Switch Incoming

A few months ago, Nintendo gave us our first look at the Switch – née NX – the company’s latest piece of gaming hardware.  The reveal came in the form of a wordless three-and-a-half-minute video, showing people playing the console/handheld hybrid in a variety of improbable locations – basketball court, rooftop party – and with a variety of controller configurations.  The video shows off the Switch’s ability to seamlessly transition from home to portable use, offers our first look at the detachable controllers, and confirms that the system will use cartridges, as has previously been rumored.  Ostensible gameplay footage offers some hints as to what might be coming down the pike, but otherwise the video is light on specifics.  Mostly it just puts a face to the name, confirming the rumors and the actual look of the hybrid console we’ve been imagining (and hilariously drawing) for months now.

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When rumors that the NX was going to be a handheld-home console hybrid started swirling, I was unenthused, and a bit skeptical.  But after watching the reveal trailer (a bunch of times), I’m sold on the concept.  I don’t know what did the trick.  Maybe it was the glorious return of asymmetrical analog sticks to a Nintendo controller; maybe it was thought of replaying Skyrim (which I’ll never do, because who has 800 hours to spare?) on a Nintendo platform; or maybe it’s just my heart catching up to the inevitability that I will buy whatever Nintendo puts out.  But whatever the reason, I’m excited to get my hands on a Switch.

That being said, there are still a lot of ways the Switch could go wrong.  Since the reveal, the rumors, speculation, and leaks that long surrounded the Switch have become more focused and detailed, but we’ve had to wait for official information from Nintendo.  Until now.  The more detailed unveiling, slated for January 12, is practically upon us.  Finally, we’ll get answers to all our questions.  Finally we’ll find out about…

The Price

This is an obvious question, and perhaps one of the hardest to answer.  This being a Nintendo product, one would assume the price will be consumer-friendly.  Sony’s success with the PS2 may have given them the confidence (or the chutzpah) to tell you to get a second job to pay for your PS3, but Nintendo is in the opposition position.  Conventional wisdom is that Nintendo needs to stay below the other consoles’ starting prices, which are currently sitting at around $300.  All the speculation seems to be circling a $250 price tag, plus or minus a bit.  (A UK retailer is already taking pre-orders at about that price, but who knows what that means.)  That price point certainly seems in keeping with Nintendo’s historical prices, and would be competitive in the market.

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But on the other hand, the Switch promises a home console experience that looks good on your 55” 1080p TV, but is also portable and has its own screen and battery.  And, by the way, is also sold for a profit, as is Nintendo’s convention-bucking wont.  I don’t know how a device can meet all those criteria and still come in at $250.  The responsible consumer in me would love for the Switch to somehow be $199, but the feature-craving, graphics-ogling gamer in me is a little afraid of such a low price tag.

The Power

See above.  How powerful will this thing be?  How powerful can it be?  Nintendo’s recent philosophy has been to focus less on horsepower and more on novelty – and I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense – but it’s easy to imagine that their hardware has underperformed in part because it’s been underpowered.  There are rumors – or, let’s be honest, dreams – swirling around that the Switch will somehow be as powerful as, or even more powerful than, the PS4.  This just seems absurd.  The Switch is a fraction of the size of a PS4, and a chunk of that limited real estate is given over to the screen and battery.  And, as always, it will have to contend with the laws of physics.  I just don’t see how you can squeeze all that power into such a small, battery-powered device, unless the thing costs a lot more than everyone’s speculating.  And if I had to bet on where Nintendo is likely to compromise, I’d put my money on an underpowered device rather than an overpriced one.

The Battery

Along with price and horsepower, this is the third leg of the stool.  Even if the Switch is somehow $199 and pushes out 2+ teraflops, it won’t do anyone any good if it runs out of juice before you can finish the Mushroom Cup in Mario Kart 9.  And this is where physics is once again Nintendo’s enemy.  Batteries take space and generate heat, both of which are a handheld console’s mortal enemies.  It doesn’t take a lot of Clash of Clans to suck the life out of my phone’s battery; I shudder to think what a Skyrim session would do to it.  Battery technology is improving all the time, but unless Nintendo has somehow cracked the code on graphene supercapacitors or something, I’m worried that I won’t be able to play the Switch for more than a couple hours before it dies – or explodes.

The Dock

What does the dock do?  Obviously it charges your Switch and passes the AV signal on to your TV, but does it do anything else?  More to the point: does the dock add any horsepower?  Nothing in the presentation suggests this, nor do any credible rumors.  But there would be a certain logic to it.  While the Switch is almost certainly going to (attempt to) output 1080p visuals when hooked up to your TV, this resolution is not necessary on a less-than-seven-inch screen.  When you’re sitting ten feet from a 50” TV, you can maybe almost probably not really tell the difference between 720p and 1080p.  If I mathed my math right, this is the equivalent of holding a Switch about 15” from your face.  In other words, the Switch screen doesn’t have to be any sharper than 720p.  So the Switch won’t need as much horsepower in portable mode as it will in hooked-up-to-your-TV mode.  Why carry that extra, unnecessary horsepower around with you, then, sucking your battery dry to render pixels your pathetic human eyes can’t even perceive?

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Put another way, perhaps the Switch has a processor powerful enough to output 720p graphics, with some extra computing power stashed away in the dock that will let you scale games up to 1080p (or beyond) when docked.  Such a solution could help Nintendo hit those lower price points, too: an entry-level, $200-250 system could come packed with a vanilla dock that just passes the 720p signal along to your TV, while a “pro” dock – packed in with a different SKU and/or sold separately – could add some extra horsepower to upgrade your visuals.  Such a solution would also allow Nintendo to potentially release an “ultra pro” dock in the eventuality that 4K ever becomes a meaningful feature for mainstream consumers.

I don’t really think such a configuration is actually likely; it seems too complicated for Nintendo – a company that has never really cared how many P their games have – too confusing for mainstream consumers, and too prohibitive for retailers weary of too many SKUs.  But Nintendo did file a patent for a “supplemental computing device,” which at least fits this scenario.  Of course, this patent could mean a lot of different things, and might have nothing to do with the Switch.  Nintendo has a lot of patents.  But the graphics-ogling gamer in me, the one who’s nervous about Nintendo being able to juggle price, power, and battery life, secretly hopes that Nintendo goes for this modular, saleable approach.

Another, similar solution to the three-legged-stool problem – and one I’ve seen discussed elsewhere – would be for Nintendo to simply adjust the processor’s clock speed when the system docks.  This would let the system use less power when running off of a battery, and then ramp up to hit 1080p when power supply is not an issue.  This would also help with heat, as the dock could have fans to help cool the upclocked system while the downclocked system would stay cool enough for passive cooling.

Storage

Long gone are the days where you slot a memory card into your controller to store all your save files.  These days, a large amount of storage – measured in terabytes – is a necessity for a game console.  The paltry 500 GB hard drives that come installed in your vanilla PS4 and Xbox One start to feel inadequate once you own a half-dozen games or so,  and gamers who don’t pony up for additional storage have to quickly learn the uninstall/install dance if they want to keep buying games.

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But there’s no way a capacious hard drive is hiding within the Switch’s trim chassis, and I shudder to think what the price tag might be if it’s packing a high-capacity solid state drive.  So how will storage work with a Switch?  With the prices of SD cards being what they are, it’s no surprise Nintendo is going to be able to fit full HD games on a tiny cartridge, and surely they can find a few spare megs for save files.  But what about patches?  Rare is the modern game that doesn’t at some point require a multi-gig patch; frustratingly often, that point is the moment you pop the disc in your drive for the first time.  So where will Switch users be saving these files?  And where will we save the dozens of gigs of DLC released for our games?  And of course, most significantly, where will we store games we purchase digitally?

