Hands on with the Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch is now in the wild and the company enters a new generation. As an early adopter, I wish to share my thoughts on the device itself but, given that most of the value of a gaming platform is based upon its software library, this will not be a ‘review’. However, it will hopefully give you an idea of what to expect from the system in terms of its physical design and operating system.

The Switch’s packaging is nothing particularly special and is fairly standard for a games console. The first thing that struck me was the weight of the box, it is noticeably lighter than what most of us have come to expect from these machines. Upon opening the box, you will find the Switch and its two Joy-Con controllers in a cardboard tray. Underneath this lies the Switch docking station, a pair of Joy-Con wrist straps, a Joy-Con grip, cables and paperwork. The power cable is, thankfully, micro USB C which means replacements and alternatives should be fairly easy. However, it is unfortunate that the included cable has its power brick housed within the plug itself rather than separating the two. This is made even uglier by our UK three-pin connectors.

The main ‘tablet’ component of the Switch is quite impressive because how it manages to feel very solid and well-built whilst remaining very lightweight. The frame Is constructed of plastic but it certainly doesn’t feel ‘cheap’ with no flex in the body work. I am grateful that Nintendo opted for matte-finish plastic this time around so you shouldn’t need to deal with as many fingerprints compared to the Wii U and 3DS.

The Joy-Con, in contrast to the console itself, carry more bulk than one might expect which helps eliminate any fears of fragility. Both controllers together offer the standard inputs required by most modern games, though there are a couple of exceptions. Most notably, Nintendo has forgone its traditional d-pad design for a set of directional buttons instead.

This new configuration gives both Joy-Con a mostly symmetrical layout which enables two players to each use one independently with the same functionality. The design choice is a double-edged sword given its benefits and compromises to different play styles. Every Switch owner instantly has access to a plethora of two-player modes in a large number (though not all) games. However, many 2D titles and traditional Fighters work far better with a d-pad to control movement. When I tested the faux d-pad with a game like ‘Shovel Knight’, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I adjusted to the set-up. It’s similar to playing ‘Super Mario 64’ without analogue movement on the Nintendo DS. The experience is better than you think it will be though it’s faint praise at best. Personally, I hope Nintendo releases a new Joy-Con with the old cross-shaped pad restored for those of us who need it.

There have been many fears about using the Joy-Con horizontally for multiplayer games, mainly due to their small size. In my opinion, I feel that their low weight helps compensate for the lack of grip which is further alleviated by the clip-on straps included in the box. These round off each controller’s shape as well as make it easier to press the small L & R buttons on the flat sides of the Joy-Con. Be sure to pay attention to the ‘+’ and ‘–‘ symbols on each strap and ensure they match the appropriate controller as this is easy to overlook.

The primary draw of the hardware is its ability to ‘switch’ between being a portable and home console. I am happy to day that Nintendo has made this process extremely simple. Simply place the Switch in its dock and the picture will transfer to your television in a matter of seconds. Detaching each Joy-Con is also relatively smooth though I would advise keeping a grip on the middle of the console while docked.

Holding the Switch in its fully assembled handheld form is very easy and not the least bit cramped, a long time complaint about Nintendo’s more recent portables. The large, flat back provides good support for the hands while the controllers at the sides offer ample grip. The Switch is markedly bigger in span compared to any handheld system in the company’s past. You may be able to slide it into large pockets though I would recommend a bag or carry case.

The Joy-Con grip is a plastic shell that helps transform the two devices into a more traditional gaming controller and it works very well in my experience. Playing ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ felt very natural and remained so throughout very long play sessions. I haven’t found the battery life of the Joy-Con to be an issue thus far though this may depend on your personal habits. Note that the included grip features power level indicators but does not charge the Joy-Con though a battery powered version is available separately.

Much has been made of the console’s table-top mode during its marketing. The rear kickstand props the screen up while the controllers are used separately. Due to the screen’s size, I cannot see myself using this mode all that often as it simply is not a great option for my compromised eyesight. The stand is by far the most fragile part of the device and I even accidentally pulled it off when testing its flexibility. Thankfully, snapping it back into place was very easy so replacements will hopefully be unnecessary.

The left Joy-Con sports a screenshot button which is a first for Nintendo. All snapshots are taken and saved to memory very quickly, you press the button, hear a ‘click’ and you’re done. It doesn’t intrude on gameplay at all which I certainly prefer over the PS4’s method of screen capture. Video recording functionality is promised for the future but remains absent for the time being. It should be pointed out that the right Joy-Con’s ‘Home’ button also controls the Standby function and that the Switch can also turn on your TV automatically.

The console’s operating system is far more efficient when compared to its predecessors. Gone are the days of waiting 10 seconds for the settings menu to load and navigation feels quick and responsive. it is a little unfortunate that Nintendo has sacrificed some of the personality previously present in their system menus. There is little to do on the system as of now, you can access their Shop, a News channel (which are just Nintendo related announcements) and create a Mii. The interface also lacks background music which I do miss to an extent.

Overall, the Nintendo Switch is a very well made and interesting new platform. Nintendo has dropped its toy-like design philosophy for hardware that resembles a very modern piece of technology. It really shows where the industry has come in the past decade. I do not believe the Nintendo of ten years ago would have approved such a large portable console. But now, in a world where tablets are more commonplace, it seems that people are more ready and willing to carry around pocket unfriendly electronics.

Its early days but, with a compelling software library, Nintendo’s new machine could certainly switch things up for this industry.

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