December 27, 2018 at 08:10AM
The best Nintendo Switch games of 2018
The countdown is over and we’ve solidified our list for the top 50 games of 2018, which covers the gamut of big-name blockbusters and small-team triumphs. But we know it’s a pretty long list, so here are the picks that can be played on Nintendo Switch — especially useful for long commutes and even longer flights to and from home for the holidays.
Out of our top 50 picks, 20 can be played on the Nintendo Switch. Of those, five are exclusive to Nintendo: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Mario Tennis Aces, Octopath Traveler, Nintendo Labo, PokémonLet’s Go, Eevee!/Pikachu!, and of course, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
And as for the inclusion of games like Hollow Knight which technically first came out prior to 2018, well, what we said in the top 50 post holds true here as well:
You may notice the inclusion of games that were either fully released or made available in Early Access prior to 2018. Because many games change from update to update, let alone year to year, we will include previously available games that receive a significant update within the year or become available on a platform that substantially impacts how that game is experienced. For example, Fortnite Battle Royale is included, ranked No. 13, because we feel its recent seasons were the first great game of 2018.
Don’t worry too much about the ranking. It’s a fun and light exercise. Ultimately, we recommend all of these games. That’s why we’ve included a bit on what makes each one special: so you can find the best games of 2018 for you.
Related, we’ve nixed the numbers from this because, out of the context of the top 50, the rankings lose their value.
If you’re looking for recommendations that expand beyond 2018, check out our essentials page for the all-time best Nintendo Switch games.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
When Nintendo released Super Mario 3D World on Wii U — you know, the console that barely anybody owned — the game maker included a handful of experimental levels starring perennial Mario sidekick Toad. They were wonderful little puzzle boxes in which players guided the waddling Toad through diorama-like levels to collect stars. Nintendo later expanded that idea into a full game, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Unfortunately, it too was doomed on the Wii U. Now available on Switch, one of Nintendo’s most underappreciated projects is getting the audience it deserves.
Treasure Tracker is a puzzle-adventure game that’s relaxing at times and confounding at others, thanks to Nintendo’s smart, sometimes devilish level designs. It is also consistently charming, as Captain Toad (and Toadette) light up the screen with beaming smiles and chirps of success as they hunt down golden treasures. It’s an accessible game with easy-to-understand rules, but it will regularly surprise you.
Like a lot of Nintendo games, it’s also great for kids and co-op play, with little in the way of frantic action or combat. (It’s also on Nintendo 3DS and it’s great there too.)
None of the many sequels and ports for 2004’s Lumines stack up to the PlayStation Portable original, a marriage of high-fidelity graphics, pumping Japanese dance tracks and bright charm. That the original Lumines was portable made it all the more enjoyable.
Lumines Remastered, the franchise’s latest entry, is available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and most importantly, the Nintendo Switch. The Switch version captures and in some ways bests the feel of the original, with improved visuals and better controls on the Switch’s comparably more spacious Joy-Cons. All versions feature “trance vibration,” a term that series creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi popularized with another of his beloved games, Rez. Additional controllers can be paired to Lumines Remastered and turned into vibrating nodes, humming in rhythm with the game. The Joy-Con controllers fit in your pockets or underneath your toes, providing a subtle vibration that adds a little extra texture to the experience without feeling too weird.
If “trance vibration” isn’t your cup of ayahuasca tea, Lumines Remastered stands on its own as one of the best rhythm games ever made. We’ve waited over a decade for an experience to rival the original Lumines on PSP. It’s finally arrived.
Octopath Traveler’s plot certainly doesn’t shy away from the stereotypical JRPG confusion, but its eight parallel stories highlight how much the entire game feels like an ode to the genre. The gorgeous sprites and lighting effects emphasize Octopath’s pop-up book aesthetic and fill it with joyous nostalgia.
The combat is what really sets Octopath apart. The break and boost mechanics convert boss battles into long-form puzzles, where a misplaced hit or a well-timed spell can turn the tide of the entire fight. And these elements aren’t the only thing keeping random battles from becoming a chore; Yasunori Nishiki’s score is a delight and makes spending hours in this world all the more worthwhile.
