Nintendo's latest video game system is unconventional. But Nintendo is an unconventional company.
They call the Nintendo Switch, which launches on March 3 for $299, a home console. And yes, you can play it at home, connected to a TV just like an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4. But what makes the Switch an interesting piece of hardware is that at any moment you can pick it up and start playing it on the go, like an iPad Mini with traditional video game controls on either side of it.
How is this in practice? We'll have a full review on March 2, but Nintendo sent us a Switch -- along with its flagship game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- earlier this week. Here are some things we learned and some impressions we have after spending some quality time with it.
The screen gets the job done
Nintendo's last console, the Wii U, had a controller that was tablet-like in form. The screen on that device was functional, but not impressive by any stretch of the imagination.
The Nintendo Switch is a different story. Its screen is bright and clear. Even though it doesn't support the high image resolutions of some of its tablet brothers, the Switch screen is more than sufficient for quality Zelda play.
The controllers, in all their forms, feel great
Nintendo's big control revolution with the Switch is what they call the Joy-Con controllers. A pair of them, one for your left hand, one for your right, come with the system.
They function in a variety of ways. In portable mode, they click into either side of the Switch and let you play games as if you were holding an oversized Game Boy. This is surprisingly comfortable, allowing you to play hours upon hours of Zelda while lying in bed without your arms getting tired or your hands cramping up. (Yes, we tested.)
But the magic of the controllers is that you can take them off of the Switch. When detached, you can simply hold one in each hand, not unlike the feeling of playing Wii games with that system's nunchuk attachment.
If you'd prefer a more traditional controller feel? You can use the included Joy-Con Grip accessory. Just slide each Joy-Con into it and you've got something that should feel familiar (and comfortable) to anybody who has played other modern gaming systems.
And if you've got a friend over? Each Joy-Con can serve as its own controller in games like Mario Kart. We haven't put this particular functionality through its paces yet, but holding a single Joy-Con on its own feels great.
Note: During this pre-release phase a lot of reviewers, myself included, have had wireless connectivity issues with one of the included controllers. It's not a dealbreaker and it may be fixed via a system update by March 3, but it's an important thing to be aware of if you're buying the system on day one.
Battery life is low but not a deal breaker
Nintendo claims you can get about three hours of battery our of the Switch when playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. We have not put this through rigorous testing, but that seems like a relatively accurate ballpark estimate.
Three hours is not a huge amount of time, but there's a plus side: The system charges via a standard USB-C connection, so you won't have to buy expensive proprietary accessories just to keep playing.
There's not a lot to play yet
If you buy a Switch at launch, there's pretty much one game for you to look at: Zelda. For some people, that will be plenty to tide them over, as it's an epic adventure that will easily last you dozens of hours.
A few other games, most notably Nintendo's party game 1-2 Switch, bring some multiplayer fun and can be a good exhibition for the system when you're showing it to friends.
But the initial lineup of games is very thin. It gets better throughout the year, as games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon 2 lead the way toward the holiday season, which will mark the launch of Super Mario Odyssey. Until then, though, know that your options are limited.
Sleep mode is the default
The system really wants you to put it in Sleep Mode rather than shutting it off entirely. In fact, the option to turn it off at all is kind of hidden.
With the 3DS, Nintendo's last portable system, this made sense. There were great wireless data sharing features of that device that kicked in when you passed another player carrying their 3DS.
The Switch, however, doesn't have those sorts of features, so it's interesting that Nintendo seems against the idea of you shutting the whole thing down for awhile. You have to hold the power button down for several seconds before you even see the option to power down, and even then, the Sleep Mode choice is in your face.
The online features are still a big unknown
There is a "day one patch" coming to the system that you'll have to download and install to the Switch before you can take advantage of features like your friends list and the eShop (where you'll be able to purchase digital games). That patch has not yet been made available, even to those of us in the press.
How does the friends list work? When will virtual console games start coming out? How long do games take to download? Great questions. We can't answer any of them.
The UI is clean and sleek, but also featureless ... so far
Building off of the last issue of not being able to connect to the internet, there are a lot of questions to be asked about the plain Switch UI that you see out of the box. It's a very clean and simple presentation, but one that leaves much to be desired if you're used to playing games on other gaming systems.
We don't even know, yet, if you can create folders in which to store downloaded games on the home menu. If Nintendo wants to sell a lot of digital-only games, their organization options are going to need to step it up and fast.
We want to spend a lot more time with it
Since the Switch doubles as a portable, it has been really easy to take back and forth between work and home. It's light, it's comfortable to hold and it's fun to use.
We're only a few days in, but we look forward to spending much more time with the Nintendo Switch over the next week leading up to its launch.
Stay tuned to GuideLive.com/geek for more Nintendo Switch coverage, including a full review of the console and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild