Friday, February 5

Top 30 / Best Indie Action Games on Nintendo Switch


[Last Updated: 2/5/21] When it comes to approachable mainstream gaming the “action” genre paints with a broad brush but, in general, tends towards offering something enjoyable for just about everyone. The focus tends to be on keeping things in motion, some degree of skill (sometimes quite a lot of it), and a good deal of excitement. Including classic subgenres like platforming or Metroidvania, more modern roguelike hybrids, and more, this is a collection of indies that are sure to keep you pumped.

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.


Katata Zero [Askiisoft] - Katana Zero was absolutely one of the best games of 2019 and I’d be shocked it if didn’t end up in my Top 10 (and those of many others as well) for the year. While it is perhaps a bit too heavy to be a wide mainstream title, its constant focus on changing up the formula and never letting you get very comfortable is quite an accomplishment. Throw on a narrative begging to be revisited in search of greater understanding of all of the story beats and it also has a surprising degree of replayability on that front as well. As a whole it is an experience without a peer on the system and serves up a handful of intense and creative insanity well worth experiencing.


New Super Lucky’s Tale [Playful Corp] - For me New Super Lucky’s Tale marks a bit of an exciting time on the Switch, and as a fan of classic platforming. While there are many games that have aimed for hitting the mark of the likes of the classic Mario franchises like Super Mario 64 nothing has really proven up to the task. While some may consider it blasphemous I’m here to say this title has absolutely hit the mark, and done so with its own sense of humor and style rather than being derivative. Smart and varied level design, a mix of 2D and 3D platforming which are both very successful, and some nods that absolutely put a smile on my make for more than a handful of hours of family-friendly enjoyment.


Guacamelee 2 [DrinkBox Studios] - While I really enjoyed the original Guacamelee I actually thought it got a bit more hype than it deserved overall. Whatever qualms I had with it got absolutely body slammed into oblivion in its outstanding sequel though. I initially got the bug playing it with 3 strangers at PAX East and having an absolute blast. Whether going it solo or with some friends it's just an outstanding Metroidvania brawler full of challenging fights, great upgrades, tons of silliness (I love beating people up as a chicken), and some of the most brutal puzzle platforming level design as I've seen if you want to grab every power-up and secret. Just an all around top tier title.


Avicii Invector [Wired Productions] - While there have been quite a few great rhythm games on the Switch, it seems that room will now need to be made for another rock solid musically-based experience. Playing as a bit of a counterpoint to the excellent but almost nightmarish and grim Thumper, Avicii Invector is hardly a walk in the park but there’s just something about its style of play and its often-amazing visuals that is quite inspiring. I have no doubt that given the music being the product of the game’s namesake, who unfortunately took his own life after struggles with medical problems and depression, the search for inspiration and the positives in the world were a part of his journey that unfortunately ended too early for such an obviously-talented person. The play feels like a mixture of an endless racer and rhythm game, with periodic sections where you’ll fly through rings instead. Whenever you’re having success the tempo will progressively speed up, so it isn’t unusual to hit rough patches where your multiplier will tumble, but at least the game will again slow itself down and let you get your bearings once more. About my only complaints are how the game will sometimes have odd sections where the difficulty will go up very quickly and then almost as suddenly return to a more manageable degree periodically as well as the left trigger beats that visually hit later than my brain would prefer, resulting in periodic early beats that were close but not quite close enough for the picky mechanics on that particular element. If you enjoy playing games to a terrific and pretty varied soundtrack this is one well worth checking out. 
 

Horace [Paul Helman] - Horace is an odd title in that much like the title character robot of the same name it is quite unassuming and humble but there’s so much more to it. In terms of the gameplay it’s mostly a smart puzzle platformer that puts up some challenge but is never too over-the-top taxing either. What makes it special though is the story of Horace and his “family”, which evolves from him being a curious sort of family “pet” to a meaningful and important member of it. There are so many magical moments of joy and sadness that feel unusual paired with the gameplay and yet given the quality of both there’s no room for complaint. Top that all off with mini games and a wide variety of surprises and though there’s not much outwardly sexy about the game’s name or main character to pull you in, rest assured it’s a real gem of an experience if you give it a shot. 


Mark of the Ninja Remastered [Klei Entertainment] - While it may be a port of an older title I can't say that I've played any other game that has nailed making stealthy play as fun for me as this one. Smart, tense, and full of both opportunity and options for how to approach completing levels Mark of the Ninja is just one hell of an action experience not quite like anything else.