Mario Tennis Aces
Mario Tennis Aces arrives on this list with numerous caveats. For fans of the Mario sports series, particularly the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance entries, Aces’ story mode isn’t nearly as rich as its those of its predecessors; it’s more of a tutorial than an inventive role-playing adventure. For fans of local multiplayer, Aces still needs more options for matches, especially when it comes to its unusual scoring system. And for competitive players, Aces’ roster lacks balance; most online tournaments are currently dominated by Bowser Jr. and Waluigi players.
Aces is imperfect, but it’s worth, at the very least, keeping an eye on the community’s videos. As other critics have noted, Aces looks and feels like a fighting game. Rackets have health bars and can be broken; lose all your rackets, and you lose the match by KO. Special hits, trick shots and the power to slow time have led to high-level players flooding YouTube and Twitch with inventive strategies. As with a fighting game, Nintendo will need to commit long-term to updating and revising Aces, but even with its flaws, Aces’ track appears to have more in common with Splatoon than the fun but ill-fated Arms.
I devoured The Messenger over a vacation at my in-laws. After a slow start on the flight, I found myself staying up late and waking up early to make my way a little further in this throwback 2D action-platformer that borrows gleefully from the Ninja Gaiden series and Metroidvanias. Its creators stuffed the crunchy, pixelated world with small, smart creative choices. A shopkeeper with a winning personality; secret, bad bosses with good intentions; environmental puzzles that bend the fabric of reality.
Many critics rightfully celebrated The Messenger’s second-act twist, which shifts the structure of the game in an unexpected way. It’s neat! But what’s stuck with me after that sprint through the campaign are the characters, who both get a complete story and feel primed for a sequel. Plus, the technical problems from launch on Switch seem to be fixed. Have a vacation coming up? Have I got the game for you.
Dragon Ball FighterZ
Through its various manga and anime incarnations, the world of Dragon Ball has defined an unmistakable look. While those versions of the series remain untouchable classics, the franchise has always been playing catch-up on the video game front. Thankfully, Dragon Ball FighterZ lives up to the series’ legacy and delivers one of the best fighting games of the year.
The game’s cel-shaded art style is a clear nod to the aesthetics of Dragon Ball’s illustrated and animated forms, even down to ripping the same angles from the manga and anime. The visual spectacle goes hand in hand with the game’s simplified control scheme, which turns experts and newcomers alike into players who can dish out damaging laser light shows with ease. These elements work together to deliver one of the most satisfying multiplayer experiences of the year and the Dragon Ball fighting game I’ve always dreamed of.
Nintendo Labo is one of the most “Nintendo” projects ever made. Part game, part gimmick, Labo pairs the featureful Joy-Con controllers with various cardboard creations. When combined with a not-insignificant amount of magic known as software, Labo’s real-world cardboard constructions become a fishing rod or a motorcycle, a piano or a toy house. (Of course, I’m talking about the superior Variety Kit here; the Robot Kit, by comparison, is a disappointment that’s best avoided).
The pure, almost primal joy of creation is a laudable component of many games, but one that is easily lost on onlookers. That castle in Minecraft? Oh, you’re playing Minecraft. Your masterful Super Mario Maker level? Ah yes, Mario. Love him. But with Labo, that creation process pairs the virtual with the physical and, thanks to some very clever engineering and thoughtful software guidance, a stack of cardboard is transformed — without tape or glue or, really, any fasteners — into something surprisingly sturdy. It’s a memorable sensation to play a piano that you made out of nothing more than recyclable materials, with a dash of Nintendo’s outside-the-box creativity.
While the era of video game peripherals appears to be behind us — as thrift stores full of Rock Band gear, Tony Hawk skateboards and Wii Fit balance boards can attest — Labo is an entirely new breed. The arc, from paper to plaything, is in part the “game,” well before you get to the actual final device. But the games, while not the main attraction, do offer charm. A favorite in our household is the Toy House, whose weird alien cat thing — coupled with a matrix of crank, button or key inputs — delights my son.
And really, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Playing a video game with my son that we built together, and whose simple and, yes, childlike charms call to us from the corner of the living room where we now keep our well-worn pile of cardboard curiosities.
The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between starts on a rainy night, with two middle-school-aged friends huddled together in a treehouse. A mysterious light transports them to a gorgeous, mystical world filled with islands populated by memories of their friendship. Each island is a towering puzzle; the tweens must work together to reach the top, but obstacles block the path. One character carries a lantern holding a mysterious light that can dispel fog and create bridges, while the other works magical machinery that can stop and reverse time.
