The most important thing to know about Nintendo Switch is, drum roll please, that there’s surprisingly little to know at this point. It is on one level simply what it claims to be: a respectably powerful $299 TV games console you can buy on March 3 that also transforms into a handheld gaming powerhouse.
Not literally. There are no bending limbs or hidden robot heads lurking beneath its vivid capacitive multitouch 720p screen or beveled matte-finish plastic housing. You simply pull the rectangular slate—bookended by a pair of motion control sticks capable of advanced haptic feedback Nintendo calls Joy-Cons—from its U-shaped dock, and presto, it’s a handheld.
As a handheld, the Switch feels respectably rigid and durable, an unostentatious but beautiful carbon-black slate that’s like a blue collar version of an Apple product. At roughly the same weight as an iPad mini (about 300 grams), it’s compact enough to make playing games comfy. If your hands get tired in this mode, you can slide the Joy-Cons up and off (a tiny release button behind each lets them disengage), prop the Switch on a flat surface with its rear kickstand, then continue playing wirelessly, your hands free to roam like creatures loosed from cages.
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That you can drag the Joy-Cons over hill and dale, to say nothing of the Switch itself, raises the question of how durable all these moving parts are. I have yet to drop the Switch (Nintendo cautions against it), but I’ve certainly abused the Joy-Cons, which have yet to complain. They’ve been inadvertently tossed, smashed together by two people throwing “air punches” who weren’t standing far enough apart, and torqued on in ways I’m certain would have threatened lesser remotes.
Like when I bungled the wrist strap attachments (they slide into the rails on the Joy-Con sides) by shoving them in upside down. I then made matters worse by attempting, full strength, to torque them back out…only in the wrong direction. The wrist straps have tiny embossed plus-and-minus signs you’re supposed to align with like symbols on the Joy-Cons themselves, but they’re the same color as the molding, and so you’ll likely miss them until you’ve made the mistake. That the tolerance for “bad user on device” errors is this high is impressive, I just wish Nintendo had included a heads-up about the directionality somewhere. (I’d make a self-deprecating RTFM joke here, but even the instructional broadsheet in the box makes no reference to the symbol-matching trick.)
I’ve seen reports of others experiencing erratic wireless connectivity with the Joy-Cons. All I can say is that after a week of hard use, with the Switch at my side anywhere I’ve gone, playing games like 1-2-Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with the Joy-Cons detached, I can’t for the life of me reproduce the glitch. I have been able to get the Joy-Cons to disconnect, as expected, by moving about 25 feet from the system (as with the Wii U GamePad, your mileage may vary here). But inside the normal use range, say a dozen feet in any direction, the connection has been constant. That said, it’s worth keeping an eye on outlets reporting the problem, as more than one instance raises legitimate concerns, and no one knows why it’s happening for some and not others.
Yes, 32 gigabytes of internal storage (of which about 26 gigabytes are usable) is tiny, so let’s talk about that. Nintendo doesn’t require you use proprietary expansion cards (any micro SDXC or SDHC card will do), so it’s hard to see this as anything but a money-saving move. Still, the digital version of Breath of the Wild is said to consume 13.4 gigabytes. If that’s representative, you’re not getting much else in the door without an expansion card. You can find 64 gigabyte options for around $15, so it’s not a crazy hidden expense. But just as with Nintendo’s 3DS handheld, it’s also an argument for buying the card-based versions of games, leaving you free to fill the internal space with digital-only fare.
Battery life may seem unexceptional at 2.5 to 6 hours rated, but it’s in line with what you’d expect from a smartphone or Nintendo’s own 3DS. In practice, the fact that I’ve managed to get about 3 hours out of a game as hungry as Breath of the Wild is impressive. Add a roomy battery pack and the idea that you might be able to play upcoming games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2 for the better part of a working day, AC power-free and nonstop, is nothing short of astonishing.
I was able to charge the Switch on the go while playing Breath of the Wild hitched to my minivan’s AC outlet, regaining about 1% of charge every 5 minutes. When running off a wall outlet with the USB-C power adapter plugged directly into the Switch, it charges even faster. But there seems to be a glitch when it’s charging through the dock, where it gets to the high 80s or low 90s, then stops. It’s a potential pain point if your play schedule doesn’t include breathers for the system to gulp down electricity. Hopefully Nintendo’s expected launch day patch addresses this.
