PAX South: Nintendo Switch and Breath of the Wild Impressions

As someone who grew up talking about Nintendo with my friends and likely told my fair share of “my uncle works for Nintendo” lies on the playground, it is an incredibly surreal experience to have now played the Nintendo Switch prior to the system’s March 3rd launch.

When I woke up this morning to grab my media badge, I already knew that the Nintendo booth would be my first stop for the extra hour media gets today. But I figured pretty much everyone else in that camp would be planning the same so I was resigned to either waiting in a huge line or giving up entirely. Fortunately for me, the convention center security guard I asked mistook me for an exhibitor instead of media and let me in an hour before even the media. So I wandered the show floor as everyone was getting set up for a while and watched the Nintendo and Capcom booths prepare their volunteer staff.

When the doors for media properly opened, I was one of the first people in to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

If you’ve watched the gameplay demos going back to E3, you’ve effectively seen what I played: a twenty-minute demo starting with Link awakening and collecting the Sheikah Stone that helps serves as a guide through the journey. I found the poor boy some clothes and headed out into the Great Plateau. The moment when Link steps out of that first cave is very reminiscent of that feeling you get when you left the vault in Fallout 3 for the first time. You look out upon a wide open world that is recognizable but easily the largest iteration of Hyrule yet.

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From there, I walked down and talked to an Old Man who gave me some pointers. The Nintendo volunteer nearby taught me how to cook (you basically throw food into a fire until it changes appearance…don’t let it sit too long or it’ll burn). In my demo, I definitely didn’t get too in the weeds with inventory management so my overall impressions were very surface-level. I didn’t even really “explore” so much as just followed the story waypoints. I fought a few bad guys and triggered a scene with grandiose towers rising up out of the earth. Far too short to give me a great experience of what the overall game will feel like but I’m excited to play more on March 3rd, even if it won’t be on the Switch.

Controls will take me some getting used to as the buttons weren’t linked to the instinctive spots I’m used to. For example, Jump is mapped to the X button up top (which was weird for my entire playthrough of The Last Guardian). And Accept prompts and Cancel prompts follow the Japanese standard, rather than the American one so I definitely walked away from a couple conversations with the Old Man before I meant to…oops. Gonna have to get in the mindset of when I first played Final Fantasy VII twenty years ago.

The art style is beautiful. The game certainly isn’t pushing the limits of modern graphical fidelity but it looks great nonetheless. Character design is beautiful (I’ve always preferred a more cartoon-ish approach to link a la Link to the Past or The Wink Waker and this feels in that vein). The world is designed to match.

Nintendo Switch

My demo started by playing the game on a docked Switch using the Joy-Con controllers in a Joy Grip. About halfway through, I switched *snap* to the handheld mode. This is a pretty simple switch *snap* as each of the Joy-Con controllers has a tiny button on the back that, when pressed, unlocks the controllers from their configuration. Then it easily slides into the new setup so I just slid the two controllers into the handheld device and pulled it out of the dock. It was a very seamless transition out (the transition connecting back to the dock at the end took a second or two for the monitor to re-register the input). I also played a demo of Has Been Heroes (that I’ll write about separately) played on Switch using the Pro Controller so I have that experience as well.

The Joy-Con controllers in a Joy-Grip will likely be my default play style. But the whole thing feels a bit too square for my liking. And by that I mean in terms of the physical dimensions. I’m not trying to emphasize my age by calling something “square” as a synonym for uncool. I look at my standard DualShock 4 or Xbox One controller and the buttons and analog sticks all fit in a more rectangular plane. The Switch almost needs to work horizontally and vertically because each Joy-Con needs to also operate independently for multiplayer games in the horizontal configuration, while working together vertically as a single unit.

As a result, it feels much more natural to me in the handheld mode with the screen between the two controllers. In this configuration, it’s much more akin to the PlayStation Vita or the much maligned Wii U Gamepad (but not nearly as bulky). Given that I’ve already got a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to really enjoy couch gaming, the handheld mode is what I would want but I just don’t play handheld enough to necessarily warrant it.

Lastly, the Pro Controller feels better than the Joy-Grip for me. Probably because it’s more of what I’m used to compared with PlayStation and Xbox. But the idea of having to spend more on a Nintendo Pro Controller than I would on an extra controller for either of the other two systems isn’t a great value proposition for me, especially as the controller itself does feel a bit more like the “cheap toy Nintendo” instead of a “well-built electronic device Nintendo.” I’ll suffer and work through the slight awkward phase of the Joy-Grip instead of buying a Pro Controller.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, my time with the Switch didn’t really move the needle for me in terms of buying the system at launch. I’m still content to play Zelda on my much-neglected Wii U rather than make the $300 investment on the new system. It’s something I’ll get eventually, but I don’t need to be an early adopter on this one just for Zelda. The really selling point of this system for me is as a handheld system that I can plug in to my TV. But I don’t currently play enough handheld games to make it worth my while. I don’t have a commute and I prefer playing on a TV around the house so my only really regular handheld gaming comes nowadays when I’m attending events like this. And yes, I’m certainly attending more so playing Zelda in line for a PAX East panel is appealing but I’m going to hold off until there are a few more games on the system.