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Nintendo Switch review

This clever hybrid console delivers on its promise of being a home and away gaming machine, but its serious lack of games will have everyone but Zelda fanatics holding off for now.

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.
Jeff Bakalar
14 min read

If you're a hard-core Nintendo fan or a lover of Zelda games, you probably preordered the Switch -- which retails for $300, $280 or AU$470 -- the moment it was announced. And having played the spectacular Breath of the Wild since day 1, on your TV or on the Switch's built-in 6.2-inch screen, you almost certainly feel it was worth every penny.

For everyone else, there's no rush. Zelda is flat-out phenomenal, but otherwise, the Switch feels like an empty vessel, waiting for a deeper catalog of games and access to retro legacy titles to take advantage of what is arguably Nintendo's most ambitious and risky effort to date. See how the game landscape looks in a few weeks -- or maybe even a few months.

However, since it launched on March 3, Nintendo has instilled some confidence in the Switch's longevity, thanks to a commitment to independent gaming (at least for the rest of 2017) and a light, but capable online experience and eShop.

Up close with the Nintendo Switch

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Nintendo has really swung for the fences here: 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 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, I was able to slow down battery drain using a Tronsmart portable charger, thanks to Nintendo adopting the USB-C charging standard on the Switch.

And once you're done with Zelda, you'll probably turn to... playing Zelda again? That's because the early Switch lineup is pretty anemic otherwise. 1-2 Switch, which effectively serves as a demo for the Joy-Con controllers, isn't included in the box. And don't expect any other online entertainment on the Switch's screen for now -- Netflix and other basic streaming services are nowhere to be found.

And while some promising indie titles will be headed to the Switch's online eShop store in the next couple of months, don't expect a portable version of the NES Classic. Nintendo hasn't detailed how or when the Virtual Console -- Nintendo's marketplace for its huge cache of classic games (like the Mario Bros., Metroid and Donkey Kong franchises) -- 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

The console's debut has also been marred by concern regarding the left Joy-Con controller's reliability when using it with the Switch docked. Multiple outlets have 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. (For its part, Nintendo recommends avoiding playing in areas awash with wireless interference, and free of... aquariums.)

As such, consider this review our initial impression -- but one based on the software and hardware as it exists on the retail version of the console. We'll continue to update this review as more software is are added. And we'll follow up in the weeks and months ahead, as more features -- and more games -- come to the system.

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

Update, March 7, 2017: This review was originally published on March 1 but has been updated to reflect a firmware update for the Nintendo Switch that opens up access to the eShop, online play and a friends list. Screenshots can also be shared directly to Facebook and Twitter. Because of the additions to the system we've also given the Switch a rating, based on the current state of the hardware, software and game library. We'll update that rating when warranted as the product evolves.

What's good about the Switch

  • Versatility: The novelty that comes with taking the console on the go has not worn off on me yet. 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-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 yet to test that out specifically.
  • 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.
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Grabbing a screenshot is quick and easy.

Nintendo


The Switch's problems

  • Game library: Beyond Zelda, it's a bit of a first-party desert. That will be the case at least until midyear or so.
  • The Virtual Console is MIA at launch, and its unclear when or if classic games (Virtual Console) will come to the Switch (beyond one limited-time freebie per month).
  • Left Joy-Con desync: There's definitely something going on with the left Joy-Con. While I've only had it desync once, it's acted up half a dozen times, whether it be erratic behavior or a dropout. Nintendo has only offered a support page for playing environment advice. And just to be sure, we went out and got another set of Joy-Con controllers on March 3rd and couldn't detect any real change between them and our launch controllers.
  • 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.
  • 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


If you care about specs

The Nintendo Switch's 720p capacitive touchscreen measures 6.2 inches. When docked it can output up to 1080p to a TV. The console can also send a 5.1 surround-sound signal via the dock, but only stereo sound (via wired headphones or onboard speakers ) when on the go. The console is powered by a custom Nvidia Tegra chip.

There are two USB 3 ports on the left side of the dock and one hidden away behind the connection panel. There you'll also find the HDMI-out and a USB-C power port.

