Nintendo Switch: An Indecisive Potential Buyer’s Guide

Is Nintendo's portable console right for you?

I've been asked quite a bit recently about the Nintendo Switch. The console has been out for a good fifteen months; I’ve had one for a little over a year; and the E3 hype has got people asking whether it’s a worthwhile purchase. After all, a year and change should be long enough to establish whether a gaming console is all it’s cracked up to be.

The Switch itself is solid as it’s ever been. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering, packing a surprising amount of power and functionality into a tiny package. Thin yet solid, the thing feels, and is, truly portable. Even with its somewhat clunky dock, it’ll easily fit in a small backpack; otherwise, it could fit in a largish pocket. If you’re just looking for a set-top box, this might not be the device for you - but if you want to play console-quality games away from your couch, it’s a dream come true. I’ve used my Switch in all manner of public transit and waiting rooms (with headphones; I’m not an animal). That’s the core allure of the Switch from a hardware perspective - it’ll pump out fewer pixels than the competition, but it’ll pump them out anywhere.

As for accessories: the Switch comes with everything most players will need right out of the box. But Nintendo has extra hardware bits to sell you if you want them. For finer control over shooters and action games, you might want to get the overpriced but solid Pro Controller. For more than one or two players, get an extra pair of Joy-Con - that’ll enable 4-player action in most multiplayer games. If you’re going to download a lot of games, a MicroSD card is vital - the bigger, the better. And then there’s the curious Labo cardboard controller system: it’s expensive, but if you’ve got kids, they’ll adore it - and with its in-built custom programming system, it’s possible to create your own cardboard controllers and simple games as well.

  • Recommendations: Nintendo Switch; as big a MicroSD card as you can afford; some kind of travel case, probably
  • Optional: Pro Controller; extra Joy-Con; Labo; portable charging stands and the like

But a game console is nothing without software. Compared to the PS4 and Xbox One, the Switch's library is smaller and vastly different, owing to its later launch date and less-powerful hardware. Plenty of great games are available for the Switch, with plenty more to come - but whether they're attractive depends on what kind of gaming you want to do, and what kind of gaming you do already.

The most obvious sector of Switch software is that which most frequently sells Nintendo consoles: games developed and/or published by Nintendo itself. It’s rare that you’ll find exclusives for Nintendo consoles outside Nintendo-published games, but as exclusives go, they're terrific. Updates to company's array of beloved franchises tend to define each successive console it puts out, and the Switch is no different.

Nintendo’s games are easy recommendations: the two Nintendo titans, Mario and Zelda, both saw 2017 releases that verged upon all-timer territory, and there’s more yet to come. These games appeal to a vast swathe of players, offering welcoming visuals, inventive design, and in many cases serious depth for the hardcore, should they want to explore it. From platformers and RPGs to shooters and strategy games and more, Nintendo consistently delivers best-in-class game design with quiet humility. Whether they launched on the Switch or got ported from the underperforming Wii U, it’s hard to go past these games as points of entry. And for retro fans, Nintendo will launch a “classics” subscription service later this year, starting with twenty NES titles including the original Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda.

If Nintendo games aren’t your speed - or if you want more than just a handful of games each year - you’re gonna need third-party games, and this is an area where the Switch lags behind the competition. Obviously, first-party games like Sony’s Uncharted or Microsoft’s Halo will never release on competing platforms, but enough third-party publishers exist that the Switch should have a decent array of third-party games. “Should” being the operative word; even a year in, the platform faces a serious dearth of major multiplatform titles.

There’s no sugar-coating it: the biggest non-Nintendo titles on the Switch have almost all been around on other consoles for months or even years. They’re great games, crossing a wide range of genres, but many people will have already played them - or, in the case of sandbox or multiplayer titles, they might have established a presence on other platforms. (Fortnite, it’s worth noting, will not currently let you use the same account on Switch as on PS4, although Sony claims to be working on a solution.)

The future of the Switch as a home for major third-party games is unsure. As games get more graphically advanced and look towards the next generation of set-top consoles, the Switch will become an increasingly incompatible home for them. Such ports aren't impossible - see the excellent releases of Doom and Wolfenstein II for examples of the way to do it - but it's unclear which developers will put the money into doing the porting work. That said, a number of significant ports are on their way, and more will surely get announced as time goes on. Expect more remasters of classic games to play on the go, and fewer ports of brand-new Assassin’s Creeds.

