“Come on Nintendo, you can do it!” - that’s what we’re all thinking whenever Nintendo comes out with a new console. Because everyone loves Nintendo. Yes, it might be unreliable and frequently disappointing in the decisions it makes - and frankly its just a bit weird and out of step with the rest of the world… but there’s something so damned endearing about the company and its beloved characters.
So it is always a big occasion when the company launches a new console. As I unboxed the Switch, removing the console and Joy-Cons out of the plastic bags they were stored in, I realised that I can flashback through my life by thinking about when I first played new Nintendo machines. I remembered opening an N64 for Christmas after pestering my parents for months. I remembered saving up my own money to buy a Gamecube on release day - and the subsequent secret regret about not getting a PS2. I remembered driving fruitlessly around the shops to buy a Wii in the run-up to Christmas, after finally understanding the magic of the controller following a demo in HMV. And I remembered shrugging my shoulders at the WiiU, not really understanding why I’d need one.
And now here I was, at the age of 29, unboxing Nintendo’s latest. Could this be the console that revives the company’s fortunes and make me care again? Unfortunately, on the hardware front, I’m still undecided.
On a technical level, the hardware seems decent enough: The Switch unit itself is reminiscent of a mid-range tablet, both in terms of hardware and design (it clearly hasn’t been engineered to scrape every last millimetre off a la something from Apple or Samsung). But that’s why it’s significantly cheaper than the latest iPad.
There is a lot to like. The screen is bright and sharp. When you slide in the joycons the hardware plays a really satisfying finger-snapping sound. And sliding joycons in and out of the console is nowhere near as fiddly as you might expect - and neither is placing the tablet inside its base unit
I do have one worry though: that there could be a flaw with the concept of the Switch itself. Not as fatal as the Wii U’s flaw (“Let’s make people buy this really ugly, fat, sub-tablet device and insist games do a weird two-screen thing, but also insist that games also be playable using only one screen as circumstances dictate”). But because of the compromises involved.
For example, hybrid laptops, in my mind, have never quite worked as well as devices that are exclusively designed to be laptops or tablets. This is because you either end up trying to navigate Windows’ tiny buttons with your fat fingers, rather than a precise cursor - or you end up having to lift your hands from the keyboard to use a touchscreen instead of a touchpad, which would be much easier.
I fear the Switch may fall into the same awkward hole. As a home console, using the joycons mounted into the plastic controller, or simply freely in the air when playing on the big screen, feels a little awkward - certainly compared to a Playstation or Xbox Controller. The buttons are perhaps a little too small for my liking - and the positioning is not optimised for a home console controller, but for the various other duties the joycons must carry out.
Similarly, when playing portably, the worry is obviously one of battery anxiety. Will big games like Zelda, which are designed to offer huge, breath-taking landscapes, scale down well to the handheld?
This dichotomy feeds into other aspects of the console as well. I’ll get angry comments for saying this but… Breath of the Wild doesn’t look particularly great running on a TV. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great for a handheld (even when running at only 720p rather than the 1080p it would on TV) - but scaled up it (unsurprisingly) doesn’t compare massively favourably to, say, the PS4. A good example of this perhaps is polygon pop-up. Often stuff will suddenly fade into view when you get close enough, rather than appear organically. By (slightly weird) comparison, I’ve been playing Sniper Elite 4 recently on PS4, which has some equally enormous landscapes, and it manages to fool the console into thinking that all of the objects on screen really do exist all of the time.
But this is nitpicking. Perhaps the only genuinely annoying problem I’ve experienced is the much-reported problem with the left joycon having Bluetooth connection problems when not strapped into the main Switch body. This is particularly infuriating when you’re trying to do something complex in Zelda - as several times the Bluetooth connection has seized up and it has meant Link continued to run all the way off of various ledges and platforms. Here’s hoping that Nintendo is able to patch it - and the problem isn’t a hardware problem for the company.
And this brings me on nicely, to Zelda: Breath of the Wild itself.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Let’s face it - there’s only one game that anyone cares about when it comes to the Switch. Nintendo also sent me Just Dance 2 to try… but obviously it hasn’t been taken out of the packaging when there is a new Zelda to play.
So how does it stack up? It’s simultaneously both endearingly familiar and alien. Familiar, because of the familiar Legend of Zelda tropes of puzzle solving and sword fighting. Some familiar characters make appearances, but the alien thing is that, in classic Nintendo fashion, the company hasn’t adhered to the modern ‘rules’ of game design: It doesn’t hold your hand constantly.
This actually came as a bit of a shock to me: I’m used to modern Ubisoft map-moppers, where there are constantly notifications on screen telling me where to go and what to do. With BOTW, I had to re-engage the sense of exploration and discovery that I hadn’t felt since, well, the last Zelda game. And this is no bad thing.
For example, one of the new mechanics in the game is crafting: During the game you collect ingredients, and then you can cook them together in cooking pots placed around the map. But I only figured this out after travelling to a particularly snowy section and immediately dying from the cold. I can’t recall exactly how I figured out that I needed to craft - but I think it was because of an NPC offering an oblique hint rather than by being offered a full tutorial.
There have been some concessions to modern game design, however, as I noted in my initial hands-on impressions. For example, you can now view an “adventure log” screen that will break down all of the tasks you need to complete, for both the main story and side missions. On the loading screens (is this the first Zelda game that explicitly has loading screens?), the game offers hints and tips, just like every other modern game.
I’m not particularly far into the game yet - but from what I’ve played so far, it does appear as though it is going to be a fun experience, and a welcome trip back to Hyrule (or what used to be Hyrule) to catch up with old friends and archetypes. But you already knew Zelda would be great, right?
Switch On or Off?
So is the Switch worth picking up? Perhaps the concept behind the console will grow on me. I suspect it is partially my lifestyle which is to blame: I almost exclusively game at home, where I have a massive TV and no children - so I am master of my own domain. If I want to spend eight hours working my way through a game on the big screen, so be it. My girlfriend plays games as much as I do. Lucky me. If, however, I lived in a household that had to share the big screen, and I was constantly locked in battles over what goes on the screen, then the Switch concept would be very attractive indeed. Parents will conceivably find the system invaluable. Perhaps the Switch will change the way I live, and I’ll start gaming more on the go - but I remain to be convinced.
I obviously love Zelda, and had Nintendo not sent me a console to try I’d be sorely tempted to pick one up just for the game. But on the other hand, given that Breath of the Wild doesn’t take advantage of any new hardware features (there’s some tokenisation motion controls that you’ll barely notice), I sort of wish I could just buy it for PS4 or Xbox One. I realise that paragraphs ago I was criticising the weird Wii U, but without the hardware gimmicks the Switch itself feels like a bit of a “Nintendo Tax” that you have to play in order to enjoy awesome games from this one specific company.
So I still think that, hardware-wise, the jury is still out. At the moment the question of "Is the Switch worth picking up?" can more accurately be posed as: “Do you really love Zelda?”