[Ed. note: Though the review embargo is up, the actual Nintendo Switch console that users will experience on launch day isn’t live yet, pending a coming-in-hot day-one patch. As a result, we’ve decided to split the difference: Below, you’ll find our collective thoughts on the Nintendo Switch, based on impressions from more than a half dozen members of the Polygon team, comprising dozens of hours of time spent with the new console. But no review score. We’ll withhold our final verdict until Nintendo launches the system’s core network functionality.]
Playing the Nintendo Switch for the first time is indisputably exciting. There’s a moment, almost immediately after moving it from one’s hands to the dock, watching the near-instant, hassle-free shift from handheld game device to television-based game console, where almost every Polygon staffer thought the same thing:
Holy shit. It works.
The Switch is Nintendo’s second attempt at a tablet-based game console, quickly following the release — and subsequent failure — of the Wii U. Where that console’s approach mixed its hardware metaphors — tethering a wireless display with a traditional console, and failing to deliver on either — the Switch is immediately more successful, which shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a course correction and an attempt to make good on the promise of the Wii U.
It feels unique, wholly unlike the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Switch is fully its own thing.
That said, there is something remarkable about seeing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild running in portable mode, followed by that “wow” moment of docking the console and continuing on a television. It’s hard not to wonder if we’re staring at the future of portable gaming, with Nintendo and the Switch promising to bridge the gap between mobile and console.
While Nintendo has corrected much of what doomed the Wii U on the hardware front, its success on the software front is not only less clear, it’s in many cases entirely opaque. As with the Wii U, the Switch’s entire online infrastructure is being patched into the system on the same day it reaches consumers. None of these features, or even a clear understanding of what they will be, were made available to reviewers. This … is not a good litmus test for Nintendo’s future success in this arena.
Since Nintendo’s Game Boy, the desire has been to play games — real games — wherever you are. The Switch offers that promise, but the details — or absence of detail — leave a lot to be desired.
The Switch feels like a piece of serious consumer electronics; it couldn’t be further from the Wii U’s plastic toy quality.
Nintendo’s first console, the Famicom, was redesigned for the American market as the NES, aping our country’s love affair with another piece of serious contemporary consumer electronics, the VCR. And the Switch, more than any Nintendo console since the NES, feels like an inheritor to that legacy.
Whether this is a handheld or a home console is both at the very heart of Nintendo’s strategy, and also irrelevant. After all, it’s both. Superficially, the Switch resembles the Wii U’s GamePad insofar as it is dominated by a screen with control inputs on either side, but the design is minimal, even spartan. Its screen is just over 6 inches diagonally, with a resolution of 1280x720. The pixel density isn’t as high as, say, the iPhone 6S’ 326 pixels per inch, but it measures at a respectable 236.87 ppi, and the end result is very bright, and very sharp. And, unlike the Wii U or 3DS, the Switch’s display supports 10-point multitouch input, putting it on par with modern tablet devices and phones.
The Switch’s display is flanked on either side by the Joy-Cons. These appear at first glance to be a part of the Switch, with offset analog sticks on either side and a dedicated set of face buttons and directional inputs, along with a home button and dedicated capture button for screenshots (and, at some point later this year, video). The Switch’s volume controls and a power button sit flush along the top of the unit, along with an 1/8-inch headphone jack.
As a handheld device, the Switch appears self-contained, but it’s more than that. Included with the Switch is the dock, which features an HDMI output and charging port for the console. When placed into the dock, the Switch’s video output redirects almost instantly to the television the dock is connected to.
The Switch’s “console experience on a handheld” wow factor is important, but arguably, the moment where the experience transitions seamlessly to a television-based console environment is just as impressive. The phrase “it just works” is parodic in 2017, but this is a rare instance where, in fact, it just does.
For all the valid concerns and caveats that hang around Nintendo’s plans and launch of the Switch, this is the raft on which it manages to stay afloat. Nintendo’s basic promise, of a platform that will move without fanfare or effort across the handheld and home console spaces, has been kept.
