First it was the presentation, then it was the hands-on. After three hours of previewing the Nintendo Switch in Melbourne for a press event, here's what surprised, disappointed, raised questions and put a smile on my face about the Nintendo Switch.
As is the case with any console launch, there's a bunch of things that work and things that don't. The Switch was a pretty mixed bag, with some surprises in the hardware and quite a few surprises on the software side as well.
The JoyCon grip is more comfortable than it looks. Shipped with the base console, the JoyCon grip looks a little off-putting because of how ... square it looks. But it's a surprisingly light, the layout works really well, and I ended up preferring it to the Pro Controller.
The Pro Controller is fine, incidentally: it's certainly not on the level of the Xbox Elite, and the stock standard Xbox One/PS4 controllers feel a little nicer to hold, a little more refined. But it's perfectly serviceable, although the $100 asking price is a tad steep.
Using the JoyCons individually is a bit weird. Nintendo had a fairly large section devoted to the various ways you could play Mario Kart: on a big TV split-screen, at a table with the Switch in tablet mode and in front of a TV with the JoyCons in the Switch's wheel accessory.
If you played on the tablet mode, you got a chance to see what it was like to play a game with just one JoyCon, pictured above. Which JoyCon you play could greatly impact your experience, since the analog sticks aren't positioned evenly. Those with large hands might have a problem with the size of the JoyCon generally - it's pretty small.
But the most awkward part was trying to hit the SL/SR buttons, which you'll do a lot if you want to power slide. The buttons are quite shallow and not comfortable to press, which takes the shine off the local co-op experience a bit. It's perfectly fine when the JoyCons are attached to the tablet itself, however, or when using the JoyCon grip.
There appears to be a separate rail that slides over the top of the shoulder buttons that is attached to the wrist strap, which comes supplied with every base Switch console. That's substantially more comfortable than just grabbing a single JoyCon and trying to mash the inside shoulder buttons. You can see what I mean in this product shot from Nintendo:
Oddly, using the JoyCons together without a grip is also comforting. When the tablet is in docked mode, you can take the JoyCons and use them in each hand. It's a bit like having two Wii remotes or a remote and Nunchuck, albeit a bit smaller.
It wasn't the best way to play Zelda: Breath of the Wild - in fact, the game actually came up with a prompt suggesting people play with the controllers attached to the grip - but once you got used to it, it was weirdly enjoyable. Imagine lying back in a lounge chair or a couch while shield surfing down a hill, and you'll get the picture. It's easier to play with the JoyCon grip or Pro Controller, but having the option is pretty sweet.
Nobody knows what the touch screen is for yet. None of the games displayed had any touch functionality, and one of the Nintendo attendants told me that the touch features would be used on a case-by-case basis. The UI and Home Screen were also completely locked out, so we have no idea whether that uses touch controls, or what the UI looks like.
The screen itself is sharp, with good brightness. I ended up preferring Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the handheld mode: the details were a little crisper and the whole look was a little more suited to the smaller screen. When Zelda was playing on the big TV, it was a little easier to spot flaws like pop-in and the occasional frame rate drops (although less than the Wii U version demoed at E3 and EB Expo).
The crispness of the screen meant that the tablet was the way to play most games, except in instances where the controls didn't really work (like Splatoon 2, because it was set to the default gyro aiming, and Arms which is more of a traditional TV experience).
The transition from docked to tablet mode is almost instantaneous. It takes less than a second from removing the Switch from the dock to responding to your inputs, which is pretty damn impressive. It takes a couple of seconds longer to transition from tablet to docked mode, but it's still pretty quick. Here's a snippet of it in action with Bomberman:
The HD rumble pack is impressive, but there's not much to show it off. 1-2 Switch is Nintendo's collection of mini-games to show off the hardware aspects of the Switch and the JoyCons. I'll break down the individual games in a minute, but the best experience from a tech perspective is Counting Balls. It's basically a game where you move a single JoyCon and rely on the feedback to guess how many balls are in a box.
It's incredibly precise and you can get rather creative with it. At first, I was rolling the balls back and forth and trying to count them as they hit each other or the end of the box. But you can actually start jutting your hand forward, as if you were shaking a pan on a stove (thereby having the balls hit the end of the box and then roll backwards).
It's cool tech, but it's incredibly underused right now. I can see racing games and flight-esque simulators taking advantage of it quite well, but is anyone really expecting F1 2018 or Elite: Dangerous to end up on the Switch any time soon? (A Switch version of Star Fox could be fun, though.)
