Early impressions of the $299 handheld/console hybrid that launches March 3
The March 3 launch of the Switch, Nintendo's new hybrid console/handheld, is exactly one week away, and once it's out in the wild, we'll be able to roadtest everything from its online functionality to the eShop. In the meantime – pre "day one patch" – we quizzed Glixel Senior Editor Miguel Lopez about his time spent with the machine to find out how it stacks up at this early stage, and whether Nintendo's daring new concept makes sense in the real world.
Simon: Miguel, I've watched you playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild this week and my impression is that you're already completely comfortable with the Switch. Whether it's sat on your desk here between play sessions or being stuffed into your bag to take home at night, it seems like the concept just sort of works. The Wii U felt cumbersome – you never knew from one game to the next what was going to be asked of you in terms of how you play or use the gamepad but this seems intuitive. Is this Nintendo getting out of its own way?
Miguel: It's weird. Prior to getting one, I always envisioned myself playing the Switch in handheld mode. But in practice, a week before it's out, I've used it almost uniformly as a console. Part of this, of course, is due to how crazy it would be to bust out an unreleased Nintendo game system in a crowded train from Oakland to San Francisco during commute hours. Can you imagine the questions, the gawking, the attempted jackings? I'm not trying to be in the news like that!
But the bigger reason, I think, is more elemental. In my ideal world, hardware is neither seen nor felt – the apparatus just recedes, and it's all you and the experience. When I'm playing games at home, that usually means playing on a computer at my desk, or on a TV from the couch. Especially when it comes to a game like Breath of the Wild – which, for all its beauty and ambition, is a very conventional game – I recoil at the distraction of a novel interface. While an oblong tablet with analog sticks at either end isn't really all that novel, it's just novel enough. If I can just play a game like Breath of the Wild on a TV, I'm going to do that. Maybe I'd sing a different tune if I were battling with a gaggle of relatives for screen time. And maybe once the Switch is out in the wild, I'll nut up and play it on the train. But so far – barring moments at work when I sneak a few minutes of playtime – it's a console that's remarkably easy to cart around.
Rachel: You say easy, but what are we looking at in terms of actual portability? Is it tricky to carry around? Does it feel like you're going to smash or scratch it in your bag? What about the battery? How long does it stay charged?
Miguel: A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he preordered a satchel for his Switch, and I thought that was exceedingly dorky. But after almost a week of carrying one around, he's definitely 100 percent right. I have yet to find a way to wrap, swaddle, or enshroud this thing in a way that doesn't have me worrying that I'm going to ruin it. I think that it's fine to lug around with the Joy-Cons still attached, right? But what if something in your bag jams into the analog sticks? Is it better to detach and carry them in separate pouches? If so, isn't that absurd? If the Switch takes off, should we anticipate a booming cottage industry for gear and tackle? This is why we can't have nice things.
My solutions, so far, have been inelegant. I carry the screen in the plastic sleeve and padded wrap that it came packaged in, and I detach the Joy-Cons and stash them separately in my bag. Last night, I actually left the whole thing attached to the docking station, wrapped it in my jacket, and stuffed it in the canvas bag I carry my lunch in. I felt like a criminal doing so, but it survived the trip.
At one point, I'll stop caring, and just treat it like a normal device. Maybe I'll even buy a satchel for the one that I pre-ordered. But right now, carrying around one of the probably few dozen Switches in circulation feels like one of those high school egg baby projects.
As for the battery life, so far, so good, but I don't think this week has been a particularly relevant use case. I play it for maybe 30 minutes total at work in handheld mode, and immediately dock it when I get home. Neither the Joy-Cons nor the unit itself have gone below 50 percent battery power since we got it. That said, it does work with an external battery pack. I tried it on my friend's really nice, brick-sized one, and my own cheap $30 one from Walgreens. They both totally charge the Switch. You just need a USB-C cable.
Simon: I always felt that compared to say, Sony's PSP or Vita handhelds, that the Nintendo devices made up for in charm and personality what they lacked in sheer power. Are you attaching to it in the same way, so far? Or is it hard to tell without online functionality?
Miguel: I've yet to fully anthropomorphize this particular consumer product, but I guess it kind of looks like the characters from Katamari Damacy? Give me some time to make that leap. I've only just met the Switch.
But yes, it does have personality. As you British folks from the old country say, it's a nice piece of kit. It does all the whizzbang Nintendo stuff I think you're talking about, Simon – the interface is sleek and responsive, all your actions are met with cool sounds that make the system feel cheery and expensive, and it's full of little details that suggest it was made with a fine attention to detail. Like, when you slide the Joy-Cons into tablet, there's a satisfying mechanical click that's accompanied by a cool sound effect coming out of the speakers. It's a very nice thing that feels like a futuristic toy.
Like you also said, though, it feels a little dead and inert right now since it can't go online. Until it's actually out and Nintendo releases the "day one patch," we won't know how it feels to have the Switch talk to us, really. I can't attach my Nintendo profile to it, I can't interact with friends lists or share screenshots, and I can't buy stuff on the Nintendo eShop – all of which matter when we're talking about our experiences and relationships with these sorts of machines. Also, the news that the Virtual Console won't be available at launch is a huge bummer, too.
Rachel: While I have the beady eyes of a well-trained hawk, I'm worried about the screen's readability. How do you think menu screens are going to look for games like Skyrim when you're in handheld mode?
Miguel: I'm not having much trouble reading stuff in handheld mode but I've also been honing my eyesight and fine motor skills for weeks by interacting with Fire Emblem Heroes' microscopic interface elements. But I'd be surprised if Skyrim's UI weren't refit for the Switch's screen. It's been a minute since I've played, but I can imagine the skill system's constellation motif being a little weird to handle on a smaller screen. Really, the only frame of reference I have right now is Breath of the Wild, and as someone with good eyesight who's never worn glasses, it's totally readable.
Simon: So after a week (ish) with the Switch, where would you say it places in the big list of Nintendo consoles so far? Will you buy one when it launches on March 3?
Miguel: I already pre-ordered one. I bought into the hype, I guess! But no, I'm not regretting the debt I acquired in order to have a Switch at launch. In my mind, the SNES was Nintendo's pinnacle of achievement because it brought us Super Mario World, A Link to the Past and Super Metroid, the three greatest games Nintendo has ever made (in other words: for no objective reason). That's really what determines whether or not a Nintendo console rates, in my book: the sheer number of classic Nintendo games available. And from the looks of it, the Switch is launching with one.
It's also encouraging that the Switch is absent any overt gimmicks. Yeah, you could argue that the system's fundamental concept – the fact that it's a handheld that can be a console that has Wiimotes attached to either side of it – is an amalgam of every gimmick Nintendo has ever conceived, but those gimmicks don't seem to be driving things as manifestly as, say, motion controls during the Wii era, when it felt like every Nintendo game was burdened with a waggle mechanic. This says to me that Nintendo is interested in honing the fundamentals and might just understand, really, why we love their games. And that's heartening.