Are Switch cartridges going to come packed with dozens of extra gigs of empty storage space to accommodate any potential future patches and DLC?  Will we be buying blank Switch cartridges on which to store our digital purchases?  Will we have to juggle dozens of SD cards, remembering which one has that hot new indie title on it, which one has all the Call of Duty map packs, and which one has the latest Skyrim patch?  Will the convenient, grab-and-go Switch be encumbered by an unplug-grab-go-find-a-place-to-put-and-plug-back-in external hard drive and its accompanying portable battery?  Will Nintendo mandate that developers release all games in a perfect, never-to-be patched form on day one?  Will we only be able to play digital purchases, DLC, and patched games while we’re at home?

None of these solutions seem plausible or consumer-friendly, but I find it hard to believe that the Switch could be hiding more than a few hundred gigs of storage space under its hood.  My Xbox One has a four-terabyte hard drive plugged into it, and a sizeable chunk of it is already filled.  Sure, I don’t need to have the next 62 games I plan on playing already installed, but I do, and I like the convenience.  At any moment on my Xbox, I may be juggling six or eight games in my active rotation while also dabbling in a few more that I jump into from time to time.  This is only possible because I have so much storage; were I limited to the “mere” 500 GB inside my Xbox, every time I felt in the mood for a quick game of Madden, I’d have to uninstall something and wait a few hours while I downloaded Madden again.  With the Switch, I fear that I’ll be dusting off my dancing shoes to do the old installation shuffle.

The Controllers

Like the Wii U before it, the Switch comes armed with a plethora of control options, most of which involve the tragically named Joy-Cons (not to be confused with the annual gathering of overly earnest Christmas enthusiasts, JoyCon).  You can play with the Joy-Cons attached to the Switch, can play with one Joy-Con in each hand, can play with the Joy-Cons attached to the Joy Grip (not to be confused with… nevermind) to form a traditional controller, and you can play (at least some games) with a single Joy-Con.  Alternatively, you can use a Pro Controller, which is what most people would just refer to as a controller.

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With so many options, you can’t help but wonder how each one will play, and which games will support which configurations.  The Pro Controller will be fine; it’s just an Xbox controller.  Each of the other configurations, though, leaves at least a little cause for concern.

Let’s start with the portable setup.  With the Joy-Cons clipped to the Switch tablet (Joy-Tab?  Tab-Con?), you essentially have a Wii U gamepad, with a few key differences.  For one, the analog sticks have an asymmetrical layout, as with an Xbox or Gamecube.  I’m glad to see the change; the Wii U’s layout was uncomfortable and unintuitive, and the Xbox controller is far and away my favorite.  Otherwise, though, the Switch looks less ergonomic than the Wii U gamepad.  Its sleeker form factor makes it sexier, less toy-like, and perhaps a bit more portable, but at the cost of comfort.  Those bulges of plastic on the Wii U gamepad give you something to grip; the flatter, thinner (?) Switch doesn’t look like it was designed with human hands in mind.

This is also reflected in the button layout: the buttons and analog sticks are directly in line with each other on the y-axis, whereas most other controllers have the lower components set closer to center than the upper components.  This is because your thumb most comfortably moves in arcs rather than in horizontal and vertical lines, because you are not a robot.

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Take a look at the close-up shots of people holding the Switch in that announcement video: everyone seems to be gripping the thing very tightly, with their thumbs awkwardly arched.  Finding a way to hold the Switch so that you can move your thumbs between all the buttons while also not dropping the thing looks like it will take some practice.

To be clear, for handheld gaming, the Switch looks to easily be the most comfortable, functional mainstream device on offer.  (Holding an iPad in two hands is no Swedish massage.)  And the built-in kickstand gives you the option of detaching the Joy-Cons and holding one in each hand, which should mitigate some of the (assumed) discomfort.  That vertical button layout, though, will still be murder on your thumb joints.  And that awkward button placement extends to the Joy Grip.  When the Joy-Cons are clipped into the grip, the resultant dog-faced controller is so bizarre looking that it has to be comfortable.  But the buttons and sticks are still lined up vertically, so your thumbs will still have to contort to move between them.

