I realised the other day that a not insignificant number of my fondest memories are not actually my memories. I mean, obviously, they are. But not exclusively so. They’re also kind of shared. Shared with an Italian plumber clad perpetually in red overalls, who happens to be remarkably plump for someone who jumps as much as him. Shared with a posh English archaeologist, whose passion for jumping is only matched by her desire to mercilessly and acrobatically exterminate entire species with the use of duel-wielded weaponry. Shared with the hivemind of a huge battalion of ‘Mammoth’ tanks, developed in secret as part of a genius scheme of total war and behind a facade of feigned ineptitude but now massing on a weakened adversary’s borders, poised on the brink of bringing total annihilation to their pathetic and already decimated forces!
Alright, enough of that. I think you get what I’m getting at: I like video games. A lot. I spend a significant portion of my life flomped down in front of a screen, taking control of some form of Knava-avatar (Knavatar?), fusing with them to overcome any number of weird and reality-adjacent challenges. I’ve done this for a long time. The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) was released in Europe just a year or so before I was born in the late ’80s, and I sunk a hefty proportion of my early years into that revolutionary grey cuboid. It was the first console I ever had, and between then and 2013 I owned at least one console in every ‘generation’—the vast majority coming from Sony’s PlayStation family. In that time, the games went from displaying an amount of pixels you could count on one hand, crafting a reduced yet heightened reality supplemented by a story told in a paragraph in an accompanying booklet; to multi-million dollar productions with sprawling scripts, A-list voice casts, and graphics to make your eyes bleed.
As the medium grew up, so did I alongside it, its maturation and its memories enmeshed with mine. I walked (and jumped and shot and kicked) alongside Mario and Lara and Chun-Li and Gordon Freeman and Samus and Solid Snake and Zelda and Link and Chell and Nathan Drake and all the rest. Then, in 2013, I played one of the greatest games I’d ever played up to that point: The haunting and devastating The Last Of Us. That masterpiece would also prove to be effectively the last game I would play for over half a decade, as life got in the way of my once precious hobby. Responsibilities piled up, priorities shifted. Time became a truly scant-seeming commodity, and I found myself resigned to a game-free life. I told myself it was for the best. ‘This is a good thing, dude. There’ll be more time to be productive. Read even more books, watch even more films. Get even more involved in politics.’ And you know what? It worked. I came to believe that there was No Time. That there were always Better Things To Do. Video games were The Old Me. And just like that, the years flew by.
Until. Until finally, a few months ago—exhausted and emotionally ravaged by all the time spent glued to politics and mounting global crises—I just thought to myself, ‘Fu*k it. I need some distraction,’ and bought myself a Nintendo Switch. I’d tried it out a few times at my girlfriend’s place and felt the ancestral pull of gaming bringing me a joy tinged with that most potent of tonics: Nostalgia. Of course, it was a Nintendo system that brought me back into the fold. The circle was now closed. Aside from the lower price point compared to the other major consoles, Nintendo’s latest offering has the ability to be played both in portable mode and while sat in its TV-linked dock, the transition between the two quick and seamless. It’s a hell of a feature, and definitely one that drew me to the system. Since picking it up I’ve gone a bit nuts, making up for lost time, and I’ve bought myself quite a few games. Now, with the release of the portable-only Switch-lite, and with Christmas having come and gone, there may be a fair few new Switch owners around. So with vast amounts of undiluted generosity of spirit I come here bearing a quick buyer’s guide for those seeking some idea of what games might be worth getting. So here, in no particular order, is the stuff you should consider buying if you’ve found yourself recently in possession of a Nintendo Switch, based on my own feverish homecoming rampage:
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
