I've been to a couple Nintendo Switch events now, and one thing that's struck me each time is that everyone is always playing on the TV. Where's the love for handheld mode?
For the answer, I decided to go to the experts: the developers who have been playing the Switch for a few months now. I also tried out the games for myself (obviously), just to see how I felt. My main takeaway? It actually really depends on the game, even for more traditionally "handheld" experiences like indies.
Mr Shifty: Handheld Mode
I saw some comparisons between Mr. Shifty and Hotline Miami when it was first announced, but I have to say that I really don't see the similarities. The tone and the action are all off. Mr. Shifty is more akin to 2008's Jumper—the Hayden Christensen about a man who gains the ability to teleport. That's pretty much how the action in Mr. Shifty goes. Instead of the careful stealth mechanics of Hotline Miami, Mr. Shifty has you rushing across the screen and slaughtering enemies as fast as you can. The only real similarity between the two is the top-down perspective and the fact that one shot will take you down.
My feeling is that the look and feel of Mr. Shifty makes it better-suited for the handheld screen, and tinyBuild co-founder Luke Burtis, who was demoing the game, tends to agree. "Honestly, I haven't had a whole lot of experience playing it yet. I've played some on the TV, but then there was a guy who came around this morning and said he wanted to play it on the actual device. And I was looking at it, and it looks and feels a lot better on the device on the TV. So I'm gonna have to go with the device. Which is kind of interesting."
Shovel Knight: Tabletop
Yacht Clubt Games senior programmer Carl Skarstedt was the one demoing Shovel Knight on the Switch. He initially told me that he prefers the TV mode ("I love the device screen, but when I go home I think I want to play games on my TV"), but then switched to a somewhat unexpected answer: "I actually prefer the kickstand sometimes. When I'm playing on a dev kit, there are a lot of wires." Chalk one up for Team Kickstand, I guess!
Believe it or not, I think I'm with him. Specter of Torment is even more of a high-precision action game than Shovel Knight, requiring tons of complicated aerial maneuvers. The handheld version of the Switch isn't nearly as unwieldy as the Wii U Gamepad, but the widely spaced controls still feel the tiniest bit awkward in my hands. I'm not one to play Shovel Knight on my TV (my television is too far away from my couch for hardcore action games), so the kickstand with the Pro Controller seems like the best bet.
Yeah, I'm surprised too.
Blaster Master Zero: TV Mode
I went to Blaster Master Zero figuring that it was a surefire pick for Team Handheld. But to my surprise, Inti Creates localization director Matt Papa feels differently. "I love playing games on a nice big screen, especially when you're kicking back on the couch."
He hedges, of course, noting that the fact that he lives in Japan means that being able to play on the train really hits home for him, but, "If I'm just chilling, it's really nice to be able to play it on the big screen."
Still, Papa thinks that the Switch's portability will be a significant factor in its success in Japan. "We're huge fans of the Switch [at Inti Creates]. Nintendo was gracious enough to name us an official dev partner for the Switch, so we're all in. I think for the Japan market, something like the Switch can really hit home because a lot of people in the big cities spend a lot of time commuting to work. So something like this, where you can have this level of screen size and graphics? Something like this will really resonate with the Japanese market for sure."
He continues, "I think it's gonna take some time. But once you get some blockbusters out, those really super big name title, and people realize they can effortlessly play them on the train... Given time, I think the 3DSes on the train will turn into Switches on the train."
Incidentally, Blaster Master Zero, which is a reboot of sorts of the classic game featuring 8-bit style graphics, works pretty well on handheld. But as with Shovel Knight, I feel like the high-precision action, which can result in a lot of one-shot deaths, requires a controller. Moreover, the main tank is kind of small on the handheld screen. So TV Mode it is!
SteamWorld Dig 2: Handheld Mode
I'm used to playing the SteamWorld games on handheld, mostly because they tend to get released on the Nintendo 3DS before anything else (that's where I beat the excellent SteamWorld Heist). For that reason, I tend to think of SteamWorld games in portable terms, and Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson agrees.
"I prefer the device. When I play on the 3DS, I like to just lie in bed. If I remember to bring headphones to the bed, that's just perfect. I get to be left alone," he says.
But there's something else. "I've got so many kids, and they're always sort of bugging me for the TV. Me and the kids, we don't always like the same thing. It's not enough of a private experience on the TV."
I don't have kids, but I can relate. I'm the kind of person who prefers to grab a cup of tea and plop down in my armchair with a handheld system. There is an intimacy there that's hard to find with the television, even when wearing headphones.
As for SteamWorld Dig 2, I don't have much to say about it save that it looks great. The original SteamWorld Dig offered a great bit of digging and platforming, and SteamWorld Dig 2 is more of the same, though much, much bigger (it also dispenses with randomized level design). It's also really pretty. Image & Form really have a talent for 2D art, and the SteamWorld games look great in high-definition. It's nice not having to weigh whether I should wait for the Steam version so I can enjoy it in HD.
Shakedown: Hawaii: Handheld Mode
Shakedown: Hawaii developer Brian Provinciano is with Sigurgeirsson: "I'm a handheld guy all the way. I've always been handheld for some reason. Especially for my types of game, the pixels look better when they're not blown up on the big screen. But with the PS3 and Vita, with the cross-buy/cross-save, there were a few games where I would switch between the two, but always finish on the Vita.
Provinciano's game, a follow-up to GTA sendup/tribute Retro City, certainly looks best on handheld. It doesn't require too much precision, either, making it quite a bit easier to play with the bulky Switch device. So handheld all the way on this one.
The last game I saw at Nintendo's indies event was Celeste—an artistic retro platformer with some very difficult to navigate jumps (thankfully, you get unlimited lives, so they aren't too frustrating). There were actually three developers on hand to show Celeste, so I asked all of them for their opinion.
"For this game specifically, handheld. It just reminds me of playing games on my Game Boy as a kid. It looks so beautiful on that screen," Matt Thorson told me.
His cohort, Myriam Lachapelle, agreed, "I really like the handheld screen more. It just feels so good in your hand. So yeah, that's pretty much it.
"This is actually my first day with the Switch, and I haven't even tried the handheld. So I guess I prefer the TV," composer Kevin Regameysaid to laughter from the two developers.
So there you have it. Five of the developers I talked to preferred handheld mode, two preferred TV mode, and one preferred the kickstand (though he was willing to jump to the TV in a pinch). Something tells me that when everything shakes out, the Switch will be regarded more as a handheld that plugs into a television than a portable console, but I guess we'll have to see on March 3. In the meantime, check out our review of the Switch (so far), and be sure to share whether you're on #teamhandheld, #teamconsole, or #teamkickstand in the comments. It's time to get this conversation started.