Erik Wolpaw is the writer of two of the greatest video game-related things of all time: the Portal series, and this Final Fight One review. He also co-founded Old Man Murray, previously worked at Valve, and is involved in the upcoming sequel to Psychonauts. He never uses Twitter, but we're once again linking to his account anyway, in the hopes it might shame him into tweeting more (it won't).
After leaving Valve in February, my niece Jodie gave me a job at her vegan juice shop in Cleveland. Turns out I picked a great year to abandon the cesspool entertainment industry and enter the my-niece-Jodie’s-vegan-juice-shop industry. People have asked me what it’s like to go from making games to making juice. Beats me. You don’t just walk in and start making the juice. The juice is the show. I do juice deliveries. I can say that one important difference between making games for Gabe Newell and delivering juice for my niece Jodie is that one of those two things pays a lot, lot more than the other. The upside--other than, again, not being affiliated with the Entertainment-Harassment Complex--is that I’m done with work by noon, so I’ve had a lot more time to spend with my family and, once that’s over, play games. That said, there are a huge bunch of games I didn’t play this year and won’t play until they’re on sale, so don’t take this list as definitive. As in previous years, I’m picking from games I played this year, not necessarily games that came out this year. Also, the games aren’t in any particular order, except for #1, which is actually #1.
10. Forza Horizon 3
According to Wikipedia, this came out in September 2016, so here we go already with the old games. I wanted to play it on the PC, but I bought it on the Xbox the day it came out because my PC was broken and the game was supposedly cross-buy. When I got my computer back a few days later, I went into the windows store to download my supposedly free copy of Forza Horizon 3. Nothing. I monkeyed around with the store UI for an hour and then gave up in frustration. At this point there’s a time jump like in season 1 of Fargo and suddenly it’s Summer 2017. I fire up the windows store for some reason, and there, magically, is my copy of Forza. It’s a testament to how good the game is that it’s on this list even after factoring in the horrible Windows store, which is one of the worst experiences of my life--and I had my colon removed to treat ulcerative colitis. In retrospect, since finishing that last sentence, I’ve realized getting my colon removed was a lot worse than operating the Windows store, but the point is Forza Horizon 3 is really great.
9. Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth
What’s new and different in Etrian Odyssey V? I have no idea. For all I know, every few years some guy in Japan fires up Photoshop, deletes the number on the current Etrian Odyssey title screen, draws a number one bigger, then leans back and does that sideways up and down open-palmed hand-smacking gesture that’s the universal symbol for “job well done”. Anyway, God bless that guy, because I love these games. Or game.
8. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
I have a soft spot for linear corridor shooters, but I’m too much of an insufferable fancy pants to play any of the recent Call of Duty games. Over the last two years there was a minor renaissance for this genre, with Titanfall 2, which I didn’t play, Prey, which I didn’t play, and Wolfenstein II, which I did play. Best of all, I somehow missed all of the pre-release hype for this game. I genuinely had no idea it was coming, and then suddenly there it was. As a shooter, it’s pretty meat-and-potatoes. It gets the job done and that’s about it. But the story, presentation, and acting are all great. It’s got a terrific mix of over-the-top nuttiness and genuine emotion. This scene--simultaneously gory, absurd and heartfelt--is emblematic of the game’s tone. It’s also a spoiler. And not safe for work or for linking to or talking about in public. Though if you do watch it at work or mention it online and people get outraged, feel free to blame me. I don’t have a social media presence, I’m not building a brand, I’m not trying to sell anybody anything, and I’m just barely employed by a relative who can’t afford to fire me, so I’m more or less impervious to modern mob justice.
7. Demon Gaze II
I discovered Wizardry right around the same age it first occurred to me that I like breasts. The Demon Gaze series combines the tick-tock dungeon crawling of Wizardry with pictures of boobs. It seems like a pretty open and shut case for inclusion on my top 10. Unfortunately, all these warm, busty dungeon feelings are complicated by Demon Gaze II’s newly added rubbing mechanic. For those of you who aren’t, like me, engaged in a heroic effort to play every Japanese porn RPG on the Vita, “rubbing mechanic” is pretty much just what it sounds like. The game shows you a picture of a scantily clad woman and then you have to frantically rub the screen to please or sometimes “punish” her. There’s a fine line between the civilized appreciation of tasteful near-nudity and things people do to pass the time between serially killing people. Honestly, the line’s not even that fine and you can’t actually see it from how far into the serial killer side rubbing is. All in my opinion. Rubbing fans, rub yourself silly. I’m not judging. Unless you actually get caught chopping up bodies behind a truck stop in Ohio and I get picked for the jury. Plus--and I’m talking directly to you now, Japanese porn RPG designer--after a stressful dungeon run, I want to luxuriate at my leisure in your game’s anime cheesecake. I don’t want to do it under time pressure with two fingers covering eighty percent of the screen. Jesus.
So: Demon Gaze II’s biggest new feature is morally suspect and mechanically stupid. On the other hand, it’s sort of optional and uses button presses instead of actual rubbing. Should Demon Gaze II be included in this year’s Top 10? Look up a few inches at the words printed next to the number 7 for the surprising answer!
