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Best of 2018

It took me most of January to actually write this out, but I'm glad I got through it after failing to write up 2017's list.

2018 was a wild year that gave a lot of people plenty of reasons to escape with video games, and I'm no different. Thankfully, it was a year that saw its share of stellar releases, and these ones just happened to be my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Marvel's Spider-Man, Yakuza 6: Song of Life, Pokemon Let's Go Eevee, Donut County, Florence, Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom

Before you ask, I didn't like Red Dead 2. No shade, I just expect the question. Also, I played a ton of Guilty Gear Xrd this year. Because I do that every year.

List items

  • Here we are, my favorite game of 2018. Celeste, at its core, is a 2D precision platformer where the player must jump, climb, and dash through a series of worlds to reach the end of the game. In practice, however, Celeste is so much more than that. I very honestly believe that Celeste is a game that nails it on every level. The platforming is pitch-perfect and every world is designed around its own unique added mechanics and obstacles which makes sure the experience is always fresh. Those world-specific mechanics tie thematically into the story the game is telling, one of an inner struggle with depression and anxiety set against an outer struggle to climb a daunting mountain. The characters in Celeste are lovable and endlessly relatable, and the devs went the extra mile and actually created an Instagram account for Theo. That’s dedication. The gameplay achievements of Celeste are already impressive, but the presentation is astounding on top of that. The visual language of the game is clear and readable while also giving each world its own distinct aesthetic that also enhances the story at that time. The game conveys important information about your status right on your character without you having to look away at meters or icons on a HUD, with Madeline’s hair color changing based on whether her dash is charged and little sweat drops coming off of her when she’s doing something that’s spending a lot of stamina. Because of things like that, it’s easy to keep focus on the platforming tasks at hand, which is the kind of detail that makes the game special. Of course, I wouldn’t be the guy I am if I didn’t give a ton of love to the Celeste soundtrack. While I’ve already praised elements all over the game, the soundtrack is a masterpiece. Lena Raine’s tunes are a perfect fit for each world, for the feelings the game means to evoke at the time, while also standing on their own as fantastic pieces of music. That alone would be enough, but the game also has hidden collectibles in each world that unlock B-side versions of the worlds, offering a remixed version of the mechanics alongside an awesome remix of the music. There’s more secrets and collectibles than even that, making there a ton to see and do beyond the first story playthrough. If you take one thing away from the endless rambling I’ve done in this list, let it be this: if you own a system that Celeste released on, please play Celeste. Even if you think you’re no good at platformers, the team included an assist mode that lets you tweak the gameplay in a way that will make it much more manageable. You really should see it through if you get the chance.

  • Tetris Effect was absolutely one of those “I’m in right from the announcement” games for me. The first trailer showed everything I needed to see about the aesthetic and soundtrack work that was going into the game, and “Tetsuya Mizuguchi makes Tetris” is about as strong an elevator pitch as you can offer me. With expectations as high as mine were, it’s a wonder that the full game still blew me away. It’s clear that by 2018 the art of making Tetris “feel right” has been worked out, and Tetris Effect is a perfect example of nailing “modern Tetris,” with T-spins, instant drop, held pieces, the whole nine. If you have known me for any length of time, you know that I’ve played my fair share of Tetris in my life, to the point where I cosplayed as a damn Tetris block for years. With that context, I’ll get to the point: Tetris Effect may just be my favorite version of Tetris ever released. There’s a host of cool “effect modes” that give fun spins on the concept, from traditional marathon, sprint, and the like to more off-the-wall stuff like the mystery mode which throws random modifiers at you every few pieces as you’re trying to play. There’s also a series of chill modes which just let you play some easy-mode Tetris with relaxing, thematically-grouped backgrounds. I got some great mileage out of these modes when unwinding after work many times this year. The variety of the effect modes is fantastic, but the thing about Tetris Effect that really sticks with me is the Journey mode. It’s tempting to be reductive and call the Journey just playing Tetris for 30-40 lines each on a series of backgrounds, but the reality goes much further than that. I don’t think I can do justice to the artistry of this mode, but it really needs to be experienced. The way that the visual effects and music follow your play so perfectly, with the background evolving as you progress within a stage, building to a climax after which you move to the next level. Very few game developers can capture the feeling of “flow” like Mizuguchi and his team, and Tetris Effect is the best example of that talent I’ve seen. It only gets more amazing when you play it in VR. What a phenomenal experience.

