Nintendo Switch Pushes My Buttons

By Rich Stanton on at

One of my favourite pieces of videogame hardware design is the PAL-edition Super Nintendo’s enormous and convex ‘Eject’ button. A giant lump of grey plastic that you jammed down in order to make cartridges pop up, the real secret to its brilliance is simple: it’s not strictly necessary. Nintendo’s engineers could have saved money and let users pull out carts by hand. But this seemingly-extraneous feature was worth it for one reason alone. Pushing that thing was a lot of fun and, in a small way, made the SNES hardware toylike.

So much of Nintendo’s hardware incorporates elements of this philosophy. Some might point to the US ‘Toaster’ redesign of the NES, and its flappy cartridge letterbox - as well as the ridged top to run your hand over. The raised nub of the Game Boy’s power switch, which clicked from side-to-side and doubled-up as a cartridge-lock. The click-clack of the SNES or N64 power switches eventually leads to the Gamecube, a console designed to look like a toy and - with its carry-handle - be lugged about like one. Sound familiar? Even when we start getting to DS, the simple satisfaction of clicking those screens together had precedent in the clamshells of Game & Watch and GBA SP.

If you wanted to be really out-there, you could suggest the whole ‘touch generation’ philosophy flowed from this - an understanding games are not just software, not just code that plays out in the abstract, but things that we control through physical motion. The jump from pressing buttons to waving wiimotes really wasn’t so big, it was just no-one had thought to go in that direction with that kind of execution.

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What it all adds up to is a quality that, throughout their history, has defined Nintendo’s hardware: an understanding of its role as an entertainment device and, by extension, a plaything. You might scoff when I say that the SNES eject button is toylike, but that’s why it remains the most memorable part of that hardware design. Ejecting a cartridge isn’t anything special, but why not make it enjoyable? The results speak for themselves: no-one talks about taking carts out of the Mega Drive.

Which brings us to Switch. The most immediately striking thing about Switch is that it’s much smaller than you think. Even smaller. Everything about the hardware - and this extends to the boxes for software and accessories - is diminutive. Even the box the console comes in is small. The JoyCons seem made for Donald Trump’s hands. And then you start to piece it all together.

Setup is playful - the Switch dock’s back has the ports hidden in a recess, accessed through a flap, which leads out through a little gap just big enough for the three wires involved. But all of this is mere foreplay next to the great joy of sliding each JoyCon into position on either side of the console’s body, undocking it (which does feel a little like pulling up a cartridge) and walking around waiting for a chance to pop that back hinge.

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The SNES eject button was at the forefront of my mind as I clicked and clacked through Switch’s various configurations. When you pull the Joycons out, it’s like disconnecting a toy robot’s arms. When you slide the JoyCons back into their side grooves, there’s a tiny bit of resistance as they slide down before locking in with a delicious click. The controller grip plays a part in this too, an accessory I thought I’d find annoying that ends up being fun to fiddle with while Zelda loads up.

This extends to the buttons, which are much springier than those on the Wii U gamepad or Wiimote, and in stark contrast to the latter’s minimalist design have multiplied. Each Joycon has one clicky analogue stick, six face buttons, two shoulder buttons, an undocking button, and then two ‘hidden’ buttons on the Joycon’s connecting side - an embarrassment of riches for idle fingers. Just to re-gather ourselves, I’m not suggesting the Switch controllers have this many buttons just to make it toylike - but the hardware is designed to maximise the tactile pleasure that users get from it, and so they become part of the package.

We don’t talk about hardware in intimate terms, yet we all know that some machines are more lovely than others. The Switch is both a living room and handheld console, a new form, but it is physically geared towards the latter and - most specifically - the sensation of handling and dis- or re-assembling the hardware.

Nintendo’s expertise in handhelds comes to the fore in Switch: beautiful, compact, durable. My white DS Lite is battered and scuffed because it lived in my bag for years - ditto the launch 3DS, still going strong and bearing the scars for it. The Lite took enormous inspiration from Apple’s products, especially the then-current Macbooks, while the original 3DS slightly bulked this out into what its designer described as a ‘three-layered cake.’ Nintendo designs these machines not only to be beautiful, but to be with someone and endure the bumps of daily life. A famous anecdote about the development of the DS is that Satoru Iwata, then-president of Nintendo, decreed the final model had to survive being dropped onto concrete from 1.5 metres ten times. His reasoning being that, if it flew out of the basket of a child’s bicycle, it probably wasn’t going to land on grass.

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The most famous Game Boy in the world - owned by a US soldier in the first Gulf War, it somehow survived being bombed and still works.

Robustness and tactile pleasures go hand-in-hand - no matter how many times I do it, I’ll never get tired of flipping open the DS clamshell lid. Compare this to Sony’s handhelds, the power slates. Not to take cheap shots, because I have a lot of time for both PSP and Vita, and they’re undeniably beautiful in some ways - but neither ever became a permanent resident of my bag. With Vita in particular the original’s OLED screen is gorgeous, and the build quality is great, but it never came close to displacing 3DS. It never felt like a part of me. In his book Game Over David Sheff reports that Sony executives back in the 80s were furious at Nintendo’s invention of the Game Boy, believing they should’ve got there first but, as he wryly notes, they’d probably have called it the Game Man. Sony designs hardware to be desired; Nintendo's priority is making hardware to live with.

The core gimmick of Switch - now it’s on the telly, now it’s in your hands - is taken for granted already by the enthusiast press, but I showed it to a few houseguests over the weekend and they were stunned. One sceptic was soon docking and undocking the Switch at a rate that slightly worried me, asking “How can they make this?” These aren’t the kind of people who read videogames websites or know when a new console’s coming out, but they’re exactly the kind of people Nintendo’s trying to reach with Switch. It’s nice to see how quickly people take to switching between TV and up-close, testing the magic again and again like a child, and the sheer pleasure of just handling this thing.

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I love that the power button on top is slightly recessed. How when you remove the JoyCons, the LEDs on the side light up in a playful little pattern. Having to head out for something and just lifting that bad boy out of the dock, no fuss, and playing on - looking forward to the moment when I can click it back in. How light it all is, how tiny the JoyCons feel when removed, how easily it transitions from my hands onto any flat surface - with a little click-out of the back hinge. The light internal whirr when I touch that power button.

Switch wants to be touched: this is hardware to be loved. I look beneath my television and I see monstrosities like the Xbox One, and this is not like-for-like of course, but it’s hardware designed with zero thought given to how players might interact with it - hardware designed instead to dominate a space, aggressively noisy and huge in every respect. Xbox One isn’t interested in being your pal, it just wants squatters’ rights in your living room for a few years.

Switch wants to be your friend. It begs to be lifted, the little divots at the connection between body and JoyCons tempting you to caress them and - sometimes, sometimes not - click in the little buttons and lift. It’s happy to clack back in the dock while you veg out for a few hours in the front of the telly, and always delighted to come back out to play. It feels like the beginning of something beautiful. Videogames are one of the biggest joys of my life, so it’s an amazing feeling to find a console that seems equally excited about playing them.