The Nintendo Switch, for all its different modes, is a surprisingly simple console to use. When you’re at home on the couch, you pop the little tablet into its included dock and snap its controllers into their own grip to play on TV. Need to move around? Unhook those controllers, snap them onto the side of the Switch and continue on your merry way. The principle idea of how the Switch works isn’t the biggest hurdle ahead of it. Instead, it’s the many concessions it makes to achieve that simplicity that hold it back.
The Nintendo Switch is an impressive piece of hardware right out of the box. The slightly bulky console is like a small tablet, equipped with a gorgeous 720p touch screen and two distinct rails on the side. The screen is the immediate entry point into your Switch experience, and it’s the one part that never disappoints. It reproduces colours with incredible vibrancy, while also staying bright enough to play in direct sunlight. Touch is fast and responsive too, although the entire user experience hardly warranted that functionality at all.
The two included Joy-Cons – two halves of a controller that mimic the design principles of the original Wii controller setup – are equally impressive. Their matte finish screams quality, and holding them in your hands confirms it. They’re small controllers with pleasurably clicky buttons, but ones that will feel out of place in larger hands. Their satisfying click when inserted onto the Switch itself never gets old though, and it’s a feature you’d expect from a company that made such a large deal about “switching” in the first place.
The included dock allows you to transform the Switch into a home console, but it’s easily the least alluring part of the package. It’s a means to an end – a cheap feeling piece of plastic that serves as nothing more than an HDMI passthrough and expensive charging station. The dock features a single HDMI out, USB 3.0 port (and two USB 2.0 ports on the side) and AC connection, and that’s it. No Ethernet port, no…anything And, more crucially, not enough padding. Switch owners are already complaining about scratches produced by inserting and taking out the Switch from its dock, and I’ve run into the exact same problems.
Getting it to output to your TV is, thankfully, far less disappointing. It hardly takes a few seconds for your docked Switch to start pumping out pixels to your TV, convincing you that this is in fact the home console Nintendo has been touting. The home menu is crisp and clean, if not somewhat bland. Zipping around its limited options menus is fast, and launching games even quicker. But there’s not much happening here aside from software you’ve installed, the online eShop and controller calibrations. No media apps, no music and no Virtual Console to give the OS a distinctly empty feeling.
Games on the TV do well to upscale, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks simply striking on a larger display. While a lot of that falls to the art direction and implementation, there’s something magical about glancing over at a device just double the size of your phone and realizing it’s powering this industry leading open-world adventure in front of your eyes. There’re concessions to make that happen though. Zelda, for all its wonder, runs only at 900p, and even then, struggles to maintain a locked 30FPS. Nintendo has always stuck to stylization to hide their traditionally underpowered consoles, and it works for their games. But it does mean big question marks for hard third-party support, especially from blockbuster AAA franchises.
That’s a problem if you’re really looking to make the Switch your sole console at home, but diminishes significantly if you’re just looking for a solid Nintendo machine. The home console part of that experience is only really let down by the Joy-Cons – or at the very least the grip they’re attached to. Slotting the two halves into the plastic grip turns them into a more traditional controller, but I could never really get comfortable with it. The width between the two controllers seemed extremely small, which coupled with the small buttons made the experience feel incredibly cramped. It’s lessened over time, but the Joy-Con grip makes a compelling case to shell out a lot more on the company’s superior Pro Controller.
That’s ignoring the more publicized issues the Joy-Con controllers have, specifically pertaining to the left one. Although I’ve yet to experience issues myself, Geoff experienced the infamous connection issues the controller has when used slightly far away from the console. The controller disconnects and can lead to some untimely deaths in Breath of the Wild, which is more annoying than it ever should be. The Joy-Cons are well constructed physically, and their HD Rumble functionality truly is revolutionary, but small issues like this really do hold it back.
That could extend to a lot of the Switch’s experience in docked mode, but nearly most (if not all) of those issues evaporate when you use the console in its stronger configuration: mobile. Snapping the Joy-Con to the side of the Switch is both satisfying and transformative, allowing you to take home console experiences on the go. It’s the promise every other handheld has made in the past finally realized. Playing Breath of the Wild in bed, or on campus in between classes is truly eye-opening. Never has a game of this scale been available on a portable platform, and it’s easily the most alluring feature the Switch has.
With portability comes fewer concessions too. The Joy-Con are docked, so they never disconnect from the device. And with the width of the Switch display, it’s easy to argue that their comfort increases too. The Switch is slightly heavy, which makes longer play sessions a little strenuous on your grip. But for the most part it’s worth it, even with its three-to-six-hour battery life. A figure that on paper sounds short, but quickly fades away when you realise how easy it is to find USB power out in the wild.
Flipping out the kickstand allows you to take multiplayer experiences on the go too, although the little plastic stand is just as flimsy and cheap as the dock. It does the job, but is prone to snapping off with the slightest force. Using single Joy-Con horizontally is also a mixed bag. While they’re certainly passable for more casual games such as Snipperclips (which is easily the second-best game on the Switch), they’re not especially viable for anything more serious. I can’t imagine playing Street Fighter II or Mario Kart with these, especially when you consider the differing layouts between both halves.
Yet again there’s something oddly captivating about being able to take a gaming experience on the go and rope in a few friends for the ride. In that way, the Switch is simply like nothing else out there. It manages to deliver high quality gaming experiences with compromises that only really matter in certain cases. No one wants to play a dexterity crucial fighter on a tiny controller, but a casual play session isn’t concerned with that. It would’ve been nice for Nintendo to include a way to charge the Switch while in docked mode, but that again only factors in if you’re planning to play for a couple of hours at a time. This in no way excuses it, but in practice you’ll find many of your preconceived problems with its design without any real-world basis.
And yet it still feels a little incomplete. The Switch a fantastic concept that clearly seems to have been pushed forward slightly sooner than it should’ve been. That’s discounting the limited software at launch, which matters less when you engage with the great content that is there. Online services are barebones, and Nintendo hasn’t quite detailed how most of the finer features even work yet. The Switch allows you to add friends, but offers no meaningful way to do anything but have them appear on a list. Accessories, such as Bluetooth headphones, simply don’t work with a device that is meant to be taken on the go. And that’s all before you look at the many other accessories Nintendo is attempting to peddle on you at a ridiculously premium prices.
There’s nothing more in the way of the Switch than its creators themselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s also not Nintendo’s most exciting console in years. It’s just one that needs a little care in the coming months. Care that will spruce up its user experience, and build a library of games that cater well to both docked and mobile play. There’s room in the future for a slightly more refined Switch to take the place of the current one (a glance at the 3DS line will tell you Nintendo is no stranger than that), and it’s tempting to tell everyone to wait. But that would be denying every one of the splendour the Switch brings when all of its promises click with one another – and that’s something happens far more often than even its strongest critics might’ve dreamed to be possible.