Nintendo Switch review (US$299)

Play the new Zelda wherever you please? Oh, go on then

05 March 2017
by Stuff Staff

What’s the difference between a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One? One plays Uncharted, the other Halo. One your mates might own, the other they probably don’t. One is a big black box that sits under your TV, the other is also available in white.

Nintendo’s Switch is not like those consoles and that is what makes it so special.

The idea behind the Switch is simple: a gaming machine that plays as well at home as it does on the go. One console to rule them all, if you like. It’s what the Wii U was aiming for and fell so spectacularly short of. This time, Nintendo has got it spot on. The hardware is immensely fun to handle and the games so far are stellar, but… a few niggling doubts about the Switch remain.

Of course they do. This is a Nintendo console we’re talking about here.

NINTENDO SWITCH GAMES: ZELDA AND MARIO LEAD THE WAY, BUT WHAT’S NEXT?

Before we get to the superlatives, let’s talk about the biggest reservation you should have for the Switch: what you’ll be able to play on it.

So far, this console has Nintendo’s holy trinity of Zelda, Mario Kart and Super Mario all lined up for its first nine months of existence. Even though Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a remake and Breath of the Wild can also be bought for Wii U, that’s still a huge deal. Nintendo’s big guns are all going to be on Switch by Christmas, and they’ll be best enjoyed on that console thanks to its added power and portability.

Plus, they’re set to be joined by several popular third-party titles as well such as Minecraft, Skyrim and a new FIFA. Big kid or small, you’ll have plenty to play on Switch by the time Santa and Rudolf reunite this December.

So what about that launch line-up of just 12 games? Honestly, I don’t think it’s something you should fret about. One of those games is the absolutely enormous Breath of the Wild, and the rest are pretty good as well. Quality not quantity is what you get from the likes of 1-2 Switch, Snipperclips, Shovel Knight: Torment of Spector and Fast RMX.

Speaking as someone who bought a Wii U at launch, third-party support in 2018 and beyond is a far greater concern. Nintendo’s last console hit stores alongside the likes of Batman: Arkham City, FIFA 13 and Assasin’s Creed: Black Flag. After that first year or so, players looking for something non-Ninty had to settle for Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X, or buy a PlayStation 4. Worse still, the most notable game Nintendo released for its flagship console last year was Star Fox Zero. And it was rubbish.

Will things be different this time around? I’m cautiously optimistic. A slew of developers and publishers are said by Nintendo to be working on the console, with the people behind everything from Call of Duty to Dark Souls to Rocket League all included. Even more significantly, Nintendo is expected to be pooling the majority of its Wii U and 3DS development teams into one to ensure a steady stream of first-party exclusives.

Until the annual E3 games show in June, when Nintendo and third-party developers will be unveiling more about their big titles for the holidays and beyond, we won’t know if that is actually the case. You can either take a leap of faith now, or hold on to your money and find out later.

NINTENDO SWITCH DESIGN: PORTABLE PERFECTION

Sega’s Dreamcast proved that making a great console doesn’t guarantee people will make lots of great games for it, but the fact remains that the Switch’s hardware really is brilliant. More than a machine that nails Nintendo’s ‘play anywhere’ concept, it’s exceptionally well-made and the kind of console that you want to spend time with.

I just can’t see this thing gathering dust under my TV. Not when I can sneak in a fresh trophy in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the train into work, or take a few more steps towards slaying Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild.

A large part of this pick-up-and-play appeal is thanks to the Switch’s classy build. Rather than sticking with the the cheap, shiny plastic that Nintendo has been running with for the Wii and Wii U, this console is made from glass, metal and matte plastic. It’s a premium machine, which is just as well given it’s more expensive to buy than any other portable and most home consoles.

Design-wise the Switch is laid out in the same manner as a PlayStation Vita or GameBoy Advance, with its Joy-Con controllers slapped on either side of a 6.2-inch touchscreen. Despite not being capable of full HD resolutions, this 720p display is an absolute delight. Big, bright and capable of some stunning contrast and colours, it makes Breath of the Wild look every bit as good in the palms of your hands as it does on a telly. Text can sometimes appear a little on the small side, but otherwise I can’t fault the thing.

Whereas playing a game on the Wii U’s GamePad had you itching to get back to your TV, this is comfortable to use while travelling or while your better half enjoys a bigger screen instead. At 295g the Switch doesn’t weigh down your hands, while its battery life of between three and six hours depending on what game you’re playing can handle a long-ish journey without running flat.

