Nintendo Switch – The Ultimate Console

Having ushered in the modern console landscape back in the day, in more recent times Nintendo’s focus has been on trying out weird and wonderful ideas with each new hardware release.

Whether it’s introducing second-screen gaming or motion-controls to the world with the Wii U and Wii respectively, or creating a handheld with a 3D display in the shape of the Nintendo 3DS , with each of its recent consoles Nintendo has gone out of its way to try something new.

And it’s a trend that’s continuing with its latest console, the Nintendo Switch. Here the idea is that it’s one piece of hardware that can function as both a console and a handheld, allowing you to seamlessly transition from playing your games at home to taking them on the go.

It’s a neat idea, and it’s one that intuitively makes more sense than the Wii and Wii U’s premises. After all, both consoles relied upon developers finding interesting uses for the new form factors. Wii Sports did this magnificently for the Wii, while developers had to work a little harder to make use of the Wii U’s Gamepad.

The Switch’s central premise, meanwhile, is something that can benefit literally every game. After all, who hasn’t wanted to take their console with them in the past to enjoy full home gaming experiences on the go?

For the most part, the console delivers well on this premise. It’s a solid, premium-feeling handheld, and works more or less as you’d expect a home console to work when you need it to.

It’s not perfect, and there are a couple of issues that prevent it from being a complete success, mostly related to the fact that it’s a console that’s trying to do multiple things at once; but for the most part the console finds a good compromise between its dual personalities.

Design

  • Three form factors; handheld, console (docked) and tabletop
  • Lots of accessories, which are at risk of being misplaced

In the Nintendo Switch box you get the main body of the console, complete with two detachable controller sides, a grip which enables you to combine these controller portions into a more traditional gamepad, two straps which can be attached to these sides to make them into two individual controllers, and a dock that allows you to plug the console into your television.

You also get a USB Type-C power cable (with a non-detachable power brick) and an HDMI cable for connecting the device to your TV.

If you think that sounds like a lot of accessories then you’d be right, and we suspect a lot of people are going to end up misplacing at least one or two of them after some months with the console.

We’ve taken to wrapping our Joy-Con straps around our Joy-Con grip just to keep everything together, but it would be great if there was some way of attaching them to the console so they don’t end up getting misplaced.

It’s a pretty novel (not to mention somewhat complicated) setup, so it’s worth delving into each of the different ways you can use the console.

Handheld mode

  • Bigger than traditional handhelds
  • Slightly cramped for the right hand due to right analogue stick
  • Split D-pad on the left side

First up is handheld mode, which is the form factor that’s most like the hardware that’s come before it.

In this configuration you attach the two controller portions (the Joy-Cons) to the left and right edges of the screen, and you use the console much like the PlayStation Vita .

In fact, the size and shape of the console’s analogue sticks make it feel a lot like a modern Vita, although it doesn’t feel as solid because of the joints that exist between the Joy-Cons and the screen.

Along the top of the device you’ve got a slot for game cartridges, a headphone jack (bluetooth headphones/headsets are not supported), a volume rocker and a power button.

The bottom of the device is a much more spartan affair. You’ve got the kickstand for using it in tabletop mode (more on this later) concealing a small microSD slot which provides the console’s expandable storage. Internal storage is limited to just 32GB, so if you’re planning on downloading games rather than buying them then you’re going to want to invest in a microSD card (capacities up to 2TB are theoretically supported).

The detachable Joy-Cons have a lot going on. The right hand side has the classic A, B, X, Y button configuration that Nintendo has used on and off since the SNES, an analogue stick (slightly awkwardly placed underneath the face buttons) and two shoulder buttons. There’s a small plus-shaped button which acts as the equivalent of the Wii U’s ‘Start’ button, and a home button for reaching the console’s system-level menus.

Across on the left Joy-Con it’s a very similar story. You’ve got a minus button that acts as the console’s ‘Select’ button, a share button for taking screenshots (which is set to be upgraded in the future to allow it to record video clips), an analogue stick, two shoulder-buttons, and the most un-Nintendo D-pad we’ve ever seen.

Instead of the classic cross D-pad Nintendo has utilised since the NES, the left Joy-Con instead has a set of four circular buttons that are identical in shape to the face buttons on the right Joy-Con.

