Nintendo’s newest console, the Switch, is finally on the market, and, in typical Nintendo fashion, is impossible to find anywhere. Still and all, your intrepid reviewer has gotten his sweaty palms on one, and is finally ready to guide you through all the ins and outs of this weird new system. So, without further ado: wossit like?
The first thing one notices about the Switch is that it’s small. I mean really, really small. The entire console measures just 6.75 x 4 x 0.5 inches and weighs ten ounces — in a world of video game consoles large enough to require their own time zones, this is positively shocking. It also drives home how small the system’s onboard screen actually is; it measures just 5.5 x 3 viewable inches, substantially larger than the 3DS XL but quite a bit smaller than a standard tablet. It is, however, exactly the same size as the Wii U’s onboard screen, and there’s the rub; while Nintendo is understandably keen to distance the Switch from the Wii U in the eyes of the market, it is in reality very much a further iteration of the same basic concepts, as we’ll see.
The Switch tablet itself is rather similar to a Wii U gamepad (though thinner and sleeker), and does sport a touchscreen, though I consistently flip at the top-right edge trying to pull out the stylus that isn’t there. The screen is a bit higher quality than the Wii U’s, and the onboard speakers are positively a revelation; while the Wii U gamepad’s sound was passable and got the job done, the Switch actually sounds good in its own right. I think the last time Nintendo shipped a system with halfway-decent onboard speakers was the original-model fat DS. The main problem with the Switch as a tablet is that all tablet features — including the touchscreen — are unavailable when the system is docked, meaning no dual-screen gaming, and a loss of many of the quality-of-life features we grew accustomed to on the Wii U, such as a bearable shop interface that doesn’t require us to enter credit card details with a d-pad. In terms of on-TV play, the Switch connects seamlessly to its dock via USB-c, and the drop-in, drop-out connectivity works without flaw. You can pick the thing up and instantly start playing in portable mode, and you can set it down and almost-instantly start playing on the TV (you have to wait for the HDMI DRM check to complete). On that note, HDMI is the only supported output, so if you’re reading this review in 1992: this system will not work with your TV.
As a portable system, the Switch works rather well; it is, as said, smaller than you might think, meaning it’s not very difficult to travel with. However, in eschewing the clamshell design of the DS family, the Switch’s screen is constantly exposed — and this is not one of those hardened Gorilla Glass screens, so it’s even more vulnerable than you might expect. I strongly recommend investing in a travel case if you intend to bring your Switch with you on the go. In portable mode the system does not run at full resolution, which has caused all manner of people to steam with irritation, but I repeat: the screen is 5.5 by 3 viewable inches. There is absolutely no problem with the portable resolution, and cutting it down improves the battery life (and reduces the heat output) dramatically.
The joy-con controllers are positively miniscule; those who complained about the size of a horizontal Wii remote are not going to enjoy this! A single joy-con measures but 4 x 1.5 x 0.5 inches, and on that tiny frame Nintendo has included an analogue stick, six face buttons, and two shoulder buttons, plus gyroscopes and accelerometers, an NFC touchpad, and a camera. That’s a lot of hardware for such a tiny nubbin! Depending on the game, the joy-cons can be used alone or in pairs; when used as a pair, they can be held freely in both hands (unlike Wii remotes and attachments, there’s no cord dangling between them), docked to the sides of the console (which is only practical when using the console as a handheld), or docked into a joy-con grip. The grip the system comes with is a reasonably solid chunk of plastic, but is more or less absent any actual features; it has rails the joy-cons clip onto, LEDs to indicate which player you are, and a hook on the back so you can theoretically hang it on... well, something, I guess. It escapes my mind what I’d want to hang the ratty thing from, but I suppose the option’s there if I want it. the joy-cons slide in and out of their docks easily (though they don’t release without holding down a latch button, so there’s no concern about having them fall out accidentally), and are relatively easy to use; while they seem cramped at first go — and the angle (or, rather, lack of angle) they’re positioned at in the dock seems peculiar — one gets accustomed to it surprisingly quickly, and it doesn’t cause any particular problems in the long run.
