The Switch: What We Know, What We Don’t

The Nintendo Switch era is almost upon us.  In just a week, the Switch will be released to the masses, or at least those of us lucky enough to have a preorder, and thanks to Nintendo’s January presentation, we finally know what we’ll be getting for our $300.  Mostly.  So while we wait for the new console’s release, let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.  We’ll start with the questions we had going into the presentation.  We were wondering about…

The Price

 This one’s easy.  It’s $299.99, at least in the U.S.  This is a touch higher than I expected, and might be dangerously high from a consumer standpoint.  Nintendo is selling their decidedly less powerful system for the same price as an Xbox One or PS4, and unlike those consoles, the Switch doesn’t come with a bundled game.  Or a library of cheap used games to pad out the collection.  This price point will really test the Switch’s core concept – its console-handheld hybridization – because that’s pretty much the only thing it has going for it when compared to its competitors.

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Going into the big Switch reveal in January, I was expecting it to be around $250, but the price was always a double-edged sword: too high and no one will buy it, too low and it might not be very powerful.  So when Nintendo announced a $300 price tag, I was briefly optimistic that the system might be more powerful than I anticipated.  It would seem, though, that the “extra” $50 is going towards tech in the controllers rather than the GPU, so this optimism was short-lived.

The accessory prices are the real shock: $70 for a pro controller, $50 for a Joy-Con or $80 for a pair, and another $30 for a charging grip, and $90 for a spare dock.  Tellingly, Nintendo quietly released this info online rather than highlight it during their presentation.  No need to remind people that a two-player game of Arms will run you a cool $440.

The Power

 Unsurprisingly, Nintendo didn’t go into detail about the system’s specs during their presentation.  Horsepower has never been the company’s focus, and even if the Switch was somehow a pocket-sized powerhouse, I wouldn’t expect the company to wax poetic about their capacitors and buffers.  However, nothing in the demoed games suggested horsepower on par with the Xbox One or PS4, and reports that have come out since support this impression.  Breath of the Wild, for example, will only run at 900p on your TV, and the system reportedly lags a bit behind the competition in things like CPU and GPU clock speeds, RAM, and CPU cores.  None of this is particularly surprising.  Nintendo’s success will once again depend entirely on the company’s unique concept resonating with gamers.

Battery Life

 Nintendo is claiming 2 ½ to 6 hours of battery life, depending on the game, with Breath of the Wild lasting for about 3 hours.  Realistically, this probably means you’ll get between 2 and 4 hours of battery life in normal conditions.  If you turn off WiFi and lower screen brightness to its minimum and then just let the system sit at its home screen, maybe then you’ll get 6 hours.  This is not great, but is not surprising.  Look for lots of third-party battery packs, and be sure to throw a spare USB-C cable in your carrying case.

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The Dock

The dock doesn’t ppear to do much of anything, other than charge the system and pass the AV signal to the TV.  A closer look reveals that it’s mostly just an empty plastic box.  For some reason, though, a spare one will cost you $90.  Nintendo has left the door open to upgrading the Switch at some point in the future, and adding  tech to the dock would seem like a logical way to do this.  There are currently no announced plans for this, though.  The 4K-enabled,  hard drive-bearing pro dock of our dreams was not announced, in other words.

What stings most about this is that $90 price tag.  I didn’t really expect there to be any game-enhancing tech in the dock, but I also didn’t expect it to cost more than a game or second controller to replace.  The idea of having multiple docks in your house, or maybe even buying one for a friend or family member you often visit, is quite appealing, but not at $90 a pop.  If I had a gaming kid, I might want to keep a spare dock plugged into Grandma and Grandpa’s TV, but for $90 that’s a purchase Grandma and Grandpa are going to have to make for themselves.

Storage

 Here’s where things get ugly.  Unsurprisingly, the Switch doesn’t have much onboard storage.  And really, this is an understatement; the Switch has 32 GB of internal storage.  The Legacy edition of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, for comparison’s sake, is about 130 GB, so if it were ever ported over, you’d have to spread it across five Switches.

To make up for the lack of internal storage, the Switch has a port for a microSD card (sold seperately), and can support cards up to 2 TB.  Of course, such high-capacity cards don’t actually exist yet; the largest microSD cards on the market are 256 GB, and they’ll run you over $100.  (As I write this, Amazon is offering a Samsung 256 GB card for $199.99.)  The hosts of Nintendo’s Treehouse event unironically described the 256 GB card they were using as virtually infinite storage; meanwhile, the 4 TB hard drive connected to my Xbox is half full.

