It’s hard to imagine what the state of the Nintendo Switch would look like right now if 2020 hadn’t been so horrible. What could have been one of the hardware’s more stagnant years turned into one of its most memorable, when the soothing escapism of Animal Crossing met a world desperately in need of a soothing escape.
2019 was a very good year for the Switch. There was a constant stream of excellent first-party games, along with a robust amount of indie support. In the fall the hybrid console got a non-hybrid model in the Switch Lite, lowering the barrier of entry for new players with a less-expensive, portable-only way to play the same games. The year ended with the Switch in a good place, but without a lot of notable games on deck for 2020. Aside from re-release of Wii U RPG Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and the remastered version of Xenoblade Chronicles, the only big first-party game on the horizon was Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Animal Crossing launched on March 20, seven days after President Trump declared a national emergency due to the threat of covid-19. As people around the world locked themselves indoors and cut themselves off from loved ones in order to shelter from the pandemic, along comes a video game about going outside, making friends, and hanging out. Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a worldwide sensation.
People around the world used the game’s awkward multiplayer options to host birthday parties, hold graduation ceremonies, and even produce star-studded online talk shows. Celebrities used the game to mingle with common folks. Politicians, including our next president, used Animal Crossing as a campaign platform, until Nintendo put the kibosh on such activities. By August, as noted in our “Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Six Months Later” global sales of the game had surpassed 22 million copies.
Of course, this isn’t “The State Of Animal Crossing: New Horizons In 2020.” It’s the confluence of events leading to the game’s overwhelming success that could go down as one of the most interesting and important moments in gaming history. Or we’ll have completely forgotten about it by this time next year. Could go either way.
Lots Of Recycled First-Party Fare
Nintendo published 10 physical games in 2020. Of those 10 games, five were remakes or re-releases, including Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, Super Mario 3D All-Stars, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe. Of the remaining five, only two—Animal Crossing and Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics—were developed by Nintendo-owned studios. That leaves November’s Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, December’s Fitness Boxing 2, and the best Nintendo surprise of 2020, Paper Mario: The Origami King, developed by regular Nintendo collaborator Intelligent Systems.
Mario and Animal Crossing aside, that’s not a list with a lot of smash hits on it. There’s no big fall or holiday game. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity seemed positioned to fill that role, but its Dynasty Warriors style gameplay is a far cry from the blockbuster open-world RPG it serves as a prequel to. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is a dungeon-crawling roguelike and remake of a 2005 game for the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance. If I had to pick a favorite game out of the batch, not counting Animal Crossing, I’d have to say Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics, a wonderfully-produced collection that includes classics like Checkers, Chess, and Slot Cars.
Nintendo’s popular properties got some love by way of the eShop in 2020 as well, with several unconventional games starring famous faces. June saw the release of Pokémon Café Mix, a free-to-play match-three game for both the Switch and mobile phones. We didn’t get a new proper Kirby game in 2020, but we did get Kirby Fighters 2, a multiplayer fighting game. And who could forget Super Mario Bros. 35, the free Mario battle royale that Nintendo plans to make unavailable after March 31, 2021 along with Super Mario 3D All-Stars for some stupid reason. Fans looking to keep their heart pumping fast during quarantine got aid in the form of Jump Rope Challenge, a simple free fitness app about standing in place, swinging your arms, and, if possible, hopping. Finally, Nintendo wrapped up 2020’s eShop releases with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light, an English localization of the long running series’ 1990 Japanese debut.
Lots of remakes and remasters, which makes sense given the effect of covid-19 on just about everything pertaining to game development (also all other things). Nintendo’s 2020 started in January with a Wii U port (Tokyo Mirage Sessions) and ended December 4 with a 30-year-old Fire Emblem game.
Big Third-Party Developers Are Still Trying, Mostly
The Switch continues to be a console the big names in third-party publishing occasionally toss a game at to see what happens. As was the case with the Wii U and Wii before it, Nintendo has the least powerful hardware out of the big three. Publishers are still inclined to give the flashy new games to PlayStation and Xbox, saving lighter fare for the Switch.
