There’s something about Nintendo Switch that’s immediately fun.
It’s exciting in general to get your hands on a gaming machine for the first time, as I did this morning in New York at Nintendo’s first big Switch preview. But it’s doubly fun because Switch, coming March 3 for $299, is so unique.
At its core, it’s a tablet with a 6.2-inch screen (a little bigger than an iPhone 7 Plus). You can slip it into a dock that hooks up to your TV if you want to play on a big screen. Or you can remove it from the dock, slide two “JoyCon” controllers onto its sides, and enjoy a biggish handheld system. If that’s too ungainly, pull out the controllers, flip out the kickstand, and put the tablet on a table so you can hold the controllers separately.
The first thing you want to do is to start playing with it like you’re 5 and just got a new Transformer. It might even be more fun than that (sorry, Optimus Prime). You want to snap the JoyCons off, play for awhile, then snap them back on. You want to take the thing in and out of the dock, watching your game pops up on the big screen, then the little one. I found all of these functions easy, intuitive, and painless.
That’s great for Switch, for many reasons. First, everyone wants to get excited about hardware. You want something so fun to mess around with that it immediately makes people think I gotta have it. That’s incredibly important to the success of a new console, because you’re asking people to spend hundreds of dollars on what amounts to a promise: There might not be many games yet, but buy this and there will be some later.
And that leads us to the second reason Nintendo is lucky the Switch hardware is so much fun: Because it, uh, doesn’t really have many games. The big gun is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the open-world adventure launching alongside the system March 3. This is identical to the version launching the same day for Nintendo’s Wii U. To really drive that point home, Nintendo showed the same Zelda demo seen on the Wii U last year at E3.
Zelda is a fairly minutely detailed game that seems designed for a big screen so you can take in everything around you. I feel like I’d miss items on the ground if I played exclusively on the tablet. But the fact that the Switch allows you to take the game everywhere is a big draw. Is it enough of a draw to get players to drop $300 on a Switch if they already own a Wii U? Uh, maybe?
If Zelda isn’t your thing, it’s tough to say what might motivate you to buy a Switch. Nintendo’s other big launch title is 1, 2, Switch, and it’s a typical Wii-type product: A collection of motion-controlled mini-games to play at a party. You can pretend to hit each other with swords, pretend to quick-draw pistols, pretend to milk a cow. If Nintendo packed it with the Switch, it could be a modest hit. But at $50 I’m not seeing a scenario in which many people buy it.
Later in March, Nintendo will release Snipperclips, a puzzle game with a unique premise: Two players made of paper can cut each other into shapes, and solving various puzzles requires cutting, and being cut, by a friend. Each of you uses a JoyCon to control the action: turn them horizontally and you can use them like a tiny Super Nintendo controller, with a single stick, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. This is … not as uncomfortable as you’d imagine, at least for a game like this that’s more about thinking than fast finger motions.
Even when you include games from other developers, Switch won’t have much at launch: Just five games on day one, and four more in the rest of March. Most are multi-platform titles: Do you really need a new piece of hardware in 2017 to play the latest Just Dance game from Ubisoft? Or Activision’s Skylanders? It’s a tough sell based on the lineup alone.
Nintendo did provide a glimpse into the near future of Switch. Arms, a title slated for spring, is a boxing game in which each character’s arms stretch an absurd amount. You punch with the motion controllers, then twist your punches in midair to ensure they hit your opponent on the other side of the ring. I found the visual style appealing–bright and cartoony, in an anime nerd way, not a Barney the Dinosaur way. Obviously it gets annoying punching the air for longer than a few minutes, but Nintendo says it’ll have a buttons-only control option as well.
Splatoon 2 doesn’t change much about the winning formula that made this paint-splatterin’ shooter game one of Wii U’s bigger hits. It pretty much looks exactly like the Wii U game with extra features like new guns, new maps, and new special moves. It will offer a single-player mode alongside multiplayer mayhem, but Nintendo wasn’t talking about the solo adventure today. It’s slated for a summer release.
I also played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, another upgraded Wii U game. It offers some new characters (like the Splatoon kids), new tracks, et cetera. But at its core, it’s still Mario Kart 8.
In fact, it’s hard to miss the fact that Nintendo’s first three big titles for the platform–Zelda, Mario Kart, and Splatoon–are upgraded Wii U games. We don’t get to the truly original stuff until the holiday season (assuming Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t get delayed, something I am not willing to assume).
Of course, Switch provides a key upgrade to any console game appearing on it: It’s portable. Even in the case of something ubiquitous like Skylanders, this could make the Switch version more appealing than any other because you can take it anywhere (to facilitate this, you can scan in all your Skylander figurines at home so you don’t lug them around).
In this case, I think the hardware may drive initial sales. Folks may buy it because the concept is so interesting, which may drive publishers to develop more games. But if Switch can’t get a good jump out of the starting blocks, its paucity of games may be its biggest hurdle.