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Nintendo Switch review: Pure fun on a big-screen TV or on the go

It's been an impressive first year for the Switch as the clever hybrid console's ample game library lives up to its promise of being a home-and-away gaming machine.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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8 min read

Nintendo's modular console-handheld is over two years old now, and still one of our favorite gadgets on the planet. The game library is fantastic, and a newer version with even better battery life (at the same price) exists now that you should get -- just make sure you buy the right model. Nintendo also has the lower-priced portable-only Switch Lite, which is excellent if all you want is a handheld game experience... but for the TV and multiplayer versatility alone, we still recommend this larger-sized Switch first.

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8.5

Nintendo Switch

The Good

The Nintendo Switch is a versatile hybrid game console that easily pivots between a big-screen TV and on-the-go portable. The initially slim game library now includes a good mixture of must-have Nintendo franchise exclusives, indie titles and even some decent PC ports.

The Bad

No Virtual Console (yet) means no access to decades worth of classic Nintendo games. The screen feels small during tabletop sessions. Online multiplayer requires matchmaking on a smartphone app, and Hulu is the only entertainment app.

The Bottom Line

The unique TV-or-mobile gaming proposition of the Nintendo Switch is now matched by a stellar library of games, including instant-classics like new Zelda and Mario titles.

Editor's note: This review was updated Dec. 6, 2019 with an Editors' Choice award and the above paragraph reflecting Switch variations on the market. It was previously updated from its earlier March 2017 version to reflect the impressive expansion of the Switch's game library, with the rating raised from 3.5 stars to 4. Otherwise the original review follows below.


When Nintendo's Switch was first released, laying out $300 (£280, AU$470) plus another $60 (£60, AU$90) for a game -- the admittedly fantastic Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- seemed like a lot. But things have changed.

Since its debut in March 2017, the Nintendo Switch has shown that Nintendo is still willing to take risks to separate itself from the rest of the pack, and at the same time innovate in way that no one could really see coming. The Switch is a fantastic hybrid console that offers plenty of unique and compelling gaming experiences all while providing a solid amount of indie titles that seem perfect for the platform. Nintendo still needs to address its Virtual Console void but overall the Switch is already a winner.

Since its launch, the Switch's eShop has been continually populated with great indie titles that support its growing full-priced standard offerings. Breath of the Wild was an amazing launch title and remains a superb 100-hour endeavor. And it's since been joined by Super Mario Odyssey -- the platform's second must-have exclusive game in just eight months. Now players can also enjoy Mario Kart 8: Deluxe Edition, Splatoon 2, Arms and other Nintendo-only titles. For digital-only titles we really love Thumper, Cave Story, Wonder Boy, Shovel Knight and GoNNER. Those aren't Nintendo-only exclusives, nor are recent or imminent titles such as Rocket League, Doom, Skyrim and Wolfenstein II. But for many of them, it's the first time you'll be able to play them on a plane without lugging a giant gaming laptop with you. More titles are released most weeks.

Even better, the Switch is no longer impossible to track down. And Nintendo is offering a version bundled with Super Mario Odyssey and a portable case for $380. It's not a bargain, but it includes the game every new owner will definitely want at a fair price.

Up close with the Nintendo Switch

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Switched on

The Switch's instant success can be attributed to Nintendo swinging for the fences: the Switch is a hybrid console, meaning it can be played on a TV at home or on the go as a handheld. The Joy-Con controllers make the Switch a veritable Transformer: keep them attached to the sides in tablet mode, slide them off and prop up the screen on a table to play one- or two-player games, or dock the Switch in its included charging cradle to play on your big-screen TV. The idea is that you'll get the same basic experience regardless of how you play.

The Nintendo Switch is a much more elegantly designed console from top to bottom, light-years ahead of the plastic goofiness of its spiritual predecessor, the GamePad on 2012's Wii U. It feels solid in its construction -- expensive, even -- and demonstrates a mature refinement throughout. Even the operating system is clean and fast -- a stark contrast compared to what the Wii U ran on.

Just looking at the Switch's primary focus of being a practical home-and-on-the-go console, the Switch definitely nails it. There is something awesome about taking a huge game like Zelda -- or Skyrim or L.A. Noire -- with you wherever you go. It is perfect for my train commute to work, and it works well on a plane, too. And while battery life is far from marathon levels, there are solid options for charging the Switch when an outlet isn't available. Out of all the portable solutions I tested, the RavPower Power Bank became my go-to device. Its high capacity battery actually charged the Switch as opposed to slowing down battery drain.

At this point there are plenty of games to enjoy on the platform, all for varying prices. But if you're looking for entertainment beyond games you're mostly out of luck. But Hulu was unexpectedly added for US Switch owners in November, so maybe the likes of Netflix and Amazon may eventually follow.

