Nintendo Takes Manhattan

On a chilly Saturday morning in New York City, my nine year-old daughter Gabby and I hopped onto an uptown D train, got off at Macy’s/Herald’s Square, doubled back two blocks down the Avenue of the Americas, and lined up to await entry into a *secret location* in Midtown Manhattan. Once we were inside we slipped off of the line and checked in at an impromptu front desk. We were greeted warmly, as if meeting old friends, and were handed our press pass and ushered directly into a life size pinball machine built from childlike wonder and balled-up happiness: the Nintendo Switch NYC coming-out party.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m gonna overwrite the crap out of this thing. You’ve been warned.

This is where I’d normally say something like, “Where to begin?” but for this one I know where I want to begin: with people. More specifically, I want to begin with the numerous Nintendo Brand Ambassadors who were on hand to guide the morning’s attendees through the Switch experience. These red-shirted Doctors of Switchology (I warned you) were energetic, enthusiastic, and knowledgable about the product, and they were all eager to talk Nintendo and compare war stories. “When I was a kid my mom used to unplug the controller and tell me I was playing,” and, “I just started Wind Waker with my son,” and, “Sonic Mania took me back to my teenage years,” and, “I’ve put, like, 400 hours into the first Splatoon“… these are all things that various Brand Ambassadors shared with my daughter and I that went well beyond how to hold a JoyCon. “Remember, Tails can’t die, and he can fly,” one Brand Ambassador reminded my daughter as she struggled to keep up with my Sonic in Sonic Mania. (I could have maybe slowed down a little.) The positivity of the Ambassadors spilled over to the  already excited attendees, and soon every demo booth and line for Zelda was filled with strangers enjoying the company of other strangers in a way that simply doesn’t happen in New York City.

The event was spread out over two huge reception rooms within the bowels (see: second floor) of the aforementioned *secret location* and they were decked out in full-on Nintendo regalia, a giant Nintendo video arcade stretched from wall to wall and twice over. There was a DJ spinning records, an interactive stage show with an emcee, a photo booth (take your picture with Mario and his new googly-eyed hat!), free prizes for the kids at every turn (my daughter’s swag haul is the stuff of legend), food on an outside balcony that nobody was bothering with because we only had three hours to be in attendance and… well, there were games. Oh… the games.

It’s my understanding, and it’s late so I don’t feel like looking it up to make sure so let’s just go with this, but it’s my understanding that this Switch Reveal Event is going to tour cities across North America. If so, and if you plan to attend when it hits your neck of the woods, let me give you a heads up: don’t go expecting to learn more about the Switch’s online interactivity, or the the Switch’s user interface, or the Switch’s account system, or anything beyond, “Here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch.” Because “here is how you play this game that will appear on the Nintendo Switch” is pretty much what this tour is entirely about. The games, mostly all demo builds, are booted up and ready to go, waiting alongside a friendly Brand Ambassador or two or three or four or… there were a lot of Brand Ambassadors, okay? Anyway, a friendly Brand Ambassador will walk you through getting ready to play, telling you which way to hold the JoyCon or give you a brief tutorial on controls… and then, you play. That’s what this event is. It’s not about tech specs or business models or branding. It is three solid hours of play.

In the spirt of that, I’m going to skip past all of my impressions of the Switch console itself and spend the rest of this post talking about the games. I’m going to assume, gentle reader, that you already have some working knowledge of the Nintendo Switch. If not, here you go: the Nintendo Switch is a tablet gaming console that docks into a cradle and allows you to play games on the go or at home on your TV. It has two controllers, called JoyCons, that slide and lock onto the side of the tablet but can also be removed and used in a number of different configurations to interact with the game software. The JoyCons are small, but mighty.

There. Now you know about the Switch. If you’re still confused about what it is, don’t worry: that’ll be covered in my next post. On to the games!

