After the failure of the Wii U, and in the era of Ultra-HD gaming from PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, some were beginning to think that the days of a console with 'Nintendo' slapped across its front may have reached their last.
But the naysayers were wrong, as the Nintendo Switch has proven time and again since its launch – now with the portable-only Switch Lite alternative also launched, further cementing the success – thanks not only to rethinking what a home and portable console can mean, but also thanks to some of the best games available on any gaming platform.
It's still divided opinion, though. There aren't the volume of third-party titles or apps as found on other platforms. The graphical fidelity is well behind what's possible elsewhere too. But that's not stopped boatloads of people from buying the console. And for good reason: it's utterly brilliant and does things differently. It might well be the console to buy out of the big three right now.
Rethinking the home console
- Console, 6.2-inch 720p screen and two Joy-Con controllers included
- Play on TV or play on-the-go (Joy-Cons clip onto screen for portable controls)
- Grey, Neon and special edition Joy-Con finishes available
There is little doubt that the Nintendo Switch is a clever little games console. It comprises a 6.2-inch tablet-like device, with a 720p touchscreen, stereo speakers and kickstand around the back, so it can be used hands-free as well as on the move. Yep, you can play Mario on the big screen at home, or on the console's screen while commuting to work in the morning. That is its key point of difference.
The two mini controllers, called Joy-Cons, clip either side of the small screen when you're playing solo. When it's docked this is also how they charge. They can also be removed and used as individual, mini gamepads for two-player games or more, the console itself sat on the table via a kickstand if you're playing remotely. Or they can be clipped either side of a Joy-Con Grip to make a larger, more recognisable game controller.
This versatility is the Switch's greatest feature. It's not a new idea that a tablet device can be plugged into a TV for a home gaming experience, but Nintendo makes it ridiculously simple. As such it feels original. Simply slide the portable console into a plastic housing, which is both powered and connected to a TV through HDMI, and your game or Nintendo homescreen appears on the big screen instead.
When docked, the Switch ups the graphical experience to Full HD 1080p (from the 720p on the device itself). Not all games will attain that – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild maintains a resolution of 900p in TV mode, for example – but when they do their graphical fidelity is at least upped, approaching that of an average Xbox One or PS4 game (OK, so it's no PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, but we don't really care given the quality of the titles on offer).
If TV play isn't for you and you want portable only then the Switch Lite, a whole other console offering, might be the better decision for you – that lacks a dock and therefore can only be played on the go.
How much are Nintendo Switch games and downloads?
- Nintendo eShop available for digital downloads
- Games come on cartridges too
- Limited third-party apps (no Netflix, for example)
Games come in cartridge format, so you don't need to wait for them to download unless there is a software patch. Just pop one in the required slot on the top of the Switch and it appears on the menu screen. However, there is the Nintendo eStore, should you prefer to download full games onto the Switch's microSD card storage instead.
Cartridges are physically tiny, smaller even than 3DS games, so you do need to be careful not to lose them. They are handy for transit, though, and expanded libraries can be stored easily. One interesting feature is that they are also treated with a non-toxic but bitter chemical agent to prevent younger children from eating them. No, really – they taste awful.
The Switch's menu system is simple and clean, with big, square thumbnails for inserted or installed games and smaller menu icons to access the eShop, Gallery with social sharing, change the settings, check Joy-Con battery levels, etc. There is also a "news" section that presents the latest updates and information from Nintendo itself. This is full of tutorials and setup info when you first boot up.
The eShop has become a more prevalent feature than when the console first launched, offering sections for recent releases, games coming soon, and download code redemptions. There's also Nintendo's own online subscription service, Nintendo Switch Online, which is a must-have for online multi-player games. There's a free seven-day trial, then it's a paid subscription: £3.49/€3.99/$3.99 per month (£6.99/€7.99/$7.99 per quarter; £17.99/€19.99/$19.99 per year); there's also a Family Membership at £31.49/€34.99/¢34.99 per year which allows family account access (up to eight accounts in total).
In terms of apps, however, Nintendo is sorely lacking in this department. At launch, there was nothing at all. Since there's some content, like YouTube, but there are no video streaming apps (except for Hulu in the US only). Having a fairly chunky portable screen in your bag and no ability whatsoever to watch Netflix, Amazon Video, BBC iPlayer or any of the other video services seems plain dumb. Such ability would add heaps more appeal for those who might otherwise be fringe buyers. We suspect it's coming but further plans aren't concrete just yet.
Yes, the Switch needs to play games well and that should be Nintendo's main focus, but gadgets are meant to simplify our lives, not make them more complicated, or our bags heavier. We've found ourselves having to take an iPad and the Switch on lengthy travels, which is hardly ideal.
Does the Nintendo Switch come with a game?
- 32GB on-board storage (microSD slot for expansion)
- No game included in the box (1-2-Switch is £40)
We're not among those who think the Switch is too expensive – the number of gaming hours it's given us on flights when the in-flight entertainment has been awful has made it priceless – but there have been several naysayers who criticise. The console is priced in the same ballpark as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 when they first launched. And in a world still recovering from and dealing with a recession, Brexit and Donald Trump, that seems more than okay for what you get in the box.