This decision, which appears odd at first glance, has actually been made so the left Joy-Con can be used as an individual controller, with the D-pad acting as face-buttons in this configuration (again, more on this later).

Console mode

  • Connects to your TV via an included dock
  • Docking process is seamless, and can be done mid-game

The second form-factor is console mode. You place the main portion of the console in the included dock, this connects the device to your television, and you’re then free to detach the Joy-Cons to control the Switch from a distance.

The way the console transfers the viewing experience from its own screen to the television is as seamless as it could possibly be. You don’t even have to pause your current game – it happens completely in real time.

Detaching the Joy-Cons can be a little fiddly, but is essentially done by holding a small button on their backs and sliding the controller up.

This TV dock is around the same size as the Switch’s middle portion. Around the back you’ve got a USB Type-C port to provide the console with power, an HDMI port to connect it to your television, and a USB Type-A port.

On the left-hand side of the console are a further two USB ports, which will mainly be used for charging your controllers as you play wirelessly (more on this later too).

Tabletop mode

  • Screen can also be detached and propped up on a table

The final form factor is what Nintendo calls ‘tabletop mode’. Using the kickstand that’s attached to the back of the screen you can prop the console up on a table and then detach the Joy-Cons for some semi-portable gaming.

In theory this is a perfect fit for long journeys on public transport where you have a tray table to place the console on, but this is a bit of a mixed experience.

It’s certainly lovely being able to use the Joy-Cons in the grip rather than having them attached to the console. The grip provides just enough extra plastic to make the controllers much more comfortable in the hands, and having the console a little further away from you means that your sitting posture feels a lot more natural.

But there are a couple of issues that prevent the console from fully capitalising on tabletop mode.

First is the kickstand. Although it’s rubbarised, which means that the console doesn’t slide around, it only supports the console at a single height. This means that if your tray table is a little closer to you then there’s no ability to prop the console up so that it’s facing you more directly. You’ll instead be stuck with the screen pointing at your chest rather than face.

Second is the charging port, which is in accessible when your using it in tabletop mode. During a recent train journey this meant that although we were in the perfect situation to use tabletop mode, we ended up using the console as a handheld so that we could make use of the charger next to our seat.

Overall it feels as though tabletop mode is better suited to short periods of use, which is a shame when it should be the defacto way to use the console over long periods.

Set-up

  • Set-up is simple
  • Console will need to be told whether Joy-Cons are being used together or separately

Setting up the new console is suitably simple.

If you’re using the device as a handheld then simply attach the Joy-Cons and press the power button.

If you want to play games on your TV you’ll need to plug the dock into the TV via HDMI, and hook it up to some power via the included USB Type-C power lead. The console then easily slips into the dock.

Pairing the controllers is a little more complicated than with other devices because of the fact that they can either be paired or used separately. The way you tell the console which controllers you’re using is to press both the L and R shoulder buttons in whichever configuration you’re using.

This means that if you’re using the Joy-Cons individually you can press the buttons on the Joy-Con straps to indicate that this is the case.

On the software side the console will ask you for the standard combination of Wi-Fi details and user account set-up info. These details are a doddle to input if you make use of the console’s touchscreen; the keyboard isn’t quite as good as a smartphone’s, but it’s a lot better than using a traditional controller.

After that’s done you’re able to play games off a cartridge, or games that are saved on the system’s memory.

  • Check out our guide on how to set up the Nintendo Switch to see how simple the process is for yourself.

Nintendo has designed some absolutely classic controllers in its time. The original NES controller wrote the blueprint for what console controllers have continued to be ever since, the N64 was the first console to have a controller with an analogue thumb-stick, and the Wii, for better or for worse, introduced the world to motion-controlled gaming.

With the Switch, Nintendo has attempted the seemingly impossible in trying to create a controller that’s simultaneously one whole controller and two separate controllers, while also functioning as the handheld’s controllers.

Joy-Cons: General Impressions

By trying to do many things at once the Joy-Cons don’t do anything perfectly

  • HD Rumble tech is impressive – now developers need to find a use for it

Ultimately these multiple roles mean the controllers end up being jacks of all trades and master of none. None of the controller configurations are unusable, but we’ve used more comfortable controllers in the past that have had the advantage of only having to do one thing very well.

