After a few hours in its company, at the system's UK Premiere in London, I can confidently say that Nintendo's Switch is caught between a dock and a hard case: neither what's expected from a standard home console, nor immediately a substitute for (or successor to) your current handheld of choice.
In the hands—in my hands, which are neither overly massive nor extraordinarily petite—the unit as a whole, with twin Joy-Con controllers snapped into place either side of the main unit's 720p touchscreen, feels solid and has a nice weight to it, like a piece of premium tech worthy of the $300/£280 asking price. The casing's matte finish resists sticky fingerprints better than the glossy black of the Wii U GamePad, and at no point does it feel that the Joy-Cons are about to make a bid for freedom. I get the impression that it'll stand up to a drop or two, and when someone does knock down one of the Switch Pro Controllers, it lands on the floor with the kind of satisfying-yet-stomach-turning thud that only expensive things can make.
But it's never quite as comfortable, through smaller-screen sessions with Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, as the original PlayStation Vita, which I power up for comparison purposes on my three-hour commute back to the south coast, nor the 3DS XL, which has been my regular travel companion since the launch of Picross 3D: Round 2.
The Switch's screen pops and fizzes as brightly and boldly as the old-school OLED Vita, with the multiplayer games handled with no noticeable performance wobbles. But the unit's a little longer than more dedicated handheld consoles, and so thin that my fingers never quite felt they had enough to wrap themselves around. There's not enough in the way of around-the-back ergonomics, if you know what I mean. I can't see myself using the Switch as an on-the-go console too much, at least not while the 3DS remains supported.
Thankfully, when playing on the TV—where 720 leaps to resolutions up to 1080p—the Pro Controller is a marked improvement over its Wii U predecessor, with chunky face buttons in place of those smaller, too-centralized ones from a generation previous. I use said pad on Zelda and Ultra Street Fighter II, and save for the lack of analog triggers, it's preferable to the wider, thinner main-unit mode. (I do wonder what will that mean for the potential of having GameCube Virtual Console titles, some of which rely on those old analog triggers, though.)
Moving from the unit screen to the TV is deliciously simple: Just pause and pop it into the dock and, whoomp, there it is. The fit is snug, and all the player needs to do is hold the controller's left and right triggers to tell the Switch where their hands have moved.
I use the Joy-Cons without the main unit for Arms, a deeper-than-it-looks one-on-one beat-'em up that uses motion controls to throw punches (via stretchy, on-springs limbs), move and block, and the triggers on top for special moves, dodges and jumps. There's definitely some Punch-Out!! DNA in there, and it's a lot of fun—immediately accessible but evidently possessing nuances that only players that put in the time will be able to make the most of.
My sole concern with it is that the attachment that holds the wrist strap, akin to what the Wii Remotes have, comes loose as I play the fairly physical fighter—presenting the possibility of this beautiful, new, bright-red Joy-Con flying out of my hand and into the TV. The chap demonstrating the game says that's not something that's happened much, but sure enough, these things just slide off, without much force at all. Something to keep an eye on if you throw your punches with real purpose.
The mini-game package 1, 2, Switch—one of the console's few launch titles, releasing on March 3rd—is the game on show that makes the most out of the Joy-Cons, especially in regard to their "HD rumble" feature. What this translates as, in your hand, is varying degrees of vibration, simulating different sensations against your palm. One game tasks you with cracking a safe, twisting the dial until you feel just the right click; another to count the balls "inside" the controller, based on feeling them roll around. It's a neat exclusive feature, but quite what bigger games will do with it, with real game-affecting relevance, I don't know. Maybe it could be used to navigate your way to Bowser's rumbling stomach in the dark, in a new version of Inside Story?
There's always something on the TV screen when you're playing 1, 2, Switch, but these games ask that you go head to head with another player—literally. You face them, staring into each other's eyes, as you milk an invisible cow, attempt to catch a downward-swinging samurai sword, or beat them at the quick draw, Wild West style. It's the kind of collection that you might pull out at a party, to show off the Switch's novel mini-controllers. But as a standalone, $60 purchase, rather than a pack-in game, it's an expensive curio that probably won't come out to play too often, or that players may choose to skip altogether.
The way that the Joy-Cons slide into the main unit—from the top, down—does make me fear that, should that connection eventually become loose, gravity will make short work of the rest. There's a comforting click when they find their place, be that against the small screen or in the "Grip", which effectively turns two Joy-Cons into a traditional controller; but a year from now, it'll be interesting to see just how durable these quirky little contraptions have proven.
Held sideways, with a more standard pad layout—one stick, four face buttons—a single Joy-Con holds up well for the platforming of Sonic Mania, running (at the great speed we've come to expect) on the unit screen rather than a TV. A Joy-Con can also be inserted into a stabilizer-sized steering wheel for Mario Kart's motion controls.
Speaking of which, while this is very much the "definitive" version of Mario Kart 8, it's not like the addition of two item slots and a few new racers, for me, represents "must-have" status among Switch's first-year line-up—not when the Wii U version is still so damn good. And the same can be said of Splatoon 2, based on this preview showing, anyway. No need to rush to the sequel if you're happy with the stellar original. (I'm guessing online numbers and your desire for live events will dictate how quickly that migration happens, though.)
And that's the real problem I have with the software I see at the London Switch event: Arms and 1, 2, Switch aside—both of which are get-the-mates-over affairs, rather than long-session solo sit-downs—there's nothing here that truly sells the potential of the new hardware. Zelda is, so we understand, still coming to the Wii U as well as the Switch, most likely looking and sounding fairly identical (both are said to come in at around 13GB in size), and Splatoon 2 is for the most part more of the same, save for some new weapons and stages. While we don't get to play Super Mario Odyssey, its trailer tells us nothing about how it might showcase the uniqueness of the Joy-Cons, and their parent system. Perhaps that will have a use for the HD rumble.
There's a lot more coming, of course, but it's going to be a cold first few months for early adopters not into exploring Hyrule. Just Dance, you say? That's pretty much all you can do until the likes of Splatoon 2 and Odyssey appear, later in the year, the latter not until Christmas. The prevailing opinion among a sizeable slice of the UK games press, as the UK Premiere wraps up, is that the Switch is coming out too soon for the available-at-launch games to really do the platform justice. And I might just be in agreement. But it's certainly a fascinating piece of kit, and one that feels like quality, so much slicker than the tacky plastic of the Wii U (rest its soul). And if later titles should really have it singing, well, who am I to say no to a sing-along?