When Nintendo first entered the fray of online storefronts with the Wii Shop Channel, you were lucky to get one great game a month on the service.
The scarcity of high-profile, critically acclaimed titles helped standouts like World of Goo, the Bit.Trip series, and the Lost Winds games to rise to the top. Still, that didn’t do much for lesser-discussed but still super-fun games like You, Me and the Cubes, Snowpack Park, and Lilt Line. Even first-party games like Excitebike: World Rally were often ignored. I’ve met countless people over the years who have complained that Nintendo stopped making new Excitebike games who have no idea that World Rally exists. Now that it’s dead, along with the rest of WiiWare, they may never know what they’re missing.
Despite these bright spots, people just sort of stopped paying attention to WiiWare after a while. The Switch eShop has the opposite problem. The store is booming, with hits like Untitled Goose Game, Shovel Knight, and even the Microsoft-published Cuphead doing as well if not better than many of Nintendo’s own creations. The bad news for indies today is, if your game doesn’t go viral, you’re really pressing your luck on the storefront. Competition for people’s attention is too fierce. Many interesting, worthwhile games are getting ignored every week by both the media and players alike.
That’s why I’ve rounded up a few of them for you. Be warned though, this list won’t include a lot of games that you probably already love. If we’ve reviewed it in some capacity before, I may have decided to skip it, so Blaster Master Zero 2, Mechstermination Force, Roof Rage, Forager, Ape Out, Odallus, and Dandy Dungeon won’t make the cut, even though they are all deserving of your attention. This time we’ll be looking more at games that, chances are, you’ve never been told about at all. Hopefully you’ll see something you like. If you do, spread the word. Speak for the games who can’t speak for themselves.
Our darling boy Wes wrote briefly about this one a while back, but this is the first time we’ve let you know that the game is also on Switch. It’s one of the scarier games I’ve played this year, but not because I was frightened of anything in the game. I was more frightened of the fact that the game exists at all. Make no mistake, the person who made Tamashii wanted you to feel bad. Everything about it is unsettling. Even the parts that may feel comforting for a second, like the familiar platforming puzzles, end up being used to disorient you and leave you feeling diseased.
It’s pretty great.
Valfaris, the sci-fi follow up to the Gothic rock bloodbath Slain, also hits hard with feel-bad, but less in a creepy, under-your-skin way, and more with a series of cathartic, empowering thuds. From its chugging, tuned-down soundtrack to its highly detailed, shredded visuals, everything about the game works to whisk you away to a dayglow heavy metal album cover from yesteryear. Unlike Slain, which required a giant patch after launch to make the action mechanics less of a chore, everything about Valfaris is a blast right out of the gate. Every screen was designed to give you excuses to cut alien creeps in half with your translucent laser sword and/or annihilate cyborg monstrosities with a cannon that fires flaming skulls.
Like a lot of modern metal, Valfaris doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It sticks to the classics but it plays them as well as you could hope.
We wrote about this one last year, but only in terms of its Steam release. It’s an all-new Sega Genesis/Mega Drive game available on multiple platforms and it looks better than a lot of first-party titles on the console. Design-wise though, it’s a classic in every sense of the word; take down room after room of hordes until you face a giant last boss, repeat until victory or you run out of continues, embracing its arcade roots in full-force. If you were disappointed with Contra: Rogue Corps and want a more authentic take on the top-down Space Marines vs. Aliens cliche, Xeno Crisis is about as loving and loyal as it gets.
Another top-down shooter, but this time with monkeys, killer television sets, and a post-apocalyptic setting. Developer Good-Feel (Yoshi’s Crafted World, StreetPass: Slot Racing) released the game a few months ago, and despite their stellar pedigree as a Nintendo second-party publisher, it was largely overlooked. My guess is the game actually started as a pitch for a Splatoon spin-off, as the music, environments, premise, weapons, and character designs all feel very fitting for that series. It also features both a robust online versus mode and a fairly lengthy single-player/co-op campaign. The only thing missing is the character transformation mechanics, which are pretty much absent here. Other than being able to jack your monkey up on soda until they explode with energy again and again, this is a straightforward run-and-gunner, but sometimes that’s all you need.
Other than a community blog from Sapato64 last year, we haven’t had much for you on this game. It’s a shame too, because it’s got sharp 2D artwork, a rich and detailed turn-based strategy combat system, and plenty of content to keep you busy. I think back on how for years, the Fire Emblem series failed to do big numbers, and if it weren’t for Awakening, with its ties to Smash, its ample fan service, and its new art direction, the franchise might be dead by now. Fell Seal might be struggling to get attention for the same reason, but it’s not too late for it to find its audience.
It’s hard out there for a puzzle game in 2019. Between competition from free apps on smartphones and Tetris dominating again on consoles, there’s literally no safe place for a new puzzler to turn. The good news is, games in the genre are also less reliant on winning people over in the post-release “hype window.” A good puzzle game is timeless, so Crossinq+‘s time may still be to come. In a lot of ways, the game scratches the same itch as the Rubik’s Cube, which launched in 1975, but didn’t get its own cartoon until 1983, proving that sometimes these ideas need to marinate for years before they hit their peak. You know you’ve made it after someone slaps a blue gnome’s face on the front of a bunch of squares you created.
This one got some solid pre-release buzz and caught the eyes of a lot of media folks, but at point of release, the buzz fizzled. You see that a lot more these days. Bloggers and reviewers think a game looks great so they write a story or two about it to test the waters, and if the response isn’t strong enough, they have to guess their readers aren’t interested and they move on. My guess is that for Creature in the Well, the Breakout-meets-Hyperlight Drifter look and feel didn’t ring enough bells with the target audience. It’s a shame too, as the game nails the atmosphere and cracks like a whip once the action heats up.
Yet another time when fusing classic ball-bouncing gameplay with more conventional game trappings might have worked against a game. Come to think of it, this whole genre has been suffering lately. If Spirit Sphere DX had been released this year, it also would have made the list. It’s a shame, because when the genre is done right, it offers up just the right balance of random-chance excitement and methodical, satisfying, destructive action. Strikey Sisters definitely fits that bill.
Nintendo fans often clamor for a new Advance Wars, but I’m not sure how interested all of them actually are in seeing that request met. Tiny Metal: Full Metal Rumble is essentially a new Advance Wars, produced by one of the composers of Xenoblade 2, and I rarely see anyone in Nintendo fan circles talking about it. Maybe part of that is people aren’t sure how authentic it is. You see this a lot with games that look a lot like an abandoned IP. They sometimes get disrespected, treated more like a Beatles cover band than a group worth appreciating on their own merits. And yet, The Offspring totally got away with taking “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” and turning it into “Nah Nah Why Don’t You Get a Job?” Life may go on, but it is not always kind.
I have no doubt that this top-down dungeon-crawling adventure would have been a hit if it made it to Switch at launch. With weapon crafting schematics and colorful surprises around every corner, it’s a perfect fit for your average Switch owner. With the release of both Cadence of Hyrule and a remake of Link’s Awakening, this just wasn’t the year to release a game in this genre on the console. Has anyone ever beaten Zelda at its own game on its home turf?
Speaking of messes, Love is the prequel to a game called Kuso. That’s the Japanese word for shit. I’m not sure if that’s relevant here, because there is absolutely no feces or scat humor anywhere in the game, but there you go. Maybe it’s because you might say “shit” a few times when you play it? There are definitely plenty of ways to die here. It’s as pure as platformers come, owing more to Pitfall 2 than it does Ape Shit or any other shit-based romp I’ve ever known. There are two ways to get Love on Switch: buying Kuso (which includes Love as a bonus), or getting it on its own. I recommend the former, as it features a new run animation by Cadence of Hyrule/Sonic Mania artist Paul Veer, but you can’t go wrong either way.
The “gorge yourself on yellow pellets in giant neon maze” genre is less crowded these days, though Pac-Man remains the name to go to for that brand of fun. Pig Eat Ball does a great job of taking that ball and running with it though. It’s delightfully gross, almost daring you to disapprove of it, very much in the spirit of Ren and Stimpy-era Nickelodeon and the classic Spike and Mike animation festivals. It’s a consistently surprising, inspired little mess with an undeniable underdog charm.
I only discovered this one because the team at Limited Run Games was promoting it during a $0.99 sale, and boy oh boy was I glad I did. It’s not a technical dynamo by any means. It looks and plays like a NES game that you found at the bottom of a discount barrel, which I think is the point. Play as a muscular birdman who grows plants that grow guns! Shoot bees at sheep! Wander a large, un-detailed overworld! Fight a guy who looks like a cross between Batman and Barney the Dinosaur! Unlike Kuso, this game is actually kuso, but in a way that feels intentional, like a drunken doodle on a napkin from a friend.
If you’re looking for a game that’s got more in common with popular animation, Tangle Tower is one of your best bets. Clean-but-expressive art, interesting-but-accessible character designs, and a simple murder-mystery premise invite you into an experience that’s sure to tickle fans of Professor Layton and other top-tier illustrated puzzle games. A combination of word and spacial puzzles mixed with some deductive item use makes for a gameplay hook that probably won’t surprise many, but the page-turning story more than makes up for it.
This little gem stars what looks like an old-fashioned anthropomorphic propeller plane with beautiful eyelashes, a full mustache, and machine guns for arms, but it’s more than a pretty face. Taking cues from the Woah Dave franchise, Jeff Minter classics like Space Giraffe, and arcade classics like Galaga and Asteroids, Horizon Shift ’81 is an honest-to-goodness love letter to AAA gaming of 40 years ago. Big boss fights, bonus stages, neon explosions, high-score hunting, and endless waves of bullets; if this is what you love about the quarter-munchers of yesteryear, then you’re in the right place.
