By Dave Hill
No other company approaches gaming like Nintendo. That unique approach has been met with mixed results for the longest standing console company. The latest venture for Nintendo is their Nintendo Switch; a hybrid game device that challenges the paradigm of how we think of console gaming and mobile gaming.
I got my hands on a Switch at launch. I haven’t owned a Nintendo console since the Gamecube, but the Switch had me curious enough to drop the cash on it. Was I disappointed? Will I suffer from buyer’s remorse? Some of that remains to be seen. But my initial hands-on experience with the Switch has had its ups and downs. Reviewing a console is a lot more complex than a game. There are so many more facets to the console to consider when you are judging the experience you are getting from it.
Naturally, as soon as I got home with the Switch, I opened it up. Now with all the press that has covered the Switch it was still hard to get a scale for the size of it. When I opened it, I thought to myself “Oh, it’s THAT small.” So, I plugged it in and went through the setup. This was, thankfully, a quick process if you discount the amount of time I spent obsessing over my avatar. My one complaint is that when the software was updating, the beeping noise was starting to get pretty annoying. I’ll admit it was minor and something you could dismiss. Next I started Zelda. Without even docking the system.
This is where my review begins. Since Nintendo has worked so hard to sell this as both a home console and portable game device, I think it only fair to review it as a mobile device and then as a home console.
The screen on the Switch is a 720p, 6-inch monitor with a wide viewing angle. The screen delivers a lot of vibrancy and games looked crisped while playing them in mobile mode. The weight of the console was a bit on the heavy side, but considering everything the Switch packed into its tiny form factor, I was actually more pleased that it didn’t weight more.
I have to say that the novelty of having such a high-powered portable device had me enraptured. While on the train to a friend’s house, I enjoyed that I could play a game that I was just playing on my TV at home and getting virtually the same experience. Nintendo was able to pack a lot of great stuff into such a small device, and I am really happy with my purchase.
But that is not to say that I don’t have issues with it. Nintendo’s software for the Switch feels a bit dated and has some bugs. I got stuck more than once trying to load the eShop even though everything about my internet connection was fine. Nintendo has also failed to deliver a better social environment. I had to use something called a “friend code” to add people to my friends list. It reminded of the 90’s when chat programs like ICQ were thing.
The speakers on the Switch are mostly okay. While they are fine in a quiet environment, the sound is quickly lost in any sort of public space, and headphones are generally recommended if you are going to be playing during a car or train ride. Thankfully the Switch comes with a standard headphone jack, making it easy to plug in your favorite headphone solution and go. There is no Bluetooth connection set up, which was not really a problem for me since I have not met a set of Bluetooth headphones I actually like, but for others this could be seen as a drawback.
Under the hood the Switch pack an Nvidia Tegra processor, which is impressive, but also not new. It is clear that Nintendo has managed to get a lot of power out of the chip and playing a demanding game (for the system) like Zelda will make the Tegra processor work hard. Thankfully, since the Joycons are a separate part from the console, you generally won’t notice any of the low-level heat that the Switch might generate during longer play sessions.
There is a limit to those longer play sessions however, as games like Zelda will eat through the battery quickly. Even the most optimistic battery life for the console is 6 hours, so it’s important to have a charger with you if you are expecting to do a lot of mobile play before you dock it next. Still, the three hours of playtime I get from it is significant enough to help fill those times between my commute to and from work, or when I don’t feel like getting out of bed yet. Its not ideal, but it is also not terrible.
Perhaps my biggest issue with the hardware itself is with the Joycons themselves. I have taken issue with Nintendo’s controllers for a long time. To me it is like they are trying to reinvent the wheel and that stopped paying off after the N64. The buttons on the Joycons are smaller than a standard controller but not unusable. The joysticks, however, leave a lot to be desired. The convex design, coupled with a smooth, plastic material make for slippery controls and I’m regularly having to readjust my thumb positioning. As my thumb slips, I press down on the joystick more to compensate until I accidently click down on the joystick button and suddenly I’m doing something in the game I didn’t intend to do.
The right joystick is also in a particularly weird area and I have to move my whole hand slightly off center from the Joycon in order to not cramp my thumb. If I had to guess, this decision was largely based around being able to use the Joycons in two player mode. This would be a strangle decision choice since I don’t think anyone finds the two-player mode of the Joycons practical or useful. Using the Joycons side-by-side is already a cramped affair; using them individually makes the experience cartoonishly unfriendly to people with hands bigger than a young child’s
As a handheld device, Nintendo could have done a lot worse, but there is definitely room for improvement. I will be curious to see if the Joycons receive any sort of redesign that would address the concerns many people have about them.
Like its handheld-mode, the Switch’s home-console-mode has some impressive features but also its own share of issues. The “switch” from handheld to console mode is remarkably seamless. You can just drop the whole system into the docking station and turn on your TV and pick up right from where you left off.
The entire process is hassle free and I am still surprised every time it goes off without a hitch. There are no additional buttons to press; no need to manually tell the Switch to use your TV, it just knows to do it and I could not be happier about that. All you have to do it sit down in your favorite spot and have your controller of choice handy.
You can remove the Joycons from the side of the Switch and attach them to the control frame for a more traditional gaming experience. This set up is innovative and the Joycons are surprisingly comfortable in this setup, but they don’t compare to a dedicated, traditional controller’s feel. The joysticks are still a slippery mess in this mode as well. This mode does expose another problem with the left Joycon lagging behind and the controls becoming unresponsive. In my original set up I had the docking station and Switch behind my TV. I have since moved them to be more in line-of-sight, and have not seen the issue as much since.
Two major issues arise around the docking mechanism of the Switch. One is that, I have occasionally seen the resolution not update from the handheld to full console mode. This gave me fuzzy graphics and texts, but reseating the Switch in its docking station always corrected this, and it was rare. The other is with the design of the docking station itself. I am always very careful about docking the Switch, but the pocket that it sits into is not screen friendly. Many people have already reported their screens being scratched by the docking station, which seems like a big oversight for Nintendo. It should have been the most obvious thing in the world to put some sort of lining inside the pocket to protect the screen, but instead it seems like a corner Nintendo decided to cut.
Graphics on the console mode are not greatly improved, and occasionally I have preferred to play it in handheld mode where I experienced less framerate drops, and the aliasing that occurred was not so obvious. According to Nintendo, have the system plugged in allows it to utilize more of the processor’s power, but if that is true, the results are a little shaky.
There is a lot to critique about the Nintendo Switch, but that is because so much of what it does is unprecedented and that is an accomplish onto itself. The (mostly) seamless transition from console to handheld is an experience my inner child giggles over. For such a tiny form factor, the Nintendo Switch packs quite a punch even if it doesn’t compare to Xbox One or PS4 graphics. Nintendo is not trying to go up against those consoles, it’s in a class of its design and should be reviewed from that frame of mind. If you are the type of person who makes use of a gaming laptop, you can almost consider the Switch the console version of that. The included Joycons are certainly not great but they are passable, and there is always the option of getting a pro-controller, though it might be worth waiting to see if Nintendo drops the price on them first. Overall, I think the Switch offers a new outlook on gaming. Its future will be determined, I think, by what Nintendo does with it next.
Are you enjoying your Nintendo Switch?
– Dave Hill (GamingU Editor)
Can’t find new video games to play? GamingU App solves that problem for you, download it here.