For example, 2K Games was one of the most prolific third-party publishers on the Switch this year with a whopping six retail releases. Three of those were collections of X-Com, Bioshock, and Borderlands games, all released on May 26. The other three were sports games, NBA 2K21, PGA Tour 2K21, and WWE 2K Battlegrounds.
Electronic Arts added to the sports goodness on Switch with FIFA 21, along with a pair of remastered racing games, Burnout Paradise and Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.
Sega continues to be the very best third-party Switch publisher by releasing Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Megamix in May. The company recently released Puyo Puyo Tetris 2, and can be counted on to deliver plenty of colorful Japanese nonsense to keep fans like me happy.
Along with its annual Just Dance contribution, Ubisoft actually brought one of its huge, open-world adventures to the Switch this year. It’s far from perfect and kind of ugly, especially compared to its Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 versions, but Immortals: Fenyx Rising is playable on the Switch. It’s nice to see third-party publishers at least attempting to make more technically demanding games available on Nintendo hardware, be it via extreme graphical compromise or through the use of streaming technology, as was the case with 505 Games’ Control, released for the Switch in October.
We even got another Microsoft Studios game on Nintendo hardware this year with Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a port of the Xbox/PC game that runs so well on Switch hardware it might be the result of dark magics.
In 2020, Activision continued to not release Switch games. Jerks.
Mario Kart Goes Live
What the Switch lacks in third-party love it makes up for with Nintendo’s willingness to make games that make its player base tilt its collective head to the side like a confused puppy when announced. Things like 2018’s cardboardriffic Labo, last year’s Ring Fit Adventure, and this year’s Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. It’s a pair of camera-equipped remote-control cars and the plastic props needed to create a real-world Mario Kart circuit. It’s weird. It’s Nintendo. Well, it’s actually New York-based Velan Studios, but it’s a very Nintendo idea.
It’s the kind of product that makes one realize how messy their house is, and how a remote control card couldn’t make it two feet without hitting clutter or a cat. Our reviewer, Ash Parrish, had a blast with the toy/game combo. The house she used it in was very nice.
Hellishly Outstanding Indies
2020 is the year the Switch got Supergiant Games’ smash-hit Hades. According to Ashley Parrish and Nathan Grayson, my co-hosts of the recently-revived Kotaku Splitscreen podcast, this is one of the greatest (and horniest) video games to ever grace a game system. I think it’s pretty okay, for a roguelike.
But Hades is just the cherry on top of a year of fine indie games released for the Nintendo Switch. It started in January with the release of the beautiful and mysterious Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition, the long-awaited console release of the Cardboard Computer’s award-winning PC adventure. From there the Nintendo system enjoyed a pretty constant flow of very good games from independent studios.
Highlights include afterlife boating simulator Spiritfarer, The Last Campfire from Hello Games, faux retro MMO Crosscode, ancient Indian adventure Raji, and Adam Robinson-Yu’s delightful exploration game A Short Hike.
It’s not just about releasing games, though. It’s about the support and recognition Nintendo gives to its indie releases. The company has released three Indie World videos in 2020, special presentations focused on highlighting the most interesting independently-developed games coming to the console. The most recent was just last week, featuring the incredibly popular multiplayer subterfuge game Among Us, fantastic puzzle game Grindstone, and the console exclusive release of Super Meat Boy Forever on December 23.
The Other 840+ Games Released For Switch This Year
If you go to the Wikipedia pages for the list of Nintendo Switch games, isolate the ones released in 2020 in North America, and paste them into a spreadsheet, there are currently 854 entries. That’s not even a complete list—several games that came out this year are still listed in the TBA 2020 category.
That is an absurd number of games. To put it into perspective, every week Nintendo sends out a press release called “Nintendo Download,” listing all the games coming out in a given seven-day period. Here is a screenshot of the December 17 press release.
That’s 31 games in one week. Actually 33, with Super Meat Boy Forever and Collection of Saga Final Fantasy Legend getting their own paragraphs at the top of the press release. So many that Among Us, one of the most popular games in the world right now, doesn’t even get a featured spot in the weekly release list.