The elegance of the Switch’s implementation has seen the shedding of certain expectations and traditions for Nintendo hardware. Nintendo has made a name for itself for almost a decade with handheld hardware that can withstand the abuse and use cases of a family environment. Even the most extravagant of Nintendo’s handhelds have been relatively safe for children. But the Switch is not a toy ... which means it’s not indestructible the way a 3DS, or even the Wii U, is. You don’t want to drop the Switch on a concrete floor, and you may even want to be careful throwing it in your bag.
If there’s one thing about the Switch itself that bothers Polygon’s staff universally, it's the included “kickstand,” a plastic flap that hides the system’s micro SDHC/SDXC memory expansion slot and can theoretically be used to set the system on a tabletop. It’s a perfectly fine concept with miserable execution; the plastic is flimsy and feels fragile, and the angle it sets the Switch at is far too high to be useful unless the system is situated just below head height for players. The Switch also can’t charge using a standard USB-C cable or its included charging device in tabletop mode — its USB-C port is on the bottom of the system, and there’s no clearance for a cable to connect there.
If we didn't know better, we’d almost say the Switch was built with a mind to sell a separate tabletop stand at some point. It seems certain that we’ll see such a device sooner rather than later.
The Switch is not trying to be a lot of things for a lot of people; it’s trying to be a lot of things for one person, so appreciation of its various permutations is at the heart of how you may think of the Switch.
One of the Switch’s two primary modes of playing is handheld mode, with the two Joy-Con controllers docked on the sides of the tablet. In this mode, the entire console is portable, like a beefed-up PlayStation Vita or an especially long iPad mini.
The games available at launch don’t fill the sort of role that you may have come to rely on your tablet for, but there are touchscreen-only games on the horizon for the system. This is an interesting situation — on the one hand, it opens up a world of software for the Switch that will benefit players on the go who don’t have or don’t want to play games on a tablet or a phone. On the other hand, it somewhat undermines the basic premise of the Switch, as there’s no way currently to use the Switch’s touchscreen inputs while the system is connected to a television.
But touchscreen tablet games, while a nice value add, aren’t what the Switch was built for. The Switch is easily the most powerful handheld game console ever made, but you’ll pay for some of that power with battery life: The system lasts between two and a half and six and a half hours, with a powerhouse like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild clocking in at just three hours. While this isn’t the worst-performing handheld battery life, it certainly isn’t the kind of marathon performance you might hope for from a daily companion. That kind of compromise is at the core of the Switch, and Nintendo has largely made a product that threads that needle.
The Switch’s dock is simple, and nondescript. Up close, it feels a bit cheap, but it’s also not designed to look like more than it is, and it hides fairly well. The dock elegantly centers the console, and lowers the Switch onto its USB-C charging pin using the console’s own weight. It hides its HDMI output and USB-C-based power input behind a panel that swings out and closes over them.
The dock includes one USB 3.0 port (behind the same panel that hides its HDMI output), and two additional USB ports on the left side of the unit. We assume these aren’t USB 3.0 ports — they lack the telltale blue plastic on the inside of the port, an industrywide indicator of USB 3.0 support — and are likely intended for charging a Switch Pro Controller or pair of Joy-Cons in a Joy-Con Charging Grip (which the system bafflingly doesn’t ship with).
At launch, even that single USB 3.0 port’s purpose is unknown. At this time, Nintendo has not stated whether the Switch will support external hard drives.
The Joy-Cons, when connected to the Switch, are ... fine. They’re an improvement over the New Nintendo 3DS’ “analog disc” — which we can all now admit was always a terrible compromise — and they offer better range of motion and resistance than Sony’s PlayStation Vita models. They’re not quite what you would demand of a dedicated console controller, but they’re mostly close enough.
In their defense, the Joy-Cons are multi-functional. While console-style games will likely use them both as left and right halves of a whole, the Switch actually sees each Joy-Con as its own controller, and it allows up to eight of them. In supported games, this means that players can each use just one Joy-Con, and when detached from the Switch, each half reveals an additional pair of "shoulder" buttons when held horizontally. In addition, the right Joy-Con (red, if you ordered the “neon” Switch bundle) includes an NFC reader for amiibo support accessed by holding the amiibo base over the analog stick. It’s a little wacky, but it works.