The controllers work well in use; the sticks and buttons are all quite responsive, though the lack of tactile differentiation between L and ZL (and between R and ZR) can make it unclear which one you’re pressing. In addition, the location of the +/Start and -/Select buttons is odd — they’re positioned above and inside the sticks, whereas the home and screenshot buttons are found below, leading to many inadvertent, instinctive presses of the latter. The control sticks are asymmetrical, with the right stick positioned lower on the controller body than the left, and the right side contains the usual A/B/X/Y buttons (in the right blasted order thank you). The snag is that the left side does not contain a proper d-pad; instead, it has disconnected, round directional buttons instead. This is clearly to facilitate play with a single joy-con (where they take on the usual face-button role), but is a hassle when not doing so. In particular, players interested in 2D platformers or fighting games will probably do well to invest in a Pro Controller, which does have a proper d-pad. The sticks themselves are a bit smaller than the usual, but aren’t lacking in sensitivity; the main problem I have with them, in fact, is that the button mounted underneath (what Sony calls "L3" and "R3," but which I don’t believe Nintendo has deigned to give a name) is far too easy to press without meaning to.
The only other issue with the joy-cons is that the only way to charge them is to dock them on the console itself — the joy-con grip does not charge the controllers. Though outboard joy-con chargers and charge grips are available for purchase, the grip the system comes with is nothing more than a chunk of plastic with rails on. This can lead to a few problems. First of all, if the joy-con charge runs out while you’re playing a game, you’re left with no real option but to continue play in handheld mode (it’s technically possible to leave the system docked and play with controllers attached to it, but: ye gods). Second, the system can dock only one set of joy-cons at a time, meaning that there’s no way to charge more than one pair concurrently. This can be a bit of an issue because, third: the joy-cons take a long time to charge. If you run them out of power, don’t expect to dock them for a half-hour and come back and play more. They’ll still be at low ebb. On the flip side, the joy-cons stay charged for quite a long time; exactly how long I can’t say, but I’ve been through several marathon play sessions on the same single charge. Realistically, if you dock them on the console every time you’re done playing, you’ll never run dry. Or not until the internal batteries fail, anyhow, which, since they can’t be changed...
Moving on to the software, we find that the Switch OS is quite different from the Wii U OS. Gone is Wara Wara Plaza — instead, the main menu is nothing but a carousel containing the software you have available, much like on the Playstation 4 (though, it should be noted, with less bizarre cruft). If there’s a game card in the slot, that game is automatically the first thing on the list, which is nice; no scrolling through to pick out the thing you’re obviously trying to play. The OS is a lot snappier than the Wii U’s; games start quickly, and also suspend just about instantly. Like the Playstation 4 (and unlike the Wii U), the Switch can suspend an entire play session, meaning that the game in progress picks up exactly where it left off next time you start it, provided you don’t hard-close it or reboot the system in the interim.
The system apparently has support for themes, but as of this writing the only two available are the standard theme (as seen above) and the "dark" theme, which is basically just the negative version. That should appeal to people with Batman fetishes for sure. It also has support for taking and sharing screenshots, though, sadly, Miiverse support is missing; the player is instead forced to use Facebook or Twitter, both of which I hate with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. At least it makes it that much easier for the CIA to check up on your progress in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, though!
Mii support is present, though also peculiar; despite the fact that the system has Nintendo Network and My Nintendo integration, and despite the fact that both of those services also themselves have Mii support, the Switch is unable to import a Mii from either of them. It is also unable to import a Mii from a 3DS, Wii, or Wii U. No, if you don’t want to create a new Mii from scratch (using the Mii Maker the system does include), your only option is to import a Mii via amiibo — a functionality I honestly didn’t know amiibo even had. But, sure enough, I scanned one of my amiibo, and hey presto! My Mii had arrived. So there’s lovely.
There’s also "Nintendo News" to be had from the main menu, which assaults the eyes with an amazing quantity of visual noise. What on the entire Earth happened to presenting information in sensible, orderly lists made out of words? This is nothing but a mess of mess, and it doesn’t even sort rationally. New information is not necessarily at the top, but, rather, is marked with a tiny blue dot in the corner of the noisy splash image. Back in my day, get off my lawn, by gum.
The eShop is present, and loads much more quickly than on the Wii U, which is nice. On the dim side, it’s presently not a very user-friendly experience, since it just plops you down on a list of all the eShop content and tells you to have a good day. No doubt once there’s more stuff available on the eShop it will pick up some sensible organization, but for now it’s a bit of a mess. On the bright side, one can open the eShop from within a game without closing the game first, which the Wii U couldn’t quite do (though it did an admirable job of faking it).
