Nintendo Switch review: Meet the Game Boy Entertainment System

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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 miniaturization 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.

What’s missing

Thanks to the vagaries of early access and embargoed deadlines, this early review of the Switch is inherently limited. Many of the Switch’s features won’t be available until a “Day One” system update on or about Friday, March 3. That update will include access to any and all online functions (including the eShop), and it will also add support for rudimentary features like microSD card storage. As it stands right now, the Switch can’t do much more than play games.

We also haven’t been able to test the Switch’s Pro Controller, which more closely mimics an Xbox One pad. We’ll update the review with impressions of these features if and when we get access.

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. [Update: The brightest screen setting, if you’re wondering, offers roughly 238 nits of brightness, while the system’s lowest brightness setting, which we didn’t play a considerable amount of Zelda with, measures around 35 nits.] 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 favor 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.

A confusing control cornucopia

Reviewing the Switch’s detachable Joy-Con controllers, which slide off easily with the push of a button, is like reviewing three or four different controllers at once. The tiny, semi-symmetric handheld sticks can be detached from the Switch tablet and used in a host of different configurations, some much more workable than others.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the Joy-Cons are tiny. At about 9.5 cm wide by 3 cm tall (a little taller with included Joy-Con straps) and about 1 cm thick at most points, they’re individually smaller than even the tiny NES controllers, which themselves have long since been dwarfed by the likes of the Xbox One pad.

This tininess extends to the inputs on the controllers as well. Compared to an Xbox One or PS4 pad, the Switch analog sticks have a lot less “travel” to go from centered to a full tilt, making it a touch harder to do a partial tilt for in-game walking, for instance. The face buttons are quite a bit smaller as well, though I can’t say that caused any noticeable problems for me during gameplay—each face button is perfectly comfortable to hit simply by leaning the ball of the thumb from a central position.

The biggest ergonomic problem is the shoulder buttons, two of which are squeezed onto the top of each Joy-Con. Even with a small extension jutting out from behind the thin controller, the front shoulder button has to be an insanely slender 5 mm thick to fit in there, making it significantly thinner than the average finger that will be pressing it. The rear shoulder button is a bit more reasonably sized, but it lacks the nice analog travel and springy resistance of the Xbox One and PS4 pads. With the shoulder buttons so compressed, I ended up occasionally fumbling to hit the right one or consciously having to avoid tapping the front one to hit the rear shoulder button instead.

Shoulder buttons aside, I didn’t find the Joy-Con’s diminutive size to be a big issue when held vertically. In fact, easily my favorite way to control the Switch is with a detached Joy-Con in each hand and the system itself in its dock or propped on the built-in kickstand. Each hand still mans a joystick, two shoulder buttons, and four face buttons (plus two more menu buttons, if we’re getting technical). But rather than being forced to keep your elbows bent and your hands kept close together, as with pretty much any other console controller, this configuration lets you rest your hands and arms anywhere you want. That’s perfect for lazing in ergonomically questionable recline on a couch or bed or for playing the system propped on the built-in kickstand while squeezed into a tight airplane seat.

Held vertically, the rounded bottom corner of the Joy-Con nestles comfortably in the crook right in the middle of my palm, with an index finger cradling the shoulder buttons and three other fingers crooked around the inner edge providing a secure grip on the extremely light controller. I found this arrangement perfectly comfortable, though I’d imagine others may find it cumbersome to hook their fingers around the controller like this. For them, the included controller grip connects the Joy-Cons together while adding large, rounded grips on the underside that make the controller much easier to cradle in the base of the palm. It’s a nice, free addition in the box for those who need it, but personally I still prefer the freedom of keeping my hands separate.

(Nintendo also sells a grip that charges the detached Joy-Cons as you play, but the controllers will reportedly last 20 hours away from their tablet base on a full charge. That should be plenty for any conceivable normal use).