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Digital game releases, DLC add-ons, and patches are all integral parts of the modern gaming landscape.  Shelling out for extra storage, then, is all but an obligation for Switch owners.  Online games, in particular, depend on the fact that everyone’s who’s connecting to the server has the latest patches installed.  The Switch’s lack of internal storage is inevitably going to cause complications for patch-dependent games, fracture audiences for DLC-centric games, and bottleneck the indie marketplace.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Switch not only relies on microSD cards for its storage, but sports only a single card slot.  With prices being what they are, I’d imagine that a lot of people will be opting for cheaper 32 or 64 GB cards initially, and then upgrading when those cards inevitably fill up and/or high-capacity card prices drop.  So how do we get our games and patches and DLC from our 32 GB cards to our new 256 GB cards a year or two from now?  Will I be able to drag and drop files on my PC?  Or will I be downloading all that stuff again on my three-cylinder American “high-speed” Internet?  It seems clear at this point that storage space is going to be a rolling nightmare for Switch owners, at least until Nintendo releases the New Switch.

The Controllers

 The big surprise here is the amount of tech packed into the controllers, which I’ll get into in a bit.  As far as available control schemes, everything is as expected, with one minor surprise: the Joy-Con wrist straps.  While I wasn’t surprised to see motion control included in the Switch, I didn’t expect it to play such a large role in the presentation.  I figured they’d throw some accelerometers into the controllers for things like Splatoon aiming and the hypothetical VR headset, not that they’d build two of their flagship launch-window titles around motion control.  But knowing that, it’s unsurprising that Nintendo would add some wrist straps to the mix, for the sake of your precious television.  The way the wrist straps widen the Joy-Con and make the shoulder buttons more pronounced is a nice touch.  Gaming with a single Joy-Con should be a bit more comfortable with the wrist straps attached.

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Otherwise, no big surprises here.  Nintendo has made vague comments indicating that someday they might release new peripherals that slide onto your Switch in place of the Joy-Cons, but for now we’ll have to wait for such an announcement.  And we’ll also have to wait to find out how comfortable any of this is.  The early impressions I’ve seen have been fairly positive, but it’s not much to go on.

Local Multiplayer

 While Nintendo’s event did highlight a number of games with Joy-Con-based local multiplayer, it didn’t really address any of the questions swirling around this feature.  Games like 1-2-Switch and Snipperclips make use of the feature, but little was said about third-party games.  Presumably, games like NBA 2K and FIFA will support this type of gameplay, but how it differs from standard gameplay is anyone’s guess.  Successful integration of portable multiplayer into as much of the Switch library as possible will be crucial to the system’s success, but only time will tell if it’s something to which third-party developers care to devote considerable resources.

Additional Features

 As expected, the Switch has a capacitive touchscreen.  As far as we can tell from the demos we saw, the touchscreen is used primarily to interact with menus.  Obviously,  any (hypothetical) game designed around touch controls would only be playable in what is called Handheld Mode, so I’d imagine that such games would be limited to inexpensive digital releases, if Nintendo even allows such games to be published.  I could imagine a scenario where a game like Super Mario Maker is released with two input methods – intuitive touch controls in handheld mode and a cumbersome, pointer-based facsimile of touch controls in TV mode – but I’d also imagine this type of game would be rare.  So while there is a touchscreen on the Switch, I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact on game design.

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Similarly unsurprising, if slightly less so, is the inclusion of motion controls.  What is surprising, though, is the emphasis placed on it.  Two of Nintendo’s few announced first-party titles – Arms and 1-2-Switch – are designed around motion controls, though Arms is reportedly also playable with a standard controller.  It’s obvious that Nintendo still sees motion control as essential to attracting casual gamers, and to the social gaming experience.  I remain skeptical that motion controls will ever again be a significant factor in game design, but Nintendo still seems to believe in it.  I expect, as before, a handful of motion-centric first-party games, a bunch of motion-centric shovelware, and almost no motion controls in Nintendo’s flagship franchises.

Beyond those two features, Nintendo also revealed a few more bits of interesting, if puzzling, tech.  For one thing, there’s an IR sensor built into the right (and only the right) Joy-Con, which can detect the distance and approximate shape of objects in its field of view.  For example, if you hold it a foot or so from your mouth, it can tell when your mouth is open or closed, as evidenced by the minigame in 1-2-Switch that has you compete to see who can eat the most imaginary sandwiches.  Indeed.  I hope I’m wrong, but this sensor seems almost entirely useless as an input method; I expect to use it exactly no times.

