Nintendo systems always feel like toys. Even when they have some pioneering tech packed into them, and in spite of their legendary build quality, specifically fine tuned to withstand any abuse that a young kid might hurl at it, Nintendo systems feel like toys. They don’t ever actually feel like high end, premium electronics or tech gadgets like PlayStation or Xbox products do. Nowhere was this more evident than on the Wii U, where the much maligned Wii U Gamepad controller felt like a cheap, flimsy, tacky construction, a Fisher Price take on the tablet concept. It, like most Nintendo products, never felt desirable.
This is not the case with the Nintendo Switch- the system’s reveal video last year showcased a slick, high end piece of gadgetry, far unlike any other Nintendo hardware until that point in time, and when you are actually confronted with the Switch in person, you realize that the video was not lying. The first time I laid my eyes on the Nintendo Switch, at Nintendo’s Switch and Play event in Toronto last week, I fell in love with it. It was hard not to- it looked like a slick, desirable, extremely well made piece of kit, with excellent finish, and a gorgeous screen dominating the visage. Picking the Switch up just further reinforced the notion of this being some high end tech gadget made for adults- gone was the detestable glossy finish, gone were the buttons that actually rattled in their casing on the Wii U, gone was the low quality screen that dominated the Wii U Gamepad and the Nintendo 3DS, gone was the cheap resistive film that Nintendo stuck with for the longest time, instead of adapting the modern capacitive standard- no, the Nintendo Switch feels like a high end product, a fabulous gaming tablet that seems to justify its asking price the minute you pick it up.
But in this movement from making electronic toys to high end electronic gadgets, Nintendo has remained Nintendo, and it has not lost the qualities that made it so appealing to everyone in the first place. The Nintendo Switch is instantly, intuitively, easy to grasp- when you see it, you know what to do with it. Actually ‘switching’ from the TV to portable mode is ridiculously easy, and every bit as quick as Nintendo has shown it so far- you just pick it out of the dock that cradles it, and without any delay, you are now playing the same game in your hands. Understanding how to get the Joycons off can take some time – there is a pretty small button on both sides that you need to hit before you can slide them off – but it took me less than five minutes before I was able to do it without even looking. A full fledged AAA game, in the palm of your hands. Voila.
"The Nintendo Switch feels like a high end product, a fabulous gaming tablet that seems to justify its asking price the minute you pick it up."
The more you fiddle around with the Switch hardware, the more you end up falling in love with it, and understanding its value. Nintendo made a royal mess of things when they unveiled the Switch at their Tokyo event last month- one of the most widely held to be embarrassing parts of the presentation was apparently their demo for HD Rumble. HD Rumble at the time sounded like a waste of time and money- an iteration on a technology no one was asking for iterations on, one with no practical applications for video games, and one that Nintendo spent far too much time explaining at the event, with increasingly contrived analogies.
On the other hand, when you actually experience HD Rumble, it’s a whole different ballgame. Only one of the games that I tried out – ARMS – actually utilized HD Rumble to any meaningful degree, but the difference was apparent immediately. It is not an exaggeration to say that the difference amounts to night and day. HD Rumble is finer haptic feedback- the intensity and even, to some degree, kind, of vibration differs according to what is going on in the game. As an example, in ARMS, the vibrations vary based on the direction, speed, and type of punch, and the ensuing impact- so each punch feels different in your hands just as real punches would feel different. Theoretically (I did not get to try this out myself, and the game does not support HD Rumble anyway, I am only using it as an example to explain what the feature does), in a game like Zelda, HD Rumble can lead to harder vibrations when your sword hits a shield, softer ones when you cut the grass, it can simulate the drawing of a bowstring when you are readying your bow, and so on.
It was a very minor thing, but you instantly understood the appeal- HD Rumble essentially approximates touch in video games, and I can easily see it being instrumental in making VR as immersive as it promises to be. But within the confines of the Nintendo Switch, too, HD Rumble is a winner- the games that I played without HD Rumble support felt indisputably diminished for lacking support for that feature.
"Actually ‘switching’ from the TV to portable mode is ridiculously easy, and every bit as quick as Nintendo has shown it so far…"
"…you just pick it out of the dock that cradles it, and without any delay, you are now playing the same game in your hands."
