On Saturday 15h January, I was lucky enough to attend a presentation of Nintendo’s upcoming hybrid console, the Switch, at a pre-launch event held in London’s Hammersmith Eventim Apollo. I managed to get some decent hands-on play time with several new games, including the highly anticipated new entry in the Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild. Before we get into the games, let me tell you about the console itself.
The first thing I noticed about the Switch was the size. It’s absolutely tiny; the main device itself is far smaller and thinner than the Wii U Gamepad. It would be a little later on when I actually beheld the main unit myself but my first experience touching it was to play Arms, a new IP from Nintendo themselves, and perhaps the most promising title on display, barring Zelda. Using two of the Joy-Cons, one in each hand, Arms proved to be a good example of how the gyroscopes worked.
The first thing I noticed about the Switch was the size…
In terms of the actual feel, the Joy-Cons were very small in my hands, but not uncomfortable. The design, much like the main unit, is inspired. Neat and compact but with several bells and whistles which confounded me at first. It took some getting used to but it will soon become second nature to most players after some good quality gaming time. There are far more buttons than I was expecting, especially for such a little device. On the left Joy-Con, you have an analogue stick and directional buttons, but unlike the usual D-Pad configuration of past consoles, these are more like separate face buttons. These felt a bit weird to use in Zelda but with the Joy-Con acting as a standalone controller, held sideways, it felt like any other tiny controller. There was a good amount of space between the stick and buttons and two other face buttons, a “capture” one and the minus one. What surprised me was the new “S” buttons on the right side. I had no idea these existed until I actually touched them. They feel like shoulder buttons and come in SL and SR flavours, much like the Wii U’s ZL and ZR triggers. Held sideways, like a NES controller, these would probably act as shoulder buttons instead of the actual L and ZL which rest next to each other on top of the Joy-Con if it was held in a vertical position. If any of this sounds confusing, please check the nearby image for references to the buttons positions!
The L and ZL buttons are strange and were slightly disappointing at first. The L button is very thin and feels more like the shoulder button of a 3DS or even PSP. The Z triggers are a little too close to the shoulder buttons on both Joy-Cons and don’t protrude as much as they did on the Wii U. Finally, there’s a sync button in between the S buttons and a set of LED lights indicating player number assignment. When the Joy-Cons are connected to the cradle dock (more on that later), you won’t be able to see the S buttons and everything else on that side. The right Joy-Con is identical with a couple of exceptions. To start with, if you hold the controller sideways, NES style, the analogue stick sits a little further away from the left side than the left Joy-Con’s does. It’s not much of a difference but the slight stretch your left thumb makes to reach the stick is noticeable. The classic diamond formation face buttons are present and are identical to the new D-Pad style. The buttons are small and come out a little bit more than say, the 3DS’ buttons. Also on the right Joy-Con are the Home and plus buttons. Everything else is therefore the same except that the right Joy-Con contains a Motion IR camera, which can apparently detect an object’s size, shape and distance. I only discovered this once I got home and didn’t really notice it in action so it remains to be seen how this feature is integrated into games further down the line. I believe this also acts as an NFC reader, so keep those amiibos handy!
Another new feature, and one that I was particularly impressed by, was the enhanced vibration feature of the Joy-Cons. Dubbed “Haptic Feedback’ or HD Rumble, this interesting innovation basically means that the Joy-Con can vibrate in different parts at different times and at different intensities. For example, one of the mini-games we played as part of the 1,2 Switch compilation, had my friend and I tilting the Joy-Cons around while on the screen, our actions translated as a box with several balls hidden inside it moving at 1:1 speed. The object of the game was to guess how many balls were in the box, and while it seemed unfeasible at first, seeing the balls slide around the box as you tilted the Joy-Con suddenly made a lot of sense. It actually felt like there was something loose in the Joy-Con. The potential for interesting usage of this HD Rumble feature is huge, so I look forward to finding out what lays in store for games on this machine.
The potential for interesting usage of this HD Rumble feature is huge…
With Zelda, the control scheme used was the docking style, whereby both Joy-Cons were attached to the Joy-Con Grip, resulting in a more or less standard looking controller, albeit one that is slightly ugly to look at and has been the butt of several internet memes already. It felt fairly comfortable and the back hand grips were very comfortable. It felt very similar to a Wii U Pro Controller. It was here however that I discovered the slightly annoying sensation of the D-Pad. It felt a little too far out of the way and odd to have buttons rather than a standard set of directions. Given time, players will get accustomed to it, so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and I was willing to overlook it, given that I was busy enjoying Zelda at the time. The final configuration I tried was the portable mode, where the Joy-Cons were attached to the screen (which, need I remind you, is the actual console) and this was used to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
This felt like a Wii U Gamepad, but the Switch is much thinner and heavier, giving it a solid and satisfying feel. No longer does it feel like a cheap, plastic toy. Indeed, it feels like a larger version of a PS Vita, but has a metallic quality to it that is satisfying to the touch. It was hard to judge just exactly how heavy and metallic the Switch was because the unit I was using had a security clamp on it but it didn’t take up much space. The screen itself has the same dimensions as the Wii U one, but the quality is much sharper. The upgraded visual sheen on Mario Kart wasn’t immediately apparent but after the first lap in an 8 player race, I noticed the frame rate and resolution was top notch. Apparently, the console is capable of 1080p when in docking mode and 720p resolution in handheld mode but to most casual players, this won’t make a massive difference. Again, the only slightly off-putting element here was the Z triggers, which were very close to the thin shoulder buttons, but I was power sliding around the track like a seasoned veteran in no time.