But the bigger annoyance on the Switch is the curious dearth of retro gaming titles. A lot of work needs to be done in the Virtual Console department. Nintendo hasn't detailed how or when it will be migrating to the Switch. Whether or not any of the digital Virtual Console games you've purchased on previous Nintendo hardware will work on the Switch is also a mystery. But Wii, Wii U discs and 3DS game cartridges definitely don't work here.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

It's worth noting that the console's debut was marred by concern regarding the left Joy-Con controller's reliability when using it with the Switch docked. Multiple outlets had reported issues with connectivity and performance. While I didn't experience these with the frequency that other reviewers have, I wasn't completely immune from them, either. But, Nintendo has recognized the issue and fixed manufacturing moving forward. If you buy your Switch new, it's a non-issue.

With the arrival of Splatoon 2 on July 21, 2017, the Switch also received a smartphone app for Android and iOS. The app is meant to be a companion for games on the system and a multiplayer hub where players can connect with friends and invite each other to matches. It's also meant to be the Switch's voicechat solution as wonky as it appears on its face. Yes, it's kind of awkward. But game chat is constantly-changing landscape. With the rise of third-party services like Discord being used for universal game chat, we don't necessarily think the Switch's current multiplayer situation is a dealbreaker.

Nintendo says that the Switch's online services will be free until 2018, when it will change over to a paid service for about $20 a year. That will also include special eShop deals and access to legacy games, though we still don't know how exactly that will be handled.

Because of the ever-changing nature of consoles, consider this review a constant work in progress. We'll continue to update our review as more games and functionality comes to the system.

Check out GameSpot's complete coverage of the Nintendo Switch.

What's good about the Switch

  • Versatility: The novelty that comes with taking the console on the go does not get old. So far it's been a mostly flawless experience. Switching is great.
  • The operating system: While there's not much to it, the Switch's OS is zippy, clean and lets you resume gameplay from sleep mode in seconds. Even a full powering on takes no time at all.
  • Local multiplayer: We've successfully played 2- and 4-player co-op in tablet mode, though the small screen size becomes very apparent here. The Switch also allows up to eight tablets to be locally connected for multiplayer, but we've never tried that many.
  • Screen capturing: A dedicated capture button on the left Joy-Con takes a screenshot of whatever you see onscreen. It works just as you'd want it to -- quickly and easily. You can also connect the Switch to your Facebook and Twitter account for quick sharing. As of now there doesn't seem to be option for recording video though.
  • Amiibos: Those adorable toy-to-life figures are still a thing for the Switch, so if you spent money on them in the last few years, you're in luck.
  • Nintendo has committed to indie games -- at least for 2017 -- announcing that over 60 titles will hit the platform by year's end. There are plenty of great indie games already available in the eShop.
  • MicroSD storage: You can bring your own flash storage to the Switch ensuring room for plenty of downloadable games.
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Grabbing a screenshot is quick and easy.

Nintendo

The Switch's problems

  • The Virtual Console is MIA at launch, and its unclear how it'll be offered when the Nintendo online service launches in 2018. 
  • Screen size: When using it as a handheld device the Switch's screen is fine, but as a tabletop display it's another story. Because of its small text, it's tough to play Zelda from any farther than around two feet away. Other games might be more lenient about distance, but a group crowding around a screen to play doesn't seem as practical.
  • The kickstand: The plastic flap that hides the Switch's microSD slot is also its kickstand. Unfortunately it's very flimsy and doesn't seem sturdy at all. At the very least I wish there was another one on the other side of the screen for balance. If it's on a hard, flat surface it won't just topple over for no reason, but getting it to sit right the first time isn't as easy as you'd think. Bumping into the table it's resting on could make it fall over, and I'd imagine some airplane turbulence might knock it down,too. Don't expect the stability of the sort of full-width stand you get with a Microsoft Surface or an iPad case.
  • No wireless audio: You can pretty much count out any kind of wireless audio solution for the Switch. Other consoles have made this a baseline feature, but don't expect to see it on the Switch.
  • "HD Rumble:" Nintendo might be overpromising with the vibration feedback in the Joy-Con controllers. It's tough to sniff out why it's so much better because right now -- save for a few mini-games in 1-2 Switch. Overall, it just feels weaker than other controllers out there. Maybe this will change.
  • Outdoor use: Sure, you can take the Switch with you anywhere, but the screen is really tough to see outdoors, especially anywhere it's sunny.
  • Onboard storage: With just 32GB of storage inside, it's almost guaranteed you'll eventually need to get a microSD card.
  • Joy-Con wrist-straps: Removing these plastic covers from the Joy-Con is surprisingly annoying.

Taking off a wrist strap bumper can be a pain.

Charles Wagner/CNET

Now's the time to buy a Switch

The Switch's first five months have been impressive and now that we're closing in on a year it's easy to give it a slam dunk recommendation.

If there's anything that still gives us pause, it's the uncertainty of a Virtual Console and the still yet-to-be-fully-detailed online service that will launch in 2018.

Aside from those few lingering concerns, the Switch continues to get better week by week. Its runaway away success guarantees that it will see support from first- and third-party developers for many years to come.

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8.5

Nintendo Switch

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 7Features 8Performance 8Value 9