The right Joy-Con also includes an IR camera in addition to the gyroscopic inputs that both Joy-Cons have, allowing for greater fidelity and additional gameplay options. Some players will no doubt be relieved to hear that Nintendo isn’t giving up on motion control, even as the rest of the industry has moved on. After all, Nintendo is one of the few developers to consistently deliver novel, entertaining explorations of motion control in its games.
The Joy-Cons are, by their nature, exercises in compromise. Handheld system controls have to be built to account for tight storage like backpacks, purses and murses. The Joy-Cons account for this in their short-for-a-console analog sticks and the narrow, strictly vertical alignment of their buttons and sticks. When the Joy-Cons are disconnected from the Switch, you can also attach their supplied wrist straps, which will probably be more comfortable than Nintendo’s previous offerings in that regard. These straps are attached to plastic pieces that slide onto the “top” of the Joy-Cons, and add more definition to the hidden shoulder buttons. It’s a neat way to address the need for wrist straps on controllers that won’t always be used in the same manner.
Used separately, each Joy-Con is a little awkward in its own way. The right Joy-Con (red, for those so inclined) has a joystick in the middle, and the left Joy-Con (blue) has a wasteland of empty space on the right side. Either way you’re getting a good thumb stretch going if you’re trying to use the joystick on the former, and the D-pad on the latter if you’re using the Joy-Cons when attached to the Switch.
With the Switch docked, there are several control methods available, depending on whether you want to spend more than the Switch’s $300 base price. The Joy-Cons can be detached from the Switch and used independently, similarly to the Wii’s remote controller and optional “Nunchuk.” The Switch also comes with the Joy-Con Grip, which allows you to slot the Joy-Cons into its frame for something basically approximating a traditional console controller.
The Grip was a better option than free-floating Joy-Cons for most Polygon staff, but it still feels like a compromise. The vertical alignment of its sticks and buttons is less ergonomically sound than the angled arrangement on the Xbox One, DualShock 4 and even Wii U Pro Controllers. The Grip is also where we’ve had the biggest problems with basic Joy-Con reliability, and it just generally feels very cheap. Ours is already dotted with scratches from light use and handling.
- Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios
- Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios
- Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios
Frustratingly, the included Grip is missing a key feature that Nintendo is happy to sell you: the ability to charge the Joy-Cons. The only means available to charge the Switch’s controllers out of the box is directly connecting them to a docked or otherwise charging Switch console — if you want to play on your television, you’re out of luck. Unless, that is, you’re willing to pay extra for a Joy-Con Charging Grip.
The Charging Grip is identical in every way to the included peripheral, save that it has a USB-C port on its top, and that it costs $30. This is the most unnecessary nickel-and-diming in the Switch’s hardware lineup, and serves to undermine the utility of the system’s core handheld/console “switch” mechanic.
USER INTERFACE AND EXPERIENCE
The Switch’s UI carries on the evolution seen in its physical design. Gone are the bubbly, cartoonish aesthetics of the Wii U and 3DS operating systems. Instead, the Switch’s interface is beautifully simple and easily navigable, somewhere between a clean tablet interface and something more appropriate to a console.
This last part is important — the Switch’s UI is navigable both through touch input on the device itself and through a controller, and it was vital for Nintendo to accommodate both options. Booting up the system will take you to a sort of “fast-boot” home screen, with the most recent active game featured on the right and other options on the left. The main home screen, accessed by hitting the Switch’s home button, puts games front and center in large tiles, arrayed in a ribbon that stretches off the screen to the right — or it will stretch off the screen, once more games are available. Below the games installed on the console are six buttons, including the eShop and system settings.
