When I wrote last month about how I’ve been in a gaming doldrums for some time now I was confident that something would pull me out of it. I thought it might be Final Fantasy VII Rebirth or perhaps some random indie or shadow drop that would jolt me back into being excited about games again. What I did not expect was that it would be an enhanced remaster of a decade+ old Wii game starring everybody’s favorite piece of place-holder art made mascot, the pink puffball himself, Kirby.
I’ve never been a Kirby fan. I don’t hate the character, and he’s pretty fun in Smash because of his transformations, but the combination of the cutesy world and the slightly weird way that he controls when he’s doing his floating thing has always made me lukewarm at best on his games. I’ve dabbled in them throughout the years, playing them at friends’ houses and renting a few, but the only two I’ve owned were Kirby 64, which was an interesting but not very compelling title, and Kirby Star Allies, which is fun in short bursts but too chaotic to be an actually good platformer, especially solo.
I’m not really sure why I picked up Kirby’s Return to Dreamland Deluxe for my Switch. It was $40, which counts as being on sale but definitely not cheap. I played the Forgotten Land demo recently and that game has me intrigued about the idea of Kirby as a 3D platformer, a genre I tend to prefer over 2D. But something drew me not to Forgotten Land but to Return to Dreamland. I think it was a combination of that game’s more recent reviews and the fact that I’m going through a stressful period of life right now and I wanted something simple and easy and cheerful and pleasant. I’m getting a little burned out on apocalypses and misery and the thought of spending some time in a world of Waddle Dees and really good music had a lot of appeal. There’s also the fact that Super Mario Bros. Wonder somewhat reignited my love of 2D platformers even to the point where I went back and finished Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, a game I am lukewarm on at best.
The thing that made Return to Dreamland click for me is how easy it is to get into. Minimal story, minimal tutorial, few controls to master (especially if you’re already familiar with the basics of Kirby) and a very low level of challenge with a gentle curve. I don’t dislike difficult or complicated games, and even love some of them, but there’s something so comforting about playing something simple and friendly where the developers just wanted you to see and hear some fun things and have a good time. I guess that’s much of Kirby’s appeal, and Nintendo’s appeal in general, though while I wouldn’t call something like Tears of the Kingdom particularly difficult, I also definitely wouldn’t call it simple and easy to learn.
The other part of Nintendo’s appeal is polish. Return to Dreamland Deluxe has plenty of that. Despite being an upgraded version of a Wii game, it looks absolutely fantastic, with bright and colorful visuals that have a timeless appeal. The music is excellent, and I’ve tried to listen to podcasts multiple times while playing, only to find myself turning them off so I can crank up the game’s tunes. There are a lot of extra modes and unlockables, including the patented Kirby multiplayer minigames, which seem pretty quaint by 2023 standards. Is anyone actually going to invite friends over to play these simple party games that were already starting to be outdated when the Wii was relevant? Maybe they make sense for very young kids. They are, however, presented in both a cute little theme park you can roam around completing challenges and collecting stamps to be rewarded with consumables and cosmetics, and also in the game’s flying ship hub, where you can unlock challenge levels as well. It’s a lot of material to supplement a relatively short main game, and there’s even a new epilogue in the Deluxe version, which might secretly be the best part of the entire package.
While Return to Dreamland is not nearly as good as Super Mario Bros. Wonder, I do think it might have served as a bit of inspiration for that game. Just like in Mario Wonder the stages are often built around gimmicks, like a water stage with a strong current or a couple sections of stages where you use a boot that resembles Kuribo’s shoe. That’s not uncommon in platformers, but in certain levels in Return to Dreamland you encounter enemies with powered up abilities that, once absorbed, allow Kirby to unleash screen covering attacks that can break apart pieces of the environment, opening up new paths. This ends up functioning a lot like the Wonder Seeds in SMBW, though in a more predictable and less transformative way. Despite not being at the level of Wonder, Return to Dreamland does manage to capture some of the novelty and delight that drives that game, and that helped remind me what I love so much about gaming. The sense of discovery and possibility within a game while you explore its levels, while you also take in the creativity and craftsmanship of the people who made the game. The clever level design, whimsical graphics, and gorgeous music drew me in and instead of struggling to engage with the game I found myself scouring the levels and playing longer than I intended because I was excited to see what was next.
My enjoyment of Return to Dreamland led me to pick up some other games and I found myself enjoying those too. I never finished the original Bayonetta, which I started in 2022, and I played through a couple more levels of that, enjoying the over-the-top presentation and brawling action. Then I picked up Crisis Core, which I also laid aside last year and want to finish before Rebirth next week, and I enjoyed diving back into that a little. I found myself mapping out the games I want to get through this year in my head, which is generally a good sign that I’m getting absorbed in the hobby again. I’m not constantly playing in every spare moment like I was with Tears of the Kingdom, but I’m able to play a couple hours here and there without finding myself struggling to engage or enjoy myself, and that feels good.
I wish more games like Return to Dreamland were being made today. I don’t necessarily mean 2D platformers, which there are many of, but these higher budget straightforward polished experiences, almost regardless of genre. I guess this is just partially more nostalgia for the days when major publisher games put out games with 8-12 hour linear campaigns. But it’s also partially a desire for more games that want the player to enjoy themselves without falling into the “cozy” trap of being boring and repetitive. More games that want to encourage and cheer players on instead of challenging and grading them. Of course those games still exist; Mario Wonder being a prime example, but they seem fewer and further between in an industry where big budget games seem to favor either bloat or challenge as a way to extend play time and justify their existence. I think a lot of us agree that one of the best things in gaming is to play through a tightly designed linear experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome, it’s just that the economic model for those games seems to have broken down outside the indie space.
I wouldn’t say Return to Dreamland is a particularly great game. If I had played it last year I don’t think it would have made my top 10 (though it would have supplanted Immortals of Aveum in position 11, and there’s a much bigger gap between Kirby and that game than between Kirby and Mario RPG, my #10.) It’s a solid 8 out of 10, but while I enjoy the breezy difficulty it’s a little bit too easy to fully engage me. Sometimes a game comes around at the right time and it doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, it just has to be good in the right ways that you need at that moment. Kirby’s good in the right ways.