  • If 2017 was the year where I finally understood the Yakuza series, 2018 was Monster Hunter’s turn in the sun. In both cases, it wasn’t just me finally “coming to terms” with what the series does and being okay with it, though. Rather, the development teams behind these long-running series took a look at their own work, recognized the factors that might push people away, and found ways to create games that maintained what made the series special but made them more welcoming at the same time. I’ve tried to dip into Monster Hunter a couple of times in the past on the Wii and 3DS, but I always bounced off. For lack of a better term, everything was just such a production to do, with too many things breaking up the rhythm of “the hunt” that is central to the experience. Given that, the single biggest thing that Capcom did to make World a more approachable and enjoyable experience was do away with the sectioned-off zones with loading screens all over the place. Having to paint a monster to track which two or three loading screens you have to follow it through was a huge drag, and getting rid of that alone was enough to make me excited to give the new game a chance. From there, it was a simple matter of finding a weapon that clicked with me (the hammer,) have some friends also pick up the game, and it was off to the races. I got into the flow of the weapon and armor upgrade system, figuring out what parts I needed from what monsters, going out on hunts, getting the right drops, making newer and cooler equipment, and doing it all over again, until I had made every dang hammer you can make and all the armor I wanted. There’s still more monsters I have to go back and fight, most notably the Final Fantasy crossover. You can bet that when the big update they’re working on finally makes it to the game, I’ll be there ready for more hunting.

  • If you go back through my Game of the Year history, you can see a theme of my “roguelike of the year” begin to develop. One of these games seems to end up on my top 10 list every year, and there was never any doubt about what 2018’s was going to be. Dead Cells represents the action roguelike genre at its very best, with depth in combat and character development that makes every run exciting. The way the game offers some permanent progression in the form of runes that allow you to traverse new paths that lead to entire separate levels, then goes on to reward you for exploring those routes with even more options gives some direction to players whose runs are getting stale. A testament to the strength of the game’s combat is how many times I’ve decided that my current build is the obvious best way to go, only to unlock another new option and rethink everything. Each weapon has well-defined strengths and modifying your style to match it rewards you with extra damage. Having three random pulls from the item pool at the start of every run rather than a constant base weapon set also forces the player to not get stuck in a habit and miss out on the grand possibility space that the game has going on. It’s a difficult game, to be sure, but the feeling of progression, getting to a new level or beating the next boss, is worth it. Dead Cells is a hell of a roguelike, and a hell of a game in general.

  • I didn’t write out a full GOTY list in 2017, so everyone was spared the long paragraphs I would have written about that being the year I fell in love with the Yakuza series. Yakuza 0 was my favorite game of 2017 in a walk, and that also marked the time when the whole series finally clicked with me. I’ve gone on to play every game they’ve released subsequently, which has led to a bit of an awkward history with the timeline: 0, then 1, then 6, then 2. Thankfully, each story stands on its own well enough while also lending to the overall tale of Kazuma Kiryu and the various lives he fights his way in and out of, so it works. Kiwami 2 uses the same engine that debuted in Yakuza 6 earlier in the year, which makes the game flow in and out of the random street fights much more cleanly. That might seem like a small change, but it makes a big difference. Wandering around Kamurocho (or Sotenbori) finding side-stories to undertake, arcades to play some Virtual On, or just bits of atmosphere to absorb is much more pleasant when you don’t have the jarring transitions between encounters. Since I became a Yakuza fan, I’d heard word that the story in the second game was among the series’ highest points, and seeing it through makes it hard to disagree. Ryuji Goda is a fantastic character as a foil for Kiryu, and the grander story that plays out around the two dragons’ various meetings is phenomenal. The game runs the gamut from emotional moments (like Kiryu’s developing connection with Sayama) to action-movie absurdity (tigers in a ninja castle, for real) and everything feels like it belongs. If you still haven’t experienced Yakuza games, I still would recommend Yakuza 0 as a starting point, but this is a fantastic entry that has me ready for more of these enhanced remakes.

  • Iconoclasts was one of my most-anticipated game releases of 2018 because of some really exciting rumblings that I’d heard online, but I’ll admit that I didn’t really know just what I was getting into when I started playing. What I expected was a fun, colorful platforming adventure with a bit of Metroid-style upgrade-to-get-to-new-areas structure. Well, I got that, but the part where Iconoclasts really resonated with me was one of the most well-told stories in recent video games. Konjak created a world with problems that ring true to ours, with resources harshly controlled by the people in power, and a cast of characters who are just doing their best to make it. The writing in Iconoclasts manages to alternate between hilarious and haunting depending on the scene, and both dimensions are incredibly well-done. I can’t say enough about the characters here, on all sides of the conflict are people with understandable perspectives pitted against each by circumstances above all of them. The way the story deals with issues of faith, duty, destiny, and how people react when those things come crashing down is as effective as it is dark. And hoo boy, is it ever that.

