Nintendo Switch review

After years of speculation and an initial reveal last October, Nintendo’s latest console, the hybrid Nintendo Switch, is finally hitting shelves this week. With the Switch, Nintendo is trying to get the best of both worlds: After combining its handheld and console divisions a few years ago, the Switch is Nintendo attempting to bridge the gap between the portable gaming marketplace it long held dominance over and its struggling home-console business.

Following the abysmal failure that was the Wii U (one of Nintendo’s worst-selling consoles), the Switch certainty has something to prove. It’s also trying to be a lot of things at once to different degrees of success. It’s not a perfect system, and while it does have potential, there are still issues for it to work through in its lifespan.

What’s in the box

The Nintendo Switch launches on March 3 for $299 in two color schemes: one with the new Joy-Con controllers in grey, and the other with offset neon red and blue ones. The Switch system itself – the portable tablet-like screen — is pretty slick, and more akin to cell phone than your typical Nintendo device. The Joy-Con controllers, however, are very much Nintendo. In some ways, it’s a Frankenstein-like device: especially with the colored Joy-Con, the system looks like a screen with two controllers slapped on its sides, not one seamless device.

The system also comes with two straps for the Joy-Con, an HDMI cable, a USB-C power cord, and a dock to connect the Switch to a TV via HDMI. There’s no way to connect the Switch directly to the TV without the dock, which could mean a household might need multiple docks. You might also experience the annoyance of having to bring your dock to a friend’s house. But additional docks also cost $90 (bundled with a HDMI cord and an extra power adapter), which is almost a third of the cost of the console just to get an extra dock. Phew. UPDATE: Nintendo has since added a standalone version of the dock for $60.

The dock does have a nice, neat little compartment in the back that arranges the power cord and the HDMI cable, and provides one USB port. There are two additional USB ports on the side of the dock.  Neither the dock nor the system have an optical out (though the system does have a headphone jack that works in TV and portable modes). Given the removal of the composite out that the Wii U had, there’s also no way for me to connect it directly to my surround sound system.

To do the titular switch between playing on the TV or on the internal screen, you just need to place the Switch system in the dock or remove it. The device handles the hand-over from TV to portable itself. Oddly enough, though, the dock doesn’t even have a charging light, which is a weird omission. The dock itself is also pretty non-descript, and the whole system kind of disappears in the midst of a home TV set up. I feel like there was a missed opportunity for the dock (or the screen on the system itself) to do something – anything! — while the system was hooked to the TV.

For games, the Switch uses game carts, not discs, something that has it following more in the 3DS’s footsteps than the Wii U’s. It’s going to be interesting to see if going back to carts with storage limitations is going to impact games at all. The system itself does have a paltry 32 GBs of internal memory, but it can be expanded through micro SD cards.

Operating System

The Nintendo Switch’s operating system is one of the most basic and barebones we’ve seen from Nintendo in recent years: more so than any of its past three system launches. It has more in common with the GameCube than any of the modern systems to follow it.

Unlike the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS, the Switch is launching without any additional software or apps. No Everybody Votes Channel. No Miiverse.  No Streetpass. No quirky and unique Nintendo pack-ins. No Netflix. No software like “Wii Sports” or “Nintendo Land.” No log or activity tracker to track game-play time. Nada.

UPDATE: While the system itself still doesn’t have one, the Parental Control mobile app that works in conjunction with the Switch does have some play-time logging features. I’m still trying to figure out how robust or in-depth they will be, though. Using the app also adds an ugly Parental Controls On logo to the OS. 

Instead the system has small options on the main screen – News, eShop, your photo album, and a few settings — with the majority of the OS screen dominated by a single row of icons where games go. And right now, it doesn’t even look like you can move or rearrange said icons.

But, once you have finished the very small amount of launch games, what then do you do with the system? For now, that answer is nothing. Compared to the ad-ridden and overly complicated PS4 and Xbox One OS interfaces, the Switch is a refreshing change— but that doesn’t excuse it entirely.

The Switch definitely initially underwhelms, and left me wondering, “Is this it?” The basic online functionality – the eShop, the friends system, online multiplayer – are all being added in a day one update, which means I wasn’t able to test any of them for the purpose of this review.

