By now you probably know Jeff Bakalar. He was the guy hanging around the Giant Bomb East studio so much that they eventually asked him to co-host the Giant Beastcast. Then one day a pandemic hit and everyone left. He wanted that rotating chair to stop spinning so bad, well guess what, joke’s on him now.
Right, so now that the dark prophecy has completed and I’ve moved over full time, it seems appropriate that my 2021 list be mostly video games and not some other collection of things I really like and want to force you to read about.
Full disclosure though, a couple pinball machines found their way on my list this year because they are great games that deserve the attention. You didn’t think I’d let this whole thing be console or PC did you? Aww, you’re silly.
10. Phantom Abyss
What if Legends of the Hidden Temple was really dangerous, procedurally-generated and actually winnable? That’s Phantom Abyss for you in a nutshell. This one took me completely by surprise and I became hopelessly addicted to its weird dungeon enemies, grappling whip and the rinse-repeat loop. Easy to play, supremely difficult to master was the mantra for me during my time with it. I loved the idea that once you died in a run you’d never see the same sequence of traps and rooms again.
9. The Mandalorian (Stern Pinball, premium edition)
This is the way! Right? Is that a thing they say in the Mandalorian? I don’t know! Why? Cause I’ve never seen the show, I’ve only played the pinball machine. In the same way my son’s first exposure to Willy Wonka was through pinball, I’ve only learned about Mando through Stern’s game.
The Mandalorian has a really busy lower playfield which will burn you if you don’t get your shots fine-tuned, but has an ultra-rewarding ruleset if you play disciplined. It also features a unique drop-down scoop that is one of the most satisfying shots around. New code roll-outs has definitely benefited the game’s flow, so make sure you take your time with this one if you find one in the wild.
8. Forza Horizon 5
I slept on Forza Horizon 5 having bounced off the previous installment soon after first checking it out. But Forza 5 stuck with me for a good month, partly because my son really dug driving around off-road and the fact that the game would say his name out loud – which yeah, is pretty cool.
It goes without saying that Forza 5 looks absolutely freaking incredible on a 3080 in 4K and is probably neck and neck with Ratchet and Clank as the year’s best-looking. But what I think Forza 5 does most impressively is funnel down what can feel like an overwhelming amount of detail, XP and perks into an overall digestible experience.
7. Solar Ash
Oh man I love Solar Ash’s skating-on-jelly-clouds vibe. Just a supremely strange game that instantly spoke to me and had me playing regularly til completion. Everything about it just felt so thoroughly realized and fresh. And if we really want to get super granular, this game’s got the best transitions out there!
6. Godzilla (Stern Pinball, premium edition)
I’m kind of speechless with Stern’s last game of 2021, Godzilla. It’s not necessarily a theme I care much about, but the gameplay in this one is just on a different level. Godzilla has a 3-story collapsible building in the upper-playfield that acts as a ball ramp diverter as well as a lock for one of the many multiball modes.
Designer Keith Elwin placed a single pop bumper above the right slingshot for some truly unpredictable action, not to mention the rounded magnetic ball grab that feeds an upper flipper and mega-satisfying top orbit. The game’s got toys and gimmicks galore, a rotating spinner and target ramp and a wildly complete set of modes and depth.
For a pinball game out of the box to have such layered and complete code is wild, but Godzilla does and it's an instant-classic in my book. A must-play if you see it out there.
Deathloop earns praise from me just because of the way its design handled the idea of a time loop. And sure, you could argue that the “loop” gets fudged with so much that it kind of isn’t a loop at all. But for me, it’s a more intriguing jumping-off point as a narrative device than anything else.
The game oozes with style and did a really impressive job with conveying its intimidating logic at the start. Deathloop speaks its own language but has a remarkable teaching strategy that onboards you fairly painlessly. If anything, Deathloop came and went in what felt like a single weekend, which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but we’ll have to wait and see if that cycle shortens its legacy.
4. Death’s Door
I think Death’s Door is the biggest surprise on the list for me, especially considering how high it landed. Save for the lack of a much-needed map in my opinion, Death’s Door is nearly the complete package in every sense, truly nibbling at the heels of a traditional Zelda game in all the best ways.
It ticked every box I'm interested in, serving up complicated and strange bosses, weird mansions and areas to explore, and a set of upgrades that felt important.
3. Resident Evil Village
Give me a new Resident Evil in the vein of 7 and 8 on a regular basis and I’ll be happy the rest of my life. I’m so into this “era” of RE that I’m already itching for 9. RE8 was the perfect blend of gross, stupid and yet undeniable fun.
It’s satiating the campy horror quota I find myself looking to fill, but pads the stats with a healthy smattering of puzzles, side quests and what I will selfishly call “pinball-adjacent” labyrinthine gameplay.
Straight-up, Resident Evil does all the things that I really like. Give me keys, weird horror, spooky basements, puzzles inside impossible rooms, a few memorable enemies and I’m set.
2. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart
What a damn joy it was playing Rift Apart side by side with my son for the months that we were able to spread our playthrough across. I’d always bounced off Ratchet and Clank titles well before their end in the past, but Rift Apart spiced things up in a way that prevented the experience from going stale.
Looking back, it just felt like a series of jaw-dropping climactic moments sandwiched between gorgeous environments and wild sequences of explosions and chaos. There was also skating!
But what I really loved about the game is that we were able to make it our own by letting my son choose our weapon and upgrades path, and also allowing him to decide how we’d fashion all of the golden bolt perks we unlocked along the way.
Rift Apart also had a lot of heart, and that definitely resonated with my kid. He was glued to the action (of course), but the cutscenes earned their attention in a really positive way too.
1. Psychonauts 2
Seriously, how on earth did this game deliver on the hype? I have no idea but you absolutely love to see it. Here we are 16 years later after the original and Psychonauts 2 feels fresh and relevant, with a story that engaged both myself and my kid.
Aside from evolving its gameplay to a more open world and contemporary structure, Psychonauts 2 impressed the hell out of me with its wildly diverse set of experiences and refusal to rely on repeat tropes. There’s so much attention to art direction and clever environmental storytelling packed in here too, which in my opinion makes it, pound for pound, a more memorable experience overall.
And that’s why Psychonauts 2 gets the number one spot. It’s the game that’s stayed with me the most this year, well after my time with it.