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Toddler's Choice: Baby ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games in 2021

Pictured: us enjoying a long cutscene
Pictured: us enjoying a long cutscene

Over the last few years, nothing has changed my taste in gaming quite like having a little hatchling toddling about the house. For 2019 and most of 2020, it meant that I would just wait for my daughter to go to sleep before I played anything. But as she grew older, and smarter, and more capable, my instinct was to find things she would enjoy watching. I became way more self-conscious of any violence / aggressiveness in games I played, and not just around her. I don’t mean this as some sort of “arglebargle violent video games hurt children”; the whole of American media is bent towards violence. Right now, she’s a sweet, empathetic little kid who giggles like a maniac at her own jokes, and she likes watching pleasant things. It’s something I feel compelled to preserve as long as possible, even if it’s a battle I know I’ll eventually lose.

Unlike my personal GOTY blogs (the 2021 version of which should be posted sometime next week), I’m drawing from a pool of games my daughter watched or played during 2021, instead of limiting it to games released during 2021. Having Game Pass let us dip into more kid-friendly fare than we might have otherwise, and the little one would call out game thumbnails that looked appealing to her. She got me to try out Jurassic World Evolution on the console, which led to me obsessing over the PC version after I got a taste. It also taught me the tightrope walk of being done with a game long before your child was tired of watching it. One key factor in ranking this list was “did I endure a tantrum by choosing to not play this game”. But by far the biggest consideration was how much of her imagination it captured, fueling play outside the confines of the tv screen or computer monitor. Shouldn’t that be the point of all kids’ media?

(Special apologies to Planet Zoo, which would definitely have made this list if she hadn’t already watched me play it in 2020. I have to have some rules on this thing.)

10. Townscaper (Xbox Series X)

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Disclaimer: this is less of a video game and more of a toolset. Unlike Dorfromantik (which she didn’t especially like watching), there’s no challenge aside from seeing what the tool will create. My daughter loves painting, and this was essentially a canvas of an endless ocean, with the tools being little houses. She had very strong opinions on which color houses should be placed where, as well as the allotment of bridges, ladders, and boots in front of doors. She received a small Duplo set from her grandmother early this year (and a much larger Duplo set from her aunt during the holidays), and it was clear that Townscaper gave her some ideas. It’s a little too finicky for her to place the houses herself, at least for now, but she enjoyed her time as a spectator.

9. MLB The Show 21 (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)

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I am a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, and my daughter has never even visited the Eastern time zone. Nonetheless, she had a lot of questions about my Orioles t-shirts when she saw the smiling cartoon bird and the “baseball man” (aka MLB logo). When this game came out and immediately launched on Game Pass, I picked it up thinking it was simply a brute force journey of getting my precious losers to win a World Series in my lifetime. However, my daughter made it more rewarding by being surprisingly into the game of baseball. She picked out details, like how “the versatile” Pat Valaika’s shoes looked very similar to my own black Nikes. But I think the action was focused in a way that she could understand most of what was going on, and she was definitely curious about the game in a way I couldn’t have predicted. She received a teeball set for her birthday and loves gingerly placing the ball on the stand and bopping it. I won’t force her to root for the Orioles, although the hometown Rockies probably aren’t much of an improvement. Let her chart her own path, provided it doesn’t involve the Yankees.

8. Pikuniku (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)

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I don’t have a way of verifying this, but I believe most of the appeal from this game comes from saying the word “Pikuniku”. That’s not to say my daughter didn’t love the colorful world and simple art style. The protagonist in particular looks like the kind of stick figure a toddler draws. The platforming is relatively simple, though there’s a level of finesse I don’t think a younger child can manage. Perhaps when she gets older, we can try out the multiplayer section together. By that point, I’m sure there will be other things for us to play. But for now, she always calls out “Pikuniku” when she sees the thumbnail on the list of games.

7. Sable (Xbox Series X)

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I started playing this game after baby bedtime, thinking it wouldn’t be for her. That is, of course, until I encountered a Chum. My daughter absolutely loves the Chums, and when we encountered the Chum Queen together, there was nothing else she wanted to see for a time. She barked commands at me to approach the wriggling ground Chums until they hid, then to back off so they could re-emerge. She liked the other portions of the game just fine, particularly the clothing options, but it was all just biding time until she could visit the Chum Lair once more. This game just barely missed out on my personal GOTY list, so I’m happy it gets a spot on my child’s.

6. Goat Simulator (Xbox One)

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If nothing else, I will always remember this as the first game she actually played. I came home from an early morning grocery run to find my daughter sitting on the couch, controller in hand (supervised of course). She was delighting in making the goat jump and move around a little bit, and she managed to get it to hop over an object. There’s little more to be said about the game itself, but the opportunity to emulate her parents made this one a big hit with the kid.

5. Katamari Damacy REROLL (Xbox Series X)

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This is one of those games you think “well yeah, of course a toddler loves this”. The silly artwork, the big noises, the music - all of these are right up a kid’s alley. And yet, I’m honestly not sure why she’s gone so nuts for watching us play this game. It’s probably the same instinct that led to us getting hooked on the game in the 2000’s, that there’s something delightfully engaging about even just watching someone else play Katamari. She hasn’t tried singing the theme yet, but given how she spends the first 20 minutes of bedtime belting songs, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

4. Tetris Effect (PC / Xbox Series X / Xbox One)

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I started playing the PC release of this game in July 2019, shortly before my daughter was born. I was unable to beat the final level (“Metamorphosis”) until I had a newborn sleeping in another room, which is such on-the-nose symbolism it’s almost embarrassing. I can’t play the game without getting vivid memories of the hospital and her little wrinkly body wrapped in a swaddling cloth. This was a game I’d been waiting to show her for years.

While the fascination has dulled over time, she spent hours of 2021 glued to my lap, listening to the songs and watching Tetris pieces fit together. Her favorites included the balloon level, Turtle Dreams, and (extremely unfortunately for us) that awful rap song in the second stage. I could also put it in Theater Mode and let her press buttons to her heart's content, although more often than not she hit buttons that skipped the level she wanted and got frustrated. But nothing can replace my memory of her playing with toys and singing the balloon song in her silly little baby voice, one of the very first things we heard her sing.

3. Lego Duplo World (iPad)

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As noted above, this kid loves her some Duplos. Since both of her parents are still working from home (and fortunate to be able to do, I must add), we occasionally need some help getting through meetings with her in tow. There is a ton of mobile dreck out there, but this game has the type of experience a toddler craves. Ever since she first encountered a smartphone, this kid has swiped and tapped and dragged things with astonishing proficiency. Being able to do that to very recognizable objects (thanks to her own real world Duplos) locks her attention in a way that’s simultaneously relieving and worrisome. Lord help us when she discovers Roblox later in life.

Since I don’t have firsthand experience with this game (it’s not my tablet, and I’ve never seen a menu screen), I can’t say for certain whether parents need to be careful of microtransactions and accidental purchases. It’s possible the whole thing is free thanks to it being a glorified advertisement for Duplos, which are not cheap. But my daughter is equally pleased with tapping along the pieces of this game as with physical Duplos, and this game ranks very highly accordingly.

