Hi, LauraKBuzz here, and welcome to “Access Ability”, a show where I discuss accessibility and representation issues within the video game industry.
In life, there’s a lot of reasons someone might want to play a game one handed. Maybe you’re trying to bottle feed an infant while also slaying demons in Doom, maybe you only have the use of one hand as a result of a medical condition, or maybe you’re foolishly trying to use Cooking Mama Cookstar as a recipe guide for cooking real world meals. All of these are equally plausible reasons someone might need to play a game one handed, and thankfully, Nintendo has recently taken steps to make that more viable on Nintendo Switch, as well as making it easier to work around certain buttons you might find tough to press. However, in traditionally Nintendo fashion, this step forward for accessible gaming on the platform comes with some VERY Nintendo caveats
Around six weeks ago, in mid April 2020, Nintendo released a firmware update on the Switch which, among other changes, added the ability for players to remap controller button inputs on a system level. Players can select a first party controller, select each physical button and stick input, and tweak which button or stick appears to have been pressed instead.
The update wasn’t as bare bones as people might have feared either. Players can save up to five different remapped button layouts per controller, meaning that if you need different button layouts for different games, you don’t have to recreate your custom button layouts every time they need changing up.
Overall, the update is a great step forward for accessibility on the platform, as controller remapping always tends to be. The ability to move vital inputs off of buttons a player cannot comfortably press is an overwhelmingly positive move, and is helpful to a wide variety of players. However, because the Switch Joy-Cons are so lightweight, and able to be comfortably held in a single hand, this update is perhaps more helpful on Switch than PS4 or Xbox One, as it opens the door for games to be mapped to a single JoyCon.
Over the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with a variety of games on Switch, trying to see which games handle being played one handed well, and which games struggle. I wanted to get a sense for the limitations for playing Switch games one handed as an accessibility option, and there sure are a couple of those.
Firstly, games that work well with a single joycon. Generally, any game with fixed camera angles, or a camera that moves automatically, works well when played with a one handed Switch controller setup. Side scrolling platform games, such as New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe, or top down adventure games where you don’t have to press buttons at the same time as moving your character, such as Undertale, map really well to a single controller. In terms of big third person adventures, games such as Dragon Quest XI, with menu settings where the camera will automatically adjust its position, also play really nicely one handed. Puzzle games on the Switch also map generally well to a single Joycon, such as Tetris 99
However, games that require you to manually reposition your camera, such as Breath of the Wild, or require you to press buttons at the same time as moving your character like The Binding of Isaac, can be more troublesome. These games are certainly not impossible to play one handed, but you have to make major accommodations to your style of play, to accommodate the lack of a second stick. It would help if there was an option to map a held button so that it changed which stick was being emulated, allowing for movement and camera aiming on a single stick, but for now players will need to rely on games creating good camera angles for them.
On the whole, I was actually pleasantly surprised how many games were viably playable on Switch using a single JoyCon in one hand. The vast majority of games can be played, with a little mental relearning, with their vital controls moved to a single hand.
While Nintendo should be commended for taking this valuable step forward into making their games more accessible to more people, there is one aspect of Switch games that cannot be remapped, and it mainly impact’s Nintendo’s first party software. While you can remap the buttons on your Joycon, you cannot remap motion controls, and that means a lot of Switch games are still unplayable for many.
A lot of first party Nintendo games contain content that, for all intents and purposes, could have optional controller or button inputs, but simply don’t. In Breath of the Wild, shrine puzzles that require fine motor control and motion tilting to complete could theoretically be mapped to an analogue stick as an alternative control method. In Pokémon Let’s Go, when docked, throwing Pokéballs can only be done via motion, even though in handheld mode Nintendo offers players the choice to use an analogue stick and buttons instead. Most of the minigames in Super Mario Party use repeated waggling as essentially a repeated button press, but do not give players the option to use buttons instead, if that is easier for them.
Many of Nintendo’s first party titles feature at least one gameplay element which requires motion control to properly function, and these moments usually do not have an option to switch to button inputs, for players with chronic pain issues that will be exacerbated by motion controls. We’re not talking about games recreating 1:1 motion, I understand that can’t always be remapped, but the inability to replace basic waggle motion controls with button and stick inputs puts a hard limit on how useful button remapping on Switch can be.
Nintendo has a real fascination with making motion controls a mandatory part of game experiences, even in use cases where button and stick alternatives are easy to imagine. Until the company decides to let you press a button in Let’s Go to throw a ball when docked, the same as it does in handheld mode, the ability to remap controls won’t be enough to help some gamers play all of Nintendo’s First party software.
While a single Joy-Con is a comfortable controller to hold one handed, Nintendo’s reliance on players being able to use motion controls for their first party software is one area where Sony and Microsoft have them beat in the button remapping game.
So yeah, I am incredibly happy that the Switch allows for system level controller remapping, and a surprisingly high number of games being playable one handed is a great moment for gaming accessibility. But don’t put your hopes on remapping motion controls to buttons any time soon, that’s one barrier to play this update doesn’t address. Nintendo is unlikely to give up motion controls entirely any time soon, but for the vast majority of their titles, allowing alternate stick and button inputs to stand in would really help their games become more accessible.