Nintendo’s latest system, the tablet/console hybrid known as the Nintendo Switch, is out in just over a week. It’ll be in stores worldwide on Friday, March 3. It’s such an unusual device, though, that many consumers still aren’t really sure what to expect. Paste has had a Switch for a few days now, and even though I’ve spent a couple dozen hours with it, I also still don’t know entirely what to expect next Friday.
That’s because the Switch I’ve been playing isn’t the Switch you might be setting up next Friday. None of its online structure, including the digital store, is available yet. There’s also a day one patch that has yet to be released. You’ve probably seen a lot of articles like this one across the internet today, purporting to get you a preview of what the Switch is like, even though no-one outside of Nintendo fully knows what the Switch will be like once it’s in stores.
As it exists right now, the Switch is a simple, straight-forward gaming machine, pure and simple. The box attached to my television, and the inner tablet that can be easily removed and taken on the go, is currently only capable of playing games released on physical cartridges. There’s no online structure yet, no digital store, no apps or anything else to distract me from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the only game I currently have for the system. It’s a throwback to the pre-media center days of videogaming’s first three decades, before every console tried to shoulder all those other boxes out of your entertainment center. And, since the Switch won’t have Netflix or other streaming video apps, at least at first, and since Nintendo clearly isn’t prioritizing that feature set, this internet-free period might be truer to Nintendo’s goals with the Switch than the online-enabled device that’ll exist by the end of next week.
With the Switch Nintendo tells us to forget about watching TV. They tell us to turn the music off. They tell us to play videogames (or, right now, just one particular videogame), at home or abroad, without all the other distractions that litter the menus of every other gaming console out there today. It might be simplistic, it might be regressive, it might be overly nostalgic for the days when Nintendo ruled the industry and every game was released on a cartridge, but there’s an elegance to it and a focus that’s hard not to admire. The quality of Nintendo’s games is rarely questioned, even as their hardware has often struggled over the last 20 years; it makes sense to cut out all the fat and look squarely at the thing they do the best.
That isn’t to say the Switch isn’t innovative, though. That focus on games drove Nintendo to break down the traditional barrier between the videogames you play at home and the videogames you play on the go. They made a system that lets you easily take your games wherever you may roam. This isn’t the Wii U, where the tablet was still basically tethered to the box, or Sony’s Remote Play, which requires a complicated matrix of internet connections to play downgraded versions of PlayStation 4 games with an inadequate controller. The closest analogue is the old TurboExpress, which let you travel with the exact same TurboGrafx games you’d play at home. The major difference is that no additional purchase is necessary here—when you buy the Switch, you get both the console and the handheld, because they are literally the same thing.
The transition between the two is surprisingly smooth. If you’re playing on TV, just slide the tablet out of the dock, and the tablet’s screen will immediately come to life, showing whatever you were just seeing on your TV. Slide the two tiny Joy-Con controllers out of the chassis that turns them into a traditional controller, slide them down on either side of the tablet, and you’re ready to go. The resolution drops from 1080p to 720p, and you’ll have to spread your hands apart farther than you did when the Joy-Cons were snapped inside the Joy-Con Grip, but otherwise you’re playing the same game with the same controllers on a smaller, more portable screen. When you want to return to the television, just reverse the process. It takes about as much time as syncing a new controller to a console.
Speaking of the Joy-Con controllers, they aren’t as flimsy or insubstantial as they might look. They are notably smaller than most videogame controllers, and using them without either the Grip or the tablet between them feels incredibly wrong with a game like Breath of the Wild. They’re slightly heftier than they look, though, and their finish seems to provide more traction than many videogame controllers. They haven’t slipped around or out of my hands at all. (No, I don’t get sweaty palms when I play, but the plastic on some of those other controllers can be pretty glossy.) The buttons, also tiny, are still firm and distinct, and I’ve yet to have any problems with accidentally pressing more than one at a time. The analogue joysticks are equally responsive to gentle nudges and hard jolts. My biggest complaint comes with the two shoulder buttons. The trigger-style ZR and ZL are fine, but the R and L bumpers are a little too slim. I often wind up hitting the triggers instead of the bumpers, or even the space between the two.
The Joy-Cons easily attach to the Grip, which creates the look and feel of a traditional gaming controller. You might be a little thrown off by how light this combination feels, and how much thinner it is than an Xbox or PlayStation controller. It’s not as awkward for me as I feared, though—it never quite feels like a true controller or makes me forget its ramshackle nature, but it’s perfectly functional, and after a short time using it I barely even thought about its fundamental weirdness. At no point in Breath of the Wild did I ever feel impeded or restricted by this controller.
If there’s a significant issue facing the Switch hardware at launch, it’s the battery life. A fully charged tablet lasted close to three hours for me while playing Breath of the Wild. That obviously limits its usefulness on flights or long car trips, unless you’re able to keep it plugged in to an outlet on the go. It’s not a concern at home—the dock has an input for the AC adapter, so the tablet can stay charged while you play on the TV. Still, the Switch is being sold as a handheld as much as a console, and that short life span might be a hurdle for many prospective buyers.
Other than the battery setback, the Switch certainly accomplishes the baseline of what it sets out to do. It’s a videogame console. It’s also a tablet. And it plays games. (Or, at least, this one game.) If you’re okay with a device in 2017 that’s pretty much solely devoted to games, and don’t feel the need to put Netflix or Hulu or Spotify on another box, the Switch could appeal to you. There are still crucial aspects to the Switch that I haven’t been able to try out yet at home—beyond any of the online features, I haven’t yet played a game with any kind of multiplayer, or one that fully utilizes the motion aspect of the Joy-Cons, as 1-2-Switch hasn’t arrived yet. At its most fundamental level, though, the Switch exists to let you play Nintendo games wherever you please, and so far it meets those expectations. Beyond that, the Switch is still a bit of a mystery.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.