I also got to play with the Pro Controller, which essentially felt almost identical to the Wii U’s one, with the exception of the shoulder button design again. This will be most players’ controller of choice for hardcore titles or more standard games but to be honest, the Joy-Con Grip method works almost as well, so it might not be worth shelling out the £60 asking price.
In terms of battery life, a video presentation on display at the event showed that the Switch unit in handheld mode can last between 2 and 6 hours, depending on how much the system is being pushed. As an example, they indicated that Zelda would last approximately 3 hours, with resolution locked to 720p in handheld mode and 900p while docked. If you ask me, this is plenty of time to play during commutes to work etc, and a dip in resolution and perhaps frame rate is a small price to pay for such a unique device. I asked a member of staff about charging all the peripherals and he said they can be charged in tandem, or separately using the dock. This would mean that you’d have to keep an eye on each Joy-Con’s battery life and the unit itself, though you may as well charge them all together. I read later that the lithium ion batteries in the Joy-Cons last approximately 20 hours.
a dip in resolution and perhaps frame rate is a small price to pay for such a unique device…
Other features of the main Switch unit include a kick-stand and a SDXC slot that can take up to 2TB of extra memory, which would be a great help considering the console has a measly 32GB of internal storage. Games come on cartridges which are about the size of PS Vita games. I assume game data is saved directly onto these cards, freeing up space but games will require installation, with Zelda taking up almost half of your storage space! I’m not sure what the technical reason for this could be, but it does seem like an oversight. It may be worth noting at this point that the Switch will not feature dual screen functionality like the Wii U did. The unit essentially remains on standby mode while docked in console mode. I don’t think this aspect will be greatly missed however, as the vast majority of Wii U games didn’t make proper use of it.
Now on to the games…
The first game my friend and I tried out was Nintendo’s new IP, Arms. At first I was only mildly interested, but after giving it a go, I was confident that this could be a lot of fun given some time and practice. Essentially a cartoony boxing game like Punch-Out, the difference here is that each combatant has a pair of unique “gloves” attached to springy arms that can reach out several meters. The idea is to move, dodge, block and counter your opponent and throw your fists forward to punch. The control set up involved the use of the left and right Joy-Cons held like bomb triggers in your hands. Tilting both in a given direction would move your fighter accordingly, while pointing them diagonally towards each other would let you block. Imagine holding two swords, one in each hand, and crossing the blades in front of your face in an X shape and you’ll get it. The L and R buttons were dodge and jump respectively and these could be combined for aerial dodges and last second counters. Depressing both Z triggers initiated a flurry special move which had you flail like a moron at the screen, hitting your opponent with a devastating combo. For punching, simply punching the air did the trick, like Wii Sports, but the gyroscope technology is far more advanced and subtle here. With a twist of your wrist, you can curve your punches, letting you do hooks and chase your opponent if they tried to dodge. This was confusing at first but on our second go, we realised you could just mimic real punches and your character would more or less emulate it in real time. Another move was a throw, where punching with both hands would send out your arms forward to grab an opponent for extra damage.
Arms looks set to be the surprise hit for the Switch…
The selection of fighters was very limited in the demo we played but before each fight you had the option of changing the gloves on each hand. The main character, Ribbon Man, for example, has standard boxing gloves but I chose to have his left hand a fan which was slower but had longer range and was easier to curve. Other characters have rocket gloves, electric knuckles, bladed chakrams and other variations, allowing for a decent amount of customisation. I assume more characters and weapons will be available in the full game. On top of this, we discovered that you could potentially aim at specific body parts if you were really good. We clashed fists on several occasions and you can even disable one arm if you keep hitting the same spot enough times. The arenas were quite varied, with one being set in a laboratory, where one could hide behind glass tanks and pop out to attack when the opportunity presented itself. The potential for tense and tactical fights is huge. The graphics were solid, colourful and simple, with some nice animations and light effects but nothing to write home about.
