The Switch turned four earlier this year, and Nintendo’s little box is thriving. Animal Crossing and the pandemic helped kick it into overdrive, and that momentum has kept up into 2021, as it enters its fifth full year. One of the more underrated Zelda games is about to get a fancy new remaster this month, a new Metroid side-scroller is on the way later this year, and Breath of the Wild 2 is still out there on the horizon somewhere. Meanwhile third-party publishers and independent developers continue to release their games in torrents onto Nintendo’s console/handheld hybrid. There’s a lot of juice left in the Switch.
There’s also more to the Switch than just Animal Crossing, of course. Everybody with a Switch knows about Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, but there are many great games for the system beyond Nintendo’s core classics. With success comes support, and the Switch has consistently seen far more support from other companies than the Wii U ever saw after its launch. The Switch’s digital eShop is full of games that you can download, and the Switch racks at most retailers easily outnumber the Wii U’s at its peak. If you need help cutting through the clutter, let us point you towards the best of the best. Here are the 30 games you most need to play for the Nintendo Switch.
All entries written by Garrett Martin except where noted.
At its best, Luigi’s Mansion 3 brought me back to noticing the first flutters of snow through the living room window, sprawled next to a childhood friend playing Secret of Mana, wishing for school cancellation, that a weekend could last just one more day, if not forever. At worst, it was unanimously blaming the controller and sharing the frustration of a boss with too many phases—one that you just knew you’ll figured out together eventually—and a promise not to touch the save file until you’re reunited.
I do wish there were more to Luigi’s Mansion 3, that the controls were tighter and more precise, but I also find myself wanting to play it more despite these problems. I don’t know that I’ll pick it back up when my partner and I finally collect every last gem, and suck out every last coin from every possible hiding place. But the liveliness and charm of its world, the bizarre questions it doesn’t ask but gestures to, and the happiness I’ve had playing it with my partner on the couch will likely stick with me for quite some time.—Dia Lacina
This charming curiosity turns the always-dull world of golf into a top-notch role-playing game. It’s pretty much just what that sounds like: “battles” are golf matches instead of fights, you earn experience points and money that can be used to improve your golf game, etc. It’s not just the novelty of the concept or the classic videogame golf action that makes us recommend this one, but the smart, funny script, which features some of the best writing in games this year.
Not content with sheer novelty, Dead Cells importantly taps into the most significant aspect of both of the genres it fuses together. Few games are as addictive as those Metroid-style backtrackers, and perhaps the only thing that has come close this decade is the spate of roguelike platformers that flourished in Spelunky’s wake. Dead Cells beautifully captures what makes both of those genres impossible to put down, uniting the “just one more” drive of a roguelike with the “must keep going” compulsion of a Metroid. It’s a smart, confident piece of work, and anybody interested in either of the genres it builds on should consider checking it out.
Minit is an adventure with a twist and also a critique of capital split up into tiny bite-sized chunks and told through adorable animals in a sparsely drawn fantasy land. After enough stop and start minutes you’ll realize a factory is running roughshod over this place, polluting the land and working some of its employees to the bone while firing others whose jobs can now be done by machines. Behind it all is a maniacal manager prioritizing productivity over all else. After all these minutes and all these lives the true story reveals itself, and to reach the end you have to collect item after item, life after life, to eventually have the skills necessary to grind the factory to a halt. Even after realizing this it’ll take many minutes and many lives to finish everything you know you need to do, tiny bits of incremental progress in-between passages of rote, mundane, repetitive busy work. If it starts to feel like a job, well, maybe that’s the game’s point. The factory is Minit itself, its employees all of us who play the game, and its dictatorial boss the developers who put us through these paces again and again and again in hopes of the smallest iota of progress. Like the unending and uncaring work shifts that eat up our days until we die, we expend most of our vital energy redoing the same soul-killing nonsense over and over. It is one of the most effective metaphors for the exploitation of the working class seen in videogames. The minutes pass, we experience multiple tiny deaths every day doing the job we’re expected to do. And we press a button, and we do it again.
What originally felt like an ungainly mash-up between two properties that share almost no common ground unexpectedly turned into one of the biggest gaming surprises of the year. The Mario imagery and Rabbid humor is almost beside the point: this game works so well because it’s a smartly built and balanced tactical RPG that innovates on genre convention through its liberal approach to movement. If you like Final Fantasy Tactics and XCOM but wish you could move farther and faster across their grids, with multiple different ways to accomplish that, you should check out Mario + Rabbids. It’s a colorful strategy game that looks and feels like nothing else out there.
