Nintendo Switch Review: Plays Zelda Great, Doesn't Do Much Else

By Alex Cranz on at

After a shipping snafu with Amazon, I spent the better part of a day trying to track a Nintendo Switch down. I experienced exactly what many hopeful Switch owners will experience. I hounded Craigslist, and haunted Best Buy, and waited in a too-long line at GameStop. And now I’ve spent the last few days living the Switch life, playing the best it has to offer and I can say, unequivocally, that this system is not worth the hassle of tracking it down.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is worth tracking down. Nintendo’s marquee launch title is a masterpiece of the action RPG genre. It’s addictive and well-designed and what it lacks in storytelling chops it makes up for with nostalgia and sheer playability. But Zelda is, at the moment, the only reason to own the Switch — Nintendo’s new hybrid console meant to bridge the gaming gap between living room and the outside world — and that spells only bad things for the console.

The Switch is, ostensibly, a tablet. It’s shaped like an especially fat one — think an original Amazon Fire. If it were to be judged as a tablet alone, the Switch would be a disaster: It’s too chunky, and it has a giant exposed vent for cooling the processor and catching crumbs. It also only gets two hours and 50 minutes of battery life on a charge and it can’t browse the internet or play Netflix or even tell you when someone updates their Facebook.

The Switch sitting on top of the Nvidia Shield tablet—which I kept erroneously comparing it to until I finally got my hands on it.

Back when the Switch was announced, Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima told Time that the company was too busy making the Switch an “amazing dedicated video game platform” to worry about other apps. This device isn’t trying to compete for limited HDMI ports on your TV like the PS4 or Xbox One. It doesn’t want to own your living room — it just wants to hang out and play cool as shit games.

So why are there only 15 titles available for the Switch at launch? And why are only four of those titles original titles? And why are two of those four original titles party games with limited replay value? While Nintendo has no desire to compete with Sony or Microsoft it still is, you know, competing with Sony and Microsoft. The company is demanding you drop £280 on a gaming console and spend your evenings curled up on the couch clutching the blocky Joy-Con controller.

Zelda, as amazing as it is, isn’t enough to demand people spend £280 just to play it. Especially when the Wii U version of the game is just as good, and (anecdotally) doesn’t suffer the same issues with playback as the Switch. And that playback problem—when content on screen stutters as the processor works hard to keep up—needs to be discussed. Zelda is a graphically-intensive game loaded with all kinds of breathtaking views and particle physics that can grind a processor to a halt. Zelda also built for the last generation’s hardware. If the Switch is struggling with Zelda, as it did a number of times while I played, then the Switch might have already reached its full potential, technologically speaking. Zelda, Mario Kart, and the six-year-old Skyrim, are as good as this system is ever gonna get.

That doesn’t instantly make the Switch bad. The Sony PSP and Vita were also both tremendous handheld devices with gorgeous displays, the ability to stream content to a TV, and a small but stellar catalog of games. And Nintendo has the benefit of more than thirty years as the leader of mobile gaming and an incredible series of first party games as well as an enormous catalog of classic games people will happily drop cash to play—though none are available on the system any time soon.

The bigger issue is the gimmick of the Joy-Con controllers. Each Switch includes a left and right controller that slot into the sides of the tablet turning it into something like a Sony Vita—only much larger. Most of my playtime was spent with the Joy-Con controllers in this configuration, and they work well, even if I do feel supremely stupid playing games on such a large handheld system.

If you don’t want to feel stupid playing your giant handheld console than you can slide the Joy-Con controllers off of the Switch and into the included controller grip — though it doesn’t have a battery (that version costs £28) and there’s an engineering defect that can grossly affect connectivity in that configuration (the solution, presumably, is to purchase a Pro controller for £65). If the grip/Pro controller style of gaming strikes you as too mundane, then you can go old school Wiimote style and use the Joy-Cons in each hand—useful on a few Zelda puzzles that need the Joy-Cons’ ability to sense where they are spatially.

This is also how you play any of the two party games currently available—the much ballyhooed 1, 2 Switch, which is really just a £40 demo for the Joy-Con’s abilities, and Snipperclips, a wickedly fun puzzle game you should play with a friend (it can be played alone, but it will make you acutely aware of how alone you are, probably at three in the morning while you’re in bed with the Switch on your lap and your dog passed out on your feet). As 1, 2 Switch illustrates, the Joy-Con controllers are remarkably powerful for their size. Nintendo’s learned a lot since the very first Wiimote about how to make a motion sensitive controller, and its put all that knowledge into the Joy-Con controllers.

Yet after a little Snipperclips play I still find myself asking why these tiny things even exist. It’s as if Nintendo wanted to make a really powerful handheld console but didn’t want to alienate all the fans it gathered ten years ago with the Wii so it added a bunch of features that even its best launch title only uses sparingly. It leaves the entire console feeling aimless—pondering what Nintendo wants this system to be is a good way to find yourself in an existential crisis (little sleep because you’ve been up all night playing Zelda also contributes to the crisis).

This is a system that still has no idea what it wants to be. It’s too underpowered for something expected to sit in your living room and it’s too big for something expected to be clutched in your hands for three hours at a time. In attempting to bridge the gap between home and mobile gaming, Nintendo’s built Frankenstein’s monster. While the transition between home and mobile gameplay is undoubtedly smooth, the PSP and Vita accomplished near similar feats with a much more hands-friendly device.

The only moments when the Switch seems to be more than a Zelda machine and the Joy-Con controllers seem to be more than a marketing gimmick is in the very rare occasions when the controllers and tablet combine and make gameplay more immersive.

I was using the camera function in Zelda (don’t ask) and needed to snap a quick picture of a room full of sketches of chickens. I could have used the Joy-Con’s extremely flimsy joystick to point the camera, but instead I just moved the entire Switch console and swung it around as though I were in the room with Link. It was a brief, but impossibly cool moment. As if Nintendo was saying it understood our mad desire for more immersion and was offering us a window into the world that didn’t require the goofy headset or high price point of VR.

Unfortunately it was just one moment, and until the Switch can have a lot of those moments — found in an array of games — it’s not worth it. If you already own one, enjoy your £280 Zelda machine. If you don’t currently own the Switch than bide your time and wait for more games. Nintendo’s made a potentially cool console. Now it needs to prove it’s worth all its hype.

README

  • Manages a little under three hours of Zelda between charges.
  • Joy-Con controllers feel like a gimmick
  • Connectivity issues and frame rate problems show off less than stellar hardware guts
  • Still plays Zelda really well
  • Fantastic game design in Zelda hints at a potentially incredibly immersive console, but it is nowhere there yet
  • “It got the idea down perfectly, but it feels like it’s a predecessor to a piece of hardware that will actually fully deliver.” - io9's James Whitbrook