Just Dance – I’m going to do this chronologically, and the first game we played was Just Dance. Well, I didn’t play Just Dance. My daughter played Just Dance. She said it was fun. It looked just like every other Just Dance to me. The song she danced to was a popular one that I don’t know the name to because I’m a 38 year old dad. That’s a lie; the reason I don’t know the name to the popular Just Dance song is because the first three CDs I ever bought as a teenager were the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a score compilation of the original Star Wars trilogy. Also, two Brand Ambassadors dressed to dance danced along with Gabby so she wouldn’t feel like she was dancing alone and everyone was staring at her, which was a nice touch.

Sonic Mania – We were strolling over to Splatoon 2 when a Brand Ambassador at the nearby Sonic Mania station called out to us and asked if we wanted to play. So we sat down, mostly because I thought she was doomed to spend the entire day watching people blow past her to get to Splatoon and I felt bad for her, but as it turns out Sonic Mania is pretty fun. It’s every inch a shiny new version of a 16 bit Genesis era Sonic game, with a new drop dash mechanic that lets Sonic drop straight to the ground out of a jump and immediately speed off. I remembered as I played that the Sonic franchise has never really been better than it was during the Mega Drive/Genesis age, and the Green Hill Zone level of Mania we ran through showed a course that was tight and well designed (better designed than many in the original Sonic the Hedgehog, for sure). We ran, we jumped, we grabbed rings, we fought a boss… it controls like an evolved version of 16 bit Sonic, thanks largely in part to the momentum-generating mechanics of the drop dash. Sonic Mania isn’t an immediate buy for me, but it’s something I’ll pick up when the price drops in the coming months.

Splatoon 2Splatoon is the game Gabby and I both love, and Splatoon 2 is the one game we played that brought us back to the booth for a second go later in the day. And look: it’s Splatoon. The core mechanic of Turf War remains unchanged, which has led some of the snarkier corners of the Internet to snipe, “Well, it’s REALLY just Splatoon 1.5.” Is that so, Twitter? Is Super Mario Bros. 3 really just Super Mario Bros. Redux? Because the core gameplay of SMB3 is exactly the gameplay of SMB1, improved upon and refined and added to. So it is with Splatoon and Splatoon 2. In the single-map Turf War preview we played, it was clear that Splatoon 2 has a bunch of tweaks that heavily impact the strategy and combat, not mention a fresh coat of paint (pun intended.) The new Charger and the new Roller both carry game-changing alterations (chargers can now hold their charge while you swim and rollers fling out a vertical line of ink when you swing them while leaping), and new weapons like the Splat Dualies introduce all new mechanics, like a forward roll. And the new specials are banana-pants bonkers. There are homing missiles that lock on to your enemies and blow them to splatareens, a F.L.U.D.D.-like jet pack attack, a fire-hose style spray of ink, and a Superman punch that sends your inkling flying high into the air before landing and smashing their fist into the ground, sending an ink-wave out to splat flat the surrounding opponents. Plus: a new one player campaign, a new spectator mode, and who knows what else. It DOES feel better with the Pro Controller than with the JoyCons, so when Splatoon 2 hits is probably when players should invest in the Pro, as well. Splatoon 2, though, is my own personal killer app for the Switch.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – We were late adopters of MK8. We just got it this past October and maybe now we should have waited, but what can you do? We played MK8 while seated on a mock up of an airplane (Gabby grabbed the window seat) with the Switch in tabletop mode and using the JoyCons. I’ll write more about the JoyCons in a later post, but here’s the rundown: though small, they are comfortable, by and large… though MK8 was the one game where I felt a little cramped with them. We didn’t play MK8 with the JoyCons in their sleeves, though, and when we did use the sleeves there was definitely a little more size to grip onto. As for MK8 itself, we played a Grand Prix race and a Battle Mode match. Grand Prix felt great, and it was the best Gabby had ever played on 100cc, which impressed me until the MK8 Brand Ambassador told me that MK8 Deluxe comes with an optional “assisted driving” mode that was active on all the demos, a mode for younger gamers (and lazy older ones, I suppose) that would help keep them on the road. The JoyCons simultaneously enabled motion and button control, which I thought would be annoying but turned out, like in Splatoon, to be really useful: I steered with buttons and used the motion control for smaller tweaks. This was also our first experience playing on the Switch screen itself, and it is a super-sharp, bright image. I’m not going to throw numbers and schematics at you because I’m bad with numbers and schematics, but I’ll put it like this: the Switch screen is HD enough to satisfy all but the most grumpy of grumpasauruses. Also: Battle Mode is back, folks, and it is as glorious as you remember.