The left Joy-Con’s D-pad exhibits this problem in a nutshell. Rather than going for the cross D-pad that the company’s been using since the NES, the D-pad is instead split into four separate buttons to allow them to be used as face buttons when the Joy-Con is used as an individual controller.

The result is a D-pad that you’re not going to want to use for classic games that rely on it a lot, like Street Fighter.

So too do the analogue sticks feel like a compromise between the form factors. They’re too small for a traditional gamepad, yet big enough that we wouldn’t want to throw the console too carelessly into a rucksack for fear of one of them snapping off.

You do of course have the option of buying separate accessories which don’t have these issues (the Pro controller being the prime example), but in this review we’re going to limit ourselves to talking about what you get in the box, since this is the primary way most people are going to be using the console, at least initially.

One part of the controllers that we absolutely love are the face buttons. They’re a little smaller than those on other consoles, but they’ve got a really satisfying click to them that we really appreciate.

The Joy-Cons feature an interesting form of rumble, which Nintendo has dubbed ‘HD Rumble’. From what we’ve seen so far this isn’t just a marketing gimmick – it genuinely feels like a step forward for rumble tech.

One mini-game in the launch game 1-2 Switch has you counting the number of (virtual) balls inside a Joy-Con, and it’s impressive just how well the HD Rumble creates the impression of there being real balls inside the controller.

Another mini-game impresses by tasking you to crack a safe by feeling the click of a dial as you turn it.

Both mini-games have us excited for the possibilities of HD Rumble in the future, but the success of the technology will depend on the ability of developers to make use of it – the potential is there, but we’re yet to see a killer app.

There have been reports of connectivity issues with the left Joy-Con which is something we’ve experienced ourselves. The problem is that sometimes during gameplay the left Joy-Con’s connection just drops out completely.

Fortunately, Nintendo is now offering a repair service for any broken Joy-Cons, so we’d advise sending yours in if you experience connectivity issues of any kind.

Handheld

  • Handheld controls are a little cramped and awkward
  • Right analogue stick in particular is uncomfortable

It’s in the handheld configuration that the Switch controller’s deficiencies are most apparent. The main problem is the low positioning of the right analogue stick, which we found very difficult to operate comfortably.

Either you hold the Switch precariously on the tips of your fingers in order to operate the analogue stick with the tip of your right thumb, or you hold the device more tightly and operate the thumbstick with the inside of your thumb knuckle, which feels cramped and awkward.

Looking back, on the Vita the layout is very similar, but the increased weight of the Nintendo Switch makes it much more difficult to comfortably hold on the fingertips.

It’s a mode that we think works in small bursts, but it’s not comfortable over longer periods. If you’re gaming on a flight, for example, we’d expect most people to opt to put the console in tabletop mode on the tray table in front of them.

We are, however, fans of the shoulder buttons, which manage to feel big enough without impacting on the depth of the console too much.

Joy-Con grip

  • Analogue sticks are smaller than a traditional controller
  • Overall the controller is comfortable and nice to use
  • Clicky face buttons are especially appealing

The main way we expect people to play with the console when it’s docked is by combining the two Joy-Cons together into a single controller.

This is done by using the included Joy-Con grip, which the two sides slide into.

We were initially concerned when it was revealed that the Joy-Con grip that comes with the console is unable to charge the two controllers (for that you’ll need to buy the separate Joy-Con charging grip).

This means that if you want to charge your controllers you’ll need to plug them back into the console’s screen.

The Joy-Cons’ battery life is rated at 20 hours, so we’d be surprised if they ever run out of battery mid-game, but we’d be lying if we said that having to dismantle our controller after every play session wasn’t annoying.

A grip that charges the Joy-Cons is available, but this is sold separately.

Aside from charging concerns, we were pleasantly surprised with how the controller feels when assembled in the grip.

Although the analogue sticks are a little small, we found them perfectly usable for lengthy Breath of the Wild play sessions, and the addition of a little more plastic massively helps the ergonomics of the controller as a whole.

