Six Tiny Things I Learned Playing the Nintendo Switch

Yes, I get it, I’m hardly unique among the denizens of the internet in talking about hands-on experience with the Nintendo Switch. Thus far Nintendo has been reasonably good at getting the system out into people’s hands and plenty of those people have been forthright in sharing their opinions through podcasts, forums and YouTube videos the world over. I have consumed far too many of these impressions myself.

Those are my hands and that's a Switch. Yep.

Those are my hands and that’s a Switch. Yep.

But last weekend I was indeed fortunate enough to play the thing myself – Thanks RTX Sydney – and I have several thousand words worth of thoughts to share. But rather than regurgitate the recurring thoughts I’ve heard plenty enough about already – the surprising build and screen quality, the comfortable designs of the joy-cons, the appeal of ARMS etc – I’m going to focus on some smaller things I’ve heard almost no-one talk about so far.
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1. The Joy-Cons’ Buttons Are Miniscule

A lot has been made of just how small the frame of the joy-cons themselves are, but I haven’t seen much talk about the buttons themselves. These things are tiny. Anyone who has owned a PlayStation Vita will be familiar (and likely comfortable) with such a size bracket for face buttons, even if these are slightly bigger. Of course there aren’t all that many people who fit into that category, so it’s worth a mention. Even more notable are the joy-cons’ L and R buttons, which are literally wafer-thin, no exaggeration. They don’t exactly feel flimsy, and they’re well-placed enough to ensure you won’t miss pressing them, but I’ve never seen anything quite so narrow on a controller or portable console before. That’s unless you count the “+” and “-” buttons, which are indeed actual buttons (to my surprise), though they didn’t seem to do anything in any of the demo builds I played.

It's hard to illustrate scale but yeah, those shoulder buttons are thin.

It’s hard to illustrate scale but yeah, those shoulder buttons are thin.

Speaking of clicking, every button on these things is digital and “clicky”, a la the Game Boy Advance SP, original DS, or DSi buttons. The control sticks also click in, and their movement range is necessarily constrained by their portability. But as a clear step up from the Vita nubs in this department, the joy-con control sticks take the crown as the best commercially available portable ones yet by default. While not part of the initial one-piece joy-con setup, the included wrist strap rail transforms the joy-cons’ SL and SR shoulder buttons into the only non-clicky inputs of the whole shebang. They instead feel almost springy, like they’re resisting slightly when you press them down. They sit nicely under the index fingers, though.


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2. HD Rumble Isn’t Just in 1-2 Switch

Feeling the rumble of the Nintendo Switch, which mostly comes from the joy-cons, is a strange experience, because it doesn’t feel like the kind of feedback most people would be accustomed to in a traditional controller. “Alien” is the word that first came to mind for me, though comparisons to phone vibration probably aren’t all that farfetched. Any concerns about use of the feature being limited to gimmicky titles like 1-2 Switch so far seem to be misplaced, however. I definitely felt it in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, though I’ll need more time with the game to determine if there’s any real differentiation in the intensity and texture of the feedback dependent on in-game actions. ARMS, on the other hand, has clear variance in feedback based on what weapons you equip on each hand. Playing as the yellow mech character, for example, I equipped a large glove on one hand and a barrage of small orbs on the other. When I hit with the former, I felt a single strong shake, but when I sent the latter out and retracted them afterwards, several smaller vibrations went through my hand and they synched up appropriately with what was happening onscreen. I still lost though. I’m pretty bad at ARMS.

Feedback possibilities are already being explored.

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3. The Difference Between Standalone Joy-Cons is Negligible

One concern I’ve heard voiced about the Switch’s low-key most exciting mode – tabletop – is that when each joy-con is used individually there is a noticeable difference in button placement between the left and right iterations. Talk of innate preferences forming among players is common – and probably justified – though it has perhaps been blown out of proportion. Yes, the idea of asymmetrical controllers (in both senses) is super weird on paper, but in practice the lack of heft in said controllers translates into a lack of relevance for the empty space on the right of the left joy-con and the left of the right joy-con. Every relevant measurement is so paltry that moving one thumb lower than the other feels unexpectedly like a non-event. And if anyone disagrees, I’ll happily destroy them in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with their less preferred controller.