2. Zoombinis (PC)

Apologies to your eyes, this is somehow one of the least blurry images I could find
Apologies to your eyes, this is somehow one of the least blurry images I could find

My family grew up during the Broderbund era of games, when a slew of educational computer games flooded the market. One of my first real games was Sid Meier’s Civilization II, presumably because my mom thought it was another educational game. For most of my siblings, their first real game was The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, or just Zoombinis as it’s now known on Steam. Over the years, we’ve referenced it enough times to keep the existence of the Zoombinis relatively fresh in our minds, so I finally looked up if it was available on Steam. I gave up on waiting for a sale and finally purchased it during the summer, then tested it out in front of my daughter to see if she liked it.

Holy MOLY does this kid love her some gosh-darn Zoombinis.

She received a whiteboard from her grandmother for her second birthday, and I’ve lost count of how many Zoombinis I’ve drawn for her on it. She became obsessed with Zoombiniville, so I started drawing that or recreating it with toys. After encountering the Allergy Cliffs in the game, she understood why her dad can’t eat certain foods. She’s repeated lines from the pizza trolls, talked about the Fleens, and requested replays of specific levels. I have to be careful when using Steam around her, lest she see the tiny Zoombini icon in my list of games and demand it. The game has become less of a staple of our house as the difficulty has increased (and the time to beat a given level exceeds a toddler’s attention), but thanks to the training mode, she can still get hooked watching it. I can’t wait for her to get old enough to actually play it.

1. Phogs! (Xbox Series X / Xbox One)

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Finally, we reach the ultimate toddler’s choice of 2021: a couch co-op puzzle game released in December 2020 (and therefore eligible for many publications’ best game of 2021). My wife and I played a bit of it early in the year, and eventually I tested it out while my daughter was awake to see what she thought of it. She was instantly obsessed with the Phogs, to the extent that she wasn’t quite sure how to handle her feelings about the game. The Phogs make their way across levels by being swallowed by dinosaur worm creatures, and this greatly upset her at first. However, seeing the happy Phogs emerge from the other end, ready to get into more misadventures, helped calm her down. She loved the hats each Phog could wear and the happy creatures that populated the Phogs’ world.

The game itself is low stakes, slow-paced, and overall just really pleasant. That being said, it had controls that a toddler sadly can’t really master, even during co-op with a parent. I’m not sure what the minimum recommended age for playing Phogs is, but if I’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that children are always way more capable than their parents think. From a spectator point of view, she was absolutely enthralled with Phogs in a way even the Zoombinis can’t touch. I 100%ed the game in front of her, and she still wants more. Maybe after a few months I can go back and start a new playthrough; I know who’s going to be glued to my side when I do.

Honorable Mentions: I mostly bought KeyWe because I thought she’d like watching it, but it’s a good Overcooked-like in its own right… She liked Donut County, but never hit the same levels with that game as the ones on this list… My wife and I absolutely hated this game, but I Am Fish is something that may have made her top 10 if I could have tolerated playing it longer… Finally, there are other games she was into that will make my own GOTY list, and picking out car colors / patterns with her in Forza Horizon 5 (for example) was something that influenced my final game order.

Dishonorable Mentions: Not much belongs here, because we shut games off if they got violent or scary for my daughter. However, I’d like to shout out Kingdom Hearts 3 (aka “bad game” in her parlance) for trying to get my daughter interested in Disney. I’m trying to enjoy the time I have left before I have to hear the music of Frozen on loop, and you jerks at Square Enix are not helping… Also, I didn’t play this game, but a special raspberry towards It Takes Two for the infamous stuffed elephant murder scene. My daughter loves elephants and that would have traumatized her if we had let her watch it.

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The Value of Written Reviews in 2021 (And Beyond!)

To start things off, this blog entry is 100% inspired by Jeff's awesome review of Halo Infinite and also reviews in general, which I strongly encourage reading first. It got me thinking about how I prefer to consume video games-related critical works, as well as what I hope to get out of them when all is said and done. In the interest of avoiding a rambling post (EDIT: too late), I'm going to break it down into three sections, starting with...

Part One: Why Written Reviews, Specifically?

Short answer: my brain prefers it. I like to write, most of which I don't share because thanks anxiety, and reading criticism of video games gets my own juices flowing. When someone is an expert writer, I could read anything they type out and get more out of it than another medium can give me. I've known for years that this makes me a weirdo outlier, although reading the comments in that review made me feel a lot less like one. I've tried other sites' podcasts and video content after breaking in with their articles, and I've slid off each and every one of them in time. This has gotten worse during the ongoing pandemic period, as I think I watched too much video content early on, and as a result I've become less and less interested in watching other people play through games.

Even before becoming a parent, audio and video formats were more difficult to find time to enjoy. This is mostly because I've tended to read / listen to stuff during work hours, and until the pandemic, that meant video had to wait entirely until I got home from work. And even when I get a task I can plug through automatically, my attention drifts when it's a bunch of voices talking for several minutes or more. I end up rewinding or kind of just zoning out when I feel like I missed something. Written reviews always command my attention, and I end up re-reading them once or twice for games I've had my eye on. I have yet to listen to any full podcast episode of anything twice, outside of a second run through of The Adventure Zone back in 2017. My best time to listen to anything is while playing "podcast games" or driving, neither of which I do with all that much frequency anymore. So I end up just missing out on a lot of good criticism because I'm not interested in listening to another 3-4 hours of podcast.

So yeah, my silly brain prefers to look at things in writing, got it.

Part Two: Reviews in the Era of Subscription Services

As Jeff pointed out in his review, game reviews have often been used as a way for consumers to figure out what's worth their money. I've been fortunate enough to afford a console and be able to buy most of the games I'd ever be interested in playing. I currently subscribe to Game Pass Ultimate, after hearing this site tell me to subscribe to Game Pass enough times. So yes, I don't need to read reviews in order to determine that a game is financially worth it for me anymore. However, this need has been almost perfectly replaced by a different limited currency: time.

Anyone who has a Game Pass sub (on- or offline) has said at some point that they get selection fatigue. There are at least a dozen games each on my PC and console that are waiting for me to open them for the very first time. I get a couple hours at most each night to play something, assuming my partner and I aren't watching a thing and I'm not preparing TTRPG material for an upcoming game. Sometimes I stare at 4-5 things for which I've heard variations of "you should check it out if you have Game Pass", and I end up playing some game I've already beaten instead. Admittedly, video reviews are just as good for breaking me into that first play session as the written word is. But since I've already expressed preference for reading over watching reviews, it's written criticism that keeps me more invested in playing a game out past that first time.

This all leads into my final collection of thoughts, entitled...

Part Three: Why I Like Reviews

One thing that personally drives me crazy about criticism in any art form is when people bemoan the lack of objectivity on a review. Usually it's a bad-faith move to gripe about the author's personal politics differing from some readers', but it's also an absurd idea on its own merits. The ex-Gamespot crew has discussed how restrictive score formulas were back in the mid-00's. A lot of sites have abandoned review scores entirely, to the delight of some and to the frustration of Metacritic-addled console warriors. But the subjectivity is a selling point for me. The reason I love the writing that's been on this site and on other outlets is because I like those people('s public personalities) a lot. When Austin Walker writes about a From Software game, I know what he's about and am extremely eager to find out what he has to say, whether I ultimately agree with him or not. When someone has a writing style I vibe with, I could read just about anything they put out there, even if I lack context for the subject. That's the kind of content that rattles around in my head in a way that audio or video content does not. And a noticeable passion (or lack thereof) for a game tells me more than a number score can.

