It’s 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday, and I’m at the southwest entrance of Fort Mason. By this point, two thoughts were running through my head. The first, that Fort Mason feels a lot creepier when the sun isn’t out. The second, that I should be happy that the wind wasn’t blowing, as I had no interest in going from thermally stable to full-on frostbite.
As I approached the Festival Plaza, I realized that I wasn’t the only one here at this unseemly hour. Before me stood about half a dozen people loitering around next to a parking lot. One of them was even cooking ramen noodles over a flame as a way to pass the time — and to satiate hunger, I imagine. In any other context, I’d have a litany of questions to pose to these individuals as to their “interesting” ideas of how to spend a weekend.
But this wasn’t any other context. I was there for the same reason they were… On March 3, Nintendo released their new hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch. Following the low sales numbers of the 3DS, and the abject failure that was the Wii U, it’s fair to say that Nintendo was approaching their next console launch with their backs against the wall. With their home console sales threatened by the dominance of Sony and Microsoft in the home space, and their handheld sales threatened by games on iOS and Android, Nintendo was had to do something pretty interesting with their next console platform to maintain relevance in the modern gaming landscape.
In response to this we have the Nintendo Switch, a tablet with detachable controllers, called “Joy-Cons,” on its sides that can be placed in a plastic dock to output games to a TV. This concept, in theory, kills two birds with one stone. One one hand, this console serves as the kind of shot in the arm to Nintendo’s portable line that a 3DS successor could never have been. And on the other, the dock allows for the style of TV-centric, local-multiplayer-capable play that Nintendo has built a large part of their legacy on.
Granted, this does raise the question of what kind of machine this is: an under-specced home console that can be taken out of the house — as Nintendo’s marketing insists it is — or a reasonably powerful gaming tablet that can connect to a TV to simulate a home console experience, as I think it is. In either case, though, Nintendo is determined to get the word out about the Switch.
Nintendo has been putting on a preview tour for the Switch since late January, where a showcase event is held in a different major North American city every weekend up until March 5. On Feb. 26 the tour made a stop in San Francisco to give the Bay Area a taste of what they might be able to expect from Nintendo’s “next big thing.”
As a Nintendo fan with trepidations about the Japanese gaming giant’s future prospects in the market, or at least the decisions that lead them to their current position, I found the opportunity to go hands on with the Switch before launch to be too good to pass up. Beyond that, this was Nintendo’s last chance to make me feel confident in keeping my Amazon preorder for the console. Accompanied by USF student Niki Grayson, I was excited to see what Nintendo had up their sleeve.
After waiting in line for about an hour for a wrist band used to assign attendees to a 90-minute time slot, we were able to leave the line — now wrapped around half of the building — for a bit, only to return to a new line shortly before 8:00 a.m. Shortly after, they let us through the doors. At this point, we were greeted with a red and white wall with a door cut into it, which served as our entry way into the showroom. There, attendees were greeted by a line of event staff members cheering and giving us high-fives.
Now, with 90 minutes on the clock, it was time to get down to business. What follows are my impressions of the six demos I got to play, complete with details on which of the Switch’s control setups were used.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Once the high-fives and cheers finished, I made a beeline straight for the Zelda booth without so much as waiting for Niki. Carrying with it the promise of uniting both the massive scale that has become commonplace in modern Western role-playing games (RPGs) with the attention to design and polish that Nintendo has become famous for, “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” is far and away the standout game of the Nintendo Switch’s launch lineup.
The demo on display was placed on a 20-minute time limit. I started the demo with the Switch hooked up to the TV in its dock while wearing headphones plugged into the TV, which didn’t block out the venue’s blaring dubstep as well as I had hoped it would. While docked, I played the game using the Joy-Cons in the Grip, an accessory that combines with the two Joy-Cons to form a standard controller.
I had worried that this control setup would feel awkward, given the somewhat unnatural placement of the right stick. To my surprise, however, this Frankenstein-esque contraption actually felt pretty comfortable, with the right stick being rather easy to reach for. Granted, this could be attributed to the diminutive size of the sticks, which are a good bit smaller than what is typically expected of analog sticks on game controllers — and arguably not as precise for, say, aiming a bow and arrow in Zelda. However, given the jack-of-all-trades approach that Nintendo took with these tiny little things, it’s actually impressive that they work this well as a regular controller at all.
