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Nintendo Switch's touchscreen looks toward the past, not the future

It’s one of the console’s big new features — so why aren’t games using it?


The Nintendo Switch will include a touchscreen, one that sounds like an upgrade from that of the Wii U or Nintendo 3DS. As Nintendo revealed during last week’s Switch press conference, the hybrid console’s screen will have multi-capacitive touch, allowing for numerous points of interaction at once.

That’s an exciting upgrade for fans of touch-based gaming. Yet on the floor at Nintendo’s New York City hands-on event for media last Friday, it was easy to forget that the Switch had a touchscreen at all. Not a single Nintendo game included touch-based controls whatsoever; only one of the games we sampled even allowed players to take their hands off the Joy-Con controllers and start tapping the tablet’s screen instead.

Skylanders Imaginators, a launch title from Activision that’s already out on other consoles, was the only game that used the touchscreen in any fashion. Its integration was simplistic: Players can swipe along the menu screen on the tablet to select different options. That’s it.

It’s the kind of basic touchscreen use reminiscent of the Nintendo DS’ early days, when developers weren’t yet quite sure how to use the handheld’s central gimmicks. But that was 13 years ago; touchscreens are now commonplace.

The event staff seemed unwilling or unable to speak to why the touchscreen was so neglected. But we have some thoughts.

A late addition

We weren’t even sure until last week if the Nintendo Switch would maintain its predecessor’s touch controls. It’s been clear from the get-go that Nintendo is stepping away from the past and looking toward a future that is at once more traditional and quite revolutionary. The Switch comes with a grip to make its impressive Joy-Con controllers approximate a traditional gameplay experience, for example; the three unique modes to play the Switch in — tabletop, handheld and TV — are all familiar and relatable to longtime gamers.

It makes sense, then, that Nintendo is prioritizing these features to show off to potential Switch customers. But for existing Nintendo fans, a touchscreen is both important and exciting. It’s impossible to think of playing Super Mario Maker without one, for example. In games that don’t require it, the touchscreen adds a wonderful, optional convenience.

The fact that the Switch’s touchscreen is more capable than the resistive touchscreen of the Wii U and 3DS’ is also reason to get excited. It’s frustrating that Nintendo has yet to show off just what that multitouch element will be able to add to new games.

nintendo ds original
The Nintendo DS popularized touch-based gaming in 2004. It’s remained a staple of Nintendo hardware ever since.

On the other hand ...

While developers could be inclined to port over iOS and Android games — think a Super Mario Run port for the Switch that uses the same control scheme as it does on a phone — it’s likely that Nintendo is trying to avoid sending the message that the Switch looks or feels like a traditional tablet.

A game with heavy touchscreen controls also won’t work in the TV mode, which is important to many hardcore players who prefer to do their gaming on a big television set. Switch games need to work both docked and undocked, and that means putting the brakes on heavy touch-based input. Nintendo knew that every Wii U player had the screen on their hands, while Switch players won’t always be holding the system itself if they’re playing on the television.

It’s possible that the touchscreen is just there for backward compatibility-purposes when players are using the screen as well. Nintendo hasn’t talked about whether we’ll be able to play Wii U, DS or 3DS games thanks to some version of the Virtual Console, but it’s certainly possible.

I’d imagine that old Nintendo games — ones with touch controls — would make it onto the Switch’s eShop at some point, and it’s important to have a touchscreen there for that purpose while also making sure each game is playable using only the standard Joy-Con connected to a television. Yet Nintendo has kept quiet about its plans for letting Switch owners play older games on the console, leaving us to speculate what use the screen may have before the Switch launches in March.

This could just be Nintendo hedging its bets by offering developers as many choices as possible while keeping the door open for accurate backwards compatibility. Without any reference point yet, we may not see any Switch games that make interesting use of the touchscreen for some time — or any use at all.

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