So what do I want to see in reviews? Well, whatever the hell the author wants to put in them. They don't have to explicitly say "this is / isn't worth your limited time to play" at the end; that's something I can decide for myself after reading an article about a game. They don't even have to be timely (see: part two for me being time-poor). I should be explicitly clear that I don't mean this all as some counterpoint to a potential end of reviews on Giant Bomb. If the staff doesn't want to write reviews or articles, then I don't think they should. But I don't need those reviews or articles to be crafted for some explicit determining purpose; I just want to keep reading stuff written by smart people that are at least tangentially related to a hobby I enjoy. My favorite piece of writing this entire year was Scott Benson's brilliant GOTY list. It made me want to replay Kentucky Route Zero, which I'd already finished by that point, just to give new context to the game. If someone feels enough of a way about a game to write those thoughts out, the mere act of doing so helps resolve the roadblocks I encounter in the subscription era.

Since this post has gotten longer than I originally intended, I think I'll leave this last part here. The point is, I like reviews, I think they're still valuable in these Game Pass times, and I just happen to prefer writing over other formats. I'd be bummed if they're done for real on the site, as that's what brought me here as a free user many years back. But true to form, I read a review this morning that got all this stuff lodged in my head, and I thought it was a good example of why I find reviews valuable in this day and age.

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Ranking of Albummers!

If you're a masochist like I am, you've probably listened to at least part of every album covered in the Albummer show. And if you grew up in the ranked-list-obsessed era of the Internet like I did, then you also have the same kneejerk reaction to sort the albums into a hierarchy from best / "best" to worst. The crew just reviewed their 13th album this week, which seemed like an auspicious number to publish my ranking of what they've covered so far. I may update this list in the future, or I might re-evaluate my decisions and rank everything in total once we get another 13 (or the series ends before that). Lastly, it's important that I make it clear these are rigorously science-based rankings, and any disagreements are factually incorrect.

1. Jugulator, Judas Priest

This is the highest-res image of Mr. Jugulator I could find.
This is the highest-res image of Mr. Jugulator I could find.

We start off with one of the, if not the only, actually good album(s) covered by the 2M2LN crew. This is the only Albummer on which I enjoyed every track, and it’s the only one I would listen to a second time unironically. I haven’t listened to a lot of Judas Priest, so maybe longtime fans would dislike something on the album, but I thought it ranged from solid to great very consistently. Even the 9-minute-long closer “Cathedral Spires” is a song I’d like to hear again, and I’ve generally soured on epics. Overall, I’m not sure how any other album discussed in the show could be #1.

2. Songs of Innocence, U2

As seen on the
As seen on the "Recently Added" tab of your iTunes in 2014.

I will admit, I was one of those people who was so irritated that Apple forced a U2 album on my phone that I permanently deleted it. Listening to this album for the first time in 2021, removed from the jokes and outrage about it, I thought it was fine. There are no tracks that were egregiously bad (which disappointed me), but there was also nothing I would seek out again after finishing the album. I definitely didn’t like “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight”, but musically there was nothing wrong with it. The overall production work from Danger Mouse probably elevated the album to fully tolerable heights; it certainly sounds like the sessions with him formed the bulk of material with which the band was satisfied. Overall, it's fine! U2 is fine.

3. 44/876, Sting & Shaggy

Look! It's Sting's friend, Shaggy!
Look! It's Sting's friend, Shaggy!

I don’t really like reggae or Sting. Perhaps this means I’m being too generous with this album, as I don’t have a good hold on what good reggae sounds like. Aside from some extremely questionable vocal affectation from our pal Gordon, the lowlights of this album were spread out and relatively isolated from each other. Shaggy did his level best to make this entertaining, especially in “Crooked Tree” (aka the Reggae Court song). And of course, this album gave us “Sad Trombone”, an objectively hilarious track for many reasons. The title track and “Just One Lifetime” are the only true stinkers in my reckoning, and at least the production quality was high on those. Side note: Emily, I’m sorry you had to see this win a Grammy in person.

4. Father of All Motherfuckers, Green Day

Actually please go back to the Broadway poster aesthetic.
Actually please go back to the Broadway poster aesthetic.

This is the first album on the list that I would personally consider a bummer. Like many people, I fell off Green Day in the mid-2000’s. This was the first full album of theirs I had listened to since American Idiot, and the best thing I can say about it is that one can draw a pretty straight line from 2004 to this. It’s a shame they spend all 10 tracks committing what the 2M2LN crew dubbed “vibe theft”, and track titles like “I Was A Teenage Teenager” invoke an instant sneer from me. As with Songs of Innocence, nothing leaps out as musically dire to me. Best of all, the total duration of the album is approximately 26 minutes, which I found to be a major plus.

5. The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis

He's alone in this picture because he fired all the staff ten minutes ago.
He's alone in this picture because he fired all the staff ten minutes ago.

Credit where credit is due: Bruce is having a lot of fun on this album. He also managed to rope in a staggering amount of talent (side note: how???), ensuring the floor for album quality remains high. In an effort to seemingly offset the skills of his contributors, Bruce adopts the persona of a bartender / sexual predator who occasionally shouts like a Muppet (as noted by the 2M2LN crew). There is a whole to-do around the "return" part of this album, and as Katie pointed out, it’s an incredibly high concept album for someone who was that relatively unknown. The majority of the album is covers, leaving only three original tracks. “Young Blood” is my choice for the album’s low point, as it takes the excesses, inappropriateness, and bizarreness to new heights. This is the last listenable record on this list, by the way.

6. Van Weezer, Weezer

I saw someone on Reddit recreate this cover entirely with stock images, and that feels like a good summary of Weezer right now.
I saw someone on Reddit recreate this cover entirely with stock images, and that feels like a good summary of Weezer right now.

I admire audacity in art. Taking four well-known riffs and repurposing them into, just an example, some lame breakup song with cutesy ocean animals is certainly audacious. Titling your album Van Weezer and then using precisely zero Van Halen riffs is even more audacious. And singing about middle school girls’ sweat into your 50’s is auda- no, actually it just sucks. This album contains a few legitimately good tracks that get absolutely buried by crap like “Blue Dream” and “Precious Metal Girl”. Taken on the whole, it feels like a typical Rivers Cuomo joke - not nearly as funny or as clever as he clearly thinks. At least that abysmal "Tell Me What You Want" song from Summer Game Fest wasn't on this.

7. Rebirth, Lil Wayne

You know the plastic cover went right back on that sofa immediately after he stood up.
You know the plastic cover went right back on that sofa immediately after he stood up.

While I will double down on this being an unlistenable album, I need to give it credit for one thing: absolutely grinding down my expectations for the rest of it by assaulting me with the worst track up front. “American Star” is truly awful, but by listening to it first, it centered me for future tracks. The album actually felt close to working at times as a result, which is simply good work on the back end. Lil’ Wayne seems very enthusiastic about the whole mess, and as the 2M2LN crew noted, this came at the height of his powers (see: my comment in the Weezer entry about audacity). I admire this album, but I sincerely hope I never hear anything from it again (aside from “Get A Life”, that was a fun song).

8. Playing with Fire, Kevin Federline

Fun fact: Google Image search
Fun fact: Google Image search "Playing with Fire Kevin Federline", and the Albummer episode is the 8th result (aka before I found a usable image for this blog).

