At last, the mystery of the Nintendo Switch has been solved. Given that we now know it will arrive in the shops as soon as March 3, it’s astonishing that nobody managed to get their hands on it until Friday 13th January (an auspicious date indeed). But, thanks to a huge Switch event that Nintendo threw at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith, we’ve now played a number of Switch games and had the chance to get up close and personal with its hardware. The verdict? First impressions are very favourable: it certainly has a far better chance of success than the Wii U, as long as Nintendo markets it properly this time around.
Consoles are consoles, right – black boxes that sit underneath your TV into which you plug leads? Not if you’re the Nintendo Switch. Once again, Nintendo has come up with an arcane console design: the Switch’s emphasis (not that Nintendo has really managed to communicate it so far) is on versatility, so its hardware has been designed to allow it to be several different consoles in one.
The main body of the console is two objects: a docking station and a tablet-like object with a capacitative touch-screen (surprisingly, none of the games we played at the event made use of that touch-screen). Slip the tablet into the docking station — which should remain permanently attached to your TV — and you have a fixed console. Remove it and you have a portable one.
A Nintendo Switch when removed from its docking station is, it must be said, a pretty big portable console — much bigger than any of Nintendo’s handhelds, and pretty heavy too, albeit nice and slim. Its screen, which extends more or less to the edges of the tablet, is impressive, with vibrant colours and all the sharpness you could desire. But resolution-wise, it only extends to 720p, rather than the 1080p of full HD. Which sounds disappointing, but in practice isn’t. We had a good play of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on a Switch removed from its docking station, and it looked crisp, clear and very detailed. Also, the Switch upscales when you park it in its dock: so as a fixed console, it is able to power HD TVs at 1080p.
One of the presumed reason why the Switch scales itself back somewhat in its portable configuration is to preserve battery life, and we wish we could give you an inkling of how long it will operate in the wild before conking out. But after an afternoon spent grabbing different Switches for a few minutes at a time, such an assessment would be impossible.
Controller-wise, at first glance, the Switch (which again has various controller types that can magically morph, transform and transfigure) doesn’t visually resemble the original Wii. However, much like its predecessor, Switch is all about the controllers.
The Joy-Cons (as Nintendo has chosen to dub them) come in pairs — left and right ones; they also come in two distinct flavours: one Switch model comes with dark grey Joy-Cons, and one with a red Joy-Con and a blue one). Each Joy-Con has a control stick and various buttons. They are pretty small — fitting snugly in the palm of each hand — but feel quite chunky and well-made, despite that fact that, oddly, in photographs they look a tad flimsy. In the flesh, they aren’t.
Each Joy-Con does what the original Wii controller did, and more. They contain accelerometers and gyroscopes, so can sense motion with great sensitivity. Like the original Wii controllers, they come with wrist-straps. But perhaps their cleverest aspect is next-level force-feedback (which Nintendo in its wisdom calls HD rumble). This feels almost like witchcraft: tiny motors inside can be programmed to give uncanny haptic feedback, making you believe that you can actually feel objects inside the Joy-Cons.
We played games that used both Joy-Cons or just the one — and every left-hand Joy-Con has another trick, in the form of an infra-red motion camera, which, rather like Microsoft’s unlamented Kinect, can sense nearby objects, such as your hand. And there are various things you can attach them to, Transformer-style. Slide each Joy-Con onto the appropriate side of the tablet (they click in with a decent clunk), and you have a Wii U controller on steroids. Or you can clip them onto a skeleton of a controller called a Joy-Con grip, to create something akin to a conventional games controller. We also saw a tiny wheel-like holder for one Joy-Con, for use with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, like a shrunken version of the Mario Kart wheel for the original Wii.
Perhaps our biggest surprise when getting hands-on with the Switch was the way in which the Joy-Cons ape the original Wii, while adding some pretty cool bells and whistles. They are much more wieldy, and don’t set you worrying that, if you get a bit overenthusiastic, you might clock someone on the head and render them senseless.
One of the acid tests for the Switch lies in the games that we will be able to play on it. Once it became obvious that the Wii U was flopping, support for it from games publishers melted away. As far as the Switch’s initial showcase is concerned, the jury is slightly out in that respect: quite a few of the games being show by third parties were either ports of existing games, retreads of retro classics or generally second-rate franchises. But despite that, the Switch will clear have many more games in its locker at launch, and a decent set of titles (mostly developed by Nintendo) that are good enough to get you thinking that might not be able to resist buying the console.
The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild needs no introduction. We’ve played the first couple of hours or so of it (on the Wii U), and every indication suggests that it will be a nailed-on classic. On the Switch, it looks superb – although, to be fair, it also does on the Wii U. But it’s noticeably higher-resolution, with more texture detail and the like, on the Switch.
Super Mario Odyssey
Super Mario Odyssey won’t be available at launch, and wasn’t playable at the showcase, but a rolling demo video gave a good flavour of what it will be like. Which is to say a proper, free-roaming, platform-style Mario game in the vein of Super Mario 64, which is what everyone wants. Much of the game’s action appeared to take place in New Donk City, although we also saw glimpses of desert and forest areas. For Super Mario Odyssey, Mario will acquire some smart new moves, such as the ability to bounce on cars and swing from lamp-posts. And he has a key new ability to throw his hat which, for example, he can jump onto in mid-air, more or less doubling the distance he can jump.
One new IP which really gripped us — in the manner of some of the best original Wii games — was Arms. At first glance, this resembled a modernised take on Super Punch-Out, but we soon discovered it contains a surprising amount of depth. You play a character with extending, Inspector Gadget-like arms, and the object is to knock out your opponent with punches, beat-em-up style. But you can choose different weapons for each fist and, by either gesturing or pressing buttons on the Joy-Cons, can dash, jump and launch charged attacks. To punch, you just punch; punch with both arms and you grab. You can also defend, and arm-flailing swiftly gave way to more measured, tactical approaches. Arms is irresistible, and will be a huge weapon in Nintendo’s drive to sell Switches.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Everyone knows that every Nintendo console needs a Mario Kart game as soon as possible after launch, so Nintendo has taken the route of expediency, and basically warmed over Mario Kart 8 (while surely working on Mario Kart 9). It adds five new characters (include a few purloined from Splatoon), and lets you carry and deploy two, rather than just one, power-ups. Battle Mode has been revamped (including the ability to splatter Splatoon ink on the courses). There are some added power-ups, too, making returns from previous Mario Kart games, like the feather.
1-2-Switch is also great. A collection of mini-games — or perhaps micro-games, in the grand tradition of WarioWare Inc — it derives great virtue from minimalism, as each game involves two players, holding one Joy-Con each. But most of all, it showcases the Joy-Cons’ HD rumble. In one game, you had to imagine your Joy-Con was a box, with tiny balls in it; by moving it around and feeling the magic of the rumble, you had to work out how many balls were in the box. In another, two players faced each other (without looking at the screen); one was given a samurai sword, and the other had to clap hands around their Joy-Con to catch the opponent’s sword. Hallelujah: after the joylessness of the Wii U, Nintendo has remembered how to make party-games.
One of Nintendo's newer hit franchises, Splatoon makes a triumphant return on the Switch in a sequel that feels more iterative than revolutionary but no less impressive. Tweaked for the Switch's control system (super jumps are now managed by a map brought up by the 'X' key), the game re-jigs super weapons, adds all-new inkling accessories and introduces Splat Dualies: the game's first dual wielding weapon setup.
A retro-looking return for the spikey blue one, Sonic Mania is a greatest hits package from Sonics 1, 2 and 3, combining zones from all three titles (As well as Sonic CD) as well as bringing a few new areas to the party as well.
Super Bomberman R
We didn't get to try the story mode but the battle mode is as anarchic as you can imagine, with players dropping bombs and obliterating terrain with maniacal glee. If you've every picked up a Bomberman game then you know exactly what to expect from this one.
Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers
After playing Street Fighter V, going back to an updated incarnation of the eighties cabinet classic takes some getting used to but the results are gratifying. With all 17 original characters plus additions (Evil Ryu and Violent Ken are both playable), you can play with classic sprites or HD remixed ones, Dramatic Battle mode features (two plyers vs one CPU) and tech throws have been introduced. A blast from the past graced with a little 2017 polish.
Feeling like a cross between Wipeoutand F-Zero, RMX is a vertiginous high speed racer that sees you pilot an anti-grav sled over twisting, turning courses. Missiles and other offensive weapons were off the table, replaced by collectible boost pellets and colour-coded strips that either boost or brake depending on which exhaust colour you're currently displaying (changeable at any time with 'X').
There were a few other titles on display, such as Skylanders Imaginators, Just Dance 2017 and I Am Setsuna. While exciting first-party titles that weren't playable included Puyo Puyo Tetris, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 abd Fire Emblem Warriors.
One thing is for sure: the Switch’s design, which may seem baffling from a distance, makes much more sense than that of the Wii U and, crucially brings back the party-console ethos which was behind the Wii’s success. In many ways, it feels like an evolution of the Wii (with the Wii U feeling like an aberration).
There are still question-marks. £280 is a fairly steep price-point, so we’re hoping that we’ll see some major-league discounting soon after launch (although the pound’s post-Brexit-referendum plunge doesn’t help). Likewise, £60 for a game is not exactly wallet-friendly, although the less triple-A the title, the less it should cost. But the Switch does seem to have more support from third parties than the Wii U — neither Skyrim nor FIFA appeared at the showcase, but apparently they are coming to Switch. Whether it will be as successful as the Wii — still one of the best-selling consoles ever — is a moot point. But it feels unlikely to meet the same undignified fate as the Wii U, which is great news: the games industry needs a fighting-fit Ninty at the top of its game.
You can watch Nintendo's entire Switch presentation here.