You don’t need to be holding the Switch to play it away from the TV either. Simply flick out the kickstand on its backside and hook up one of the console’s controllers, of which you’ve got a fair few to chose from.

Oh, and we almost forgot, cartridges are back with the Switch. Why? That portability factor. They’re about the size of an SD card and slot right into the top the console under a flap. Don’t blow on them if they’re struggling to load though. That still won’t fix anything.

NINTENDO SWITCH JOY-CONS: NINTENDO’S MADE A NEW WIIMOTE

From the Wiimote to the N64’s Rumble Pack, Nintendo loves making weird controllers and inventive add-ons for them. The Switch does absolutely nothing to buck this trend, but crucially the Joy-Cons, their numerous Grips and the Switch Pro Controller are all up to scratch.

The Joy-Cons are the two controllers that you actually get in the box with your Switch and, like I said before, they usually sit on either side of the Switch’s screen. If you’re playing the console in handheld mode that’s where they’ll stay as well. Although you play through most games using both Joy-Cons in tandem, they share the same generous array of inputs: a control stick and six buttons sit on top of each pad, while two trigger buttons sit on top. If you detach them from the main Switch there are also two more buttons placed on their side.

I know what you’re thinking, that sounds like a lot of buttons. In practice it’s almost exactly the same number that you get from a PS4 or Xbox pad.

Because of the Switch’s portable nature, its buttons are smaller than what you get from a standard home console controller and they have less travel as well. Basically, they’re on par with what you get from a 3DS, so using them all in tandem still comes naturally. Even when you’re having to see off a horde of bloodthirsty Bokoblins in Breath of the Wild.

As well as being packed to the rafters with inputs, each Joy-Con has several motion sensors built in. Slide them out of the console and they basically work as a revamped Wiimote that’s super-lightweight and tucks right into the palm of your hands. They feel barely there when you’re playing minigame bonanza 1-2 Switch or cartoon fighter Arms, and that’s a really good thing if you enjoy the sight of your mates trying to pull off ludicrous dance moves or pretending to be a gorilla. The photos look that little bit more damning on Facebook.

The only time you’ll notice you’re holding a Joy-Con is when their HD Rumble kicks in. Realistically, this feature could have easily been called ‘slightly better rumble than normal’ as it allows you to differentiate between subtle vibrations. I doubt that one would have gotten past Nintendo’s marketing department though. Anyway, the important thing is that HD Rumble works and you can crack a safe in 1-2 Switch by telling the difference between the two. So far, that’s the Switch’s only game to use the feature though.

What’s so gurn-inducingly brilliant about the Joy-Cons is that they ensure the Switch is multiplayer-ready from the moment you unbox it. Since each one can be used as a basic, separate controller, you don’t have to buy a second set to invite a mate around for a spot of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, 1-2 Switch or Super Bomberman R. They’ll have to invent a distant and now-deceased or apocalyptically important work presentation to avoid your company.

Finally, a quick note on the wireless syncing issues some reviewers have experienced with their left Joy-Con. We’ve not had that problem pop up. If it appears to be widespread in launch hardware after the Switch’s Day One patch then we’ll amend this review accordingly.

NINTENDO SWITCH KOY-CON & PRO CONTROLLER: NECESSARY UPGRADES

As much as the Switch’s portability is its ace in the hole, the thing that makes it totally distinct from a PS4 or Xbox One S, you’ll likely use it most when slouched in front of your TV. To that end Nintendo has also bundled another peripheral in with the Switch: the Joy-Con Grip.

The idea behind it is idiot-proof, you slot your two Joy-Cons out of the sides of the Switch and click them both into the Grip for a more traditional controller setup. Easy.

Since the Joy-Con Grip is a product of handheld compromise, its buttons are squashed together and its plastic handles are relatively shallow. Not so much that you’ll end up pressing the wrong button at a crucial moment or find the Grip slipping out of your fingers, but given the choice I much prefer to play at home with the US$70 Pro Controller.

Essentially the Xbox One S’s pad remade for Switch, right down to those extra grippy handles, it gives you bigger buttons with greater travel and simply a lot more to hold on to. It’s also rechargeable, with a claimed battery life of 40 hours, and that’s not the case with the Joy-Con Grip. At least, not the one that comes packed in with the Switch.

