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Nintendo Switch Review: Stuck in the Middle

Nintendo’s latest hardware has hit the market and is the hot ticket item of the video game industry right now. The Nintendo Switch tries to capture the best features of a console and a handheld in a product that is unlike anything we’ve seen on the market before. Writing a Nintendo Switch review meant I had to deal in dualities. Is the Nintendo Switch a good console? Is it a good handheld? Do the Switch’s accessories lend themselves to portability and have the quality players expect from Nintendo? All these questions factored into my evaluation of the Switch, and even after the two weeks I’ve spent with it, these matters are still pertinent.

Feed my Frankenstein

Nintendo has always been experimental in its hardware design. The controller of the N64, the compact design of the Gamecube, the Wiimote, and the Wii U gamepad all show Nintendo’s willingness to gamble on new ideas. Sometimes these gambles pay off; the Wii sold 101.6 million consoles over its lifetime. Sometimes, they don't; the Wii U has only sold 13.56 million units thus far. Even with paltry sales from the highly experimental Wii U, Nintendo still decided to go all in and design a platform that has about as much in common with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as the Nintendo 3DS does.

However, when we take a look at the Nintendo Switch’s design, we see that there’s nothing really “new” there. Instead, Nintendo has taken the best features from its last few products and combined them into a platform with multiple identities. The Joy-Con controllers feature the gyroscope-powered motion detection of the Wii Remote Plus, the Switch system itself is the idealized form of the Wii U Gamepad, and the ability to play the Switch in handheld mode taps into Nintendo’s very successful history with the Game Boy and DS series handheld systems.

The Nintendo Switch also discontinues features that were underused in Nintendo's past console and handheld generations. There are no cameras, front or rear-facing, and the capacitive touch screen has the fidelity to allow precision use without a stylus. It's good to see that Nintendo is finally not afraid to "cut the fat" and offer a more cohesive platform that doesn't have features that consumers and developers immediately forget about.

Split Personalities

The issue with the concept of the Nintendo Switch is the compromises that have to be made with the design to ensure that it works adequately both docked to a TV and played in handheld mode. Compared to its rivals, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch’s specs are paltry. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shows that at least first-party games can work within the constraints of the Switch’s hardware to make masterful experiences that rival any games that other current-gen systems have to offer. However, Nintendo has to court third-parties if it wishes the Switch not to go down the same road the Wii U did. This compromise in hardware might be offset by custom APIs and support Nintendo is offering studios, but when it comes to ports, the bread and butter of any console, consumers will more than likely face a substandard experience with high-fidelity games when compared to other platforms.

Even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game I loved, had issues running on the Nintendo Switch during review. Other titles, like 1-2-Switch, run well on the Switch but have a unique problem that arises when playing. There are three modes Nintendo touts you can play the Nintendo Switch in: TV Mode, Tabletop Mode, and Portable Mode. The issue with 1-2-Switch is that the game expects you to play in Tabletop Mode. That may seem like a small, maybe even inconsequential problem, but it’s a problem that is indicative of what may become a larger issue with the Switch. When playing 1-2-Switch on the TV, it’s easier to run into one of the Switch’s hardware flaws: the left Joy-Con. I had heard reports of the left Joy-Con having connection issues, but it wasn’t until I played 1-2-Switch that I experienced them personally.

Conned Out of Joy

When I first played 1-2-Switch, I had my Switch system docked to my TV, with the dock somewhat obscured by my soundbar. As a friend and I started playing the various minigames, with myself using the left Joy-Con, I noticed something was up. I was losing games and not having certain actions occur that I knew I was doing correctly. The first game that I noticed something wrong was the flag waving minigame where you follow a list of verbal instructions and emulate them by using the Joy-Con as if it was a flag. Certain waves of the Joy-Con weren’t being registered in-game. As we tried the safe cracking minigame, my friend was able to open the safe within 30 seconds or less, while I wasn’t able to even input the first combination. The safe minigame has you rotating the Joy-Con like a dial while feeling for an odd click to indicate a part of a safe’s combination using the Joy-Con’s HD rumble feature. However, I wasn’t getting all the rumble data. Instead, the rumble would start and stop and skip, and made it impossible to play the game correctly.

