It’s 5.15am on a Saturday, slightly below freezing, and dark. I make my way through the streets of Tokyo, streets that are filled with the bustle of life during the day but unnaturally calm this early in the morning. I walk past my usual coffee shop, and my brain tells me that it hasn’t had as much sleep as it would like and that it would really like a caffeine hit, but the shop too is dark and quiet. As I arrive at the train station, signs of life appear. The first trains of the morning are serving to ferry more people home after their nights out than people who are starting their day like myself. I see two drunks stumbling on the platform as I board my train.
There isn’t a lot that would get me out of bed before 5am, but Nintendo is an exception. On Saturday, I attended the Nintendo Switch hands-on event in Tokyo, and, fearing massive crowds because it was open to the public, I wanted to be there early enough to beat them. My fears were justified: when I arrived at Tokyo Big Sight (the Tokyo International Exhibition Center), a queue had already begun to form. Nintendo was prepared for it, offering plenty of signposting, staff, and dedicated queueing lanes. And so began a miserable wait outside in the cold, cold so biting that, despite my gloves, my fingers began to feel numb if I tried to play on my phone or 3DS for more than a few minutes at a time.
Fortunately for those of us in the queue, the building opened at 8am and we were herded, single file, into queueing spaces that had been prepared inside the building. The event didn’t officially start until 10am, so it was a blessing to be out of the cold. From my new waiting point inside, the queue stretched farther back than I could see, so I’m not sure if anyone arriving later needed to wait outside or not.
While we were waiting in line, Nintendo staff walked by handing out maps of the show floor, the schedule for the stage events, and also a booklet containing information about the Switch hardware and software. The map showed large areas dedicated to 1-2-Switch, ARMS, Splatoon 2, Breath of the Wild, and a booth where you could play some of the smaller titles such as Super Bomberman R, Ultra Street Fighter 2, and Dragon Quest. A “Switch tour” area was prominent, and this was the only way to experience Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Snipperclips.
In addition to the game areas which allowed players to get hands on with the Switch, the exhibition hall boasted photo opportunity spots for Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2, and there was also a live stage that featured concerts and presentations about the Switch and some of the big software titles. I would have loved to attend the presentation about Breath of the Wild, but my Japanese comprehension doesn’t extend much past knowing what the Japanese words for “The Legend of Zelda” are. All of the onstage events were live streamed for those who couldn’t attend the event in person.
Slowly, the queue shuffled forward, and we eventually reached a point where we had to break off and choose one of three new queues to join. On the left was General Admission, in the middle Splatoon 2, and on the right was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I, of course, made a beeline for Zelda. When the doors to the exhibition hall opened, this queue funneled us through the entry area and straight into the queueing area for the Breath of the Wild demo. I’ve been to a lot of gaming events where waiting in line to play a game is a necessary evil, and this was the most well-organized one I’ve ever seen.
The area where Breath of the Wild was being shown was impressive. It contained approximately 60 demo stations, each equipped with a TV, armchair, headphones, and a small table holding a docked Switch and instruction card that illustrated the function of each button in the game. The backdrop to the entire booth was a gorgeous panorama of Hyrule’s vast landscape. Another wall was decorated with the now-familiar image of Link climbing a cliff that was released for E3 last year, and the other side of this wall, which faced the outside of the booth, was embedded with a screen playing the new trailer on a loop. I don’t know how many times I watched and/or listened to that trailer that day, but I never once got sick of it. Outside of the booth was a life-sized statue of Link about to shoot an arrow. It was very, very pretty.
And so, after several hours of waiting, it was finally my turn to play Breath of the Wild! I had arrived at the event early enough to make it into the second group to go through for the day. I was guided to a station and, although each station had an attendant, somebody else approached me and asked if I spoke English. I was prepared to get by with my bad Japanese – and I figured that it’s a Zelda game, so I’d be able to work out the basics – but it was thoughtful of Nintendo to provide staff to cater to non-Japanese visitors. The attendant explained to me that I would be able to play the game for 20 minutes and that I had the freedom to play in TV mode or handheld mode, whichever one I wanted. We started off in TV mode, and he asked me to call him if I wanted to switch the way I was playing on the Switch. Switch the Switch, get it?
The game itself was in Japanese, but that was fine. The demo began in the same Great Plateau area that was used for the E3 demonstration, so I’d seen it before and knew what was happening. We had the freedom to run around and do whatever we wanted for the 20 minutes. That 20 minutes, by the way, passed in the blink of an eye. I suspect that Breath of the Wild is going to be one of those games that unintentionally keeps me up way past my bedtime far more often than it should. Still, I got to do a decent amount of exploring and trying out various game mechanics. What else can I say about the game? It’s promising to be a masterpiece.
I was equally as interested in checking out the Switch hardware as my short foray into Hyrule, and I started out playing in TV mode using the Joy-Con grip. I thought that this controller configuration might be too small for my hands, since the grip results in a controller that’s more narrow than a traditional – or the Pro – controller, but it felt good in my hands. (I’d say that I have medium-sized hands.) After some time, I switched to handheld mode, and the attendant showed me how to remove the Joy-Cons from the grip (there’s a little button that releases them) and slide them onto the console. The resulting configuration reminded me of the Wii U GamePad, although it’s a bit heavier than the GamePad. For some reason, now that I had to hold the device in such a way that I could see the screen, the button layout suddenly felt a tiny bit awkward, despite the fact that I’d been using the same layout with the grip. It may just require a little more than I the few minutes I had to get used to it, and, that said, I was instantly re-immersed in the game.
