Offbeat Bits

Nintendo Switch, dishonest review

Nintendo Switch has always been this weird product I struggled to understand as a lifetime PC gamer. As a citizen of a country Nintendo pretends doesn't exist I have zero nostalgia about any of their popular franchises. I'm not sure if I ever met anyone who owned any original Nintendo console before. So it was absolutely logical that I found a reason to buy a Switch and see what the deal is.

Boom, I got one. And here's what I think about it.

My Switch bundle

Before we talk about Switch, I have to get through the boring part of explaining who I am and where I come from. It matters because I'm not your average lifestyle blogger or a tech reviewer.

Before Switch, there was... nothing?

Until 1990s, the history of gaming in my country involved mostly 8-bit and 16-bit minicomputers like Atari XE, Commodore 64 or Amiga. Nintendo decided that our market, as well as a few others in Eastern / Central Europe, was not worth gracing with their official presence. As a result, if anyone in my area in the 1990s had a Game Boy, original NES or SNES, they belonged to an elite club.

We were familiar with a significant chunk of Nintendo's portfolio thanks to Pegasus console and dozens of unlicensed cartridges that could be sold legally due to faulty copyright law.

I played Super Mario Bros, Contra, two Dizzy installments and dozens of other less popular games from American and Japanese markets. Light guns for Pegasus were a thing, so I got to know Duck Hunt, Hogan's Alley and Wild Gunman. However, I never had a chance to see any installment of Zelda, Pokemon or Castlevania. I had no idea there were more installments of Super Mario Bros beyond the very first one.

Fast forward to 2021 and Nintendo still maintains their presence in Poland via an external entity that does bare minimum as a company representative. Switch interface has no Polish translation. I never ever saw any marketing efforts involving Nintendo consoles in my vicinity. At the same time, Sony and Microsoft have had official branches in Poland for a while and their flagship titles were on every billboard I've seen on my way to work.

I have zero reasons to love Nintendo for anything. While their titles were a part of my childhood, the company itself doesn't deserve a credit for that. They missed the opportunity to enter our market when people still had memories from Pegasus and they keep pretending the part of Europe between Germany and Russia is a meteor crater. Therefore, I treated buying a Switch like a gamble, with a plan to resell it if I fail to find a compelling reason to keep using it.

Tl;dr: I still own a Switch with no plans of reselling it. I enjoy it despite its flaws. But my feelings towards Nintendo as a company didn't change much.

Okay, so what is this thing?

To understand what Switch is, it makes sense to look at system specs and Nintendo history.

Nintendo has been building consoles since 1970s, with NES released in 1983. Until 2017 they released seven generations of home and portable consoles, with Wii U and 3DS being the last generations.

Nintendo Switch, introduced in 2017, combined separate lines of stationary and portable consoles into a single form factor, adding an option to choose between docked and handheld mode. Compared to previous generations, Nintendo Switch retains a lot of design features from earlier iterations, such as familiar button layout or the ability to use joycons as wireless controllers in a similar fashion to Wii Remotes.

Under the hood Nintendo Switch uses 4 ARM cores at 1.02 GHz, 256 Nvidia Maxwell-based GPU cores and 4 GB of RAM. Pretty decent for a system designed and engineered in mid 2010s. What differs Switch from a 2017 smartphone is that it has active cooling and a highly specialized operating system that could be optimized to be more lightweight than any version of Android or iOS.

There is also Switch Lite which is purely portable, e.g. can't be plugged to a TV. I never found it compelling though. It makes sense to pay more for a fully-featured console and enjoy the ecosystem to the fullest.

I keep calling Switch a 2017 smartphone but I don't necessarily consider it a sarcasm. I find this an accurate description of what Switch hardware layer actually is. I hold a similar view on Xbox and Playstation - under the hood they are nothing else than custom-designed purpose-built PCs.

At the time of writing Nintendo Switch Pro is being rumored but I'm not willing to comment on a product that doesn't exist yet.

Nintendo Switch, good parts

There's quite a few of them. It's a genuinely interesting piece of hardware that sits in a specific niche.

Portability and form factor is what make Nintendo Switch unique. The fact you can switch between stationary and handheld mode is a great feature. But I'm more willing to praise Nintendo for the fact that Switch is a portable console at all. Since the discontinuation of PS Vita there are no other competitors on this market except mobile devices.

Buying a Switch you enter into a very specific ecosystem of games that have been perfected over many iterations on multiple hardware generations that were never super powerful. Some of them are criminally addicting and surprisingly detailed for a low-spec platform. Almost all of them are designed to age relatively well. You won't understand twenty-somethings getting excited over cartoonish games for kids unless you join this camp yourself.

