Nintendo is taking a big risk Friday with the launch of the $300 Switch, which follows the company's unsuccessful Wii U — a two-screened console concept that failed to capture the sales or great reputation of the Wii. This time around, the company jumps into the game console conversation with a twist.
I've played with the Switch for several days now, on a review unit provided by Nintendo. Overall, it marries the portability of the 3DS, which is Nintendo's mobile system and its best-selling piece of hardware, with the sophistication of home-based console game systems. And despite all the ways you can play the Switch, it's easy to understand.
A design unlike any you've seen
The console has a design unlike any that's been on the market. The controllers slide on or off the sides of the screen to take it from being a living-room console to a mobile gadget. You can set the screen itself on a table and play with a Joy-Con — Nintendo's name for the palm-sized controllers — in each hand, or with a friend. You can also slide both controllers into a dock that gives you the feeling of a traditional console controller or dock the screen and play on your television.
The Switch's versatility should appeal to Nintendo's target audience. The company wants to appeal not only to its core, traditional audience of families, but also the young, dinner-partying professionals who grew up with the brand and helped launch its retro-inspired NES reboot to holiday glory this year. The idea behind the Switch is that it's a lower-investment, easy to play console that can be used for party games when friends get together as well as 40-hour epics.
I was dubious about how portable the Switch would actually be. After all, the 6.2-inch tablet isn't what you could call inconspicuous. But it slips easily enough into a work bag for commuting or a tote for a play session in the park. In the end, it looks no stranger than playing a game on a tablet in public.
In the past, Nintendo's been accused of sticking to cheaper-feeling designs — probably because of its association with children. But the Switch feels like a grown-up's device, with just the right amount of heft and quality materials that make you feel as though you're getting your money's worth.
Essentially, it's a Game Boy for grown-ups.
The Switch might not be ready for a real road trip
Nintendo provided “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” its exploration-focused addition to the classic franchise, for review.
In its mobile mode, the battery held out for about three hours — as Nintendo predicted. That's good enough for commutes or children sitting in the back seat while their parents run errands, but not for keeping anyone occupied on a real road trip.
Nintendo also sent along "1-2-Switch" -- a collection of smaller, two-player games that show off the console's social possibilities and the capabilities of its controllers, which, like the Wii, can sense motion. But "1-2-Switch” is more of a proof-of-concept game than anything else. One game lets you virtually milk a cow, for instance. That does more to demonstrate the sensitivity of the controller's ability to sense pressure and height than it does for having fun with friends.
You'll be able to buy games separately in physical or digital form. The Switch doesn't have much storage capacity for games — just 32 GB — so you'll have to pay close attention to the size of games you want to play or buy a larger memory card.
What the Switch is missing
Software is where I start to second-guess the Switch — a recurring problem with Nintendo. There's no Web browser or even access to streaming services, which is a main selling point for Nintendo's competitors that want to make their consoles into multimedia boxes.
If Nintendo is going for an on-the-go audience, offering the ability to watch some Netflix seems like a no-brainer, even if it's only over WiFi. By breaking out of the living room, Nintendo is now competing not only with Microsoft and Sony but also Apple, Samsung and every mobile device maker that can put games on their gadget.
Nintendo can argue that it offers better, more fully crafted games than the bulk of the ones you can find for phones and tablets. But it's not proving that with its launch lineup, which is less than thrilling. “Zelda,” of course, is a joy and a major selling point for hardcore fans. The rest, however, are mostly revivals of older games or Switch versions of titles already out there such as “Skylanders: Imaginators.” Nintendo has promised more exciting titles to come, but they aren't here yet. Nintendo hasn't successfully lured many big-name titles it doesn't make itself to its consoles in the past. But it has made some promising announcements for the console — NBA 2K, FIFA and Bethesda's 2011 title “Skyrim" -- and launched a new independent developer program.
The company also didn't provide reviewers with access to the online services that it will sell for a monthly fee, which gives subscribers access to features such as voice chat and exclusive deals.
How the Nintendo Switch compares with other systems
The Switch's graphics are not as powerful as the latest versions of the PlayStation and the Xbox, both home-based systems.
If the PlayStation and Xbox are PCs, then the Switch is like a Microsoft Surface (or iPad Pro, if you prefer). It's aping the functions of the full-powered version of itself but has to make some compromises to serve the mobile audience. You can snap some extra parts onto it to make it more like a traditional console, but you'll have to lose something to gain the mobility. I found that the technical sacrifices are generally worth it to play some “Zelda” in the sunshine. And if you feel the same way, then chances are you'll be happy to pick up the Switch in short order after it hit shelves Friday. But “Zelda” fans and Nintendo enthusiasts aren't the people the company has to convince.
For the rest of the buying population, the Switch still has some maturing to do to effectively compete for dollars that could otherwise go to smartphones, tablets or even Nintendo's own 3DS.
Can Nintendo deliver the goods?
Given the games available, I'm still just as likely to grab my 3DS as the Switch if I want to game on the go. The Switch probably needs a few more tablet features to make its case for most people's disposable income. But if Nintendo can deliver good, compelling titles that you just can't get on a smartphone, it can realize the Switch's potential.
A previous version of this post misstated the amount of on-board storage for the Switch. It is has 32 GB of storage, not 256 MB. This version has been corrected.