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The Switch Lite Exacerbates Nintendo’s Portable Problems

The Switch Lite might exacerbate one of the Switch's biggest (and smallest) usability problems.

I love my Nintendo Switch. But I don’t love taking it with me in its much-vaunted portable form. The new Switch Lite won’t fix that—if anything, it will make it worse.

So what’s the problem? I won’t tease you: it’s that games are often too hard to see on the small 6.2-inch screen. Those of you blessed with perfect vision might not notice this, but it’s been a fairly consistent complaint about switch games since the very beginning. And to be fair, this isn’t exactly Nintendo’s fault: it’s more a problem with the game developers (often including Nintendo’s internal studios) not taking the practicalities of the Switch’s form factor into account.

Take a look at this screenshot from Breath of the Wild. It’s pretty standard stuff for an action-RPG: the menu system has to get a lot of information to you in an efficient way. And it’s plenty comfortable on the 55-inch TV in my living room, where almost all of my Switch gaming is done.

Breath of the Wild’s inventory menu, as seen on your television.

Now take a look at the same game menu on the Switch’s tablet screen, barely one-tenth of the size. It’s no bigger than my Galaxy Note phone screen, with one quarter the resolution and a notable drop in clarity on Nintendo’s cheap LCD panel.

The same screen as above, on the six-inch original Switch.
The same screen as above, on the six-inch original Switch. Michael Crider / Review Geek

Playing Zelda in handheld mode is an exercise in frustration for me. Ditto for Smash Bros, where the fighters are about the size of a Tic-Tac when the camera zooms out on a big battle. It’s telling that, when Nintendo released Smash Bros. on the 3DS in 2014, it gave players the option to have easy-to-see borders around the fighters, an option that’s unfortunately absent in the Switch-exclusive Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Trying to read text formatted for a television on a tiny handheld screen was the one real downside of playing one of my all-time favorites, Mark of the Ninja, on the go.

The Nintendo 3DS version of Smash Bros. has visibility assistance features, but Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Switch lacks them.
The Nintendo 3DS version of Smash Bros. has visibility-assisting outlines on fighters features, but Smash Bros. Ultimate on the Switch lacks them. Nintendo

Take Fortnite, the biggest game in the world right now. Developer Epic has copied the interface from the PC, Xbox, and PlayStation versions more or less exactly on the Switch…and in handheld mode, the smallest type on the screen is literally one millimeter high. On the 5.5-inch Switch Lite with the same 720p resolution, it will be even smaller.

The smallest text on this screen is only a milimeter high on the Switch's handheld display.
The smallest text on this screen is only a millimeter high on the Switch’s handheld display.

I’m no developer, but I’m going to guess that part of the problem is that the Switch has enjoyed such a robust library of ports from home consoles and indie PC titles on Steam. These games don’t take a huge amount of time or resources to port (at least compared to original development), and I’ll wager that developers and quality assurance teams test them almost exclusively on monitors and televisions, the format for which they were initially designed. Testing for a long time in handheld mode wouldn’t be practical, but as reviews show, it’s necessary.

The problem isn’t universal. Games designed with portable play in mind, like Pokemon Let’s Go, don’t have the same issues. Whether it’s the fact that the game comes from a long legacy of Game Boy and Nintendo DS portable games, or that it’s intended primarily for a much younger audience, the text in Pokemon is big and eyeball-friendly. Ports from iOS and Android like Fallout Shelter, not to mention Nintendo’s own 3DS, seem to fare a lot better. The principle is pretty easy to distill down: games designed to be viewed on a tiny screen don’t suffer from playing on a television, but games made for a TV can be brutal on a small display.

The camera angles and text in Pokemon: Let's Go is much more friendly for portable players.
The camera angles and text in Pokemon: Let’s Go are much more friendly for portable players. Nintendo

The Switch Lite is all portable, all the time, with no option for docked play on a television. And its screen is even smaller than the typical 2019 phone screen. Playing some of the Switch’s most popular games on it is going to be brutal.

Other platforms have solved this problem, albeit not in the context of portable gaming. Android and iOS interfaces are adaptive, allowing users to scale text and interface elements across almost every app. Even desktop operating systems can handle this, at least some degree. Granted, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have needed to work with variable screen sizes for literally decades. But it’s a usability issue that’s been present on the Switch for two years, and it doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

"I have to play the Switch Lite six inches away from my face so I can see what the hell is going on! Super fun!"
“I have to play the Switch Lite six inches away from my face so I can see what the hell is going on! Super fun!” Nintendo

But there’s a reason for optimism. It’s clear that the Switch Lite is being positioned as the kid-friendly, wallet-friendly successor to the Nintendo 3DS (no matter what Nintendo says), which means they’re very likely to sell tens of millions of the things. And that being the case, responsible developers will be all but forced to start testing out their games in handheld mode on Switch Lite hardware. With more testing being done on that tiny screen, quality assurance testers will likely be begging those devs to make the text bigger. It won’t do anything for the games that are already suffering from this problem, and the myriad of ports coming in from the Xbox, PlayStation, and PC probably won’t have big UI adjustments in the budget. But newer games might just be easier to see.

Hearthstone's adaptive interface is a model for usability at any size.
Hearthstone’s adaptive interface is a model for usability at any size.

In the absence of more robust scaling tools, game developers could at least give us the option for smaller or larger text. Hoping for something like the excellent interface shifting seen in Blizzard’s Hearthstone card game, which changes its entire layout between the PC, tablet, and phone might be expecting too much. But for the sake of my eyeballs, developers, please at least give me the option to blow that text up when I’m in handheld mode.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »