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Nintendo Switch: Our first take

Perplexing, unique, and a whole lot of fun, the Switch is classic Nintendo

Nintendo has finally shown off the Switch, its first “hybrid” video game system: You can play it as a console at home by pairing it with a television or as a portable system similar to Nintendo’s 3DS. And those two modes are just the first in a bag of tricks Nintendo has packed into this system. There are more ways to play the Switch than you have fingers, and that’s by design.

At a press conference unveiling the console, Nintendo pointed out specific ways its 30 years of previous video game systems ultimately inspired the features in the Switch, and using the system, it’s very clear: Nintendo is trying its hardest to do everything.

The Switch is stuffed with almost every innovation Nintendo has ever come up with. It’s like a Game Boy, NES, SNES, Wii, DS, and Wii U all wrapped into one system — and then a little extra. It has screen switching, classic controllers, HD rumble, motion control, touch control, split wireless controls, infrared distance tracking, portable play, wireless multiplayer, party modes for up to 8 people, and more.

More: Nintendo is back on its game, and the Switch proves it

The flagship game on the Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is a complex action game that requires 12 buttons and dual control sticks to operate, but right next to it on store shelves will be 1-2-Switch, a party game so simple you hardly have to look at a screen at all, and rarely press a button. As it did with the original Wii a decade ago, Nintendo is aiming for the broadest appeal. Indeed, the company hopes that everyone who plays games on smartphones, tablets, and even its own 3DS system will make the switch to Switch. But will they?

Pick a screen, any screen

At all times, you have two ways you can play the Switch. All of the guts and processing power of the system is inside its 6.2-inch, Kindle-sized tablet form. It has 32GB of internal storage (not a lot), can accept MicroSD cards for expanded storage, has a small game cartridge slot, and runs on an Nvidia Tegra processor that we think puts it somewhere between the power of a Wii U and PS4. You can play games on this small LCD screen, which looks good enough with a 1,280 × 720 pixel resolution, and it has a battery that will last 2.5 to 6.5 hours. But at any time, you can plug it into a TV dock and instantly switch to playing your game on a TV or monitor — thus the name “Switch.”

In our first few hours with the Switch, it was even easier to swap between different modes than we thought. It’s incredible how seamless the transition is in most games. Upon switching screens, you usually have to press the L and R buttons simultaneously to activate a new control configuration, but much of the time you simply lift the console out of its dock (or vice versa) and keep playing like nothing happened at all. It’s an amazing little trick.

For the Switch to succeed, Nintendo needs to attract a lot more people than it did with the Wii U.

Since all of the processing power in the Switch lies within the tablet portion, the dock is basically just a hub for an HDMI port, a few USB ports, and an AC adapter; the Switch itself connects to the dock using a standard USB Type C plug. The back hinges out, allowing you access to the ports, and closes back shut to maintain a uncluttered appearance. Early advice: you’ll want to buy an extra USB Type C charger if you own a Switch. Unplugging the Type-C AC adapter from the dock every time you leave the house may become a hassle.

If you don’t have a TV, but still want to pretend you’re playing on a console, the Switch has a built-in kickstand, as well.

Pick a controller, any controller

Nintendo’s gimmicks don’t end with screen swapping. As you’re swapping screens, you can swap controllers and control types with just as much ease. With the press of two buttons, both sides of the handheld system (called Joy-Cons) slide right off. Things get interesting when you do this.

Slide both of those Joy-Cons into the Joy-Con Grip, a dock that turns them into something resembling a modern PS4 or Xbox One controller, and you can play any ordinary game that requires button pressing by two hands. It took us a few minutes to get used to how small the buttons are on the standard Switch Joy-Cons, even if you use the Joy-Con Grip to make them feel like an ordinary controller. They’re sized more like 3DS buttons. The shoulder buttons are especially compact, but after we adjusted, we could still play games with the accuracy expected from standard controllers.

But who says you need the Joy-Con Grip at all? You can also play your games with two separate wireless Joy-Con controllers, one in each hand. This was my personal favorite way to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There’s a certain freedom to being able to separate your hands when playing a two-handed game.

If you can’t stand the tiny buttons, you can also shell out an extra $70 for the roomier Pro Controller. It looks and operates almost precisely like every other controller you’ve used in the last 15 years, and works whether you’re using a TV or you’ve popped out the kickstand on the Switch itself. Multiple people can play using Pro Controllers, but again, they don’t come bundled with the system like the Grip dock.

Nintendo Switch: Hands On
Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

It gets crazier, though. You can use each Joy-Con controller as a miniature SNES-style controller itself. In Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a title available at the end of April, two or more people can play, each using a single Joy-Con. Each of the little buggers have hidden SL and SR shoulder buttons on them, 4 face buttons, 2 Z buttons, 2 more selection buttons, and a control stick. You won’t want to play a two-handed game using a single Joy-Con, given choice, but if you brought your Switch to a friend’s place, or wanted to play multiplayer on the go, it’s a nice option. You can buy extra Joy-Con or Pro controllers as well, and up to 8 Switch systems can connect to one another for LAN play (if you aren’t online).

The return of the Wii

Those two Joy-Cons have another hidden ability, too: they double as next-generation Wii Remotes. Both Joy-Cons have motion control built into them that feels a lot more accurate than the gyroscopes in the decade-old Wii. Some launch (window) games, like Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2, use the motion control in the controllers in a traditional, two-handed way, letting you move the controller around to aim.

More: Nintendo’s Switch is one console you can take everywhere — here’s what you need to know

A few other launch games used the included strap peripherals to really bring Wii game ideas back from the dead. To play these, you snap on a wrist strap attachment onto the ends of both Joy-Cons. Conveniently enough, these are called Joy-Con Straps, and they make the Joy-Cons more comfortable to hold in your hands, making motion-based gameplay a lot easier.

In Nintendo’s party game, 1-2-Switch, two people are each given a Joy-Con and play small minigames that are so simple they hardly require looking at the screen at all. Quick Draw was my favorite. You literally stand back to back and pretend that the controller is a gun and when the game says Draw! you fire at your friend. Whoever shoots fastest and most accurately, wins. It also had a strange game where you milk cows to see who can get the most from the udder, and another game where you use the enhanced motion and HD rumble in the Joy-Cons to try and figure out how many marbles are “inside” your controller. It was impressive how accurately the controller made me wonder if there actually are marbles inside it.

Arms, another Nintendo game, showed off more advanced motion controls. It required you to hold a strapped Joy-Con in each hand and hold your hands up like boxing gloves. Like a high-tech version of Punch-Out or Wii Sports Boxing, you used each hand to punch, and could move around by twisting and turning the controllers together. The game has surprising depth to it for a motion-based title. Why didn’t Nintendo think of this 10 years ago when the Wii came out?

There wasn’t a game that used the functionality in a major way, but the Joy-Cons also have an infrared sensor on the top of them, like the Wii Remotes. They can measure movement and distance of objects to enhance gameplay. The Quick Draw game, for instance, only knew we shot each other thanks to the infrared sensor.

Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Remember the Mario Kart Wii wheel? A miniature version is coming out for the Switch, too. Just plug a Joy-Con right inside.

Touch? It’s here, we think

We now know that the Switch has a built-in capacitive touchscreen, just like your smartphone, but no games we played used it in any way. We are guessing Nintendo is holding this feature back, but since it’s only available when you play using the tablet screen, touch controls will likely be limited to things like typing messages and menus in most games.

It isn’t listed as a feature, but it was also odd that there was no selfie camera on the Switch. The Wii U and 3DS have selfie cams. We’re not sure why it was left off, but do not plan on putting your face in any Switch games. And don’t plan on looking at two screens at once, either. The only (and I mean only) thing this system cannot do is let you play on both the handheld screen and TV screen at once, DS and Wii U style. It will make it tough to port DS games to the system. Again though, that’s a small complaint considering it has everything else Nintendo has ever done. I wouldn’t be surprised if they packed in a Virtual Boy for good measure.

An eclectic launch lineup

At launch (March 3, 2017), the Switch has two big games, and an oddball mix of extra titles. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a massive, highly anticipated Zelda game that will attract a big crowd of hardened Nintendo fans to the new system, and 1-2-Switch is a next-generation Wii Sports party game, of sorts. Most of the other games are smaller retro titles, family games, indie games, or party games. Skylanders: Imaginators, I am Setsuna, Super Bomberman R, Has Been Heroes, Snipperclips, and Just Dance 2017 will all hit shelves at launch or in March.

The Switch has two big games, and an oddball mix of extra titles.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (with a real battle mode!) hits shelves on April 28, Arms comes this ‘spring,’ and Splatoon 2 is slated for this summer. Super Mario Odyssey, a full-fledged ‘sandbox’ 3D Mario game, is slated for late 2017. What else is in the works? Nintendo says more than 80 games are in development for Switch, but most have vague release dates. A port of Skyrim, and new/ported titles like FIFA, Minecraft, Fire Emblem Warriors, Puyo Puyo Tetris, RIME, Rayman Legends, Project Sonic, Fast RMX, NBA 2K18, Lego City Undercover, Sonic Mania, Siberia, and Steep are also planned to come out at some point. But will games like Lego City sell a lot of Switch consoles? We’re not so sure.

Noticeably, Ubisoft has very few large games for launch this time. It was a major supporter of the Wii and Wii U when they came out.

We are pre-ordering, but we’re also crazy

A majority of our gaming and PC teams here at Digital Trends have already pre-ordered the Switch, which will cost $300 at launch. It caught our attention, and we all want to play Zelda. But we’re also crazy people, ranging from hardcore Nintendo fans (me) to folks who just buy almost any major games console, regardless of its merit. The question is, how many of you will buy one?

For the Switch to succeed, Nintendo needs to attract a lot more people than it did with the Wii U, and win over players who normally buy portable systems like the 3DS. It also needs some people to want to own the Switch as a party system, like they did the Wii. And, just … more people. It will need to win over folks like our own Phil Hornshaw who says he’s still “not sold,” and Mike Rougeau, who wants a guarantee that Nintendo has a plan to support the system with a steady stream of top-notch games. Both of them felt burned after adopting the Big N’s previous systems. Nintendo needs this system to reach people that aren’t buying its consoles and systems today.

We think the Switch’s hardware is outstanding and it works as advertised, but the game selection at launch (March 3) is thin. Luckily, it includes Zelda, which will buy Nintendo a little time to get its act together. Still, it’s safe to say that most of us are nervous about the investment. Like it or not, the Switch is full of fun gameplay gimmicks, much like the Wii and DS were when they arrived. Nintendo has to prove these ideas have legs and win over support from developers. Having a ton of ways to play is all well and good, but developers need to back those ideas with awesome gameplay concepts of their own.

It will take more than The Legend of Zelda and a new Mario game to make or break the Switch. The Switch seems to set the stage for Nintendo’s success, but only if it can commit to a longterm vision.

For more info about the Switch, read Everything You Need to Know. We also have a full gallery of announced games.

Highs

  • Fusion of portable and console gameplay
  • Delivers on lofty usability promises
  • Zelda and 1-2-Switch are fun launch titles
  • $300 price is within reason
  • Fantastic Wii-like motion controls

Lows

  • Launch lineup is DOA if you don’t like Zelda
  • First Mario game is 6+ months away
  • No selfie camera
  • Only 32GB of onboard storage (has MicroSD slot)