Like anyone who grew up playing Nintendo games, the company continues to hold a sentimental place in my heart. It’s a company that is both endearingly eccentric, and absolutely infuriating - and this works both ways for the company. At its best we got the original Wii, which revolutionised control systems and enabled millions of new people to experience Nintendo’s magic for the first time. And at its worst, we got its successor, the WiiU – a plastic embodiment of an answer to a question nobody asked.
So what about the Switch? It’s a big deal for Nintendo. The company appears to be going all in, and cannibalising its more successful handheld business in a bid to make its home device a success. You don’t need me to tell you about how the new console works – but if you somehow missed the initial announcement, you can find out all about the Switch here.
Earlier today I got my first chance to go hands on with the new device, alongside approximately eight million other journalists at London’s glittering Hammersmith Apollo. And though I liked what I saw, it didn’t assuage my fears that we’re watching history repeat itself.
Zelda and the Joy-Con Controllers
I started at the preview event by making a beeline for the new Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, where I got to play for 20 minutes. Even in those brief few minutes, it was instantly familiar – like receiving a warm hug. All I really got to do was collect my weapons and fight a few moblins, but it was immediately compelling. As with each game in the Zelda series, it looks as though this new title will be a little bit of a retread of the tropes from previous games – but with some subtle new twists.
What was particularly interesting was seeing how a franchise as foundational as The Legend of Zelda has clearly been learning from newer and less storied third person adventure games. Unlike previous games in the series, the camera can be spun on the right analogue stick – in like with Assassin’s Creed/Watch Dogs/etc. conventions. Perhaps I missed it, but it certainly appeared as though Z-targeting has been done away with. Similarly, the map screen will now display markers for your main quest or side-quests, and will label them as such – just like in an Ubisoft sandbox.
One slightly strange moment was when the frame rate very briefly dropped when I ran down a hill. The Switch was in its cradle and running on the TV at this point, and I’m charitable enough to assume that this is because I was playing an unfinished version of the game, rather than because of, say, underpowered hardware.
It was also interesting to see how the two different play styles changed things. I started with the Pro Controller - which felt exactly as comfortable as the standard Xbox or PlayStation pad - before, er, switching, to the standalone tablet with Joy-Con controls. The only difference appears to be the shoulder buttons: rather than squish in slowly (technical term), they are much clickier – which seems like a strange step back from even the Gamecube, which had analogue shoulder buttons and enabled for more nuanced controls.
For the most part, the Pro controller and the Joy-Cons appeared to control Link in exactly the same way. The only slightly awkward moment was firing arrows: in a move against convention, this is done in the game by holding down the right trigger to aim, and releasing the trigger to fire, rather than, say, use the left trigger to aim, and right to fire (a la every other game ever: the left trigger is instead used to raise your shield). On the pro controller, this worked fine, but on the Switch itself it felt slightly more fiddly.
On the strength of this short preview though, I’ve no reason to doubt that the finished game will be every bit as excellent as previous titles in the series – and on its own, it makes a compelling case for shelling out for the Switch.
Arms, Mario Kart, Milking a Cow and Counting Balls
I got a chance to play a handful of other games too. First and foremost was called Arms and was essentially Wii Boxing transformed into a full-sized game. With either player wielding a Joy-Con in each hand, you control a robot with massive slinky-like arms. To hit your opponent, simply flail your arms at the screen.
Okay, so there’s a few more tactics involved: the right trigger (pressed with your thumb in the way that you hold the controller is used to jump, the left to dodge, and you can tilt the controller to edge your way around the arena.
I had a fight with another journalist at the event, and it was certainly good fun for the ten minutes it took us to fight two bouts of best-of-three.
Where the game suffers though is that just like Wii Boxing, you only feel sort of fully in control. Yes, the on screen arms move when you tell them to, but whether they connect or not seems up to the CPU - and moving around the arena seems rather limited too.
Essentially then, it’s an enjoyable party game. But slap a £50 price tag on the front and it isn’t quite as appetising.
