Illustration: Sam Woolley
Year In ReviewWe look back at the highs, lows, surprises, and standouts in and around video games this year.  

As sophomore slumps go, the Nintendo Switch’s wasn’t so bad.

When the Switch burst onto the scene in 2017, it could seemingly do no wrong. It was the new kid on the block: young and cool, with an air of mystery and excitement. So it goes with most new game consoles. In 2018, Switch hit the ol’ sophomore slump, with lesser games and ports filling its lineup as we continue to wait for the next batch of all-new megahits. This, too, is typical of consoles. While the Switch didn’t have many home runs in 2018, it did have some doubles and triples.

How do you follow up a year in which new Zelda and Mario games were not only met with critical acclaim, but were widely considered to have radically reinvented their series for the better? If you’re Nintendo, you follow it up with, well, a lot of Wii U ports and less-ambitious sequels. Until the one-two punch of Pokémon and Smash at the very end of the year, that is.

Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai hosts the Super Smash Bros. Invitational at E3 2018.
Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision (Nintendo/AP Images)

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Fortunately, indie developers have been excited to bring new and old games to Switch, which has caused its library to expand greatly with all kinds of different experiences. Triple-A publishers have been less willing to jump in with both feet. Nintendo’s Switch Online service also launched, and it’s about as full-featured as you’d expect from Nintendo, which is to say “not especially.”

Even if the Switch hasn’t truly gotten into a groove, the usual second-year doldrums have had their bright spots—and things are set up for a great 2019.

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The Games

There are now over 1,400 games on the Switch, from indie darlings to the biggest triple-A productions. Which is good, because Nintendo’s output for the year hasn’t been especially consistent.

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This year’s most anticipated Nintendo games—Super Mario Party, Pokemon Let’s Go: Eevee and Pikachu, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate—all came out in the last three months of 2018. Up to that point, big Nintendo titles had been middling. After an explosive 2017 in which Nintendo fired off Zelda, Mario Kart, Splatoon 2, and Mario Odyssey in rapid succession, the bulk of 2018 was less AAA and more single-A, if not B, games.

Bayonetta 2.
GIF: Nintendo/Kotaku

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Nintendo kicked off the year with something that has become commonplace on Switch: Wii U ports. First in February was a two-pack of Bayonetta, bringing the first two games in the series to Switch. As Kirk Hamilton put it, Bayonetta 2 was too good to be stuck on the Wii U forever. (Lady Gaga apparently agrees.) More transplants from the Little Console That Couldn’t followed: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze (“delightfully difficult”) and Hyrule Warriors (“a toyful joybox”) in May, then Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (“perfect for Switch”) in June.

But of course, Switch also had plenty of originals from Nintendo, although they didn’t all stick their landings. In March, Nintendo released Kirby Star Allies, the Switch’s debut for the Kirby franchise. Even Kotaku’s resident Kirby nut Stephen Totilo described it as mediocre. Mario Tennis Aces launched a couple months later, and although its gameplay is commendably complex, a lot of people considered it frustrating to play and, oftentimes, just too difficult. And while he enjoyed the quirky gameplay of Sushi Striker, Stephen thought it played better on the 3DS.

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In this age of post-release updates and games as a service, it’s become commonplace for big studios to fix up games that players weren’t initially having the best time with. Nintendo has been a little slow to follow that trend. After releasing those less-than-widely-beloved games, however, Nintendo went back to the drawing board, adding patches to them that made them considerably more player-friendly. Mario Tennis Aces received a slew of changes including new characters and co-op multiplayer modes. Kirby even got a second, free campaign that, according to Stephen, vastly improves on the original game. Big updates came to Splatoon 2 with its “Octo Expansion,” but other big 2017 games like Zelda and Super Mario Odyssey didn’t get a lot of 2018 DLC.

In October, Nintendo partnered with the Institute Of Play to put Nintendo Labo kits into elementary school classrooms, like this one in Chappaqua, New York.
Photo: Nintendo

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Midway through the year, Nintendo pulled the most Nintendo move possible. Rather than release something along the lines of the usual Mario or Zelda fare, it released a box of cardboard cutouts called Labo, packaged it with a bit of software, and marketed it as an imagination machine. Nintendo’s Labo let players make a cardboard robot backpack, a cardboard fishing rod, a cardboard piano, and all sorts of other cardboard toys that worked in conjunction with the Switch to make what Kotaku contributor Keza Macdonald refers to as “understated marvels.” Despite its good sales pitch, however, Labo hasn’t exactly turned into a commercial success.

Nintendo also supplemented its first-party lineup by publishing, outside of Japan, numerous third-party games. Chief among them was Square Enix’s RPG Octopath Traveler, but the list also included Go Vacation, Dragon Quest Builders, and The World Ends With You.

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Come October, the Switch store’s first-party offerings started slowly heating up. October’s Super Mario Party had all the chaos and mirth you’d expect out of a Mario Party game. Its mini-games smartly took advantage of the Switch’s versatility—you might find yourself tossing cubed steak in a pan or pumping a water pump—and its joyful side-modes were absolutely bonkers. That said, the title “Super Mario Party” standing alone, with no additional descriptors, implied that we’d get the biggest and richest Mario Party yet, which turned out to be untrue. It launched with just four boards, most of which were, disappointingly, never more than “fine.”

Pokemon Let’s Go: Pikachu
Screenshot: Nintendo

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In November, Pokemon Let’s Go: Pikachu and Eevee refurbished a series that, for many, hadn’t been fun to play for a decade. Cecilia couldn’t put down Pokemon Let’s Go: Eevee– that is, until Super Smash Bros. Ultimate released on December 7. Ultimate is the best Smash game of all time, and with 76 characters and a slew of quality-of-life updates, it’s been pleasing for both diehard fans and the competitive community alike.

All in all, 2018 wasn’t a huge year for first-party Switch games, except for the last few months.

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Trickling through the spaces between those bigger games was a steady flow of ports. There were so many it was almost comical, saturating the Switch store with incredible indie and AAA games from years past. Big-budget games from Diablo III to Dragon Ball FighterZ to Fortnite to Warframe to Dark Souls all landed on the Switch, most of the time with technically solid ports. Yet while the Switch store is expanding into all sorts of genres, it’s giving a new audience access to competitive titles without giving them the same competitive edge as peers on, say, PC. It’s always going to be harder to master a fighting game like Dragon Ball FighterZ or a shooter like Fortnite on a handheld console, and especially when that handheld console doesn’t have a LAN adapter built in.

The wealth of indie games that landed on the Switch this year finally gave players a chance to give more fun, whimsical games a spin on the most fun, whimsical console out now. The challenging, lovely platformer Celeste was a delight to play in the Switch’s handheld mode. So was Into the Breach, a tough tactics game that has made some of us miss subway stops. Other fantastic indies like Dead Cells, Hollow Knight and Undertale became some of the best-selling games on the Switch store. Finally, Cecilia’s very favorite indie RPG, Hyper Light Drifter, landed on the Switch this year with its gorgeous (and challenging) definitive edition. If you didn’t buy an SD card for your Switch last year, you probably did in 2018.

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The Hardware

On balance, Switch is an excellent game machine, but many agreed that it had a few issues when it launched. Fortunately, 2018 brought us some hardware solutions.

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The first-party Adjustable Charging Stand lets you charge the Switch while you’re playing it in Tabletop mode—perfect for those long flights. Hori’s officially licensed Joy-Con that swaps in a D-pad for the buttons finally lets you enjoy classic 2D games the way they were intended, although it only works in Handheld mode. And if you were wishing that you could play vertically-oriented games like Ikaruga and Punch-Out!! in handheld mode, the crowdfunded Flip Grip made that happen. (One of the Flip Grip’s designers is Retronauts host Jeremy Parish, a longtime friend of Chris’.)

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This week, Nintendo is releasing a first-party LAN adapter, which Smash director Masahiro Sakurai suggested for Smash Ultimate fans—many of whom are frustrated by lag in their online matches. It’s a steep $30, on top of Smash’s $60 price tag and Switch Online’s $20 yearly price tag, and, all in all, shouldn’t be necessary to have a basically acceptable online gaming experience. Also for Smash, Nintendo made a new GameCube controller that felt springy and delightful and solid on day one but, just a couple week post-release, isn’t consistently working for Cecilia, who plays a lot of Smash.

