Alex Zandra is a Canadian game designer and light novelist. She runs Giant Bomb's Giant ROM game jam, makes merch for League of Heels, and makes all kinds of stuff on her Patreon. You can find her on Twitter @zandravandra.
Hey hi folks! I hope you’re doing well. <3
This year went by in a flash for me for a bunch of reasons; a lot of good and bad, a lot of ups and downs. I guess I tried fitting so many things into my schedule the year before--major surgery, medical recovery, conventions, book releases, print run campaigns, travel--that it all finally caught up with me. This is the year when I decided to learn how to pace myself, and I’m only just starting to figure that out.
The end of this year also marks the end of a decade, which seems entirely too significant to put into words… but at the same time completely arbitrary? When looking at what I accomplished in the last 10 years (as a popular tweet asked) I had to come face to face with the fact that while I got a ton of stuff done in that decade, I didn’t exactly do a whole lot with my life in the three that came before it. Like with most projects, I spent the first big chunk of time meandering along aimlessly before coming to my senses at the last minute and cramming in as many important milestones as I could before squeaking in under the deadline.
This is why I’m keeping this list to 2019, a length of time I can properly visualize. Through the highs and lows of these past 12 months, games were among the things that kept me going, and I’m glad I get to talk about them here.
It hasn’t been an easy year, or an easy decade, but we made it. And that’s what’s important. Here are ten games that helped me get there.
For some reason, as the year began, I got it into my head to play every Mega Man platformer that ever existed. Meant as a way to trick myself into getting up early, Good! Morning! Mega Man! has been part of my daily routine. Starting the day off with a stream helps me feel productive and requires me to get dressed, all for the low low price of getting really angry at Mega Man X6. There’s so many spikes! Why are there so many spikes? Can everyone just STOP HITTING ME for a second?!
I eventually made it through all the main games and as I wait for the Zero/ZX Legacy Collection, I’ve been playing a bunch of romhacks and fan games that viewers have recommended to me--an Inter-Mission, if you will. That’s when I happened upon Minus Infinity, a complete overhaul of Rockman 4 that just celebrated its 5-year anniversary. Going way, way beyond just messing with the physics and level design, Minus Infinity is a whole new game that pays homage not only to the entire Mega Man universe (even the Game Boy games!) but also goes so far above and beyond what a Mega Man game is that everyone who’s ever liked the Blue Bomber should get to experience it.
Skull Man skates around like Tony Hawk! Dust Man can recycle YOU! Rush can turn into a giant cannon so powerful that every robot master drops what they’re doing when you fire it and tries to counter it in their own unique way! And there’s hidden upgrades and easter egg side paths and one of the Wily stages is an honest-to-goodness metroidvania?! Rockman 4 Minus Infinity has redefined for me what a Mega Man game can be and regardless of when it came out, I feel it more than earns a place on this list.
I’ve been getting into car games again, y’all. Remember Top Gear on the SNES? The folks who made Horizon Chase Turbo do, and they made a modern love letter to it (and other old-school racing games like it) that recently got ported over to the Switch. They even recruited the original Top Gear composer to make updated music for it! And let me tell you, it is downright surreal to play a 3D game with all the bells and whistles of modern consoles that is one extensive smoke-and-mirrors experiment to simulate the gameplay of an auto-scrolling, fixed-camera 16-bit racing game. The music’s great, the visuals are colorful, and it’s just a ton of fun.
Every single time I see the untitular goose get photoshopped into a new screenshot or photograph or situation as a joke, it makes me smile. I’m so glad that games like this exist, where the entire premise is just to be a bird who just decides to waddle into town to cause some trouble. And the sheer popularity of it will hopefully, clearly show that weird games can find an audience--a big one, even! Especially today, it’s particularly gratifying to see so many people fall in love with a troublemaker who fights back against those who would build walls and make rules to keep them out.
Get into that pub, goose! Make that big jerk at the door trip on his feet and fall on his face! Go strut around and show the world how wonderful you are--and get cheered, applauded and given flowers by those who truly appreciate you. <3
Dicey Dungeons is so good?! As a fan of music, deck-building, and roguelikes, this game is a rare pleasure. Heck, the soundtrack has become part of my regular music rotation at home. And while I was already onboard thanks to the whole visual style and game show gimmick, the hidden depth that’s lurking just below the surface is what sold me. Nothing gets my inner game designer going like learning a fun new mechanic, only to try a different character and find out that just a few tweaks here and there have such dramatic impact on the experience as a whole. I’m still not over how picking a different class is almost like playing a whole new game!
I haven’t unlocked everything yet, but with things like the Halloween campaign and mod support having come out since I last played, I know where to scratch my roguelike itch next time I feel like taking a chance on a procedurally-generated adventure.
I had a sobering relation this year (one of many, in fact): if I want to still be in shape by the time I’m 50, I should get in shape by the time I’m 40. And that particular deadline is getting pretty dang close! So in the wake of positive reviews from every corner of my twitter timeline, I made the leap.
I Got The Popular New Workout Gadget To Make A Big Change In My Life But I Never Expected To Get Transported To A Fitness Fantasy World!
Going into this I had no clue what a Pilates ring was, but it’s incredible how they managed to turn a small metal hoop into a controller. So now every morning, except when I’m too sore from the day before, I strap one joy-con to my leg and stick another one in the Ring-Con and off I go to a magical land that somehow only I can save.
Save? Yes! There’s an evil fitness dragon and his nefarious training equipment monsters and it’s all a big thing but honestly I’m here for it because this whole thing is 100% my jam. I’ve been whisked off to a strange place and accidentally released an ancient bodybuilding evil but luckily a magical fitness ring is going to train me and together we’re going to save the world? HECK YEAH! This is the sort of wholesome content I write! And it’s exactly what I needed to get in shape.
And everyone is so nice, too? The game is all about understanding my limits and helping me do my best, and that’s so heartening. It’s also been nice to share my progress with my girlfriend Aura, who has started her own adventure at the same time. It’s fascinating how different approaches (my workouts are shorter and higher in intensity, hers are less strenuous but three times longer) leads to very different progression curves in the game’s story, but in ways that still make it all work very well.
Also I wanna hang out with Tipp, the nonbinary training assistant who shows off how to do each move. They’re rad!
I bounced off of La-Mulana when I first got to play it some years ago and somehow never really gave it a second look. It seemed like a complicated Spelunky and I wasn’t really up for that.
Then the La-Mulana Randomizer started going around my circle of speedrunning friends and I got to see a few races. And then I finally understood. La-Mulana is actually a giant multi-dimensional puzzle game that you happen to play like a metroidvania. And once I finally grasped what the game was, I was able to play it.
And good gosh, what an adventure it was.
It took me dozens of hours. Pages upon pages of notes. I fell down the rabbit hole that is the lore of La-Mulana and if any of this sounds good to you then please check out the original! It’s so good and there are so few games like it! Interestingly enough, the game already plays like a randomizer, considering how its different areas intertwine so much, with clues and locks and their respective keys being so thoroughly distributed all across its staggering amount of rooms.
So what does the randomizer bring to the table? Since a lot of the base gameplay involves figuring out the puzzles, you can’t really do that a second time around. Instead, the La-Mulana randomizer moves around items, entrances, starting positions--and a ton of things that don’t feel like they should be shuffled around--to make a whole new sprawling adventure. And there’s thankfully lots of settings, so you don’t need to be overwhelmed! It’s not for the faint of heart, though; I played a very simple generated game with my friend Liz helping me and it still took me ten hours to make it to the end.
There’s also a lot of community-created tools to help the process along, like item trackers and entrance checklists (that automatically suggest the shortest route between two important places) and, again, pages upon pages of notes. How do you play a puzzle game a second time and still have a similarly engaging experience? Somehow, the La-Mulana randomizer manages to pull it off, and that’s an incredible achievement in and of itself. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play the soundtrack again.
4. Tangle Tower
I miss Tangle Tower. I miss Grimoire and Sally. I miss the Pointers and Fellows. This amazing murder mystery game with vivid art and endearing characters and tactile puzzles and actual logic questions dug its talons into me and won’t let go.
I’ve completed it; it only took a few hours. And after coming off of La-Mulana, the puzzles were a bit simpler than I went in expecting. But that doesn’t matter. I had so much fun! Every character is so lovingly animated, so wonderfully quirky, so downright human that I’m sad to have run out of possible interactions with them. I miss the brilliant Fifi. I miss the confrontational Hawkshaw. I miss the somber Poppy, who composes thematic musical poems to describe each member of the Tangle Tower household. They’re all so wonderful and unique and I’d love to spend an afternoon playing board games with them.
But in the end, Tangle Tower is a murder mystery. Everyone is in mourning. A family member died, her life ended as she painted; murdered, presumably, by the very figure on the canvas. But a painting can’t be a murderer. The image of a knife can’t be a murder weapon. Can it? I really recommend you try to find out.
Be warned, though. Tangle Tower is hard to leave.
Three Houses is not only a good Fire Emblem, it might be the best one. The changes it brings to the mechanics are brilliant--changing classes, customizing characters’ builds, figuring out how to help each student grow based on their natural preferences--and frequent hub town visits and tasks between battles keep both gameplays from growing too stale. But they also figured out how to make characters more meaningful in a game with unforgiving permadeath: instead of recruiting a new soldier in every town you visit, you just start with everyone. Or, well, a third of them; the rest, you can chat with and get to know. And when a mission takes you to a western town to quell a minor rebellion, you don’t just team up with the local adopted son of the noble you’re fighting--you’ve known him for a while already. It makes every location all the more memorable because instead of discovering new places, you’re finally going to the ones your students have been gushing about.
And good gosh, those students! It’s pretty remarkable to have a cast of thirty or so characters with so much variety and depth? I started the game figuring I’d just put together a team full of ladies and leave it at that but just a few hours later I was ready to die for Hubert von Warcrimes’ unshaking devotion. And somehow along the way I’d also grown fond of Ferdinand, the foppish noble whose main interactions with his fellow students consist of being knocked down a peg? I also shouldn’t forget to mention Ashe, my precious child who I made sure to protect and encourage as the game went on. And Caspar, who I relate to a frightening amount.
I flew to the west coast this year to take care of my girlfriend Amber as she recovered from surgery and this was the game we played the most. As one of us would go through a story battle on-screen, we’d discuss the characters. At one point Amber mentioned how refreshing it was to have a cast of characters with room for both Marianne and Bernadetta; two characters with avoidant personalities due to a history of trauma, but who had been written very differently. Large casts like the one in Three Houses let writers avoid having any one character be a monolith of their own experience, and that’s something I hope to see more games do.
That, and unleashing phenomenal amounts of queer fanart on social media.
2. A Short Hike
You’re a bird person visiting your aunt at her cozy little house away from the city. You’re waiting for an important call, but the reception’s terrible. Oh that’s no problem, your aunt says! Just go up to the top of the mountain, you should get a signal there. Shouldn’t take too long, either; it’s a short hike.
And so you head out.
And along the way you meet the locals, who are either collecting shells, or inventing a rad new game, or running a club, or teaching a trade, or just going to the mountain for their own reasons. And the rest is what you make it; you can try to make a beeline for the top of the mountain, you can take your time and get to know everyone, you can pick a direction and start wandering and see what the island has in store for you. There’s no one way to find your way to the peak, and there’s no wrong way to get there.