It boots within seconds and can be kept in sleep mode all the time. Picking it up takes no time which makes Switch great to be used often but in irregular intervals.

Touch screen, even though it feels cheap and it's useless for anything other than typing, is acceptably responsive and reliable.

Aaaand not so good parts

It's expensive to buy and not so affordable to own. Apart from hardware you also need a decently sized SD card. You probably want to sign up for Nintendo Online subscription to get cloud saves and access to more games. This is still a 2017 smartphone with a fancy form factor and no amount of marketing can make up for that. I agree there's a fundamental difference between a game console and a smartphone but I still don't think it's reasonable to put Switch in the same price range as some last-gen PlayStation or Xbox bundles.

Flagship titles are expensive. Cloud saves are paywalled. Indies, even though abundant, are a mixed bag. I'm writing this as a citizen of a country in central Europe, with product prices like in Western Europe and average wages like in Eastern Europe.

It's made by Nintendo, a Japanese company with specific values and foreign cultural code that heavily influences various decisions, from inability to craft multiple items in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (no Nintendo, inanimate virtual objects don't have 'souls') to completely ignoring some European markets throughout its history (but that we already established, right?). And just like every single corporation, Nintendo understands money as their only language. So, be ready to get frustrated over weird design quirks and have nobody to listen to you.

Also, why the heck does this whole 'amiibo' thing exist? How does Nintendo get away with locking additional game content behind physical items while other game studios get heavily criticized for similar practices?

No ratings, download metrics or player reviews in Nintendo Store. Visuals and descriptions on product pages are usually bullsh written in marketing language that screams 'Buy me! I'm great!' rather than 'This what I have to offer, take it or leave it'. To effectively discover and buy new games on this platform I have to rely on external sources. And some of these sources may be sponsored.

Some games are sluggish and laggy. I know many games are ported from codebases targeting other platforms, but in case of Nintendo Switch there's only one hardware to target. It's not a PC or an Android device with millions of different hardware and OS combinations. Game studios deserve criticism for that, but Nintendo as a gatekeeper deserves its share too.

Nintendo flaghships often make an offensively poor job at explaining themselves. Picked up Tetris 99 and you keep losing battle after battle? Good luck figuring out 'badges' or 't-spin factory' without googling, and yes, you will need to know those to have a chance to win games. Do you keep losing races in Mario Kart 8? Did you know your choice of a vehicle, tyres and parachute isn't as cosmetic as it seems? Can you figure out how to disable 'smart' steering without looking for instructions? Discovering hidden chunks of knowledge is enjoyable as long as the game itself prompts us to look for them. Games that require googling to discover their full functionality are simply poorly designed.

Some Nintendo flagships run at 30fps in docked mode on a console that sends 60hz full HD signal to external displays. Yes Animal Crossing, I'm looking at you. I'd have forgiven that to a third-party title. But we're discussing a platform-exclusive flagship.

In case of indies, especially affordable ones, you never know what you get. You may be playing a game dedicated for the platform or a quick cashgrab ported from Android / iOS. This may be good or bad thing depending on the game.

No refunds and downloadable demo versions are rare. Makes me think twice before paying full price for any digital game on this platform. Imagine Cyberpunk 2077 getting released on Switch.

Not all games are released physically. Sometimes it takes time before it happens at all. Additional paid content makes things even more complicated. Producing physical copies of Switch games is expensive.

Analog controls in joycons are so flat they're in fact digital input. Maybe that's a flaw, maybe a deliberate design, I don't know. Pro Controller marginally solves this problem but I disagree throwing money at a problem can be called a 'solution'.

No official support for wireless headphones except a few models that rely on their own proprietary adapters. And let me remind you we're talking about a console that has Bluetooth connectivity built-in. Okay, having a 3.5mm jack port in 2021 is a good call, but in that particular case I'd be okay to sacrifice audio quality for convenience.

Games that look good on paper or play well on other platforms may not play well on Switch for reasons completely unrelated to performance. I struggle to explain it well, but believe me or not, Switch can break a lot of interesting game design ideas. The term 'Switch sacrifice' was coined for a reason.

Handheld mode is very unergonomic and inconvenient to use for long periods of time. Unplugging joycons and using them as a fully fledged controller? Poor workaround that introduces a new category of problems I won't dwell on here. Of course I can mod my Switch to be more ergonomic, but this is once again throwing money at a design flaw.

Bulging and very low analog thumbs in joycons. It's hard to get a good grip on them. Pro Controller is a little better.

If you switch from an Xbox controller, thumb button layout is inverted and it takes time to develop muscle memory. Yes, it can be switched programmatically, but many game tutorials use pictures to explain controls and I'm not sure if they follow my setting as well.

