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Switch Thoughts Part II (and more Zelda)

Nintendo-20161123-ZeldaWhen I first posted my reactions to the Nintendo Switch I had only owned the console/portable hybrid for a few hours, many of which were spent asleep. It’s now been more than a week since then and I’ve been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the latest from Nintendo and I wanted to post some additional thoughts.

The Switch is both an under-powered console and an over-powered (if there is such a thing) handheld. The point is driven home each time I use my Switch. As a handheld, the battery life when playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild is around the two and a half hours Nintendo cited in the build-up to the Switch’s release. We don’t know if that will hold true for all titles, but I do wonder if that performance will represent the best Switch can do. After all, Zelda is a Wii U title ported to Switch and it’s reasonable to conclude it’s not fully utilizing the power of the console. Perhaps more demanding titles will drain the battery faster, or the opposite could be true if the games are better optimized for the Switch. Needless to say, the battery life isn’t very good and I’ll be curious to see how Super Mario Odyssey runs when it’s released later this year. The portable also runs pretty warm, and I guess that’s to be expected considering the tech underneath. The Switch is very thin, but it’s pretty well ventilated so I’m not worried about over-heating. The button layout is definitely not perfect. It’s so thin that the triggers aren’t particularly satisfying and they’re very close to the front shoulder buttons as well. The right analog stick is in an awkward position, as is the phony d-pad on the left. The small face buttons don’t really bother me at all though, perhaps because I’ve spent many hours with my 3DS, though the small plus and minus buttons can be tricky to find.

As a console, the Switch definitely struggles some with Zelda. I had read about framerate drops and can say they’re very real, and very noticeable. Sometimes the game gets really jittery, and it’s definitely not a good way to showcase the console. The transition from portable to television mode is indeed seamless, so at least that much works. I’ve played the game, and it’s still my only game, with both the joy con shell and a pro controller. I have never had the left joy con completely de-sync, as others have reported, but it still wasn’t seamless. Sometimes Link would keep running after I had stopped pushing a direction on the analog stick, and it did cause me to die at least once. Nintendo’s suggestions for people having the sync issue are pretty much a load of bullshit, wanting you to reduce interference from other wireless devices and so on. Most people probably have a bunch of connected devices at one time, be it game consoles, smart TVs, computers, tablets, etc and just reducing that type of noise is no longer realistic in 2017. The Switch also seems to struggle with its wireless connection to the internet at times, while other devices in my home experience no such issues. It would have been nice if Nintendo had included an ethernet port on the dock for a dedicated wired connection, but I assume they felt that would mess up with the quick turn-around from TV mode to portable mode. They still could have allowed the user to make that call themselves though if a wired connection was their preference.

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Somewhat to my surprise, the joy con shell makes for an adequate, albeit small, controller.

Aside from the input lag I experienced with the joy con shell, I was mostly content with how the “controller” felt in my hands. I was some-what skeptical going in, but if it’s performance was perfect it’s possible I would have had some minor buyer’s remorse about the pro controller I picked up. Since I did experience such lag though, I’m naturally happy with my purchase of the pro controller. It’s still too expensive, but it at least works well. The layout is definitely far better than what’s present with the joy con setup, and it’s more or less an Xbox controller. I do wish the D-pad was more comfortable to use, as I suspect fighting games will feel awkward with it. It still takes some getting used to, being a new console and all, and I found myself having to look down at it to find the plus and minus buttons since they’re grouped in the middle with the capture and home buttons as well. And since the controller is all black, the buttons could be hard to find in low-light settings. I was accidentally snapping pictures instead of bringing up the map screen in Zelda on my first go-around with the pro. Since then I’ve grown used to it, though because of the framerate issues (and also partly because the 2 and a half hour battery life helps to remind me to stop playing and go to bed) playing the Switch in portable mode has been my preferred method. If the performance on television was better I’d likely prefer TV mode with the pro controller.

The Switch is fairly large, though thin, making it a cumbersome handheld for actual on the go play. I still haven’t taken it out for my usual commute, as Gamestop has yet to produce the case I pre-ordered in January (apparently I arbitrarily selected the case that would appear in the lowest numbers, or they all got ear-marked for bundles. Some retailers list it as being in stock next week so I’m hopeful for the same), but it’s clear this will be the hardest portable to lug around, though not impossible. I carry a messenger bag and I’m sure I’ll be able to make room for it. I can already do so with a Vita in a case, and it only becomes challenging if I’m carrying a laptop and a tupperware or pyrex dish with my lunch in it. It gets a little cozy in there, but I find a way. I find myself comparing the Switch to the Vita often as I play either one. There’s no comparison with the 3DS. While the older Nintendo handheld is definitely the most portable of the three devices, it’s also the least impressive with its low-res screen. I have an original launch Vita, and its OLED screen is still the best I’ve seen on any handheld, but the Switch’s compares quite well. And like the Vita, the Switch feels like a high quality device where as most Nintendo handhelds feel more like a toy. If the Switch can attract JRPGs like the Vita has then it will definitely become my go-to portable even with the poor battery life (the Vita at 3 to 3 1/2 hours isn’t much better).

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been a fun experience thus far. I’m not sure how many hours I’ve been able to sink into it, but it’s been a lot and yet I don’t feel I’m at all close to being done with the game. I’ve probably found around 30 shrines so far, but I’ve only completed one out of the four mythical beast dungeons and uncovered maybe half of the game’s gigantic map. That’s definitely been the one aspect of the game that was not oversold:  it’s massive and it’s time consumingly so.

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The vastness of Zelda’s world is imposing and its best feature. I just wish the Switch could keep up with it and reduce all of the pop-in present.

Otherwise, I find it interesting how Zelda is both held to high standards by gaming critics, but also graded on a  curve at the same time. As the first open-world, or sandbox game, in the series it does a lot of interesting things, but also could do others better. There’s a day-night cycle, which isn’t new for Zelda, that also includes weather effects. Much of the game requires Link to scale mountains and sheer surfaces, but climbing in the rain is pretty much a no go. It makes sense, but as a gameplay device can be really frustrating when you’re in the middle of scaling a large mountain but you have to stop when rain strikes. There’s also a moon cycle, that so far feels random, but it’s possible that it’s not, where a blood moon will rise in the sky and resurrect all of the enemies Link has defeated. It probably exists as a device to keep the game populated with enemies to kill and providing an explanation for why a fort you may have cleared hours ago is suddenly overrun by enemies once again. I’m fine with that part of it, but every time this blood moon rises the game pauses and shows a cinematic. It can be skipped, but the loading time it creates is brutal. I’m not sure why the load time even exists given this isn’t a disc-based game, but maybe it has something to do with the game being a port. I had three “days” in a row while playing last night that ended with a blood moon and it drove me nuts. The cinematic was fine for the first instance, but I don’t know why the game plays it every damn time.

Weapon durability is new to Zelda, well, mostly new as there was a sword in Ocarina of Time that Link could break. Now though that durability applies to every weapon in the game, and they break pretty damn fast. It’s one of those gameplay mechanics that definitely adds something to the game, but I’m left feeling that Nintendo took it too far. There are numerous enemies I just bypass because I don’t want to “waste” my weapons on them, and that’s not really a fun way to play a Zelda game. Otherwise, I very much enjoy the weapon variety as well as the armor variety in the game. Since armor doesn’t deteriorate like weapons (except for shields), the new pieces you find kind of feel like the dungeon rewards from the past games. Some armor simply ups Link’s defense, but most will have some other benefit like heat resistance or stealth.

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While some have claimed to have made it through the game without cooking, it’s still pretty essential and pretty cumbersome in execution.

Cooking is another hyped gameplay element from Breath of the Wild that is present with mixed results. I like it on principle, and Link is able to craft health restoring items as well as status-altering elixirs from fruit, nuts, meat, and monster parts. The interface is poor though, requiring you to fumble through your inventory that’s not organized in any logical fashion and have Link hold the items he intends to cook. You then jump out of the menu to view Link holding everything and you have to drop it into a cooking pot, which can be found all over the place in the game. You will probably screw it up from time to time and Link will just drop everything on the ground, forcing you to pick it all up, go back into the menu, and re-find the ingredients once again. Once you cook something, it will be available in your inventory along with the recipe you used to craft it, but if you consume it that recipe is lost to you. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just include a virtual recipe book along with the Adventure Log. While you’re limited to how many melee weapons, shields, and bows you can carry around, Link has unlimited space for ingredients which is both good and bad. Good because you’re free to pick up all of the spoils, bad because it makes finding what you want that much harder when sifting through your inventory.

A lot of what I just wrote about is what I don’t enjoy about the game, and part of that is a reaction to all of the perfect scores I’m seeing being handed out. And while I don’t view this game as perfect, I can say I am enjoying it quite a bit in spite of those above complaints. One thing I really like is how the elements play a role, specifically with heat and cold. If Link goes to the top of a snow-covered mountain in standard equipment, he will literally freeze to death. You have a variety of ways to get Link through these areas, and that’s something that adds realism to the game without detracting from the fun-factor (unlike the rain). Lightning is also one of your most formidable foes and it’s best to avoid trees and metal when a storm is raging, though you may also find it possible to use it to your advantage too. That’s the aspect of the game I like best, so far. There’s just a lot of things for Link to do, and multiple ways to solve a problem, and the game just lets you figure that out yourself. I saw a video online of a player tossing a chicken at a moblin while the moblin was attacking. It struck the chicken, which summoned a bunch of other chickens to attack just like what happens when Link gets abusive towards the farm animal. Link can also ride on shields, which the game doesn’t explicitly tell you about, and jump on the backs of large animals and ride them around.

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Link can sneak up on an unsuspecting horse, mount it, and tame it. Don’t be shy about trying the same on similar animals. You may be surprised to find out what can happen, or not, since I basically just gave it away.

Mostly, I like that Breath of the Wild is trying something new, and it’s a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda. In that game, you’re basically dropped onto the map and given a sword. After that, it’s figure it out on your own. Breath of the Wild is basically the same thing, though the first hour or so of the game is a tutorial of sorts, but it’s done in a way that’s less boring than usual. This game doesn’t hold your hand and it will kill you a lot. Thankfully, it’s generous auto-save feature means death isn’t as big of a deal as it could be. I’ll hopefully eventually do a proper review of the game when I’m done, but I have no idea how long that will take. I’m pretty confident it will at least crack my top five as far as Zelda games go. While it’s refreshing, and I want to see Nintendo do more with this format going forward, I do miss the dungeons and the many shrines in the game aren’t really up to par as replacements. The shrines are mostly just quick little puzzles. They’re usually not hard to figure out, but execution can be tricky. Which is kind of funny, because they feel like a gameplay component that would be right at home on a portable adventure, which Breath of the Wild became when it was ported to Switch.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with my Switch purchase, though it’s also a bit of a luxury item for me as well. I could have just as easily picked up Zelda on the Wii U, where it’s performance is probably a little better than it is on the Switch. The only thing the Switch has going for it over the Wii U where Zelda is concerned is that it is a true portable. Aside from Zelda, the software is quite lackluster and is likely to remain so even through summer. I currently have no idea what my second Switch game will even be. There’s no Virtual Console service at the moment, so I can’t even turn there for additional games. The two games I’m most interested in right now are Super Mario Odyssey and Skyrim, and both of them are set to arrive in Q4 of this year. In other words, I could have very easily held off on buying a Switch until the fall and probably would have been just as happy. It’s also possible that by the holidays Nintendo will have better addressed some of the hardware issues and maybe will even smarten up and make a game like 1-2 Switch a bundled game. I personally have no interest in buying that game, especially at full retail price, but I’d welcome it as a pack-in. By the end of the year, we will also likely have a clearer picture of who’s supporting the Switch and what’s Nintendo doing with the online and Virtual Console. We may also know if the Switch is unofficially replacing the 3DS. Right now, there are still 3DS exclusive games coming our way, but maybe by the holidays we’ll know if Switch versions are coming or if future games will be available for both. That’s all just a long-winded way of saying that while the Switch is nice to have, you shouldn’t be kicking yourself if you didn’t get one at launch and are struggling to find any in stock. Don’t give Gamestop a stupid amount of money for one of their bundles they’re currently selling either, unless you really want everything in the bundle. I would guess the Switch will start becoming readily available during the summer and into the fall, where it could very well become scarce again around the holidays if its performing well. And even come then, it’s possible the only other great game available is Mario. At worst, by then most people will know if the Switch is something they have to have.


Nintendo Switch or Nintendo More of the Same?

