There are still a lot of questions about Nintendo’s Switch, and the Kyoto gaming giant has everything to prove. But after spending a few hours in the hybrid console’s company this afternoon in Tokyo, I think Nintendo might be onto something. At the very least, there’s evidence that the Switch is a more credible effort than its predecessor, the Wii U, which was Nintendo’s biggest home console failure to date.
I say that because of product decisions that cut to the core of how each system is used. With the Wii U and its tablet-style GamePad controller, developers essentially had two options — beam the same image from the TV to the portable screen, or display different content on each. Few found much use for the latter scenario, so the vast majority of games ended up employing the former, relegating the GamePad to a clunky, low-res portable that couldn’t even be taken outside of the house. Most of the Wii U’s best games ended up being perfectly playable without the GamePad at all.
The Switch is different — in fact, it’s the precise opposite. Its processing guts are in the tablet device itself, rather than in the box under your TV, making it a true portable that can be taken on the go. When docked with the TV, you can use a regular controller or an adapter to turn its portable attachments into something more traditional. And the Switch’s most unusual configuration is for portable local multiplayer, with each player essentially taking half a controller and gathering around the screen.
There are compromises inherent to all three of these configurations. If you use it mostly docked as a home console, the screen is going to waste and the mobile hardware makes the system underpowered relative to competitors. If you use it mostly as a portable, the battery life will suffer and the games may not be ideally designed for handheld play. If you use it as a multiplayer rig on the go — well, there aren’t really any competitors in this space, but I can at least confirm that Mario Kart 8 doesn’t play as well with half a Joy-Con as it does with a full controller.
But these compromises don’t feel as profound as those inherent to the Wii U, a system built around a single idea at great expense without the software ideas to back it up. The Switch offers countless ways to play, and almost all of the games demoed today work with several of them.
So there’s the deranged 1-2-Switch, which makes use of the JoyCon’s capabilities so extensively that the TV or tablet’s screen is almost unneeded. There’s the brilliant Snipperclips, a cooperative 2D puzzle game that encourages you to huddle around the screen with your tiny controllers and talk to each other to figure out the solution. There’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, of course, which can basically be played in any permutation of controller and screen you like. (Also they fixed battle mode.)
The Wii U forced games to pick and choose their features — if you wanted your title to be playable entirely on the GamePad, for example, you couldn’t exploit the potential for dual-screen play. But Nintendo’s philosophy with the Switch is for games to be as extensible and accessible as possible, with different solutions for different situations. Even a traditional single-player game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will benefit from the ability to be played in a car as well as on a couch.
I am reasonably confident that Nintendo has made sensible tradeoffs in the Switch’s design. Games like Arms and Super Mario Odyssey look beautiful, and I don’t think the mobile-class Nvidia hardware will have any trouble powering the most technically impressive Nintendo games to date, even if the Switch falls well short of the PS4. The screen is a fairly low-res 720p, but it’s fine in motion; the panel’s color reproduction and viewing angles are by far the best in any Nintendo system, and higher resolution would tax the processor and battery even further. And while the multiple controller configurations are fiddly and potentially confusing, everything feels well-made in that chunky Nintendo plastic fashion, and it’s about as easy as it could be to slide in and secure each attachment. The process of switching from TV to tablet screen, too, is nearly instant.
But while I think the hardware mostly hits the mark, I have serious concerns over other aspects of Nintendo’s strategy. Its online initiative, for instance, is baffling even by the company’s own low standards. Far from a Netflix of games, Nintendo’s paid service will let you play one NES or SNES game with added multiplayer functionality a month, as well as remove the company’s first ever paywall for online play. And, for some inexplicable reason, you apparently need to use a smartphone app for things like voice chat and game invitations. Let’s reserve judgement until it launches, but the early signs are not encouraging.
Nintendo also failed to show off much of anything pertaining to how the system actually operates. Will it be the company’s first ever console powered by somewhat modern software? What does the touchscreen do? Um… does it have Netflix? With seven weeks to launch, who knows.
But the biggest barrier for many will be the $299 price. At a time when Nintendo really needs to win back customers, pricing the Switch at or above the entry level for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, both of which are more powerful and a lot easier to understand, may come back to haunt the company. Nintendo has at least given itself room to move downward, but forcing itself into a hasty and dramatic price drop as it did with the 3DS would not be a good sign.
I’m going to buy a Nintendo Switch. But then I always would have — the prospect of not being able to play the company’s newest output just isn’t an option for me. It’s everyone else that Nintendo needs to convince. The Wii market is gone and isn’t coming back, but the success of the PlayStation 4 proves that there’s still a sizeable mainstream appetite for gaming hardware if the formula is right. While today’s Switch event wasn’t a total slam dunk, it’s a brave person that’d write Nintendo off altogether.