I knew that at some point I’d get back into gaming, but this was a long drought of interest for me and I never thought that Kirby would be the game to pull me back in. I’m still not 100% sure why I picked it up. Nonetheless I did, and it’s a lesson for me that when I’m feeling unengaged maybe I should lower the barrier to entry and go back to basics with something that’s just some simple fun. And it’s a small thing but I’ll never think of the Kirby franchise in the same way. I think I want to explore some more of the games, many of which are on the Switch Online service and some others of which I have on 3DS, just as a way to get familiar with this franchise that now matters to me a little more. And that excites me a little bit. Kirby will never be up there with Mario or Zelda for me, but I now understand better why he has so many fans, and I think I’m one of them.
There are a lot of terrible games out there. Most are forgotten quickly, some have a cult following, but a few become legend. Often you can identify the reasons behind those legends. E.T. for the Atari 2600 helped cause the game crash of the early 80s and changed the industry forever. The Zelda CD-I games took a franchise that was big then and has only gotten bigger and made these weird, terrible, games, in the most un-Nintendo like way ever. Shaq Fu is a fighting game based on a basketball legend at the height of his popularity, a truly ridiculous premise.
Superman 64 shares a couple attributes with these games, chiefly a recognizable license and the fact that it came out at a time when there were fewer games on the market so we all knew about most of them, but it's hardly unique in that. There is an almost endless river of licensed trash, with plenty of bad superhero games cluttering shelves. There are multiple awful Batman games on the PlayStation, and almost every major hero has had his or her share of trash software. Yet Superman 64 seems more recognized and important than those other games, despite not having the industry impact of an E.T. or the novelty of the Zelda CD-I games or Shaq Fu. After all while a basketball player fighting game is absurd, superhero games have been around for almost as long as there have been video games.
So what makes it special? Why is it that it was inevitable that Blight Club would eventually get to this particular game?
I think there are a few factors. For one, while there are tons of superhero games there are not that many Superman games specifically. He has not been nearly as prolific as contemporaries like Spider-Man or Batman, and if you don't count appearances in franchises like Injustice or Suicide Squad we haven't seen a Superman game in a long time. For another, it was an N64 game. The N64 was a console a lot of people had during their impressionable childhoods and it was a console without nearly as many games as something like the PlayStation, so it was easier to be aware of more of them. Almost every N64 kid rented Superman 64 or played it at a friend's house or at least saw it on the shelves and read about it in magazines or on the web.
Finally there's the premise of the first few levels. Superman 64 is not actually a game about flying through rings, but that's how it starts and that's how it's remembered. The sheer stupidity of taking the Superman character, a god among men, and reducing him to flying through the rings shows such a lack of interest in the character and a paucity of imagination that it stands out in the mind. The Catwoman game on Gamecube is terrible, but that's at least a game about doing Catwoman things like stealing and fighting goons. Flying Superman through rings is a Shaq-Fu level of dumb that resonates with people.
There's something fascinating about how the makers of Superman 64 managed to create a terrible game that has somehow endured with a lot more visibility than many better games made at the same time. Most of the N64 library has faded into the background. When's the last time you thought about Excitebike 64, a top 25 seller on the system and a pretty good game? But Superman 64 comes up again and again. The developers managed to capture something special by creating a game that's not just bad but also ill conceived, with a character who is not well suited to games and doesn't get a lot of them. They made a hallmark of the N64 library by being so bad at their jobs they transcended dreck and ascended into camp.
Sony recently announced that the PS5 was entering the latter half of its lifespan. Microsoft, meanwhile, promised that new hardware is being developed and it will be the biggest power leap we've ever seen. Meanwhile I'm over here questioning whether the Series X and PS5 will ever justify their existence let alone their price points.
Whatever you want to say about the current generation of games, I think it's hard to argue that it's a quantum leap over the last one. It's true that something like Spider-Man 2 looks enough better than its predecessor that you wouldn't necessarily mistake it for a PS4 game, but how much did we really gain from that slight improvement? Insomniac themselves have questioning the amount of money that was spent making Spider-Man 2 and especially making it look as polished and bombastic as it is. If getting the most out of the new hardware is so expensive that it's impractical even for a sure fire hit like that, then how many games are actually going to utilize its potential?
Meanwhile Tears of the Kingdom showed that in terms of gameplay and physics, we've reached a point where software development is a much bigger limitation than hardware. Yes, ToK would have benefitted from being on a more powerful system, but it was on the Switch, a platform that's nearly 7 years old and was underpowered when it released. Switch 2 is probably necessary at this point, but even that is going to be weaker than the PS5 is, and the platform it's replacing has a power level not much greater than Xbox 360, which is coming up on 20 years old.
What I'm saying is that yes, power matters, but we've definitely reached the point of diminished returns. When I look at my favorite games from last year, they are dominated by Switch games and indie experiences, with AAA games mostly failing to make much of an impression on me. I did play God of War: Ragnarok last year, and really enjoyed it, but there's a PS4 version of that game. Same with Horizon Forbidden West. I've seen the comparison videos showing the PS4 vs PS5 versions and there are differences, but they're not differences that I'd pay $500 for.
AAA gaming is currently in something of a software crisis, not really a hardware one. Games have gotten incredibly expensive to make and market, and game design has moved more and more towards an unsustainable "live services" model that gamers are starting to reject. AAA games used to be able to somewhat rely on a "wow" factor to sell themselves, with production values carrying a lot of the load, but that's getting harder and harder and we see situations where something like Suicide Squad compares unfavorably on just a visual level to the same studio's last game, which came out almost a decade ago. The same could be said for Skull and Bones, which does look better than Black Flag in most ways but certainly not enough to make up for its deficits, and looks worse in certain key areas.
Sony is a little disappointed by the recent performance of the PS5, but they're also giving us a year where there are no new first party games for it. Microsoft is coming off a year where it released a string of games that ranged from disappointing (Forza, Starfield) to downright awful (Redfall.) Last year has been deemed an incredible year for games, and in many ways it was, but if you look at the actual games that made up that list you see a lot of indies, Switch games, and games that ran okay on Xbox One and PS4 (like Armored Core and Street Fighter 6.) You see many fewer games that attempted to fully utilize the hardware of the new machines, and many that were "next gen only" seem to have been that way because they didn't bother to develop versions for the old systems, not because it was impossible to do so.
