State of the Switch, Six Months In

Well that went by quickly.

As the Nintendo Switch was gearing up for its March 3rd 2017 launch, the consensus among jaded followers of the videogame industry was that however much hype the system seemed to be gathering, and indeed however many units Nintendo managed to move in that opening weekend, we wouldn’t really have a decent idea of the Switch’s success until it had passed the three-months-on-the-market milestone – which, pertinently, was roughly the time warning bells started to sound for its predecessor, the Wii U. Despite strong, admittedly holiday-boosted late 2012 sales, the Wii U’s momentum fell off big-time in 2013 amidst a notable first-party software drought and an ongoing lack of understanding of how to market the rather odd strengths of the console. Despite some scattered sales spikes over the ensuing few years, the console never truly recovered and can now only be seen as a financial flop for Nintendo.

Three months have come and gone since March 2017 – As a matter of fact the Switch has now been on the market for half a year, and pound for pound it is thoroughly outpacing the Wii U on the sales charts. At well over five million units sold worldwide, it’s even giving the PS4 a run for its money in terms of momentum. This is certainly not some single-handed saviour of Nintendo as a company – It’s way too early to even entertain that notion – but the Switch has already marked a clear change in the Big N’s public perception for the time being. Given the ongoing interest online in how this inventive little console has been tracking, and indeed the hundreds of hours (and dollars) I myself have invested in it, let’s have a look at what the Nintendo Switch has got right and wrong so far, shall we?

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– Defeated Doubts –

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In hindsight quite a few of the potential roadblocks that looked like they might stand in the Switch’s way have turned out to be non-issues, starting with the price of the system. I for one have not seen a prominent, sustained argument against the Switch’s once-contentious $299 USD tag ($469 AUD) since launch, and no matter where or when I visit a store carrying the Switch, there always seem to be people standing in the Nintendo section, gears turning in their heads as they toss up the thought of a purchase. Here in Australia, for the most part, we have been lucky enough to avoid widespread Switch shortages of any real consequence, which cannot be said about the two biggest Nintendo markets in the world, Japan and the United States. Headlines on American gaming websites drawing attention to (stunningly brief) Switch restocks are certainly not an uncommon sight. Allegedly this is due to chip shortages and something or other about assembly line competition from Apple, but make of all that what you will. The bottom line is that Nintendo’s asking price has not obstructed sales pace just yet.

The kerfuffle about the slim Switch game library at launch also failed to amount to much, mostly because once most players got the ludicrously gigantic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild into their eager hands, the need to play anything else evaporated. This despite what was ultimately a high quality (if small) supporting cast out of the gate; Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, Fast RMX and Snipperclips leading the charge. Any pre-release controversy over screen resolution and battery life also proved to be a salvo of misguided bluster, as while 720p and ~3 hours hardly inspired great enthusiasm on paper, neither stat leads to any great inconvenience in any but the most unusual of real-world scenarios. The screen itself is gorgeously bright, boasts great viewing angles and tends to display – so far at least – content that’s more than capable of looking stunning within the Switch’s graphical limitations, while most people’s commutes (not to mention access to portable charging solutions) hardly force anyone into actual dead battery situations. But the Switch didn’t exactly have a flawless launch.

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– Surprise Shortcomings –

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Putting aside the brief hysteria that comes along with any major console release as a small percentage of initial units inevitably fail (Anyone remember the crazy Kinect dramas at the Xbox One launch, or the disc-ejecting epidemic of the PS4?), the Switch did have three genuinely widespread hardware issues come to light in its opening few weeks – one a manufacturing oversight that has largely been stamped out, one a minor but inherent design problem that will unfortunately be sticking around for the foreseeable future, and one a potential defect that is still inconclusive in its severity but which will be profoundly disappointing to me personally if unfixable.

One of these lefties is not like the others…

The first and most infamous was the odd phenomenon of weak joy-con connection issues, particularly among left joy-con units at and around launch. This shockingly common issue caused no small amount of frustration as players witnessed Link and friends moving erratically whenever the slightest interference between controller and console took place. Eventually it emerged that this was due to a certain percentage of left joy-cons coming from a factory where the antenna and one of the circuit boards were one and the same, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Nintendo – even Nintendo of Australia – has been swift and painless in dealing with repairs. What’s more, from about May onwards every pair of joy-cons has seemingly shipped without evidence of the problem so, say, if you buy a pair of neon yellow controllers you know you’re definitely getting a “second wave” product and are therefore good to go.

