Nintendo Switch Review – Nintendo’s Phoenix
There’s a lot of expectation heaving on the theoretical shoulders of the Nintendo Switch. Not only from fans, critics and developers, but possibly a heavily perspiring Nintendo executive team.
Having now spent just short of a week with the console, playing it most of every day and night, in and outside the house, we can honestly say that it meets our original expectations and surpasses them in several ways. There are still a few things we’re worried about, but we’ll get to that.
This review will cover the Switch in its entirety – from the physical hardware itself to the UI and its built-in feature set. At the time of writing the device is still missing a bunch of features that are likely turning up in future patches, but as they do we’ll update this review with new insights.
The Core Unit
Nintendo are generally known for developing good quality gear, but in many ways the Nintendo Switch feels like the most un-Nintendo thing they’ve ever built. For all intents and purposes, it’s a tablet – we’ve been down that road before with the Wii U, but that two-part behemoth was a toy in comparison. The Switch is a beautifully minimal console with impeccable industrial design credentials. It’s sleek, it’s slim and it’s so far removed from the glossy Wii U GamePad that you must wonder if this is even the same team behind the scenes.
The Joy-Con controllers that slide effortlessly down with a satisfying “click” on either side of the system are the real difference here. They aren’t just the controllers for when you’re out and about, but can also be utilised in several different ways. You can use them together in a Joy-Con Grip, they can also be used outside of the grip in each hand if you’re lazing around on the couch. The real kicker is that they’re essentially two controllers when turned on their side. If they’re a little small for you as well there’s two straps included which bump up the height and make the shoulder buttons a little more official.
The new girl isn’t just a pretty face either, with a whole host of personality stuffed inside its petite form factor. The system is powered by a custom version of NVIDIA’s Tegra mobile processor, which means that while it has plenty of grunt, it also needs to be calmed down occasionally. The system is actively cooled – vents on the back suck in air, while the small fan at the top pumps it back out. Undocked you’ll never hear the fans but you might feel a slight warm breeze if you put it close to your face.
While docked, the system is off its leash with rising temperatures and fan noise to match. It thankfully never ever gets as loud as a PS4 or Xbox One however. We’ve played the system both docked and undocked with both 1-2 Switch and Zelda: Breath of The Wild, which is interesting since one of them barely seems to make the system struggle at all, while the other (Zelda) pushes this thing to the max. After a long session roaming the wildlands of Hyrule the system was warm in hand, but never hot and seemed to be mostly (and unsurprisingly) around the battery.
Most of the device’s non control buttons and ports are focused on the top and bottom edges. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom, which is used for both charging, docking and general communication. The charger that’s included has a big ol chunky brick on it, reducing its portability, however any USB-C cable will do. Realistically, however, you’re going to need a portable battery with big output to even think about charging it and playing it on the go.
Setting up the Switch is relatively easy, since you can do it in portable mode straight out of the box, like a 3DS, and just start gaming right away. The included dock doesn’t just power and charge the console, but features the HDMI port that enables you to play it on the TV. The dock itself is small and light, but with a big enough base footprint that prevents it feeling like it’ll ever fall over – knocks from children and pets aside. It does feel a little scary to plug the Switch into the dock for the first time, since you’re certain the screen or the base is going to get scratched. But unless you’re a clumsy handed Bowser type about it – this just isn’t going to happen.
The dock features 3 USB ports, one hidden in the flap behind the rear door and two on the side. At the moment, they don’t do much else but change the system, however Nintendo says these might be able to be used later for external storage, but for now that’s all they do. Looking at the other visual IO for the system it’s really just HDMI or… nothing. If you’re running surround setup that has optical or any other sort of connector you’re probably out of luck.
Nintendo deserve some massive kudos for their work designing the Switch’s beautiful 720p screen. It’s just utterly gorgeous – the colours pop, the viewing angles are excellent and the resolution is just high enough for it to make games look great. It’s not as high as a smartphone or iPad, but at no time on it has text looked blurry or unreadable on it. You’ll go blind going back to the horrible, low-res, resistive Wii U GamePad screen after this. It’s also finally a multi-touch display, thank god.
