The State Of The Nintendo Switch In 2019

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)
Year In ReviewYear In ReviewWe look back at the highs, lows, surprises, and standouts in and around video games this year.

2019 was the year of the Switch.

Wii U is so far in the rear view mirror now that it all just feels like a bad dream. 2019 was the year that Nintendo proved that its console, a true hybrid machine that works just as well as a TV-based player as it does a portable, is more than just a flash-in-the-pan success. After a 2018 in which even Nintendo’s own output for the system was sluggish and uneven, it came roaring back this year with a nonstop blitz of amazing games, one after the next, in a wide variety of genres. Sales of both hardware and software have been record-breaking.

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Kotaku is not running a companion State Of The Nintendo 3DS piece this year, because there are only so many different ways to write “dead.” Nintendo released a few farewell games for its long-lived portable this year, just in time for it to celebrate its eighth anniversary, then dropped it like a hot potato. But 3DS died so that Switch might grow even stronger. The release of the Switch Lite hardware in September gave us an even more portable, lower-cost version of the system, perfect for those replacing a 3DS.

But more than that, the fact that Nintendo’s game design teams are now all developing for one unified platform has resulted in a tidal wave of content that’s difficult to keep up with—and one that shows no signs of stopping as we head into 2020.

Nintendo Gets Its Groove Back

After the one-two punch of Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey in 2017, Switch’s 2018 lineup was lighter on revolutionary reimaginings of classic series and heavier on warmed-over Wii U ports. That’s how 2019 began, too, with New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe on January 11. (Technically, Nintendo also released the already-forgotten Fitness Boxing earlier that month, another attempt at recapturing that Wii Fit crowd that was so lucrative two generations ago.)

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But the winter of Wii U’s leftovers soon gave way to a spring of original content. First was the surprise drop of Tetris 99 as a membership perk for Switch Online. Yoshi’s Crafted World in March was an adorable follow-up to Woolly World. Nintendo made a surprise, low-cost, and ultimately low-quality leap into virtual reality with the Labo VR Kit in April, a month that also included BoxBoy + BoxGirl. June brought Zelda and Mario both, in the forms of Cadence of Hyrule and Super Mario Maker 2. (Still waiting on a Super Mario Bros. 2 level theme, though.)

A player-created Mario Maker 2 level that replicates Duck Hunt.
Screenshot: Kotaku (Nintendo)
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If you like Japanese action games, Nintendo had a whole trio of them over the summer: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 by Team Ninja, Astral Chain from Platinum, and Daemon X Machina from Marvelous. Sandwiched in between those was the well-received Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

And yet all those games were merely the opening salvo for the megaton blast of heavy hitters that was about to drop. Boom: Link’s Awakening. Boom: Dragon Quest XI. Boom: Luigi’s Mansion 3. Boom, boom: Pokémon Sword and Shield.

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Are you not entertained?! I didn’t even mention Ring Fit Adventure. Or Super Kirby Clash. Or The Stretchers. What this all added up to was a 2019 jam-packed with games published (if not necessarily developed) by Nintendo itself. And there was much more than that.

Everybody Loves Switch, But Does Switch Love Everybody?

Switch continued to be the best platform on which to play lower-spec indie games in 2019. If you’re an indie developer and not putting your game on Switch… what are you doing? Untitled Goose Game is probably the best example of an indie sensation that, while technically also available for PCs, was primarily a Switch phenomenon—underscored by Chrissy Teigen forcing her husband John Legend, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2019, to download the game to her Switch, and what is sexier than that?

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Outside of the robust indie support, it’s interesting to look at the big third-party publishers’ various approaches to Switch. When it first came out, nobody was really sure what to think of Switch; they circled it tentatively, like cavemen discovering fire. Occasionally a brave one would step forward to poke at it with a stick. In 2019, third parties have all made up their minds as to what the Switch is good for, although they all seem to have come to totally different conclusions.

Ordinarily I’d put the game’s title in this caption, but it doesn’t have one.
Screenshot: Panic
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Bethesda continues to, when feasible, bring its biggest triple-A games like Wolfenstein: Youngblood and next year’s Doom Eternal to the Switch. But releases such as these are rare. (Mortal Kombat 11 was another big one this year.)

