Damn, I’m playing a full-feature version of Minecraft on my couch. In my bed. And yes, even in the bathroom. I can play Minecraft wherever I go. You cannot judge me, because I am truly free.
The truth is, I’ve been a long-time fan of Minecraft, and the simple survival genre as a whole. I enjoy playing these procedurally-generated worlds that stretch out in front of you, offering you the chance to explore, build, fight, and frequently… die. I play Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, and Astroneer. I even enjoy adjacent experiences like Rimworld. There’s just something enjoyable about throwing a bunch of stuff in a sack, shaking it up, spilling it all out on the floor, and saying “Go have some fun.” These games feel like playing with Legos when I was kid.
Most people know what Minecraft is. You’re thrust into a randomly-generated world, where you have to mine the landscape to build your shelter, craft weapons and other items, feed yourself, and ultimately tame the world. Many may have seen the massive structures and artistic works hardcore Minecraft fans have built in the game’s Creative Mode: cities, working calculators, and homages to their favorite movies, TV shows, and more. Minecraft is a game that gives you back what you’re willing to put into it.
So what differentiates the Switch Edition from what came before?
First, it’s worth separating the desktop client, Pocket Edition, and Console Editions. The Desktop client for PC and Mac is by far the most fully-featured, with infinite worlds, great performance on even years-old PCs, and full support for add-ons and mods. The Pocket Edition is Mojang’s second focus, with add-on support and infinite worlds since the hefty 0.9.0 release in 2014. My major problem with Pocket Edition is it uses on-screen controls, which are frankly not my jam, and performance is variable depending on which iOS or Android device you’re using.
Then there’s the Console Editions, which is where the Switch version has room to shine a bit. All of the console editions retain a world size limit. Any world you build will eventually have an invisible wall and endless sea you cannot cross. For the PlayStation 3 Edition, Xbox 360 Edition, PlayStation Vita Edition, and Wii U Edition, you’re stuck with a maximum world size of 864×864 blocks, known in the game as the “Classic” size. On the Xbox One Edition and PlayStation 4 Edition, you have more options, including Small (1024×1024 blocks), Medium (3072×3072), and Large (5120×5120).
The Switch Edition tops out at the Medium size, with a maximum world size of 3072×3072 blocks. This is pretty big if you’re not trying to build something massive within the game. Most players can rock a Medium size world without any trouble, and in fact, Infinite worlds can see players getting lost if they don’t keep track of their surroundings. (Pocket Edition Infinite worlds tend to get a bit glitchy near and in the Farlands if you keep walking in the same direction.)
So the world size is big enough and like all the console editions, the Switch Edition benefits over of the Pocket Edition from having a standard spec: every Switch is the same, so the developers had something to target. Minecraft: Switch Edition runs at a solid 60 FPS as far as I can tell, in the native resolution of whichever mode you’re playing in: 720p on Portable, and 1080p on Television. (Checking with the folks over at Digital Foundry if the game is upscaled 1080p in Docked mode.) It looks great and my only issue is the on-screen text is a bit tiny in Portable mode.
To retain that solid performance, the cutback in the Switch Edition is the draw-distance. In Creative Mode, you can fly, which gives you a birds-eye view of the world. In the screenshots I made for this review, what looks to be the edge of the world is simply where the game stops drawing the landscape. There’s significant and noticeable pop-in when you’re moving up that high. Of course, this is an issue of floating in Creative Mode; for most of your average play sessions, you don’t notice it as much because you’re on ground level.
So you have great performance in Portable and TV modes, with the potential issue of draw distance. This puts the Switch Edition ahead of the Vita Edition, which could be spotty in certain circumstances. The world size also places it ahead of the Wii U and Vita editions. So what else differentiates the Switch Edition?
Minecraft Switch Edition gains more ground over the Vita and Pocket Editions with local split-screen multiplayer. You can play in splitscreen from a single Nintendo Switch, with a maximum of four players. Performance doesn’t seem to take a hit in two-player split-screen in Portable and Tabletop modes. (I wasn’t able to try four-player to see if that’s the same deal.) Unlike some Switch titles, you cannot play the game on a single Joy-Con though; you’ll need another pair or a Pro Controller for each additional player. Most of the home-based Console Editions have split-screen play available, but this is the first time you can take it on the road.
Online play is a bit odd on Minecraft Switch Edition. You can’t invite others to join your game. Instead, if you start up a new world, you can tag it as “online”. Anybody in your Friends List can see that world from their “Join” menu option if you’re online and playing. It’s pretty easy, but I do wish there were more choices for party online play. There’s also no way to communicate online: there’s no emote or simple chat system. You’re just sort of online and doing your own thing in the same world.
As a final shot at sweetening the pot, Nintendo and Mojang kicked in the Super Mario Mash-Up Pack with every copy of Minecraft Switch Edition. This means players get a Super Mario texture pack alongside the already pre-loaded texture packs, a set of Super Mario skins for your characters, and an entire Super Mario-themed world for you to explore. The pre-loaded world also includes chiptune Mario music for you to rock out to while you explore Minecraft’s Mushroom Kingdom. (Why the huge statues of Mario? Is he their emperor, a harsh dictator that rules over them with an iron fist?) It’s a fun little addition to the game, but I doubt it’ll push anyone over the top when it comes to choosing a version to play.
As of the time of this writing, the built-in Minecraft store for buying new skins points to the Nintendo eShop, but those items aren’t live yet. Hopefully, some of the more interesting Console Edition skins make the transition over to the Switch Edition, like the Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Simpsons Packs.
It’s worth noting that the Switch Edition shares the same $29.99 price as its Wii U counterpart, as opposed to the $19.99 price tag the other Console Editions carry. Like the Wii U version, Nintendo and Mojang are justifying the price bump with the inclusion of the Mario Mash-Up Packs and six other DLC packs. Basically, the Switch Edition is the Fan-Favorites Pack you can buy on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but you lack the ability to get the game by itself.
There are some questions I have that currently haven’t been answered about the Switch Edition. Will it receive the Marketplace currently in the PC and Pocket Editions? (Doubtful.) How long will it take for the Switch Edition to be updated to the current Console Edition? (It currently uses a slightly older build from January?)
For the launch titles, folks are seeing all their played time just disappear.
The latest Kirby game only adds to his considerable powers.
Despite those lingering questions, you get what stands as the best portable edition of Minecraft yet. Sure, you lose out on Large and Infinite world sizes, but you have the great performance and splitscreen play of the home console versions with the portability of Pocket and Vita Editions. That’s enough to pull the Switch Edition ahead for me. If I’m playing at home, it’ll be on PC, but anywhere else, Minecraft Switch Edition is where it’s at.