Nintendo’s Switch comes out on Friday. I’ve been playing with the Switch—an all-in-one gaming machine that works as both a handheld device and a TV game console—for the last two weeks. But it’s only been fully operational since this morning, when Nintendo finally rolled out its day-one patch for the unit. I’m happy to report that the update seems to have alleviated a major problem with the review unit, as well as exposed some new strengths (and weaknesses) of Nintendo’s new game platform. As such, we have updated this review. (See the end for a note on what we changed.)
Gaming anywhere you want. Joy-Cons are marvelous, versatile controllers. Amazing graphic quality from a relatively small tablet; Not as powerful as a PS4, but Nintendo got out of that game a decade ago. Sleek UI. Region-free game shopping is the best.
Left Joy-Con’s wireless connection is flaky. Can’t charge controllers while playing on TV. Can’t charge the tablet in kickstand mode. Online functionality is bare-bones. EXPIRED: Goddamned Friend Codes again.
I want to love the Switch. I do love the Switch when it works. Ever since 1989, when Nintendo introduced the first Game Boy, it’s been taken for granted that your Nintendo home console and your Nintendo portable machine are separate devices, playing separate libraries of games, and never the twain shall meet. But in an age when mobile graphics are making Mario-sized leaps in quality, why should that always have to be the case?
The Switch bridges the gap. At its core, it’s a mini tablet with a 6.2-inch touchscreen. You could in theory use this by itself to play touch-only games, although none exist right now. But included in the $300 box are two small game controllers that slide easily onto grooves in the sides of the tablet, turning it into a fully-functional traditional game machine, with a full complement of joysticks and buttons.
Also included in the box is a small plastic dock that connects to your television set via HDMI. Set the Switch in the dock, and the game immediately pops up on your television set. Now you can snap the controllers off of the tablet, and they’ll work wirelessly so you can sit back on your couch and play the game. There’s even a halfway measure: The tablet has a little kickstand, so you can prop it up on a table and play with the controllers in your hands, so you don’t need to hold the whole setup.
The Joy-Cons, as Nintendo has dubbed these accessories, are quite simply the most versatile and clever controllers it has ever shipped with a machine. You can snap them on the tablet. You can hold one in each hand, as if you’re playing with Wii Remotes (and they have motion control and force feedback, too). Or you can slide them into the included Joy-Con Grip, which holds the two pieces together in a shape relatively close to (but not quite as comfortable as) a standard gaming controller.
You can even hand a single Joy-Con each to two players and play multiplayer games, right out of the box. This is a pretty big deal—if my math is right, the last game console to ship with two controllers as a standard feature was the Super Nintendo in 1991. Sure, using a single Joy-Con by itself to play a game can be a little awkward since they’re so small, but it works.
I’ve spent the vast majority of my Switch time so far in handheld mode, where I’ve logged at least a dozen hours into launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—usually in batches of three hours at a time, because that’s about how much battery life I get while playing this expansive, gorgeous adventure.
But when you get your new Switch, no matter how much you might want to rip it open and start playing Zelda, do yourself a big favor and install the day-one update first. That’s because it seems to alleviate one of the major issues we had with our review model: The flakiness of the left-hand JoyCon. When I first got a unit, it simply wouldn’t stay synced to the console wirelessly, which made it impossible to play games on the TV. At first, I thought I had been sent a bum unit, but it turned out that many, many early Switch players had the exact same issue, all with the left Joy-Con.
After the update, it seems like my unit works better. I can play Zelda or other games on the TV with no issues, as long as I’m not blocking the JoyCons with my body. But I can still reproduce the issue if I go out of my way to put my hands between the JoyCon and the TV. This means that, for instance, your controller might stop functioning if someone walks in front of you during gameplay. As far as I can tell, it’s much better than it was, but it’s still not one hundred percent fixed. (Then again, the in-depth hardware testers at Digital Foundry checked the controllers after the update, and they say there’s no improvement at all on their end. So I’m still not sure what’s going on.)
Another WIRED editor pulled his Switch out of his backpack after a mellow commute to find it off, unresponsive, and unable to turn on. A hard reset brought it back to life, but that’s still worrisome.
There are a couple other things the Switch can’t do. You can’t charge the Joy-Cons while playing in TV mode. You’ll need to buy a separate Charging Grip ($30) for that. And since the USB-C power outlet is on the bottom of the tablet, you can’t play it in the “kickstand” configuration while it’s plugged in—the cord gets in the way. Switch includes one AC adapter, but this has to be used both by the dock and while you’re mobile. So if you want to set the dock up in your entertainment center and run the plug behind the cabinet and never touch it again, you’ll probably want a second adapter ($30).
And yes, if you want to really live that Switch life, you can buy another dock ($90) and hook it up to another TV inside your house, and then you can just pop the Switch into either dock to play on whatever TV you like.
A game console in 2017 is more than just a piece of hardware that runs game software. It’s also the gateway to an online service. Nintendo only enabled the Switch to go online on Thursday, a day before launch, so I’ve been rushing to test the features and update this section of the review.
While you can play online games with Switch now, you can’t chat or otherwise communicate with your online friends yet. That feature will be relegated to a separate app for your smartphone that Nintendo says it will release this summer. We’ll judge the merits of said app when it’s released, but for now it feels pretty ridiculous to have a friends list on a console but not be able to message or chat with them.
And speaking of ridiculous, Nintendo’s most enduring bad idea, the Friend Code, is back. Want to find me on Switch for a quick game of Bomberman? Good freaking luck—you can’t search for friends by username. Instead, you have to share around a randomized 12-digit numerical code, for Reasons. If you’ve been adding your friends to Nintendo’s mobile apps like Miitomo, it will automatically suggest those people as friends when you set up Switch. But (and I say this because there are simply no more words left to spill on this ridiculous issue) come on.
Linking your Nintendo Account, setting up a new one, or buying software on the Nintendo eShop is fairly simple and painless. And in fact, there’s a feature of Switch that I personally am thrilled about: If you create a new user on the system and link that user to a Nintendo Account created in a different region, you can log in to that region’s digital store! If you’re the sort of person who wants to buy games the second they come out in Japan, and I definitely am, this is a wonderful feature.
In general, the user interface currently installed on the device is clean, fast, responsive, well-designed. You can tap the Power button to send the unit into sleep mode immediately during gameplay, and pick up your game of Zelda right where you left off. It’s a thousand times better than Wii U’s slow, clunky interface. You just can’t do much of anything with it right now besides start and stop games.
Nintendo Switch has the potential to be all things to all people: TV console, next-gen Game Boy, wacky motion controls, traditional hardcore game machine, even multiplayer-in-a-box. But as with most console launches, that’s a matter of potential. If you’ve just got to have Zelda, pick up a Switch now. But between the various hardware stumbles, the offloading of key features to an app that’s not out yet, and the generally not-ready-for-prime-time online services, you should be aware that you’re likely participating in an expensive beta test for a product that’ll fully roll out in the fall.
Note: This review was updated substantially from its initial publication. The Switch provided to WIRED had severe wireless connectivity issues with its controller and no online service at all, but Nintendo said that this unit was to be reviewed in this state. As such, I pointed out that the controller in the box was non-functional in certain key use cases and that I did not know anything about the online service. These sections have been significantly amended and the score raised from a 5 to a 7.