Zelda at 30,000 feet: Playing the Nintendo Switch on a plane

Planes are cramped enough, but what happens when you throw in a tall reporter, a 9-month-old baby and the new Nintendo Switch video game console?

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
Ian Sherr/CNET

Just looking at it, you probably already think the new Nintendo Switch video game console is best played either in your hands or on a TV. It's a 6.2-inch tablet with removable controllers on either side, after all.

But Nintendo says there's one way you might not have thought of: on an airplane seat-back tray table.

So, I took my slightly more than 6-foot frame, my 9-month-old baby and my endlessly patient wife on a packed cross-country flight with the $300 Nintendo Switch, which was released on Friday.

Read CNET's full review of the Nintendo Switch.

Why do this somewhat bizarre experiment? Well, Nintendo kinda dared me to.

The marketing video prominently shows a happy Switch owner playing what appears to be the hit 2011 game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim while on a flight. His seatmate thoughtfully has his arms crossed as he naps while the person in the window seat is looking out toward the horizon, probably wondering when his Nintendo Switch is coming.

The Switch owner, meanwhile, is comfortably laid back in his aisle seat, wearing headphones and holding the Joy-con controllers while the console sits on the tray table, propped up on its kickstand.

Nintendo's Switch owner playing on an airplane. Looks super fun, right?
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Nintendo's Switch owner playing on an airplane. Looks super fun, right?

Nintendo's Switch owner playing on an airplane. Looks great, right?


After watching that video, you'd think the Switch can make a flight super fun. Let's face it: Nothing about airplanes is fun anymore and, in my experience, most snoozing neighbors tend to hog the armrest.

But the Switch is more than just a gaming device. It's one of the highest-profile gadget launches in Nintendo's history. Following the poor sales of its last home gaming device, the Wii U, the Switch could be the key to Nintendo's future.

So, how'd the high-altitude gaming session go for me?

I have to give credit to Nintendo. Playing the device did work -- and rather well. The game I played, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, was as fun, exciting and immersive as you'd expect from a top-tier video game epic, even if I'm playing on a tablet propped next to a soda can I'm anxious about knocking over by accident.

My main complaint: I couldn't get either of my wireless headphones to work with it. Nintendo didn't respond to a request for comment about why.

Playing in an aluminum tube

I pulled the Switch out after we hit 10,000 feet and my adorable son had fallen asleep. First, I was a little nervous because I was taking a not-yet-released device out in public, and I'd eyed at least three people who would probably know what it was. I was prepared to answer questions but, after the alleged theft and resale of one Switch a week ago, I also had my guard up.

With that, I started playing in handheld mode, which is how many of us will likely game on the go. But then I removed the Joy-con controllers, kicked out the leg stand, leaned it against the flimsy plastic tray -- just like in the video -- and cautiously began playing.

Playing Nintendo Switch on an airplane.jpg
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Playing Nintendo Switch on an airplane.jpg

Me, not as comfortable, playing the Nintendo Switch in a middle seat.

(Not pictured: my adorable son, lovely wife and the soda we cleared away before the photo.)

Laura Sherr

There wasn't much turbulence, so I can't report how sturdy the Switch's kickstand was. (It doesn't seem to navigate my lap or a carpet too well.) But overall it worked just as advertised in the video.

Eventually, I got the dreaded low-battery warning -- you'll get up to seven hours of battery with some games, but only a bit more than three with Zelda. So I grabbed my trusty battery pack and plugged in a USB-C converter cord I'd recently bought.

That did enough to let me keep playing, but didn't produce enough power to actually charge the device.

I did run across a slight problem with this trick: The Switch is designed to nestle into a TV dock through a port on its bottom, similar to how Apple's iPod and iPhone have docked for so many years. That means I can't charge the Switch in kickstand mode while playing. I have to hold it.

Of course, the kid in me was unfazed. But if you're someone who tends to slap your forehead and send an angry letter to a company CEO, spouting off about how little quirks like this are a sign of decline and imminent failure, then consider yourself warned.

Me? I'll keep playing, thankyouverymuch. At least until my son wakes up from his nap.

First published Feb. 28, 11:30a.m. PT.
Update, Mar. 4, 8:55 p.m.: Adds CNET's full review of the Nintendo Switch.

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