Some are calling this Nintendo’s last chance. The veteran console manufacturer, creator of smash-hit games machines since the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983, suffered an ignoble commercial failure with its Wii U console. Announced last year, but revealed in full on Friday, the new Nintendo Switch machine has a lot to prove.
It’s a typically idiosyncratic creation. Described as a hybrid system, it works as a traditional home console – plugging into your TV – but it can also be slid out of its dock and played on the go, via a built in screen. The concept is fascinating – merging the portable and home experiences into one product – but what about the practice?
On Friday afternoon, Nintendo held hands-on events at several cities around the world. Outside the Hammersmith Apollo in London, a long queue of lucky fans, media types and industry insiders waited patiently, many bleary-eyed from having stayed up until 4am watching Nintendo’s Switch console livestream from Tokyo. All were eager to get inside, away from the cold and towards Nintendo’s future. Here’s what we discovered.
Hands-on with the machine
Immediate first impressions: it’s small. The central tablet-shaped unit is smaller than a Wii U GamePad and has the same size screen (6.2 inches, which is smaller than an iPad Mini). The dock through which you connect the device to your television is just a little bulkier. The Joy-Con controllers, which can be connected to the sides of the Switch to turn it into a handheld console, are tiny. Wrap your fingers around them, perhaps for a motion-controlled game of boxing, and they almost feel like they could disappear. You might want to actually wear your wrist strap for these, and don’t let your children run off with them or you’ll never find them again.
Still, with their curved edges and soft finish the Joy-Con are surprisingly comfortable, in every possible configuration. The grip that turns a pair of Joy-Con into something that resembles a standard controller might look a bit silly (and canine), but it nestles snugly in the hand. It was difficult, however, to get a proper feel for the weight of both the grip and the handheld mode (with Joy-Con attached to either side of the screen), because they were all attached to their stands with thick security cables.
Because of those security measures, it wasn’t possible to try much of the actual switching that gives the console its name, with one exception. When playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, attendees could switch from television to handheld mode (by removing the Switch from its dock), which proved to be almost instant, and back again, which took a second longer. Placing the Switch in its dock didn’t seem to quite have the satisfactory click expected, but that might again be blamed on the thick cable throwing off the balance.
Attendees weren’t allowed to try attaching the Joy-Con to the grip or the Switch itself, but the different games around the room were set up to be played in different ways. In handheld mode, games were displayed at 60fps and 720p, which looks pretty good on a screen that small. Some games were set up with the Switch as the display and the controllers detached, and for those it was common to see players leaning in to see more closely. It works, but is best saved for when you can’t use a television.
Importantly, while it wasn’t usually possible to test physically switching from one mode to another, moving between games set up to be played in different ways felt natural. Those with experience with the likes of analog sticks and triggers should have no problems adapting to the feel of the different control methods.
Hands-on with the games
Here are the titles we got a chance to play.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Given the popularity of this long-running adventure series, it’s unsurprising that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the only game with a substantial queue. Many of the attendees had already played this demo at E3, but on a Wii U. The Switch version is largely similar, right down to the existence of Link’s Sheikah Slate, which was obviously meant to reflect the second-screen experience provided by the Wii U GamePad – an experience you can’t have on Switch (when it’s docked, the screen is not visible). But, of course, you can undock your Switch and explore that beautiful world – 720p but still lovely – on the go, if only for up to three hours at a time.
1-2 Switch (Nintendo; launch title)
The game that best showed off what the Joy-Con can do was 1-2-Switch, a collection of mini games designed to get players looking away from the screen and at each other. Each mini game on show was one-on-one competitive multiplayer, each player using a single Joy-Con to perform some action mimicking real life.
Quick Draw and Samurai Training use the accelerometer and gyro sensors inside the controllers to test your reaction times, by respectively asking you to shoot your opponent or catch the sword they swing through your open hands. The latter also demonstrates the sturdiness of the Joy-Con, since you catch the sword by clapping the controller in your hand.
Ball Count and Safe Crack demonstrate the “HD rumble” technology in the devices that can make it feel like there are little balls rolling around inside the controller. Nintendo claimed that the rumble tech is so intricate it can even make the Joy-Con feel like a tumbler full of ice cubes. It’s cool but unlikely to be used to its full extent in many games.
But the 1-2-Switch mini game everyone was talking about was Milk, for which you hold the Joy-Con vertically, wrap your fingers around it, and move it up and down while applying rhythmic pressure to the top and bottom in turn. You know, to milk a cow. In the background, the screen shows a stylised view of a cow’s teats delivering the … product. Unsurprisingly, footage has already been a hit on social media.
These mini games are great the first time you try them, and would probably go down well at parties (just like the original Wii games did a decade ago), but the collection lacks the lasting appeal required to justify a purchase. It’s a shame Nintendo hasn’t chosen to bundle it in with the console, especially given the popularity of Wii Sports.