I mention all of these games because make no mistake, the Switch has the same shovelware problem as the original Wii did. Worse, because it doesn’t feel like Nintendo is doing much quality control. If I go to the Nintendo online game store and filter by Switch, there are 4,981 results. What percentage is good, and which is make-a-quick-buck fluffery or somewhat-censored Japanese hentai games? There’s no real way to tell. Nintendo’s digital storefront continues to be a complete mess. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, discovering new games is a matter of scrolling through pages of results until you find something that catches your eye. It gets worse every week, and the constant influx of new games of questionable quality shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.
As of this writing there are still 27 games scheduled to come out for the Switch before the end of 2020. That’s less than two weeks away.
The DLC Brings Them Back
One of Nintendo’s very first announcements for 2020 was a pair of paid expansions for Pokémon Sword and Shield, The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra. Released in June and October respectively, the two updates added a ton of new content and pocket monsters to the game, though not nearly as many as fans wanted (i.e. all of them).
The main DLC excitement for the Switch, however, continued to revolve around 2018’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Video game fans go absolutely insane when a new fighter’s addition to the game’s expansive roster is even lightly rumored. The wild speculation is often more entertaining than the actual reveals.
Shortly after the Pokémon expansions, on January 16, Nintendo announced that six more characters would be joining the Smash Bros. roster in 2021 as part of the second Fighters Pass DLC. Unfortunately, covid-19 complications slowed the development of the new fighters, but we at least got three out of the six. Min Min from Nintendo fighting game ARMS joined the battle at the end of June. Then came Steve from Minecraft, whose saucy victory animation turned heads. Third, launching just under the 2020 wire on December 22, is Final Fantasy VII villain Sephiroth.
While it’s sad that we didn’t get all six new Smash fighters in 2020, look at it this way—we get three more reveals in 2021. None of them will be Waluigi.
Nintendo Online And What Passes For Virtual Console
Nintendo Switch Online, the $20-a-year subscription service that grants Switch owners access to online gaming and a slowly growing collection of original Nintendo Entertainment System and Super NES games continued to be a thing that existed in 2020.
Nintendo has a track record for behind way behind the times when it comes to online gaming. The company is known for limiting social interaction to promote a healthy online environment for its fanbase. Fortunately, for both Nintendo and its fans, the usual online restrictions were loosened somewhat for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. At a time when friends and family couldn’t be together in reality, the game’s Nook Islands became a haven for communication and community. Players were free to chat, trade items, hang out, host elaborate talk shows, and recreate scenes from popular television shows, all from the relative safety of their colorful cartoon islands.
Nintendo also harnessed the power of its mobile companion app to enhance Animal Crossing: New Horizons, giving players access to a touch keyboard for easier chatting, as well as useful design tools.
The other reason to spend $20 a year on Nintendo Switch Online is the old NES and SNES games. This year Nintendo added a total of 20 games to the service. Six were original Nintendo titles, including deadly yo-yo game Rygar and Natsume’s S.C.A.T., the name of which turns me into a giggling 13-year-old. The remaining 14 games all came from the Super Nintendo era and include Mario’s Super Picross, a formerly Japan-only game that is both outstanding and pronounced “pick ross” no matter what Ashley Parrish says.
Now Even Weaker Than The Competition
Since its launch in 2017, the Switch has been the least powerful console. The tech specs of the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X make Nintendo’s hardware look like a children’s toy. Despite the huge gap, Nintendo’s managed to build a strong Switch audience by releasing great games from beloved series while embracing the indie scene in a major way.
The question is, can Nintendo keep it up? Sony and Microsoft made the jump to next-generation in November with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, widening the technology gap even further. Despite frequent rumors, Nintendo hasn’t announced a Switch HD or Switch Pro, an enhanced model of their hardware with specs better suited for keeping up with the competition.
In the weeks following the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, I found myself pulling away from the Switch. I still adore my hybrid console. It’s still one of the first things I grab whenever I plan on leaving the house. But when I am at home in front of the TV? The plucky underpowered thing isn’t doing it for me as much anymore.