The Switch UI is full of smart little touches. You can switch between light and dark themes at launch — a relief for 4K TV owners on staff with brighter screens, though the Switch itself caps out at 1080p video output, despite its Tegra GPU supporting 4K resolutions in other devices. The theme feature suggests game-specific UI themes could be a possibility later. Meanwhile, the charging screen seems to note the color of the Joy-Cons you have connected, which could prove especially useful when Nintendo inevitably sells new colors of the detachable controllers.
One of the biggest differences the Switch stakes out between itself and its modern console competitors is especially startling: Unlike the Xbox One and PS4, the Switch does not need to install a physical copy of a game to its own internal storage before you can play it. If you buy a game at the store, you can put it in your Switch and play right away.
This isn’t a feature for handheld systems — it’s just the way things work. But there’s something that feels positively nostalgic about putting the Breath of the Wild cartridge in a Switch and being able to sit on a couch and play it right away.
The Switch’s UI could be called minimal, or even austere. It’s also fast, and that even applies to the overlay you can bring up by holding the home button while playing a game. The console may have much less power than the PS4 or Xbox One, but that’s never apparent while navigating the interface.
Little bits of the old Nintendo are present. Selecting a menu option rewards you with a pleasing sound and animation. But the charm that defined other Nintendo platforms feels largely absent, and some Polygon staff have found the changes in basic philosophy disappointing. Miiverse is gone, the Mii Parade has been canceled and the Mii maker is tucked far away in a menu in the system settings. Even StreetPass, a key feature of Nintendo’s handheld strategy since 2011 with the launch of the 3DS, is nowhere to be found.
Of course, all of this could change, and this leaves us with one of our biggest question marks ahead of the Switch’s launch this week. Many features we know are coming aren’t yet available on the system, locked behind an expected firmware update due by launch. This includes the ability to purchase software digitally via the eShop, as well as basic, bare-bones multiplayer functionality and other unexciting system features. We don’t know what will or won’t be present once that update rolls out.
Other questions can’t be answered until the system expands beyond its very limited launch lineup. We don’t know how the Switch’s UI and library management will scale as more games are added.
GAMES AND OTHER EXPERIENCES
The Nintendo Switch seems like a machine that’s focused only — not even primarily, but only — on playing games. That’s not necessarily a compliment.
For a launch library, the games on offer with the Switch are limited, to be charitable. The flagship title is obviously Breath of the Wild, but that game is also available on the Wii U. Otherwise, there are three original Switch games at launch, in the form of 1-2-Switch, Super Bomberman R and Snipperclips. The other six launch titles are ports, with Just Dance 2017 and Skylanders Imaginators having debuted last fall; I Am Setsuna almost exactly a year ago; Human Resource Machine in October 2015; Little Inferno on the Wii U for that system’s launch in 2012, and World of Goo on PCs in 2008.
There are some other signs of life in March, with Blaster Master Zero coming next week on March 9 (it will also be available on the 3DS). But this is arguably the weakest launch lineup for a major console since the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Breath of the Wild is a very big, very good game. But you might be waiting a while for another title to hold your Switch’s interest.
With other recent console launches, it’s fallen by varying degrees to app ecosystems to compensate for a lack of big games initially. However, that’s just not an option for Switch buyers, at least right now. The Switch’s only “app” is an image manager that allows you to view and make basic edits to screenshots taken with the console’s capture functionality. There’s no media player or web browser, let alone any streaming platforms such as Netflix or Hulu.
Let’s take a moment for that one. The 3DS has Netflix.
This is something that could change, of course, and there are hooks in the console’s OS that make streaming app support seem likely, such as power saving options related to video playback. But for now, a handheld with a rather attractive screen seems to be going underutilized.
Even now — days before the Switch’s launch — we don’t know if services like the Virtual Console will ever exist on the system, and we don’t really have any idea what its eShop or other online elements will look like. (The Switch’s mobile app, which will be the only place for online features like voice chat and setting up lobbies, isn’t coming until the summer — and even that debut will be a “free, limited version” of the app.)
