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Switch clicks in the hands, but on paper, it's in trouble

First impressions of Nintendo's hybrid.

You shouldn't judge Nintendo hardware until you've held it in your hands. The Kyoto company, with its dedication to the synthesis of software and hardware, has always revelled in the physicality of video games. It has habitually excelled at creating innovative, ergonomic and tactile kit that can surprise and delight, just through its design.

Nintendo Switch lives up to that heritage. On arrival at this morning's hands-on preview in London, I made a beeline for the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild demo. It wasn't the game itself that interested me - it seems magnificent, but the demo contents were the same as the Wii U build shown at last year's E3 - it was the chance to experience Switch's party piece. I began playing on a TV, using a familiar Pro controller. Then, halfway through my time, I plucked the Switch from its cradle and, after a button press, instantly resumed the epic open-world game in handheld mode.

Cover image for YouTube videoHere’s how switching the Nintendo Switch works

It is an effortless, magical moment - a great piece of technological theatre. Unlike its bizarre predecessor, the Wii U, the appeal of this feature isn't hard to understand or to communicate. And it's a very desirable gadget, too. The console itself, when removed from its plain-to-the-point-of-ugly dock, is beautiful. It's very slim but luxuriously large, and the screen is intensely bright and sharp; its 1280x720 resolution is more than adequate for its size. The image is vibrant and clear - if anything, Zelda displays more crisply here than on the TV. The console is light but not too light, having a pleasing heft. The materials feel high-quality, the sticks and buttons are perfectly placed, the tactile feedback is just so. It is very much a Nintendo console, but with its austere lines and glossy finish, it's clearly a Nintendo console that's been designed to compete with sleek tablets like the iPad Mini. On that level, it can hold its own.

A word, too about those detachable Joy-Con controllers. They are delightful. Yes, they are very small, though that didn't give me any problems. (I have slim but long-fingered hands.) I didn't try detaching them from or reattaching them to the Switch, but I did play several games that used them as freestanding controllers, and was surprised to find I loved them. They are capable motion controllers. They are bristling with buttons - not just the twin triggers on the top, but two more along the edge that are hidden when clipped into the Switch. Ergonomically, they feel much more natural than you'd expect, and in fact there's something very pleasing about the way they fit, dinkily, into your hands. Holding them pistol-grip style, as Nintendo's fun boxing game Arms asks you to do, feels great. The Joy-Cons are essentially miniaturised Wii remotes with added functionality - an extra button or two, improved rumble and, crucially, an analogue stick each - and as such they're hugely versatile, offering developers a wealth of options. The simple fact that every Switch comes equipped with two controllers for local multiplayer is certainly not to be sniffed at.

Nintendo controllers are always more than meets the eye, and that's true of the Joy-Cons.

So far, so good. Switch is a clever bit of kit that feels contemporary but also quintessentially Nintendo, earning its place in the line-up of classics and oddballs, from Game Boy to GameCube, that were displayed at the entrance to today's event. It is the product of a unique company that designs games consoles to be part of the games they play - to change the context and possibilities of the games themselves - rather than as engines of brute computing power.

But, given what we've learned today about Switch, it looks increasingly likely that it will be the last of its line.

Very little about the way Switch is coming to market feels right. Software is the initial, glaring issue. It is a depressingly familiar situation for Nintendo fans: a thin smattering of very minor offerings from third-parties, some of them painfully late in the day (such as Skyrim, not due until autumn), which barely papers the cracks between the releases from Nintendo's own studios - studios that are being stretched pretty thin themselves. Switch's UK launch line-up of just five games must be the slimmest ever, and the star, Zelda, will also be available on Wii U. Super Mario Odyssey's end-of-year release is soon enough on paper, but right now it feels a lifetime away.

Zelda for Switch is priced much higher than the Wii U version. The box is pretty sexy, though.

Then there is the aggressive game pricing. £60 for Zelda, a £20 premium over the Wii U version, which to the best of our knowledge is identical (though from what we've seen, it does run more smoothly on Switch). £50 for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a port of a three-year-old Wii U game - a devastatingly good one, but still. £40 for 1-2-Switch, a collection of mildly amusing but totally throwaway party minigames that is more Wii Play than Wii Sports, and should have been thrown in free with the console. £60 for Splatoon 2, which barely qualifies as a sequel and is closer to being an expanded port of a game that cost half as much when it was released two years ago. It's just not on. There aren't enough games, and Switch owners will be gouged for the few that are released. (And for peripherals too - the second set of Joy-Cons you will need to play Arms in local multiplayer costs, wait for it, £75.)

The pricing of the machine itself you might describe as high but fair. £280 seems quite a lot, and compares unfavourably to the price of a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. But then again, it's broadly competitive with other devices Switch is arguably competing with for parents' Christmas budgets, such as the iPad Mini. And Nintendo can't be blamed for the weak currencies that have inflated the console's price in the UK and Europe.

The above price comparison brings us to another uncomfortable truth, however. Nintendo is marketing Switch as a home console you can take with you, presumably to underline the fact that it provides a console-quality gaming experience on the move, which it inarguably does. But that pits it directly against PS4 and Xbox One, which are both cheaper and manifestly more capable. Experienced as a pure home console, Switch feels underpowered and outdated - a minor advance on Wii U, which was underpowered in its own day.

It is perhaps better to think of Switch as the ultimate luxury handheld, with a huge screen, bags of power, TV-out and support for local multiplayer on one unit. Or, perhaps, as a quirky alternative to those junior tablets, custom-designed for a great gaming experience. That seems like a fairer and more advantageous comparison, but it's a much tougher and muddier message to sell.

This isn't the only way in which Nintendo's plan for Switch seems like the slightly desperate design of a company that's stuck between a rock and a hard place. Wandering around today's event, it was obvious that Switch is bearing the brunt of all the company's various ambitions; that Nintendo needs it to be all things to all men, or at least all things to all market segments. 1-2-Switch is a clear play for the casual, party-gaming audience that the Wii so successfully won. Arms aims to combine motion gaming with the competitive edginess of Splatoon. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a naked pitch to those who skipped the last generation of Nintendo console (The Last of Us Remastered-style). Even Zelda is slightly compromised. As impressive as it was in handheld mode, it felt like a slightly uncomfortable fit - it struck me as a game that had been designed for the big-screen experience and then magically miniaturised. Which, as a game that began life on Wii U, is exactly what it is.

So much rides on this box.

It's a scattershot selection, but it is important to note that launch software is never truly representative of what a games machine will be. You tend to get a mix of quick rehashes, quirky experiments and glimpsed possibilities, and that's what we saw today. And you can have absolute faith that by the end of this year and into next, Nintendo's insanely talented development teams will discover just how to make this machine sing. (Super Mario Odyssey looks really weird, I have to admit, but it's being made by the geniuses at Tokyo EAD, so like I say - have faith.)

What worries me is that that the pressure these teams will be operating under is intense. Nintendo wants Switch to synthesize its handheld and home console offerings. It also wants it to bring its casual and hardcore customers together. And, going by the pricing, it wants it all to happen now and make huge piles of money on the double - or else. I worry that it's too much for this machine to bear, and that it won't be given a chance to develop its own personality, or play to its strengths. More than that, I worry that the threadbare slate and eye-watering pricing will be off-putting, even - especially - to the diehard Nintendo fans who've bought half of these games before. Their loyalty, it seems, will be squeezed for every last drop, and in doing so it will be sorely tested.

I hope I'm wrong. Switch is a fascinating console - fun, innovative, unique, attractively designed, technically impressive in its own way, with a magical party trick and a compelling pitch. It deserves a better fate than the desperate, last-ditch mission Nintendo appears to be sending it on.