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Nintendo's indie program treads fun — but very safe — ground

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It’s familiar ... almost too familiar

Joy con James Bareham/Vox Media

With more than 60 games due in 2017, Nintendo is positioning the Switch as a must-have for indie devotees. But taking a closer look at the console’s indie catalogue shows that, while it’s a typically fun array of retro-styled shooters and platformers, Nintendo isn’t willing to really switch up its image.

Nintendo showcased several of its most promising indies during Game Developers Conference this week, with a handful of the 60-plus games playable on the show floor. These include the familiar — Shovel Knight and The Binding of Isaac — and games that are new but … well, still familiar. Retro-style revivalist games make up the bulk of the initial lineup, as has become par for the course with Nintendo consoles.

Games like the adorable roguelike Tumbleseed and Snake Pass, a take on the Nintendo 64-era collect-a-thon platformers, are immense amounts of fun. Both are short, simple games with surprisingly complicated mechanics; Tumbleseed’s tiny round hero must tilt in the most delicate fashion in order to make it through the levels, while Snake Pass takes ‘90s platforming up a notch with physics-based controls.

These and others we played, like the super brutal platformer Celeste and spy-based action game Mr. Shifty, are well-designed games. But they can’t help but feel like obvious fits. Each one has a similar aesthetic: reminiscent of the Super Nintendo days, or colorful and pleasing to childlike eyes.

More of the same is not always a bad thing. It’s just that Nintendo seemed ready to re-position itself as the makers of gamers' primary console when the Switch was first revealed. Unlike the Wii and Wii U, the company seemed to be marketing the Switch as a console fit for an adult consumer. There were shots of the system being played at adult parties (with, presumably, alcohol!) and esports tournaments, not family living rooms or kids-only play areas.

The game library also seemed to be a hard left turn from the Japanese-heavy, family-friendly Wii and Wii U libraries. Skyrim is set to come to the Switch, after all; even Breath of the Wild is far more brutal than Zelda games past. 1-2-Switch is a launch title that uses neither Mii characters nor Nintendo mascots, and it seems set to be an adult party game, for better or worse. All three are indicative not just of a maturity, but a willingness to not just pander to the same kinds of games that Nintendo fans have grown accustomed to playing over the years.

Sure, there are Mario games and re-releases and other typical Nintendo fair leading the charge as well, but the company also seemed willing to branch out beyond its allegiant fanbase’s well-established tastes. There are some indies that suggest that’s true, like the stylish Thumper. But otherwise, Nintendo appears to be content to keep the indie library much the same in a clear attempt to placate Nintendo fans with a certain conception of the company.

Nintendo Switch confirmed Nindie content in 2017
There are more than 60 indie games confirmed for the Switch this year.
Nintendo of America/Twitter

“Having a corporate understanding of what it is that defines the system — what is the niche — is what it’s all about,” Damon Baker, Nintendo of America’s head of partner management, told Gamasutra this week about the Switch’s indie program. The indie games that will be sold on the Switch have been heavily curated by Nintendo, hence the company’s ability to keep such a consistent tone.

It’s really, really good stuff, and there’s an obvious audience for it even beyond Nintendo; the Switch stands a great chance to overtake the PlayStation Vita as the handheld of choice for the indies-loving gamer ... although it’s not like the Vita ever found a large audience. Nintendo seems to see indies as a way to buttress its own games on the system, and the company’s clearly looking for titles that seem, in a word, Nintendo-ish.

Nintendo’s image is one of all-ages accessibility and comforting familiarity, not radicalism. The Switch’s indie library, as much fun as it is, is the most obvious perpetuation of that self-perception. Heck, there’s even re-releases of old Wii indie games hitting the eShop near launch day; we’re not getting anything like, say, the complicated narratives of Inside or Virginia on the Switch, even as indie gaming continues to move in that direction.

Nintendo isn’t throwing open the doors for indies, although it may initially seem that way. The company is keeping a heavy hand on what games make it onto the system, and there is a definite “feel” to the indie games that are coming to the Switch.

There’s nothing wrong with the ground Nintendo is treading, nor with curation. It’s just safe, but that’s likely what Nintendo’s core audience wants out of the Switch in the first year.