I realized that the Switch systems shown in 1-2-Switch were all in tabletop mode. So I moved the Switch closer to us in line of sight, much like they showed in the game. This improved the control input issues, but on the safe crack minigame, it became evident that the left Joy-Con’s HD rumble isn’t as sensitive or as intense as the right Joy-Con’s. I’m not sure why this is. According to iFixit’s teardown, both controllers have the same Bluetooth transceivers and rumble motors. Hopefully, this is a firmware issue that can be lined out with a future patch to the system. However, as it is, left Joy-Con connectivity issues are a huge problem, not only because of general frustration but because they limit the versatility, which is the point of the Switch’s design. With line-of-sight needed for the left Joy-Con (and the less distance, the better), you’re either forced to play in tabletop mode while playing multiplayer, or you’ll have to place the Switch and its dock in a very specific area when playing in TV mode.

When playing a multiplayer title with each player using one of the Joy-Cons, you’ll more than likely use the extensions that slide onto the Joy-Con’s rails and allow for more comfortable use. This was a great move by Nintendo because without the extensions anyone with hands larger than a toddler’s would find the Joy-Con awkward to hold. However, the extensions have one huge flaw. The ZR and ZL buttons on the shoulders of the Joy-Con when using the extensions are incredibly unsatisfying to press. Instead of that distinct, high-quality click, we’re used to getting with Nintendo hardware, pressing the ZR and ZL buttons on the extensions feel squishy and indefinite. It makes it hard actually to feel when you've pressed the button, and I hope that a third-party product offers a solution to this in the future.

The Joys of Traditional Controllers

When using the Joy-Cons in the Joy-Con grip that comes with the Nintendo Switch, the whole control experience gets a lot better. When I first saw the Joy-Cons in the grip, I thought it would make for an awkward controller, but it feels just fine. The way the grips are angled on the Joy-Con grip prevents your hands from bumping uncomfortably against the squared ends of the Joy-Cons and allows the versatility to use the Joy-Cons in different configurations without sacrificing a good traditional one-player controller. One gripe I did have with the Joy-Con grip is the lack of built-in charging. If you just buy the base Nintendo Switch with no accessories, you have to charge the Joy-Cons by attaching them to the docked Switch when you’re not playing. They’re rated at over 20 hours per charge, but the fact that Nintendo is charging for a Joy-Con grip with charging capacity as an accessory makes it frustrating. The charging Joy-Con grip should have come with the system.

If you’re looking for a more “premium” controller, Nintendo has also released a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. I have a love-hate relationship  with the Pro Controller. It’s an excellent controller, and my preferred way to play the Switch in TV mode. It’s one of the most robust controllers I’ve ever felt, the grips are angled just right, the buttons are super smooth and clicky, and it just feels awesome. However, it’s extremely steep in price at $69.99, and I’m not sure it’s worth that much. Unfortunately, it’s also the only way to get an actual D-Pad to use for Nintendo Switch as the Joy-Con just has buttons in a D-Pad shape. That’s where the hate part for the Pro controller comes in. It’s almost essential for anyone who wants the best experience with TV mode. The Joy-Cons in the grip are great, but compared to the Pro Controller they’re just second-rate. Nintendo could have gone the generous way and made the Wii U Pro Controller compatible with the Switch, which would have given much the same experience as the Switch Pro controller, but it didn’t. On the plus side, the Pro Controller does have an NFC reader in the center of the controller so you can scan amiibo without having to switch to the Joy-Cons.