In short, I expected worse. This is the lowest-rated album on Metacritic, by all rights it should be one of the worst things I’ve ever heard. Surprisingly, it doesn't even make the bottom 5 of this list. K-Fed is not a good rapper, or even a baseline competent one, but he does fake it enough times to bop along for a minute or two every so often. My vote for worst track goes to “Lose Control”, although the title track and “Kept On Talkin’” get honorable mentions. I can’t see the word “snap” anymore without applying Federline’s bizarre affectation. And the line “budge me I think not, I’m too pudgy” is one I think about several times a week. If your definition of good is more equivalent to “entertaining”, then you probably have this rated a lot higher than I do. But is it the worst album covered by the show? Not a chance.

9. Too Legit for the Pit: Hardcore Takes the Rap, Various Artists

Hmm is there a pun in this title?
Hmm is there a pun in this title?

There was definitely some fun to be had here, but it was more than offset by the sheer amount of “ha ha get it, we’re doing covers of rap” present in most of the tracks. This compilation simply didn’t need to exist, as evidenced by how difficult it seemed to get recognizable bands to agree to participate. Some of them might have agreed just to be able to say the N-word with the defense that it’s just how the song goes. The covers of “Baby Got Back”, “Express Yourself”, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”, and “Bust A Move” are excruciating. At least it kept Bad Luck 13 away from society for however long it took them to record their contribution.

10. Greatest Hits: Believers Never Die - Volume Two, Fall Out Boy

"Great meaning large or immense, we use it in the pejorative sense!"

I’m a 2000’s era Fall Out Boy apologist, and I can’t defend any songs on this album. The fact it’s a greatest hits album only makes that even sadder. I’m with Jordan in that the only thing I enjoyed was “Uma Thurman”, and only for the Munsters guitar riff. Thanks to We Be Drummin’, I was also prepared for the more excruciating moments of that song in advance. Everything else, especially “Young Volcanoes”, just sounds terrible. I’d ask “what happened to Fall Out Boy”, but it’s pretty clear I was the one who was wrong about them. [Editor's Note: it appears the We Be Drummin' episode I linked to has been taken down for copyright reasons, which sucks ass.]

11. Angelic 2 the Core, Corey Feldman

The expression on Corey's face never fails to crack me up.
The expression on Corey's face never fails to crack me up.

Admittedly, this is the point at which it becomes clear this entire list is subject to listener expectations. It’s how an album from a former child actor that took a decade to produce and roughly the same amount of time to listen to occupies a slot higher than the very bottom. Why would I expect anything listenable from Corey Feldman in 2016? “Go 4 It!” is a disaster of overproduction from start to finish, and it still manages to sound cheap. Corey delves into cultural appropriation in “Lickety Splickety”, and he shouts like Tom Waits drowning in quicksand over random noises in “Lovin Lies”. The throughline is Corey sending out his “angels” to spread positivity through the world (exposition delivered via interminable and creepy skits), yet the message is how he’s rising above his haters. I won’t even get into the online brouhaha that emerged during the album’s release, but I encourage reading this article by Sean O’Neal that summarizes the situation well. All I know is that, as Lucy pointed out, this is definitely a psy-op.

12. St. Anger, Metallica

Perhaps I should have put a content warning at the top before posting this image?
Perhaps I should have put a content warning at the top before posting this image?

Back in March, when the aforementioned We Be Drummin’ covered Guitar Hero: Metallica, I decided to finally listen to this album for the first time. By the end of its agonizing 75 minutes in length, I felt physically ill. This is the calling card of the bottom tier of this list, where the production values finally catch up to the rest of the album in poor quality. That snare sounds terrible, and I’m never fully prepared for it when I go back and listen to one of these songs again. The three tracks back to back of “St. Anger”, “Some Kind of Monster”, and “Dirty Window” might be the very worst 20 minutes of continuous music found on a single LP. It’s pure dysfunction, aimlessness, and confusion for a washed-up band distilled into something that is not only legendarily reviled but, even worse, a Grammy winner. But Jeremy summed it up perfectly by saying: “it’s a well-defined concept, it just sounds like shit and it sucks”. And despite all of that… it’s not the worst thing this show has covered.

13. Danzig Sings Elvis, Danzig

Could he not?
Could he not?

I hope this one isn’t a surprise to anybody (although I understand if Corey Feldman was your choice). I am personally amazed that as a culture, we all immediately annihilated the Gal Gadot “Imagine” video, and then a month-ish later we let this one slide. This plodding journey through Elvis’ dregs is the most unlistenable thing I’ve ever put on, and I got through all of “Lulu” in a single sitting. There is no shortage of examples of the worst production I’ve heard from someone with this much industry experience: from Danzig’s worseningmouth noises, to the guitarist slowly backing away from the microphone, and to the complete inability to balance any sounds on any of the tracks. I can’t even eviscerate the songs more effectively through description than just stating their titles and letting you remember how they sounded. “Love Me”. “Like A Baby”. “Lonely Blue Boy”. It’s not every day, or even every year, that I get this big a stinker to listen to. And for this, I’m eternally grateful to the 2M2LN crew.

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ALLTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2020

AN: 2020 has been a terrible year for many people, and I want to avoid trivializing or being flippant about it at all costs. If anything written below contradicts this goal, please let me know and I’ll edit / remove it.

I don’t remember what expectations I had for the gaming industry in 2020. This time last year, I had started a playthrough of Control, which I found equal parts brilliant and frustrating. There was only one game on the horizon that interested me, and it didn’t even end up making my Top 10. I bought a shoddy remaster of a Blizzard game and played several hours of Split Or Steal in January, thinking this would be a paper-thin year due to the incoming new consoles. Fortunately, that prediction turned out to be incredibly wrong.

This is one of the strongest years of games I can remember, and nailing down the order of my 10 favorite games (or even my top 5, aside from #1) is the toughest I can remember. My available options excluded some real bangers like Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I would love to play one day. I finally made the Game Pass Ultimate plunge in November, and this led to a couple of late inclusions in my final list. I was limited to how much I could play with my toddler beginning to walk and get extremely strong opinions on what she wanted to do with the controller and PC tower. Speaking of the latter, my PC died right before holiday break in December, i.e. when I intended to replay a bit of everything to finalize my list. I’m glad that Staff decided to delay their Game of the Year content, because I needed the extra time to decide and write.

With apologies to Teardown, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Sludge Life, Gears Tactics, Carrion, Call of the Sea, Star Renegades, Wasteland 3, and Star Wars: Squadrons (all of whom I ran out of time for), here are my top 10 games of 2020:

10. Crusader Kings III

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Despite being a big fan of the Civilization series, I have always bounced off of the games made by Paradox Interactive. That streak appears to have finally ended with the excellent (and streamlined) Crusader Kings III, which I tried out after signing up for Game Pass. The game is very up front about what your endgame should be: it’s about telling the story of your ruler, not about conquering the world or sending a rocket to Alpha Centauri. The freedom to play only as long as I’m interested in a monarch enhanced my enjoyment, and before long I was fabricating false claims in my neighbors’ territory, schmoozing my former enemies, and allowing my new enemies to plot my daughter-in-law’s demise because she had already borne two grandsons. A friend of mine summarized gameplay as “if it doesn’t sound godawful taken out of context, you’re playing it wrong”, and I couldn’t agree more.

