This era of console gaming is a strange one, owing partially to the fact that about five years ago, many people in the industry feared consumers would reject bulky $300 consoles in favor of cheaper and nimbler competitors like the iPhone and the iPad. Why pay so much for games you can only play in front of your TV at home when you can just tool around with Candy Crush or Words With Friends for a few hours wherever you go?
However, console platforms did not go the way of the walkman and VCR player, and the PS4 and Xbox One (which both launched in November 2013) were each huge and immediate successes. Half a decade ago, the winds blowing through the industry seemed to indicate that the future would be smaller and untethered from the couch, but now, Sony and Microsoft are in a more orthodox arms race to out-bulk each other’s signature consoles and make the most powerful possible rig, even if their juiced-up models go for $500.
But Sony and Microsoft aren’t the only companies making consoles, and while the PS4 and Xbox One were (mostly) huge hits, Nintendo’s Wii U flopped hard. It ran into problems immediately, rolling out with an utterly baffling marketing push that unintentionally obfuscated what the actual system was. Was it a controller? A Wii with different features? Maybe a fancy oversized TV remote? It was a pair of white boxes with some sort of relationship to each other, but beyond that, nothing was all that clear.
The idea of transitioning from playing games on your TV to playing on a semi-portable GamePad was appealing in theory, but the Wii U was held back by the limitations of its own software and a weak slate of signature first-party games. Perhaps in an effort to make it’s already confusing product as unwieldy as possible, playing “on the go” required you to haul the console and plug it into a nearby wall. Even then, you were saddled with a heavy brick with questionable battery life. If a Nintendo console is dragging far behind its competitors on graphical fidelity, if its hallmark technology is lumpy and ineffective, and if it doesn’t have killer signature games, what’s even the point of shelling out for one? In a world where the Nintendo 3DS offered plenty of Nintendo classics on a portable platform that actually held a charge and a PS4 gave you the chance to commit grand theft auto, the Wii U was aggressively inessential. Nobody bought one, and suddenly, Nintendo was a distant third in the Great Console Wars.
Enter the Switch.
If you sort squint at it, the Switch (which came out in March) seems like a reboot of the Wii U. It offers players the ability to, well, switch between playing at home or anywhere else, and not just anywhere else where you can plug a big dumb box into the wall. The Switch is slim and compact (it’s comparable to an iPhone 6 Plus) and its surface is almost entirely screen. It features two detachable controllers called Joy-Cons that you can take off and play with if you want. Plugging it into the TV dock is simple and it’s modular enough that rigging it up in travel mode is seamless. This is where the Switch truly shines.
If the thing about iPhone gaming that shook Sony and Microsoft so much was the mobility, what saved them was the superior quality of games they could offer. The Witcher 3 is simply better than anything you can possibly play on a smart phone, and more than anything else, gamers have shown that they will pay for good games. The Switch is as portable as any phone but it plays full-on console games that can rival those produced by its competitors (especially if those games take place in Nintendo beloved cartoon worlds). It helps that its signature game is perhaps the greatest RPG ever made. The Switch didn’t launch with many games and it didn’t need to because the latest Zelda offering is a perfect video game.
To a Zelda hardliner, the open world structure and exploration-heavy gameplay of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may initially seem confusing. Zelda games have been defined by clever, honeycombed level design, intricate environmental puzzles, and an intimate rendering of a grandiose narrative. They have a formula and they do not stray. As Kotaku’s Jason Schreier put it, “Zelda games have been about what you can’t do as much as they are about what you can.”
In Breath of the Wild, you can do anything. Many open world games are not actually open; rather, they’re just really honking big. Anyone who’s done the time-honored trick of climbing a mountain by jamming into it and jumping over and over again knows this. Breath of the Wild allows the player to climb any hill or swim in any lake from the moment you begin the game. There are no impediments! Its world is vast yet shockingly dense, and it rewards curiosity above all. Wanna climb that weird jagged hill? There’s probably a cool weapon or item atop it. Curious about that island off in the southeast corner of the map? It’s worth traveling over to. Breath of the Wild only ever keeps affirming the player’s desire to explore and uncover more of its massive world. I’ve put 96 hours into the game and am barely halfway through.
If you’re a grouch like Albert Burneko, the brittle weapons and absence of narrative handholding may bother you. Breath of the Wild isn’t a traditional Zelda game and it’s all the better for that. You have RPG hallmarks like crafting, interlocking combat systems, and side quests, but everything has that familiar Zelda twang to it. It’s meticulously rendered in snappy, cartoonish graphics and even if you have to complete a fetch quest to unlock a chest, you’ll still be rewarded with that irresistible Zelda unlock sound.
Best of all, you can play it on a fuckin’ plane. I’m a nervous flyer who fidgets around a ton and hardly fits into a standard economy seat. In-flight movies are, I suppose, fine, although they’re tiny and impossible to hear. Air travel is something to be tolerated. However, the few flights I’ve taken since owning a Switch have been tremendous. I’m like a whiny baby who gets a pacifier, and all of a sudden, I zone out and forget that I’m 30,000 feet above the Earth. I don’t commute to work, but I’ve also started taking it on the BART and other train rides and it sure as hell beats fiddling around on my phone for an hour. The battery lasts for about three-and-a-half hours of gaming and the charger isn’t too bulky.
Perhaps the most meaningful critique of the Switch is that it’s a $300 Zelda machine. There was a good deal of truth to that notion at launch (as Gizmodo’s Alex Cranz noted), since the only signature Nintendo franchise the Switch launched with was Zelda. I am of the opinion that Zelda is enough to make the Switch worth it—I’m probably going to put north of 250 hours in before I even touch the DLC because I am a compulsive completist—but now that the Switch also has Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2, which both rule, there’s so much more to do.
It helps that fervent demand made it hard to find, giving Nintendo more time beef up its lineup a bit before the majority of players could get their hands on it. The biggest problem with the console now is its nonsensical chat functionality, which requires you to download an app on your phone to link up online with your friends. It’s a real pain in the ass, although it’s not as much of a problem if you don’t play online game or don’t mind getting onto a better off-site app with your friends.
The platform is also getting more third-party games (such as Skyrim, Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley, and Minecraft) than the Wii U or Wii ever did, so once the new Mario game comes out in October, the Switch will have a bulky lineup of exclusives as well as quality third-party jams. I don’t know why you’d really need anything besides Zelda for about a year of gaming, but options are good. If you still want more, Nintendo is launching some sort of classic game-having virtual console program in 2018 that will only run you $20 per year.
Maybe you don’t feel the need to pay up for Skyrim again, but the Switch is so fun to use that I wish I could play every game on it. Too bad I can’t carry it around in my pocket. Someone should get on that.