It's Time for Nintendo Switch Games to Have a Better Handheld Experience

It's Time for Nintendo Switch Games to Have a Better Handheld Experience

It's no longer a good idea to relegate the Switch's portable mode to second class.

The Nintendo Switch continues to blaze ahead. In Japan, it has surpassed the PlayStation 4 as the best-selling console of this generation, and in North America, the Switch has been the best-selling platform for every month of 2019. Over the past few weeks, the system has seen a number of major releases keeping the surge going: Super Mario Maker 2, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and the upcoming Fire Emblem: Three Houses. After a rough generation with the Wii U, it's Nintendo's time to shine again.

I love my Nintendo Switch. Its hybrid nature allows me to easily switch from recording footage on my television to playing Dragon Quest Builders 2 in my bed. Like the PlayStation Vita before it, it goes everywhere with me. And between Nintendo's great releases, it also sees a strong, consistent influx of indie games.

I've noticed a growing problem with the Switch though, one rooted within the system's hybrid nature. In my looks at Switch ports of Saints Row: The Third and Dragon's Dogma, I noted that developers had crafted the user interface based on big-screen televisions. When you're playing on TV, it's fine, but when you move to portable play, UI elements like the text are entirely too small. While games can switch between different modes of performance when you go from docked to portable, the user interface isn't given the same consideration. I'm not alone in this assessment.

So tiny! | Mike Williams/USG, Nintendo

"I've been getting annoyed lately as someone who plays the Switch in handheld mode exclusively. I was really excited to play Rocket League portably, but despite having contact lenses the text in the game is crazy small," wrote Reddit user Kravitzz. "What really ticked me off was Darkest Dungeon, a game where you absolutely do need to read text. Having to put the console in front of my face just to see enemy stats and read tooltips is maddening. For a portable console there doesn't seem to be a lot of adherence to how games look undocked."

Rocket League and Darkest Dungeon eventually patched in larger text in handheld mode, but they're not the only offender. "I love Diablo 3, and so does my 65-year-old mother with presbyopia. We previously played it on PS4, but in an attempt to do something nice I bought her the special-edition D3 Switch, but had her try my version first. The text was simply too small for her to read in hand-held mode at all, so I had to return the Switch bundle I bought her today," wrote Reddit user UltraRN. Complaints have also been aimed at Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, Doom, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, and other titles.

Part of this is developers simply porting to Nintendo Switch with a minimum amount of changes. They're making sure the game works, first and foremost, but not much beyond that. In other cases, it's a matter of not offering UI scaling options. It's fine if text says the same size in handheld mode if players have the chance to go into the options and make it smaller or larger. The latter is key for accessibility: some players simply have impaired vision for whatever reason. Being able to change the size of text, icons, and maps is important.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 really got me thinking on the issue of portable play though. As I wrote in my review, playing in handheld mode is a rough road. In certain areas, notably boss fights, the game's camera zooms out, making your characters very small, even on a TV. In handheld mode, your character can become almost indistinguishable from the rest of the action. That's on top of the concessions made in terms of resolution and framerate in portable play.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is clearly a game that was developed for the larger screen first, with cuts made to make it playable in handheld mode. It's not the only game like this, and I think developers and publishers need to reverse the concept. Switch games should be developed with the handheld mode as the target, and docked as the "PlayStation 4 Pro" improved version. According to Nintendo's own research, 30% of players are like myself and prefer playing in handheld or tabletop mode, versus 20% of those who prefer docked only. The rest play in both modes, but you should focus on the larger part of the audience when designing your games.

This problem is only going to grow with the announcement of the Nintendo Switch Lite. This smaller, cheaper model of the Switch cuts out a number of features like detachable Joy-Con controllers and HD Rumble. More importantly, the Lite cannot connect to a television at all, as the USB-C port won't convert video. Anyone who buys a Lite is stuck with portable play.

If the Switch Lite, is anything like Nintendo's previous handheld revisions, it's going to be primary Switch being sold in most markets. The Nintendo DS Lite supercharged Nintendo DS sales, like the Game Boy Advance SP did for its original system. The Switch Lite is going to take over, especially with children who are the primary target of the redesign. If that happens, developers need to be prepared for their games to played on a portable-only system. There will be huge swathes of consumers who will never see the docked version of your game, so your best foot forward needs to be on the portable side.