I’d say that it was a little hard switching Breath of the Wild from TV to handheld mode, but that’s only because it looks so incredible on the big screen that it seemed a shame to put it on a smaller one. However, that is completely offset by the convenience of portability.
Unfortunately, due to the size of the crowd in attendance, opportunities to play most of the other games filled up for the day while I was in line for Breath of the Wild. As soon as the queueing area for each game filled up, Nintendo staff began handing out tickets for various time slots during the day, but these were all capped out not very long after the doors had opened. Essentially, in order to experience the Switch in Tokyo, you needed to be there early, and if you wanted to play Zelda or Splatoon then that was probably all you were going to get to play because everything else filled up while you were in line. The people who joined the general admission queue had the best chance to play multiple games by getting tickets for the various other attractions like the Switch tour or ARMS. The one member of our group who did this scored three tickets: for ARMS, the tour, and 1-2-Switch, but his times for the latter two overlapped, so he gave me his 1-2-Switch ticket. That is the only reason why I was able to play more than just Zelda on Saturday.
due to the size of the crowd in attendance, opportunities to play the games capped out not very long after the doors had opened.
It wasn’t until after I’d finished my Breath of the Wild demo that I had the chance to explore the show floor. As expected, it was incredibly crowded. Most of the many layers of clothing I was wearing against the cold were soon discarded as the hall became hot and stuffy, and one very nice thing about the event was that each activity, whether it was a game demo or photo booth, had boxes to put anything you were holding into, such as bags and jackets, while you were playing. This is a convenience also offered in many Japanese restaurants, and I really welcomed it at an event like this.
I watched most of one of the concerts, which featured the Nintendo Rock Band playing music from games such as Splatoon, Xenoblade, and Mario Kart. We took photos at the Super Mario Odyssey area, and my friends and I stood in line for far longer than we should have for a photo in the Splatoon booth. Both photo areas were staffed, which was convenient because you could hand over your phone or camera and have a picture taken with your entire group in it — so long as you didn’t block the view of Mario! They weren’t happy when we did that in our first attempt.
The 1-2-Switch booth was the highlight of the show floor. Its entrance was flanked by giant models of the Joy-Con, and attendees could see through three colored perspex cubes on either side into rooms themed around the mini games on display. Costumed staff played with attendees, and yes, when it was my time to play, people could watch me inside the rooms. When we first entered the booth, we had to first watch the trailer that was shown during the Switch live stream on Friday, and then a presenter appeared and explained each of the six games on display: Quick Draw, Samurai Training, Milk, Copy Dance, Eating Contest, and Ball Count. After that, we were free to try out any two of the six that we liked.
I chose Quick Draw and Milk. Quick Draw looked fun, and I thought that Milk sounded strange enough that I wanted to play it and try out the HD rumble. Before we entered each room, we were offered silly accessories such as hats and aprons to wear while we played. When I entered the Quick Draw room, the costumed gunslinger inside asked me if I could speak English, and when I affirmed, his response was, “Are you ready to die?” The Milk farmer wore a ridiculous set of false teeth along with his costume.
Quick Draw was fun, and very simple. I can see a lot of people having fun with it and challenging each other to duels. Milk was just… weird. The motion takes a little getting used to, but the feedback from the controller does let you know when you’re doing it properly and squeezing out more of that virtual milk. I’m honestly not sure if this game will have much longevity outside of it being a novelty and something to try out. Overall, I think that 1-2-Switch has the potential to be a good party game, but the games on display were also serving as tech demos showing off the Switch’s features. For this reason, I think that it probably should be bundled with the console à la Wii Sports and Nintendo Land rather than being sold separately at full price. That said, there are still about a dozen more mini-games that haven’t been revealed yet, so I guess we have to wait and see.
in order to experience the Switch in Tokyo, you needed to be there early, and if you wanted to play Zelda or Splatoon 2 then that was probably all you were going to get to play.
The crowds began to thin by mid afternoon. If you didn’t have a ticket to play a game and weren’t interested in watching all of the stage presentations, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do once you’d spent a bit of time on the show floor. There was another concert on stage at the end of the day, but my friends and I decided that, with nothing else to do, it wasn’t worth waiting around for, especially because it was streamed online. Despite the fact that I hadn’t been able to get hands on with as many games as I would have liked, I had a fun day and found the event really enjoyable thanks to the enthusiasm from both staff and attendees and the attention to detail. What would have made it better would have been to (at least) double the size of the venue and number of demo stations available, and if Nintendo had been selling merchandise there they would have made a squillion.
The event ran for both Saturday and Sunday, and we considered returning the following day to play some of the other titles that we were interested in, such as Splatoon 2 and ARMS. The problem was that we knew that we would have to get there incredibly early again in order to guarantee a spot, and whichever game we chose would likely be the only game we played that day. Was it really worth braving the cold again and waiting for several hours for a few minutes of game time? Ultimately, we decided that it was not. And after a glorious sleep-in on Sunday, I checked the Twitter feed for the event and saw that the lines had capped out before the doors had even opened. No regrets were had whatsoever for choosing not to go.