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Nintendo Switch Lite review

A smaller yet less switch-y Switch

Years ago, I was talking to a friend about my dreams of a day when a singular video game system would exist that could be both a portable and a console. And then, in 2016, those dreams came true when Nintendo announced the Switch.

In the two years that I’ve owned my Switch, the device has cemented itself as one of my favorite pieces of gaming hardware perhaps ever. The ability to—at a moment’s notice—go from playing games on a television, to taking them with me in portable form, and then switching back again, fits perfectly with the way that I want to play. And yet, deep down, I’ve also felt like something was still missing. With Sony seemingly bowing out of the handheld race, the Switch became my biggest hope for a device that would take the place of my beloved PlayStation Vita. While the Switch does seem poised to be a replacement software-wise (as indie games and weirdo Japanese releases continue to find their way to Nintendo’s eShop), it simply can’t be that compact, lightweight portable that I can carry around with me wherever I go or play for long periods without feeling strain from its heft.

Enter the Nintendo Switch Lite. For as many people as there are hoping Nintendo might make a “Pro” Switch with beefier stats and more focus on being a console, an equal amount have been wishing we’d get a smaller model better suited for the handheld side of the Switch’s duality. As curious as I was to see how that second option would work out, I’m not sure I could have imagined how much difference a small set of changes would end up making.

Holding the Switch Lite in my hands, I know that it’s the Switch’s younger sibling, but it’s hard not to also feel like it might be a totally different gaming platform. The original Switch is like a big concrete government building, designed for function over form, never mistaken for anything other than what it is. The Switch Lite, meanwhile, is a more compact, self-contained Switch, but it could also be a PlayStation Portable 2, or Xbox Go, or any other number of potential devices. The Switch’s trademark “two controllers stuck to a screen” look is gone, and with it some of its identity, but in its place is a device that feels like it knows what it is and what it wants to be, rather than something trying to fill two very different roles at once.

And, after a little over a week with the Switch Lite, it does indeed know how to be a handheld. The unit itself feels fantastic to hold and use, from its overall design, to its trigger placements, to its 5.5” display. I can’t say enough how much better the Switch Lite feels to play as a handheld due to its sturdiness, lighter weight, and smaller size. When I first got the Switch, I worried about its size when playing undocked, but I was able to finally get used to it. An hour after getting the Switch Lite, a lot of those memories came flooding back. To be clear, I wouldn’t go so far as to now call the original Switch “unplayable” or anything hyperbolic like that, but having both systems sitting here available to me, I can see myself picking up the Switch Lite over the original Switch at least 90 percent of the time (if not more).

And yes, I know it’s another part of handheld devices that we’ve all gotten used to by now, but I have to complement the Switch Lite’s screen. Sure, it’s no OLED Vita—not much is, really—but it’s still top notch. (At least, mine is, as I’ve avoided the yellow tinting that seems to plague so many LCD screens.) Giving the Switch Lite a 5.5” screen means it sits above all other handheld gaming systems out there, but below the original Switch (which came in at 6.5”), and I think that’s a great sweet spot to land in.

The Nintendo Switch Lite is perfect for Goldilocks—not too big, not too small

There’s also been an interesting reaction that I’ve had experiencing games on that not-too-big, not-too-small screen. Playing Deadly Premonition Origins or Bayonetta or Dark Souls on the standard Switch has never seemed weird, because the system is also a console, and they’re console games, right? With the Switch Lite, however, it’s consistently hard to rationalize that these kinds of games are running on something that my brain refuses to see as anything but a handheld. Yes, I know—with today’s high-powered smartphones, streaming services, and other tech, getting console-quality experiences on small screens is the norm now. As someone who has seen the growth of the portable market since the launch of the original Game Boy, however, I can still be amazed. Playing games on the Switch Lite reminds me of when I bought my PlayStation Portable and sat there on my floor of my apartment dumbfounded that something I could hold in my hands was able to play games like Ridge Racer (the PSP one, not the PS1 one).

In both idea and execution, I really like the Nintendo Switch Lite. And, as someone who wants the system to be as good as it can be on a personal, selfish level, I wish I could tell you everything about the system is as it should be. The problem is, there’s a number of “buts” that arise about the Switch Lite, some which will only be a negative depending on your personal use case, and others which give me far greater pause in recommending the system.