Playfulness is the main constant running through the large amount of varied content within Rayman Legends. Critics often try to avoid the word “fun” because it’s so subjective, but the only other game in recent memory that has so thoroughly embodied the most basic, universal and objective meaning of the word is Rayman Origins—much of which returns as unlockable bonuses within the already superior Legends. Revisiting classic gaming concepts with a timeless sense of humor that everybody can enjoy, Rayman Legends is a videogame without pretense, and that might be the most crucial decision its designers made without even realizing it.
Easily the oldest game on this list, the original Cave Story dates back to 2004. Essentially a homemade tribute to Metroid and Castlevania, that PC version was updated for the Wii and DS in 2010, and then enhanced for the PC and 3DS under the name Cave Story+ a year later. That’s the version that came to the Switch earlier this year. The same traits that made it so great in all its previous incarnations are present in the Switch port, but with the extra benefit of being playable on both a TV and on the go. This is the kind of long, intricate, Metroid-style game that’s incredibly tough to put down, making it a perfect fit on the portable Switch.
Somehow what turned me off of Monster Hunter games a decade ago has turned into a virtue for me today. Monster Hunter Rise is basically the perfect game for me right now, at the end of the pandemic. The quest structure can still be repetitive, but I now greatly appreciate how segmented it is. Most missions have a 50 minute time limit, but take far less time than that to complete; unlike pretty much every other role-playing game ever made, I can pick up Rise, start a quest, and know that I’ll hit a natural stopping point in under an hour (and often in under 20 minutes). Despite being a really long game, Rise doesn’t feel as much like a commitment as games that are more open-ended. That ease of popping in and out makes Rise a perfect fit for my schedule, where I have to juggle my gaming time with my other responsibilities for work and other interests that I try to get to every day. And Rise’s clear-cut, straight-forward approach to progress makes every minute I spend in the game feel important—which can’t always be said about other time-sucking RPGs.
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.
For all the nostalgia-driven indie gaming experiences we’ve had over the past decade, the long-running and much-loved world of Harvest Moon had gone curiously neglected until more recently. Stardew Valley is easily the best of these virtual farming love-letters, making vast improvements on core mechanics while adding its own unique flavor. It’s faithful enough that devoted Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons fans fell in love with it, but approachable enough that it introduced an entirely new group of gamers to the joys of a pixellated country life.—Janine Hawkins
As a “match-three” game, Battle Chef Brigade goes above and beyond the call. Anime characters are superimposed on soft backgrounds featuring wet washes of paint pooled over textured paper, set to a lilting orchestral soundtrack not unlike a Miyazaki score. The combat segments, which from a distance may seem tacked-on, are not only well-incorporated mechanically, but also provide immense satisfaction with the fluidity and power of Mina’s attacks. Despite the time limit on each battle, the back and forth between two sources of panic—quickly cooking a dish to the judge’s specifications versus killing monsters for key ingredients—is actually pretty fun. The complexity of solving puzzles contrasts the no-brain hacking and slashing for a very welcome change of pace.—Holly Green
Super Mario Maker 2 has the same impact as the original, only with an updated set of options. It still leaves Mario exposed, not just giving you the tools to design your own levels but walking you through the process step by step. Sure, it’s not how these games are really made—you won’t be doing any coding or creating any art assets—but you can still learn some of the basics of level design, and have the freedom to follow or flout those rules as you see fit.
Freedom is the foundation of Super Mario Maker 2, and that freedom is a big reason why it’ll be hard to go backwards to a traditional side-scrolling Mario game after this. It lets us break the game apart and put it back however we see fit, and no matter how seamlessly Nintendo glues it all back together in the future, we’ll still see those cracks and see how everything fits into place. Even if Nintendo was still designing side-scrolling Mario levels as ingeniously as they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we would simply know too much to once again feel the way we used to feel about them.
Slaughtering tons of dudes has never felt so morally appropriate before. Ape Out makes a statement about animal abuse by focusing on a gorilla lab subject’s violent escape from captivity. It has the mechanical precision and deceptively deep game loop of a classic arcade game, but with a gorgeous aesthetic based on Saul Bass art and jazz percussion. Levels are packaged as if they’re tracks on old LPs, and the whole game looks like the cover to Miles Davis’s greatest hits come to life. It looks and sounds amazing, feels good to play, and has a just and socially relevant message, to boot.
If Found isn’t a happy story. It’s an honest one. There’s a good chance you will cry, perhaps more than once, but there are also moments of joy, love and triumph. Despite the artistry of its presentation, and despite a recurring sci-fi metaphor that adds a bit of depth to the story but never quite fully connects, this is a low-key, modest, human affair. Its observations about family and relationships are touching, grounded and real, avoiding melodrama or outsized pronouncements about human nature. Much of it is universal, sure, but the focus remains on its lead character Kasio and how her merely being who she is can disrupt her relationships with her family and the world around her. It’s a character study of a specific person in a specific time and place, but whose pains and struggle ring true throughout the ages.
Any game can be hard. That’s not what makes Hollow Knight so great, at least not alone. Team Cherry’s first game is a charming Metroid-style game full of warmth, humor, precise platforming, and, yes, brutal, forbidding difficulty that’ll make you think of a Souls game. (Look, I know that’s a cliche, but writers wouldn’t make that reference so often if it wasn’t so often true.) Hollow Knight is a great example of how to reference the past without dwelling on it—of how to churn ideas and mechanics and aesthetics from previous generations of videogames into something new and original.
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to Towerfall employs a familiar aesthetic and language from videogames past to tell a story about mental health and self-actualization, using the mountain the game is named after as a representation of a young woman’s struggles with depression and self-doubt. Celeste is an inspired triumph, with art that recalls the early ‘90s, and requiring a precision to navigate its levels that comes straight out of the heyday of platforming. The vibrant use of color and warm, stylistically varied score elevate the retro aesthetic beyond mere homage. It’s a touching and occasionally insightful depiction of what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression.
Into The Breach is interested in you, as a player, gaining skills and developing new ways of thinking about the puzzle-like battles it puts in front of you. The island regions threatened by the Vek are small tactical boards, and you control a small cohort of giant, Pacific Rim-style robots who are there to smash and push their enemies around. Critically, these giant robots have mass, and Breach is very much committed to showing that big stuff smacking into other things has real effects. The idea is to prevent the Vek from attacking civilian buildings, prevent them from killing your mechs, and to kill them. Importantly, the game’s concerns are in that order.
That’s the puzzle-y part of the game. Each map has a turn counter that’s slowly ticking down, and at the end of it the remaining Vek will disappear. Into The Breach’s most interesting qualities come from the fact that you do not have to kill your enemies to win the game. You don’t have to annihilate each and every Vek on a time limit, and you don’t ever have to put your mechs in too much danger. You just need to be able to use your punching, shooting, artillery-firing robots to keep scooching enemy Vek around until the game is over.—Cameron Kunzelman
This special enhanced edition of the Wii U smash was one of the first big tests for the Switch. How would a game initially built to be played exclusively on a console strapped to a TV translate to a system made to be taken anywhere? The answer: about as well as anybody could expect. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe collected every scrap of bonus content for one of the best games of the decade, added a nostalgic return to a classic battle mode, and made all of it perfectly portable thanks to the Switch’s unique capabilities. If anybody was worried that Breath of the Wild would be a one-hit wonder for the Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe gave them hope.
Nintendo’s latest violent ode to nostalgia might have more pure content than any other game we’ve seen this decade. It’s got this many characters, and that many stages, and all those other characters who pop up as trophies and spirits (whatever those are). Music? This baby’s got every song you’ve ever heard in a videogame squeezed up inside of it. If you get stressed out when faced with a decision, a fully unlocked Smash Bros. Ultimate character selection screen will probably turn your hair white. Of course a game isn’t good because there’s a lot of it—it’s good because it’s, you know, good. And as a casual Smash player since the very first game came out, I have definitely enjoyed my time inflicting brutal punishment upon some of the most lovable videogame characters ever devised. Ultimate is about as replayable as videogames get.
Undertale is a special game, the likes of which come along only once in a great while. It’s a look into a parallel universe—one where videogames have realized a bit more of their potential than, say, the AAA industry has in our world. It’s a game that can make you laugh while teary-eyed, where both competing emotions are natural and genuine. It’s fun, it’s sweet; it’s an experience that will stay with you long after you’ve put the game away.—Bryce Duzan
Arvi Teikari’s ingenious puzzler churns spatial awareness and the building blocks of communication together to form one of the most difficult yet enriching games of the year. It might have Sokoban at its core—yes, you push and slide objects across the screen—but instead of moving boxes around to find an exit, you’re moving words and symbols that can redefine the nature and behavior of everything else on the screen. The title might make no sense before you play it, but it’s actually the equation that drives the heart of the game: Baba is you, as long as the words “Baba,” “is” and “you” are arranged in the right order. From that basic premise it explodes out into a series of widely varied, almost never simple brainteasers that will keep you engrossed for days, if not weeks.
Some have dinged this one a bit (including our own review) for sticking too closely to the formula established by the Wii U original. It’s true that, at first, it can feel more like a remake than a sequel. In time though its unique attributes become more apparent, from the variety of weapons, to the new maps, to the various multiplayer modes that supplement the standard Turf War. Splatoon 2 might not break a lot of ground but it’s one of the most purely fun games to come out for any system in years.
