When the Nintendo Switch launched in 2017, it promised to marry console-quality games with the convenient portability of a handheld device. For the most part, that promise has borne out, changing how we play games in ways both big and small. It’s certainly made air travel less tedious.
Look, before we go further, we’ve gotta address the elephant in the terminal. The COVID-19 pandemic is still very much ongoing, showing no signs of abating any time soon. And yet, travel has effectively approached pre-pandemic levels; over the most recent holiday season, as countries around the world grappled with a wave of cases spurred by the omicron variant, an estimated 6.4 million Americans travelled by air, just 12 per cent down from a comparable figure for 2019. Is that safe? Jury’s out — the Mayo Clinic notes how viruses don’t spread as easily on planes, thanks to good air filtration — but still, caution is recommended. If you’re planning on flying, do it right. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear a mask. Bring your portable charger. Order the prosecco (instead of whatever watery red JetBlue is hawking).
So, what exactly qualifies a game as fit for a longhaul? Obviously, any Switch game you enjoy does the trick, but let’s get a bit more specific: games that are compelling enough to kill hours in a brutal layover yet not so mechanically intensive that you, say, miss an announcement about your delayed flight getting un-delayed or have to wait just one second to let your window-seat rowmate out. What follows is a roundup of Kotaku-tested recommendations that fit the bill, though note that your mileage may vary if you can’t stand tactical games.
Into the Breach
Narratively, Into the Breach slots right into the “action movie you’d only watch on the plane” subgenre. But rather than 97 minutes of bad one-liners, you get a roguelike tactical game with a constantly astonishing degree of depth and complexity. On grid-based maps, you control a trio of temporally enchanted mech pilots sent through time to battle an army of building-sized insects. Every run is different, and you always have a prize to work toward. In addition to the main goal — that would be, y’know, beating the game — there are nearly five dozen bonus missions, each of which helps you unlock more time-travelling mechs with an impressive arsenal of kick-arse powers, like laser beams and chain lightning. Hmm, on second thought, someone make this movie, please! I’d watch it on any screen.
It seems so obvious, so on the nose. (You’re in the sky! Playing a game about being in the sky!) But Airborne Kingdom really is an ideal city-builder to lose yourself in when you’re cruising at 10,668.00 m. Your goal, as the name suggests, is to build a flying metropolis. Unlike some of its harsher contemporaries, Airborne Kingdom is far from turbulent. The stakes are low. Citizens under your purview can’t die. Essential resources are flush. The only catch comes in the endgame, when your little domain grows into a fiefdom befitting the game’s name, straining the Switch with its sprawl. But hey, hopefully your flight’s not so long that you reach that point.
Cris Tales is an eye-poppingly gorgeous love letter to classic JRPGs. Fundamentally, it may look like a side-scrolling, turn-based RPG, but the gimmick is in its time-manipulation mechanics, which allow you to swap between three distinct timelines — past, present, future — changing the environment with you. Where some turn-based RPGs fall into the familiar rhythm of “press ‘A’ as fast as possible to power through repetitive battles,” Cris Tales makes you puzzle out each victory for every fight.
You wouldn’t think a real-time strategy game would be the best fit for a list like this, but that’s exactly what makes Bad North so good. It’s a game that strips the genre down to its bones, keeping the essence and urges of an RTS while ditching the need for lightning-fast reflexes and the bloat of gathering resources. And while it’s also available on PC, the Switch version is actually superior thanks to how effortlessly its touchscreen controls work. — Luke Plunkett
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
The mother of all tactical RPGs about anime high-schoolers waging brutal civil war in a nation divided by a zealously religious dragon, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a lot of game. You play as Byleth, the overpowered Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC fighter. At a monastic military academy, you team up with one of the school’s three houses and wage turn-based battles against bandits, soldiers, and the like. Fights are punctuated by downtime on university grounds, where you can chat with (or cook for) your comrades in arms. Branching storylines all result in dramatically divergent outcomes, which compels multiple playthroughs. Each playthrough alone clocks dozens of hours, so bring a battery charger.
Pocket Trap’s Dodgeball Academia was one of my top 10 2021 games — and for good reason! Its silly, over-the-top tone is quintessential Shonen anime. The mechanics are easy to pick up, but there’s enough depth to find nuance. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. What’s there not to like? The sports-RPG is a perfect plane game, as it isn’t so intense that tuning out to hear an announcement would cause you to miss important story stuff. It’s a blast plastering Dodgeball Academia students with so many balls, like electric ones and sticky ones. Dodgeball Academia is a great time that rolls the competition of sports, the hilarity of anime, and the challenge of RPGs together into one pleasing experience. — Jeremy Winslow
Baba Is You
Most puzzle games teach you the rules. With Baba Is You, you are the rules. You play as a little sheep and push word blocks around an arena in order to change the actual rules of the game, clearing a path to the level’s end point. For instance, “rock is stop” means you can’t move past a rock, but if you rearrange the blocks so it reads “rock is you,” then you become the rock (not that The Rock, alas). Like the best puzzlers, it starts you off with invisible training wheels — making you feel like a genius with every cracked solution — but quickly ramps up to bracing difficulty, throwing stumper after stumper. By the time you’re done banging your head against a solution, you’ll have already taxied to arrivals.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a point-and-click detective game with lengthy court sessions where you tell a frazzled lawyer when to scream, “OBJECTION!” There are no action-packed sequences to navigate. If a bit of turbulence causes you to forget the last court argument, you can always revisit the past five minutes of dialogue. You can save at any time. Even if you accidentally fall asleep and drool all over your Switch, nothing bad would happen to your in-game progress. If you enjoy reading riveting period dramas, then you should absolutely bring Great Ace Attorney Chronicles on your next flight. I’ve played this game on New York City’s infamously bumpy transit system, and it almost caused me to miss my stop. You wouldn’t have that problem on a plane, so go for it! — Sisi Jiang
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Yes, yes, we’re going heavy with the tactical games here, but c’mon, nothing kills time in the terminal like a good tactical game! If you haven’t played yet, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle may surprise you. Rather than a phoned-in corporate cash grab, Kingdom Battle pairs the ever-delightful cast of Mario characters with killer cover-based shooting mechanics reminiscent of XCOM. Like olive oil and ice cream or Pete Davidson and…apparently anyone, it’s the sort of combo that sounds like it’d never work but somehow totally does. And if this one pleases, there’s also a sequel en route for later this year in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope.