For the past five years, there's been a Wii Sports-sized hole in the Nintendo Switch's library. A lot has changed since that game's monumental success 16 years ago, including the acute existential dread I felt of being 15 years old. Not only has my teenage angst fizzled out, but so has the trend of motion control in games. Some things should stay in the past, and one could make the case that motion-controlled sports games are among them.
Thankfully, that isn't the case and, if anything, Nintendo Switch Sports makes a strong case for why. Not because its motion controls are as revelatory as the original, but because the same sense of brazen fun that came from playing Wii Sports with a good group of friends or family is as potent as ever in its successor. On the court of modern day video games, Switch Sports definitely makes some perplexing missteps along the way, but ultimately puts on a worthy performance.
Nintendo Switch Sports is, at its core, the same as Wii Sports was all those years ago: a game in which you swing your arms around and reenact a sport. If you're a Wii Sports (and Wii Sports Resort) veteran, the feeling of tennis, bowling, or chambara (sword fighting) will be second nature. Even with the addition of new sports like volleyball and soccer, there's very little innovation in what Switch Sports attempts to do, and I think that's a good thing. The game doesn't feel like it's trying to revitalize a trend. Instead, it recaptures the simplicity of the original and, in doing so, rekindles the same magic. It's straightforward, unadulterated, and, above all, approachable.
All six sports--badminton, bowling, chambara, soccer, tennis, and volleyball--are immediately available to jump into. Five of the six sports are played by holding a Joy-Con in one hand, as the avatars move independently on screen for you (with the exception being soccer which uses two Joy-Cons, and allows full player control). Whether you're swinging a racket, throwing a bowling ball, or striking a sword, playing the sport is as simple as swinging your arm. So, of course, I wrangled up three friends at the office, handed them Joy-Cons, and jumped into each sport.
Of the six sports, four are absolute winners: badminton, chambara, tennis, and the best of all, bowling. Badminton is a vigorous back-and-forth battle to catch the other avatar off-balance. It utilizes the Joy-Con's gyro tracking, which allows for more specific strikes, including a dropshot maneuver that, if timed right, can cause your opponent's avatar to fumble and fall to the ground. Some matches were long and vigorous, causing me to break a sweat and leaving my arm sore the following day. Badminton can be a fun and rigorous workout if you really get into it.
In chambara, two players stand in a ring suspended in the air with the goal of knocking their opponent off a ledge through sword-based combat. I held the Joy-Con close to my chest to guard, rotating my elbows left and right to block my foes' attacks, and swung down like attacking with an actual sword. Chambara features three different weapons: single sword, charge sword, and twin swords. Single sword offers the most basic form of block and attack; charge swords has a power level that increases with every successful block, and when used at the right time, can unleash a powerful blow; and twin swords (which requires the player to use both Joy-Cons) gives the player the ability to block with one sword, while setting up a strike with the other.
Chambara duels were often slow and methodical. I focused on reading my opponent's movements to figure out where to block, and acting in the moment of opportunity to attack. Suffice to say, it made me feel like a total sword-swinging-cool-dude despite how silly I knew I actually looked. That's part of the magic: I undoubtedly looked like an idiot the entire time, but I felt cool and was having fun. Sadly, Nintendo Switch Sports is missing boxing--a staple of the original--but chambara is a suitable replacement, and one that feels more deliberate and satisfying than boxing's arm flailing zaniness.
For tennis, Nintendo Switch Sports takes the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, and I'm glad this is the case. Joy-Con in-hand, the moment a tennis match started, all the muscle memory and timing from the Wii Sports days returned to me. The same natural, joyous feeling flooded back in, this time tinged with nostalgia. The improvement for the Switch version of tennis comes from the additional accuracy afforded by the Joy-Con. Smacking the ball with the twist of wrist and seeing it spin to the other side of the court just felt great.
Then there's the premier Nintendo Switch Sports activity: bowling. It's hard to imagine bowling being any better than in previous Wii Sports iterations, but Nintendo Switch Sports improves the experience by adding Simultaneous Mode. Instead of taking turns bowling one-by-one, all players can now bowl at the same time, either solo or on teams, and the result is ridiculously fun. I got to collectively enjoy the chaos of attempting the same frame together, and react alongside my friends in real-time. It was great silliness.
Additionally, bowling now features Special Mode, which tasks the player with having to navigate their ball down an obstacle-ridden bowling lane. Pair that with having multiple bowlers launching bowling balls simultaneously and hilarious antics ensue. There was one moment I curved a bowling ball around a difficult obstacle and landed a strike as my opponents watched in dismay--my teammate and I howled and high-fived, unable to contain our excitement at the feat. It's moments like this that inspire a sense of camaraderie and serve as the strongest reminder of why it's important to have a Wii Sports-like experience on the Switch. I hadn't felt that kind of joy that comes from playing these games with other people in a long time, and it's a sensation I missed.
But not all the sports stick the landing. Volleyball specifically is the least intuitive of all the sports to pick up and play, as it requires learning a series of movesets, opposed to just swinging your arm. Introducing it to a group of three new players and having them understand the moves and when to use them was cumbersome. It felt like a speedbump teaching players the specific timing and stances involved, compared to the pick-up-and-play simplicity of the other games. Additionally, when playing with multiple people locally, the sport is presented as a four-way split-screen. Even on a 60-inch TV, the split made picking out the necessary details feel a bit strenuous, like seeing the ball, or reading where your character and what move to perform next. That accompanied with standing shoulder-to-shoulder with three other people made the whole scenario feel a little too snug--there's much less opportunity to cut loose than with the other sports.
Nintendo Switch Sports doesn't feel like it's trying to revitalize a trend. Instead, it recaptures the simplicity of the original and, in doing so, rekindles the same magic. It's straightforward, unadulterated, and, above all, approachable.
Another issue is that the specific volleyball moves needed to play the game are timed according to the on-screen avatar's often oddly slow and floaty movements, which means playing never feels intuitive or natural, and getting into a flow or rhythm as you can with other sports is difficult. Still, we had some fun, but I can't be confident that everyone knew what they were doing and it often felt deflating to hop into volleyball after a game of tennis or bowling.
Of all the sports, soccer is the oddest one of the bunch. It features the most intricate controls and is more like a traditional sports game. In the 1v1 or 4v4 modes, two Joy-Cons are required for each player so they can have full control over moving the avatar around the field, while also having buttons for sprinting and jumping. In order to kick the ball, players have to swing either controller in the direction they want to kick it. This all sounds great on paper, but playing feels unnaturally slow and tedious. Whether I was playing against an AI opponent or another human player, the result was slow and unsatisfying. Soccer feels like a sport added to Nintendo Switch Sports specifically for competitive online play (which was unavailable at the time of writing), which is a nice addition for those looking for that kind of experience, but until I can actually play it online I have no way of knowing whether it succeeds in what it's trying to do. When I'm able to play soccer online I will update this review to reflect my experience.
Then there's Shoot-out--a soccer mode that requires the Ring Fit leg strap accessory (which comes bundled with the physical purchase of Nintendo Switch Sports) and tasks the player with kicking a soccer ball into the net. That's it. The mode feels rather undercooked, shoehorned in to warrant the inclusion of an accessory that added little value to my experience. Nintendo has said it plans on adding leg strap kicking functionality to the regular soccer mode, but as it stands, Shoot-out is a complete miss. If you buy the game digitally and don't have the leg strap, be assured that you're not missing anything at the moment.
It's cheesy to say, but just like the nature of real sports, there were many genuine surprises, unexpected comebacks, woeful defeats, and triumphant victories to be found in Switch Sports--and these moments can only be really felt when playing with others. Playing this game alone, however, is a different, much less appealing experience, owing to the glaring absence of a progress tracker and training mode.
In the original Wii Sports, training mode is a collection of mini-games and challenges designed to improve your skills, presenting you with tasks like hitting a tennis ball consecutively, or knocking out a series of punching bags under a stressful countdown in boxing. They were a ton of fun and a welcome change of pace for those wanting to play solo. I was taken aback to see training mode missing in Nintendo Switch Sports. Even Wii Sports Club (the Wii Sports HD remake for Wii U) and Wii Sports Resort featured equivalent challenge modes. The closest Nintendo Switch Sports gets is bowling's special mode, which is like the original Wii Sports' bowling challenges. The lack of similar modes for other sports feels like a big blunder, especially for those looking to play offline.
While I would happily play previous Wii Sports titles alone for extended periods of time, it wasn't long until I grew tired playing Nintendo Switch Sports by myself. There's only so much gratification in competing against AI-controlled opponents over and over again, even when set at harder difficulties. It quickly began feeling repetitive. Worsening the issue is a lack of a progress tracker. If playing Nintendo Switch Sports with others is a joyous communal experience, playing alone is a depressingly isolating one.
Out of the box, the customization choices leave a lot to be desired--I was given a handful of options to represent my avatar: two clothing options with only a few color variations; six faces with no adjustments to facial features; a few hair options, none of which matched my own–it was barebones. Thankfully, I was relieved to use my Mii in place of the game's newly designed characters. However, if a friend wants to use their own Mii, it can be a bit of a hassle, unless the other player already has an account on your Switch. If not, they'll have to make one in order to create and use a Mii, which seems like an unnecessary obstacle. I don't anticipate that being a major concern for many new players--it was just a minor letdown for me as someone looking to scratch the itch of nostalgia.
The only way to unlock items and cosmetics is by playing against real players in Switch Sports' online mode. With no way to unlock customizable objects like hats, masks, skins for your equipment, or even glasses in offline mode, I was left with a measly selection of options to express myself. And while I don't think customization will be the main appeal of the game, choosing to lock player rewards like cosmetics behind online play feels regressive.
Since online functionality was unavailable during the review process, I wasn't able to experience all of what Nintendo Switch Sports has to offer. I didn't get to play ranked matches, the bowling elimination mode (Survival Bowling), get an understanding as to how cosmetics are unlocked, and the mode I was most eager to play online: soccer.
The last major quirk comes in playing Nintendo Switch Sports in tabletop mode. If you're thinking of taking the game on the go, keep in mind you'll want to bring a dock and all your cords if you want to play with other people, because tabletop mode only works with single player. Either that, or be prepared to trade the Joy-Cons back and forth, which may certainly be a buzzkill, considering the game's at its best when playing with others at the same time. Considering the screen size and Switch Sports being a physically active game to play, I can understand the design choice, though.
After all these years, it's easy to associate Wii Sports most with its popularization of motion controls in gaming, but its greatest achievement may actually be that even after 16 years, its core gameplay design is a potent reminder how much fun simple games with friends can be. I didn't realize how much I needed a Wii Sports-like experience in my life, until playing Nintendo Switch Sports.
Playing by myself for an extended period of time was boring and monotonous, and the absence of certain single-player modes is a major oversight. But Nintendo Switch Sports is a fantastic multiplayer game that, for the most part, invites anyone and everyone to pick up a controller and flail their limbs about. It has its issues, but they fall away when you have other people to play with and are joyously going toe-to-toe in virtual sports. As with the original Wii Sports, Nintendo Switch Sports finds beauty and fun in simplicity. And bowling is great. Better than real-life bowling.