The Switch continues to be perhaps our favorite way to play games for three main reasons. First off is its convenience—switching between unnecessarily large living room TVs and the small but warm glow of the Switch’s handheld screen truly offers the best of both worlds when it comes to videogames. Secondly, the Switch is now pretty much the exclusive home of Nintendo’s first and second party efforts, now that the 3DS has largely faded into the sunset. And at the risk of accusations of being Nintendo shills, I feel comfortable saying that no game development company anywhere in the world can match Nintendo when it comes to the consistent quality and vision of their games. Finally, the Switch has become a top home for other developers, too, and not just the massive companies that constantly crank out big budget titles, but the smaller concerns that are more apt to have weird or interesting ideas. The Switch is almost as laden with those kinds of games as Steam.
Those last two points are more than proven by the list below. Our favorite Switch games of the year show off both Nintendo’s unparalleled artistry at making games, and how smaller designers have wholeheartedly embraced the company’s latest system. These 15 games are a great mix of big name Nintendo projects and cool curiosities by studios that don’t have nearly the reach or resources of the people who make Mario games.
A final note before we start counting down the results: This list only considers games that were new in 2019 and available on the Switch. We’re not looking at remakes, remasters, collections, or ports of games that were playable on other hardware before 2019. We’re trying to keep this thing straight forward and stripped down, you know?
The massive Marvel team-up brawler returned after a decade break, during which the blockbuster movies restored characters like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man to the upper echelon spots they occupied back in the ‘60s. Ultimate Alliance continues to remix decades of Marvel history, tossing a large, motley assortment of superheroes and villains into various locales from the comics, and pitting four at a time against constant streams of cannon fodder henchmen and the occasional villain boss. If you played the first two, or the X-Men Legends series that it grew out of, you’ll immediately be zapped back in time as if by Kang himself once you load this one up. It’s a blunt, brute force tool for nostalgia and fan service, but longtime fans of Marvel will love the recognition factor, and there’s just enough strategy required to keep your brain from fully checking out. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but that’s pretty much what this game is.—Garrett Martin
Death and taxes are certain, and so is my infinite capacity to fall in love with murder mysteries. There are few who write and direct murder mystery videogames as exquisitely as Kotaru Uchikoshi. After falling in love with Ever 17, Remember 11, and the unforgettable Zero Escape trilogy—his most famous project—I knew I’d follow his work for the rest of my life. Thus, the announcement of AI: The Somnium Files brought me much excitement. Just like his past games, AI: The Somnium Files takes the player on an incredible journey full of twists and turns, emotional moments, and the existential and philosophical themes that he’s known for gracefully injecting into his stories. While it has a few flaws and never matches up to the best moments of Zero Escape, it’s likely one of the games that will most strongly captivate and hold your attention this year.—Natalie Flores
Nintendo let Brace Yourself Games, the small Canadian studio responsible for Crypt of the Necrodancer, play with some of its most valuable toys in this unexpected Legend of Zelda spinoff. Stick to the beat of some of your favorite Zelda songs as you fight and explore your way through a procedurally generated mash-up of Zelda maps and dungeons. It’s an unlikely new twist on one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, proving once again that there’s still a lot of fertile ground to cultivate within the world of Zelda.—Garrett Martin
Dragon Quest Builders 2 is set in the building genre that Minecraft pioneered but, in a lot of ways, Dragon Quest Builders 2 does Minecraft better than Minecraft. There is a central narrative, objectives, waypoints and streamlined mechanics that make the title welcoming to almost any curious person, whether they are into Dragon Quest or not. The is roughly based off of 1987’s Dragon Quest 2 and sees you, the titular builder (male or female), tasked with rebuilding society after the Children of Hargon (I don’t know) decide to make the world slowly die. Each attempt at rebuilding society in some way is met with violence. So what is the builder to do in such trying times? Collect resources and build those walls just a little sturdier and higher, of course! Dragon Quest Builders 2 is deliberately straightforward in both its narrative and core gameplay loop. Nothing is obfuscated, everything is as easy to understand as it can be, and once players fall into its task-focused rhythm, everything becomes smooth sailing.—Cole Henry
The first thing that strikes me aboutPokémon Sword and Shield is their size. The linear, compact paths that personify the series’ history on handheld are still a part of the game, offering structure on the player’s way from novice to champion. But it’s the Wild Area, with Pokémon spawning in their natural habitats according to their preferred weather patterns, that makes the game feel like an open, live world. In combination with the game’s sweeping orchestral soundtrack, the Wild Area, where most of the game’s Pokémon are caught, feels like roaming the fields of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time. Pokémon prowl in the grass, hover in the air and dip through the water, and the sense of discovery as you explore unfamiliar pockets and find new Pokémon is delightful, like watching animals on a safari. Pokémon feels fresh with a little room to breathe.—Holly Green
