I am only about 15 hours through the new Legend of Zelda right now, but it’s clear to me that I’ll probably spend dozens, if not hundreds, of hours exploring the world, killing Moblins, and collecting treasure.
At any other point in my life, that time would also be spent merging my body with the cushions of my couch, taking a break only when I had to let someone else use the TV or, you know, I needed to leave the house.
The Nintendo Switch completely blurs that line between home and portable gaming. Now I can take Zelda with me wherever I go — not some limited version, mind you, but the full console Zelda experience. I can play on my TV, pick up the tablet from its dock, and continue the game without skipping a beat or compromising the experience.
No matter how good the hardware is, a game console is still just a means by which to interact with games. The Switch launches this week with one of the most ambitious games Nintendo has ever made, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But beyond Zelda, we need to know if Nintendo has actually pulled this crazy concept off. The Nintendo Switch is a machine borne of a company looking both to its past and future, and I genuinely believe that it has innovated upon some of its best ideas. I’m just not sure it’s fixed some of its worst.
Nintendo has never shied away from making offbeat gaming hardware. Quite often that strategy has proven successful. A clamshell portable with two screens (DS) and a system centered around waving remotes in your living room (Wii) have each sold over 100 million units, making them some of the best-selling gaming hardware of all time. Each time, Nintendo has used its enviable roster of iconic game franchises — including Mario, Zelda, and Super Metroid, to name just a few — as a way to prove out the hardware concepts.
But Nintendo’s last home console, 2012’s Wii U, utterly failed. It was a bulky, underpowered tablet that could never be used too far away from its base station, and had a poor roster of non-Nintendo games to boot. It featured multiple new Mario games, a new Super Smash Brothers, Mario Kart 8, and a number of other critically praised first-party games, but Nintendo’s biggest and best properties weren’t enough to save the hardware.
The Nintendo Switch is a chance to start over. If you're reading this, you probably already know the core hardware gimmick by now, but if not, here's the short version. The Switch is essentially a portable console that also can plug into your TV. Instead of just having a traditional controller, it has two Joy-Con controllers that have Wii-style motion controls. They're designed from the start to enable the kind of local, multiplayer games that made your mid-2000s parties so much fun.
Whereas the Wii U’s tablet was an awkward plastic slate beholden to a base station that did all the processing, the Switch is a fully self-contained, sturdy, and well-designed tablet that's just over half an inch thick. With both Joy-Con controllers attached, the Switch weighs a little less than 14 ounces — heavier than a 3DS or Vita but lighter than most iPad models. It never really felt heavy to me, though, even after playing for over an hour straight.
The 6.2-inch, 720p display is easy enough for me to view at a distance without hunching over or straining my eyes, although it’s got a pretty nasty glare on sunny days — my dreams of practicing virtual archery in the park will have to wait for overcast weather. And though I haven’t yet scratched the display, that’s maybe in part because I’ve kept the hardware in a makeshift case (a large winter sock). For whatever reason, the Switch doesn’t come bundled with a case of its own. I seriously wouldn’t recommend traveling without one.
Powered by a custom Nvidia Tegra system-on-a-chip — reportedly based on the X1, which also powers Nvidia’s Shield — the Switch doesn’t match the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in power, but it does best the Wii U and pretty much every portable gaming machine out there (except for high-end tablets). The result is a machine that feels like a small upgrade for Nintendo’s home consoles but a major step forward for a handheld device. Nvidia built Tegra to bring console-quality graphics into a portable environment, and it mostly succeeds.
Playing a full Zelda game on the go is pretty surreal. The game’s style seems tailor-made for a mobile console, favoring more impressionistic character models while playing around with more realistic particle effects. There have been a few hiccups while playing Breath of Wild — some choppiness when, say, you’re running through a rather large field you just set on fire — but it’s unclear if that’s showing a limitation of the hardware or something that can be remedied with further software optimization. None of the games I’ve seen so far, either in person or in promotional video, have really pushed the Switch’s graphics quite like Zelda.
Except for a few essential knobs like power and volume, the Switch tablet itself is pretty light on buttons. The Switch’s stereo speakers are surprisingly loud, although it seems to favor treble far more than bass. I never really had a need to max out the volume, even when we were testing out a party game like 1-2-Switch. The microSD card slot is hidden behind the kickstand, and given the machine has only 32GB of internal storage, investing in some external storage is going to be a necessity. (While the physical version of Breath of the Wild has no install requirements, the digital version is over 13GB.)
