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The Nintendo Switch: Bold and Brilliant, But You Should Wait to Buy It

Using the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode. Photo: Jed Egan

The Nintendo Switch — Nintendo’s first new console since 2012 — is a pretty bold proposition. It’s a $299 console that bridges the gap between your couch and your subway seat. Put it into a dock hooked up to your TV, and it’s a living-room console. Slip it out of the dock, snap two “Joy-Con” controllers into place, and you can take it anywhere.

To do that, the Switch is forced to be a lot of things. It has to be a good living-room console, capable of providing at least a comparable experience to the PlayStation 4’s and Xbox Ones many gamers already have. It also has to be a top-tier mobile system, capable of delivering that same living-room experience to anyone on the go, but also convenient enough to compete with the ease and simplicity of smartphone games. It has to have motion controls and the ability to draw in non-core gamers with the same sort of goofy good times that made the Nintendo Wii such a staggering hit ten years ago.

That it succeeds at most of this is remarkable. But the Switch’s stumbles also show a system that feels rushed. And despite the system launching in 48 hours, there’s still a fair amount we just don’t know about it. After a week with the Switch, I really like it — but I’d also recommend that anyone who hasn’t preordered hold off on purchasing one for the time being.

The good

But let’s start with what the Switch does well. First off, the system itself impresses as soon as you pick it up. If you ever owned a Wii U (which, judging by sales numbers, is statistically unlikely), you can rest assured that the cheapo plasticky feel of the Wii U controller is gone. The design of the Switch is solid, sleek, and modern. It doesn’t look out of place next to my laptop and phone.

The system is essentially four parts: There’s a tablet screen, the dock for playing the Switch on your TV, and two small controllers (or “Joy-Cons,” as Nintendo calls them). When you want to play on your TV, you put the tablet screen into a dock, slot the Joy-Cons into a holder, and play per usual. When you’re ready to play it on the go, you slot the two into the side of the screen, lift, and you’re set. Everything slides together nicely, buttons and analog sticks are responsive, and the entire things feels, frankly, more premium than the $299 price tag would suggest.

And when using the Switch in handheld mode — which is how I spent the majority of my time with the Switch — it just feels great. The Switch’s 720p, 6.2-inch mobile screen is bright, sharp, and very easy on the eyes. I was able to put in long play sessions just using the small screen, without eye strain, even when playing on a relatively bumpy bus ride.

Handing off between mobile and docked play is remarkably easy. Playing on TV and want to take your game with you? Slot the two Joy-Cons, lift up, and you’re off. Want to play in your living room? Slip the system back in to the dock, and you’re set.

When in mobile mode, the Switch ditches the proprietary charger that the 3DS and Wii U used for a standard USB-C connection. While the Switch, in my experience, got about two-and-a-half to three hours of play time off a charge, if you’re about to take a long plane ride any decently sized external battery pack should get you through your flight fine.

Photo: Jed Egan

Speaking of plane rides, the Switch comes with a built-in kickstand, meaning if you’re on a long plane ride you can set the Switch up in a near-vertical mode, detach the controllers, and game away. It should feel like a gimmick, but instead quickly became one of my favorite ways to play — except when the controllers glitched out. Which leads us to …

The bad

While using the Joy-Cons wirelessly, I had consistent issues with the left Joy-Con seeming to lose its connection with the Switch. This happened at one point in the middle of an intense boss fight, which meant while I tried to figure out why I suddenly couldn’t move, I was quickly demolished. I reached out to Nintendo about this issue, and while everyone was extremely apologetic, I never got an answer about what exactly was going on. Multiple other reviewers reported similar issues, and a YouTube video from GameXplain seems to show that the problem is players’ hands blocking the Bluetooth signal from the controller.

“We have received some reports and are looking into them,” said Nintendo in a statement provided to Select All. “The day-one system update provides improvements to overall system stability and other minor adjustments to enhance the user experience. As with all Nintendo video game systems, we will continue to monitor the performance of Nintendo Switch hardware and software, and make improvements when necessary.”

A (perhaps) separate issue prevents me from saying much about 1-2 Switch, one of the two main launch titles for the Switch, along with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (about which more in a moment). A collection of small mini-games that see you handing one Joy-Con apiece to two people where they compete to do things like milking a cow, duel with swords, or beat your opponent in a quick draw, 1-2 Switch is supposed to work as a showcase for all the interesting things the Joy-Cons can do, and hopefully make the Switch a fun way to kill time with friends and family, the way Wii Bowling took over living rooms in 2007. But because I couldn’t get the left controller to sync up, I wasn’t able to try it out. Nintendo also promised to look into this, but as of this writing I haven’t heard anything back, and I still can’t get the game to work. (I was able try out 1-2 Switch at several pre-release press events, and my quick impression was that the games are fun enough, but a tough pill to swallow at the list price of $49.) Update 3/6/17: After some testing, it turns out you need to press both shoulder buttons and then wave the controllers around to start 1-2 Switch. In my defense: this is not an intuitive way to start the game. Also in my defense: I’m not very bright. This doesn’t really change my opinion of 1-2 Switch, which is, at best, an okay game that’s overpriced — but this is coming from a guy who couldn’t even figure out how to make the game start, so maybe take my opinion with a grain of salt.

