Nintendo Switch Sports wants you to party like it’s 2006, but can it recapture past glories?
As strange as it sounds to say, nostalgia for the Wii is a real thing. A decade and a half have passed since Nintendo’s inventive console was released, and although it’s often ridiculed, its success was a significant moment in video game history.
Wii Sports is one of the console’s most beloved games – and not just because it was a pack-in title – and it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for the Switch to get an iteration. The Wii U, by comparison, received Wii Sports Club less than two years into its life.
I assume it’s all about the audience. The Nintendo Switch was firmly aimed at traditional video game enthusiasts at launch. But, as the system enters its fifth year, Nintendo appears more comfortable in embracing the Blue Ocean period that defined it in the late ’00s. And, despite the criticism that the Wii era often receives, I have to admit that it feels good to have it back.
The first thing that strikes you about Nintendo Switch Sports is just how unapologetic it is. Despite the updated name, this really is (more) Wii Sports. An improvement in production values is evident, but the reworked music, clean typography, and visual language are instantly familiar. And although Mii avatars are tucked away in a sub-menu, their replacements – called Sportsmates – are just as expressive and endearing.
At launch, Nintendo Switch Sports features six games – Badminton, Bowling, Cambara, Football, Tennis and Volleyball – with Golf due to arrive as free DLC later this year. It’s a modest lineup, but, as evidenced by a weekly release of cosmetics, it seems clear Nintendo has longer-term plans. You’d have to think that more sports will arrive following Golf, not least those from Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort that are sadly absent.
The layout of the game’s Spocco Square location teases potential new content and you can almost picture the construction hoardings added to the map in anticipation of new sports.
It’s a more cohesive environment than the Wii era’s Wuhu Island that’s part Silicon Valley campus, part Center Parcs resort. It’s a place of happy faces, box park cafes, self-help libraries, and playing arenas, all nestled together to deliver wellbeing and lifestyle improvement via the wonder of Joy-Con. In real life, it would be the most hellish place on Earth. Digitally, it’s an odd kind of video game utopia.
The intricacies of Spocco Square are fun to pore over but it’s the sports that are the star of the show, three of which return from previous Wii Sports games.
Tennis feels as natural as it did in 2006, but there’s a tangible improvement in how the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Con controllers interpret gestures. Lobs and volleys are more responsive, and the relation between the strength of your swing and the on-screen movement feels more accurate.
Bowling is also instantly familiar and as comfortable as slipping on a pair of old Brunswicks. It remains one of the most impressive digital replicas of a sport ever created, and the Nintendo Switch Sports iteration is very much a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Elsewhere, Chambara gives one of Wii Sports Resort‘s finest games a subtle reworking. This time, the Joy-Cons’ smaller form factor contributes to smoother movement and the new weapon variants make for a slightly more involved combat experience.
Of the new sports, Badminton makes the most positive first impression. Like Tennis and Bowling, it’s easy to pick up and play and perfect for newcomers. It’s a game constructed around thrilling – and sometimes physically exhausting – rallies. Avoiding fatigue is key, as is being patient, as you wait for your opponent to fluff a return so you can respond with a well-timed smash.
Football takes a different approach by not attempting to accurately replicate the real sport. However, the lunging headers, comical sprinting, and gesture-based shooting come together to create an experience that at least evokes the ebb and flow of the real thing. A winning lead can be cut through a well-executed hoof of the ball, and a last-minute rebound can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s intoxicating stuff and a genuine physical workout to boot.
Volleyball, meanwhile, is the most involved sport on offer. The complexity comes through a range of moves that represent serves, blocks, spikes, and bumps. The moves become second nature and instinctive after a couple of matches, however.
Each game is a treat to experience in local multiplayer. The chaos of an afternoon in front of the TV with family makes the game’s few rough edges vanish. I took the game along to a family gathering at the weekend and it was a complete hit. I had hoped to get some quotes to include in this review, but the hoots, whoops, screams, and yells of excitement told me everything I needed to know.
Volleyball was the one game that took a little time to onboard everyone. It was perhaps a little too much for a grandpa, a three-year-old and various inbetweeners to co-ordinate. But all five other sports were instantly accessible, and, most of all, a lot of fun.
And, as ever, Joy-Con admin can be a hassle for the uninitiated. But once you’re over that initial hurdle, it’s the rivalries, mistakes, and lucky breaks that will live in the memory.
It’s also pleasing to report that solo play is much improved, mostly due to the game’s modest but streamlined online features.
It’s a relatively bare-bones set-up that aims to get players into the action as quickly as possible. You can pick a sport – or selection of sports – and choose to play online with randoms, or create a room to play with friends. In my experience, it’s been seamless and fast. The lack of features and customisation feels like a deliberate move from Nintendo to keep things moving and prevent the player base from fragmenting into too many variants.
Bowling, structured around a simultaneous 16-player elimination tournament, is a tense delight from start to finish and the online suite’s undisputed highlight.
The only real disappointment relates to the initial mix of sports, which are very active. The game is inclusive by design, but bowling aside, there’s a lot of huff and puff here. Golf will be a welcome addition, but it would be good to see some more leisurely pursuits added to the mix that can be enjoyed by older – or less energetic – players.
Focusing on the here and now, Nintendo Switch Sports is a welcome and polished return for a family favourite.
Game: Nintendo Switch Sports
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Out now