1, 2, Switch – Along with Arms and SnipperClips, this is the game I most wanted to play. I love Zelda, Mario Kart, and Splatoon, but I know what they are. 1, 2, Switch is something entirely different: a video game where you are encouraged to NOT look at the screen. You begin to understand 1, 2, Switch after you play it; this is Nintendo’s answer to Cards Against Humanity. It’s WarioWare, but in real life. It’s a party game that you can see turning raucous and boozy, and it could be huge at parties after the kids go to bed, or in college dorms. Nintendo presented the experience smartly, placing each game station in individual glass booths with groups of four players and two Brand Ambassadors. It simulated the group environment that the game works best in, and really illustrated 1, 2, Switch‘s particular appeal. It was also the best demonstration of the JoyCon’s HD rumble feature on the show floor. We played three games: the Old West shootout (not bad), the cow milking game (a little weird, but fun), and a game that asked you to count the number of little metal balls rolling around in your JoyCon, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t actually feel like there were a bunch of little metal balls rolling around inside the JoyCon. I don’t think 1, 2, Switch should have been a pack-in (it’s a more complete experience than Wii Sports) but pricing it at $50 is going to be prohibitive to turning it into the buzz worthy party hit that it should be. $30 is the sweet spot, IMO, and hopefully we see a drop in the MSRP before launch day, because even after all my talk about this really being great as a grown-up party game, here’s where I tell you: this was my nine year old’s favorite game of the day. So yeah… I’m going to be buying 1, 2, Switch.

Arms Arms is Othello. No, not the play; the board game. Like the old tagline for Othello, Arms is easy to learn but difficult to master, and by the way? It was my favorite experience of the day. This spiritual successor to Punch-Out!! is the Wii game of Nintendo’s dreams, two generations later. The JoyCons improve upon the motion control of the Wii Motion Plus controllers, and fit far more comfortably in your balled-up fist than the Wiimote ever did. Plus, there’s two of them. The on-screen instructions for Arms are fantastic; I can get behind any game that tells me: “PUNCH to punch!” Your punches really react to the direction in which you swing your fist, and you quickly see that advanced play is going to involve severely curling and twisting your punches as you throw them. It is simple to get your character to walk, dash, block, grab, and throw, and each character I played with had different jump mechanics: Ribbon Girl has a triple jump, and the girl in the yellow mech can hover off the ground for short periods. You can swap out your boxing gloves between every round, not just between every match, and you get access to such variations as propeller fists, boomerang fists, shotgun fists, and I’m sure many, many more. We played on two arenas: the first was a boxing ring surrounded by trampolines, and the second was a large, wide outdoor staircase that forces you to fight upwards or downwards relative to your position. Arms also has options for traditional controls but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to use them, so one of the downsides to the game is that local multiplayer will basically require a second expensive set of JoyCons, which is a sadly prohibitive approach. Much like 1, 2, Switch, lots of opinion-minded folks have suggested Arms should be a pack-in. I can actually agree with that, and here’s why: there would be no better way for Nintendo to sell extra JoyCons to people than to drop Arms in their arms.

Splatoon 2 (Again) – We went from Arms to a second round of Splatoon 2, this time using the tablet. The tablet was just as pretty for Splatoon as we had found it to be for Mario Kart, but oddly enough I had a problem with the tablet that I hadn’t had with the Pro Controller: as you may be aware, the right analog stick on the Switch is below the face buttons, as opposed to the Wii U GamePad, where the stick is above the face buttons. While playing on the tablet I keep reaching up to nudge the camera, only to find nothing there. NBD; I’ll get used to it. It’s still Splatoon, which means it’s still the best thing ever EVER I SAID.

