While the internet groans under the weight of umpteen Nintendo Switch reviews, including our own here, here’s an assessment of Nintendo’s new console with a difference - from a family perspective.
The Switch, if you have somehow missed the hype thus far, is the new console from Nintendo. Although it’s not just a new home console it’s also a portable gaming device as well.
The main device looks like a tablet, a bit smaller than an iPad Mini but thicker and more robust, that can be played in the hands or sits in a dock to connect to a TV screen. This we’ve seen before but the Switch has a new trick when it comes to controls.
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Nintendo Switch for the family: Joy-Con controllers
Its new Joy-Con controllers can attach to the side of the tablet to turn it into a bonafide handheld device, or be holstered in an included "Grip" to create a traditional gamepad when playing at home. They can also be used individually in the style of Wii Remotes or as mini gamepads in their own right.
For families, this works particularly well as different ages can play the console in different ways. Younger players will be keen on the handheld configuration with the Joy-Cons clipped to the side of the tablet while older children will likely find the Joy-Con Grip offers a more comfortable way to play. Finally, parents will appreciate being able to play two-player games on the switch without buying more controllers by using the Joy-Cons separately.
The Joy-Cons are quite small to look at but in the hand our test family all found them comfortable. There is an offset to the sticks which takes a little getting used to but an hour or so into playing Zelda and we weren't even noticing it any more.
The Joy-Cons also have other tricks up their sleeve. They offer a much higher fidelity of rumble feedback - so much so that one game challenges you to count the virtual marbles in the thing by tilting and feeling the rumble. It’s hard to explain (or imagine) but it works really well. They also include a Kinect-style camera that can "see" shapes in front of it.
The Joy-Cons no longer have speakers like the Wii Remote though which is a shame. We really liked the added immersion having sound in your hand created but suspect there was only so much technology Nintendo could fit in the small controllers.
While these may seem like superfluous novelties, it’s features like this that point to the revolutionary nature of the Switch. While there’s plenty for families to be excited about at launch, it’s the inventive ways Nintendo and other developers make use of the format and controls that will be of most interest to a family audience.
1-2 Switch is case in point here. It is a launch game that is played largely without the screen. Each player holds one of the Joy-Cons and performs different challenges - milking cows, eating food and the like. Play this once and it will bring a smile to your face, but spend longer with the game and there is a surprising amount of depth here. In fact, as a family we’ve played 1-2 Switch just as much as Zelda - which is really saying something.
Nintendo Switch for the family: Battery life
Another big driver for families is how long the device will last when played on the go. Of course this will vary depending on the game you are playing but as a baseline you should expect to get a few hours of playing Zelda before you need to recharge.
It’s easy to think that this is actually not that long in comparison to other devices. However, as you can see in this continuous test of the Switch against iPads, PlayStation Vitas and other 3DS handhelds, it actually holds its own pretty well.
A nice touch is that you no longer need batteries for the controllers any more. Unlike the Wii Remote, the Joy-Cons include built in batteries. Better still, the controls charge up by attaching them to the main tablet. This should mean they are charged and ready to go when you need them.
The Joy-Cons provide plenty of play time too - around 20 hours by our measure. One downside here for super-long play sessions is that the packed in Joy-Con Grip doesn’t include a USB port for charging. You need to purchase a Joy-Con Charging Grip for that.
Another nice touch is that you can charge the device from any battery pack using a USB Type-C cable. For families who want to use the Switch on long car journeys or train trips across the country this is a neat solution.
Nintendo Switch for the family: Games
Of course a big aspect of any new console is the games. Although the Switch doesn’t have loads at launch what it does have is of high quality. For many, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be all they need. This is a hugely impressive open world RPG that players of all ages can enjoy (noting the PEGI 12+ rating).
It offers refreshingly open combat and exploration as well as classic Zelda dungeon puzzles. Families can enjoy this together taking turns to play and solve the puzzles, collect food and craft potions and meals. Older players and parents may also prefer to play this later in the evening once the kids are in bed.
We mentioned 1-2 Switch above and it really is excellent fun for families. The new Bomberman R game also looks excellent. But it’s games like Arms that make novel use of the Joy-Con motion controls, or Splatoon 2 that will make the biggest splash with a family audience on its arrival around summer time.
Nintendo recently announced a wide range of indie games coming to the system as well, which is excellent news. Of these, it has managed to snag the next Steamworld Dig game which could be a system seller in its own right.
The only chink in the armour here is getting the latest version of must-have games on the system. For the Switch to be viable as the only console a family needs, it has to have Minecraft, Terraria and the latest version of FIFA. And while they are on the cards, they aren't available yet.
It’s also worth noting that the Switch, unlike previous Nintendo consoles, doesn’t offer backward compatibility. This is a shame for those with a big library of Wii U or Wii games (and Wii Remote controllers) but is the price of Nintendo moving the technology forward. There will be a Virtual Console offering on the device in the future but this likely means you will need to re-buy classic Wii family favourites.
Nintendo Switch for the family: Parental controls
If families are in any doubt that the Switch is aimed at them, one look at the best in class parental controls will be enough to convince them. Unlike other consoles where you have to dig through menus to specific what your family can and can’t access, the Switch provides a handy app for parents.
On the console you can set some basic restrictions and behaviours but it’s on the app where things get really innovative. Here you can specify how long children can play each day before having to ask for an extension. Parents can also get a report of which games have been most popular in the home to help them understand the playing habits of their kids.
These features may seem superfluous to those without children but for parents the Switch is a game changer. No longer do mum or dad have to play the bad guy, coming in and turning the console off. Instead, families can agree together how long is appropriate and then get the console itself to police this decision.
The result for parents is a lot less stress. It should also mean that mums and dads are more engaged with the family gaming and more likely to get involved and play as well.
Nintendo Switch for the family: Value for money
The Switch, being the new exciting tech on the block and priced at £280, isn’t the cheapest way for families to get into gaming but it does offer good value. In terms of the games on offer, the ways you can play and being future proof the Switch is a system families can’t ignore.
While it would have been good to have a game packed into the box, being the only place to play Mario Kart, Splatoon, Zelda and the like cannot be overlooked in how much of a draw they are for families.
One Achilles heel we hope Nintendo fixes in a future update is the ability to stream videos via Netflix, BBC iPlayer and Amazon Video. Many families use their gaming machine to do this and will be surprised the Switch doesn’t yet support any of them.
Being able to buy one system as both handheld and console shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of value. This clever multiple use approach of the Switch offers great value for families who previously had to buy two of more products to achieve the same.
It’s also worth noting that you can play two-player family games with the Switch without buying extra controllers. For Xbox and PlayStation you need to spend another £60 before being able to play together.
Nintendo Switch for the family: Conclusion
On balance the Switch is a very exciting proposition for families. Not only does it have a great line-up of exclusive games, but the new controllers and ways to play will excite gamers of all ages.
It offers innovative ways to play and does so with a streamlined approach that is both well thought through and excellently delivered. Add to this to top notch parental controls and this is a system likely to be in high demand by mums, dads and their children.