Everything We Learned About The Nintendo Switch

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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.


The Hardware

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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.

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker
Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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:

Image: Nintendo Japan

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.

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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).


The Games

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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.

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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).

Image: Kotaku/Alex Walker

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.


Comments

    I'm on the fence, but I know I will come home and find one there that the missus impulse bought.

      My wife and i watched it together and thought it was alright but nothing worth buying on launch and then she saw the red blue controllers...

    I'm assuming that brightness on the screen is modifiable - by software I suppose, if there is no hardware slider/button for it? Must be part of that UI we haven't seen yet.

    Something I've just thought of and would be interested to hear; as a hypothetical, when you play Mario Kart with both Joycons and a singleplayer using the Grip (i.e. like a normal controller), the ABXY buttons are in one configuration.

    When you play Mario Kart multi using split Joycons, the right Joycon (as an example) is sideways, meaning the ABXY buttons are now at a turned 90degree configuration.

    Do you still hit the same button fro the same thing (i.e. "top" button of the diamond for the same thing horizontally as the "top" button when using it vertically), or do you hit the button the action is assigned to (i.e. the "B" button, which is now in a different position when holding horizontal to when holding vertical)?

    I'm interested to see how they will convey in-game directions considering these changes; and if you are using the left one, which direction button you press on the "d-pad" when using it horizontally. They can't tell you to "press A" because there is no ABXY on that.

    I've noticed in Snipperclips they display a diamond of buttons and colour in the one you are supposed to press, same in Zelda for some actions. So maybe it would be worthwhile removing the letter assignations completely?

      You'd assume re. the brightness setting would be accessible somewhere. My guess is it's in the menu somewhere, but that was locked off at the event.

      Regarding the right JoyCon, I actually didn't think about that; I just instinctively hit what the B button would have been in relation to how I was holding it. So the answer: yes, you hit the button in relation to where it would be normally on the controller, even if the actual positioning of the JoyCon has been flipped around.

      So in that sense getting rid of the letters would be helpful - but then you'd confuse a lot of people too, and it'd play badly in the mass market crowd Nintendo wants to aim at.

    Well written. There's a lot of potential in the system, but so many questions are unanswered that I feel would help sell the system in the long term. Hopefully we'll know more within the next few weeks before launch.

    On that note, a Fire Emblem specific Nintendo Direct is expected this week...

    I am very pleased to see you are not a nail biter Alex.
    Good article and is not the biased take I have read from other sites. I am not impressed by it, but having not used the device(s), so I am not really in a position of authority to comment other than I won't be buying it as I feel I have out grown Nintendo many years ago.
    Actually, that is a first, me outgrowing something!

      Thanks, that's very kind. As to getting hands-on, Nintendo announced during the presentation that they'll do hands-on events for the public (this was from Reggie, so in America) before the launch. I'd expect that to happen in Australia as well, same way Sony did with PSVR. (And when I say expect, I am speculating, but it'd also be supremely odd for Nintendo not to do it. It's a very retail-friendly console.)

    Great write up
    It actually made me thinking of getting the switch after all

    Thinking about it playing on the go with the kick stand does look fun

    Though do we have any info if it is capable of 1080p or 4k output in dock?
    I'm assuming it'll max out at 720p given the resolution of the screen

      Edit: OK, have some more information for you. In tablet mode it's 720p, as mentioned before. When docked, it can display games up to 1080p.

      No word on whether you'll be able to get 4K output for something like, say, Netflix.

        Thanks Alex

        I was deadset against buying it but damn you and your article. I think it might be a launch day purchase

        4k is iffy. It uses the maxwell architecture, which some do and some don't support 4k so it'll be down to the implementation in the switch. Bearing in mind this is for x.264. X.265 isn't supported on a hardware level by maxwell, but could be implemented software wise for playback.

          Pretty much. Technically possible but unlikely is probably the best way to put it.

    I'll never outgrow nintendo. I have all the consoles as a 41 year old manchild. Nintendo still own pure innocent fun and staggering gameplay

    Last edited 16/01/17 5:09 pm

      This. I just turned 32 and I'll be buying this. I can't outgrow all age games or fun.

    Regarding BotW performance, did they actually show the current WiiU version so you could compare them?

    Do we know what hardware is driving this thing? Or is it basically a NVIDIA shield?

      It's an nVidia X1.
      The shield is a K1
      the X1 is a big upgrade spec wise.

    the tilt controls in splatoon take a little to get used to but if it's stuck in tilt aiming you just need to keep it still and you can still use the right stick for aiming.
    but when you are used to it (takes 10 minutes) tilt aiming is far more accurate and closes the gap between controller and mouse/keyboard for accuracy in fps.

      Agreed. What I did was turn the sensitivity way down and as I got used to the tilt fuction, I would turn it up. It ended up working out great for me and I did not regret it.

      Though I can't imagine them being so great when the screen is attached to the thing you're meant to be tilting, which I think was the main problem here.

      Fine in something like ZombiU where you're using the screen as a scanner around the area, not so much when it's for quick twitch actions where you're trying to be precise on the screen at the same time you're moving it.

    So many questions, a couple to start:

    - So the tablet has a touchscreen - how does that work when docked? Are the touchscreen UI elements accessible another way?

