Monday, February 8

Top 30 / Best Indie Challenging Games on Nintendo Switch


[Last Updated: 2/8/21] If you’re up for intensity and likely some frustration these are the indie games on Switch most likely to make you want to throw something, just don’t make it your controller. As always the goal here isn’t necessarily to feature only the very best, there’s a goal to focus on variety and represent as many genres as possible so this isn’t to say there aren’t plenty more to choose from as well. Cheating a little I’ll throw a shout out to both Celeste and Hollow Knight here, both are excellent and challenging indie titles I just didn’t happen to get them for review… so they are honorable mentions though technically I’m not listing them.

Dead Cells [Motion Twin] - This was probably my favorite game of 2018, though since it's also a very challenging title it won't be for everyone. I played a ton of it on PC in Early Access but in its final form on the Switch everything I liked about it solidified completely with rock-solid and satisfying gameplay. The fact that you can be effective with a variety of builds, its multiple paths you can follow, and satisfying progression as you make repeated attempts make this the gold standard in roguelikes for me, and it proves out what they're capable of.


The Messenger [Sabotage Studio] - Possibly one of the best retro console titles I've ever played, The Messenger actually feels like a collection of multiple terrific and challenging titles. Starting out as a more straight-up action platformer after many levels and challenging bosses you'll feel like you're done but then, BAM, the game expands into an epic and even more challenging Metroidvania. It blends classic sensibilities with outstanding level designs, a Shopkeeper who absolutely cracks me up throughout the game, and some of the most satisfying action I enjoyed all year.


Ori and the Will of the Wisps [Moon Studios] - When reviewing games in general I try to carefully avoid hyperbole and excessive exuberance whenever possible. To that end, even with well over 1,500 reviews under my belt and so many terrific titles played, I’ve only awarded 2 perfect scores among them for Stardew Valley and Dead Cells. In the case of Ori and the Will of the Wisps I’m going to be adding to that very exclusive list with pretty well no reservations. With its nimble movement, massive scale, gorgeous environments, and combination of so many elements that feel like they’ve been carefully refined to be their most engaging it’s likely the best Metroidvania title I’ve ever played. I will warn that the platforming is probably a little more challenging than the average, requiring patience and precision, but for the most part success rests solely on your skills as the controls are spot-on and well-implemented. With there being so much ground to cover and spots you’ll want and need to return to, as you acquire the necessary skills or changes to environments to give you access, I do wish there were a few more waypoints scattered about but that’s about my only real criticism (OK, and it has crashed on me twice, but thankfully with no real loss of progress in either case). There’s a very good reason Microsoft backed this horse, and it is a gift that has been shared with Switch owners that is absolutely worth your time and effort. 
 

Cuphead [Studio MDHR] - With a mix of brutal boss battles and challenging run and gun sections Cuphead is notorious for being a tough game. While the degree of difficulty is well-known for a reason, that isn’t to say that the majority of the game is impossible by any means. Much like certain classic games like Punch-Out in particular, the key to success is careful observation, learning the enemy patterns and then getting a comfort level for executing what needs to get done. The fact that it will additionally be remembered as one of the most visually fascinating games of the generation is just icing on the cake, no matter how incredible it looks it wouldn’t be well-regarded if the gameplay wasn’t there to match.


Wulverblade [Darkwind Media] - Full of technique, nuance, and some very challenging boss fights Wulverblade has established a new gold standard in what beat-em-ups should aspire to both in terms of story and general gameplay. A patch to pull back the challenge and make it more accessible to less skilled players was welcome and there's one particular surprise as you near the game's conclusion that you absolutely won't want to miss! The end is only the beginning!


A Robot Named Fight [Matt Bitner] - If Nintendo were to decide to turn the Metroid series into a roguelike it would likely end up looking quite a bit like A Robot Named Fight, though probably a lot more polished. Your goal is to survive and that can be quite a challenge. On each run you'll encounter new ship layouts, make use of different weapons and power-ups, and likely have very different experiences, some good and some more brutal. It adds up to a compelling challenge that continues to stay fresh for quite some time as long as you don't decide to give up in frustration too quickly.


Hyper Light Drifter [Heart Machine] - The indie darling from the PC space has finally come to Switch full of its challenging dashing and slashing. You'll need to carefully choose where you decide to go, and if things don't seem to be panning out too well in one direction you should try another, as some paths are more challenging than others. Filled out with some difficult boss fights and ability upgrades that require making some tough choices of what you'll want to invest in it's an engaging experience all around.


Neon Abyss [Veewo Games] - While it’s still what I’d consider a niche genre overall roguelike shooters are one of those that I practically consider sacred. While I’ve played and enjoyed a great number of them there are probably only 3 I’d say are pillars of sorts in the genre: The Binding of Isaac, Nuclear Throne, and Enter the Gungeon. While all of them play differently the one thing they have in common is their top-down perspective. I’ve seen attempts at side-scrolling roguelikes before, but none of them has really stepped up to the level of the greats… until now. Neon Abyss is the game-changing and genre-defining side-scrolling roguelike shooter you’ve been waiting for, it’s simple as that. For comparison purposes I’d say the game it shares the most with conceptually would be Isaac, and that’s because it pushes much more heavily into the potential for craziness and diversity in every single run. Rather than the focus being on weapons, though it certainly has some very creative ones, Abyss is much more about the absolutely dizzying number of items and how putting them together in different combinations can produce some radically-different results. While there are opportunities to make some choices, for the most part every time you enter the Abyss you’re on a runaway train of craziness and your only choice is to try to make the most of it. One run may be pet-heavy, in another you’ll be able to fly, some will give you devastating firepower, but no matter how geared up you may feel the fickle RNG gods can still take it away. If you’re a fan of shooters I consider this an absolute must-play (and hey, there’s a demo too), but even for more mainstream gamers if you’ve ever considered trying out a roguelike shooter this is absolutely one of the best options out there.


Ms. Splosion Man [Twisted Pixel Games] - I'd heard of this title before but nothing could prepare me for just how weirdly, brilliantly silly it all is. While in principle the controls are simple, limited to moving back and forth and blowing yourself up, its the interaction with other elements in the levels to solve action puzzles and proceed that make it a load of fun. While her almost non-stop chattering of weird (and often dated) pop culture references and commentary may not be for everyone to me they just added flavor to the game's core manic energy.


Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron [HandyGames] - The classic arcade shooter 1943 and its many variants are among my favorites of all time and Aces does an incredible job of capturing what works in those games and then modernizing it. Hardly just a stock bullet hell shooter the variety of side missions you'll look to complete along the campaign will require you to use some strategy as well as technique. A per-pilot upgrade system that will give you a variety of new buffs and power-ups will help you shore up your weak points or simply make you more lethal, and down the stretch the bosses will test your skills sorely so you'll want and need any help you can get. Probably the best overall modern arcade shooter I've played on any platform.


West of Dead [Upstream Arcade] - While there are many roguelike shooters on the Switch (and quite a few of them are absolutely terrific) none of them plays quite like West of Dead. The biggest change is in the pacing, switching out arcade-style intensity with the more careful action befitting your undead gunslinger. Make no mistake, this game is absolutely a challenge, and in true roguelike fashion it’s not going to compromise it’s level of difficulty for the benefit of your ego in the early going especially. The thing is, once you get over the substantial hump of Chapter 1 (pro hint: unless you like dying don’t take on the Wendigo in the second level, he’s optional) and get your bearings, as well as a few new weapons and items for your arsenal selection, it does let up. Many mechanics for progression and flow take a page from the Dead Cells handbook, a smart move, though unfortunately the build variety and choice in that title isn’t as present here. Though I love the Mignola-esque art style the darkness mixed with funky geometry can sometimes be annoying as you'll get stuck, and the camera that tries to keep a bead on the action can contribute to occasional issues further. Though perhaps this is a title best reserved for the hardcore roguelike fans who know what they’re getting into, the game’s sense of style matched with the voice of Ron Perlman may compel some new blood to the genre as well. Just don’t say you weren’t warned. 
 

