Nintendo Switch is home to AAA masterpieces like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, but some of my favorite titles on Switch come from smaller teams with less fanfare. Indie passion projects like Hollow Knight, Ittle Dew 2, and Shovel Knight quickly became some of my favorite games in years, and they did it by capitalizing on Nintendo nostalgia. The eShop is loaded with quality indies that ask “How would you like to relive the Nintendo memories of your childhood, but with modern polish and quality of life improvements?” With prices for these retro-inspired games often at $20 or less, it’s an offer I can rarely refuse.
When I look at the incredible success developers like Team Cherry have had banking on this nostalgia, I can’t help but wonder why Nintendo isn’t doing the same. Why isn’t Nintendo cranking out $20 retro games and giving the people what they so clearly want?
Indies doing what Nintendon’t
Obviously Nintendo has been slow to bring its older games to Switch. The lack of a full Virtual Console has cultivated a hunger for simpler, classic titles, but there’s more to it than that. As video game hardware evolved, 3D games became the standard, and for a good reason. The jump to 3D led to unforgettable gaming greats like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These 3D worlds would change gaming forever, but they didn’t make 2D gameplay obsolete.
Nintendo’s 2D titles largely lived on as handheld adventures on Game Boy Advance. But over time, even handheld games shifted to a 3D-first approach, and 2D games became even more scarce. These days, Nintendo no longer separates its development teams into handheld and home console groups. Switch has blurred the lines between the two, and as a result, 2D Nintendo games are nearly extinct. But millions of fans like me never stopped craving those retro experiences.
Anchored to the $60 price tag
So why is Nintendo letting indies reap all the benefits of their hard-earned nostalgia? If a 2D Metroid (and Castlevania) homage like Hollow Knight can sell 3 million copies, why isn’t Nintendo meeting that need? Part of the reason seems to be a desire to stick to a premium price point. With a few exceptions (such as spin-offs Cadence of Hyrule and Mario vs. Donkey Kong), Nintendo is usually unwilling to create new games that retail at a sub-standard price.
When they do dabble in classic gameplay, they often still feel the need to sell it at full price. In the case of Metroid II remake Samus Returns on 3DS, this meant redesigning the game as a 2.5D adventure with 3D (and stereoscopic 3D) backgrounds and character models. And while I still enjoyed the game, this art choice didn’t sit well with me at all. It just didn’t really look and feel like 2D Metroid anymore. As a result, I ended up enjoying the fan-game AM2R (a remake of the same game) more, because it just felt like a truer 2D Metroid experience. As an unofficial product, AM2R was free, but you better believe I’d spend $20 to play it on Switch. Given the chance, I would not re-buy Samus Returns at $40.
More recently, Nintendo remade Link’s Awakening with nearly identical gameplay, and I absolutely adored it. The $60 price tag (another consequence of dedicated handhelds going extinct) was justified with an adorable new art style meant to invoke the feeling of playing with toys in a diorama. And for such a short game, it was a bit of an ask. Just anecdotally, I know multiple people who decided not to pick it up at launch for exactly that reason.
Retro is in
Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the art style of the Link’s Awakening remake. Unlike with Samus Returns, I felt like the updated visuals did enhance the overall atmosphere of the game. I’m even hoping the Oracle games get the same treatment. But there’s a lesson to be learned beyond just “remakes are profitable.” People desperately missed that classic 2D-style Zelda gameplay. The art is just (expensive) icing on the cake. The classic gameplay is the real prize, and it barely needed any changes over 20 years later. I would gladly pay $20 to download a new 16-bit adventure in that style.
And we already have examples of major studios doing exactly this with great success! Look no further than Sonic Mania. SEGA gave a small team (led by Sonic superfan developer Christian Whitehead) a modest budget to create the spiritual successor to Genesis-era Sonic fans had been desperately craving. The result was the highest-rated Sonic game in 15 years. It sold so well as a digital-only title that Sega ended up giving it a physical release and DLC. With such an incredible library of characters, Nintendo could take this idea and run with it.
I would love to see Nintendo devote a small team to developing short, retro games for release on eShop at around $20. No gimmicks. No expensive art direction. Just good old-fashioned 2D games that remind us why we fell in love with Nintendo in the first place. And really, the success of Nintendo-inspired indies shows we never really forgot. Did you, Nintendo?