‘Clubhouse Games’ breathes life into old classics with fresh, calming vibes

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It’s possible Mario’s Game Gallery, originally released for Windows in 1995 with seemingly little involvement from Nintendo, was the first video game I ever played. It was pretty mediocre. You could play a handful of half-baked games like checkers and yahtzee against Mario, and it’s only notable because it was Charles Martinet’s first gig voicing Mario, a job he hasn’t given up in the 25 years since. 

I didn’t care. I loved it.

My inexplicable childhood attachment to a rare, ill-conceived computer game may explain why I was so down to check out Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics for Nintendo Switch. This new oddity comes directly from Nintendo and is exactly what its name suggests: A collection of 51 mostly tabletop and card games from around the world that Nintendo doesn’t have to pay licensing fees to use. It’s available June 5 on the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Do I enjoy playing these sorts of games with physical game pieces or cards in real life? Not really! But neatly package them together in a video game with some light Nintendo aesthetic touches and I am in.

Mahjong Solitaire has some fun Nintendo-inspired imagery in it.

Mahjong Solitaire has some fun Nintendo-inspired imagery in it.

Image: nintendo

For $40, you can play everything from checkers and blackjack to Japanese mahjong, air hockey, nine men’s morris, billiards, and hanafuda by yourself or against others locally and online. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of some of those because that’s honestly the ideal way to approach Clubhouse Games.

Every single game in Clubhouse Games comes with a short video introduction in which fully voiced characters who look like wedding cake toppers give you a basic rundown of what to expect. After that, every game also has a detailed text tutorial explaining not only the rules of the game in question, but also offering hints and strategies. A few of the most complex games, like chess and shogi, even have multi-part interactive tutorials to make extra sure you’re not lost.

Once you’re actually in a game, everything is presented cleanly and efficiently. You can toggle on-screen assists on and off in games like chess, where they tell you exactly where a highlighted piece can go and how much danger they’ll be in if they land on a specific space on the board. Nothing is left to chance unless the game demands it.

Henrik suggests some games you can play by yourself.

Henrik suggests some games you can play by yourself.

Image: nintendo

The value of Clubhouse Games lies not just in playing, but in learning. Nintendo’s insistence on including games that western players in particular may not be familiar with is for the best. Koi-Koi, for example, is a Japanese hanafuda card game that’s a little tough to wrap your head around at first. To be honest, I never fully figured it out. Still, I felt mildly culturally enriched from the experience. I love that Clubhouse Games gave me an approachable window into something that’s been popular on the other side of the planet for hundreds of years.

This attitude is exemplified by a global view that acts as a sort of central hub. You can spin around the globe, finding named figurines who will recommend games to you based on different criteria, such as games that Nintendo used to manufacture before it got into video games or games that are good time wasters on a flight. Other players’ figurines will show up here too, if you want, bringing a selection of games they recommend. I appreciate the attempts to contextualize these games rather than just throwing them in front of the player in list form.

Clubhouse Games presents itself with extraordinarily calming vibes. It’s casual Friday at the office in video-game form. The music is sparse but lively where it needs to be, and the little pre-game videos have just enough banter in them to feel human. In general, Clubhouse Games has a wholesome austerity jammed into just about every corner, including the limited (but very funny) character creator. Yes, I chose the same figure as Henrik from above because he’s perfect.

That's a guy with a good mozzarella sticks recipe and an above-ground pool.

That’s a guy with a good mozzarella sticks recipe and an above-ground pool.

Image: nintendo

Unfortunately, Clubhouse Games isn’t always the best version of itself. Not all 51 games are worth your time, with sports or sports-adjacent games feeling the most pointless. Billiards is passable, but golf, bowling, and fishing all feel like throwaways. Golf and bowling specifically are not anywhere near as fun or nuanced as their Wii Sports counterparts from nearly 15 years ago. You can reliably get a strike in almost every frame by bowling with the Switch’s touch screen, and the motion control support isn’t much more difficult to cheese.

Multiplayer is an obvious draw here, but a couple of quirks hold it back from greatness. Playing locally works about as you’d expect, with the options of sharing one screen or playing on multiple Switches in the same room using one copy of the game. Playing on one screen sadly locks out almost every card game, since many of them ask players to keep their hands confidential. Maybe just buy a deck of cards if you and your roommates are bored enough to play Texas hold ’em with each other.

There’s also something called Mosaic Mode that lets you place multiple Switch screens next to each other to create larger playing fields in some games (Super Mario Party had a similar feature), but I couldn’t properly test it out with just my Switch.

Bowling stinks.

Bowling stinks.

Image: nintendo

Nearly every game supports online play with strangers or friends, but in limited pre-release testing, there was about a half-second of latency that made anything requiring reflexes not especially fun to play. Slower games are still tolerable, but air hockey is a no-go, in other words. This was true for me on both wifi and a wired connection, unfortunately. Nintendo is still Nintendo.

Despite those minor annoyances, Clubhouse Games is a welcome $40 distraction from the crumbling world outside. This isn’t some branded cash grab like that lovably crummy old Mario game I told you about earlier. It’s confidently modest new packaging for games that are older than any of us and will surely outlive us, too. Clubhouse Games knows exactly what it needs to be and doesn’t aspire to much else. We could probably all learn from that.

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