Snipperclips (Nintendo; March 2017)
Another game that caused a lot of buzz on the showroom floor was a cooperative 2D puzzle game that involves two shapes with feet and faces cutting chunks out of each other in order to create new shapes and solve challenges. Played in pairs with a Joy-Con each, Snipperclips fits well with the tendency players have to lean in when using the Switch on its kickstand as the display. Its unique mechanic feels very refreshing, and appropriate for a Nintendo console, but Snipperclips might not be as new as it seems; a very similar game called Friendshapes, from brothers Tom and Adam of SFB Games, was playable at EGX’s Leftfield Collection back in 2015.
Arms (Nintendo; March 2017)
Arms is reminiscent of the boxing game in Wii Sports, albeit with characters whose arms extend on springs and end in a variety of weapons. Hold two Joy-Con vertically and turned so that the buttons face inwards – which is still comfortable but makes you grateful for the wrist strap – and punch. You can also tilt the controllers to move, turn them inwards to shield, punch both at once to grab, press L and R to dash and jump, and press ZL or ZR to use a character’s special move (heal while shielding, hover, teleport, and so on). There’s plenty of strategy here, but just as boxing was the lesser played of the Wii Sports games because it required each player to have a nunchuck, Arms is likely to suffer from its need for two Joy-Con each, especially given their listed price of £75 a pair.
Splatoon 2 (Nintendo; summer 2017)
Despite promises of a full sequel, Splatoon 2 feels very similar to the original Splatoon, which will probably be just fine for those who racked up dozens or hundreds of hours and just want more of the same, or those who skipped the Wii U altogether and will experience it for the first time on Switch. The demo did include one new weapon; Splat Dualies, which let your Squid shoot their coloured ink from both hands at once. Using motion controls – in this case in handheld mode – still feels gimmicky, fun at first but not ideal for fast-paced competitive play.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo; 28 April)
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe isn’t pretending to be anything more than an upgraded version of Mario Kart 8, which will suit both those who want to bring that experience with them when they upgrade from Wii U to Switch and those who’ve never played the game before. Changes include the introduction of a Battle Mode, some new characters including ones from Splatoon, and an optional Smart Steering feature that keeps players on the track.
But the biggest Switch-specific feature, of course, is the ability to play in many different ways. At the event, attendees could play eight-player local multiplayer in handheld mode, with the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller in television mode, or with the Switch on its kickstand and two players each using one Joy-Con in a tiny steering wheel. Any way you play it, Mario Kart 8 is still great.
Fast RMX (Shin’en; March 2017)
This colourful futuristic racer looked great in 1080p and 60fps on the television mode, but it would have been good to test out how it plays in handheld mode, whether you can still play two-player splitscreen and if that causes the framerate to drop. Still, with little more to worry about than staying on the track and switching your anti-gravity vehicle’s colour in time to catch boost strips, Fast RMX is good simple fun.
And the rest
Sonic Mania (Sega; Spring 2017) was described as a “homage” to Sonic. It’s neither a new game nor strictly a reboot; the demo was the first level of the original Sonic but with added Tails and dash ability, and a different boss encounter at the end.
Skylanders Imaginators (Toys for Bob; Activision; 3 March) demonstrated the NFC, with players bringing Skylanders into the game by tapping them against the right Joy-Con. It works well but feels less magical than placing them on a solid pedestal.
Super Bomberman R (Konami; 3 March) was also played with two players with a Joy-Con each, leaning into the Switch on its kickstand. This setup seems to work well for retro-type games, and we’ll probably see more come to Switch.
Just Dance 2017 (Ubisoft; 3 March) also worked well with each player holding just one Joy-Con, their small size and light weight an advantage for those who want to forget they’re holding a controller at all.
And if we’re going to question the necessity of certain features, when will we see why the Switch needed a capacitive touch screen? What games will make the HD rumble worth whatever extra cost it added to the expensive Joy-Con controllers? Without having 1-2-Switch bundled in with every console, will players care about the motion controls and will developers bother to create more games that use them? Will there be enough online content to justify paying a monthly subscription after the free introductory period ends?
Of course, you could just see these features as a bonus to a console that looks and feels great, but then the selling point has to be the games. As far as launch titles go the Switch is lacking, but then the hardcore fans who’ll buy the console on day one will likely be satisfied with just the huge open-world Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And for those who wait for Christmas there’ll be lots more to choose from, supposedly including a new open-world Mario game in Super Mario Odyssey.
As for third-party developers, word on the show floor was that the Switch is far easier to develop for than the Wii U, which could translate to better third-party support. Given the architecture is apparently similar to the latest Sony and Microsoft machines, it should at least be easier for developers to port across their PS4 and Xbox One games to bulk out the Switch library. Though of course whether they do this or not will depend on whether the console shows signs of success; low initial sales can quickly cause a vicious cycle in which publishers withdraw support and further lower a console’s chances.
This was a fun event, filled with familiar Nintendo experiences, but doubts remain. Given what happened with the Wii U, here’s hoping Nintendo can switch things up.