Dropping the Switch back in its dock is both effortless and click-less, a process that uses gravity and nothing more. The dock’s rear HDMI, power and USB 3.0 connections are protected by a cable-management panel, and you get two more USB 2.0 ports along the left exterior. My only concern is with the dock’s ability to stay in place on a shelf. I’ve been playing a lot with the Pro controller (sold separately for $69), which connects to the dock via USB-C (the Joy-Cons can be attached to a Grip included with the Switch that approximates a gamepad, but the Pro controller feels miles better). While I admire its ergonomics, the cable comes up short at about 4 feet. The good news is that the Pro controller runs for about 40 hours per charge. The bad is that if you’re playing with the cable attached and accidentally tug on or trip over it, the Switch and dock are coming off the shelf because they weigh so little. Affixing the dock to whatever you’ve set it on (with Velcro, say, or a two-sided adhesive) might not be a silly idea.
On the software side, what a difference from five years ago. If you hated the Wii U’s sluggish menus, the Switch’s are a full 180. They’re also spartan, a single row of square boxes corresponding to games you’ve played that’s like a stripped-down version of the PlayStation 4’s left-right selection tool. Below that, six circular options let you select News, the eShop, a Photo Album (for screen captures—sadly, no video capture option exists, probably because of storage limitations), check on connected controllers and their battery levels, System Settings and a Sleep button. Hold the Home button on the right Joy-Con and you’ll conjure a quick menu that lets you put the Switch to sleep or enable Airplane Mode. Whatever you do, the Switch’s responsiveness clocks in microseconds.
In tabletop mode, the Switch is harder to defend. The kickstand feels flimsy, though I gather that’s because it’s been engineered to snap off if pulled too far without damaging the Switch. That said, the Switch also topples backward with ease if it’s not perfectly level, raising concerns about what it’ll do in a moving vehicle, or if played on an airplane seat-back tray during turbulence. (I also tried setting it on a book laid flat on my stomach in bed—whenever I yawned, it tipped over.) And gorgeous as the screen is, at just 6.2 inches, you want it close to your face. Nintendo’s video of an eSports team playing with the Switch on the floor looks great, but it’s a stretch; sitting in a chair with the Switch on a kitchen-height surface seems a more likely scenario.
Should you worry that the Switch outputs up to 1080p visuals on a TV (720p in handheld mode) when systems like the PlayStation 4 Pro and forthcoming Xbox Scorpio are reaching in the direction of 4K? I admire what Sony’s up to, and the games I’ve played on a souped-up Windows PC at native 4K are impressive. But the pixel/resolution chase feels more and more like an obsession over diminishing returns—a justifiable niche pursuit, but one that can’t compete with gaming on-the-go. The Switch’s mobile upsides simply eradicate any graphical advantages I can imagine it having, had Nintendo released a more powerful, old-school console.
My worries at this point involve the questions Nintendo has yet to answer. Will old eShop purchases carry over? How robust and pliable will the online service be? Must we use a separate smart device to configure parental settings like “play time?” (At the moment, the answer seems to be yes.) Will finding, friending and interacting with other players be as intuitive as rivals’ approaches? And will the Switch eventually support some form of meta-motivational framework (say Nintendo’s subversion of in-game achievements) that sticks to players?
There’s a day one update that’s supposed to address some of these questions, and we’ll update this review once it’s live.
But on balance, I’m in love with the thing. Online questions aside, it’s most of what I’ve been wanting from a game system for as long as I’ve been gaming. But Nintendo’s masterstroke is the way anyone can grok why the Switch exists at a glance. Drop it in its cradle, count to three, and it’s on your TV. Pull it out and it’s in your hands. Decouple the controllers from its sides, pop the rear kickstand and it’s on a table.
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Much depends on the games to come and how quickly they appear (the Wii U’s Achilles heel), or what the Switch’s promised online capabilities look like when they roll out later this year. On March 3, the system will have a dozen games on shelves, though with Breath of the Wild, 1-2-Switch and Snipperclips, the Switch’s launch lineup looks in some ways stronger than its ostensible rivals. (If you doubt that claim, revisit the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launch titles, thinking about quality versus quantity.)
Yes, games like Arms, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, Minecraft (for the Switch), Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Super Mario Odyssey arriving on time is going to be critical. But the theory—of a device that both follows players and, just maybe, revitalizes face-to-face engagement in this era of “alone together”—seems laid on solid footing so far.
Un-scored review in progress
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This story was originally published on TIME.com.