Granted, this is all speculation; so far we’ve only seen a few minutes of video.  On Thursday we’ll get a better look, but just a look; after the hands-on event on Friday the 13th we should start seeing some impressions roll in.  But to really get a sense of how comfortable or uncomfortable this thing will be, we’re going to have to wait until demo units start popping up at the local Best Buy – by which time many of us will have already made our pre-orders.

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Which leaves us with the single-Joy-Con configuration.  One of the Switch’s most interesting features is its ability to transform into a portable two-player gaming machine.  Turning the Joy-Con on its side lets you access some shoulder buttons while the kickstand turns your switch into a TV for the smallest split-screen experience of your life.  Now, this is obviously not the optimal way to play any game.  The single Joy-Con is short a few buttons and also looks to be about the size of a matchbox car.    The question here isn’t, “Will this be comfortable?”  It won’t be.  The question is, “Will this be tolerable?”

Local Multiplayer

As long as it’s not prohibitively uncomfortable, the Switch’s ability to allow local multiplayer on the go is potentially transformative.  It’s a feature whose potential can’t be overstated.  There’s simply nothing else on the market that does this.  With the Switch, any get-together can become an impromptu Mario Kart tournament.  In an era where social gatherings often devolve into a bunch of people sitting in a room playing the latest free-to-play match-three game on their individual phones, the Switch is here to reintroduce social interaction to social gatherings.

Beyond comfort, though, there are other potential issues with this feature.  What games will it work with?  How will gameplay change in this configuration?  What will it require of third-party developers?

In a cruel irony, one of the Switch’s best features might also be one of its worst.  When you’re using a single Joy-Con as your controller, you’re obviously missing quite a few inputs; you’re down to one analog stick, four face buttons, and two or four shoulder buttons – it’s hard to tell based on what we’ve seen.  This is adequate for a number of Nintendo’s biggest franchises – Mario, Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and so on – but it eliminates a lot of games from consideration.  Shooters, for example, don’t seem workable with these limited controls, not that you’d want to play a split-screen shooter on a seven-inch screen.

The best-case scenario for this feature, then, is that it will only work with a limited number of games, like the Kinect or Wii U touchscreen.  Not a particularly shiny brass ring.  The worst case scenario is that Nintendo will force developers to make their games work in this configuration, the kind of restriction that may well drive developers away.

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Even if Nintendo doesn’t mandate it, they will likely need developers to add special Switch-only multiplayer modes to their games to make this feature more of a selling point and less of a gimmick.  But this is easier said than done.  Throughout at least the first year of its life, there will be fewer Switches in the wild than there will be Vitas.  Nintendo is already facing an uphill battle trying to get third-party support; the idea that developers are going to devote extra resources to the Switch port of a game, which will be third or fourth or fifth on the development totem pole, seems dubious.  I anticipate a bevy of announcements on Thursday and Friday for games with special Switch-only, Joy-Con-centric modes, but I won’t be surprised if this level of third-party support begins and ends with the launch lineup.

If Nintendo can make this concept work, though – if the support is there from the start and continues through the years – this could very well be a watershed moment in gaming.  There isn’t even a proper term for what type of gaming this is – “portable, single-screen multiplayer” is obviously too cumbersome.  “DMV multiplayer,” perhaps?  And if the feature works well, it will turn every Switch into a walking billboard for the platform.  The person next to you on the train can join you for a quick game of Mario Kart while everyone else on the train watches.  As long as you buy an inexpensive replacement for a single Joy-Con to replace the one that will inevitably get stolen by some rage quitter, Switch with strangers could very well become a thing.

I’m prepared to be the guy who brings his Switch everywhere on the off chance that some gaming might break out.  A good Switch carrying case is an automatic day one purchase.  Sure, we won’t be playing Titanfall this way, but there are a number of games that would translate well to this format.  In addition to the aforementioned first-party games, titles like Overcooked and Badland immediately spring to mind.  I’m excited for this feature and hope it works well.  But if it’s the kind of thing I try once and then never use again, I won’t be entirely surprised.