Shantae and the Seven Sirens [WayForward] - While I’m a relatively recent fan of the Shantae series, having just been introduced to it in the collection release on Switch a while ago, I’m definitely getting into the groove and enjoying what feels like its consistency. Some great characters, perhaps a bit on the silly and dramatic side, backed up by rock-solid action platforming and more often than not varied and exciting boss fights. Clocking in completing my first full runthrough of this edition in a bit under 8 hours for the most part I’d consider it satisfying, though I will offer some nitpicks. While I won’t fault the game for generally being highly accessible with plentiful healing and opportunities to collect coins to be used for upgrades, that does diminish the excitement of big battles that don’t revolve around some puzzling and pattern solving. Especially in the fights against Risky Boots I sort of gave up on trying to be subtle and would just full-on blitz her with attacks until she was done, usually only needing to heal twice at most before it was done. Certainly that was my choice but at the same time her battles tended to be highly repetitive and only iteratively harder each time so my indifference felt earned. While some trappings like the enemy card system that would give you up to 3 incremental improvements to a particular skill or attack were nice they, along with the majority of the magic system attacks, felt a little under-utilized. Nice to have, but mostly non-essential so a bit wasted. Bear in mind, I’m being a bit picky only because I think the game was terrific and I just want to see it refined further and get better. While I wouldn’t call it perfect I think it’s a terrific title that gamers of just about any age or skill level could likely enjoy. There may be a few sections that will push you, and there are spots where figuring out where to go next can be a challenge, but its upbeat tone, polished presentation, and accessible fun are hard not to enjoy.


Kunai [TurtleBlaze] - Kunai was a title that left me excited but a bit uncertain from its PAX demo last year. I loved the look, and the ability to use your kunai on each side essentially as grappling hooks to aid in traversal and even combat seemed ripe with potential, but it was hard to see whether or not it would all come together in a way that would help it break through to being something special. I’m happy to report that having played through the final product there’s nothing I can think of that feels missed. The gameplay is challenging but fair, its traversal elements are well-designed and feel great, and its mix of smart design and fun combat help it to push its way to standing among the best Metroidvanias the system has to offer. Admittedly, there were times where the combination of backtracking and not being 100% sure where to go next could be aggravating. Though, in general, the game’s map tries to help there were situations where it didn’t have quite enough detail to lead the way. Small quibbles like that aside, Kunai absolutely delivers the goods and with its unique grapple mechanics stands tall even in the somewhat crowded Switch Metroidvania space as one of the best on the system.


Shovel Knight: King of Cards [Yacht Club Games] - While I haven’t formally reviewed any of the previous Shovel Knight games I’ve been a quiet fan of the series since it started. Between its lovingly retro look, the team’s ability to infuse new life into mostly established elements and enemies by changing the protagonist’s abilities up each time, and overall smart design the franchise is a master class in great game design and execution. With this last chapter in the series they’ve managed to one-up themselves further by introducing not just the fresh (and somewhat challenging at times) mechanics of the boisterously silly King Knight, but also a full-fledged deck battling card game in the form of Joustus. While there’s, no doubt, some risk in having attention shift between two radically different styles of play since people may strongly prefer one to the other, given the quality of both I think the final product proves to be superior in the end because of the combination. If you’re late to the Shovel Knight party there’s a real feast to be had with the Treasure Trove collecting them all together, but if you’re looking for a stand-alone retro game with variety King of Cards is an excellent choice.


Pumpkin Jack [Nicolas Meyssonnier] -
Ah, tis the season for games that deliver at least a spooky feel, even though I’ll acknowledge more often than not Halloween season games tend to be a bit lacking in overall quality and simply hoping to capitalize on peoples’ urges. While by no means a horror game Pumpkin Jack may be one of the best games I’ve played that leans into the Halloween-y spirit with a timely release, delivering high-quality platforming plus a fair amount of variety with a reasonable degree of value. You obviously play as the Jack-o-Lantern headed Jack, jumping, dodging, and slashing your way through a variety of well-constructed stages that consistently change up what you need to do and have plenty of secrets to find without going overboard. In particular I appreciate that the camera tends to do a great job of giving you the right perspective pretty naturally and I rarely had issues with depth perception when making tough jumps to small platforms which usually plague lesser 3D platformers. Where I think the game shines the brightest though are the action-driven sequences in between the platforming sections, including a fast-moving escape from a burning barn, wild horseback rides, a riff on the classic minecart sequence in a few places, and more. Throw in boss fights that have some smart variety to them and while visually it may be a bit rough around the edges at times (though there’s no denying its aesthetic style is perfect for this time of year) Jack and his crow companion absolutely deliver a treat of an experience a mere week before Halloween. 
 

