I’ve been a Nintendo fan for as long as I can remember, but I have a confession to make: their hardware has never quite grabbed me. The “Big N,” as they’re often called, are well-known for showing toymaker tendencies just as much — if not more — than game developer ones, and that’s often been reflected in the way their consoles and handhelds were built. Though I’ve always had plenty of affection for the chunky, colorful designs and goofy user interfaces of everything from the NES to the 3DS, I’ve always preferred my tech to be a bit more sleek and stylish (perhaps as a counterpoint to my own slovenly tendencies; if I can’t be pretty, at least my cache of devices can).
Enter the Nintendo Switch. Cringe if you want, but I’m not sure how else to express this: the Switch is easily the sexiest device the company has ever built. From the tablet device itself, to the simple dock, to the beautiful slide-on, slide-off Joy-Con controllers, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun just looking at — nevermind setting up and playing around with — the individual parts of a console. Nintendo took their first step towards this sophistication with the Wii and Wii U boxes, which — though admittedly a bit dull in their construction — blended in nicely with the home entertainment system in a way the purple GameCube and its lunchbox handle never could. But the controllers and other accessories continued in that toylike tradition, from the wires of the Nunchuk to the hilariously bulky GamePad.
This is the first time every aspect of the physical hardware design comes together in a way that feels grown-up and modern… and that goes for every configuration, too. Speaking of those configurations, let’s go one-by-one through all of them and how they make Switch’s proposition one of the most exciting in the industry. You’ve got everything you need for Nintendo’s three modes of play right out of the box, and it couldn’t be easier to set up: there’s the console itself, which is a tablet-like device with a 6.2-inch touchscreen, the Nintendo Switch dock which houses the included AC adapter and HDMI cable, and two Joy-Con controllers and their accompanying grip and wrist straps. Pop the cables into the dock, then into the outlet and your television, and you’re all set up to start Switching.
The first configuration we’ll look at is portable mode, which simply requires you to slide the two Joy-Cons onto the side of the console. While a fair bit bulkier than your average handheld, playing games in this mode feels just about the same as playing them on an iPad or other tablet — albeit with the wonderful addition of physical controls. The device’s screen is capable of 720p high definition graphics — a significant step up from the 480p standard definition limit of the GamePad — and needless to say, seeing a massive, beautiful game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in this literal pick-up-and-play capacity made me giddy. I didn’t notice any performance issues while playing in this mode, even though Nintendo admits there are limits on it compared to when the console is docked.
The only limitation I happened to notice was in the not-so-stellar battery life, which did average the expected 2.5 to 3 hours while playing a game as intensive as Breath of the Wild. It’s admittedly a bit crushing to know that’s the maximum play time you’ll be getting — with drain on the battery only reducing it as time goes on. Hopefully, there will be a way to extend this via optional chargers or battery packs in the future.
On the other hand, there didn’t appear to be much strain on the console despite me playing an enormous, ostensibly taxing open world game. Far from the blistering heat and whirring airplane-about-to-take-off sounds that you can get after hours of playing the PS4, the Switch stays cool and quiet throughout operation. As far as audio goes, you can either use the speakers on the device itself (a bit tinny, if I’m being honest), or plug your headphones into the 3.5mm jack.
Let’s move, then, to the second configuration you can use your Switch in: “tabletop mode.” To swap from portable to this mode, you need only bring out the kickstand and remove the Joy-Cons from the sides of the console. You can then either use the Joy-Cons on their own as controllers (one in each hand if you’re solo, or you can flip them on their side to make very small controllers for multiplayer games) or slip them into the included grip to make what’s been affectionately been dubbed the “sad puppy” controller. Despite the Joy-Cons being pretty small on their own — so small I can’t see them being that comfortable in their side-flipped configuration for anyone but very young children — the controller created by sliding two onto the grip is perfectly serviceable and comfortable. You can purchase the Pro Controller for another $69.99 USD/$89.99 CAD as an alternative, but honestly, I found the grip version just fine for the 50+ hours of Zelda I enjoyed.
