Nintendo finally unveiled launch details for its its new Switch console today (to recap: March 3rd worldwide for $299). While the pricing and availability are big news, the bigger news for me was the ability to actually play with the new console at an event in London. The console consists of a 6.2-inch 720p display, with the ability to attach two Joy-Cons to either side of the tablet portion. It’s tablet hardware that’s designed to be used at home in a special Switch Dock, or on the road with the Joy-Cons either attached or detached for wire-free play. There’s even a Joy-Con Grip to house both the sections into a single controller.
I played the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with the tablet housed in the dock, and Mario Kart 8 with the Joy-Cons attached to the side of the tablet. I absolutely prefer playing with the tablet, rather than the Joy-Con Grip controller. There’s a simple reason for that: size. The Switch feels like a great handheld, but the gamepad feels too small to me. I’m used to the bigger controller of the Xbox One or PS4, which both have bigger buttons, better triggers, and much better D-pads. I have really small hands, so I can only imagine how fiddly the controller is if you have normal-sized hands.
Despite that, as a handheld the Switch feels like the best handheld console I’ve ever used. The spacing feels just right, and as the larger screen is in the palm of your hands it all really feels delicately balanced and much more entertaining to play than a PS Vita. It’s probably a little bigger than I’d like a handheld to be, but you can remove the Joy-Cons from the side and pack it away neatly enough for traveling around. It’s clear that Nintendo has really focused primarily on making this a great handheld, but the regular home console part is a little compromised due to a lack of powerful hardware and the default controller. (Of course, battery life is a bigger concern for portability: Nintendo estimates three to six hours of gameplay on a single charge, with a game like Zelda being closer to three.)
Thankfully, Nintendo has developed a Switch Pro controller that’s a lot more like a regular gamepad. Unfortunately, it will set you back another $70 to get a more comfortable console gaming experience. That’s a bit much on top of the $299 you’re already paying for the Switch, but it’s a must if you’re going to use this as a console at home.
The Joy-Cons are the most intriguing part of the Switch, and they slide on and off the sides of the tablet with ease. There’s even a wrist strap section you can attach for when you’re playing games like Bomberman with friends, or wildly punching the air in the fighting game Arms so you don’t end up throwing them into a TV screen or something far worse. The hardware is relatively simple, and each side includes an analog stick, shoulder buttons, and individual shoulder buttons on the inside of the controller to use for separate play. The main shoulder buttons don’t have much depth and travel to them, but they also don’t feel clicky or irritating. I docked both of the Joy-Cons into the Grip accessory to experience the vibration motors, and they all paired well to give the sense of real controller feedback.
One part of the Switch I wasn’t able to test was the Dock, simply because Nintendo had most units under glass or in a different configuration. It’s the key part that connects this handheld up to a TV and transforms it into a home games console. It reminds me of a laptop dock, and it looks like a little rucksack that cushions the Switch console gently under your TV.
This idea of switching modes and the set of hardware that Nintendo is showing off really reminds me of Microsoft’s Surface tablet. Microsoft wanted to make a laptop and a tablet, but both modes are a little compromised and neither is perfect. Nintendo wanted to make a handheld and a games console, but the games console aspect isn’t perfect. If there’s one thing the Nintendo Switch hardware does that’s perfect is prove games companies can still attempt to be innovative and move outside of what we consider a regular games console. Nintendo has been perfecting this trick for years, but with the Switch we’re about to witness whether the latest attempt really nails it.