Ergonomics aside, one of the Joy-Cons also has a much more serious technical problem when it comes to its wireless bluetooth connection. Occasionally, the left Joy-Con will lose its connection to the Switch, leaving the player flailing for anywhere from one to three seconds before the connection comes back. I’ve only had this happen when the system is docked to a TV that is roughly seven to 10 feet from the controllers—it never happens when the system is merely propped on its kickstand, when the controllers tend to be much closer. In docked mode, though, the disconnections seem to happen once every couple of minutes, enough to be annoying and lead to a few unintentional deaths in Breath of the Wild.

I might chalk up this significant annoyance to a single faulty unit if other reviewers weren’t already making similar complaints. As it stands, this seems like a serious hardware problem that Nintendo is going to have to fix sooner than later.

HD Rumble

While controllers have vibrated in time with gameplay for decades, Nintendo is hyping up the Switch’s haptic feedback as a feature called “HD Rumble.” It’s a neat trick that uses multiple internal motors and varying vibration strength to let you essentially feel a vibration traveling up and down the length of the controller and moving side to side.

I don’t think the HD rumble provides the level of fine-grained haptics Nintendo thinks it does, though. In a 1-2-Switch mini-game that involves feeling for virtual balls jiggling around “inside” the controller, I have yet to find anyone that can reliably judge the imaginary movements based on vibration alone.

When held sideways, the Joy-Cons resemble nothing so much as an extremely tiny hybrid of an SNES controller and an N64 analog stick. In this mode, you can slide a tiny strap onto the top edge of the controller that makes it a touch taller and raises two additional, bulbous shoulder buttons to the new top edge of the controller. We haven’t had a chance to fully review any games that use this configuration. But when playing games like Snipperclips and Super Bomberman R at a preview event, this configuration seems like an invitation to hand cramps, forcing you to contort a claw around the controller to reach the analog stick, face buttons, and shoulder nubs at the same time. We’ll hold off on a full verdict, but right now it seems like a less than ideal way to play.

The Joy-Cons also sport an internal accelerometer and gyroscope to detect tilt and motion, and the controller-waggling controls used in a game like 1-2-Switch will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has used a Wii Remote before. The Joy-Cons’ smaller size and vastly reduced weight make them a lot easier to wave and twist around when compared to previous motion controllers, though. That motion sensitivity isn’t just useful for mini-games, either—I ended up using the tilt controls pretty intuitively to make fine bow-and-arrow aim adjustments in Breath of the Wild.

While we’re going over the controls, we should also mention that the Switch has a touchscreen. So far that’s only been used on menus, but at least one company is planning to release a touchscreen Switch game that literally won’t be playable when the system is docked to a TV.

Limited launch lineup

<i>The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild</i> is an instant classic, but it only does so much to prop up a limited lineup of launch software.
Enlarge / The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an instant classic, but it only does so much to prop up a limited lineup of launch software.

When it comes to software range, depth, and variety, the Switch’s day-one software lineup is one of the worst we’ve seen for a new system in quite a while. Only a dozen games have been confirmed for the system’s launch on March 3 (see sidebar). That list includes two recent games that were available months ago on competing consoles (Skylanders Imaginators and Just Dance 2017); two more that are minimally altered semi-sequels to older games (Fast RMX and Super Bomberman R); and five that are simply ports of smaller indie games that were released on other platforms anywhere from one to eight years ago (World of Goo is not a compelling launch title for a console unless it’s still 2008).

Of the remainder, 1-2-Switch is a game you’ll likely play once or twice at a drunken party and then quickly forget about, while Snipperclips is a lighthearted and exceptionally cute co-operative puzzle game. These are fine enough titles to round out a wider and deeper launch lineup, but they don’t really serve as marquee titles in the harsh light of a new console’s initial lineup.

Nintendo Switch launch games

  • 1-2-Switch
  • Fast RMX
  • Just Dance 2017
  • Human Resource Machine
  • I Am Setsuna
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Little Inferno
  • Shovel Knight
  • Skylanders: Imaginators
  • Snipperclips
  • Super Bomberman R
  • World of Goo

Of course, software range and variety don’t matter much if you have at least one game that can sell the system on its own. Zelda: Breath of the Wild could be that game. I’ll go into more detail with a full review tomorrow, but suffice to say that Breath of the Wild is a welcome reinvention of the standard Zelda formula. This is a huge and engaging world that requires real skill and determination to fully explore. The design creates a true sense of mystery and discovery through meaningful trials and rewards, making it a hard game to put down.

