Let’s talk about the Nintendo Switch!
DISCLAIMER: The following are my impressions of the console and its launch software after one week; all items discussed were purchased with my own funds, and no one has reviewed this content prior to posting, nor am I being compensated directly by Nintendo or any game publishers for any of this content. All views expressed are my own.
Starting with the hardware itself, I think it is an impressively well-executed product in terms of hardware design. Nintendo has managed to build a system that feels natural as both a portable and a home console, functioning in both modes better than I expected. Despite some concerns with the ergonomics – and most adults will likely have the same reaction when you see how small the Joy-cons are – the Switch doesn’t feel all that bad in-hand. I can use it longer than my PS Vita or DS without any hand cramping when in tablet mode. The ability to use the built-in kickstand and included controller dock helps, as I find that more comfortable for longer play; for use in this mode, the built-in speakers are quite good, while the charger port location on the bottom of the device is unfortunate. The whole docking/undocking experience is pretty great, both with the system itself and the controllers. They nailed that aspect, right down to the “click” sound that the system makes when you slot the Joy-cons in place.
The screen is impressive, despite being 720p. Bright, IPS, and with good viewing angles, I have no complaints about it. The Switch as a whole is an impressively light and small device for how many features they packed into it; keep in mind those Joy-cons are two independent controllers that connect separately or together via Bluetooth, with rumble, gyroscope, and IR sensors, plus one has an NFC for Amiibo or other toys to life games.
Graphically, the Switch is more of what Nintendo has been for the past few console generations. This system is about twice as powerful as an Xbox 360 (which released in 2005), and is running the same graphics chip as the NVIDIA Shield TV. In truth, this amount of power is impressive for its size, but is not impressive in a vacuum when you consider that a PS4/Xbox One both run circles around it, and those machines are 3 years old (and underwhelmed in terms of graphics horsepower upon release). In terms of raw graphical power, the Switch is around 1 teraflop while docked (and less while running in mobile mode), which lags about 1.5x behind the PS4 launch edition, about 4x behind the PS4 Pro, and about 6x behind the Xbox Scorpio launching later this year.
That said, console wins have never been exclusively about graphical power. If Nintendo and its publisher partners can manage to create more games like Zelda, Shovel Knight, and Snipperclips, they’ll be fine; they need games that use pixel art, cartoon-ish graphics, and the cell-shaded style, rather than anything going for photo-realism. While this can be done, I’m concerned that the absence of ability to port games from PC and Xbox/PS4 is going to be a killer; this system is more likely to get buried with Android/iOS shovelware than it is to get AAA support, since it doesn’t share architecture DNA with the PC, PS4, or XBox One.
As far as launch titles, this launch isn’t as bad as I first thought. One key thing to establish here: Zelda is as good as advertised. Truthfully, Zelda has never really been my jam, but this one perfectly blends the existing Zelda aesthetic with the RPG style I prefer, being more akin to Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls titles. The gameplay, graphics, music, character design: all amazing. I’m only a few hours into it but I can tell it is a masterpiece.
Nintendo balanced Zelda out with a range of more casual games. 1-2 Switch isn’t as bad as you may have heard, but it is extremely shallow and overpriced at $50 Still, I think most reviews of this game miss the mark: 1-2 Switch is meant to be a light party game for casual or non-gamers, and it does succeed there while also being a decent tech demo / proof of concept. Just don’t expect to get hours of enjoyment out of it, don’t buy it if you don’t have friends to play with, and don’t buy if you’re exclusively a “hardcore gamer” because it isn’t meant for you.
Snipperclips is arguably the sleeper of the launch. It perfectly takes advantage of the Switch’s graphical limitations while having great two-player out of the box via the Joy-cons. The game is hilarious, fun, and oozes charm. At $19.99 it is a must-buy.
Fast RMX is a re-do of a Wii U racing title you probably haven’t heard of, but for $19.99, it isn’t a bad F-Zero/Wipeout clone to tide you over until more games are released. Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove is the new relaunch of Shovel Knight with all the extra content thrown in, and that game is fantastic and perfect for a system like the Switch… assuming you don’t already own it for PS4, Wii U, 3DS, or PC, that is.
Similarly, additional PC/console ports coming soon including Binding of Isaac (which still seems overpriced at $40 to me, but whatever) and Terraria (the full updated 1.3 edition) are awesome games that are perfect for portable play.
Speaking of portable play, you can expect around 2.5-4 hours of battery life out of the Switch, which isn’t fantastic, but Nintendo did a very wise thing utilizing USB 3.1 Type C as their power adapter; this means you can power the Switch using a large battery power bank. 20,000 mAh battery packs can charge the Switch up 4 times, but there’s a catch: you need to get a more modern, USB C battery pack that can charge at 5V. Even then, not all USB C batteries and cables are made equal, and some will not be able to keep the Switch at parity while gaming, meaning you can be plugged into a battery and still see your Switch die. Don’t expect to just dust off any old battery and be able to game for hours on end.