So what is the problem that new hardware is going to fix? If fully tapping the current hardware is impractically expensive and difficult, and if the games that do make use of that hardware aren't tending to hit any harder than games built for older machines what is the pitch for investing in yet another expensive box to put under the TV only to serve up the same experiences in a slightly shinier format, while the software side of development continues to flounder at the high end? Is Spider-Man 3 going to come out for PS6 and cost $500 million to make, or be cut back in ambition and scope because development is unsustainable?
As an old head gamer who has been around since the days of the NES I have always been excited about new hardware. I have fond memories of playing Resogun when the PS4 launched and Dirt 5 when I got my Xbox Series X. But right now I want the platform holders to actually finish justifying the current generation rather than looking on to the next one. I want to see Microsoft actually put out some special first party games for the Series X. I want to see Sony give the PS5 a lineup that can compete with the PS4's, which it absolutely does not have at this point. I don't want to see budgets get even bigger leading to even more microtransactions and live services and fewer games I actually care about.
Console generations have gotten longer over time for various reasons (economic crash extending 7th generation, half step consoles extending 8th) but now it seems the manufacturers want to shorten this one and...there's no reason to. Fix the problems with the software first. Then you can sell us new boxes. Nintendo may be pushing the Switch 2 to 2025, which would give the Switch a full 8 years as an underpowered system, and one of the most successful platforms of all time. Meanwhile last year had some of the best software that platform has ever seen, and it remains relevant. You'd think that others would learn from this but instead it seems like they're going to take the Tim the Tool Man Taylor route of More Power.
Personally I'd be happier with less power and a better suite of games.
I've been listening to the Trials Fusion theme a fair amount recently. I remember enjoying it at the time of its release, 10 years ago (I don't really want to think about what that means) and I also enjoyed the game, especially the way that my best friend at the time (we're still friends, just not as close) and I would compete for track times and send clips of our most outrageous crashes to one another.
In general I have a lot of nostalgia right now for that early PS4/Xbox One time in gaming. Games like Titanfall, Sunset Overdrive and Resogun were a peek into what the next generation could do, but we were still early enough in the generation that live service games weren't dominant yet. We were still getting a lot of games in the 7th gen mode of 10-15 hour campaigns and the fact that the newer consols had been designed with digital games as a main feature instead of an afterthought meant that indies were getting bigger and better, bolstered by the success of Kickstarter. There was a lot of good stuff going on in gaming, much of which I look back on fondly.
But it was also kind of a bad time. The PS4 infamously took a long time to get going, with 2015's Bloodborne arguably marking the turning point from awkward new system to the powerhouse it would become. The Xbox One floundered out of the gate. The Wii U was a complete wreck. While I can look back on some of those games with fondness and view some of them, like Transistor, as all time favorites, I can also say that 2014 had a lot of games I didn't really like. I think Shadow of Morder is overrated and just okay. Assassin's Creed Unity launched as a complete and total mess. Destiny remains one of the games I played the longest after I was already not having a lot of fun.
I was in my 30s at the time, so it's not like I was a kid, and I was quite miserable, in absolutely horrendous physical shape and hurtling towards an early grave, something I would not begin to address for another 3 or so years. It's not a time I really look back on with a lot of fondness.
And yet I do have nostalgia for some of those games, and maybe for the era as a whole. I think that can be attributed to a few things. The first is that even in bad times there are almost always some positive moments or experiences that shine through. The games of 2014 may not match up to a year like 2017 (or 2023) but they're certainly not all bad. I had good experiences with some of them. Even great experiences with a select few. As time goes by those memories stand out more strongly, and the good times I had in something like Titanfall are clearer than all the mediocre stuff I played and didn't really like.
The second is that each era of gaming is different from the present, at least to some extent. Trials Fusion had a dry, comedic, style that drew on Portal and that has fallen out of fashion in the modern day, where games tend to be a little more sincere. Say what you will about Shadow of Mordor but it was a complete product (there was some DLC but it was side stuff) and a little less bloated than a lot of the most modern stuff. It's easy to think of the best of the time in contrast to our modern slate and have some fondness for the good stuff that existed back then.
The question that really interests me is whether in 10 years I'll be nostalgic for 2024. Will I look back on Suicide Squad and Skull & Bones with the same "were they really that bad?" attitude I have towards AC: Unity (which, to be fair, is in its current state a much better game than either of those will likely ever be.) Will the pretty dry looking last year of the Switch be seen as a time when charming smaller games came out and we all enjoyed Princess Peach Showtime! while waiting for the Switch 2?
There's a sort of comfort in the thought that even the darkest times have bright spots and that inevitably time will sand away the junk and the frustrations and polish the gems that maybe we couldn't appreciate so much at the time. In 10 years the dull slog of Redfall will just be a vague memory but Hi-Fi Rush and Tears of the Kingdom will stand out, with clear high points and moments of fun of joy.
And I like that even in my advanced age I can still feel nostalgic about the good bits of the not so distant past. Trials Fusion is a good game. Better than Skull & Bones, at the very least!
Before I start I'd like to note that while I wrote recently that I haven't been enjoying games much recently, I don't think that's what this is. I actually have been having a decent time with a few titles, notably Brotato and Live-A-Live. I wouldn't say that gaming has fully rebounded for me, but this is not a "video games are giving me angst" situation. This is specifically about The Crew.
So why is The Crew specifically provoking this reaction?
Part of it is that it's an old game. The Crew is almost a decade old and while I wouldn't call it retro (and it never will be retro because it's being taken down) it is of a time. I'm playing on Xbox Series X but it hasn't had any upgrades for newer hardware so you can definitely see its age in things like very low resolution on far away buildings and just general texture and graphics quality. There are games from 2014 that still hold up visually today but The Crew is not one of them.
Beyond the age of the graphics, though, there's the game's design and attitude. It's one of those "street racer" you're a criminal on the run from the law racing games that was popular in the mid to late 2000s. That subgenre still exists today in games like Need for Speed Unbound, but while that game is colorful and stylized, The Crew is grim and coated in grime like a game from 2010. It starts out with a bunch of cliche gang and cop stuff, and all the UI elements and menus are intended to look "street." Even in 2014, which is post Forza Horizon 2, this was pretty outdated and The Crew got called out for it at the time. It's one of the reasons the game didn't review well, scoring a 61 on Metacritic. I played through Need for Speed: The Run in November 2020 and while I did not like that game much I thought it at least did a very similar story in a less off-putting way. Maybe I've just gotten less tolerant of these things in the last 3+ years.
