The Surprisingly Adult Themes of Nintendo's 1-2-Switch

Games Features 1-2-Switch
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The Surprisingly Adult Themes of Nintendo's <i>1-2-Switch</i>

I’m at the Nintendo NY store in New York City, covering a demo version of 1-2-Switch before it launches to the public early next month. I’m with a group of journalists and YouTubers, and we’ve just finished asking questions of one of the 1-2-Switch producers, Yoshiaki Koizumi, who might be more well known for his work directing Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy and a number of other well-remembered classics starring the mustachioed videogame equivalent of Mickey Mouse. The stage has been transformed into a demo station, and four audience members hop up to try out a minigame from his latest work, 1-2-Switch.“Soda Shaker” is a pantomime version of hot potato, with the group on stage taking turns vigorously shaking a bottle of soda up and down until, finally, the tension breaks the cap off and it goes flying like uncorked champagne. The players move with the cadence of charades or a theater game, as most of the work is done in the participants’ imagination while the console itself exists only to keep score and play fun sounds and animations. Unfortunately, my imagination is that of a child.

As the group’s hands move up and down, up and down, up and down, until what they’re shaking finally explodes with fizzy sound effects and splashing liquid on the screen behind them, I can barely stifle a chuckle. As one of the men in the group chooses to straddle what would be the bottom of the bottle as he does it, I almost say outloud “Oh, honey.” It’s as if Suda 51 snuck the saber charging controls out of No More Heroes and into a game from the company known for Mario and Kirby like he were Tyler Durden splicing frames from adult films into children’s movies.

Now I’m in a small wooden stool, having been forced to wear a felt cow hat by the Nintendo staff, playing the milking mini-game that’s taken Twitter’s gif feature by wildfire since it was announced alongside the game a few weeks ago. As I take the hot seat, the tone turns from adolescent humor to a thick tension, as my cheeks start turning red before we even press start. It’s less funny when you’re at the controls.

My partner, a man I’ve never met, and I start slowly moving our hands up and down, grasping at virtual teats and silently looking each other in the eyes as we tug. It’s difficult to maintain eye contact, and I find myself looking away frequently. I’ve been to kink meet-ups that didn’t feel as bizarre as the scenario before me. As I sit low to the ground, wearing this funny hat, staring a stranger in the eye and believably slowly stroking until a stream of white liquid dribbles down my side of the screen, I’m reminded of the scene from Rick and Morty where Jerry’s father describes exploring his fetishes “almost always dressed as Superman.” It’s an overreaction, maybe, but nonetheless, I feel humiliated at the specificity of the strangeness here. This is a place where I had once bought Pokémon plushies for my kid cousin, and here I am emulating a teenage boy with an empty house and a broadband internet connection.

Earlier this month, during a Super Bowl that I refuse to believe existed beyond the tail end of the third quarter, T-Mobile aired an ad sniping at Verizon’s cell phone contract policies by comparing them to a BDSM relationship, where the customer gets “punished” for going over their data allowance. On Twitter, Verizon fired back by making a corny pun where they twisted BDSM to stand for “Bigger coverage map, devastating speed, and massive capacity,” before stepping over the bounds with a misunderstanding of consent by next tweeting “Unfortunately, no one will hear your safe word if you’re on T-Mobile.”

The spat was the latest in a meme of corporations trying to be openly “horny,” similar to the accusations certain other writers have made about a particular transforming robot from Overwatch and whether he does or does not “fuck.” At its most innocent, these memes are simply embarrassing fun, dad jokes that take something you thought was cool and repurposes it to tease you with a playful, usually purposeful misunderstanding, such as when my dad used to scold me for taking too long to finish my meals as a kid by saying “You must be a pikachu, because you’re being really pokey, man.” The effect robs your interest of some of its subversive nature, like how grandma posting an advice animal to facebook indicates that the meme is now dead, but also carries its own charm in its unabashed mispronunciations and knowing smirks.

But sex is a fragile topic for many, and at its most dangerous, the coy misunderstanding inherent to the horny meme can tip from purposeful to thoughtless, resulting in hurtful jokes like accusations that customers of your opponent’s cell service might be raped by their partners—the natural result of not being able to hear a safe word—or the repurposing of a childhood mascot to post transphobic memes. All’s fun and leather until someone gets hurt.

Back at the event, I’m playing another minigame where I’m supposed to handle virtual marbles and count them using the Switch’s “HD rumble” feature, which supposedly allows it to move beyond vibration to tactile representation of real objects. It works well, and my adolescent mind immediately begins wondering what would happen if it were applied to a different kind of toy. Again, twitter begins to have fun with how horny this is.