A game like Breath of the Wild could easily be the duct tape that briefly holds the Switch launch together, masking weaknesses in the rest of the system’s initial software lineup (see also: Super Mario 64 and the launch of the Nintendo 64 in the ’90s). The only problem with that argument is that Breath of the Wild will also be available in a very similar form on the Wii U, a system that millions of potential Switch buyers already have without shelling out an additional $300. It’s going to be similarly hard to convince Wii U owners to buy the Switch simply for slightly improved ports of Splatoon and Mario Kart 8 that are due in the coming months.

Of course, for the many people who skipped out on the Wii U, the Switch could end up being the perfect opportunity to catch some of that system’s best games, now with the added benefit of being able to play on the go (not a bad selling point, all things considered). Looking forward a bit, Nintendo promises that 100 Switch titles are currently in development from 70 developers, including intriguing new experimental franchises (Arms), ports of major big-budget franchises (Skyrim), and completely new entries in well-loved series (Super Mario Odyssey).

And just this week, Nintendo unveiled a massive “Nindies” initiative for the system (“Nintendo indies,” natch) promising new games from smaller developers every week. It’s a promising effort that seems poised to avoid the long droughts between games that quickly plagued the Wii U after a promising launch.

Indies aside, at the moment, it’s unclear if many of the most important franchises on the PS4 and Xbox One will ever make the jump to the less powerful hardware on the Switch. Such ports will get even harder for publishers to justify and manage as they start targeting the PS4 Pro and Xbox One Scorpio in addition to the  associated base hardware.

Time to make the Switch?

At this point, it looks like buying the Switch as your only game console means missing out on everything from Mass Effect and Call of Duty to The Witcher and Assassin’s Creed to Tomb Raider and Destiny. That list can go on and on. Maybe those major franchises will eventually be forced to pay attention to a Switch that absolutely flies off the shelves. For now, though, relying on the Switch for all of your gaming means risking that you’ll miss out on a huge array of the most popular and well-received current franchises. That’s a big price to pay for access to fully portable Zelda and Mario games.

Even as a secondary system, though, it’s hard for me to recommend you go out and buy the Switch immediately unless you have a burning desire to play the latest Zelda literally anywhere. The system as it exists now feels a little like it was rushed to make it to store shelves before the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year. After all, at launch there are some lingering hardware issues and extremely limited initial software support.

By the end of the year, more big-name games will be available, and we’ll know about many more that are in the pipeline. Those games (and maybe the hardware itself) will also likely cost much less as we get closer to 2018. In the meantime, you can play a good chunk of the Switch library on the Wii U or other platforms. So as interesting as the Switch is as a piece of hardware design, you’ll probably be fine taking a wait-and-see attitude for now.

The Good

  • Extremely thin portable form factor makes the system quite easy to pick up and play.
  • 6.2-inch, 720p screen is easily the most beautiful display ever on a portable game console.
  • Breath of the Wild is a potential system seller, even if it’s available on another system.
  • Holding two Joy-Cons completely separately in two hands is a revelation.
  • HD rumble haptics are a cute party trick.

The Bad

  • Three-ish hours of portable battery life on high-end games could have you hunting for outlets.
  • As a TV-based console, the system is underpowered compared to similarly priced competition.
  • Extremely tiny shoulder buttons get in their own way.
  • Holding the Joy-Con horizontally is an invite to hand cramp city.
  • The left Joy-Con frequently disconnects when playing on a docked console.
  • Initial software support is neither deep nor broad, and the future is uncertain.
  • The incredibly flimsy kickstand can snap off quite easily.

The Ugly

  • Having to wait a few more months for the true Super Mario 64 follow-up we’ve been craving for years.

Verdict: Definitely don’t buy it as your first and only console. As a second console, consider holding off until the end of the year unless you simply can’t live without a fully portable Zelda right this very moment.

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Nintendo Switch review: Meet the Game Boy Entertainment System

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