But while The Crew is and always was kind of a bad game, its the combination of its age and that badness that hit me right in the feels. See, when The Crew came out I was in my early 30s and I was a different person, including when it came to video games. I loved them with an intense passion and I could enjoy almost any game of any quality, at least for awhile. Video games were something I rewarded myself with at the end of the day, or played early in the morning just to start things off with a little burst of pleasure. And it almost didn't matter what game it was. I played a lot of bad games and if I didn't always like them I always found them interesting.
Now...it doesn't work that way. Now a game like The Crew just feels like a chore. This isn't true of all games. Despite my current malaise I have found myself wanting to play a quick Brotato run several times over the last week. This morning when I woke up I did a run and everything clicked in my build and I beat a new difficulty level. That was fun and satisfying. Last night I felt drawn to finish the Japan story in Live-A-Live and that was reasonably engaging.
But playing The Crew just hit...bad. Like biting into an apple and finding it mealy and half rotten. Like pulling clothes from the dryer only to find they are still damp. Like racing to catch your train and making it, only to have it stop on the tracks for 20 minutes for no reason.
Not only did I not enjoy the 40 minutes or so that I played of The Crew but it made me think back to all that time I sunk into mediocre games in the past and feel bad about that too. What was I even doing? Why did I play Dante's Inferno in 2019? At the time I kind of enjoyed it, but would I today? Why did I play both Medal of Honor 2010 and Medal of Honor Warfighter? How much of my life have I wasted playing these crappy games?
A lot. I've wasted a lot of my life playing crappy games.
Now to be fair this is something I've been grappling with for some time. Ever since 2021, when I finished both Werewolf: The Apocalypse Earthblood and Balan Wonderworld I've been rethinking my relationship with bad or mediocre games. Last year I barely played any. And I wouldn't have booted up The Crew if the servers weren't coming down and I didn't feel like it would be a waste to not at least try the game I paid for before it becomes inaccessible forever. But I did boot it up and my reaction wasn't "oh this is better than I thought" or "I see what people were saying but this is okay" or even "well this is bad but sort of interesting." It was "what am I doing with my life and why am I doing it? Why did I ever do it?"
There is an obvious answer to this. Stop playing The Crew. Delete it. Move on. Ignore the sunk cost fallacy and start another story in Live-A-Live, a game that hasn't hooked me like Super Mario Bros Wonder did, but isn't a bad way to spend a couple hours from time to time. It's the obvious answer and it's correct. I probably won't follow it, at least immediately, because I do have that clock ticking away on the servers, but in the end my life won't be affected much whether I do or don't spend 20 hours to finish The Crew.
The depressing part is the recognition that my feelings on games really have changed. I can still enjoy good games but bad ones just aren't doing it for me. This isn't a new revelation but The Crew really hit it home. It's a game that I'd always meant to play, always intended to check out if only to make fun of it, and I missed my window. There are a lot of other games like that too. I still like some games but I don't like all games anymore, and I have to be more selective. I look at something like Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and I used to think "I should wait for a sale on that because it will be dumb fun or at least interesting." But the truth is...I just shouldn't bother. I should find something else, whether a game or not, to do with that time.
And this wouldn't be a huge deal except...games were my last reliable escape. During my life I've turned to a few different things to cope with stress or disappointment, both of which I have a lot of right now. Some of those things I've cut out because they were self-destructive. Gaming can also be self-destructive, but is at least fine in moderation. It was the final thing I could turn to when I just really needed to get out of my head for a bit. To find that it no longer really works that way, or at least not reliably is...rough. Last night I was scrolling through some of the PS3 games streamable through PS+ and I saw a few games I'd always meant to get to like Rogue Warrior and the Kareteka remake (the PS3 version not the new Digital Eclipse one.) But I don't really want to play those games anymore. They're bad. I've played enough bad games.
When you're young you look at older people whose tastes have changed and say "that won't happen to me." People who stopped playing games altogether not because life made it impossible (which can easily happen) but because they lost interest. People whose musical tastes shifted from edgy and loud to softer and boring. People who have lost touch with the things they loved. What you don't realize is that these taste changes happen organically and they happen whether you want them to or not. You just see things differently as you age. Things affect you differently. You get to a point where you've played a dozen racing games with the same set up and you see some fuzzy low res background element and you ask "why am I even doing this?" and there is no good answer. Things become not fun anymore. You've seen it too many times.
I'll be fine. I can adjust to my new way of interacting with games. I can become more discerning. I can just not play The Crew. I've not played The Crew successfully for years and it worked out great. There are plenty of actually good games in my backlog and coming out every week. There's other stuff to do. But that moment when I loaded up The Crew for the first time after trying for weeks and it just...sucked was a real moment of clarity for me. My old ways don't work anymore. I need new ones.
When the shut down of The Crew was announced for March of this year I decided I was going to play through it before that happened because I bought the game back in the day and never got around to it. I downloaded it to my Xbox and booted it up only to be greeted with a server error that made it unplayable. I have tried intermittently since that happened about a month ago and have had the same error. Others have reported the same issue on the subreddit for the game and have submitted error reports to Ubisoft only to be met with silence. It appears not to affect PC players and to only affect some console players (and possibly to be account specific) but nobody seems to have figured out a solution to the issue.
From a purely business perspective I understand that Ubisoft has nothing to gain from fixing a game they have delisted and are pulling down anyway, but it just shows their complete and utter indifference to customer satisfaction. I buy a lot of games and I will probably buy an Ubisoft game again at some point, but I will definitely never buy an always online Ubisoft game for anything above a pittance and I will probably never buy an Ubisoft game at full price for a very long time. This situation has infuriated me on multiple levels. Ubisoft was perfectly happy to take my money and not even meet their own timeline for keeping the game up.
I'm not a full bore "modern gaming sucks" guy because there are lots of things about modern gaming that I really like, but this kind of thing definitely reminds me that modern game companies, for the most part, do suck. They just do not care about games, and especially older games. The "always online" thing is a disaster and in many cases seems intentionally designed to make games unplayable after a time. If the Forza Horizon series can be played offline there's no reason for The Crew to be always online. Same for the Halo series and Redfall. Types of games that many people play solo and that have had no issues having offline and online multiplayer modes in the past are now being built around being temporary and temperamental and game companies can offer zero good reasons for doing things this way.
