the classic cross D-pad Nintendo has utilised since the NES, the left Joy-Con instead has a set of four circular buttons that are identical in shape to the face buttons on the right Joy-Con.
This decision, which appears odd at first glance, has actually been made so the left Joy-Con can be used as an individual controller, with the D-pad acting as face-buttons in this configuration (again, more on this later).
Connects to your TV via an included dock
Docking process is seamless, and can be done mid-game
The second form-factor is console mode. You place the main portion of the console in the included dock, this connects the device to your television, and you’re then free to detach the Joy-Cons to control the Switch from a distance.
The way the console transfers the viewing experience from its own screen to the television is as seamless as it could possibly be. You don’t even have to pause your current game – it happens completely in real time.
Detaching the Joy-Cons can be a little fiddly, but is essentially done by holding a small button on their backs and sliding the controller up.
This TV dock is around the same size as the Switch’s middle portion. Around the back you’ve got a USB Type-C port to provide the console with power, an HDMI port to connect it to your television, and a USB Type-A port.
On the left-hand side of the console are a further two USB ports, which will mainly be used for charging your controllers as you play wirelessly (more on this later too).
If you want to use the Switch with multiple televisions throughout your home then you can buy additional docks, which should make it easy to transition from one screen to another.
Screen can also be detached and propped up on a table
The final form factor is what Nintendo calls ‘tabletop mode’. Using the kickstand that’s attached to the back of the screen you can prop the console up on a table and then detach the Joy-Cons for some semi-portable gaming.
In theory this is a perfect fit for long journeys on public transport where you have a tray table to place the console on, but this is a bit of a mixed experience.
It’s certainly lovely being able to use the Joy-Cons in the grip rather than having them attached to the console. The grip provides just enough extra plastic to make the controllers much more comfortable in the hands, and having the console a little further away from you means that your sitting posture feels a lot more natural.
But there are a couple of issues that prevent the console from fully capitalising on tabletop mode.
First is the kickstand. Although it’s rubbarised, which means that the console doesn’t slide around, it only supports the console at a single height. This means that if your tray table is a little closer to you then there’s no ability to prop the console up so that it’s facing you more directly. You’ll instead be stuck with the screen pointing at your chest rather than face.
Second is the charging port, which is in accessible when your using it in tabletop mode. During a recent train journey this meant that although we were in the perfect situation to use tabletop mode, we ended up using the console as a handheld so that we could make use of the charger next to our seat.
Overall it feels as though tabletop mode is better suited to short periods of use, which is a shame when it should be the defacto way to use the console over long periods.
Set-up is simple
Console will need to be told whether Joy-Cons are being used together or separately
Setting up the new console is suitably simple.
If you’re using the device as a handheld then simply attach the Joy-Cons and press the power button.
If you want to play games on your TV you’ll need to plug the dock into the TV via HDMI, and hook it up to some power via the included USB Type-C power lead. The console then easily slips into the dock.
Pairing the controllers is a little more complicated than with other devices because of the fact that they can either be paired or used separately. The way you tell the console which controllers you’re using is to press both the L and R shoulder buttons in whichever configuration you’re using.
This means that if you’re using the Joy-Cons individually you can press the buttons on the Joy-Con straps to indicate that this is the case.
On the software side the console will ask you for the standard combination of Wi-Fi details and user account set-up info. These details are a doddle to input if you make use of the console’s touchscreen; the keyboard isn’t quite as good as a smartphone’s, but it’s a lot better than using a traditional controller.
After that’s done you’re able to play games off a cartridge, or games that are saved on the system’s memory.
Nintendo has designed some absolutely classic controllers in its time. The original NES controller wrote the blueprint for what console controllers have continued to be ever since, the N64 was the first console to have a controller with an analogue thumb-stick, and the Wii, for better or for worse, introduced the world to motion-controlled gaming.
With the Switch, Nintendo has attempted the seemingly impossible in trying to create a controller that’s simultaneously one whole controller and two separate controllers, while also functioning as the handheld’s controllers.
Joy-Cons: general impressions
By trying to do many things at once the Joy-Cons don’t do anything perfectly
HD Rumble tech is impressive – now developers need to find a use for it
Ultimately these multiple roles mean the controllers end up being jacks of all trades and master of none. None of the controller configurations are unusable, but we’ve used more comfortable controllers in the past that have had the advantage of only having to do one thing very well.
The left Joy-Con’s D-pad exhibits this problem in a nutshell. Rather than going for the cross D-pad that the company’s been using since the NES, the D-pad is instead split into four separate buttons to allow them to be used as face buttons when the Joy-Con is used as an individual controller.
