After revealing the Nintendo Switch will launch March 3 for $299, Nintendo held a press-only event Friday for the first hands-on experience of the console and portable hybrid. We were on the scene to play the system and about a dozen forthcoming games and try out its many different control schemes. There’s a lot to be excited about, but also still a lot of unanswered questions leading up to the system’s release in just six weeks.
The core concept of the Switch, a home console that you can take with you on the go, is undeniably appealing, and the Switch transitions remarkably quickly. You simply lift the tablet-like device out of its dock, snap on the two controllers, and you’re instantly in handheld mode. The idea of taking a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild anywhere you go is certainly tantalizing, and the game looks simply stunning running in 720p on the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen.
But the downside to having a powerful portable console is the battery life, which will last between 2.5 to six hours depending on the game. Zelda, for instance, will only get about three hours of play before needing to recharge. The Switch is also shipping with a paltry 32GB of storage (though it can be expanded with micro SD cards), and reportedly a digital install of Zelda will take up a whopping 13GB of that space. And while its competitors launched with fully featured online services, Nintendo has revealed little info on its online plans other than that it will switch to a paid subscription service in the fall.
Much like Nintendo’s previous consoles, the Switch has a variety of different control schemes available (including a multitouch screen) depending on the game. When the Switch is connected to the TV, you snap the Joy-Con controllers into the included Grip accessory to create a traditional controller. And while it looks a bit square and, according to the internet, kind of like a dog, it feels surprisingly ergonomic and comfortable to use.
Much like the Wii remotes, the detached Joy-Cons can be turned sideways and used as teensy individual controllers. Despite how small it is, there are still four face buttons and two shoulder buttons, and it worked well for Sonic Mania, though that game only uses one button. The Joy-Cons also function as motion controllers in fighting game Arms and feature surprisingly sophisticated haptic feedback (dubbed HD Rumble) in the mini-game collection 1-2 Switch. The Joy-Cons enable easy multiplayer, and you can imagine racing friends in Mario Kart 8 and playing simpler games, but you could never play more complicated games like Splatoon 2 or any kind of fighting game with the tiny controller.
When you snap the Joy-Cons onto the Switch for portable mode, the device feels remarkably similar to Nintendo’s Wii U Gamepad, though it’s heavier and considerably sleeker in design. It also features a gyroscope, which enables motion aiming in games like Splatoon 2. Unlike dedicated handheld systems the 3DS and PlayStation Vita, the Switch’s controls are big enough to handle any kind of game. Both Zelda and Splatoon 2 felt great, and I never felt like I was missing a traditional controller. But for those who do prefer that, there’s also a Pro controller that will be sold separately for $70.
The good news: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will launch alongside the Switch. The long-delayed and much-anticipated next game in the series was first shown as a Wii U game in 2014, and it will finally release on both Switch and Wii U March 3. The bad news: There’s not much else to play at launch. With just five titles, the Switch has the most anemic launch lineup since … well, the Nintendo 64 launched with two games in 1996. Fortunately, one of those games was Super Mario 64, one of the greatest games of all time, and if Zelda lives up to expectations, it could be enough to satiate gamers until Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey arrive later this year.
And while Nintendo boasts that more than 80 games are in development from third parties such as Ubisoft, EA, and Activision, so far the companies haven’t announced any of their blockbuster titles. Instead, they’re porting games like Rayman Legends and Skylanders: Imaginators to the system. There’s also no word on whether any of your Virtual Console titles will transfer to the new system or if you’ll have to pay to re-buy Super Mario Bros. for the millionth time. The availability of classic Nintendo games would help pad the thin launch lineup considerably.
After spending several hours playing the Switch, what struck me is how much it builds on all of Nintendo’s previous systems — both home and portable — to create the ultimate Nintendo experience. It combines the motion controllers of the Wii with the tablet display of the Wii U and the portability of the 3DS to play Mario and Zelda games. As always, it’s undeniably different from what its competitors are doing, but whether it’s the runaway success of the Wii or the fizzle of the Wii U remains to be seen. We’ll start finding out on March 3. Pre-order at Gamestop, Target, Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon, and more places.