This is part one of our Nintendo Switch review. Expect more aspects of the new video game console to be touched on in the future as more features are rolled out and more content is added.
I’ve spent the past week playing around with Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, and there’s still tons of things I don’t know about it. With early, early hardware reviews like this one, think of it less as a complete review of the product and more as a guide to help you determine whether or not you should go out and buy the Switch at launch. Is this console worth your hard-earned money? Does it achieve its stated goals? At this stage in the game, will it provide you and your family with enough fun and entertainment to justify the sticker price?
Before we get started, let’s talk about what we don’t yet know about the Switch.
- The Virtual Console is not available at launch. This means that anyone hoping to play older games on the Switch to fill up the content deficit will not be able to, at least for the time being.
- There’s a big day-one update but we still don’t know what all that will entail, since day one has yet to arrive.
- Nintendo will have a paid multiplayer service but it isn’t coming out for a while and we don’t know exactly how it will work. We do know that it’s cheap, and that you’ll use your phone for chat. I suspect that this is due to the system’s portable nature, so that you can still use the service when Wi-Fi isn’t available, but we’ll see.
- How Nintendo accounts interact with your Switch remains something of a mystery.
- We don’t know what the eShop will look like or how it will differ from the eShop on the Wii U.
- How Switch consoles will network together remains up in the air. You’ll be able to network up to eight of them and play games together that way, which sounds amazing—like a return of the LAN party minus dragging around huge gaming PCs—but this isn’t something we’ve been able to test yet.
- What sort of non-gaming apps will be available for the Switch, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Pandora and so on and so forth. We have no clue when, or if, any of these services will be available, though I can’t imagine Nintendo won’t add support for these in the future. Netflix on the go makes too much sense.
So those are the big, lingering questions still swirling about the Switch just days before launch. For this reviewer, none of these question marks are deal-breakers by any means. For many consumers, these alone will be enough reason to wait and see. Now let’s move on to what we do know.
How it works.
The Switch is a portable/home hybrid console. The system itself is a tablet. It comes with two controllers called Joy-Cons, a “grip” to use these when not attached to the tablet, a docking station and a power cable and HDMI cable.
There are essentially three “modes” that the Switch operates in:
- Portable mode is when the tablet is not docked to the TV and the Joy-Con controllers are attached to the tablet, essentially turning it into a high-definition portable gaming console. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild look absolutely lovely in portable mode, making this easily the best-looking portable console ever made. The screen is crisp and colorful and bigger than something like the PS Vita. It’s also far, far better looking than anything on the 3Ds.
- Docked mode is when the system is docked in its station and attached via HDMI to a television set. In this mode, you’ll either use a Pro Controller, or detach the Joy-Cons and use them with the grip. The exact same games that work in portable mode will also work in docked mode, only on your screen. There aren’t enough games out there yet to say how performance will differ between these two modes, but Zelda definitely has more frame rate issues in docked mode. (More on that in my Zelda review.)
- Tabletop mode is when the tablet is un-docked and set up on a table or counter or tray with either the kickstand or some other stand (which I recommend getting as the kickstand is somewhat flimsy) and the Joy-Cons are detached. This is where party games come into play, like 1-2 Switch. You’ll also be able to play games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in tabletop mode, with each Joy-Con serving as one controller.
Moving between modes is very easy, but it’s made easier by owning a Pro Controller. Going from docked to portable is as easy as lifting the tablet out of its cradle; the image seamlessly switches from the TV to the tablet. The only trick is then detaching the Joy-Cons from the grip and sliding them into the tablet’s sides, which results in an oddly satisfying little “snap” sound. This is not difficult, though you do have to press a button on the back of the Joy-Cons to release them. Having a Pro Controller means you’ll only have to detach the Joy-Cons when playing in tabletop mode rather than going from docked to portable.
What I Like About The Switch
I’ll get to the system’s issues down below. First, let’s talk about what the Switch gets right.
From a design perspective, the hardware is absolutely beautiful. Other than the kickstand, the tablet itself is sleek and feels great to hold, especially when the Joy-Cons are attached.
The dock is a little cheap feeling, but all it really does is attach the tablet via USB-C to the HDMI signal that’s then transmitted over to the TV. Beyond physically holding the Switch in place, there’s not much to the dock itself.
The Joy-Cons are small, and many people have said they feel cramped or oddly laid out, but I really don’t find anything about them I dislike. I thought I would be more cramped by them, or more annoyed by their size and layout, but it turns out they feel really good to use. I suppose mileage will vary a great deal here.
The Joy-Cons also have remarkable haptic feedback. In one 1-2 Switch game you’re tasked with holding a Joy-Con in the palm of your hand and tilting it. Inside it feels like little balls, or marbles, are rolling around as you tilt it, and you have to guess how many. The striking thing is that it really feels real. That’s how pinpoint accurate the feedback is. It’s quite astonishing.
I also like the motion control features, both in games like 1-2 Switch where you’re sword-fighting and quick-drawing, but also in a game like Zelda where you can aim your bow just by moving the controller. It’s subtle rather than in-your-face, and it feels incredibly natural in practice.
It’s very easy to use amiibo simply by touching one to the right thumbstick. In the Switch version of Skylanders Imaginators, for instance,there’s no portal at all. You simply touch the figurine to the thumbstick and they pop up on the screen.
The screenshot button is also pretty great, taking instant screenshots with a nice “click.” Someday this will also feature video recording, just not today.
That “click” is just one way that the Switch uses audio to supplement its visual design. Others include when you slide the controllers into place and hear the nice little “snap” sound. This is small stuff, but added up it makes a big difference.
