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Games

31 Days on the Road with the Switch, Nintendo's Ultimate Travel Console

International travel is made just a tiny bit less painful by Nintendo's latest.

by Robert Rath
Sep 29 2017, 7:23pm

All images courtesy Nintendo

Expats often go home for the summer, and it's hard. Though seeing friends and family is always welcome, visiting your scattered loved ones means moving every few days, sleeping on couches, and living in other people's space. It goes on for over a month.

That's been particularly tough for me as a game journalist. Summer is downtime for releases, but I need to keep playing. And since I mostly game on consoles rather than a laptop—long story—it's always meant dragging a console through multiple states and on international flights.

For the last two summers that meant lugging an Xbox One in a carry-on bag. The summer before that, I hauled a PS3 in a backpack. Both were horrible, and borrowing time on someone else's TV is never as easy as it sounds.

Then came the Nintendo Switch.

It's launch ad made it look like El Dorado. A console designed for portability? Seamless transition between TV and handheld? The ability to not just show friends a game, but share it with them anywhere? I wanted it. I craved it. My eye fell across the laughing, Gap-model people in that ad and I wanted to be one of them.

"Are you a trendy millennial on-the-go?" it seemed to say.

"Why, yes," I said. "I am at least two of those things."

Then I closed my eyes and entered a fugue state.

When I opened them, I was standing in a Hong Kong game market with a Nintendo Switch in one hand and an alarmingly long receipt in the other. The journey had begun.

Hong Kong: 10 Days Before Departure

I'm sitting in the offices of Nintendo of Hong Kong, waiting for a service appointment. In my experience, videogame offices are slick and playful, but the pressures of Hong Kong real estate mean Nintendo's Kowloon offices are more like that of a data entry company. The walls are blank. A cheery Mario cut-out greets you like a receptionist.

When I first got my console home, it became clear something was wrong. Though my new Switch behaves perfectly as a handheld, everything goes sideways once I put it in the dock: juddering, slow movements at best, a black screen at worst. I called Nintendo of Hong Kong's warranty line and was told to come into their service center the next day.

We'll fix it, they promised.

"Can you have it ready for pickup on Monday?" I asked, explaining that I was leaving on a trip. "We'll fix it in 30 minutes," they answered. They lied—they did it in ten.

An employee ushered me into a small windowless room where two other employees sat surrounded by Switch parts neatly stacked to the ceiling. They bowed and went about diagnosing my ill console.

Dividing the labor for maximum efficiency, they issued me a new main console and ensured that everything was shipshape. Then they packed up my Switch, bowed again, and sent me on.

It was, without doubt, the best customer service I've ever received from a device manufacturer—inside the game industry or out. And I had a working Switch.

First lesson: buy a Switch in the country you live in. If I'd bought it in the US, I couldn't have serviced it in Hong Kong. More importantly, keep the box—it's needed for warranty claims.

Hong Kong: 9 Days Until Departure

My purchases are laid out on the rug next to my already-packed suitcase as I take stock on how to pack it.

First there's the Switch itself, with its neon joycons. Then the dock, HDMI cable, and controller housing. A padded zip case. Zelda: Breath of the Wild for solo play and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the impromptu gaming parties I'd come to expect from the ads.

It combines surprisingly well. The handheld console zips right into the case, with two games nestled in the cartridge slots. The extra bumpers that turn each joycon into an independent controller fit in a net pocket. The case bulges slightly due to the bumpers, but not alarmingly. It would probably take a good knock.

The whole thing fits perfectly in my backpack's tablet pouch.

I zipped the power cord and controller housing into a tough document bag along with a US-style power adapter (the Switch is dual-voltage, meaning it won't get fried by foreign power outlets). The dock—which is small and feels alarmingly fragile—proved a problem until I found a sturdy box that fit both it and the HDMI cable, along with a protective layer of bubble wrap. The whole package only added a few pounds to my backpack, leaving plenty of space for a laptop, Kindle, passports, and everything else I refuse to put in checked luggage.

The backpack was heavy, but nowhere near as leaden as it felt with a PS3 inside. I was ready for a month on the road, with Nintendo in the passenger seat.