And in perhaps the most unanticipated announcement, Nintendo, the company that brought you the Rumble Pak, is with the Switch introducing the next evolution in controller vibration, which I guess someone was asking for?  Called “HD Rumble,” the technology allows the controller to vibrate with enough precision to simulate different types of objects.  The example given was the feel of ice cubes being dropped into a glass you’re holding, and then water being poured into it, with HD Rumble supposedly allowing you to not only distinguish between these two types of vibration, but to also count the ice cubes.  In the abstract, this seems like pretty cool technology, and I’m curious to see how effective it really is.  But as a feature for videogame controller, it’s not readily apparent that more precise vibration will improve the gaming experience or warrant the price tag.  Lockpicking and safecracking minigames should get better, but otherwise HD rumble looks like a solution in search of a problem.

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Online Gaming

 For sheer lack of information, this might be one of the presentation’s biggest disappointments.  Expectations were high going into the event, what with Nintendo’s partnership with DeNA and their promised unified account system.  But what Nintendo announced in January, and in the weeks since, has offered as many questions as answers.  We know there will be a paid online service, which will be free when it first launches and then run you a reported $20-30 a year.  If that service will be up and running on March 3, or what it will get you, is anyone’s guess.

In one of the more perplexing announcements, Nintendo revealed that this new online service will enable you to see your friend lists, set up games, and chat with your friends… using your smartphone.  Does it require a smartphone?  It seems so, but it’s unclear.  In other words, with the Nintendo Switch, I’ll finally be able to chat with my friends while gaming by using my phone.  Which is something I could already do, because my phone… is a phone.

If this is just a companion app, which should be par for the course, Nintendo seems to have gone out of their way to make that unclear.  If the online features require a smartphone, it’s hard to see what the advantage is.  Reggie Fils-Aime has offered the very unconvincing rationale that you don’t want to carry a big gaming headset with you when you use your Switch as a portable system.  But then doesn’t that just mean I’ll have to plug my gaming headset into my phone?  Do I have to keep plugging and unplugging my headset from the Switch to my phone in order to hear chat and game audio?  Do I have to use chat on speakerphone?  Am I supposed to cradle the phone on my shoulder?  Am I chatting with my smartphone or with the phone from my parents’ kitchen circa 1998?  What happens when I want to use my phone for other things – say, tweeting about Nintendo games – while I’m playing my Switch?  I can think of dozens of ways this system sounds inconvenient, and zero ways it sounds more convenient than just incorporating online features into the Switch itself.

Beyond this seemingly cumbersome system for interacting with your friends, Ninendo’s online service will also get you access to games from Nintendo’s huge library of NES and SNES games.  But while Microsoft’s online service gets you four games a month that are playable on your Xbox One, and Sony’s gets you two games for each of its three active platforms, Nintendo’s service will (apparently) only get you one game a month.  And where those other services let you keep your free games for as long as you’re an active subscriber, Nintendo’s free offerings will expire at the end of the month, with the option to buy them if you want to keep playing them.  So while these free games will be nice to have, the feature certainly falls well bellow Nintendo’s competitors’ offerings.

There is a silver lining here, though.  With the time limit on these games, people will rush to play them during those precious few weeks of access, which should help foster a sort of zeitgeist around the monthly retro offering.  The ability to capture (and share) screenshots and video clips will certainly feed into this, as will any leaderboards or achievements Nintendo is able to bolt onto these classic games.  On Xbox, I download the free offerings every month – thank you, 4 TB hard drive – but I typically just file them away for some hypothetical future free time.  On the Switch, we’ll all be rushing to play these games while we can, and Nintendo would be well served to make this experience as social as possible.  But still, as cool as it will be to be caught up in a brief cultural moment centered on The Adventures of Lolo, this policy feels needlessly restrictive and penny-pinching.

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Another big question surrounding Nintendo’s online service is just how  useful it will be.  When you plop down sixty bucks for Xbox Live or PS Plus, you can rest assured that countless games will be released over the course of the next year that not only have robust online features but are built around the online experience.  There will be a wealth of online shooters, sports games, racing games, fighting games, MMOs, etc.  And more and more, developers are designing games that require a persistent Internet connection, or at least give you the option of playing in an always-connected world where other gamers can pop in and out of your game.

So far, though, it’s not clear how much of the Switch’s library will make use of or require an Internet connection.  I don’t know how many developers will be willing to make an online-only game like Destiny or the Division on a console designed to spend some of its time being played in the backseat of a car or on your neighbor’s roof – offline, in other words.  For all we know, developers might not even be allowed to make games that require a persistent Internet connection.

