Another year, another list. While 2018 in gaming didn't reach the emotional highs of last year, there was plenty of good old-fashioned fun to be had. The main entries on this list were released in 2018, but I also included some honorable old games that I enjoyed too much to ignore. Also, don't worry too much about the specific numbering, because I switched some around just between drafting this and putting the list together. They're bound to shift around some more.
Let's get to it!
I’m not a huge fan of the Metroid school of game design. At the best of times, Troid-likes can be satisfying and rewarding, but many fall into the traps of unclear direction and aggravating punishments for failure. Yoku’s Island Express takes a decidedly more laid-back approach to the genre, combined with a pinball twist. What a stroke of inspiration, by the way.
Yoku isn’t the most challenging game, but that’s a welcome change for me after spending significant time in other Troid-likes bashing my head against progression walls. There are secrets and side activities, but you won't want to tear your hair out. The world is inviting, unlike something like Hollow Knight, and there’s no real penalty for missing a paddle swing. Yoku just wants you to go with the flow, which is all right by me.
9. Mega Man 11
What do you do when making a Mega Man 11? Do you stick to series formula like Glue Man (who is probably a robot master at some point)? Or do you attempt to radically innovate to compensate for the extended hiatus of everyone’s favorite blue robot? This was the position that Capcom found themselves in, and I can’t be too unhappy with the result.
Mega Man 11 is considerably more demanding than Yoku, but I never felt like it reached the difficulty of the NES games of yore. Even on Normal mode, with a conservative distribution of checkpoints, the game gives you plenty of options to overcome its challenges. For the purists, Mega Man 11 still offers what you would expect from an entry in the classic series. The double gear mechanic feels more like a crutch than anything else, though – I would love to see it expanded on should Mega Man 12 come out before too long.
Traditional fighters are not my jam, but the latest in an endless sea of Dragon Ball games offers something for even the newbies. The bar for “making something cool happen” is set extremely low, so button-mashers like myself can delight in the game’s eye-melting colors.
However, I never played too too much of the game. I didn't take it super seriously, and by the time my PS Plus subscription ran out, I wasn’t moved to re-up. The single player mode is also pretty dreadful, but I wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting a quick fix of blonde dudes yelling and big explosions, and the game delivered on that and then some.
I basically marathoned Yakuzas 0, Kiwami, and 6 this summer, and I’ve really come to love the series. Yakuza 6 is the only one really eligible for the list since it came out in 2018, but it’s fighting a tough battle against 0 for my favorite. Yakuza 6 has Ono Michio-Kun and a sparkly new engine; Yakuza 0 has Pocket Circuit, real estate, and Miracle Johnson.
Unfortunately for Yakuza 6, I prefer 0 in the most important areas. The fighting, story, and side activities are more entertaining, which is where it really counts. Not that 6 is especially bad in those areas – I especially enjoy the ineffective Yakuza clubhouse headed by Beat Takeshi – but it just doesn’t reach the same heights. Plus, there is practically no Majima in Yakuza 6, a sin near unforgivable.
Honorable Old Game #1: Yakuza 0
God, this game is so good.
I have a penchant for things that can enjoy pure stupidity while being earnest enough to take itself seriously. It’s a paradox in its own right, and seemingly an impossibly small line between obnoxious gags and bad edginess. Nothing I’ve seen can walk that line like the Yakuza series, and Yakuza 0 is practically in a league of its own.
The ridiculous aspects of Yakuza 0 are well known at this point – break-dance fighting, over-the-top karaoke, and disco among them – its serious moments can have just as much resonance. The soap opera-esque plot and memorable performances anchor bicycle-centric combat in a crime drama that still stands out. And have you ever wanted to punch a trio of antagonists more in your life? I'm very curious on the new spin that Judgement (aka JUDGE EYES) will bring next year.
6. Donut County
In my Donut County review, I drew some wonderful visual metaphors out of thin air which I don’t feel the need to repeat. Suffice it to say that Donut County is a short and sweet experience. While I wish there could have been more to the package, every minute I spent was filled with nothing but pleasant vibes.
From the unusual premise to the charming cast of woodland critters you swallow, I really have nothing bad to say about Donut County. I theorized that it would be a great game for the little ones, which I was delighted to learn was true. Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, Donut County is a
hole lot of fun.
I’m sad to admit that I dismissed Celeste when it first came out. Another hard-as-nails pixel indie platformer? I’ve seen it before. But out of any of its ilk, Celeste feels like a new level in design. It’s the definition of doing a lot with a little as a wall-hug and dash move are all that carry you through the game. The game’s challenges are immaculate and squeeze every drop of potential the core mechanics offer.
