Jeff Gerstmann keeps saying he's going to watch RoboCop again over the break, but you and I both know that he's not going to get that done.
Even in a year as eventful as this one was for me, personally, I never really know what to write at the top of this thing. Like it's always supposed to be some kind of preamble that speaks to the year in games with some kind of wistful/ look back at the last 12 months. This year was a mess in a lot of ways, but I don't think it could have been handled any differently. My wife went through a long, rough pregnancy for about half the year, then we had a kid, and she's absolutely incredible. I mean, they both are, really. I took the company-allotted six weeks off, which simultaneously felt like way too much time and an impossibly short time to get used to being a father and heading back to work, leaving my wife to keep things together at home while I do so. That six weeks is almost certainly the most time off I've had since 2007, which was the most time off I'd had since 1996.
I was 21 then, and had more or less been poking around the game journalism thing for about four years. If you had told me that borrowing the Sega CD that Sega sent to Glenn Rubenstein for review right before launch in late 1992 would've ended up partially leading me to this spot... well, I actually have no idea how to finish that sentence because the whole thing has been too weird and too hectic to even stop and consider. Now I'm doing this and I'm pretty sure Glenn is the guy who keeps placing Bluechew ads onto all the wrestling podcasts I'm listening to these days. That... well, that actually makes perfect sense.
This was a good year for new video games. Not the best, but far better than it could have been. A lot of uncharted territory got charted this year. You've got PlayStation and Xbox people playing video games on the same servers. Some of the fruits of this wild year will only begin to be felt in 2020 and beyond. Microsoft--you know, the Minecraft people--put Cuphead on Nintendo's Switch. The PlayStation people are gearing up to put their baseball game on platforms that they don't own. Someone, somewhere, will be convinced to fund Hideo Kojima's next video game. We're living in a wild time. I hope we make it out the other end stronger than ever and can look back on a lot of this shit and say, "hey, these were the video games (music, movies, whatever) that I leaned on when I needed to be distracted from some impossibly dumb world events."
If you asked me to build this list tomorrow, it might be a different list. That's mostly because there were a lot of games I felt at least pretty good about this year, making some of the lower spots on the list feel a little interchangeable. Also that probably speaks to the fact that a lot of my favorite games this year have flaws, big and small.
I never got good at Noita, and I may never get good at Noita, but I really enjoy watching the way its systems interact. I like getting drenched in blood to put out a fire, or watching smoke accumulate at the top of a cave because I've made some horrible mistakes down below. I like the way I get completely frantic when things pop off in Noita, making my already loose grip on the game's control completely fall off a cliff. I usually die when that happens, but sometimes I don't. Those times are the good times.
9. Baba Is You
We've talked for years about puzzle games that either make you feel like the smartest person alive (Portal) or a complete idiot for missing the now-obvious solution (Portal 2). Baba Is You is a game that does both, oftentimes within minutes of each other. When I'm up in Baba Is You, I'm up big. I'm solving puzzles and writing a language that only the game and I need to understand. When I'm down in Baba Is You, I might as well be banging two rocks together. I'll probably never finish this game, but that's OK. That just means I have more levels to return to someday.
The aesthetics of Hypnospace Outlaw throw back to a future past that never existed, but it sure manages to capture the feel of that long-gone internet, when everyone was a "creator" by default because nothing actually existed yet. Something about editing static HTML pages to update, like, a meaningless list of album reviews that no one would ever read still managed to feel important into the mid-1990s. Hypnospace Outlaw's characters and designs manage to capture that "I need to get this out there because it's the most important thing happening in the world right now" vibe that a lot of pre-blog internet content captured back then. Also it's embarrassing, just like actual homepages of the era were. I like that Hypnospace Outlaw manages to tell a fascinating story along the way, but I didn't actually need it. Just seeing the writing and characters and "hidden" pages was plenty.
Gosh, at one point I probably would have considered this game to be at least #2 on this list, if not the top game. But The Outer Worlds starts strong and falters fast. The writing peaks a little too early, and the choices at your disposal go from novel to mechanical around the game's middle third. But I'm still something of a sucker for this type of thing. Watching all the strings you can pull and watching the story react to your choices, matched with some pretty good action, kept me feeling pretty good about The Outer Worlds.
Super Mario Maker 2 is not as impactful as Super Mario Maker was, but then I'd probably consider Super Mario Maker to be one of the best things to come along in the last two generations of consoles, so that's kind of a high bar to best. There's nothing insurmountably wrong with Super Mario Maker 2. There were some missteps with the multiplayer modes and adapting the creation suite to the Switch ended up making level creation feel a little more cumbersome than it did before, but ultimately, the real problem is that I probably spent a thousand hours making and playing levels in the first game. I kinda got my fill, I guess. So this time, I've been happy to lay back and play levels instead of making them.