  • Japanese RPGs are a huge part of my video game background, and specifically the SNES era of that genre represents pretty much the high water mark in video game history in my mind. Playing Dragon Quest XI, I found myself feeling like I was playing one of those games again, with very little changed outside of the graphical updates. The Akira Toriyama art style pops on the PS4, with the colorful and ridiculous monster designs (with fantastic names [HOOPER TROOPER]) making even regular battles a good time. It’s hard to identify anything wholly new that DQXI pulls off, but it executes very well on a classic JRPG structure that harkens back to some of the best games in the genre. I loved all the characters in the party, many of whom represent familiar archetypes but fit together into a great ensemble. The variety of abilities throughout the cast made me never feel like there was one “correct” party alignment, which made my exploration of different combinations feel rewarding when I came up with some really strong lineups. I could see the music bothering some people, as the soundtrack is pretty slavishly devoted to the classic tunes from the franchise, but it had been long enough since I heard those songs that I got the warm fuzzies. JRPGs have developed in many great ways since the mid-90s, giving rise to great series like Persona, but Dragon Quest XI really drove home with me the value of that classic formula.

  • There were only two places this game could have ended up this year: my top 10 games of the year, or my top 1 biggest disappointments in gaming this year. It’s a good thing it’s here, huh? Mega Man is one of the single most important franchises to my personal video game history, and a new game being announced on an anniversary livestream and pitched as a new beginning is welcoming some pretty great expectations. I enjoyed Mega Man 9 and 10 as fun throwbacks that succeeded on the strength of their stage and boss design, but their staying power was limited by not really bringing anything new to the table. With 11, we finally have a team trying out some new things, both mechanically and in presentation. I love the new visual style, especially how Mega Man himself picks up a different look with each of the boss weapons rather than just a new color scheme. The Double Gear system that was touted as the “big new thing” in the game holds up its end of the bargain, with the game designed to really take advantage of those new powers and, to make things even cooler, giving the bad guys access to the same toys. Having the basic Robot Master fights become more complex affairs due to the bosses activating the gears for new phases or attacks was a great added dimension. Structurally, it’s still eight levels and a Wily castle, but I’m pleased as punch that the team executed on the formula well and added in just enough to deliver on that “new beginning” the game was meant to be. I hope to see them continue from here.

  • Surprising no one, the largest full-scale attack on my video game nostalgia that Nintendo has launched to date was a total success. We’ll see how things shake out when I start entering tournaments and such, but as far as early impressions go, this is my favorite Smash Bros game. Of course, “everyone is here,” but in bringing back old characters the developers also made previously-irrelevant characters matter in a way they never had. Pichu isn’t worthless, fercrissakes. On top of a staggering number of characters, stages, and music (good god, the music,) there’s actually a substantial single-player offering that’s kept me busy as well. The World of Light mode is, in the tradition of story modes in competitive games, basically a bunch of fights against AI in a row, but the way that each spirit battle manages to approximate whatever character it’s meant to evoke using the character, items, and modifiers at the game’s disposal gives it value far beyond that. Seeing the spirit of Otacon represented by a fight against Dr. Mario while a giant metal ROB is trying to kill you is a fun example, and they go even wilder than that with many of the others. Between that mode and the game actually having a thematically-relevant Classic mode path for each character, there’s a ton to mess with even when there’s nobody around to play with. See my Dedede, though. He’s a beast. And hey, they got the guy that did the Daytona USA theme to do an F-Zero medley for this game. How can that not make the list?

  • Hey, it only took two years of owning my Playstation VR for it to finally feel vital and worth having, and I largely have Astro Bot to thank for that. After hearing not-so-great things about games like Lucky’s Tale when VR was a newer thing, I didn’t really have high hopes for the “3D platformer in VR” concept, but when the rumblings picked up about Astro Bot (and I could get it for $20) I just had to try it. By the end of the first level, I was so glad that I did. Everything about this game is super charming, from the colorful worlds to the jaunty tunes to the way your little robot waves at you when you make eye contact with it. I swear, the first time that happened, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The game never really rested on that first impression, though. Level after level, it kept throwing out new mechanics, new environments, and fun tricks with the perspective, all in service of keeping things fresh and fun the whole way through. The way the game uses your presence as a big helper robot to give you different tools to assist your little buddy on his way are super clever, and I never got tired of throwing shuriken all over the place. I know not everyone has a PSVR these days, but this game is absolutely worth a try.