Is It Worth It? - Nintendo Switch Review
The Nintendo Switch's modular design means that it has to function as a traditional home console, a portable system, and stand-alone touchscreen tablet with wireless controllers. Getting a piece of hardware to do that much while also making it easy to use would understandably be an engineering miracle, and while the Switch accomplishes this in some regards, it falls short in others. Overall, the Switch is an attractive and powerful system, but is stuck in between being an oversized portable gaming system and a reliable home console.
The first thing that struck me about the Switch is the overall quality of its look and feel. Regardless of whether you go for the neon blue and red or the more subtle gray pair, the handsome matte finish of the two included Joy-Con controllers feels like silk, and is a pleasure to touch. The console itself – the central tablet piece – is almost alarmingly small and thin when placed next to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or even the Wii U, but its mostly metal construction gives it a sturdy, substantial heft. Despite its construction, the Switch is still under a pound with both Joy-Con controllers attached, making it comfortable to hold for long periods. Small details like the way the Joy-Con snap into the included Grip to form a resemblance of a conventional controller convey a premium feeling, a kind of gadget lust that has eluded Nintendo for generations of consoles.
The Switch’s dock and the Joy-Con Grip are little more than two simple pieces of plastic that allow this handheld to dress up like a home console. The dock itself is as barebones as can be; it’s essentially just a combination HDMI and USB passthrough/charging station surrounded by plastic. It definitely works as advertised: within a couple of seconds of dropping the tablet onto the dock the picture transfers right over to the TV, and after detaching the Joy-Con (or syncing a separately purchased Pro Controller) you’re ready to play. The transition back to handheld mode is just as seamless – just grab the Switch out of the dock – which is definitely impressive. Even the time from startup to actually launching and playing a game is surprisingly short, and resuming from sleep is nearly instantaneous. The Grip completes the Switch’s console transformation, housing the left and right Joy-Con to form what feels like the most familiar controller Nintendo has made since the Super Nintendo. This Voltron-esque configuration isn’t comparable to Sony’s Dualshock 4- the Joy-Cons never quite felt like home the way a controller should- but it’s far more comfortable and functional than I’d imagined it would be from just looking at it. The smallish face buttons are sufficiently clicky and easy to hit, but the lack of a traditional D-pad or full-sized analog triggers will put it at a disadvantage for certain types of games. The Minus button (think Select or Back) is very oddly placed, though: it’s so small and so close to the left analog stick that I can barely hit the button without nudging the stick. Speaking of the analog sticks, they work well enough, but are notably limited in their range of motion compared to competitors’ controllers because of their short height. It’s easy enough to adjust to these tiny quirks, but even once I did, the Joy-Con never felt as comfortable as they should. The other notable limitation of the Grip is that there’s no way to charge the Joy-Con while they’re attached – if their charge runs out (after what Nintendo claims is 20 hours, but I've yet to successfully run them down) you must re-attach them to the tablet to charge. Alternatively, you can buy the $30 Joy-Con Charging Grip.
The Switch’s 6.2-inch, multi-touch, 720p LCD screen is a beauty. Color production is vibrant, and it’s bright enough to be played in indirect sunlight. Its generous viewing angles are a huge plus, with a sweet spot large enough to make keeping an ideal picture easy. And even if you stray out of it, the picture remains visible in a roughly 120-degree arc – which is necessary when you’re playing multiplayer games in tabletop mode. Its touch functionality is leaps and bounds beyond the Wii U’s too, making it feel in line with the kinds of touch interfaces we’ve all grown accustomed to interacting with on iPads and Android tablets. There are areas where I could tell Nintendo had to make compromises to hit that $299.99 price tag, but the screen wasn’t one of them. Apparently, the left Joy-Con is an area where Nintendo could’ve spent a little more. I’m not the only person experiencing de-syncs with it relatively often when playing with the Joy-Con detached (in or out of the Joy-Con Grip), leaving inputs temporarily unread until it reconnects a few seconds later. I’ve seen it happen occasionally with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Link died more than a few senseless deaths this way – but more often when playing 1-2-Switch, which has several mini-games that require you to cover most of the Joy-Con with your hand, potentially interfering with its signal. I even had this problem playing from the Joy-Con Grip a mere 10 feet away from the Switch console, forcing me to scooch up further on my bed in order to maintain a reliable connection- distance appears to be an important factor. I didn’t have any problems when I played the system in handheld mode with the Joy-Con docked directly to the hardware, though. In fact, for a variety of reasons, this became my preferred way to play. Individually, each Joy-Con can be turned sideways to be used as a simple controller. But their tiny size and awkward layout have to be fought against even when playing the most basic of games, like Super Bomberman R. Attaching the included wrist straps to them extrudes the shoulder buttons, making them a bit easier to hit, but they still require too much pressure to hit comfortably. Also, the left and right Joy-Con aren’t symmetrical. One has the buttons awkwardly pushed towards the center, while the other does the same to the analog stick instead, which means neither are in any way ideal to use. The Joy-Con controllers are packed with some nifty extra features that a creative developer might put to good use, though. Their motion-tracking accelerometers are highly accurate and responsive, which can be seen in games like 1-2-Switch, where you’re making precise movements like rotating slowly to pick locks. And the Ball Count mini-game made me a believer in what Nintendo calls HD Rumble, a form of articulated haptic feedback that actually did a great job of fooling me into perceiving weight and motion within my Joy-Con. The right one even has an infrared sensor that could eventually be used in interesting ways, and an NFC reader for scanning amiibo, which is already being put to good use.
At the time of this writing, Nintendo has still not officially confirmed any exact specifications of the internals, but we now know that a custom version of the Nvidia Tegra X1 chipset powers the Switch. It’s a powerhouse by mobile standards, but it lacks the horsepower necessary to credibly compete with the now three-year-old PS4 and Xbox One. In fact, it’s hard to judge just how much of an upgrade it is over the four-year-old Wii U based on specs alone. With 4GB, the Switch sports double the RAM of its predecessor (half of the PS4’s 8GB), but in terms of GPU and CPU clock speed, the numbers are surprisingly close, and not always in the Switch’s favor. The Switch’s premier launch game bears out this problem: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which was developed simultaneously for the Switch and the four-year-old Wii U, seldom quite makes it all the way to 30 frames per second in TV mode, and it even dips far south of that when lots of particles or physics objects are on screen at once. The fact that the system suffers from these performance issues despite a lack of anti-aliasing does not bode well for the system’s long-term capabilities – or its prospects for landing ports of big-budget AAA games. Such performance issues would be somewhat understandable if Zelda was sporting gorgeous, high-resolution textures, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Despite its massive, sprawling open world, Zelda is housed in a tiny 13.4GB file, and on a big 1080p screen it becomes fairly obvious that many of the textures have been heavily compressed. We can’t be certain if that’s a consequence of larger game cards being more expensive for Nintendo to manufacture or of limited RAM on the Switch, but regardless of the cause, the symptoms are noticeable. The art style hides it well in Zelda’s case, but this may be a concern going forward, especially for potential multi-platform ports.