Look, people make games like this all the time now. They came back into vogue and are probably on their way out again by now. So I'm a little surprised that I like Bloodstained as much as I do. It feels like a billion developers wrote their love letter to Symphony of the Night over the last 10 years. I might have assumed that this would be "another one of those," but it's so weird around the edges and so layered that it really stands out. It's an effective homage to SOTN without feeling slavishly devoted to it. Figures that the guy who helmed all those great Castlevania games would still have something clever up his sleeve.
It's great to finally be able to play Call of Duty on the PC without ending up in some kind of mouse vs. controller situation. Crossplay and input-based matchmaking inject a ton of new life into the game this year, but it's probably the lack of a season pass that signals the most important change. The game feels fresh because it's already been updated multiple times with multiple new maps. The multiplayer hoppers rotate on an ongoing basis, introducing new modes mere weeks after the game's release. It feels fresh and alive in a way that the previous games didn't. On top of that, the competitive multiplayer is snappy, exciting, and fun. I'm doing all the dumb little things that I'd ignore in a bad year. I'm unlocking reticles and camos and all of that crap. It's a great time.
The campaign? Also a good time, delivering that type of edgy-but-ultimately-mindless action that you'd expect from a big budget movie. It's a damn shame that the co-op is such a wreck--if that mode made good on its spec ops promises, then this would almost certainly be the best game released all year.
Like many before me, I bailed on my early attempts at a college education in favor of a trip to luxurious, glamorous, Reno, NV. But I'd be willing to bet that most of those poor souls didn't bounce on their classes in order to go play an early version of Mortal Kombat 3 at an arcade convention. Gotta say: Totally worth it.
By the time Mortal Kombat 4 came along, I was already working at GameSpot, and we went to the MK4 Truck Tour to see a version of the game in action. It was... disappointing. Midway would eventually exit the shrinking arcade business and really focus on the home market, leading to Mortal Kombat: Deception. The fighting in that era of Mortal Kombat ended up being interesting in pitches and on paper, but in practice I only played as much of it as I needed to to unlock all the extras and play through the huge host of modes that kept getting bolted onto every installment.
Point being, for awhile it seemed like the glory days of Mortal Kombat were behind it. Those first three arcade games were astounding. Everything after that felt kind of superfluous and bogged down with a bunch of bad characters and awkward stance changes. Then it all got rebooted again. Mortal Kombat 11 more or less closes out a trilogy of games that started with the reboot of the franchise in MK9. MK11 practically reboots the reboot by mashing the current age characters up against their Mortal Kombat II-era counterparts. This creates a really fun and nostalgic journey to the franchise's goofy past. It's what would happen if you took the action movie hero squad of the Fast & Furious today and dropped them in with the cast and tone of 2 Fast 2 Furious, if that helps dial it in for you. I mean, it probably doesn't. But here we are.
The story in MK11 pushes all the right buttons to create exciting moments that set things off in new directions, only to wipe it all away by the end. In a sense, the story is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. The new directions were pretty interesting, but an actual blank slate sounds way more interesting, especially when you consider that MK11 feels like something of a mastery of what we currently think of as "the NetherRealm fighting game." Mortal Kombat is a franchise that, for better or worse, has reinvented itself multiple times over the course of its lifespan. It's probably time for a larger gameplay overhaul.
MK11 makes a ton of smart changes across the board that make it more playable and exciting than the games NetherRealm has done over the last couple of console generations. I could talk to you at length about the great tutorial or how neat the different move variations are or about the smart ways they changed up the types of meters you have and how they're used. But at the end of the day, it's a cool-ass game that caps off an exciting trilogy of fighting games and leaves me wondering what they'll do next. Once they're done making a third Injustice game, I mean.
2. Apex Legends
It's easy to sit and assume that a genre is "done" and that the major players in a particular space haven't left any oxygen behind for a new competitor. This is certainly how I felt last year, with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds sparking off a revolution that Fortnite would quickly ape and evolve. Now, god, Fortnite is some big, weird marketing vehicle for huge film properties or something. Fortnite is everywhere. That's interesting, but I like video game-ass video games. You know who makes some kick-ass video games? Respawn Entertainment makes some kick-ass video games. Also I never got good at building in Fortnite and generally don't care for the movement or shooting, but look, let's move on, OK?
Apex Legends takes the "hero shooter" approach to battle royale by adding specific characters with specific passive and active abilities. It dropped out of nowhere, brought in a great voiceless communication system that helps make this team-focused game work on platforms where players don't often speak to each other, and for a bit there it seemed like it was taking over the world.
Apex Legends might not take over the world, but it's also the only battle royale game I still wanted to play in 2019. It shipped with a great map, adding a second good one down the line. The new characters were interesting, adding more strategy and synergy between characters and abilities. Like Respawn's Titanfall games, the shooting feels great. It's kind of a can't-miss situation... though the team has bungled up its attempts at selling skins and stuff like that multiple times over the last year.
