Earlier this week, I had the fortune of being able to attend the Switch and Play Preview Tour in Chicago. What I experienced there reassured me that my initial hesitations about the Nintendo Switch were mostly unfounded, but also made me more aware about some of the design flaws that I will have to keep my eye on come March.
In this post, I’m going to address every individual issue that I had with the Switch hardware and software, one topic at a time.
I’m going to be honest, I had a nagging feeling for a while about the build quality of the device, especially pertaining to the actual Joy-Cons. I knew that the tablet portion of the console would be rock-solid, and it certainly was, with a sort of compact density to it that gave it a premium-feeling heft. Definitely not anything like the Wii U’s bulky, plasticky controller. The Joy-Cons, however, I had my doubts about.
Based on the Nintendo presentation a couple of months ago, it looked like Nintendo had packed so much technology into their Joy-Cons that they forgot to attribute a solid build quality to them. I didn’t expect much going in when I tried out Zelda and other more traditional games (they were attached to the Switch and felt like standard button inputs, like the ones on a 3DS XL). The real test was with ARMS.
When the console attendant gave me the controllers to hold (and wrapped them tightly around my wrists, in a manner reminiscent of the original Wii controllers) I couldn’t help but feel that they were way too light. I could barely feel them in my hands. Really though, they are incredibly light, and that ‘premium feel’ of the Switch tablet portion is completely lost when holding these separately, one in each hand.
That said, the actual experience of holding them sideways in my clenched fists felt far better than doing so on the Wii remotes. I realized the reason for this was because of the lightness. The button placement is about what you’d expect from a controller of that size, but as I found out quickly when playing Mario Kart 8 using a single Joy-Con, the L and R buttons are unbelievably uncomfortable to use without the wrist strap accessory (which comes with the console this time!). They are recessed for some reason, making it an absolute chore to reach. What surprised me most however, was how normal the experience was on the other buttons and joystick. Despite the extremely cramped layout, the buttons felt ‘right’ and the joystick was springy and responsive, rather like the one on the GameCube.
Yes, it is small. No, it will not function as a permanent single-player controller. But it’s a great solution to quickly offer a friend a controller on the go. Think about it this way: it’s the only console I can think of that has ever offed multiplayer on a single screen right out of the box. Not even the Wii came with a second controller. To me, that’s a bargain, even if the Joy-Cons are a little cramped.
This is where the review starts sounding like an advertisement. I swear, no one’s paying me!
The experience of playing on the tablet is FANTASTIC. The screen is bright, clear, crisp, and has a ridiculous range of viewing angles. I actually had to ask the event staff about the tech behind the screen, because as far as I could tell, there was a less than 25% color loss when viewing from extreme angles. That is impressive. Given the recent IPS/TN debacle on the New 3DS XL, this is a great change of pace.
The tablet itself is weighty enough to make it feel like a small iPad (it actually felt a lot like Google’s fantastic Nexus 7), but not heavy enough to tire your hands out. It’s heavier than the 3DS, and not exactly pocket-sized, so it’s less portable than older devices, but that is a small price to pay for what it offers. And speaking of what it offers…
The ability to play full games on the go in all their glory (at 720p, which looks fantastic by the way) is something that really needs to be seen to be believed. It is bizarre but satisfying to see the exact image, with barely any change at all, transferred over to the Switch immediately when removing it from the dock. I timed the process with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and it literally took two seconds to appear on the Switch. Three when putting it back. That’s phenomenal.
There were some negatives and neutrals that I couldn’t shake, however. The charging port for the tablet is annoyingly placed on the bottom of the unit, which is the single worst design decision about the device. There is no feasible way to charge it while playing it on its kickstand. Hilariously, Nintendo seemed to realize this, and in their little display areas (one designed like a diner and one like an airplane) they had holes drilled into the surfaces they were playing on. Not something that would be there in real life. I’m certain that in the few months after release, there will be a third party router plugin that will allow you to connect it from the back or the side. But that shouldn’t be a purchase that has to be made in the first place.
A not-really-a-con that I have about the Switch is the reluctance of Nintendo to show off the touch functionality. None of the games I tried used the touch screen, but representatives assured me that it was touch compatible, and capacitive rather than pressure-sensitive ‘resistive’ like the 3DS, which is a great step up. The other issue is the battery life: there was no way to get a good measure of the actual battery life (or even the official one!) because none of the reps seemed to be able to answer that question. Apparently it varies very heavily on which games you play, so the best bet is to follow the estimates given earlier of about two hours playing large-scale heavy games and more time with indie or otherwise less graphically intensive games.
Design-wise, the tablet portion of the Switch is an unassuming, small, and simple piece of hardware, definitely more practically designed than ‘industrially-designed.’ Without the Joy-Cons attached, it looks like the average Android tablet.
The Launch Software
This one is still an issue. Breath of the Wild looks like an amazing game, frankly, and might be enough for Nintendo fans to purchase the Switch. But the rest of the games lined up for launch are not as exciting. Bomberman, which I tried during the event, is terrible. The mechanics are bland, the modes offered (even in the final version) are small changes to the same old Bomberman formula, and the graphics are abysmal. It looks like something a beginner Unity student could throw together in a few hours. It’s not something that will engage very many people. The remaining host of indie games are mostly already out on other consoles and have more definitive versions out already.
“But wait, what about ARMS and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2?! Are you saying those aren’t good games?”
Nope, they are all actually fantastic. But none of them are launch titles. From the advertisements, you’d think that this is what you’d be playing when you got the Switch, but for whatever reason, Nintendo spaced these out significantly enough to lessen the hype about them through launch. This is one of the biggest issues about the Switch. My only hope is that these games don’t get delayed any further.
They are there. Oddly enough, I noticed some in Bomberman (but it’s a game that’s bad in so many other ways that the framerate takes a back seat), but the real culprit was Breath of the Wild. I did as best as I could to test it out in the time that I had to play it at the event, and I found a few instances that would likely push the console to its limit:
- Taking out a bunch of enemies at once with a bomb or rock.
- Doing a spin attack on multiple enemies or barrels.
- Having a barrel explode so that the explosion fills the screen.
In all instances, there were tremendous framerate drops that had nothing to do with the ‘pause’ effect that is present in the more recent Zelda games. These were honest-to-badness framerate drops that I could eye-estimate at about 18-23 fps, as opposed to the ideal 30. It’s not great. However, I did notice something strange. The issue disappeared when playing in handheld mode. As in, there were zero framerate drops through the same tests that I ran. It makes sense, as it runs in 720p instead of the 900p in TV mode.
It’s a total marketing buzzword. In playing 1-2 Switch, Snipperclips, and other games, I was able to test out the new enhanced rumble feature, and…it feels nothing like the ‘ice cubes in the glass’ that Nintendo was showing off in their presentation. That said, it is a far better rumble than existed prior. The best comparison I can make is the difference between the rumble on the iPhone 6s and above to the previous iPhones. It’s also similar to the rumble on the Steam Controller, but not quite as precise. It’s still a marvel that any of this fits in such tiny devices without them weighing a ton, but it’s not the revolutionary game-changing feature that Nintendo wants it to be. And it doesn’t need to be. I think we’ve all had enough of motion control/interactive gimmicks as of the Wii U, so there are better things to focus on, like…
Yes, it’s actually audible. Yes, it sounds glorious. Yes, I will be doing it compulsively every second that I own the Switch. Now watch the video above on repeat until March 3rd, and you’ll be set.