Leave it to Nintendo to quietly take the spotlight away from the launch of a pair of brand new consoles in 2020. Despite so much of the year being spent talking about the road to Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, Nintendo had one of its most impressive years ever, especially given the circumstances of everything happening around us. And despite some inexplicable corporate decisions, the future’s looking bright for Nintendo Switch.
The year got off to a pretty slow start for Switch, with January’s big release being Tokyo Mirage Session #FE Encore, an upgraded Wii U port. While the game was a neat melding of the Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem worlds, it didn’t quite live up to the pedigree of either one and was quickly overshadowed by Persona 5 Royal hitting PlayStation 4 a few months later. But none of that really mattered come March, because Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived.
There’s really nothing to be said about Animal Crossing that hasn’t already been said. It was the antithesis of the fear, confusion, and anger that epitomized 2020. It’s a wonderfully charming and beautiful game that provided us with not only some much-needed escapism, but a means of communication and camaraderie in a year that desperately needed it. Plus, the fact that the game continues to receive substantial monthly updates with zero signs of microtransactions or other means of additional revenue makes it kind of unique among its 2020 peers, and all of this paid off for Nintendo in a substantial way.
According to NPD data, through November Animal Crossing was the third bestselling game of 2020, trailing only the pair of Call of Duty games in Black Ops: Cold War and Modern Warfare. But this number doesn’t include digital sales for any Nintendo Switch games, and given the digital and home-bound nature of 2020, it’s very possible that Animal Crossing is even higher on the list. In fact, it will soon pass Mario Kart 8 Deluxe as the bestselling Switch game, despite only being out for nine months. And its strong sales also helped propel Switch itself to over 70 million consoles sold worldwide, which makes it Nintendo’s second biggest home console ever behind the phenomenon of the Wii.
Apart from Animal Crossing, the Switch saw a pretty steady tick of first-party releases throughout the second half of the year with the meaty RPG Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, the consistently hilarious Paper Mario: The Origami King, the wonderfully charming Pikmin 3 Deluxe, and the surprise pseudo-canonical prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity.
And as new consoles continue to move at a brisk pace, older Nintendo Switch games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Breath of the Wild, and Super Mario Odyssey continue to see a high attach rate. And Nintendo has kept up support of some of its other bestsellers, with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Pokémon Sword and Shield, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses all receiving new content drops throughout the year.
Switch kept up its reputation as an inviting home for indie games of all shapes and sizes, with standouts like Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition, Spiritfarer, and Carrion all hitting Nintendo’s console the same day as other platforms. This continues on through the end of the year and into 2021, with 2020’s breakout hit Among Us hitting Switch in December and both Spelunky games landing next year. This year also showed that Nintendo’s partnership with Microsoft remains strong, with Minecraft Dungeons and Ori and the Will of the Wisps both making their way to Switch.
But the biggest indie of 2021 for Nintendo Switch was Supergiant Games’ Hades, which left early access in September and remains a console exclusive for Nintendo for the time being. It’s a marvelous game where every facet of its art and design works in unison to create a singular and memorable experience. Right out of the gate, it became a critical and commercial hit, going on to be nominated and winning a whole mess of “game of the year” awards.
Nintendo also had a big year with tangible items outside of video games, with both Lego Super Mario sets and Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit being popular items throughout the year and into the holidays. This will only continue going forward, as Super Nintendo World is currently set to open at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka in February 2021, after being delayed out of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the Super Mario movie from Illumination still on track for a 2022 release, we might get our first look at it some time in 2021.
But it wasn’t all good news for Switch in 2020. While the pandemic has impacted nearly every facet of life, including the video game industry, it’s clear that it caused a major shift in Nintendo’s plans. 2020 was the 35th anniversary of the original Super Mario Bros., and the plan was reportedly to make the entire year a celebration of the iconic mascot. What we eventually got was a series of releases beginning in September, including Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Super Mario Bros. 35, a delayed Super Mario 3D World port, and a strange and arbitrary cut-off date for fun in March 2021.
