Editor’s note: Here at The Fountain, we rarely review hardware products or entertainment technology, since we believe that the quality of the experiences available on a platform matters rather more than the pros or cons of the platform itself. However, when the possibilities of those experiences are conditioned by the limitations of that platform, as they are when discussing a video games console, some thoughts on the matter might be of use. Rather than a formal scored review, we asked new Switch owner James Day to give his thoughts on his first couple of weeks with the console.
Have you ever wanted to take the game you’re playing on your TV on the road with you? If you have, Nintendo has delivered you a solution with its new hybrid home-portable console, the Switch.
In theory, the concept behind the device makes some sense. Nintendo, I’m sure, particularly likes the idea since it could potentially unify the user bases of its home and portable platforms, allowing it to focus all of its attention and resources in one place. Has the company managed to get around the logistical issues around such a concept, not to mention the compromises that tend to be required when creating any hybrid device?
All Mod Cons
Because of its unusual nature, it bears explaining what constitutes a Switch. The system itself is a fairly nondescript-looking tablet, albeit one with a kickstand for propping it up on surfaces. Two detachable controllers named Joy-Cons, which are often used together as a single more traditional controller, also come with every system. These are basically Nintendo’s second take on the Wii Remote, featuring a similar compact design, motion controls and wrist straps but adding analogue sticks and numerous extra buttons, NFC compatibility and ‘HD rumble’ technology, which is apparently capable of providing users with fine tactile feedback (only one game has used this so far and only in a limited capacity). A dock in which the Switch charges itself and outputs to the TV screen via HDMI also comes with every system. Contrary to some early theories, there is no extra processing hardware contained within this hollow-feeling box, with it providing nothing else besides one USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports for separate controller charging. Other accessories and peripherals either come with each console or are available separately, but the tablet, the Joy-Cons and the dock are the three critical elements of the system.
While I’ll refrain from delving deep into the Switch’s hardware specifications—there are other venues where you can find that—what you need to know is that the system appears to have approximately the same horsepower as Nintendo’s last home system, the Wii U. While it’s somewhat impressive to see games with that level of graphical fidelity running on a compact tablet-based system, personally I can’t help but still be disappointed that Nintendo’s flagship TV-compatible system will yet again be significantly limited in graphical muscle when it comes to the rest of its competition. It looks like my dream of having another The Legend of Zelda game with cutting-edge graphics will have to wait at least another console generation.
Overall though, the hardware looks slick and feels nice. The build quality of Nintendo’s hardware is usually top notch, but here there’s an extra sense of solidity and streamlining, as if every centimetre of space has been smartly used. The 6.2-inch touch-screen looks satisfyingly crisp and bright, thankfully a lot more so than the Wii U Gamepad’s slightly murky screen, even if it has a maximum resolution of 720p. Even the unconventional Joy-Cons, which many feared could be too small for average-sized Western hands, feel decent in my monster-sized white guy mitts. The included Joy-Con Grip, a shell which the dual devices slide into to make them feel more like a standard controller, and the separate Pro Controller provide other more traditional ways to play Switch games if you do feel uncomfortable with the Joy-Cons alone.
Though flexible in multiple situations due these controller options and the tablet’s kickstand, the Switch is still probably both the most bulky and most delicate of all of Nintendo’s portables when on-the-go. Without the clam shell-like design of the DS and 3DS line of handhelds the tablet’s screen and the Joy-Cons’ protruding analogue sticks are vulnerable to damage. With this in mind, a carry case is all-but-required unless you don’t plan on taking the Switch out of the house, and this of course comes at an additional cost. The £15 officially licensed HORI Tough Case, the only quality one that seems to be in stock since the console’s launch, has been serving me well so far.
In terms of size, the system is much too large for the average pocket, especially with the Joy-Cons attached, and that’s without the extra bulk of a carry case. If you’re not the type who tends to take a bag or something with extra carrying capacity with you when you leave the house, you’ll need to become one if you want to take your Switch out and about.
