Hands-On With the Nintendo Switch: Novel, Awkward, But Charming

The Nintendo Switch makes a dizzying first impression: novel and awkward, charming and frustrating. Credit: Nintendo

You're probably going to want that expensive Pro Controller

You're probably going to want that expensive Pro Controller

Last night, Nintendo revealed the Switch details that everyone had been waiting for: its release date (March 3) and its price ($300). Today, the company invited fans and media to the Kimpton hotel in Manhattan to actually play with it. It's too early to say whether the Switch will alleviate the malaise that's been hanging over the company's console business in recent years, but hands-on time with the hybrid handheld/TV console reveals yet another bold effort – a device both brilliant and frustrating that will surely divide its core audience.

The default Switch control scheme docks both of the "Joy-Cons" – essentially shortened Wiimotes – into a plastic shell called the Joy-Con Grip. You've probably seen the photos and thought "wow, that looks like it might make for an awkward hold." And it does. The buttons and joysticks are smaller and tighter than the PlayStation Dualshock or the Xbox controller, and the excess plastic on the bottom juts into your hands in a pretty unsatisfying way. It feels like a calculator masquerading as a gamepad – and just like the Wiimote and Nunchuk, the Joy-Con Grip won't likely be your preferred medium to digest more conventional games like Skyrim or Super Mario Odyssey. It's not awful, and it certainly won't go down in the Bad Controller Hall of Fame with the Power Glove and "The Duke" – the original Xbox's first controller – but it doesn't make a great first impression.

You get the feeling that the developers on the floor seem to understand the Joy-Con Grip's shortcomings. A number of the demos are using the Switch Pro Controller, which is sold separately and is actually a fantastic translation of the Xbox controller. It certainly made Splatoon 2 feel great. The downside, of course, is that the Pro Controller will retail for $70. Things get better when developers are designing specifically around the Joy-Con's eccentricities. Arms, that ridiculous cartoon fighter shown off at last night's presentation, is probably the best 3D motion-controlled fighting game yet, excising all the awkward floatiness you remember from Wii Sports. As with Nintendo's previous consoles, there will be moments that totally justify the outsider technology – think Super Mario Maker, Punch-Out!!, that Wii port of Resident Evil 4 – but should we expect the likes of EA to take advantage of the the Joy-Con in any meaningful way? Probably not.

If the Joy-Con leaves you cold and you don't want to fork over the money for a Pro Controller, you can always slap the right and left Joy-Cons into the console itself and turn it into a handheld. The feeling is comparable to playing games on the Wii U GamePad's screen. Perhaps most surprisingly, using a single Joy-Con for certain games actually works decently. They're really, really tiny – in the neighborhood of four or five inches. But after playing Sonic Mania, I can report that a perpendicular Joy-Con does an adequate job of imitating a classic 8-bit gamepad.

Nintendo is clearly searching for the same blend of novelty and accessibility that made the Wii an unprecedented success. Who knows whether the Switch will get all the way there, but it's bold, and I'm excited to share goofy stuff like 1, 2, Switch. Unfortunately, you're probably going to need to shell out extra cash for the Pro Controller to enjoy many of the games you really want to play. But hey, if you're a Nintendo fan, you're probably used to working around their idiosyncrasies.