Day 1: Hong Kong to Seattle

If the measure of a travel system is ease at airport security, the Switch passes with flying (neon) colors. At Hong Kong International the handset slips right out of my bag and into a tray, no more difficult to remove than an iPad or other small tablet. That's a major improvement from previous summers, when I had to hoist my Xbox One out of my carry-on bag, then take time on the other side to rearrange the nest of T-shirts and socks I'd used to cushion it. Later I find out that, as a tablet, TSA regulations let you leave it in the bag—though that guidance isn't universal.

It also passed test #2: Does It Look Suspicious on an X-ray?

New or unusual consumer tech sometimes gets you flagged for extra scrutiny (podcasting mics get you searched every damn time). That's usually just annoying, but can prove disastrous during a tight international connection. Good thing, too. Heavy rain delays our departure from Hong Kong, and our transfer in Seoul goes from a leisurely hour and a half to a frantic 30 minutes. Despite the recent tensions with North Korea, the unfamiliar outline of the Switch doesn't set off any alarms during our rush through transfer screening.

I get no gaming done on the 11-hour flight from Seoul to Seattle. We'd scored free exit-row seats, which is usually a coup for an overnight flight, but left me no seatback pocket to store the Switch when it wasn't in use.

Besides, I'd discovered its first problem as a travel machine: the screen is freakishly bright. If you turn a Switch on in a dark cabin, its wide screen bathes your whole row—friends and strangers alike—in eye-bleeding white.

Even on the dimmest setting, I felt like I was calling Batman. For the benefit of my fellow passengers, I kept it dark.

Day 3: Seattle

We're staying with friends that don't have a TV, but the husband keeps two classic consoles in their closet. I mention Mario Kart, and thirty seconds later we're setting up the Switch's kickstand. We make an abortive attempt to connect the dock to a laptop screen, but quickly learn that the HDMI plugs on most laptops can't handle input.

Set up in front of two six-foot-tall men, the Switch screen seemed almost comically tiny. We prop it on a coffee table and sit cross-legged on the carpet, as the countdown starts, cradling the itty-bitty Joycons and revving our engines.

And damn me if it didn't work. Sure, splitting the small screen effects play, but it's still goddamn Mario Kart. It feels right. Even sitting on the carpet and leaning into a tiny screen feels right. After all, I'd first played Mario Kart on a screen that wasn't much larger than this one.

"You two look like you're eight," laughed my wife.

"I feel like I'm eight," I said.

Day 14: Seattle

A week before, in Portland, I had tried to connect the Switch to a hotel flatscreen, but failed because it was mounted too close to the wall to reach the HDMI ports.

As a result, I'm two weeks into the trip before I finally hook the Switch up to a friend's TV.

I do it, at least partially, to mentally block out the fact that there's a python curled up in a tank six feet away. My host assures me that the coiled murder rope is chilled out and sleeping, which is true, but I figure it's probably dreaming about what human fingers taste like.

Me, my friend, and his daughter trade off on Grand Prix courses and Balloon Battles. Everything onscreen works without a hitch, Mario Kart just like I remember.

But it's also the first time I hit a hardware problem.

While sliding the bumper on one joycon, I get the thing backward. It jams, unable to move one way or the other, the leading edge protruding a quarter of an inch. To the Switch's credit, the joycon still plays fine, but afterward I spend five minutes wiggling it loose millimeter by millimeter, convinced I've broken the thing.

It comes free, but it imparts another major lesson: Switch transitions are easy, but not idiot-proof. Multitasking while reconfiguring your console is a bad idea.

Day 15: SEA-TAC International Airport

My 11:00 PM flight has suddenly become a 2:00 AM flight. After haggling over rerouted flights and standby lists, I step away from the gate agents and find out a tragedy has occurred.
The airport bars are closed.

Four hours to fill, and no local microbrews. Time to break out the Switch.

I station myself at an empty device-charging bar and plug in my Switch, half-watching a CNN report about the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China.

If the Switch has one major design problem, it's the cable input—you can't charge it while using the kickstand. But the internal stand in my soft case elevates it just high enough to make it work.

