OUR EARLY VERDICT
Innovative and fun, the Switch looks set to make Nintendo cool again.
- Unique design
- Interesting announced titles
- Battery concerns
- Online offering
A lot is riding on the Nintendo Switch. The veteran game company, while still enjoying relative success in the handheld market despite the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, really struggled to drum up interest in its last home gaming machine, the dualscreen . Mixed marketing messaging and a lack of games meant the Wii U never got anywhere close to reaching its potential – let alone the lofty sales figures of its predecessor, the motion-focussed Wii.
We sit here today gawping at an all new Nintendo then that, while just as innovative (and arguably challenging) in its design as its predecessor, is being positioned as a far more mainstream device, one that Nintendo expects you to bring with you practically everywhere.
But will you want to? From our first hands-on testing, we can say that’s a fairly comfortable “yes” despite higher than expected pricing – providing Nintendo can deliver a compelling online offering.
(We’re reporting live from both the UK and US Nintendo Switch hands-on showcases – we’ll be updating this hands-on constantly throughout the day, so keep checking back for our impressions as we play extensively with Nintendo’s latest console.)
The Nintendo Switch is quite unlike any games console that’s ever come before it. In fine Nintendo tradition (if you can call the gaming equivalent of iconoclasm “tradition”), it’s done away with the concept of one fixed box sat under your telly with the Switch. Instead, it exists in two distinct states: firstly as a portable tablet device with a built in kickstand, and secondly docked in a base that connects to your TV.
Paired with its breakaway, adaptable controllers, it’s a bit like Nintendo’s answer to the Transformers, ready to be reconfigured depending on your current gaming need. Sat at home ready for a marathon session? Plug the tablet into the dock and beam your gameplay onto the big screen. Sat on a train with a table in front of you and the Switch in your bag? Pop out the tablet unit’s kickstand, grab the nunchuck-like controller parts and get playing. Roaming a park? Plug the two controller sticks in either side of the screen and you can walk about and collect those Zelda rupees at the same time.
From its restrained core grey and black color scheme as heavily displayed in pre-release marketing (blue and red Joy-Con controllers will also be available) to its choice to revert back to cartridges for play, it’s clear that Nintendo is subtly shifting its target audience. Sure, it’s not going to ditch its family-friendly appeal, but it knows it has to win over the hearts of the older, so-called “hardcore” gamer reared on a diet of sci-fi shooters. So you’re left with an unassuming dock that would sit comfortably under a serious home cinema set-up, and cartridges that are portable and sturdy, entertainingly trade on nostalgia – if hamstringing any chances of disc-based backwards compatibility.
The key idea uniting all these elements is that, essentially, wherever you are, however much time you have, you get the same great gaming experience, taking the home console fun that you enjoy wherever it’s most convenient for you to play.
Specs and performance
But how does that experience stack up against the competition? Has Nintendo managed, for the first time in decades, to get its hardware on a level footing with the and competition? Though you can argue that the unique form factor negates such comparisons, the simple answer is “not quite”.
The Nintendo Switch is a solidly capable machine but its internals appear far more power-efficiency focussed than geared towards pure processing grunt – Certainly at its first press event, there appear to be no games challenging the visual fidelity of Sony or Microsoft’s consoles. But that’s never really been the point of a Nintendo console, with the company far more concerned with innovative gameplay forms than photo-real visuals.
Under the hood of its core tablet unit you’ll find a custom Nvidia Tegra processor processor, broadly comparable to the Tegra X1 found in an Nvidia Shield TV. 32GB of storage space is onboard too (some of which is dedicated to the system software), along with 802.11.ac Wi-Fi.
The screen itself is of course a critical part of the equation – especially given how disappointing the Wii U’s comparable Gamepad proved to be. The Switch screen measures out at 6.2-inches with a resolution of 720p.
That proves itself to be a very enjoyable screen to view. It has vibrant colors, a relatively sharp resolution, and is able to keep up with the breakneck nature of the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which we got hands on time with. It’s not as impressive as the top-end smartphone screens, but feels dramatically better than what the Wii U Gamepad offered.
Supporting Wi-Fi online play, up to eight Nintendo Switch consoles can link up for local multiplayer play.
Battery life for on-the-go play is of course a concern, but Nintendo quotes a very heartening 6 hours+ of battery life when removed from a USB-C power supply. That, however, is very much dependant on the title being played – Nintendo admits, for instance, that you’ll get closer to three hours play when firing up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when out and about. We’ll have to take the Switch out into the real world to see if the upper end of these claims holds up, however.
Docked vs portable play
So, how do the two core gaming experiences (untethered on the go versus docked at home play) compare? So far, very favourably.
The Switch outputs to a TV at a resolution of 1080p, with 5.1 audio output offered. Considering the home console standard really remains at 1080p (with the exception of the adaptive-up-to-4K resolution of the ), that’s competitive. Charging from the dock, it of course doesn’t come with any battery power limitations – provided your home doesn’t experience a power cut, of course.
On the few games available to play at the Nintendo press event, it seems only the most demanding of players will spot a notable difference between docked and portable performance. It seems that, by virtue of the less demanding lower-resolution portable display, it’s able to maintain a solid framerate away from the mains.
Online, interface and apps
Compared to the slick, richly web connected interfaces of the PS4 and Xbox One, Nintendo’s most recent console interfaces have felt more than a little dated. The Switch attempts to shake this up by introducing its own online subscription service. But those looking for something comparable to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold may be left wanting.
Though Nintendo still needs to clarify some points, its subscription service’s “free” monthly game offering seems quite stingy. It appears that you’ll only get access to one NES or SNES game (with Super Nintendo titles now offering online support) each month, with just one month to play them in. The Xbox Live Gold alternative, for instance, offers multiple modern games for subscribers to download and keep each month, forever.
