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Time to Switch Me On

Well, they’ve only gone and done it. At stupid o’clock in the morning (4am) UK time, on 13th January 2017, Nintendo finally revealed many juicy details about their forthcoming new console, Switch. Formally revealed in October 2016 through a video presentation, we now finally know more about the system known formerly as NX including its price, release date, launch games and specs. As the resident Nintendo game fan (Don’t you mean fanboy? ;) – Ben) I thought I’d give my take on todays announcements and take a look at where things might be heading for the House of Mario’s latest experimental system.

Nintendo have set the worldwide release date of Switch to 3rd March 2017 which is LITERALLY 7 weeks from the time I’m writing this. Be still my beating heart. Anyway, that’s a remarkably quick turnaround from official reveal to release, not quite as quick as SEGA’s Saturn drop in the US, but still one of the quicker hardware launch windows in recent memory. Could it be beneficial or detrimental? It’s a tough call. On one hand, there’s enough time to drum out a steady stream of information before launch and not let things go cold like they did with the Wii U, where there was a great deal of silence before the system hit. On the other hand, it’s not a lot of time for people to save their pennies. Those launch day sales will be interesting to say the least…

But, what is Switch? Well, where Nintendo kind of undersold the Wii U and its capabilities, it’s been fairly open about what you can do with Switch. An amalgamation of TV and portable gaming, the core Switch unit is basically a tablet with 6.2” capacitive touch screen running at 720p. Inside is a custom NVidia Tegra chipset and 32Gb of onboard flash storage. So far, so standard budget tablet, but where the Switch comes into its own is its ability to… ahem… switch smoothly between TV and portable mode. On the sides of the tablet are two controller modules called Joy-Con’s. When attached they create a layout very much like the Wii U pad with the screen in the middle and the controls to the sides. This is portable mode. Take the controllers off, however and things get more interesting.

The Switch can also be used in two other modes – tabletop and the aforementioned TV mode. Tabletop mode makes use of a small kickstand on the back of the unit and will be ideal for gaming on the go or in a more makeshift way such as at an office desk (if your office would be happy letting you get up to such shenanigans). TV mode makes use of a special dock which comes with the system. Slide the tablet portion into the dock, connect it to your TV with a HDMI cable and not only will your Switch charge, it will also send its image to the TV in glorious 1080p HD. Think using a laptop in battery powered “Saver” mode VS full on plugged in. The dock is little more than a plastic shell with a connector, a HDMI port and three USB ports, but plugged in the Switch knows it can unleash more power and effectively up-clock’s itself. It’s a smart way of getting more juice out of the little slab to provide a more optimised on the go experience. What about those controllers, though?

The early release video showed the Joy-Con’s being used with a separate shell to form a more standard controller for TV play, but Nintendo have now shown that these little nubbins have more tricks up their sleeves. Separately they become two smaller, independent controllers with an analogue stick, four face buttons and two shoulder buttons. This form factor looks kind of dinky but it can be bulked out with a module that slides onto the top of each Joy-Con, adding that Nintendo favourite, the wrist strap (no Joy-Con’s flying into TV’s, thank you!) The Joy-Con’s also feature motion control and what Nintendo are dubbing “3D Rumble” – a fancy title they’re giving to what is essentially haptic feedback. The rumble motors here can be manipulated to, say, give the impression of ice cubes clacking about in a glass, or the impression that the controller is full of marbles. Early hands on impressions suggest that this effect is surprisingly profound but you do have to wonder if it’s simply another Nintendo experiment that many developers won’t find a use for. On a similar wavelength is an IR camera which can be used to detect depth and some rudimentary hand gestures (get your mind out of the gutter…) – an interesting addition but ultimately one which doesn’t seem to have much application as yet.

Where the Switch get’s very intriguing, though, is in its use of more standard hardware in its design. The connection between the tablet and the dock is a simple USB type C port, swiftly becoming the standard in connectivity (you’ll find them all over the new MacBook’s). As USB C is capable of transmitting Audio/Video, data AND receiving power, it’s this port that is doing all the hard work when the system is docked, communicating to the HDMI and USB ports. Essentially the dock is a glorified USB C hub, the kind you can get for around £60 on Amazon. It’s an interesting choice from Nintendo and one that has likely bumped up the price of the much maligned dock which sells individually for £90, however being standard means that we’ll likely see third party solutions on the market sooner rather than later. The standard connection also means that any cable could theoretically be used to charge the Switch when out and about, rather than the proprietary A/C adapters Nintendo have used in the past. Also standard is the Micro SD card slot on the unit itself. Nintendo’s Treehouse demonstration of the Switch showed a 256Gb card being used to expand the system’s storage.

As a complete piece of kit, the Switch looks rather attractive with its more conventional tablet look that eschews the slightly chunkier kids toy aesthetic of previous consoles. But it’s the cost of the thing could have potential punters closing their wallets.

Cost wise, Switch will be coming to the UK for the sum of £279.99. That’s £100 more expensive than the Wii (which, admittedly came out over 10 years ago) but only £20 less than the high end model of Wii U. While a lot of people were expecting a price between £200 and £250, £280 does seem steep, however this is often the cost of the early adopter who is happy to pay the premium for the latest shiny on the day of release. Already there are those decrying the system as being too expensive but, realistically, I don’t think there’s a way to gauge that until the system is in people’s hands. Switch promises portable and TV gaming with AAA quality games, something that comparably priced tablets simply can’t deliver. At the end of the day, consumers will decide if the cost is worth it and vote with their wallets. It does seem priced to have received a price drop by Christmas so, if you’re not 100% sure about getting one on day one, it’s probably worth holding off.

If you’re in the market for additional controllers and the like, you may also want to hold onto your hat. A more conventional “Pro” controller (think XBox One style) will set you back £59.99, while a new set of Joy-Con’s will cost the princely sum of £74.99. While that’s likely unsurprising given the amount of tech that’s gone into them, it’s a hefty price to say the least. Thankfully the only announced game that needs more than one pair to provide functional multiplayer (a single pair of Joy-Cons can, generally, provide a multiplayer experience for two players) is the ace looking Arms, but as more titles come out, Nintendo may want to look at reducing the overhead there somewhat. Of course, some third party options are going to be available including carry cases, charging stations and some wired controllers from HORI (including, interestingly, an arcade stick)

Less clear than the systems capabilities, however, is its online functionality. Nintendo skirted over this in its presentation but a few details did come out. Switch will work online, initially for free but ultimately on a paid service ala Playstation and XBox. There will be a smart device app that will allow players to communicate with friends, however it wasn’t made clear if this is the ONLY way you will be able to communicate, or if there will be features built into the switch itself to handle this. There are also some unsubstantiated rumours flying around on the web, based off some badly worded small print on Nintendo’s website, that while the paid service would offer free games like PS Plus and XBL Gold, these free games would only be playable for one month before you have to buy them outright. While this is just a rumour, if it’s true, it’s a big black mark against Nintendo and another example of them not adhering to what gamers expect from a modern, online game service. It’s also not been made clear how, if at all, Switch will reconcile users purchases from previous systems. While there is no backwards compatibility on the console at all, it is safe to assume that Nintendo will be bringing their Virtual Console service over to Switch. While the Wii U introduced the Nintendo Network ID (NNID) the company has recently introduced a more general Nintendo Account which users have been able to link to their NNID. NNID did track purchase history but those purchases were console locked and non-transferable. It is hoped that the Nintendo Account will allow users who previously purchased a game on the Wii U or 3DS to download that game again on Switch if it is made available. Again, that’s firmly in the wait and see camp, however.

Anyway, enough of this talk of specs and price and online tomfoolery – we’re here for the games! For me, games, in particular exclusive games, can make or break a machine. And Nintendo have ALWAYS been about those games. So, what will Switch launch with? It’s a biggie – the long awaited Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Link’s first foray into a true open world RPG and a spectacular looking game to boot! But, that’s not all! There’s also… oh, wait… yeah, the launch line up for the Switch is a little light on the ground. On day one you’ll be able to invest in a total of five games – the aforementioned Zelda, Bomberman R, Skylanders: Imaginators, Just Dance 2017 and 1, 2, Switch, a mini-game collection from Nintendo. Let’s talk a bit about that last one. Like Wii Sports and Nintendoland before it, 1, 2, Switch is intended to show what this new machine can do. Focussed on off screen play using only the Joy-Cons, players will experience how the motion sensors and haptic feedback can be used to simulate gunfights, air-guitar, magic wands and… um… milking a cow (yeah, really…) in quick fire games. Players don’t look at the screen but have to rely on feel and intuition to score well. It sounds and looks like a fun party game but, as a full price launch title, it feels like it should have been a Wii Sports esque pack in. Nintendoland was a lot of fun but, as an extra purchase went largely overlooked by many early adopters. Including 1, 2, Switch as a bundled game would have allowed people to explore the social aspects of Switch as well as introduce them to what the Joy-Cons could do without having them buy an extra game.