It's time to try playing on the small screen with the joycons in the controller housing. This is a crucial test for me. A childhood car accident gave me recurrent neck issues, making it uncomfortable—sometimes painful—to use handhelds or game on laptops for over an hour at a time.

Controller in hand, I relax backward and dive into Breath of the Wild for two full hours. No pain or stiffness. No wrist strain from holding the screen high enough to keep my neck straight. It's perfect.

After boarding I put the Switch in my seat-back pocket, but after liftoff the crew kills the the cabin lights as an apology for the delay. I attempt to dive back into Zelda, but the screen fills the cabin like a streetlight. I put it away and get some sleep.

Day 19: Delaware

Every person, as a child, hopefully had a place where they could run and hide by themselves for awhile. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is currently filling that role for me.

Travel burnout hits hard at the three-week mark. You start getting ragged and tired of living in other people's' space, no matter how deeply you know and love them. Sleeping in guest beds and on air mattresses offers little to no privacy. And at this stop, getting TV space is difficult.

Which, oddly, suits me fine. Playing on a big screen is always enjoyable, but it also means sharing your game. Eventually even non-gamers will ask what you're doing. And three weeks in, I'm more interested in crawling into myself for an hour or two before bed. Bathing in the widescreen glory of Hyrule can wait.

I'm perfectly happy to play nestled in the corner of a couch or under the covers. Zelda is my personal domain, a portal that lets me escape to an uncrowded world where no one walks in on you in the bathroom.

Day 28: Baltimore to Dallas

Four week mark. I've taken the Switch through three countries, six states, four flights, two train rides, and five car trips.

But this daytime flight to Dallas is the first time I've played it on an airplane for any significant stretch. Overall, it performs the same as it did on the three-hour train between Seattle and Portland, though the train had electrical outlets.

I've heard complaints that the Switch's battery is too small for cross-country flights, but in my experience it's adequate. Three hours will get you between the east or west coast to major central hubs like Chicago or Dallas, and many long-haul planes have charging outlets these days. Plus—and maybe this is just my age or neck injury—but I find playing a handheld for that long on a plane uncomfortable. Three hours is fine in a house or airport when you can shift your position, lay down, or change chairs, but in an airplane your movement envelope is very small. At the three hour mark I'm about ready to pick up a book or watch a movie.

This is also the first time I've played it while sitting directly next to a stranger, which is something I've looked forward to. When the Switch first released, there was speculation that owners might feel uncomfortable playing in public—especially if they had dayglow joycons like mine. What would happen when I booted it up? Would it elicit comments? Would I feel shame? Polite interest from my neighbor? Start a pickup game?

I'd been throwing myself against Lynels for thirty minutes when I snuck a glance at the rest of my row, to see if I was being watched.

And that's when I realized how silly it is to fear Switch-shaming. My neighbor wasn't looking disapprovingly over my shoulder, she was buried in her own iPad. Her husband, far from coveting Breath of the Wild, was conquering Spain in Europa Universalis. They too had private portals to another world.

Day 30: Dallas to San Diego

I spend the flight from Texas to California gaining control of a Divine Beast while wrestling with the Switch's volume level: it's too quiet for my seat.

Paradoxically, the size of an airplane is inversely proportional to its engine noise. The larger its engines and wingspan, the quieter the cabin. In this mid-size aircraft, a mechanical roar underscores the entire flight, drowning out Breath of the Wild's ambient music and all but the sharpest sound effects. I screw my earbuds in tighter and crank the volume, but it's no good. Zelda's breathy whisper barely comes through in cutscenes. It's not the full experience, but I make progress.

Day 31: San Diego

Another state, another air mattress, another night on the road. The Hyrule Fields glow green in the darkness—and for a moment, it feels like home.

I've been traveling with the Switch for a full month, and I'm ready to christen it the ultimate travel console. It's portable, packable, and it serves as both social experience and solo escape. There are issues—most notably short battery life and low volume—but you can plan around the former and live with the latter.

After all, anyone who's been on the road can tell you: no travel companion is perfect.