Do I really care that much about The Crew? No. If it were at the top of my list I would have played it by now. But the principle of the thing matters a lot to me. It's the arrogance and total lack of accountability that get to me. Companies keep on asking for more money for their games but are happy to build them so they can't work without support and then drop that support when it's no longer profitable. Babylon's Fall didn't even last a year. It is literally impossible to list all the games with content roadmaps that never actually happened because the game didn't perform well enough. But they were happy to take people's money with false promises.
Suicide Squad Kill the Justice League is launching as yet another online only game. They are promising an offline mode down the road but we've heard that before. Redfall is supposed to have an offline mode eventually but are they really going to invest the resources for that for the 7 people still playing that?
It's not just gaming. Amazon is now adding advertisements to Prime Video and other streaming companies seem to be preparing to do the same. We all know how horrible websites have gotten with their ads over the years. As media continues to consolidate under a few very large companies there is less and less interest in providing customers with a good experience and a greater feeling that we're just being presented content slop on a tray and told to like it because it's the only game in town. Kind of like a cafeteria school lunch but without the benefit of it at least being cheap.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm just not that into games right now. I think this is part of it. I'm exhausted as a consumer. I look at the gaming landscape for this year and so much of it just sucks. Endless remakes and battle passes and New Game+ modes locked behind paywalls. Always online BS and games that they want you to buy and not own. Immortals of Aveum was not a very good game but it's the last one I felt compelled to binge because it was straightforward in every way. Buy it, play the campaign, move on. If I want to play it again in 10 years I can.
For most of last year I was having a really good time with video games. I'd overcome my tendency to play a lot of bad games and was focusing more on games I actually enjoyed. I started the year with God of War: Ragnarok and Horizon: Forbidden West and thoroughly enjoyed them both, albeit Ragnarok more than Forbidden West, which seems to be the general consensus. I had a really great time playing older games like Yakuza 0 and Kiwami, Nier: Replicant, and Wild Arms later in the year and I was absolutely blown away by Tears of the Kingdom. I finally got around to Pyre and blasted through it, grabbing the platinum. I even had a great time with Ni No Kuni, a game that continues to be divisive over a decade after its release. While I didn't love the games released in 2023 as much as many people, the games I played in 2023 were mostly fantastic.
Then October hit and I decided to play some spooky games, as I tend to. I'm not the biggest horror fan, but I can certainly enjoy horror themed media under the right circumstances, and I was hoping to replicate 2021, when I had an amazing time with games like Bioshock, Alice: Madness Returns, and Shadow of the Damned. 2023 was not as enjoyable for me, and I have a bunch of half-finished blogs explaining why the original Bloodrayne is a much worse game than I remembered it being (frustrating level design and a lack of checkpointing being the main culprits) and why Shadowman is also pretty bad (even worse level design and an absolute ton of backtracking.) I tried to get through Redfall and did make it a chunk in only to discover that my opinion on it is similar to everyone else's. So that month wasn't great, but I thought that setting aside the horror stuff that wasn't hitting would improve things. Moving into November I decided to focus on games released in 2023, both to gear up for Game of the Year and because a lot of the games that hadn't gelled with me in October were older titles with frustrating older design choices. I'd also had a great time in 2022 towards the end of the year playing a bunch of newer stuff like Norco and Midnight Suns, so I thought I could replicate that.
I couldn't. I did play games in November and December, but not that many and most of them were sort of busts. Super Mario Wonder was a great time, but very fleeting. I couldn't bring myself to finish Super Mario RPG, even though I liked it and it's extremely short for an RPG. I had intentions on completing Like a Dragon Ishin!, Starfield, and more but instead I limped through a few indie titles and finished a couple bigger ones before more or less giving up and focusing on other things. At least In Stars and Time was great...until it wasn't (I still liked it overall.) I also had big intentions of finishing a bunch of PSVR2 games, and I barely touched the thing for the last two months, though planning on getting into VR and not actually doing so is a recurrent theme for me.
Now we're into 2024 and I figured again that things would change since I was no longer focusing on any specific year and could play literally whatever I wanted. Two weeks in that has mostly been insubstantial arcadey experiences. Evil West has been on my "to play" list for awhile and was a monthly PS+ game so I gave it a try and more or less hated it. I'll give it a bit more time but I'm not optimistic. I've played some more Like A Dragon Ishin! and that game is...fine. I'll probably finish it. It's not bad but I'd put Yakuza 0 and Kiwami in my top 20 games of recent years and Ishin definitely isn't. I played a few more levels of El Paso, Elsewhere the other day and enjoyed it. That game's pretty good.
But that's the problem. Even games that I can acknowledge are good aren't clicking with me. The upcoming Prince of Persia is getting great reviews but I can't justify buying it right now when I'm just not enjoying myself much with basically anything. There are a couple upcoming Game Pass games I'll check out because at least those aren't going to cost me money.
I don't really know what the point of writing this is except to admit it to myself. I'm not going to take a break from games because I'm still moderately enjoying them, and I haven't been pushing myself to play anything. A lot of my game time recently has been while on the treadmill, and that's productive. I also can identify issues in my life that have sapped my interest in games, including a lot of stress, poor sleep, and other stuff. I'm also pretty confident that eventually something will come along to recapture me. Maybe the Persona 3 remake or Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. Maybe after I finish Ishin! and move on to Kiwami 2. Maybe Microsoft will shadow drop something this week and I'll get caught up in the excitement like I was with Hi-Fi Rush.
I've been gaming long enough to know that these moods pass. But for now I miss the feeling of really being enthralled by a gaming. Of playing something that you think about even when you're not actively playing about it, that you want to research and read about and talk to people about. I miss being excited about waking up early and finding myself with a couple extra hours to play something before starting my day. It's something that I've had for most of my life about some game or another, maybe not constantly but on a regular basis, and right now I don't and I miss it. It's not that I don't have other interests or things to do with my time, or that I can't step away from games because I can (and have for the most part), but I just want that ability to zone out when doing something boring (like waiting for a train) and think about some game you're playing and what you want to do next or relive some sequence or whatever. There's nothing quite like it. I want it back.
