I was wrong.
I can admit that now with the comfort of knowing that I don’t have to be wrong any longer and with a Nintendo Switch gripped tightly in my hands.
Back on March 3, gaming titan Nintendo released Switch, a frankly weird video-game device that was trying to do a lot of things.
Switch wants to be the system you plug into your big-screen TV to play games in the living room. It also wants to be a much more powerful version of Nintendo’s 3DS game system (minus the 3-D), a completely portable machine you can take anywhere. And it wants to be a social game device, one that would allow you to gather up friends and play with a bunch of dorky-looking neon-colored controllers, fists pumping in the air in digital ecstasy. That’s what Nintendo was pitching earlier this year as its successor to the rapidly fading Nintendo Wii U system.
This silly, janky thing that comes apart in modular pieces and doesn’t even do 4K video games and that probably won’t ever play gamer catnip titles such as “Call of Duty” or “Overwatch”... why would I ever need this thing?
So I passed up on a chance to buy a Nintendo Switch in March even when I saw them sitting at retail stores. I had South by Southwest on the brain and was too busy to think about playing a lot of games. The system cost $299 (which includes no free pack-in games) and additional “Joy-Con” controllers cost a whopping $80. The launch lineup looked pretty weak, with only “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” a standout among its initial releases.
Then the tide turned.
My brother bought a Switch at launch and became hooked on “Zelda” and some of its odder offerings, such a “Snipperclips,” in which animated characters cut shapes out of each other in order to fit into specified shapes or pop balloons, among other stupid pursuits. He showed us the system at a restaurant and at his apartment, charming my kids and making me start to doubt my decision to wait on the Switch.
Reviews for the system were cautiously optimistic at launch, but as the weeks have passed and more games have become available, many of the initial hesitations to buying one have disappeared.
And then one week, I saw that two games I really wanted to play were about to debut: a refined, perfected version of the “Mario Kart 8” game my family loved on the Wii U, and a puzzle game called “Puyo Puyo Tetris,” which combines two game franchises I’ve loved over the years.
I caved. I backpedaled. I renounced my own indifference of two months earlier and decided I needed this game system.
Funny thing about that... by early May, on the eve of those game launches, you could no longer find a Nintendo Switch for sale anywhere without a huge Ebay markup or bundled in $500-$600 packages from retailers such as Gamestop.
Retailers from Wal-Mart to Best Buy to Target to Amazon didn’t have them in stock, and continue to struggle to meet demand with a trickle of consoles available at a time.
I found myself calling bored-sounding retail workers in the middle of the day, begging for information. “Do you have any Nintendo Switch systems in stock? Please?” I’d ask, like a McDonald’s junkie having a Big Mac attack. It was always a “no,” with a vague promise that maybe they’d get more in stock next Tuesday or Friday or Sunday.
Which is how, on an early Friday morning, I found myself planted on the cement in front of the New Braunfels Best Buy, waiting for the door to open so I could buy a Nintendo Switch. A small line of about half a dozen customers formed behind me, including an older woman shopping on behalf of her grandson. “Should I get the gray one or red and blue neon?” she asked me as we waited. “Red and blue neon all the way!” I advised her. We both got the systems we wanted.
The first thing that struck me, as I unboxed the system and began to set up my online account and download my first game (a review copy of “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” that Nintendo provided), was the quality of the hardware. The screen is much sharper in its HD resolution than the old Wii U Gamepad. The Joy Con controllers, when attached to the sides of the screen, feel sleek and slim, but durable. The dock, where the Switch slides in to display on your TV, is small and unobtrusive; it blends right in next to the TV and doesn’t blare its existence.
The evolution of more efficient, faster and more powerful graphics and processor chips that turned gaming laptops into a more palatable proposition the past few years also makes the Nintendo Switch a much better iteration of what the Wii U was trying to do. It’s a fast, sleek tablet at its heart with some cleverly crafted add-ons that make it instantly better for on-the-go gaming than any phone or tablet I’ve used.
The three games I have started playing, to my surprise, are all excellent. “Zelda” is a once-in-a-generation gaming masterpiece, a sprawling adventure to adore that feels magical in how it keeps you discovering new twists and skills. My younger daughter is hooked. It’s her first adventure game and she can’t wait to find out how the kingdom of Hyrule got to its current state of ruin.
“Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” fulfills the promise of Nintendo’s social gaming and portability push. You can play it anywhere at the same high quality and speed as you would at home. Online and linked gameplay is easy to set up and modes that were thin or missing in the Wii U version have been fleshed out. It’s the best “Mario Kart” version Nintendo has ever made. My older daughter has made it her mission to unlock all the costumes and vehicles the game has to offer.
And “Puyo Puyo Tetris” scratches my longtime itch for fast-paced, competitive puzzle games that also have an engaging story mode to keep you playing.
If those were the only three games available for the Switch, it would be enough to keep most gamers occupied for weeks. But there’s also a growing library of smaller-scale indie games on the Nintendo Store to download, including retro Neo Geo-era titles and, this week, a modestly priced, but very much in-demand version of “Minecraft.”
I was wrong thinking there wouldn’t be enough good games to play on the Switch within the first few months of launch; there are at least three classics already and it’s only May. June will see the release of oddball boxing game “Arms” and in July, a sequel to the beloved paintball shooter “Splatoon” will arrive.
If I sound like an evangelist, I apologize. I’m so taken by how versatile the system and its controllers are and the freedom it affords to play A-list games anywhere. But even in my honeymoon phase with the Switch, I recognize it’s not perfect.
Like any portable electronic device with a big screen, battery life is an issue and so is the risk of scratching up that pristine screen. I purchased an inexpensive carrying case for $14 and spent another $6 on a screen protector. I’m carrying around in that case a USB-C cable and adapter for charging on the go.
The console’s software is also missing a lot of things we’ve come to expect from any gaming system, particularly the stuff that has nothing to do with gaming. You can’t watch Netflix, Amazon, YouTube or Hulu videos on it (yet) and that feels like something that should have been included by the system’s launch. There’s no built-in web browser that’s easily accessible yet. And Nintendo is still relying on its archaic, impossible-to-memorize “Friend Codes” in order to connect with pals online, a measure that is meant to protect young players but ultimately just creates offline speed bumps to quickly finding fellow gamers.
It could also be better about allowing you to share screenshots and video footage online; right now, you can easily share still frames to Facebook and Twitter. But there’s no gameplay streaming to services such as YouTube or Twitch and exporting screenshots outside of social media is a hassle.
And, if there’s one thing that worries me about the future of the Nintendo Switch is Nintendo itself. The company built an amazing game system with a lot of potential, but if there’s one thing that tends to get in Nintendo’s way when it fails, it’s Nintendo itself.
Nintendo has done a poor job explaining what the Switch is and what it can do to non-gamers and why casual gamers should buy one. That might not be much of an issue right now with such a limited supply, but Nintendo hasn’t done the legwork to explain the Switch the way it did with the original Wii, which created a national craze of swinging arms around in front of a TV screen. According to a Nielsen report, only about 7 percent of non-gamers were aware of the Switch shortly after it launched.
The company is lucky that its initial lineup of games is so strong. For now, the quality of “Zelda” and “Mario Kart” are speaking for themselves; you only have to play them a little while to understand how the Switch is changing things up. The Switch is the company’s fastest-selling console on the strength of those games. By the end of April, 2.74 million Switch systems had already been sold worldwide.
Even if there’s not a flood of games arriving soon for the Switch, Nintendo has made a definitive statement on where it thinks video games can go. If the high quality of the games continues, I’m happy to come along for the ride.
If, like me, you were hesitant and skeptical and waiting after the Switch launch, it’s time to give the Switch another look. That is, if you can find one.
Cover photo: In this Jan. 13, 2017 file photo, journalists wait outside the venue for the presentation of the new Nintendo Switch in Tokyo. Koji Sasahara / ASSOCIATED PRESS File