An obvious choice in many ways, but then there are a few of those on this list. Say what you want about Nintendo, but when it comes to games, their flagship (often Mario-centred) properties almost always arrive with an extremely high level of polish, both on the surface and underneath the hood. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is no exception. A re-vamped version of the game originally released for the ill-fated Wii U console, this is probably the greatest kart-racing game ever made. Offering a huge amount of racers, tracks, and options to choose from—as well as other type of non-racing game modes like ‘Battle’—Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has everything you could want from the genre. The controls are on point, the tracks varied and gorgeous, and the frustration at going from first place to eighth in the space of a few seconds a spitting distance from the finish line thanks to a completely unfair barrage of racers and slapstick weaponry is as vein-poppingly potent as always. Single player is fun, but multiplayer—either local or online—is where Mario Kart 8 Deluxe really shines. Grab your friend(s) or partner(s, why not) and see how much fun it is to test the limits of your relationships.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
Speaking of obvious choices, this is not one of them. Yes, it is a game starring Mario on a Nintendo system, but a) it was developed by Ubisoft rather than Nintendo itself, and b) it’s, inexplicably, a turn-based strategy game in a universe that’s built around a crossover with Ubisoft’s own Rabbids series. The biggest surprise of all though is how excellent the game actually is. The presentation is gorgeous, the writing funny and self-aware, and the gameplay is fun, deep, and satisfyingly challenging. This is a game made with real love of the turn-based strategy genre, and the bright and colourful sheen given to it here—as opposed to the majority of similar games, which tend to cleave towards the grimdark side of things—masks a system that is rewarding and complex: There are well-developed skill trees to spend experience points on, a multitude of specialised weapons to buy for your characters, and a real tactical thinking sense is required to come out on top in many of the battles. Plus, Princess Peach’s weapon of choice is a huge fu*king shotgun. What’s not to love?
Super Mario Odyssey
One of the most polished games I’ve probably ever played, Super Mario Odyssey is a 3D platformer par excellence. This is Nintendo firing on all cylinders, designing a game from the bottom up to just work , in every way, and to do so beautifully. Super Mario Odyssey features a varied and colourful universe for Mario to explore in his quest to stop Bowser’s wedding (typical hard-hitting, Zack Snyder-esque Nintendo fare). The game doles out challenges in an organically evolving manner, never letting the gameplay get boring or stale, all the while teaching you how to play in a way that is supremely intuitive and fun. Where many games are content to portion out new things for a fraction of their run time, Super Mario Odyssey never seems to tire, introducing new gameplay mechanics in ways that feel both logical and surprising, pretty much right up until the very end. It’s a joy.
Super Mario Maker 2
It’s (2D) Mario. I know it, you know it, pretty much every gamer and even anyone who’s ever come into contact with video games knows it. The rules and norms of Mario are baked into the collective experiential memory of everyone in this world—and what Super Mario Maker 2 does is harness that memory to say: ‘Okay, now it’s your turn. Come around to this side of the divide. Try making your own Mario levels.’ And what a dynamite idea that has proven to be—both for unleashing the creative potential of legions of Mario fans, and for highlighting just how much of an art there is to video game level design (which, yeah, is a polite way of saying you will encounter some real wet fart levels, but also their exact opposite). Super Mario Maker 2 is broken up into two main parts: ‘Make’ and ‘Play’. The game’s priorities are subtly hinted at in the placement of those two choices: When you start things up, ‘Make’ appears first, on the left side of the main menu, ‘Play’ on the right. That’s not to say that the gameplay takes a back seat or is under-developed in any way—far from it—merely that the level maker here is so well thought out, so intuitively designed, that it can’t help but be the star of the show. Super Mario Maker 2 features about a hundred or so levels created by Nintendo that are great fun to play in and of themselves, but that also serve to acquaint and re-acquaint the player with the mechanics and tools available in the massive play box that the game provides. When you decide to jump into the online lobby, to play levels created by fans worldwide, you’ll be met with a well designed interface that has league tables of levels based on popularity, rating, the option to download levels onto your system so that you can replay them without having to be online, and more. There is a LOT going on here, but it all can be reduced to a simple concept: Super Mario Maker 2 is basically infinite Mario.
