Nintendo 2017 Year in Review: Forget Zelda and Mario, Switch’s success is down to the indies

For Nintendo, 2017 will chiefly be remembered for three things: success, success and more success. After two years of scrabbling about trying to sell Wii U consoles to virtually no-one, Nintendo ended 2016 by revealing the Nintendo Switch. For years, we’d heard rumblings and rumours about the console codenamed the NX, but it wasn’t until Nintendo officially lifted the curtain on the Switch that people really realised the potential of its hybrid console. The intriguing reveal trailer left gaming fans desperate to know more about the Switch, wondering whether people would really be taking their new consoles to frat parties or to the dog park, and with that Switch *click* ringing in their ears for days…

But after a brilliant event in January that showed off the Switch’s prowess to the masses and the March release date that left retailers worldwide struggling to keep stock, it was clear that Nintendo was onto a winner with the Switch. People really would be taking their new consoles with them to parties to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with their pals and settling down on planes to play the Switch Skyrim port as Nintendo had promised from that first reveal. 

From the depth of Wii U despair to roaring success

In essence, Nintendo made it its business this year to prove everyone wrong and turn the tides on its Wii U misadventures. Thought the Japanese gaming giant couldn’t launch a console with just one AAA game? Well, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild managed to sell Switch consoles in their droves, thanks to it being the most freeform in the series yet, while still maintaining all of the charm, fun and quality you’d expect. Thought the Switch would suffer by leaving the Super Mario Odyssey release until October? Nope. Nintendo made sure it had a major release every month for Switch, from the brilliant Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Arms, to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2. Oh and some little AAA titles like Skyrim and L.A. Noire too, of course. And when Super Mario Odyssey did arrive, it managed to casually reinvent the series’ staples with a magic hat. 

It’s definitely true that Nintendo had a great year for first party titles, especially with Breath of the Wild running out of room on its shelves for all the Game of the Year awards it’s collecting. But it was the indie games that really kept the Switch’s engine humming and thrumming so loudly all year. While the Wii U was pretty much a wasteland for anything except Nintendo’s own titles, the Switch is a verelent breeding ground for brilliant, unique, indie games and excellently executed ports. Whether it’s Team17’s Overcooked, Stardew Valley or Battle Chef Brigade, there’s almost too much to explore on Switch already and it’s only eight months old. 

The Nindies are taking over

This is the real story of Nintendo’s 2017, because it’s titles like these that will keep people glued to their Switch for months to come. It might be Zelda and Mario that gets people buying a Switch, but after the credits roll on Odyssey and Breath of the Wild, it’ll be the indie games that keep the Switch rolling. And it helps that Nintendo is really making sure that people know about all the indie content that’s available on its latest console. They’re even called Nindies nowadays - you know, Nintendo Indies… Nintendo’s taking ownership of the wider gaming scene at long last and the indie developers are recognising that.

“Indie games get a good amount of attention on Nintendo consoles recently,” says Andrew Newey of Golf Story’s Sidebar Games. “The Nindies presentations and even Nintendo Directs that show indie games make them feel like big releases and get a lot of people to look at them so it's a good place to be.”

When Nintendo first unveiled the Switch, with its weird controllers that sound more like sex toys than valid gaming pads, many gamers (myself included) were skeptical about how it would all work. But for indie creators, the Switch’s design was like the best developmental catnip they had ever sniffed. Because of that, the Nintendo Switch eShop exploded with brilliantly designed Switch exclusives. From Tumbleseed’s pivoting branch gameplay, to Snipperclips’ Joy-Con-themed paper puzzling, there are so many games that really utilise the Switch’s features with alomb. Heck, even Skyrim goes all-in on motion controls that make you feel like you’re wielding magic in real life. 

“It's always a challenge to work on a new system with unique features and capabilities, but meeting that challenge [with Nintendo Switch] has been especially rewarding,” explains Tyrone Rodriguez, president of Nicalis Inc., a studio that’s already brought Binding of Isaac, The End is Nigh and Cave Story+ to the Switch, among other games. “There's a lot of advanced technology to play around with, and none of it feels like a gimmick. HD graphics, touch support, motion controls, HD rumble… these are all tools that we can use to make games better, and to have all of them in a unit that also functions as a handheld console is incredible.”

“Nintendo did an excellent job at understanding the way we play our games and defining all the different ‘circumstances’ of gaming,” adds Xavier Manazanares, lead producer on Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. “I think that the Switch is the very first console that actually adapts to the players’ context, and that is a real impressive achievement to me.”

“I think it's the fact it fully delivers on its promise of console gaming on the go,” says Andreas Firnigl, Director at Nosebleed Interactive who just ported Vostok Inc. to Switch. 

Turns out unique designs are like a breath of fresh air for developers

Of course, Nintendo has always been the king of the handheld. Where PS Vita failed to succeed, Nintendo has been aceing it since the days of the original Game Boy back in 1989 - and before that too with Game and Watch. Nintendo knows how to make a handheld console. But it’s the brilliance of the Switch’s status as a hybrid - just as effective and impressive played on a bus as is is on the big screen at home via the dock - that makes it an uniquely interesting prospect for developers. 

“The Switch shows once again that Nintendo is not only a console manufacturer, but above all a market disruptor,” says Manazanares. “The Switch proves that there is still room for creativity in consoles’ conception, and it opens up new horizons for the whole gaming community.”

(Image: © Ubisoft)

Jens Andersson, co-founder of Villa Gorilla, which is bringing Yoku’s Island Express to Switch next year, went as far as to say “the way Switch balances performance when in portable, while still give good performance while docked is genius.”

“For such a little machine it's got some real grunt behind it and it made porting Vostok Inc. a real pleasure, as we could easily achieve 60fps 1080p in docked mode and 60fps 720p in handheld more without needing to do, well any work really,” adds Nosebleed Interactive’s Firnigl. “It’s a bit of a beast.”

And part of why third-party and indie developers alike are coming to Switch in their droves is because a change in attitude from Nintendo itself. Whereas the Wii U was an impenetrable fortress for any developers who aren’t Nintendo itself and the 3DS family has about as much power as a PS4 does in its USB ports, the Switch is proving to be quite the powerhouse. And, more importantly, accessible.

Switching focus to the future

It’s crazy to think that the Switch isn’t even yet a year old and already there is more third party and indie support for the console than the Wii U achieved in its five years of life. But it’s clear from speaking to these developers that this is just the beginning of what the Switch is capable of. 

“The hardware has capabilities that we've barely tapped into,” says Nicalis’ Rodriguez. “So we feel like we have the flexibility to do even more fun stuff in the future.”

“We haven't had too many situations where we've said, 'Oh, this game wouldn't really work on the Switch,' or, you know, 'The Switch doesn't have the right audience for this kind of game.' It seems pretty wide open,” he adds. 

Of course, Nintendo isn’t merely sitting on its laurels waiting for indie developers to make all the Switch content in 2018. With new Pokémon, Yoshi and Kirby games en route, along with Metroid Prime 4 (all of which were announced in one exciting swoop at E3 2017), the future for Switch is bright. 

No doubt there’ll be plenty of Switch consoles poking out of stockings worldwide this Christmas. After all, Amazon’s Black Friday deal sold out in under two minutes - twice. Everyone wants one, and with everything that’s been released this year, it’s no wonder. 2017’s Nintendo is a Nintendo back on form.