When Nintendo first revealed its new handheld-home console hybrid system, the Switch, I was convinced that it was more than a replacement for the Wii U: It would take the place of Nintendo 3DS, too.
After going hands-on with the Switch last week, however, I’m not so sure that’s the case. Despite its stature and portable-friendly features, the Switch doesn’t read quite like Nintendo’s next move in the handheld space. Instead, the tiny console feels more like ... well, a tiny console.
That’s a whole different thing
There are plenty of obvious reasons for this. The Switch’s battery life is notably lackluster; games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the system’s most exciting launch title by far, will only last for three hours on a Switch that’s not plugged in.
The Joy-Con controllers, meanwhile, last far longer undocked — up to 20 hours. During its Switch-focused press conference last Thursday, Nintendo made sure to show off just all the different ways players can use the controllers, and almost none of those methods work when playing the Switch like a handheld.
Two of the Switch’s three modes are also more akin to the home console experience than the handheld one. Nintendo has pushed the tabletop mode, where players can throw back the console’s kickstand to set it on any table or floor of their choosing, as a portable experience. That’s not totally unfair: Players can carry the undocked system wherever they like, then set up shop by just pulling out the included stand. But playing the Switch in tabletop mode still requires remaining in one place and having a stable surface nearby on which to rest it.
That brings us to handheld mode, the Switch’s banner portable playstyle. When testing out the system at Nintendo’s press preview event last Friday, I found the handheld mode the least exciting way to play. The tablet isn’t heavy, but it’s a lot longer than a 3DS or DS. While it lacks the Wii U GamePad’s heft, the Switch’s size feels deceptive in practice. It’s like holding a tablet that doesn’t exactly want to be held, one that has been stretched a bit larger than would be optimal.
The Joy-Con controllers are also a lot more fun to play with when detached from the tablet, while handheld mode requires them to stay rooted to the console itself. I loved the HD rumble sensation, for example, which is best experienced when the controllers are detached for games like 1-2-Switch and Arms.
Games I did try while using the Switch in its portable mode were more familiar to me, and perhaps that’s why they were less exciting. Splatoon 2 continues to use the gyro-based tilting from the first game, but it comes off as muddled and disorienting when everything’s smushed together on that comparatively small screen. Mario Kart 8 is pretty much perfect for on-the-go gaming, but the ideal control scheme is definitely a single, horizontally held Joy-Con encased in the new Switch wheel, not using the controllers’ tiny buttons laid out vertically. Nothing ever feels quite as comfortable as you would hope when playing in the portable mode.
It’s all a bit disappointing if your primary reason for buying the hardware is for portable gaming, instead of portable gaming just being included as part of the overall package. The 3DS will also continue to be supported as time goes on, as Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime recently told Polygon.
“Our intention has always been to have Nintendo 3DS and 2DS side by side with the Switch,” he said. “It's great that we have even more momentum [with the 3DS] than we anticipated, but it's always been our position to have these two products side by side.”
But even if Nintendo’s dedicated portables die out in the next few years, it’s likely that the company will focus on the Switch for fans who want a more robust game experience. Otherwise, Nintendo can focus on smartphones for fans of more casual games like Super Mario Run, which are designed to be played in shorter sessions on hardware that is always with you. The 3DS line of portables will begin to occupy a middle ground that may not be that attractive for Nintendo anymore.
The Switch is a home system that offers a competent handheld mode, and that’s a pretty big gift in and of itself. Maybe the handheld feels cluttered or lacking in wow-factor features, but games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild look beautiful on it — and there was something about its presentation that I even found more attractive on the smaller screen.
The Switch is more or less a tablet with physical controls that can slide on and off, which actually isn’t that new of an idea, but it’s also a standard console or a motion-control platform or a portable system that supports local multiplayer or ... the list goes on.
The truth is it doesn’t have to do all those things perfectly, because that flexibility allows it to do a lot of things well enough. Anyone who thinks they’re going to be able to completely replace their portable with a Switch may have a rude awakening when they actually use it — this isn’t something that you can just slide in and out of your pocket — and it’s not competing directly with your cell phone. Nor is it competing directly against other consoles. It’s likely to exist next to both classes of devices without pushing either completely away, and that’s a strange idea in electronics. The Switch isn’t replacing anything; it’s just making room for itself and its own weird mixture of features, benefits and weaknesses.
Nintendo has perfected the art of running a race that no one else is attempting, which is a neat trick if you always want to come in first.