Ubisoft is a big supporter of Switch, although it’s bringing its lower-end software like Just Dance and Starlink to the platform, not the bigger stuff like Watch Dogs. Like many publishers, it’s also porting older software to Switch, like various Assassin’s Creed games. Activision Blizzard seems to be the same way—it’s happy to support Switch with things like Spyro and a downgraded Overwatch port, but nobody seems to be in any hurry to get a Call of Duty on there.

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Capcom, meanwhile, seems to view Switch as exclusively a place for old, but never new, games. Between Devil May Cry, Dragon’s Dogma, and practically every Resident Evil, Capcom has yet to meet a PlayStation 2-era game it doesn’t want to port to Switch.

And then there’s Electronic Arts, which, based on its level of support, seems to think that “Switch” and “Switch Lite” are the names of the regular and low-carb versions of a new energy drink they just stocked in the company vending machines.

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If you want to know just how popular Switch is for software publishers, look no further than Microsoft, which has its own console and yet decided that it, too, needed to get in on that sweet Switch action with Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest.

Cuphead.
Screenshot: Microsoft
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But just because third-party publishers want to bring their big games to Switch doesn’t mean that it’s so easily done. That Overwatch port turned out sub-optimal to say the least. A much-anticipated port of The Witcher 3 is blurry and rough. Even games of lesser scope, like Bloodstained, took a big hit to performance on Switch that made them less fun. Even though Bloodstained got a patch that addressed some issues, it still shows the reality of Switch in 2019: Although it might make a great deal of business sense to port big games to Switch, the relatively low power of the hardware makes it difficult or impossible to replicate the experience perfectly.

Whether or not you’re okay with that depends on the game, and you. Maybe you’re just fine with having a blurrier, framier Witcher if that means you can play it on the train, but draw the line at a competitive multiplayer game like Overwatch. Just because it’s on the Switch doesn’t mean it truly works on the Switch, and that’s not likely to change as the other consoles get more powerful in 2020.

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Evolving Hardware, Stagnant Features

In late 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Nintendo was prepping a new model of Switch to be released this year. In March, it upped the ante and said that two new models of Switch would hit in 2019. This unlikely story turned out to be right on the money, as in rapid succession Nintendo released both the smaller, cheaper, handheld-only Switch Lite as well as a new model of the original Switch that boasted a vastly increased battery life.

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If you’re holding out for a Switch Pro-style refresh with more graphical oomph, you may be waiting for a bit longer, as the Nikkei newspaper reported this year that the development timeline of such a machine has been pushed back.

While Switch Lite is clearly not for everyone, a lot of people just want a handheld and have no interest in using Switch as a TV game system. That makes the Lite a very smart move to grow the appeal of Switch as a platform, not just as a single device. If only Nintendo’s methods of sharing software across multiple Switch consoles weren’t so frustrating and limited.

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The Nintendo Switch Lite.
Photo: Heather Alexandra (Kotaku)

Nintendo didn’t upgrade the Switch’s system software much this year. Oh, it issued several updates, but the biggest features in them were things like the Zoom feature or being able to set the touch screen sensitivity to “Stylus” mode, in case you want to use a stylus for your Mario Maker creation sessions, which you definitely do. You can also finally transfer individual game save files across systems.

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Switch also became VR-capable, after a fashion. In addition to the software included with the Labo VR Kit, Nintendo added VR updates to Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The low-resolution VR offered by the cardboard Labo kit didn’t make for an especially fun experience, but it shows that Nintendo is at least experimenting with virtual reality.

But for the most part, nothing has changed. At this time last year, there were around 1,400 games available for Switch. As we close out 2019, Nintendo’s official U.S. site has listings for 3,006 games. That’s great news for Nintendo, and you, but not great for developers hoping to get discovered. The eShop is still the same sort of bare-bones “transactional destination” it was in 2018, meaning it’s kind of hard to browse around and find anything in there, meaning in turn that developers are continuing the trend of reducing their prices down to absurdly low levels in hopes of crawling up the Best Sellers charts. And you still can’t sort all those 9-cent games you bought into folders. It seems like fleshing out the system software isn’t a priority for Nintendo.