And while the controllers feel good enough when attached to either side of the Switch’s mobile screen, they end up feeling cramped together when slotted into the included Joy-Con holder — at least for my hands. I ended up playing with the controllers out of the holder for the majority of the time I played games on a TV screen — my fingers would cramp after 30 minutes or so otherwise. During press events, many games were shown using the Pro controller, which resembles most other console controllers on the market — but I wasn’t able to spend an extended amount of time with it. If you’ve got larger hands and plan to play in front of your TV for an extended period, I’d grab the Pro Controller if you can, even though it’s pricey at $69.

There are also some smaller disappointments. The Switch doesn’t support wireless headphones, meaning if you want to play on your TV but use headphones, you’ll need to invest in some seriously long audio cables. You’ll almost certainly fill up the 32 GB of internal memory provided with the Switch, so get ready to snag a Micro SD card to bulk up your storage space. And the Switch won’t include Netflix or any other streaming-video apps — if you find yourself ready to take a break from a game, you’ll need to pull out another device to watch something (a real shame, because the Switch’s screen is so solid).

The Zelda

But for many gamers, the practical considerations of the Switch as a console are secondary to its launch title: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s hard to think of another video-game franchise that’s earned as much feverish loyalty as the Zelda games, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that plenty of gamers are probably buying the Switch just to get the earliest possible access to the latest edition. Put more bluntly: Whether the Switch sinks or swims out of the gate is largely dependent on whether or not Breath of the Wild is good.

Photo: Jed Egan

Luckily for Nintendo, it is. By taking much of what’s familiar about Zelda and cross-breeding it with an massive open-world adventure game, Nintendo has not only created the best Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, but a game that’s shaping up to be one of my favorite open-world adventure games ever.

There’s so much the game does right. At its heart, it’s still a Zelda game: Gannon has done something awful, the Princess Zelda needs Link’s help, so you’ll need to roam over Hyrule to find the things needed to defeat him. But it’s meatier, more involved, more hard-core, and ultimately more interesting than almost any other major release I’ve played this decade.

I should admit that even after sinking about 30 hours into the game, I still haven’t beaten it. When I hit the 30-hour mark on most games, I’m ready to be done, no matter how good it is. But with Breath of the Wild, I’m sometimes frustrated and sometimes pressed right up against the edge of my abilities, but I’m never not fundamentally having fun.

Why does it work? First off, this game is hard. You will die often until you learn to be prepped at all times. Unlike other open-world games, where heading to a far-off location is usually a matter of running or driving for a while until you reach somewhere, Breath of the Wild makes every journey into unknown territory feel dangerous. You’ll be forced to scale cliffs, your grip weakening all the while, hoping you can reach the top before your fingers give out and you fall to your death. Icy cold or bitter heat will sap your health until you collapse. Even swimming across a fast-moving river can be an exercise in eyeing how far away a distant bank is and whether you have the strength to make it that far.

And while the Switch in no way can muster the same graphical firepower as the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, it uses what it has to tremendous effect, all in service of creating an evocative atmosphere. Clouds pass over the sun, casting fast-moving shadows that drape themselves over cliffs and across grassy plains. Lighting effects are given special attention, so the glow of a torch off the side of a stone wall shines back with just the right amount of dull sheen. The soundtrack is sparse and almost Steve Reich–ian, tending toward sprinkles of piano here and there — the main sounds are wind, water, and the wildlife around you.

Once you leave the game’s very short tutorial area, you can roam anywhere you want — and it’s not hard to quickly stumble into a fight you’re not ready for. Combat is intense, requiring quick timing and an eye toward learning an enemy’s movements so you can dodge at just the right moment. Running in and mashing buttons usually just means you’ll die that much faster.

There are only a few major dungeons in the game, and where and how you find them is a surprise I’d rather not spoil, but there’s still plenty of classic Zelda puzzle solving sprinkled throughout the world, in the form of shrines. Each shrine is a self-contained puzzle, in which a theme is introduced, explored, and then you are required to make the final deductive leap to solve. After completing over two dozen of them, I never found one that I couldn’t solve with enough time — but plenty that were difficult enough to give me a real sense of satisfaction when I finally figured out the bit of sideways thinking required to get me through.

