What I Think of the Nintendo Switch

Well Nintendo, you’ve done it again. You’ve successfully, shall we say, been Nintendo.

It’s been an insane weekend for the Japanese videogame giant. The curtain is now (mostly) up on the tremendously exciting Nintendo Switch, the home console that can also be played as a portable (Not the other way around, as Nintendo seems very keen to emphasise). And the general complexion of the reveal event was very, very different to what the seemingly endless supply of corroborating rumours and prediction videos would have us believe. For all the credible leaks from credible sources about specific games and features that may very well still ring true, the big Tokyo event still managed to be an almost complete surprise both in its general content and where it decided to put its focus. If “Switchmas” had been right about what we were expecting, it wouldn’t have quite felt like a Nintendo show. We Nintendo fans as a general group have a habit of forgetting that, but for better or worse, the Big N was more than happy to throw us a few reminders. This is a company that does not like being predicted, but as it turns out, even the collective power of the internet’s most well-connected sleuths couldn’t quite spoil everything. And in true Nintendo fashion, said surprises have divided the internet right down the middle.

I could go through the whole presentation bit by bit and talk about my thoughts on each individual revelation (I’ve watched the whole thing twice now, plus the entire five-hour Treehouse stream that followed half a day later and countless YouTube hands-on reactions), but there’s a better way to do this.

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– Nintendo’s Modern Console –

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The raw processing specs of the Nintendo Switch remain elusive in any sort of official capacity, though I have every reason to believe that Eurogamer’s December leak will turn out to be a fairly decent approximation. That leaves us with a console that’s more capable when sitting in its dock/outputting through the TV than when played on the go, but only as long as we’re talking about display resolution and theoretically (though hopefully not) frame rate. In it’s weakest configuration, we can expect it to be more powerful than the Wii U – that much is supported by the impressions coming out of the public-facing events of the last two days – but even at it’s strongest, it’s almost certainly going to come off weaker when compared to the standard Xbox One and PS4 models. That means the biggest triple-A third party releases will probably be skipping the Switch, unless it really takes off sales-wise and it becomes worth the extra financial investment to port down. It also means Nintendo’s first party games will continue to look amazing, and just about every big indie hit you can think of should be able to make it over to the Switch, uncompromised and fully portable. Ditto for the vast majority of Japanese RPGs and such. Swings and roundabouts, time will tell etc.
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What’s much more concrete – and refreshing, it must be said – is just about every other Switch hardware detail that has come to light over the last few days. The system will not be region locked (there are no words for how happy this makes me), it has a 6.2 inch, 720p capacitive touch screen (i.e. multi-touch, like the PS Vita or a smartphone), supports the current standard 802.11ac Wi-Fi spec, allows up to 8-player local wireless interaction, charges via super-fast USB-C – which is only just now becoming widespread on Android phones – and supports expanded memory via the reasonably cheap and easy-to-find Micro SDHC/Micro SDXC cards (At least up to 256gb according to one moment during the Treehouse stream, which would have been more than enough to fit everything I’ve ever bought on the Wii U). Its battery life is quoted as being between 2.5 and 6 hours depending on the game you’re playing, which is about what we could have expected; certainly not enough to last an international flight, but coupled with that USB-C charging port, it should easily be juiced enough to cover your daily work commute no matter what you’re playing. This is all very good news if you ask me, especially when combined with the generally premium look and – based on what I’ve read so far online – the feel of the system. This is a sleek, modern device.

The price of the unit with all its necessary bits and pieces is $299 USD, translating to $469 AUD (that’s a direct exchange rate conversion to $400-odd, another $40 for GST, then $30 more because, what the hell, we live in Australia). That’s a price that will invite double-takes and one that, depending on what other consumer devices you compare it with, ranges from perfectly understandable to a rather hard pill to swallow. A large part of Nintendo’s showing over the last two days has been about trying to justify that price tag, and to that end there are two major points of contention worth discussing.

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– Spreading the Joy –

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The first and most prominent of these happens to be related to the system’s removable controllers, or “Joy-Cons”. The diminutive sticks took up so much screen time in that initial Switch reveal trailer last October and yet were so heavily overlooked by the general gaming public – overshadowed as they were by the central promise of a true home console-portable hybrid. The Joy-Cons are just so much more capable than most people assumed and Nintendo went to great lengths during the big presentation to correct those assumptions. Rather unexpectedly, the Joy-Cons arguably ended up as the centrepiece of the entire show.

