TL;DR: Anecdotally, the best Switch games to play if you get mildly airsick. The winner is Diablo 3.

The backstory

When I was younger, I used to read every day on the trip to school. I got through countless books in rush hour traffic. The worse traffic was, the happier I’d be. It meant more time to read my book in peace before being locked in a classroom, sitting in the back, and continuing to read anyway while teachers got mad at me for ignoring their lessons.

After learning how to drive I had to set aside books on the road. It wasn’t until years later that I realized at some point I became too nauseous to read as a terrestrial passenger. Thankfully, I could still read books on planes. It makes sense, flying is (generally) smoother than driving. There are no potholes in the sky that take 15 years to fix. Unfortunately, a few years ago, I started becoming too airsick to read. I tried gaming on a laptop instead, but that quickly became unwieldy in a cramped economy seat. There’s rarely room for a mouse, connecting a controller leaves you with a tangled mess of wire to deal with, and the trackpad limits you to slower games that skew text-heavy. To make matters worse, I’m usually flying on older American Airlines planes and their in flight entertainment options typically range from “broken touch screen” to “overhead projector.” And their stance on in-flight power ports seems to be “better pack some spare batteries.”

Last year I was looking at a week with over 36 hours of air time and decided I could live like this no longer. No more cramped laptop games, nauseating books, or that one season of The Big Bang Theory for the umpteenth time. I picked up a Nintendo Switch and thought maybe this powerful yet portable device could save me.

Now that RSA 2020 is over I think I have enough data to make some recommendations.

The criteria

For a game to be viable in flight it should meet a few criteria.

  • The game should avoid text or reading as much as possible. Ideally, I can play with my eyes closed.
  • The game should avoid the use of motion controls or other fine grained and finicky controls. I’m not flying Delta, the game should be playable in light chop.
  • The game should be time consuming, engaging, and always keep moving. I don’t want to beat a level, reach a good stopping point, look up, and see we’re still lining up for takeoff.

The games

The following are all the games I own on my Nintendo Switch in order of “worst to play on a plane” to “best to play on a plane.”

Super Mario Party

This game just isn’t much fun without a friend, so it’s pretty useless to me when I’m flying alone. Additionally, the Switch won’t let you disconnect the controllers in airplane mode. Even if you take it off airplane mode, the minigames rely heavily on motion controls and the off center kickstand guarantees the console will flop over at the slightest nudge. Flight attendants roll the drink cart by? Flop. Person in front of you adjusts their seat? Flop. And just try to play a fair game of Don’t Wake Wiggler with any turbulence.

Besides that, the game itself isn’t too nausea inducing. If you’ve played a few parties already you can pretty much ignore all the text, roll your dice and play games. It’s just not very fun solo.

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

I love this game on PC. I have countless hours in it. I know all the levels by memory, and I used to know all the secret areas too. It’s one of my favorite games of all time. So believe me when I say this port is terrible. Or at least terrible while flying.

There is no aim assist so the first few levels before you get a lightsaber are painful. I’ve found the motion control aiming actually works pretty well here, with thumbsticks for gross aiming and motion controls for fine tuning. Unfortunately waving around my Switch in flight trying to blast Stormtroopers is guaranteed to annoy fellow travelers, so that leaves just the thumbsticks. This is where the nausea starts to kick in. Trying to gently nudge and precisely aim with a thumbstick and no aim assist means focusing my eyes intensely at the screen. Intensely focusing my eyes means nausea. Nausea means no fun for anyone. Save this one for the hotel.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This game is fantastic but unfortunately suffers from the same aiming problems as Jedi Outcast. Aiming isn’t quite as terrible, but it’s far better when you can use motion controls. Fortunately, precise aiming isn’t required to get through the game. Unfortunately, you still do control the camera with the thumbstick. For some reason this still makes me slightly nauseous. Not nearly as bad as Jedi Outcast, but enough to be unpleasant. Another major downside is that the game chews through battery. In handheld mode you only get about two hours of gameplay, if that. Even with a few battery packs (I usually bring at least two) you’re still going to be running low before reaching your destination.

This is my go to game for playing at the terminal, but not once I’m on the plane. The gameplay lets you find good stopping points every 20-30 minutes, which is great when you’re waiting to board. When flying, though, the downtime between shrines and dungeons loses my attention. There’s also quite a bit of reading if you don’t already have the game memorized. Great game, just not suitable here.

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe

Now we’re getting into “actually playable” territory. The side scrolling nature and lack of text make it easy to play without focusing your eyes. It’s easy to just take in the whole screen and get into the zone. The gameplay is also very forgiving is you choose an easier character.

My only complaints are that the easy characters are too easy and the normal characters can be a bit challenging from time to time. The slight challenge (e.g., losing a few times to a tricky boss) and short gameplay loops mean it’s hard for this game to sustain my attention for 6+ consecutive hours. Definitely recommend having this one in the rotation, but you’re going to want to have something else to do.

Untitled Goose Game

For some reason infosec loves this game and I am no exception. This game is great for playing in the air with a few caveats. The big one is that even the most leisurely playthrough will cap out at 6 hours. You also can’t really completely zone out while playing, you need to pay at least a little attention to maximize the goosery.

The reliance on text is minimal, the game is impossible to lose so you never have a chance to stop or put it down, and it’s overall a very fun and light experience. Again, put this in the rotation but have something else to do.

Diablo 3: Eternal Collection

By far the best mobile gaming experience I’ve ever had. I’d even say this is my preferred way to play Diablo 3. This port makes the PC version look uninspired.

Diablo 3 is all about establishing a rhythm for your character. I recommend playing through a bit first until you have a few abilities unlocked and a good groove going. Then you can board the plane and let muscle memory and the loot treadmill teleport you to your destination. The enemy colors and silhouettes are easy to read and react to without focusing your eyes and the grind is very satisfying. The enemies scale to your level so the difficulty is solely dependent on the selected difficulty level, entirely under your control. Set the difficulty to Master if you want to be engaged or Normal if you want to zone out and fall asleep. The game also plays pretty consistently at 60 fps in handheld mode (with some exceptions during endgame content) and the battery life is much better than BotW, my battery packs easily kept it playable for the entire transcontinental journey.

Blizzard did a great job with this one. I’d put this as a “must have” for travel, with a few other games to taste.