There's a JoyCon Grip that acts as a charger. None of the Nintendo attendants could confirm whether the JoyCon grip supplied with the console was a charging grip, however, although at $40 it's not a huge hassle to acquire separately.
The tablet takes 3 hours to charge to full. The console ships with an AC adapter that connects via the USB-C port. It's not a fast-charging port, however, so if you have a long daily commute you'll want to be charging during the day. This was announced beforehand, but it's worth remembering.
You couldn't really get an idea of how light the Switch just as a tablet. It felt reasonably light but every single console had a thick security lock bolted onto the back of the console, which added a bit of weight.
Fighting games could be a little weird on the JoyCons. The left JoyCon has buttons for the directional pad instead of a traditional D-pad. That makes sense for how most games use the D-pad - they're just four extra buttons, really - but when you play a fighting game, like Street Fighter 2, it's a little weird. Anyone who really wants to get into fighting games on the Switch will probably get a Pro Controller or a fighting stick anyway, but it's one of those niche scenarios where the logic behind Nintendo's thinking comes unstuck a little.
Nintendo's pitch for 1-2 Switch doesn't make a great deal of sense. The chief appeal and problem with the mini-games is that they all revolve around you looking at your opponent. That's fine, but it means you end up relying on sound for your instructions instead of the visual cues that you'd ordinarily get on the screen.
If you're at your house with a mate, that's not a problem. Blast the speakers all you want. But if you're taking the Switch on the road or out in public, it means you have to be in a fairly quiet setting. Part of the Switch's reveal trailer showed off people enjoying the console at rooftop bars and other party settings - and I don't know what house parties or bars Nintendo goes to, but the ones I've been in aren't usually that quiet. (And if they are, that's probably because I'm leaving.)
1-2 Switch doesn't make sense in those scenarios, even though that's part of Nintendo's marketing. It's a bit of a shame, because it's also indicative of the fact that Nintendo are still using hardware gimmicks as a selling point instead of doubling down on what consumers want in the long run - games.
The tablet didn't really heat up while playing. Part of the Zelda and Splatoon 2 demos was the ability to play the console as a handheld, which was a good chance to see how much it heats up while playing. Answer: it doesn't, at least not to any significant degree. You can feel a bit of warmth there, and that was with the security latch attached, but it's well below what smartphones can put out (while playing a game or charging, Note7 shenanigans not included).
Surprisingly, Arms was the best game on show. I say this in the sense that Breath of the Wild is already a known quantity. The demo was actually the same content shown off at EB Expo and E3 last year, but running on the Switch. And that was kind of the case for most of the games: once they were announced, you knew what they were, and you knew what to expect.
But nobody knew walking in how fun Arms would be, even if the punching mechanic is a little weird in practice. It's a third-person 1v1 fighter where you hold and tilt both of the JoyCons to move, punch and dodge. Tilting in any of the cardinal directions moves you around, while extending either of your arms forward launches a punch. Throwing both at the same time throws out a grab, while tilting your hands in acts as a guard.
The first time you play it devolves into a bout of flailing, but it becomes immediately obvious that Arms is more a game of counter-punches and dodges. You can also curve your punches by twisting your hand as you punch - which is weird, since it means throwing a technically accurate punch in real life result in curved punches in-game.
It's strangely clever, and thoroughly enjoyable. It's the most infectious, Wii Tennis-esque game the Switch has. It won't have it at launch, but alongside Mario Kart and Zelda, this will probably best game on the Switch in the first three months after launch.
1-2 Switch is more a series of tech demos than actual games. Ball Counting, as mentioned before, is a simple guessing game showing off the HD rumble pack. Table Tennis is basically a game based on sound, where you swing the JoyCon based on the sound of the ping pong ball hitting the table. (The idea is that you measure your timing based on the person across from you, rather than any actual hand-eye co-ordination.) Safe Count is basically a simulation of turning a combination lock and waiting for the HD rumble pack to give you feedback.
They're fun for a while, but not something you'd play for an hour straight. That said, there's also Milk which is better described in a GIF from my colleagues at Gizmodo:
Yeah. It's weird.
Out of everything, Quick Draw was the most replayable and the most logical winner. You look at your opponent, wait for the sound and then flick the JoyCon up and pull the trigger in a simulation of duelling pistols.
On the opposite side of the spectrum was Samurai Training, which is probably the worst of all the Switch games I saw during the presentation. The concept is simple enough: one person swings a JoyCon like a sword, while the other tries to "catch" it mid-air.