In one of the most flagrant cash grabs I’ve seen for ages, Nintendo is also selling a Joy-Con Charging Grip separately for US$35. It’s no different to the standard Joy-Con Grip, expect it’ll top up their battery life to the standard 20 hours over USB-C.

So thanks to a combination of ergonomics and profiteering, the Joy-Con Grip you get with the Switch is actually the third best way to play the console at home. Not ideal, is it? Even if you can happily get by playing that way.

NINTENDO SWITCH BATTERY LIFE AND STORAGE: ONE’S GOOD. THE OTHER? NOT SO MUCH

As I mentioned earlier, the Switch is said by Nintendo to have a battery life of up to six hours. That’s only when tasked with playing a thoroughly unchallenging game on low brightness settings, though. For Breath of the Wild our console mustered a less impressive but still thoroughly respectable performance of just over three hours.

That’s still enough stamina to last almost any daily commute and a very similar performance to what you get from Nintendo’s 3DS XL and Sony’s PlayStation Vita. In other words, it’d be churlish to complain too much. Especially as you can keep the thing charged up over a long-distance using a portable battery pack: just plug the thing into its USB-C port and it’ll start sipping up that spare juice. Otherwise, you recharge the Switch using either its dock or a mains USB-C adapter.

The same positivity can’t be applied to Nintendo’s approach to internal storage. Straight out of the box, you’ll only be able to use 25.9GB of its 32GB memory. Choose to download Breath of the Wild instead of buying a boxed edition and it’ll take up a further 13.4GB. Basically, you’re going to have to buy a microSD card for the Switch if you want to use Nintendo’s eShop and that is quite frankly ridiculous.

At least extra storage options aren’t too expensive. You can currently pick up a 128GB SanDisk microSD card for less than US$50, and that should be enough to see you through the Switch’s lifespan. For what feels like a premium console it’s a shame that Nintendo had to cheap out in this way though.

NINTENDO SWITCH DOCK: IT JUST WORKS

If you felt your finger hover over a ‘pre-order’ button when the Switch was properly unveiled this January, then it’s not hard to guess why. A console that works as well at home as it does as a portable? That is a genius idea. Better still, Nintendo has actually delivered on it.

Even though the Dock is the least sexy part of the Switch, it’s where most of its magic comes from. Pop the Switch tablet into it while turned on and your TV screen will pop into life in a matter of seconds. The same happens when you try things the other way around. The whole process couldn’t be easier or more fuss free, and you’ll probably end up trying it a couple of times in a row for fun when you first get your hands on the console. It’s just a delightful piece of techy wizardry.

Beyond changing how titles are rendered from 720p in handheld mode to (mostly) full HD while connected to your TV, there’s not all that much else the Switch’s Dock does. Stick the Switch console in it and it takes up an astoundingly small amount of real estate at just 23.9cm in width and 12.4cm in height. Compared to the gargantuan PS4 Pro, which is so big it sits on the floor next to my telly, you’ll have no problem finding space for the Switch and its Dock.

As for ports? It packs in a HDMI, USB-C power and three USB connections ports as well. Since the console doesn’t support USB storage at launch – you’re meant to use a microSD card instead, remember? – those latter ports are exclusively for recharging your Pro Controller or Joy-Con Charging Grip at the moment.

Ultimately, the Dock is a very simple bit of kit and that is its greatest strength. Slotting in your Switch and playing on your TV straight away is totally fuss-free. Just as well really: you’re going to be doing it a lot with this console.

NINTENDO SWITCH INTERFACE: EASY TO USE BUT NO NETFLIX

If you were in any doubt that the Switch is a games machine and a games machine only, then that illusion won’t last long once you’ve turned it on. Taking an obvious cue from Sony’s system software for PlayStation 4, the Switch’s own operating system gives you a series of big tiles to choose a game from, while some smaller dots are placed underneath them so you can access stuff like Nintendo’s eShop and the console’s settings.

It’s an uncluttered setup that’s quick to work your way around. Or in other words, it’s the complete mirror image of what Wii U users had to put up with. If the price of this change is not having a gaggle of Mii’s wandering around my TV screen and uttering inane superlatives about the latest Mario game, then I am very much OK with that. The Switch makes it easy to play the games you own.