Playing The Gardens Between feels like a lucid dream. The lack of control — I can’t directly choose where the characters go — and manipulation of time and memory can get a little trippy, but never overwhelmingly so. When I start to get frustrated by a difficult puzzle, I pause and observe the flow of time. Usually I’ll find my solution by watching time pass by.
The Gardens Between isn’t the first game to explore memory and growing up. It probably won’t be the last. But the visuals, story and bending of time harmonize in way that elevates the game, bringing new light to an overworked theme.
A Case of Distrust
A Case of Distrust is one of the slickest-looking games of 2018. It’s a 1920s murder mystery that was filmed and then rotoscoped so that it looks like it’s made of moving paper cut-outs.
As San Francisco’s only female private detective, the player must solve the case of a missing bootlegger. It’s drenched in a Jazz Age aesthetic and historical detail. Developer Ben Wander did his homework, and it shows in the travel segments where the detective can opt to chat with the city’s taxi drivers. Not once did I skip this option, because each taxi driver has an opinion on a cultural event, or a story to tell about his life. Attempts to seed historical detail into fiction can come off as stilted, but here they feel present and lived-in.
In our review, Colin Campbell wrote that A Case of Distrust “gives flight to a genre that’s been so thoroughly tilled in other media.” It’s true that noir has been done and then redone to death, but it’s something different when I’m the one calling the shots and solving the crimes.
—Simone de Rochefort
Moonlighter answered a question I never thought to ask: Where do shopkeepers in adventure games find the items they sell in their stores? In this fantasy world, at least one shopkeeper works double duty as the kind of adventurer they serve in their store. This double life sets up one of the most lovable genre-mashups of the year: Moonlighter is more than an adventure-filled rogue-lite — it’s a retail sim, too.
To gather wares to sell, each night the main character journeys into the darkest depths of various dungeons, slaying beasts and collecting items. When he returns from his quests, those spoils become the next day’s inventory. As a shopkeeper, he needs to stock the shelves, speculate on pricing, entice customers with lovely decor and tackle would-be thieves. Whatever is left in his cash register that day becomes the purse he brings around town to the various weapons dealers, potion makers and more. With better gear, he can explore more dangerous dungeons, which beget better loot, which fetches higher prices in the shop and so on. It’s a compelling loop that oscillates between the part of my brain that seeks adventure and the part that believes in good ol’ fashioned entrepreneurship.
Nine hundred ninety-nine feet below the Earth’s surface is a crackling campfire and a ragtag group of animals who lost their homes and loved ones to the holes terrorizing Donut County. Blame the disaster on BK, an extremely selfish — and extremely cute — raccoon with a nasty smartphone addiction.
Donut County invites plenty of comparisons to Katamari Damacy: A strange, unexplainable force descends on a town and its unwitting residents, consuming everything it comes across. But where chaos reaches literal new heights with Katamari, the holes that terrorize Donut County are silent, efficient and clean. Where Katamari giveth, Donut County taketh away.
The premise of the game is simple: Be a hole in the ground and swallow up as many things as you can while solving a few puzzles along the way. It’s oddly therapeutic.
The dialogue is witty, charming and funny. Texting BK is a joy. I spam him a duck emoji; he spams it right back. Between stages, I can review all the items I’ve swallowed as a hole in something called a Trashopedia. It lists a candle, for example, as a “really bad version of the sun. Tastes ok.”
As puzzle games go, Donut County is a sugary treat. Like any good donut, it’s short, sweet and best enjoyed in one sitting.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee!/Pikachu!
A console version of Pokémon has been a long-held dream for fans. Pokémon: Let’s Go! doesn’t quite match hopes and expectations. This isn’t a new mainline entry, not as fans have come to expect. It borrows from the mobile phenomenon Pokémon Go, streamlining some of its bedrock systems, and it repeats the setting of the original three Pokémon games, dropping the player, for better and worse, into a familiar world full of familiar monsters.
That isn’t to say that Let’s Go is a forgettable novelty. Familiarity appeals to the nostalgic player base, while the return to a small location with fewer Pokémon makes for an accessible entry point for newcomers. Let’s Go also has many quality-of-life improvements, catering to both audiences: faster but no less challenging Pokémon battles; the ability to see and avoid once randomized scrimmages; and Pokémon haircuts. Delightful, wonderful haircuts.
