Switch hardware is a strong step up from Wii U, but much else worries

By Alex Donaldson, Monday, 16 January 2017 10:22 GMT

I already love this machine, but I’m also a little concerned.

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Last week’s Nintendo Switch event was a somewhat rare occasion of sorts for VG247: there were two of us at the same event. That usually only happens at a massive show like E3, but it also presented an interesting question: How would the two of us react?

“My heart says it’s amazing, but my head says what’s there doesn’t add up just yet – brilliant hardware can only take you so far.”

Matt was much quicker than me and posted his thoughts on the Switch the same day, but prior to the event we did chat about our expectation. We came to the conclusion that I was feeling pretty bullish about the Switch after its reveal and so would be more likely to be positive, while Matt was excited but not as absolutely convinced. As it turns out, we were wrong. We’ve landed in pretty much the same place: impressed with the hardware, nervous about almost everything else.

Much of the Switch experience is an absolute joy to behold. The first time I was able to switch from playing Zelda with a regular controller to holding the handheld component of the machine is a stunningly simplistic moment that sort of rings true with some of those most incredible Nintendo firsts. It’s like feeling the judder of rumble as your Arwing takes its first laser shot in Starfox 64 or first seeing how your movement tracks to the game in Wii Bowling; it’s that sort of special, and just like those experiences it just immediately works. It’s a magical little moment.

The machine’s main party trick is brilliantly done and feels effortless to do: Lift it off, press a button, you’re done – Zelda on the go. The battery life isn’t ideal, it has to be said, but I also find myself not so concerned about that – everybody is lugging around powerbank adapters anyway, while most flights I hop on now offer seat-back USB ports for charging and the like. It’s a pain, but by no means a deal-breaker considering how magnificent it all feels. The only major problem I have with the hardware, in fact, is its meager internal memory.

The console to handheld transition is the Switch’s raison d’etre, of course, so it’s not a surprise that it’s so well executed. More surprising at this hands-on were the elements that felt less guaranteed: the things that were on the periphery and could’ve easily been a mess but felt pitch-perfect all the same.

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There’s the build quality, for one: after Wii U looking and feeling like a Fisher Price Baby’s First Tablet, this feels like a proper step up – surprisingly thin and with a high end consumer tech feel that impresses. The screen in particular is dazzlingly gorgeous in-person and an enormous upgrade from the Wii U’s terrible gamepad screen.

Then there’s the Joy-Cons. Those little controllers look worrying in size, but they’re sturdily built and comfortable to hold. Most interesting is how those controllers channel what appears to be the Switch’s true heart: a blend of everything good Nintendo has ever done.

The controllers resemble mini NES or SNES pads, of course, but then they also have the motion tracking tech of the Wii, the Wii U’s NFC stuff for Amiibo and a (surprisingly impressive) new type of rumble. It’s every era of Nintendo at once, in a sense, and at this event there’s a demo for every format of control.

The Joy-Cons are comfortable in pretty much every single setting, though they get a little cramped as you might imagine when you’re using just one like a tiny SNES pad. Those extra attachments that bulk out each controller when used alone are a smart addition, adding an extra heft and beefing up the shoulder buttons. The Joy-Cons were my greatest worry about the machine but they turned out to be an absolute delight to use, and the way they’re suitable for multiple formats of game actually feels like a remarkable piece of work – they are everything all at once in spite of their diminutive stature.

I’m going to talk about the software line-up in a little more detail in other articles, but it’s hard to talk about the Joy-Cons without talking about 1, 2, Switch. This is a dumb but fun mini-game collection that I’m perplexed Nintendo didn’t choose to pack in. The cow milking game is hilarious while other demos such as safe cracking and samurai duels are quality party games that I actually can’t wait to drag some friends over to try – but the minigames offered still seem like a tough ask at a retail price point. It feels like the perfect pack-in to introduce the Joy-Cons, and it being a separate title is incredibly perplexing to me.

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In a sense the event seems split between these camps. Games like Zelda, Disgaea 5 and Splatoon serve to show how the Switch can work as a traditional games machine with traditional control. Arms is a substantive and fun Wii-style experience that demonstrates that the detached Joy-Cons are ample replacements for a Wii Remote, while 1, 2, Switch is the top argument for those controller’s new features.

“The Joy-Cons were my greatest worry about the machine but they turned out to be an absolute delight to use, and the way they’re suitable for multiple formats of game actually feels like a remarkable piece of work – they are everything all at once in spite of their diminutive stature.”

Some like Mario Kart cross the boundaries – you can play it with a Joy-Con with or without motion control, and there’s even a typical plastic steering wheel accessory you can slot a Joy-Con into Wii-style. All of these options work. Arms is the type of game I was vaguely disinterested in on first sight, but after playing it I’m eager to experience more. The Joy-Cons are amazing, but I’m disappointed that the game that best demonstrates them isn’t packed in and seems like it’ll be a questionable value stand-alone purchase.

This sort of balance of pros and cons is repeated throughout the event as a general theme. The build quality of the machine is amazing and while I think it’s actually quite good value the actual ticket price might still be too high for some, especially in a world where you can currently nab the more powerful Xbox One for about £220. The concept of it being portable is fantastic and the way the actual switching works mechanically is genius, but that previously mentioned battery life might put some off.

Visuals are no doubt going to be a debate in the coming months, with the news that Zelda is running at 900p making waves, but honestly I’m not too bothered about that as far as first-party goes. Mario Kart looks insanely good and is silky smooth; Nintendo does a lot with this level of power. If it’ll significantly hurt their chances of securing third party deals is another question, however. Kingdom Hearts would probably be a natural fit for the Switch, for instance, but what are the chances of that happening with the power discrepancy?

Then there’s the games: there are memorable and exciting-looking games here, chiefly Zelda and Arms, but when viewed as a broad spread this is one of the limpest launch line-ups I could’ve imagined. For me Zelda is enough – I’ve watched that new trailer what feels like a hundred times – but with the machine coming in at £280 one has to wonder who else will be willing to pay that for one game.

Mario is eventually coming, yes, but the third party support is currently pretty threadbare and mostly comprised of ports of old games. A strategy RPG like Disgaea is absolutely perfect for the Switch, but that game will be over a year old by the time it launches. I love Street Fighter, but Capcom’s Ultra Street Fighter 2 feels like a bad joke – a premium price for a new release of what’s essentially an Xbox 360 Live Arcade port. Bomberman sounds like a similar situation and the list goes on: token support that currently doesn’t amount to much compelling in that elusive system-seller sort of way.

That’s the dilemma: The machine is great, but so much of the circumstance around its launch feels wrong. It could do with 1, 2, Switch being packed in or simply being a little cheaper. It could do with more games and better third party support. It seems like they could’ve used more time. The machine itself is an incredible piece of tech, however – it’s Nintendo at its best.

As such, I worry. I desperately want this to be good and successful, but good hardware alone isn’t enough. Nor will be Zelda, even if (as I suspect) it could end up as one of the best games in the last decade. My heart says it’s amazing, but my head says what’s there doesn’t add up just yet – brilliant hardware can only take you so far. The important thing is that I had a lot of fun with what I played at the event, but I now approach the launch with more trepidation than before.

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