Nintendo took a bold step with its latest game system. The $299 Switch is a fully functional home game console like the Wii U, but it can also be used as a handheld system like the 3DS. Between its 6-inch tablet body and its detachable, wireless Joy-Con controllers, Nintendo is exploring some very interesting concepts with this device. Instead of directly facing off against the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, the Switch represents a whole new path in gaming.
Nearly two years after it first came out, the Switch has a strong collection of excellent first-party titles, ports of great games from the past, and a remarkably wide selection of fantastic indies, most of which offer the choice of playing on a TV at home or in your hands anywhere else. And innovative titles like the Labo series show there is seemingly no limit to Nintendo’s creativity and the system’s versatility. Its online service can use some work, but we still have no qualms giving the Switch our Editors’ Choice recommendation.
Atop the Switch is a small power button and a volume rocker toward the left, and a 3.5mm headphone jack and game card slot to the right. Switch games look like slightly thicker SD cards, or slightly longer 3DS cards. A fan grille sits between the volume rocker and the headphone jack, keeping the system ventilated without making any noticeable noise. The bottom of the Switch has a USB-C port for charging and connecting to the Switch Dock.
On the back panel, there’s a pair of speakers that get surprisingly loud, along with a small plastic kickstand that flips out of the left side. The kickstand lets you stand the Switch up on a table, and reveals the microSD card slot behind it. Unfortunately, the kickstand feels flimsy, and is both thin and positioned near the edge of the system, so it doesn’t stand up with much stability; the Nyko Kick Stand is a $5 replacement made of metal that feels much sturdier, even if it doesn’t quite fix that balance issues of the stand being located so far off to the side. You get 32GB of internal storage, with support for microSD cards up to 2TB.
Display and Dock
The Switch is equipped with a 6-inch, 720p capacitive touch screen, the most advanced ever put on a Nintendo device. The 3DS’ screen only shows a 400-by-240 picture (per eye, for the handheld’s 3D effect), which means the Switch’s 1,280-by-720 screen has nine times as many pixels. It’s a bright, sharp screen, with excellent colors even when viewing it off-angle. It isn’t as crisp or as high-res as the 1080p and Quad HD screens of many modern smartphones and tablets, but for a Nintendo gaming device, it’s very impressive.
You can charge the Switch by plugging the included USB-C wall adapter directly into the tablet, but you’ll more likely plug the adapter into the included Switch Dock and drop the Switch into the dock when you want to either charge the system or play with it on your TV. The Switch Dock is a block-shaped piece of black plastic measuring 4.0 by 6.8 by 1.9 inches that charges the system, provides an HDMI output so you can connect it to your TV and play games in 1080p on a big screen, and provides three USB 3.0 ports for storage and accessories. The Switch drops into the dock easily, and automatically switches the output to HDMI as soon as it connects.
The included Joy-Cons are a pair of wireless controllers that can be used with the Switch in different configurations. Each Joy-Con measures 4.0 by 1.4 by 0.5 inches (not including the analog stick or shoulder trigger protrusions), and looks like half of a conventional gamepad built into a rounded one-handed grip with a large flat side equipped with an attachment rail.
Both Joy-Cons feature half the controls found on a standard gamepad, including an analog stick, four face buttons that double as a digital direction pad, and two shoulder buttons you can easily reach when holding it in one hand, plus left and right shoulder buttons, a pairing button, and four indicator lights hidden on the attachment rail. A mechanical release sits near each Joy-Con’s rail; accessories stay solidly connected once they click into place, and you can only remove them by pressing the release before sliding the Joy-Con upward.
The Joy-Cons aren’t symmetrical, and the left and right versions have a few different controls and features. The left Joy-Con has a minus button for accessing menus near the top, and a capture button that takes screenshots just below the face buttons. The right Joy-Con has a plus button for pausing games and accessing menus near the top, and a home button just below the right analog stick. The right Joy-Con has some more advanced internal sensors as well, including an infrared camera and an NFC chip for reading Amiibos.
Typically the left and right Joy-Cons rest in your left and right hands, letting you access the analog sticks and face buttons easily with your thumbs. You can also turn a Joy-Con sideways with the attachment rail facing away from you and use it as a simpler controller. This enables two-player gaming out of the box without needing to buy more Joy-Cons. The asymmetrical design of the Joy-Cons become apparent in this configuration, because the left features the analog stick on the far left side and the face buttons in the middle, while the right features the face buttons on the far right side and the analog stick in the middle. Whether the Joy-Cons are awkward to use in this position is a matter of hand size and personal taste—I didn’t mind either after a few moments to get used to the different spacing of the controls.
The Switch can help you find wayward JoyCons if you listen closely. The tablet can remotely activate any paired JoyCon within range with a tap of the touch screen, so you can listen for them. They have no speaker or buzzer, but their rumble motors are powerful enough that they can make an audible buzz on their own, which is very useful if you dropped one behind the couch or left it in a drawer.
Grips and Straps
The included Joy-Con wrist straps are simple plastic rails that slide over each Joy-Con, providing a wrist strap to keep it secure and placing larger, easier-to-press mechanical shoulder buttons over the tiny ones on the naked controller.
The Joy-Con grip is a plastic shell you can insert the two Joy-Cons into to use them as a conventional gamepad. With the Joy-Cons attached, it feels like a slightly lighter, smaller version of the standard Xbox controller. The grip has four light tunnels for each attached Joy-Con to indicate their connection status (the status lights on the rails of each Joy-Con shines through the tunnels to the front of the grip).
The grip itself is just a plastic shell, and doesn’t provide power to the Joy-Cons; if you want to charge while playing, you need to get the optional $30 charging grip, which looks very similar to the Joy-Con grip, but has a power pass-through to keep the controllers charged when in use. You can’t charge the Joy-Cons in the included Joy-Con grip, so you need to remove them and attach them to the Switch itself when they run out of power. Third-party accessory makers like Bionik and Nyko also provide alternatives with dedicated Joy-Con chargers and power grips.
Additional Joy-Cons go for $50 each or $80 a pair, and are available in dark gray, neon blue, neon red, and neon yellow versions. Alternatively, you can also pick up a $70 Switch Pro Controller. It’s a traditional one-piece gamepad that feels quite solid, but doesn’t come apart for separate use.
Portable or Home Console
Switching between Switch configurations is as easy as it looks. The system automatically turns the screen on when you remove it from the Switch Dock, and outputs video over HDMI within seconds of inserting it in the dock. The Joy-Cons wirelessly connect to the system quickly, and pair automatically by directly sliding onto the tablet. While the mechanical latches on the Joy-Cons don’t make the satisfying clicking sound the Switch commercials show, the Switch’s speaker plays that very sound effect whenever you connect a Joy-Con to the tablet’s rails when it’s out of the dock.
As a handheld game system, the Switch feels large but comfortable. It’s thicker than a tablet but much thinner than the Wii U gamepad, and far more natural to hold. It’s 9.4 inches wide with both Joy-Cons attached, making it too cumbersome to easily put in a pocket, but it can fit in most bags without a problem. I bring my Switch with me to work every day on the subway. It fits comfortably in my bag when I’m not playing it, and doesn’t feel overwhelmingly bulky when I play it while standing.
Nintendo says the Switch’s battery can last between 3 and 6.5 hours depending on what you play, which is a fairly weak showing for a gaming handheld (the New Nintendo 3DS can easily manage 5 to 6 hours per charge). However, because the Switch charges with USB-C instead of a proprietary Nintendo connector, you can keep it topped up with an external battery pack and a USB-C cable. The Joy-Cons, meanwhile, are rated to last up to 20 hours per charge.
Even with the short battery life, I really like the Switch’s portable mode. It’s incredibly convenient to pick up the system and go without needing to stop your game. It’s just as satisfying to get home after playing on the subway, dock the Switch, and sit back with it like a home console. I often found myself in the middle of a quest in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild when a favorite show was coming on, so I simply attached the Joy-Cons and played on the couch while half-watching TV. It’s a flexibility we simply haven’t seen in a game system before.
Nintendo hasn’t announced any plans for a virtual reality accessory or system to work with the Switch, like Sony’s PlayStation VR for the PS4.
Nintendo has joined Microsoft and Sony in requiring a paid subscription to play more games online. While you could play games like Mario Kart 8, ARMS, and Puyo Puyo Tetris with other people all over the world for free in the first year and a half that the system was available, you now must subscribe to the Nintendo Switch Online service. The good news is that, at $3.99 per month or $19.99 per year, it’s a third the price of PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. The bad news is that it doesn’t offer much benefit besides just enabling online multiplayer.
The service also enables cloud saving for your games, which is important because there is still no way to back up your saves to local storage. Unfortunately, cloud saving doesn’t work with every game, and even first-party games like Splatoon 2 and the upcoming Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu! and Let’s Go Evee! won’t use it. That makes it incredibly limiting.
Nintendo Switch Online also enables voice chat on paper, but it’s so unwieldy you might as well use Discord, Skype, or some other app. Instead of enabling voice chat through the Switch itself using a wired headset, it’s done through the Nintendo Switch Online mobile app. It coordinates voice chat through your phone, requiring you to juggle two devices at once if you want to talk to other people in your game. It’s effectively useless next to other VoIP apps.
