2 Mello is a composer and sound designer for games, a sometimes vocalist, a professional Jet Set Radio fanatic and a semi-retired mashup artist. His most known albums are Chrono Jigga and Memories Of Tokyo-to, and his most recent game work was the music and sound for the hand-animated adventure game Later Alligator. He loves Godzilla, jazz, hip-hop, atmospheric horror, sneakers, lizards and coffee. You can find his music at his Bandcamp and follow him on Twitter.
Hello. I’M SO EXCITED TO BE HERE. I’ve come to the end of the year and most of the new Big Games I managed to play didn’t click with me. I know you don’t want to hear about a bunch of old games from my backlog, so I decided to play as many low-key gems of 2019 as I could to champion the ones I liked most here, alongside the stuff everyone played that I did like. Some I had a lot to say about, some I didn’t want to say too much about. Let me tell you--taking some time to play a bunch of itch.io games got me excited for the medium again! It was so refreshing! And because I’m a crate digger and jazz lover, I’ve decided to pair each game with an appropriate rare jazz groove that might send you on a fun musical journey. Let’s get started!
10. Pygmalion Lied
I’ve never understood how people sculpt stone. It seems so much like magic to me, and I’ve never tried because I kind of don’t want to lose that mystery. How can you take a featureless slab and keep an image clearly in your head as you slowly create it? After playing this game, I might understand a little better. Maybe it’s a mix of creation and discovery. This free, playable short story is about continuing to work, create, feel and be in the world after loss, and it is very much worth your time. A brief disclosure: I am friends with Isabella Ness, the creator of this game.
Pygmalion Lied’s Rare Jazz Groove: Terumasa Hino Quintet - "Feeling Blue As You Are Feel" (drift away and find yourself to this)
THESE SMASH CUTS. EVERY GAME SHOULD HAVE SMASH CUTS. Seriously, from the stylized title screen and cinematic intro, Can Androids Pray’s tone and style immediately had me hooked in. This is a short, gripping conversation between two mech pilots, and that’s all I’ll say. It’s available in a Red and Blue version that each offer a different look (I liked Red the most) which is perfect, as you’ll probably want to play multiple times. I should mention that I am friends with Priscilla Snow, the game’s composer, before I say that yes, the music rules as well.
Can Androids Pray’s Rare Jazz Groove: Jimmy Ponder - "Jennifer" (Songs to go down in a blaze of brilliance to)
8. A Short Hike
A Short Hike is a brief, heartwarming experience with a striking look that reminds me of those kind of amazing 3D isometric Game Boy Advance games. But way better. Your journey up the mountain adds new elements at a really satisfying pace and if everything you’re seeing and doing hasn’t already won you over, the soundtrack is incredible. The one thing I could knock is that some of the writing had that cutesy, look-I’m-quirky tone that may not work for some, but I loved it despite that.
A Short Hike’s Rare Jazz Groove: Grover Washington, Jr. - "Mister Magic" (we’re just gonna chill)
Finally, some good damn comfort food. Remedy doing what they do best with tons of personality (I am that person who will never let you forget how good Alan Wake was) and putting the writing of most other big games to shame. It was refreshing to see a game of a type I’ve played many times before taking on such new life by adding actually interesting world-building. What a concept. The sci-fi premise allows for mind-bending terrain to suddenly appear without the showy “you’re hallucinating, so anything goes now” game trope. THE FMV IS IN FULL FORCE. The combat… exists, but gets tedious before you’re done. I want a Control where the action is broken up by helping workers plug in a printer that is suddenly 20 feet in the air or chasing down more strange Objects of Power. I hope the response to the game gives Remedy plenty of support to flesh the universe out even more.
Control’s Rare Jazz Groove: Dexter Wansel - "Voyager" (this psychedelic one really hits at 1:09 and you may even recognize it)
Mutazione is both a chill game about gardening and social-simming with a tight-knit community of mutants, and an impactful story about control, guilt, and our ability to grow and stick together. And it looks absolutely stunning. Arranging your gardens and hanging out with the mutant denizens of the island as the new outsider is relaxing, and the different types of sound design your plants crave is very well done. Plus, it’s all scored by some of the most unique music for a game this year. Play this one when you need to get away from it all. I enjoyed playing one session for each in-game day.
Mutazione’s Rare Jazz Groove: Laurindo Almeida - "The Lamp Is Low" (just… the best guitar)
First of all, Analgesic Productions has simply never made a video game that isn’t great. This continues with Anodyne 2, which feels like a Hail Mary of greatness. It’s been created in the language of video games you probably know well, with satisfying gameplay switching between a 3D overworld reminiscent of the N64, PS1, and Saturn, and colorful 2D dungeons like something from a lost GBA game. Unique art and great music keeps coming around every corner. Every line of text, from item descriptions to NPC dialogue, will draw you in further. Anodyne 2 delights in presenting itself as a time capsule of gaming history, but it is so much more. I don’t want to tell you anything about this game except to play it, because from the very beginning, it’s already at work distinguishing itself from other things you’ve experienced. It is so much.
Anodyne 2’s Rare Jazz Groove: Ryo Fukui - "Mellow Dream" (Had to find something with that dreamlike quality, but engaging)
Okay, so one older game did get on this list. And pretty high up, because Unavowed, the latest Wadjet Eye adventure game about an underground collective that investigates the supernatural, blew me away. I thankfully remembered to try it after hearing whisperings in 2018 that it might be the best of their games. This dark urban fantasy nonchalantly rips the adventure genre off its hinges with its most unique new mechanic of this decade--which I don’t want to spoil--and it’s more tightly designed and written than these point-and-click games have ever been. It feels SO NYC with its music, environments, and voice acting. I’ve been chasing the high of its impeccable sense of place in the many games I’ve played since. From the beginning of each investigation, you truly have no idea what you’re in for. My favorite, and the moment the game fully won me over, involves a very atypical “haunted house”.