Ultimately, the Switch is a sleek, accessible console that feels vastly different from anything else we’ve seen up to this point. It’s fantastic for party games, since it’s so easy to take on the go, and the convenience of being able to play a game docked to your TV at home, or on the bus, or at a picnic, or really wherever you want to is absolutely wonderful.
What Bugs Me About The Switch
I haven’t had the syncing issues that others have reported with the left Joy-Con controller desyncing in docked mode. Apparently this is happening when something gets in-between the controller and the Switch, blocking the line of sight between the two. Maybe that’s just never happened to me, or maybe it doesn’t happen with every unit. I don’t know. It’s another known unknown!
I’ve already mentioned the flimsy kickstand. It also keeps the tablet far too vertical for my comfort, making me worry that the slightest bump of the table could send the thing crashing to the ground. I recommend a third-party stand of some sort if possible, or a case that can double as a stand.
I’m also a little worried about how games will perform when docked, given some of the frame rate issues in Zelda. Then again, that game is vast and complex and there’s a lot going on at all times. Frame rate drops tend to happen in very busy scenes, with lots of waving grass and rain and so forth.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Switch, however, is its price. $299 for the console is perfectly fine, but I think it should have been bundled with 1-2 Switch rather than come game-free. Then again, I think all consoles should come bundled with a game, just like the old days.
It’s really the accessories that make the Switch so expensive. Micro-SD cards aren’t cheap, and you’ll need them if you want to download games rather than just use physical cartridges. Add on a Pro Controller, a case, a charging grip (the one included doesn’t charge the Joy-Cons) and a game and you’re closer to $500 than $300 in short order.
But honestly, none of this is really that big of a deal to me. A new system is going to require new accessories, new games and so forth. What this offers in return—a portable console doubling as a home console, with potential to be the next big party game machine—is more than worth it.
Perhaps the biggest issue just in terms of sins of omission is the lack of Bluetooth support for audio devices. You won’t be able to use a wireless headset with the Switch, and the Joy-Cons don’t have headphone jacks either. There’s a 3.5 millimeter jack on the Switch itself, which is fine for portable gaming, but you’ll need to use an extension cable when docked. (And yes, you can this jack while docked, overriding the HDMI audio output.)
The USB-C input on the system is also in a sometimes annoying place. Located at the bottom of the tablet, it works great when handheld or docked, but makes charging while in tabletop mode impossible. Fortunately, the system should net you about five hours of battery time, more than enough for most gamers.
The One Scary Moment I Had With The Switch
I did have one very frightening moment with my review Switch unit. I’d been playing with it for several days without issue. Then, one afternoon, I went to play some Zelda and pressed the power button while the Switch was docked. It didn’t turn on. I took it out of the dock and tried again. Again, it didn’t turn on. I figured the battery must have died. Maybe it wasn’t docked properly or something like that. To be sure, I took the power cable out of the dock and plugged the tablet in directly. When I still didn’t get any power, I made sure the cable and outlet were working by testing it on my Google Pixel phone. It worked fine.
I charged it for a while longer, and when it still wouldn’t turn on I asked Nintendo for help. They had me hold the power button down for 15 seconds, let go and wait a second, and then press the power button normally. This didn’t work the first time I tried it, but it did the second time and I haven’t had an issue since. I’ve asked Nintendo what could have caused this and they have yet to reply. This was a very worrisome moment, both because I worried I had a lemon and that this could be a widespread issue for the Switch, and because I had many, many hours of Zelda saved on the system memory. Suffice to say, I was greatly relieved when it fired back on.
I have not heard of this happening to anyone else, though given that Nintendo had a solution readily in place for my problem, it must be an issue they’ve dealt with before. That’s something to consider, at least, when pondering a purchase.
So back to the $299 question: Should you buy a Nintendo Switch at launch? After all, there aren’t going to be a ton of games available on day one. We’ll have to wait over a month for Mario Kart, until summer for Splatoon 2 and until the holidays for Super Mario Odyssey.
I would only say this: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is perhaps the most compelling launch video game ever released with a new console, or at least one of the best. I’ll have much more to say about that game in coming days, when my review (or reviews) post, but the TL;DR version is that I would buy a Switch just to play the new Zelda, and I wouldn’t bat an eye. But more than that, I think the Switch does what it sets out to do incredibly well. This is a truly next-gen machine. What it lacks in raw horsepower, it makes up for in slick design, ease of use and portability. There’s so much potential here for truly great, unique gaming experiences, I’m actually excited to see where this system goes.
Picture you and your friends, all equipped with your own Switch, playing competitive shooters together around a table, or working together in a co-op RPG, or racing in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Imagine being able to take your party games with you over to family gatherings and friends’ houses. This is what I mean by potential. We may not have enough games to truly test out the Switch’s full capabilities, but I can see this becoming something truly groundbreaking.
Basically, the Switch can be whatever you want it to be. Want it to be a handheld console? It’s the best there is. Want to mostly play at home? No problem. Excited to do more co-op and party gaming? You can’t beat what the Switch offers. It’s not the graphical power-house that the PS4 is, and it won’t hold a candle to the Scorpio, but that’s beside the point, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned.
For these reasons, and just because I truly have enjoyed my time with the Switch, I give it a Buy on my Buy/Hold/Sell scale. For those of you who want to wait for more content or to make sure some of these big questions are answered first, Hold off by all means. It won’t hurt to wait, though you will be missing out on one of the greatest video games of the decade.
The Nintendo Switch launches this Friday, March 3. I can’t wait to hear everyone’s thoughts once they have one in hand.
If you have any other questions about the Switch, let me know in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Check out my video review below: