“So, are you planning to take that Nintendo Switch to any rooftop parties?”
Pretty much every time I talk about Nintendo’s new game system, I hear some version of this question. It’s annoying, and it’s Nintendo’s fault. The weird home-portable hybrid system has an equally weird advertising campaign attached, full of hip, 20-something men and women refusing to put their game systems down when obligations arise. Pick-up basketball game, birthday party, dog needs to pee—better bring the Switch every time.
The system is now officially in stores, and the launch has been met with another wave of “social Switch” ads. But, man, nobody has invited me to a rooftop yet, let alone one whose party is served by a hipster, bowtie-wearing bartender. Even so, I persevere. I decided to grab my pre-ordered hardware, a bunch of controllers, and a few friends to test the new console in the kind of loud group settings that it just might be appropriate for (conveniently, this allows us to also expand on some concepts touched upon in Kyle Orland’s lengthy system review).
Launch game 1-2 Switch figured largely into my sessions, so my party experiment doubles as a kinda-sorta review of Nintendo’s latest mini-game compilation. I also tested most of the other multiplayer games currently available—which largely consist of more “traditional” fare—to get as many well-rounded, real-world group play impressions as I could.
The results: Nintendo’s Switch offers a much better party than you might expect, but reality does intrude before reaching ad campaign nirvana.
Docking points for the dock
I started by emptying my messenger bag and filling it with all of my Switch errata. I can fit the system’s core configuration into Nintendo’s “official” Switch case: the primary hardware (which is a tablet-like slab of plastic and glass, fronted by a 6.2-inch touchscreen), one pair of Joy-Con paddles, and a few cartridges.
Tossing another pair of Joy-Cons into my bag is easy enough, as they’re tiny and seem quite durable, though like the Nintendo Wii’s remotes, these constantly turn on and seek a Bluetooth connection whenever their buttons are lightly brushed in a bag. (It’s a good thing the rechargeable batteries are rated for over 20 hours.) The Switch Pro Controller is a little clunkier, at pretty much the size of an Xbox One pad, though I’m fine with it being “oversized,” since it’s not advertised as an on-the-go party option.
The worst element for on-the-go use is the Switch Dock, mostly because it doesn’t have to be this bulbous and annoying in a travel situation. Hardware teardowns have already revealed how much smaller it could be. The dock’s small circuit board breaks the tablet’s single USB Type-C connection out into five more ports: another Type-C port for power, an HDMI-out, and three more USB 2.0 ports. The dock’s bulk is meant for comfortable home use, with a spring mechanism designed to neatly accept the tablet hardware. Sadly in the early going, every time I’ve connected the dock to a new TV, it has been a pain to find a good place to put it.
You have to be able to pull the Switch tablet out from the top, so any entertainment center that blocks reaching above to place and remove a full, flat tablet is a no-go. Worse, you can’t always expect to dock the system and then tuck it into an out-of-reach spot during party play. For example, some of 1-2 Switch‘s mini-games ask you to pull the tablet out and hold it in your hands. The dock also forces cords through only one of its sides. If your cords need to run to the left, you can’t just spin the dock backward because it’s trickier to insert the Switch hardware backward into the dock (you end up wasting inches of cord redirecting them). Depending on the TV and power setup where you are, those inches can be precious to lose.
In my dream world, I’d have a travel option of neatly tied-up power and HDMI cords attached to a new, smaller breakout box. Instead, I have to fill a Switch travel bag with what looks like a cheap prop from an ’80s sci-fi movie.
Wait, how do I milk the cow?
Depending on the social situation, that TV connection is going to matter. Let’s start with the tablet’s screen.
As we’ve written before, Nintendo’s 6.2-inch, 720p IPS touchscreen panel is a stunner in handheld mode, with a respectable 240-nit brightness maximum and some dynamite color reproduction shining right in your face. IPS technology suffers in one key category, however: viewing angle.
For some multiplayer games, this won’t matter. Two players can sit at a table, put the Switch down with its kickstand extended, and enjoy perfectly solid viewing angles side-by-side while each holding a single Joy-Con. Snipperclips, the system’s launch co-op puzzle game, is perhaps the ultimate showcase game for this mode. Its bold colors, simple designs, and slow action all read very neatly on a small screen. I set a Switch up at a bar table, handed two friends some Joy-Cons, and watched them lose themselves in the game while they sat on barstools. (Worth noting: throughout a few party-play sessions, no new players complained to me about cramps or discomfort while using small Joy-Cons in sideways mode.)
When it came time to test Snipperclips‘ four-player modes, however, we had to position ourselves like we were posing for a four-person group photo: two in front, two behind separated by height, and everyone standing close enough to each other to stay relatively close to the screen. When we tried playing while sitting side-by-side at a table, at least one person was stuck at a diagonal viewing angle. This made the already-small screen look smaller, and it added distortion effects. I noticed during a test of Super Bomberman R‘s four-player mode that when I was stuck at the edge, my brain couldn’t wrap around the fact that my joystick presses didn’t match which direction I saw on the screen. Ultimately, we had to be sure that our bar or table allowed a foursome to sit/stand kinda clumped together. It’s a tight setup, but it’s not necessarily hugging- or touching-close.
Games that divide the tiny tablet screen in two are another matter. The best split-screen game at launch, futuristic racer Fast RMX, only supports two players in tablet mode (if you want a full four-player split-screen race, you have to plug the Switch into a TV). There’s a good reason for this limitation: the game’s high speeds become much harder to read when they’re squeezed onto just one half of the 6.2-inch screen. That split was tolerable in short bursts, but I wouldn’t want to play a full evening’s tournament that way (and I’d hate to imagine the tablet screen split into four even tinier screens). Mario Kart 8‘s slower pace will probably prove better for tablet split-screen play on the small screen, but that game will also require a TV dock to bump to four-player split-screen modes.
The other issue with tablet mode is sound, or specifically, the lack of it. 1-2 Switch relies heavily on audio cues. Every mini-game is introduced with a spoken explanation of how it works, while many of these directions ask players to “look each other in the eye” and quickly react to sound effects. I had already guessed this would be an issue, so I added a portable, battery-powered speaker to my messenger bag. This helped enable my loudest testing scenario: a crowded bar with ever-present background noise. The speaker I brought wasn’t directional enough for this indoor scenario, though. Even toggling the Switch’s “play audio from the system and anything plugged into headphone jack” option still wasn’t loud enough, whether due to loud jukebox music or just the low-murmur noise of nearby patrons. Losing sound renders about a third of 1-2 Switch‘s 28 mini-games unplayable.
Kyle already criticized the Switch’s flimsy tablet stand, but I want to emphasize just how little this thing appears to have been tested in social situations. The worst part is its default angle, which requires players to be pretty much at eye level. Parties, bars, and hotel rooms I’ve tested in rarely have surfaces that lend themselves well to the Switch’s default angle. Any system revision will hopefully include a multi-angle stand. For now, anybody with on-the-go Mario Kart dreams may consider that issue alone as a reason to pause their console purchase.