636198636477072652-nintendo-switchSwitch. If you took a shot each time someone said that word during Nintendo’s press conference unveiling the latest device in console/mobile gaming you’re probably hung over right now. It’s obviously not just a name for the console/handheld hybrid, but also a marketing strategy. Nintendo is changing with the times, switching it up if you will, and making a commitment to something new and exciting. If that’s the main take-away from the Switch’s coming out party last night, then why did I feel like this was the Wii all over again?

Nintendo first gave the public a glimpse at its newest device back in October. Since then, the company has been virtually silent on the subject until last night’s big unveiling. Most of the pressing questions were answered either during the conference or shortly there-after. We know when the Switch is arriving at retail (March 3rd), we know how much it will cost ($299), and we know what games will be available (Zelda!) and have some idea of what we’ll be playing by the end of 2017 (Mario! Skyrim!). A lot of the other lingering questions from the Switch’s first public display were answered like that the system does indeed boast a touch screen, the joy con controllers do feature shoulder buttons, and Nintendo is going with a pay-t0-play online service in the fall.

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Hey, yo! Get a load of my colors.

The Switch’s initial unveiling had me cautiously excited. I expressed my interest in a true portable home gaming device and I was receptive to a lot of the software teased in that video. Last night’s conference, however, muted that excitement. I should get it out of the way, I still placed a pre-order on the device (actually two, with the first being an online one just in case I couldn’t land a pre-order at a brick and mortar) so obviously I wasn’t dissuaded from purchasing the Switch, but it was with significantly less enthusiasm.

Let’s get right to the price. Numbers had been thrown around leading up to the announcement last night with the consensus seeming to be for a $250 price point. On IGN’s pre-show, $199 was even floated as the “sweet spot” by one host which I thought was a pipe-dream. From the start, I had assumed $299 would be the price, but I still hoped for $250. I wasn’t really dismayed by the actual announcement on that front, but the price tags for the accessories is rather shocking. After the conference, Nintendo unveiled the price-point for many of these on its website. If you want a second set of joy con controllers, that will set you back $80! That’s the steepest investment of any standard controller I think I’ve ever seen. If for some reason you only desire a left or right joy con, that’s $50, but I can’t see much reason in doing that unless it’s to replace a broken unit. The two that come bundled with the system include wrist straps that have a plastic piece that thickens the controller itself and appears to make it more ergonomic. That’s not included with the stand-alone controllers so there’s another $20. If you prefer a traditional controller (what Nintendo refers to as its pro controllers) that will cost you $70. For comparison, a Dual Shock 4 costs $60, and Amazon routinely sells them for $50.

Extra docking stations, controller “shells,” and other such peripherals all carry pretty steep asking prices. Thankfully, the console supports standard memory cards since the included flash drive can only hold 32GB (purchasing the new Zelda title digitally will reportedly consume half of that), so I guess that’s one positive. All told though, you’re talking about having an entry price-point for the Switch at more than what it costs to get a PS4 or Xbox One, and those consoles both boast more robust software libraries and more raw processing power as well.

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Arms. Apparently we’re going back to the days of the NES when Nintendo titles were as bland as white bread. Can’t wait for Legs!

Nintendo unveiled two new IPs early in the conference: 1-2-Switch and Arms. Nintendo apparently felt the term “video” in “video games” was too burdensome so 1-2-Switch is a game designed to function without video input being a necessity. You basically waggle the joy con controllers amongst two-players in a Wii Sports sort of environment, just without the TV. They demonstrated two cowboys having a quick duel and I also saw people playing table tennis. The joy con controllers feature advanced rumble feedback and motion controls, and Nintendo is banking on those features being so intuitive that it can drive the fun factor for a game. 1-2-Switch sounds like a decent tech demo kind of game, like the previously referenced Wii Sports, but unlike its predecessor it’s not a pack-in title and is a full $60 MSRP game. I have zero interest in the game at that price point. Arms is essentially the next evolution of Wii Boxing, with more emphasis placed on being able to move the characters around with a more visually pleasing game. Each character has extendable, Inspector Gadget-like arms for punching. The input mechanics actually remind me more of Wii Bowling, with the twisting of the wrist to curve the punch being a central component, only now you’re striking an opponent instead of pins. Again though, this game would have made for an interesting pack-in game, but at full retail price it looks ludicrous. It’s also not available at launch and expected to arrive in April.