Pinball FX3 [Zen Studios] - While the base game hit the eShop in 2017, the periodic release of new table packs has kept this retro gaming engine very relevant ever since. In particular the acquisition of the rights to produce tables based on the classic pinballs from Williams should make every retro gaming fan very happy. Already having released a handful of packs from that agreement, as well as a few notable original packs of their own, Pinball FX3 will likely handily stay on yearly lists for quite some time.


Panzer Paladin [Tribute Games] - While I have a great deal of nostalgia for the 8-bit era since I played a ton of games back in those days, going back can be a bit rough. While there’s an undeniable essence to many classics of that generation their gameplay typically hasn’t aged well. Indie titles looking to recapture that time often seem to struggle to find the balance, working to incorporate many vintage elements while marrying them with modern sensibilities… and the results have varied pretty wildly in all directions. Panzer Paladin, for me, stands out from this crowd quite a bit, not even loosely based on any firm precedent from the era I can think of and thus unburdened by expectations. The result is a game that absolutely respects the looks, sound, and many staples of 8-bit gaming and yet feels contemporary most critically in terms of its weapon variety and challenges. One element retro fans of the likes of the Blaster Master series will recognize is the smart inclusion of an ability to jump out of your mech and work on foot, leaving you vulnerable but still very capable (as I learned completing some boss fights with my mech ruined but determined with my whip to finish the job). The hunt for secret areas, weapons, and boosts is rewarded with a fair degree of consistency and in some stages you’ll find you may need the help, especially in terms of being geared up for the game’s generally tough boss battles. In terms of games celebrating the 8-bit era I’m quite confident in declaring Panzer Paladin the king of the retro hill as it somehow feels both old school and modern in the same breath, coming up with a mix of elements that keep the action consistently engaging with no real fat to be trimmed. It’s a high-quality effort from top to bottom.


Teslagrad [Rain Games] - Revealing too much about Teslagrad would ruin some of the fun of discovery and growth in it but suffice it to say that from start to finish it is a creative and engaging action puzzler. Over the course of its runtime you'll slowly have your powers revealed to you and you'll then be pushed bit by bit to apply those powers in new and increasingly creative ways. Very much worth checking out, it leaves you to explore and discover things in your own way, only ever giving visual prompts but never explicit direction.


Flat Heroes [Parallel Circles] - While it may look visually pretty simple, featuring geometric shapes for the most part and a very clean design, the gameplay is surprisingly versatile and challenging. You'll quickly find your little cube has a nimbleness and flow akin to Super Meat Boy and all of those moves will get put to the test over the lengthy campaign. You can then take those skills to Survival mode to put them to the ultimate test or take on your friends in some surprisingly varied local multiplayer modes as well.


Flinthook [Tribute Games] - The exciting and dangerous life of a swashbuckling bounty hunter is the focus in Flinthook, and the mix of shooting, swinging, and dodging enemies and traps gives it a distinctive feel. With a pretty wide variety of upgrade paths as you progress you'll need to learn from your mistakes and to a degree simply "git gud" to track down and then defeat the nefarious criminals you'll be presented with.


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.


Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair [Playtonic Games] - Retro games or those that attempt to recapture a certain vintage feel can be a tricky business and there’s no doubt that in such an oversaturated market with abundant choices hitting just the right notes must be tough. The original Yooka-Laylee absolutely nailed the presentation and even many gameplay mechanics of the Banjo-Kazooie series but perhaps was a bit too dated and sometimes empty or sterile to excite in this modern era. With Impossible Lair the target seems to have been instead set on the classic side-scrolling platforming of the likes of Donkey Kong Country and this time it all just feels like it comes together to make an experience dense with smartly hidden secrets and a wide variety of classic platforming challenges that just feel right. While perhaps the endgame may not rub everyone the right way as a whole Impossible Lair put a smile on my face, both making me nostalgic for the games that served as an inspiration and impressing me with a great deal of care in making the experience distinctive in its own right.


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.


Splasher [Splashteam] - While anyone and everyone looking at it saw a 2D Splatoon of some kind the kinetic and deep gameplay give Splasher a flair all its own. You'll acquire the ability to paint surfaces with different types of goo that will help you make your way up walls and bouncing through difficult passages. The gameplay is fast and frantic and once you beat the levels for an added challenge speed running them is quite a challenging thrill as well.