People are saying that 2023 is one of the greatest years for games in recent memory. I’m not sure I agree. I didn’t play some of the biggest games like Baldur’s Gate 3 or Starfield and maybe I would have loved those but I did fall off some of the other big releases not mentioned before like Armored Core VI (I liked it and will go back to it) and Like a Dragon: Ishin! (I like it but it’s no Yakuza, will go back.)
A lot of the big games this year were fun but didn’t quite captivate me as some games did in years past. Part of that is just where I am in my life and my mood, but outside of my #1 game I’m not sure any of the games I played are all timers. Looking back at my list from last year (which I did not post) a lot of them would still be in my top 10 this year and pretty high on the list.
Still, I played 25 games released this year that I feel comfortable ranking so that’s what I’m going to do. I will say that none of these games are truly awful and I’m glad that there are no Balan Wonderworlds on the list this year. Maybe I’m learning.
Ravenlok is a game that didn’t look appealing to me and I only played because the Game Pass Game Club selected it. While its voxel art is striking and appealing everything else about it feels half baked. It’s short, with tiny areas, cliché in its presentation of its Alice in Wonderland theme and shallow to play. It feels more like a tech demo or portfolio piece for the artists than an actual finished game, even though it’s a few hours long and has puzzles, boss fights, and everything else you’d expect. It’s just that it all feels shallower than it should and lacks impact. Ravenlok is not a terrible game but it’s so insubstantial that it left almost no impact outside the art.
24) Trinity Trigger
I bought Trinity Trigger on a Youtuber’s suggestion and because I wanted a generic action RPG to chill with. I got the generic part right, and the game’s pretty easy so it should be chill, but rather than relaxing I found it irritating for most of the playthrough. This comes down to a few design decisions, the worst of which is to have you stop moving when you attack, so you can’t run around slashing or shooting at things, you automatically have your feet planted to attack and it feels bad every time. The bland story about ancient gods and living weapons did not register, nor did the even blander characters who do not change or evolve at all during the story. It’s also way too larded down with gameplay and loadout mechanics to the point where I stopped trying to customize my characters beyond what was necessary because it was too much work. What should have been light and breezy was instead a generic slog, and though there were definitely some moments when I enjoyed myself it is probably the worst JRPG I have ever finished.
23) Planet of Lana
This is another beautiful game without much substance. A puzzle platformer clearly modeled after something like Inside but with a much lighter, though still dark, tone, this game is a joy to watch. Beautiful scenery and strong art design pulled me in but the fairly basic puzzle platforming spat me back out. This game isn’t bad on its own merits, but in a glutted genre it does not do enough to stand out.
22) Whispike Survivors – Sword of the Necromancer (Not finished)
This game is the first Vampire Survivorslike on the list. It’s like $3, cute, and simple. The hook is that your characters drop “seeds” when they die and their offspring inherit traits allowing you to build characters over time. It’s not bad but ultimately it just doesn’t have the broken interactions between abilities that make these games so addictive, and you feel underpowered and slow compared to enemies. Considering how cheap it was I don’t feel ripped off, but there’s just not enough there to make it a must play.
21) Suika Game
The well known fruit combining well dropper game. Matching fruits to create bigger fruits is addictive and the aesthetics are pleasant and appealing. It’s a simple game that does what it sets out to do, but at the end of the day it’s just another cute, good, puzzle game. Recommended but slight. A running theme.
A very pretty water color adventure game with a striking art style and a decent little story. You play a young woman returning to her grandmother’s home in Dordogne France and flashing back to her childhood and a summer she spent there when her grandmother was still alive. There’s not a lot of game here, and the story isn’t quite magical enough to match the look, but if you like pretty, short, adventure games it’s worth a look.
A pretty climbing game about ascending a giant stone tower after a drought has come. A lot of people loved this but I was pretty lukewarm. The climbing was okay but would have been more fun if not for the stamina meter. I found the text in the collectables kind of boring and would have liked a few more routes and mechanical complexity. It’s gorgeous and atmospheric but lacking in substance.
18) Merge & Blade
A puzzle game autobattler. Drop soldiers into the playfield and match them to create more powerful versions. Cheaply made but addictive and fun. There is just enough to do during the autobattling phase (swapping and rearranging your soldiers) to maintain engagement and some of the battles can be very tense and exciting. There’s no story to speak of and the graphics are very simple, but the design shine through in the way you have to balance number of soldiers against strength and figure out how and where to place your healers and ranged units. This is a game with a limited concept and budget that comes very close to reaching its full potential.
17) Mineto’s Night Market
This is a crafting game where you, a young girl, accompany your father to a small island in Japan where the big happening is a weekly night market where you can sell crafts. The main plot is a mystery about a legendary cat and agents on the island who are searching for him. It’s a sweet little tale but very low impact. The biggest issue with the game, however, is just how grindy it is. It is extremely grindy. You have to keep collecting all your crafting ingredients over and over, with extremely limited amounts of some of them (such as pottery clay) available at any one time. You also have to craft each item for the market with no shortcuts or ability to batch craft. It becomes extremely monotonous before the game ends. There are also some annoying design choices, like having the dialog box you get for eating food for stamina block out some of the ingredient collection meters. This is a game that could have been special with a few small changes, but unfortunately those changes didn’t get made and instead it’s mostly chill but sometimes frustrating.
16) Spirit Hunters: Infinite Horde
This is another Vampire Survivorslike. It’s a little more complex than Whispike and has more of the broken interactions that I really love in this genre, and it has prettier graphics and bosses, as well as a very complex skill tree, but it’s still nowhere near as good as VS itself. I had a good time with this game but it was ultimately unsatisfying. It’s just too straightforward without any great interactions or a story or many secrets. A fun time waster that worked very well on the treadmill.
15) Steamworld Build (not finished)
This is a city builder in the Steamworld cinematic universe. It’s pretty straightforward on the surface but there’s also an underground segment in the traditional Steamworld mine where you unearth artifacts and mine resources that are used in the surface part, where you recruit and manufacture items that can affect the underground mine. The game is pretty simple but entertaining enough and a very low stress low stakes experience with appealing aesthetics and a sense of humor.