I played Crusader Kings III on PC via Game Pass Ultimate.

9. Kentucky Route Zero: PC Edition

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Of any game I played this year, nothing confounded my rankings quite like Kentucky Route Zero. The first acts of it came out nearly a decade ago, only the conclusion was released in 2020, and it’s barely what I would classify a “game”. It has a very slow build, only really picking up in Act 3, and its finale is brief. The game stays opaque from start to finish, ever tantalizing you with narrative bits and tying up occasional loose threads. But... what a narrative! It felt like a modern Great American Novel all the way through, selling both the mundane in its Kentucky hills and the surreal in its Route 0 and Echo River with equal vigor. Poking around always felt valuable, and there were easter eggs that popped up if you were curious enough. The local arts TV station in an interlude between Acts mentioned a phone number, so I paused the game to call it. Sure enough, it took me to a recording for that studio. It achieved the same effect that the game itself did - pulling the strange and surreal into the real world, if only for a glimpse. For the strength of the story alone, KRZ definitely belongs in my top 10.

I played Kentucky Route Zero on PC via Steam.

8. Deep Rock Galactic

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In an alternate timeline in which I’m actually available for multiplayer gaming before the entire East coast goes to bed, this could have been a top 3 game of 2020 for me. However, the time I was able to spend in 3- or 4-person multiplayer is among my favorite gaming memories of the year. The exploration and teamwork used in locating your objective is interrupted by frantic survival against crawling hordes, with enough variation between each class to make everything interesting and effective. There was also enough funny bullshit (particularly in the hub area) to make each moment entertaining. The solo game was also quite good, with a friendly robot to help you shoot bugs and access upper reaches of the cave. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I look forward to playing more of this in the years to come.

I played Deep Rock Galactic on Xbox One (launch), and it’s available on Game Pass Ultimate.

7. Hardspace: Shipbreaker [Early Access]

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A lot of games establish a setting where your blue collar character is saddled with inescapable debt; not all of them slap you in the face with it quite like Hardspace: Shipbreaker. Once you get past the intro screens (which do a great deal of world-building), you are given the objective of eliminating $1 billion in debt. To do that, you disassemble and sort starship parts in a drydock above Earth orbit. The game started out feeling like a puzzle, but as I gained familiarity with each type of ship, it became a challenge to see how much high-priced items I could salvage in only one or two 15-minute intervals. While doing so, I accidentally froze myself, caused explosive decompression, and occasionally leveled everything in my field of view. There’s a grim humor in watching a super-valuable component get destroyed because you forgot to turn off a very obvious valve somewhere. I’m still not all that close to eliminating the debt, but after a certain point, it actually started to feel obtainable. Thanks to that, I’m sure I’ll be playing a lot of this game again in 2021.

I played Hardspace: Shipbreaker on PC via Steam.

6. Monster Train

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Though I didn’t write a list for this site in 2018, Slay The Spire was my Game of the Year back then. I’ve tried to get into other deckbuilders, but Monster Train is the only game since that has fully drawn me in. I would describe it as a marriage between Spire and Magic: The Gathering, to the point where I refer to the faction combinations by their “colors”. But all of that does little justice to Monster Train, which stands on its own as an extremely fun video game.

Two factors really enhance the replayability of this game to make it one that I continue to enjoy several months after its release (and while I should be going through my backlog). First, each game lasts around 20-30 minutes, allowing you to quickly hop in and out if you so choose. Second, the combinations of different factions let you discover interesting combinations and card interplay. I greatly enjoyed my “blue/black” playthrough in which I set up tanks that consumed little creatures on the front line, then loaded the back with monsters that debuffed and caused damage over time. I’ve only cleared the game a few times by this point, and there’s still a lot I want to accomplish. Lastly, it bears mention that the music is phenomenal. It’s a shame that, as good as it is, it gets overshadowed by virtually all of my top 5.

I played Monster Train primarily on PC via Steam, and it’s available on Game Pass Ultimate as well.

5. Bugsnax

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Through the late summer, it seemed everyone was talkin’ ‘bout Bugsnax. When it did come out, some were let down because it wasn’t the kind of game they thought it would be. But I am very glad for the game it did turn out to be, because it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. The writing and character work was excellent, rivaling that of the #1 game on this list. Each character was funny, flawed, heartbreaking in their setbacks, and glorious in their triumphs. It was the perfect mix of goofball and weighty that I wanted in a game this year, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone who will pretend to listen.

If it sounds like the gameplay itself takes a backseat to the narrative and environmental elements, you’re not wrong. It was mostly fine, occasionally frustrating, but functional the vast majority of the time. There was some challenge to getting certain Snax to hit specific conditions, but overall it was fairly easy. I really liked wandering around new areas, just seeing each Bugsnax in its natural state. And the twist during the endgame (which I won’t mention even in shaded text) was not especially surprising but fit the theme of the game very well. My favorite moment was right after hitting the point of no return, when you’re just having a good time with all the Grumpuses in Snaxburg. By the time the infamous Bugsnax theme song played during the end credits, I had been wearing a big doofy smile on my face for a while.

I played Bugsnax on PC via the Epic Games Store.

4. Spiritfarer

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The official description for Spiritfarer is “a cozy management game about dying”. It both succinctly summarizes the game itself and sells itself way short. The music, visuals, and characters are all so beautifully done that you can often lose yourself in walking around with no objective in mind. Each character had an entertaining and poignant arc, all culminating with their eventual departure from your ship. I enjoyed the game the most when my ship was bursting with activity and life, but the times after certain characters had left forever were also memorable for their absence. The actual management portions of the game were probably on the shallow side of what fans of the genre might want, but I enjoyed them more than I expected to. There was no shortage of minigames to go along with resource gathering, either.

My favorite part of the game, however, was the storylines for each character. One of my favorites, and certainly the one that hit hardest for me, was an elderly spirit in the form of a hedgehog named Alice. When you meet her, she is vibrant and eager to garden and make homey meals. As the storyline progresses, something is off about her behavior. It becomes clear that she is suffering from dementia, and she needs a lot of help getting around before too long. She begins to call out for a lost family member, whom she soon mistakes you for. My grandmother died just days shy of her 100th birthday this year, also of dementia. Sending Alice off was an acute reminder of that loss, for a family member I still haven’t been able to bury. When I reached the ending of the game, I was left wanting more, as it rolls credits fairly abruptly. However, it made me rethink that official description I noted above and appreciate the ending more. I wish that additional lore and backstory was included in the game itself, as the companion art book appears to clarify a number of items I’m interested in.

Lastly, I want to briefly mention that my wife experienced game-breaking glitches in both the Xbox One and Switch versions of the game, which prevented her from completing key quests. I was fortunate in that I had no significant bugs, but they are out there and may harm your experience.

I played Spiritfarer on Xbox One (launch), and it’s also available on Game Pass Ultimate.

3. Fuser

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I’m not really a fan of the majority of the music in Fuser. However, I could listen to hours of mashups made using its engine, which may be the most technically impressive game I’ve ever seen. The work that goes on under the hood is incomprehensibly good. As you combine different components of songs with distinct pitch, tempo, and mode, it all somehow works. As someone who has tooled around in GarageBand, the fact that the game can do all the hard work on the fly with every song in its library is nothing short of incredible. I’m in awe every single time I throw random items into the mix, only to see it work out to an end result I can get into. Most of the time, anyway; I have made some true nightmares already.

