Hooked on the Nintendo Switch

Nintendo’s back.

I didn’t believe it at first. Years of hard-learned experience encased me like a Koopa shell, protecting me from their empty promises. So much dust piled atop unsupported consoles and one-trick gimmicks obscured my memories of the golden years. The Nintendo Switch is different, I was told. You just need to play it. It’s not like before.

It wasn’t that accepting the Switch hype forced a struggle against my better instincts. I wasn’t a scorned gamer wary of falling victim to the hype machine, afraid of another disappointment. It was worse than that. I had given them up for dead. Nintendo, a company that exerted gravitational forces on my childhood—my early career even—was a non-entity to me. An ex-lover across a crowded room whose silhouette stirred no emotion.

And now I’m mainlining the Kool-Aid.

On-Site, Nintendo Switch in Hand

Last month I reached out to my contacts at Prima Games to remind them that I was still interested in projects of the short-term, fire-drill variety. Assignments where I could swoop in, work myself silly for a week or two, and return to writing my novel. I instantly received an offer to work on a project that would effectively be the polar opposite of what I desired. Flattering, of course, but I couldn’t turn it down fast enough. My sanity and my marriage demanded it.

Then, a week later, the ideal situation presented itself: Spend a week on-site at Nintendo, assisting another strategy guide author.

My last visit to Nintendo’s Redmond offices was for Metroid Prime, back in 2003. That building is now an employee soccer field. It wasn’t all that has changed.

From a D-pad shaped sofa in a sparkling new building, I stared across the lobby at the Switch demo, hoping the device wouldn’t make my hands cramp the way the Wii U did and desiring nothing more than confirmation that the game in question could be played without motion controls.

It took some time, but we were finally set up. I was playing the Switch, a fantastic device whose flexibility, in case you don’t know, is remarkable. Play it on the couch, in bed, or even in a bar. See for yourself.

While impressive, the play anywhere nature of the device isn’t what hooked me. Nor was it the console’s surprisingly impressive graphics or the Pro Controller, a controller that, somehow, improved upon the near-perfect design of the Xbox 360 controller. No, what won me over is something less physical, but so much more important. It was being reminded of Nintendo’s philosophy toward game design.

What Gaming Should Be

I wrote last year about my attempt to truly give the game Skyrim a try. After fifteen hours I gave up, convinced it was little more than a mind-numbing exercise in checklist completion. There was tons to do, perhaps even a lifetime of quests and skills to master, but none of it was fun, no aspect compelling. The only reason to do anything was because I am a human susceptible to the tiny drips of dopamine released by the treadmill gaming experiences of this flavor.

A friend who shares this complaint, not only about Skyrim but the current state of gaming as a whole (fun fact: many game developers now hire psychologists trained in understanding addiction to better hook players) swore to me that the Switch was different. He explained that Nintendo had chosen to eschew Achievements, leaderboards, and other means of psychological manipulation that has bloated games and turned them more into work. He insisted I give it a try, confident I wouldn’t be disappointed.

“I’ll probably get one,” I conceded. “But Breath of the Wild is still an open-world game and it has crafting. I’m not interested,” I said, referring to the newest Legend of Zelda game, recalling the stories of people having logged over a hundred hours in the game.

“It’s not only the best Zelda, it might be the best game ever made.” High praise indeed from someone I trust.

I bought a Switch from the company store (perk of being a contractor) my second day on-site and, despite having spent ten hours playing the Switch all day for work, I stayed up until midnight that night playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Despite not knowing the courses and struggling to finish in the middle of the pack in my online races, I couldn’t put it down.

Having installed-and-uninstalled over a dozen PC games in the prior few weeks, not one lasting more than thirty minutes on my hard drive. I wondered if I was through with gaming forever. Gaming, my lifetime hobby, had become pointless.

And then came Mario Kart.

I was gaming online with people from all around the world — flags decorate your profile picture in the Worldwide server — and communication was limited to a dozen or so canned emotes, the harshest of which equates to a boast that you’ll win next time. Most are saccharine. Avatars called Miis wave and dance before races and players say “Thanks for playing” before logging out. Coming from a decade of hearing every vulgar, racist, misogynistic comment a human can hurl while playing Gears of War, it was rather strange at first. The childishness of it was off-putting, the in-race silence was odd and unsettling. And then I came to love it.

Yes, in my home, I might be cursing every time a fellow racer hurled a shell at me or hit me with a lightning bolt, but at least the other players don’t have to hear me. Nor I hear them. It was more fun than playing against the A.I., but without the toxicity that plagues so many online experiences. It was the best of both worlds.

And while there are various challenges in the game like Time Trial ghosts to beat and triple star championships to win, the only carrot is your own self-satisfaction. Completing these feats affords you no digital bragging rights, no bells and whistles. These tasks exist to help you get better at the game.

Legendary Zelda

I wrapped up my project and flew to Florida that night on a red-eye. We were spending ten days at my mother-in-law’s beach house, the first five days of which were spent with friends of ours. My Switch-to(u)ting friend was in attendance and he came bearing gifts. “I can’t live in a world where Doug Walsh refuses to play Breath of the Wild,” he said, handing me a copy of the game.

I thanked him, knowing what what would happen. I’d play it for an hour or two, shrug, and put it away unfinished and forgotten.

Or so I thought.

Ten days later, after wireless Mario Kart battles between our two devices (four players, two on each Switch in tablet mode) and random Snipperclips tomfoolery, I boarded the plane with a fully-charged console. I began playing Zelda as soon as we hit cruising altitude and didn’t pause it once until the battery light flashed two and a half hours later. It’s unlike any Zelda game I’ve ever played and it’s utterly brilliant.

It’s a fresh breeze in the doldrums that is the current state of gaming.

Yes, it’s open-world, but it’s open-world done right. I’m exploring with a sense of curiosity, not the dread of obligation. The game reveals itself gradually, rewarding your thoroughness, but not overwhelming you with mindless tasks and busy work. There is crafting (cooking) but it doesn’t get in the way of the experience. The combat is fluid, the action visceral, and the story exists to guide the player, not stroke the ego of the developer.

At less than ten hours in, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. Yet I continue to marvel at the game. My generous friend was right, it’s the perfect game for me.

About Those Golden Years…

This is going to sound ridiculously cheesy, but there’s something to playing the Switch that just makes me smile. Unlike the NES Classic which I also recently bought, the Switch is the true time machine to those halcyon days of my gaming youth. Back when I played games because they were fun, not because I was out to amass a higher Gamerscore.

Yes, there are drawbacks to the Switch. The lack of cloud saves is disturbing, the prices for games can be high (Thumper is $20 on Switch, but only $14 on Steam), and the device ships with a plastic screen instead of glass. But these are minor annoyances.

As someone working (again) in the industry, I’m also privy to certain information about upcoming games. And what excites me most about the Switch — and what tells me this won’t be like the Gamecube’s latter years or the Wii or Wii U — is that Nintendo has an incredibly ambitious plan for supporting the Switch. Even if third-party support doesn’t coalesce around the Switch, there appears to be more than enough first-party games on the way to justify the purchase.

For the first time in well over a decade, the problem won’t be finding enough games to play on a Nintendo console. The problem will be finding the time to play them all.

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