Nintendo Switch hands-on impressions: Fascinating new tech with a steep price

CBC News got some hands-on time with Nintendo's new console, the Switch, at a media event in Toronto this weekend.

Nintendo bucks gaming trends like 4K and virtual reality for its own brand of weirdness

Attendees play Snipperclips at the Nintendo Switch preview event in Toronto. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Nintendo is showing the Switch, its next gaming console, around North America to promote it and its upcoming games ahead of a March launch, with a Toronto stop this weekend.

Unveiled in October, the Switch hits stores March 3 and will replace the under-performing Wii U console. While Sony, Microsoft and other competitors in  the games industry chase 4K resolution and virtual reality, Nintendo's unusual new device is a hybrid of its traditional home and handheld markets.

It takes the form of a tablet that can play games on the go, but also connects to a TV.

Media, developers and business partners got a look at the device Friday and Saturday. The public can see it Sunday.

The hardware

At the core of the Switch experience is a svelte tablet with a 6.2-inch (15.7 cm) screen running at 720p resolution. It's substantially brighter and more vibrant than its predecessor, the Wii U's chunky GamePad. (On the TV, most games will run at 1080p.)

There was no way to get a feel on just how heavy it was, because every unit was locked to a desk or display unit with a solid metal bracket.

The Switch's ability to transition from TV to tablet mode worked as seamlessly as advertised, simply by yanking the tablet out of the dock that connects to your television. Gameplay switches near-instantaneously from your TV screen to the tablet.

Like the Wii U, the Switch has a myriad of ways to play your game. Most of them revolve around the JoyCons, a pair of remote-like controllers that attach to the Switch in tablet mode, and detach when playing on a TV.

A close-up of the Nintendo Switch hardware at a preview event in Toronto on Jan. 27, 2017. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

They're packed with motion controls, an IR sensor, NFC sensors and so-called HD Rumble which affords a far more complex vibrating mechanism than you see on most phones or controllers. Think of the JoyCon as a Wii Remote on steroids.

The JoyCons can be locked together in the Grip, which together resembles a traditional controller. It's substantially smaller than a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller, but feels great.

The weakest option is actually what Nintendo's been promoting the most: holding either the left or right JoyCon horizontally, simulating a NES or Super Nintendo controller. It's just too small to feel comfortable and the awkward position of the joystick on the right JoyCon is supremely unintuitive.

Hardcore gamers will prefer the more traditional form factor of the Pro Controller, sold separately.

Nintendo Switch control options, clockwise from top-left: JoyCons and the JoyCon Grip; JoyCons held separately; a single JoyCon held with both hands; and the Pro Controller, sold separately. (Nintendo)

All this new and impressive tech comes with a steep price.

The Switch launches at $399 Cdn, and comes with the console, a pair of JoyCon controllers and a JoyCon Grip. Additional pairs of JoyCon are a staggering $99.99 each ($64.99 for one) and Pro Controllers will cost $89.99. Games are sold separately and range in price from $29.99 to $79.99.

At this price point, Nintendo can't bet on the Switch as a "second console" after a PS4 or Xbox One, like it did with the Wii, which was less expensive than its competitors at the time.

Motion control games

Only a few Switch games used the JoyCons' suite of functions to any notable degree.

1-2-Switch has been positioned as the marquee title for the millions of people who played Wii Sports in 2006 and little else. It's a clever collection of minigames like a Wild West gun duel, or tasking one player to "catch" the opponent's samurai sword.

Attendees compete in a cow-milking minigame at the Nintendo Switch preview event in Toronto. (Alice Hopton/CBC)

Weirder examples include holding the JoyCon to your mouth and biting as quickly as possible to eat as many sandwiches you can, or pulling it down in a vertical motion to simulate milking a cow.

ARMS is a more nuanced boxing simulation with cartoony avatars with Slinkies for arms. Players can juke and jive while throwing out jabs and twist their wrists for other attacks. It's got a surprising amount of depth and even impressed some games journalists with its competitive options.

Beyond that, our favourite new game, a clever two-player puzzle game called Snipperclips, doesn't use the motion controls at all, at least for the handful of puzzles we were able to play.

Classic games

Besides 1-2-Switch and ARMS, most of the games shown off were geared towards a traditionalist gamer, with a focus on nostalgia for the 1990s and a distinctly Japanese tilt.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a gorgeous expansive adventure with wispy landscapes seemingly plucked out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Games like Sonic Mania tap into the nostalgia of fans who fondly remember classics from the 1990s. (Sega)

Sonic the Hedgehog, Bomberman and the cast of Street Fighter II were all in attendance at the event. Puyo Puyo TetrisDisgaea 5, and 2016's I Am Setsuna continue the Japanese flavour.

Other third party games are coming as well, though they're mostly all-ages fare like Minecraft, Skylanders: Imaginators and Just Dance 2017.

Few games at launch

The Switch launches with only a smattering of games on March 3. Its marquee games are Zelda: Breath of the Wild for hardcore fans and 1-2-Switch for casual players. That's about it.

Other games shown off like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and ARMS will hit stores in the following months. And the stellar-looking Super Mario Odyssey isn't scheduled to arrive until this holiday season.

Players will likely have to wait for the library to populate throughout the year before enough games show up to justify a purchase. That's probably fine as far as Nintendo is concerned. So don't feel too bad if you haven't managed to pre-order a Switch for Day 1.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks to be a standout launch title for the Nintendo Switch, but players will have to wait months for other franchise players like Mario to show up. (Nintendo)


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.