The Joycons in general are extremely well thought out- they are very small, as feared, yes, but they are extremely comfortable, with each Joycon contoured around the curves and shape of a human hand. However, there are limits to what comfortable ergonomics can do- using both Joycons (one in each hand) is arguably the most comfortable control scheme that Nintendo Switch has. You end up with two very comfortable controllers split across both hands, and you no longer have to assume the tense, hunched up posture that you otherwise have to with an ordinary controller. Indeed, split Joycons are my favorite way to play Switch games. But it’s when using the Joycons in literally any other way that problems begin to crop up.
For instance, take using one Joycon independently, as a primary controller. That is actually a big part of Nintendo’s pitch for the Switch- that each system effectively comes bundled with two full controllers right off the bat. And this is, technically, true- each Joycon is a full fledged controller (there are even two additional buttons, SL and SR, on each Joycon, that you can access when you are using them as an independent controller, held horizontally). It’s just an extremely uncomfortable one. For as ergonomic as the Joycons are, they are also, in the end, small, and Nintendo has crammed simply too many buttons on there for an individual Joycon to be comfortable as the sole method of control. An analog stick, four action buttons, and four shoulder buttons and triggers, not counting the + and – buttons, in addition to the Home and Share buttons, all on one Joycon, is excessive. It’s too cramped, and too uncomfortable
This same problem is also evident when you play on the Joycon grip- things are too crammed, too uncomfortable, too close together. The shape of the grip is also not conducive to long sessions of play. it ultimately comes down to what I said before- the Joycons have way too much going on. The only way they work effectively as controllers is if you split them apart. This means you get the comfort of the shape, and you get the benefit of inputs now being spread across two hands. This modularity is ultimately greatly to their benefit.
"When you actually experience HD Rumble, it’s a whole different ballgame. Only one of the games that I tried out – ARMS – actually utilized HD Rumble to any meaningful degree, but the difference was apparent immediately."
That apart, the Joycons largely impress. The analog stick on them can throw you off for a bit- the angle of rotation there is a bit smaller than you expect, and it can take a couple of minutes to get used to it. But when you do, all’s well and good, and you don’t even notice any difference. The Joycons are also extremely sophisticated motion controllers- I have actually never once played with any motion control I found as accurate and as shockingly satisfying, as I did the Joycons. The Wii Remote seems laughably primitive, the Kinect seems to be a joke, and even the relatively more sophisticated Wii Motion Plus and PlayStation Move controllers seem to be crude betas next to the full motion capabilities of the Joycon. I know a lot of core gamers are over motion controls at this point, and even the casual audiences have moved past the Wii fad- but the Joycons could finally realize the promise of proper motion control in games that doesn’t get in the way. At any rate, the motion controls and HD Rumble make them exceptionally well suited to be VR controllers.
The one thing the Joycons do get wrong is the D-pad- or the complete lack thereof. Where they should be a D-Pad, there are instead four independent buttons set in a diamond shape. Not only are they too cramped, they are too inaccurate and imprecise- the Joycon D-Pad is actually horrible. It is, without exception, the worst D-Pad I have ever had the misfortune of playing with. You can see that it is a concession made to the necessity of having each Joycon be an independent controller, but it also means that, out of the box, playing 2D games on the Switch, like Shovel Knight and Sonic Mania, is going to be extremely unpleasant. The D-Pad on the Joycon is an abomination, and I spent a good five minutes contemplating on in sheer disbelief that the inventors of the D-Pad could think something like this was acceptable.
"Using both Joycons (one in each hand) is arguably the most comfortable control scheme that Nintendo Switch has. But it’s when using the Joycons in literally any other way that problems begin to crop up."
If you want a proper D-Pad- indeed, if you just want a traditional controller, without any of the finnicky nature of the Joycons- then you are in luck. The Switch Pro controller exists, and it is without a doubt the best controller that Nintendo has ever made. The shape is great, the analog stick placement is great, all the buttons are well spread out, it has a nice, responsive, clicky D-Pad, and it comes with the complete functionality of the Joycons, with HD Rumble, full motion controls, and an Amiibo reader being built right into it. The Switch Pro controller is arguably the best controller on the market at the moment- and you will definitely want one for yourself sooner or later. I think that in terms of comfort, it doesn’t come in first, losing out to the split Joycon configuration, but it is definitely a marvellous joy for those of you who might want a more traditional controller to play their games with.
