The Joy-Con controllers are a key part of the Switch appeal. Though the core mechanic of 'switching' between the TV and portable play is right there in the name, Nintendo's messaging has put plenty of stock in the controllers and what they can bring to the party. As we outlined in our Hands On write-up on the Nintendo Switch, the controllers are very clever, intriguing bits of kit.
In fact, it all takes us back to the Wii days, in many respects, when a small controller in the hand became a source of tricks and treats - yet now, of course, technology has improved a great deal. The Joy-Cons have accurate motion controls, but a key feature is the 'HD Rumble', which is the most precise and fascinating force feedback we've encountered in any game controller. It can be remarkably precise, and is a vital part of the Joy-Con toolset.
1-2-Switch is the game to showcase this, though it'll be sold at mid-tier retail price - in the UK this translates to £39.99. While Wii had Wii Sports and Wii U had Nintendo Land in the box at launch - aside from the 'Basic' 8GB model - the Switch won't have such an equivalent; 1-2-Switch feels like the pack-in title the system needs. Does it have enough on offer to justify a launch purchase as a standalone game? We're far from sure, as even if it has around 20 minigames - as seems to be the case - it's a tricky sell.
We'll wrap up on that point, but first let's run through the six minigames that we got to play, all in two player.
If one moment typifies the incredible fidelity of HD Rumble, it's Ball Count. There are virtual marbles 'inside' the Joy-Con and you have to guess how many there are; you do this by simply moving and tilting the controller and guessing from the 'feel' of the balls moving. It's remarkably effective and clever technology, and was a true eye-opener as to what the Joy-Con controllers can do. One downside is that the hubbub of the room and vibrations on the table meant the game struggled to pick up when we'd set them down on a flat area, after making our guesses - that prompted much fiddling around.
This takes a simple approach as you go all Ocean's 11 and try to break into a virtual safe quicker than your opponent. Starting with the Joy-Con held vertically, you rotate left and right while waiting for a 'tell' that you've hit the right combination in the lock; this is in the form of a more emphasized 'click' in the rumble. It's effective, for sure, though in our demo one of the Joy-Cons did start to mis-behave and lose its calibration at one point, bringing to mind Shigeru Miyamoto's woes demonstrating The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword at E3 all those years ago.
Showcased in the Presentation, this is a simple game in which you're encouraged to look at your opponent rather than the screen. You take turns between swiping down with the sword and trying to trap it in your hands; the latter is done by 'clapping' your hands (one with the Joy-Con) together. It's nicely done, with the motion controls precise enough that you can try and trick your foe with fake-outs and half swipes. Fun, but of limited appeal beyond an initial game or two.
This formed the crux of the game's reveal, as two players start with a Joy-Con at their side and face off. Again, the idea is to look at each other, not the screen, though the console does give the cue for you to 'draw' and shoot. It works nicely, with a replay after the showdown for those that want to dispute the results...
A bit like the Just Dance series on Nintendo hardware, this one relies upon judging your movement based upon the Joy-Con in your hand, though we didn't get the chance to test whether you can 'cheat' it. That's hardly the point, though, as it's another dual face-off in which you both listen to some funky music and wait for a cue to improvise a 'pose'. One sets a pose, the other tries to copy, and you do this a couple of times each. At the end you're judged on things like accuracy and 'energy'; we lost to the Nintendo rep that had actual energy and rhythm.
How this game is received very much depends on the age of the player and their state of mind. You sit opposite each other, supposed to look each other in the eyes, while 'milking' a cow. To do this you hold the Joy-Con vertically and, through a combination of a button and a steady motion, work the virtual teats, with the Rumble HD providing feedback; the winner is the one with the most bottles of milk at the end.
Children will find it funny, grown-up friends after a a few refreshments at the local public house will likely find it hilarious, and two thirty-something game writers that have had minimal sleep will likely find it utterly peculiar, and slightly uncomfortable.
A Perfect Showcase, and an Opportunity Missed
After working our way around these six games, the general feeling was that 1-2-Switch is fun in short bursts, shows off what the controllers can do and, well, that's about it. The final package of minigames and the modes that will drive them will become clearer, but whatever the case it feels like an ideal bundled game. Now, Nintendo has said that the lack of a pack-in title is all down to cost, but let's be clear - it's still the company's choice. It could swallow a bit of a loss on the packaged hardware if it wanted to, or rather sacrifice the revenues it thinks 1-2-Switch will make at retail. The Wii, in particular, thrived from the positive impressions made by Wii Sports in pitching the concept, and 1-2-Switch feels like the closest thing to that for the new system. The lack of a concept-driven game in the box feels like a notable miss for the Nintendo Switch.
As a positive on 1-2-Switch, it's designed to support what you have in the box, a left and right Joy-Con, so you don't need any more controllers at a high cost. That said, Nintendo has tried to draw a comparison to Wii Play, as that was a pack of minigames to show off the Wii Remote. The difference, though, is that many people we knew bought Wii Play as it was a cheap way to get an extra Remote, with some minigames thrown in as incidental extras. Wii Play itself was fun for trying out the technology, but in our view lacked the replayability that full-on party games have; it was played for a short while and then it gathered dust.
Our fear for this game is that it lacks the hook to make it worth a standalone purchase; after playing each minigame once, for example, we'd had our fill. We'd experienced how clever the Joy-Cons were, and that was enough. If 1-2-Switch was packaged with the Switch, it'd be a fantastic way to show friends and family what it's about, a short play session in which they marvel at what the Joy-Cons can do. Then we'd play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for a few hours and never look back.
Is 1-2-Switch truly a retail game, and can it justify its cost as software alone? We have severe doubts on that, though we'll reserve full judgement - of course - for when we've spent time with the full game.