Note the difference in the positioning of the control sticks.

Note the difference in the positioning of the control sticks.

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4. 1-2 Switch Might Have More Value Than I Thought

One of the biggest lightning rods for Switch controversy has been 1-2 Switch, in one way or another. Complaints range from its motion control focus to its price to its prominence in Switch marketing to its lack of pack-in status with the Switch itself, but these concerns all stem directly from a widespread perception that the game is somehow insubstantial as a package. And I’m not here to refute any of these concerns – there simply hasn’t been enough evidence to suggest they aren’t valid. But one way my own opinion on the game has changed since I got to play it myself is that 1-2 Switch may just have a sliver of replay value.

Maybe – just maybe – you’ll play some minigames more than once.

We still don’t know exactly how many minigames will be housed within 1-2 Switch (EDIT: As of the day I finish this we just found out – There are 28 minigames and you can see video summaries of most of them here), but if a handful of them feel like more than one-time “Oh that’s cool tech” experiences, the complexion of the package changes somewhat. And at least in the table tennis minigame, I found some potential longevity. In the game you have to react only to the sounds you’re hearing and the rhythm of the rally to keep your end of the imaginary table alive, leading to some genuinely intense moments, and there’s something intangibly novel about looking directly at your opponent with no barriers between you. It may just be because 1-2 Switch was just about the only thing I was down on before the hands-on event, meaning it arguably could only go up in my eyes, but I think the Switch launch title might have the potential to become the greatest (and most convenient) argument-settler in gaming history. Does that make it worth $70 though? Time will tell.

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5. The Pro Controller Feels Inessential (But Solid)

While many of the 1-2 Switch concerns seem valid, another sketchier point of contention has been the cost of the Switch’s “pro controller”. In Australia the impact of that cost is perhaps lighter than overseas – after all, here the controller retails for $100, which places it a mere $10 dearer than the cheapest wireless controllers available for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But that still ain’t cheap, and the jury is out on whether motion controls, an NFC amiibo reader, HD Rumble and competition-beating battery life add up to enough value to justify that three-digit price. But the point is, they arguably don’t have to if you don’t need to buy the controller. And right now, I feel like I don’t need to buy this controller.

This is a fisheye-lens look at the controller but it gives a good sense of scale.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably get one anyway – that’s just who I am – and the Switch pro controller is certainly a good piece of kit. The face buttons dwarf those on the joy-cons, the bumpers and triggers feel substantial (though still digital), the control sticks might be the nicest Nintendo has ever produced and the cloudy plastic finish on the front panel tugs on my N64 nostalgia with transparent intent. But to me and the friend with whom I attended the Switch booth, the D-pad feels like a step back from the one on the Wii U pro controller, which was larger and stood out less from its controller housing. But most importantly, the joy-cons feel more than adequate as a primary control input, rendering this add-on somewhat of a modest luxury. Your mileage may vary, of course.
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6. The High-Quality Finish Isn’t That Unfamiliar

When you see the Switch in person – and go on to hold it in your hands – the build quality of the unit really stands out compared to the recent output of Nintendo hardware. Or at least that’s what the general internet consensus seems to suggest. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. While it’s true that the Switch makes the Wii U gamepad look beyond laughable, running rings around it in the style department, this isn’t an out-of-the-blue attempt by Nintendo to craft an aesthetically pleasing, modern-looking handheld. The Switch’s classy matte finish and lovely straight lines are both present on the New Nintendo 3DS (the non-XL one), which admittedly did not see a wide release in the United States and that might explain its lack of representation in Switch analyses across the ocean. The rigidity and button clickiness are also mirrored across both consoles, though the Switch feels noticeably weightier and of course has a much nicer screen. This is neither a particularly positive nor negative observation – just something I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere.

A nice piece of recent tech from Nintendo to serve as a benchmark.

A nice piece of recent tech from Nintendo to serve as a point of reference.

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Just over three weeks to go!

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