Now here we take a wonderful detour into Indie Game Alley. The preponderance of these types of releases on the Switch and the oft-pleasing nature of playing them in handheld mode contributed to my decision to get this console instead of any other. Indie games these days are often marked out by going against the grain on a lot of industry-wide trends, focusing frequently as they do on telling a well-crafted and well-written, finite story, interested in shepherding the player through a properly developed single-player experience, rather than being designed to lure you into a never-ending multiplayer world with periodic downloadable updates and vampiric micro-transactions morphing gaming into a subscription service. For someone who thirsts for the video gaming experience but who doesn’t necessarily have the same wells of free time that they did in their youth—like, well, me—indie games can be a perfect choice. Also, they’re cheap.
And, so Golf Story! This Aussie-developed game was actually the first one I bought for my new Switch. It still feels weird to say that, because the levels of my interest in golf in real life can’t be measured by any instruments yet developed by humanity, but I’d seen this title highlighted in a few lists of ‘hidden gems’ and I liked what I’d heard. Golf Story is a 2D pixel art (there’s that nostalgia tinkling again) game that mixes up traditional RPG elements (level progression, character interaction, hero-centred story-telling) with a golf game, and into that cocktail it introduces a healthy dose of irreverent yet warm Aussie humour. I laughed out loud a lot playing this game. You play as a bloke who as a child was a bit of a golf prodigy. Your father encouraged and nurtured your hobby, but life got in the way of things, and eventually golf faded into the background, and then completely away. Waking up one day an unspecified time after your father’s death and the end of a long-term relationship, you decide to head out to the local (hilariously mismanaged) golf club to begin your journey back onto the green. It’s a great little treat. The characters are hilarious, the story touching, and the golf mechanics are actually very well developed and fun.
Celeste is hard. Really fu**ing hard. This is a 2D pixel art platformer that is jaw-settingly, teeth-grindingly, pillow-punchingly difficult. In the best possible way. In Celeste, you play as a young woman called Madeline who, suffering from what appears to be anxiety-related mental health issues, decides to climb a treacherous and unforgiving mountain called ‘Celeste’. The story is sparse, but very well and sensitively written. The game is another entry into the ever-growing—though still yet stunted—list of titles in the medium that are not afraid to have at their heart a serious subject, and to treat it with the maturity and insight that other media have done for a long time. That’s not to say that Celeste is dour or heavy-going however, as the bulk of your time is spent absorbed in that hard as nails yet supremely fun gameplay, in which you attempt to ascend the mountain, screen by torturous screen. Each screen presents you with in effect a spatial puzzle that you have to navigate using Madeline’s streamlined set of limited moves (run, jump, climb, and a mid-air dash that recharges when you hit the ground) to progress to the next screen. In attempting to do so, you will die. A lot. But that’s fine, because the screens are small, and when you die, you respawn immediately at the start of the screen, free to try again and learn from your mistakes. Gradually, slowly, you will ascend. As you progress up the mountain, the level design will vary beautifully and the challenges will ramp up significantly—but crucially in a manner that follows a difficulty curve that always falls on the right side of the frustrating/rewarding divide. You feel like you’re really achieving something, climbing this harsh and hostile mountain, and that in turn makes you empathise with Madeline’s struggle, both internal and external. In doing so, it does what few games manage to do: It fuses the interactive element unique to the medium to the story it is telling, and in the process greatly enhances both. Climb ‘Celeste’, conquer your demons.