I’m three games in with this stranger now, and at this point, I’ve noticed an emotional arc to each mini-game we play: the use of taboo to embarrass the player. Each of the games up to this point has played with a sexual subtext, intended or not, but sex is only incidental to 1-2-Switch’s design, and its scope does move beyond it. For example, there’s a fashion mini-game that forces players to strut and pose, or a shaving mini-game that puts a bathroom ritual on full display in front of everyone. Each of these games show off a feature of the Switch’s Joy-Cons, yes, but most importantly, they also serve two key social functions: they put the players in compromising situations, and ideally, they do it in front of a crowd. Several games in, and embarrassment had changed to commiseration, until my fellow player and I eventually stopped playing and began talking. The conversation was more jovial than I’d normally expect from a work event, and as we promised to link each other to our writing on the event later, we spoke with the cadence of friends. The forced embarrassment we had started out with had changed to a sort of mutual sympathy the more time we spent playing, which had then again become camaraderie afterwards. Despite, or perhaps because of the discomfort I had felt while milking the cow, 1-2-Switch was a surprisingly effective icebreaker.

1-2-Switch as a game does not work without this taboo. It might show off the features of the Joy-Cons, but as it is being sold as its own game, it must stand on its own ethos. And if its most recent comparison, Nintendo Land’s, ethos was that of a childhood theme park, 1-2-Switch is more of a solo-cup heavy party with your friends. To prove this point, the plushies and most of the child-friendly merchandise had been stripped from the store’s walls for the duration of the event. Several staff members were wearing suits. There was a full bar with complimentary drinks, all served in wine glasses, and h’ordeuvres I would have been more accustomed to seeing back when I used to cover New York Fashion Week. The Switch itself, also, was nearly identical to any other phablet on the market once the Joy-Cons were removed. I was surprised by how industry standard and delicate it looked, given the more durable and toy-like Fisher Price or Leapfrog style aesthetic designs of the Wii U gamepad and Gamecube, and was curious when I noticed that there were no Miis or cartoons in sight—just stock photos of relatable millennials. I was in the Nintendo Store, yes, but this event carried itself with the style of an Apple presser.

Whether or not it was intended, the actions 1-2-Switch had me engaging in cannot be separated from adult themes, sensual or otherwise. Horny commentators have been having their fun with it since it was announced, and Nintendo isn’t new to this business. “Influencers” posting funny gifs of risque games create their buzz for them, and any subtext here is only hidden behind the tiniest layer of pretense. Whatever the packaging of its first party nature, 1-2-Switch still had me moving my hands in the same way as the proudly dirty No More Heroes for what was essentially the same joke. When taken in tandem with the atmosphere and presentation of the event I was attending, it’s clear that I was meant to read this as an intentionally cheeky move for the Switch to be more adult, more tech 2.0, and more upscale than its predecessors.

“With something like this,” Nintendo manager Shinya Takahashi (as translated by Bill Trinen) said during a Q & A at the event, “we view it less as a videogame console and more as a tool for entertainment.” It’s a statement molded by public relations, sure, but it is not without importance here. 1-2-Switch is a launch game, supposedly meant to show off a system, that purposefully puts itself and the system in the background. Instead, it asks you to focus on your opponent. It’s an unusual decision—taking focus off the shiny new toy just as players get their hands on it, but what’s lost in building an altar around the hardware is replaced by the idea that the Switch is no longer a solitary game system, but more of a general device serving as a social lubricant for 20-somethings, perhaps lapsed fans who had felt that they had moved beyond Nintendo, at Christmas parties and after-work meet-ups. Maybe, if the event’s bar is to be believed, best paired with a Heineken or two. 1-2-Switch itself could, for instance, believably be sold less as a serious attempt at a game, and more as an icebreaking app to help get parties started, the virtual equivalent of RAs gathering up freshman to have them tie their arms into a giant knot.

Nintendo is a 127 year old company. It’s dabbled in hotels, taxis, playing cards, toys, and, since the mid ’70s, videogames. The moves it makes are made with experience. With its experience as a toymaker first, and recent history of creating underpowered hardware, design has always seemed to trump technology in their philosophy. But the tech industry has been a growing force in the past few decades, and the Switch appears to be, at least partially, a concession to the cultural power of “disruption”. There’s still a Mario game being made for it, a Zelda game coming out alongside it, and a Splatoon game soon to follow. The games themselves will likely still be made with the same quirk they always have. But the console they will call home is distinctly sleeker than past attempts. Smaller, more fragile, and debuting with a raunchy collection of mini-games that is arguably more app than art—a product-first piece of software that serves a practical purpose of icebreaking more than any attempt to elicit any message or emotion—the Switch is an acknowledgement from the company that, as hardware makers, they must now compete with the likes of Apple and Google in addition to EA and Capcom. There are a number of ways to pull off the pretense needed to compete with silicon valley: memes, horny jokes, promises of world-saving grandeur. Anything that makes you seem hip with the ironic crowd. What remains to be seen is whether Nintendo’s new approach to fronting will be more like Steve Jobs, your dad’s winking puns or, perhaps dangerously, Verizon’s boundary-pushing tweets.

You’re speaking to my demographic again, Nintendo. Please don’t become the Sonic Twitter account in the process.

Michelle Ehrhardt is a critic and journalist living in New York City. She has written about games for Kill Screen, Out, Bullet Points and the Atlantic. You can find her on twitter at @chelleehrhardt.

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