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Nintendo Switch - Neon Red/Blue Joy-Cons in Joy-Con Grip next to Dock, all sitting on a wooden background

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Pre-review: Nintendo Switch

Early thoughts on the good and bad of Nintendo’s new console

Nintendo Switch
| James Bareham/Vox Media

I’m not sure if the Nintendo Switch is ready for people to buy it.

The Switch is going on sale next week, and plenty of people, myself included, are going to buy it. And I need to be clear that this is not a review, but I do have non-scored, non-final thoughts about the Switch after spending around 20 hours with the hardware since Monday afternoon, and I’ll be honest: It’s kind of been a roller coaster.

First, the good: The Nintendo Switch’s industrial design and build quality combine for easily the best thing Nintendo has ever put out, even accounting for the smooth simplicity of the Wii more than 10 years ago. Given the Switch’s dual functions as both a handheld device with a screen and a functional set-top console, that it functions reasonably well in both configurations — mostly — is an accomplishment.

As a handheld, the Switch is quite wide, but that size feels in proper service to its screen, which is very sharp, despite its comparatively low resolution of 720p. Breath of the Wild and other games we’ve seen at previous events look very good on it, and thus far, things don’t feel cramped. When connected to the included dock, the Nintendo Switch is so small as to largely disappear, and the piece that you can see isn’t an eyesore, even if the way the Switch sits above the bezel of the dock is a bit distracting.

Also in the win column so far, the Switch’s UI and interface are wonderfully minimalist and very fast. I would laugh at how revelatory it feels to put in a game card and be able to play it instantly, without installation, if it didn’t make me want to shake my fist at the modern console landscape. Bringing up the Switch’s home menu within a game is instant, and there’s no latency in navigating settings.

So far, though, that’s all I can say for sure — the Switch’s online components, including account registration and retrieval, online play, wireless networking for protected hotspots, and even the online store are not currently functional. These are locked behind a “day one” software update that Nintendo apparently expects to go live right around the same time the console goes on sale.

How functional this will actually be on day one is up for debate, as even Nintendo has admitted that online play will be more or less in beta until this fall. But that isn’t the only thing that feels unfinished about the Switch right now.

The biggest current issue with the Switch is one of basic reliability. Over the course of my time with Breath of the Wild, I’ve had repeated problems with the left Joy-Con controller partially or even completely losing sync from the Switch console while docked and connected to my television. This is a pain in the ass at best, but has also resulted in several deaths playing Breath of the Wild.

I’m not the only one experiencing this issue, either. Multiple reviewers and editors at other outlets who were provided Switch review hardware by Nintendo say they’ve experienced similar problems while using the Joy-Cons in the Joy-Con Grip accessory — the controller “dock” that allows more traditional play using the two Joy-Cons as opposite halves of a controller — which ships with the Switch.

Nintendo Switch - blue and red Joy-Cons in Joy-Con Grip
Nintendo Switch Joy-Con Grip
Photo: James Bareham/Vox Media

The only consistent workaround for this currently is to use the Switch in handheld mode, or to use the Switch’s Pro Controller, which Nintendo sells separately for $69.99. According to Polygon engagement editor Jeff Ramos, you might want to buy one anyway. The Joy-Cons’ configuration is a compromise between their placement on either side of the Switch’s screen and the way they slot into the Joy-Con Grip for playing at home, and the result isn’t ideal. The Pro controller’s stick and button placement is much more in keeping with modern gamepad sensibilities, and the analog sticks are slightly taller with better range of motion as well.

The Switch Joy-Cons function, but they can feel a little awkward in comparison to standard controllers. Sync issues notwithstanding, they don’t, say, ruin Breath of the Wild, but things often feel more awkward than they seem like they should.

There are other challenges for the Switch, but we don’t know how considerable they are just yet. The biggest example is the Switch’s minimal software lineup at launch, which consists of just a few titles. The biggest game is, clearly, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and we’ll offer more impressions of that tomorrow. But otherwise, the only games that launch customers will find on offer are 1-2-Switch, which Nintendo has yet to make available to reviewers (as of Wednesday, Feb. 22), Just Dance 2017, Skylanders Imaginators and Super Bomberman R, which we also haven’t yet received.

The point here is that even allowing for such a small selection of games, we don’t know if any of them are worthy launch purchases for a system with so few options.

These problems feel at odds with what the Switch is doing, and the clear force of vision behind it. There are lots of extremely smart small touches with the Switch — my favorite might be the little snaps the system makes (and shows) when you slot a Joy-Con into the Switch itself, signifying through razor-sharp branding that it’s ready to go. But even philosophically, the Switch has set out a different path and seems smartly tailored to it.

The Wii U was an abortive, failed attempt at bridging a gap between tablet gaming and the home console space. It was an idea well ahead of its time or Nintendo’s ability to execute on it. My current excitement with the Switch — and after a few days with it, I am excited, despite the problems I’ve encountered — is driven by how well-positioned to deliver on the Switch’s mission statement Nintendo appears to be. But the question, then, is when the Switch’s basic foundation and functions will be ready to go. And just days before launch, that’s not a question I’m remotely prepared to answer.

You can read Polygon’s review of the Nintendo Switch on Wednesday, March 1, at 6 a.m. PT.

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