So. The Battery. We know everyone has been as keen as a dog with a steak for real world results. In our experience over the past week, using it extensively in various scenarios, we got the advertised time out (just over 3 hours) of the system, with the most demanding app (Zelda). The only other game we were provided to test was 1-2 Switch and, let’s face it, the home screen probably draws more power. Since people are going to use the Switch in a number of ways, with some using it plugged in to a PC or the wall at home, others will use it on a commute or at school (why aren’t you learning?) and probably need a top up via 3rd-party power bank.
In our tests, battery packs work for a travelling charge as well as active play, but most of them will require the screen off to be genuinely useful. Could the Switch battery life be better? Sure. But there’s a compromise to be made between size and power and Nintendo decided to take a gamble on short bursts outside the availability of regular charging. Our advice is: If you aren’t using it, dock it.
Normally, when you review a console, the controllers tend to be a fairly simple premise that comes down to two elements – comfort and response. With the Switch, however. the sheer versatility of the included inputs are part of the system’s clever chameleon act. The two Joy-Con controllers (Ed: You know that word is redundant, right?) become one controller when attached to the Switch, or slotted into the Joy-Con grip that comes with the system. But they can also break away from the system to be used separately in each hand or share with a friend in some 2-player local multiplayer games. There’s a ton of flexibility on offer, and while they don’t look like controllers ‘should’ they still operate just as well as any other traditional controller.
Attached to the system or in the supplied “grip”, the Joy-Cons feel great with solid tactile response on the buttons that feature a nice audible *click*. The analog sticks, although a tad smaller than you might be used to, are perfectible serviceable for short to long term use. The shoulder buttons (triggers), are all comfy – but there’s just one little sting. Both the triggers on the Joy-Cons and on the Pro Controller aren’t analog. While not a deal breaker in theory, it does mean a few genres of games will suffer without that added accuracy and it will make the addition of a certain purple system on the Virtual Console.. difficult. We’re certain Nintendo could have fit in at least some level of analog control. Second gen controller, maybe?
The lack of a D-Pad is another perplexing design amendment, with it being Nintendo’s first system without one and it’s weird not to see it there. Nintendo chose having the two Joy-Cons be the same over having a D-Pad, it’s a ballsy design choice – especially when you’re throwing out your own invention.
The Joy-Con’s have an amazing battery life, we’ve never had to worry about charging them – they just charge when you slot them on the side of the Switch. The grip that comes with the system doesn’t charge them, however, although there is a grip that does this (sold separately) but having to keep the Switch charged is an effort on its own.
Even if your Switch is never going to leave the house and you’re going to keep your Joy-Cons in the grip that isn’t attached to the console, you don’t need to worry. The Joy-Cons recharge quickly and if you’re that desperate to keep gaming – just undock the Switch! The Joy-Cons charge even when the system isn’t docked.
When we got our Wii U review unit back in 2012 the thing was incredibly slow to start up, update, open settings – really, to do anything. Then there was a day one patch that helped somewhat, but the system didn’t really get any faster until much later on when they added the ‘quick launch’ menu to the GamePad. Even to this day that thing is a slow, bulky and rubbish user experience.
The Switch is nothing like this at all.
From boot up, which takes only a couple of seconds to complete, it’s about 10 seconds you’re in game. If you’re resuming from sleep, it’s even faster. I can go from power button to Breath of the Wild in less time that it takes for the Wii U to realise you’ve even pressed the power button. Perhaps judging the speed of the OS against the Wii U is foolhardy, since my grandmother with two fake hips can do anything faster than the Wii U. Even in comparison to more modern ARM-based systems, like an iPad or iPhone – the Switch competes, with all of the prebuilt apps, settings and other functions loading within seconds and what’s more it looks great.