    - How does Splatoon 2 play without a second screen map/teleport control? It was pretty tactical keeping an eye on the map, not to mention built tension when you could see how close the contest was in Splatoon.

    Anyway, there is still plenty of time for answers.

      The only way I can see touch screen working while docked is if you use the joycons similar to a Wii controller, but instead of IR, they use gyros. Either that or they use the sticks to move a cursor like the do with the pro controller on Wii u.

      Touchscreen games will either have controller equivelants or you may have to use the thing undocked (Nintendo may have rules about not allowing this, who knows).

      From what I understand of Splatoon2 there is a button that will show the map. You can then press 1 of the 4 directions on the D pad to jump to either home or the 3 teammates. To be honest I only very briefly glanced at it when playing to check if an area needed attending to. Super easy to tap the button in this case.

    The touch screen is there for Mario Maker 2, obv.

    Can't wait to buy one on Gumtree second hand hardly used. I can see the appeal wearing off very quickly for some households.

    Question (and I might have missed this) - does the Switch come with a game in the package or that another $90.00+ I need to spend on release day?

      From what I've read elsewhere, the $470 doesn't seem to include any bundled games ala Wii Sport with the Wii or Nintendo Land with the Wii U. So yes, need to add the cost of a game at launch.

      Last edited 16/01/17 11:00 pm

    i cant seem to find any information anywhere about the actual game delivery.

    are they solely cartridge based? how big(capacity wise) are the carts
    how many games could actually fit on the 32GB internal storage

    im assuming not but is there any backwards compatibility with online purchases from the wii u.

    and do i really need to pay full price to play a real version of mario kart battle mode on the switch.

    ive preordered the thing anyway (with the zelda special edition no less) but im still very skeptical.

    and finally if it is basically just an nvidia shield then can we please have an app for gamestream so i can use it to play my pc games on. that would be the perfect device then
    (i am aware there is next to zero chance of this but i can dream cant i)

      It uses cartridges but you can digital download. You can also add SD cards up to 2TB. And no, Nintendo is not going to add PC streaming to their console.

    The transition from docked to tablet mode is almost instantaneous....
    ...Here's a snippet of it in action with Bomberman:
    Just me and my POS work puter or is there nothing there?

    I didn't realize until now just how much I've been put off the Switch because of the price. I'm in NZ, and it's $550, without a game (so let's be honest, it's $650 with Zelda).

    I could spend less than that on a PS4 Pro, make some money back off my old PS4, enjoy all the games I already own and likely (and unfortunately) play new games better with the updated console. AND I will probably be able to enjoy more third-party games.

    As much as I love the Zelda series, I don't think I love it that much. Unless I become rich soon.

      Well yes, the PS4 has been out for awhile so has more games. That is a given.

        The Wii U has been out longer than the PS4 but has almost half the amount of games.

        When buying a Nintendo product you have to factor in that it probably wont get more than 3-4 decent games a year so I think its fair to say that at this point you are paying a lot of money for a very small amount of games.

      But you can't play a PS4 on a bus or plane. So a PS4 isn't a direct comparison.

        I can buy a $1k gaming laptop and play 200+ steam games on it that I already own or get more for less than $80-90 a throw.

        All comparisons are valid depending on the user and if you want to play Zelda at home on console, $550 is expensive. I would like to play the new Zelda, but I'll never use the switch capability of this thing, so the system becomes a bit of a white elephant as far as I'm concerned.

          I will probably not use the portable bit either, but still looking fwd to it.

          yeah, and I can compare that to watching Netflix instead if you want to completely abstract the comparisons. You can compare anything.

          My point is a direct comparison. a like for like product.

          If you can find a gaming tablet for less similar specs then I'm all ears. The only things that I can find are the Acer Predator 8 GT (also $299 usd) and the 3rd gen Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 ($520 AUD RRP)

          Last edited 17/01/17 6:15 pm

            No, straight up comparing it to my PS4 is legit based on what I want. It's in the home console market, portability is just a gimmick to me as a consumer because it's essentially of no use to me. It's a $550 investment in playing Nintendo brand games. I'd rather watch this Nintendo gimmick die and play Mario on PSV.

    I'm being indulgent, but could we perhaps try and round up some prices of the 'starter's kit' accesories for this thing, please?

    I'm aware information is still fluid at the minute, but a round-up and comparison of all the various bits and bobs, not to mention the game(s?) (:D) at launch from EB/JB/etc would probably be helpful.

    Who wants to help? I mean, closer to launch would be more beneficial I suppose, but hey. I need to perhaps plan this out.

      It's all on the front page of EB's website. Specials won't come out until it's about to launch.

    I wish Naughty Dog made games for the Xbone so I could just sell my PS4 to help pay for this.

    Nintendo need to aim at kids again instead of the kidult market

      I disagree, Nintendo needs to stick to their guns and release some quality content again.

      Zelda is a good start but why not jump on the bandwagon that everyone else is on at the moment and bring out some more hardcore nintendo titles!

      Secret of Mana, Front Mission, Mario etc etc, the old school stuff because now the target market for when they were releasing that are now mature tailor it to us older people who grew up with the love for nintendo as well as hitting the kiddy market with things like splatoon, motion games etc

        ya got me at secret of mana VR
        Yes please

    The idea is great but the cost is to much for me. i dont see my using it that much for a few games i would maybe play.

    Will the Switch have trophies or achievements like the other guys?

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