Something doesn’t fit, and it’s not my hands
[For impressions from Japan, check out Cory’s hands-on with the Switch.]
I first played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild back at E3 2016. You don’t need me (the “there are only five good Zelda games” guy) to tell you that Breath of the Wild looks fantastic. I was sold from the moment the world opened up, so it was only a matter of choosing which version to purchase. The Wii U demo I played got a little frame-y every so often, so I decided the then-unannounced Nintendo Switch would have to be more powerful, and thus would be endowed with the superior port.
Turns out I was only slightly correct. The Nintendo Switch version does look better and runs a little more smoothly, but that may be the extra six-odd months of work talking — it still has its share of choppy moments. That was fine, I had long since come to terms with the Switch’s comparatively weak guts and Breath of the Wild still felt like a killer survival and exploration game with the added benefit of that now-trademark Nintendo polish and wonder. But when my demo guy instructed me to pop the Switch off its dock and try out the handheld mode, I was surprised to find the game actually ran better. That sounds wrong, right? Isn’t part of the Switch’s hook that games will have stronger performance when the system is plugged into the dock? I know Nintendo has been cagey on that front, but unless they print that in plain text right on the box, I guarantee you people will just assume that’s the case. And even then it’s not a guarantee; I met someone last year who swore up and down the Xbox One didn’t let you play used games. [I’m being told in the comments that the improved performance is because the handheld version runs at a lower resolution, which certainly explains the difference, but doesn’t really excuse the disparity between consumer expectation and reality]
That anecdote sums up my time with the Nintendo Switch fairly well: really exciting games tied to a system with a lot of curious and often counter-intuitive design choices, all seemingly made in service of turning a profit with each unit sold.
Let’s start with the included Joy-Con Grip, which is not the $30 version that charges your Joy-Cons. When size comparisons began to trickle out of Nintendo’s recent New York City event, I was concerned that my awful gorilla hands would not be able to comfortably use the Switch’s little popsicle stick-ass motion controllers. I was pleased to hear the system would come with a grip that turns the Joy-Cons into something resembling a regular boy’s controller. During my time with Zelda, I apparently waltzed into the Twilight Zone, because everything was upside down and backwards. Playing with the individual Joy-Cons like a Wii Remote and Nunchuck was far more comfortable than playing with the grip. When I was using the grip, my fingers never managed to naturally rest on the triggers. I either had to position them in a manner that became fairly uncomfortable after a few minutes, or re-learn the trigger pull motion that years upon years of playing video games had burned into my brain.
Conversely, the Pro Controller is a great controller, with a comfortable setup and a texture that will stand up to hours of sweaty fingers, but it also costs $70 United States Dollars. This will not be the last time I complain about the price of this controller — both in real life and in this article. The Joy-Cons also feel kinda cheap, almost certainly not worth the $80 they’re asking for a pair. If I wasn’t cognizant of Nintendo’s reputation for making nigh-indestructible hardware, I would be concerned about unintentionally snapping one in half. They’re nice enough motion controllers once you get used to them, and I get they have to be small to fit on the screen, but yikes they’re both small and thin.
Playing the Switch in its handheld mode — you know, the hook of this console, is fine enough. I like the Wii U GamePad quite a bit, although it did have a tendency to shift forward in my hands over the course of longer sessions. That problem seems to have been rectified for the Switch, and I could easily see myself popping the system out during road trips or long bus rides without any foreseeable discomfort. It’s a little heavy, but there’s nothing stopping you from setting the console in your lap. My Switch will never appear on an airplane for any reason other than work necessities, though. Packing literally anything aside from the essentials and maybe a Kindle is for suckers. That’s why I didn’t try out the booth’s included faux plane seat. I’m not a sucker.
I’m a real sucker for Splatoon 2‘s whole aesthetic, though. I never got around to playing the first Splatoon, in part because I was unable to convince my roommate to pick up a copy that one time we were at Target (he was the one who owned our apartment’s Wii U and mine was on the other side of the country), so my Splatoon 2 demo was really my first exposure to this pop-punk paint-drenched world. I loved it, as I’m sure you can expect! The music was so much fun, the colors pop in all the right ways, and it’s got a fun and unique hook for its multiplayer. It plays great on a Pro Controller, and I’m even more excited to play the game with those damn motion controls off. Mapping a single axis to the motion of the controller and the other axis to the right stick took a while to even grasp, since I was only ever able to effectively use one input at a time.
I also got to spend a little time with 1-2-Switch‘s Wild West dueling, Wild West cow milking, and Wild West…uh, ball…number…guessing minigames. Nintendo just likes appropriating lo-fi entertainment for their high-tech video game systems, I suppose. After playing the game, I remain adamant that 1-2-Switch should be a pack-in — especially now that I know how much fun it is. The game could really sell units the way Wii Sports did for the Wii. Even though I lost or tied every minigame — because I was sick and tired, leave me alone — I still had a blast, and could easily see myself busting it out at parties. I’m not sure if it’s worth $40, but I appreciate that Nintendo is starting to get smarter about how it prices its games.
Arms, conversely, was the most disappointing game I played at PAX South. I played with the Joy-Con motion controllers, which are not held with the buttons facing the player, like how everyone played Wii Boxing. Instead, they’re held inwards, with the buttons facing each other and the buttons inside the Joy-Cons resting on your fingers. You’re supposed to move by curving the set of Joy-Cons in a direction, dashing with the shoulder button and punching with, well, a punching motion. To be frank, I had zero fun playing the game this way and can not recommend that anyone play Arms with this control scheme. The game can be played with a normal controller, but a twitch-based fighting game wouldn’t quite work on two separate Joy-Cons, held in each hand. And as we’ve established, the Joy-Con Grip is not even an option, so that leaves the exorbitantly priced Pro Controller, with HD Rumble and NFC support, instead of some kind of optional amiibo reader that plugs into the base of the console or the console itself. Even with a control scheme sorted, I’m not sure that Arms will have the depth of a Street Fighter or the chaotic fun or a Smash Bros. In fairness, that sort of thing can only really be tested once the game has been pushed out the door, so I’m just on the fence about Arms right now.
After playing the Switch and some of its most anticipated titles, I can see a path forward. On the one side, you have easy to grasp casual games like Arms or 1-2-Switch that will play well at those millennial rooftop parties that Reggie clearly fantasizes about in his spare time — on the other, fantastic experiences like Splatoon 2 or The Legend of Zelda that you can only get on a Nintendo console. If the company prices the former games at a lower MSRP and makes sure hardcore players are always cognizant of the next big game on the horizon, the Switch will likely enjoy a healthy library with something for everyone.
But man, the official accessories just aren’t doing it for me, and I think I’ll end up using the Switch as a handheld whenever possible, even in my own home. The controllers and peripherals are way too expensive, and in some cases I can’t even imagine the use case — like the Joy-Con Wheel, which seems to have been designed for Smurf hands. I’m certainly not going to cancel my pre-order, especially after playing Splatoon and Zelda back-to-back. But I’m going to look for some extra work in the meantime so I can afford a Pro Controller. Nintendo’s quest to make a hardware profit is understandable after the very public failure of the Wii U, but I also don’t care, because I still have to buy the damn things.
I’ll say this — between their success on mobile and the Switch, I’m more optimistic for Nintendo’s future than I have been in quite some time. I think the company knows exactly how to sell the Switch (right down to the perfect name) to their target demographics, and that’s reason enough to relax a little. Whether the market even wants what Nintendo is selling, now that’s a question I don’t get paid enough to worry about.