Bombslinger [Mode4] - Asking the question perhaps nobody answered: How do you finally give the tight gameplay of the classic Bomberman series a single-player implementation that works, Bombslinger may not be terribly refined in places but it delivers the action where it counts. A roguelike structure, some power-ups that give you creative powers of destruction, and challenging boss battles really demonstrate what the classic Konami series has been missing the boat on all along. While local multiplayer is supported it doesn't hold up as well as single-player but it's worth noting it's available as well to add value.


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.


Aegis Defenders [GUTS Department] - Mixing together action platforming with tower defense, Aegis Defenders has a style all its own. While the game works well as a single-player experience sharing the responsibilities with a friend ends up making things much more manageable and fun. Work together to set up a sturdy defense and conquer the game's challenges together.


A Hat in Time [Gears for Breakfast] - When it comes to 3D platformers and you’re looking to release on the console that Mario helped make you’d better be ready to deliver. A Hat in Time has a cute look and certainly some strange situations and characters which helps to serve as a solid base. Where platforming is concerned while it doesn’t quite reach the level of polish (and in places, performance) that Nintendo’s mascot mustachioed plumber hits there’s no doubt that it is swinging for the fences at every step. This includes some control mechanics and level designs that deviate from what you’ve come to expect and in particular that aspect is one I appreciate about the title. The density of secrets and things to collect on any given level can be a bit overwhelming, and early on I wasn’t always sure when I was supposed to be trying to collect them (it adheres to the Mario 64 template of focused missions to complete per run), but more often than not the experience left me with a smile on my face to be playing a new platformer with a different style and sense of humor that felt rewarding. While a patch to file down some rough spots would be ideal I’m glad I’ve finally played a new platformer series that gets more right than wrong and am hoping to see more of it in the future.


MO:Astray [World Pavilion] - You'd think at this point in the history of gaming, given the popularity and abundance of platformers of all types, the genre would be just about out of new tricks to keep things interesting. MO:Astray is here to prove you wrong. While just the mechanics with you sliding your little slimeball around, working on your jump angles and trajectories to get yourself around, would probably suffice for most titles it takes things even further. You see, you’re also capable of taking control of creatures of a variety of types by jumping on their faces, and this can be useful for a variety of reasons over the course of the game… in fact it’s a key mechanic usually involved in the game’s multiple boss battles. While it may not look terribly intimidating in the early going, give it some time and you’ll be sucked in with challenges where you understand what must be done but you’ll be challenged to put together the precision to do it successfully. Taking on a variety of new and pretty substantial upgrades in abilities as you go you’re also never quite able to get comfortable. Just when you feel like you’ve got it all down you’ll need to incorporate a new skill with new accompanying challenges to boot. While it may edge a little further into being tough than most the included provisions for softening the difficulty a bit are available as well, making this puzzle-platforming mind-controlling adventure worth putting near the top of your list. 
 

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.
 

Velocity 2X [FuturLab] - Making games that feature multiple play styles is always a bit of a risk, as getting either of them wrong can really sour the experience. However, when a game like Velocity 2X comes along and does a great job in both areas, in this case space shooting and running and gunning platforming, it does make them far more memorable. You'll move between both styles pretty often, starting out in the more traditional space shooting mode but then needing to go on foot to unlock or disable defenses getting in your way. Full of upgrades and a steadily increasing degree of challenge this was a great addition to the Switch lineup this year.


Victor Vran [Haemimont Games] - While it’s inevitable for Victor Vran to be compared to the series that obviously inspired it presuming that it is merely a clone or some lesser attempt would be a mistake. It may borrow elements, but aside from having great core gameplay it also does some things very differently, and even as someone who had invested hundreds of hours into the Diablo series I appreciate there being a strong competitor out there that has dared to be different. If you’re seeking some challenging and satisfying action RPG gameplay on the Switch, Victor Vran absolutely delivers.



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.


OlliOlli: Switch Stance [Gambitious] - While lacking the variety and skateboarding craziness of something like the Tony Hawk series both the original and sequel included in this pack are more well-made than your typical stunt-focused title. In many regards, even after all these years, I’d say Olli Olli remains the gold standard for the stand-alone stunt game. If offers enough flexibility to reduce the feeling of a repetitive grind that tends to set in with the genre but at its core there’s just something fun about the way everything flows when you get a great run going, even when you then bail on your landing and have to start over again. If you’re in the mood to get your stunts on this is probably your best bet on the Switch.


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!