The Switch is going out with a bang. Ahead of the likely reveal of the Nintendo handheld hybrid’s successor next year, the aging hardware continued receiving an amazing slate of new games in 2023, including The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, one of the best entries to date in the long-running fantasy adventure series. Last year, the Switch felt like it was quietly fading away. 2023 proved that the barebones console still had a few more tricks up its sleeve, showing once again why it’s one of the most beloved gaming machines ever made.
The story of the Switch these last six years has been a simple one: make amazing games and players will show up. Affordable hardware that prioritized convenience over specs proved you don’t need teraflops and great online play to sell a console, just an open-world Zelda or two and a reliable drip-feed of other stellar first-party exclusives. What’s remarkable about the Switch is not how much it’s grown since 2017 but how little it’s changed. In 2023 it almost feels like we’ve come full circle again, with Nintendo neglecting every expectation of a modern gaming platform while it instead tinkers away on new hits.
That’s not to say that the famed Japanese game company has retreated into itself. It’s done anything but that, branching out into movies, theme parks, and new toy crossovers. But 2023’s stacked release calendar did buy Nintendo some extra time and goodwill while it brushes off myriad questions about a Switch 2, backwards compatibility, and what the hell ever happened to Metroid Prime 4. An old tablet running on a 2015 graphics chip still had some gas left in the tank after all.
The console itself is the same as it ever was. Instead of new peripherals, accessories, or updated hardware, Nintendo released special edition Tears of the Kingdom and Mario OLED Switches. The software was similarly untouched. Despite six firmware updates, the Switch received no meaningful new software features in 2023. Something as simple as custom backgrounds are still MIA and party chat remains exclusive to the mobile app for many games. The third-party social hub Discord was fully integrated into PlayStation and Xbox this year. Not on Switch, however. Like Netflix, it doesn’t seem like the app is destined to come to Nintendo’s console. What did come to the handheld hybrid were great games.
Zelda and Mario save the day, again
The Switch launched in 2017 with Breath of the Wild and, later that year, Super Mario Odyssey. The star-studded lineup felt like a once-in-a-generation moment of serendipity, but Nintendo managed to replicate that magic to bookend the console’s lifecycle. Tears of the Kingdom wasn’t just a remix of the open-world Zelda formula, it was a fundamental reworking of it that made building a rocket ship feel as natural as firing an arrow at a Keese. Breath of the Wild let players loose in big, beautiful landscapes full of monsters and puzzles. Tears of the Kingdom took them underground and to the skies as well, adding new verticality to a sprawling open world and taking crafting out of a menu screen into the natural environment.
Nintendo finished 2023 with Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a maximalist return to the platformer’s 2D roots bursting with new mechanics, visual flourishes, and memorable side-scrolling setpieces. It featured the influence of dense Super Mario Maker-style level designs and hazardous obstacle courses alongside callbacks to Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, culminating in a conservative crowd pleaser that nevertheless ended up being the fastest-selling game in the franchise’s history.
These tentpoles make it easy to forget how strong the rest of the Switch’s release calendar was this year. Things kicked off with Fire Emblem Engage and Metroid Prime Remastered. Pikmin 4 made a big splash in the summer. Detective Pikachu Returns and Super Mario RPG helped round out the end of the year. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe continued adding new characters and tracks, while Pokemon Scarlet/Violet and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 both received sizable expansions. Switch also scored big with a timed exclusive console port of Steam sensation Dave the Diver, and versions of many of the year’s biggest indie games from Dredge and Space for the Unbound to Sea of Stars and Blasphemous 2.
The only department in which Switch remains incredibly deficient is ports of major third-party blockbusters. Fans are used to not getting the latest big-budget releases like Star Wars Jedi: Survivor or Diablo IV, but even the games that do make the jump are noticeably nerfed. Planned Switch versions of Evil Dead: The Game, RoboCop: Rogue City, and Marvel’s Midnight Suns were all canceled. Meanwhile Hogwarts Legacy did eventually arrive after a long delay, but with severely stripped-down visuals. A surprise Batman Arkham Trilogy release was also a dud, with painful tradeoffs that made the collection almost impossible to recommend on the underpowered hardware. Clearly the wizards at Nintendo know something about optimizing games for the Switch that others don’t.
Switch Online levels up
Nintendo’s multiplayer and retro library subscription service added Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games in 2023, answering the prayers of fans desperate to be able to officially access classics like The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap and Metroid Fusion again. The new games were added to the Expansion Pack tier, which still costs $50 a year even as other services have been raising prices. The subscription also gave Switch owners access to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe’s new DLC and the new battle royale spin-off F-Zero 99.
