Hands-on: Nintendo Switch won’t blow you away but will satisfy core gamers

It has one huge design flaw

Boy, what a doozy! If there was an award for most complicated game system, Nintendo’s Switch would win in a landslide. The simple name really betrays the true complexity of the system given its seemly uncountable number of ways to play games. The newest console truly is a combination of Wii, Wii U, and 3DS yet still adds enough new features to make it stand on its own.

The Nintendo Switch has three advertised modes of play but since “handheld mode” and “tabletop mode” are technically the same thing I’ll refer to them together as “portable mode.” For controls, you can use both Joy-Con (doesn’t make a difference if you hold them freely or attach them to either the screen or Grip), a single Joy-Con held horizontally, or of course the Pro Controller (sold separately). The Joy-Con are a natural evolution of the Wii Remote & Nunchuk, no longer requiring a sensor bar but now featuring “HD rumble” along with the amiibo NFC reader and an IR sensor in the right Joy-Con for added gimmick.

You read the article title; just why am I so lukewarm on the Switch? Well this is Nintendo, who, since the Wii, has focused on controller gimmicks innovation rather than power. Specs-wise, it’s once again “just a box” (this time figuratively rather than literally) that is not as strong as competitors but good enough to run the first-party content everyone wants to play. The story is yet again input gimmicks on a technically unimpressive console.

Long story short, I played three games: 1-2 Switch, Arms, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I also watched other people play games like Splatoon 2, Snipperclips, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe up close. In TV mode all the games looked expectedly gorgeous and ran rather smoothly. I can’t tell you “oh for sure it was 1080p 60fps” because I’m just no good at judging that stuff, though I did notice frames dropping every now and then in Zelda

The screen slides in and out of the dock smoothly, locking into place firmly. Likewise, the Joy-Con slide on and off both the screen and Grip cleanly, requiring a button to be pressed to pull them off which makes for a secure connection. All components feel very sturdy and of solid construction (Nintendium still being used!). As advertised, the system is very quick to ‘switch’ to the portable screen when you undock the system. Putting it back in takes slightly longer but it’s not significant enough to care especially since you’ll have to grab your controller of choice after putting it back in. 

Playing in portable mode with the Joy-Con attached is a different experience. Again, you all know the specs enough to know it’s less powerful when undocked, and even to my untrained eye, I could tell it was at a lower resolution though the frame-rate seemed relatively unchanged in my experience. The feeling is just uncomfortable though, for a variety of reasons.

Compared to the Wii U GamePad, it’s longer and thinner and just overall a bit smaller. Despite that, it’s noticeably heavier and something about the way the Joy-Con felt attached to it was uncomfortable enough for me to want to ‘switch’ back to TV mode fairly quickly. I’ll talk more about the Joy-Con in a bit, but I preferred the way they feel on the Grip or unattached to anything than attached to the screen. Button placement and feel is not as good as the Wii U GamePad, which is a shame considering the screen quality is much better.

Since unlike the Wii U, you can’t have two screens running simultaneously, it is no longer possible to use a second screen in games for things like map and inventory. Granted no one will miss such trivial uses, but in my opinion Nintendo did put it to good use in first-party titles like Nintendo Land, Mario Party 10, Wii Party U, Game & Wario, New Super Mario Bros. U, and of course Super Mario Maker. I’m one of the few people who absolutely loves asymmetrical multiplayer and wacky party games, so content like Mario Party 10‘s Bowser Party, Nintendo Land‘s Mario Chase and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, and a ton of stuff in Wii Party U is no longer possible on the Switch due to insufficient screens and also the lack of a visible spectrum camera.

There is a lot to talk about with the Joy-Con themselves, but first I have to point out the HUGE design flaw in portable mode. Soon after I undocked the system for portable mode while playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the event staff member on hand attached the USB charging cable…to the bottom of the screen. This is not news, as you can see it in detailed images of the system put out by Nintendo itself, but it wasn’t til I had it in my hands that I realized.

Having the USB charger on the bottom of the screen is not only highly uncomfortable while holding it in your lap, but it makes charging it and setting it up on its kickstand simultaneously impossible. With a two- to six-hour battery life, in many cases, you’re going to be playing it while plugged in, such as on the plane. I’ve been on more planes than I can count and while it’s a coin-flip if they have a USB port, none of them feature tray tables with a hole in them. I’m really surprised no one else is making a fuss about this. About the USB port, I mean — not perforated tray tables.

The Joy-Con are going to be used in a lot of ways: using a single left or right Joy-Con, holding both detached Joy-Con, attaching them to the screen, attaching them to the Grip, holding them sideways in Arms, and many configurations for the variety of motion control games. Both feature the oddly advertised “HD rumble” and the right Joy-Con also features the NFC reader for amiibo and an infrared sensor.

I didn’t actually play a game with a single Joy-Con, but I did hold each in my hand and pretend I was playing games like I did when my Game Boy’s batteries died as a kid. Most people express fear over the size of the Joy-Con, but the issue is more with the button placement. Yes it is small, but when the wrist-strap is attached, it becomes a little bigger and thus more ergonomic but it comes at the cost of making the SL and SR buttons feel more flimsy than if you play with a naked Joy-Con.

The right Joy-Con has the joystick in the middle of the controller while the left Joy-Con has the face buttons in the middle of the controller. In either case you are cramming both of your hands on one side of an already small controller. It also feels awkward having the joystick or face buttons centrally between the shoulder buttons when traditionally d-pads and joysticks are closer to being under the left shoulder button(s) and the face buttons closer if not directly under the right shoulder button(s). 

