[Ed. note: Nintendo Switch Sports’ core online mode was unavailable ahead of the review embargo, but should be available for players on launch day. We’ll be publishing a more traditional review, along with consideration for Polygon Recommends, once the complete game is live. In the meantime, here are our feelings about Nintendo Switch Sports after playing its local modes.]
Alchemy doesn’t exist, but Nintendo does.
At any moment, Shuntaro Furukawa can greenlight a new Metroid or Animal Crossing or Zelda or 2D Mario or 3D Mario or Mario Kart or Mario Teaches Typing, and a few years from now, that decision will have produced the closest the entertainment industry has to a guaranteed profit. Nintendo’s treasure box is so deep that it will go years, even decades, without creating a sequel for many of its hit franchises. I’m looking at you, F-Zero and Golden Sun and Wave Race and Earthbound.
This meager attention to franchises — franchises that other game publishers would make a deal with the devil to annualize — has more to do with practicality than stinginess. Nintendo only has so many internal studios and trusted partners, and only so much space in a year to release games without competing against itself. And yet, I have been dumbfounded for the better part of 15 years by Nintendo’s decision to put one of its biggest hits of all time on the back burner. Surely, if any franchise deserved prioritization, this was it.
Nintendo shipped nearly 83 million copies of Wii Sports. For context, the recent Elden Ring has sold 12 million copies, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the game that consumed the early days of pandemic lockdown, has sold 37 million. Wii Sports benefited from being bundled with nearly every Nintendo Wii, but the pair elevated each other into the rarified air of pop culture phenomena. People bought the Wii for Wii Sports, making it, for some, a $250 game.
In the mid-2000s, Wii Sports was the mainstream video game. Rainy day recess meant Wii Sports tennis in the classroom. Medical journals studied the potential benefits of Wii Sports bowling in nursing homes. Another studied whether or not time with Wii Sports improved the skills of doctors performing laparoscopic surgery. Was Wii Sports literally making the world more engaged, healthier, and smarter? Probably not! But this enthusiasm, spanning generations and professions, gets at how this one game touched nearly every corner of American pop culture.
A decade ago, “more Wii Sports” sounded like a no-brainer. Nintendo shrewdly published Wii Sports Resort in 2009, alongside the Wii Motion Plus dongle that added some extra precision to the Wii’s motion controls. But from that point forward, Wii Sports became little more than a reference in Super Smash Bros.
After more than a decade since that pop culture touchstone, I’ve finally had the opportunity to play a new entry: the aptly titled Nintendo Switch Sports. It debuts on the Nintendo Switch months after the hardware surpassed the Wii in total hardware sales, with a whopping 103.55 million Switches sold — and that’s amidst a global semiconductor shortage. In theory, there’s no better time for Nintendo to work its moneymaking magic.
So with all of that in mind — and I know, it’s a lot — why has Nintendo been so subdued? In an era of multiple Nintendo Directs dedicated to Animal Crossing or even Xenoblade, the company has given Switch Sports a brief announcement and a five-minute explainer video, then sent it to critics without the option to enter the main mode. Bold choices!
But after sinking a week into its six minigames, I think I get the “classic Nintendo logic” of it all. Nintendo, unsurprisingly, knows alchemy, certainly better than I do — and it has once again spun gold.
Nintendo Switch Sports isn’t so much a sequel to Wii Sports as it is the franchise’s overdue evolution from a tech demo into a proper video game. The original Wii Sports, for all its historical significance, felt like a novel but thin test of the Wii hardware. Its gameplay lacked depth and options; half the sports minigames were duds; and the art style was a rudimentary 3D setting with Miis instead of original characters. And in 2009, Wii Sports Resort felt like Wii Sports … just more.
Nintendo Switch Sports, on the other hand, feels complete, which I admit is a silly thing to say considering the damn online mode isn’t available yet. But I’m talking comparatively. In contrast with the barebones predecessor, Nintendo has put all of its typical polish into each of the discrete minigames. I expect all six of them will have their dedicated fans who declare theirs to be the best of the bunch.
The sports are…
- Volleyball: 1-4 players
- Badminton: 1-2 players
- Bowling: 1-4 players
- Soccer: 1-2 players
- Chambara (swordfighting): 1-2 players
- Tennis: 1-4 players
- A golf update will be available this summer.
