Saturday 10 June 2017

Nintendo Switch Review: The First 100 Days

Satsuma man wishes he was that handsome.

I’m writing about Nintendo on the internet. Totally breaking new ground here. Where do I start? It’s been an interesting few months to be a Nintendo fan. This time last year, you'd be forgiven for forgetting the company were even still making games, such was the extent of the Wii U’s obsolescence. A lack of concrete information around what Nintendo were working on next didn't exactly help, leading to all sorts of purported ‘leaks’ pointing to another underpowered flop for a niche market.

Come October, things began to change. While many of the ‘leaks’ suggesting Switch would be a hybrid console were bang on, the initial reveal went well. The concept was appealing and the messaging was clear, unlike Wii U’s muddled branding, but the reveal video was soon followed up by a… weird January press conference that deflated at least some of that enthusiasm. (By the way in case you ever feel Nintendo should do live E3 stage shows again, let me just point you to this.)

Enter March 2017 and all eyes were on ‘console-elect’ Switch to make Nintendo Great Again after, y’know, the Fisher Price tablet that wasn’t even a real tablet. (I promise I’ll stop being mean about Wii U from this point on, I actually like it a lot.) (I also promise to never make another hamfisted reference to real world politics in my gaming blogs, as much as we wish it were all just a game.) There was a mix of optimism and… you know, the usual.  OMG NINTENDO WILL NEVER MAKE A CONSOLE AGAIN. NINTENDOOMED. SWITCH? MORE LIKE SWITCHERU AMIRITE?

When reviews for Zelda came out calling it the best game ever made, it seemed like suddenly this was the real deal. Preorders went haywire - luckily I’d caved months earlier - March 3rd came around and it was finally time to find out if the Switch delivered.

But not before paranoia began to set in. One minute the left Joycon has Bluetooth problems, then suddenly the dock is scratching people’s screens, or some people’s consoles are just like… BLERGH I’M BROKEN. Or minor amusing issues like that one time when sentient Switches acquired free will and started taking random Minecraft screenshots. Now I’m not denying these issues weren’t real for some small minority, but 3 months in it’s kinda clear, like, yeah, calm down. We’ve all seen worse. The system’s build quality alone is well worth praising. Uh-oh. That sounded like something a Nintendo fan would say. Let’s stop this history lesson and get on with my review...

The Hardware:
While not as powerful as it could have been, the system is still in a great place for the types of games on offer. The battery life is solid; honestly, it’s on a par with any other mobile device and charging via USB-C is super convenient so I don’t get everyone’s problem. I’d rather it didn’t have those small internal fans - I get why they’re there, but moving parts on portable devices just don’t sit that well with me. I don't like that I had to buy a screen protector and it doesn't stick down properly in the top-right corner.

Above: First-world problems.
The main thing I don’t like is how awkward the sideways JoyCons feel; those straps are a pain in the arse to take off even when you put them on the right way, and I’m at least 75% sure it’s not my cack-handedness to blame… (Pro tip: Get the Mario Kart wheels, they're much more comfortable.)

The OS:
Well, minimalist is one way to describe it. Non-existent is another. While on the one hand it makes sense de-emphasising features like the Miis and the wacky interface overkill… (You know what I’m talking about - all the long, unnecessary animations and background music - honestly, as much as we may get nostalgic for it, console menus and digital stores really don’t need a soundtrack.) Still, a complete lack of an accessible browser, video apps, or basically anything to do outside of just playing games is a bit unprecedented for any kind of device in 2017. You can… take a screenshot, add text and post it on Twitter… Ok?

But this gets me on to what might be my single favourite thing about the Switch. It’s got a bloody fast interface. Just the process of starting it up, selecting a game, loading it, backing out and loading another game, is by far the fastest process I’ve seen since, well, since before consoles even had operating systems. While it is bare bones, it gets the basics so utterly right that I can only hope it doesn’t get slower when they inevitably do add more features. Features like the new paid online service, which we don’t really know much about other than how much they totally messed up the system for voice chat. The official Splatoon 2 headset diagram from Hori sums this up better than any textual description can:
This many wires is not a good thing. I don't need to know Japanese to know that.

The Games:  
Well, I’m not going to review Zelda because that would need a blog to itself, but I do think it stands as the most significant Nintendo launch game or indeed Nintendo game in general since Super Mario 64. Now, for a while it was impossible to separate the success of the Switch from the success of Zelda… the game had the luxury of a ridiculous attachment rate of over 100%. There’s Mario Kart of course, a pretty safe bet this early in a system’s lifespan, even if it is mostly a recycling of Wii U’s version.

