Hands-On With the Nintendo Switch

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splatoon 2
We’re not calling it ‘Spla2n,’ Nintendo? I thought we had an understanding.

Last weekend, I was invited (along with my longtime co-conspirator GeekMom Kelly) to NYC to take part in Nintendo’s first proper North American Switch event. With a steady trickle of bloggers, YouTubers, game streamers, and print media representatives making their way to the Kimpton Hotel Eventi in Chelsea, Thursday afternoon was a time for check-ins and meet-ups—and, at least in my case, consuming a positively staggering amount of Korean BBQ.

Then that night, alongside the rest of the waking world, we gathered together to watch the grand unveiling of Nintendo’s next console via a livestream of the official Tokyo presentation.

Thursday Night Live

Viewing a press conference in a room full of strangers is itself a pretty unique experience. Yet it soon became apparent that, regardless of whether you were an old press veteran or a product of the next wave of enthusiast journalism, we all had plenty of questions, comments, and speculations.

Right off the bat we were treated to the Switch’s official release date and MSRP. Arriving on March 3rd at a price of $299, we get the system earlier than anticipated but at slightly higher than the $250 many suspected.

Still, nothing could compare with the audience reaction once it was revealed that the Nintendo Switch will be region-free. While the same is true of practically every portable system up to the 3DS, Nintendo’s consoles have leaned increasingly on region locking, especially in recent cycles.

From there, the remainder of the stream was dedicated to exploring both already anticipated and surprising new titles, peppered at irregular intervals with third-party endorsements of Nintendo’s vision for the Switch ecosystem. This made for a mixed bag, and for every enthusiastic vote of confidence from Bethesda, we also got a perplexing non-statement from SEGA or a slightly unhinged display from Suda51. (Seriously; who let that guy in?!)

Personal favorite moments included hints of an upcoming Shin Megami Tensei title as well as Fire Emblem Warriors. The latter of these was later clarified (by Marc Franklin, Senior Director of Public Relations at Nintendo of America) to be a hack-and-slash series spin-off à la Hyrule Warriors, and we will surely learn more in today’s special Fire Emblem Direct presentation.

The juiciest reveals, however, were surely those concerning Nintendo’s big two: Mario and The Legend of Zelda.

Super Mario Odyssey will take place across a myriad of landscapes, but the first profiled in the trailer was New Donk City, an in-game analog that made our trek into NYC seem all the more prescient. Then there was the event-ending hoopla surrounding The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I said multiple times—to anyone who’d listen—that surely this would be a release title. Certainly, Nintendo wouldn’t lead us on only to disappoint us with an ambivalent “Coming Spring 2017” closing placard.

In the end, it turned out that I was right, and surely Breath of the Wild will be the game in everyone’s systems come launch day.

Potent Portables

What the stream didn’t discuss was the role that the Switch’s take-along functionality will play in Nintendo’s long-term portable gaming strategy. It’s important to point out that the company has reigned practically unopposed in the dedicated handheld gaming market since the first Game Boys landed on store shelves in 1989.

Considering how important the New 3DS line alone has been in my family’s regular gaming sessions, this quickly became the focus of my Friday morning sit-down with Nintendo’s Marc Franklin.

Mark calmed my fears by reminding me that 2016 saw six consecutive months of year-on-year sales growth in the 3DS market, further saying:

We are going to strongly support the 3DS platform. […] There is no slowdown for that system, and we’ve announced a number of titles that are coming out; we have the Dragon Quest VIII game coming, we have Mario [Sports] Superstars coming, we have Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World coming, we have a new Pikmin game coming. Those are just some of the games we’ve announced […] and there are others that are coming too.

Mr. Franklin was happy to point out that the 2DS, 3DS, and Switch are all distinct entry points–both with regard to price and software offerings–into the Nintendo brand. More points of entry mean more potential new (and returning) fans, which ultimately strengthens Nintendo’s offerings across the board.