And about that kickstand, which is used when you want to prop up the machine and play from a slight distance (which, given the screen, is surprisingly doable): while I love how well-built the console is as a whole, the kickstand hinge is the one spot that feels somewhat flimsy and has a slightly more jarring sound when it clicks into place. That’s not to say I think it’s going to break anytime soon, but given how sturdy everything else is, the kickstand’s hinge is more noticeable.
Thin and sturdy, with up to six hours of battery life on the go
The battery life of the Switch, according to Nintendo, ranges from two and a half to six hours, depending on what you’re playing. With The Legend of Zelda, I’ve been consistently getting just under three hours of playtime before I need to charge. That doesn’t sound like a lot in writing, but it was more than enough for a game that demands some serious attention — and certainly enough if I’m playing it while in transit somewhere. The bottom edge of the Switch has a standard USB-C for charging, although we’ve yet to find a battery / cable that can charge the console faster than it drains Zelda. Also, because it’s on the bottom, it’s not something you can use in tabletop mode (i.e., with the kickstand out) anyway.
It all means there’s something of a rhythm to how I play games on the Switch: a few hours on the go playing Zelda, and then dropping the tablet into the Switch’s dock to charge and continue the game on a TV. Outside of a small flicker every now and then, the process of moving from one screen to the next is seamless. The no-nonsense, plastic base station doesn’t add any additional processing; it does, however, let you output a 1080p signal over HDMI. I’ve found myself surprisingly geeking out over the docking process itself, a rather clever recess that glides the tablet into just the right position so the USB-C plug connects without any scuffing.
Though the dock is bulkier than it needs to be, it’s also not meant for traveling, and even combined, it’s still thinner than any other current-generation console. That being said, I have to imagine Nintendo will at some point release a more portable version down the line, if only because USB-C-to-HDMI dongles currently on the market don’t seem to work with the Switch.
While the tablet itself houses the power of the console, it’s Nintendo’s throw-every-input-idea-into-one control system that highlights the company’s weirdest impulses. Two detachable Joy-Con controllers frame the tablet, and in this configuration, it feels like a more traditional layout for a home console, with dual joysticks, a quartet of triggers (L / R and ZL / ZR, in Nintendo’s parlance), and a smattering of other buttons used. There’s even a capture button on the left Joy-Con for quick screenshots. The rubber material and control of the joysticks gives just enough friction that it feels comfortable even if you’re used to the larger sticks on an Xbox One controller or PS4 DualShock.
You can also use the Joy-Con separately and wirelessly, detached from the console. The physical connection on the tablet is, thankfully, very sturdy, but conversely that means it took me a few tries to get used to the gesture of pulling out the Joy-Con while keeping a bit of pressure on the tablet itself so it didn’t also lift up. Reattaching the Joy-Con, meanwhile, produces an oddly satisfying click sound. That click has already become something of an obsession online.
In TV or tabletop mode, the controls work exactly as they do when attached to the console. There is a grip attachment that you can slide both Joy-Con controllers into, but while it makes the shape feel more familiar, it wasn’t a drastic enough change that I’d consider it an essential accessory for playing on the go. And for whatever reason, the small size and button density felt more noticeable in this setup. But overall, the control setup just made sense. After generations of gaming hardware that has converged around two joysticks, some shoulder triggers, and a lot of face buttons, the Switch has found a way to emulate that familiar layout while also enabling some other weird tricks. And motion control, which here was used for fine-tuning my aim when shooting arrows, felt more helpful than a nuisance.
But the best way to play Zelda and similar games is with the Pro controller, which Nintendo offers as a separate purchase. Like the Wii and Wii U versions before it, the Switch Pro Controller feels more like a standard Xbox One gamepad, with larger joysticks, a D-pad in lieu of four grouped buttons, and a more comfortable grip. I’d almost say it’s an essential accessory if not for the $70 price tag, Sony and Microsoft’s controllers both cost less, and they also feature a headphone jack for quietly gaming with headphones, something the Switch Pro Controller sorely lacks.
That’s a lot of different ways to control the Switch, but they’re all variations of the same scheme. Where Weird Nintendo really comes out is when you start using a Joy-Con for motion-controlled games. It’s not a stretch to think of them as refined Wii remotes. Like Wii Sports before it, the launch title 1-2-Switch is a collection of mini-games that showcase what the motion controllers are capable of. The so-called HD rumble feature, which here is shown off by having players "count" the number of balls shaking inside the remote, is impressive in how it feels and how it works. Unlike Wii Sports, however, 1-2-Switch feels largely half-baked, a majority of its nearly 30 tech demos are forgettable or awkward. Bundled with the console, 1-2-Switch would be a fine (if confusing) addition, but it’s a $50 standalone game. Nope.
