I recently had a chance to get my hands on the Switch at a Nintendo media event, and I had a blast. The Switch is not only fun, but, perhaps even rarer in today's gadget market, it's new and different. Still, consumers who aren't die-hard Nintendo fans may find it more novelty than necessity.
The Switch has three main parts: a dock, a 6.2-inch screen and a pair of controllers that bear the name “Joy-Con” (individually and collectively). These can be used on their own or attached to an included frame that makes them feel more like a traditional game controller. You can also slide them onto either side of the screen and pop the whole thing out of the dock for mobile play, turning the Switch into what looks like a long, slender tablet.
Having so many options for the Joy-Con makes the Switch feel like a custom experience. I played the new Zelda game, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” three ways in 20 minutes: in tablet mode, with the Joy-Con attached to a controller frame and with one Joy-Con in each hand. I expected to find the controllers too small, as each is about one-third the width of a smartphone. But even after several demos, I never felt that I was giving up control for compactness.
As for the games available on the Switch, the one-on-one boxing game “Arms” was my favorite. As you move each hand, the controllers measure the intensity, curve and position of your punches. I found it very satisfying to land a haymaker by swinging my arm or angling a punch by tilting my hand, and it took almost no time to figure out how to play.
That said, other new games felt more like a proof-of-concept for the Switch rather than real draws for the console. Nintendo's party game "1-2-Switch” is a collection of activities that show off all that the Joy-Con can do — and makes you literally face off against your opponents rather than looking at the screen. That sounds like a bad icebreaker at a company retreat, but I admit I had fun glaring into the eyes of my opponent as we faced off in an old-fashioned quick-draw contest. Plus, I got to trash-talk him to his face.
For me, the greatest drawback of the demo was not being able to truly test the Switch's mobility features because every unit was anchored into place. That's a shame, because that's the device's distinguishing feature and its best selling point. Without being able to carry it around on a test run, it's hard for me to envision how it would fit into daily life — though Nintendo did try to mock up some situations for mobile play.
The party scenario has a lot of potential for the Switch, and it could become a hit at group game nights. It's portable enough for someone to throw into a tote bag along with a bottle of wine for a get-together. Using the screen's kickstand, you could play games during a flight without having to hunch over a tablet. On the road it would be easy for kids to play together in the back seat -- providing a couple of options for games without also giving the kids access to the Internet, which they would have on a tablet or phone.
I'm still having a tough time deciding whether most people will want to spend $300 on a portable gaming-only device. For the same price, you could pick up an Xbox One S and get a 4K-ready, powerful gaming machine. Or you could opt for a cheap tablet that lets you play on the go. Those would be fun in different ways from the Switch — less mobile for the former, less social for the latter — but also arguably more bang for your buck. The Switch still doesn't seem like it's a go-to console for demanding epics, such as “Destiny.”
So its ideal audience is a little hard to define: gamers who don't mind buying a second console or those who aren't super “hardcore” but still want a dedicated gaming device. That strikes me as a very specific population that could be hard to reach.
Still, the promise is there. I give Nintendo points for offering something different. I like its pledge to keep up a “steady cadence” of new game releases from Nintendo and outside developers. I hope that it follows through on its promise to reach out to more indie developers, too, and maybe extends an olive branch to mobile game makers, as well.
I liked the Switch. Investors, however, didn't seem to agree, as Nintendo's stock fell 6 percent when it debuted in Tokyo.
I honestly don't know if this is Nintendo's last-chance console. I hope not; the Switch demonstrates some exciting and interesting ideas Nintendo has about how mobile and home gaming intersect. It's also just a lot of fun to play with. But it won't be a must-have device for every living room. And while the Switch has some great games at launch, including “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” it needs a larger library of major games if it aims to compete with the PlayStation and the Xbox.