A quick look at that upcoming 3DS release list has led me to the following conclusion: the noble Nintendo 3DS ain’t going away anytime soon. My presumption is that the company will simply wait and see how Switch adoption goes. Once the install base is there, and if it seems like the Switch is widely accepted as a suitable mobile gaming environment, I can see Nintendo eventually phasing out dedicated handhelds. But if that doesn’t happen? Well, then they’ve still got the option for a proper 3DS successor.

Control(ler) Freak

After talking with Marc, I returned to the gaming floor to really dive into the available Switch library. In a span of a little under four hours, I played a lot of games. I played a lot of games a lot of different ways. Most importantly, though, I had a lot of fun.

My big takeaway is that the Switch’s variable Joy-Con controller interface legitimately works in all configurations.

Attached to the Grip peripheral, the Joy-Con feel like a traditional controller. A little taller and fatter than the DualShocks we’ve become accustomed to over the years, sure, but still fully functional.

When clipped to the sides of the Switch tablet itself, the double Joy-Con/touchscreen combo feels, unsurprisingly, like a new-generation Wii U GamePad. While that’s sure to elicit groans from a subset of gamers, I’d just like to say that the GamePad has been, hands down, my favorite controller of this generation. Similarly, I found the Switch in Handheld Mode to be solid and responsive, with a nice distribution of weight that feels stable and comfortable. Also, while the watercolor-inspired graphics of LoZ: BotW look nice on the big screen, the game is perfectly gorgeous in Handheld Mode—for the first time ever, it genuinely felt like I was playing a console title on a portable system.

Uh… Okay. #NYCSwitchEvent

A photo posted by Z. (@hipsterplease) on Jan 13, 2017 at 11:12am PST

Kelly and I used single Joy-Con controls on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and, despite my misgivings, we managed to complete two full races unimpeded. Of all the Joy-Con modes, this one will take the most getting used to. There were times when I felt I was holding the Joy-Con too tightly and other times when I felt the need to further choke up on its central mass. Still, as unassuming and diminutive as they are, individual Joy-Con do appear to be not only a valid controller option but also the one that offers the most promise for fast, easy multiplayer.

joy-con
So tiny!

My favorite option, however, was the loosey-goosey feel of both Joy-Con detached from the base, with the left and right each in the corresponding hand. Imagine this as the polar opposite of your initial Wii Remote experience; there was no fumbling to properly orient the controls, no guesswork regarding position or posture. I simply grasped the controller arrays and settled comfortably into the sofa. As I was playing Skylanders Imaginators at the time, I was further impressed that I could easily scan in figures via the Joy-Con’s onboard NFC reader–all without ever standing up.

Launch Menu

Between Thursday night’s livestream, Friday morning’s introduction by NOA’s Reggie Fils-Aimé, and my one-on-one with Marc Franklin, I noticed a very specific word repeated over and over: cadence.

In each case, it referred to the “cadence of games” or “cadence of releases” for the Nintendo Switch. This calls to my mind a very delicate, very deliberate pattern of attack for the Switch’s game offerings, and this is a good thing.

Unfortunately, this idea of regularly rolling releases has thus far made for a rather anemic selection of day-one launch titles:

While I’ll admit that I didn’t actually make my way to the Just Dance 2017 demo station at the event, I can speak a bit about the other four titles on that list.

First and foremost, 1-2 Switch is the new Wii Sports; that’s the game we’ll see on the morning talk shows. It’ll be Ellen and whoever milking invisible cows and having quick draw contests—both of which, I’ll add, GeekMom Kelly totally destroyed me in during our time with the title. These silly mini-games work well, and most of them require you to hold your Joy-Con in a very specific manner—a clever way to familiarize new players with a variety of control schemes while also showcasing the system’s capabilities (especially its genuinely impressive “HD Rumble” feature). While sure to be a crowd-pleaser, though, 1-2 Switch isn’t a particularly sexy game.

That honor instead goes to LoZ: BotW. It’s gorgeous and thematic and controls well and promises to take the franchise into all new territory—both literally and figuratively. Best of all, the very concept of taking your big-screen adventure with you on-the-go makes Breath of the Wild an even more enticing option. You’re likely to get around 3 hours of battery life while playing this game in Handheld Mode, which, while not on par with that of traditional handhelds, is honestly better than I anticipated.