The 32GB of local storage may also be an issue; a portable system is best when you have digital games, but the Switch’s limited on-board storage makes this a problem. You can expand storage via a micro-SD card, but those aren’t as fast or reliable as built-in flash storage and again, drive additional cost. [Note that one thing you don’t need storage for is music, movies, or apps, as the Switch doesn’t support either at the time of launch: no Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, or Amazon Video. Supposedly some or all of these are coming, but for the time being, the Switch can’t function as a tablet replacement if you were hoping to use it that way.]
The cost is probably the primary warning I have about the Switch. At $299.99 the base system price isn’t that crazy to me when you consider the tech involved; the NVIDIA Shield Tablet still retails for $199.99 and while it has a slightly larger 8″ display at 1080p, it also lacks the built-in controllers and dock that you get with the Switch. In fact, the NVIDIA Shield tablet with Shield controller plus case would push you to a similar $300 price point.
Unfortunately, the Switch has a ton of add-on items that most people are going to want. If you’re looking to play four-player games, you’ll need a second Joy-con set, and those are a whopping $80. The Pro Controller – if you can find it – is a much better way to play games like Zelda, but that’s another $70. If you’re going to use the Switch as a portable, you’ll probably be getting a case and screen protector, and possibly the aforementioned battery pack and Micro SD card. And, there are no packed-in games, so you’ll need those as well.
Add all that up, and well, the price has gotten pretty out of hand in a hurry. Expensive console launches are the rule rather than the exception, but Nintendo’s Wii U experience gives us reason to pause. That launch was hampered by poor Nintendo marketing, without a doubt, but I’d still argue the longer-term death blow to that system was the uniqueness of the tablet controller combined with third-party developers’ inability to port their AAA titles from the other consoles and PC.
While I think the Switch marketing has been substantially better, and the system’s “gimmicks” this time make way more sense than the Wii U’s, there’s still that same question of whether or not this system gets any third-party support. If Nintendo can grab up the indie developers that had to move on from the PS Vita, the Switch could be an amazing system with a large, substantial library; for those familiar, imagine games like Axiom Verge, Darkest Dungeon, Nuclear Throne on the Switch, keeping in mind also that it has a touchscreen and gyroscope. There’s a ton of potential there, potential no one else is in a position to tap.
At the same time, Axiom Verge isn’t going to move units like Battlefield One moves units, and we know that most AAA games just aren’t going to hit the Switch, outside of the typical Nintendo stable of properties like Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, and so on. Just like we’ve seen with VR platforms last year into thsi year, without AAA-studio support, and without great games – and marketable games – this system is going to choke out in a hurry without support.
I have real concerns that the AMD multi-core architecture in the PS4 and Xbox One (and Scorpio) that align very well with PC development are going to leave the Switch in no-man’s land in terms of developer and publisher support; this is especially true when you consider one of AMD’s two main rivals, NVIDIA, is powering this console, while AMD has a lock on the other two home consoles, as well as market share in both the GPU and CPU market on PC.
To sum up my overall thoughts, I think that the Switch is a great product that captures a lot of the best, and worst, of what Nintendo has been as a company since it launched the Wii just over a decade ago.
The Switch is competitively priced and occupies a unique space, with something to offer to both casual and hardcore gamers; Nintendo also launched it with their best game in years, in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a true system-mover and exactly the home run they needed with the audience they mostly lost during the Wii U years. The Switch, via the unique Joy-cons, has built-in two-player support and packs in a whole host of features that Nintendo loves to build into their games: toy to life support, IR sensors, touch-screen, rumble, gyroscope. In combination, this should bring out the best in Nintendo’s first-party developers. Nintendo can make a ton of noise this Christmas if their upcoming Mario game ends up as good as it looks in the trailers.
All that said, while the unit itself is priced fairly, knowing that a single game plus add-on items could push your up-front cost to $500 or more out of the chute, I have to caution you to consider holding off on purchasing it now, unless you have to play Zelda immediately. There’s a reasonable chance that we’ll see some price drops for the console and/or accessories within the next year, and then following that, probably versions of the system with improvements: more built-in storage and better battery life, for example. Also, until the game and app line-up is fleshed out, there’s not much impetus to get the system in the here and now. If you buy the Switch now, it is probably either to play Zelda, or because you want to support Nintendo and the potential the system offers. Even just adding YouTube and Netflix support would go a very long way to justifying the Switch as a purchase so people continue to use it in-between major software releases.
Potential, really, is the key word here. There’s a possibility that this system’s future software lineup offers a unique mix of the best of PC indie games, Android and iOS titles, combined with traditional third-party support, and incredible first-party Nintendo software.
There’s at least an equal possibility that Nintendo’s partners again leave them stranded without AAA support, and that all they get from PC and mobile are garbage ports and shovelware, games that you wouldn’t play for free on your phone, let alone purchase for your Switch.
The most likely scenario is that the console is going to end up somewhere between those extremes. Your willingness to buy it now should reflect either your optimism or pessimism on whether the market ends up “on” or “off” the Switch in twelve month’s time.
Still, as the kids would say: but dat Zelda tho!
Nintendo Switch Links – Amazon.com
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