The System Software

On the whole, the Switch only got one major software update this year, which belatedly introduced the console’s online component. Earlier in the year, Nintendo gave Switch users the option to receive friend suggestions from Facebook and Twitter, provided they were logged in to their accounts. That was part of a March 5.0 update, alongside some good additions to the Switch’s parental controls app. After that, the Switch received several of what Nintendo refers to as “stability improvements.”

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In November, the Switch received its second app, YouTube, after a year and a half on the market. The first one was Hulu. Netflix is still not on the Switch, nor are other video apps, social media apps or, well, anything. Just games, mostly. The Switch is such an airplane-friendly console, and we’d love to be able to watch downloaded videos on it.

Switch Online

After some delay, Nintendo rolled out its paid online service for Switch in September. For the relatively low price of $20 a year, you get online play, cloud saves (phew), and access to a growing library of Nintendo Entertainment System classic games, which themselves have online play. But on the whole, it doesn’t do a great job accomplishing its basic premise: Helping people play games together online.

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Nintendo isn’t exactly lauded for its innovations in online gaming. In fact, prior to the launch of Switch Online, fans of online first-party games like Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 complained that they, had myriad difficulties with online play. The Switch got a smartphone voice chat app this year that doesn’t come close to rivaling dedicated apps like Discord, nor the built-in chat functionality of Microsoft and Sony’s competing consoles.

Not pictured: Discord.
Photo: Nintendo

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Switch Online is Nintendo’s first paid online service, and optimistic Switch owners hoped that that if Nintendo was going to charge for an online service, they might do a better job with it than they had in the past. No such luck. The Switch’s online service still failed to let people easily connect and play each other. It doesn’t let you send messages to your friends through the Switch. You can’t hook up a mic. If you want to link up with your friends for a round of Smash, you’re going to have to organize yourselves on Discord or another outside app. In other words, Switch Online kinda sucks, and the fact that it’s only $20 instead of $60 doesn’t fully mitigate that.

There are good points. While Switch isn’t going to get Virtual Console, Switch Online delivered something that we’d argue is better: an all-you-can-play library of NES classic games, included in the subscription. By the end of this year, there will be 29 NES games on the service, and if you’d rather play the Famicom versions of them, you can log in to the Japanese eShop and do just that. There are even special save files for some of the games that give you added bonus content, like a Legend of Zelda save that starts you with lots of items and cash.

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In case a sideways Joy-Con isn’t how you want to play NES games (and it should not be), Nintendo’s selling wireless NES pads exclusively to Switch Online members. But 2018 didn’t bring us the games we really want on this service, which is why we’re looking forward to...

The Future

2019 is poised to be an eventful, hopefully great year for Switch.

Perhaps the largest change will be a new model of the hardware. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Nintendo plans to release an updated Switch in 2019, but said that Nintendo was still weighing what new features and improvements such a device would have. Will it be something of a Switch Pro, with a better screen? Or will it be a more handheld-first device to replace the 3DS? Not even the Journal knew, but its reporting on Nintendo’s projects has been solid over the years, so it’s very likely that some kind of refresh will hit in 2019.

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SWEET BABY JESUS THIS IS SO CUTE
Screenshot: Nintendo

Currently, Nintendo has attached 2019 release dates to New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Animal Crossing, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Yoshi’s Crafted World, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Daemon X Machina, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, and of course the next core Pokémon game. Bayonetta 3 and Metroid Prime 4 don’t have release dates yet, but either or both could make it into 2019. And with Nintendo of America’s top exec all but confirming that we’ll see games from more of Nintendo’s classic consoles arrive on Switch Online’s library, hopefully that’ll also happen sooner rather than later. We’d love to start playing Super NES, Nintendo 64, and (dare we dream?) Game Boy games on our Switches.

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Even though Switch is succeeding with core gamers, Nintendo has yet to land a Switch version of the casual-friendly, money-making megahits it had with Wii Fit or Wii Music. There’s a lot of money in those casual gamers, so look for Nintendo to throw a few more lines into that deep blue ocean in 2019. However that fishing expedition turns out, Nintendo’s 2019 lineup doesn’t seem like it’ll leave anyone with much to complain about.