Nintendo Switch Sports review: Tennis and Badminton wow, other modes don’t


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Available on: Nintendo Switch

Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo

In traditional sports, the relationship between mastery and fun is straightforward. When I play tennis, for example, there is a bright, warm, full-body feeling to hitting a good shot, sending the ball rocketing right out from the racket’s sweet spot. Being good is fun. In motion controlled games, by contrast, fun can often be found in the imprecision of the technology, which often thwarts a player’s intentions with a slight misread of input — to great comedic effect. It can be fun to fail spectacularly.

So which lane does “Nintendo Switch Sports” choose? Neither, really, and the game suffers from that lack of focus. A few of its mini games (there are six in total) are terse and rulebook-driven. Some are mechanically straightforward to the point of profound dullness. Others still are primarily about wildly flailing the controller side to side. None are particularly athletically taxing, at least not in the same ways I remember “Wii Sports.”

Below are six mini reviews of the six mini games featured in “Nintendo Switch Sports.”

The trouble starts with Volleyball. In “Nintendo Switch Sports,” players use their Joy Con controllers to mimic the movements players would make when playing a real sport. But the game does a poor job of tutorializing its mini games, a failure compounded by the fact that it is also very accommodating when you make mistakes.

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I never really learned the correct timing to bump, set or spike the volleyball in “Nintendo Switch Sports,” and it never really mattered. I flubbed the timing time and again. No problem. My ever-flexible AI partner could work around just about anything to bail me out. I don’t think I ever really lost unless I completely whiffed on an attempt.

In some of the “Nintendo Switch Sports” mini games, there’s a mechanic that isn’t taught that, once learned, unlocks how you think about and play the game. (Sometimes, these mechanics are spelled out in loading screens that come on after you quit one of the mini games, a feature I can only explain by imagining a Nintendo designer shrugging, saying “Well, we have to put an explanation for how the game works somewhere.”)

In Badminton, the trick is in the timing. When you hit the birdie, a colorful arc follows it in the air. A blue wobbly line means the hit was bad. A green line is normal. A pink line is a spike (which comes if you capitalize on a blue wobbly). What you want is a gold line, which means the birdie is moving so fast that it’s a bit hard to return. To get these reliably, hit the birdie immediately after it reaches its peak in the arc back to you.

I can imagine Badminton finding a huge following once the game’s online functionality is turned on, as here, the game is arguably at its most “athletic.” For a few days after my first Badminton session, I was surprised to feel soreness in my upper arm and shoulder. And once you’ve got the timing down, the game becomes about aiming the birdie to different sides of the court to outmaneuver your opponent — a genuine challenge.

Bowling, by contrast, is no challenge at all. Twice in a row, while demonstrating to a friend how to throw the ball — half looking at him, half at the TV — I landed strikes. Bowling is about the boom and bust of motion control randomness. It is fun, it turns out, to be marginally, accidentally better than someone! It’s not a good game, but it’s a recipe for a good hang. Did your friend hit a spare instead of a strike on one turn? That’s fun, says “Nintendo Switch Sports.” Relish the feeling of being indisputably better than them, even if just momentarily.

Don’t bother playing Bowling on your own. It is a party game through and through.

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Have you ever looked at “Rocket League” and thought “Aw hell nah, that looks like too much fun. Let’s make this slower and clumsier”? If so, do I have the mini game for you!

Chambara is a sword fighting game, not dissimilar from the melee combat in “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.” The core focus is balancing blocking with hits; the angle of your swing (and your opponents block) determine whether the strike lands or is deflected.

Playing against AI, Chambara is, unfortunately, a bore. But it’s also the mini game that I’m most excited to dip into a month after “Nintendo Switch Sports” releases, because it’s the one with the greatest range of possible player expression. If we’re lucky, in the hands of players, the mini game will take on a life of its own — the Nintendo’s Switch’s best approximation of a fast-paced lightsaber fighting game.

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Tennis is one of the simplest mini games in “Nintendo Switch Sports,” and also likely the most rewarding. The core mechanic is just: hit the ball when it’s close to either player on your side of the net. From there, as in Badminton, the challenge arises from angling the ball in a way that’ll move your opponent around the court, forcing them to take more labored shots that will set you up for an advantageous return.

At the highest level, the AI puts up a genuine fight; I’ve lost more than I’ve won in that difficulty tier. But because the game’s rules are so simple, every win feels earned (I’m was in control, there’s one thing I had to do and I did it right) and every loss can be traced back to the source (I was in control, there was one thing I had to do but I did it wrong). Tennis is probably the best mode to start playing — and the one I know I’ll stick with the longest.


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