Now You’re Kinda Playing With Power

I ragged on the Switch about its hardware specs above, but for the most part, it does a good job of keeping up. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a fantastic game, and I’m shocked that the developers were able to get the fidelity they did. Unfortunately, at launch, Zelda is the only title that comes close to pushing the Switch to its limits. The launch line-up besides Zelda is somewhat disappointing. 1-2-Switch should have been a pack-in title that showed what the unique features of the Nintendo Switch are, but instead, it's $49.99. Super Bomberman R is also much more expensive than it should be. Three of the nine launch games, I am Setsuna, Shovel Knight Treasure Trove, and Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, are ports. Snipperclips and FAST RMX are great titles, but they have a more “indie” feel to them. Luckily for Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a system seller, or the Switch might not have made it out of the starting gate. One feature that could have bolstered the Switch’s meager launch offerings could have been the Switch Virtual Console, but that service is MIA and Nintendo hasn’t given any indication of when it will be made available.

Currently, online support for the Switch is not on par with other platforms. The Switch network infrastructure is still being built, which combined with the poor launch line-up gives a rushed feel. A temporary holdover from previous Nintendo systems is the use of Friend Codes. Although Friend Codes are a temporary measure, and you can add friends through other methods, they're a relic that needs to disappear if Nintendo hopes to distance itself from their poorly received past online efforts. Nintendo set the March 3 released date, and I guess it was determined to make it no matter if all the online services and features for the Switch would be available or not. However, what is available is adequate, and the interface is easy to use. You can add friends, and soon there’ll be a barebones version of online matchmaking available.

Safe Harbor

When connected to a TV, the Nintendo Switch is inserted into the Nintendo Switch Dock. The Switch Dock, while wholly adequate to the task of projecting the Switch's video output to a screen, is basically a fancy hunk of plastic with a small pass-through board that provides power to the Switch unit and serves as an USB-C to HDMI adapter. There is also a USB 3.0 port on the dock, but it only works at USB 2.0 speeds. However, Nintendo has said an update will unlock its full potential sometime in the future.

The Switch fits safely and easily into the dock, and it's incredibly easy to slide it onto the connector. However, one concern with the snug fit into the adapter is that there's barely any room left around the Switch when docked for a case to fit. With a system that all screen on one of its sides, consumers are going to want to have a case, and as things are, almost any case will have to be removed before you dock the Switch.

We Swear It’s Not a 3DS

The Nintendo Switch shines when it comes to its Portable Mode. Take it out of the dock, and suddenly you don’t have to compare it to a console anymore. When undocked, the Nintendo Switch becomes the most powerful and feature-rich handheld ever and destroys the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. The Switch has a good solid feel in when using it as a handheld, and its 6.2-inch screen displays a very lovely 720p image. The display also has a touchscreen, which none of the launch titles use to any large extent, but it makes for a great alternative way to interface with the system menus.

There is an issue with battery life, which is most apparent with Zelda. With hardware intensive games the Switch lasts around 3 and a half hours, while less intensive games can be played around 6 hours. Having to charge a portable system that often kind of lowers the portability, but with the USB-C connection, you can charge it using a mobile power bank if you choose, which helps offset this flaw.

Will The Switch Be a Hit?

It’s this split in attitude which is going to make the Nintendo Switch a somewhat divisive system. It’s easy to think of it as a mediocre console and a great handheld without taking the system as a whole into account. I think the Switch will be a gamble that pays off for Nintendo, as it looks like it's trying hard to avoid the pitfalls that sunk the Wii U. The online ecosystem, although still fledgling, is cutting out all the nonsense that make the Wii U and 3DS seem archaic. Moving to an account-based system for game purchase was also a great move by Nintendo.

It’s still too early to tell whether the Nintendo Switch will be the success Nintendo needs to cast off the stigma of the Wii U. However, it’s already shown with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that it can offer that unique Nintendo experience that other companies have chased for years. If Nintendo can continue to provide a steady stream of high-quality first-party games and attract third-party studios to fill the gaps, the Nintendo Switch will be a system that can stand proudly with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One while offering some exciting options those consoles don’t.

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