Last night I hooked my Switch up to my TV for the first time in six months or so. It’s not like I haven’t been playing it, though; indeed, I’ve probably played it more this year than any of the other consoles I own. That’s the beauty of the Switch: it’s not permanently strapped to a big screen in your living room, but can go wherever your travels might take you.
That portability, along with the system’s sheer popularity, has made the Switch a preferred home for all manner of games. It’s not just buzzing by on the strength of Nintendo’s own line-up of perennial favorites. It might not be getting the latest state-of-the-art big budget blockbusters (there’s no Red Dead Redemption 2 or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on the Switch, although you can cloud stream the latter on it if you’re in Japan), but its roster of smaller, more esoteric works rivaled that of the PlayStation 4 this year. Between Nintendo’s hits and a smorgasbord of the best “indie” games around, the Switch satisfies my own personal tastes better than any single system has in a couple of decades now.
It wasn’t hard making this list. It was hard capping it at 15, though. As usual with these things, we’re not counting remasters or remakes or games originally released for other systems that didn’t hit the Switch until 2018. And we’re not just looking at games that were only released on the Switch—this isn’t just a list of the best games Nintendo itself published this year. For the purposes of this list we’re considering any game that was brand new this year and could be played on the Switch, whether it was made and published by Nintendo, or released on a half-dozen different systems by an enterprising small developer.
And now that we’ve made everything perfectly clear, let’s move on to the actual listing part, eh?
Super Mario Party almost feels like the cheeriest of games. Whereas previous versions tried to create a sense of togetherness by trapping all the characters in a car, Super Mario Party rewards players with extra coins if they high-five each other. When a cheery, blue toad asks me to high-five my AI buddies, it asks me if I feel closer to them, and the answer is always yes. That’s what Super Mario Party means to me: it might seem like a competition needs others, but making friends can be just as good if they’re the digital kind.—Shonté Daniels
A decade’s a long time, so there was reason to worry about the first console Valkyria Chronicles game since the original came out in 2008. Valkyria Chronicles 4 captures what made that game such a success, though, between its brain-flexing strategy action and its gorgeous art style. For those who are deeply invested in the Valkyria epic, this game expands on the story of Gallia and the wars that ravaged Europa, touching on some of the same themes and emotions but without repeating itself too closely. Some ideas are timeless, and an anime tactical strategy game based on a fictionalized version of World War II is clearly one of them.—Garrett Martin
Octopath Traveler’s choice to break away from the norm and explore an open world JRPG hybrid was a bold move, and while it doesn’t quite come through the other end unscathed, the game does do a great job at keeping you engaged. The characters are all likeable and grounded in the world around them, and each story stays within its own lane and manages to tell a much more personal tale rather than one of some grand world-spanning intrigue. You’d be forgiven for thinking Octopath Traveler was much like the titles that came before it, telling a singular focused story of adventure, when the reality is that the game offers up a collection of tales. It’s an anthology of mini adventures that span the length and breadth of the genre’s own history.—Andy Moore
Dragon Ball FighterZ is both the fighting game and Dragon Ball spin-off I never realized I always wanted. The production values are better, and the narrative tension is vastly improved. Given how Dragon Ball FighterZ amps up the drama on existing Dragon Ball storylines, increases engagement by allowing the player to take dialogue sequences at their own pace, and puts a polished, beautiful spin on the old cartoon, this isn’t just my favorite Dragon Ball game. It’s my favorite Dragon Ball anything.—Holly Green
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee are the first core Pokémon games to grace a console and, in a sense, the first Pokémon games. Modeled closely after the original Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow games from the ‘90s, much of what made up the originals is alive and present in this Nintendo Switch revival. It provides the perfect opportunity for novices to understand the full scope and balance of the Pokémon universe, both by offering a starting point for newcomers and by tapping into the mechanics of the lucrative mobile phenomenon in Pokémon Go. So how does a game built entirely on the sensibilities of one released in 1996 hold up in 2018? Pretty well, actually. The core premise of catching and batting Pokémon still holds a lot of tension, and the new refurbishing details are a nice little face lift to seal the deal.—Holly Green
Just Shapes & Beats is not a rhythm game per se, but rather, its obstacles, how they move, and how the player responds to them are informed by the beat of the backing track. As the player hurtles through each level, they navigate a two dimensional, sidescrolling plane of polygons that explode and shift in a vibrant blur of hot pink, fuchsia and purple, using a dash move to speed around obstructions or blast through fading barriers. It’s cool in a way that is just unfair. It’s like being able to play my SoundCloud playlists as a videogame, or as I put it two years ago, like playing a music video as a videogame. For a game with such short levels and simple pretense, a perfect harmony between length, price and difficulty has been adequately achieved. Whether you’re a bullet hell aficionado who blasts through the main campaign in a few hours, or a fumbling novice preserving through each level by sheer luck, Just Shapes & Beats is the whole package.—Holly Green
Given Wandersong’s focus on unity, it’s not surprising that the game always returns to ideas of harmony. It’s a game about music, after all, so the motif fits. And while playing Wandersong, I also felt like harmony was that much closer, that the greatest evils were defeatable if only we could rally together. And that’s a powerful thing for a game about a humble lil bard.—Dante Douglas
Donut County is entirely about holes and the destruction they can wreak upon a southwestern community when deployed with malice by a clan of scheming raccoons. If you’ve ever wanted to swallow up a pastel desert town full of blocky, adorable animals with sass and quirks aplenty, Donut County is the game for you. Other than the art style and character designs, the best thing about Donut County is the writing. It’s snappy and succinct, quickly establishing the unique personalities of a dozen or so characters, and legitimately funny without trying too hard or being obviously impressed by itself. As cute and surprising as the levels are, I found myself sometimes rushing through them in order to get back underground for the next bit of dialogue and the next character introduction. Like donuts themselves, Donut County will give you a quick, buzzy high, and taste great as you’re chewing on it, but isn’t all that filling.—Garrett Martin
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.—Garrett Martin
Long Hat House’s first game might play fast and loose with history—its hero, Dandara, is a real-life figure from Brazilian history—but its Metroid-style design and unique approach to motion make it compulsively playable. It’s part myth, part dream, all wrapped up in an occasionally psychedelic sci-fi action game heavily indebted to the aesthetics of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and one of the best new games of the year.—Garrett Martin
Nintendo’s latest violent ode to nostalgia might have more pure content than any other game we’ve seen this year. 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. The only drawbacks are an online mode that’s so riddled with lag that it’s basically useless; the fact that, by its very nature, there’s not much in the way of narrative or emotional depth (I won’t hold that against the game itself, but for an all-encompassing list like this, that’s a comparison point); and the fact that, as typically seen with the series and its reliance on a degree of chaos, it’s not quite as mechanically precise as Nintendo’s best games. I might be playing it until the Switch is discontinued, but that doesn’t make it the best Switch game of 2018.—Garrett Martin
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.—Garrett Martin
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.—Garrett Martin
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
Similar to last year’s Gorogoa, Gris is a latecomer in terms of 2018 releases, but also too smart and beautiful to ignore for our year end round-up. Written as a metaphor for grief and loss, the game is a basic puzzle platformer, but designed with an intuitiveness that is immensely gratifying in its smoothness and fluidity. Channeling a deep sense of isolation and melancholy, the game’s stunning environments are awash with the rich and warm textured tones of a watercolor painting, with the finer pen and ink details of a storybook illustration, bringing to mind games like Machinarium in its style and artistry. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I’m not sure I deserve a game like Gris. It’s one of the loveliest things I’ve ever played. —Holly Green