Nintendo Switch Accessibility

When it comes to accessibility options in video games, some companies have been quicker than others to acknowledge the need and introduce basic features into their games. While progress has been made over the past few years, there's still much room for improvement and even the most elementary of accessibility options can improve immeasurably the gaming experience for many players. Bespoke hardware like the Hori Flex and the Xbox Adaptive Controller enable gamers to adapt controls to their specific requirements, but there's plenty that developers and platform holders like Nintendo could do at a software level to improve things.

Below, legally blind gamer Chad Bouton writes about his personal journey and experience over the last few years, and evaluates the accessibility options of some of Nintendo biggest Switch games...

On June 19, 2020, the gaming industry saw the release of the first video game to be created for blind gamers from the ground-up. Naughty Dog’s, The Last of Us Part II was a look into what the future of gaming can be. However, what does the current landscape look like for disabled gamers wanting to play games now?

Let us go back to 1998. I will never forget seeing the title screen for Pokémon Red light up my Gameboy Color. I could have never imagined in that moment that one day my very own sight would be the reason for not being able to enjoy my favorite form of entertainment. Gaming to me is not a simple hobby, it is a way of life. Gaming has taught me more about the real world than any adult. It introduced me to complex emotions like love, friendship, sorrow, and hate.

Naughty Dog's commitment to making their games playable for all made me realize something: It is not that I cannot play games, it is that they are not made for those with disabilities

Losing my vision and my ability to play games has been hard to cope with. At eleven I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic disease which causes one to gradually lose their vision. Ironically, my only solace during this time was video games. I know this sounds weird, but something that required me to be able to see was the one thing to help me through my depression — directly caused by my vision loss. Games allowed me to escape the reality of my predicament. Every moment I spent in the worlds of these games was a welcomed reprieve from my encroaching blindness.

In early 2019, after failing to complete Kingdom Hearts, I resigned myself to the harsh reality that gaming was no longer accessible enough for me to enjoy. However, the release of The Last of Us Part II reignited my passion for gaming. Naughty Dog's commitment to making their games playable for all — regardless of disability or play style — made me realize something: It is not that I cannot play games, it is that they are not made for those with disabilities.

I started thinking about the publishers, platforms, and their flagship titles. Were there already games slowly introducing accessibility options? If so, what accessibility options did the games offer? The first company I decided to investigate was Nintendo. I chose six Nintendo Switch games to assess and decide whether they offered enough accessibility options for someone with a severe visual impairment to play optimally.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

Breath of the Wild proved itself to be a perfect Switch launch title, and graphically Zelda has never looked more beautiful.

As for combat, melee attacks are easy to pull off and overall, not difficult to master. However, using the bow is quite infuriating. The lack of an auto-aim feature makes it difficult to pull off ranged attacks, and this missing feature means players with intermediate vision loss must stop and take time aiming the bow, all the while being attacked. I applaud the Zelda devs for introducing voice acting into the franchise, too; more voiced lines mean less time blind gamers must spend trying to guess at what is happening within the storyline. I am happy to see games looking across the disability spectrum, including subtitles for those with hearing impairment.

Though the game does a decent job of introducing accessibility features for the deaf, it misses the mark for those with visual impairments. Breath of the Wild puts a lot of emphasis on colors. These colors are applicable to Link’s various special abilities, items, and used to highlight objects throughout the game. As someone who also suffers from color blindness, I found it difficult to distinguish certain points in the game where color was used for emphasis.

Overall, Breath of the Wild does a lot of things great and is playable for those gamers living with disabilities.

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

The appeal of life sim games is their escapism. Life sims allow players of all abilities to leave the worries and struggle of the real world behind. During the height of COVID, Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a go-to game for many.

As I played, I struggled to find key accessibility options that made the game playable for those with vision issues. While immersive, it lacks functionality to allow the player to control game presentation. Tasks like fishing and digging are impossible due to the limited and uncontrollable size of visual cues. To catch a fish, you must keep your eyes on the bobber — easier said than done for the visually impaired. I did not bother fishing as I could never tell when the bobber had sunk.

However, fishing pales in comparison to digging. No deserted island game would be complete without digging up treasure. I believe it should have been easier for the visually impaired to dig. Even with jagged holes and spurts of water, the visual cues and small size made it difficult to locate where to dig.

While I found the game frustrating, there were things I enjoyed. First, the game gives you tons of advice for completing various tasks, and it is up to the player if they choose to follow said advice. The ability to attempt tasks multiple times was welcome and kept me playing, rather than getting frustrated and giving up. Being visually impaired, I appreciated the large font size, too — this is a major plus in my book, as Animal Crossing is text heavy and requires a lot of reading.

Overall, Animal Crossing needs some major updates to provide players the accessibility options needed for successful gameplay. That said, it is still a fun game for what it offers.

Pokémon Sword and Shield (Switch)

Of all Pokémon titles available on Switch, these are the most accessible. Within options, gamers can turn on “casual controls” that make it easier for players to play the games with one hand. This is great for gamers who have lost a limb or have a prosthetic limb. Additionally, Pokémon Sword and Shield allow players to turn off battle effects. Battle effects can be a bit too flashy and potentially overstimulate players with sensory issues.

