Way back in the mid-2000s, I played a lot of WarioWare: Smooth Moves. The Nintendo Wii game was the absolute best local multiplayer experience on the scene at the time. Whether I was catching up with some friends at home or playing some casual games at a college party, it was a social staple for at least two years. That was thanks in large part to its heavy use of the Wiimote’s motion controls, which turned playing sessions into a slapstick comedy routine. I have fond memories of a room full of friends playing hot potato with a Wiimote, frantically attempting to complete minigames in seconds.
When Nintendo first unveiled the Nintendo Switch, I thought we were going back to that era. While the Wii U’s two-screen setup was too high-concept for casual party games, the Joy-Cons presented a lot of potential. The gyroscopic controls and IR sensors seemed ripe for a slew of wild party games, which would be perfect considering the console’s portability. In the earliest Switch trailers, we saw “Karen” taking it to a rooftop party and handing out Joy-Cons to her friends. I genuinely wanted that absurd scene to happen.
But over four years later, the Switch is still lacking when it comes to must-own party games. I, for one, blame the Switch Lite for that.
Look back at the Nintendo Switch’s first two years on the market and it’s clear that the Joy-Cons’ unique features were a major part of Nintendo’s strategy. The console launched with 1-2 Switch, a mediocre (but effectively absurd) party game that took full advantage of the controllers. It’s one of the rare games to actually use the IR sensors, which were quickly abandoned. Nintendo followed up over the next year with games like ARMS and Super Mario Party, which put a heavy emphasis on multiplayer motion gameplay.
The console quickly hit a turning point in 2019. That’s the year Nintendo released the Switch Lite, a cheaper model designed as a portable-only console. The Lite can’t dock to a TV, but more importantly, its Joy-Cons can’t be detached. If you’re playing on one, you can’t use motion controls at all, rendering a few older titles unplayable on it.
Since then, the Switch’s library has been much lighter on games that take advantage of the Joy-Cons’ tech. Heavy hitters like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity don’t use any of its gimmicks, making them particularly friendly no matter what version of the console you own. Even The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was retooled for its HD remaster, adding a non-motion option to the game with mixed results. It’s a necessary change, but one that’s forced Nintendo to backtrack on one of the console’s defining gimmicks.
Killing the party
That philosophical flip has claimed a casualty when it comes to the party game genre. The console is severely lacking in that department, which is a far cry from the heyday of the Wii. That’s most noticeable when playing WarioWare: Get It Together! — which trades Smooth Moves’ intuitive motion for a weak character-swapping gimmick that only requires one button and a joystick. That makes the game playable on Switch Lite, but saps all the absurd multiplayer charm of its best predecessors right out of it.
The upcoming Mario Party Superstars is taking a similar approach, ditching Super Mario Party’s reliance on Joy-con silliness entirely. Nintendo’s listing for the game goes as far as to deliberately emphasize the lack of motion controls: “All minigames are played with button controls, so you can stick to the Joy-Con controller or bust out the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller or a Nintendo Switch Lite system.”
Motion controls have always been a polarizing experiment with varying degrees of success. Their forced implementation in some Wii games made them frustrating, but they were perfect for party games. In particular, minigame collections had a field day coming up with creative ways for players to wave around a Wiimote. There’s a unique joy to a room full of people all laughing together as they make fools out of themselves.
Currently, the Switch is lacking that experience and it’s a real missed opportunity. While 1-2 Switch isn’t a terribly good game, it showed the console’s potential as a party platform. I had a blast when I played with a room full of friends giggling as they pounded Joy-Cons against their chest like a gorilla. By comparison, my recent multiplayer session with WarioWare: Get It Together! was a much tamer experience. We sat on the couch tapping buttons until we got bored. While 1-2 Switch may be a worse game, I’ll remember the joy of playing it much more vividly.
It’s difficult to say more Switch games should better utilize the Joy-Cons, as there are a lot of positives to Nintendo deprioritizing their features. As long as the Switch Lite exists, no one will have to miss out on a game just because they opted to buy a more affordable model. Motion controls can also limit who can actually play games, presenting accessibility challenges. It’s important to be selective with special controls and offer alternatives for those who don’t want to engage with them (as is the case in games like Mario Golf: Super Rush).
Still, I find myself missing the best part of the Wiimote era. I desperately want to be Karen, breaking my Switch out at a party and loading up an absurd minigame collection. I want to watch my friends flail around as they pass Joy-Cons back and forth. I just wish Nintendo was as all-in on the weird quirks of the Joy-Cons as I am.
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