Aside from this, Joy-Con drift still exists nearly four years into the console’s life and remains one of the most frustrating hardware-level defects since the Xbox 360’s dreaded Red Ring of Death. Nintendo Switch Online also continues to be lacking in its selection of classic NES and SNES games to stream, still missing some high-profile releases like EarthBound and Super Mario RPG. Seriously, every new group of additions to the platform that includes things like Tuff E Nuff makes me die a little bit inside. The total absence of Nintendo 64 games is egregious as well.
One neat way Nintendo celebrated its history was in the surprise release of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light this month. It marks the first time that the original Famicom Fire Emblem ever launched outside of Japan, and for only $5.99, it was a great way for fans of the tactical series to experience its roots (or spend $49.99 for a full-blown retro collector’s edition). It felt like a similar strategy to when Nintendo released the original Mother as EarthBound Beginnings for the Wii U… which also is still not available for Nintendo Switch.
Nintendo has also had a rough month of publicity due to many of its obtuse and asinine policies. This has included sending a cease-and-desist to The Big House, a Smash Bros. tournament, for using Slippi, which rolls back netcode and enables smooth online play for GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. This was quickly followed up by a cease-and-desist against custom Joy-Con made in honor of the late YouTuber Desmond “Etika” Amofah, with proceeds meant to go to mental health awareness. And shortly after this came reports of Nintendo filing copyright strikes against YouTubers for use of classic Mario and Zelda soundtracks. These all feel like very corporate and very backwards decisions, which sadly is fairly commonplace in the world of Nintendo.
Nintendo also found itself the victim of the “Gigaleak” earlier this year, with tons of information ranging from source code, to prototype videos, to some of the strangest collections of unused sprites you’ll ever see all making its way onto the internet. While undoubtedly frustrating for Nintendo, it was fascinating for fans to parse through this bizarre flotsam and jetsam.
So with 2020 finally behind us, the question is what the next year looks like for Nintendo. Well, the currently announced lineup of early 2021 games is already looking pretty great, with Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, Bravely Default 2, Monster Hunter Rise, and Persona 5 Strikers all hitting in the first quarter. Aside from these, one of the biggest surprises from a year that was lacking in Nintendo Direct presentations was New Pokémon Snap, which should see a release in 2021, in addition to Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei V. And we know that there’s Metroid Prime 4 and the follow-up to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the works, though there’s certainly no guarantee that those will be released in 2021.
2021 is additionally a big year for both Zelda and Pokémon as a whole, being their 35th and 25th anniversaries respectively. Given Nintendo’s (slightly altered) plans to celebrate Mario’s 35th, it’s safe to expect a similar treatment with Zelda, perhaps with the long-awaited ports of games like The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and the fantastic pair of Nintendo 64 games. And The Pokémon Company has already announced that it will be celebrating the milestone in some fashion, which should make 2021 an exciting year for fans of either franchise.
But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that Nintendo likes to keep its surprises close to the vest. Many of its biggest games of the year, including Super Mario 3D All-Stars, Paper Mario: The Origami King, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, were all revealed only a few months prior to their eventual release, so I fully expect similar surprises in 2021.
2021 also feels like the right time for Nintendo to show off the next iteration of Switch hardware. A so-called “Switch Pro” with 4K capabilities has been rumored for quite a while, and as Nintendo’s hybrid is close to hitting its fourth anniversary, it makes sense to see it sooner rather than later. This is especially if they want to be able to keep up with ports of modern games, like the surprisingly competent Switch version of Doom Eternal.
But all this aside, it’s abundantly clear that Nintendo has no interest in being in a technological arms race with Sony and Microsoft, instead choosing to walk its own unique, sometimes frustrating but incredibly successful path. And given the company’s pedigree, as well as its stellar flock of franchises, I’m keen to let Nintendo keep being Nintendo — if it was able to make the most out of the fresh hell that was 2020, I can’t wait to see what it has in store for 2021.