And, later this year, Nintendo’s paid online services will roll out, including an app that allows for voice chat. It’s Nintendo’s first time going to a paid online system, so there’s still a lot of stuff seemingly up in the air in terms of what it will exactly cost or how it will work and function. My Switch is also having problems connecting to Wi-Fi (something it was doing fine last week), and as of now I haven’t been able to figure out why.

Not so much Joy

The Switch has several different control styles, depending if you are taking it on the go or playing with it hooked up to a TV. Most of these center around the new Joy-Con controllers, the detachable controllers that can be used both attached to the system in portable mode, or on their own with a TV.

The Joy-Con themselves are a bit too small – and have some odd button placements – but I do like how they are curved, the way that they fit and feel in my hands, as well as the texture of the plastic bodies, though the thin shoulder buttons do feel cheap. The new controllers are almost like a throwback to the Wii Remote and nunchuk, and they also fulfill something I’ve been wanting Nintendo do for years:  a controller that can be held in each hand separately without wires or anything connecting them.

Most of my time spent with the Switch has been sent playing with the Joy-Con split in such a fashion – not how I think Nintendo recommends playing anything — but it ended up being the most comfortable option when playing on my TV.

Now, there’s a lot more to the Joy-Con than you might discover by just playing Zelda. They are essentially tiny versions of Wiimotes, and they can be turned sideways and played in that fashion. I wasn’t able to test it with a game for this review, but it seems to work slight better with the left Joy-Con in this mode — The right Joy-Con becomes weird turned on its side, as the joystick ends up directly in the middle of the controller — but both have the shoulder button obtrusively in the way.

The Joy-Con also have a gyroscope and accelerometer for motion control, as well as Nintendo’s new HD Rumble feature, which Nintendo claims is so accurate players could tell if there were separate ice cubes rolling inside the controller (I wasn’t impressed with it at the preview event earlier this year).  Zelda doesn’t support HD Rumble, but the motion didn’t seem to work great in it. 

The left Joy-Con also has a capture button that makes taking screen shots super easy, and that can be shared to — gasp, still unknown! — social media networks. The right has a NFC reader for amiibo, as well as an IR motion camera.

That’s a lot of tech crammed into two tiny little controllers. It remains to be seen how much games actually utilize said functions — much like some of the features in the Wii U gamepad. Even this early-on, it feels like Nintendo may have been better off keeping the cost of the system down by not including so many bells and whistles. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: HD rumble is never going to be a selling point for anything. Zelda is a perfect example: When Twilight Princess moved to the Wii, it used the full capabilities of the Wii Remote. Not so here with Breath of the Wild and the Joy-Con.

The Joy-Con Grip – which comes with the system – connects the two controllers together into a more traditional-looking input device. The problem is that I had really bad pain and cramping when using it, to the point that I just stopped using the grip all together, and I’m still having lingering issues. Moving back to just the Joy-Con individually helped alleviate this a bit, but not entirely, and I still ran into some pain and cramping sans grip. 

There’s also a Joy-Con strap that slides on to the Joy-Con, extending the shoulder buttons and rounding out the exposed connection edge. I wish there was a slightly smaller Joy-Con strap add-on without buttons; something that just rounded out that edge a bit when playing with them alone. The straps are also not super easy to take on and off. Be careful, because they are really hard to get off if you accidentally put them on the wrong way, like I did at first. They ended up being another part of the system I mostly left alone.

The best the Switch gets is playing with it as a portable system, with the Joy-Con attached directly to the screen. It isn’t perfect or pain-free (though that could just be carryover from my time playing with the grip), but it is probably where the system is the most comfortable.

What this means at the end of the day, though, is that there’s no ideal way to play games on the Switch, at least with the options that are available out of the box (Nintendo is also selling a pro controller).  Looking ahead, the comfort of the controllers is very much an issue: I always try to get third party games on Nintendo systems when I can, but if I’m looking at something like Shovel Knight, why would I buy it on Switch if there are more comfortable options out there? I’ll be picking up a pro controller eventually, but that’s yet another cost ($70) to consider, and somewhat negates the point of Nintendo even having the Joy-Con in the first place if people don’t end up using them and have to get other controllers to be comfortable.