Another graphical adventure, this one with a small number of cooking segments. It’s an immigrant story about a Tamil couple who moves to Canada. This would be higher if it weren’t so short, which doesn’t give you time to really come to care for the characters, but it’s well written and has good graphics and music. Recommended, though a poor time value at full price.
13) Karmazoo (not finished)
An online only co-operative 2D platformer where you work as a team to collect items and move towards a goal over a series of random levels. An incredibly friendly and appealing game that actually manages to get people to cooperate online, which seems impossible but is pulled off through smart design choices. The game rewards collaboration in very clever ways, like giving you hearts (currency for unlocking stuff) for holding the door for others, and combining everyone’s hearts into a pool that gets distributed to everyone at the end. It has some of the best team mechanics I’ve ever seen for playing with strangers. On the other hand the platforming itself is just okay and while the aesthetics are funky they are nothing special. At least modifier cards that everyone votes on keep things reasonably fresh. A decent game made much better by the way it structures its co-op.
12) Army of Ruin
The final Vampire Surviorslike on my list, this one in some way challenges the king. Nice graphics and extremely broken gameplay make for a lot of fun, and it has dozens upon dozens of unlocks to keep things fresh. I played this game obsessively for about 20-25 hours and got the platinum, though not all the unlocks. I liked this game a lot, though like every game in the genre it got repetitive. If you like feeling invincible and a constant drip feed of items and interactions you’ll like this.
11) Immortals of Aveum
A steampunk magic first person shooter with some Metroidvania elements. Very average but with good production values. The plot and characters are silly and the enemy and weapon variety are lacking but platforming and puzzles mix things up and some of the firefights can be intense in a good way. This is a game that coasts on its budget and polish. It works as a turn off your brain and shoot experience with a lot of pretty colors and impressive environments, but lacks any hook beyond its basic premise of a magic based FPS game. Competent but uninspired.
10) Super Mario RPG (Not finished)
I never played the original Super Mario RPG beyond a little bit on Wii Virtual Console. The remake looks great and maintains a lot of the charm from the original. The combat is quick and enhanced by timed button presses that let you do more damage or bloc attacks, and while the RPG elements are simple they are still engaging. I like this game and will finish it, but while the wacky characters and strong underlying gameplay are enough to make it good, it’s still a bit “baby’s first RPG.” Characters are funny but there are no dramatic stakes, replaced by lots of jokes about how much Mario loves jumping. Leveling up is unexciting, with even new skills not doing much to change up the combat and the game is so forgiving and easy you never feel threatened. It’s a great first RPG for kids but for veterans it’s charming but shallow. Unless you’ve got nostalgia for the original, I suppose.
9) Hi Fi Rush
This 3-D platformer/character action/rhythm game looks and sounds amazing, with a simple plot but surprisingly strong characters that help tie the game together. I loved the platforming, enjoyed the combat, and found the rhythm stuff a little frustrating, as usual for me with rhythm stuff. The game’s aesthetics and vibe, along with the strong characters, made for a compelling experience, but even though I didn’t find the game very hard the rhythm stuff kept pulling me out. I would have loved this game if it were just an action platformer with everything else the same. As it was I liked it quite a bit. Also I’m very tired of getting graded in games. Defeating a tough fight only to be told that you were at C quality is so deflating.
8) Diablo IV
I don’t care about endgames or builds, I just want to see a cool story and smash some skellingtons. Diablo IV provides those things well. Yes the loot is unexciting, the abilities feel uninspired, and the always online means you can’t pause. All of that sucks. But it looks great, controls well, and has a giant world to explore with lots of cool details and plenty of well-written quests to take on. The cut scenes are among the best in gaming to this point. Diablo IV is another all flash no substance game, but what do you want from me, I’m shallow? I fought demons, stopped Lilith, and then stopped playing. But I got 40 hours out of it, so that’s fair enough.
7) In Stars and Time
I picked this time loop RPG up on a whim and almost loved it. A black and white game where you play the “thief” of a party about to tackle the final dungeon and stop the evil king. Combat is based around literal rock paper scissors but this game is all about the storytelling and characters. Which are great. The time looping stuff allows it to explore themes in new context and the writing is fantastic. So why did I only almost love it? It gets very tedious when you don’t know what to do (even though there is an in-game hint system) and the restrictions on how you loop just end up frustrating and annoying. This is a game that bogs down hard in the middle; hard enough to take it from the top of my top 10 to the lower half. It’s mostly the work of one person and I just wish they’d managed to avoid the pitfalls of tedium inherent in time loop games, but they didn’t.
A puzzle game where you play a little beetle man flipping switches and entering and exiting spheres to advance through an alien world. The puzzle design is very good and the pace is just about perfect, which can be an issue with a puzzle game. As you advance you find yourself nesting the balls within each other and engaging in all kinds of other clever and unexpected activities to solve the puzzles, which are tough enough to feel challenging but rarely actually frustrate. Graphics and animations are also at the top end of the indie scale. I liked this quite a bit but though the gameplay was good and it was pretty I felt no emotional connection to the little beetle man or what he was doing. The game is incredibly alien and that makes it interesting but also makes it hard to care what happens. Inside and Limbo, games that team members for Cocoon have previously worked on, were impactful in part because of their children in peril themes, and Cocoon breaks free from that but fails to spread its wings thematically. Fun to play, nice to look at, feels like it has zero stakes.
5) Final Fantasy XVI
This is an action game barely in RPG clothing, but it’s very pretty with a grand story, massive set pieces, and excellent performances. The actual plot is nonsense, but it’s the chocobos we meet along the way that matter. FF XVI can feel like a bunch of Devil May Cry knockoffs strung together and the underlying gameplay is not strong enough to carry the entire running length but the spectacle and the characters are enough to make it a compelling experience. This is not an RPG and I wish it were, but as a long, plot heavy, action game it’s a good time for people who enjoy its world and characters.
4) Sea of Stars
This IS an RPG and a very good one. Excellent pixel art and music, fun characters and a strong gameplay system make this a real winner. Like Mario RPG this features a timing prompts in combat to keep it entertaining but unlike that game Sea of Stars is challenging and engaging the whole time. I have some quibbles with the game, chiefly that the combat system has so many synergies that it seems like there’s always a “right” move, which can feel restrictive. Despite this it’s one of the best battle systems I’ve experienced and by far the best “modern retro” JRPG I have ever played.
