2019 was an incredible year for games all around.
2019 was a very interesting year for video games as a medium. Technically, this is the year before the launch of the next generation consoles – traditionally, such years see game releases dry up, and console manufacturers’ attention shift squarely to readying the successors that are inevitably coming (regardless of whether or not said manufacturers have chosen to actually acknowledge those upcoming consoles’ existence yet). But 2019 turned out to be a bit different – while on one hand, you could definitely feel that this was a sort of interim calm before the upcoming storm (just look at how paltry Sony’s offerings were this year, compared to just how great they had been the previous year, or the year before that), on the other, it felt like the impending generation change had barely caused any difference to just how great things were going in the here and now.
A not insignificant reason for this is Nintendo. With the company having firmly thrown off the shackles of the traditional generational cycle with the release of the Switch smack dab in the middle of 2017, Nintendo is now out of step with the rest of the industry – a fact that works wonderfully in their favor, because while the PS4 and the Xbox One are winding down, the Switch is only beginning to enter the prime of its life, and it shows. In 2019, Nintendo went nuclear with the Switch, delivering a fearsome cadence of games across all genres and several IP – existing and new alike – that made the Switch the go-to system for anyone with even a passing interest in video games.
Hyperbolic as it may sound, it’s true – New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Yoshi’s Crafted World, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, Super Mario Maker 2, Astral Chain, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Ring Fit Adventure, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokemon Sword and Shield are just some examples of the first party lineup Nintendo fired off this year. In and of itself, these games alone justify the (continued) investment in the Switch and its games, but there was so much more going on with the console and Nintendo this year.
On the third parties front, this proved to be among the biggest years for the Switch. No, Persona 5 is not coming to Switch, but it still got every Final Fantasy game from VII (on a Nintendo console, at last!) to XII, day and date releases of Mortal Kombat 11, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, as well as extremely unlikely third party conversions such as Overwatch, and, incredibly enough, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The prospect of playing a game that, only four years ago, was a technical showcase for the current generation on the go – or that of playing one of the most popular multiplayer games ever made on the go – further enhanced the Switch’s appeal, but even that wasn’t enough. Nintendo ensured they checked all the boxes this year. The widely criticized Nintendo Switch Online service got a little better, thanks to the addition of SNES games to the retro games catalog; the Switch’s status as a premier platform for indie games continued to get it runaway hits such as the incredible Untitled Goose Game; Nintendo announced not one, but two new Switch models this year, with a cheaper, handheld-only Switch Lite, and a refreshed flagship model that has far superior battery life to the original; multiple exciting projects were confirmed for the console in the coming years, such as a remaster of the original Xenoblade, and a sequel to arguably the greatest game ever made, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And through all of this, the Switch continued to flex its muscles in markets around the world, firmly establishing itself as the bestselling system worldwide – even making its presence felt in markets such as the UK, which have traditionally been among Nintendo’s weakest.
Nintendo had such a good year that even the two bits of bad news they delivered this year – a delay for Metroid Prime 4 and Animal Crossing: New Horizons – did not seem to slow the Switch train down. Without any doubt, they won 2019, running away with it far ahead, while Xbox and PlayStation were left as stragglers fighting for second place.
As far as that second place goes, however, it’s really hard to determine a winner. Sony’s first party slate this year was disappointing – Days Gone is arguably the weakest SIE flagship release in years, and Death Stranding, while really good, is also really divisive, and polarized critics and players alike (weak legs for the latter also demonstrate that it isn’t selling all that well, in turn implying poor word of mouth). Sony’s VR releases this year, led by Blood and Truth, did not come close to the excellence of Astro Bot only a year ago.
In general, Sony actually had a pretty poor year. They did not have any major conference this year. Their replacement, State of Play, were criticized and panned across the board as uninspired Nintendo Direct knock-offs with no major announcements to boot until near the end of the year, when they finally seemed to start finding their footing. They announced a release date for arguably their biggest first party game ever – only to delay that game just a month after first announcing the release date. They saw a lot of corporate and executive shuffling at the top. A lot of the continued good press Sony used to get on a regular basis in past years thanks to the PS4 consistently topping sales charts stopped, as the PS4 lost the mantle to the Switch.
But through all of this, there was never the sense that Sony has actually lost sight of the prize. A lot of Sony’s slump can easily be explained by the company gearing up for the next generation launch (something which they kept feeding us information on through the year; and I have to be honest, the PS5 sounds great). And even in this slump, we got some great news, such as Sony’s acquisition of Insomniac Games, or Sony finally beginning to take PS Now (both, the download and the streaming portions of the service) seriously.
Let’s compare this with Xbox for a moment – they released arguably their worst first party title in a while (Crackdown 3), although they then also released arguably their best first party title in a while (Gears 5). They launched a brand new SKU which managed to get Xbox to do well in markets it has traditionally struggled in, such as Spain. They announced more studio acquisitions. They announced multiple new IP from Rare, and Ninja Theory. They announced Xbox Scarlett, which sounds like it will also be great.
Game Pass continued to move from strength to strength, with its lineup swelling thanks to more and more third parties jumping on board, and its PC launch. Microsoft’s PC efforts finally started to match their promises, with a brand new PC gaming client, or the announcement of games such as Age of Empires 4 and Flight Simulator looking immense. Halo: The Master Chief Collection was announced for PC, and in a dramatic twist of fate, came not only to Microsoft’s own storefront, but also to Steam (the PC launch of Halo Reach would go on to break all records). And X019 painted an incredibly rosy picture for the future of Xbox.
There was still bad news, of course – major games were delayed, Halo Infinite‘s new showing looked nowhere close to as exciting as its debut trailer had last year (plus there is word of turmoil within developer 343 Industries), and while Xbox had flashes of brilliance in the market every now and again, on the whole, sales for it began to taper off to undetectable levels. Also, in case I didn’t mention this already, Crackdown 3 was trash.
In absolute terms, I would argue Sony had no worse a year than Microsoft. The problem here is that for Sony, this year was a very clear decline over what they have done before – for Microsoft, this was just the latest chapter in their continuing comeback story. Expectations matter – a lot is expected of Sony, the market leader, and when they fail to meet them, the narrative settles into them having a down year. On the other hand, Xbox, which has struggled through the entire generation, managing to deliver better than it has in a while leads to a perception of positivity and momentum around the brand. While PS4 and Xbox One had equally good (or equally bad) years, Xbox just feels like it had a better one – because for Xbox, this year was an improvement over their previous years. For Sony, it was an unmistakable step down.
So here we are at the end of 2019, then: who won this year? Nintendo did, and if you don’t agree, you are far too embedded in console war narratives, and there is no getting through to you. And, in an unexpected break from routine, Xbox ended up beating PlayStation to take the (admittedly weak) silver, while PS4 settled in last place.
But now this year is over, as is this decade. 2020 is around the corner, and it presents a lot of new potential and chances for all three – Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft – to find new ways to soar (or sink). It’s a new year, a new generation, a new decade. How 2020 (and beyond) goes remains to be seen. In the here and now, this year saw a lot of shuffling of the pecking order.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.