Switch Accessibility Evaluation

The Nintendo Switch does a lot of things.  It can transition from being a home console to a portable handheld and split itself apart to let friends jump into a game alongside you.  Unfortunately, it does none of these things with any concern for accessibility.

The system’s options contain zero accessibility features.  The closest it comes is the ability to swap between white and black themes, so that the handheld does not blind you if you try and play it in the dark, which also helps make some of the text more legible.  There are some bait-and-switch options that seem promising, like “Calibrate Control Sticks” and “Calibrate Motion Controls,” but those only reset the features back to the defaults in case something goes wrong.  You cannot rebind buttons or change font sizes.  When playing in handheld mode, the option to increase font sizes would have been most welcome, as some of the text becomes miniscule.

Unfortunately, the console itself offers some additional accessibility challenges of its own.  The best feature is its touch screen, which, when using the Switch as a handheld is very responsive and can be used to navigate menus and type in passwords and other info, but its usage is almost nonexistent outside of this, and if you try and poke the screen while it is propped on its flimsy kickstand, it will just scoot the system around or push it over.  There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack, but no USB ports, and the one that is attached to the console dock is currently only good for charging the pro controller.

On the subject of controllers, the console’s biggest accessibility flaw is its default Joy-Cons.  When attached to the sides of the controllers they feel fine.  They are the same buttons that the 3ds uses but the sticks are more raised (which means they can snag on things if you try and just stuff it in your backpack or bag).  The sticks are fairly flat and very smooth, which means that your fingers will slip off them if you hold a direction too long, a particular annoyance for games like Mario Kart when you are trying to hold a drift.  This problem is exacerbated when the Joy-Con is decoupled from the console.  The Switch comes with a makeshift frame that allows you to connect both of the Joy-Cons into one Xbox-like controller, but it just feels clunky, and while it works, I have never used it.

Using each Joy-Con as its own controller is a fun feature, but it is always done as a necessity.  Playing Mario Kart or 1-2 Switch with friends before class starts or during a lunch break is a lot of fun, but if you try and use the hilariously small controllers in more than short bursts, your hands quickly begin rebelling.  The amount of inputs (the two shoulder buttons, four face buttons, start button, and joystick) versus the size of the controller means that there is no room for you to rest the controller on your palms, which means that you have to delicately balance the controller like chopsticks.

The ability to change the Joy-Cons from one configuration to another was one of the console’s selling points, and while the different mash-ups all work to some degree, it is not always easy to transition from one to the other.  The back of each Joy-Con has a small button that needs to be held down while it is pulled away from whatever dock it is attached to.  When they are on the sides of the console, it is difficult to hold the button, grip the controller, hold the console, and pull them apart, which means that I often give up on being delicate and just leave handprints all over the console screen.  The smaller attachment that is used to turn each Joy-Con into its own controller is even more of a nightmare, as the pieces are smaller and require more force to remove.  To exacerbate this problem is the fact that the smaller attachment can pretty easily be slid on upside-down, whether it be by a careless Switch owner or just a confused friend (both have happened to me multiple times), and in order to remove it, you have to grip the attachment and yank it off with a worrying amount of force.

The Pro Controller solves a lot of the problems that the Joy-Cons have, being almost identical to an Xbox controller in both feel and layout, but does require that extra purchase on top of a brand new console.  The Pro’s buttons are larger and it can even be used as a controller for the PC, but it suffers from the same accessibility problems as most other modern controllers, namely that there are four shoulder buttons (two on each side, though when using a single Joy-Con for a controller there are only two shoulder buttons total), and the lack of any system key rebinds means that this can be problematic for games that also lack that feature.

Individual games can fix some of these problems, such as Mario Kart 8. The game features some accessibile options such as having the player’s car steer itself with assisted driving, as well as having it accelerate itself. The game also allows you turn these options on independently of each other. 1-2 Switch core gameplay is involving sound and motion actions that do not require looking at a screen, and is very accessible to the blind community. Many of the indie games available feature accessible options such as button remapping that the system itself does not include. Game developers big and small on the system are leading the way with accessible options that the console itself desperately needs.

After spending quite a bit of time with the Switch, I came to embrace the idea of a home console that could also be taken on the go, but was often frustrated with how the features were implemented, both in terms of the software and hardware.  While many people may just want a home console and couldn’t care less about the mobile aspect, that would certainly negate a lot of the accessibility gripes I have, especially related to the Joy-Cons, but if Nintendo was so focused on that aspect, then it should have spent more thought and effort into making it an easy and accessible option.  After other companies have come so far in implementing accessibility features built into the console, it is disappointing to say the least to see Nintendo ignoring accessibility so completely.