6. The Binding of Isaac
Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.
Much like Jesus’ scenic-route revenge on Caesar, I’m arriving kind of late on this one. But Isaac did technically come out this year on the Switch. Which I bought in the short, exhilarating period after I quit Valve and before I realized I need to stop buying luxury items like the Switch. Regardless, I don’t regret either purchase. I actually played this when it originally came out on the PC, but it’s the Switch version that finally hooked me. Hard. I probably played more BoI than any other game this year, and it’s the only one I’ll still be playing next year. In a just world, it would be #1 on this list.
5. Xenoblade Chronicles 2
You’re probably going to interpret the fact that this game is number 5 on my top 10 list as some sort of endorsement, but… Eh, I don’t know. I just got it and honestly haven’t played a lot of it. So far, it’s mostly a string of twelve minute cutscenes. I’m including it because I loved the first one and I vaguely remember it started the same way. If you’re the type of person who immediately buys every game on the Wolpaw top 10 list, maybe hold off on this one.
4. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
You want to read another glowing Zelda blurb about as much as I want to write one. In fact, you probably read as far as the capital Z and skipped down to Mario and didn’t want to hear any more about that and are currently reading about Nioh. Since I’m talking to myself now, I’m just going to transcribe the internal monologue that occupies a big portion of my average work day. The topic: Could I beat up my employer? First up: Boss emeritus, Gabe Newell. He has the size and strength, but I’ve got speed. If he manages to get a hold of me and take it to the ground, I’m dead. But if I can keep my distance and harass him with jabs to the lower back, I have a chance. He may be a genius bear-sized billionaire, but he’s still got human kidneys. After thirteen years of speculating about it, I put the odds of beating up Gabe Newell at 30/70. Not great, but not totally out of the question. The problem is, even if I win, he’s rich enough to buy his way out of a couple of murders. Has he used up his murder allotment already? Unknown. Would me beating him in a fight antagonize him enough to waste one of his murders on me? Unknown. As much as it pains me to admit it, one way or another, I lose this matchup all day long.
3. Super Mario Odyssey
Next up: My current boss, my niece Jodie. Here’s the tale of the tape: She’s a vegan woman. I’m a man who eats meat--two big natural advantages. On paper, a fist fight against my niece Jodie does not end well for her. Unfortunately for me and anybody who read the tale of the tape and immediately called their sports book to put money on me, my niece Jodie is also a U.S. Army vet with several years of full time formal murder training. This fight would last just as long as it took Jodie to close the distance between where I threw the first punch and however far I managed to run. It’d be a massacre. It’d be Brawl in Cell Block 99 and she’d be Vince Vaughn and I’d be a soupy mishmash of all the heads Vince Vaughn squished with his foot plus the car he beat up. It’d be as lopsided a fight as me vs my ex-ex-boss Tim Schafer, who I could fuck up. Bad. I like Tim, but this is business. To quote Roadhouse: They’d be sweeping up eyeballs.
According to my PS4, I played this for well over a hundred hours. And I have no idea what was happening during any of them. I could not skip the cutscenes fast enough. So the Nioh cutscene team gets an F. The gameplay team, however, earns two big thumbs up on my letter and thumbs scale. Yes, Nioh’s basically a SoulsBorne clone, but it distinguishes itself with some really smart combat tweaks and a Diablo-style loot system. The combat is fluid and crisp and endlessly satisfying, and the loot system gives some real purpose to the generous postgame content. One of the DLCs even adds a Bloodborne-esque roguelike “dungeon” crawl with a tense weapon-wagering system. Like Bloodborne’s chalice dungeons, it has a few problems. But I’m hopeful they’ll fix those in Nioh 2, something that won’t be possible in Bloodborne 2, because that’s never coming out. Let’s face it, the teaser From released during the Game Awards is probably a Tenchu reboot.
1. Yakuza 0
I’d never played a Yakuza game before this one, and boy do I feel stupid about that now. These things are great! It’s an established fact that Final Fight is the best game ever made, and this is basically an operatic reinterpretation of Final Fight as an entire lifestyle. It’s an open world brawler with a simple but broad and satisfying fighting mechanic mixed with about a hundred intertwined sub-systems. Batting cages, lady wrestling leagues, a real estate management sim, mahjong, dance contests, plus who can even remember what else--fishing, obviously--all fleshed out just enough to be fun. The story seesaws between earnest crime melodrama and traditional Japanese lunacy. And it all works. There’s a ton of cutscenes and I don’t think I skipped a single one, which is unprecedented for me. One second you’re swearing sincere blood oaths and then suddenly you’re on a quest to help a ten-year-old buy porn. And evidently a second Yakuza game came out this year and another one comes out in 2018, all of which makes me snake-handling levels of ecstatic.
Well, that’s it. I’m out of the game industry and have no plans to return. Unless you own a yoga studio in northeast Ohio that sells juice, it’s possible we won’t talk again. If not, these last twenty years have been an honor and a privilege. Merry Christmas!