The Switch has 32GB of onboard storage , but you'll only have access to around 26GB of it out of the box. If you download Breath of the Wild from the forthcoming eStore (cartridge-based games will also be available in downloadable versions), it'll take up half of that. Storage is expandable up to 2TB using a microSD card, hidden in a slot behind the tablet's kickstand. As for the game cards -- they're super tiny, a little thicker but narrower than a standard SD card.

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This is what game cartridges look like in 2017.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The tablet itself has a USB-C port centered at its base (you can charge it directly there, too). There's a headphone jack up top along with the game-card slot, power and volume buttons. And unlike, say, an iPad, there's also a heat exhaust vent because we believe there's a cooling fan inside, too.

One amazing game in an otherwise light catalog


The Switch launched with a total of of just 12 games on March 3:

So far, I've only gotten quality time with a handful of games for the platform.

Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove and Specter of Torment are rock-solid, 8-bit, side-scrolling games and really demonstrate the platform's potential for retro and indie game support.

Snipperclips is the Switch's best co-op game and is worth a purchase if more than one person plans on playing with the system. It's smart, unique and really encourages teamwork.

Fast RMX is a fun racing game with great speed, but it's probably not for everyone.

For more on these three games, read The three Switch games you need to buy that aren't Zelda.

1-2 Switch is a party game, though all the minigames inside are two-player and the vast majority of them are simply uninteresting. But the real slap in the face is that 1-2 Switch is not a pack-in game like those we saw with Wii Sports in the past. Not only should 1-2 Switch be included with the new console, it most certainly shouldn't cost $50.

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But back to Zelda. The Breath of the Wild is incredible. It's an amazing evolution for the series and everything I had hoped a contemporary Zelda game could be. Performance-wise it does slow down and drop a few frames here and there, but otherwise it's gorgeous, uniquely styled and surprisingly detailed. It's also quite difficult. There's much more of a demand for strategy than any other Zelda game I've played. Best of all, there's no discernible difference in visuals or performance when going from TV to tablet. (The lower tablet resolution looks fine on the small screen.)

Ironically enough, Breath of the Wild is one of the best Nintendo launch games in history, but it's paired with one of the most bare-bones console debuts in recent memory.

A number of notable titles are scheduled to hit before the end of the year. They include:

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Super Mario Odyssey has Mario in the real world for the first time.

Nintendo

Nintendo has also reinforced its commitment to indie games and announced a slew of more than 60 titles that are scheduled to hit before the end of 2017. Notable titles include:

  • Yooka Laylee
  • Blaster Master Zero (March 9)
  • Stardew Valley
  • Shakedown Hawaii
  • Overcooked: Special Edition
  • The Escapists 2
  • SteamWorld Dig 2
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Yooka-Laylee is from the makers of beloved platformer Banjo-Kazooie.

Team 17

Beyond 2017 it's anyone's guess, though we'll probably hear more at the E3 show in June. It's probably a safe bet that some existing Wii U games will make their way over to Switch a la Mario Kart 8. I fully expect to see a Mario Maker sequel or a ".5" version by the end of 2018. And here's hoping for a new Metroid game, too.

While Nintendo is certainly trying to make the Switch more friendly to third-party game publishers, it remains to be seen if they'll stick with the Switch in the years ahead. And the logic of porting over Skyrim -- a six-year-old game -- is somewhat mystifying.

Nintendo Switch: All the games you'll get at launch (and beyond)

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The bottom line here is that the game catalog, which will effectively be the only place you can play the latest and greatest Nintendo games, needs to be spectacular. And while third-party games are all fine and good, existing PS4 and Xbox One consoles are already serving the market for players of Overwatch, Battlefield and the like.


The controls and the accessories

Along with the dock and tablet, the Switch comes with a pair of Joy-Con controllers, the left and right attachments that flank the screen in handheld mode. These can be detached and connected to an included Joy-Con Grip for playing Switch on a TV or if you have the screen angled-up on a flat surface using the kickstand. Keep in mind you can't charge the Switch when it's propped up with the kickstand though, because the bottom port is then covered.

The only way to charge the Joy-Con controllers is if they are connected to a docked screen or if you're using the $30 optional Charging Joy-Con Grip. Unfortunately, this only allows for a USB-C cable to be plugged in at the top. It won't charge if there isn't a cable present.

