After the almost stratospheric success of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo didn't need to do much else in 2020 to dominate the gaming industry. But, in amongst the next-gen noise and obsessions with island life, it felt like the Japanese gaming giant faded a little into the background. 2021 thus presents an opportunity for Nintendo to address the mounting pressure, and pull off something big.
After all, 2021 is a surprisingly important year for Nintendo, so full of major anniversaries for its IPs that you can't get through more than a month without hitting another. The Pokemon franchise is celebrating its 25th anniversary, while the Zelda and Metroid series are turning 35. Then there's the classic icon of Donkey Kong, which has reached its rather staggering 40th birthday this year too. While Pokemon has already played some of its hand for its 25th celebrations, Nintendo is rather more quiet on any fanfare it might rouse for its other milestones, which is especially interesting given the little amount of love these IPs have received in recent years.
A time for celebration
Zelda and co, of course, have enjoyed huge success with the Switch launch title, Breath of the Wild, followed by its recent musou spin-off, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. But that doesn't stop all eyes being on the Breath of the Wild sequel, which was originally teased back at E3 2019. Could we expect to see it released at the tail end of this year? Potentially. But at this stage, we're more likely to receive a full gameplay reveal instead of actually getting to play it anytime soon - especially if the development time required for Breath of the Wild is anything to go by.
Metroid Prime 4, on the other hand, feels more like a myth than reality, ever since it was announced in early 2019 that the original project was being scrapped and restarted with Retro Studios moving in to take the helm. Hopefully, that means that whatever does arrive will be more than worth the wait, but with no news for two years on the project, seeing it arrive in 2021 in time for Samus' 35th birthday feels optimistic.
And then our dear old pal Donkey Kong feels like a strange anomaly. If Retro Studios is heads-down in Metroid Prime 4, a Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze sequel appears to be off the table. Aside from a new Donkey Kong Country entry, it feels difficult to predict in what form a new Donkey Kong experience might manifest on Switch.
Outside of those big anniversaries though, 2021 could also be the mid-cycle rejuvenation that the Switch really does need. 2017 - the Switch's launch year - brought us a plethora of fresh Nintendo experiences, from big releases like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey to the more unusual and unique titles such as Arms, 1-2 Switch, and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. The Switch hasn't really had another year like it.
The 2021 release schedule as it stands for Nintendo is looking a little patchy, by comparison. In the next few months, we'll get the likes of Monster Hunter Rise and New Pokemon Snap, alongside Persona 5 Strikers and Bravely Default 2. But beyond that, the landscape is unknown. No doubt there are plans for the continued support of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but hopefully, there is more to follow the Spring season that is yet to be revealed.
A time for enhancement
Many ongoing whispers suggest that may include a hardware upgrade. A mid-cycle refresh feels like the perfect time to launch the highly rumored Nintendo Switch Pro console; the release of which would definitely help support a huge influx of brand new titles that really push the boundaries of what the Switch can do, while simultaneously addressing a few of the Switch's residual issues.
While the PS5 and Xbox Series X are in their first full year of release, the Nintendo Switch is in a very different place. According to Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser, speaking in an interview with Polygon, the company sees itself "just at the midpoint of this life cycle on this platform" and, thanks to the ongoing success of the console, there's no plans yet to replace it. In theory, that makes sense. Demand for the Nintendo Switch has been nothing short of astounding, with the hybrid console even beating out the PS5 and Xbox Series X sales during their launch month in November.
Nintendo hasn't openly said it's looking to replace the Switch quite yet, which goes against the pattern we've seen with its handhelds and more recent home consoles. But could it be gearing up to launch a Nintendo Switch Pro to act as the high-end alternative to the more affordable and compact Nintendo Switch Lite it released back in 2019, thus completing the Switch family line-up?
It's not clear exactly what specs this Pro version will offer, but rumor has it that 4K dock support will be involved, along with a bigger, higher-resolution screen, improved battery life, and potentially even tweaked Joy-Cons. With the company facing more Joy-Con drift lawsuits, something does need to be done about those controller issues - and I say that as someone whose Switch regularly forgets it even has Joy-Cons attached to it.
Regardless of whether new hardware does indeed arrive this year, there's no doubt that 2021 needs to be big for Nintendo and the Switch. It's starting off the year on the right track, but the pressure is mounting to deliver some fresh new exclusives on par with 2017's spectacle and Animal Crossing's success. With so many anniversaries to celebrate and top-notch IPs to draw on, this feels like the year for Nintendo to really shine.
For now, here are all the upcoming Switch games confirmed so far, including the delightful New Pokemon Snap, which you can watch the trailer for below.