In addition, the online service offers lobby and voice chat, but again this appears clunkily limited to a phone app. With the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger already letting you hook up with friends for free on your phone, this hardly seems reasonable alternative to a built-in console chat option.
Nintendo subscribers will also get digital store discounts, but that doesn’t seem like much of a draw in itself. The Switch will launch with a free trial to its subscription service – we will keep you informed as to whether it’s worth sticking with beyond that, when the paid service launches in Autumn 2017.
Nintendo’s got a habit of designing quirky controllers, form the motion-sensing Wii remotes and nunchucks to the trident-shaped N64 pad. Each brings with it a new way to play. While the Switch’s Joy-Con controllers don’t offer any remarkable new input options, they are innovative in the way that they can transform depending on your current needs.
It’s a bit like the Wii remote / nunchuck pairing in use – you’ve a left hand element that includes an analogue stick and direction buttons (sacrilegiously moving away from Nintendo’s iconic “cross” design” in favor of separate buttons) alongside a “minus” options button, a Capture button for recording gameplay and top shoulder trigger. The right hand element has a second analogue stick, the X, Y, A and B input buttons, another shoulder button, a “Plus” start button and a Home button for jumping to the main interface.
These components can be used together, separately or combined with a central Joy-Con grip unit for a more traditional play experience. The ability to use each part as a solo pad also goes someway to explaining the removal of the old-school Cross pad – with the analogue stick used as a movement input, the other buttons then potentially can be used for action commands, with the pad turned on its side like a spruced-up NES pad.
Each Joy-Con offers an accelerometer and gyroscope for motion controls, while the right Joy-Con also features NFC for hooking up Nintendo’s amiibo figurines. Nintendo is coining what it calls “HD Rumble” for the controllers, which it claims lets you feel vibrations as subtle as a few ice cubes shaking around in a glass. The right controller element also features and IR Motion Camera that can detect the distance and shape of objects in special games – Nintendo use the example of being able to play rock/paper/scissors with the console, though it does hint at further AR or VR ambitions down the line.
When removed from the tablet, the controllers feel quite unlike any other we’ve played with before. They’re incredibly light and very small too, which may prove fiddily for big-handed gamers. But they also prove responsive – playing the motion-based minigames of launch title 1-2-Switch worked a treat, while the split D-Pad’s buttons are low profile enough to allow for lightning-fast Street Fighter special moves. When removed from the tablet, each Joy-Con part can have a clip-on set of shoulder buttons slid onto their sides, too.
Though it was hard to get a full sense of the weight of the tablet and Joy-Con controllers combined due to the security housing Nintendo had wrapped them in, even with the additional safety measures everything felt very light, and certainly portable friendly. However, it’s worth noting that the controllers are charged via the Switch itself, so make sure you’ve juiced both as fully as possible in the dock before heading on out.
Games – the launch line up and beyond
But what’s a games console without the games? The Nintendo Switch has a healthy line-up of both first and third party titles ready to go at launch, including big franchise hitters like Mario and Zelda.
However, only few titles appear ready for launch. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild appears the most compelling so far, set for release on March 3rd. It’ll be joined by 1-2-Switch, a title that makes full use of the controllers and little screen interaction to ensure players are looking into each others eyes, with minigames including wildwest gunslinging.
ARMS, a multiplayer futuristic boxing-shoot-em-up game, uses the Joy-Con pads to throw punches, and will be ready “this Spring”.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe makes the superb racer portable and introduces new courses, items and racers – it’ll be ready on April 28th.
Paintball multiplayer shooter Splatoon 2 will be ready for the summer, while the strange-sounding Snipperclips – Cut It Out Together! will launch in March, a puzzle game that allows you to cut shapes out and bring them into the game to help solve challenges.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, with its space-faring mechs, will keep RPG fans happy.
So where’s Mario? He’ll miss launch, with Super Mario Odyssey launching in time for Christmas. It sounds like it’ll be worth the wait however, with Odyssey being the first “sandbox” Mario game since Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube, letting you explore wide open worlds.
A number of third-party titles have also been teased, including EA’s FIFA, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, NBA 2K, Project Octopath Traveler, Street Fighter II Ultra, Sonic Mania, Super Bomberman, Just Dance, Disegea 5, Dragon Quest’s X and XI, Fire Emblem Warriors, and Minecraft.
The issue, as was the case with the N64 and Wii U, will be retaining third party support. The Switch’s unique hardware, like that of the Wii U, forces additional design considerations upon developers, which can become costly in gruelling development cycles. The Switch seems far more accommodating in this respect than the Wii U ever was, but it’ll be interesting to see if the chicken-and-egg scenario between playerbase and game catalogue can find a happy balance this time around.
It’s a confident showing from Nintendo at this first hands-on stage. Rather than falling on its sword and following the straightforward “box-under-your-telly” design ethos, it’s taken bold strides to once again mix up the gaming experience.
Flexible and fun, without feeling like a toy, the Switch is proving that Nintendo’s ideas can remain joyously novel without alienating the more po-faced of gamers. While on-the-go battery life and performance remain a concern until we can get extensive real-world play on the Switch, Nintendo’s new machine is looking very promising. But with a price point set at £279.99 / $280 (Australian pricing is yet to be announced, it’s going to have a mighty fight ahead of it against the relatively affordable PS4 and Xbox One bundles. That’s before we learn more of the Xbox Scorpio, which we’d expect to be far more powerful, but far pricier. Still, there’s nothing like pulling off a Super Mario triple jump, eh?