The year is 2006. Manchester United are still good, James Blunt is a British sensation, and Nintendo is launching a new games console that will go on to – at least temporarily – revolutionise the industry.
With its big play for the casual crowd as well as Nintendo devotees, the Wii was a massive success, selling over 100 million units – and its appeal wasn’t complicated. Thanks to the innovative and (even more importantly) intuitive motion controls, traditional gamepads and their intimidating assortment of buttons were no longer a barrier, and suddenly people who had never played a video game in their lives were able to pick up and play.
But the Wii needed a launch game to prove this, and Wii Sports was as important to its success as the hardware itself. Smartly bundled with the console so everyone who bought one already had their first game, Wii Sports had everyone from your tiny cousin to your grandma playing tennis in the living room. The console would eventually be home to many brilliant games, several among the best ever made, but it’s not controversial to say that Wii Sports (and to a lesser extent its Wii MotionPlus-touting follow-up Wii Sports Resort) was the definitive Wii title.
So why are we banging on about a console and game from 15 years ago today? Because Nintendo has finally brought the Sports series to its latest money-spinning machine, and about time too.
Motion controls aren’t as important to the Switch as they were the Wii, but the tech in those Joy-Con controllers is an upgrade on the Wii Remote’s, and the imaginatively named Nintendo Switch Sports loses none of the original’s famous pick-up-and-playability.
Make sure you have company, though, either in the room with you or somewhere else in the world thanks to the magic of the internet, because as a solo experience Nintendo Switch Sports is barebones package.
Play the hits
Nintendo Switch Sports’ eclectic tournament of athleticism (or thereabouts) takes place in a colourful fictional plaza called Spocco Square, which would surely dominate a city if it actually existed. Six sports are included at launch (golf will arrive as a free update in the summer): tennis, bowling, chambara, volleyball, badminton and football. Each one requires you to hold either one or both of the detachable Joy-Con controllers (with the exception of one mini-game that we’ll talk about later), and as motion controls are essential to the game, those who only own a Switch Lite unfortunately miss out.
If you played Wii Sports back in 2006 then tennis and bowling will feel very familiar. The latter lets you adjust your starting position and angle using the Joy-Con stick and D-pad (or equivalent), and you simply bowl underarm as you would in real bowling to launch the ball down the lane. Spin can be applied by rotating your wrist as your characters automatically releases the ball.
The game is very forgiving; we tend to clear all 10 pins on most turns (despite being comfortably below average at real bowling), but it feels as good as it always did. Things could be made more challenging if you were able to remove the on-screen aiming lines that show you where the ball is going to go, but that doesn’t appear to be an option.
Tennis is also pretty much as you remember it. Movement is handled automatically so all you have to think about is whacking that ball back, holding the Joy-Con as if it was a tennis racket. The controller’s sensors register forehand and backhand shots, as well as lobs if you swing upwards. Subtly adjusting your swing can add topspin or slice to your shots.
Like in Wii Sports, tennis is a doubles-only affair, which means you play as both players in your duo if you’re in single-player. For the first five or six games we played we kept forgetting this, which meant the player nearest the net must have been awfully bored. It’s clearly not how the game was intended to be played, and tennis is much more fun when someone is stood next to you, whether you’re on the same team or opponents.
While it’s a lot more fun if you channel your inner Federer and really get into it, you can seemingly still convince the game you’ve played a Wimbledon-worthy smash simply by flicking your wrist. And we’ve definitely won more than a point or two with a breathtaking cross-court dive we weren’t aware we’d triggered. This is only really a problem if you’re coming to Nintendo Switch Sports expecting a hardcore tennis simulation, which it definitely isn’t offering. As a party game, though, it remains hard to beat.
The other four sports are new for the Switch game, and they’re an interesting bunch. Volleyball was the new addition we were most looking forward to trying, but it turns out to be the least interesting. The Joy-Con effectively becomes your in-game hands, as you alternate between returning shots by moving the controller upwards, setting up your teammate for a spike, and spiking the ball yourself with a downward gesture. As you pass to and receive the ball from your teammate your power gauge will fill up, eventually allowing you to unleash a shot that’s very difficult to return. You can also block shots at the net by throwing your arm up at the right moment. It’s entertaining enough in small bursts and definitely looks like the sport it’s imitating, but to actually play it just feels a bit formulaic and lacking in drama.