Pro Controller for Switch has two rows of small function buttons ('+' and '-', Home and screenshot) that lack any texture. It's hard to develop any muscle memory around them. If I drank every time I accidentally minimized a game with the 'Home' button I'd need a new liver.

Something something cost management

Buy physical copies, preferably used ones. Switch is still a fairly young ecosystem and second-hand game cards are still in mint condition. It's cheaper and you can get some of your money back if you decide to resell it.

I don't know what to do with games with downloadable content that can be purchased digital only. In this case it's up to Nintendo to re-release those games, but that may happen next month, next year or never. For now I avoid digital purchases whenever I can.

Think twice before buying any digital game unless it has a free playable demo because you won't have a chance to refund it. Wait for sales, they happen. Don't buy impulsively. Take your time to make informed decisions.

Games that play well on Switch

All Nintendo flagships. Mostly because you can't get them on any other platform and Nintendo needs a valid reason to sell you a 2017 smartphone in a fancy form factor. Also, all those games are essentially sequels adapted to a current hardware iteration, which is both a good thing (you get a good product) and a bad thing (you get a product you've already seen on GameCube, 3DS or Wii with minor improvements).

Platformers, both 2D and 3D. 3D platformers can be tricky, but they're still playable.

Games you would play on an arcade machine or your old NES. Technically Switch isn't an emulator but it offers a selection of NES and SNES games as part of Nintendo Online subscription.

Visual novels and story-driven games that require very little user input.

Slow games that don't require many actions in short periods of time. But that concept works on any platform.

Good ports of mobile games. I repeat, good, i.e. carefully tested and optimized. Switch offers similar performance to a mobile device plus controllers that can work miles better than touch controls. Also, mobile ports on Switch are less likely to pull sketchy schemes involving microtransactions or loot boxes.

Games without endgame. Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and alikes. Part of the addictive nature of this kind of games is that Switch is a portable console and you can pick those games any time you want anywhere you want, whether lying on your bed or doing number 2.

Party and local multiplayer games, but that is something I haven't tested in a social setting. Joycons can be used as independent wireless controllers and this opens interesting design options.

Turn-based games. Because once again, the platform doesn't matter that much when you don't have to rush.

Games that are bad on Switch by definition

Ports of major PC games. Once again, Switch is a 2017 smartphone with a proprietary operating system. Kudos to studios that downgrade their flagship titles (Witcher 3), but buying them on an underpowered console is a gamble.

Any game you played on PC for longer than 4 hours. First, it's probably waste of money to buy it twice. Second, you'll probably have to relearn controls. Your mileage may vary though.

Majority of racing games. WRC 9 is playable, but very difficult without analog triggers. Mario Kart 8 works because its physics model is heavily assisted and the game requires specific skills that have little to do with racing. Any Need For Speed remaster will work fine because its physics is very simplistic.

First person games. Okay, they are playable, but not as convenient as on PC. It's highly subjective though. If you come from Xbox or PlayStation and you're okay with aiming and shooting with a controller rather than keyboard and mouse, then it doesn't matter.

Games that involve precise aiming. Not only shooters. Games like Portal, QUBE or more advanced strategies are playable but quite challenging to play compared to their PC versions.

Games that require managing multiple entities in a single view. Many Switch games are good because they're cleverly designed to limit the amount of presented information. Complex games, like strategies or simulators, even if playable, will not be convenient on this platform.

So, should I buy a Switch?

Yes and no.

If you like popular Nintendo franchises like Mario, Zelda or Pokemon or want to catch up with them, definitely yes.

If you don't mind buying a device produced by an eccentric Japanese company that doesn't differ that much from popular game studios, probably yes.

If you want a portable gaming device that is not a smartphone, yes.

If you have kids and you want to introduce them to a safe and easy to use gaming ecosystem that will last for years, probably yes.

If you have friends that have a Switch, definitely yes. If you have no friends at all, invest in upgrading your PC.

If you owned a Nintendo console or its clone at any point of your life, probably yes. Even just for nostalgia trips.

If you play on PC and don't fall into any of the categories mentioned above, probably no.

If you don't have any other gaming hardware but you have a TV or a computer display, absolutely not. Get a last-gen PlayStation or an Xbox instead.

If you have no better idea what to do with your money, get an iPhone or a mechanical wristwatch.

Be aware that it's probably not a smart idea to buy a Switch until Nintendo releases Switch Pro. A lot of questions about fragmentation and compatibility are still open since the difference in specs will be huge. It's probably worth waiting until the current generation of Switch starts to be called last gen to pull a trigger. Or get a second-hand one from an unsatisfiable whiner like me.