It’s been a while since I’ve made a game--even a tiny one for Giant ROM, the community game jam I run here in the forums, which I had to skip this year due to exhaustion--and I’d love to get back at it one day. But when I get that chance again, A Short Hike is the kind of game I’d love to make. It has a nice low-res 3D aesthetic I adore because it’s enough to make the world come alive while still leaving plenty of room for your imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s a relaxing adventure that you can take at your own pace. It’s a story about depending on something you can’t affect.
Heads up: you should only read the rest of this section until after you’ve played the game, because I need to talk about a little thing that happens at the end. Go on, play it if you can! I’ll wait.
So the important call the protagonist was waiting for, turns out, was from her mom. She’d been in the hospital for an operation, an untold distance away, and our little bird friend was worried sick while waiting to hear back. And I get that! A lot. Because that’s what I do. I worry. I stress out about things I can’t control. My whole world stops while I’m wrestling with a specific source of anxiety that I can’t address myself. That’s how it was when I sat in the hospital this fall, waiting for the all-clear, wanting to confirm with my own eyes that Amber was okay. I cried the whole day.
And I kept crying even once I was at her side as she rested, but for a different reason. Being there for someone getting major surgery is a lot! I hadn’t realized it last year, from the other side of that experience. But it’s a very emotional time. You get these feelings--I get these feelings, where I know in my heart of hearts that I’m going to be there for someone, no matter what. And that’s so powerful.
I stayed with Amber for a month as she recovered, making sure she was okay. It was the longest I’d ever been away from home. Four weeks is a long time for a house mouse like me! Even once I was back in my apartment, where I’d been living for years now, I still felt out of place. I needed something to help me feel like I could finally let go. So I decided to stream a new game. I started up A Short Hike.
And I found my way home.
This is one of the last games I played this year, and it’s the most important. To think I almost missed it.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is an experience. Equal parts action game, auto-scroller and rhythm game, it’s an audiovisual tour-de-force. It’s also an hour-plus-long interactive music video about a girl chosen by the Stars; a lonely Fool who takes off in the night sky to right cosmic wrongs, break arcane hearts, ride the Wheel of Fortune, climb the Tower and face off against Death to restore Justice to the World.
It’s a heck of a ride! But it’s also a metaphor, and what you choose to see in it.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is about a girl who had her heart broken. A girl who lost hope. A girl who put on a mask so that she would never get hurt again. A girl who set out on a steel chariot into the middle of the night, picked a direction and just drove and drove and drove until she lost herself completely. A girl who resolved to break every heart she could to avenge her own.
It’s about how the foes we lash out at are often just parts of ourselves we’ve given up on embracing. About how the path to figuring ourselves out may take us back through familiar ground and among familiar faces and maybe this time, this time, we can meet those person-shaped obstacles with a kiss instead of a fist. Maybe this time, we can make peace with who we are, bit by bit, piece by piece, and slowly fill the person-shaped hole inside our heart.
Maybe this time we can accept the lost years, and move on. Let go of the past we couldn’t fix, and look forward. Shed the tears we need to shed for the world we knew, and start anew.
Every heart we break is our own. Every story I write has part of me in it. Every game I play, ever truly meaningful and memorable experience I have, reflects my own past back at me. I saw more of myself in Sayonara Wild Hearts than I was ready for, and I broke down crying, just like I did five years ago on that fateful night when I finally stopped running away from myself. This wasn't some cosmic design; the game wasn’t made for me specifically. It’s just an extremely honest experience that wears its heart on its sleeve, and invites the player to take a look within. And we humans are really good at finding meaning where we look for it.
And when we find meaning that resonates with us, it helps us soar to new heights. It’s a very powerful way to look at the world. And as always, it’s one we can get better at.
Here’s to making the most of whatever comes next. Here’s to making peace with our past and freeing ourselves of the masks keeping us from seeing who we truly are. Let’s pick ourselves back up. Let’s mend our broken hearts.
Let’s keep making wonderful things together. <3