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The Nintendo Switch Is Console Couples Therapy

Mobility is a huge part of the new unit’s appeal, but for gamers who don’t want to alienate their significant others, being able to move next to a loved one on the couch can be just as valuable as traversing across the land

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Nintendo’s new gaming system, the Switch, is in several respects a limited machine. It doesn’t support streaming services or come with a web browser. It doesn’t play Blu-Rays or any media you might have on a hard drive or disc. It’s not currently compatible with controllers or games from any non-Switch systems.

You might mind those omissions if the Switch is the only entertainment hardware in your home. But if, like me and many other Americans, you already own other hunks of black plastic that do all of those things, you don’t need another Netflix delivery method. (And you definitely don’t need another Nintendo browser.) Plus, for all the features the Switch sacrifices, it does something most multimedia devices don’t: It helps restore relationships and bring harmony to homes.

The Switch’s big selling point — apart from the fact that it’s the only non–Wii U way to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — is its portability. Drop it into its dock and it sprouts roots that tie it to the TV, another growth in your HDMI garden. Slide it out, and it’s a supercharged Game Gear. The transition is seamless; if anything, Switch games run even better in mobile mode.

As Japan’s greatest two-way creation since Shohei Otani, the Switch is a godsend for gamers who spend a lot of time traveling. For the first time, they can get a console-quality experience on the road, with no need to suspend their progress in the engrossing game they’re playing. That matters less for me than most: My commute is a trip to the closet to trade pajamas for sweatpants, and my fiancée, Jessie, often walks to work. We haven’t taken any extended trips lately, so in our weeks with the system, it’s left home only once, when Jessie spent some time cat-sitting for a vacationing friend (more for the friend’s feelings’ sake than the uncaring cat’s).

But the Switch has a hidden, at-home advantage for anyone who shares an entertainment center with a roommate/significant other. In addition to accompanying players on long journeys, it can take short, intra-apartment trips of which a normal console is incapable — namely, from the TV to the couch. By decoupling the console from a single screen, the Switch softens fights for TV time, allowing conflicting forms of entertainment (and their consumers) to coexist.

My fiancée and I have almost the same taste in TV, which is at least 17 percent of the reason why we’re cool with only death doing us part. But there are still times when she wants to watch Nashville while I scoff at the scenes that don’t feature Rayna James (RIP), O.C. reunions, or someone playing a pedal steel guitar. And there are days when I, as a too-cool-for-CMT sports/culture coverer who deigns to notice Nashville only as a symptom of industry trends, have to take over the TV for Work-Related Reasons.

We do have two TVs, so the displaced person could always watch the one in the bedroom. But there’s an actively antisocial element to removing oneself to do something solitary, to say nothing of what the separation would do to our dog, who’d have to choose between us rather than stretch across both of our bodies. In theory, we could both forsake our screens and, I don’t know, have a heart-to-heart or something. But let’s be realistic: Because we’re deeply in love and partners for life, we want to be silent, inattentive, and absorbed by our own interests in the same vicinity — preferably while sitting on the same piece of furniture. Quasi-together time makes our relationship thrive.

The Switch has already defused the fallout from multiple entertainment territory grabs. Last week, I had to marathon Mass Effect: Andromeda so that I could produce a podcast and a dialogue about how little I liked it. Jessie enjoys watching some video games, but Andromeda, she decided, was a boring spectator experience. (It’s not all that fun for participants, either.) And over the weekend, I wanted to watch the two-part Star Wars Rebels finale during prime shared-TV time. Rebels is better than Mass Effect: Andromeda, but even so, Star Wars cartoons mean to Jessie what Nashville means to me.

In the past, one of us would have had to compromise. And sure, in some circumstances compromise can strengthen relationships. But we already compromise in other areas: sleep schedules, sweatpants, publishing blog posts about our personal lives. And as Yoda might have said (if Jedi weren’t forbidden from forming attachments), squabbling about TV time leads to lingering bitterness. Lingering bitterness leads to spending time in different rooms. And spending time in different rooms leads to intimacy issues, couples counseling, and hard decisions about who gets to keep the consoles in the breakup.

The Switch has saved us from starting down that dark path. I mainlined Mass Effect and watched Rebels while Jessie happily played Breath of the Wild (her primary unpaid occupation since we got the game). At other times, those roles will be reversed. Thus far, we haven’t both been desperate to play the Switch at the same time, although in a less trusting relationship, the potential for one party to abscond with the system could be a cause for concern.

Because Switch games are equally satisfying on big and small screens, neither of us feels like we’re repeatedly putting our partner’s interest first by, well, switching to handheld Hyrule. If one of us wants to play Zelda, there’s no need for the other to interrupt; we can both be selfish. Better yet, we’re still peripherally part of each other’s pastime. I can hear her beating up bokoblins and glance at the screen whenever she points out a picturesque sunset or a perplexing puzzle. And I can feel less like the Forever Alone face while I weep about an aging Obi-Wan meeting Darth Maul or Grand Moff Tarkin talking to Grand Admiral Thrawn.

It’s too soon to say whether Switch’s unifying effect will last longer than Zelda. Fortunately, Zelda lasts a really long time, and it’s perfect for people who don’t play games regularly. For us, the Switch has succeeded in making single-player gaming a less exclusionary activity. The wedding will go on.

So if your household is a hornet’s nest of gamers who annex the sofa and angry cohabitants with competing claims, skip the disputes and passive aggression and get yourself a Switch. Assuming Nintendo ever ships enough systems for them to be back in stock.