SnipperClips – Holy hell, this game is adorable and awesome, and at $20 it’s going to be a STUPID huge value. In SnipperClips, you and up to four players control anthropomorphized pieces of construction paper, and you must work together to solve puzzles. Sometimes you have to cut snips of paper off of each other in order to fit yourselves into the dotted outlines of various shapes, sometimes you have to get a basketball up and over into a hoop, and sometimes you have to carry a giant pencil across the screen and turn it onto its side to get it into a giant pencil sharpener. It’s such a Nintendo game in that, even as I describe it I KNOW you’re not going to really understand it until you get your hands on it, and then it’ll seem as obvious and instinctual as any game you’ve ever played. SnipperClips is clearly designed to be played with the Switch tablet in tabletop mode and the JoyCons in hand. If you’ve ever been to a leadership or group building conference and done one of those group activities where you and your team had to, like, build the tallest free standing structure in the room with nothing but newspapers and Scotch tape, you know what it feels like to play SnipperClips… except nobody’s going to expect you to exhibit personal growth and share your feelings with the room after you’re done. So SnipperClips is better than those conferences.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Playing Zelda was the most boring experience of the day. SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE ALARM! SOUND THE — no, no, calm down. Look back on the rest of the listed games. Most of them offer experiences that can be played from beginning to end in a five or ten minute gaming session. Splatoon, MK8, Arms, etc… even the Sonic Mania demo gave players two whole levels to complete. Zelda, on the other hand, is a hundred hour game. Hundred hour games don’t exactly demo well over twenty minutes. Plus, the Switch Zelda demo build was the same as the Wii U Zelda demo build from E3. Players were only given twenty minutes to play, and you started in the Shrine of Blue Goo That Link Wakes Up In. So, you know, I got to run around on the Great Plateau, cut down some trees, hunt a boar, fight some Bokoblins… and that was pretty much it. Look: my rabid excitement for Breath of the Wild hasn’t diminished, and neither should yours. It feels like you’re playing a painting, the controls are sharp, and the menus are intuitive and clean. But I’ve seen enough of the Great Plateau. I need a quest. Twenty minutes of the same Zelda area I’ve been watching since June is just not enough to satisfy at this point. Thankfully, we only have a month and a half left to wait. Shut off the alarm and do a happy dance.

Puyo Puyo Tetris – With our time at Switchland NYC coming to a close, I asked Gabby if there was anything else she wanted to play, hoping I’d be able to sneak in a round of Bomberman or Ultra Street Fighter 2. Instead, Gabby said she wanted to play Tetris.

Tetris.

TETRIS.

So we sat down and played some Tetris, and I remembered: hey, Tetris was a worldwide phenomenon because it’s a pretty great game, and Puyo Puyo Tetris, which mashes up Tetris with the “match three” puzzle game Puyo Puyo, only reaffirms that. Two player battle mode is still a blast after all these years and the JoyCons go great with the game. It’s a bright, candy-colored, old-school good time with a new-school sheen, and HD displays were born to hold multiple Tetris boards at one time. There’s not much more I can say about it because, you know… it’s Tetris. It’s great for what it is, but it’s not like you can turn it into some long sci-fi adventure with a super compelling story. (Tetris: The Movie, coming soon to a multiplex near you. This is not a joke. It’s supposed to be a trilogy. Still not joking.)

That, then, drew the day to a close. So along with the rest of the super satisfied public, my daughter and I headed towards the exits, endured the super-friendly gauntlet of Brand Ambassadors offering us cookies and pins as we left, got our coats, said our thank-yous to our host, and headed back out into the NYC chill. As we walked, the sun seemed just a little bit brighter and the air a little bit warmer, and it was all because Gabby and I both knew: the crazy-fun Nintendo Switch experience we had just had was only a month and a half away from being introduced into our own home.

Either that, or because it was three hours later into the day. That could also be the reason why it was brighter and warmer on the streets of New York.

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