There’s an odd asymmetry to the Joy-Con button layout, and the reason is that when held horizontally, each one can act as a standalone mini gamepad with a button layout reminiscent of the Super Nintendo controller. (The Switch comes with a wrist-strap peripheral designed to also extrude the L / R buttons. It does help in some cases, but it’s not entirely necessary. I’d rather leave them at home and keep the things I’m carrying with me to a minimum.) For classic Nintendo titles, that means (theoretically at least) you can do local multiplayer out of the box, without buying additional accessories. Snipperclips, a Switch launch title that Nintendo will offer in the eShop for $20, also makes good use of the setup.
While the hardware is an impressive amalgam of Nintendo’s better inclinations, the Switch’s software still trails virtually every other gaming platform. Despite claims to the contrary prior to launch, the Switch indeed revives Nintendo’s much-reviled Friend Codes system to connect with other players. It’s not as bad as it was for the Wii or 3DS — rather than being tied to the hardware itself, the code is now tied to individual accounts that can be moved to other consoles — but it’s still needlessly complicated. Messaging friends a 12-digit cipher to connect with them remains frustrating.
Compounding that frustration is just how close Nintendo comes to a better solution. You can link your Switch account to Facebook or Twitter for sharing, but you can’t find friends through either social platform. The same goes with Nintendo Network IDs, which just added User IDs, with the lone exception being anyone you befriended in Nintendo’s first mobile experiment Miitomo. Nintendo says you’ll be able to find and add friends through all these methods sometime later, but with no firm timeline, I won’t hold my breath.
The only thing you can do right now with Facebook and Twitter is post screenshots. Nintendo does provide some text annotation capabilities, but they’re limited.
Mercifully, Nintendo has tied digital purchases to individual accounts, so you can transfer your games from one Switch to another so long as you "deactivate" your account from the first system (there’s no easy way to do this if, say, you are no longer in possession of the first Switch — at that point, the only thing you can do is call Nintendo customer service).
What you can’t bring over from one Switch to another is save files, which are stored internally and can’t be copied onto the microSD card. There’s no other way to put this: the limitation is arbitrary and ridiculous. Nintendo has not said whether or not this will change in a future update.
The Switch, notably, doesn’t currently have a web browser — or rather, it has the bare minimum of a WebKit-based browser needed for logging into public hotspots. It doesn’t have Netflix, either, making it one of the few connected devices left in this world incapable of streaming Orange Is the New Black.
As for the Virtual Console, Nintendo’s online store dedicated to reselling classic games from the company’s back catalog, that isn’t available yet. In fact, we don’t yet know when it’s coming to Switch.
Nintendo’s launch lineup beyond Zelda is fairly barebones, but there are a few gems worth trying out like Snipperclips and Fast RMX, both of which have pretty great local multiplayer. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the single flagship standout. Zelda is also available on Wii U.
Here's another big question for Nintendo: long-term support. The company has, for roughly a decade, struggled with rallying third-party publisher interest. The company seemingly acknowledged its reputation when unveiling the Switch, announcing dozens of developers and publishers that had signed on to support the platform, including Electronic Arts with a new FIFA title and Bethesda with Skyrim. But those aren’t coming until later this year, leaving Zelda as the biggest reason to invest now.
That isn’t necessarily a dire situation to be in. Far from it, in fact: Nintendo has maybe the greatest lineup of first-party franchises in gaming history, and the new Zelda may be the best yet. A sequel to the surprise multiplayer hit Splatoon should be out this summer, and a wild new Mario title has been teased for this holiday. Nintendo has additionally promised over 60 indie games coming this year, with at least one new release per week. All of which is promising, but that still leaves a bit of a gap in week one if you’re looking to play something other than Zelda.
The most shocking thing about the Switch might be how many obvious pitfalls Nintendo has managed to elegantly avoid. Going from playing on the tablet to the TV is completely effortless, and there's no sense of compromise whichever way you choose to play. Once you hold and use the Switch, it just makes sense.
Great hardware alone isn’t enough, of course. I have little doubt Nintendo’s first-party lineup will be amazing — Breath of the Wild alone is almost worth the cost of admission here — but the company’s weak spots have always been continuing and expanding third-party support, as well as providing a robust online service. Those are the potential pitfalls to come.
The Switch has all the makings of something truly great. Now Nintendo just needs to support it.
- Sturdy, impressive hardware
- Transition from portable to TV is seamless
- One of the best Zelda games ever at launch
- Online functionality is poor
- Seriously, Friend codes?
- There isn't much to play outside of Zelda yet
Video by Vjeran Pavic
Photography by James Bareham
Edited by Dieter Bohn