Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Switch it up!

So I bought a Nintendo Switch...



...which puts me in possession of all the three major console families this generation; Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and now, Nintendo's Switch. Like it's previous generation debut with the Wii, Nintendo have opted for something that sets itself far away from the graphics heavy and powerful competitors Sony and Microsoft. While previous Nintendo consoles have attempted to capture another market and audience than the typical teenage/adult market of action games, Switch simply tries to market itself as something different. Both physically as a hybrid console, but also a different kind of software line-up with Nintendo franchises the competitors do not have. It's about new and old ideas.

If Nintendo's Wii proved anything, it's that under powered and different can sell, incredibly well in fact. We mustn't forget that the Wii outsold both the PS3 and 360, by a significant number. This was alongside Nintendo selling insane amounts of Nintendo DS's and 3DS's at the time too.


So while the HD effort of the Wii U felt like a halfway and miscalculated step from Nintendo, thus falling into obscurity, the Switch feels like something brand new and fresh. It blurs away the line between handheld and stationary consoles, making itself a convenient hybrid console of sorts. Yet, it brings over some of the DNA that the Wii and Wii U brought to the market; a controller in two seperated parts, gyro controls and touchscreen. Technically, the Switch is a souped up handheld that can further boost itself when docked and connected as a traditional stationary console to your TV. Nintendo's goal, as it seems, isn't to compete on pushing technical boundaries with 4K, HDR and graphics like Sony and MS. No, it's about delivering something that is very much it's own thing. This choice of goal has paid off already, as Switch has become as huge success for Nintendo. Deservedly so.


As an owner of the other two, more powerful consoles, my aim for the Switch is to catch up on all the Nintendo exclusives and maybe some interesting third party exclusives that are suited for the system. After all, Nintendo have done a nice job at doing their best to optimise Switch titles to perform well on the console. We have also been seeing a nice upgrade to 1080p with Wii U ports, games that really should get more attention than they did on the U's mediocre sales. I'm glad to see ports of Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Captain Toad and Mario Kart 8 for instance, all Wii U titles. Ports aside though, Switch's heavy hitters at launch are the two titles that have really sold the system in for players; Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.



The console



Lets begin with the actual console, then take the controllers separately as they are a bit confusing in their numerous ways of usage. At first glance the main console part of the Switch has a distinct tablet design to it, and is most iconic with it's Joy-Cons in red and blue attached to it's sides. It has become a rather recognisable console as such, with Nintendo also going for a more old school and recognisable look on the logo. As a tablet it's a little chunky with the overly thick frame to the screen, however considering the power this little device pushes,  it's a fairly compact device. It's portable, but not pocket portable.

Alongside the actual Switch, a docking bay is included, this square plastic holder sets the console in docked mode and houses a power and HDMI socket. Docking the Switch results in the performance being boosted, typically games go from a handheld resolution of 600-720p up to 900-1080p when docked. It's a cool feature and helps the games look better on a large TV with higher resolution, while saving battery power in handheld mode. The screen on the Switch has a fairly sharp picture  with a native 720p as output, games that go below this resolution can look quite blurry on the screen. Luckily, Nintendo's first party titles hit the native 720p mode in handheld. The Switch can be placed with a somewhat flimsy plastic stand on a table too, for when you are on the move in handheld mode, aimed for multiplayer games on an airplane flight tray, a train table etc.



The docking station will also charge the console. It's all cleverly designed to easily switch between handheld and docked mode. Placed vertically in the docking, I appreciate the sleek and small design of the console visually. The only downside is that the docking station seems like a place where you can easily scratch your screen if you're not careful taking it in and out. All in all, the Switch is sleek looking, though it dangerously fairs in the line between being a underpowered for stationary mode and a too large for portable mode. The end result works just fine though.


The controllers



When it comes to controllers, well there's quite a few official ways to play your Switch. Out of the box you get the two Joy-Cons, one left and one right, meant to be held vertically. These, ingeniously enough, work as two tiny NES-like pads horizontally. Two player action straight out of the box, without more controller purchases needed in other words, neat! These Joy-Cons can be attached to the main Switch console so the whole thing looks like a big handheld device, or removed and used separately in each hand. You can even widen them slightly with som hand strap modules that make the L and R buttons more accessible, these straps are included with the console.



The Joy-Cons can also be placed into a controller shell, which is included with the console, it basically gathers them together in a more ergonomic and traditional controller layout. This controller shell though, isn't a very comfortable controller fit in my opinion and kind of a cheap solution, but hey it's packed default with the Switch, can't really complain.



The solution to get a "traditional" controller is in the shape of the official "Pro Controller". This is available separately and is slightly above a Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controller in price. Although the main principal idea and essence of the Switch are the Joy-Cons and their diversity of how they are used in handheld and docked mode, it's nice that Nintendo have gone all-in with an alternative. After all, mainly the first party games use the Joy-Cons in special ways, not so much the third party titles.

The best bit with the Pro controller though? The fantastic quality. It's no secret that I've never been much fond of the PlayStation controllers with their out-dated DualShock layout of their weirdly placed analogue sticks. Luckily, Nintendo have opted for the left analogue stick in the main position like the fantastic Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers have. I quickly realised this controller is just as good as Microsoft's effort on the XB1 controllers. I'd say they are neck to neck in their ergonomic grip, button layout and quality of build. A nice step above the more cheap feeling of a PS4 controller.

The XB1's controller still has the edge when it comes to the analogue triggers and deeper joystick tops, but Nintendo have the better shoulder buttons and of course their superior d-pad. Both the Nintendo and Microsoft controllers support the fantastic HD rumble too. Sadly the triggers on Nintendo's controller are merely buttons and can not be used the way the XB1's analogue triggers can, for gradual acceleration/deceleration in racing games for instance, a bit of a miss to have the triggers digital only.

As a whole though, this controller is a highly recommended. if not a must-buy, purchase!


The games and UI


Physical Switch games use cartridges for their storage. It's a departure from the more recent handheld devices like the 3DS and PSVita that utilise flashcards. Their form factor is very small, reminding me of a slightly chunkier PSVita game. The games are packed in small cases which are the height of a Blu-ray, but with a much smaller depth. Games can of course also be purchased on the Nintendo eShop, games tend to be fairly small in download size compared to the massive PS4 and XB1 titles, but the internal storage on the Switch is sparse: totalling in on a modest 32GB. You can extend the storage by using a SD flashcard, but be aware that saves from games cannot be transferred between storage mediums. Hopefully this gets fixed when Nintendo now introduces clouds saves with their online subscription system.



I like the visual look of the Switch user interface, they are stylish and fairly easy to navigate with simple icons to recognise. Perhaps a bit on the large size on a big TV, but I guess it's done so to match the small handheld screen. Not the sharpest of picture quality, running at 720p regardless of docked or not, but I found it a breeze to navigate. Fast response as you navigate too. How the game sorts a large amount of game icons and with a horizontal only axis, I could imagine became cluttered. Perhaps they will add folder options down the road.

Much like the XB1 and PS4 the Switch has a home button that puts you back to the home screen while having your game suspended in the background. At the home screen you can check settings, visit the store og check what friends are doing. A lot like the other consoles. I really dislike the short username and the fact that it isn't unique, as such you need to share a long and cumbersome "Friend code" to add people to your friend list. It seems outdated and stupid way to add friends. Suspend mode in general is fantastic though, much because of the handheld feature I presume, it powers up your console from sleep and straight into the game in no time!


Conclusion


While the Switch seems to have already received quite a few third party ports from major titles, it's not a console I'd recommend if you have no interest in first party Nintendo games. It's not a console best suited for the powerhouse game genres like first person shooters or racing games that are pushing hard on the graphics technology. However, as a great family device that easily transforms from a docked console to a handheld device and with multiplayer so prominent as a feature, especially with the fantastic idea of two small Joy-cons. Where Nintendo seemed to miss the target with it's Wii U console, they have aimed dangerously different from a Xbox or PlayStation, yet seem to have hit a jackpot idea. It's different, yet brilliantly so. 

My main gripe would perhaps be the price, with the undeniable lower specifications than the cheaper and more powerful Xbox One or PlayStation 4 competition. It depends on how important Nintendo's first party titles are for you and if you'll use it in combination with travelling. It's Nintendo though, their hardware has always been on the more pricey side, a lot to do with it's first party games being only available on their consoles. A more aggressive price strategy might make the system sell even more though, making third party developers even more interested in porting their games over to the system.


Describing the console is harder than actually letting people try one and understand it's potential. I really believe Nintendo have hit a home run with  the Switch and returned to their, albeit under powered, ingenious thinking when it comes to approaching gaming in a new way, much like how the Wii became such a tremendous success.


Switch is a console you can't help but love once you've tried one. 


Monday, 10 September 2018

Very small classics

So I bought a NES and SNES Classic Mini...



...in the aftermath of their huge demand beginning with the outsold NES Mini back in 2016. I simply couldn't get hold of a NES Mini and even a SNES Mini at launch. However earlier this year I picked up a SNES Mini and recently a NES Mini. Let's take a quick look at both them.


What they have in common


Their hardware replicates in a small form factor how the real consoles designs looked in their aesthetics; mine replicates the European models for both. They are very well made, with working power and reset buttons. I like how the SNES has hidden it's controller ports for added authenticity in it's visual appearance. Both have controllers that are fantastic quality and are extremely close to the originals. Incredible work on the hardware; even down to the original looking packaging they arrive in and their retro manuals. Great design aesthetics all round then.

The NES and SNES Mini's are powered by USB and have a HDMI video output. They both operate at a 720p resolutionand offer a few choices in screen displays, more on that for each model later. Be warned though; the short controller cables and the fact that the actual console needs to be near the TV for HDMI and USB power means that you'll probably need a long HDMI and a close by power supply. It's a little annoying they didn't opt for wireless controllers, but that's probably what makes the price hold a fairly reasonable level. They could have made the controller cords way, way longer though.

Both the NES and SNES controller connection inputs are alike, and the same as the Nintendo Wii's controller ports. Thus you can use a Wii "Classic Controller" or a "Classic Controller Pro" for both the mini's as alternative control pads. You can also use the NES and SNES controllers on a Wii for classic games! SNES games will of course not be playable with a NES controller, as it lacks the right amount of buttons, but a SNES Mini controller will work fine with the NES Mini. It's all about if you want the authenticity of the actual console's controller or not.

A real annoying factor though, even as they have re-released the hugely popular NES Mini this year, they still only package it with one controller. While the SNES Mini has two. It's a real cheap move and an annoyance that you need to hunt down a second controller separately. I get that they missed it on the first run of NES Mini in 2016, but this time around they really should have packed a second controller in. Bad move Nintendo!

The menu system on each model has a retro look to it too and features some typical calming Wii menu styled music. The games on each model are lined up with cover art and have QR codes which grants you access each games manual online if scanned. Selecting a game boots it up, but sadly there is no other way to return to the menu without pressing reset on the actual consoles. Thus making the need to have the actual console close by. On the menus you can save satte your current position in the game or return to playing. Everything is very tidy and easy to navigate, although I felt the way you save stated the game to be a little confusing.

Not much else to say about the features they have in common; other than their fantastic value for money. Even attempting at obtaining these retro consoles, with the amount of games and controllers in new condition would set you at insane high prices online. They are value for money times ten. Let's look closer at each one!


NES Classic Mini



Nintendo's gigantic 8-bit success from the 80's. This console rebuilt the flooded and grounded gaming industry in the U.S. It's Japanese model, the Famicom, is available as a mini in Japan. Here in Europa and in the U.S. though, we're familiar with the grey box that utilises a sort of VHS player lid and press down cartridge action. This was done to make the reluctant market look at the NES as a sort of entertainment device much like a VCR player, rather than another console flooding the dead market. I feel it's design is very iconic and has stood the test of time far better than it's rather weird looking Japanese version.

The NES Mini offers 30 built in games. The library is mainly Nintendo first parrty, as expected, and features a fairly diverse line up of some of it's best selling games. With timeless classics, and the stars of the show, like; Super Mario Bros. 1 to 3, Mega Man 2, Castlevania 1 & 2, Metroid, Zelda, Super Contra and Excitebike. You can check the full list online. My perhaps most missed NES titles are TMNT 2, Super Mario Bros. 2 from Japan and Tiger Heli. The first being held back by a Turtles movie license I presume, the original SMB2 as it was never released outside of Japan other than on the remastered All-Stars collection on the SNES and the latter being a personal Toaplan favourite and nothing else.

As the NES originally did not come with RGB video output, it's difficult to get a very clean image out of the original console without modding. As such the NES Mini is perhaps the best visual upgrade to modern screens you can do, if you want a product straight out of the box. The visual quality alone on the NES Mini as such, becomes more interesting for owners of an original NES, than original SNES owners need for a SNES Mini. Save states are a huge welcome for those that find the old games too hard to complete!

Screen options for the NES Mini are: "4:3" which is the classic CRT TV aspect ratio and the one you'll most likely end up using, the default option. A nice, sharp and clean NES image upscaled digitally to 720p for modern TV's. "Pixel Perfect" is how the game was developed; as a completely square picture, but not how it was intended to be shown, as all TV's had the 4:3 ratio. Why this is included I don't know, but it's nice to have options I guess.

The last picture option is a "CRT filter" and while I can appreciate a good scanline filter for big modern TV's to replicate a CRT TV, making the picture less jaggy and closer to how we used to view the games. This NES Mini filter, however, wants to also replicate a picture with lots of antenna interference. Much like the messy picture an original NES outputs, as it had no RGB output and only composite out. I would have liked to have been without the blurry extras and just had a clean scanline filter. A real miss in my opinion, especially when you could have let the player alter how it looks with some basic options.