Given that Switch Online is still the only subscription service that doesn’t include access to new and recent third-party games, it’s hard to say if it’s any more “worth it” in 2023 than it was when it first launched. The selection of games has more than doubled, with the N64 library adding GoldenEye 007 and Pokémon Stadium this year, and even the NES getting surprise drops like Mystery Tower and Devil World, a Miyamoto-designed maze game never previously localized in North America.
At the same time, it’s become clear that the Switch Online retro library is a double-edged sword. Users can’t buy the games outright, forcing them to subscribe for the whole bundle rather than just purchase the few they actually want to play. They also have to stay subscribed if they don’t want to lose access to them. Stop paying for even a month and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask gets locked down again. And games ripe for remakes or remasters will likely never get added to the service to begin with, like Super Mario RPG. Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI are obvious candidates to increase the value of Switch Online’s SNES library, but because they’re available separately through the Pixel Remaster collection, the retro library that subscribers are paying for remains woefully incomplete. Of course, all this could be forgiven if Nintendo finally added Mother 3.
Nintendo’s crackdown on leakers and fans
It’s now routine for big first-party Switch games to leak before their official release date, get uploaded online, and spread like wildfire across internet backchannels. Fans began mining games like Tears of the Kingdom and Super Mario Bros. Wonder for secrets and spoilers over a week before they were actually available. While Nintendo has maintained a hard line against piracy and leaks alike, subpoenaing entire Discord servers for user data to further its legal case against alleged infringements, the end of the Switch’s life may be hastened by a new round of flashcarts that could facilitate piracy.
Even more notably, Nintendo appeared to intervene to get the Dolphin GameCube and Wii emulator locked out of Valve’s Steam marketplace. A store listing for the longstanding project appeared in March. By May, however, Valve had removed the listing while the two sides worked through the legal issues. “Nintendo respects the intellectual property rights of other companies, and in turn expects others to do the same,” a spokesperson for the company told Kotaku at the time.
More surprising has been Nintendo’s apparent war on its own super fans, from YouTubers showcasing its games to esports pros competing in Smash Bros. Ultimate and Splatoon 3. Breath of the Wild content maker Eric ‘PointCrow’ Morino begged Nintendo to leave him alone after it issued copyright claims against dozens of stunt videos. The crackdown appeared to target videos featuring modded content, but hit generic ones as well. Later in the year, a change to Nintendo’s official competition guidelines sent shockwaves through its competitive communities. New rules appeared to outlaw grassroots tournaments and ban modified games like Project M, the popular fan variant of Smash Bros. Melee. It’s unclear how the apparent conflicts with existing competitive communities will get resolved, but in the meantime it feels like a major step back for the company’s community outreach.
Is the Switch 2 coming in 2024?
All of this brings us to what lies in store for Nintendo fans next year. Whether it’s a Switch 2, Switch Pro, or entirely new piece of hardware altogether, it’s hard to imagine Nintendo not showing its new console by the start of its next fiscal year in April 2024. There have been reports of developer demos behind closed doors at Gamescom, and of hardware specs that might put the successor inline with the PS4 era of consoles. President Shuntaro Furukawa denied Nintendo was showing off a new device to partners ahead of the holiday, but the evidence continues to mount for something coming next year. If it doesn’t, 2024 could be the slowest year for the Switch since it launched.
But if it does, there’s reason to hope a Switch 2 might offer a more graceful transition than the Wii U did. “Our goal is to minimize the dip you typically see in the last year of one cycle and the beginning of another,” Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser said earlier this year. “I can’t speak to the possible features of a new platform, but the Nintendo Account is a strong basis for having that communication as we make the transition.”
It’s hard to imagine buying a new Nintendo console and starting out from scratch at this point. Then again, it’s Nintendo we’re talking about. Who knows if the Switch 2 will support 4K, have an OLED screen, or even a slot for Switch 1 cartridges. It might not even launch with built-in voice chat, let alone streaming apps. If Nintendo does go the Switch 2 route, however, it’s clear it won’t be able to capitalize on being the only handheld in town. With Steam, Windows, and cloud gaming handhelds sprouting up all over the place, there’s going to be a lot more competition this time around. If it continues to put out games as good as those we got in 2023, though, it’ll probably do just fine.