Howdy folks, Jay Tholen here. You may know me from my work as lead designer/dev of Dropsy and Hypnospace Outlaw.
This year was a bit funky for me. After Hypnospace came out in March I was too darned burned out to get any work done, but also too guilty that I hadn't done said work to allow myself to play many new games. As such, my top 10 games of this year are drawn from a relatively small pool.
Normally I'm a bit of a peacenik hippy dippy guy nowadays with my playing choices, but a surprising number of old school first person shooters made the list. Maybe my subconscious gave the genre a pass because it didn't involve thinking. Anyway, here's the stuff:
I liked the music a whole lot and found UGG super charming on the whole. I was hoping for more of a systems driven, Hitman-esque thing over the cleverly disguised adventure game it ended up being. As with many games in this list, its attitude and aesthetic elevated the rest of the experience for me.
9. The Meanderthal #1 (actually just z_bill's whole schtick)
z_bill makes bite sized artsy games (usually low-res platformers) with higher res comic book panels inlaid to add narrative detail beyond what may be inferred from the 16x24 SNES-ish character sprites. It's a neat concept and I enjoyed his latest offering. The color choices, music, and bizarre character designs always take me to a place that is uniquely z_bill. He deserves a spot alongside other folks with unwieldy-but-cohesive oeuvres like thecatamites and Nathalie Lawhead.
I discovered this while scouring the Internet Archive for interesting games to stream and it completely rocks. A total hidden gem among mid-'90s CD-ROM FMV games. The puzzles are standard inventory based point and click fare, but who cares when the characters and performances are so deliciously exaggerated and entertaining. Just watch this intro sequence.
The low bitrate music loops are memorable because they're like 20 seconds each, so there's no way NOT to remember them. They're legitimately good in the most "this is what I remember Multimedia CD-ROM background music sounding like" way possible. Similarly, the pre-rendered 3D environments are beautiful and otherworldly in that Bryce 4.0 kinda way.
Bring back toxic sludge loving eco villains in 2020!
And All Would Cry Beware! is a one stage, Metroid inspired first person shooter. You trace the steps of a pulpy 1960s sci-fi flavored team of space colonizers through a colorful indie-pixel-arty alien world, picking up weapons that in turn act as keys to unlock new areas. Most areas contain new enemy types and a punctuating boss battle.
The music was a particular high point for me. It has that vibe of a person who is really into prog rock but only has a midi controller and janky free VSTs and makes it work anyway. That's not a slight, it's a genre that I legitimately love. Somebody coin a name for it and start a subreddit. I can still hum like half of the tracks from this OST like 5 months after playing.
AAWCB! has a super lean and contained scope. It gave me exactly what I wanted in its 90 minute playtime. A bit meatier than your average indie microgame, but not as much of a commitment as your $20 big indies. That's not to say it doesn't have its surprises; it was neat stumbling upon setpieces I'd initially assumed were inaccessible background fluff.
Renegade Sector Games are more like EPs and they know it, and I'm really digging the format. Grace Bruxner is also pioneering this, who would be on this list if her dadgummed Frog 2 game didn't come out TOMORROW.
The only other Pokeyman game I completed was Blue in 1998-1999. It was my world. Articuno was my favorite and I finally captured one on a wintertime family road trip through the Smoky Mountains. It was incredible.
In 2000 I flipped on it like the greasy, angsty 13-year-old jerk that I had become and made my own "Pikachu gets sliced by a saw" animation to show how stupid Pokémon was. (I also decided that rap sucks and Korn and Linkin Park ruled at around the same time.) In 2002ish I think I circled back around to liking Pokémon (and rap) but the damage was done and I'd never play another outside of ~20 minutes with a rom of Gold that I barely remember.
I didn't think this was possible but Pokémon Sword has successfully brought back a teeny tiny bit of the wonder I felt when discovering new areas and Pokémon as a tween. Almost every creature in the game is brand new to me and the wild area is wild.
When No Man's Sky's Next update added 4-person multiplayer I joined Xalavier Nelson Jr. for the game's introductory sections and we had a good time. We stopped playing online shortly after those tweets, but No Man's Sky stuck around as my go to decompression game and it still holds that title.
Breath of the Wild held that honor before NMS. In both games I'd just travel about while enjoying gently swaying grassy fields and god rays peeking through clouds, but No Man's Sky is the only one in which I could do all that while watching procedurally generated rhinos with tiny wings and buck teeth go about their business.
