Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you already know what the Switch is. You know that it’s Nintendo’s new console-handheld hybrid, and that it’s trying to buck the unfortunate trend that Nintendo has set with flagging sales of each of its successive consoles. The Nintendo Switch is aiming to keep itself in the game and capture its own market by straddling the line of console and handheld. It’s also being touted as the pinnacle of Nintendo’s 40 years of hardware design. The Nintendo Switch has a storied legacy to live up to, and today we’ll be looking at the system with the goal of answering one question: Is the Switch indeed an innovative and successful hybrid console, or will it go down in history forever as Nintendo’s Frankenstein?
One of many Nintendo Switch’s slogan is “Play anytime, anywhere with anyone” – apt, given that the new console breaks down the traditional walls of console gaming. Out of the box the Nintendo Switch can be played in three modes: TV, tabletop and handheld. TV mode entails pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the Switch is inserted into the dock, which connects and outputs to TV like a traditional console. In tabletop mode, the Switch functions like a tablet, and can be placed on any surface, anywhere. Finally, handheld mode allows players to hold the Switch between their hands, controlling the action with two controllers called Joy-Cons that slide into place on either side of the screen.
The Nintendo Switch is by far the most unique console we have ever seen in the relatively short history of video games. It’s a console like no other. However its uniqueness comes at a price, which is the power under the hood. In terms of processing power, compared to its market competitors – the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One and their variants – the Switch comes dead last. Though this could come back to bite the Switch in the butt (so to speak) a few years down the line, it’s worth noting that there’s enough juice in this small device to run games like the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Skyrim. Prior to the Switch’s advent, these types of games would require players to be tied down to their TVs or computers.
Nintendo Switch Modes: TV Mode
Let’s start with the most traditional mode: TV mode. This mode is meant to mimic a traditional console feel; players may either play with a Pro controller, (sold separately), or with the bundled in Joy-Cons. The first thing you’ll notice is how incredibly compact the Nintendo Switch is compared to any other console from the last decade. It’s one of the smallest consoles ever and I love how little space the unit takes in my entertainment unit.
For this review, I only had use of the two Joy-Cons that come in the standard bundle. I initially tried playing by holding a Joy-Con in each hand; however, the analog stick on the righthand Joy-Con, often used for camera rotation, felt too low and uncomfortable in my hand. Luckily Nintendo also bundled in a controller accessory, which you can slide the Joycons into for a more traditional feel. I was then able to adjust my grip and the positioning of the analog stick was no longer an issue.
The Joy of Joy-Cons
Speaking of the Joy-Cons, these are easily the most advanced controllers ever developed by Nintendo. They pack a ton of technology into such slim frames. Each controller communicates wirelessly with the Switch, and features an analog stick, 4 face buttons, 3 shoulder buttons, and 2 other menu-access buttons.
As mentioned above, the right analog stick can feel a bit awkward. The only button that does anything ‘new’ is the image-capture button, which functions pretty much as advertised and lets you take a screenshot of the game you’re playing at, at any time. Video capture is currently not natively supported by the Nintendo Switch, which is unfortunate given that the XB1 and PS4 can both do so. However, Nintendo has stated that this feature would be added at a later date.
Additionally, the Joy-Cons include an IR-motion camera to detect distances and shapes, an NFC reader to scan in your Amiibo, and an entirely new feature called HD Rumble. This last feature is novel – no other product on the market has anything like it. It adds an unprecedented amount of feedback to the controller, and gives devs a lot of room for play when it comes to incorporating the feature into their designs. For example, in the game 1, 2 Switch, players move the Joy-Con around and try to guess how many imaginary balls are inside the controller. It’s incredibly hard to describe how accurate and amazing this feels to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it – it’s like trying to explain color to a blind person.
Aside the technological brilliance and the awkward right analog stick, the Joy-Cons feel surprisingly comfortable despite their small size. They’re super light and can be held in a few different configurations. Some games will require players to hold the controller sideways with both hands, while others will require players to hold them vertically, similar to a Wii-mote. In both configurations the controllers felt natural and comfortable. For those who might find the Joy-Cons too small, the Switch comes with two wrist straps meant to slide onto the Joy-Con rails and provide a bit more thickness and comfort.
Nintendo Switch Modes: Tabletop Mode
The Joy-Cons really shine in tabletop mode – or anywhere that you have a second player with you, really. Thanks to their symmetric design, the Joy-Cons offer 2-player local co-op right out of the box, something not seen in decades.