Pokémon has always been designed to fit into a pocket. Let’s Go! maintains that spirit, taking careful steps into the big world of console games without losing what has made the franchise special for decades. There’s still time for a giant MMO version of Pokémon with numerous lands to traverse. Let’s Go! is the first step on the road to what’s next.
At the beginning of Gris, the protagonist loses her voice and begins a journey to reclaim what’s been taken. It echoes Journey, another game without words and limited instruction that sends me on a mission with little guidance other than move forward. The charm reveals itself gingerly as I explore at my own pace, interacting with the environments and solving a few platforming puzzles. My travels are accompaniment by warm ambient sounds and a orchestral score that boosts the sense of scale.
There’s no combat or fighting to interrupt my quest, save for occasionally escaping an inky black shapeshifter. I adapt to my environment. Sometimes I turn into a heavy block to resist desert winds, other times I use my power to crash through unstable floors. Gris is a story about grief, powerlessness and self-discovery. Through its voiceless lead, it explores these themes not with words, but actions.
Without losing focus, Dead Cells brings together no fewer than six different genres into a single adventure. It’s an incredible feat. Creating an excellent roguelike or Metroidvania is a challenge on its own, but Dead Cells shows a mastery of each form as well as its contemporaries dedicated to a single genre.
Some credit goes to the game’s roots in Early Access, where its developers used feedback to refine and revise their ideas. By the time the game officially launched, Dead Cells felt like a fully formed creature, rather than a half-finished Frankenstein creation.
Despite the complexity of its design, it’s friendly to newcomers, slowly introducing new mechanics rather than repeatedly hurling players into impossible fights. And thanks to numerous secrets and upgrades, each death feels less like a game over and more like a step toward progress.
In the end, Dead Cells feels like so many games we’ve loved, and yet, there’s nothing quite like it.
Unlike in other adventure games, where exploring vast landscapes and poring over the tiny details of the surroundings is the norm, every second counts in Minit. The main character dies every minute, only to get another chance at the moment. It’s like Majora’s Mask and Groundhog Day but, well, you know, shorter.
The hero makes gradual progress by reaching checkpoints from which death restarts the adventure. Progress, die, restart from the beginning, apply what you learned, reach a checkpoint, die, restart a little further in the quest, and repeat.
Tasks are simple enough to be completed in 60 seconds, whether that’s finding the perfect radio station for a stranger, listening to an old man’s story or solving the mystery behind the cursed sword that has plagued the hero’s hometown.
With the finite amount of life there is to live, mundane tasks turn into monumental undertakings. Each new life becomes a fresh opportunity to learn more secrets or find more money to buy new sneakers. Most modern games expect players to do a bit of everything at once; Minit succeeds because it focuses on one thing at a time. Progress, it shows, is incremental and deliberate.
Fortnite Battle Royale
Don’t worry about being late to Fortnite Battle Royale. The creators of this colorful and constructive twist on the battle royale formula ensure that new players have plenty of chances to jump on board as they constantly reimagine and retool the map, weapons and modes. The most dramatic changes take place across seasons, in a fashion reminiscent of Blizzard’s Hearthstone model. Over a couple of months, players progress through the ranks, unlocking new costumes, gliders and bonuses. And when the season wraps, everybody returns to zero. Of course, none of these upgrades and rewards give players an advantage on the battlefield, so if you don’t care about cosmetics, there’s no wrong time to start — or a reason to spend money.
Whether you come to Fortnite through a console, a PC or a smartphone, the items and experience you earn are persistent. (Unless you play on PlayStation.) We’ve found ourselves rotating where we play, enjoying a week on an iPhone, then craving the precision of mouse and keyboard, then spending a week on the couch with an Xbox controller in our hand. PUBG revolutionized this genre, but Fortnite is quietly revolutionizing the fashion in which big video games seamlessly exist wherever you wish to play them. And it’s free!