The UI is surprisingly easy to understand once you’ve gained familiarity with the game. To do this, you need to go through the campaign with the help of the five most unlikeable NPCs of the year, and also a small child. I found I had the most fun by doing 2-3 campaign levels at a time, then popping back into Freestyle to just vibe with my concoctions. I checked out the Social mode and voted on user-submitted mixes, which nets you a ton of experience points. This allowed me to not only unlock more songs in the library, but it also let me check out what the community is making. I was on the verge of submitting some of my own when my computer died (while running the game), and I’ve been seriously contemplating streaming the game. Though its role in my PC’s untimely demise left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, I can’t wait to return to it once I’m back up and running.

I played Fuser on PC via Steam.

2. Ori and the Will of the Wisps

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It’s not that I thought this game’s predecessor, Ori and the Blind Forest, was a bad game. I thought it was a perfectly fine Metroidvania with interesting art and a sad story, and I had no desire to play through it a second time. So I came to Ori and the Will of the Wisps with extremely low expectations. I don’t think I was as surprised by any other game in 2020 as I was with this one. The first several hours of gameplay felt like a “fixed” version of the first game, with snappy controls and very fluid movement. As soon as I began unlocking more abilities and using them in bizarre locales, everything gelled in a way that left me constantly wanting more to explore. The impression it gave me is that the development team spent a lot of time playing Dead Cells and figured out what would work in their own franchise.

Performance-wise, I expected to have far more rough edges, since I played the game on a 2014-era Xbox One. I’m happy to say that the only obstacle I encountered was the delay in bringing up the menu, which could last up to 5 seconds at times. However, the gameplay was never interrupted by hitching or bugs in my time with the game. Some of the load times were very long, and I’m not sure I was supposed to linger on the fast travel animation as long as I did. The graphics were utterly gorgeous in 1080p, served well by the two-dimensional environment and strategically hidden elements. Even the most dismal holes you venture into feel alive, thanks to the intricate detail programmed into every area. I’d put the visuals and art as my favorite of the year, if not for the #1 entry on this list. I can’t wait to see what it looks like on a Series X when one of those becomes available in three years.

I don’t have overmuch to say about the story. I enjoyed it but consider it secondary to the gameplay, which is precisely the opposite of how I felt about the first game. That being said, the sidequests and standard interactions with NPCs (mostly cute creatures called Moki) were very enjoyable. The most memorable quest for me was building a home for one Moki, then being tasked with finding his family so they could join him. Since this is an Ori game, they were permanently petrified by the time I found them. I broke the news to the Moki, who said he needed to go join his family, and that was the end of the quest. Despite already having the reward and completion percentage, I decided to head back to his old dwelling. Sure enough, a third petrified Moki was now present. It’s not the most original resolution to this kind of side tale, but originality is overrated when it’s this well executed. Nothing told me to go back there; the rest of the game just made me want to.

I played Ori and the Will of the Wisps on Xbox One (launch) via Game Pass Ultimate; I purchased it afterwards as well.

1. Hades

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For a lot of the games listed above, I’ve noted that the gameplay took a backseat to the narrative and character work. This is not at all the case in Hades, which is the finest marriage of gameplay and story I’ve played in a very long time (maybe ever). SuperGiant has simply created a masterpiece, one that has already become one of my favorite games ever. Not only that, they charted the ideal course through an Early Access phase, treated their workforce well, and stood toe-to-toe in every major media outlet with developers far larger than themselves. I’m not sure the game is perfect, but it is damn close.

So many things stood out about this game to me, that I am guaranteed to forget many of them in this entry. Combat felt so snappy, and every single weapon was not only viable but capable of dominating. As others have observed, you would progress with a certain kind of build wondering how you could ever play any other way, only to completely change your mind during the next run. While I certainly hoped for certain boons to appear each run (hello, Athena’s dash boon!), I was also open-minded to new builds every time. Even by my 40th run of the game I was still discovering combinations that I’d never considered before. I got my second clear with my least favorite weapon at the time. And the thrill of beating a tough room or boss (especially that smug piece of shit, Theseus) never wore off.

For the narrative and character work, I can’t believe they made Greek mythological figures interesting to me again. The last time I felt anything other than tedium towards the Olympians was around God of War 2. But Hades brought refreshing takes on each character while staying true to literature, starting with Zagreus (who I’m told was noted in a lesser-known play). There is equal parts humor and heart in his interactions with everyone around him, and figuring out his complicated relationship with each Cthonic God is fodder for much thought when I’m away from the game. The dialogue is seemingly endless, and the voice acting is terrific, especially when you consider how small the cast is. The music is the best of the year, and I get many of the songs stuck in my head constantly. The subtle difference when you clear a room and get a pulsing beat, only to have the score swell again in the next chamber, is another example of the game’s meticulous attention to detail. Every aspect of the game has been lovingly crafted, no matter how small it may sound. If I were doing awards in different categories, Hades would likely top every single one.

I did get the opportunity to play a couple hours on the Switch Lite after the aforementioned loss of my PC. It definitely loses some of the appeal, thanks to the small screen size making the art details really hard to pick out. However, I only experienced a single moment of slowdown, and that was brief and very slight (I would estimate still better than 20 fps). So while I would most recommend the game on computers, the Switch release is fully viable. Overall, this was my most pleasant gaming experience of both 2020 and what is now known as the last generation of games. I can’t wait to see what SuperGiant does next.

I played Hades primarily on PC via Steam, and a little bit on Switch Lite as noted above.

Honorable Mentions: It just got squeezed out of my list, but Temtem is a very fine Pokemon-style game that my toddler greatly enjoyed watching… For those of you with children, you may enjoy the charming puzzle game Phogs!, which has local co-op… I almost hesitate to mention it at all since it’s in very early access, but World of Horror is a wonderful point-and-click adventure game with Junji Ito visuals… The Frontier Pass for Sid Meier’s Civilization VI has been fantastic content fed slowly throughout the year, with enough perks to keep my interest in the game during its final content cycle... I got pretty sick of this type of game after a couple months of Lockdown, but Jackbox Party Pack 7 renewed my interest (particularly the game Blather ‘Round)… Finally, while it’s barely a game at all, I’m not sure anything grabbed my attention like Blaseball during parts of the year. It was a real treat to watch my Baltimore Crabs win the requisite 3 championships and then attempt to attack and dethrone God. Claws Up!

Dishonorable Mentions: The game itself is fine, but the writing in Doom Eternal was the worst I experienced all year. Most of it is in the style of a D&D campaign composed by the edgelord who is constantly occupying your local hobby store. The rest is digs at “PC culture” that would have been moldy and toothless even 25 years ago. I would have vastly preferred no lore at all… Warcraft 3: Reforged is the worst remaster I have ever played, and I’m not even one of the dedicated fans who now are unable to play the version they do love. It made the bottom of my list this year, and I could not imagine any other spot for it… Lastly, a big ol’ scowl is directed towards my local power grid, which fried my PC before publishing this list. I wanted to replay my top 15 to solidify my final decision, but this is fine I guess.

