It wouldn't be a new Nintendo console without unique gamepads, and the Switch's Joy-Con controllers certainly fit the bill. They resemble two miniaturized gamepads; both feature an analog stick, four face buttons, two top buttons and another two buttons on the sides. There are a few differences, though. The left Joy-Con has a minus button and one for taking screenshots. The right Joy-Con, meanwhile, has a plus button and another one for quickly returning to the home screen.
Sliding on the included Joy-Con Strap accessories makes their buttons easier to hit, and gives you some helpful ways to secure the controllers when you're playing a game that uses motion controllers. And, as you've probably seen from Nintendo's Switch promotional videos, you can also hold the Joy-Con controllers horizontally to use them as tiny gamepads. While it's not exactly an ideal way to play modern games, it lets you bring in a friend for head-to-head battles in titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
In many ways, the Switch is defined by how you're using the Joy-Con gamepads with the tablet. Slide them onto the side of the Switch and you've got a game system you can take anywhere. You can also pop out the kickstand, place the Switch on a table, and hold the controllers in each hand. But once you dock the tablet and slide the controllers onto the included Joy-Con Grip accessory, you're dealing with something that's more like a traditional console.
The system's dock is mostly just a slab of plastic for charging the Switch. It has power, HDMI and USB 3.0 connections on the back, and there's a useful flap for routing your cables neatly. There are also two additional USB ports on the side, which could be useful for charging controllers and low-bandwidth peripherals. While it's fairly plain-looking on its own, the dock looks attractive when the Switch is in place. And, thankfully, Nintendo made it easy to drop the console into the dock. I never had an issue with the Switch getting misaligned, and I'd imagine it wouldn't be a problem for kids either.
As a portable console
While it might look hefty, the Switch is actually lightweight and easy to hold with two hands. It's definitely a bit awkward to hold one-handed with the Joy-Con controllers attached, but that's not something you'll be doing much. Most important, it feels light-years beyond the Wii U's clunky gamepad, which in retrospect was little more than a prototype for the Switch. Whenever I handed the console over to someone, they immediately remarked on how light and balanced it felt.
The Switch's screen is bold and sharp -- for the most part. It worked best indoors and on cloudy days. But once there was a hint of sun in the sky, it was a lot harder to see anything on the screen. And yes, I made sure to turn off automatic screen adjustments and crank the brightness all the way up. Even when the screen was bright enough, its high reflectivity often got in the way. Compared with the displays we're seeing on modern phones and tablets today, the Switch is noticeably inferior.
While it's easy to hold, the Switch isn't exactly pocket friendly. It'll stick out of most pants and jacket pockets, thanks to its extra-wide frame. This is definitely the sort of gadget that you'll need a bag to transport. I'd also recommend snapping up a case to protect the screen.
I tested The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for most of this review, and at the last minute I received Super Bomberman R. Zelda performed well; it's certainly a lot smoother than other games I've seen running on NVIDIA's X1-powered hardware. In particular, Zelda's stylized graphics also do a fine job of showing off the Switch's screen indoors. Super Bomberman R, meanwhile, is ... Bomberman. It's not that different from other games in the series, and it doesn't do much to show off the Switch's capabilities.
I had no trouble playing Zelda for hours on end in the Switch's portable mode. The Joy-Con controllers are well suited to mobile play, since they're not very large. All of the controller's buttons offer a decent amount of feedback, though you can only expect so much from small buttons. Sure, I miss having a traditional directional pad on the left side of the console, but I'll gladly forgo that for the ability to turn the Joy-Cons into two tiny gamepads. The latter feature isn't very helpful in Zelda, but it will be in future games like 1-2 Switch and Snipperclips.
As you'd expect, battery life is the Switch's biggest portable problem. I was able to play Zelda for only around two and a half hours before I needed to recharge. Nintendo claims less demanding games might last for up to six hours, but I'll take that figure with a grain of salt, since the company previously said Zelda would get around three hours of battery life. Clearly, it's not the sort of device you'd want to take on a long trip without a power adapter or backup battery.
Since it charges via a USB-C port, though, you should be able to juice up easily with typical battery packs in sleep mode. (Hooray for interoperable standards!) You might have trouble charging from some sources while playing Zelda, since the system would technically be using more power than it takes in.
It was a unique experience playing Zelda in the Switch's tabletop mode (with the kickstand out), though it's clearly not an ideal way to play the game. It's far more immersive when you're actually holding the Switch in your hands. That kickstand, by the way, is easily the flimsiest component of the entire system. It's just a thin piece of plastic, and I often felt like I'd rip it out of the system whenever I used it. At least Nintendo recognizes it could be a problem: The company points out that you can simply pop it back in the Switch if it falls out. Still, that's a component that might not last too long in the hands of unruly kids.
As a home console
The Switch feels much more familiar when it's docked to a TV. As soon as you slip the Joy-Cons into the Grip accessory, there really isn't a huge difference between the Switch and Nintendo's previous consoles. As a former Gamecube owner, I also felt a bit of nostalgia holding the Joy-Con Grip. It's similar to Nintendo's excellent Wavebird controller in your hands, even if the two gamepads don't look much alike.
Naturally, Breath of the Wild is a much more epic experience on a large television. The game simply looks great, with long draw distances, spectacular lighting effects and detailed characters. I lost count of the number of times I set the controller down just to take in Zelda's detailed environments. In particular, I loved the way sunlight and clouds slowly rolled over the game's expansive environments. Zelda had some performance issues when the screen was filled with enemies and lots of action, but it wasn't anything game-stopping. It's not really news that the Switch's graphical capabilities aren't competitive against the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One -- that's not the market Nintendo is aiming for.
The Joy-Con Grip held up through hours of playtime, though the smaller buttons on the controllers were irritating during longer play sessions. And, strangely enough, you can't charge the Joy-Cons from the Grip; you have to reconnect them to the docked Switch to do so. If you want to refuel while playing a game, you'll have to shell out another $30 for the Charge Grip accessory, which includes a USB-C port on the top of the gamepad.