At the moment, Nintendo’s online service seems like little more than a Splatoon membership.  But inevitably the library will fill up with games that make at least some use of the online service.  If anything, the fact that Nintendo is now charging for its online service will compel it to make games with richer online experiences.  But as for how well the service will function, how user-friendly it will be, what features it will have, and what other value it will offer to subscribers, there are still a lot of lurking questions.  So close to launch, the lack of concrete information about the service is a bit unsettling.

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The Mario Game

During Nintendo’s presentation, we learned that the Mario game will be called Super Mario Odyssey.  It’s not yet clear whether or not the game is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem, but what we do know is that the game will be centered around a large hub world in the style of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine.  And we know that at some point Mario will go to a Nintendified version of New York City that they really are actually seriously calling New Donk City, where he will interact with humans that look like humans and not Super Mario characters.  So this confirms, I guess, that Mario is not human, which is weird to think about.  The juxtaposition of the Super Mario universe and the real(-ish) world is jarring, to say the least, with the New Donk City level(s) looking like some kind of Grand Theft Mushroom.  But Mario can throw his hat in this game, so, I mean, of course it’s going to be awesome.  I was never worried about the Mario game, and I’m still not, even though it’s going to take some getting used to.  As I’ve already said, Nintendo has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Mario games, so all I really care about is knowing the name so I know how to ask for it at the store.  And now I do: Super Mario Odyssey.

Third-Party Games

 Once again, third-party support is poised to make or break Nintendo’s new system.  The Switch’s launch lineup is historically small, with ten titles confirmed between digital and retail releases.  To be fair, though, one of those games is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is one of the year’s mostly hotly anticipated titles and which will almost certainly be in game-of-the-year discussions come December.  Beyond the launch, Nintendo has a few more heavy hitters announced to fill out the calendar year, with a reissue of Mario Kart 8 coming in April, Splatoon 2 (sadly not called Spla2oon) due out this summer, and Super Mario Odyssey arriving during the holiday season.

So there are a number of solid, sure-to-be-fun titles coming from Nintendo this year, but the lineup is hardly deep.  To fill up the Switch section of the local GameStop, Nintendo is going to need third-party support.  So far, announced support is far from a slam dunk.  There are some Switch versions of existing games (Skyrim, Stardew Valley, Skylanders: Imaginators, seemingly every Dragon Quest game), some planned entries in known franchises (FIFA 18, NBA 2K18), some definitive no’s from developers (Mass Effect Andromeda, Borderlands 3, Titanfall 2) and some conspicuous absences (Madden, Fallout 4, any first-person shooters).

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Nintendo has boasted of unprecedented third-party support, with a reported 100 games in development from some 70 developers, which is something of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, that’s a lot of games, and a lot of developers.  On the other hand, it’s about 1.4 games per developer, so a lot of developers are making one game for the Switch.  In other words, a lot of those 70 developers are taking a one-toe-in-the-water approach to the Switch rather than committing to it wholeheartedly.  If the Switch doesn’t get off to a great start in terms of both sales and demographics, a lot of that third-party support could evaporate quickly.  (And I know that in that metaphor, the third-party support went from being the toe in the water to being the water itself, but just roll with it.)

There are some good signs in the third-party lineup, though.  The presence of games like Skyrim, FIFA, and NBA 2K indicates that at least some developers are targeting audiences that aren’t typically represented on Nintendo platforms.  If the Switch can resonate with these audiences, it could become a very successful platform.  And the sheer number of third-party partners Nintendo has recruited is encouraging, even if their support is as yet still pretty shallow.  But the picture is still somewhat ambiguous.  I’m reminded, unfortunately, of the Wii U launch.  That console launched with a number of third-party titles, many of which were ports of games that had already been out for a year or more, and bold proclamations about the platform’s unprecedented embrace of third parties and core gamers.  Most of those developers never returned to the platform, and the Wii U languished as essentially a console for first-party, Lego, Skylanders, and Just Dance games.

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Once again, hopes are high going into the Switch launch that this time – this time! – Nintendo will  cultivate a strong third-party lineup and a broad, diverse audience of core, casual, and new gamers alike.  And once again, the picture is not very clear at the outset.  There are reasons to be hopeful and reasons to be disappointed.  Two years from now, we’ll being having a conversation about how Nintendo either finally got it right or again got it so very wrong.

But, on the other hand, we’re getting a new Legend of Zelda and we can play it in the doctor’s waiting room, so really, does any of the rest of it matter?

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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