SYSTEM REVIEW: Nintendo’s Switch brings Joy and Cons…

Every other “generation” has featured a Nintendo-led revolution in gaming.

The NES brought to gaming a disciplined creative force, as opposed to the coked-out anarchy of the Atari-led 70’s. They innovated the basic template that all video game controllers now use: Horizontal positioning, with movement in the left hand and action in the right. They created the cross-shaped “D” pad, doing away with the big and clunky arcade style digital stick. They imposed strict quality control and forced developers to only release a handful of titles each year, to prevent over-saturation. They revolutionized gaming by creating the modern gaming industry.

The SNES was less of a revolution than it was a continuation. They system was just an updated version of the NES. The same developers, the same focus on quality not quantity, and the same basic controller input (though refined and perfected for 2D gaming). They introduced only minor innovations to the industry. Shoulder buttons are now the standard, as is the cross-face input on the right side. The SNES wasn’t about going in a brand new direction, however. It was about taking what was started with the NES and refining it.

The N64 was a true revolution however. Even though 3D gaming was already in the market, the mechanics were unrefined. It was Nintendo which codified many of the methods of control and camera that are still used today. Their controller, though initially mocked as a three-legged monster, was responsible for some industry-defining features: The analogue stick gave players the freedom of movement that 3D gaming needed to work. Later, a second stick would be added by others to perfect the idea, but even then Nintendo’s N64 controller featured the c-buttons that initially controlled the camera (a feature which, to that point, had been out of the player’s control). And then there’s the RumblePak, which is ubiquitous today but at the time was a “we didn’t know we needed this until now” invention for the ages.

As with the SNES, the Gamecube was not designed to break new ground. Its sole purpose was to compete, mano-a-mano with the heavyhitter Sony and the emergent player Microsoft. They designed the most powerful machine of the generation, offered a controller that, again, was looked at with skepticism but ended up being a fabulously designed piece of plastic, and streamlined many of the innovations they started with the N64. They still found time to try some new things too, such as analogue triggers and the first genuinely functional wireless controller. Both of those are now standard.

The Wii was almost an add-on to the Gamecube. Nintendo wisely saw how unique the experience with its motion-controlled inputs was, however, and decided to launch into a hardware strategy that in many ways is still guiding them today. Instead of trying to out-power the big money corporations like Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo sidestepped and offered a low-powered machine (essentially an over-clocked Gamecube) for a low price whose hook and reason for buying would be an innovative input. As discussed previously, their gamble initially paid off hugely and even though the system fell sharply at the end, it still reeled in over 100mm sales, the most ever for Nintendo. Sony and Microsoft laughed at the Wii’s limited power and silly waggle controls, but by the end of the generation they were offering their own versions, proving Nintendo was still a trend-setter.

The WiiU, following the every-other-generation template, did not try to reinvent the wheel. Instead it improved the graphics (though, as with the Wii, not to the extent of the PS4 and Xbox One) and offered as its hook a “second screen experience.” Fans hoped the system would turn into a home console version of the two-screen DS, or that it would be a heavy-hitter with lots of Triple-A titles that you could play anywhere in your home. There was great initial hope for the system, but despite a small library of stellar titles (almost entirely produced by Nintendo) the WiiU failed to catch on with just about anyone and was discontinued after only four years.

Now it’s time for a new generation Nintendo system. Now it’s time for a new revolution in gaming, and Nintendo hopes they have it in Switch.

True to the trend, Switch offers a revolution of its own, but it is different from previous turning-point systems. The N64 revolutionized what you play (a whole new dimension); The Wii revolutionized how you play (physical movements become digital actions) Switch revolutionizes where you play (anywhere you go is now your game room).

Nintendo has touted Switch as the merging of all their past ideas into one machine. Really, though, the system is most inspired by the previous two. The Switch improves upon the Wii and WiiU concepts so entirely it makes those older models feel like unfinished mockups.

The Wii offered the idea of motion control, but it was clunky and limited. Switch’s new Joy-Con controllers improve upon the Wii’s idea ten-fold. HD Rumble and improved gyroscope and tracking technology make the Wii look comparatively silly.

The WiiU tablet was clunky and limited. Its range was weak, its picture dark, and its design looked more like a toy than a tablet. The Switch’s primary hardware improves upon the tablet idea ten-fold. The screen is bright, the look is sleek, and it’s a true portable system.

Which takes us to the other side of Nintendo’s hardware business. The Switch also feels like the culmination of everything the company has done with the handheld market over the years. The GameBoy dominated for almost fifteen years, with only incremental improvements made along the way. The clunky, green-screen model was eventually replaced by the GameBoy Pocket, which improved the battery life, screen quality and system size. Soon after, the GameBoy Color was introduced, essentially perfecting the then decade-old product and turning the machine into a portable NES, allowing for two-generation old console gaming on the go.