3) Super Mario Wonder
Hey have you heard of this Mario guy? I think he’s going places. Super Mario Wonder finally fixes the problems of the New Super Mario series by throwing in a ton of creativity and constantly changing the rules via the Wonder Seeds. A fantastic game whose main flaws are that it’s a bit too short and a bit too easy. 2D Mario finally feels as creative and full of…wonder as 3D Mario and I’m incredibly excited for what’s next. As long as it’s not New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe 2. I would not be excited for that.
2) Spider-Man 2
This is just a super-hero open world game but it’s the best super-hero open world game ever made. It looks fantastic, it plays great, it has great acting and a good story. It has spectacle and quiet moments and a great version of New York and Mysterio. It has it all! The only problem is that it feels very iterative of the prior games in the series and the formula is running a bit thin for me. I don’t know that a Spider-Man 3 that doesn’t mix things up more will score this high for me. But for now the very solid core gameplay was enough to carry me through this huge budget polished adventure. I devoured it.
1) The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
BOTW was my favorite game when it came out. Tears of the Kingdom is not quite as good, but it’s still amazing. I played this in a way I don’t play video games anymore. Obsessively. At the expense of sleep. Every free moment I had I spent in Hyrule. I didn’t quite finish it during this initial burst, which only stopped because life intervened, and when I went back to finally roll the credits a lot of the magic was gone, but I loved this game intensely. The size of the world and all the things you can do in it are mind blowing. That it runs on the Switch seems literally impossible. The building seems like it absolutely should not work. But it does. It all works. There are rough edges but it works. Tears of the Kingdom is an astounding achievement and a truly great game that pushes the medium forward in meaningful ways with the amount of freedom and variety it provides. It’s worth the six year wait. It’s just not quite as magical as it was the first time with Breath of the Wild.
I have a bit of a tradition where I make New Years resolutions around gaming every year. It's very stupid and I rarely keep them but why stop now?
This year I am going to keep them pretty simple.
1) Focus less on video games.
Games are probably always going to be my major hobby and consume a fair amount of my time and energy, but I'd like to continue scaling that back in 2024. I just want to focus more on enjoying the time I have with games and less on keeping up with the discourse or feeling I "have" to play things. This is certainly something that happened towards the end of 2023, where I was able to put more energy towards more productive things and I want to keep that momentum.
2) Stop caring about achievements/trophies at all.
I have never been a true achievement hunter but I like to maintain certain streaks of getting an achievement every day or hunting down specific cheevos even if I'm no longer enjoying a game. That's stupid and I want to stop. I do still like achievement and trophies because of how they create a record of when you played a game, and there's nothing wrong with chasing a platinum trophy if it's a rewarding experience (I had a good time finishing off the plat for The Pathless and using a plat to direct what I was doing made sense there) but trophies or achievements for their own sake? Dumb.
3) Play only games I am genuinely enjoying and excited to play
The time that I do spend on games should be spent on games that I'm actually enjoying and want to play. Too often last year I found myself playing stuff just to play it. I'm not saying that every game has to be 10/10, nor that games won't have boring or annoying spots, but I played too many games just to play them last year. I should have bailed on games like Planet of Lana and Trinity Trigger way before the end but I didn't. There is one exception to this:
4) Keep playing games on the treadmill
This goes along with resolution 1. Focusing on my physical health is important and to the extent that games can help motivate that, it's a good use of time and games.
5) Only buy games that I want to play immediately or if the deal is truly exceptional
I rarely regret buying games at 95% off, or if it's something I'm going to dive into right away, but I have come to regret a lot of those 50-75% off purchases. FOMO is real and I like having a big library, but I have bought so many games I never played over the years that it's ridiculous, and some of them I'm almost certainly never going to get around to (looking at you, Vita and 3DS libraries, even though they're still accessible.) Over the last couple months I've been better at focusing on buying stuff that I'm going to play immediately and I want to keep that up. Unless it's like a 99 cent copy of Mirror's Edge Catalyst, because how can you go wrong?
6) Write more interesting blogs
Another perennial for me but man did I write some very tame stuff last year. There's nothing wrong with sharing impressions or whining but I am capable of better. At this point on this site blogs are primarily written for myself and a few people who stop by to read, so there's no reason not to experiment and push myself.
Feel free to post your own resolutions below if you feel like it!
Echoes of the Fallen costs $10 or is $25 as part of a dual pack with more DLC coming later. For that money you get a 2-3 hour quest line only accessible if you've unlocked the final mission and done some other stuff (which I had) and involving venturing into a tower to investigate the source of some new crystals that are making their way out into the world and worrying Clive and his band of morose buddies. So you go to investigate and...it goes how you'd expect. A little bit of unspectacular sides story stuff, a whole lot of fighting including some new bosses, and some very unexciting loot because it's FF XVI and all loot is unexciting.
While I will admit that some of the boss fights are well designed here, the base FF XVI gameplay is mediocre and this doesn't fix that. The story stuff is medium tier sidequest level and there's nothing visually spectacular or exciting here. There are no set pieces anywhere near as cool as the big moments from the main campaign. Meanwhile they want $10 for this, which is 1/7th the price of the full game. For that money you get no new abilities, a very short run time on a dollar per hour basis, and just not much beyond...more of an already overlong game.
This is the value problem of DLC. It's more expensive per hour than the main game (usually) but it also doesn't add anything significant to the mechanics or the rest of it (usually.) There are, of course, exceptions (Torna The Golden Country got spun off into its own game as well as being DLC for a reason) but they are relatively rare.
And yet as someone who tends to have FOMO when it comes to games I buy a lot of this stuff, play some of it, and am almost always disappointed. This stuff is almost always made by younger teams learning how to design smaller projects, and it's good for them to get the opportunity to get their feet wet, but it should be a better value for players. The Horizon: Zero Dawn DLC is an example of a compromise between the "Whole new game" approach of Torna and the "short and mediocre" Final Fantasy XVI approach.
Echoes of the Fallen is not a miserable experience to play and it has some decent bosses for a game with generally mediocre combat, but it's just not worth the money and it doesn't feel essential.
I got a lot more out of the Final Fantasy VII Remake expansion, which had new characters to play, a much more compelling story, and some interesting new mechanics. Something at that level would have felt worth the money. Maybe the second DLC will be better.