It has to be said, and while I’d argue there hasn’t been a huge amount of software so far, with the addition of indie games and the multiplayer trials of Splatoon and Arms, there’s been a good variety so far. It feels like Nintendo is riding a high quality wave to make up for their staggered release strategy. Arms in particular feels like the product of a confident development team. It shouldn’t work - motion controls front and center in a fast paced competitive fighting game, but based on my time with the ‘testpunch,’ it does work.

This won't be the last we've seen of these sorts of ads.

I’ve played a couple of indie titles so far. Human Resource Machine is a game about coding that I think I got way more into than I had any right to, considering I normally can’t stand games that remind me of work. Thumper on the other hand is a very repetitive ‘rhythm violence’ game that made a splash on the VR circuit last year, but honestly as a pick up and play title it works really well on the Switch.

So, all in all a strong line-up, with additional indie variety for those brave enough to venture outside the ‘first party’ comfort zone. I should mention though, if you believe some of the things floating around online, Nintendo still has a long way to go before it reaches the full potential of the Switch as a safe haven for indies.

The Overly Positive Section:  
Look, I really want to talk about just how transformative this thing is as a portable console. It’s hard for me to really put a finger on why this feels so fresh when portable powerhouses are hardly a new idea, but I think it comes down to commitment.

PlayStation Vita was all about giving folks a full console experience on the go but it couldn’t hold a candle to the types of experiences Sony themselves were delivering with the PS3 and later PS4. It had all these watered down spin-offs of big budget franchises that just didn’t have anywhere near as much time or effort pumped into them. It just didn’t feel like we were supposed to even care that much or take them seriously. “Oh wow, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, it’s like the Uncharted you play on your TV but it’s a spin-off and it’s not made by Naughty Dog and it’s boring and gimmicky and the level design kinda sucks…  Uh… well it’s cute, I guess. Portable Uncharted yay!” For the record I don’t think the Vita is a bad machine, hell the indie support made it worthwhile on its own, just that by its very nature as a companion machine, it never felt like we were really getting the ‘the real deal.’

This is so, so not the case with the Switch. As Nintendo’s new core platform, it has the full breadth of Nintendo’s development prowess behind it. It launched with the literal biggest game the company has ever made. Being able to play games of that quality on the go is new and exciting, however you slice it.

Now naysayers might say things like “ooh you can’t get immersed in big games unless you  play them in the home for hours on end blah blah blah” and, okay, fine, if you want to do that, then do it. That’s the whole point of the hybrid design. But what I’ve actually noticed is the portability encourages me to go deeper into these sorts of games than I normally would. Often if I’m tackling a big RPG or something where you do lots of grinding or you spend ages just running around talking to NPCs, managing inventories or whatever, I’ll look at the time and just think ‘wow what a waste of 2 hours.’ But now I can get the Switch out whenever I like and just have a quick 5 minute session here or there. I don’t have the bother of blocking out time to use the TV and turning loads of things on and faffing around with half a dozen different remotes. So if anything, I think the Switch is better suited to these huge epic timesink games than just about any other platform. I can hop onto Zelda on the train, maybe find a shrine or two but not really accomplish a whole lot, and it’s fine because I’m doing it on my commute. I don’t think I’d have pumped 70 hours into that game if I’d only been playing it at home, that’s all I’m saying.

Of course, there’s also the idea of having two detachable controllers, meaning I can play a quick, silly, impromptu multiplayer game with literally anyone without even having to organise something in advance. The versatility is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I realised that within 30 seconds I could show off Snipperclips to someone who’s unfamiliar with Nintendo games while sat in the office during a lunch break.

It's cute a'right? Come on, you cynical bastard.

As a twist on the hybrid-gaming concept Switch feels like a very Nintendo-ey way of embracing broader modern trends that Sony and Microsoft don’t seem to care about. It’s like how we now rely on cloud-based platforms for file management no matter where we are; how we have things like Netflix to watch films no matter where we are. It’s a console that fits around daily routines rather than one that you have to make space for and I think that is a bloody good thing.

The Problem: Well, that last section got real fanboyish, I’d better look over my list of criticisms to help balance out this review, let’s see now… Well, I could think of several nitpicks but there is an obvious one to me.