Job done? I’d say so, even though you can’t use the Switch to stream Netflix or Amazon Prime Video as you could on its predecessor. While those kind of apps were important to have on a console five years ago, any recent smart or 4K TV comes with them built in. And if you’re still struggling find them? Then a new Chromecast will only set you back US$40. Nintendo has also said it will assess this situation as the console picks up users.

NINTENDO SWITCH ONLINE: THE GREAT SWITCH UNKNOWN

Considering the Switch is launching in two days’ time, we still know very little about its online plans. As with the Wii U, you’ll be able to download new games for the console via Nintendo’s eShop. Unlike the Wii U, you won’t be able to download and play retro games on it via Nintendo’s Virtual Console platform. Also, a paid subscription service for multiplayer is launching this Autumn. Honestly, it’s all a bit of a mess.

So what do we know in the meantime? Online multiplayer (on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the Splatoon 2 demo and everything else with an online component) will be free until the Switch’s subscription service arrives. When that happens you’ll have to stump up what’s estimated to be around US$25 per year according to Nintendo, and you’ll get access to a ‘refreshed’ retro title from Nintendo’s previous consoles every month as part of the deal. Also, an app is meant to take on a lot of the Switch’s online functionality, such as voice chat.

See! I told you it was a mess.

However this situation resolves itself, Nintendo has struggled with online in the past and – with titles such as Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 demanding decent multiplayer – it no longer has that same luxury. Personally, I’d rather it took the time to get things right with multiplayer and its Virtual Console than risk another ill-thought-out balls-up. Why the year or so before now wasn’t long enough to sort it remains a mystery.

NINTENDO SWITCH COMPETITION: PLAYSTATION 4 AND XBOX ONE S

Since it’s a 2-in-1 console, comparing the Switch to its competition is tricky. As a homebound machine, it’s going up against the PlayStation 4 Slim and Xbox One S. As a portable, it’s comparable to Nintendo’s own 3DS and an iPad.

While there’s no disputing that the Switch has significantly less graphical grunt than even your base-level PlayStation 4 Slim and a shorter battery life than an iPad, the fact is that it is good enough on both of those fronts. Games still look fabulous on this console and it’s got the stamina to see almost anyone through their daily commute.

Breath of the Wild in particular is one of the most gorgeous games I have ever played and is every bit as jaw-dropping as Uncharted 4 and Forza Horizon 3. Place the upcoming FIFA for Switch side-by-side with its PS4 Pro incarnation and that’s where the downgrade will show. Third-party titles won’t have quite the same wow factor as they do on other consoles, and there will doubtless be more of them to play elsewhere.

Want to be sure you can get your hands on Red Dead Redemption 2, Prey and Mass Effect: Andromeda? Then don’t get the Switch as your only console.

As ever, the upside of owning a Nintendo console is that you get the best exclusive titles bar none. From Ocarina of Time to Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Metroid, Nintendo has a game-making pedigree that no other developer can compete with. The Switch will deliver more awesome titles in that lineage, and given the choice I would play them over Bloodborne, Sea of Thieves and even The Last of Us Part II.

Sony’s PS4 exclusives have been great so far – light years ahead of their Xbox One counterparts – but I still don’t think they’re up to Nintendo standards. It’s this heritage and the unique ability to be played anywhere that the Switch is banking on to make a success of itself. Especially considering the Switch is more expensive than a base-level PS4 Slim or Xbox One S.

NINTENDO SWITCH VERDICT

The Nintendo Switch is a gamble of monumental proportions. Will it have enough games in the long run? Will its online service turn out to be a dud? Will the hidden costs of ownership, such as extra microSD storage and a Pro Controller, turn people off owning one? I just don’t know.

What I can tell you is that the Switch ranks among Nintendo’s very best consoles. Its ‘play anywhere’ concept is inventive in a way you’ll actually appreciate, Zelda: Breath of the Wild is absolutely essential and most importantly pretty much everyone I’ve handed one to has had a blast with the thing.

By going all-in with a 2-in-1 machine, Nintendo has captured people’s imaginations in a way it hasn’t done since the Wii. To hold their attention, it’ll need to ensure the Switch doesn’t burn out in its first 12 months of existence.

So… should you buy one? For Nintendo fans, it’s a no-brainer. For everyone else, we’d give it a few months. Right now, the Switch is brimming with promise, totally unique and well worth celebrating.


STUFF SAYS

SCORE: ****
Nintendo’s 2-in-1 console is the real deal. Time will tell if it gets the games it deserves

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