Verdict: For fans of the NES, that will be a ton of SMB and Zelda players I presume, this is a perfect purchase. Judging by it's huge popularity I would think Nintendo have really hit the perfect market for older generation gamers and parents that want to go back to their childhood days of NES gaming in 80's. Great care has been taken in replicating the original feel of the console too, albeit a second controller is very much missing from the deal and sold separately.

The game library will come across as very outdated for newcomers though; the 8-bit days have a very pure, direct to the point gameplay, but presentation wise they lack the polish of the 16-bit games. Their learning curve and difficulty will be off-putting for new players I should think. Rest assured though, for younger gamers mostly; usually 8-bit titles require very little prior knowledge or explanation, the gameplay is simple enough to just jump into an learn quickly.


Considering the old age of the 8-bit, NES Mini is perhaps suited for those that have nostalgia and memories of playing the actual console back in the day.

SNES Classic Mini



Feeling the pressure from Sega's early 1988 jump to 16-bit in their fast Motorola 68000 processor powered Mega Drive and their increasing market share success in the U.S., Nintendo felt the pressure to deliver a next generation console. The SNES launched in late 1990 in Japan and 1991 elsewhere. It too became a huge success, albeit not as much as the NES due to the loss of market domination. It became part of perhaps the most competitive and famous console wars generation witnessed between itself and the Mega Drive. Mario and Sonic became prominent competitors and 16-bit technology was pushed in many advertisements as the new leap in technology. By the end of the battle though, the SNES had sold the most by a large margin.

The SNES Mini has 20+1 games built in, that extra one is a really cool addition: It's the completed, but never released Star Fox 2! While the title itself perhaps isn't that fantastic, it's a really cool addition in my opinion and a statement of the work put into these mini classics. Finally, there's a chance for old SNES veterans to play the sequel never released! The SNES Mini has a truly fantastic line-up of classics otherwise; Zelda: Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, Mega Man X, F-Zero, Super Metroid, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Contra III, Super Mario World 1 & 2, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI, Super Castlevania IV, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG and of course the first Star Fox

The lack of a few titles I miss, are at least Donkey Kong Country 2, yes we have the first game, but the second is even better and a true classic. We have Squaresoft's huge heavy hitters FFVI and Secret of Mana, but no Chrono Trigger?! I would also have liked the inclusion of Super Mario All-Stars, the 16-bit remastered collection of Super Mario Bros. 1-3, especially since it contains the true original SMB2 from Japan (Lost Levels). Perhaps they skipped Mario since he was featured on the NES Mini? Some strange omissions in my opinion, but alas with that kind of line-up of timeless and fantastic titles, how could I really complain.

As far as screen options go, the SNES has the same "4:3" and "Pixel Perfect" modes as the NES Mini. However, while not perfect, the "CRT filter" is done much better here than on the NES Mini. Trying harder to actually resemble a CRT screen with a clean and crisp picture output. Although I would still have liked options for tweaking the filter once again.

If you play an original SNES on a modern TV, passed through a Framemeister or an OSSC device with RGB output, I'd wager to say this mini isn't exactly something that will look much better, maybe a little less picture noise. As such the graphical upgrade from original hardware isn't as major as the NES, however most people probably played the SNES through the default cables and just connect it directly through the terrible SCART input on modern TVs, so the upgrade will be very visible for more casual players. If you're considering buying this mini you probably don't own an original SNES any longer or just want one, like me, for the sake of it. At least it has save states anywhere in the game as a major upgrade!



Verdict: As timeless and incredible as some of these 16-bit titles prove to be years later, makes SNES Mini my favourite of the two Nintendo classic minis. They represent the very pinnacle of 2D popularity that has never since been replicated or reached. They are from a era that is perhaps the best and most iconic console generation ever, the amount of fantastic titles that were unique and spread across the SNES and the Mega Drive were of fantastic quality and diversity.

The SNES Mini then, unlike the super cheap rip-off Sega clone consoles through the years, takes great care in representing the original hardware in a best possible way. I'll also wager that the more polished 2D graphics of the 16-bit era fair better with newcomers and young gamers of today better than the 8-bit NES. The 16-bit titles have more forgiving difficulty curves making theme easier to get into and there's more depth to the game experience, compared to the brutal and often rough 8-bit experiences.


A perfect purchase for any SNES fan back in the day, as well as young gamers as great door into some of the best and timeless 2D classics ever made.



Summary


Well that's my take on the two classic mini consoles from Nintendo. The focus on quality of the end product and care that the games behave like they did back in the day, combined with almost identical copies to the original controllers make these the best retro throwback consoles made to this date. They may be a little higher in price than other similar retro throwback systems, but rest assured that the quality is top notch and the amount you'd pay for bloated retro gaming prices on eBay would far exceed the asking price of these mini's.

Let's hope for a Game Boy Classic Mini next?!