This might be the best game I know I’ll never actually finish. The latest Fire Emblem game is massive. That’s no surprise—Fire Emblem games always eat up a lot of time—but Three Houses has fully established the relatively new social aspects of the series as a true equal to the tactical battles that have always been the main draw. I’ve spent at least as much time teaching my students, learning about their lives and personalities, and trying to make them happy as I have on the battlefield—and no, that is not in any way a problem. With class consciousness as a narrative backdrop, Three Houses is less of a straight-forward story than an impressionistic look at a large crew of characters united by tradition, obligation, and the need to save society as they know it—maybe while reforming it. It’s a smart, charming, sometimes brutal experience, and one whose 80 hours length per house guarantees I’ll never fully experience it. One house is good enough for me—unless every publisher in the business wants to take pity on us and not release any other games until, let’s say, December.
Blood doesn’t fade that easily. Obra Dinn might be rendered in the stark monochrome of an early Macintosh game, but that blood still jumps out at you. And not just the blood of the sailors and passengers whose murders you try to solve aboard the empty ship they perished on, but the blood of all the people and cultures cut down and ground into profits by the force that sent that East India Company ship on its journey in the first place: colonialism. Lucas Pope’s follow-up to Papers, Please might feel like a game of deduction at first, an especially complex game of Clue, but it unmistakably grows into a critique of Europe’s exploitation of native populations without ever becoming too obvious or heavy-handed about it. It’s an inherently political game that never becomes didactic or boring, and more proof that interactive media like games can be persuasive and educational without feeling like a lecture.
Originally Animal Crossing applied almost no pressure to the player. You could pay off your house, or not, and that was pretty much it. Much has changed since 2002, though. Almost everything you do in New Horizons has the residue of productivity on it, even if you’re trying to be as aimless as possible. Instead of playing games within this game, the only way to not accidentally be productive is to literally do nothing—to sit in a chair, or lay on a hammock, and put the controller down. To sit quietly with your own thoughts—thoughts that exist fully outside of your Nintendo Switch.
The fact that you can do that, though, is an example of the confidence within Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo might have ramped up the numbers and the to-do lists, all the tasks and chores that make New Horizons feel like one of the last outposts of whatever notions of normalcy we might’ve once had, but you can still tune that out and live within your own head for a spell. That head might naturally drift towards the hellishly contorted world we live in, and not the delightfully cartoonish one of Animal Crossing, but escapism is overrated anyway. I’d rather worry about every aspect of modern living while quietly reflecting on the rhythmic roar of a videogame ocean than while sitting slackjawed in a living room I won’t ever be able to leave again. Give me these New Horizons—rigid, commercial, and staid—over the chaos of the last decade.
Bicker about what makes up a “core” Mario game all you want. All I know is that Super Mario Odyssey is one of the two or three best games to ever have that lovable little guy’s name in the title. It is every bit as powerful as Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Bros. 3, the previous high-water marks for Nintendo’s mascot, and for the platformer genre in general. Odyssey is an overwhelming cornucopia of pure joy, full of the kind of freedom typically found in open world games but with a constant chain of clear objectives and attainable goals pulling you ever deeper into its roster of candy-colored kingdoms. It’s a perfect bookmark to Nintendo’s other major Switch game of 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: both recraft a classic cornerstone of the entire medium into an effortlessly enjoyable and crucially contemporary masterpiece that unites all eras of gaming history.
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above other roguelikes—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.
Cardboard Computer’s exploration into the mysteries of the mundane finally came to an end in early 2020, making its Switch debut at the same time. This magical realist adventure combines the mythological folkways of “old weird America”—here personified by a stretch of rural Kentucky that regularly phases between the familiar and unearthly—with a pointed critique of how capitalism reduces everybody to interchangeable commodities. Workers grind themselves to bones to pay off their “debt” to their employers, pharmaceutical companies basically own the doctors who prescribe their medicine, and an amiable truck driver gets lost on a routine delivery with no end in sight. It’s a beautiful bit of inspired genius that’s perfect on the Switch.
Thumper’s difficulty is suffocating. Along with the oppressive music and the stark graphics, it turns the game into a claustrophobic, stressful, frightening experience. It rattles around inside my brain when I’m not playing it, its velocity and brutality careening throughout as I try to unwind after playing. Thumper taps into art’s ability to alter our consciousness, introducing a new reality for us to get lost in, and it’s not afraid to let this dream world look and feel like a nightmare. Most rhythm games want to replicate the best time you could possibly have at a rave; Thumper wants you to feel like you’re shaking on the floor of a bathroom stall, praying for those weird shapes and sounds that surround you to go away. It is an essentially perfect realization of its own unique goals and concerns, and a game we’ll be playing and celebrating for decades.
[Breath of the Wild is] a fresh approach to what Zelda games have striven for since the very beginning. The depth you expect, the open exploration and constant sense of discovery the series is known for, are here in perhaps greater effect than ever before, but with the systems and mechanics that drive the moment-to-moment action heavily overhauled. The result is a Zelda that feels unmistakably like a Zelda, but that also breathes new life into the venerable classic.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.