Nintendo has never seemed entirely comfortable with the digital aspect of the games business, and yet with its new console it is dabbling in one of the hallmarks of the age: the day one patch.
Reviews of the Switch are being published in every corner of the online media, and while the overall tone wanders merrily between cautious optimism and glowing praise, the notion that Nintendo's latest hardware isn't quite ready is always lurking in the background. For the most part that concern seems to be rooted in the Switch's online service; or, rather, the inability to access that online service without a patch that Nintendo has promised before the official launch tomorrow.
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"It's the whole games-for-everyone philosophy of the Wii, joyously emancipated from the home"
"I've been playing with the Switch for the last two weeks," writes Wired magazine. "Nintendo says we can publish a review of it right now, though I have no idea why Nintendo would want us to. The company's new toy isn't finished yet."
Wired's article is probably the most negative critique from a major outlet published so far, and the unassailable barrier between the reviewer and a host of still-unknown details of the Switch's online functions is a clear source of frustration. It is an area where Nintendo has fallen short in the past, Wired argues, encompassing "fundamental aspects of the system."
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"What's it like to set up a Nintendo account online, or migrate your existing account over to Switch? Don't know. How's the experience of buying software digitally? Can't say. What about finding online friends and communicating with them? No idea. Online multiplayer gaming? Haven't the foggiest."
There are other signals that Nintendo's new console may offer an uneven consumer experience at first, too. Wired reports serious issues in getting the left Joy-Con controller to sync to the console, ranging from input lag to the inability to sustain a connection at all. This issue has been reported by a number of other early recipients of the Switch, though by no means all. Nevertheless, as Wired points out, it raises the troubling possibility that paying customers will suffer the same when they receive their consoles tomorrow.
"I can only go forward assuming...that Nintendo is about to sell you a $300 game system requiring some kind of fix before it performs its basic functions"
"It's a total showstopper," Wired continues. "I cannot play Switch on the television-not unless I buy an optional 'Pro Controller for $70, that is.
"At this point, with Nintendo not having commented on or fixed the issue, I can only go forward assuming the Switch consoles going on sale this Friday will all potentially have this problem, and that Nintendo is about to sell you a $300 game system requiring some kind of fix before it performs its basic functions."
Few reviews of the console state the case so plainly, but that sentiment crops up time and again, from specialist outlets to venerable media institutions. The Wall Street Journal, for example, leads with a head-strap combo that describes an "elegant but unready" console that "feels like a beta test" despite some quality launch software. However, the vast majority of reviews look past the unanswered questions, and tend to agree with the WSJ's determination that the Switch is an elegant console indeed.
Polygon, which only a few days ago offered its "case against buying a launch unit," is full of praise for the way the Switch delivers on its fundamental premise. Sure, the day one patch is "not a good litmus test" for Nintendo's much needed improvement online, but the basic experience of shifting from handheld to big-screen gaming and back again is "indisputably exciting."
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"There's a moment, almost immediately after moving it from one's hands to the dock, watching the near-instant, hassle-free shift from handheld game device to television-based game console, where almost every Polygon staffer thought the same thing," Polygon says. "Holy shit. It works."
And the fact that it works makes the Switch "wholly unlike the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One" - a declaration that will no doubt delight Nintendo, which has long made a point of putting clear blue water between its products and those of its rivals. "There is something remarkable about seeing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild running in portable mode, followed by that 'wow' moment of docking the console and continuing on a television," Polygon continues. "It's hard not to wonder if we're staring at the future of portable gaming, with Nintendo and the Switch promising to bridge the gap between mobile and console."
"It's hard not to wonder if we're staring at the future of portable gaming"
The Guardian is also impressed by the hardware's versatility, and particularly that of its diminutive, two-part Joy-Con Controller. While some games will require both parts of the Joy-Con for one person, multiplayer titles like Mario Kart, Bomberman, Just Dance and SnipperClips can be played without purchasing any peripheral hardware - "it's the whole games-for-everyone philosophy of the Wii, joyously emancipated from the home.
"Gripped in your hands they [Joy-Con] become almost invisible facilitators of ridiculous interactions. Whether that's milking a cow or pretending to scoff sandwiches in 1-2 Switch, or cutting out shapes in Snipperclips - they take on the forms that each game requires; like the computer mouse, they simply become extensions of your own movements. This could (and in Nintendo's hands should) lead to whole new interactive experiences."
The Guardian argues that 1-2 Switch "really should be bundled with the hardware," so capably does it communicate the magic of the Joy-Con Controllers while offering "no lasting challenge" in the process. "You'll soon tire of it," the review laments, and when you do the console's launch line-up will seem awfully familiar to anyone who owned a Wii U. For Eurogamer's Digital Foundry, software is perhaps the biggest of the potential drawbacks for Nintendo's new system, which otherwise impresses - though chiefly as a portable gaming device.
"[Zelda is] the first Nintendo game that feels like it was made in a world where Half-Life 2, Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Skyrim happened"
"It's a better built machine [than the Wii U], sporting higher grade materials, an innovative Joy-Con controller setup, and a gorgeous screen. The company's strength in handheld design is clearly tapped into, and while it may be pushed as a home console first, it's more appetising to see it as the successor to the 3DS. Switch rightly takes the crown as the most powerful dedicated gaming handheld right now, but the bonus is its effective, and seamless home console mode."
The notion that the Switch is best viewed as a handheld cuts against Nintendo's official line, but Digital Foundry's point is that the hardware's flaws seem more apparent in comparison with other home consoles. "For the docked, home console experience, the known technical specifications do fall short of competition from PS4 and Xbox One," Digital Foundry says, emphasising Nintendo's role in ensuring the Switch's potential is realised. "Don't expect top-of-the-line third party games to reach Switch, and if they do, expect a degree of compromise in visual quality or performance."
Right now, though, the precise degree of future third-party support is unlikely to be much of a concern for Nintendo's ardent followers. With Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it seems to have delivered a first-party exclusive that not only beats anything released in the Wii U's lifetime, but may be among the best games in the company's long and storied history. At the time of writing, Breath of the Wild's Metacritic rating stood at 98% after 56 reviews, and the pitch of the praise gives no indication that its average will drop any time soon.
Nintendo Life calls it "a landmark release for its franchise and for Nintendo," but this isn't a case of a single-format website preaching to its choir. Eurogamer lauds it as "the first Nintendo game that feels like it was made in a world where Half-Life 2, Halo, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Skyrim happened," while The Daily Telegraph goes further still, its writer expressing his conviction that Breath of the Wild "is one of the very finest video games ever made."
Let's hand the last word to Edge magazine, which has a well earned reputation for its frugal way with review scores. From there, as with so many publications, the final mark is a perfect 10, and an assurance that, even if it fails to sell a single console, Nintendo has at least crafted a game for the ages.
"Nineteen years on, Ocarina of Time is still held up as the high-water mark of one of gaming's best-loved - and greatest - series. Now it may have to settle for second place."