Since the release of the Game Boy in 1989, there has been a pretty fundamental split between playing games on a TV-based console and playing games on a portable system. Aside from pricey experiments like the Turbo Express, playing on the go meant making significant and understandable sacrifices in graphical and computational power (and, often, controls) compared to contemporary home consoles.
With the Switch, Nintendo seems to be betting that the continued drum beat of Moore’s Law and miniaturisation has made that dichotomy moot. The Switch is an attempt to drag the portable gaming market kicking and screaming to a point where it’s literally indistinguishable from the experience you’d get playing on a 1080p HDTV. Nintendo is betting that a system that fits in a diminutive tablet form factor is now powerful enough to feel acceptably modern when you throw it into an included dock and blow it up to full size on your living room wall.
It’s something of a quixotic ambition, considering that smartphones and tablets seem to already dominate everyone’s free on-the-go gaming minutes (and considering that larger, more powerful, price-competitive home consoles can obviously do more in the living room). But through that ambition, Nintendo has created an interesting hybrid that seems to pull portable gaming upward more than it drags home console gaming downward. While the Switch probably won’t ever be fully adequate as your only game console and some questions about controls and software support remain, the “new hardware system with a brand new concept” that Nintendo first announced in 2015 is in many ways the most interesting piece of gaming hardware in decades.
A powerful portable
Though Nintendo marketing seems intent on describing the Switch as a home console that it just so happens you can take with you, I’ve found myself using the system as a portable much more often than on the TV. In the week I’ve spent with the Switch, the system has replaced my iPhone as the source for flexible gaming when I have a few minutes to spare regardless of location. I’ll putter with it on the couch while my wife is using the TV. I’ll take it into bed and play until my eyes start getting tired. I’ll grab a quick game while my toddler is playing contentedly elsewhere in the room. I’ll whip it out of a bag on a plane or in a food court. The system goes from its power-sipping “standby” to “actively playing a game right where I left off” in about three seconds, making it incredibly easy to pick up and put down as needed.
I’ve highlighted the quality of the Switch’s 6.2-inch, 720p screen for portable gaming in previous pieces, and the quality display still stands out after just over a week with the system. The size and clarity of the screen makes even small details stand out; by comparison previous portable consoles look downright blocky. The screen does give off a decent amount of glare when playing in direct light, but in most situations I was able to angle the system so I didn’t see any bright spots reflecting back at me.
At just under 14 ounces (393 grams) with the two Joy-Con controllers attached, the Switch feels solid but not overly heavy to cradle for long play sessions. At about 25 cm wide, though, the system will stick out awkwardly from pretty much any pocket you try to stick it in. On the other hand, at just 1.4 cm thick (plus a little more for the shoulder buttons and analog sticks jutting out), it’s pretty easy to fit in a decently sized shoulder bag without being too obtrusive.
My only real quibble with the system’s portable form factor remains the USB-C charging port sticking out of the bottom. The charging cable juts out uncomfortably if you’re resting the system on your legs or belly and can’t be used at all if the Switch is propped up on its (surprisingly flimsy) kickstand. And while the system does get a little warm after a few hours of continuous use, it’s never uncomfortable to handle. You can hear the telltale whir of a tiny fan if you put your ears right up next to the cooling vents atop the system, but otherwise the system seems to run silently and without any moving parts.
On the ever-important battery life issue, I tested the Switch with long sessions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I was able to get anywhere from about 140 minutes to about 220 minutes of active play time depending on which end of the screen brightness slider I ended up at. That’s a decent amount of time for casual, around-the-house play with charging breaks in between or for commute/lunch break gaming on an average work day. If you’re taking a long trip, though, you’ll be stuck searching for convenient plugs and relying on external USB-C battery packs to stretch out that play time (and most of those battery packs won’t charge the system nearly as quickly as the 45W AC adapter that comes with the system).
A hampered home console
Make no mistake, while the Switch’s Nvidia Tegra X1-based system-on-a-chip easily makes it the most powerful portable console ever made, its polygon-pushing power isn’t going to give the PS4 or Xbox One a run for their money. In a game like Breath of the Wild, the system shows off some decently impressive reflection and particle effects while generating beautiful, expansive 3D worlds. But even that world seems generally less crowded than similar open worlds you might find on the Xbox One and PS4. You’ll encounter less in the way of detailed textures on individual in-game models.
This difference could be a stylistic choice as much as a hardware concession, but consider the fact that far-off objects in Breath of the Wild frequently pop into view as they reach a threshold distance from your character. At one point, I was literally climbing up a seemingly invisible tree for a few seconds before it popped into existence before my eyes. That’s not the sign of a system that’s easily handling the vast open world it’s being fed from memory.
(As a quick Zelda aside: though the Switch ditches the usual console optical discs and hard disk drives in favour of tiny, multi-gigabyte cartridges and internal flash storage, Breath of the Wild also features significant load times of 10 to 15 seconds after every death. At the same time, the game largely avoids further loading breaks as you traverse its expansive plains and mountains, though that graphical pop-in makes this a tad less impressive.)
Using the included dock to hook the system to a TV actually makes the graphical performance worse in some cases. When docked and charging, the Switch goes into an overclocked processor mode that’s capable of sending a 1080p image for compatible HDTVs, rather than the 720p portable image. I can’t say Breath of the Wild looked especially sharper on an HDTV than on its own portable screen (aside from the usual advantages of being on a bigger display). What I can say is that the game was much more liable to show dips in frame rate and stuttering when docked to the TV, apparently struggling due to the effort of pushing those extra pixels.
We’ve only got a single launch game to evaluate (other titles in the Switch launch line-up are far from taxing, even for the Tegra), and perhaps developers will learn to take better advantage of the Switch hardware as time goes on. Still it’s not encouraging that a marquee launch game like Breath of the Wild already seems to be pushing the Switch hardware to its limits. It’s especially worrying since this is a game that was originally designed for the nearly five-year-old Wii U, which is getting a concurrent version of the game that looks awfully similar in screenshots.
As console developers start focusing at least part of their attention on the PS4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio in the near future, it seems clear those games are going to be difficult if not impossible to port to the Switch without major concessions in graphical or gameplay detail. Breath of the Wild proves that the Switch can handle impressive 3D games, but you should go into a Switch purchase knowing you’re not going to be getting the cutting edge in technical gaming performance.
Listing image by Mark Walton