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Nintendo Switch Sports Preview: Recapturing That Classic Motion Control Magic

I’m not sure any game will ever match the cultural impact of Wii Sports. Acting as a free pack-in for the titular console, it was an experience that anyone could jump into and feel like they had a chance at success. The barriers that once made gaming an isolatory hobby were torn down with the help of motion controls that made each sport feel like a decent analog of its real world counterpart. Wii Sports is a masterpiece, cementing itself as a classic that millions look back on fondly. So when a successor was unveiled for the Switch, heads were turned with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation.

The avatars didn’t help, with our beloved Miis being swapped out for chibified anime boys and girls with far more expression, yet a detachment from the nostalgia we all associate with Wii Sports. Any change felt like a hostile departure, but now I’ve spent a decent amount of time with the game, I can safely say it transfers all the approachability, charm, and friendly competition that made its predecessor so legendary. Nintendo is once again onto a winner with this one, even if it still has some weird image problems to overcome.

My biggest worry about Nintendo Switch Sports was the controls themselves. While the Joy-Con has gyroscope capabilities and HD rumble, it has never been able to match the seamless accuracy provided by the Wii Motion Plus, or even the standard remote if I’m honest. It has never felt that satisfying to use, with the introduction of motion controls in many of its games often drawing a sigh of frustration as I search for the option for a more traditional mode of play. If Switch Sports fumbled the ball on this, the whole thing would be a lost cause.

Fortunately it works great, with tennis especially managing to feel better than anything that’s come before, even standing a chance at usurping its legendary predecessor. Nintendo isn’t planning to rewrite the rulebook here, clearly aware that Wii Sports was a game enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people and a decision to alter the foundations would only alienate those who are bound to pick this up with little prior knowledge. I was thrown into a game of tennis with another player and within moments I was pulling off amazing trickshots while building up a rally that slowly increased the power of each subsequent shot. What surprised me was how tiny movements of my wrist and hand would see the ball shift in dramatically different directions. Not in a cheap way either, I was able to think back on how my body moved in the previous round and apply that to the situation at hand.

Mistakes felt like my own and not because the Joy-Con wasn’t playing nicely, although you will need to adjust to a new level of timing when responding to shots and serves given how the gyroscope controls operate compared to more traditional motion. Once I’d learned the ropes, tennis was wonderful, imbuing me with that ‘just one more game’ feeling that the original was so masterful at creating. I can see this being a hit at family gatherings as we piece together tournaments and battle for gamer supremacy. Badminton exists in the same ballpark, since it is basically a smaller, more fast paced version of tennis with similar controls. You can perform backhanded smacks and dropshots to take advantage of your opponents, but it’s similar enough to tennis that I imagine you’ll jump between the two before picking a favourite. They’re both worthwhile inclusions though, if perhaps a little too similar.

Bowling is largely unchanged compared to Wii Sports. In fact, I think it’s exactly the same. You line up your shot, adjust the angle a little bit, and yeet the ball down the alley hoping for a strike. Subtly twisting your wrist as it moves towards the pins can influence its trajectory, but it’s all about the initial setup and timing in order to score successive strikes and top the leaderboard. A bunch of other games journalists had scores set up behind me, with my final result landing somewhere in the middle because I wanted to give them a chance. That’s exactly why, and not because I kept knocking down 8 pins and leaving two in a Split several times in a row. Bowling is hard now, leave me alone.

Chambara is another sport cherry-picked from the past, this time coming from Wii Sports Resort, where it was known as Swordplay. You and an opponent have foam swords which must be used to knock one another off a platform and into the water. Strikes can be performed in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal motion, and you will need to hold down the shoulder button and match opposing strikes in order to block them and avoid taking a beating. I loved this one, each round a sharply competitive dance as I tried to predict blocks and get just enough strikes in to send my opponent teetering over the edge. It was tense, with the climax of each round met with a sigh of relief as I tried desperately to come out on top. You can’t just flail your way to success either, it seems Nintendo has tried to make this a more considered sport, one where the accuracy of your movements is always taken into consideration. Of course, if your enemy isn’t blocking you can kick their ass in seconds, but put two people on an equal playing field and it doesn’t get much better than Chambara.

Volleyball is probably the weakest sport on offer here. It requires knowledge of multiple motions and mechanics while also juggling a team dynamic which is reliant on a camera system that isn’t that great. When you deflect a shot only to pass off the ball to your teammate as they deliver a point-scoring spike it all comes together, but far too often I was left fumbling because I hadn’t had sufficient time to learn the ropes. I can see players loving this sport once they’ve learned the cadence of each match, but it doesn’t have the pick up and play appeal that makes nearly every other sport in this collection shine.

Neither does soccer, but it works because the act of running around a field and kicking an oversized ball into an oversized goal – it’s basically Rocket League – is something even my cats could figure out. There’s also the flying header, which might be the greatest sporting manoeuvre I’ve ever seen in a video game. Like ever. By moving both of the Joy-Con in a downward motion your avatar will basically eat shit into the ground, moving themselves towards the goal (or nothing in most cases) with the grace of a mozzarella ball being thrown into a dual carriageway. Think Robin van Persie against Spain. It made me laugh no matter how many times I did it, and it’s one of several mechanics that ensure soccer is fun, tight, and approachable in its execution.

There’s also a Shoot-Out Mode which makes use of the leg strap as you compete against another player by swinging your foot towards the ball. It’s very basic, since there is no way to adjust the angle of your shot. It’s all about timing, which oversimplifies a mode that could have been incredible had a little more thought been put into it. Kicks in regular matches are performed by swinging the Joy-Con in different directions, meaning you’ll need to take your positioning, stamina, and where exactly you’re planning to pelt it into account. I can see this becoming a new favourite very quickly with a few refinements.

Golf is coming in a future update and won’t be available at launch, which also brings me to a controversial aspect of Nintendo Switch Sports. During the preview event I was told that those without a Nintendo Switch Online membership will be limited when it comes to unlockable cosmetics and certain modes tied to specific sports. You will only be able to unlock two pieces of clothing or character items a week, with progression being walled off unless you’re willing to play online against other players and earn rewards that way. Offline play is being actively decentivised, which for a full-priced game feels gross.

This sucks and while I understand that Nintendo wants this game to be an online experience with future updates and a decent lifespan, throwing casual players under the bus who likely have no interest in playing online feels unfair. This won’t go down well, and is a direct contradiction of the wholesome, approachable aesthetic it is aiming to sell itself on. Nintendo has always been roughly two decades behind the competition when it comes to online functionality, and Switch Sports is no different. Get with the times already.

While I have gripes with its progression system and differing aesthetic compared to its classic predecessors, Nintendo Switch Sports feels like a perfectly solid revival that will appeal to casual and hardcore players alike. Part of me wishes this was a launch title instead of launched as a full-priced product five years after the fact, but better late than never, and with any luck we’ll be playing this one for a long time to come.

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