I might not be playing a ton of Apex these days, but I'm keeping it installed and I try every event they launch. It's the battle royale game I want to have within reach at all times. I've had a really great time with it so far.
They should make a Titanfall 3 someday, but even if "someday" isn't 2020, I'm still looking forward to playing more Apex Legends as the game continues to evolve.
Kinda weird that Control hit me as hard as it did, considering how utterly disappointing I found Quantum Break. Actually, maybe that's not all that weird. QB's pacing was a nightmare due to it "featuring" dull-length TV episodes between gameplay chapters. The gameplay was also plodding and sluggish, like someone was trying to make the opposite of a Platinum game. Control's gunplay and abilities aren't exactly Bayonetta, but Jesse Fayden moves well and shoots better. Her arsenal is effective and interesting to use. But it's the world building in Control that makes it so over-the-top great.
I love The Oldest House. Everything from the premise to the reasons why they don't use modern technology there to the way it's laid out all work together to give it a sense of place that so many video game environments lack. You also get to legitimately explore it due to the game's passable-but-not-hand-holdy map system. The signs on the walls tell you where to go and that makes up the bulk of what you'll need to get around. While you explore, you'll find tons of really well-written collectibles that flesh out things even further, whether they're setting you up for a side quest you might see later or just building out that world just a little bit more. The whole thing is wildly captivating. I couldn't get enough of it while I was playing it, but at the same time I feel like I missed just enough stuff to make some further exploration worthwhile.
I do think the last moments of gameplay in the story are a little flat, and there are some uneven spots along the way that expose some shortcomings in the combat, but those didn't damper my spirits one bit. I absolutely loved Control and it's most definitely the best game that came out this year.
OK, what else? Well, I certainly played some other games this year that stood out, sometimes for different reasons. Some games didn't make the cut this year but might develop into something that hits it in 2020. So the Early Access games I'm keeping an eye on right now are...
Uh... not gonna lie here, I totally can't remember which one of these is which. Maybe they should join forces to make a Super Skate or something, I don't know. Either way, both of these games have control systems with potential and I'd love to see a sharp skateboarding sim.
I'm not quite in the habit of looking at the Epic Game Store on a regular basis just yet, so while I had Hades installed for the last year or so, I only checked in on it in fits and starts. The team at Supergiant delivered a great first build, and every time I looked back in on it, the new developments, areas, and story seemed like they were heading in the right direction. There's a tight, snappy feel to Hades that, when combined with its run-based nature, kinda reminds me of Dead Cells in a weird way. I need to spend some more time with it.
Like Hades, I kept this installed for a long time but didn't spend much time with it aside from the times we played and recorded it. My first impression was pretty negative, but after sticking with it, I started coming around on it. Hopefully it'll keep heading in that direction in 2020.
<BLINK>IF YOU MADE IT THIS FAR, YOU GET TO READ ABOUT THE IDLE GAME OF THE YEAR</BLINK>
It's Time Warpers, the game that managed to put some first-person shooter gameplay back into an idle game. It's neat! I left it running for over 1,700 hours, making it my most "played" Steam game. Whoops. I'm also still fucking with Tap Titans 2 but they've added "raids" and "exotic pets" and "pet quests" and things that feel like they're scrambling to come up with new ways for you to spend money. I tried out some NGU Idle but I don't know, it's neat but not really doing it for me. Even Egg Inc. is futzing around with some monetization stuff and other changes to co-op events that I'm not too sure about. The time is right for a new mobile game to come along and claim the throne, I think.
It’s the Sega CD core, which burst onto the scene fairly recently but also marks the first time the platform has loaded images of CD-ROMs. If you read the intro to this article and didn’t just skip down to the bottom to read about Time Warpers, then you’ll know that the ol’ Sega CD holds some sway around these parts. And by that I mean the Sega CD is kind of shitty, but it’s a kind of shitty that I’m 100% onboard with. It was formative for me, I guess. It was simultaneously a step forward into “good” consoles having optical drives while also feeling like the last gasp of the old “multimedia” craze that plagued the early 90s and platforms like the CD-i and 3DO.
I put in the time to write out a full list of trap times for Night Trap before the game was released. Now you might be thinking that this fact makes me a bad person. And I cannot be certain, dear friends, that you are mistaken. But it does mean that I hold a special place in my heart for all that awful, compressed FMV and “attitudinal” 1990s-ass game design. It’s nice to have it on a convenient and exciting platform like the MiSTer. I mean, if we, as a society, aren’t working towards a low-latency, cycle-accurate place to play Sega CD games, what are we even doing, right?
I hope your 2019 was good. I hope all of our 2020s are better.