It makes me sad that Nintendo only ever made one real wrestling game and one for-real hockey game, both of which are still revered among those who still remember the glory days of the NES. Nintendo may be satisfied to sit on that bank of emotional investment for now, but indie dev Lorne Lemke was more than willing to cash in on it with Super Blood Hockey. It’s basically the M-rated sequel to Nintendo’s Ice Hockey that we never got. The character types and physics are basically the same, but the AI is a lot tougher, the fights are more brutal and consequential, and the story is downright nihilistic. On one hand, it does what Ninten-does and on the other, it is very much an example of what Ninten-don’t want to touch with a ten-foot hockey stick.
Are Yumi Nikki-likes a genre? Yumivaniakkas maybe? If so, then count Strange Telephone among one of the best of them. In case you aren’t familiar with the semi-famous freeware wunderkind, Yume Nikki is a game where you wander between a series of dreamlike locations constructed from the language of maybe-broken video games. Strange Telephone offers the same premise except it’s a side-scroller where a magical one-eyed telephone allows you to dial-in to different locations in the consistently warm-but-worrisome world. With no expectation of any sort of “success” and an effortless gameplay loop, it’s a fantastic game to wind down with under the covers as you head towards actual dreamland.
Another game about wandering, Way of the Passive Fist is nowhere near as gentle as it might sound, and is nowhere near as soft as Strange Telephone or other non-violent games. It’s structured like a stage-based beat ’em up (Double Dragon, Final Fight) but the actual combat plays more like Punch-Out, where dodging and blocking attacks is more important to your survival than dishing them out yourself. After parrying five standard hits from enemies, you charge enough energy to deliver one “star punch” to some unlucky sap who dares get in your way. As you go you gain new offensive and defensive maneuvers, fully voiced bosses come at you with lasers and various other death traps, and your ability to control crowds grows before you know it. Fans of Severed, Sakura Samurai, and Pato Box will feel right at home.
I won’t mince words. I wouldn’t have put Biolab Wars on this list if it weren’t so cheap. Like Revenge of the Bird King, it has a real “bargain bin” feel to it, but with just enough self-acknowledgement to make it work. Play as a man with sunglasses, a woman with sunglasses, or a dog in a robot suit as you run and gun through eight stages of bio beasts and bad dudes. Anyone who’s played Contra or Metal Slug will find no surprises here, but it competently covers the basics while offering up an excellent soundtrack and just the right level of cozy, old-school co-op.
Probably the closest thing to Joggerauts that’s already on the market is Runbow, another platformer where matching the color of your character to the environment is a major aspect to play. The creators of Runbow hit it out of the park there, though Double Cross, their latest big project, didn’t get the same kind of buzz. It’s a shame, as the team at 13AM packed it with fun ideas, crossing Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics with traditional 2D action and puzzle solving, then doubling down with intermediate travel and an upgrade system to build out.
Another game that would have easily stood out from the crowd ten or so years ago, but in this day of Blasphemous, Bloodstained, and countless other attention-grabbing indie metroidvanias, it struggled to get a foothold in the marketing climb. As someone who survived the great 2D game droughts of the late ’90s and early ’00s, I never thought there would come a time when there were too many beautiful pixel art games to keep track of, but we’re definitely getting there. If you’re looking for a new a game in the genre that has unique dual character mechanics (a boy and his owl) and a slightly crunchy, chunky feel, give this one a try.
Screenshots don’t do this game justice, much in the way they didn’t do a ton for Hotline Miami and other crusty surprise hits of the decade. The difference is, Soul Searching is largely nonviolent. It’s a contemplative survival game with giant birds and dragons and loneliness. You can really get lost in it once you become invested in your character’s survival, and the coinciding narrative takes a ton of interesting risks. Also packed into the download are seven “short story” games, including one called Basketball, which is basically a sequel to Let’s Catch. I have no doubt that this one would have won some awards this year if any of the judges for said awards had actually played it.
On the other hand, you have games like Akane, which is easier to read than Hotline Miami in screenshots, but still failed to pick up the same kind of traction. I’m guessing that’s because it’s too far into the shadow of that particular Devolver favorite. Like Hotline, it’s also a one-hit kill top-down murder-spree that has you frequently toggling between up-close and ranged combat. One key difference is you can also use super attacks, though actually pulling them off is a little more cumbersome than I would have liked. There’s also no exploration element per se. It’s just non-stop killing, with a nice variety of enemies, bosses, and unlockable weapons to acquaint yourself with along the way.
Like many of the games on this list, Akane is frequently on sale, so make sure to check the “great deals” section of the Switch eShop for it from time to time. Then please, if you like it, or any other game you find buried under the 700+ other titles already on the console, tell people about it. Good games can’t survive without word-of-mouth support these days, especially on an overcrowded system like the Switch.