While Nintendo hasn’t announced any Virtual Console for the Switch yet, Nintendo Switch Online lets you play about 20 classic Nintendo Entertainment System games on your Switch. It’s a pretty small selection, but Nintendo plans to add three new NES games every month for the near future. There is no word on classic Super NES, Nintendo 64, or Nintendo GameCube games on the Switch.
The Switch is already home to many classic games. It started with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and since then we’ve seen fantastic titles like Mario Tennis Aces, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Splatoon 2, and the superlative Super Mario Odyssey.
The digital eShop currently offers a good handful of compelling independent titles and a surprising number of Neo Geo classics released by the Hamster Corporation as the ACA Neo Geo series. Lots of good older games have also been released separately by Nintendo and other publishers as full Switch ports, including Bayonetta 2, Lumines Remastered, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Okami HD, and The World Ends With You: Final Remix. Indie games are well-represented, with ports of Inside, Night In The Woods, Stardew Valley, Undertail, and dozens of other acclaimed titles.
Nintendo has been experimenting heavily with the Joy-Cons, most notable in a series of Labo kits for the Switch. Nintendo Labo is a line of combination craft projects and games, using cardboard to build elaborate “Toy-Cons” to hold the Joy-Cons and serve as complex mechanical controllers. They show off how precise the Joy-Cons’ motion sensors are, and how functional the right one’s infrared camera is, using cardboard levers, cord pulley systems, and reflective stickers to create some truly cool devices. The Labo Variety Kit, for example, lets you build a cardboard piano with moving keys that each play different notes on the Switch tablet. The Labo Vehicle Kit lets you build a steering wheel with windshield wiper levers and a reverse gear. They’re impressive feats of cardboard engineering.
I played Breath of the Wild on the Switch both in a handheld configuration and on a 65-inch 4K TV, and the game nicely shows off the system’s power in both cases. While Nintendo has made no claims about the Switch’s graphical capabilities in comparison with the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One, it’s clearly more powerful than the Wii U. Connected to a TV and outputting at 1080p, the game’s stylized graphics look sharp and eye-catching. They’re just as good on the smaller 720p screen of the Switch itself.
The details and draw distance in Breath of the Wild far outshine those of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, and the game features more impressive models and textures. The graphics stutter slightly in large outdoor scenes with lots of individually modeled waving grass, but generally it’s very smooth.
Breath of the Wild is an open-world adventure, incorporating elements of both the Legend of Zelda series and Western open-world games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Your character, Link, can run around a massive Hyrule and explore dozens of different mini dungeons, gaining new abilities and equipment as he explores. Not only is it fun to play, it’s easily the best-looking Zelda game yet.
The Joy-Cons are fun to use in all configurations. I spent time with them connected to the system, with them plugged into the Joy-Con grip, and with them held in each hand with nothing connecting them. All three methods are responsive and surprisingly comfortable. In particular, holding the Joy-Cons separately feels like a natural evolution of the Nintendo Wii; there is no physical tether between the Joy-Cons, and each has both an analog stick and face buttons, so the controls are much more functional than the fewer, markedly asymmetrical controls on the Wii remote and nunchuck. Motion detection feels very accurate, and I could easily aim my bow by tilting the right controller.
Currently, you can’t copy or transfer your save files unless you have Nintendo Switch Online, and even then the cloud save function doesn’t work on some games. This is frustrating, since you still can’t simply put your saves on a USB drive in case something happens to your Switch (which is possible if you use it primarily as handheld system).
Should You Make the Switch?
The Nintendo Switch is a remarkably ambitious, clever game system concept that manages to live up to its promise of convenient switching between home console and gaming handheld. The Joy-Cons are smart, modular controllers that let the system work in a variety of ways, and the Switch itself has enough graphical power to run the best-looking Zelda and Mario games yet. The sheer number of options you have for playing are impressive, and even with the relatively weak battery life, just the ability to take the system anywhere without worrying about wires is one of the most useful additions we’ve seen to a home game system yet. It’s become a staple of my daily commute.
The Switch is an excellent game console and an excellent handheld. More importantly, it’s built a fantastic library of must-play games from both Nintendo and other publishers. It regularly sees noteworthy new titles, and ports of older games are given new life with the option to play them on the go. The inventive design of the Joy-Cons adds to the possibilities of the system, and enables projects like Labo.
That said, the Switch isn’t a perfect game console. It only reaches 1080p when the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X can both reach 4K, and Nintendo saddles it with some strange and frustrating limitations. However, the home and portable experiences are incredibly fun, and there are so many games available on the system that are really worth your time, even if you’ve played some of them before. For these reasons, the Nintendo Switch easily earns our Editors’ Choice for offering one of the best gaming experiences available.