Into The Breach
Did someone say ‘hard as nails’? Into The Breach has that covered as much as Celeste, except in this game, when you die, you stay dead. Well, sort of. Into The Breach is a turn-based strategy game set in a dystopian future in which humanity has been overrun by giant insect-like monsters that one day emerged from beneath the Earth’s surface. Pockets of our species still remain on that surface, surviving on isolated islands that remain at constant threat from invasions of those monsters. That’s where you come in. You command Earth’s last line of defence: A group of giant mechs that mobilise into action any time an island is threatened, descending from a dropship above the Earth and taking the fight to the monster. Into The Breach is a game of focus, both on the developer’s part, and the players. The battles are designed around a small eight-by-eight grid, and only last a few rounds each. Most of the time, you just have to survive long enough while protecting enough buildings on the island. That’s it. There are several battles over the course of an island, and you have to protect enough buildings over the whole island or else the game is over and the ‘timeline is lost’ and the monsters overrun everything. If that happens, you open a time rift and beat a retreat to an alternative timeline and start over, with only one of your party surviving. You choose the survivor. Each one of your team levels up during the battles—and there are plenty of perks and skills and weapons to choose as you level up—but if you die, they are all of them lost, except the one that carries on. It’s a punishing, yet deeply rewarding experience. Because of the relatively limited nature of the battles, every single move counts, and the difference between a decent victory and a complete and irreversible timeline loss can be one wrong move. You can’t afford to lose focus when planning your moves, and you have to think ahead as much as possible. Into The Breach will not forgive anything, but if instead of forgetting your mistakes you learn from every single one, you might just find yourself in a timeline that you can salvage and make it through with your team intact. Also, the music is banging.
Firewatch is a walking simulator/mystery/interactive novel set in the forests of Wyoming in the late eighties about a bloke who takes a job as a person who watches out for wildfires after suffering some intense personal trauma and who has basically only one human to interact with the entire time but who he never meets. It’s not a long game, and it’s not particularly interactive—with the bulk of the gameplay consisting of you waking up in your tower, and being told to go investigate this or other occurrence by your colleague on the other end of a walkie-talkie. This colleague, Delilah, is in charge of another fire watch tower. You spot it sometimes on the horizon through the trees. It’s close but it’s far. Over the course of the story, that is also how you will feel about Delilah. As each day passes and you get the sense that the wilderness is hiding secrets and strange goings start occurring that neither of you can explain you will bond with Delilah in some ways, and feel alienated from her in others. Firewatch is gorgeous to look at—exploring the open-looking yet quite limited wilderness is a treat thanks to the wonderful art design—but it’s the writing and voice acting here that really shine. Delilah and your character (Henry) feel like completely fully realised people, with realistic traits, speech patterns, chequered pasts, and perhaps more flaws than virtues, and listening to them experience and try to conquer the unfolding mystery that threatens to engulf them there in the middle of a dense nowhere is absorbing and—especially at the end—powerfully thought provoking.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The game to buy a Nintendo Switch for. It’s as simple as that. After the lukewarm success of their last console, the venerable gaming industry veteran had a lot to prove. Could they still produce the kind of raw, innovative, and fun video gaming magic that they built their reputation on? With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, coming out at the same time as the new console itself, they did that and more. The latest instalment in one of Nintendo’s flagship series didn’t just revolutionise one of the longest-running properties in gaming, it fired a salvo across the bow of the whole industry. Breath of the Wild is the whole package. The amount of industry awards this thing has won is ludicrous, and they are all earned.
As always you play as Link, the blonde mute adventurer, who has to save or assist Princess Zelda. Somewhere there will be a form of the ageless evil Ganondorf. What Breath of the Wild does differently is create a vast, living, absolutely breathtaking open world for Link to explore and survive in. Rather than funnelling him from plot point to plot point and from dungeon to dungeon, it simply drops you in this world, points out the evil you have to eventually defeat, and then lets you figure out how the hell you might be able to do that. Because at the start of the game you wake up in a cave, wearing nothing but rags, slowly learning that you have slumbered for a hundred years after an ill-fated battle with the evil that you must now face again. How you do this is up to you. Yes there is a plot with some more scripted moments, but the order of those moments, and the unravelling of the story, is largely up to you. Breath of the Wild just says: Go, survive, grow, bring peace to the land of Hyrule. Run, climb, swim, cook, shelter, battle, tame a horse, craft items, solve puzzles, brave the elements. It helps that Hyrule is a perfectly realised world, both mechanically (if you think something might work like in the real world, it’s likely that it does) and graphically. Breath of the Wild’s approach to visuals runs counter to a lot of games—especially ones on more powerful systems—and it speaks to a deep truth: That graphical fidelity does not equal artistry. Much the same way as when photography reached complete verisimilitude, painters had to find other ways to express and to refract reality, so too do games like Breath of the Wild choose a striking and beautiful, almost impressionistic, art direction over raw, muscular photo realism. It’s a smart and resonant choice. Breath of the Wild is a game fully composed of those.