Unavowed’s Rare Jazz Groove: Harold Vick - "Lucille" (this soaring sax makes me want to get lost in the city)
I thought remakes on this scale wouldn’t happen anymore, now that we’ve shown Capcom how many times we’d pay for Resident Evil 4. This is a technically stunning, fuss-free return to the gameplay of classic Resident Evil with modern niceties that still had me sweating over a notebook, planning runs and noting locations of enemies. The opening hours spent in the police station just feel like they’ll keep this game as an all-time classic, if that makes sense. The only possible way they could make this game better would be to officially license “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” as an alternate music track on all platforms.
Resident Evil 2’s Rare Jazz Groove: Bohren & der Club of Gore - "Destroying Angels" (could not want more for “jazz horror” than this pitch-black, incredibly sexy piece)
There was a hole in the horror game genre. It’s gone now. With Detention and now Devotion, Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games is putting out surreal, atmospheric, emotional, and well-written horror games like no one has since Team Silent. From the second I knew Red Candle’s next project was first-person atmospheric horror set in 1980s Taiwan, I was excited. The game delivers in an experience made for one or two sittings with beautifully detailed and period-appropriate environments, excellent music and sound design, and a slowly unfolding horror story. Unfortunately, it was removed from Steam a few days after release due to an incident involving art assets, and it’s still unsure whether it will return. I hope for the best for Red Candle, and that they’ll keep delivering incredible horror games.
Devotion’s Rare Jazz Groove: Chipin & Kaiya Jazz Quartet - "Plastic Boy" (Violinist Chi-pin Hsieh and keyboardist Kai-ya Chang currently play jazz professionally and train others in Taiwan)
One of my greatest personal weaknesses is a vulnerability for empathetic language, no matter what its source. I can’t ignore warm, fuzzy ads or portrayals of happy people printed on product boxes. I get emotional from them, while also hating what they represent--healing and self-improvement through consumerism. It’s hard to explain. Earlier this year, I was having trouble sleeping and my phone began to advertise meditation apps and medications to me. From my search history, it knew what I was going through more than any friend or family member did. I was at once disgusted and touched by its “concern” for me.
Eliza is a game about building commercial technology to heal ourselves, among other things. Given my gut response to that stuff, it is no surprise to me that this is my favorite game of the year and a game I will be recommending for as long as I live. Eliza is a virtual counseling app, and you play as a Seattleite named Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey who has just been hired as a “proxy,” a human relay of Eliza’s messages intended to make in-person sessions easier for clients than just talking to a computer would be. From the very first session, I was desperate to reach out to a miserable person right across from me with one earnest word, knowing it would help more. I couldn’t act as a human being in this situation. I thought about the people I care about in my life being forced to seek help from this computer app that could offer no traditional comfort. Could I help them if I was better at reaching out? Would my inability to interact and connect with people in my life cause others--or myself--to seek out something like Eliza? If this game causes me to get in my feelings, reach out and offer myself as someone to talk to, am I really doing that for other people or am I doing it to save myself? The game deals with some heavy subjects and moments, but not entirely. A lot of the writing works through some issues that are very present in our modern world, giving you time and space to think.
A character I strongly identified with early on--Nora, a coder and artist who escaped from tech to pursue freelance and try to make the world better through music--felt like so much more than a representative of a “route” or a perspective as I got to know her more, as did Rae, a warm and kind, down-to-earth person who strongly believes in Eliza’s ability to help people, cold as the tech may seem. I never felt pushed to agree fully with any one perspective the game was taking, or like I was simply being taught the correct interpretation of any situation.
This game seemed to read my mind, not only addressing any doubts or questions I had about its direction almost as soon as they arose, but taking my thoughts a step further and giving me more questions to ponder. Its writing feels so genuinely wide, leaving nothing unmentioned. The voice acting is also the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. I wasn’t even going to rank this list by number, but I had to just so that I could tell you Eliza is number one for me. This visual novel with an irresistible premise gave me the most thoughtful and engaging experience I had with a game in 2019.
AND I WANT THAT SOLITAIRE APP.
Eliza’s Rare Jazz Groove: Joe Pass - "A Time For Us" (one of the most emotional and human songs I’ve ever heard, nothing more to say)
Thanks for reading, and I hope you like some of these songs! But before I leave, there’s one more thing...
HONORABLE MENTION, THIS YEAR AND EVERY YEAR: JET SET RADIO FUTURE
You thought I’d be professional. You thought I’d forego my one chance to put this out there. You were so wrong. Jet Set Radio Future is the game I pull out after a really tough week to unwind, and there was a lot of that this year. The legendary soundtrack, lovingly crafted and varied, potentially too cool to be licensed for a re-release, makes you feel like you’ve tapped into the coolest pirate radio station ever. The colorful, detailed environments are as exciting as a real walk through Tokyo. The smooth gameplay of the sequel is better than the original in every way.
Thematically, this is also still one of the most revolutionary games I’ve ever played, not afraid to say what it means. Your skater gang is facing off against a brutal police force that is taking up arms and threatening their lives over vandalism, a police force owned by an out-of-control capitalist who is in the middle of gentrifying Tokyo-to (and who has glorified PMC squads ready to come in once his police can’t do the job). An early level is set in a part of the city where a construction project has been abandoned halfway through, at the peril of those still living there. The story has to squeeze itself in through dialogues delivered between chapters, but it’s still striking to see a game take this much of a hard stance compared to the safe bets of 2019. The only problem with it is the hoops you’ll have to jump through to actually play it. Here’s hoping for Jet Set Radio Future backwards compatibility in 2020!