Pokémon has always been a text-heavy game, with subtitles throughout. Given the other nods to accessibility, I do find these games lacking in their options for blind gamers. While some items on the ground are displayed in the world as Poké Balls, there are others in the Wild Area that are just 'sparkles'. Can these items not also be displayed as Poké Balls? I mention this, because sparkles become easy to miss for those with vision impairments — especially, now that walking and running kicks up dust. The lack of a 'physical' representation with the added environmental effects make it ever harder to find items.

No longer do we have audio cues that tell us when we hit invisible walls, either. Historically, when you entered off-limits areas, you would receive an audio cue making it sound like you had run into something. The loss of this long-standing audio cue is perplexing — why would you remove something so helpful to visually impaired gamers?

Pokémon has never been a game that is hard to play regardless of someone’s disability. If I had to pick one addition, though, since Pokémon games are mostly silent, it would be the addition of text-to-speech options.

Splatoon 2 (Switch)

Splatoon 2 is one of the more forgiving fast-paced shooters. A shooter where I don't get killed every five seconds? Sign me up! I know it defeats the purpose of most mainstream competitive shooters; however, I like that Splatoon does not focus on kills as the sole objective — in fact, you cannot 'kill' anybody. The main Turf Wars mode is simply about who can paint the most territory over time.

One concern I had was my color blindness. Will I be able to play this game and correctly distinguish the colors? Imagine my surprise when I discovered the color lock option, an option that all but eliminated my color blindness issues. I quickly learned that if I was uncertain if something were in my way, I would just try and paint it. If I thought there might be a pitfall, I could fire off some paint — if it disappeared, I would know there was a hole. The brighter clothing options also made it easier to identify my character and keep track of myself.

Splatoon earns big points in my assessment. I love having the option of using the analog sticks for aiming, and I appreciate how Splatoon alerts me if I have hit an opponent or not. When you hit an opponent, your paint will splat. Conversely, whenever an opponent hits you, the controllers will rumble – tactile response is a game changer. I wish the game had better text-to-speech capabilities, since most of the text with helpful information appears and disappears quickly.

Overall, Splatoon 2 was an easy play given my substantial vision loss.

Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)

When I first played Super Mario Odyssey, I had enough vision to complete the game with little assistance. However, I did not take the time to research accessibility options. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a slew of accessibility options while replaying the game to assess it for this article. I hate that I missed assist mode because it is extremely helpful!

The overall world size makes it intimidating to players with visual impairments. However, the heads-up display allows players to display blue arrows that point them to the next objective. This is big for me, because I constantly encounter open environments in games with little to no navigation options for blind gamers. Another excellent feature — the world map marks points of interest. Even if you do get stuck, the game offers advice and assists in advancing the player through the world.

Assist mode also helps players by offering extra health. Now you can recover your health by simply standing still. Resting, what a novel concept. I find this helpful for disabled gamers, as our reaction times are different from “normal” gamers. This option allows disabled gamers more room to adjust to their surroundings and succeed in their attempts.

As discussed earlier, I am a huge fan of haptic feedback and the vibration features in this game assist in locating secrets. This feature helps alert you to certain events and interactions you might otherwise miss visually. I enjoyed my most recent experience even more knowing that Mario Odyssey has so many accessibility options.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch)

As someone who had never played Fire Emblem before, I perceived this as an easy-to-play but hard-to-master series and thoroughly enjoyed Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I never found myself getting lost in the game. In fact, I found the calendar and event points system easy to manage — I knew what actions and responses I could make prior to making them. I do have to point out the games painfully small text size, a problem that I see with most Switch games, though this game is fully voice acted which makes the small text a bit easier to deal with.

Text size aside, I found Three Houses easy to play. The game has a single hub where most non-battle events take place, making it easy for blind gamers to memorize and navigate. Easily, the best feature in the game is the ability to zoom in on the enemy to view range, which lets you know if you are in danger or too close to the enemy. Moreover, it assists me with proper placement of my units, increasing their chances of survival.

Although Fire Emblem does not have any unique accessibility options, there is enough 'accidental' accessibility littered throughout this game that makes it possible to play even with a major vision disability.

And finally, the Nintendo Switch menus and UI

Switch & Lite
Image: Nintendo Life

I have seen a lot of mixed opinions on the Switch’s UI. Some players dislike how empty the Nintendo Switch feels, while others like me are happy with the minimalistic approach.

Switch allows gamers to focus on the games. The only things lacking are an option for folders to clean up the screen and an option for text to speech. Instead, it uses audio cues as players move their Joy-Cons across the screen.

In System Settings are some essential options I believe all visually impaired gamers should take advantage of:

  • Themes, which allows change of background and foreground colors. Options include Light (black on white) or Dark (white on black)
  • Display colors that include default, inverted, and grayscale
  • The Zoom feature

I find the best accessibility option for visually impaired players to be the Zoom feature. By selecting Zoom players can magnify their Switch screen by double pressing Home and using the 'X' and 'Y' to zoom in and out. Players can also use the Zoom feature during gameplay.

Other than lack of text to speech capability, I am marginally happy with the accessibility options available on the Switch console itself. Nintendo is just scratching the surface of accessibility options, though, and could lead the market with key accessibility updates if it put its mind to it.

I was surprised to find so many of my favorite Nintendo games with direct, usable, and 'accidental' accessibility options. I came away confident that Nintendo has the framework for quality accessibility options. Now all they need to do is to continue building upon what they have, provide additional options as discussed above, and work closely with the disabled gamer community to mature accessibility and inclusivity options.