Surprise: Nintendo’s brand-new Switch gaming console is just six weeks away. The company finally revealed details of the device and its games just this week, in a press event full of flashy trailers, executives holding products up in front of them, and awkward puns on the device’s name.
The basic concept of the Switch is a long-sought-after one. The ability to have a full game experience on your TV, and continue that game on the go, is an elegant melding of Nintendo’s two product streams: the home console, formerly represented by the underperforming Wii U, and the handheld console, represented by the wildly successful 3DS. It’s made possible by mobile processor technology, and though the Switch isn’t as powerful as its competitors, its portability and Nintendo’s innovative design could make up for it. Nintendo appears to be doing all of the right things - at least with the device itself.
Predictably for Nintendo, the controllers bookending the console’s tablet brain are by far the most exciting part of the system, combining a ton of different paradigms to make the Switch sort of a bit of everything. The modular JoyCon is a standard 14-button controller, like those of the PS4 or Xbox. It’s also a pair of SNES-style 6-buttons-and-a-stick controllers. It’s a pair of Wii-style motion controllers (complete with wrist straps!), an infrared-powered gesture controller, and - through a touchscreen - a Wii U-style gamepad. Nintendo is even hyping the controllers’ allegedly extremely detailed haptic feedback. The sheer range of potential playstyles and control mechanisms is staggering, putting a big responsibility on developers to use them innovatively.
Whether or not developers follow suit, of course, remains to be seen, of course. Many of the games in development for the Switch (including Skyrim, the development of which must be an unending nightmare for some poor Bethesda employees) will simply operate on a traditional dual-stick model. Even those, though, could see at least ergonomic improvements, given that the JoyCon can be split into two separate units. (I don’t look forward to losing track of those units.) But what of games that actually use the Switch's unique features?
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still looks bloody terrific, with an unusual and attractive colour palette and a far-expanded range of gameplay for the venerable series. Super Mario Odyssey looks like one of the more unusual instalments in Nintendo’s flagship franchise (a franchise that has known no shortage of weirdness): Mario now gets to explore photorealistic environments rather than his traditional cartoonish haunts, making the question of his humanity all the more complicated. Splatoon is getting a full sequel for the Switch, while Mario Kart 8 is getting a feature-added port and, naturally, a steering wheel controller accessory.
The most interesting first-party games, simply by dint of their strangeness, are Arms and 1-2-Switch, both of which utilise the JoyCon in unique ways. Arms uses hand gestures (or conventional buttons) to control jumping pugilists with long springy arms, while 1-2-Switch is a collection of competitive, screen-free minigames like table tennis, shootouts, sword fighting, and, er, milking cows (or jacking someone off, depending on your perspective). But innovative though these games may be, it remains to be seen whether their quick-round minigames have the longevity of Wii system-sellerWii Sports.
Third-party support, too, is underwhelming, all too familiar a story for Nintendo launches. Easily the biggest non-Nintendo titles on its slate are the nearly six year old Skyrim and Minecraft, with many games occupying niche genres (Just Dance, Steep, FIFA, the inexplicably popular Farming Simulator) or targeting mostly Japanese audiences (Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Shin Megami Tensei, No More Heroes, Square’s new RPG). A few indies have pledged support for the console, like The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ and Frozenbyte’s new title No More Heroes. There’s a new Sonic and a new Bomberman, both franchises that have been luke-warm for years. As usual, the few killer apps are all first-party.
The Switch will launch at US$299, which is the same price as a PS4 with Uncharted 4 bundled in, and more expensive than either the 3DS or Wii at their respective launches. That places it outside many people’s price ranges (including my own), and that’s before you factor in $60 games and accessories that range up to $90 (but that admittedly won’t be necessary in most situations). Making things worse, fewer titles will be available at launch than for those of the Wii, Wii U, or 3DS, with most launching between April and December.
Other aspects of the Switch seem a little odd. Though its game cartridges won’t require you to download games to the device (lookin’ at you, PS4 disk-space errors), the device’s paltry 32GB of built-in storage won’t go far for downloaded games - which, given the existence of Nintendo’s Virtual Console classic-game library, will surely be a major draw. The system’s expandable via MicroSD cards, but it’s unclear by how much. Battery life, the Achilles’ heel of all modern-day electronics, ranges from two and a half to six and a half hours, depending on the game - not a great sign for long-haul flights without power outlets. And though Nintendo will launch a subscription service with monthly free games, unlike PlayStation Plus or Xbox Games with Gold, you only get those games for that month.
I don’t want to play pundit here, predict sales, or indulge in any of that inside-baseball bullshit. I’m solely concerned with what the Switch will be like for players. If the games are there, I’m definitely a willing mark for it - and not just because I want to take my games everywhere. My too-oft-neglected gaming love, local multiplayer, could really be special on the Switch. With the splittable JoyCon, two-player games will be playable out of the box - something that was sorely lacking with the Wii U’s expensive GamePad. Games like Nidhogg that don’t require vast arrays of buttons and rely on local competitive play for their thrills will thrive on the Switch. Indeed, between the competitive Arms and the co-op Snipperclips, Nintendo is pushing local multiplayer hard. And local multiplayer can also now include console-to-console play, since the Switch itself can be taken anywhere. If Nintendo gets WiFi-based matchmaking right, this could be a smash for tournaments and parties.
The Switch is the first Nintendo console that I’ve considered purchasing as an adult, and that’s a testament to its apparent versatility as both a portable traditional console and something a little more unique and Nintendo-y. Will it capture enough of an audience to actually get decent game support, and vice versa? God, I hope so. Because no buyer’s remorse feels worse than having picked the wrong video game console.
Will you be picking one up? Comment below.