As much as I enjoy playing various games on the Switch in handheld mode, since it means I’m not chained to my couch and a particular sitting orientation, I’ve always struggled with how I can’t do that with any kind of action game. When it comes to any of those types of games, I quickly grow frustrated and annoyed. The reasons vary, but the result is always the same. I’m worse at any kind of game that requires precision or quick responses when I’m playing it on the Switch in handheld mode. After dealing with this for almost five years, I finally figured out why when I went to play Pokémon Legends: Arceus in handheld mode.
In the first year of using my Switch, I transitioned fairly seemlessly between TV mode and handheld mode. Most of the games I played were fairly simple or The Legend of Zelda, and I didn’t have any reason not to use the TV and my sound system during the first year, so handheld mode was almost exclusively for the simpler games. I wanted to experience Breath of the Wild on the big screen, with my big stereo, from the comfort of my couch. In my second and third year, when I was living with a group of people who all wanted to use the TV and sound system, I started playing in handheld mode more, but it wasn’t until I bought DOOM (2016) for the Switch that I realized there was a marked difference between my level of skill in handheld mode and on the TV.
As I played through DOOM (much more successfully on the TV), I figured it had something to do with the controller. The Switch doesn’t really fit in my hands comfortably. It’s a bit too short (top to bottom) and the length of it requires that some amount of my hands support it. The only way to do that without cramping my hands is to shift them around so my thumbs have less lateral control. This works just fine since the controllers on the side of the Switch have everything set up on a shorter, mostly vertical plane, so I don’t have to do as much lateral movement to access the controls, but it means I can’t get the right part of my thumbs on the joysticks. It’s a small thing, but I figured it accounted for most of what I was seeing. I figured the rest had to do with my distance from the screen and the constantly feeling of not having a properly secure grip on my Switch because I can’t actually wrap my hands around it while playing.
The instant I booted up Pokémon Legends: Arceus, though, I realized what the problem actually was. I had stopped playing mid-game the previous night. I’d saved and everything, so I could have just closed the game, but I needed to be sure I’d saved and hadn’t just imagined it. I’d apparently left myself surrounded my aggressive Pokémon in a place with almost no maneuverability and a whole bunch of ranged-attack Pokémon, so I was instantly in a mild panic once the game launched and I got decked by the first poison-fart-blasting Skunktank. As I tried to do my usual thing of tossing stun items, Poké Balls, and dodging attacks, I couldn’t land a single shot. I kept missing things that were coming my way until they almost hit me, and was developing the worst headache. Rather than deal with that, I just rode away on my Wyrdeer and discovered the puddles I’d been avoided didn’t slow my Pokémount like they slowed me.
I managed to escape with my life, thankfully, and in the calm moments after surviving that storm, I realized that I was struggling so much because the game looked absolutely wrong. It was breaking my mind because I couldn’t get my mental image of the game to connect with what I was seeing on the screen. As I gazed back at the Pokémon I had escaped and a shining resource node, I realized that the reason everything looked wrong was because the aspect ration of the Switch’s screen had created a depth-breaking view for me. I know the game does some dynamic resolution adjustments to try to preserve frame rate, but my issues with the screen didn’t changed during the minutes I spent experimenting after that realization. I eventually had to stop because my headache was getting too bad to continue staring at the screen.
In retrospect, losing my sense of depth and perspective explains most of the issues I faced when playing in handheld mode. After all, it never seemed to impact any 2D games I played, it was just the 3D ones. I’ve done a few experiments with other games now to confirm it, but I’ve yet to figure out why this is the case. Part of me wonders if this is related to why I can only watch 3D movies if my glasses fit under the 3D glasses. Trying to watch one without my glasses (normally a fine, if slightly blurry experience) gives me a nauseating migraine, which is similar to the headache I felt building while playing Pokémon Legends: Arceus in handheld mode.
I don’t really know what to do with this information now that I have it. I haven’t really gone around collecting data from other players, but that’s probably the next step. If there is a next step. I don’t have to play in handheld mode since I’m the only person with access to my TV, so it’s not like I need to be able to play in handheld mode. Now that I’ve figured it out, I might just stick to games without significant timing requirements, like Animal Crossing, when I’m playing in handheld mode. There are worse fates, after all.