Wednesday 26 July 2017

Nintendo Switch review: Nintendo creates an ingenious hybrid

The Nintendo Switch in all its forms
The Nintendo Switch in all its forms
The Nintendo Switch in portable form
The Nintendo Switch, removed from its dock
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

TWO into one won’t go. But that fundamental law of mathematics just got challenged by the new Nintendo Switch, which aims to marry a handheld machine to a home console.

It’s not quite the first time this Franksteinian hybrid has been attempted. The likes of the PS Vita overpromised “console-quality” gaming on the move and could connect to a TV for big-screen visuals. At least that was the theory, though the reality was much less successful.

In contrast, the Nintendo Switch has been designed from the ground up to seamlessly transition between playing at home and on the go. Nintendo strives for this ambitious goal by building a powerful touchscreen handheld the size of a small tablet computer – and then adding an overlay of features to enable the full spectrum of home-console gaming.

By necessity, this next-generation machine can’t compete with even the last-generation PS4 or Xbox One in terms of horsepower, though it marks a step up from Nintendo’s own Wii U. The limitation of battery technology defines Switch. More horsepower would have meant shorter battery life, so the design leans towards squeezing maximum output from minimum hardware.

Nintendo’s approach has been to ensure games function exactly the same way whether mobile or tethered to a TV – with the only difference being between the quality of the graphics.

You could call it a massive compromise but it makes sense when you clap eyes on the raw beauty of the Switch’s stand-out launch title, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Nintendo Switch in portable form
The Nintendo Switch in portable form

Nintendo has never been one for photo-realism in its releases but Breath of the Wild contains some of the most stunning landscapes ever committed to pixels. Yet the difference is barely there whether connected to a 50-inch TV at 1080P or running at 720P on the Switch’s own six-inch screen. In fact, somewhat oddly, Zelda runs slightly more smoothly in mobile mode.

The visuals constitute just one part of the Switch package, of course. Nintendo’s clever solution to the thorny issue of poor touchscreen controls are the Joy-Cons, a pair of detachable pads that together form a traditional joypad.

In mobile mode, they’re usually docked to the sides of the Switch, making it look and perform much like (but better than) an oversized PS Vita. In console mode, they’re bound together by a small grip to resemble a compact but fully fledged joypad. It feels a little cramped, though – not as comfortable as a DualShock or Xbox pad – so you might consider shelling out for Nintendo’s €80 Pro Controller. Alas, no previous Nintendo joypads are compatible.

Interestingly, the Joy-Cons can also be used detached, one in each hand. It’s not comfortable for traditional gaming, however. But given they can sense motion like a Wiimote - and the right controller even has an infra-red sensor to detect shapes – it opens up a new range of gameplay options.

Or rather old options last seen on the Wii. Unfortunately, though, Nintendo breaks with its own firm commitment to previous generations of software by failing to provide any backward compatibility with either Wii or Wii U. Get ready to buy your old software in a new form – again.

This would be rather less of an issue were it not for Nintendo’s old bugbear – the overall dearth of software both at launch and in the pipeline. Wii U flopped in part because it never recovered from a slow ramp of must-have titles in the launch phase. Now Switch launches with just three titles from Nintendo (Zelda, 1-2 Switch and Snipperclips), plus 15 from third parties, mostly ports such as Ubisoft’s Just Dance or prehistoric NeoGeo titles.

The Nintendo Switch, removed from its dock
The Nintendo Switch, removed from its dock

It’s not a disastrous number, nor unprecedented for a console debut, but it doesn’t help Nintendo’s cause in the face of its uphill task to avoid the Wii U’s fate. The bald truth, though, is that only the unadulterated brilliance of Zelda shines in the line-up, especially given the absence of anything from Nintendo’s other storied franchises such as Super Mario, Mario Kart or Metroid – though at least some of those are on the release schedule for 2017.

Don’t forget too that Breath of The Wild runs perfectly well – more or less identically, by some accounts – on the last-generation Wii U, removing one key reason to buy the new console.

That, of course, ignores Switch’s unique selling point – its delightful ability to shift from big-screen entertainer to pocket powerhouse with zero fuss. We gamers have waited decades for something so seamless. How often have you cursed yourself for lacking the time to complete a brilliant level or defeat a boss, because you were heading out?

Just yank Switch out of its dock – without pressing a button - and it effortlessly toggles the full game to the smaller screen, where you can continue uninterrupted on battery power. Naturally, the reverse is also true and coming home to plug in to the living-room telly involves nothing more than carefully sliding the Switch back into its dock. Pick up and go was never so simple.

Out and about, you’ll get three to four hours of gameplay on battery, which compares reasonably well to other handheld devices, especially considering how much power Switch is packing.

As a piece of hardware, Switch can’t compete with the sleek lines of an Apple device. In fact, while docked, it looks rather anonymous. More worryingly, it sits slightly loosely into the docking mechanism, making me wonder whether that precious screen could be damaged as you pull it out or push it in.

In mobile mode, it feels big but light in the hand. One thing’s for sure, you’ll also need to consider a carrying case to protect the display.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Other possibly necessary expenditure includes a Micro-SD memory card - to expand Switch’s internal storage of about 25GB if you decide to download games rather than buying on physical cartridges.

Come the autumn, you’ll also need to decide whether multiplayer matters because Nintendo will then join Sony and Microsoft in charging a subscription for online gaming. We have no details on fees yet but there will be a free trial starting in the coming weeks.

Nintendo has never excelled in the online space and its proposed service already looks like making some missteps. Firstly, voice chat and online lobbies will be enabled only via an app on your smartphone. Secondly, you’re promised a free game – NES or SNES classics only - every month, just as PlayStation and Xbox do. But instead of letting you keep them, the games vanish to be replaced by a new one every 30 days.

Nintendo has to be applauded for attempting another daring strategy with the Switch – mobile and console in one. It innovates where its rivals merely iterate.

Yet plunking down €330 for this new console constitutes a bit of a gamble for potential owners. Buying Breath of the Wild for Switch nets you the game of the year – unquestionably the best Zelda ever, in fact. You will adore taking it on the road with you as much as you will when it’s pumped on to a big screen.

But can Nintendo sustain that hit ratio throughout the Switch’s lifespan? Its execution of other pillars (online, the lack of a bundled game to showcase the tech) also raises questions about how well consumers will warm to it.

Nonetheless, we as gamers are all the better for Nintendo taking risks with such a delightful machine instead of following Sony and Microsoft into the graphics-led arms race.

 

Read more: Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild review: Zelda has a new king

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