What about backward compatibility? It certainly won’t be there for the Switch's launch, and it seems very unlikely even after that. This marks the first Nintendo console since the GameCube in 2001 not to support its immediate predecessor’s games. Meanwhile, eShop purchases from other Nintendo platforms are almost certainly not going to be compatible with the Switch, but we also don’t know if eShop purchases made on one Switch can be used on another console, and whether those purchases will be tied to Nintendo accounts. Nor do we know how easily they might be transferred to the new Switch models Nintendo will almost certainly put on sale throughout the platform’s lifetime. Just as importantly, there’s currently no way to transfer saves from one Switch to another, and we don’t know if that feature will be added for launch.
ONLINE AND UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
This should be the part of the review where we discuss the Switch’s online elements — after all, this is one of the places where Nintendo has the most to prove. Nintendo has never shipped a truly functional, modern account system with one of its consoles, and its network system has always lagged behind even 2005 console standards of services and connectivity. Even the most die-hard Nintendo fan at this point can’t deny that Nintendo desperately needs to move forward, and the company has made gestures in the direction of progress.
None of that is currently present on the Nintendo Switch. Instead, a considerable amount of its functionality is tied to a major system update that isn’t live yet, and which Nintendo has not committed to delivering prior to the Switch’s general availability on March 3. Even more alarming, Nintendo all but refuses to answer questions about the system’s pending update, even while the review embargo precedes it by more than a day.
Even with that update, there are features that Nintendo has only committed to delivering during vague time frames this year. Multiplayer will roll out soon, but voice chat — which will be limited to a smartphone app external to the Switch — won’t make its debut until sometime this fall, with a beta version available this “summer.” The Virtual Console will likely make a return, as Nintendo has tied it to a free game program for its paid online service, but we don’t know when it will launch, what it will look like or, perhaps most notably, if your existing purchases will transfer to the Switch.
We don’t know how developers can publish on the Switch — whether it remains a very high walled garden, as with previous Nintendo platforms, or if Nintendo has loosened the reins to compete with other consoles. We don’t know how friend lists or account systems will work. We don’t know if the online service will offer dedicated servers. We don’t fully know if the dreaded friend code system — seen as recently as Nintendo’s iOS games! — will return on Switch.
In 2017, the ways a platform deals with online infrastructure, purchases and account management may be more important than any other issue, and these are all giant question marks with regard to the Switch. It’s not an encouraging thing, and clarity isn't coming anytime soon, even after the day-one update. It’s fair to say this is extraordinarily alarming, and while Nintendo may get some free passes, this is specifically the one area in which it has no credit left.
The Switch is a console sandwiched between a bar of success lowered by the disaster of the Wii U and the considerable ground Nintendo must make up.
Compared to the Wii U on its merits, the Switch is a slam dunk. It takes the basic concept of the Wii U, of a tablet-based console, and fulfills the promise of it in a way Nintendo simply wasn’t capable of realizing in 2012. It’s launching with a piece of software that, more than anything in the Wii U’s first year, demonstrates its inherent capability of delivering what Nintendo says is one of the Switch’s primary missions: a big-budget, AAA game that exists across a handheld device and a television-connected portable. The hardware lives up to its name in how easily and smoothly it moves between those two worlds, in how dead simple it all is to make something pretty magical happen.
But beyond Breath of the Wild’s test run and the stunning basic functionality of the Switch lies a field of other obligations and requirements for an internet-connected gaming platform in 2017, and thus far, Nintendo hasn’t done much to prove it knows what it needs to do to recover from years of blind eyes and stubborn avoidance of modern ideas. The best example that Nintendo has a finger on the pulse of the modern gaming audience is a mobile game made by another studio.
Nintendo has demonstrated in fits and starts that it wants to move forward, and we’re hopeful that it will. But as it exists right now, days before launch, the Switch isn’t even a fully functional console yet, and some of the hardest work the company needs to do has only just begun. Just as concerning, the work Nintendo is doing appears completely opaque from the outside — and Nintendo has frequently been glacially slow to course-correct when the path it’s set on has proven the wrong one.
Nintendo’s vision is clearer than it’s been in years. Now the company needs to prove it can pull it all together.