You should read a full breakdown of how each sport plays in our hands-on impressions from earlier this month. My favorite sport has changed day to day. Yesterday, I was convinced I’d spend the rest of the week playing volleyball. Then I woke up this morning, played one round of soccer, and then just kept playing soccer. It’s paused on the TV at this very moment, waiting for me to fit in another round. Which I’m about to do right now.
OK, so I’m back. Some of the sports include alternate modes, like a shootout mode in soccer and dual-wielding in chambara. They can be played solo against AI, which has three difficulty levels. I swear this isn’t a tacky humblebrag: I’m a fan of the most difficult mode, Powerhouse, which has felt similar to playing against another person. It’s challenging, but not unfair. That said, the game is clearly meant to be played with others, and that’s likely where you’ll have the most fun.
The first person I played with was my four-year-old son. Now, I’ll be upfront with you; he only played for a half-hour before demanding we switch to Sonic. And by “play,” I mean he flailed around the living room yelling “I’m bowling! I’m bowling! I’m bowling!” But any video game that keeps my child away from Sonic the Hedgehog for longer than five minutes is a miracle. Thirty minutes is a gosh-dang world record.
This game is a blast with other people, whether they love video games or, like my spouse, have no interest whatsoever. It captures that feeling of the Wii at its best: that you could pretend to be a great tennis player in your living room, and the motion controls would make you feel like you actually were. Are the motion controls as precise as the Wii Motion Plus? I don’t think so. A handful of times the game didn’t register my immaculate bowling motion, prompting me to try again. Still, I don’t think 99% of the people who play this game will think about that slight loss of precision when they’re spiking a volleyball into their friend’s face.
Those feelings — sending a shuttlecock over your husband’s head but just inside the line, bowling a perfect game against your irritated daughter, or pulling a Jar’kai on your grandpa — make Nintendo Switch Sports special. And it’s those moments that will spread the game: guests trying this silly video game and deciding, Hey, I ought to get one of these for my home. I too would like to humiliate my loved ones in virtual tennis.
All of which is to ease my own unnecessary concern: the hype around Nintendo’s biggest game of 2022, so far, is fundamentally different from how we get excited for more Fire Emblem or Metroid.
In some ways, video game culture looks totally different today than it did when Wii Sports became a cultural phenomenon in the mid-2000s. I figured that, with a huge gap between entries, Nintendo would need to rethink the series to serve a general public that’s far more literate in video games. It’s stranger now if someone hasn’t played Fortnite or Among Us or even Dungeons & Dragons. I assumed a game like this would need more meat, more oomph, more, well, to be frank, marketing.
I was wrong. For all the change in the world of games, hucking an imaginary ball at imaginary bowling pins is and always will be awesome. Wii Sports didn’t need more minigames or the infinite to-do list of a “living game” or the depth of an RPG. All it needed was a little more polish, some liberal trimming of the weak bits, and a swift boot into the world.
Nintendo Switch Sports feels so delightful in 2022 because the joy of Wii Sports never really went away — nor did the dream of motion controls and games that invited in even the most cynical non-gamers. You can still find dusty Wiis and Microsoft Kinects in retirement homes, hospitals, and even some school A/V closets across the country. Throughout the pandemic, my father dug out a Kinect for neighborhood backyard get-togethers. When I took him to a retro game shop this winter, the clerk crushed his spirit, informing him that not even original Xbox One games would connect with Kinect. Nor were his Kinect classics backward compatible with the latest Xbox hardware. I’m ecstatic that I can push this game into his life, because reader, I promise that it’s better than literally every Kinect game … and nearly every Wii game, too.
Nintendo Switch Sports targets this audience, from the retired to the new parents, nostalgic for a type of gaming experience that hasn’t quite been recreated since. These are the final generations widely unfamiliar with modern video game controllers. And for Nintendo, that audience may be more than enough.
That said, I do hope younger folks give this game a shot. I think they might once the game’s online mode is available, a place where people under the age of 35 are far more likely to play games. Until I can try those features, though, I’m happy to think of this as Nintendo’s love letter to the old and the old at heart. The company took over a decade to make the game, but maybe they were waiting for folks like me to age into it.
Nintendo Switch Sports will be released April 29 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.