Additional Features

The Switch reveal video was notably light on details, and singularly focused on the console’s central concept: taking your home console with you.  But it does make you wonder what else the thing does.  In particular, there were two conspicuous absences from the video: motion control and a touchscreen.

It would be surprising if the Switch didn’t have a touchscreen.  In 2017, any screen that isn’t bolted to your wall is a touchscreen.  This thing is designed to look like a tablet, and people are going to constantly be trying to touch it to select menu options; kids, who make up a huge chunk of Nintendo’s audience, don’t even know that there are screens that don’t respond to your touch.  If it isn’t a touchscreen, it’s just going to frustrate people, and it would probably cost Nintendo less money to include a touchscreen than to staff a call center for the endless barrage of inevitable “my touchscreen doesn’t work” calls to customer service.

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As for motion control, that seems like less of a safe bet, but still somewhat likely.  Motion control in gaming has had plenty of opportunities to take off, and it hasn’t.  With the exception of Just Dance games, that is.  But then, it doesn’t seem to cost much to include motion control, and if the VR peripheral rumors turn out to be true, then Nintendo may as well throw some accelerometers into the Joy-Cons just in case.

On top of these two obvious areas of speculation, there are a number of tricks the Switch might have up its Sleeve-Cons.  Can it communicate with your phone, perhaps to interact with Nintendo’s mobile games, or to play location-based games?  In the post-Pokémon Go world, it seems silly to release a piece of portable gaming hardware that doesn’t support location-based games.  Will there be extra peripherals you can clip onto it in place of the standard Joy-Cons?  Will Amiibo play a more prominent role this time around?  Nintendo opted to announce the Switch with a one-two punch strategy, so we can assume there’s going to be some weight to that second punch.  I’m not expecting anything Earth-shattering to be unveiled on Thursday, but there should be at least a couple of previously unmentioned features.  Nintendo knows to save a little something for the final lap, right?

Online Gaming

There are a number of ways Nintendo seems to be out of the mainstream of late, and one of the most glaring is the company’s failure to understand the Internet and its role in the industry.  Gamers like to play games online, chat with friends online, meet new people online, share gameplay with people online, and watch other people play games online.  Nintendo tends to make all of these things inconvenient if not downright impossible.  It’s hard to know exactly why Nintendo behaves the way it does sometimes, but to the frustrated gamer the “why” doesn’t matter.  What matters is the user experience, and it hasn’t been great this past decade.

The recent partnership with DeNA should be a step in the right direction: the company was brought onboard explicitly to work on Nintendo’s new account system, and many of us have been hopeful that they’d inject some much needed perspective into Nintendo’s decision making.  But then Nintendo released a 3DS port of Super Mario Maker with all of the game’s Internet features stripped out – i.e. the things that made the Wii U game so great.  So it seems that Nintendo still doesn’t quite understand the Internet.  Super Mario Maker managed to become one of the biggest gaming stories in 2015, and it still has a vibrant community, despite the fact that it’s a Wii U game and nobody owns a Wii U.  This is owing to the Internet.  I mean, yeah, it’s owing to the fact that it’s a great game and Mario is a pop culture icon, but mostly it’s owing to the Internet.  And Nintendo doesn’t seem to get that.

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Of all the improbable social gaming scenarios depicted in the Switch reveal video, perhaps the standout is the scene featuring a woman – the Internet has named her Karen – bringing her Switch to a rooftop party.  It’s funny because it’s such a weird and meme-ready moment, but beyond that, it seems ready made to serve as a satire of Nintendo’s Internet ineptitude.  Interneptitude.  You could almost picture Reggie Fils-Aime laying it out at a press event: “And now, the news you’ve been waiting for: we’ve gotten rid of Friend Codes!  On the Nintendo Switch, playing with your friends couldn’t be easier.  You just go to where your friend lives, walk around the block, find the building behind hers, climb up the fire escape to the roof, figure out which window is your friend’s, and then shout towards it until she hears you and comes over to join the party.  It’s as simple as that!”