The kick in the nether regions comes with the cost of the games on top. Nintendo's first-party games have always been pricey. They rarely get discounted by much either, with legacy titles maintaining a premium price point for years. So buying, say, Zelda when adding on top of the price of the console makes everything seem that bit more expensive. And let's face it, that's the main game everybody wants. Well, that and Pokemon Let's Go. Oh, and Animal Crossing. Actually, there's heaps of amazing games, it's hard to choose a favourite.
We suggest you cough up for a microSD card too, with at least 64GB of storage. The Switch comes with just 32GB on board – a measly amount considering the digital download version of Zelda alone takes up more than 13GB. A half-decent microSD card won't cost you much, maybe less if you snag a deal – so that needs to get added to the bill too.
Thankfully, that's it. You do not really need the Pro Controller or Joy-Con Charging Grip. The former is a nice accessory, with a more traditional feel for gaming, but the Joy-Con Grip that comes in the box with the Switch is more than capable. It might look like a lop-sided dog's face, but it feels nice in the hand and we've spent plenty of hours playing games with one comfortably.
The Charging Grip is also pointless in our opinion. Much was said before launch about its non-inclusion in the box, but all it adds is a USB port so you can charge your Joy-Cons as you play, through attaching a wire between the Grip and the Switch dock. We just ensure we pop the Joy-Cons back on the sides of the Switch unit when we retire each day and that does the job just as capably. Indeed, it keeps them tidy.
We've never had any battery life issues with the Joy-Cons – only the occasional drop-out of connection from the left controller side, which can be very annoying, but has been partially addressed via software update – so considering how expensive the Pro Controller and Charging Grip are, that will come as good news.
Note, however, the Switch itself can only take a good three to four hours of constant play in handheld mode before needing to be charged again. We've taken long-haul flights and found that to be ample, but even on those where we've not slept – and needed to kill that next big boss in Zelda, or get that extra star in Mario – a great tip is to simply bring a rechargeable power pack in tow, just as you might for a smartphone. Job done.
What's the Nintendo Switch's maximum resolution?
- 720p maximum portable resolution
- 1080p maximum TV-based resolution
Nintendo has finally entered the world of Full HD with the Switch (just in time to be behind to curve again thanks to 4K) when playing on the big screen. So when it's docked, the Switch experience is pretty much as good as any rival. Yes, many Xbox One and PS4 games have better resolutions and/or frame-rates than many Switch titles, but that's thanks to time and development experience. A number of Switch titles are 1080p60, including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
The 6.2-inch console's screen is capable of up to 60Hz (60fps) at 720p so looks great when fed colourful, smooth gameplay. We'd have liked a bit more contrast and text can look a bit too small for our ageing eyes at times, but it's a more-than-decent gaming window – far better than the screen on the Wii U GamePad.
Audio is a little flimsy but understandable considering the tiny speakers. To be honest, most will be using headphones in handheld mode anyway, although you do have to provide your own. Kerching!
Oh, and we definitely advise buying a case. We've somehow scratched a small section of our Switch's screen, which isn't fixable with any ease. Darn it.
What's the best Nintendo Switch game?
Not that it's all about the resolution. It's too easy to get unnecessarily bogged down with that. No, the Switch is all about its unique games.
Okay, so a game should have come in the box. The Wii came with WiiSports, the Wii U Premium Edition with Nintendo Land. The Switch should have had 1-2 Switch included at the very least. Instead, that party is a separate purchase, making it excessive for a series of mini-games almost exclusively designed to show-off the motion abilities of the Joy-Cons.
Otherwise, your main issue will be which Switch title to buy first. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of our all-time favourite games. Super Mario Odyssey is perhaps the best Mario game ever made. Splatoon 2 is fantastic. Even quirky titles like ARMS make for great online play. Not forgetting the re-boot of Zelda: Link's Awakening.
While such titles re-address the family gaming fraternity, it's not all cutesy cutesy. The Switch has attracted major third-party developers too, thus not alienating hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool gamers in the process. Current titles such as Doom and Skyrim show Bethesda's commitment, with plenty more set to come besides. And we're currently working our way back through The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The Switch is a revolutionary console. It doesn't fade in the face of PS4 or Xbox One, it strides down it own path. For many it'll redefine on-the-go gaming, with top titles like Luigi's Mansion, Animal Crossing, and even Skyrim available to play when on the bus, train, plane, or in a doctor's waiting room.
Even some time after launch, however, the Switch continues to ooze potential rather than realising perfection. It would be made even greater with a wider range of apps and streaming services. Although that's nitpicking really. This is a games console first and foremost.
The Switch may not have the graphical prowess potential of PS4 Pro or Xbox One X. But we don't care. Those are tethered to tellies and can't offer gaming delights like Zelda, Mario or Pokemon – three titles that are among the best games going. And that right there is the exact reason why the Switch is a must-buy console.
However, if you only want the console for hand-held use then the Switch Lite is a cheaper, portable-only version that'll suit certain gamers even better. How about that for choice, eh?
This review was first published in March 2017 and has been updated to reflect the Switch's progress over time.
Sony's PlayStation 4 is by most popular games console out there. It has a massive library of games and even virtual reality support, through the optional PlayStation VR headset. However, it is not portable. For that, you'll need to add a PS Vita handheld console and even then it can only stream your PS4 games when you are connected to the same home network.
Xbox One S
Microsoft's machine is by far the best media player among the home consoles. It has apps for just about every streaming service you can think of. It is the only one that can also double as a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player, with HDR (high dynamic range) support too. There are just about as many games as available for PS4, but no VR support.