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15 Nintendo Switch games you should play in handheld mode

The Nintendo Switch offers a great traditional gaming experience when in its dock, particularly when using a Pro Controller, but just because you’re playing on the television doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the most out of your game. From motion controls to the nifty touchscreen, you can often get more out of this system when it’s in your hands. We think these games are especially conducive to play in handheld mode, whether you’re sitting on your couch or playing it while traveling.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

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You won’t be missing out on any touchscreen features or major performance enhancements if you choose to play Ubisoft’s strategy game Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle on your television instead of in handheld mode, but the game’s digestible battles are practically made for on-the-go play.

Mario + Rabbid‘s puzzle-esque scenarios are the perfect length for a bus ride, or whenever you have a few minutes of downtime. Plus, its turn-based, so you can easily pause the game and stick your Switch in your pocket if you have to stop playing in a hurry.

Read our full Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle review

The World Ends With You: Final Remix

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An enhanced port of the Nintendo DS cult classic, The World Ends With You: Final Remix feels right at home on Nintendo Switch. When played in handheld mode, that is. The action role-playing game set in Toyko’s Shibuya shopping district was originally designed to be played almost solely with touchscreen controls. Those controls translate well to the Switch’s screen.

In docked mode, however, you must use motion controls, which don’t work nearly as well. The World Ends With You is a wonderful game with tons of style points, but you should play it entirely in handheld mode.

Into the Breach

Into the Breach Review
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A bite-sized turn-based strategy game from the makers of FTL: Faster Than Light, Into the Breach sets up perfectly for handheld mode on Switch. The small grid-based boards and short levels, lasting just a few minutes on average, make it an excellent pick-up-and-play option for strategy enthusiasts.

Into the Breach has a simplistic hook, featuring a mix of tower defense and standard player vs. CPU combat confined within a handful of turns each level. Despite, or perhaps because of, the restraints, it winds up as one of the deepest strategy games in recent memory.

Read our full Into the Breach review

Stardew Valley

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Stardew Valley, the relaxing small town simulator from the mind of Eric Barone, has charming throwback visuals that nod to the 16-bit era. Retro-looking games naturally set up well for handheld play, but its the gameplay loop that makes Stardew Valley an ideal handheld option.

From tending to your farm to conversing with fellow townspeople to simply taking in the sights, Stardew Valley has a methodically relaxing pace. It’s the type of game you can play in between commercials or right before bed and still feel like you made progress. In fact, you’ll want to check in on your town every day. What better way to do that than with the convenience of handheld mode?

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

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Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Toad’s first starring role, originally launched on Wii U before gaining new life on Switch. The puzzle platformer is filled with multi-tier levels, the full scope of which you can see by rotating the camera. This unique spin on the Mario platformer genre is engaging for both kids and adults.

It’s particularly great in handheld mode, simply due to the level layout that asks you to take close looks around for secrets. The length of each level, a matter of minutes, also sets up well for handheld mode.

Pokémon: Let’s Go!

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Pokémon: Let’s Go, the delightful reimagining of Pokémon Yellow, is another scenario where the controls work way better in handheld mode than in docked mode. In handheld mode, it plays like a traditional handheld Pokémon game, with the exception of catching Pokémon. Adopting a Pokémon Go style approach, you simply lob Poké Balls at your target by moving the analog stick and pressing a button.

In docked mode, however, you have to use single Joy-Con (or the Poké Ball Plus peripheral) to catch Pokémon using motion controls. Besides the fact that waving your arm gets old quickly, the fact that you can’t use a traditional control scheme (no Pro controller or two Joy-Con support) makes it feel less like the Pokémon games we’ve known and loved for more than two decades.

Let’s Go is an excellent Pokémon game that captures both the nostalgia of the first set of games and moves the series forward. If you want the best, most Pokémon-like experience, handheld mode is the way to go.

Read our full Pokémon: Let’s Go review

Moonlighter

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In Moonlighter, you work as a shopkeeper by day, selling your wares to villagers and travelers. By night, you head to the dangerous dungeons north of town to scavenge for items to replenish your stock. The randomly generated dungeons feel similar to those seen in The Binding of Isaac, while the shopkeeping sections and town-life elements adopt the pace of serene sims like the aforementioned Stardew Valley. It’s an addictive blend of action gameplay and town simulation. The unique cartoon visuals really pop on the Switch’s screen, and the day/night cycle sets up great for short gaming sessions.

