The Nintendo Switch is finally out and while its launch library is slim and retail third-party support lacking, the handheld hybrid has a healthy bunch of independent games headed towards its library. At a GDC showcase I played five such titles, and they were all a lot of fun.
So, without further ado, here's everything that was on show.
Towerfall developer Matt Thorson's single-player platforming adventure Celeste feels like a more cerebral spiritual successor to Super Meat Boy. As seen in its free prototype demo, Celeste tasks players with ascending a mountain via a series of single-screen challenges. It's a relatively linear adventure, with batches of different-themed stages clumped together into chapters, but there's a fair few secret stages hidden along the way.
Like Super Meat Boy's bandage collectibles, Celeste offers floating strawberries that can only be attained if you forego using your dash/double-jump maneuver. If scavenging strawberries is still too easy for you, there's a Hard Mode as well, which offers completely different stages. These ones don't have strawberries, but just getting through them is a Herculean task befitting of the most masochistic of Mario Maker enthusiasts.
Having played upwards of a half-hour with Celeste, the biggest surprise was how much its minimalist platforming requires not just precise reflexes but some lateral thinking as well. Your mobility is limited by the fact that you can only recharge your dash by planting your feet on the ground, so figuring out where to make roots isn't always easy. Furthermore, you can climb walls, new since the demo build, adding a more open-ended structure to what appears to be prescribed paths. From what I've played Celeste is simple, pure, unadulterated distillation of the joys of platforming.
On a side note, Thorson recently revealed that TowerFall would be coming to Switch, though it was never on Wii U. When asked about this, Thorson said, "With the Switch it just feels like they're being proactive. It feels like the difference between PS3 and PS4. Where with PS3 it didn't feel like Sony really cared about me, but as soon as the PS4 came around they switched gears and were proactive about coming to me and asking about TowerFall."
"People say they want Nintendo to have third-party support. Third-party support nowadays is all indie," Thorson added. "I think this is them getting third-party support."
Stick it to the Man developer Zoink's upcoming comedy Flipping Death, a 2D side-scrolling adventure about a newly dead girl filling in for Death while the grim reaper goes on holiday, rivals Gang Beasts with housing the industry's funniest animations. Creative director Klaus Lyngeled's humourous art style resembles Ren and Stimpy's disgusting and whimsical aesthetic crossed with Paper Mario, wherein everything in this world is barely deeper than two dimensions. Thus when a character turns around, they flip like a sheet of cardboard.
Better yet, the madcap controller mapping makes it so you can manipulate a character's hands and feet separately, allowing them to wiggle and waggle in all manner of wild movements. This comes in handy as your temp grim reaper can possess the bodies of the living, each with their own unique abilities. To wit, one man has a long tongue and you can possess his ludicrous langua to lick various bits of the world - like strangers and trash cans, for example.
It's completely bonkers, yet makes sense in its own twisted Beetlejuice-esque way. For example, when the protagonist switches between her ghostly form in the netherworld and the corporeal living beings she possesses, the world itself flips around, offering a mirrored version of itself.
Relative to Stick it to the Man, Flipping Death will be a little more open-ended with less regimented puzzle solutions, but it still looks like a spiritual successor to Zoink's zany side-scrolling take on the classic point-and-click adventure.
Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano is at it again, bringing more 8-bit mayhem with him. At a glance Shakedown Hawaii looks like a pretty standard follow-up to Retro City Rampage, but its form is vastly more ambitious. Provinciano tells me that he wanted Retro City Rampage to be beholden to the rules of 8-bit gaming, with simple mechanics and a larger emphasis on straight-forward campaign. But now he's gone proper open-world in this dynamic landscape where every single object is destructible.
Provinciano tells me that he wants to create a game where people could spend hundreds of hours in and Shakedown Hawaii could very well fit that bill. The map is roughly four times the size of RCR's, but it's much, much denser with countless secrets to find and chaos to cause.
Provinciano also makes a good point that his retro aesthetic is best-served on the small screen. It looks all well and good on a TV, but absolutely sings on the Switch's smaller portable form.
This quirky curio reimagines an old parlour game as a roguelike adventure. Based loosely on Taito's 1983 arcade affair Ice Cold Beer, TumbleSeed has you balance the game's titular seed on a tilting beam comprising the bottom bit of the screen. Shift the analogue sticks up and down to control the angle and watch your avatar roll.
It gets more complicated from there. Peppered throughout each vertically scrolling stage you'll find plots of soil where you can plant flora granting all sorts of abilities. A thornseed buffs you with a rotating shield of prickly pikes, the heartseed offers a top-up in health if you plant enough, and the cloudseed makes it rain, rendering any nearby pits harmless.
Planting seeds costs crystal though, which can be found in the environment or planted via the crystalseed. There's quite a lot of strategy determining which power-up seeds to deposit and the structure is pure Spelunky with four procedurally-generated biomes making up the endlessly replayable adventure. A successful playthrough may only last a half-hour, but making it to the end could take umpteen hours with several secrets to find and infinite micro-decisions to be made. Plus the core mechanic of balancing a ball on a bar gives TumbleSeed a unique feel that seems right at home on Nintendo's latest handheld.
SteamWorld Dig 2
The only exclusive on this list, though developer Image & Form suggests that it could (and likely will) come to other platforms after its Switch launch.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is the game Image & Form wanted to make the first time around but didn't have the time or resources to. Where the first game was comprised of procedurally-generated cave systems, this sequel will be a "hand-crafted" adventure with prescribed puzzles set by the developer. A proper metroidvania then.
When asked why Image & Form choose Switch for SteamWorld Dig 2's launch, studio founder Brjánn Sigurgeirsson told me "It's definitely not some exclusivity money or something like that. It's that they've [Nintendo] treated us extremely well, always. They've always been very kind to us. We just feel like royalty."
"With SteamWorld Heist we got some offers [from other publishers], but we turned them down. The reason was that in the end we wanted to come out on Nintendo first. So we decided not to listen to other offers, but do what we wanted to do."
Much of this comes down to a cultural thing. The Swedish developer noted that "every platform holder is treating us really well", but it comes down to a sense of loyalty. "I used to live in Japan and worked there for many years and I liked this idea of long-term relationships. It's a nice thought. And Nintendo treated us really well when we were nobody."
"That's enough reason right there to always be loyal to Nintendo, because they're being loyal to us."
On top of all this, it's also a smart business decision. It's quite likely that SteamWorld Dig received as much attention as it did because it launched on the 3DS eShop, which wasn't exactly the most competitive market for indie platformers. As such, people heard about it this way, then many picked it up months down the road when it was ported to other platforms. So it's sort of a win-win for Nintendo and Image & Form: Nintendo gets it first, while folks with other platforms can pick it up somewhere down the line, probably.
None of these games are exactly system sellers, to be frank, especially when they'll be available on other platforms, but they all seem like natural fits for the Switch. They're not resource intensive, so it's unlikely that there will be any notable performance or graphical boost between platforms, and all seem perfect for portable gaming.
It's a smart play for Nintendo. The Switch is "the most powerful dedicated gaming handheld ever made", but it's not comparable to the PS4 or Xbox One (let alone the PS4 Pro or impending Scorpio upgrades). Unlike Sony's mistake for the Vita, Nintendo doesn't seem to be looking for third-parties to make watered-down ports of console titles, but rather wants smaller experiences that suit the Switch's portable nature (meanwhile, the mad geniuses at Nintendo's internal studios can do the rest with games like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Arms). The Switch may not get AAA third-party support the way many had once hoped, but it won't be long until Nintendo's latest is no longer lacking in content.