The game technically launched in beta in 2017. It’s unclear if it will ever graduate from being “early access,” as that status makes the process of releasing regular patches and updates easier, particularly on consoles with complicated publishing contracts. But beneath all that legal stuff that gets in the weeds is the kernel of what made Fortnite Battle Royale uniquely special this year: the use of game updates as an interactive group storytelling device. The 2018 seasons told a exciting, confusing, messy and surreal story fueled by a handful of sci-fi plots that have fueled countless B-movies. The meta-story of Fortnite has lost some of its energy — entropy! — but at its peak, the game felt all encompassing.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
There’s a reason that a new Super Smash Bros. is an event: It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to mash up a wildly diverse group of gaming fandoms, gathering as many people as possible under one roof. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is no different, though its challenge is particularly extreme. How does a game that proudly chants “everyone is here!” — literally every previous fighter and then some, from Mario to Solid Snake to Sonic — remain accessible yet complex, full but without bloat?
Ultimate steers into the skid. This is an unabashedly dense experience, littered with tips and tutorials for modes that could intimidate even the most veteran player. Its greatest strength is that it never overdoes it. It trusts the player to figure things out through play and exploration. With its hundreds of rules and variants, it allows each fandom to make the game their own.
Ultimate emerges as one of the finest, tightest, most self-assured games of the Nintendo catalogue. It’s more than a fighting game; it’s also an RPG, a collect-a-thon, a character creator and even an MP3 player.
With all of the ambitious new modes and sense of grandiosity, Nintendo still remembers what’s most important and lovable about Super Smash Bros.: a chance to watch Pikachu electrocute Donkey Kong, or Kirby swallow Ridley. Taking on all of these unique features could have been a misfire, but they coalesce to welcome every kind of player to return to it, no matter their gaming preference. Ultimate can be whatever game you want it to be. What it’s best at is being fun, pure and simple.
Yes, we know Hollow Knight first came out in 2017. We’re ashamed to admit it, but most of us never actually played it last year. That changed when the game arrived on Switch this summer, and I realized just how big of a mistake that was.
I adore Metroidvania games, and, quite simply, Hollow Knight is the greatest the genre has ever produced. The game’s design, from its sprawling map to its bespoke customization system to its countless boss fights, is peerless. Better than Symphony of the Night, better than Super Metroid, better than Bloodborne. That quality is matched by a haunting score and hand-drawn visuals that look ripped from the pages of a Tim Burton sketchpad. It’s a feast.
And on the Switch, it has found a truly perfect home. Hollow Knight’s length and difficulty are made far more palpable when you’re able to trawl the depths of the bug kingdom on the go. As a bonus, the game has only gotten bigger with a handful of free updates over the last year. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll find an unforgettable experience awaiting you.
Into the Breach
Into the Breach would feel like a Nintendo game, were it not so fascinated with the death of human civilization at the hands (claws? maws?) of grotesque aliens. Similarly to what Nintendo has done with so many genres, creators Justin Ma and Matthew Davis distill a complex strategy formula into an approachable, forgiving idea that feels almost like a classic board game. That isn’t to say Into the Breach is easy — it isn’t! Rather, it’s fair, taking time to teach you rules, presenting them clearly within the world’s design, then testing you to see what you learn and how you adapt.
In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Ma said the team spent half of the game’s four-year development on its user interface. “When we decided we had to show what every enemy was doing every single turn, and that every action needed to be clear, it became clear how bad that nightmare would be,” said Ma. The magic of Into the Breach is that, to the average player, the work doesn’t show. It’s invisible. Everything works, just as you’d expect it to. Which, again, mirrors the je ne sais quois of Nintendo’s catalogue. What makes truly great games special is, often, not something you spot. It’s something you feel.
Matt Thorson’s follow-up to TowerFall takes one move from the competitive multiplayer game (its buoyant jump) and mines it for every fleck of creativity, like a chef creating a prix fixe menu around a single, delicious and flexible ingredient. Celeste is a challenging platformer, in the line of Mario or Meat Boy, but notably, it includes tools to modify and alleviate the difficulty. You can slow the game speed, turn on invincibility or skip chapters. Thorson’s game doesn’t judge players for how they experience his work. And for those who want a more difficult experience, collectible strawberries are tucked throughout the world of Celeste, typically in precarious places, provoking highly skilled players to pursue challenge for no greater reason than “it’s fun.”
The decision to trim the stress from a notoriously stressful genre pairs well with Celeste’s story, which plunges into the shadowy trauma of anxiety, depression and meeting the expectations of those we love most. A charming art style and an uplifting score hold everything together, like a warm sweater or a bear hug. Life is hard enough, Celeste seems to say, there’s nothing wrong in asking for help.
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