This is by far one of my favorite features of the Switch, and something Nintendo seems to be banking on to differentiate themselves from the competition. This is where the Switch’s innovation becomes apparent. If you have a friend or family member who wants to play with you, they’ll be able to join in most games just by grabbing one of the Joy-Cons. Same goes if you’re out of your home and meet someone you want to play with: just pop the kickstand, set the Switch on a table, grab one Joy-Con each and get to playing.
Tabletop mode isn’t just for multiplayer either; it’s a great way for single player gamers to take their games with them on road trips, in transit, or to work. In tabletop mode, games run at a lower resolution than in TV mode – 720p compared to 1080p. This, however, is a non-issue, as 720p resolution on a 6.2’’ screen is more than enough to make any game pop. Also worth noting is the Nintendo Switch’s screen comes with a multitouch display, offering all of the touchscreen functionality found in standard tablets and phones.
One small downside present with the Switch in tabletop mode is that the kickstand isn’t adjustable. This means that the viewing angle might not always be ideal and you’ll have to get creative in how you set up the Switch. Some games were also clearly designed with a large TV in mind, so they might feel too zoomed-out in tabletop mode.
Speaking of the kickstand, it was definitely designed with clumsy gamers in mind. The kickstand can be snapped off if enough force is applied – something that might make your heart sink the first time it happens. Luckily re-attaching the kickstand is as easy as snapping it back into place.
Nintendo Switch Modes: Handheld Mode
Out of the 3 modes, tabletop was my least favorite to play solo, simply because I’d rather just play in handheld mode. Handheld mode offers a similar game experience to playing on the PlayStation Vita or any other classic single screen handheld. With Joy-Cons attached, the Switch is quite comfortable to hold and comparable in weight to the Nintendo 3DS XL, while offering far more controls. While it’s longer in size than the 3DS XL, I definitely prefer playing on the Switch.
If you are planning on taking the Switch on the go a lot I highly recommend investing in a protective case of some kind, as its screen is vulnerable without one. I didn’t test to see how hard it was to scratch the screen but it feels pretty much like any other tablet or smartphone, so be forewarned.
The Revival of Game Carts
Getting back to some more hardware-related discussion, the Nintendo Switch leaves behind the optical disc medium in favor of small carts. This makes taking your physical games with you far easier and as a bonus they’re more durable against the elements. However their downside is that the carts may not provide as much storage as an XB1 or PS4 disc. Hopefully as time goes on, the manufacturing cost drops, allowing Nintendo to increase their memory size. For players who prefer digital game collections, the Switch only comes with a measly 32GB of internal memory. Anyone going strictly digital will most likely run out of space quickly;a single game can currently demand from anywhere between 1GB to 32GB, and might necessitate investment into a micro SD card.
Switch User Interface
Surprisingly, Nintendo chose to forego standard non-gaming applications found on other platforms, such as a web browser or video streaming service. This might seem disappointing at first, but truthfully I’ve never even used a console’s browser before and I have half a dozen other devices that can already stream video. It would be nice to see a patch down the road introducing these features consumers have come to expect, but it’s no great loss if not.
The Switch, however, does come with a new type of parental control app that can be used right from a smartphone. This is a big leap forward in giving parents more insight and control into what their kids play. As a parent myself I really appreciate how easy it is now to select which games my son can play, how long they can play, and monitor his access to social media, the eShop, and so on.
The Nintendo Switch is a fascinating device. It redefines what a console is and blurs the line between home console and handheld. The Switch takes big risks by sacrificing power, surely cutting out some high end AAA third-party games, but the trade-off is very Nintendo in that it offers more ways to play, and therefore more types of fun. The Switch is the console you’ll want with you at parties, when friends come over, when you’re on the road or even when you want to relax at home. It’s the console that sacrifices high-end gaming for a broader range of gaming. At the same time, its unique features don’t feel as “gimmicky” as in the case of the Wii or Wii U. It feels natural, modern and like a sophisticated gaming system.
The Nintendo Switch strikes a very nice balance between the innovative and the familiar. A Frankenstein monster this is not. The Nintendo Switch is a very attractive piece of gaming hardware; just as any other console, however, it can only be as good as its software library. All Nintendo needs to do now is deliver a solid line-up of first party games while enticing third party developers to bring their franchises to the platform. If they manage that, the Switch could become the best-selling console of all time.