Later on, at about the halfway mark of the demo, I decided to, ahem, switch things up. As a result, I actually took the Joy-Cons out of the Grip, snapped them onto both sides the tablet, and then pulled the tablet out of the dock to continue playing in portable mode. This setup works quite well as a way to play Switch games away from a TV, even though I found this to be slightly less ergonomic than the Grip setup. While I wasn’t able to get a feel for the heft of the tablet — it was clipped to a bulky security leash — I can comfortably say that the Switch felt quite sturdy and well-built with the Joy-Cons attached, especially compared to most of Nintendo’s 3DS line.
As for the game itself, it’s safe to say that I played the demo with a different mindset than I would if I wasn’t on a time limit — which was somewhat painful, given the massive scope of this game. Basically, this means I sprinted a lot and didn’t take much time to “feel the atmosphere,” as it were. My first personal directive, in fact, was to head straight to the dark castle in the distance where the final boss supposedly resides. It wasn’t until I got to a very lethal-looking, multi-story drop that I decided that this may not have been my best idea. Following this, I ventured into some open ruins, only to be killed twice in a row by a Guardian — the giant mechanical spider enemy with laser beams coming out of its single eye, featured above. After this, I spent the rest of my time attacking enemy camps. One enemy was so angry at my intrusion that he picked up a nearby wooden barrel and threw it at me. Because, you know, who needs clubs and axes when there are barrels?
Ultimately, I had a lot of fun with this demo, but whether or not the game lives up to my admittedly lofty expectations remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I’m optimistic, and look forward to sinking my teeth into this one when it comes out.
Snipperclips: Cut it Out, Together!
After Zelda, we checked out a small downloadable launch title called “Snipperclips.” “Snipperclips” is a cooperative puzzle game in which two players take control of Snip and Clip — hehe — two oddly-shaped characters that can cut pieces out of each other to change each other’s shape. The levels are built around the idea of cutting each other to bits in order to solve puzzles.
For example, one puzzle involved cutting a notch in one player’s head in order to put a basketball into a hoop. Another puzzle, by contrast, involved popping balloons, which involved cutting some pointy edges into the other player’s body so that they can be punctured — a tactic that we took way too long to figure out. It sounds a bit abstract at first, but it quickly becomes an engaging pursuit with a friend. Except maybe when that friend decides to cut you to bits just to mess with you.
This demo was my first time playing with the Joy-Con L — the left one — sideways, with the wrist strap rail on. Previously, I thought that this NES-style orientation would have felt really uncomfortable, given that the buttons — or the stick, on the right Joy-Con — are in the middle, as opposed to the other end of the controller, which has been the standard for 30+ years now. However, it actually didn’t feel that bad. Given that the length of the Joy-Cons only totals to about four inches, it’s actually not that much of a strain to reach for the center to press the buttons. The wrist strap rail also makes it much easier to press the shoulder buttons on the inside edge of the controller, even though they did feel a bit mushy to me. I now have a sudden urge to find a friend to play this game with when the Switch comes out. I’m calling dibs on Snip, though.
Next, we decided to play “Arms” — a boxing-centric, motion-controlled, two-player fighting game where you throw long range punches against an opponent at the other side of the ring. Basically, it’s boxing with stretchy arms. After selecting what fists you want to equip — I picked buzzsaws — you start throwing punches with the Joy-Cons held upright, triggers pointed up, in your palms. If you tilt your fists when you punch it actually changes the trajectory of your punch, adding some room for depth and strategy. Both of which seem to be crucial here if you want to end the round in victory. Best two rounds out of three wins.
Now, as someone who always thought that the boxing minigame in “Wii Sports” was the weakest part of that package, I was a bit skeptical about whether or not Nintendo could make a boxing game with convincing motion controls. To my surprise, though, they generally worked quite well. In particular, I was surprised that the curving mechanic worked as well as it did. While I am still concerned about the fact that I couldn’t block consistently, I do have some hope that this might be a good way to play this game. It is worth noting, though, that the game does give you the option to play with buttons, should you desire. “Arms” is currently slated for a Q2 2017 release, suggesting that it is a mere arm’s length away… Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Later on, we went to a very elaborate booth for “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe,” where Switch tablets were propped up on the tray tables of airplane seats, a case that Nintendo seems oddly keen to promote. For this demo, Niki played with the left Joy-Con, held sideways, as Isabelle from Animal Crossing, while I played with the right one as Mario. At this point, one thing became clear: for my preferences, the right Joy-Con feels much more awkward than the left one. In spite of the similar shape, having the analog stick in the middle just felt weird to me, though it was certainly within reach. In addition, they were being used without the straps, which, as it turns out, makes the shoulder buttons much harder to press. Needless to say, this makes drifting in Mario Kart a little jarring at first. Although, for what it’s worth, it would appear that the shoulder buttons start feeling a lot click-ier than they do with the strap on.