The Beyond update released earlier this year improved the early missions of the game and added a whole bunch of MMO-esque multiplayer features. It also added the ability to milk and ride the creatures. I barely mess with any of the new stuff, but No Man's Sky is my most played game of 2019, so it needs to be on here somewhere.
Folks who know more than me about what makes first-person shooters good have already explained what makes Dusk one of the best, so I'm just gonna hit y'all with what I enjoyed about it most: the levels. There are so many novel, surprising, dingy, charming locales in this game. Escher Labs in act 2 was particularly inventive, but there's something to love about every map except for maybe the Ratacombs.
It's very brown and grey and red, but in a good way, like this motherflippin' sweet Creed music video.
I enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas more than any other Obsidian or Bethesda RPG, so I was jazzed beyond belief to get my hands on The Outer Worlds. My first 2 or 3 hours with TOW were electric as I explored its well-considered character creator and starting areas. A short way into sidequestin' on the second large hub I became disappointed that its writing and worldbuilding weren't as fleshed out or consistent as I'd hoped. It wasn't scratching that New Vegas itch.
Something clicked back into place as I continued playing, and I ended up really liking the thing as a few of the final plot elements started to converge. Maybe I dropped my desire for New Vegas 2 and accepted it for what it is? I also turned the sound effects and voices way down so the music nearly drowned them out. I recommend playing that way because the soundtrack is great.
I still find sections of the game uninspired, but what they did well, they did really well. The companion sidequests were a highlight and the combat was always enjoyable. The ~25 hour playtime was perfect.
I have almost no recollection of Blood from the 1990s, which is odd because Duke 3D-loving kid me would've eaten it up. May have been too spooky looking, or maybe too demonic? Didn't take much to freak lil' Jay out.
I do have one vague Blood related memory: My ol' elementary school pal Joey quoted Caleb's introductory "I LIVE.... AGAIN" line all the frickin' time. It was annoying then, but I get it now and find myself tempted to continue the tradition. I won't, but it does live on inside me. Stephan Weyte killed it as Caleb and everything he says sounded impossibly cool and evil.
While Blood certainly aims for ~sick and twisted~, it does so in a humorous, charming, good natured way. It's kinda cute, even. Maybe it didn't seem so lighthearted 23 years ago? I can't tell. It's just cute to me. Especially those adorable cutscenes in which all the characters look like smushed dough or a melting novelty ice cream cake.
As with Dusk, the arsenal and baddies are well balanced (with the exception of those nasty ol' hitscanning cultists) and memorable, but Blood's levels blew my 30-year-old boomer gamer socks off. Its boxy, 2.5D approximations of real world places fascinate me. Blood's carnivals, old timey train stations, haunted houses, morgues, lighthouses, spooky forests, and snowy hedge mazes are lovingly crafted dioramas, packed with as much detail as a build engine game of its day could handle.
1/6th scale models of all build engine levels should be in an art museum. They'd be beautiful. Nobody would visit the museum and it'd go out of business but wow that'd be cool for me to look at.
Crossniq+ is what happens if Max Krieger, the dude responsible for that cool Cheesecake Factory design thread and that cool Epcot design thread, decides to make a y2k influenced puzzle game. Watch this trailer:
Crossniq+ is chock full of visuals and sounds that emanate the spirit of early 2000s tech and rave culture. Real Dreamcast DDR shenanigans going on here, and it feels like time travel. I never even knew I wanted to go back there. The resurgence of y2k aesthetics has been bubbling up over the last few years through the work of CARI and the prolific cataloguing work done by Froyo Tam and Evan Collins. Crossniq+ is almost certainly early to whatever nostalgia fueled Vaporwave-esque aesthetic movement awaits us.
Crossniq+ also stands on its own as a relaxing, tightly designed puzzle game. It contains a litany of modes and options, my favorite being the Chill Out mode with its set of pleasantly kitschy themed boards. It's perfect for the Switch, and I highly suggest touch controls if you're playing in portable mode.
Would've Possibly been on My List if I'd Played Them
These games are my bag but are maybe too thinky or demanding for me right now. I've been avoiding anything that requires significant time or brain investment. That or I just didn't get to em. Maybe next year. :'(
15. Risk of Rain 2
14. Anodyne 2
13. 10 Beautiful Postcards
12. What the Golf?
11. Frog Detective 2
10. Baba Is You
9. Outer Wilds
8. Eagle Island
7. Citizens of Space
6. Sumatra: Fate of Yandi
5. Nowhere Prophet
4. Luigi's Mansion 3
2. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (released last year, meant to get to it this year. aw well)
1. Disco Elysium
Games That Stank
1. Painkiller (2004)
How do ya'll seriously like this one so much?