Lonely Mountains: Downhill [Megagon Industries] - If there was a major genre on Switch to argue may be the worst represented, whether AAA titles or indies, it could be sports. Given how much diversity that’s possible in the category this is a bit of a surprise but it’s where we find ourselves. When a genre title does then show up there can be a concern that fans on the platform are so starved for a new experience that they’ll jump on anything. In the case of Lonely Mountains: Downhill you shouldn’t have such a concern, at least depending on the type of experience you’re looking for. Part discovery and exploration, part precision, certainly part frustration, and I’ll gladly throw a bit of luck onto the pile as well, it’s an experience not quite like anything I’ve played before. Your goal is pretty simple at first, simply survive the tough ride from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Along that ride, though, you’ll see the hints of what’s in store for you as you then try to shave seconds off your time. You’ll swear you see what could be a trail off to the side, you’ll hit an intersection with a path coming from a completely different direction, or you’ll even see a spot you’re certain must be a jump. What follows is usually a grueling run or two where you’ll basically try to map out what’s possible, typically learning the hard way how not to execute certain sections as your rider plunges to a bloody (and often undoubtedly lethal) fall. No problem, you’ll pop right back to your last checkpoint and try again… and again. As a warning I’ve seen the game stutter at times as it scales in and out of the action, and there are angles where the brilliant tilt shift perspective look works against you with elements blocking your view from the foreground but the unique experience, the open-ended nature of how you tackle your run, and the sheer beauty of the different trails and mountains you’ll encounter make this an outstanding game like no other that’s absolutely worth a look if you don’t mind the challenge.


Don't Starve [Klei Entertainment] - Don't Starve is a roguelike take on survival with a heap of unpredictable situations that will kill you. In order to help compensate you're actually able to tune your game world quite a bit, so at least you can tone things down while you get to understand what you need to do in which order and where in order best to survive. It has plenty of content for those daring enough to stick with it, just expect a challenge.


Into the Breach [Subset Games] - Coming from the people behind the infamous FTL (which somehow still isn't on Switch), this bite-sized strategy title works in pretty quick and concise rounds that will demand your careful attention. Progress will come slowly at first and you'll likely need to make some sacrifices in order to ultimately succeed but this is a well-designed strategy title that will make you work for your success.


Super Meat Boy [Team Meat] - One of the original poster children of brutally challenging platforming is now on the Switch and he's as tough as ever. While simply surviving and getting through the levels can be tricky, overachievers will no doubt want to find and unlock all of the game's secret characters which often even require you to play with distinct mechanics to find success with. While it's super-challenging it's also typically not cruel, and its controls are super-tight, putting the pressure on you to execute with precision.


Bloodroots [Paper Cult] - This is a title that got me excited the first time I saw it in a Nindie Direct and that I was even more thrilled with when I got to play it some last year at PAX. The silly and almost arcade-like kinetic action as you sweep through levels like a tornado of destruction, using whatever implements are available, to dispatch your numerous enemies is a thrill. I was concerned that it would somehow burn itself out, running out of ideas and somehow losing its edge but those worries were unfounded. New challenges, weapons, and scenarios continue to challenge you throughout, moving between more free-form destruction levels and those that require precision and smart use of what’s made available to you. If there’s one concern I have with the game I’d say that it may be a bit tougher than the average person would like, and one of the reasons for that is that there are times it feels overly picky. Sometimes this is a simpler thing like you being close but apparently not just close enough to grab a weapon as you blow by but then there are stages where you’ll need to jump from a moving barrel to another but nuance isn’t one of the game’s strengths and without nailing the jump you’ll repeatedly die. If the game were only slightly more forgiving, leaning further into the fun energy and high-score-chasing chaos than being so picky about precision I’d consider it just about perfect for anyone. As it is, everything is still a load of fun, just be ready for some rough spots where you may need to walk away for a bit to let your rage subside.


Hotline Miami Collection [Dennaton] - Shadow dropped as a surprise this year, Hotline Miami was one of those indie darling titles that had shocked me continuing to be a hold out more than 2 years after the system’s launch. To help soften the blow, and in what I think is a nod to practicality, both the original and its sequel have been released together in this collection. This helps with the fact that neither game is terribly long and, in general, the sequel isn’t quite as beloved as its predecessor. These titles are all about execution, thinking and reacting quickly, and often a fair amount of luck. Both are brutal in their violence, but there’s something quite satisfying when you manage to string together a series of kills and leave a bloody mess in your wake. If you’re hoping for more, the story here is on the thin (and weird) side, but there’s no denying that when it comes to intensity and carnage there’s nothing quite like it.


Darkest Dungeon [Red Hook Studios] - Fans of tough games have no doubt already heard plenty about this dark and difficult RPG experience with a roguelike unpredictable twist. In Darkest Dungeon the act of completing the dungeon doesn't simply return everyone in your party to normal, the toll of the adventure can have serious and debilitating effects on the people you're trying to work with. Try not to get too attached to anyone, while you can invest in keeping them sane you won't be able to save them all. Managing your party's sanity here can be just as challenging as the monsters in the dungeons themselves.


Creature in the Well [Flight School Studio] - With Creature in the Well there’s just so much to like and appreciate. The art style is distinct and interesting, the mix of slashing and pinball elements are unique and make for fascinating puzzles and action, and there’s no doubt that I’ve never played any game like it. Once you get a fair distance into the game and begin facing more situations that center around timers though there’s no denying that it’s probably tuned a little too far towards being challenging for the average gamer. The frustration in some of these circumstances actually would often make me feel like there’s some technique or trick to things that I missed at some point, and that I’ve made it harder than it is meant to be. However, even with a fair amount of experimenting I’ve not found a way to do better than what feels like a mix of the planets aligning and outright luck to just barely satisfy a specific module with enough power before its timer goes to zero. This leaves me a bit torn on a recommendation as I absolutely think this is a game worth playing, but whether it would be toned down a bit in general or have a more lenient difficulty setting added I do think it’s in need of some tuning to be more accessible.


Ruiner [Reikon Games] - With its visual flair, dystopian world, and what appeared to be a penchant for tense and violent action, Ruiner has been on my radar for quite some time. When it was released on other platforms my heart sunk a bit though, as it seemed to be pretty widely criticized for cranking up the difficulty too far and coming up short on fun. Count this as an instance where the delay in the game coming to Switch was absolutely a blessing. You’re a man on a mission, though revelations over the course of the story continue to make you question who you’re working for and whether everyone may simply be out to manipulate you for their own bloody purposes. The good news is that towards those bloody ends you’ll have access to quite a diverse arsenal of both projectile and melee weapons, though in general you won’t be able to use any of them for very long before needing to pick up another. This dynamic, mixed with a diverse perk system, makes every battle improvisational, requiring you to keep on the move and on the lookout for any opportunities that may present themselves. The most useful (and fun) thing to keep track of are enemies who are on the edge of death that you can dispatch with a finisher, with the incentive not just being a cool kill but often some crucial health or energy that can help keep you from being overwhelmed. Sure, there can be skirmishes that seem less well-balanced than others, and in the end I found the time wandering around town to be wasted effort, but overall these are small criticisms. While Ruiner may not be perfect, it was a title I couldn’t stop playing until the credits rolled. Intense, violent, surprisingly varied, and I’d argue quite replayable due to the wide variety of perks you can invest skill points in, its mix of shooting and slashing feels quite distinct and it’s one of the most satisfying games I’ve played this year.