I also got to try two of the mini-games that will come part of the 1-2 Switch bundle and in classic Nintendo style they are completely mad. The first was a game in which you have to milk a cow. To do this, you hold the Joy-Con in one hand, and then move your hand up and down in a milking motion, using the Joy-Con’s shoulder buttons to simulate grip. Yeah, it’s exactly as weird as it sounds.
The other game was a... ball counting... simulator. Your goal was to... accurately count the balls. And what’s more: it was seriously impressive. So imagine you had a wooden box and there were ball-bearings rolling around inside. Your challenge is to guess how many.
To simulate this, it uses the Joy-Con’s new gyroscopic haptic feedback (rumble) to create the sensation that something is inside. You can flip it around, turn it over - exactly like you would a real box with balls inside. And amazingly, it really does feel like there are balls rolling around in there even though it’s all an illusion.
The game itself was little more than a tech demo – but if there’s one new innovation that impressed me today, it was this gyroscopic rumbling.
And then finally, I got to have a quick blast on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - a re-release from the WiiU on the new console. I got to play multiplayer with 7 other people sat around the table. And to be honest... it’s hard to know what to say. It’s Mario Kart. It’s exactly the same game you’ve played a million times over countless generations - so you already know if you like it or not.
So that’s what I got to see. I didn’t get to try everything on offer - there were a few other titles on show too. But what I did see, I thought was pretty neat. As I said above, there’s a strong chance that Zelda alone will be enough to make me cave in and buy the Switch.
But now here’s my worries: while what I saw was great, what I can’t quite get past are some of the broader fundamental problems that go beyond the games I saw. I can’t help but worry we’re looking at WiiU 2.0.
First, there’s the power disparity. While Nintendo has been cagey to talk specific specs, it is broadly assume that that Switch is less powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One (let alone the PS4 Pro or Xbox One S). It appears that it’ll be about as powerful as an Nvidia Shield - or to put it in the least charitable terms possible, as one commentator put it, about the same as a two year old tablet. This means that there will be extra optimisation barriers for developers to jump through. Porting between the broadly similar Xbox One and PS4 are easy, but will developers bother to convert their games for the Switch too? (Perhaps the fact that six-year-old Skyrim is one of the biggest games coming to the system answers that). The WiiU faced this problem too.
This feeds into another problem, which was arguably the WiiU’s achilles heel: the complete and utter dearth of third party support. Nintendo has so far announced a number of developers will be bringing titles to the platform but I’m yet to be impressed. Perhaps what hit this home the most was a press release from Ubisoft which hit my inbox shortly after the announcement this morning.
“UBISOFT® ANNOUNCES SUITE OF GAMES FOR NINTENDO SWITCH™”, it trumpeted. But which games? Perhaps Watch Dogs 2? Or The Division? Maybe the new Tom Clancy game? Er... actually only Just Dance 2017, Rayman Legends and Steep. What’s missing speaks more loudly – and suggests that internally the company has decided to extend only tacit support the Switch. I suspect other big developers are thinking along the same lines.
Okay, that’s fine, you think. Nintendo consoles aren’t about the third parties: they’re about Nintendo’s first party titles. That’s why people buy the consoles, right? Now don’t get me wrong, I love Nintendo’s titles. But do I £279.99 love the titles? Am I really willing to spend this plus sixty-fucking-quid for the new console and the one good game so far? I’m not so sure. This is a price far north of what most people expected. Speaking from my privileged position as someone in a “double income, no kids” relationship, if it was £150 it’d be a no-brainer – but unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo doesn’t like to use hardware as a loss-leader.
The WiiU launched in 2012 for the same price, and this is often thought to be one of the reasons it failed so spectacularly: how is Switch supposed to grow an audience when for the same price you can pick up a PS4 or Xbox One and a couple of games... and then have the reasonable expectation of there being dozens of top-tier, gold standard games to play over the course of the next couple of years?
So that’s why I’m worried. What I saw today was pretty cool - but my gut still worries on Nintendo’s behalf. I hope I’m wrong - but much like each new Mario Kart, it slightly feels like we could be experiencing the same thing all over again.