The Switch, as with all Nintendo consoles, does not support any type of achievement system, which apparently gets some people all bent out of shape but is just fine with me. More controversially (and even more just fine with me), the Switch does not have a web browser. Why people want a web browser on a video game console I don’t really understand, but it’s caused some consternation. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that, actually, the Switch does have a web browser (it uses it for the screenshot uploader, among other things), but it doesn’t allow the player to use it for arbitrary purposes. Again, I have no problem with this, but your mileage may vary. It’s worth noting that the browser appears to be a Safari derivative, so you probably wouldn’t want to use it anyhow.
There is no hard drive onboard the Switch, which, given that the entire console is considerably smaller than a hard drive, kind of makes sense. There is also no support for USB storage devices, which is most likely due to the system’s dual role as a portable. When you’ve burned through the 32 GB of onboard storage space (the same amount that the Wii U Deluxe ships with), you do have an option: like the 3DS family, the Switch has an SD card slot. More specifically, it has a micro SD card slot hidden in the world’s weirdest place: underneath the kickstand. It doesn’t ship with a micro SD card, of course, but I doubt anybody expected that it would; still and all, investing in one is a good idea if you intend to buy very many games from the eShop. In fact, given that physical copies of some games apparently require huge installs also, it’s probably not a bad idea in any event.
The system’s lack of either optical or magnetic media means that, among other things, the load times are quite snappy. Welcome to the part of the article where I was going to include a snotty link to our Final Fantasy 15 podcast, except that I can’t find it, so you get this instead. Anyhow, the game cards themselves are minuscule — roughly the same size as a Playstation Vita game card — and they taste terrible, whereas Vita game cards just taste like plastic. See? I do science for you people. I hope you appreciate this.
The Switch features excellent couch multiplayer (say what you will about fill rates and that, the Wii U has been the absolute uncontested king of couch multiplayer this entire generation), and also allegedly improved online multiplayer. Friend codes are still a thing, but apparently play a diminished role now, though exactly how diminished is as yet unclear. The Switch, unlike the Wii, Wii U, DSi, and 3DS, has the exciting new feature of requiring a monthly fee for access to online services (bar updates and the eShop). Nintendo has yet to announce what the pricing structure will be (the paid service isn’t available yet, and all players currently have free access to the online multiplayer), but it appears to be a PS Plus-alike feature, coming along with discounts and free virtual console downloads in addition to the dreadful voice chat.
While we’re talking about it, virtual console is not a thing yet. Rumors have been circulating that the Switch will finally add GameCube virtual console support to the arsenal, but there’s no confirmation of that at this time; it is perhaps worth noting that the nVidia Tegra hardware (on which the Switch is based) can indeed run a GameCube emulator just fine, which gets hopes up. What the Switch positively cannot do is run any past-generation software natively; not only does it lack an optical drive, but it’s not built on the GameCube hardware platform at all, meaning that support for Wii and Wii U titles is impossible. Given that lack of compatibility (and the fact that in no way can the Switch hardware run Wii U games in emulation), the Switch does not serve as a Wii U replacement.
Overall, the Switch is a fun little wizmo. It extends the core concepts of the Wii U in new directions, keeping almost everything that was great about that system (except, to be sure, the games) and adding a bunch more. The idea of taking the gamepad and playing games off-TV in other rooms was a neat one, but, in practice, the limited range made it more of a gimmick than a practical idea; the Switch gamepad is the console, though, so it can come with you at any distance from the dock that you’d like. Nintendo’s emphasis this time around has been on flexibility, and it shows; the Switch can be played with in lots of different ways, and can seamlessly move from one to another. This is pretty cool in and of itself. There are some rough edges currently, but most of them are not terribly significant, and many can (and likely will) be fixed with OS updates. At only (“only!”) $300, there’s a lot to like about the Switch, especially since Nintendo’s Wii U software was solid gold. Assuming they stay in form, passing up the Switch would be foolhardy.
The Nintendo Switch can be purchased for $299 from Amazon (he writes, attempting to keep a straight face) in two versions: one with grey joy-cons, and one with neon red and neon blue joy-cons. Lotsa luck.