It wasn’t until 2001 (12 years after the original GameBoy debuted) that a brand new system was developed and released. It took that long for the GameBoy Advance to hit the market because the technology simply wasn’t there for a better handheld that was cost-effective and battery efficient. Upon its debut, the machine was basically a souped-up SNES, allowing for two-generation old console gaming on the go.

The GBA lasted for a little less than a normal console’s lifespan and was replaced in 2004 by the Nintendo DS. By this point, technology was advancing more rapidly and Nintendo was able to be more ambitious. The machine was basically a souped-up N64, allowing for two-generation old console gaming on the go. After the DS sold like gangbusters, the sequel machine was released—the 3DS—which basically improved on the original in every way, with or without the gimmicky 3D concept. Once again, the tech was good enough that many games could pass for Gamecube titles (compare the GCN’s Luigi’s Mansion with the 3Ds sequel; they’re basically identical), allowing for two-generation old console gaming on the go.

The Switch isn’t being marketed as a handheld like the GameBoy or DS. It’s being presented as a portable console, but it’s hard not to see it as the ultimate handheld. Technology has finally reached the point where it is cost effective and battery efficient to display current-generation home console graphics (albeit not quite as powerful as Microsoft or Sony’s outputs) in a portable machine.

If the Switch is the success Nintendo hopes it will be, it’s hard to imagine them releasing another GameBoy or DS system. There really would be no need to, not since they’ve started dipping their toes into the waters of actual “mobile” gaming. A few years ago Nintendo merged their handheld and console game development teams. Now they’ve merged their home console and portable hardware. Barring a WiiU-like sales disaster, there’s no going back.

So does Switch succeed? Is it good enough for Nintendo to put their hopes on it, and it alone, as their official “console;” not home console, or handheld console, but just “console”?

Let’s look at the good and bad…or shall we say “joys” and “cons” of the Nintendo Switch…

JOY – IT WORKS

As it was with the weird N64 controller, or the the weird Gamecube controller, or the weird Wiimote, or the weird two-screened DS, you just have to experience Switch for yourself. When you do, you’ll just “get it.” You’ll understand what Nintendo was going for and though they didn’t nail it exactly, they nailed their idea a million times better than they did with the WiiU or, in hindsight, the Wii. Holding the each JoyCon individually—like advanced Wiimotes—really brings out the brilliance of their design. HD Rumble, if implemented by enough developers, can be the remarkable game-experience enhancement of the future the way the old RumblePak was for the N64. 1-2 Switch is really the only game out right now to show off the system’s quirky personality but it does so masterfully. On the other side of the coin is how it stands up as a home console. While the biggest and best game available today is just a slightly-enhanced WiiU port, there’s enough evidence that the machine will hold up well enough against the powerhouse machines from Sony and Microsoft. If the sales are there, third party devs won’t have any trouble porting top titles over. The system does what Nintendo needs it to do…

CON – SACRIFICES WERE MADE

…but it doesn’t do it perfectly. Breath of the Wild is a gorgeous and stunningly huge video game, so on the one hand it’s almost expected that it would tax the system and cause it to occasionally stutter. But at the end of the day it’s still just a WiiU port. And while the WiiU version is apparently even more choppy, the Switch is obviously not going to get those aforementioned “top titles” as-is; they’re going to be stripped down to work on the machine. The internal storage is a paltry 32 GB, not even big enough for one already-announced game (Dragon Quest Warriors). A micro-SD card is required if you plan on buying digital. The screen, while vivid, only outputs at 720p, while the system in dock-mode allows for 1080p. Considering how quickly so many are adopting 2K and 4K technology, Nintendo’s system might end up terribly behind the curve before the end of its lifecycle.

JOY – CONSOLE DESIGN

As previously stated, the WiiU tablet design is embarrassing compared to the Switch. Whereas the WiiU is glossy and bulky, the Switch is matte and thin. It looks like a serious piece of technology for serious gamers if you get the all-grey design, or it looks like a fun party machine for everyone else, if you get the neon red/blue model. The Dock is unintrusive and clean, with a smartly designed hatch in the back for plugging in the AC adapter, HDMI cable, or USB drive. Everything is tucked away and tidy, great for neat freaks. The Pro Controller offers a semi-translucent look that is miles better than the smudgy, glossy design of the WiiU’s Pro Controller. Over all this is a system you can set in the middle of your entertainment center and have it seamlessly blend in with your AV receiver, your Blu Ray player and your TV.