The result is a D-pad that you’re not going to want to use for classic games that rely on it a lot, like Street Fighter.
So too do the analogue sticks feel like a compromise between the form factors. They’re too small for a traditional gamepad, yet big enough that we wouldn’t want to throw the console too carelessly into a rucksack for fear of one of them snapping off.
You do of course have the option of buying separate accessories which don’t have these issues (the Pro controller being the prime example), but in this review we’re going to limit ourselves to talking about what you get in the box, since this is the primary way most people are going to be using the console, at least initially.
One part of the controllers that we absolutely love are the face buttons. They’re a little smaller than those on other consoles, but they’ve got a really satisfying click to them that we really appreciate.
The Joy-Cons feature an interesting form of rumble, which Nintendo has dubbed ‘HD Rumble’. From what we’ve seen so far this isn’t just a marketing gimmick – it genuinely feels like a step forward for rumble tech.
One mini-game in the launch game 1-2 Switch has you counting the number of (virtual) balls inside a Joy-Con, and it’s impressive just how well the HD Rumble creates the impression of there being real balls inside the controller.
Another mini-game impresses by tasking you to crack a safe by feeling the click of a dial as you turn it.
Both mini-games have us excited for the possibilities of HD Rumble in the future, but the success of the technology will depend on the ability of developers to make use of it – the potential is there, but we’re yet to see a killer app.
There have been reports of connectivity issues with the left Joy-Con which is something we’ve experienced ourselves. The problem is that sometimes during gameplay the left Joy-Con’s connection just drops out completely.
Fortunately, Nintendo is now offering a repair service for any broken Joy-Cons, so we’d advise sending yours in if you experience connectivity issues of any kind.
At launch you had the option of either plain black Joy-Cons or red and blue Joy-Cons, however over time these have been joined by neon yellow Joy-Cons.
At launch, no console is a complete experience, simply by virtue of the fact that most of its games are yet to see the light of day.
But the Switch suffers more than normal from this problem. At launch its virtual console is missing, and its full-featured online service is still months away.
There are also a number of features we’ve been unable to test in the pre-release period while we’ve had the Switch. The eShop has been missing, and at launch there aren’t any games available to allow you to link multiple Switch consoles together locally for multiplayer gaming.
It’s important, then, to emphasise that this review will be a constantly evolving appraisal of the console, with new features evaluated as they become available.
When compared with the handheld consoles that have come before it, the Nintendo Switch blows them out of the water with its graphical quality, which comes close to the last generation of consoles.
This is helped by its impressive screen which is bright, crisp, and colorful.
Providing the console with a controller that also doubles as two individual controllers is a very neat inclusion, and should mean that you’re never unable to join a friend for a quick multiplayer game while you’re out and about.
The docking and undocking process is impressively seamless, with games that don’t even need to be paused before being plugged into a television.
The phrase ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ may sound negative, but the impression the Nintendo Switch has left us with is that sometimes compromise is a necessary, good thing.
Yes there are better home consoles out there with controllers that can be good at doing just one thing, and yes there are handhelds out there that have better battery life and a more compact form-factor, but no other piece of gaming hardware has attempted the sheer amount of things as the Nintendo Switch and delivered so competently on so many of them.
The graphics aren’t the best around, but they’re good enough that they don’t feel dated. The controller isn’t the most comfortable, but it never feels outright difficult to use. The battery life isn’t the best, but its enough for daily use.
All of these have been born out of compromise and an attempt to make something that works in so many situations, and on that final point the Nintendo Switch is a great success.
What remains to be seen is if, in the years ahead, its games library can shape up to be something you’ll want to play both at home and on the go, and whether its online service can compete with the existing efforts from Sony and Microsoft.
If both of these play out well, then Nintendo will have found a compromise worth making.
So is it worth the $299.99 (£279.99 / AU$469.95) asking price? Unless you absolutely have to play Breath of the Wild (and you don’t already own a Wii U) then at launch the answer has to be ‘no’. The online functionality is unproven and the library of games just isn’t there yet.
By the end of the year that could all change. There are some very interesting releases on the way. The Super Mario series rarely puts a foot wrong, Mario Kart 8 was great on the Wii U, and by that point we’ll finally have been able to try out the full online service.
That said, this is a very promising start, and its 4-star rating is evidence of that. There’s little wrong with the hardware, but developers need to build on this solid foundation to make the Nintendo Switch a truly essential package.