Nintendo Switch Sports review – online or local, it’s a treat

Nintendo Switch Sports review - online or local, it's a treat

Nintendo returns to motion controls with a suite of sports that deliver real fun.

Oh, I remember that. Move the couch. Push the chairs back. And then each game starts with something that takes me back almost 40 years to music and movement in kindergarten. Find a space, reach out your arms to make sure you don’t hit anything, and knock anyone down. You’re ready. Just thinking about it is enough to bring back the smell of every schoolroom that has ever existed: floor polish, dust, feet.

But that’s not how it would smell. It would smell of potpourri and corporate perfume wafting from the hidden vents. It would smell of marshmallow, candied fruit and sandalwood. It’s actually one of Nintendo Switch Sports’ biggest surprises. For me at least. How beautiful everything is.

Nintendo Switch Sports review Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Nintendo Platform: Played on Switch Availability: Available now on Switch

The latest game in the Wii Sports series contains six games, three new, three returning, which might seem like a bit too thin a collection on paper, even after factoring in Golf, which is coming in the fall as a free update. All this was known in advance. What I didn’t notice, however, is that the game takes place on a sort of idealized urban campus, with each sport having its own terrain.

I became obsessed with the grounds. From the stairs and exposed brick that house the pool for chambara – every time I throw an opponent in the water, I always see an old lady standing on a gantry cheering me on – to the glimpse of a promising Boxpark that you can see while playing badminton, all those cafes and anything not laid out in old shipping crates, Nintendo Switch Sports is like working for Google or one of those wild tech companies where they do your laundry and serve lobster thermidor to your office every night.

My favorite space is volleyball. If you look away from the court for a second – always dangerous in volleyball – you see a multi-storey, glass-fronted library cafe called the Humhum Cafe. It’s the stuff of dreams. A cafe that’s also a library – the silent murmur of batteries and the clink of cutlery. The work of a design team that can’t help but throw a bit of world-building into a collection of sports games.

Introducing Nintendo Switch Sports.

I should probably go to sports games. And volleyball is the perfect place to start, actually. It’s a dead link for my favorite of the six on offer – a clever reworking of the grating classic that focuses on timing. Serve, punch, pose, stab, block: all of these have the same motion controls, really – flip the Joy-Con. But timing is what makes it a blood sport. It’s the Switch Sports game that makes you scream for victory when you hear that bouncing THWACK that means your rivals have missed the ball.

It’s fine as a single-player game, but online, say, with all four players, it’s an absolute riot. It’s rough. Who knew a timing game could drive you so mad? Who would have thought that getting in the right spot, hitting the ball and watching it go green – which means the timing was perfect, I think – would bring such joy of anger? Volleyball!

Football is my other favorite game – and, along with badminton, it’s another of the three new games coming to Switch Sports. Football is awesome no matter how you play it: it’s truly Rocket League football, played with a huge ball on a pitch that has walls to keep the ball in play. The ideal way to play is online with two full teams of four where it’s chaotic and punishing. But it works well as a single-player game: move with one stick, aim the camera with the other, pass, push the ball, drag a Joy-Con to kick the ball, and swipe with both to perform the hilarious everything -or- nothing dipping header.

It works because it’s fun to play with the ball, to see it sail with a certain majesty towards you, a hulking thing that could easily flatten you, and then redirect it with a quick lunge. The more players on the pitch, the more it can stop being football and become some kind of dream pinball – but even that works. And online, with teams that know what they’re doing, you get good games where the assists are important and the number of goals exceeds three or four. The only thing I would say is that the shootout mode, which lets you strap the Joy-Con to your leg and kick around, feels a bit like a novelty. It’s fun to watch the goal get smaller as your score goes up, but ultimately it’s not something I’m going to want to play as often.

Nintendo Switch Sports trailer.

Badminton is the third of the new sports, a lighter and faster version of tennis, which sticks to singles matches. Exchanges are nice and easy to find, but it’s really about reading the shuttlecock and waiting for a mistake – a rival who has isolated himself on one side of the pitch, or a moment when the shuttlecock wobbles in the air rather than flying straight, which is an invitation to end things with a power shot. Badminton is fast, which means you can sit for hours and take on your opponents – or have them take you on. It’s a sweet thing. And yes, the boxpark adds to the charm.

After that, the three returning sports round things out – until golf arrives. Tennis is always dependable, a doubles game that sees your partner mirror your moves if you’re playing solo, but benefits from having four players – ideally four players who have just been arguing in the real world and want to have a safe space to sort things out.

Tennis feels heavier now that badminton has joined the lineup, but it’s still a wonderful fast-paced version of the sport, capturing the delirious kick of a rubber ball breaking the sound barrier (I know that’s not not the case, but it looks like it does), and will no doubt become a staple when the novelty of other things disperses. I love how grumpy the players are – when they drop a point, they get a wordless rage scribble Peanuts above their head, and you can see them arguing over calls in the replay. I feel a bit of that grumpiness myself when I lose. I once read that the founder of Uber was, like, the world number two in Wii Tennis. It makes sense. It’s a game for sharks.

Tennis is still fantastic.

All that to say that Chambara, which is literally more violent, since you hit people with swords, actually feels less violent. This one-on-one game is another fun online game where there is always a queue of new people to compete against, but it works well when there are only two friends in the living room too. Motion controls are great, probably in part because you recalibrate after every game by pointing your Joy-Con at the screen, and the three play styles on offer let things go from very simple thwack-and-guard (guard is handled with a trigger, and lets you stun your opponent and create an opening) to a mode where your guards charge up a power move, and a final mode where you use two swords. I’ve played several two-sword games online against people who really weren’t kidding. It can be oddly exciting to see a new enemy appear and see by the way they move their swords that they know exactly what they’re doing.

(I also love Chambara’s Nintendo extras – the way everything is clearly set in a refurbished railway shed, with exposed brickwork and vaulted ceilings, and the inclusion of a polished little ladder leading up from the pool you’re in get knocked down to the platform you’re playing on – a nice piece of world-building that I suspect other teams would overlook.)

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The latest returning sport is bowling, which is still just as enjoyable. Swing the Joy-Con at the bowl, don’t forget a wrist strap because people have broken their TVs before.

Two things I would mention about bowling and I’ll be brief because I’m running a long time: there’s an additional mode where you have obstacles on the lanes and moving platforms, which I don’t like very much, but probably because i’m bad at it – my daughter absolutely adores it. And then there’s online, where 16 dazzling players compete simultaneously, with the worst scorers eliminated after each round. It’s a rush – a real rush – to see many players joining match-making, but after playing a few games, I also suspect that many of these players are bots. I hope it’s fair because it’s the beginning.

Bowling remains a treat.

I think online play is interesting: all games benefit from it, but I also had a lot of fun playing locally before online play was available for testers. Part of me thinks this series will always be a local game, which is probably why you can only earn items for your Sportsmates avatars – they’re more charming than I expected, with a touch of Animal Crossing over faces, plus you can still import the odd Miis – playing online and leveling up. It’s a less than generous system, it has to be said, with slow leveling, then randomization of what you get, when you choose an item pack and the game then selects a specific item for you.

Ultimately, though, these games are so polished and delivered with such an eerie, cafe-and-library charm that it doesn’t matter how you play. My daughter is the age where she missed the Wii completely, so when this new game came along and we started moving the furniture around, she had no idea what we were doing. But that afternoon, we must have played together for hours, with breaks when a head-diving animation made her laugh so hard she needed to catch her breath. It was all intoxicating.

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