Another all-encompassing problem relates to the system’s central selling point – its ability to switch from a home console to a handheld and back again. Thanks to a combination of high surface area coverage and hardly any soft barrier presence to speak of, the switch dock has been conspiring with dust particles the world over to scratch the Switch’s beautiful-yet-fragile screen. Luckily most damage has been to the black bezel area around the part where actual graphics appear, and as common problems go its one of the cheaper ones to circumvent (a $10-$15 screen protector does the trick), it still seems like a weird design oversight – like a much more consequential version of the 3DS circle pad’s “ghosting imprint” on earlier models of that system. Though I put a screen protector on my Switch before I even turned it on and tend to baby the thing like nobody’s business, even I haven’t escaped the wrath of the dock.

Two terrible shots of scratches on my screen protector.

Finally to the issue that has been so very frustrating to me, mainly because it has been so difficult to nail down any sort of pattern to its occurrence. Much has been made of the Switch’s weak onboard wi-fi chip with regards to internet connection – and indeed my own Switch had trouble connecting to my home wi-fi until I moved it to the wider 5ghz band on my router, after which it no longer had any problems. The larger concern for me as a near-lifelong handheld gamer is how that same chip handles local Switch-to-Switch multiplayer connections. The canary in the local wireless coalmine was Mario Kart 8 Deluxe which, despite the best efforts of yours truly and a bunch of friends, would not maintain a connection for longer than a race/battle or two when we attempted to link five of them up for some early May shenanigans. With each Switch hosting two players and multiple bluetooth signals pinging about the room as a result, we thought interference might have been the reason. But connection drops continued to happen in other MK8D configurations, regardless of location – three Switches all in handheld mode, a docked Switch connected to a handheld Switch, two Switches in tabletop mode with one player per Switch. I heard anecdotal evidence of a similar phenomenon occurring with Switch-to-Switch Puyo-Puyo Tetris, and while local network multiplayer ARMS fared better than Kart upon its release, with disconnects happening less frequently, the fact is they still happened.

I would have been much more dismayed about this potentially major dent in the Switch’s overall flexibility had Splatoon 2 not arrived in July, carrying with it a suddenly near-spotless benchmark of local wireless performance. Though I personally only had the chance to try out some local play with one other person in the game’s Salmon Run mode, each round was lag-free and drop-free. Similar reports from videogame podcasts I follow corroborated this, as did a particularly laser-targeted article by Nintendolife’s Thomas Whitehead, and I was – still am – left scratching my head as a result. Is Splatoon 2 just really well optimised for local play, or did one of the Switch’s many small OS patches actually improve the system’s communication abilities? I haven’t had too many real-world chances to test this in the last couple of months, but it sure has been an emotional rollercoaster. If the Switch’s handheld nature is to eventually frame it as a 3DS successor rather than just a Wii U one (and with Nintendo, who even knows) then I would really like the system to be able to hold itself together during an Animal Crossing town visit or – perish the thought – a Pokemon battle.

There are other strange problems with the Switch worth talking about, but they are more or less software-related and it’s perhaps worth discussing them all in the same breath to help us reach an answer to that oh-so-intriguing question: Is the Switch-

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– An Unfinished Console? –

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Or, to put it another way, did the Switch have a so-called “soft launch”? Did it come out with an undercooked operating system just so it could sneak into the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year? Well if you ask me, it quite plainly did. Don’t get me wrong – there is an awful lot to like about the Switch hardware, but for all the appeal that a simple, snappy OS can have, said OS is still missing features that one might reasonably argue should have been there from the beginning. Time constraints are a very likely culprit. The major mid-June OS patch may have added a host of welcome improvements to the bare-bones launch offering, but as nice it is to get true USB controller wiring, better friend-finding options and a sensible increase to headphone volume, few would argue any of those changes qualify as game-changing. It remains to be seen whether Nintendo’s main hardware team will be able to implement any of the most commonly requested system improvements by the 2017 holiday season, when most major consoles tend to release and when the expectations of consumers will justifiably be higher than they were earlier in the year.

Firstly and most critically, Nintendo needs to get on top of its current data management situation. As it stands, save data cannot be moved from the system memory to a micro SD card or vice versa, let alone uploaded to any sort of cloud save bank. Given that even physical Switch game cartridges do not store saves, if your Switch has a major failure there is currently no way of recovering anything short of sending the console in to Nintendo and crossing your fingers. This is a major flaw that has shown signs of being addressed, but the sooner it happens the better.

Locked up tight.