  • Recommendations: Wolfenstein II; Doom; Skyrim; LA Noire; South Park: The Fractured But Whole; Outlast 1 and 2; Fortnite; Minecraft; Payday 2; Resident Evil Revelations 1 and 2; Rayman Legends; LEGO Worlds; LEGO City Undercover; LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2; LEGO Incredibles; FIFA 18; WWE 2K18; Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy
  • Upcoming: Dark Souls Remastered; Okami; Steep; Trials Rising; Dragon Ball Fighterz; The Elder Scrolls Blades; Ark: Survival Evolved; Monster Hunter Generations; Diablo III (rumoured); LEGO DC Supervillains; Starlink: Battle for Atlas; NBA 2K19; Mega Man X Legacy Collection

Where the Switch’s software library really shines is in its indie game library. It’s perhaps unsurprising that indie games, focused on ideas and design over computationally-strenuous graphics, would do well on the device. The titles on offer are superb: intense actioners, wonderful narrative-driven adventure games, deviously clever puzzlers, and some games that defy classification, as the best indies do. Many of these games are available only on the online eShop, although some have managed to see physical releases as well. But this is 2018; digital downloads are how it's done.

Those games would be stellar on any platform - and in most cases, they have been for a while, once again demonstrating how behind the times the Switch’s library is. It’s hard to recommend a Switch purchase if you’ve played these on other platforms, which many players will have. But if you haven’t dived into the indie games scene - a scene rich with some of the best game design and interactive storytelling out there - the Switch is a fantastic way to do it. Indies often suit short stints of gameplay better than AAA blockbusters, which goes nicely with the Switch's core appeal, and there’s just something that feels right about pairing the delights of the Switch console with those of independent games.

This console is also absolutely killer for local multiplayer. The Switch’s Joy-Con controllers don’t just enable a wide range of control styles; they also make the Switch, hands-down, the best platform for local multiplayer gaming. When separated from the Switch, the two Joy-Con form tiny, independent controllers with six buttons and a thumbstick each - meaning you've got two controllers, just like that. Both competitive and “couch co-op” games can be played in two-player mode simply by handing off a Joy-Con - simple and effective. Being able to play with a friend or family member this easily is something competing consoles can’t do out of the box - and it’s one of the Switch’s greatest pleasures.

Games that take advantage of the Switch’s local multiplayer abilities tend to do so with simplified controls. While that rules out complex split-screen shooters, it opens up a wide array of party games that anyone can jump into. Many of these games have both cooperative and competitive elements, making them ideal for nearly any combination of people. The rowdiest games are designed with parties in mind - any adult who hasn’t played Mario Kart Drunk Driver, for example, is missing out, and once Nidhogg 2 and Super Smash Bros Ultimate come out on the Switch, many new friendships will be forged - and broken. That’s the beauty of local multiplayer.

  • Recommendations: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe; Overcooked; Arms; Snipperclips; Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime; The Escapists 2; Jackbox Party Pack 1-4; Just Dance; 1-2-Switch; Scribblenauts Showdown; Stikbold; Korg Gadget (music-making app)
  • Upcoming: Super Mario Party; Super Smash Bros Ultimate; Overcooked 2; Nidhogg 2

What is the Switch’s “killer app?” Many would point to Zelda and Mario, and it’s hard to disagree. But portability is the real killer app here. Much of the platform’s software library is replicated on other platforms, but those platforms don’t let you take your games with you. Nowadays, if a game releases on multiple platforms including the Switch, I buy the Switch version, solely for that extra freedom. If you travel a lot, live a lifestyle with awkward downtime, or just want to play games in bed, the Switch is for you.

If you own a current-generation console and don’t desperately need to play Nintendo’s games or take your games on the road, it’s harder to recommend buying a Switch. After all, game consoles are significant investments for most people. But if you haven’t bought a console in a while (or ever), and you’re intrigued by either Nintendo’s excellent offerings or those of the independent games scene, you’ll love the Switch to bits. You won’t be playing the latest Call of Duty on this thing, but if you wanted to do that, you’d be using a late-model PlayStation or Xbox anyway. Think of it as a great, portable way to catch up with some of the best games of the last couple years - and the best stuff Nintendo is releasing now.

Should you buy a Nintendo Switch? I can only answer that by saying that I love my Switch. How much you get out of yours will be down to your personal situation - but in all likelihood, you’ll love it too.