Going into the Switch Lite, there was one huge point of concern that I had for it: Nintendo’s reputation as a company who continually lags behind in its online and digital distribution services. I worried about how easy it was going to be to actively use two Switches at a time—if it’d even be possible at all. Surprisingly, Nintendo has provided options that are way more flexible than I was expecting. Describing all of this is going to get a bit messy, so let me set up an example situation. You and I are friends, and I own two Switches: my original that I’ve got registered as my primary system, and my Switch Lite that I’ve set up as a secondary. Both my account and yours are signed in on both, and all of my game library is digital, since physical copies don’t have to bother with any of this.

On my primary, both you and I can play my games just fine like before, but on my secondary, only I can play them—and only as long as I have an internet connection. Every time I launch a game, the secondary system needs to confirm that I’m authorized for that title, and once it’s launched, it can be open for about 3 hours before that check will happen again. From there, if I’m playing a game on my secondary, and you start up one of my games on my primary, things are fine. However, if my account starts any game on my primary Switch, my secondary gets blocked from playing any games. To get access to my library back, my account on my primary must totally quit out of the active game.

Given all of that, I think the most realistic set-up for anyone who wants to have both a Switch and Switch Lite will be to set the Lite as your primary console, have the Switch be your secondary, and keep it at home where it’ll always have a stable internet connection for checking in. Now, you could tether your Lite to your smartphone to fulfill those check-ins while on the go, but, at least to me, that seems like more trouble than it’s worth. So, too, would be getting locked out of your entire library while out and about, in the case that your primary Switch isn’t properly inactive.

Where all of this starts to become increasingly complicated is if you want to introduce a Switch Lite into a multi-person situation—which, you know, seems like one of the system’s biggest selling points. In my household, our daughters are too young to play games yet, so we could at least benefit from my being able to play on the Lite if my wife wants to use our original Switch at the same time. What if our daughters were older, though? Giving each their own Switch Lite seems like the best solution, and buying games digitally rather than physically makes too much sense in households where games can get lost, or misplaced, or “borrowed” by your children’s friends, or broken, or whatever else.

And yet, Nintendo provides no true solution for running the same digital games on multiple systems other than purchasing multiple copies on a variety of user accounts, all at full retail price. Sony’s PlayStation Portable—which launched 14 years ago—allowed the same game to be played on two different units without any concern for who was playing them. Apple, meanwhile, allows up to five iOS devices to play the same game under family app sharing. While it’s not totally fair to knock a piece of hardware for service issues that will only affect a certain percent of system owners, it has to be acknowledged that Nintendo’s habit of constantly lagging behind in this kind of technology is directly hampering the potential of the Switch Lite. The company needs to offer more solutions for all of this, even if that solution is letting you purchase additional digital copies of the same game for a reduced price.

There’s another catch you’ll need to keep in mind if you want to own (and actively use) multiple Switch units, but it’s a more manageable one: game saves. If you’re a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, then most of your games will fall under the service’s cloud saves option. While you can automate uploading saves to the cloud, downloading them cannot be. So, every time you jump from one Switch to another, you’re going to need to confirm that your latest save is in the cloud, and then manually download it. Unfortunately, not every game supports cloud saves, so for those, you’ll need to do a wireless transfer from one system to the other every time you want to pick up progress on the unit you weren’t previously using. It’s a pain, but at least the option is there, and it works pretty quickly, all things considered. If you’re not a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, though, prepare for that hassle every single time for every single game.

Juggling my digital library between two systems was a nuisance I expected to face. What I didn’t expect was to then have physical issues as well. For the most part, the Nintendo Switch Lite is a great piece of hardware. It’s great to hold, feels incredibly solid—unlike the regular Switch, where I’m always sure I’m going to snap off the Joy-Cons—and most of the buttons and inputs are in positions that don’t require you to contort your hands to use. (The right analog stick can bother me in games where I need to use it a lot, though.) However, one of the biggest physical selling points of the Switch Lite—its D-pad—is surprisingly bad. On the original Switch, Nintendo replaced the D-pad with four directional buttons, which I’ve found usable for certain games like Tetris 99 but not a lot else. Now, on the Switch Lite, we get a proper D-pad again, but the one on my unit doesn’t feel anywhere near the level of quality we’ve come to expect from the company that invented that style of input.