Speaking of controls, this demo was played with motion steering, which you may remember from its debut in “Mario Kart Wii,” turned on. While I appreciate that the option — which can be disabled — is there for those that enjoy it, it mostly led me to turn by accident, landing me in ninth place. And no, that is not a reflection of my Mario Kart skills. Should you assert that, I have a red shell with your name on it….
As the name night suggest, the game is basically “Mario Kart 8” for the Wii U, with additional new modes, tracks and characters included as part of the package. This might seem less compelling than, say, a new Mario Kart built from the ground up for the Switch. But, it’s still Mario Kart 8, which I continue to insist is the best Mario Kart game to date. Combine that with the fact that this version can be played on the go and includes additional content, and I feel like I might be pushed over the edge on buying this one again.I enjoyed this demo, and found it to be a solid showcase of the Switch’s local multiplayer chops in tabletop mode. I could certainly imagine spending a lot more time with this one once its April 28th release date approaches.
Eventually, we decided to check out a downloadable launch title called “Fast RMX,” pronounced “remix”. Similar to Mario Kart, this one is actually an enhanced port of a Wii U game called “Fast Racing Neo.” Given the Wii U’s tiny install base — speaking as someone who owns one — this “remixed” Switch port presents an opportunity to give the game a second lease on life.
In terms of gameplay, the game is a fast-paced, futuristic racing game in the vein of Nintendo’s classic F-Zero series. It also features a “phase-change” mechanic, where pressing a button switches your polarity between blue and orange. This corresponds to the blue and orange sections of the tracks that act as boost pads, making you go faster if you match the colors at the right time. And if the name wasn’t any indication, you’re going to want to go fast.
This was also the first demo where I got to try out the Switch Pro Controller, sold separately for $70. Back when I expected the Joy-Con Grip to be uncomfortable, I assumed that this was going to be a critical purchase — for my use, anyway. And even though the Grip turned out to be plenty usable in my time with it, my experience with the Pro Controller has reaffirmed my stance that this is the best controller for playing Switch games in docked mode. It feels better in human hands: the sticks feel more precise, the shoulder buttons are larger and easier to press and it has an actual D-Pad, which the Joy-Cons had to sacrifice, given the problems that this would have caused for sideways play. The latter point, in particular, will be an important selling point for people who want to play 2-D games on the Switch; although I can’t say I used it much while playing Fast RMX. The only sticking point for some people might be that the ABXY buttons lack the tactile “clickiness” of the much smaller Joy-Con buttons. This isn’t to say that they feel bad, but merely different, and subject to personal preferences. I look forward to giving it a whirl when it launches on March 3rd.
Speaking of games about going fast…
The final game I got to play at the event was “Sonic Mania.” Comprised of a mix of newly designed levels and remixed levels from past Sonic games from the Sega Genesis era, “Sonic Mania” is an “old-school” platformer that harkens back to the time that most consider to be the blue hedgehog’s glory days — i.e. before SEGA made a game where he turned into a werewolf. Given the 16-bit aesthetic and music used, it’s fair to say that this one is destined to generate some strong nostalgia vibes.
For this one, I played with the right Joy-Con held sideways, with the Switch in the dock. This proved to be an interesting test case, given that most games of this style are best played with a D-Pad, which both Joy-Cons lack. Needless to say, it did feel a little awkward when trying to charge up a spin dash. Granted, as a way to quickly play some Sonic with a friend by simply sliding a Joy-Con off, it’s workable. For purists, though, you might want to keep a Pro Controller handy. Spin dash issues aside, I still had fun with this demo, even though I’m more of a Mario fan than a Sonic one. “Sonic Mania” is currently slated for a Q2 2017 release on PS4, Xbox One, PC and, as you might expect, Nintendo Switch.
Taken as a whole, the event went pretty well and gave me a renewed sense of security about buying a Switch at launch, in spite of lingering questions about things like the presence of the online service. And while it does remain unwritten as to whether or not the Switch will find the audience it needs, especially given the price of the console and its accessories at launch, the large crowds of enthusiastic people in attendance does give me some reason to believe that Nintendo might be onto something here. More than anything, though, it goes without saying that my excitement to start playing Zelda on this device in a few days is reaching peak levels.