Nintendo’s newest hardware, the Nintendo Switch Lite, ignores one of the platform’s major selling points: that players can enjoy their Switch as a handheld gaming device and hook that same hardware to their television for big-screen play.
The Switch Lite is a less expensive version of the original Switch and does away with some key features. It will cost $199.99 — the original version of the Switch still costs $299.99 — when it launches on Sept. 20. It’s a more rugged-feeling Switch, the kind of handheld gaming console that might be better in the hands of a kid who plays rougher with their toys.
I played the Nintendo Switch Lite at an event in New York last week, for roughly an hour, and found the system to be a good alternative to, but not a replacement for, my launch-day Switch. It feels good in the hand, thanks to its solid all-in-one construction, its lighter weight, and its pleasant matte plastic finish.
The Switch Lite cuts some of the original Switch’s distinct hardware features, like “HD Rumble” and the infrared motion camera, features that are used in some games but rarely feel critical to the Switch gameplay experience. More noticeable are other removed functions: The Switch Lite does not have detachable Joy-Con controllers and cannot be hooked up to a TV.
Not having detachable Joy-Con controllers helps make the Switch Lite feel more solid in form, like a Game Boy Advance or a Nintendo 2DS. I handle my original Switch delicately, carefully sliding the diminutive Joy-Cons into their railings and the Switch itself into its dock, thinking that I’ll scratch or otherwise snap the thing. I have no such concerns about the Switch Lite, which feels like it can take a beating.
Otherwise, the Switch Lite feels almost identical to its Switch ancestor. There are a couple other small changes, like the fact that it doesn’t have an auto-brightness setting — brightness must be adjusted manually. But there are some bigger changes in how it plays, namely around buttons and the cross-shaped D-pad. The original Switch doesn’t have a D-pad, a controller input that’s been on every Nintendo handheld since the Game & Watch era. Instead, it has four buttons placed at cardinal directions, an accommodation made so that Joy-Cons could be independent full-functioning game pads. The Switch Lite finally gives Switch owners an official, honest-to-goodness D-pad, which could be extremely helpful in 2D games like side-scrolling platformers — a genre the Switch is rich in. (Unfortunately, Nintendo only had 3D games on hand at its event, so I couldn’t test the D-pad in a game of Dead Cells or Hollow Knight.)
However, the buttons, shoulder triggers, and D-pad no longer have the satisfying clickiness of the original Switch. Those inputs are squishier now, similar to the buttons on the Nintendo 3DS XL. The system still plays well; I had no issues winning a game of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch Lite with those mushier buttons. I just prefer that clicky resistance of the launch Nintendo Switch.
While the Switch Lite’s screen is smaller — at 5.5 inches, it’s 0.7 inches smaller than the original Switch screen — the reduced overall size of the system and the thinner bezel that surrounds the screen make that slightly smaller screen less noticeable. But if you’re already struggling to read the onscreen text in something like Breath of the Wild or Fire Emblem: Three Houses, watch out.
Nintendo says that certain Switch games will come with restrictions; only software that supports the system’s “handheld mode” is compatible with the Switch Lite. A representative said buyers will need to look for that “handheld mode” designation on game packaging or on the Nintendo eShop. People who buy the Switch Lite can still hook up external Joy-Con controllers to work with the system; however, we weren’t able to test this functionality in person, due to some mismatched firmware with pre-launch units at the event.
The Switch Lite, based on a short hands-on experience with the new system, feels like a good starter system. It’s not an upgrade, nor does it feel like a necessary purchase for existing Switch owners. Unless, of course, you have someone in your life who’s constantly borrowing yours, and you want to reclaim some time with your own Nintendo Switch.
Photography by Michael McWhertor/Polygon