Then, of course, there’s Nintendo’s much-maligned online offering. While some of the fears I outlined in my initial Switch speculation post regarding Nintendo’s online subscription have since been allayed, specifically the revelation of a relatively low annual fee and the transformation of the original “single free monthly game” pitch into more of a Netflix-style model, all of the voice chat stuff has come to fruition. The companion phone app required for online communication between Switch friends is at present a disaster, failing to either explain the need for its existence or even maintain a decent quality audio experience. In addition, controversies related to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe connection drops, low Splatoon 2 tick rates and such have soured the potential of the Switch as a source for quality alternative online experiences somewhat. Not enough to completely ruin the games in question, mind you (and it must be said that ARMS has been a consistently solid performer for me), but certainly enough to make an imminent price tag feel like a rip-off of note. Nintendo seems to be dead-serious about charging for online, so they need to be dead-serious about getting themselves some dedicated servers. And looking at better voice chat solutions.

The other underdone aspects of the Switch are less severe to be sure, but not exactly unpopular complaints. While it was tough to put into words what was missing from the feeling of browsing the Switch’s OS on Day 1, the lack of a certain “Nintendo feeling” certainly came up multiple times on online forums.

On day one, something felt missing, and it kinda still does.

The so-called “gamification” of system navigation that was so prevalent on Nintendo’s last four systems – Think the DS’s Pictochat app, the Wii’s classic background music and TV channel feel, the 3DS’ genius StreetPass or the Wii U’s goofy ever-present Mii plaza – is just flat-out missing on the Switch. With the exception of some quirky sound effects and mild colour-coding, moving through the Switch’s menus makes the system feel more like an app-less 2009 tablet than a fun Nintendo device. Again, the responsiveness of the menus so far should be seen as a big positive, and there are some features the Switch OS boasts that put its home console competitors to shame, like its extremely simple and power-efficient sleep mode or its truly class-leading screenshot suite (seriously, I have over 2000 automatically filtered and easily shareable screenshots on my Switch at the time of writing – It’s great). However, some background music and/or themes would go a long way towards livening things up, as would a fully-featured activity log to track game time. We know through the parental controls app that the system is capable of tracking this kind of information in detail, and I genuinely believe that a combination of the 3DS/Wii U’s own robust activity log app and the hidden genius of the Switch’s current (limited) playtime-sharing social feature could be a great solution to the problem brought about by Nintendo’s stubborn resistance to implement a persistent achievement system. At least for trophy tragics like myself.

Yeah look, some more detail would be nice.

Finally, there’s the Nintendo eShop on the system, but that’s worth talking about in the context of the Switch’s game library in general.

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– Tentpoles, Floodgates & the Port Puzzle –

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The Nintendo Switch has a lot of games – That much is hard to argue at this point. At the time of writing there are already well over 100 games on the Switch eShop, some of which are better than others. Overall the majority of the offerings so far are backed by decent reviews across the internet, due mostly to the presence of a number of well-regarded indie ports from other platforms and some well-taken opportunities for content exclusivity windows by Nintendo’s third party relations team. This is great, as the Switch is fast turning into an indie powerhouse in the vein of a more flexible, much more powerful Playstation Vita (in the best way possible) – except at times it can be tough to get the best stuff in front of the people who might want to buy it. While a basic, clean, web-hosted storefront was sufficient enough at the Switch’s launch, digital games now risk being obscured from the eyes of Switch owners by virtue of being buried among the sheer number of weekly releases. While the Switch’s first three months on the market were underscored by a release or two per week, since late June the Switch has reliably been getting 3-6 new games each week on the regular. This can quickly add up to a tidal wave for any developer trying to get some attention from a customer base that is largely still keen – for the moment – to give intriguing new games the time of day.

Not ideal.

There is an argument to be had that even well-designed storefronts can cause good games to suffer from visibility problems if enough poor quality content is let through, and with the likes of Troll & I and Sky Ride burning their acidic holes through the eShop of late, signs of some less-than-stellar quality control from Nintendo are definitely there. But that’s quite enough negativity, because the Switch is no Wii U – every week there is at least one new release that piques my interest and I’m looking at a situation where I’m already so far behind the 8-ball that I cannot hope to play every Switch game I actually want to play. For every Thumper, Shantae and Kamiko – a game I snap up and enjoy – there’s an Implosion, Graceful Explosion Machine or Oceanhorn – a game that interests me but which I lack the time to play. That’s not even considering the Tumbleseeds, Wonder Boys and Slime-sans of the world – games that are well received by the community but which hold little appeal for me. This is not the kind of system where I’m forced to play things I normally wouldn’t, for better or worse. At least not at the moment. There is always a reason to play on the Switch.