Tabletop mode seems like the one that most players will use the least, and I’m not sure it’s really practical for the things Nintendo showed in the previews — due to the size of the tiny Joy-Cons and the 6.2 inch screen, it might be a bit much to ask all your pals to crowd around for a game of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. The fact that it’s even possible to do such things is a treat, though, and I’m sure someone will get use out of it. Personally, I just want to try kicking up the stand and play the Switch from atop the tray table on my flight to E3 this year.
Since Nintendo’s marketing this console as a “home device you can take on the go,” the last configuration we’ll address is the one you can safely assume people will spend the most time with. In docked mode — which is rather self-explanatory in its setup in that you slip the console onto the USB-C connector of the included dock — games run at 1080p on your television. Like tabletop mode, you can use any of the controllers in any of their configurations, and as I mentioned before, games can apparently get a slight boost in performance. In addition, the only way to charge the Joy-Cons out of the box is to slide them onto the sides of the tablet while it’s sitting in the dock.
I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but I can’t help but feel effusive with praise here: switching between this mode and portable mode is one of the most seamless, fun and easy options of any console I’ve ever played, and it’s the number one reason I’m excited about the device as a whole. The option to use Remote Play between the Vita and PS4 used to seem novel to me, but that is ridiculously fussy compared to the Switch’s process. Need to use the toilet, or planning to sit shotgun next to your significant other on the way to a party? Whether you’re in the console’s main menu or in the middle of an intense boss battle in Zelda, you can just slide on the Joy-Cons and pick the thing up — the console almost instantly transfers the image from the TV to the tablet itself.
I did both of the above things during my time with the Switch, and I can’t say enough about how exciting it was to just continue playing uninterrupted. There was something legitimately surreal about exploring Breath of the Wild‘s immense open world while going down the highway in the passenger seat, and I can’t wait to see what other games Nintendo delivers that I’ll be able to enjoy whether I’m splayed out on the couch or taking the subway to work. The fact that such enormous adventures are contained on the microscopic game cartridges used by the system (slightly smaller than standard-size SD cards, in case you’re curious) is still a bit of a marvel to me.
To say the Switch is a console with potential, then, is an understatement. With that said, though, I do have a number of concerns moving forward that may make or break what could be my favorite gaming device ever. The common theme among these is that, well, the console just feels a little unfinished in its current state. Note that as of the writing of this review, Nintendo has not enabled online services — connecting to Nintendo Account and using the eShop, as well as installing the day-one update, will be accessible to critics on March 3 (the same time as everyone else, in other words). Unless the update contains a massive UI overhaul, though, let’s just say some folks might be a little underwhelmed by what they see on launch day.
Personally, I’m cautious rather than pessimistic about this. While some people might take the minimalist user interface of the Switch as a sign that it was rushed out the door, I actually find its simple design to be a refreshing change of pace from the intrusive and garish ones used on the Wii and its successor. And that goes double if you want to make comparison’s to the Switch’s competitors, which obnoxiously load their interfaces with promos and advertisements. Even so, compare the launch of this device to Nintendo’s last two big launches, and you can’t help but go “This is it?” With no little apps like the Daily Log or a memorable introductory screen like WaraWara Plaza, and with features like Virtual Console confirmed to be missing at launch, I do wonder how different this device is going to look and feel even a few months from now.
I just hope people have the patience to stick with it, because again — the moment I took it out of the box and started playing with it, the Nintendo Switch immediately rekindled a love for the Japanese giant that had been flagging from the late Wii era all the way through the Wii U years. From the new and sleek hardware design itself to taking big chances on software — which you’ll see me explain further in my reviews of 1-2 Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — I feel like we’re standing on the precipice of the most exciting era in Nintendo gaming thanks to this bold new device.
I just want to see Nintendo follow through on the promise of the hardware by answering the questions we have about it — and when there are so many questions still to be answered this close to launch (as just one example: how on Earth is this smartphone app going to work, and when will it be available?), I can’t help but be a little worried. Still, I’m rooting for this little guy. When I said it had the potential to be my favorite console ever, I meant it. Make it happen, Nintendo.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch Gray Joy-Con launch bundle, which we were provided with.
Purely from a hardware perspective, it's not even close: the Switch is the slickest machine Nintendo has ever built. Being able to take massive titles like Breath of the Wild along with you feels like a game-changer, but there are a lot of questions remaining that the Japanese giant has yet to answer.