Nintendo also spent a considerable portion of the show bringing representatives from third party developers onto the stage to voice their support for the Switch. Unfortunately,  virtually none of them had anything interesting to say or even games to show. Bethesda was one of the few to actually show some gameplay, in this case for Skyrim. I’m excited to have a portable version of Skyrim, but an almost six year old game arriving in the fall isn’t going to move consoles or convince the consumer that third parties are all-in on the Switch. Right now, it very much resembled recent Nintendo launches where third parties are only willing to offer ports of previously released games, or in the case of EA, port an annual title to the Switch. And the sad part is, if these ports don’t sell then third party developers will use that as an excuse to continue the narrative that Nintendo consumers are only interested in Nintendo products, when really it could be that they just don’t want to re-buy games they already own!

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Sir, it’s not polite to stare.

Nintendo, for its part, showed some of its own games to a mostly positive reaction. We now have a title for the new Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, and we know it’s coming at the end of the year. It’s a true 3D Mario adventure with some levels set in real-world settings. It also features a Minish Cap sort of gimmick where Mario’s hat is apparently sentient. Some of the visuals, like Mario interacting with reality-proportioned humans, were bizarre, but I have faith that Nintendo will deliver a special game with their mascot. Zelda: Breath of the Wild was also confirmed as a launch game and follows in the foot steps of Twilight Princess before it, being a game developed for the old hardware that is now debuting on the new hardware. It looks pretty great, and it’s the only title I reserved with my pre-order of the Switch.

The other games Nintendo unveiled either during the show or after were less impressive. I already mentioned 1-2-Switch and Arms, but Nintendo also unveiled Splatoon 2, which looked exactly like the first game. It’s coming in June. The Mario Kart game we saw in that first teaser back in October was confirmed to just be an enhanced version of Mario Kart 8. I suppose that’s great for those who skipped out on the Wii U, but not so great for those who already have it. Missing was the true knock-out punch from Nintendo, something to really wow gamers with either a new IP or an old classic. Outside of Mario, there isn’t much to look forward to after launch and I fear there will be a pretty long software drought just like there was for the Wii and Wii U.

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This pretty much sums up the third-party support issue quite nicely.

Truth be told, the Nintendo brand and the presence of Zelda are going to be enough for the Switch to have a successful launch, but let’s not forget that the Wii U did all right when it launched too. The holiday season will be a real barometer for what the public thinks of the Switch. The fact that the Wii U ended up fairing so poorly may help sell the Switch since a lot of people will want to play Zelda, and won’t already have a Wii U to play it on (it’s being released on both consoles). I think the mobile aspect of the console won’t be a big factor for most gamers, even if it’s something that I am really interested in. People already have their smart phones and most won’t want to haul the Switch around in a backpack, especially if the battery life comes in at the low end of Nintendo’s prediction of 2 1/2 to 6 hours (a pretty generous range, Nintendo). I think Nintendo will also find its online service to be a hard sell when gamers may already have an Xbox Live or PS Plus membership. As part of the Nintendo package, gamers will get access to free, classic games each month (I’m actually not sure on the plural aspect, it might be something like one NES game and one SNES game), which is smart of them because it leverages one of their strengths. I think they’re making a mistake though by making the free titles only playable for a month, after that it requires a purchase. They should follow their competitors leads and just make the games free for subscribers for as long as their membership is active. It also would have been nice to hear they’re making all of those Virtual Console purchases gamers made on the Wii U and other platforms will be carried over to the Switch. At least in the case of Wii U owners, it would have been a nice “thank you” to those fans who stuck with the company during its darkest period.

Last night’s conference ended up leaving me more concerned than before about the Switch’s prospects. That cautious optimism has mostly been replaced with cynicism and an expectation that the Switch will follow a similar path as the Wii U. The conference, more than anything, re-affirmed for me what Nintendo is which is becoming more of a niche product. I think it’s very possible that the Switch is Nintendo’s last console, or that it’s marking the start of an era where Nintendo only creates portable systems that can also plug into a television set. I hope I’m wrong, but at least I know I’m getting some Zelda and Mario action in the interim, because at the end of the day, that’s still Nintendo’s biggest asset for selling consoles. The Switch will answer whether or not that’s Nintendo’s only asset.