Review: 'Minecraft' for Nintendo Switch Is the Best Version Yet

May 11, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about Minecraft for the Nintendo Switch should be as simple as this: It took the Kyoto purveyor of mustachioed plumbers and barrel-chucking gorillas years to get Minecraft on the Wii U, but all of two months for it to find a home on Nintendo's new flagship console-handheld.

Minecraft is available on the Nintendo Switch eShop for $30 as I type this. Having tooled around with it (versus nearly all of Minecraft's other incarnations), I can say it's arguably the finest iteration of Swedish studio Mojang's magnum opus yet.

No one save Nintendo, Mojang and Microsoft (which bought Mojang for $2.5 billion in 2014) knows why it took until December 2015 to bring a Nintendo system into the fold. Nor, had the game arrived sooner, would it have been enough to fire the Wii U's failing engines. But Minecraft, which debuted in 2011, presently thrives on everything from iOS and Android to Linux and Raspberry Pi. It's the second-bestselling game in the world by wide margins after Tetris, a game that arrived in 1984. Anyone with a viable platform not working full bore to deal it into their catalogue is surely leaving briefcases of money on the table.

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To be clear, Minecraft for Switch's allure has more to do with Switch than Minecraft. The Switch, you're probably tiring of hearing (especially if you're still trying to find one), goes wherever you do. Drop it in its dock and Minecraft is on your TV, where it's all but analogous to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. Pluck it from its cradle and it's in your hands, the experience undifferentiated save for its shift to the Switch's smaller 6.2-inch screen.

The significance of there now being a continuous TV-mobile version of Minecraft can't be overstated. At the risk of offending tablet apologists, Minecraft on smartphones and tablets is a wonderful experience marred by poor controls. This has nothing to do with Mojang or Minecraft. It's the baked-in shortcoming of any 3D first-person 360-degree control scheme yet devised for a multitouch device that lacks discrete buttons and control sticks. What makes Minecraft for smartphones and tablets so compelling is convenience. The console versions have the opposite problem: perfect controls tethered to television boat anchors.

Enter Minecraft for Switch, which to be fair isn't the utmost version in all dimensions. It offers world sizes up to "medium," or 3,072-by-3,072 blocks, a massive upgrade from the Wii U's 864-by-864 "classic" perimeter, but notably shy of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's 5,120-by-5,120 "large" world frontiers. Like all of the console versions, which are developed and maintained by Scottish independent 4J Studios and not Mojang, it can't interact with the Java or C++ versions that currently colonize PCs, smartphones and tablets (and that Mojang's Jens Bergensten told TIME last November 2016 the C++ version "will eventually be the main engine and also the main game version").

Though it includes the colorful Super Mario-themed world previously exclusive to the Wii U version, it's missing a few features that I assume will appear down the pike. Like language selection (the PS4 and Xbox One versions support more than a dozen others, the Switch version only supports English), game chat during online play (the Switch doesn't yet support voice chat), viewing Leaderboards or inviting friends (you can see other friends' sessions and join those, but can't manually wave them over to yours). Minecraft for Switch also currently lags behind its console peers, lacking recently added features like "Amplified" terrain, or the "Glide" mini game. I asked Microsoft about the latter and was told an update due by the end of this month should bring the Switch version more or less up to par.

But in every other meaningful way, this is what I've been wanting from Minecraft for years. It glides at a silky smooth 60 frames per second in the dock, though Microsoft confirmed to TIME that it runs at 720p in both docked and handheld modes, a minor disappointment and one I'd love to see reconciled with an optional 1080p at 30 frames per second toggle. Shift to split-screen, be it two, three or four-way, and the frame rate remains rock solid. [Update: Microsoft notes that Minecraft's 720p docked/undocked resolution isn't a question of system power, but stems from issues currently experienced shifting from one resolution to the other when docking/undocking. It's possible, albeit not confirmed, that Minecraft for Switch could hit 1080p docked down the road.]

In handheld mode, the game looks crisp and gorgeous on the Switch's 720p screen, the only compromise being a drop in render distance that's most visible if you're surveying potential seeds from on high in Creative mode. Performance is still fantastic here, the exception being large jungle biomes, where the frame rate appears to drop by half (I'd wager 30 frames per second, though still on the side of acceptable). No, you can't pop the Joy-Cons off and swivel them 90 degrees for impromptu two-player shenanigans, a la Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. But given the absence of secondary triggers on each Joy-Con when used discretely, this was probably a fait accompli.

The argument for Minecraft on Switch comes down to two words: continuous playability. If you prefer gamepad to keyboard/mouse or touchscreen controls (as I very much do), you're stuck with either the Windows 10 or console versions. If you prefer portability, you're stuck with either the smartphone/tablet or (less impressive) PS Vita versions. In both instances, the idea of continuous play is either impossible or involves tradeoffs. (You can shift between Pocket and Windows 10 interfaces playing in a Realms world, for instance, but you need an Internet connection, and then you're still having to shift between a gamepad and touchscreen.)

With the Switch, the tradeoffs vanish. Screen real estate aside, you're having the same experience on an airplane, subway, or in a remote wilderness tent as when docked to your TV. Minecraft is already the finest thing I've experienced in this medium, the answer I'd probably give to the one-thing-you'd-want-on-a-deserted-island question. And thanks to Switch, it just got an order of magnitude better.

5 out of 5

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch

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