Joy-Con buttons function the same whether they are detached, on the screen, or in the Grip. The sticks feel less like the perfect circles on the Wii U GamePad and more like the Nintendo 64 or Wii Remote joysticks which have little divots. The sticks, + and – buttons, capture button, and Home button all feel fine. The face buttons and “d-pad” buttons are pretty much the same and are similar if not identical to the Wii U GamePad face buttons; firm and satisfying to press. It’s just…I don’t like the idea of having buttons rather than a traditional d-pad. Pressing them feels unnatural and maybe I’ll get used to it, but being located directly underneath the left joystick adds to the jarring feeling which perhaps also will take some getting used to. They obviously made the choice to make them buttons so that you can play on a single Joy-Con in multiplayer, but continuing to use the arrow denominations is going to cause confusion when switching between different layouts at some point.

Similar to Wii U GamePad, the ZL and ZR buttons are not analog triggers, but they feel a little worse in that your fingers slip off them fairly easy. The L and R buttons feel slightly weird to press in a way I can’t accurately communicate. All four shoulder buttons feel much more natural if you turn the controllers sideways (joysticks facing each other) like when playing Arms, again suggesting a design focus on gimmicks. But man, I really miss those GameCube analog triggers.

As mentioned, playing in portable mode to me is uncomfortable, but of all the control methods for the Joy-Con, the Grip felt the most natural. Looking at a picture of it makes it look really odd, with that big square jutting out of the bottom-center. However, it fits into your hands quite naturally and after a long day of waggling, punching, and tilting, it felt very much at home to have a standard controller in my hands. For many it will negate the need or desire to pick up a Pro Controller, but based on my prior complaints with the shoulder buttons and “d-pad” buttons, I think I will for the first time pick up a Pro Controller. 

Arms has you hold the two Joy-Con facing inward and uses only the shoulder buttons along with motion in-game, while all other buttons do nothing. It makes the shoulder buttons feel natural, but it feels very weird holding the Joy-Con in this fashion. Not only is it odd pressing buttons despite the fact you know they do nothing, but time and time again through either subconscious reasons or muscle memory or whatever I kept turning the Joy-Con to face me unintentionally mid-fight. Navigating the menus including selecting characters, stages, and your weapons in-between rounds requires you to use the Joy-Con normally (facing you), thus making you continually shift the mode of operation. Annoying.

For games featuring motion controls, I only played Arms, which doesn’t require precise movement, and one mini-game in 1-2 Switch (the Samurai one where you have to swing a sword at your opponent who tries to catch it). Overall there weren’t any issues and no longer needing a sensor bar is a huge plus. If you’re not already tired of waggling Wii Motes around, you’ll be happy to hear these are like a better version of the Wii Mote/Nunchuk combo.

If a rumble pack is 240p, standard rumble is 480p, and a true HD rumble is 1080p, I would put the Joy-Con’s “HD rumble” at around 720. I played the ball-counting mini-game in 1-2 Switch where you must guess the number of balls that are in your box by tilting the Joy-Con and feeling the rumble. At first I was really blown away by the fidelity of it; it truly felt like a real ball was rolling in my hand to the point that it was kind of scary. But when it came to multiple balls it wasn’t so clear. Spoiler: I had two balls in my box, though I didn’t know while playing. No matter how much I tinkered, I couldn’t seem to get them to “roll” individually; it always felt like the other balls’ rolling was ancillary or attached to one main ball, and crashing at one end of the box felt too chaotic to make an accurate guess (it’s extra difficult without sound). My guess was three based on these observations, but when I found out it was two I felt like it should’ve been easier to determine such a low number. This is one anecdote, though. Overall I’m very impressed with what they did and I think I may just have had a bad go, but I don’t see what use this would get outside of 1-2 Switch or a potential Mario Party.

Playing multiplayer with a single Joy-Con is cute idea, but it’s only going to work for simple games like Super Mario Bros., Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Snipperclips. To be fair, more complicated games generally aren’t split-screen anyway (including Splatoon), but don’t expect to play many shooters like Call of Duty on a single Joy-Con, if such third-party games even come to Switch. You either need friends to buy their own Switches or someone has to have more controllers. Carrying more than one set of Joy-Con or at least one Pro Controller in addition to a heavy Switch screen, Joy-Con set, and a USB charging cable does not make for a very portable system. In their minds they are probably thinking “tablets are not small enough to fit in pockets either but they still sell,” but tablets don’t need controllers and tablets have longer battery life. The 3DS is light, compact, and can be closed to make for a smooth object.

Considering the Wii U’s failures and the popularity of mobile gaming in Japan, it’s easy to see why this console was made. Hardcore gamers (I don’t like the term “gamer” any more than you but it’s a convenient term) will be satisfied playing it as a home console with either the Grip or Pro Controller, but I don’t see many of the casual Wii consumers lining up for this. Going to and fro the Switch event I played games like Kirby and Picross my 3DS on the train and also while waiting in line. I can close it into sleep mode and toss it in my pocket without fear of an accidental button press in a matter of seconds. Switch is not going to be so simple to pocket.

None of that is possible with a huge Switch screen, but you can play big games like Breath of the Wild, I guess? I just would rather play those big games at home where I can focus. The Switch games I would play on a train I would rather just play on a 3DS. It’s cool if you’re going to a friend’s house to play games together, but in that case I’d still bring the dock so we don’t have to split a small screen for a few hours or while it lays flat on the floor plugged into the wall. The Switch will be a fine home console but technically it just feels like I’m playing the Wii U again.

I’m no console maker; I don’t know the costs of things. However, I still wish they would stop devoting so many resources towards likely expensive things such as IR sensors, motion control, “HD rumble,” and NFC readers for amiibo and instead put that focus into making a stronger console and lineup of games. Not to say if they did that it would be on par with Xbox One or PS4, but at the very least there is the possibility that the console and its peripherals might be cheaper.

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Cory Arnold
Pretty cool dude in Japan. 6/9/68
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