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Even without Animal Crossing, Nintendo has an incredible holiday lineup

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Hands-on with Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokémon Sword and Shield at E3 2019

Photo courtesy Nintendo.

Nintendo’s E3 presentation was filled with exciting announcements, with a surprise sequel to Breath of the Wild and a pair of new fighters coming to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But that was tempered somewhat by news that Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ launch has been pushed from later this year to next March. The animal-filled life-sim was expected to be a major part of the Switch’s always important holiday lineup. But it might not be as big of a blow as it first seems. After playing through a trio of upcoming Switch games here at E3, it’s pretty clear that, even without Animal Crossing, Nintendo has a strong slate for the end of the year. Tom Nook can wait.

Of course the biggest name is Pokémon Sword and Shield, which represent the first proper console releases in the series’ long history. At their core, the new releases aren’t a drastic change. You still catch pokémon in the wild and raise a team of fighters; the increasingly complex rock-paper-scissors combat remains in tact, and even the menus will feel familiar to longtime fans. I played through an early gym, and it was the typical blend of battles and simple puzzles. In order to get to the exit, I had to use a series of valves to divert water, clearing a path. Along the way, I came up against other trainers to battle. This all culminated with a pokémon battle against the gym leader.

Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Pokémon Sword and Shield

Here’s where the differences are more apparent. Sword and Shield are far and away the best-looking Pokémon games ever made, but what really makes them stand out is the sense of scale. In the Galar region where the new games take place, pokémon battles are held in massive stadiums, filled with thousands of screaming fans. It’s like going to a soccer game; the trainers even wear jerseys. Spectators will stamp their feet and hold up banners, and you can make use of a new mechanic, called “Dynamax,” that temporarily turns your pokémon into a massive, and much more powerful, holographic pokémon.

This naturally adds a new strategic element in the game — when and how you use Dynamax can dramatically change the flow of a battle — but it also offers a level of spectacle we’ve never really seen in Pokémon before. The games benefit from the move to the big screen. (Just as important: the pokémon designs are as cute as ever. My pre-assembled team included a fluffy sheepy with a pair of swinging braids, and a chubby little corgi with a yellow heart on its butt.)

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, meanwhile, goes in a different direction. A remake of the 1993 Game Boy game of the same name, it’s an incredibly quaint adventure. The cutesy art style combined with tilt-shift visual style gives the game a toy-like feel, like you’re moving a little figure around a fantasy world. I played through the opening scene of the game, in which Link washes up on a mysterious island. It felt largely the same as the original game, but the new visuals gave the game a much more inviting feel; I found myself exploring every nook I could just to see the tiny details. Fighting Moblins was like playing with action figures. Really, my only complaint is that the demo only lasted 15 minutes.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

The odd one in the group is Luigi’s Mansion 3. It’s not exactly a blockbuster franchise, but past entries in the series have sold in the millions, and Nintendo says it has “high expectations” for the Switch release. Based on what I played, this could well be the game that pushes the comedy-horror series to a new level of popularity. For one, it looks incredible, set in a haunted hotel where each floor has a different theme; the area I played had a medieval vibe. There’s a very tactile nature to the game; Luigi can bump into objects and they react, and your main weapon is a ghost-sucking vacuum cleaner. There’s something incredibly satisfying about grabbing a ghost and smashing them around a room, and there’s even more mayhem when you play the four-player cooperative mode. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is pure slapstick, and there just aren’t enough games like that.

Each game offers something vastly different from the next, and all three are slated to launch between September and the end of the year. They’ll be joined by a number of third-party titles, including older ports like The Witcher 3, as well as Doom Eternal, one of the rare blockbuster games to launch simultaneously on the Switch and other platforms when it releases on November 22nd. “I use one word: robust,” Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser told The Verge when asked to describe the company’s holiday lineup. “We have games for every type of player, and there’s some strong representation with our publishing partners.”

We’re now approaching the Switch’s third year, and so far Nintendo has managed to avoid the biggest problem with its predecessor, the Wii U. Often lengthy periods would go by without a major release; if a game like New Horizons had been delayed on the Wii U, it would have spelled disaster. But that’s not the case for the Switch. We might have to wait a few extra months for Animal Crossing, but there’s plenty to fill its spot.