Nintendo’s new video game console, the Nintendo Switch, launches Friday for $299, and once again Nintendo isn’t directly competing with gaming heavyweights PlayStation and Xbox and is instead forging its own path. Sometimes it works, like with the 100-million selling Wii that introduced motion controls to the world. And other times you get the underwhelming Wii U, which was never quite able to fully explain or justify its tablet controller to audiences.
The Switch looks to combine Nintendo’s home and handheld markets with a very simple concept: You’re playing a game at home on your TV, and then you lift the tablet-like device from its dock, lock in two controllers—snap!—and take it with you as a portable system. We’ve spent a week putting the system through its paces both at home and on the go, and the Switch delivers remarkably on its core concept of a console-portable hybrid. But with many features still to come and an anemic launch lineup (albeit featuring one very big hitter), it feels oddly incomplete in many ways.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: The Switch box contains the console itself with 32GB of memory, two Joy-Con controllers and straps, a Grip controller to snap them into, a dock, HDMI cable, and AC adapter. Hooking it up is as easy as plugging the HDMI cord from the dock into the TV and beginning a simple guided setup. The system outputs at 1080p on your TV and downscales to 720p on the system’s 6.2-inch screen in handheld mode, and the battery lasts from 2.5 to 6 hours depending on the game.
But none of that really gets across how good standout launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks on your TV, nor the wonder of undocking the Switch and seeing it instantly transition to the handheld’s screen, where it arguably looks even better (and performs more smoothly because of the resolution drop). Zelda is a huge, sprawling adventure with an enormous open world to explore (look for our review coming soon), and the fact that you can play it anywhere is pretty much a game-changer. No longer are you tethered to your TV or limited by an inferior handheld experience; you’re free to wander Hyrule anywhere and instantly pick it up back up at home.
The Switch transitions from TV to handheld and vice-versa ridiculously quickly, and the Joy-Cons prove a surprisingly solid control method, whether attached to the Switch or snapped onto the Grip controller. (Several outlets have reported issues with the left Joy-Con dropping its connection, though I never experienced that problem.) But the Joy-Cons can only be charged when connected to the Switch in the dock or with a charging Grip controller that is sold separately for $30. And for those who prefer a more traditional controller, the Pro Controller will set you back $70, although it does feel solid and controls well, and it reportedly holds a charge for around 40 hours.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test the Switch’s online services, as there will be a day-one patch available at launch that will add basic online functionality and access to the eShop. And we still don’t have a clear sense of Nintendo’s online plans, other than that it will switch to a paid subscription service in the fall. There’s no word on whether any of your Virtual Console titles will transfer to the new system or if you’ll once again be forced to repurchase classic Nintendo titles for the umpteenth time. And at launch, there’s no support for video apps like Netflix and Hulu, which have been supported on other consoles since day one.
With only a dozen titles available at launch, many of which are ports of older games, there wouldn’t be a strong reason to pick up the Switch right now if it weren’t for Zelda (which is also available for Wii U on Friday), but the fact that you can play it at home and on the go is pretty compelling to die-hard Nintendo fans, as is the promise of core games Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey later this year. And though Nintendo has said that more than 80 games are in development from third parties, it’s unclear (and probably unlikely) that that will include heavyweights like Destiny 2, Prey, or Red Dead Redemption 2. On the plus side, Tuesday’s Nintendo Direct showed surprisingly robust indie support with titles such as Stardew Valley and Yooka-Laylee heading to the system this year.
Once again, Nintendo seems poised to launch a unique console that is uniquely qualified to deliver uniquely Nintendo games. Whether that is enough for you might depend on how much you value Nintendo’s properties, as was the case with the Wii U. But despite some lingering uncertainties, at launch, the Switch already seems to have a more clear raison d’être than the Wii U ever did, and it delivers on the promise of a full-fledged home console you can take with you on the go. Look for our review impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and other launch titles in the coming days.