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AllTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2019

AllTheDinos' Favorite Games of 2019

2019, huh? If there is a consensus on this year in games, it’s that it’s been a weird one. As the calendar marched on and high profile releases seemed to be in short supply, it looked increasingly likely that Doom Eternal would tower over everything else. And then that game was delayed to… March 2020, when seemingly every huge game is slated for release. Perhaps it’s the weirdness of 2019 that has everyone’s lists so varied. Personally, I’ve enjoyed reading what people loved and why, what they were disappointed by, and everything in between. And for me, this was a very good year for gaming, with many favorites coming as complete surprises.

Of course, the single greatest impact on gaming (and non-gaming) for me this year was the birth of my first child. I found games that had no pause button to be basically inaccessible to me starting in August, so I watched as some intriguing games came out without the ability to play them. Dropping off a game at a second’s notice became a necessity. Because of this, I wasn’t able to check out Remnant: From the Ashes or Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, two games that are extremely up my alley. I wanted to pop open a marathon 50 wave Horde session of Gears 5, but instead I found myself lucky to get 20 waves in a single sitting. As such, my list reflects the inability to play certain games, and how much more a short but dense gaming experience was to me compared to previous years.

Before I jump into it, there are some notable omissions that I have no good reason for. Beyond the two games I just mentioned, I just never got around to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Hypnospace Outlaw, or Disco Elysium for various reasons. I should also note that my available systems are a PC and a launch Xbox One, so no Playstation or Switch exclusives are on my list. I wasn’t sure how to count Slay the Spire, but I already made it my pick for 2018’s Game of the Year so including it here seemed silly. I didn’t pick up Control until last week, and I definitely need to play more than a couple of hours to rank it. Finally, I put some Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions at the bottom for games that deserved a special shoutout (for good or for ill). With all that out of the way, here are my 10 favorite games of 2019:

10. Observation (PC)

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From the moment I saw the David Fincher-esque credits sequence in the Quick Look, I knew I’d like this game. I’m also grateful I stopped watching after that, because the QL ends on one of the most genuinely surprising and terrifying sequences I’ve seen in a recent game. I played it in three sittings, which made it feel like an excellent horror miniseries. The meticulous rendering using near-future tech to establish the setting made Observation stand out from lots of games this year. Gameplay was fairly limited; you’re either switching between stationary cameras or navigating a zero-gravity probe. The progression is through a series of minigames that weren’t necessarily challenging but did emulate checklist operations, which enhanced the mechanical feel of the AI protagonist. They helped build anticipation in a way I felt enhanced the game, which made it emerge from a crowded pack and land on my top 10.

9. Later Alligator (PC)

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Speaking of minigame-fueled narrative games, I found Later Alligator to be utterly charming and engrossing. The art style and music stood out with their uniqueness and attention to detail; I particularly enjoyed a DDR-style song homage in the background at a bar. As the GB crew has stated, humor is very tough to pull off in games. For me, every joke in this game worked, and it gave me a world I wanted to return to. There was just enough challenge in the minigames that I occasionally failed. I enjoyed the story in my first playthrough enough that I immediately started another day to mop everything up. If you do play the game, I highly recommend getting every family badge to unlock the hilarious “best” ending. Overall, it’s an incredibly endearing game I found myself unable to shut up about for weeks.

8. Outer Wilds (Xbox One)

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If you had told me this game wouldn’t make my top 5 a few hours after I started it, I would have told you that you were insane. The first two-thirds of the game were an amazing mixture of exploration, sleuthing, wonder, and terror. I couldn’t wait to begin cracking into a new area, and the star system was so well crafted that every spot felt rewarding to poke around in. Unfortunately, the game did wear out its welcome for me in the final third. Waiting 10 minutes for a certain condition to manifest in order to close out missing items in my log, only to botch a jump or boost and have to start over, got extremely frustrating. There were a couple of puzzles that I needed to look up hints to solve. And while the finale was cool, I had already soured on the game somewhat by the time I reached it. All that being said, the music in the game is tremendous and something I find myself humming even today. No matter its flaws, it’s worth playing all the way through.

7. Wargroove (PC)

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Disclaimer: I never played Advance Wars, so I have nothing to measure Wargroove against. But I do know that I greatly enjoyed Wargroove and found it nearly impossible to put down. The game limited dice rolls to a pretty narrow effect, meaning my strategy had a greater impact on how things went than in many similar games. I liked the characters a whole lot, particularly the majestic Caesar. My only complaint for a while was that the long combat animations made every mission take a very long time, but the developer patched in the ability to turn those animations off. It seems like the perfect game for a commute or while watching stuff on your TV, especially if you grab the Switch version. In any case, I highly recommend it.

6. Resident Evil 2: Remastered (PC)

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A long time ago, I rented the original Resident Evil 2 from Blockbuster. I don’t remember how far I got, but I didn't make much progress. When I saw how good the remake looked, I was very excited to finally play the game in full. It’s a testament to how incredibly well designed the game is that it met my high expectations. The sound design may be the best I’ve experienced in a game. I started playing with headphones partway through, and that further enhanced my enjoyment. The movement controls were fully modernized, and activities that felt bad even in stronger Resident Evil games (like aiming and shooting) were handled perfectly here. Graphics are not usually that important to me in games anymore, but the sheer skill involved in rendering everything was impressive. I had considered Resident Evil 4 the best game in the series for years, but this remake is now my undisputed favorite.

5. Gears 5 (Xbox One)

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Coming off the middling-at-best Gears of War 4, I met this entry in the series with a lot of skepticism. The little I heard about the campaign made me sort of dread playing it, particularly with how tired the usual formula felt in 4. And with the aforementioned limited time for Horde, I questioned how much I’d end up enjoying the game. Fortunately, all my fears were quelled within minutes of actually playing it. Shooting in the series has never felt better, and the campaign was possibly the best of all six games. There’s been a lot of criticism of the open world portions, but I loved them as a break from sprinting through corridors of chest-high walls. I would have liked to see more environmental hazards in these areas (which happens near the end, and only once).

As for the other modes, I spent very little time on Escape and Versus. Escape was fine, but it felt inferior to the other modes in every way, so I had little incentive to play it. Versus Arcade has some really neat game types I’d like to dig more into someday. But as always, Horde reigns supreme. Being able to play with bots was a boon for my inability to devote time to online gaming. The good parts of Gears 4’s stab at Horde were simplified, and the Tour objectives and rewards make Horde feel more meaningful than a never-ending slog to get free loot boxes. I particularly enjoyed the different characters having unique loadouts and abilities. New characters dropped at a rate I couldn’t keep up with, so there’s plenty of reason to return for in-game rewards. Gears 5 will have a long life in my household, which is all I ever really wanted.

4. The Outer Worlds (Xbox One)

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Since it’s impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the Bethesda-era Fallout games, I’ll get it out of the way. I am pretty dissatisfied with where that franchise is going, and Fallout 4 is one of the most disappointing games I can remember. At the same time, I’ve been getting fatigued of all open world games, so I didn’t exactly look to The Outer Worlds as some potential savior of the genre. With my expectations thusly managed, I have to say that I greatly enjoyed this game. Your character choices mattered for the dialogue in ways that were always entertaining thanks to great writing. Yes, you often ended up in the exact same place quest-wise, but it never felt like that negatively impacted my experience. Items were far more restricted to what was most important, so I rarely ever felt like I needed to take a while to manage my inventory. The skill point-based leveling made a welcome return, although I wish they hadn’t enforced a level cap at 30.