It’s just a shame that the controller doesn’t have a proper D-pad on its left side; as it stands you’re going to need to buy the Pro controller if you want that traditional Nintendo controller feel.

Online multiplayer

  • Not available prior to launch
  • Full service to launch in fall of 2017

Online multiplayer will be available in compatible games from the console’s launch. Initially it will be free, but functionality will be limited.

There will initially be no online voice chat and no ability to get friends together into a group, two functions that have become staples of online gaming.

For this functionality you’ll have to wait for the full – and paid – service to launch in the fall.

At launch adding friends to play online with will rely on the cumbersome 12 digit Friend Code Nintendo has long insisted on using.

However, Nintendo has confirmed  that more ways to add friends will come to the console in the future, including using social networking services like Twitter and Facebook, and the much simpler Nintendo Network ID.

You’ll also soon be able to send friend requests to people you’ve recently played with and those who are using the same local wireless connection as you. Some games will also have in-game interfaces for adding players though it’s not clear just yet how these will work or which games will feature them.

It’s not confirmed when these new methods of adding friends will become available or whether they’ll replace friend codes entirely but we’ll update with more information as it comes.

Online service

  • Limited functionality at launch
  • Full service to launch in fall of 2017

Nintendo’s online service certainly looks better than what it’s offered in the past, but it still falls short of what competitors Sony and Microsoft are offering.

The service will function through an app on your phone, through which you’ll organise your online lobby and voice chat. This means you’ll have to have your phone on you if you want to use this functionality – the functionality isn’t present on the console itself.

The service also offers its own version of Sony’s PlayStation Plus free games and Microsoft’s Games with Gold which will allow you to download free NES and SNES games each month.

Yes, that’s right – while Sony and Microsoft’s services will give you free access to games released in the last couple of years, Nintendo is providing you with games that are 20 years old at a minimum .

To make matters worse, you’ll only be able to play these free games for a month each, as opposed to on competing services which allow you to keep the games.

Though the Switch has launched without the popular video streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime we’ve come to expect from consoles, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Amie has said in a recent interview that these are services that will come to the console ‘in time’.

Nintendo is apparently in talks with these services to bring their apps to the console but there isn’t any indication of when exactly that will happen.

With the service not yet released into the wild we’re not ready to pass a final judgement, but suffice to say that on paper it doesn’t compare well to the competition.

eShop online store

  • eShop available at launch with modern games
  • Retro games through Virtual Console not available at launch

Like the Wii U before it, the Nintendo Switch features an online store that will allow you to download games rather than buy them in-store.

If you’re looking to download your games rather than buying them in a physical format then you’ll want to invest in a microSD card. The console’s internal memory is limited to 32GB, an amount which is already too small for one game, Dragon Quest Heroes .

Later on the console is also expected to feature a Virtual Console similar to Nintendo’s past consoles, which you’ll be able to use to purchase retro games. Unfortunately this won’t be available at launch.

Although the eShop is sparsely populated at the moment, we like its minimalistic design. Along the left are sections for ‘Recent Releases’, ‘Coming Soon’ and ‘Redeem Code’ and there’s also search functionality.

You can add upcoming games to your ‘Watch List’, and there’s also a section for downloading previously purchased titles.

With the Nintendo Switch having to work as a handheld as well as a home console, we were initially worried that the console’s graphical abilities would be limited.

Internally the Switch is using an Nvidia Tegra X1 chip, which is broadly similar to what was found in the Nvidia Shield . That’s not exactly a bad thing considering the Shield is a 4K-capable set-top box, but you have to remember that as a portable device the Switch needs to make compromises to ensure a good battery life.

At launch, concerns over graphical horsepower appear to be partly borne out, but we wouldn’t call them deal-breakers – we’d say the Switch’s graphics appear to be roughly equivalent to the Wii U.

Graphical performance

  • Roughly equivalent to Wii U
  • Not as good as PS4 or Xbox One
  • Strength of Nintendo’s art direction makes up for technical shortcomings

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, runs at a resolution of 720p on the Wii U, while this is boosted to 900p on the Switch when docked and outputting to a Full HD screen (4K output is not supported).

On the surface this suggests the Switch has the graphical edge on the Wii U, but we experienced frequent frame rate drops when playing the game on our television.

