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Nintendo Switch Sports review - online or local, it's a treat

Happy campus.
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Nintendo returns to motion controls with a suite of sports that offer true delight.

Oh, I remember this. Move the sofa. Push back the chairs. And then every game begins with something that takes me back almost 40 years, to Music and Movement at infants school. Find a space, reach out your arms to make sure you don't touch anything and knock anyone over. You're ready. Just the thought of this is enough to bring back the smell of every school hall that has ever existed: floor polish, dust, feet.

But that isn't how this would smell. This would smell of pot pourri and corporate perfume wafting in from hidden vents. This would smell of marshmallow and candied fruit and sandalwood. That's one of the biggest surprises of Nintendo Switch Sports, actually. For me at least. How beautiful it all is.

The latest game in the Wii Sports series contains six games, three new, three returning, which might seem a little too slim a collection on paper, even after you factor in Golf, which is arriving in Autumn as a free update. This was all known in advance. What I didn't register, though, is that the game unfolds across a sort of idealised urban campus, with each sport having its own grounds.

I have become obsessed with the grounds. From the staircases and exposed brickwork that house the pool for chambara - whenever I knock an opponent into the water I always spot an old lady stood on a gantry cheering me on - to the glimpse of a promising Boxpark you can see when playing badminton, all those coffee shops and whatnot arranged in old shipping crates, Nintendo Switch Sports is like working for Google or one of those wild tech companies where they do your laundry and serve lobster thermidor at your desk every evening.

My favourite space is volleyball. If you look away from the court for a second - always dangerous in volleyball - you see a multistory glass-fronted coffee shop-stroke-library, called the Humhum Cafe. This is the stuff of dreams. A coffee shop that is also a library - the quiet murmur of the stacks and the clink of cutlery. The work of a design team that cannot help but throw a little world-building into a collection of sports games.

Nintendo Switch Sports overview.

I should probably get to the sports games. And volleyball is the ideal place to start, actually. It's a dead tie for my favourite of the six on offer - a smart reworking of the squeaky-plimsolled classic that focuses in on timing. Serve, bump, set, spike, block: all of these have the same motion controls, really - flip the Joy-Con. But the timing is what makes it a blood sport. This is the Switch Sports game that makes you scream with victory when you hear that bouncing THWACK that means your rivals have missed the ball.

It's fine as a solo game, but online, say, with all four players, it's an absolute riot. It's brutal. Who knew a game of timing could make you so furious? Who knew putting yourself in just the right spot, hitting the ball and seeing it go green - which means the timing was perfect, I think - would bring such angry joy? Volleyball!

Football is my other favourite - and, along with badminton, it's another of the three new games that Switch Sports offers. Football is great however you play it: it's Rocket League football, really, played with a huge ball on a court that has walls to keep the ball in play. The ideal way to play it is online with two full teams of four where it's chaotic and punishing. But it works fine as a single-player game: move with one stick, aim the camera with the other, pass, nudge the ball, swipe a Joy-Con to kick the ball and swipe with both to perform the hilarious all-or-nothing diving header.

It works because it's fun to mess around with the ball, to see it sail with a certain stateliness towards you, a towering thing that might easily flatten you, and then to redirect it with a quick lunge. The more players on the pitch, the more this can cease to be football and become a kind of dreamy pinball machine - but even that works. And online, with teams that know what they're doing, you get proper games where passing matters and the goal count reaches higher than three or four. The only thing I'd say is that the shoot-out mode, which sees you strapping the Joy-Con to your leg and actually kicking, feels like a bit of a novelty. It's fun to see the goal get smaller as your score goes up, but ultimately it's not something I'm going to want to play that often.

Nintendo Switch Sports announcement trailer.

Badminton is the third of the new sports, a lighter, faster take on tennis, which sticks to singles matches. Rallies are nice and easy to come by, but it's really about reading the shuttlecock and waiting for an error - a rival who's isolated themselves on one side of the court, or a moment where the shuttlecock wobbles through the air rather than flying true, which is an invitation to finish things with a power shot. Badminton is fast, which means you can sit there for hours and chug through opponents - or have them chug through you. It's lovely stuff. And yes, the boxpark adds to the charm.

After that, the three returning sports round things out - until the arrival of golf. Tennis is ever-reliable, a doubles game that sees your partner mirroring your moves if you're playing solo, but which benefits from four players - ideally four players who have just had an argument in the real world and want to have a safe space to untangle things.

Tennis feels heavier now that badminton has joined the line-up, but it's still a wonderful quick version of the sport, which captures the delirious thwock of a rubber ball breaking the sound barrier (I know it doesn't, but it feels like it does), and will no doubt become a bit of a go-to when the novelty of other things disperses. I love how grumpy the players are - when they lose a point they get a Peanuts scribble of wordless rage over their heads, and you can see them arguing over calls in the replay. I feel a little of that grumpiness myself when I'm losing. I once read that the founder of Uber was, like, number two rank in Wii Tennis globally. It makes sense. It's a game for sharks.

Tennis is as fantastic as ever.

All of which is to say that Chambara, which is literally more violent, since you hit people with swords, actually feels less violent. This one-on-one game is another delight in online play where there is always a queue of new people to face off against, but it works well when it's just two friends in the living room too. The motion controls are great, probably in part because you recalibrate after each game by pointing your Joy-Con at the screen, and the three styles of play on offer allow things to scale from very simple thwack-and-guard (guarding is handled with a trigger, and allows you to stun your opponent and create an opening) to a mode in which your guards charge up a power move, and a final mode in which you use two swords. I have played several games of two-swords online against people who were really not screwing around. It can be oddly thrilling to see a new foe appear and just see from the way they move their swords that they know exactly what they're doing.

(I also love the Nintendo extras to Chambara - the way the whole thing clearly takes place in a remodelled railway shed, with exposed brick and vaulted ceilings, and the inclusion of a polite little ladder leading from the pool you're knocked into and back to the platform you play on - a lovely piece of world-building that I suspect other teams would forget.)

The final returning sport is bowling, which is as much of a joy as it ever was. Swing the Joy-Con to bowl, don't forget a wrist-strap because people have already smashed their TVs.

Two things I would mention about bowling and I'll be brief because I'm running long: there's an additional mode in which you have obstacles on the lanes and moving platforms, which I don't enjoy much, but probably because I'm bad at it - my daughter absolutely adores it. And then there's online, which has a dazzling 16 players competing simultaneously, the lowest scorers getting knocked out after each round. It's a rush - a proper rush - to see that many players joining in match-making, but having played quite a few games I also suspect a lot of these players are bots. Hopefully that's just because it's early days.

Bowling remains a treat.

Online is interesting, I think: all of the games benefit from it, but I've also had a lot of fun playing locally before online was available to reviewers. Part of me believes that this series will always be a local game, which is probably why you can only earn items for your Sportsmates avatars - they are more charming than I expected, with a touch of Animal Crossing to the faces, and besides, you can still import the odd Mii - by playing online and levelling up. It's a less-than generous system, it must be said, with slow levelling and then a randomisation to what you get, as you choose a pack of items and the game then selects a specific item from it for you.

Ultimately, though, these games are so refined, and delivered with such odd, coffee-shop-and-library charm, that it doesn't matter how you play. My daughter is of the age where she completely missed the Wii, so when this new game arrived and we started moving the furniture around, she didn't have a clue what we were up to. But that afternoon we must have played together for hours, with breaks for when a diving header animation made her laugh so much she needed her breath back. The whole thing was intoxicating.

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About the Author
Christian Donlan avatar

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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