Nintendo Switch Review: Tiny Console, Huge Potential

Andrew broke his “no early adoption” rule for Nintendo’s latest.

Was it fear of missing out that pushed me to buy a Nintendo Switch? Was it journalistic curiosity? Was it the fact that I’d just scored a largish freelance gig and, as is typical of that feast-or-famine lifestyle, felt temporarily loaded enough to splurge on a brand-new gaming console? Whatever the reason (it's definitely the last one), I am now the owner of a Nintendo Switch, the hybrid gaming console that was the subject of heated speculation in 2016 and heated debate in 2017. Video games!

Ever its initial announcement, Nintendo has hyped the Switch as a go-anywhere, do-anything gaming device. I won’t go quite as far as the company's hyperbolic marketing department: the system has its limitations, which I’ll get to. Damn it, though, the core “magic trick” of the Switch - that it can transition instantly from a set-top console to a handheld, with no change in gaming experience - completely works. Pull the Switch's tablet-like “brain” out of its set-top dock, and gameplay instantly switches to mobile mode. It really is that simple, and it's a big deal for travelers, commuters, or people with more than one room in their house. Finally, the time has come when we can play console-level games while we poop. What a world.

Hardware-wise, the Switch is fantastic as a handheld and somewhat fiddly as a set-top box. It feels solid and weighty in the hands, without being bulky. Even when gripping it by one of its slide-on controllers, it feels sturdy, although you’ll definitely treat it as a precious object. Best of all, its size occupies a happy medium between portability and gaming quality, with a bright 720p screen that looks great at the range you’re likely to play. You won’t stick it in your pocket, but it goes comfortably into my laptop bag, which isn’t huge; it’s also remarkably nondescript, making its use in public spaces more accessible to the self-conscious.

However, a few build-quality issues stand out when you transition to other play modes. The piece of plastic that allows the Switch to stand up on a table threatens to snap off, and only really works on fully level surfaces, and you can't charge the device while in tabletop mode. More onerously, the dock - which charges and helps the Switch output video to TVs, and thus will be frequently used - feels like a cheap plastic box. The Switch “brain,” when slotted into the dock, has enough space around it to wobble around in a way that makes you fear for its USB-C connector’s lifespan. And though the Joy-Con controllers work great for a handheld system, they’re just too small, with the buttons placed awkwardly close to one another, for a lengthy TV play session. Their included controller grip, designed to make them approximate a full-size controller, is finicky to apply, as are the caps that make each half-controller an SNES-style six-button controller in their own right. If it weren’t for the price, I’d call the Pro Controller, sold separately, a must-have.

But despite the odd comfort issue, the Joy-Con are also the system’s secret weapon. Sure, the action on the buttons is a little too “clicky,” the triggers lack analogue control, and the placement of buttons immediately below or above thumbsticks is an ergonomic nightmare when playing complex games. But those issues fade once you realise just how versatile the Joy-Con are. There's so much tech baked into them - gyroscopes, an IR sensor, an unusually precise rumble system - that it's exciting to think of their possibilities. Moreover, their modularity means they can split up and serve as independent controllers for local multiplayer - anywhere. That the Switch can do local multiplayer right out of the box - and anywhere you take the console - is a game-changer for couples, families, or people with friends. I’m only one of those things, and I’m still pumped.

Given that the Switch is, ultimately, a gaming tablet with fancy controllers and a TV dock, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that it’s just not as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One. You’re not going to play the latest, hottest high-octane shooter on this thing - not with the same level of graphical fidelity as a chunkier set-top console. Like with other Nintendo products, buying a Switch means buying into Nintendo's particular philosophy of game design: playful, fun, and often family-friendly. We're talking Marios, Zeldas, and other first-party games, and - if the current slate of titles is anything to go by - a whole heap of indie favourites. That’s not going to be for everybody, but it is going to be for a lot of people - including me. After years of playing open-world action game after open-world action game, I’m ready for a little more variety in my gameplay, and frankly, fuck you if you feel you need realistic blood spatter in every game you play.

In a way, the Nintendo Switch is a best-of compilation of the last decade-plus of Nintendo history. It’s got the motion controls of the Wii, the touchscreen of the Wii U, and the go-anywhere portability of the DS - and it handles all of those with aplomb. I can see it successfully emulating nearly any other Nintendo console, which bodes well for the eventual release of Nintendo’s popular Virtual Console feature on the Switch.

Which brings me to the fact that right now, the Switch’s system software and service set doesn’t quite feel complete. Though simple and friendly to navigate, it lacks a number of features that have been enjoyed by other consoles - even other Nintendo consoles - for ages. It has no virtual console; no Netflix or any video or audio playback capability; no web browser; no clear mechanism for communication in online multiplayer. You can capture and share still images, but not video. Most, if not all, of these “missing” features will be patched in with software updates, but it’s a bit of a bummer for the time being.

When you review a video game console, you’re really reviewing the console’s potential. Game catalogues are never strong at launch (although holy shit, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a hell of a launch title), and nowadays, a console’s feature set can grow and change throughout its life. The Switch is a console of massive potential - just not in the ways its competitors strive for. Nintendo is gunning for sheer range of play styles here. It’s a handheld console and a set-top one; it can do complex single-player games and local multiplayer out of the box. It does motion controls. It can do touchscreen games. While not every game is going to use all of these features, the range of games that could use one or two of them is vast. This is probably the most versatile gaming console ever released - or rather, it could be.

And there’s the rub. Is it fair to judge the Switch by features it doesn’t yet have, or by games that haven’t yet come out? Probably not. They’ll come. Future hardware revisions - something of which Nintendo is very fond - are likely to solve a lot of the current issues, while new features and games are already in the works, building up what should be a formidable library by the all-important Christmas season. Will developers embrace every facet of the Switch hardware, or will we get simple ports from other consoles and mobile? Sadly, that's a “wait and see” - but the mere fact we'll get a portable Skyrim is quite a thing indeed.

For now, I’d better quit playing Zelda so I can review it, too.