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The Joy-Con controllers loaded into the Joy-Con Grip.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Using the Joy-Con controllers in the Grip or attached to the screen feels comfortable enough, but I ran into some ergonomic issues while playing Zelda. The L and R shoulder buttons aren't very substantial and I sometimes found it tough to hit them reliably. I also ran into problems with the location of the B button and its proximity to the right analog stick. It's too easy to accidentally move the stick when holding the B button down, so at times I'd find myself unintentionally moving the camera while having Link run.

Each Joy-Con has vibration and motion controls. The right Joy-Con also has an IR sensor.

When playing 1-2 Switch with my wife, it quickly became obvious that whoever had the right Joy-Con was at an advantage because we're both right-handed. I guess that might sound weird, but in the situations where dexterity and reflexes decides a winner, using your non-dominant hand can handicap that player.

Overall, I wish the Joy-Con controllers were bigger, but maybe that's because I have larger than average hands. It has definitely taken me some time to get used to their form factor.

Thankfully, there's the Pro Switch Controller. Its design is much more like a conventional PS4 or Xbox One controller -- however, it costs a whopping $70, £60 or AU$100. That's a shame, because it's the best way to play Zelda. That said, there's no guarantee you'll be able to use it with every Switch game. I also really wish it had a headphone jack. (The Switch doesn't support wireless Bluetooth headphones.)

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The Pro Switch Controller.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Joy-Con controllers can also be used independently, like tiny NES controllers. They're very small though and not the most comfortable to hold for long gaming sessions. A pair of wrist strap bumpers come with the Switch console too and add a bit of width to each Joy-Con. The problem is they're unusually tough to remove from each Joy-Con and sometimes a lot of force.

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The left and right Joy-Con Controllers with the wrist-strap bumpers attached.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A carrying case for the Switch is a must. It's just too exposed without one. Nintendo included its standard $20/£17/AU$29 case with my review kit, but there's no reason you shouldn't take a look at the third-party offerings that will be available at and around launch. The case doubles as a better kickstand, and it also came with a screen protector. I didn't stick it on because I generally don't like them, but it did give me pause about the screen scratching.

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The case doubles as a stand.

Sarah Tew/CNET


Online multiplayer and other future improvements

No console launch is ever smooth, but the Switch's seemed even more half-baked than what we're used to. It's tough to say that the strategy surrounding the Switch's debut was anything but rushed. The lack of services, a Virtual Console, compelling games, were and still are all worrying prospects. Out of the gate, the Switch seemed incomplete, but some of that has gotten better.

At launch, players can purchase full games from the eShop and add friends to their contact list. Unfortunately, the dreaded 12-digit friend codes have made their return.

Fortunately, there is a way to transfer an existing balance that you may have had using the 3DS or Wii U. Linking your Nintendo ID via the account management website will let you merge any remaining balance for use in the Switch's eShop.

Nintendo says a free trial version of its premium online service for Switch will go live some time in March. We don't know how much it will eventually cost, but it's been reported that it would likely be under $30 a year. The subscription would also let players have access to a new retro game each month, but that was met with controversy when Nintendo hinted it also might expire at the end of each month.

Screenshots can be shared via Twitter or Facebook via the album view in the Switch's OS. Here's my first tweet from the Switch:


Should anyone buy the Switch now?

Unless you absolutely need to have the latest and greatest hardware on day 1, you should hold off buying a Switch. If you're a die-hard Zelda fan and have to play Breath of the Wild right away, just be aware you're going to be shelling out $360 (or £340 in the UK and $560 in Australia) to do just that. Make that $430, £400 or AU$660 if you want the best controller for it. Wii U owners should keep in mind that the game is also hitting that console the same day.

There's a lot that's up in the air regarding the Switch's future. Anything can happen. A purchase right now is definitely a gamble, though it's comforting to see a commitment to indie games and a relatively smooth online rollout. E3 is less than four months away too, so hopefully there's more clarity coming about the Switch's roadmap.

By the time Super Mario Odyssey is out (it's planned for the end of the year), we'll know much more about what's in store for Nintendo's new platform. Because between now and then, there are not many signs that this console is a must-have.

But if Nintendo continues to cultivate third-party indie support, realize its Virtual Console potential and maintain a somewhat regular delivery of first-party games, the Switch may evolve to be quite the compelling package.