Everything is too goddamn expensive!
The console itself is steep but acceptable - it’s everything else. The accessories, the pro controller, the freakin’ standalone dock. It’s a piece of plastic for £80!

It’s worrying when games are priced a £10 premium compared to other consoles. Now allegedly this is due to the expensive cartridge format, leading to devs actively trying to make their file sizes smaller to fit on the cheaper cards, but still. It’s worrying when Nintendo insists on digital pricing being consistent with the physical RRP’s and offers no discounts whatsoever. It’s worrying when Nintendo games are already notorious for holding their value. Try finding a cheap copy of a five year old 3DS game, and compare that with how easily you can find a cheap copy of a one year old PS4 game. Then there are some publishers just having a laugh. A near-full-price 25 year old port of a certain fighting game, itself over twice the price of the 10 year old HD version it effectively repackages…

There’s certainly no sign of price being a major issue yet, as Switch consoles and games alike continue to sell like hotcakes globally. But when this honeymoon period is over; when the novelty of playing games everywhere wears off, what then?

The Missed Opportunity: I’d be remiss not to mention the biggest missed opportunity so far which is probably the lack of Virtual Console. Now, I’m sure Nintendo has a plan, there’s E3 coming up so what I’m about to say may well soon be redundant, but a Virtual Console on Switch just seems like a no-brainer. However much the idea of paying for roms annoys you, if the NES Classic proved anything it’s that lots of people really, really want to pay for roms. And with a library as big as Nintendo’s, the prospect of legitimately playing more advanced games like N64, and yes, GameCube, on a system like Switch should be ridiculously successful. I don’t think fans would be able to stop throwing money at them. I know this, I’m one of them.

Of course, if you really want to bring the good will back, announce that all VC games from 3DS and Wii U will transfer over and watch the fanboys lose their collective minds. Then throw in Wii support as well, I know you wanted to ditch all association with that brand, but you’ve got the waggle controllers already, why aren’t you flogging us Wii Sports again? Hell, bring back Nintendo Land and make it so we have to own a second Switch to simulate the Wii U Gamepad stuff, I’m sure some idiot somewhere will buy it!

All jokes aside, didn’t I just criticise a certain publisher for releasing a certain 25 year old fighting game again? Well, yes, but that was an extreme example of overpricing. Price it right, and I think the Switch is a double-dipping gold mine. We saw this with Mario Kart - hardly any new content over the Wii U version, yet it still feels like a justifiable purchase. Portability is more exciting than an HD makeover. It feels like Switch really could become into the ultimate all in one Nintendo platform, it’s just way too early to know if it will. Frankly, the weird and random way in which Virtual Console has and continues to be managed is the main reason I’m not all too optimistic. Apparently we’ll get ‘online’ NES games with the launch of Nintendo’s new paid online service, a sort of NES Netflix, if you will. That’s a fun idea, I just hope Nintendo can start thinking bigger. I’m not sure Nintendo is a company that’s used to using the old noggin. Case in point:

A Raymanology: Which one of these three systems do you suppose is the most logical candidate for a re-release of the Game Boy Advance port of Rayman 1? (Why you would want to play the Game Boy Advance port of Rayman 1 in 2017 I don’t know, but anyway...) Is it...
Option A: The 3DS, a compact, super-successful handheld with roughly the same dimensions as the GBA. Option B: The Switch, Nintendo’s brand-new exciting hybrid console.
Option C: Wii U, a home console with no true portability that is officially on its last legs.
As a reminder, Rayman Advance is a portable game. If you said option C, you’d be mental, but also correct, as that is the only digital store on which you can purchase Rayman Advance.

Who knows, maybe they’re holding out on the VC because they don’t want to cannibalise sales of new games which is totally understandable when you’re starting a new brand. But man, the idea of playing F-Zero GX on Switch, analogue triggers be damned…

Closing Thoughts:
I got pretty hung up on the whole Virtual Console thing there, but trust me, Nintendo is on to a really good thing with the Switch. Going in to E3 this year, they have the momentum, they have the games and most importantly they’ve captured gamers’ interests. All they have to do now is not Nintendumb the whole thing up. Nintendo can Nintendumb all they want, but if Nintendo Nintendoes right, they’ll keep Nintendoing until they’ve Nintendone what they always Nintended to do: Put a smile on people’s faces. For the first time in years, the future of their console business is looking up. Let’s see what they do next.

A Mario theme park? Sold.