Nintendo has earned the benefit of the doubt in a lot of ways over the years.  I will, for example, buy any mainline Mario or Zelda game on launch day, reviews be damned, because the company’s track record is so rock solid.  But when it comes to network features, Nintendo hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt; they’ve just earned the doubt.  We won’t be able to fully judge their approach to the Internet until we have our Switches in our hands, but Nintendo would be well served to at least offer up some consumer-friendly announcements on Thursday.

The Mario Game

Obviously there’s going to be some Mario games on this thing.  I could’ve told you that fifteen years ago.  An announcement of a new mainline Mario game seems all but certain, for all the obvious reasons but also because we’ve already seen it.  Of the six games shown in the Switch reveal, two were third-party (and perhaps hypothetical) games, two were updated Wii U games, and one was the Zelda game we’d already seen.  The only truly new game was the Mario game, of which we saw maybe three seconds.

All we can really tell is that it’s a 3D Mario game and not a New Super Mario Bros. game.  There is one interesting detail, though: all of the – okay, both of the – shots of the game feature a POV from directly behind Mario’s back.  Granted, the camera can be anywhere at any given moment in a 3D platformer, and we don’t even know if this is actual gameplay.  But this camera angle does lend itself to a particular type of game: the runner.  This new Mario game could be some kind of runner, be it endless or automatic or on-rails or whatever.  Which reminds me of another Mario game that recently came out.

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Could this be a hint at Nintendo’s strategy?  The Mario game on the Switch could very well be a play on the mechanics introduced to the series in Super Mario Run.  In that way, it could serve as a bridge between the mobile and Switch audiences.  It’s not a bad idea: (re)introduce people to a character on mobile, and then lure them over to the Switch with a game that is markedly more complex but still feels familiar.  There are, I’m sure, some people for whom Super Mario Run was the first Mario game they’ve played in years or decades, and these people will feel more at home playing a 3D Mario runner than they would with, say, Super Mario Galaxy 3.

Third-Party Games

One of the most talked-about elements of the Switch reveal video was the surprise appearance of Skyrim (and, to a lesser extent, NBA 2K17) on the console.  It seems that Nintendo is trying to appeal to core gamers this time around.  This is exciting news, but third-party support on a Nintendo platform is never a sure thing, and we should never count our dragon eggs before they’re hatched.  Bethesda and 2K were both quick to throw cold water on our gamer fantasies, clarifying that the clips of their games running on a Switch were just conceptual and not indicative of any specific titles bound for the system.  Maybe we’ll get formal Skyrim and 2K announcements on Thursday or Friday, but we shouldn’t count on it.

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Meanwhile, BioWare has announced that they have no plans to bring Mass Effect: Andromeda to Nintendo’s portable game rectangle.  So while it’s clear Nintendo is making an attempt to get third-party support for their new platform, it’s also clear that the Switch will not be the thing many of us have been dreaming of: a Nintendo console that can stand alongside Sony’s and Microsoft’s hardware and make it once again viable to own only one console and have that console be Nintendo’s.

Even if the Switch gets solid third-party support, there are going to be some glaring holes in the lineup.  And that’s sad.  It’s unthinkable that a major game would release on, say, the Switch and the Xbox One but not the PS4.  If you want to play all the major third-party, non-exclusive games, either an Xbox or a PlayStation will do.  A Switch, though, almost certainly will not do.  It will have a solid first-party lineup and might have some decent third-party options, but only the most fervent Nintendo acolytes will be able to satisfy their gaming needs with this thing.  The rest of us are going to need a second box under the TV.

Luckily, the Switch is releasing in early 2017, so it won’t be directly competing with the other consoles.  A lot of us already have an Xbox or PlayStation, and now is a good time to pick up a second console.  And the fact that it’s portable gives us another reason to own it, and a reason to consider buying multi-platform games on it.

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Very soon, we should know the answers to many of these questions.  Though it’s still mostly a mystery, the Switch is somehow almost upon us.  It is once again an exciting time to be a Nintendo fan.  I’ll be watching the announcement on Thursday, running out to the store the next morning to make my inevitable preorder, and then probably returning here to weigh in on everything we will have learned…

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Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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