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
House House’s prank simulator hit a level of mainstream pop culture ubiquity rarely seen by videogames, especially ones from companies as small as this one. Much of that had to do with the game’s focus on viral-friendly mischief, but it never would have caught on like it did if it wasn’t a tightly designed, eminently playable exploration of just straight-up messing with people. It’s a sad and depressing fact that being a dick can be really fun, and that’s only amplified when you remove that dickishness from real life and isolate it within the antics of an adorable cartoon goose. My only criticism of the goose game is that the increasingly complex list of actions necessary to complete an objective can feel a bit too much like a chore at times. I’m not in this for work, but for the simple joy of making people hate me. That’s not nearly enough to undermine the brave work of this stalwart goose, though—or keep Untitled Goose Game off this list.—Garrett Martin
Neo Cab let me have some of the most captivating conversations I’ve had in videogames—conversations that delve into philosophy, toxic friendships, justice, beauty standards, and even quantum physics. This is where Neo Cab’s excellent writing shines brightest. Even though the conversations are only as long as a cab ride, Los Ojos and its people quickly feel real. It’s not a long ride, but it’s a unique one that made me feel seen and even healed. Its several systems gracefully combine to create a cog that you want to keep turning until you reach the end. Ultimately, most of us are just cogs in a larger machine operated by those at the top. Neo Cab chooses to see the importance of the little cogs, and that’s why it’ll stick with me.—Natalie Flores
If you always thought Tetris would be better as a brutal war of attrition, pitting you against dozens of other players to see who can emerge from the block-strewn battlefield as the sole victor, well, Nintendo has good news for you. Tetris 99 turns the classic puzzler’s competitive multiplayer mode into a full-fledged battle royale game, with up to 99 different online players competing directly against each other. It plays just like the Tetris you know and remember. Blocks fall from the sky, you can turn them and move them right and left as they fall, and the goal is to use those blocks to form unbroken lines at the bottom of the screen. If you complete two or more lines at a time, you’ll send junk rows over to one of your 98 opponents, cluttering up their field and driving them closer to the end. You can target specific opponents with your junk rows, or anybody who’s close to going bust, or even just random people. (Really, Tetris 99 doesn’t care whose day you ruin.) And at the end there can be only one survivor. It’s like Fortnite or PUBG in puzzle form, wrapped around what’s probably the most famous videogame in the world.—Garrett Martin
Yoshi’s Crafted World is almost a kind of therapy for me. It’s like gaming detox. When I was fully overwhelmed by the stress and frustration of Sekiro, a retreat to the warm environs of this beautifully crafted world made all the difference. To use a metaphor that Yoshi’s presumed target audience has to be too young for, Yoshi’s Crafted World is the soothing chaser to the harsh shot that is Sekiro. The two have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are both videogames, but they unintentionally complement each other so well that I can’t really imagine playing one without the other now. And Yoshi’s Crafted World will no doubt have the same palliative effect when combined with any angry, serious violent spurt. It’s a game for all seasons and emotions, and almost entirely because of that glorious grade school aesthetic.—Garrett Martin
Gato Roboto packs all the action and adventure you expect from a Metroid-style game into just a few hours of play. If you aren’t a completionist in thrall to the bewitching allure of that 100%, it’ll take even less time. It’s in and out before it turns into a chore or starts repeating itself, which sets it apart from most Metroid acolytes and even some official Metroid games. And although we wouldn’t advocate for an abridged Super Metroid or Metroid Prime (or even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), most games that follow in Samus’s bootsteps aren’t designed well enough to justify their length. Gato Roboto is here to remind those games that aimlessly dragging on and on isn’t a crucial part of the Metroid recipe.—Garrett Martin
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.—Garrett Martin
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.—Garrett Martin
Baba Is You is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking and problem solving, where the objective is to break the rules in order to win. Each level has a certain set of parameters, ie “BABA IS YOU” “WALL IS STOP” or “KEY IS OPEN” but the catch is that these rules are written out as actual words that can physically move around on the screen and be rearranged to win. I truly love this game; there were certain puzzles that had such a surprising and delightful solution that I literally cried out loud.—Holly Green
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.—Garrett Martin