Splatoon 2

Best Nintendo Switch multiplayer games
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If you play Splatoon 2 with motion controls off, you will find a fairly comparable experience in handheld and docked modes. But if you like to fine-tune your shots, it’s much easier to do so when you’re holding the screen instead of a controller.

The ability to do this consistently will lead to better results in multiplayer matches, and you might even help your Salmon Run pals set a new record — just make sure you still have access to Wi-Fi when you’re playing, or you’ll be stuck playing the single-player campaign.

Read our full Splatoon 2 review

L.A. Noire

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Playing L.A. Noire with your Switch docked emphasizes how dated the game feels. The 2011 procedural detective game’s control scheme can feel stiff, and navigating the menus with the analog sticks is an absolute chore.

In handheld mode, however, you can tap selections in your notebook with your finger to quickly bring them up, and you can even manipulate objects in the environment with the touchscreen during investigations. Though you can also use the motion function in the Joy-Con controllers to use these features this with the Switch docked, it’s not the best way to play the game.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

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Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the ultimate party game, but with Nintendo Switch, you can take the party with you wherever you go. Because an entire grand prix can be completed in less than 30 minutes, it’s the perfect game to play while you’re on the train or bus. It feels great in handheld mode because of the Joy-Cons’ HD Rumble, and the action is silky-smooth.

The single horizontal Joy-Con control scheme allows two players to face off without the need for an extra controller, and if you flip up the Switch’s kickstand or use the iBolt headrest mount, you can split-screen race always anywhere.

Read our full Mario Kart 8 Deluxe review

Arms

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We know this one sounds strange, but Arms is more fun in portable mode. The Nintendo Switch’s motion controls are certainly a fun novelty and allow for a few tricks in multiplayer, but holding the Switch in your hands and controlling fighters with the triggers just allows for more precise movements.

The sticks still allow you to curve your shots and reach distant targets, and the button layout is more comfortable than the recommended Joy-Con setup. With the screen directly in front of you, you also have an easier time gauging the distance between your fighter and your opponent.

Read our full Arms review

Poly Bridge

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Construction games aren’t typically designed with consoles in mind, as the fine adjustments you have to make aren’t very easy to make on controllers. The bridge-constructing game Poly Bridge is no different, as it was originally released for PC and smartphones. With the Switch’s touchscreen, you’re able to design your bridges using your fingers, but on the television, this is done using the Joy-Con as a pointing tool. If you want to play the game on a larger display, the PC is a better option.

Oxenfree

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Oxenfree is an adventure game that plays reasonably well on televisions, but with the Switch’s touchscreen, you have the ability to click on objects and dialogue options rather than move the sticks to select them. Given the emphasis the game puts on the conversations between its characters, it makes for a more convenient experience, and its relatively short length means that you can make real progress even if you’re only playing it for a few minutes at a time.

Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition

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Rayman Legends began its life as a Wii U exclusive, and its touch-enabled puzzle sections with the character Murfy make this especially evident. When played with a traditional control scheme, these areas are boring at best and frustrating at worst, but with the Switch’s touchscreen, you can manipulate the environment with the swipe of a finger before returning to standard platforming action. The game’s simple combat and navigation controls are also perfect for the Joy-Con controllers, and you won’t really benefit from using a Pro Controller, instead.

Darkest Dungeon

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As with Poly Bridge, Darkest Dungeon was initially designed for the PC’s mouse and keyboard more than a traditional controller. On the Switch version, developer Red Hook Studios takes advantage of the console’s touchscreen to simplify sorting through the game’s various menus.

It is technically playable using the Joy-Cons buttons or Pro Controller, but the controls are fairly clunky. If you plan to play Darkest Dungeon on the Switch, you want to use the touchscreen. With turn-based mechanics in its combat, it’s also a good game to play on a commute.

Gabe Gurwin
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Gabe Gurwin has been playing games since 1997, beginning with the N64 and the Super Nintendo. He began his journalism career…
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