In general, the D-pad on my Switch Lite is kinda mushy, most noticeable when doing things like scrolling through the main menu or selecting letters on the virtual keyboard. Far worse, though, is its inability to read diagonals a majority of the time. I tried out four fighting games—Samurai Shodown II, The King of Fighters ’98, Street Fighter Alpha 2, and Street Fighter III: Third Strike—and was unable to pull off even the simplest of special moves in every one of them. If I really focused on my inputs, and put more pressure on the diagonals that I ever normally would, I was able to get fireball or dragon punch movements to read sometimes, but still far from consistently. While I’ve seen reports online of people buying Switch Lites with D-pads that read diagonals fine, I’ve also seen plenty of others having the same issue that I’m having. So, at least as of now, this seems like a problem with the hardware that is more than just bad luck. As someone who grew up gaming long before analog sticks make their big, post-Atari 5200 return on the Nintendo 64, it’s frustrating whenever I run into a bad D-pad. And yet, if I’m being honest, I use the analog stick for pretty much everything on my Switch, from precise platformers to those aforementioned fighters. Plus, for games that don’t rely on a lot of diagonal presses, the D-pad should still (hopefully) get the job done, especially if you end up with a unit that shows no issues. Still, I have to judge the system based on the unit that Nintendo sent me, which is a Switch Lite containing a D-pad that is obviously flawed.

To drift or not to drift

We also have to address the elephant in the room: the joystick drift that has become a very real problem on the original Switch, to the point that Nintendo (in some regions) is providing free repairs even outside of warranty. Now, I won’t tell you that I’ve had joystick drift issues on my Switch Lite, because I haven’t—but I also can’t tell you that they won’t happen. At this point, we just don’t know yet if that will be a concern for the Switch Lite as it has become for the Switch, and unlike its older brother, you can’t just buy new Joy-Cons to replace faulty ones here. So, that’s something you’re going to want to keep in mind before purchasing a Switch Lite.

I know I’ve written a lot of words sounding harsh toward the Nintendo Switch Lite, which I think is one of the complexities of doing hardware reviews. While the system’s faults are much easier to dig deep into when looking at what exactly is wrong and why, there’s only so many ways I can say that I think the Lite is (mostly) well built, easy to hold, and seems like it’ll do a great job filling particular gaming needs.

It’s that one element—consumer need—where I’ve been the most hesitant about the Switch Lite, though. Nintendo lagging behind on digital game management I expected, the D-pad isn’t something I was holding my breath for anyhow, but beyond all of that is the question of who the Lite is for and in what situations you might own one as your second Switch—or potentially even your first.

What I know for certain is this: I would never own a Switch Lite as my only Switch. Even if the idea of a handheld that’s also a console that’s also a handheld isn’t hugely appealing to you, leaving that option off of the table, should you ever want it, is a big thing to give up. I can understand why Nintendo didn’t want to give the Lite the ability to dock with a television, but I also kinda don’t understand. Even if the Lite still wouldn’t have all of the versatility of the original Switch, if it was able to at least then play on a television for those times when you want or need to do so, then it could have been a legitimate option for anyone wanting to jump onto the platform. Not being able to move to playing on a bigger screen also brings up one of the inherent flaws of the Switch as a platform: that some developers don’t seem to appreciate their games need to work well in both configurations. We’ve seen too many titles at this point with text or UI elements that are hard to read on the original Switch’s built-in display, and games like Doom or River City Girls have elements that become even more indecipherable on a smaller screen. With no option for enlarging those experiences, having only a Switch Lite might mean simply giving up on some games that don’t scale well.

If you’re serious about only playing Switch games in handheld form and are really sure that you won’t ever want to also play those games on your television, then the Nintendo Switch Lite is a pretty decent new solution for doing so—as long as its shortcomings won’t get in the way of how you want to use it. If, instead, you’ve got your eye on the Lite as a second system, or want something that’ll help your family fight less over who gets to game when, then take everything I’ve laid out on the negative side into careful consideration. For me, I think the extra flexibility that owning both brings will make an already versatile gaming platform even better—but I’m also aware that $199 is a lot of money for a device that comes with so many asterisks on that promise of flexibility.

★★★☆☆

I really, really like the Nintendo Switch Lite, and think it's a great new addition to Nintendo's hardware lineup for anyone who loves the Switch's library but wishes those games could be experienced on a more portable, lightweight device. And yet, I can't just ignore the issues the system has. With a still convoluted digital rights system, a cloud save set-up that requires more effort than it should, and a will-or-won't-it-work D-pad, this is a fantastic little portable that's hampered in ways that could—and should—have never been an issue in the first place.

Developer
Nintendo
Publisher
Nintendo
Release Date
09/20/2019
Nintendo Switch Lite is available on . Primary version played was for . Code/hardware was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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