Has-Been Heroes [Frozenbyte, Inc] - It seems appropriate include this first game I reviewed for the system and prepared a pretty extensive tips and tricks guide for. Dismissed by much of the games press for its substantial level of challenge before its Day 1 Patch looking through many of the complaints about it I think the biggest issue was too many people didn’t understand its mechanics and were trying to smash their way through. This is a deep strategy roguelike and once you understand its systems defeating its bosses is a supremely satisfying feeling. Pair that with post-launch patches that have refined the difficulty and added additional content there's a staggering amount of terrific content in this game!


Inertial Drift [Level 91 Entertainment] - While some people prefer their racing to be a bit rough around the edges, banging around turns and defying any sense of realism, others prefer to go the other direction and focus on nuance. That’s certainly the case for the aptly-named Inertial Drift, which won’t give you the arcade-like thrills of bumping into your competitors (when you do race against a single opponent you don’t make contact with them, they’re always effectively ghosts), but instead focuses on skilled drifting, which offers great fun and challenge in its own right. The big differentiator here is that the right stick controls the angle of your drift, which is a brilliant idea, and really allows you to have fabulously-precise control of your car through turns, and as you get better your understanding of how best to turn versus drift continues to evolve. There’s no doubt the degree of challenge is also higher here, but if you find yourself struggling initially I’d very much recommend choosing a different racer and car. Every vehicle has its own associated technique with it in terms of how you approach turns, whether just letting off the throttle, braking, or whatever it may be. Each feels very distinct and I could see where different people could prefer each particular style of racer. To top it off the hand-drawn sort of art style looks pretty amazing, so if you prefer nuance to trading paint this may be the racer for you.
 

Overcooked 2 [Ghost Town Games Ltd] - The sequel to this frantic cooking hit managed to amp up the insanity a bit while toning down a few of the rougher edges from the original. If you don't have people to play with locally online is now an option, though that can make effective coordination quite a bit trickier. While the game is playable solo, taking on a more puzzle-like feel at times, it shines the brightest and most fun when played locally with some friends, just be ready to coordinate, communicate, and keep your cool as the game throws your well-made plans into the crapper as stages play out in unexpected ways.


Clustertruck [tinyBuild] - While endless runners have become a pretty popular genre you'll find that they're almost always in 2 dimensions. This is very much for a reason it seems as typically attempts at 3D runners have been a bit of a disaster. The challenge is typically tied to the fact that you can't see your feet so "feeling" where you are can be tricky. Clustertruck is an unusual title that works hard to nail getting a 3D runner right and while it's not without its quirks for the most part it gets it right. Throw in the increasingly bonkers scenarios you'll be trying to run through, jumping on the tops of moving semi trucks as they crash into all manner of things (including each other), and it's a silly challenge worthy of your best efforts.


Super Meat Boy Forever [Team Meat] - Fans of one of the OG teeth-gnashing platforming challenges from the early indie days have been waiting for a number of years to see Meat Boy make his triumphant (and brutally tough) return, and with the arrival of Forever… there’ll be mixed reactions?!? This may not be the sequel everyone was hoping for as the style of play has been changed completely, even if the degree of difficulty hasn’t subsided at all. Where before you had full control over Meat Boy (or any of his unlocked contemporaries) to work through loads of platforming challenges, this new entry in the series has taken on a form more consistent with an endless runner. There are positives as well as pitfalls to this choice, with the streamlining of what you have to worry about possibly making the experience more accessible but leaving the experience mostly with very picky timing on everything you do in its place. Since you’re unable to freely move many levels also take on more of a puzzle-like feel as you try to work out your path (hopefully picking up pacifiers along the way and maybe finding hidden secrets) since you’ll simply die if you get to the edge of the screen and turning isn’t always something you can pull off wherever you’d like. The big upside is that every time you play through the levels are bound to lay themselves out differently, giving the game immense replay value, but whether or not you’re down for the new format that may have come at a high price for your enjoyment or perhaps your expectations.
 