Hooray for 20 more old games. Meanwhile, anyone with Google search can find and download the entire NES and Super NES library and an emulator in mere minutes.
The Software Remains The Same
Another year has passed, and the Nintendo Switch still only has two themes for its dashboard—Basic White and Basic Black. They’re not so much themes as they are color schemes. It’s still just a bunch of game icons in a row. There are no folders. You can’t sort games into different categories.
The most significant update to the Switch system software this year came in November, when Nintendo added the ability to plug the console into a computer with a USB cable to access captured screenshots and video. It’s the most significant upgrade to the console since the addition of video capture in late 2017.
For all its fancy colors and Joy-Con juggling, the Switch is a very no-frills gaming console. It’s not touted as a multimedia entertainment system. In North America, thanks to the recent addition of Funimation, the Switch now boasts an entire three streaming video apps including Hulu and YouTube. There’s no Netflix. No HBO Max. No Disney+.
The Switch is a system that mostly plays video games, and Nintendo seems content to keep it that way.
Nintendo’s Ups and Downs With Its Fans
Nintendo continues to have a strong, dedicated fan base that’s quick to anger when the company does things it does not like.
Take the Nintendo Direct, for example. Even before the pandemic caused worldwide quarantines that heavily affected game development, Nintendo’s regular video presentations of exciting new video games had been missing in action for quite a while. September of 2019 marked the final big, multi-game Nintendo Direct presentation, showing off Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Pokémon Sword and Shield. Most of the Direct videos in 2020 were dedicated to single games, like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or special events, like the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. There’ve been partner directs, focusing on single or multiple games from other publishers, and several Indie World presentations, as mentioned previously. But for the most part, Nintendo Directs haven’t been as big or exciting in 2020.
The most recent Nintendo Direct wasn’t even about video games, but rather a tour of Universal Studios Japan’s Super Nintendo World attraction, a strange thing for Nintendo to be focusing on in a year where crowded public attractions are frowned upon due to covid concerns.
Nintendo’s lawyers continued to be Nintendo’s lawyers in 2020. Fan games were shut down, whether they were a very promising The Legend of Zelda project or a porny Princess Peach joint from years in the past.
Nintendo’s lawyers also angered fans by shutting down one of the most important Super Smash Bros. tournaments of the year due to the use of mods to make Super Smash Bros. Melee run better over the internet. And when Splatoon 2 players, in solidarity with the Smash scene, named their teams things like #FreeMelee for a tournament Nintendo was going to livestream, the company quietly pulled its support. This resulted in comment sections in other Nintendo presentations being flooded with the #FreeMelee tag.
Nintendo really needs to work on its fan relations. While Nintendo loyalists always seem to bounce back when the company does its stupid anti-fan nonsense, there may come a time when they Nintendon’t.
As I type this, covid-19 vaccines are beginning to ship around the world, and hopefully we’ll be able to get back to something approaching normalcy over the course of the next year. 2020 has been a unique challenge with unforeseeable consequences that will continue to affect us all for a long time coming.
It’s these unique circumstances that make it hard to predict how the Switch will fare in 2021. The Animal Crossing: New Horizons phenomenon put Nintendo hardware into a lot of new hands. The company needs to do what it can to keep those new customers. Adding a host of charming new indie games to the console this spring, as announced during the recent Indie World presentation, will certainly help. Though it’s another remake, the February 12 release of Super Mario 3D World, with its adorkable cat suits, is sure to please fans old and new. Japanese RPG fans are eagerly awaiting the February 21 release of Square Enix’s Bravely Default II. Then Monster Hunter: Rise arrives on March 26, giving multiplayer monster-hunting enthusiasts a new way to play.
In undated games, we’re waiting on a new Pokémon Snap, Metroid 4, and a proper sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so there’s certainly plenty of games to look forward to.
Other than the games we know (or hope) are coming, it’s hard to say what’s in store for the Switch in 2021. Nintendo could announce a new, more powerful version of the Switch, or it could stay the course, relying on its thousand-strong game library and a handful of surefire hits to keep it going for another year.