Nintendo are a company that buck the trends of the gaming industry. They innovate with new kinds of controller, find new form factors for their consoles, see what their rivals are doing and decide that, no, they’re going to forge their own path.
This is no less true of the Nintendo Switch as it was for the DS, Wii or Wii U, a fascinating hybrid device that blends TV gaming with portable gaming. It’s also, many people feel, a console that will define Nintendo’s future if it’s a success or a failure. Nothing good can come of bad hardware, so let’s take a look at Nintendo’s latest and see if it can be their greatest as well.
Please note that, while we consider this a review and make firm conclusions about it from our time with the console, a day one patch will enable certain things, such as microSDXC card support and the console’s online infrastructure. These sections of the review will be updated where necessary on Friday.
- Updated System Software section in brief with more thoughts on online features here.
The Switch is a uniquely flexible console, letting you play hooked up to a TV, take the console on the go in handheld mode, or prop it up on its kickstand and use the two Joy-Con as together for one person or as independent controllers for multiplayer sessions. That last point has never really been built into a console system before, and it gives the Switch one of its most compelling use cases, but even just being able to almost seamlessly switch between docked TV and portable play is magical.
The build quality and design is some of the best and most modern feeling from Nintendo in a long time. There’s a solidity to the main body with a gorgeous 6.2″ 720p screen embedded within its black tablet-like slate. It’s certainly not able to compete with modern smart phones and tablets for pixel density, but games on this still look fantastic with a bright backlight and a colourful display. A few buttons and ports are dotted at the top and bottom, with game cartridges used for physical games, but the sides feature two rails for the Joy-Con to slot into and really complete the device.
It’s a great design and one that’s comfortable to hold for long periods, but it does have a few drawbacks. A fan is necessary to keep the system cool through a large vent at the top, and though it’s quiet and can only be heard if you put your ear right next to the vent, it does run in both handheld and TV modes.
Similarly, built-in storage is anaemic, with a paltry 32GB and only 25.9GB of that is available to the user. There’s no game installs if you buy retail cartridges, but for those going digital, it’s expandable via microSD. The latest microSDXC cards that go up to 256GB in size – the standard supports up to 2TB – with 128GB a cost effective £35-40. Though not as cheap and expansive as a HDD for PS4 or Xbox One, games on Switch will not be as large as on those consoles, and this is good value for a device that has to be portable and durable.
The Switch has to live with the eternal blight of portable gaming: battery life. Rated for 2.5 to 6 hours, dependent on the game, and from what we’ve seen, it matches Nintendo’s stated claim of being able to manage roughly 3 hours of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when on the go. You get warnings at 15%, 5% and 1% before it forces itself to sleep in an attempt to be able to reach a power supply. It takes around 3 hours to fully charge again, but annoyingly, playing Zelda on TV seems to sip power from the battery as well, so that you decide to pull it out of the dock and you’re left with 87% of the battery.
The saving grace here is that its USB Type-C port is an emerging standard. The Dock excellently guides the console onto its USB-C connector with a clever bolt and spring-loaded piece of plastic, using it as a breakout for power, USB data and HDMI output. This also means that you can use standard USB power adapters, battery packs and USB-C cables to charge the console. I’ve plugged it into a 10,000 mAh battery pack, a 10W tablet charger, and even Apple’s 87W MacBook Pro power supply, and it takes what it needs in each instance.
However, the Dock does feature some proprietary tech, meaning it is the only way to get HDMI output from this connector. Using Apple’s USB-C breakout cable, which performs identical functions, the console simply refused to acknowledge its existence. I’d hope that Nintendo boost the potential flexibility of the Switch in the future, so you can play on TVs without needing the bulky and not particularly portable Dock – even if just at 720p – either with licensed adapters or opening up to existing products.
Of course, the advantage to playing docked is that it allows the Switch to step up its power consumption and play with higher clock speeds for the CPU and GPU. The console can potentially step up to play at 1080p on TV, but realistically, that won’t always be the case with its overall processing power coming up well short of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Nintendo will be able to get the very best out of this, but it’s an uncomfortable fact when considering the potential for third parties.
Key to the Switch are its unique Joy-Con controllers. Combined they feature as many buttons as a full game pad, with each having an analogue stick, four face buttons, two menu and system buttons and two shoulder buttons – alas, the trigger is digital and not analogue. On the whole, buttons are a little spongey, and the L and R shoulder buttons a little too easy to accidentally press, as they wrap around the corner of the remote, but they’re good little controllers. Certainly, they’re a big part of the Switch being comfortable to use handheld for extended play sessions.
They’re asymmetrical, giving an offset analogue stick layout when used in tandem, and with specific features in each. The left, minus controller features the screenshot capture button, while the right plus controller has the home button, an amiibo reading sensor in its analogue stick and an IR sensor in the base.
They connect to the Switch via Bluetooth when wireless – others have reported signal or sync issues that we haven’t noticed – or by sliding into the rails on the side of the console and with the physical pins hidden within. A little button on the rear needs to be pushed in to release the Joy-Con and let it be pulled out. There’s a satisfying click made as they slide into place, accompanied by graphics on the side of the console’s screen and the iconic Switch click.
Both can be used sideways for multiplayer gaming, with a pair of buttons hidden in the rail. The wrist strap for the more active games out there also attach to the rail, with a general purpose design, that can be used for either plus or minus controller and feature buttons that line up to press those tucked into the rail. The reversible design does let you slide the Joy-Con into the wrist strap the wrong way around, however, which is an unfortunate oversight, but shouldn’t break the controller or strap.
The HD Rumble really is about as good as Nintendo make it out to be. You have to use your imagination, certainly, but it does an incredible job of giving positional vibrations. Hold it in your grip for 1-2-Switch’s Ball Count game and you can really feel the “balls” hitting different parts of the controller. Its use will greatly depend on the game and how you grip a controller, but this a genuine step forward in gaming rumble technology.
While battery life on the Switch itself can dampen your spirits, the batteries in the Joy-Con last much, much longer. Rated for 20 hours, I’ve come nowhere near to running them dry simply because of switching play styles so often. One annoyance is that you can only charge them when attached to the Switch – they only sip power if in handheld mode, so don’t drain the main console’s battery – or in the Charging Grip that is a completely optional separate purchase and features its own battery and a USB-C connector. The bundled Joy-Con Grip is a mere plastic shell, without any electronics to charge the Joy-Con.
You can quite happily play with a Joy-Con in each hand, and they’re rather comfortable like this, but sliding them into a grip makes them akin to a fully fledged controller. It’s not ideal, with the face buttons for the D-pad and the right stick sitting under the joint in your thumb more than the tip, but a looser grip is all that’s needed.
The Switch Pro Controller is an improvement on that, albeit an expensive accessory. It’s a very nice controller though, sitting comfortably in the hand where it feels natural to grip. The plastic is perhaps a little tacky, and the translucent body might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s effortless to use. There’s a bespoke D-pad, the trigger and shoulder buttons are better defined, the layout sits slightly better under the thumbs, and so on. It also features HD Rumble, though it won’t be as nuanced here as in the Joy-Con, and there is also an amiibo NFC touch point under the Switch logo, and the battery is rated for 40 hours – again, we’re nowhere near finding out how true that is!
Last but by no means least, the Dock, an integral part of the system. It’s essentially a cleverly designed breakout box with a USB-C connector tucked inside that turns this single port into three USB and HDMI output, with USB-C power passthrough. The Switch slides into its slot effortlessly, easily guided onto the connector by a guiding bolt, so you barely need to look. A small sliver of the screen is still exposed, however, so you can see it light up to show that it’s now charging, in addition to having an LED in the Dock.
Sadly, all of this just feels very expensive. Bought from Nintendo, Joy-Con are £40 individually or £70 for a pair, and while that offers great flexibility for multiplayer, it stings when compared to the price of a DualShock 4. The same is true of the Pro Controller’s £60 price tag, not to mention the £90 cost of a second Dock. At least the USB-C charger conforms to widely used standard.
The Unboxing & Setup
The System Software
At launch, the system software is minimal at best, if not wholly under-featured. Of course, this is a console on day one, and much as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have grown and evolved over time, so too will the Nintendo Switch.
What is in place is cleanly designed and functional, usable both with controllers or with the touchscreen. A long line of large square spaces for games runs through the middle of the screen, similar to the PlayStation 4 – folder support will need to be added down the line – with core system features below; News, the eShop, Gallery for screenshots, simple image editing and future video support, Controllers so you can manage your multiplayer session, System Settings, and power options.