Night in the Woods
One of the reasons I felt the need to get back into video games was my long-cherished memories of the stories that the medium has told me—or rather let me experience by taking part in. A few of the classic Final Fantasy games, Metal Gear Solid, Shadow of the Colossus, The Last of Us—some of the most emotionally resonant narratives I’ve absorbed in my life have been ones I’ve gotten from games. I wonder sometimes if that’s because the interactive element—the degree of agency afforded to the player as compared to the viewer or the reader—grants a video game story extra potency as compared to more passive media. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows. What I do know is that when I finished Night in the Woods’ eight-or-so hour story, I just sat in my room, dazed, buoyed by a euphoria I hadn’t experienced in years. This is what I’d gone looking for when I picked up this console. I was happy. Night in the Woods is undoubtedly one of the best, most affecting stories I have ever experienced in video games, though it must be said that the game overall might not be for everyone.
Night in the Woods sees you playing as a young woman called Mae. Mae is twenty, and the game begins as she makes her way back to her small middle America town after dropping out of college for unspecified reasons. The town, Possum Springs, is as big of a character as any of the people you will meet there. It is also the lens through which you view a good many of the games themes—and it would be an understatement to say that these are not exactly common themes in video games. Possum Springs is a rust belt town, and in the short while that Mae has been gone it has suffered the full force of a decades-long cresting of the neoliberal capitalist wave. A former mining town with a thriving community, it is now a shell of its former self, stripped bare and hollowed out by the uncaring forces of big capital. All the old industries have been gutted, the local businesses are closing, the young are deserting the town, and, as Mae soon finds out, her old friends have been forced to grow up a lot faster than her—taking jobs in chain shops, dropping out of school to help a grieving parent run their business. Mae herself is a wonderfully deep, complex, and flawed character. There are some dark parts to her past that you slowly uncover, and though her friends are just as fully realised as she, Mae is certainly near the top of the pile when it comes to internal issues. The quality of characterisation here can’t be emphasised enough. For a cast of characters made up of zoomorphic cartoons, they are as human as it gets in the medium—and in fact they challenge much of the world outside it too.
The game itself is a mishmash of styles, with mini games aplenty, but mostly it’s a platformer of sorts. The gameplay is broken up into days—your character wakes up in the afternoon (telling already for her state of mind), leaves the house, and wanders around town. You choose who to talk to, how you respond, where to explore, and depending on those choices your day and night will unfold in a certain way and relationships will develop along branching paths that affect the story to a certain degree, until eventually you go back home and sleep again till the next afternoon. You’ll get up to all sorts of mischief with your old friends, there will be conversations that genuinely challenge you and provoke deep thinking, and through it all, as the days pass one by one and the autumn winds on and slowly turns into winter, you also begin to notice something strange happening in those woods on the edge of town at night. The gameplay itself is quite minimal in a way. Contrary to something like Celeste it’s not really about the challenge. The gameplay is fun, but it is there primarily to deliver the story. And to give the incredible, moving soundtrack something to score. But mostly that story. Because it has to be said again: It is wonderful. Both in its dramatic heft, and in its thematic richness. Night in the Woods deals with mental illness, politics, identity, loneliness, belonging, adulthood, grief, and a whole raft of other issues and experiences—both negative and positive—that make up this uniquely strange condition called being human. There might be weird stuff happening in the woods, but that’s nothing compared to the sociological and economic storm that has ravaged so many communities not deemed worthy by capitalism. Night in the Woods gets that. It’s going to stay with me for a long time.