And playing the game felt great! Gunplay handled extremely well, and it was certainly an improvement over Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I found a variety of weapons I enjoyed using and, thanks to the Tinker function, my preferences stayed viable well into the late game. Mods didn’t receive a whole lot of use in my game, but that’s more my aversion to spending my precious horde than any in-game limitations. The only part of the game that felt like it dragged was Monarch, which was also the largest open area. I didn’t immediately hop into a second playthrough after beating the game, but that’s because I wanted to clear out my backlog for GOTY. I will return to the game eventually and use one of my several ideas for a new character. Lastly, I think the relatively small amount of glitches was a rarity for open world games, especially when you remember New Vegas. “Dead” companion aside, I experienced no game-breaking or major bugs.

3. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw (PC)

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I put off playing this game for months because I wanted to play Rebel Galaxy first. While it came highly recommended, it didn’t grab me. When I gave up on that requirement and just started playing Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, I wondered how I waited so long. The gameplay loop is relatively simple, but the ability to fast travel and skip animations made it far more rewarding than any other radiant quest-style game. The setting appealed to the former Starcraft nut somewhere inside this aged husk, and the flight controls reminding me of TIE Fighter tickled my nostalgia in a way that never felt pandering.

I primarily played with a controller, and this never negatively impacted my experience. You could switch between targets and rebalance your ship systems with a couple clicks, all seamlessly enough to never be a distraction. My personal favorite feature allowed me to hold a button to match speed and course with my target, letting me focus on not getting blown to bits. Space dogfights were further enhanced by the outstanding soundtrack, which was as deep as it was high in quality. Beyond the regular gameplay, there is also a fantastic pool simulator I spent a lot more time in than I’m proud to admit. It’s a game I keep going back to, and I have a feeling I’ll be playing a lot more of it in 2020.

2. Planet Zoo (PC)

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As someone who spent over 100 hours in Planet Coaster, I was excited enough for this game that I bought the deluxe edition. After a few hours of the beta, I was ready to name this my second-favorite game of the year already. I’m happy to say that the full release only enhanced my opinion of the game. The animal physics in the game capture real behavior better than any game I’ve seen. I spent lots of time in the animal viewer mode just watching them run, swim, eat, and play. Every time a notification came up that a new baby animal was born, I stopped whatever I was doing and just watched it for a while. Even after all the objectives had been completed in career mode, I would spend a lot of time zipping around and enhancing every animal’s welfare rating so I could leave with all critters at their happiest.

Speaking of career mode, the added narrative was an extremely welcome addition from Planet Coaster. You spend the first few levels guided by a couple of characters in a desperately-needed tutorial, and by the fourth mission you’re ready to be plopped into its sandbox. You get to see some pretty advanced zoos in action, and then further levels contain soft tutorials (babies! managing overcrowding!). And in one of my favorite story beats of the year, the park is taken over by a slimy hedge fund manager (hmm) that gets extremely cheap on expenses (hmmmm) and liquidates any staff who disagree with him (hmmmmmmm). While not intended to coincide with real life events that happened within a week of release, it gave my doting on the animals a unique sense of purpose. If I didn’t watch out for them, who would?

I spent some time in the other modes as well. Sandbox mode and challenge mode are identical to those in Planet Coaster. The real standout is franchise mode, where you can create multiple zoos under a single banner around the world and trade animals with other people. It was a good feeling to make a special place for a red panda that someone else raised in their own zoo. The game has a long gameplay loop, but it never once felt tedious to me. I will definitely be playing this game for years to come. My only complaint: NO PENGUINS! Hopefully Frontier adds some in future DLC.

1. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PC)

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It’s a rare occurrence that I play a game as early as March, stick it at #1 on my list, and then never move its position for even a moment. I loved the Souls series (and wish I could play Bloodborne), but none of them ever made it to #1 on my list the year they came out. Sekiro stuck with me because it’s the first time I felt like I wasn’t succeeding in spite of the game’s difficulty; I was succeeding because of it. The first full Genichiro fight was a eureka moment that I can’t recall experiencing in any other game. My usual circle-strafe-and-dodge method imported from the Souls games began to finally fail me; even Darkeater Midir couldn’t break me of that habit. But adopting a more aggressive style paid immediate dividends and changed the way I looked at FromSoftware games. Now I don’t know if I want to go back.

The game’s bosses are probably the highlight, but I want to give credit to the level design and environments. Tenchu-style sneak and destroy is the focus for much of the game, as even an advanced character can be taken down by a small game if you get careless. I loved the beginnings in a more mundane realm, which made the aberrations like huge men and huger snakes stand out. As you progress, the familiar theme of undeath begins to come into focus. FromSoft has always had great meditations on this theme, and the introduction of Infestation shed new perspective on it. The antagonists of the game are all chasing various forms of immortality, while Wolf’s goal is to end the cycle that grants you said immortality. As you abuse this power, you see the people you meet in the world suffer. It’s an intriguing concept that pays off throughout the story.

The further you progress, the more fantastical everything gets. Whether you fight giant angry apes, enormous koi, or a dragon in the dang clouds, you always feel like you’ve seen the most the game will throw at you. Then a dead man carves his way out of his grandson and shoots you with a gun. As stated earlier, the boss battles in this game are my personal highlight. I thought about that Genichiro fight for months after beating him, and the twist in the Guardian Ape battle is my favorite moment in gaming of the year. Taking on small enemies in burning castles or in close quarters always offered a different type of challenge, and being killed by them always felt fair to me. And holy hell, the hitbox in the game is the sharpest I think I’ve ever experienced. For as much as I died during the final boss, I never once blamed video game bullshit for my failure. After beating the game, I immediately started a new game plus playthrough, which I returned to throughout the year.

The reason Sekiro is my personal favorite game of 2019 is because of that enduring appeal. It’s the game I thought most about, wanted to play most, and also anticipated the most before it came out (even more than Doom!). I had the loftiest expectations for it, and the game exceeded even those. Beyond that, FromSoft has shown that they can accomplish even more than they already have, and what they’ve done is some of the decade’s best games. Sekiro is one of the finest games I played all decade, and I can’t wait to see what Elden Ring and their next games bring to the table.

Honorable Mentions: Dicey Dungeons satisfied my desire for a quick roguelite builder game. It became one of my go-to games to play while listening to podcasts… Speaking of roguelite builders, Griftlands was a solid deckbuilder and adventure game in one package… Untitled Goose Game let me live my best bird life… What the Golf? amused me greatly during 3 AM baby feeding sessions while I waited for my child to settle down… Pikuniku and Baba Is You were full of charm and made me very happy... Lastly, Merlin Sleep Suits allowed me to actually play games for more than 30 minute stretches again, so shouts out to those and their magic baby sleep powers.

Dishonorable Mentions: The ghosts in The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan were scary, but not nearly as scary as the input lag. Not great for a QTE- based game… I encountered game-breaking bugs in Mortal Kombat 11 that forced me to repair my Steam files multiple times while trying to complete the otherwise excellent story mode… I expected the awful writing of Borderlands 3, but the gameplay felt terrible to me as well. I picked up the trial version on a free weekend and bailed after 90 minutes. Perhaps it gets better later on; I have no desire to find out... Finally, thumbs down to cats vomiting inside keyboards.

That’s my list, thanks for reading! If you think I missed something that sounds up my alley based on the top 10, I’d love to know about it.

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