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Taken as a pair, the left and right Joy-Cons harbor a ridiculous suite of functionality, with offset dual-analogue control, accelerometer/gyroscope motion detection, an NFC chip for Amiibo reading, a dedicated screenshot button (with video capture support slated for after launch), an infrared port with almost miniature Kinect-like functionality, induction charging and syncing functionality, as well as what could be the first meaningful step forward for rumble technology in a videogame machine since the concept was introduced by Nintendo in the late 1990s (if you ignore the rather promising “Impulse Triggers” present in the Xbox One controller, although Microsoft seems to be doing a pretty good job of that already).

Taken individually, the Joy-Cons can be used as controllers with a Super Nintendo level of available button inputs, only with an analogue stick instead of a D-pad as well as that aforementioned motion sensitivity. They appear rather small in the hand to put it lightly, but if they feel good to hold then the Joy-Cons fundamentally amount to more advanced, more versatile Wii Remotes that you might actually want to use for standard games – and at $70 RRP they are certainly priced to reflect that idea. If Nintendo can get people to perceive this value in the Joy-Cons – as it has most definitely tried – then suddenly the Switch is cast in a different light: the first videogame console in decades to ship with two controllers in the box as standard. That could be crucial.

As to why Nintendo would pack so very many features into their controllers in the first place – a potentially frustrating development for many a gamer with a long memory – that much was summarised during the presentation by the pride-filled display of that chaotic console pile-up image near the beginning (pictured above). Nintendo sees the Switch as a home console first, to be sure, but that image showed that they want to see it as a culmination of sorts of 30-odd years of hardware innovation in both the home and portable spaces. That’s potentially why they might have felt they had to include as many historical Nintendo elements as possible – a theory backed up by Reggie Fils-Aime’s short-form marketing pitch right at the end of the presentation. If this keeps alive my hope for portable HD ports of Super Mario Galaxy and Zelda Skyward Sword, I’ll take it, but for now at least, the company seems much more ambitious than that. Which brings me to…

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– The Games –

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The second point of contention is, as it always is, about the games, and from what we know right now about the situation at launch (March 3rd by the way, which is surely even sooner than anyone could have hoped), there aren’t a whole lot of them. As in, barely more than at the launch of the Nintendo 64. Nintendo of Australia put this image up on their official Twitter account on the weekend:

That’s a sketch at best, and it’s missing several of the games that appeared during the presentation’s closing sizzle reel – not to mention several other confirmed indies and whatever Nintendo is still holding back for E3 and such.  Overall, the image paints a picture of a very good opening year for Nintendo-made games – in fact I daresay if Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does make 2017 (I’m skeptical) this could quite possibly be the heaviest-hitting year for a Nintendo console in almost two decades. But where are the games for actual launch day?

That tiny top-left square will surely fill out slightly over the next month as more information comes to light, but not with anything that even comes close to matching the hype level of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Make no mistake, that Zelda trailer was one of the best and most well-timed Nintendo has ever put together). And as exciting as it is to see a new Bomberman game at launch with two-player functionality right out of the box, it’s hard to see anything other than Zelda driving day one Switch sales. Of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about, the notorious under-suppliers of hardware, so if history is any indication all they have to do is hope there are enough Zelda fans who either didn’t own a Wii U (which is a lot) or see enough benefit in the Switch itself to want to play Breath of the Wild there. If stock presells out (EDIT: It looks like it already has in most places around the world) then when launch arrives, casual customers realise they can’t get the shiny new thing and human nature takes over from there. Then by the time stock comes back in, you’re much closer to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a truly stellar entry in what has proven to be one of Nintendo’s most mainstream franchises. You can see the clear tactics at work here.

Of course the real retail battleground is always the holiday season, and assuming stock is plentiful come Christmas, the Switch will be a tantalising prospect. Super Mario Odyssey looks astonishingly good and on top of Splatoon 2, as well as every other release both inside and outside that infographic, potential owners should have quite a nice lineup to sweeten the deal come end-of-year. History has told us that it doesn’t really matter when you choose to release a new console; you will always make most of your year one sales at the end of the year. From that perspective, 2017 for the Switch looks sufficiently well-calculated.