Are you there?
It’s worth addressing the unpleasant spectre of a pair of hardware issues that have emerged in the week since the Switch’s launch. A commonly cited problem, which has also affected my enjoyment of the Switch at seemingly random times, is the occasional loss of wireless signal with the left Joy-Con. There have also been reports of the dock damaging the tablet’s screen. Hopefully the former will be fixed in a firmware update and the latter is just a case of people being too rough in the docking process (both could be fixed in a probable ‘2.0’ hardware revision too) but regardless these are two real dangers of adopting the Switch early.
Besides those unfortunate technical snags, I’m sad to report there is also a laundry list of other small problems with the console. Taken individually, each of these would probably be insignificant enough to forgive, but together they really hamper the overall Switch experience. Here are what I believe to be the most egregious of all, but bear in mind that this isn’t even all of them.
First of all, the battery life isn’t great, clocking in at a maximum of six hours depending on software usage and settings. However, the most hardware-intensive games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will drain the power in about three hours. Expect to be docking the system every night to keep it charged and don’t plan on using it consistently on a long day out. Secondly, there is no backwards compatibility with past Wii and Wii U controllers, so unlike Nintendo’s last generation system you’ll have to buy a fresh raft of (considerably more expensive) peripherals.
Despite early reports, a Switch player profile will not unify prior Nintendo accounts, instead simply bolting on to Nintendo’s increasingly convoluted spider web of logins. While there is some sort of linkage with Nintendo Network and Nintendo Account IDs, as of yet there is no way to move any of your prior purchases across to the Switch, nor is there any way to move your saves and game downloads between Switch systems. Many features from prior Nintendo consoles such as the StreetPass passive multiplayer system and Miiverse social network have also been dropped entirely on Switch. The Virtual Console, Nintendo’s digital download service for titles released on prior games consoles and a fixture of their last three consoles, is probably the most bizarre omission of all. At launch, the Switch’s online multiplayer service is only partially live, and even when it does fully launch later in 2017 it is planned to not only need the use of a smartphone app for voice chat but will also require a monthly fee – the first time Nintendo has charged users to play with other people online.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with the Switch at the moment though is the paltry slate of games announced for the system so far. Nintendo itself has only confirmed a handful of its own titles and two of these, the critically-acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe Edition, are also available in one form or another on the Wii U. 1-2-Switch and Snipperclips – Cut It Out Together! are currently the only true showcases of the system’s Joy-Con controllers and its local multiplayer prowess, but neither of these slight mini-game collections will likely capture your attention for a lengthy amount of time. Compounding the issue of having very little to do with the device at launch, there is no support for entertainment apps like YouTube, Netflix and BBC iPlayer and currently no official plans to introduce them.
In conclusion, does Nintendo manage to deliver on the concept of ‘Switching’ between TV and portable gaming? Unequivocally, yes. Undocking the tablet and sliding on the Joy-Cons is a quick and smooth experience, and the company deserves kudos for focusing on flexibility with the detachable controllers and the kickstand. However, the system suffers from too many issues surrounding that core idea that prevent it from being a must-have gaming device. It doesn’t manage to overcome the problems common to hybrid devices, becoming a jack of two trades and a master of none. It doesn’t offer the durability, long battery life and raft of features of Nintendo’s 3DS portable line, nor does it provide any significant horsepower or gameplay improvements over Nintendo’s Wii U home system.
Given that many staples from both of the company’s prior platforms such as StreetPass, Miiverse and the Virtual Console are conspicuously absent (at least at launch), combined with the dearth of noteworthy games on the horizon, it also appears that the system was pushed out of the door too early. Any console, no matter how wonky at launch, can eventually justify itself by having enough quality exclusive titles, but for the moment the Switch is a nice luxury that’s by-and-large only truly excellent for playing the new Zelda on-the-go.