Another issue that I – and many other reviewers – have encountered so far is a repeated issues where the Joy-Con isn’t responding correctly. In Zelda for example, Link would often keep running after I let go of the joystick. Sometimes, the cursor would keep drifting around the map. This mostly seems to be happening with the left Joy-Con in particular, but I also had it happen to me with the right. I don’t think it is a deal-breaker for me, but most people probably are going to have less patience when a brand new controller does not work exactly as it should.

Menage a trois

Nintendo is advertising the Switch as having three play modes: TV, portable, and tabletop. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is the ability to be able to take console quality games away from the TV and play them on the go wherever you want. It isn’t really a sexy or flashy feature, but more of a functional one.

I was initially skeptical of this claim – I‘m weird and like portable and console games to be separate – but it is cool to have console-quality tech on the go. I’m just not sure if simply making console games portable is going to be a strong enough selling point for the Switch to rest its hopes on.

As far as portability goes, the Switch is portable-ish, but more in the way that it’s easy to pick it up and take it over to a friend’s house, not quite in the same take-with-you-every-day way that the 3DS was. And sadly it doesn’t have Street Pass as an incentive, either.

The Switch is also the first Nintendo portable-like device to lose the clamshell design its had since the Game Boy Advance SP, which means there’s nothing blocking the screen during transport. I’m not comfortable throwing a device with an exposed screen in a bag without a case and/or screen protector, so that’s also adding to the bulk of carrying it around. For size comparison, the Switch in portable mode (with both Joy-Con attached) is almost as long as the Wii U GamePad, and decently longer than the original 3DS XL.

The last billed mode is tabletop mode. The Switch has a little stand built into the back of it, which you can use to set it up on a table and play at your heart’s content. I really enjoyed using this mode – it was pretty cool to whip the Switch out in Starbucks and start playing Zelda right then and there. But, I’m not sure how many opportunities there are to actually play the Switch in such a fashion, outside of super specific scenarios (like on planes). A few additional options for the stand and its viewing angle would also have been nice.

But don’t underestimate tabletop mode. It’s sweet.

Games & More

With any portable, battery life is always a concern. Nintendo gives a pretty long battery-life estimate for the Switch when it is in portable mode, but in my test playing Zelda, I got the low battery warning almost exactly three hours later, and the system went into forced sleep at around three and a half hours.

However, after the system goes into forced sleep, you can’t plug it in and start playing right away: There’s a slight charging delay. It’s annoying, and something that even the 3DS doesn’t have to do. It also seems to take the Switch quite some time to get fully charged while playing. It does however suspend the game you are playing in sleep, letting you start right back off where you left off, which is nice.

I’m always in favor of longer battery life, and while the Switch did manage to last through a day trip I took last week, I’m always going to want it to last longer. I travel cross-country frequently, and not having to worry about battery life on planes would be nice. But both the 3DS and the Wii U didn’t have great battery life, and for the portable focus on the Switch, a larger boost here would have been great.

That being said, the Joy-Con battery life seems unbelievably awesome. After I initially charged them fully, I don’t think I ever saw them dip below fully charged – and that was with intense, long play sessions going through Zelda. The Joy-Con themselves charge when attached to the Switch. Nintendo is also selling a separate charging grip.

On the games side, while it’s hard to discredit a system launching with a new Zelda and Mario title in the first year, the outlook for Switch is rocky at best. The system is launching with fewer games than both the Wii and Wii U did, and the lineup this year – especially for third parties – is particularly thin.

This is an issue Nintendo always has, but it’s especially even more concerning following the software droughts that plagued the Wii U. The Switch was a chance for Nintendo to show it had turned thing around. It’s also a bit pricy at $299, and the controllers are also additional, and expensive, add-on costs to consider.

Following the Wii U, I feel like Nintendo needs to hit a home run. The Switch is far from that, and while it isn’t like they struck out, it might face harsher criticism following the Wii U’s disappointment.

Nintendo fans are going to buy it, sure, but I don’t think it’s fair to drop down $300 just to play Zelda. I’ve been going back and forth, and while there’s potential here, I think I need to see a lot more from the system. I need to see more from its long-term software support, and I also would like to see more of its online features and functionality like the eShop and Virtual Console, and other controller options and how games implement the Joy-Con before I’m able to fully recommend it. But so far, it’s not quite the switch of fortunes that Nintendo wants it to be.

Verdict: Not yet