A quick menu can be accessed from holding the home button, overlaying the right side of the screen with options for Sleep Mode, brightness and turning on Flight Mode. Conversely, there’s two options for turning the console on, so that you can either simply tap a button and get playing or, by default, tap any button three times in succession to unlock, to prevent unlocking accidentally – the power button is slightly recessed for this reason as well.
It’s in System Settings that you’ll find the now greatly de-emphasised Mii creation tools (which can also be imported from you Nintendo Account or amiibo), alongside everything from data management for organising built in and SD card memory, to download and friend notifications, switching between themes and NIntendo’s impressive parental controls options.
It’s also by far and away the most charming system software I’ve had the pleasure of using. Every item on the screen has its own unique little sound, from the call and response whistle of going into a user profile and the satisfying rhythm of System Setting’s clicking cog sound, down to the way you can tap on the screen or scroll through games and get little popping sounds. Having had the Switch for a few days before getting any games to play, I would occasionally just turn it on just to play with the sounds.
Exploring online functionality has not been possible prior to launch, but from what we know of Nintendo’s plans, there are some unusual and slightly disappointing decisions. Having online play and party chat managed via a separate smartphone app for iOS and Android is a nice option, but it would be preferable to have this built into the console itself. Of course, that would then require that Nintendo allow for Bluetooth headphones, which is a surprising omission in the context of the device.
However, Nintendo are showing signs of finally catching up to the rest of the industry. They’re making a clean break with their online services with Nintendo Account asking you to claim your User ID once more, an actual friends list, and so on.
Update: With the system update now live, we’ve discovered that Nintendo are persisting with friend codes and that the online store features an unusual security choice. Head here to read more thoughts on these oddities and the downright excellent parental controls.
Disappointingly, the pre-release system software did show occasional fits of instability. It crashed on me with a worrying, but ultimately meaningless corrupted data message, froze on one occasion when putting it into the Dock, refused to wake up on two occasions, and so on. That said, an update is being pushed on day one to enable various online functions, add microSDXC card support, and presumably work out a few more of these kinks.
Again, this is the console at the start of its life, with Nintendo stating that features like video capture are planned for later down the line. It’s wholly focussed around getting you into a game right now, and if some parts aren’t fully featured just yet, there’s time and scope for Nintendo to add, improve and adjust.
Obviously it’s Nintendo’s own games that lead the charge. Breath of the Wild shows just how big and expansive a game the Switch can handle, whether at home or on the go, while 1-2-Switch is the company at their most playful and inventive, really showing off what the Joy-Con can do. We’ll have reviews for both tomorrow, while first impressions of Zelda can be found here.
The Switch hardware presents Nintendo with two not so enviable problems which go hand in hand. Firstly, getting major third parties on board with their games. When it’s not on the same level of power as the PS4 or Xbox One, it would require greatly different versions of these games. EA, Ubisoft and others will dip a toe in, but only strong console sales and associated game sales will see them really consider adopting the platform.
Indie developers – or Nindies, as Nintendo call the partners they have fostered – step into this breach as much more willing and flexible participants. As ably demonstrated by the Switch Nindie Showcase yesterday, games old and new are coming to the console, adopting new features like HD Rumble support and emphasising the cooperative play that the Switch is so well suited to.
That’s a key part of the console’s appeal, the ability to play with someone else practically wherever you are. It could be a long train journey, giving the kids something to do in the back of the car – make sure this is a co-op game, not competitive! – simply throwing down the gauntlet to a friend at work during your lunch break. This is the truly new and innovative side to the Nintendo Switch, and allowing for their cheesy adverts, Nintendo have actually been doing a good job of trying to relay this alongside the simpler appeal being able to play Breath of the Wild on a big TV, take it with you on the go, or simply curl up and roam Hyrule from your bed.
The Nintendo Switch is a fantastic piece of hardware and one of the best consoles that Nintendo has ever created. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the device, whether it’s adopted by third parties and consumers, but in terms of what the console can do, how flexible it is and the power it offers as it straddles the divide between portable and home console gaming, it’s in a world of its own.
And yes, I mean for you to be able to read that as both a good and a bad thing.