Nintendo Switch Could Become Nintendo's Best Portable System (Hands-On)

To properly understand the strategy of Nintendo Switch, think of it more as a successor to the 3DS than the Wii U.


Given its somewhat muddied messaging, one can be forgiven for misunderstanding exactly what the Nintendo Switch is. It's being pitched as a console-portable hybrid, and while that's accurate to a point, it's also strange framing for a device so clearly built around its portable functionality. After seeing its reveal and getting hands-on time, it's been more instructive for me to think of it as a handheld. And in that respect, it has potential to be one of the strongest handhelds in Nintendo history.

This notion of it isn't exactly intuitive, especially since Wii U is on its last legs while the 3DS could still have a year left in it. It seems positioned in the market, if not in the technical specs, to be the successor to the console more than the portable. This is despite the fact that for at least the last few generations, I've spent much more time and affection on my Nintendo portables than Nintendo consoles. 

My impression is bolstered by the revelation that the system's guts are essentially contained entirely within the tablet-like screen, and the dock simply helps it run at a slightly higher resolution. This makes it more akin to a Super Gameboy than a standalone console. Aside from charging, it's easy to see how one could treat it entirely like a portable device, and a relatively powerful one at that. Treating it like a console, on the other hand, would mean missing out on so much of what makes it special.

Taking Control

Nintendo has made a point of showing a wide variety of control options for Switch, and it only stands to reason that some would work better than others. It was surprising to me, though, which ones fell flat.

The Joy-Con Grip, pictured in most promotional material as the traditional controller, actually isn't very comfortable. The handles are a little too thick, and its squared-off form is awkward to hold. Thankfully the discomfort is optional, because the Grip is an entirely removable appendage. It doesn't add any buttons or functionality, it just exists to make the small Joy-Cons more substantial.

I had gone into the event presuming that the Grip would be the preferred option and the Joy-Cons by themselves would suffer, but in practice, just the opposite was true. Holding two detached Joy-Cons was ideal. Despite their boxy shape, they're remarkably comfortable, with just enough heft to feel substantial while remaining light enough to fade from conscious thought.

Placed on their side, the Joy-Cons are not ideal but good enough in a pinch. The configuration seems best suited for quick play with a friend who may not own one, but in that instance I'd have to recommend taking the second (right-side) controller and giving the better (left-side) controller to your friend. The offset thumb-sticks are oddly placed in any event, but especially for the second controller, it's almost dead-center. I tried playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe this way and it didn't work well at all. Adding the optional bumper part to the Joy-Con does give it a little more substance as a standalone controller, and helps accent the shoulder buttons to be easier to press.

Bells, Whistles, and Haptics

The "HD rumble" buzzword was surprising in practice as well. Most games I tried didn't take full advantage of it, but those that did were very impressive. 1-2-Switch, in particular, offered haptics so precise that it could accurately imitate the feeling of rolling marbles in a wooden box with one small Joy-Con. Like the touchscreen, it's there for developers to take or leave as they may.

The screen is the most beautiful one to appear on a Nintendo handheld, though it falls just short of the work-of-art that was the Vita's OLED. Nintendo had the challenging task of building a screen that was large and vibrant enough to support the HUDs of more complex console experiences like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, without becoming too bulky or oversized to be a successful portable. Time will tell as we see how other games look on the handheld configuration, but given limited experience at the debut event, it appears Nintendo found the comfortable middle-ground. Zelda was a natural fit as a portable game, and the assembled system with Joy-Cons attached to the screen was still a reasonable size.

If I have one concern about the hardware, it's that the internal storage is incredibly low. 32GB is too small to hold any more than a few modern games, and we're already seeing reports that Breath of the Wild would account for half of that space single-handedly. It's a problem that can be remedied easily enough by SD cards, but that's not much excuse for such a low storage starting point, especially in a time when solid-state storage is cheaper than ever.

The Games: Big, Bite-Sized, and Bizarre

Then there are the games, which show Nintendo in all of its resplendent weirdness. The company of late has branched into a few different areas in its console and handheld offerings, and in this area, the Nintendo Switch actually does look to be the unifying device that brings together disparate threads. The line-up, anemic as it may be, runs the gamut from rich, traditional console games to light, airy handheld games to wacky party games. Whatever other shortcomings the Nintendo Switch may have, this is where its versatility shines.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the showpiece, launching day-and-date with the Nintendo Switch and making its mark as the prime example of a console-like experience that you can take anywhere. Similarly, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a revamped version of one of the most popular and highly-regarded Wii U games. Splatoon 2 and Arms are also geared at the core gamer, both building on and finding new room in competitive games that are easy to learn but hard to master.

On the other end of the spectrum, Snipperclips is a handheld-like experience through-and-through, but has a cooperative element that accents the Switch's unique capabilities. It's the kind of small, simple physics-based puzzler that I'd normally expect to see from the indie section on the PlayStation Vita. However, it's centrally built around a co-op mechanic, which can be difficult for handhelds when both players may not own a system. Nintendo Switch solves this problem by letting you prop up the screen and use both Joy-Cons, and I hope we see more handheld-like games that make use of its features to overcome their inherent obstacles. 

I also suspect that, as the Vita fades, Japanese RPG makers who need a system with a lower cost-of-entry will gravitate towards the Nintendo Switch as the new home for their wares. The Vita basically became an RPG box for the last few years of its life, and I'd be happy to see the Switch pick up that mantle as well.

Finally, 1-2-Switch is the rightful successor to Nintendo's own weird, wild party experiences with the Wii. The isolationism and asymmetry of Wii U meant it never quite caught on as a party system the way the Wii did, but Nintendo Switch stands a decent chance to manage it. The controllers are similar to Wii remotes and intuitive, and the utility of the system means you'll probably be bringing along enough controllers for at least two players at any time.

1-2-Switch recognizes that this makes it likely to be used in non-gamer circles, and deemphasizes the "video" part of video games. Each of the mini-games were quick and easy-to-understand, and required little if any looking at the screen. It's built around sound cues. While Ball Count was the technical standout for how it showed off the haptic feedback, the silliest by far was a cow-milking game. Players were encouraged to look straight into each others' eyes for maximum social awkwardness as we made a repetitive milking motion. Nintendo reps didn't make any suggestive remarks themselves, but they have to know how its weirdness will manifest at any parties with adults present.

Primarily Portable

Nintendo's Japanese conference was off-putting in some ways to western sensibilities, and its launch line-up looks starkly anemic. The storage capacity is low, and it's not built to compete with the likes of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Those hoping for Nintendo's triumphant return to the arms race may be disappointed, because this isn't a console made to go head-to-head against its competitors. It's circumventing that altogether. Instead, it looks to be a portable system that borrows pieces from Nintendo's console legacy, and focuses its efforts around a single platform. If it can carry the legacy of Nintendo's portable market, its substantial console games, and its odd-duck party personality, it will be a force to be reckoned with.

For more on Nintendo Switch, check out our live reactions and roundtable after getting hands-on.

This Nintendo Switch preview was based on a pre-release demo of the system at an event where refreshments were provided by Nintendo.

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