GoNNER 2 [Art in Heart] - I absolutely adore the original GoNNER but I won’t deny that it’s a love that wasn’t easy to develop in the early going. The fact that the sequel is so similar in its approach to the gameplay experience shouldn’t be a surprise but also somewhat inherently makes it a tough sell for more than a niche-y crowd no matter how much fun it can be once it gets rolling. The GoNNER experience initially is all about exploration, experimentation, discovery, and probably hitting up boards and FAQs as you try to find the game’s various heads, weapons, and additional gear or at least a reasonable explanation of what some of them do. The reason for this is there’s no help text or guidance of any kind in the game, and if you walked into the experience without at least knowing that a reasonable percentage of gamers would possibly just stop playing out of frustration. So, OK, you’ve got some heads, weapons, and gear so next you’ll play with combinations to figure out which work best for you. To the sequel’s credit there’s some new crazier stuff to find as well as a new-ish perk system so more than ever I think the “ideal build” will be more of an open question. Now, once you’re at least feeling set and geared up, as well as armed with a knowledge of what the heck you’re doing at times, you’re ready to work on getting that multiplier up, making the game go a bit crazy, and basking in the chaos of it all. Much like the original there are just things that make GoNNER 2 a challenge to love, but for those who do stick with it through the substantial initial difficulty curve it’s just a quirky and unique platform shooting roguelike experience like no other. 
 

Mechstermination Force [Horberg Productions] - Mechstermination Force is a pretty tight and enjoyable retro sci-fi robot stomping party… though it will typically take a few attempts to keep the robots from stomping you instead. While you’re always fighting some sort of robot and the general rules for all of them is roughly the same I’ll give credit to the developer for continuing to change things up and keep it fresh through to the end. A couple of them were super-aggravating to deal with but aside from my mobility complaints in general I can’t fault the design. If you’ve been looking for pretty intense action that’s super-light on filler Mechstermination Force will be one to consider picking up.


Depixtion [DevHour Games, LLC] - While for many years the Picross series has sat safely at the top of its own puzzle kingdom, seeing threats from other comers but never really breaking a sweat to match or surpass them, the times they are a-changin. Rather than strictly copy the formula that has been so consistently satisfying some smart competitors have changed things up, trying new things, and some have found success. One such title is Depixtion, which on a general level follows the same playbook, but if you’ve been feeling like the typical Picross title trends a little too much towards being easy, you’ll want to give this one a look. The big difference comes from the way colors are handled. Breaking the spectrum up into 6 colors (Blue, Yellow, and Red… plus light and dark for each) on 3 distinct boards that are overlapped to produce the final colors the challenge here is pretty real. Where most titles will allow for a degree of “smart guessing” once you’ve filled in a fair portion of the puzzle, that method here would make any such attempts risky at best. If you’ve been thirsting for some tougher challenges in your Picross puzzling Depixtion has you covered.


Ikaruga [Treasure] - Though it's a carry-over from the previous generation there's still no other space shooter quite like Ikaruga. Not only is there the bullet hell component to contend with, but you'll also be trying to manage your ship's color polarity as taking down enemy ships as well as what can damage you is dependent on which color you've switched to. This creates an almost puzzle-like component that sits on top of some very intense shooting, making Ikaruga a standout shooter for people who like a challenge.
 

Light Fall [Bishop Games] - When Light Fall is firing on all cylinders it feels absolutely incredible, and it’s easy to see where it will be terrific for people looking to get their speedrunning put to the test. The ramping up of challenge from stage to stage feels just about right and the boss battles force you to put all you’ve learned to good use. I think it’s Act 4 and the pretty abrupt change in style that will divide people, with some people undoubtedly liking the sudden stepping up of challenge and others throwing up their hands at the rug being pulled out from under them. The shame is there are some great challenges to be had off the beaten path but the game seems intent on punishing you for checking them out without offering a sufficient reward in return. Light Fall has quite a lot working for it, it just feels like it gets in the way of its own success before the story is completed.


This list will continue to grow and be pruned as time goes on, as well as numerous other lists that try to keep track of all of the best titles the Nintendo Switch has to offer in the Indie space!