But the real appeal is that Breath of the Wild’s open world feels like a fast web of interlocking systems that someone very clever and very dedicated has spent years figuring out how they all should fit together. During an early encounter in the game, I stumbled across a camp of enemies far too tough for me to take on — and then a lightning storm came in, with bolts of lightning hitting the ground all around me. Stabbing wildly at enemies closing in, I noticed that my metal spear was shooting off sparks but didn’t think too much of it, until lightning streaked down, ripping my spear from my hands and sending me flying. On the edge of death and stupidly without anything to heal myself up with, I made a run for it, removing anything metal from my body. I tried to scramble up the side of a cliff to escape, but the rocks were slick from the rain, and I just kept sliding down. I threw a tree branch at an enemy who was venturing in for the kill, knocking him down, and made a dash for it. I was almost home free — and then a lightning bolt hit a tree a few feet to my left, cracking the tree in two and sending the top of the tree crashing down on top of me. I was instantly dead, and laughing like a loon. It was a spontaneous moment where a whole series of gameplay ideas all come together to create something a thousand times more memorable than any prefab cut scene of scripted encounter.

There are some quibbles here and there. Depending on your feelings about that particular type of Japanese humor that relies on sudden zoom-ins, Dutch angles, and very repetitive catchphrases, some characters may grate. Cooking food, a vital part of staying alive, is a bit more difficult than it has to be, thanks mainly to kludgy menu design. But Breath of the Wild is a triumph, full stop, and one that other games will spend a long time trying to top. Stacked up against the cookie-cutter open-world adventure titles that dominate the current landscape, Breath of the Wild feels like a revolution. It feels like a revelation.

So, should you get a Switch?

If you have a long public-transit commute or find yourself wanting to play high-quality games away from TV for whatever reason, the Switch is absolutely worth a look. But if you’re reading this and haven’t preordered a Switch, you’re also probably out of luck — the Switch is sold out across the U.S. and it’s unclear when new units will be hitting shelves. (Best Buy may have a few units available on a first-come, first-served basis — best of luck if you decide to camp out.)

If you’ve decided you’ve gotta play Breath of the Wild and you’ve gotta play it now, by all means, wait until stores restock and put your money down. (Alternatively, you can always snag a Wii U and play Breath of the Wild there — it’s also available on Nintendo’s older system, and the footage that’s been leaked to the web so far shows a game that doesn’t look noticeably worse than what I played on the Switch.)

But if you’re reading this and find yourself curious but still on the fence, I’d highly recommend holding off on the Switch for a bit. It’s hard to not feel like the Switch was rushed to market — Nintendo was still figuring out its launch lineup just days before the system was due to hit store shelves, and my hardware troubles give me serious pause.

And let’s talk about the lack of launch titles. It’s a good thing that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is such a hefty experience, because that’s the only big title coming down the pike for the foreseeable future. The Switch launches with just eight titles in total, including Breath of the Wild. The full list: 1-2-Switch, Just Dance 2017, Snipperclips, Super Bomberman R, Fast RMX, Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, Skylanders Imaginators, and I Am Setsuna. Snipperclips is a fun cooperative puzzler, Fast RMX may scratch that F-Zero itch, and Shovel Knight is a fantastic retro platformer for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to play it on any other system yet, but there’s not a lot on here that really gets my blood pumping (apologies to any Bomberman stans out there). Console launch titles are always a little thin, but this launch is thinner than most.

Nintendo will be filling this lineup with a healthy number of indies and smaller titles over the next few months, but there won’t be another major title until the end of April with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a remake of an existing Wii U title. After that, there isn’t anything I’d classify as highly anticipated until Super Mario Odyssey, which as of now only has a loose release date of “Holiday 2017.”

And then there’s everything I just don’t know about the Switch.

Nintendo’s digital storefront has been disabled for pre-release units, so I can’t say how easy or how hard it’ll be to download new games. The virtual console, which will allow you to play older Nintendo games on your Switch, won’t be available at launch, and it’s unclear when it will be available.

I also don’t know how multiplayer games will work on the Switch. The Switch allows for local multiplayer to anyone on the same Wi-Fi network, but it’s online multiplayer functionality won’t launch until fall of 2017 — and will require a subscription fee. Likewise, in-game voice chat is supposed to be handled via a smartphone app instead of through the Switch system itself, and I have no idea how that will work either.

So my advice for most people is simple: wait.

Wait for more titles to come out. Wait to see how Nintendo handles whatever hardware difficulties it seems to be facing (or if these issues are just some pre-launch jitters). Hold off until it’s clearer how online multiplayer will shake out, and if you’re okay with paying an annual fee for the right to play other people online. Wait to see what sort of holiday bundles Nintendo offers. Wait to see if Nintendo actually manages to get its supply chain in order, so you’re not throwing elbows at a Target, like during the really bad days of the Wii shortage. Breath of the Wild is a fantastic game, but it’ll still be just as good a few months from now.

With both Sony and Microsoft moving toward a future of endless upgrades that make living-room consoles just slightly-easier-to-use gaming PCs, Nintendo’s continued dedication to trying audacious new things in consoles is admirable. In the Wii U, their reach outstripped their grasp, and they were left with a confusing mess of a system. The Switch leaves those bad memories behind — it feels much more focused, much more promising, and has the real potential to be a good living-room console and a game-changing mobile console. But it needs some more time before I’d say it’s a must-buy for anyone besides Nintendo diehards.

The Nintendo Switch: Bold and Brilliant, But Wait to Buy It