CON – CONTROLLER DESIGN

While parts of the JoyCon experience are great, when you slide the two parts into the grip and use it like a traditional controller, some gamers may take issue with it. For one thing it has a somewhat awkward and cramped button arrangement, a necessity to make the two halves fit with the Switch tablet. As a result, however, the right stick is not at an angle. Instead it’s positioned directly below the cross-face buttons. Moving your thumb straight down to reach the stick is a hard and unnatural adjustment (having the sticks be angled to the input buttons has been the industry standard for twenty years now). The new layout works fine in a game like Zelda, where you don’t use it constantly, but if the Switch gets a proper FPS game, the JoyCon may be unusable. In addition, the two parts of the JoyCon were designed to mirror one another, for easy multi-player gaming, which means the D-pad has been replaced by four round buttons. Again, in a game like Zelda it’s no big deal, but playing Shovel Knight or Ultra Street Fighter II is simply impractical. Nintendo knows this, which is why the D-pad is present on the Pro Controller, but it’s the JoyCon that’s attached to the system, meaning your on-the-go gaming will be disadvantaged.

JOY – SURREAL GAMING ON THE GO

It really can’t be overstated how amazing it is to play a game like Breath of the Wild on your TV, pause it, pick up the tablet and continue playing it…anywhere else. We’ve been trained over the years to believe that portable gaming could only replicate the console experience if the console in question is two generations old. Switch is a modern console that you can play…well just listen to Dr. Seuss: You can play Switch anywhere or here or there, You can play it with a mouse or in a house, You can play it with a fox or in a box, You can play it on a train or in the rain, You can play it with a goat or in a boat. You will like to play Nintendo Switch, you will like to play it Sam-I-Am. The system takes the wild ideas you had when you first heard about the WiiU and actually does them…

CON – BATTERY LIFE

…but it does them at a cost. Nintendo says you can get about six hours with the system. Indie games and less taxing experiences will provide several hours of fun, but Zelda will only get you about two and a half. With max settings (full brightness, wifi on, etc) you can play for about two hours and twenty minutes, but even if you turn off wifi, turn down brightness and try to squeeze everything you can out of the system, you’re still only going to add about ten minutes to the battery life. Gaming on the go will require a battery pack, unfortunately, and the system sucks too much power for you to plug in your usb battery pack and continue gaming. You’re going to have to stop and charge the machine before resuming. As with the internal memory and screen-resolution, battery life is a concession that was made to bring the price down. The potential Switch 2 will certainly rectify both. In the meantime, you’ll probably end up sticking to smaller games when playing on the go (which takes us back to the issue of no D-pad when playing the console with the JoyCon attached).

JOY – NINTENDO INCHES TOWARD MODERNIZATION

The system is easy to develop for, with the Unreal Engine being singled out by the company as a tool that’s ready to be taken advantage of on the Switch. The marketing has been exceptional. The look is charming but not overly childish. They’re making obvious moves to secure third party titles, especially those by western developers. Switch feels like the first console that Shigeru Miyamoto had very little hand in developing since the Super Nintendo, which of course it is. It feels less like a machine built to play one kind of game, and more like a versatile, dynamic hardware that different players will find different uses out of and different designers will make different games for. It’s the most “modern” system Nintendo has made, perhaps since the original NES…

CON – NINTENDO IS STILL SCARED OF THE INTERNET

…but the company is still stubborn. In-game voice chat involves literally calling your fellow gamers. Nintendo’s answer to “PlayStation Now” and “Xbox Game Pass” is one free Virtual Console game (of their choosing) that you can “rent” for a month, before you either give it back or buy it. There’s not even a web-browser or Netflix app (yet). There’s just this feeling that Nintendo views something so normal and mundane as the internet as a novelty that they either don’t have to worry about or they can put their own weird spin on. What gamers want is simple, normal, “industry standard” access, but Nintendo has always been weird about just doing something in the normal way. Maybe their great track record of innovation sometimes gets the better of their ego. They resisted CDs. They resisted DVDs. They resisted HD. They resisted normal online matchmaking. They’re still resisting many parts of online gaming. Maybe by the time Switch 2 comes out they’ll have completely caught up to the Xbox 360.

JOY – THEORETICAL VALUE

Considering how much technology is packed into the system and into the JoyCon, and just the “revolutionary” fact that you can take your console game with you wherever you go, with no fuss, $300 seems like a perfectly reasonably price. It’s cheaper than either the Xbox One or PS4 were when they launched. It’s cheaper than the vastly inferior WiiU when it launched. Several of its must-have games at launch are $50 or less (a few of them are only $20). On a practical side, many people are going to see this system as well worth the money. On a theoretical scale, this system is absolutely a steal…

CON – ACTUAL COST

…but theory doesn’t help my bank account. This system isn’t launching alongside the debuts of the PS4 and Xbox One. It is launching this weekend, in stores where you can pick up an Xbox One or a PS4 with an included game for equal or lesser cost than the Switch. Not to mention both have a huge library of amazing titles ready to be bought, with many selling at a discount as well. There’s also the issue of Nintendo nickel-and-diming consumers on things like the JoyCon charging grip (which is $40), 1-2 Switch (a glorified mini-game compilation that should have been packed-in but instead will cost $50), Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (simply an upgraded port with all the WiiU DLC unlocked, for $60), and other really expensive peripherals (an additonal JoyCon set+grip will run you $120, while the almost-necessary Pro Controller is $70). Factor in things like a battery pack, carrying case, screen protector, and a micro-SD card and you’re looking at spending well over $500, and that’s before you start browsing the eShop for some great indie games.

