On Nintendo Switch and player happiness

Nine months ago I wrote the Nintendo Switch off as a lost cause with bad specs, a poor launch lineup, and an unclear audience. Rarely have I been so wrong.

Mid-summer the Switch briefly came into stock, and I bought one. I first wrote the purchase off as a wasteful, impulsive buy fueled by Nintendo nostalgia. However, at this point I’ve been a Switch owner for five months, and pound for pound it’s the most fun console I’ve had in over a decade. What happened?

Many point to the Switch’s strong year one lineup. There’s a good mix from AAA (Zelda: Breath of the Wild) to indie (Stardew Valley). Others like the console’s portability and fast boot times. I’ve concluded it’s not just any one of these qualities. It’s all of them wrapped in a psychological package that’s especially compelling for casual gamers. The Switch has three promises that I’d never make with another console or PC:

Play commitments are minor and on your terms.

“Pick up and play” gameplay doesn’t happen on my PS4. I start by fumbling with TV controls followed by a multi-minute load time. And much of my game library is online-only without the ability to pause. Even offline content can have long periods between save points. Sharing the living room TV complicates matters further. The end result: the PS4 is only for gaming sessions longer than an hour, usually late at night.

The Switch never asks as much. If I need a break for a few minutes, I can grab the console in portable mode, boot from cold stop to gameplay in under three minutes, and have fun. I can play on the couch, in bed, or standing in the kitchen. And no game in my library requires a big time sink per session. One round of Splatoon 2 is three minutes, a Mario Kart 8 round slightly less.

You’re playing timeless content.

The best Switch games have evergreen gameplay that’s fun in 1997, 2007, or 2017. A kart racer (Mario Kart 8: Deluxe), a third person shooter (Splatoon 2), a puzzler (Puyo Puyo: Tetris), and a Simcity/Harvest Moon-esque farm simulator (Stardew Valley) are all instant classics, among the best in their respective genres.

Gameplay won’t stress you out.

Nintendo’s family-friendly stance hurts the breadth of the Switch’s library. Yet the colorful, cartoonish aesthetic across many of the console’s titles is comforting. Sometimes that lack of “gritty realism” so pervasive in the traditional console space can be a welcome break. Put in concrete terms, Splatoon 2 and Battlefield 1 are both competitive multiplayer shooters that follow where frequent, sudden death is commonplace. Yet getting “splatted” with bright neon paint in Splatoon 2 isn’t that stressful; sometimes it’s even charming. A head being shot during WWI trench warfare in Battlefield 1? Not so much.

The Switch still has serious issues. Battery life could be better. It’s 2017 and my Mario Kart progress still isn’t backed up to a cloud service. Overall though, the Switch delivers a welcoming package. Largely low stress, evergreen gameplay that fits my schedule is a hard formula to beat.