Tennis remains Nintendo’s flagship motion-controlled game, but we might actually prefer badminton. As a fellow racket sport, it obviously controls similarly, but as the Joy-Con tracks a wider range of hand movements here it feels there’s more variety to the shots you can play. Holding a button allows you to play a drop shot at the front of the net, which when tactically deployed as just the right moment feels extremely satisfying, while badminton’s more intimate nature and the ability to play one-on-one can result in some seriously tense rallies. Like in tennis, these are usually ended by an almighty smash, which your character will usually have to helplessly watch from the floor after losing their balance.
Chambara is a combat sport in which you and your opponent battle it out on a raised platform, wielding either one or two swords, with an optional charged finishing move. A blocking mechanic makes the game as much about defense and reading your opponent’s moves as it is lunging at them, and you’ll have to breach their own block by alternating the direction of your attack.
Chambara is more involved than some of the other sports, and takes a while to get to grips with, especially if you’re playing with twin swords. It can be tempting (and occasionally fruitful) to just violently flail your arms and hope for the best, but the game is more rewarding when both players size each other up and take their time. Anyone who’s played the Zelda: Skyward Sword remake will know that the Joy-Cons make for good swords, and the motion detection seems to hold up most of the time. You’ll need to get used to re-centering the Joy-Cons (done by pointing them forward at the TV) every now and again mid-fight to ensure your movements remain accurate.
The final game in the initial lineup is football, played with your hands, obviously. In either one-on-one or four-on-four matches, you move your players around a pitch, flicking your wrists forward, left or right to leather an oversized football. You can’t tackle but you can – hilariously – leap into the air for a diving header at any moment. You can call for the ball at any time too, but we don’t imagine that’ll make much difference if you’re playing with greedy friends.
The game has definite Rocket League vibes, but it’s a slower and far less complex arcade spin on the beautiful game. Scoring from range crucially feels great and our best moment in the game so far saw us leap for a Shearer-esque headed finish from not far beyond the halfway line. It was completely ridiculous and we’re sadly yet to repeat it. In our experience most matches tend to be low-scoring affairs, so when the goals do come it does feel like a moment.
There’s also a penalty shootout mode that uses a leg strap (if you own Ring Fit Adventure you already have one), and has you actually kicking a virtual ball being fed to you towards a goal that gets smaller each time you score. It’s a bit simplistic and doesn’t feel massively accurate, but maybe that’s just bitterness talking. The option to play using a leg strap in team games will be added in a future update, and we can only imagine the chaos that will bring.
Look the part
While you are able to import your Mii and keep things very Wii Sports, Nintendo encourages you to instead create a character from scratch.
You’re able to choose from a selection of preset avatars and can then edit their facial features, hairstyle and clothes. It’s not the most interesting character creation mode we’ve come across this year, especially in the wake of OlliOlli World‘s, but you can unlock new cosmetic items by competing in online matches.
And about that. During the review period we weren’t able to play anyone online, and only gained access to the servers today. One or two players can compete online, and after playing a few matches the game let us select up to three sports to cycle through when matchmaking. You can also select randomise to keep things interesting.
We won’t know how compelling the game is as an online competitive multiplayer experience until it’s out and people all over the world are playing, but we do hope Nintendo hosts regular tournaments, because as a single-player game Nintendo Switch Sports is severely lacking. The sports themselves are nearly all really fun, but it’s the game around them that needs work.
Nintendo Switch Sports initial verdict
If you have fond memories of playing Wii Sports with the whole family then rest assured that the Switch sequel will lives up to the name. The versatile Joy-Cons are better motion controllers than the Wii Remote and Nunchuk were, but are crucially just as easy to pick up and use.
We like the mix of sports, too. Tennis and bowling tick the nostalgia boxes, Chambara appeals to players looking for a bit more depth, and football looks like it will bring the laughs. It’s a shame we have to wait until autumn for golf, another Wii Sports classic, to arrive, but there’s enough in there at launch to keep you going through the summer.
The big test will come when the world hits the servers for some online play. But as long as you have people to play with locally, Nintendo Switch Sports is multiplayer gaming at its most welcoming, and while this game won’t define the Switch in the way Wii Sports did the Wii, in an era that has largely moved on from motion controls, it’s a joy to be endangering television screens once again.
A barebones single-player experience, but Nintendo has served up more motion-controlled multiplayer fun for one of its best ever consoles
Anyone can play
Badminton, football and chambara are all great additions
Tennis and bowling are as fun as ever
Very little in the way of single-player modes
Volleyball is the weakest sport of the bunch
Why do we have to wait for golf?