IS IT WORTH IT?

There are essentially three types of potential-buyers at play here.

(1) Non-gamers who scooped up the Wii like Halloween candy might not be so quickly attracted to the Switch; they may wait till a bundle is released that packs in 1-2 Switch or some other casual game. Right now the price just seems too high for non-gamers to really consider, especially with no-pack-in or even a guaranteed killer-app like WiiSports to appeal to them. Is Switch worth it for non-gamers? Right now, no.

(2) Non-Nintendo gamers (the so-called “hardcore” crowd) will probably be cautious. The price is tall and the library of games isn’t. If you don’t have a PS4 or Xbox One, either might be the more practical option. Right now Switch has Zelda, but that’s not enough to persuade too many hardcore gamers to invest a lot of money into it. Nevertheless, there’s more excitement for this machine than there was for WiiU, and even with the Wii most hardcore gamers were turned off by the low-res graphics and motion control gimmicks. For them, Switch is probably the most initially-enticing system Nintendo has offered since the N64. Sure the Gamecube was a brilliant little machine, but the PS2 was too dominant to be ignored. The N64 wasn’t the PSX but it was different enough to be a great second system. That might be the appeal here. Is Switch worth it for hardcore gamers? Right now, maybe.

(3) Nintendo gamers largely rejected the WiiU, which only sold 12 million units (and there are more potential console buyers that are loyal to Nintendo than that), but the enthusiasm for this machine is through the roof among fanboys. Zelda alone was probably pre-ordered with the system at a 1:1 ratio. Games like Splatoon 2 and Mario Odyssey will ensure the loyalists buy the system throughout the year, but Zelda will be the reason they buy it now. Is Switch worth it for Nintendo fans? Right now, absolutely.

THE FUTURE

Other than the spike with the Wii, every Nintendo console has sold less than the one before it.

The NES sold about 60 million. The SNES sold about 50 million. The N64 sold about 30 million. The Gamecube sold about 20 million. The Wii broke the trend and sold about 100 milllion before the WiiU turned into a dud and sold only 12 million.

Take away the Wii and that’s a pretty consistent downward trend. Will the Switch reverse it? I don’t think it’ll hit the numbers of the Wii or NES but if it catches fire in the early months and enough third parties jump on board (or, more importantly, don’t jump overboard), it can ride Spring momentum into a Splatoon 2 Summer, and a Super Mario Odyssey holiday season. By then, Nintendo will hopefully have a bevy of top titles to pepper throughout 2018, while third parties pick up the slack in the interim. If things go right the system could hit 40 or 50 million units, which would be a great turnaround, indeed. Obviously it will need a steady stream of triple-A titles, and a surprise hit that captures the general public’s attention wouldn’t hurt, either.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Nintendo seems to have learned a lot of lessons with the Switch. They aren’t trying to make another Wii, which is what doomed the WiiU. Instead they’re just trying to make a system that a lot of different people might want to buy for different reasons. For that reason I think (and hope) it’s a success; 50 million consoles would be a huge success. It might even surpass that, if it essentially replaces the 3DS/GameBoy in the eyes of the many many millions of people who bought a DS and 3DS but not a WiiU.

The first step on that front is giving it a proper Pokemon game.

I think that’s why Nintendo is being coy about how they are going to proceed with the next handheld. If the Switch doesn’t perform as well as they would like, they’re obviously not going to anchor their handheld dominance to a failure; they’ll release the next DS or GameBoy and rake in all the big money that line of systems has produced.

If the Switch is a big hit, then they will move handheld-like titles (the next Pokemon, Mario & Luigi, Brain Age, Nintendogs, etc) over to it. Ideally, Nintendo will be able to have their cake and eat it too: a system that sells like a handheld but doubles as a home console. If that happens, the system could truly be the next gaming revolution Nintendo wants it to be.

8/10 – It loses points for battery life, peripheral prices, online limitations (and general dissembling on that front from Nintendo) and current lack of Triple-A 3rd party titles at launch or even for the near future, but it wins the day despite all of that because it just works. Switch has that undeniable Nintendo charm that makes it almost impossible to pass-up.

If you’re on the fence and money isn’t an option, go for it.

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