Where it comes unstuck is the catching: The catching is done by clapping your hands while you're holding the JoyCon, a process that I could never find comfortable. For one, if you have the JoyCon buttons facing your other palm you have to somehow clap while not slamming your hand on the analog stick, which is a recipe for disaster. The idea is sound, but it would have been more interesting and more replayable if the defender was blocking the sword instead of trying to catch it (since it opens up more angles for attack).
Zelda: Breath of the Wild runs better on the Switch, unsurprisingly. If you're playing on a big screen the flaws become more obvious, but when played in tablet mode it pretty much looks and plays exactly like people dreamed. It's still not completely smooth - there's still some pop-in issues and the occasional frame drops around explosions and such - but it's a nicer, sharper experience.
As mentioned before, the tablet itself has solid brightness and the visuals are quite sharp. But the Switch version also has a bunch of visual improvements: the draw distance has been expanded, the lighting and shadows are a little better, the water looks better, the grass is a bit cleaner. It's basically the way to play Zelda, which must be a little infuriating for those who are going to play it on the Wii U.
Nintendo didn't really demo Splatoon 2 very well. The gyro controls are the default way to play Splatoon 2, which is all well and good. But it's a completely illogical control scheme if you're playing the game in tablet mode: you're already focusing on a smaller screen space, and that can be difficult enough without flailing the console around at the same time.
As a game, it's basically more Splatoon. If you loved the original, you're going to love the sequel. It played well, the performance was fine, and I'm looking forward to it. But it won't convert anyone who already wasn't a fan, and that was evident enough in my three hour preview session: after the first hour the Splatoon 2 booth, which was about equal in space to what was devoted to Zelda (albeit more open), was empty.
The mix of smaller titles are decent, but they're also nothing new. Outside of Nintendo's new games, the playable titles included a new Bomberman, Fast RMX (basically Fast Racing NEO with more content), Sonic Mania, a HD remake of Street Fighter 2, Snipperclips, Just Dance, Disagea 5, Has Been Heroes, and Skylanders Imaginators.
There wasn't anything technically surprising or intriguing about those games individually. They ran well, looked good, but they weren't anything that would push someone that was on the fence about the Switch. That's not just a problem because of how much the console costs, but also what games it has to offer - and the way they're being offered.
Mario Kart is great - but everyone's been playing Mario Kart for years. Splatoon 2 is awesome but it's not fundamentally a new experience (and gyro controls are an awful way to introduce it to someone). And Zelda is a massive game, but it doesn't have that mass market generational appeal that Mario sort of does or Wii Sports did. You can't just hand your Mum a controller and expect her to know how to play Zelda.
That doesn't matter to the Nintendo faithful, but it'll be an important cog in how the Switch does in the longer term. Right now, the cupboard is a little bare: if you said to a PS4 or Xbox One owner that they only had three major first-party titles to look forward to in a year, they'd feel a bit cheated.
There's still so much we don't know about the Switch, and that was a feature of their preview as well. We don't know what the home interface looks like at all, and the console is due out in two months. The tablet has a touch screen - but we've not seen anything that uses touch. We don't know what the virtual console titles are going to be like, and we haven't seen the social features in action, including the smartphone app that players need for voice chat.
It'll also be critical to see how the Switch's wireless capabilities hold up in the real world. For one, we don't know what the wireless range of the JoyCon controllers is. We also don't know what the performance of games are like when you have eight consoles hooked up over Wi-Fi, as opposed to two, three or four. And there's still the supply question, something the Mini NES Classic has brought painfully into view.
The biggest takeaway from the Switch hands-on, and the presentation beforehand, was the fact that the status quo hasn't changed. People who were already encouraged to buy the Switch are now sold. Those who were on the fence are still there, if they haven't dropped off due to the price. And those who were sceptical about the Switch's specifications and online infrastructure, if anything, were vindicated.
That's a shame, not just for Nintendo but the whole industry. The Switch is still a lot of fun, and I'm certain that owners will have more fun with it and will have an easier time justifying their purchase than they will with the Wii U. But gamers wanted something that competed on par with the PS4 and Xbox One, not in terms of raw hardware but in terms of the first-party lineup and the sheer enjoyment of what's available.
The Switch can still do that. If you aren't already excited for Zelda and the new Mario didn't catch your eye, it's a lot harder to do. And that's the problem for the Switch and Nintendo in 2017. It's fun to catch the train and pull out a legitimate gaming console - but it's all for naught if you're not interested in playing Zelda or Mario.