I already thought that games should be aimed at the portable side of the Switch equation, but the Lite makes that an inevitability. It turns the Switch into what I always thought it was: a portable system with an elegant TV-out option.

Kings only. | Nintendo

Major Game Releases This Week: July 22 to July 26

Here are the major releases for the week of July 22 yo July 26. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2019.

  • Beyond: Two Souls [July 22, PC]: Quantic Dream's formerly PlayStation-exclusive adventure finally comes to PC. The interactive drama stars Ellen Page as a young woman attached to a spirit named Aiden, and Willem Dafoe as a researcher at the Department of Paranormal Activity, an organization seeking to utilize her powers. This is the second title Quantic Dream is bringing to PC, following the June release of Heavy Rain.
  • Raiden 5: Director's Cut [July 25, Switch]: The cult-favorite shoot-'em-up heads to Nintendo Switch. This is the first Raiden game on a Nintendo platform since Raiden Trad launched on the Super Nintendo way back in 1991.
  • Fire Emblem: Three Houses [July 26, Switch]: Intelligent Systems latest strategy title is definitely the main event this week. The studio worked with Koei Tecmo to craft one of the biggest Fire Emblem games yet, celebrating the series technical return to home consoles. Pick your favorite house and fight alongside them in a vast war to decide the fate of Fodlan. I'm going with Claude myself.
  • Kill la Kill: IF [July 26, Switch, PS4, PC]: Based on the Studio Trigger anime of the same name, Kill la Kill: IF is a 3D arena fighter published by Arc System Works. The latter part of that sentence is key, as Arc System Works is only publishing this game, which was actually developed by A+ Games, the studio behind Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time. I wouldn't necessarily expect top-tier fighting game action here, as the Little Witch Academia game was met mostly with mixed reviews.
  • Wolfenstein: Youngblood [July 26, Switch]: MachineGames and Arkane Studios team up for this co-op driven sequel to Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. You play as the daughters of B.J. Blazkowicz as they don powered suits and travel to Paris to find their father. Youngblood isn't a full Wolfenstein sequel, instead acting as a smaller spin-off. Arkane's contribution also means the game's stealth might be a bit more freeform than before.
Everyone pile on! | Mike Williams/USG, Nintendo

News and Notes

  • Speaking of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Kat's taken an early look at the game, finding a title that apparently leans a bit harder on the strategy compared to its immediate predecessors. That makes sense, given that it's heavily based on Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War. Character customization is improved, and the weapon triangle takes a vacation in this latest entry in the Fire Emblem series.
  • I reviewed Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. The game has definite problems on the Nintendo Switch, like the portable performance I noted above, but in the end I had a blast visiting this new iteration of the Marvel Universe. Now I'm just waiting on my man Cyclops to join the roster.
  • The Switch Lite might be the biggest news from Nintendo from the past few weeks, but the company also confirmed there's an upcoming revision to the original Switch. This version will look and operate the same, but sports a longer battery life, from 2.5 to 6.5 hours up to 4.5 to 9 hours. It's not really the rumored Switch Pro, but it'll do. Nintendo is also offering new Joy-Con colors alongside the revision. Shame we don't know if these new Joy-Cons will fix the drift problem plaguing the existing models.
  • Nintendo stays in the news cycle, though this is heartwarming for a reason outside of the company itself. Nintendo fans in Brazil felt abandoned by the company, who doesn't have a major presence in the region. So they banded together and put on their own Nintendo Direct! The Direct-like show hopes to get Nintendo's attention and get Brazil a little more love in terms of official releases and localization efforts.
  • Blizzard Entertainment co-founder Frank Pearce departed of the company after a long, nearly 30 year stint. Pearce follows fellow Blizzard co-founder Mike Morhaime, who left the company in 2018. The only original founder left is Allen Adham, who only rejoined the company in 2016, after 12 years away from the gaming industry.
  • Axe of the Blood God: This week's entry in the flagship USG podcast has an excellent guest star: Me! I join Kat to talk about Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers and Marlve Ultimate Alliance 3. And for those who miss Mike's Media Minute, we briefly revisit it here. Finally, Kat and Nadia talk Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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