As for the lesser-talked about titles, I really like the look of how ARMS is shaping up, especially after taking in so many of the hands-on impressions that have appeared online recently. Snipperclips not only looks like an inventive, adorable co-op puzzle experience, it also gives me great hope for the system as a local multiplayer indie machine. With little more than two Joy-Cons and the Switch screen itself, we could have the most ideal Nidhogg, Towerfall and Overcooked machine yet. If the year closes out with none of them on the Switch, it’ll be a missed opportunity. Conversely, 1, 2 Switch looks like a lot of fun, very much in the vein of games like the Johann Sebastian Joust part of Sportsfriends, but given the brevity of its minigames I really struggle to see how it’s worth the $70 it’s supposedly asking. I can’t really argue with anyone suggesting it should have been a pack-in game with the system.

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Of course, this was a Japanese presentation, so we got to see a tantalising glimpse of the Switch’s potential as a platform for Japanese games. The aforementioned Xenoblade appears to be joining a new Shin Megami Tensei game and an absolutely gorgeous-looking new 16-bit-yet-3D RPG from the Bravely series producer, namely Octopath Traveller. The unceremonious reveal of I Am Setsuna (in its first portable form outside of Japan) implies a certain porting ease that combines with the tease of Fire Emblem Warriors to paint a rosy picture for those so-inclined. That’s great to see from the get-go.

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– The Worrying Stuff –

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There are some concerning things about the Switch, but there are really only two massive ones that stick out in my mind, and each one could severely hamper the success of the system.

The first of these is Nintendo’s approach to online. The company is planning to join the ranks of Playstation and Xbox in charging a monthly subscription to use its online matchmaking. This is all well and good – inevitable, even – except Nintendo hasn’t done a whole lot to build itself a reputation worthy of either Sony or Microsoft’s offerings in this area. Yes, some Wii U titles managed some surprisingly decent net code, but the likes of Super Smash Bros still suffered, and if that repeats there is no way Nintendo can get away with a fee. Adding to that concern is that Nintendo doesn’t have all that many franchises with online components to begin with, so they’ll need to ramp the number of those up too.

When Playstation 3’s free online multiplayer service (where, in fairness, you got what you paid for) rolled over to the more robust paid online Playstation 4 one, Sony eased the burden of shock somewhat by folding the multiplayer requirement into its existing Playstation Plus service, which was already giving out free games every month. This was so popular that Xbox Live had to follow suit soon after. Thus Nintendo finds itself in a situation where if it does not do something similar, the value proposition of its service will appear even worse. It appears to realise this, but at the time of writing its solution is pretty awful – supposedly a single NES or SNES game that members can essentially rent for a month with “added online multiplayer” features. As in, you can’t keep it like you can with the other services. Barring a significantly lower monthly price, this is not great. Also, what does this mean for the Virtual Console in general? We’ve heard nothing else about it so far…

Then there’s the voice chat/party solution, which appears as if it will be entirely contained to a separate phone app. We don’t know a lot of details about said app at the moment so the fear is real, but I do see the thinking behind it. Short of having to put a SIM card slot into the Switch, get into bed with a telco provider and invite unfavourable PS Vita comparisons, a smartphone app is probably the best way for Nintendo to help players feel like they’re connected even while on the go with (or without) their Switches. Of course the app will need to do an awful lot other than just chat (I’m thinking a full UI experience right down to remote purchasing and downloading of games) to make people use it rather than just reverting to Discord or Skype.

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My second big concern relates to the way Nintendo marketed the Switch at the presentation. Aside from the opening features video, there was hardly any indication of the Switch’s handheld experience – most of the hardware focus was on the Joy-Cons. Which is all well and good, except it smacked of Nintendo trying to hedge their bets by not stepping on the toes of their own 3DS, in doing so cutting down the potential success of the Switch. I get that there are still some sizeable 3DS games coming out in the first 3-4 months of the year, but that had better mean we see some kind of Animal Crossing, Monster Hunter or Pokemon (especially Pokemon) announced around E3. The Switch’s most exciting mechanic is its ability to play games anywhere, and so why not aim at the audience that bought your last handheld? You sold five times as many 3DS consoles as you did Wii Us, Nintendo! Come on.

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– When Will I Get a Switch? –

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Day one, for sure. Zelda was all I needed to make that call; Bomberman is the cherry on top. My dream for this console since its reveal has been as a slick replacement to both my 3DS and Vita (both of which I treasure immensely and have burned hundreds of combined hours on), with the ability to dock to a TV screen a nice bonus. These last few days have opened up another thrilling dimension to the machine – that of a latent local multiplayer powerhouse – that fills me with even more optimism. I just hope that if (let’s be honest, when) Nintendo makes mistakes with it, the company won’t leave the Switch to die like it did the Wii U, but act quickly and decisively like it did with the 3DS back in 2011.

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