While all the control schemes I have been describing so far work perfectly fine whether you are playing the Switch as a console or a handheld, it is indisputable that these are essentially all controller configurations designed with TV play in mind first and foremost. Indeed, if you will be playing the Switch as a handheld, chances are that those Joycons will stay attached to the system, and you will play it as one big handheld. Te good thing is, the Switch lends itself to that style of play extremely well- while it is big, its overall volume is far smaller than the Wii U Gamepad, and honestly not that much bigger than a New Nintendo 3DS XL opened up. Indeed, the first thing you notice when you see one in person is just how small a Switch really is- promotional material makes it loo far larger than it functionally is in real life usage. It doesn’t weigh much, either (again, it weighs about as much as a New 3DS XL), and the weight distribution is excellent. It is also exceptionally ergonomic- the hand cramps inducing Nintendo 3DS is a memory of a distant past. The Nintendo Switch is as comfortable as any handheld has ever been.
The controls, comfort, build, and finish apart, the Switch’s dominating feature is its screen- and what a screen it is. Undoubtedly the best screen on a portable gaming device ever (coming in far ahead of both PS Vita screens), it is big, bold, bright, with sharp colors and extremely gorgeous contrast, resolution, density, and clarity. 720p may not seem like a lot, but at 6.2 inches, that gives the Switch screen a PPI of about 320, which is in line with an iPad Mini or iPad Air- and no one complains about the screens on those devices. With good reason, too- those are excellent screens, and now, the Nintendo Switch screen is, too.
"If you just want a traditional controller, without any of the finnicky nature of the Joycons- then you are in luck. The Switch Pro controller exists, and it is without a doubt the best controller that Nintendo has ever made."
The one thing that you need to remember is that the Switch is not even remotely on par with the Xbox One or the PS4. Contrary to initial reports, speculations, or just wishful thinking, the Switch is slightly more powerful than the Wii U- indeed, the jump from the Wii U to the Switch is perhaps equivalent to the jump from PS4 to PS4 Pro. There is a very definite improvement (made even more notable by the Switch’s portability), but you will not be buying the Switch for its power. Most Switch games that I played – Splatoon 2 (excellent, and every bit as compelling as the original), ARMS (probably the most fun Switch game I got to play), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (I’ll be posting a full preview feature on this game later to share my thoughts on it), Sonic Mania (the return of glorious 2D Sonic, that most Sonic fans have been yearning for for so long now), Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (the best Mario Kart game yet in its best incarnation), and Ultra Street Fighter II (a game that I was surprisingly mysteriously good at… somehow), among others, looked really nice- but they looked like slightly more polished Wii U games.
Which means they don’t look bad, since diminishing returns in modern graphical tech, as well as the artstyle used on most Nintendo games, means that they look good within reasonable limits of acceptability- but you’re not going to get Horizon: Zero Dawn on PS4 Pro, or 6TFLOPs kinds of graphics here. If that is what you are looking for, stop and turn elsewhere- the value of the Switch lies in its hybrid modularity, in its portability, in its exclusives game lineup from Nintendo, in all the new ways to play that it offers, and even in its overlooked gimmicks like HD Rumble and motion controls. If you buy a Switch, you buy it because a hybrid console fits into your life, or because you want to play Nintendo games. Do not go into it with the expectation of getting a powerful home console.
But the Switch doesn’t need to be a powerful home console- it is the most powerful portable gaming system ever made, it has some genuinely neat tricks up its sleeve that catch you off guard, it has some great games on it, it is exceptionally well made, with startlingly high end quality, construction, and finish, and it does everything that it sets out to do exceptionally well. The Nintendo Switch is primed to be a success as it stands right now- it is a machine that is instantly appealing, from the minute you lay your eyes on it. Much like the PS Vita, it is a machine that exudes desirability. What the Switch’s ultimate fate is is something that the market, and Nintendo’s handling of the machine, will decide- but after two hours with the Nintendo Switch, I, for one, am glad that Nintendo made this system, and I am glad that I have mine pre-ordered. March 3 cannot come soon enough.