And while Celeste will make you suffer, the presentation that surrounds it is what makes the difference. Madeline doesn’t explode into blood like in Super Meat Boy. The fantastic music just keeps going and you instantly get to try it again… and again. Keep pushing, Celeste says, and you can overcome yourself to succeed. That theme is overt in the narrative, but it’s in the gameplay that I really came to appreciate the message.
A decade from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s game was still the benchmark for what a Spider-Man game should be. Step 1: Make the Swinging Good. Easy, right? Well, they did it, anyway, and the rest of the game ain’t bad either. Combat has just enough wrinkles to get you through everything you need.
The other gameplay styles and minigames aren’t as fun, but they put a skip button in so it’s not a big deal, anyway. The point stands that this is a realized interpretation of the mythos that works perfectly. The fresh angle on Peter's world kept me curious, and the story took me for a bit of a ride at the end. I was done with the Arkham formula, but it turns out all I needed was a new swingy – and sticky – hero to make it better than ever.
Honorable Old Game #2: XCOM 2/War of the Chosen
So much of my time in 2018 was spent commanding little guys around a grid shooting aliens. XCOM 2 is great fun on its own, but delving into mods elevates it even further. Sending Doom Guy into battle with Tommy Wiseau and Bob Ross after suiting up to the deployment theme from MGSV is great every time. Going around those turn timers is also fantastic.
The new additions in the War of the Chosen expansion give even more life to the experience and easily warrants another playthrough, even so close to the last one. I played two full campaigns and a third of one and a third of another one. From blowing up the statue in the first mission to watching Yukiko get the final chop on the last Avatar, XCOM 2 is a perfectly paced ride of anxiety and triumph.
3. Hitman 2
Good evening, 47. Your target is Giant Bomb user jeremyf. At this time, everyone on the site is busy putting their favorite game of the year in lists, and the target is no exception. He’ll be spending his time on his computer, trying to organize his thoughts into something worthwhile. Seems like he’ll be easy to take out, but there are many options available to you.
Perhaps you could dress in a flamingo costume and push him off a ledge. Maybe you could poison his food or drop a statue on him. Or maybe you could pose as the internet police and send him away for excessively mediocre blogging. 47, I dare say that your assassinations are more fun than they’ve ever been, and the ability to revisit all of Season 1’s content adds even more value to this rewarding game. Indeed, I think everyone should play it and find out for themselves.
…Sorry, I got a bit distracted there. I’ll leave you to prepare, 47.
What can I say about Smash Bros. Ultimate? Does the fact that I ended my year-long blood feud with Nintendo and bought a Switch not say enough? There might be less “new” content than previous entries, but collecting such a detailed history of not only the series, but the gaming universe under one roof is plenty ambitious. And since Everyone is Here, no one gets left out. They’re even putting my boy Mike in!
Spirits seems like a fun idea that someone took way too seriously. The dedication to representing some of these characters is nothing short of slavish. That multiplied by over 1000 spirits equals one unbelievably passionate dev team. For me, tragically, the novelty has already started to wear out, and I seriously doubt I’ll finish the mammoth adventure mode. At least the variation in battles is leagues above Dragon Ball’s attempt.
While the days of the Subspace Emissary seem far gone, the point remains that this is the Most Smash Bros., and probably the Best Smash Bros., ever. Near everyone I know loves Smash Bros. And if you don’t love Smash Bros…
1. God of War
I have no history with the God of War series. I knew Kratos was a guy with a red thing on his face, but nothing beyond that. The new God of War is a cinematic game with a little kid constantly around, and yet I think it’s a great game. That takes some skill to pull off! Even with a small cast, every character is memorable. The combat is a departure but still highly fun. Exploration is often rewarded with not just loot, but genuine character moments and backstory.
The vast majority of Kratos and Atreus’s relationship is written very well, and I spent time mentally in both their places. That’s to say nothing of the stunning vistas of the new setting. Some people will say that God of War became just like any open-world game on the market, but I really think it sets itself apart. Sincere congratulations to Cory Barlog and his team.
Boy, there were still quite a few games that I didn't get to check out! Like the entrancing Tetris Effect or indie favorites like Into the Breach and Dead Cells. I'd love to give them a shot, but 2019 is already dangling carrots! How about Dreams, Animal Crossing, or gosh darn Psychonauts 2?! And games like Hitman and Smash Bros. are going to keep evolving as well. My point is, there's always something to look forward to. Whether you're an avid idle game fan or hardcore RPG fanatic, it's the best time to be playing video games.
Thank you to everyone on this site for patronizing my work over the past year and to those who will continue to do so. I'll be reading your lists as well, so make sure they're good ones! Have a good holiday and we'll talk again soon.