Meanwhile, when played on the Switch’s own 720p screen, the game maintained a consistent frame rate.

These initial observations suggest that we’re looking at a new console with roughly equivalent power to Nintendo’s last-generation system, but we’ll see how the situation improves as developers get to grips with the new hardware.

Other launch games, such as 1-2 Switch and Just Dance 2017, don’t suffer from these same performance hiccups, although both are less graphically intensive than Breath of the Wild.

Nintendo has never been one to push the graphical envelope. Past games such as the Wii U’s Mario Kart 8 have certainly looked good, but this has been more as a result of their distinctive art style than the technical prowess of their graphics.

Thankfully this has tended to be a strong suit of Nintendo’s in the past.

The look of the games (in handheld mode at least) is also helped by the quality of the Switch’s screen. Although it’s only 720p resolution, the screen is bright and its colours are vibrant. It’s not up there with the best smartphones on the market, but it’s a step above Nintendo’s past handhelds.

We’ll have to see what the Nintendo Switch achieves in the graphical department going forward, but we don’t expect this to be a console to rival the graphics of the PS4 and Xbox One .

The games we’ve seen look very good for handheld games, but as console games they don’t quite have the same fidelity of current-generation games on other consoles.

Battery life

  • As low as 2.5 hours for graphically intensive games
  • Enough for a commute, but longer journeys might prove problematic
  • Ability to charge over USB allows use of portable battery packs

Much has been made of the Switch’s battery life, which Nintendo has claimed will last between 2.5 and 6 hours.

In our experience this claim has rung true. When actively playing Zelda we got around 2.5 hours, which was enough to cover our commute to and from work in a single day before we charged the Switch overnight.

If you’re looking to use the console for a longer period, such as on a flight, then there are a couple of things you can do to squeeze some more battery life out of the console such as turning on airplane mode (although this prevents you from detaching the Joy-Cons) and turning down the screen brightness.

Additionally you’re able to use portable battery packs, but this is hardly ideal, and we found that the Switch draws so much power that at best they prevented the battery from dropping during play, rather than actively recharging it.

It’s difficult to compare this battery life to previous handheld consoles, as even on the Switch itself this battery life will vary massively between different games, but a recent rest-mode comparison put the Switch ahead of the Vita, PSP and 3DS, although it loses out to the DS and GameBoy Advance.

The bottom line is that this is a console that should be able to deal with your daily commute, but might struggle with longer journeys.

  • Good games coming over the first 12 months
  • Eventual success will rely on third-party developers
  • Lack of graphical parity may harm long-term support

The Nintendo Switch’s launch lineup is a combination of ports of existing games such as Shovel Knight, World of Goo and I am Setsuna, new entries in existing franchises like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Bomberman R and all-new games like Snipperclips, 1-2 Switch and Fast RMX.

In total it’s not a bad launch lineup, but the console’s first 12 months on sale will be more interesting, as that’s when we’ll see big new releases in the form of Super Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Splatoon 2 and Arms.

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime has also said in a recent interview that we could see more of Nintendo’s big first party titles (most notably Super Smash Bros) come to the console in one form or another.

When this could happen is not clear, but Fils-Aime did say that a main Nintendo development philosophy is to have at least one of its classic franchises on every platform.

In its first year the console will also be receiving versions of big existing games like Minecraft and FIFA. Though not exactly new, titles like these will be important for consumers who don’t plan on using the Switch as a second console, but will be using it as their primary gaming device.

The real test in the long term will be how third-party developers (i.e. those not financed by Nintendo directly) embrace the console. Although its graphics are good for a handheld, we worry that a lack of graphical parity with PS4 and Xbox One will prevent developers from easily supporting the console alongside those devices, which may harm the number of game releases it will see.

So far there have been some positive signs for third party support. Rocket League developer Psyonix is “evaluating” whether to bring the game to the console, and the release of Snake Pass suggests that games can be brought over to the Switch without too many compromises .

Mario and Zelda have always been excellent games, but without the likes of franchises with more regular release schedules like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, you might find yourself lacking games to play in the long run.

We’ve had the chance to try out a select portion of the console’s launch games, so read on for our thoughts.

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