#NYCSwitchEvent

A photo posted by Z. (@hipsterplease) on Jan 13, 2017 at 6:16am PST

I’ve already spoken of my experience with Skylanders: Imaginators, but let me restate that the game works very well on the Switch hardware. Unfortunately, a 4-month-old title isn’t always an easy sell, though those of us who skipped this iteration last year should have a lot of fun exploring it on the Switch.

Super Bomberman R also represents the latest from a much-loved franchise, and I could see this being the launch title that serves as everyone’s palate cleanser during breaks from Zelda. With 8-player support, it could also be the game that helps move a lot of extra Joy-Cons. The only catch? It may be a hard sell at the full $60 price point.

Always Leave Them Wanting More

But let’s get back to that cadence thing. While release day pickings may be slim, it looks as though other games will be filling out the lineup in a timely manner. This summer, for example, Splatoon 2 will splash its way onto the Switch. My demo time with this game was limited to just a couple of multiplayer rounds using the Pro Controller with the gyroscopic aiming enabled—which is, shall we say, not my preferred configuration—and yet I still had a blast! Boasting new weapons and attacks, new levels, new original music, and even more ways to customize your Inkling, it’s currently my most anticipated release of 2017.

Luckily, I can get my squid fix a little earlier thanks to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Hopefully, this one will give those who passed over the original Wii U title a proper taste of the best Mario Kart offering to date. Even those of us who’ve already invested countless hours in MK8 should plan to return for the bundled DLC and new drivers (like the aforementioned Inklings) on April 28th.

mario kart switch
Now with 200% more squids!

Sonic Mania—set to drop in the Spring of 2017—offers its own brand of high-speed hijinks, and it was easily one of the biggest surprises of the event. Featuring throwback pixel art and reimagined Zones and Acts from games past, it skillfully plays to our collective 16-bit nostalgia, but that’s not its only trick. Running at a smooth 60 frames per second, it perfectly captures the frenetic motion of your favorite hedgehog (and/or fox and/or echidna).

Now I’ll level with you; I didn’t have any intention of playing Arms, but the event was winding down and the booth was open so I took a chance. What I discovered was some crazy amalgam of Bionic Commando and Punch-Out that proved far more fun than it had any right to be. There’s a nice blend of looseness and precision as you launch your fists at an opponent and a skillfully varied selection of fighters and… hands adds a nice level of delicate complexity. Another Spring release, this is the game I didn’t realize I needed.

Last but not least, we revisit Super Mario Odyssey. Touted as a “sandbox-style” Mario title, it really looks like it has a lot to offer. Sadly, it won’t start offering it until the holidays.

Final Thoughts

As I left NYC on my way back to my quaint Carolina home, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I’d seen and heard and experienced. I was certainly pleasantly surprised with how effortlessly the Switch seemed to perform regardless of what strange control scheme or visual style developers threw at it. I was also a little wary of a launch lineup that still seems to be missing that second obvious system seller.

But then I took a moment to reflect on the attitudes and actions of all the Nintendo staffers with which I interacted. What I noted time and time again was excitement—genuine enthusiasm. Moreover, it didn’t seem to be rooted in desperation, it didn’t seem to be frantic and needy in the face of a market that was all too happy to jump on board for the Wii only to disembark at the sight of the Wii U.

switch offerings
If only they were all available at launch!

I guess what I’m saying here is that Nintendo seems to be truly excited over what the Switch is–even more than it’s hopeful concerning what it may be.

Maybe things are looking up for Nintendo in the ever-fickle console marketplace. Maybe they aren’t and the Switch will again prove another instance where Nintendo zigs just as the gaming public zags. Either way, what I saw in New York last week made an unmistakable impression.

The NYC Switch event was a party of the highest order, and, in six short weeks, we will all learn whether or not that same strange magic lingers when we power up Nintendo’s newest console in the comfort of our own homes.

Travel and accommodation expenses for my attendance to this event were paid for by Nintendo, but all of the above observations and opinions are my own.

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