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12 best Nintendo Switch games of 2021

While you wait for Nintendo's newly-announced games (available for pre-order now), a look at the best games you can play right now.
If you’re new to the Switch, there are a few games that are absolute must-plays, many of which come from Nintendo’s own stock of characters.
If you’re new to the Switch, there are a few games that are absolute must-plays, many of which come from Nintendo’s own stock of characters.Nintendo; Amazon

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The Nintendo Switch may be designed for on-the-go play, but it also makes a fantastic video game console for those of us still stuck at home — and it’s chock full of great games, from graphically-intensive titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to the recently released Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury.

And last week, Nintendo announced a host of new games set to release in 2021, like Monster Hunter Rise and Mario Golf Super Rush (both available for pre-order now). But if you’re new to the Switch, there are a few games that are absolute must-plays, many of which come from Nintendo’s own stock of characters.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Let’s get this out of the way: Breath of the Wild is not only widely regarded as the best Nintendo Switch game, it’s also hailed as one of the best games of all time. It set a new direction for the Legend of Zelda series, bucking both the franchise’s own trends and those of other open-world fantasy games. And it’s hard to resist a continent full of lived-in towns, crafty puzzles and monsters to fight.

It’s not the only Zelda game on the Switch — the Link’s Awakening remake is a modern version of a true classic, Cadence of Hyrule is a unique rhythm-based action game, and the upcoming Skyward Sword remasters the Wii game of the same name — but Breath of the Wild is one of the most prominent must-plays of the decade.

2. Super Mario Odyssey

Whether you grew up with 80s arcades or came of age during the 3D era of video games, Mario likely played a big part in defining for you what a video game could be. Super Mario Odyssey is the latest mainline Mario platformer. Like the other 3D titles that came before it, it pushes the series forward with new powers that keep the gameplay fresh and exciting, like the ability to throw your hat and take control of an enemy.

And if you like Odyssey, check out Luigi's Mansion 3 for a fun, haunted-house romp as well.

3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Remember when you were a kid and you’d argue on the playground about who would win in a fight: Mario or Donkey Kong? The Super Smash Bros. franchise gave players a chance to put their fists, or thumbs, where their mouths are, pitting classic Nintendo characters against each other in battle. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the latest installment of the franchise, with 74 unlockable characters and over 100 stages to fight in. This is one you’ll definitely want to play with a friend.

4. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

If you’ve played Nintendo at all in the past 25 years, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with Mario Kart, the racing game that’s good competitive fun for players of all ages and skill levels. It’s a seemingly simple concept, but with more characters, kart combinations and tracks than ever before, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is sure to keep you entertained for hours, whether you’re playing alone or with the whole family.

5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

If you want to take the adrenaline down a notch, Animal Crossing is a relaxing escape from reality. Create your own character and build a town, taking time to fish, garden, meet other people and relieve the day’s stresses in your own little digital island getaway. For a slightly deeper farming life simulator, check out Stardew Valley, too.

6. Super Mario Maker 2

Part of me feels weird for including so many Mario games on this list, and then I remember that for 30 years, Mario has been the No. 1 reason I even picked up a Nintendo controller. The Super Mario Maker series is my childhood dream come true: a virtually limitless number of classic Mario levels to play, alongside the ability to create your own.

It’s not the only old-school side-scrolling Mario game available on the Switch — New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is another good choice — but it’s hard to beat the near-infinite possibilities Mario Maker 2 offers.

7. Hades (Pre-Order)

Hades took the gaming world by storm in 2020, thanks to its strategic, fast-paced combat through the randomly-generated dungeons of the Greek underworld. If you die in the game— and you will, a lot — you return to the start of your journey, albeit with some of the advantages you've gained along the way. Pepper in some familiar characters from Greek mythology like Achilles and Poseidon alongside a fun story and you get one of the best games of the year.

8. Splatoon 2

While the Switch does have some of the same shooters you see on other platforms — like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus — The more colorful, family-friendly Splatoon 2 arguably steals the show. The chaotic, team-based shooter sees you attempting to cover the arena with your team's color using paint guns, swapping between humanoid and squid-like forms regularly to get across the map. It's unique, strategic and loads of fun. And while a third installment has been announced, it won't be here until 2022, so grab Splatoon 2 while you wait.

9. Pokémon: Sword & Shield

Whether you're a longtime fan of the Pokémon series or you've never played one of the hit games, Pokémon Sword & Shield is worth a try. The formula is similar: You journey across the continent, catching and collecting creatures called Pokémon to pit against one another in turn-based battles. Like other Pokémon games, you have a choice between two versions — Sword and Shield — which are essentially the same game, but with slightly different variations of Pokémon available to catch and rivals to battle.

10. Hollow Knight

While Nintendo’s own exclusive franchises are the Switch’s biggest draw, it also has a host of fantastic indie games to download. Hollow Knight may be available on every modern video game system you can think of, but it feels incredibly at home on the Switch, mixing a cartoony 2D platforming aesthetic with a rich world full of things to discover.

It’s tougher than, say, the average Mario game. But if you feel you’ve seen all the big studios have to offer and want a fresh challenge, Hollow Knight provides a novel approach to classic 2D gameplay — and does so at an absolute steal of a price.

11. Paper Mario: The Origami King

Not all Mario games follow the same platforming formula. The Paper Mario series is a bit more of an action adventure role-playing game, with The Origami King providing you with a large world to explore, puzzles to solve and enemies to battle in turn-based, ring-style combat, as well as a charming story with plenty of fun characters and silly dialogue.

12. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

If you’re a fan of turn-based strategy games, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle puts a Nintendo twist on the genre, merging the Mario and Rabbids franchises for a silly-yet-tactical war game that works better than it should.

For a more slightly serious alternative, you can also check out the XCOM 2 Collection for Switch, which undoubtedly inspired the Mario/Rabbids crossover.

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