All in all, Arms looks set to be the surprise hit for the Switch and I imagine that outside of Zelda, this will be most players’ launch title. I reckon it will gather a cult following soon and even some competitive tournaments in future.
Effectively this generation’s mini game compilation, 1-2-Switch acts as Wii Play or other party games of that ilk. In truth, it is not as interesting as most of those, acting more like a glorified series of tech demos for the extremely casual market. The potential for fun is there though; indeed my friend and I had some laughs with it but I can’t imagine it’s appeal will last more than a couple of drunk evenings with friends. I’ve already mentioned one of the games, the puzzle box where you guess the number of balls in the box, but we also tried a couple more. One was a samurai based game in which two players took it in turns to hit the other with a kendo stick. After the countdown, the game requests that both players look each other in the eye. The attacker can then attempt a slice at any moment of their choosing while the defending player must clap with the Joy-Con in time to block it. This was a very simple yet fun game and was similar to the quick-draw shoot out one, in which both players must hold their Joy-Cons at their side and then draw and shoot make-believe pistols when the narrator yells fire. A video is then shown accurately depicting the time taken (usually less than a second unless you’re really slow) and the angle of the shot to a great degree of accuracy. This was by far the tensest mini game on offer.
The potential for fun is there…
Another simple yet effective use of the HD Rumble was the safe cracking game. Here, you competed against another player to be the first to open a safe by turning the Joy-Con, represented as a safe dial on screen, and feeling for changes in vibration. These were very subtle, so you have to to really have to feel the vibrations and focus. Finally, we played a cow milking one. Needless to say, it was pretty awkward sitting opposite my friend, eyes locked together as we pumped our hands up and down, milking an invisible cow. At first I was losing, not because of the motions, which I executed impeccably, but because of the awkward way in which you had to use the S buttons on the inside of the controller. Holding the top button first, you dragged your hand down and then switched to the bottom button with your ring finger as you feel the vibration realistically sliding down the Joy-Con. It was another clever use of the smart rumble feature and we ended on a draw of 10 cups of milk each.
Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers
There were a few third party games on display at the event but I needed to test out the Pro Controller which I did with some classic Street Fighter. The game itself is an enhanced version of the Super HD Remix one released on last gen consoles; with new artwork by Udon and the addition of two characters, Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. It played exactly like the classic and t was nice to see the franchise on a Nintendo system once again. You can switch graphical styles from the shiny HD lick of paint to the retro 16-bit look of the SNES era at the touch of a button but this didn’t occur to me as my friend and I picked random characters (I got Cammy) and we got to it. The Pro controller felt familiar and comfortable and slightly chunkier and sturdier than the Wii U’s one but with the thin shoulder buttons. Overall, I was pretty happy with it but the steep price will put me off buying one until I absolutely need it. Maybe for a Smash Bros game, unless they allow the use of a GameCube shaped controller in future…
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
A port of the Wii U classic, Deluxe features a few new characters and all the DLC from the original version. Here, we got to try playing the Switch using just the handheld screen, which I found to be very sturdy and comfortable to use. The screen resolution was crisp and clear and gameplay was the same old Mario Kart, tight and refined and very fun. We played an ad-hoc 8 player race in which I ended in third place. There was no discernible difference between the original version and this; even the graphics seemed the same to me and I didn’t bother trying out the new characters but for those who don’t own the Wii U version, I would strongly recommend getting this in the launch window period as it is the definitive version of arguably the best Mario Kart game made. The Battle Mode is meant to be revamped as well and with all the additional content, it is sure to be a big seller yet again.
I was lucky enough to get my hands-on with Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and you can check out my preview of the game here. Believe me; this is a game you have to get!
There was no playable demo of Super Mario Odyssey, only a trailer on loop, and other playable games at the show were Sonic Mania, Super Bomberman R, Fast RMX, Has Been Heroes, Disgaea 5 Complete, Splatoon 2, Just Dance, Skylanders Imaginators and Snipperclips, none of which I had time (or patience) to play.
If there was one word I could use to sum up my feelings towards the Nintendo Switch, it would be this: potential. It’s an innovative piece of technical ingenuity. An under-powered and niche little console, like its two immediate predecessors, one that could never hope to match the likes of its behemoth-like competitors, Sony and Microsoft. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to compete. It just needs to stand on its own two feet. There is enough innovation here to open the doors to many new and exciting gaming experiences. No doubt Nintendo’s rivals will seek to emulate their dexterity and originality. Yes, Nintendo does go against the norm and sometimes their stubbornness to conform can frustrate the gamer in all of us. But nobody does innovation quite like Nintendo. You probably won’t find a console that provides as much versatility and fun than the Switch. It remains to be seen how the games will hold up, particularly third party support, but the amount of options you have with the Switch is pretty special. As I said: potential.
The Nintendo Switch will be released on March 3rd, priced £280 RRP.