I was taking the train on Monday, energised and ready to play some Diablo 3. I’d forgotten my Switch before flying to Melbourne for PAX, so I’d gone the whole weekend without rolling through the infernal hordes.
But after grabbing a coffee, squeezing onto a cramped Sydney train and popping my bag onto my lap, a problem became immediately clear. How exactly did I think I was going to play Diablo on a packed train?
It’s such a simple problem, one so ingrained into my morning commute that I’d walked out the door without even considering it.
Why did I assume I would have two free hands to play Diablo on the train? If I’d had a coffee before leaving the house, or there was more room on the train, maybe that would be the case. If there were less people, maybe I could have wedged my coffee on the side of my seat, or between my legs.
If there was extra room to pop my bag on the floor. But there wasn’t. And for peak hour on any public transport around Australia, that’s pretty common.
So I found myself sitting there, bag laid across my knees, coffee in one hand. Diablo was out of the question. I was about three-quarters through a playthrough of The World Ends With You, and since the JoyCons are disabled in handheld mode anyway, I figured I’d give that a try.
I didn’t think I’d use the Switch like a tablet when I first got my hands on the console. The screen is pretty horrible by today’s standards, especially in bright daylight. On top of that, part of the Switch’s value is the superior controls. The touchscreen is fine, but there’s less real estate than a proper tablet, and support for the touchscreen has been pretty minimal to date.
And it’s not like phones don’t fulfil that role well already. The hardware in your phone is plenty powerful despite the cooling and thermal constraints. The problem is generally the controls: you lose a ton of real estate thanks to your thumbs and fingers that have to be swiping and pressing the sides of the phone all the time. And then you’ve got the excess oil from your fingers that eventually makes your phone or phone protector look like garbage.
Practicality is an issue too. Say I’m sitting on the train, bag on my knees, cup of coffee in one hand. If I’m playing a game vertically, it’s not too much trouble to hold the phone in one hand, swiping up and across with my thumb as necessary.
But landscape games – Race for the Galaxy or 7 Wonders, which I’ve been playing a lot of lately – are a little trickier. I can rest the phone on my bag. Phones with curved chassis have a tendency to slip, especially since there’s not a great deal of weight to them.
I can hold it in place with my right hand, but holding a phone horizontally and then trying to manipulate cards and objects with your thumb isn’t great.
The Switch doesn’t have this problem.
Because of the console’s longer weight, it sits on the bag reasonably well without much risk of sliding away. The cost isn’t inconsiderable either: my current phone is worth almost four times what the Switch is, and although I wouldn’t be thrilled if I dropped either down the back of a Cityrail seat, I know which one is a shitload harder to find.
On a more practical point, though, it means I can comfortably sit and tap away. It meant that even with a bumper to bumper peak hour train, I was able to play The World Ends With You just as easily as I would if the train was half full. It also provided some entertainment for the commuter sitting next to me, whose face I could see was permanently tilted in my direction for 15 minutes straight.
They never asked what I was playing; they may have known already. Maybe they thought I was a weeb for messing around with anime characters before 0900.
Either way, I was enjoying myself. Just as importantly, I wasn’t having issues with connectivity. My regular train commute runs through some of the biggest mobile black spots on the train network, which is why I eventually stopped playing games like Hearthstone. But the majority of Switch games are designed around solo play or local multiplayer at best, so spotty internet isn’t a problem.
And it’s not like this is a rare occurrence for the daily commute. Everyone’s woken up late before, had to deal with something seconds before heading out the door, or been beset with some nightmare that means you’re just starting your coffee while having to deal with early emails, the daily news, and whatever else.
Being able to just pop the Switch on your lap, sip a flat white and zone out of the daily grind for 15 or 20 minutes sometimes makes all the difference you need in a morning.
The only thing we need now: more touchscreen games, or at least more support for the touchscreen as a control method. I can think of some good candidates: Into the Breach with touchscreen controls would be ace, and maybe someone at CD Projekt Red can get Thronebreaker working on the Switch.
For now, The World Ends With You works well. It certainly keeps other passengers entertained.