So, launch day games are somewhat lacking with Zelda being the champion of all, but the rest of 2017 looks to be bringing some solid titles for the Switch. Rounding out march we have Fast RMX, the latest in the excellent Fast racing series from Shinen, SnipperClippers, an interesting looking co-op puzzle game and Frozenbyte’s Has-Been Heroes. So, eight games total for the launch month then. In April there’s Mario Kart 8: Deluxe Edition, a bells and whistles port of the staggeringly good Wii U racer which adds more characters and courses, tweaks and game modes than you can shake a Lakitu at and going forward we have the aforementioned Arms, a motion controlled brawler that looks like a spiritual successor to the classic Punch Out series, a sequel to Splatoon, a retro throwback in the form of Ultra Street Fighter 2 and a port of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (which could be interesting given the systems portability). As well as a slew of lower profile games there were a couple of big surprises during the Switch announcement.

Holiday 2017 will see the release of Super Mario Odyssey, a brand new free roaming Mario adventure that has more in common with the open worlds of Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine than the more focussed courses of Mario Galaxy and Mario 3D World. It looks like Mario will be venturing into the real world among other more traditional locales and, from the trailer, is very promising indeed. Certainly one to keep an eye on. Another surprise 2017 release is Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Expanding on the story from the giant open world Wii RPG (the Wii U game Xenoblade Chronicles X was more of a spin off set in a different universe) the announcement of this game alongside Disgaea 5, Dragon Quest 11 and a new Square Enix RPG from the Bravely Default team could make the Switch incredibly attractive to JRPG fans who want to take their games on the road (which given the average length of a JRPG might not be a bad thing!)

Other games are on the horizon too and, while 2017 doesn’t look jam packed, there are some interesting titles in there. Add to that the potential for unrevealed eShop and Virtual Console games (rumoured to include GameCube this time round) and there should be plenty to be getting on with.

Of course, the big question is should you buy the Switch? As always this comes down to how invested you are in Nintendo’s first party properties. If you want to play the latest and greatest games starring Mario, Zelda and all Nintendo’s other mascot’s, then picking up a Switch should be a no brainer. But what if you’re not a fan? Well, that’s going to be a harder sell if we go by history. The Switch is a console that is far more underpowered than the offerings from Sony and Microsoft. In an age where pure grunt means everything, is this going to be enough? Add to that the vastly inflated price point over those systems and it becomes even less attractive. But there has been a long standing argument that Nintendo are simply not trying to compete against the Playstation and XBox any more, that their consoles target different audiences. With the Wii this was definitely apparent, and the console found a safe home with the casual player. The Wii U was a harder sell but, looking at Switch, one can’t help but think that Nintendo may be angling here for the tablet market, at least where games are concerned. Gaming on iOS and Android isn’t an easy beast – the games that are available are often less than AAA in quality, so a system that could (potentially) run more traditional tablet games alongside fully fledged AAA titles could break the ice for another, different audience.

Longevity is, indeed, a big concern for Nintendo machines in recent years. It cannot be denied that they simply do not get the support they once did from third party developers, with companies like EA and UbiSoft dropping Wii U like a hot potato when it’s sales came through as less satisfactory. While the big third parties are on board once again, with EA even promising a new FIFA game for Switch, the worry of lackluster ports on the lower spec machine could, once again, lead to lower sales and reduced support. While you’d hope that quality first party titles should be the ones that sell systems it’s sadly that third party support that attracts customers these days. If the Switch doesn’t deliver, potential customers will be praying at the altar of Microsoft and Sony instead.

There are those who feel that an underperforming Switch could signal Nintendo’s exit from the videogames arms race. Indeed, the use of iconography from their varied and colourful past consoles that opened the launch presentation last Friday felt almost like an “all or nothing” push to make the launch of the Switch something meaningful. Only time will tell if it will succeed and, while there are already naysayers crying doom and the end of Nintendo as we know them before the console is even in shops, the Switch is certainly a compelling and interesting system that, like the Wii and Wii U before it is trying to reinvent the way we think about playing videogames. Hopefully it can bring the software to find longevity in an increasingly competitive and, dare I say, hostile environment of 4K, HDR, VR and smartphone gaming.

Come on Nintendo! We’re all rooting for you to make this work!

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