The design of the operating system and home menu, like the console itself, is very minimal and clean. There’s the smallest of Nintendo flourishes and animations, mostly involving system sounds produced when you press buttons, but I’ve heard more annoying bloops and blops on a Samsung Galaxy. They are harmless.
From the home screen, you can access the games you have installed, the game card you have in currently and any other game you’ve played in it before. Corrupting saves are a thing of the past, as storage has now moved from the cartridge to system memory (although not cloud, yet). Up on the top of your home screen are the users you’ve added to the system – setting up a user is simple and quick – you can pick a Nintendo avatar or use your own Mii by creating one, linking to your My Nintendo account or copying one across with an amiibo from the Wii U or 3DS.
Under the game listing are links to the smaller system applications, if you can call them that – they load so quickly we’re not even sure if they are really apps. News will eventually have current news from the eShop and Nintendo as well as updates on sales, videos and trailers of new games and information about gaming events. At the moment, we can’t get anything other than the prebuilt tips. Skipping over the eShop, (see next section) next is the albums feature, this is where all your screenshots will be go to be stored, edited and posted to social media from. There’s a built in image editor as well to make ‘memes’ if you can call them that – again we can’t test the social media link ups at this point.
The last three are all to do with the system itself – the controllers menu allows you to add and remove controllers. You can sync new ones by sliding Joy-Cons down the side of the system or by plugging a Pro Controller into the dock. Otherwise it’s just a matter of pressing the sync button and away you go. Once paired, controllers sit patiently in Bluetooth memory and the Switch remembers once reattached. If you change from, say, the Joy-Con to the Pro Controller during a session all you need to do is hit L and R when prompted and the new controller takes over.
Online and eShop
At the time of writing our Nintendo Switch does not have any online functionality other than being able to connect to Wi-Fi to check for updates. This also means there’s no eShop. We’ll update this review once the inevitable day one patch hits the public realm.
The Nintendo Switch is a little part of every console Nintendo has ever made. They’ve taken the best parts from the past 3 decades of industrial design and mashed them into a modern masterpiece. It’s still amazing to think that inside this little tablet is the most powerful Nintendo console ever and you can take it anywhere. I know I said this before, but it’s important to repeat for brevity – It’s so hard to believe the same company that made the Wii U also made this.
Having the two consoles side by side on my desk for the past week, I just look at the Switch in awe. Whether I’ve sat down on the couch and woken up the system or I’ve just undocked it to continue my adventure – the Switch just works seamlessly. You’ll just need to be astute and remember to charge the thing.
But there are several things that worry me. While the eShop will be there on day one, we have almost no idea about how most online features of the console will function. The online plans Nintendo has announced have been confusing and veiled in mystery, the parental controls app isn’t out, and the online services app is going to route voice chat through your phone and not the system. Really?
There are just so many questions left unanswered and we’re less than 24 hours away from launch. I’m almost certain we won’t have any answers until the ordinary gamer starts bringing them home. Then there’s the Virtual Console. Ugh. Don’t get me started. I can understand it won’t be there for day one, but not to know what happens to our purchases.
When Nintendo finally unveiled the Switch at its initial presentation in January, the game line-up looked sparse, but in just a month we’ve seen the line-up grow and change every day. On day one there’s going to be three times as many games (retail and digital) than anyone initially thought. We’re going to see indie games roll out day one and every week from there. It’s super encouraging to see this and fills me with an ounce of hope.
So while the Nintendo Switch is the slickest system Nintendo has ever built, it might be hard to explain to family and friends on first view. But it’s an onion, peeling back layer after layer. I’m feeling a lot more positive about the future of the Switch than I was after that first presentation – not just because it seems Nintendo are necessarily doing a better job this time around (more transparency please!) but because the system and the software can speak for themselves.
I can’t wait to see what the Switch experience looks like in a year, if it’s not already a must have now. It will be by then. For now, I have my dream Nintendo console.
Disclosure: Our review Nintendo Switch unit and games were provided by Nintendo Australia
Review edited by: James Pinnell