Of course all the quality smaller games in the world would mean nothing if not for the headliners that sell systems – the so-called “event games” that serve as tentpoles throughout the year. With the exception of the likes of MinecraftSonic Mania and Super Bomberman R, these have mostly come from Nintendo’s in-house development teams and/or partnerships so far. In this ultra-crucial department, Nintendo is currently five from six, because apart from 1-2 Switch, every major Nintendo effort so far is Metacritic-green and drawing plenty of attention. The freshness and polish of ARMS and Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle has so far paired nicely with the tweaked improvements to incredible bases seen with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2. Meanwhile Breath of the Wild screams from the rooftops as the first true console “killer-app” gaming has seen in a very long time. With four more major Nintendo tentpoles to come this year, set to release amidst a plethora of larger third-party releases (sporting or otherwise), things are looking very good for the Switch’s first year as a whole as far as games are concerned.

There is the small matter that some of Nintendo’s games this year, specifically Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and this month’s upcoming Pokken Tournament DX, are enhanced ports of existing games, much like several of the indies on the system. There was always a danger of Nintendo positioning the Switch in the eyes of some as a “port machine” if the company decided to go too far too early down the otherwise shrewd path of freeing Wii U games from the shackles of their woefully under-performing original home. But with merely this pair taking on the Wii U port burden for 2017 (It’s a bit of a stretch to include Breath of the Wild in this category given its Wii U version released alongside it), and especially given the ridiculously great sales of Mario Kart on Switch thus far, it’s easy to see why the decisions were made. Rumours abound about plenty more ports on the way, but as long as they remain sandwiched between new games and keep selling to new fans, I can’t begrudge Nintendo for making a smart business decision.

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– Jack of All of the Trades –

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When I was growing up, local multiplayer games were a tremendous part of my life. Being able to play a couple of rounds with my siblings in whatever game we could get our hands on – from Mario Party 2 to Snowboard Kids to DK64 to Smash Bros – was one of the main reasons I became so infatuated with videogames. Those moments gave us shared memories we’re not likely to forget. But as we grew older, moved away from one another and took on more responsibilities, the very idea of playing on one console together became first an effort, then a rarity, then an idea we just didn’t even entertain. But while my sister was in the country earlier this year, thanks to the portability and downright setup speed of the Nintendo Switch, the four of us played a few extremely stressful-yet-entertaining hours of the brilliant Snipperclips together, to go with some Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. To me at least, that was the moment the most exciting promise of the Switch’s marketing pitch fully and truly delivered.

After six months on the market, the Switch is already a local multiplayer powerhouse of some stature. The overwhelming number of games that hit the console supporting co-operative or competitive screen-sharing modes is enough to make any console peer blush. At times playing the Switch feels like hitting rewind on an industry trend that has slowly but surely squeezed out the idea of splitscreen from the vocabulary of big developers. From Snipperclips to Fast RMX to Puyo Puyo Tetris to MK8D to Death Squared to The Jackbox Party Pack to Flip Wars to ARMS to, yes indeed, Overcooked!, the majority of the installed games on my Switch put local multiplayer first, and I’ve lost count of the amount of lunch breaks and general out-and-about opportunities I’ve taken to throw shade at a friend over some good old-fashioned competition. The very thought that I’m about to add the prospect of cafe-compatible FIFA to that list feels simply ludicrous.

Yes, the Switch may be an under-powered, under-featured home console package next to the PS4 and Xbox One. It may be fighting for my commute play time against its older brother, the surprisingly resurgent 3DS, at the time of writing. Playing with a single joycon on its side in impromptu multiplayer games may take some getting used to. On paper, the Switch does many things in less-than-ideal ways. In practice, the mere fact that it does them all, and changes between them all so seamlessly with very little compromise, is precisely where its success lies. With the all-important library of quality games it has built and continues to build, the Switch’s flexibility and visual appeal have placed it in a position few would have predicted. At least for now, it has the attention of no insignificant amount of lapsed fans, all-new fans and Nintendo die-hards alike.

How people look at me when I talk too much about the Switch.

Let’s be honest. As always, Nintendo’s greatest enemy is Nintendo. After all, the Wii grossly outsold the Wii U – That much is an understatement. Yet ask me which of the two consoles I preferred – in just about any category ranging from game library to social features to controller options – and I’ll say Wii U every time. A successful Nintendo can be a cocky Nintendo; a company that is so happy seeing the forest they fail to see each loyal tree suffering from Stockholm syndrome. If the Switch’s success continues to defy expectations, we may be at the risk of being reintroduced to cocky Nintendo, and no Switch owner wants that. As it stands the Nintendo Switch is a few software patches (and, let’s be honest, a couple of meaty JRPGs) away from being a contender for my favourite console of all time. Fingers crossed Ninty stays on track with this one.

(Follow me @Vagrantesque on Instagram to witness just how financially irresponsible a Switch owner can be)

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