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Virtual Console? Who Needs It!

While Switch didn’t launch with a Virtual Console style service, a few years later it’s a veritable wonderland of old games. The best news is that Nintendo finally added 20 Super Nintendo titles to the library of old games that are included with the paid Switch Online membership. But Nintendo giveth, and Nintendo taketh away: It also said that it would cease the monthly cadence of updates to the service, and true to its word, Nintendo hasn’t added a single new game to Switch Online since September.

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Trials of Mana, part of Collection of Mana.
Screenshot: Square Enix

But third parties are hard at work at getting all of their old stuff onto Switch, too. Sega continues its Sega Ages collection at a rapid pace. Konami’s collections of arcade, Castlevania, and Contra games were very well done. Square Enix’s Collection of Mana not only brought Final Fantasy Adventure and Secret of Mana to Switch, but also the first-ever official translation of Seiken Densetsu 3, now called Trials of Mana. It also ported the weird mobile versions of the first three Dragon Quest games to Switch, and brought over pretty much every Final Fantasy between VII and XII. (Sorry, fans of XI.)

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DLC? Maybe

Even though it came out in 2018, the Switch game that dominated the conversation in 2019 was Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Nintendo continues to support its wildly popular fighting game with a continuous supply of downloadable content, much of which has been focused on bringing in characters from outside the Nintendo family: Joker from Persona, the Hero from Dragon Quest, Banjo-Kazooie, and Terry from King of Fighters. Originally, Nintendo said that just one more of these fighter packs would be released, but now it has said that even more are on the way.

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It would be nice if every one of Nintendo’s Switch games had such robust post-release plans, but that’s not always the case. Nintendo sunsetted post-release development for Splatoon 2 this year, holding a final official Splatfest before letting players run their own. For a while, it seemed like the only DLC that Super Mario Maker 2 was going to end up with in 2019 was the online multiplayer with friends that should have been there from the beginning. But just this week, Nintendo announced that it will drop a major update on December 5 with new enemies and the ability to create pseudo-Zelda II levels with Link as a new playable character.

Other games seem to have no post-release plans at all. Seems like it’s either feast or famine when it comes to DLC on Switch. It’s hard to predict what DLC will look like in 2020. And speaking of which...

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What Comes Next?

Nintendo Switch had such a good 2019 that we’ve all but forgotten about the fact that this year kicked off with a big disappointment: The development of Metroid Prime 4 was being restarted from scratch. The silver lining is that Retro Studios, which made the first three games, was confirmed to be handling the rebooted project. But for fans who were hoping to be playing Metroid Prime 4 by now, it was a tough break.

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Will we be playing Metroid Prime 4 in 2020? I sincerely doubt it; if development did indeed reboot in January, two years likely is not enough to produce something of the quality Nintendo would want for one of its marquee titles. But perhaps we’ll see something at E3 giving us an idea of where Nintendo is going with it. I feel like it’s much more likely we’ll see the as-yet-untitled sequel to Breath of the Wild as the tentpole release for the 2020 holiday season.

The as-yet-untitled sequel to Breath of the Wild.
Screenshot: Nintendo
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What we know for sure is that Nintendo will start its 2020 off with another Wii U port, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. At some point, it’ll likely also release the new Brain Age that’s coming out soon in Japan and Europe. And for March 20, when Nintendo releases Animal Crossing: New Horizons, multiple industry analysts have forecasted that I will never see my wife again.

Beyond that, the future of Switch is unclear, in a thrilling sort of way. We know that Bayonetta 3, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, and a new Detective Pikachu are out there somewhere. Beyond that, we don’t know anything—and if what happened in 2019 is any indication, that just means piles and piles of unannounced games. Buckle up.

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About the author

Chris Kohler

Features Editor, Kotaku. Japanese curry aficionado. Author of the books Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life and Final Fantasy V from Boss Fight Books.