Jeff Presents His Own Games of His Year 2022
By jeffrud 6 Comments
Note: Life comes at you fast some times. A unique opportunity has fallen into my lap this week, and time I was planning on spending doing some writing is instead going to be taken up by something else. I have a few articles already written, but I want some more in the can before I get back to posting HuCARTography entries. Stay tuned, and thank you for your patience.
Well, here I am. I have now seen the entirety of 2022, plus a little bit of this thing we’ve elected to call “2023”.
My last year was spent trying to claw things back out of a plague-ridden pit. There was a little more visiting with friends and family, some interstate traveling, and overall I am exiting the year feeling about as socially un-isolated as I could hope for in the current environment of multiple communicable respiratory diseases.
There have also been some related efforts at improving my own mental health. I started seeing a therapist. It’s been really great! I’ve found myself being able to better articulate my own wants and needs, which turns out to be a useful stratagem in communicating with other people. Who knew?
In that spirit, I think one of the needs that this site fulfills is a need for community around our shared hobby. It is not lost on me that this website has changed a lot in the last two years. I’ve been lurking around here for over a decade now. Change is not new to Giant Bomb. I think having new opinions and perspectives on this hobby – to say nothing of broader aspects of the human experience – is vital. Something I’ve been working on as part of the therapeutic process is approaching new situations from a position of gratitude. I don’t know a lot of the people who are going to read this thing, but for those of you who do show up, thank you for your time. I hope that we can all continue to make this community one of the best on the World Wide Web.
Alas, something I have not done a ton of this year is roll credits on games. That is not to say I haven’t been playing many of them, in fact I’ve hands on dozens of them these past twelve months. I’ve talked about a few of them on the Deep Listens podcast, others on Hardcore Gaming 101’s Top 47,858 Games of All Time show, and continue to write about them at NamCompendium (I promise it’s not dead!) and the new HuCARTography series right here.
Some of these games I have determined to be Worth of Various Merits. So I made some lists! Here they are! Hurray!
(Per last year’s post, I have continued to eschew the feeble notion of linear time in favor of experiencing all of the games at once forever. Hence most of these games are not in fact from 2022; in truth I only played a handful of This Year’s Hot New Releases.)
My Comfort Food Game of the Year
Early this year, I was sent an email by John Microsoft with a special offer: I could buy an Xbox Series X for the low cost of having to bundle in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. One traded in Xbox One X later I began living the current generation dream. Even better, after paying $20 to register myself as a Very Real Developer of Very Real Games on the Xbox platform, I began to avail myself of various dark magicks on this Series X. It turns out the system is a very good Atari VCS, Famicom, PC Engine, Mega Drive, Super Nintendo, PlayStation, Dreamcast, Gamecube, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation Portable. Who would have thought?
In truth the process of sideloading into this mode is a bit of a hassle versus a purpose built device – apropos of nothing, offices are selling small form factor PCs lacking TPM 2.0 support for pennies right now – but on the other hand I can unlock achievements for Devil’s Crush from my Xbox, and that rules.
Devil’s Crush, the second of Naxat’s pinball trilogy on the 16-bit platforms, is an incredible game. It was released on both the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 and the Mega Drive/Genesis, with minor differences in music and color palette. Both versions are fantastic, and to be honest this is the game I’ve spent the most time with in RetroArch so far. I’m not a huge pinball person, nor am I particularly gifted at video pinball. And yet. Good golly, I sure do love gunning for new high scores in this game. Every bonus stage, every dead drop, every time the lady’s face in the middle of the board explodes into a demonic grimace… All incredible.
The loose price for the Genesis version (called Dragon’s Fury) has climbed up quite a bit, but I’d still say it’s worth your time just for how much this game rips. For the price most of you will pay for a look, there’s no excuse to not check out Devil’s Crush.
Runners Up: Galaga and Ridge Racer
If Devil’s Crush in its manifestations are in the top slot here, Galaga takes second place. I’ve unlocked RetroAchievements in the SG-1000 and Famicom ports, and a few PSN achievements for the arcade version. Galaga is one of the greatest games of all time. I will take any excuse to play any version of Galaga at any time.
As for Ridge Racer, I was spurred to revisit this in large part by the HG101 episode about the arcade original. The game was selected by Namco as their first release on the PlayStation, and Sony saw fit to designate it as serial number 1 in all territories. That was a fine choice, as this game rules. It set the table for Namco’s incredible run on the first two PlayStations, and only looks better when held against Sega’s rough conversion of Daytona USA on the Saturn.
My Biggest Surprise of the Year
John Madden Football (GEN)
Yeah, I know. No, this is not a bit. No please where are you going–
The good folks at Hardcore Gaming 101 elected to cover a Madden title in light of the passing of He Who Rode The Bus in late 2021. Being vintage gaming minded, they went with the Genesis release of the original John Madden Football. Now, I grew up watching football, but have gotten well out of the habit as I’ve become a bit put off by the sport’s entire oeuvre. That gave me more of a leg to stand on for talking about a football vidcon than a chunk of the podcast folks over there, so I stepped in to cover this game for an episode of the show. You can listen to that here.
It turns out that not only was this series decent once upon a time, but right from the jump this was a pretty great game on the Genesis. The licensing is not present, nor are the oceans of plays made available in later games, but I was honestly shocked at just how much still made the cut. You can run onside kicks, call audibles, throw passes that bounce directly off the helmet of an unaware receiver, and even run plays through holes that actually get pushed open by your offensive line. That last part shocked the shit out of me, considering the game’s vintage. It’s easy to imagine the line of scrimmage in a gridiron game of this era being a no man’s land of nearly a dozen sprites smooshing on top of each other. No, they actually set decent blocks when the defense allows for it.
I played an entire playoff series in this game, and took the cursed early 1990s Bills all the way to the Lombardi Trophy that still haunts them. It felt right.
The thing about football that makes it translate so well to this medium is it is basically turn based strategy. And with the relatively simple playbook provided here, this is straightforward enough to be a good jumping off point if you’ve ever thought about trying one of these games. It lacks the over the top features of something like NFL Blitz, but as a simulation of the sport it really impresses for its age.
Runners up: Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven and Girl’s Garden
I feel bad putting a goddamn Madden game above MM6 here, but if you know me well enough you know that I have a pretty big soft spot for dungeon crawling shit. My favorite DS game is Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. I’ve put a lot of hours into various Etrian Odyssey titles. Furthermore, I’ve DOSBox’ed around with a couple Might and Magic entries prior to this year and was well aware the series was in my wheelhouse. So to say this game surprised me as much as I was surprised by a thirty year old game about American football would be to tell a lie.
However! This game sure does overdeliver! The transition from a grid based world to free roaming sprite based 3D exploration, while initially jarring and admittedly ugly as sin, does nevertheless create a uniquely fucked up looking world that I love seeing. There’s so much good player agency, so much weird Might and Magic lore, and honestly a manageable amount of content in the game. It does not contain one complete and massive world, but rather a selection of world chunks each of which containing its own dungeons and shops. That the game takes a wonderful trip into nonsense science fiction land with laser guns by the end (SPOILER) is the incredible icing on the cake.
Put another way, I did not even finish Might and Magic VI and I was more than happy to declare it better than Suikoden, Grandia II, and Xenosaga Episode I on a ranked list of role playing games. It’s that damn good.
As for Girl’s Garden, I’d be remiss to not touch upon this game if not just for its sweet Yuji Naka SEO potential at present. This was another RetroAchievement trifle for me. I figured I’d have a go at this SG-1000 collect-em-up to see what that rascally inside trader (allegedly) was up to before I was born. Turns out he made a decent little game with a young female protagonist willing to risk life and limb for a shot at wooing another boy child. There’s a nice amount of systems at play in this one where the skill floor and ceiling are in a surprising balance.
My Biggest Disappointment of the Year
Holy shit, the delta between this game’s reputation and my experience with it was huge. I tend to find common cause with Alex Navarro, and he has over the years brought up Tearaway as a worthwhile Vita experience. This sentiment is echoed by most of the delusional ultras for the platform, such that when Sony threatened to exterminate its digital storefront I couldn’t help but plunk down the full price for this game (god forbid they run a sale on there ever again).
I think I managed an hour. It’s not so much that the platforming is abjectly horrible, it’s mostly of the *fine* variety. It was that, coupled with any time you are required to manipulate the environment with the back touch screen of the Vita. It’s like trying to fly a helicopter with a Bop It! dripping with coconut oil. Even the fairly straightforward levels in the first chunk of this game began to frustrate me, as I fumbled around in them like a dog trying to hump a beach ball. And while I could git gud or whatever, I don’t think the skillset of “Media Molecule platformer with simultaneous dual rearscreen touch environmental manipulation” is all that portable.
Maybe the console conversion is fine.
Runners up: Bugsnax and Hybrid Heaven
Bugsnax winds up in a runner up spot because, though I found the gameplay rote and the “big crazy reveal that you will not believe please no spoilers” underwhelming as hell, I did wind up finishing the thing as it is neither too long nor too complicated. The notion that the twist in the game is too dark for a younger audience seems kinda wild, considering the sorts of conceits that underpin your Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahls of the world. One for a younger audience than myself, for sure. And one perhaps too infected with Pokemon Snap Syndrome (PSS).
As for Hybrid Heaven, I would be lying if I said I could recommend this all too strongly. That’s not to say I wouldn’t recommend it; in fact, I think its freak show mix of third person platforming and wrestling-based turn based arena combat make it one of the most interesting games on the Nintendo 64 – to say nothing of its plot, which is also breathlessly stupid from the jump. But said plot is conveyed by some of the most scuffed and compressed spoken audio on the system, and that navigating environments is often hindered by a dismal camera. The game also has one of the worst Expansion Pak implementations on the system, dropping a tolerable framerate straight into single digit frames in order to run around a “stunning” 480i. I still dream of finishing this one day, out of pigheaded stubbornness. That can be my lonely battle, and not yours.
My Most Played Game of 2022
Microsoft Sudoku (Android)
I’ll never apologize for loving sudoku puzzles. I was introduced to these little critters in high school and while initially not a fan, I’ve had the bug now for the better part of twenty years. Microsoft Sudoku for Android has the distinction of not only feeding me an endless diet of algorithmically generated conventional puzzle, but also features Irregular Sudoku, daily challenges, a persistent leveling system, and honest to god Microsoft Gaming Points. I don’t know if I have it in me to hit skill level 250 – I’ve been playing for the better part of three years and have barely made level 75 – but I’ll be damned if I don’t wind up with most of the sick GP credit from this one. Sudoku rules.
Alright, time for two separate and very different lists.
My Bottom 10
10. Sky Odyssey
This game just squeaks onto this list. This spot could have a couple different games from my last year of exploration in it, but Sky Odyssey lands (hoho!) here by virtue of just how forcefully my mind and body rejected it.
Sky Odyssey makes a handful of lists on the Internet for being an interesting early PlayStation 2 flight sim thing. What is packaged inside of this case could be described as such, in fairness. However, the mission design is dull as hell and the flight model sits at an uncomfortable middle ground between your Pilotwings “fun style” and your Microsoft Flight Sim “real style”. This game lasted about half an hour in my PS2 before I wound up slapping it back into the case, hauling it to work at A Large University, and leaving it on a Free Stuff Table. Wouldn’t recommend.
9. Hello Kitty World
This is a fun one. Hello Kitty World, as you can imagine from the title, is a licensed game based on the Sanrio universe of properties. It is also notable for being a straight conversion of an earlier Game Boy title, Balloon Kid, for the Famicom.
Now, I wouldn’t tell you that the Game Boy version of Balloon Kid runs in a particularly smooth fashion. I don’t know what the actual refresh rate is of the GB’s original shitty screen, but the game looks and feels like it runs at around a half of that rate at best. There’s a lot of weird, jittery, sluggish feel to that game. Big deal, right? The Game Boy is basically an elevated calculator. Surely the Famicom would be able to pull off such a game, right? It handles Balloon Fight well enough.
Well, this runs no better than that Game Boy version. I’d even argue it runs worse, looking like you’re playing the game on some sort of busted ass emulator from the late 90s on a single core Pentium. When you roll up the assy performance with the paultry amount of content in the game – a measly six levels – you wind up with a real stinker. This was on my Buy On Sight list for a while just for the novelty of playing a port of a GB game on the Famicom as a three apple tall cat, but no longer.
Still, Balloon Kid can only be so bad. This one makes the cut for technical shambolic reasons more than anything else.
8. About An Elf
Okay, this fucking thing.
Full marks here go to YouTubeist man ThorHighHeels for highlighting this game early in 2022 as one of the stranger pieces of software available on the heavily glutted Switch digital storefront. About An Elf is the first (and seemingly only) title from Austin-based Meringue Interactive, and I hope they continue to make games because this is some truly bizarre shit. The game centers around an elf named Dam, who looks like she was ripped straight from the banner ads of Your Favorite Adult Entertainment Website, and Roland the BraveCat, a cat made out of memes. The entire game plays as a sort of simple visual novel with light adventure game puzzle elements, and honestly the game part is the least part of this experience.
What I’m here for is the wild visual style. It looks gross. Everything has this plasticine sheen, and the animation is bizarre. This game has basically zero still frames, with every object bobbing and shaking around constantly. Every character looks like an animator held a Barbie doll by the legs and rotated it rapidly from left to right, creating a short loop that then just runs forever while characters spout absolute gibberish back and forth. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s also not that good, hence making this list. But it is unique!
7. The Super Spy
The first of two Neo Geo “classics” to make this list this year, The Super Spy is a uniquely inept title. Those lovable scamps at SNK decided to have a stab at merging arcade gameplay with role playing game sensibilities, something which had been done as early as 1984 in Namco’s The Tower of Druaga. The vehicle for these RPG mechanics, in this instance, is a first person dungeon crawler with a sort of Die Hard skin. Gameplay is a freak hybrid of the first person bonus games from Shinobi, and Nintendo’s Punch-Out!!.
The combination of elements here doesn’t quite congeal, and that would be bad enough. What sends this into doodoo territory is the laughably bad localization. I would bet my bottom dollar it was the work of one individual at SNK. I would bet my next dollar that this individual would never describe themself as “fluent” in English. It's scuffed beyond belief, making The Legend of Dragoon look like The Secret History.
(It's also not in the site database, much like About An Elf above. Free points, people, let's go.)
6. J.J. and Jeff
Loathsome piece of software, this one. One of the first five games to be released by Hudson on the PC Engine it developed, Kato-chan and Ken-chan – also known to have worked under the alias “J.J. and Jeff” – is a bizarre mix of detective-themed physical comedy, scatalogical obstacles, slippery platforming, and hidden object mechanics. Its roots in a Japanese variety show that helped sire America’s Funniest Home Videos only add to the strangeness of it all. I personally find this game miserable to play. Not quite as soul sucking as the entries below, perhaps, but bad enough to unequivocally call it the worst launch PC Engine game.
5. Virtual Hydlide
We enter the top half of this list with a game that is, by some more empirically minded, certainly the Most Bad Game of the lot here. Virtual Hydlide is a rock star among classic kusoge. Everything about it just hollers “Big suck energy”. It looks like shit. It runs like shit. It sounds like shit. It plays like shit. It is part of a series full of mostly shit. Its energy is almost entirely of filth.
So imagine my surprise when, upon putting my first play sessions of more than a minute or so into this game, that I found myself furiously squinting and seeing a little bit of fun in here! Now, I want to be absolutely clear: the game is horrendous. However, I think there’s more here than meets the eye. The secret sauce is really in its random generation: each world is spun up from a ten character seed, and the worlds themselves are small enough to be sprinted across in about two minutes of real time. That’s a lot of worlds to explore, and on higher difficulty levels the game takes off a lot of the bumpers (a filled in minimap, Skyrim-esque icons telling you where to go) and forces you to get to know the world it has generated on the fly just for you.
There’s also surprisingly little gristle on the bone here. Combat does not yield experience – a mercy, as engaging in combat might be the weakest part of the game – so you are best served playing this game in a furious dead run from each mandatory equipment milestone to the succession of bosses laid out in front of you. Unfortunately, acquiring said mandatory equipment requires a mix of simple exploration and maddening random drops from chests in fractally generated dungeons. Special shout out to the bosses which require magic swords with ranged attacks. These swords are basically random procgen fodder, and without one you dead ass cannot progress past a certain point about 40% through the game’s progression.
To once again reiterate, Virtual Hydlide is a bad game. But it is bad in ways that I find largely hilarious. It’s like watching a baby giraffe. It’s like seeing an exhibit at the International Stepping on Rakes Hall of Fame. And yes, I also think it has the faintest glimmer of an alright roguelike thing within it to make its manifest shortcomings all the more frustrating.
4. Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage
I nearly fell asleep writing the title of this game.
H2O Entertainment, makers of celebrated role playing games like Tetrisphere, The New Tetris, and The Flintstones: Big Trouble in Big Rock, saw an opportunity to fill a very underserved need on the Nintendo 64. One certainly can’t fault the studio for its ambition here. The game they built here is suitably large, with explorable 3D environments and a great deal of text and cutscenes to flesh out its story and world. The lack of RPGs on the system also provided this game with a substantial lane for sales success.
That is, it would have. It turns out Nintendo itself identified this genre gap and filled it in late 2000 with Paper Mario. Now, these two games don’t share much beyond some foundational role playing concepts, but for the typical drooling N64 audience of the turn of the millennium (and to be clear I was in that camp at the time) it pretty well hoovered up the entire mind share.
And so, Aidyn Chronicles was shuffled out in early 2001. By this point the PS2 was a year old in Japan, the Dreamcast was being discontinued, and Nintendo folk were looking forward to a Gamed Cube. This game went largely overlooked at launch. That might be to its benefit, however, as this thing is one of the most thunderously dull games I’ve seen. What on paper sounds like a substantial RPG experience in a richly realized world is instead one of the slowest games on a system choking with them.
Consider the opening cutscenes. This game starts with about ten minutes of introductory scenes, which highlight some of the more grotesque textures and models employed to build the game’s characters. They also want for direction and composition, feeling amateurish compared to something as rough as Hybrid Heaven – to say nothing of games like Vagrant Story, which predates Aidyn by an entire year.
Or consider the combat. The game features full three dimensional worlds explored on foot, with monsters in the world. Upon making contact with these monsters, the game loads in a separate combat arena. Suddenly the rat in a dirt path that was more or less on top of you is now thirty paces away. And as combat is done in turns and rounds, you spend the first turn or two of most encounters simply closing space before you can begin the melee. This adds such an agonizing amount of wasted time to what is already a tedious game, and honestly whatever good the game has beyond its first hours is unsalvageable just for this element alone.
I don’t envy H2O for the task of trying to cram a game of this size and scope onto the Nintendo 64, but what they produced is quietly one of the biggest flops on the console.
3. Top Player’s Golf
I’d like to tell you all a story. Back in 2015, I was living in North Bend. This is the town which was made famous by David Lynch et al as the setting for Twin Peaks. It was an Interesting Time in my life. I used to go on long walks through town, down by the river and inevitably around a large city park. On one of those walks, I wanted to listen to a podcast where people talked a bit about the computer role playing game Wasteland from 1988. What turned up was Hardcore Gaming 101. I subscribed, and a few weeks later the website started a new podcast format: The Top 47,858 Games of All Time. I got involved producing the show, and here I am several years later still in near daily communication with the site’s staff.
This last year I had the opportunity to designate one of the Patreon episode games. The only restriction was it was part of their Late Summer and Early Autumn of Arcade series so I needed to pull an arcade title. I’ve written a lot about Namco games, so naturally I leaned toward covering Neo Turf Masters for the Neo Geo. Alas, they had already covered it. However! They had not covered the other golf game on the Neo Geo, Top Player’s Golf. So this is what I chose. And then I went through the trouble of spending eight hard earned American dollars on the official Hamster-published digital release of the game on my Xbox Series X, a console which all-seeing Odin certainly envisioned as the perfect host for Top Player’s Golf.
As it happens, this game is horrible. The kindest thing I can say about it is the caddy feature is surprisingly rich for an arcade game from 1990. The caddy sprites are well animated, with spoken dialog that just about matches the written text on screen for each hole. The translation is not that far removed in quality from something like The Super Spy, mind, but dealing with the raw mechanics of golf (“The hole is a dogleg”, “Watch out for the bunker”, etc.) works to its advantage here. Everything else is as rotten as can be. Gauging shot distance blind is a bastard, the shot meter is surprisingly unwieldy, putting feels naff… Just a cavalcade of bad.
Then you add the arcade mechanics into the soup. One quarter drop gets you a handful of holes. You need to hit a birdie or better on each, otherwise your stock of “lives” is chewed through. In all likelihood you’ll need to quarterfeed this game a few dollars to play an entire 18 holes of golf on one of two courses. This is dastardly shit, and particularly rich considering that the game in question is nowhere near good enough to justify adding another credit. That’s just good money after bad.
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (SNES)
YO HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PIECE OF SHIT OH MY GOD. THIS THING IS A PIECE OF SHIT. WHAT THE FUCK.
This is a home conversion of an arcade game based on the hit film Terminator 2, so far so good. Of course there is a case to be made that all of these pre-Virtua Cop arcade shooters have the depth of a day old puddle of piss, but there’s something about T2 (and its dear friend Revolution X) that comes off as exceptionally hollow to me. The game is a mindless, greedy stream of the same damn enemies over and over again, with the aim of extracting as much money from your pockets in as little time as possible.
So why not port that to the Super Nintendo, a horrible platform, with an overall reduction in visual fidelity. Then add compatibility with the Super Scope, the worst light gun ever made, to supplement the true kusoge-esque bliss of playing an arcade shooter with a pad. It’s abominable stuff. Easily the worst light gun compatible game on the platform; I’ll give RX exactly one extra point for the laughable camp of a 1970s rock band trying to be cool in the 1990s but in video game form.
I dragged this out specifically to show my spouse, who is a huge fan of the film. Her only response, after a few minutes of staring in silence, was “This looks terrible”. She is right.
1. Unlimited Saga
I really tried to not have this wind up here, at the summit of this year’s Mount Kuso, but in the end this is the right choice. Kawazu’s misery generation device was inflicted upon me once again due to a steady influx of subscribers to the Deep Listens Patreon. My brief revisit of this game did nothing to dissuade me of the opinions documented on my review of the game on this site. I do continue to be an understated appreciator of Final Fantasy II, and am open to the idea that other works in the SaGa Saga might be good. This game is simply beyond redemption. To talk about too much is genuinely upsetting after a certain point, so let us go forth.
My Top 10 Games of 2022
10. Air Combat
You know that very good series of arcade action jet combat games set in a slightly wonky version of our own planet? It turns out, the series most deeply steeped in Namco’s Strangereal started off strong all the way back in 1995. This is ultimately brief and fairly slight early PlayStation title, and it has not yet had its healthy dose of melodramatic silliness which underpins the geopolitical chicanery of later Ace Combat games. No Gray Men here is what I’m saying. Still a good amount of fun though. I like the mix of sparse geometry, simple textures, and a few dogged “angry polygons” present in this game. Namco was really pushing the system here.
9. Escape from Terror City
Speaking of Angry Polygons, everybody give it up for Renegade Sector Games. This small independent studio has been turning out lo-fi polygonal shooters for the last few years, and Escape from Terror City is my favorite of the lot so far. There’s a charming simplicity to this game. I can assure you that there was a plot happening, but I don’t remember it and I’d be lying if I said I cared. You play as a spiky haired man with a gun. You run through CGA-colored polygon towns, each of which neatly chunks up into a few Cabal-like zones. Shoot the bad people who are shooting at you while avoiding their fire, and eventually take down bosses with memorizable patterns. Absolute smooth brained video game bliss.
I honestly just love the visual style of this studio’s 3D games, and would encourage you to check them out in itch or Steam. Thunder Kid is pretty darn close to EfTS, if a bit harder. And All Would Cry Beware! has nods to Metroid Prime. Their next game, Reavers of New Rome, has a demo available on Steam right now. Remember demos?
8. Resident Evil VII
I like how different this game is from the last one. Escape from Terror City was built on DirectX 9 and officially supports Windows XP SP2. Resident Evil VII has virtual reality and ray tracing report, and was made by a studio with enough money to fly American reviewers to Rome just to look at a few of its games (once upon a time, anyway).
My dear partner expressed interest in playing Resident Evil VIllage last year. Being the kind and supportive partner that I am, I told her that we already had that Resident Evil at home. Of course I was referring to the copy of RE7 that I had bought for a few bucks on a sale a while back. So it came to pass that I poked at both RE1 (the remaster-ish version anyway), RE4, and all of RE7 in one year. It’s good!
I don’t play a lot of horror games, and this is in truth the first RE game I’ve finished. As a reboot for the series after the famously maligned sixth entry, this is a pretty dang good jumping off point. They set the table well, literally so in an early scene of the game, by establishing a creepy haunted house vibe with a host of malicious characters out to rip your appendages off. Then the game presents you with your first “Insert the Boglin into the Boglin hole in this door” puzzle, and suddenly the broad strokes of a 1996 campy action horror game are now present in this new first person skin. That they held the most explicit tie-in to the previous games’ universe until the final frames was merely icing on the cake. (Spoiler)
7. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
God bless you, some of you are probably reading this because you enjoy what I write. That’s awfully kind! Thank you! However, I have a deep and terrible secret about myself that you should know: I suck and and am a crummy person. I am a doodoo man.
(Just kidding, though this is exactly the sort of stuff that therapy is helping me navigate!)
But for real, as much as I’d like to tell you about Lightning Returns: We Needed To Make More FFXIII In This Engine Because Sunk Cost Fallacy, I am ill equipped to do so. Why bother, when the truth is ZombiePie’s ongoing writeup of the game will cover all of the ground I possibly could and then some. He’s a decent guy, that ZP. I make a show with him!
Suffice to say, LR:FFXIII is a pungent cocktail of Valkyrie Profile, Tetsuya Nomura, and Shenmue. It’s a game with an ending so good Square Enix is still out there copyright striking people for posting it online. They saved the best for last in the XIII trilogy, and I sincerely hope tri-Ace gets to continue existing in 2023 in spite of the dire financial straits the company is navigating at present.
6. Hitman 3
I put this on a “Well Shucks I Sure Meant to Play That Game” list last year, and it was an early goal for the year to see it through to the end. I’m glad I did! Hitman 3 is absolut(ion)ly more adventures in IOI’s World of Assassination, but I find it an incredible accomplishment that the only additions they’ve really made since 2016 are level packs, yet the foundations are so rock solid that I’d be hard pressed to not put the game on this list. I think your feelings regarding the story wrapup in Hitman 3 will be tied up in how you feel about the more metatextual elements of the series; for my sake, I think what they’re doing is telling a campy spy fiction story as opposed to Actual Weighty Storytelling, so I can’t get too upset about it either way. Especially when I’m playing Cluedo as a contract killer with a bunch of jarred spaghetti sauce in his pockets.
I will never, never not find it funny that one of the main rewards for level completion are increasingly useless firearms. Anytime you’re using a motherfucking Kalashnikov in one of these games, you’ve fucked up!
5. Hardspace: Shipbreaker
One of the firmest and also only times I pumped my fist in the air out of delight in 2022 was the announcement that Hardspace: Shipbreaker was coming to Game Pass. I had heard Former Site Staff talk about it, followed one of its creators on Twitter, and the pump had been pretty well primed for me to be very into this game. And as it happened, I was very into this game indeed.
I find the experience of taking these spaceships apart in zero gravity to be as a soothing balm to my weary mind, body and soul after a long day toiling at a comfortable desk on a beautiful campus. The joy of separating a bulkhead and tethering it into a furnace, the delight of ripping out each individual lighting fixture and casting them into the space junk pile… Just a pleasure to play. The game also features excellent background music and sound design, as well as a light but topical metaplot about corporate greed and underground labor organization. Just good shit.
4. Kirby and the Forgotten Land
Playing the part of the “Game From A Given Year That I Liked” this year is Kirby. I’d like to tell you that my thoughts on that lil’ pink demon’s latest adventure are even the least bit profound, but that would be a big silly lie. I liked the jumping and the finding of the little dudes hidden in the levels. I liked those a lot. I enjoyed how the game handled the inevitable “somehow these games always arc towards eldritch abomination territory” angle at the end quite a bit.
I will say, my favorite Kirby games have a very specific difficulty trajectory. They start Easy, even Piss Easy (which is notch below Easy). By the end of the game, they start asking you to actually play them a bit. Then, in latter day Nintendo fashion, they hand you a bunch of end game and post game content that pushes the mechanics of the game to their upper limits. I’d hazard a guess that most people could make it to the end of a Kirby game, and many could finish it, but you lose a lot of people in attempting to 100% these.
Forgotten Land intersperses its difficulty throughout with challenge levels that present some real bastard par times. I’m in no rush to perfect each and every one of these, but considering I Full Cleared Kirby’s Epic Yarn several years ago I figure it’s time to pull off a similar feat at some point.
3. The Norwood Suite
ALRIGH EVERYBODY PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS TOGETHER FOR COSMO D. IT’S STRAIGHT UP FUCKING COSMO D TIME. PUT SOME RESPECT ON HIS NAME.
The Deep Listens Podcast covered Tales From Off-Peak CIty Vol. 1 last year. It’s a game about making pizza. It’s just about perfect. I wanted more. Turns out, I owned The Norwood Suite as a side effect of having once suffered from Humble Bundle’s Disease (HBD). Lustily, I installed the game onto my personal computer.
I don’t generally like adventure games, as a rule. Here’s another rule: humor is one of the most subjective and divisive elements which may be folded into a video game.
The Norwood Suite is an incredibly funny first person adventure game. If you’ve not taken the plunge, the closest thing I would liken Cosmo D’s output to is something like Jazzpunk. But that comparison feels downright juvenile when I read it. I’ll make a bad comparison: if the humor in Jazzpunk is a Jerry Lewis film, The Norwood Suite is more Peter Sellers. That’s a bad comparison.
(What is this game about, Jeff?)
The Norwood Suite is a game about running an errand at a hotel full of weirdos. It has some of the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen in a game. I love how fucked up this game looks. The music, and the way this game uses music, is some truly best in class shit.
Just go download the demo. Hell, if you too suffered from HBD you may already own this. I look forward to playing Betrayal at Club Low very soon.
2. F-Zero X
I’ve talked, just, a ream of shit about the Nintendo 64. Both on this website and on numerous podcast-shaped mediums over the years. What a foul thing it is. The wretched controllers. The smudgy antialiasing layer glooped thoughtlessly over every frame of every 25fps collectathon. Nearly 400 games on the system, and I’m happy to tell you that three quarters of them are firmly on my shit list.
F-Zero X is not on the Shit List. It’s one of the five or so truly great games on the system. And you know what? This year, I unlocked enough trophies and content in F-Zero X (my Japanese copy running on my Japanese N64 because I am very cool) to consider myself having “beaten” it. And I loved every last second of it.
F-Zero has always been a series about fast arcade-y action. It’s here for a good time, not a long time. X doesn’t really rock the boat over what was established with F-Zero Prime, a launch title for the Super Famicom. What it adds are new tracks, a ton of new racers, and one of the most technically impressive games on the N64. Perhaps the most impressive. This game flies past you. Nintendo scrimped and scraped everything they could, utilizing brick simple textures and geometry at every pass, all in the name of keeping the frame rate as high as possible. It doesn’t manage perfection, but it gets tantalizingly close!
As for the racing action, it’s bite sized doses of white knuckle excitement. Winning F-Zero X races at higher difficulties provided me with some of the smuggest moments of delight I’ve felt in some time. I wouldn’t profess to be “great” at F-Zero X, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t “good” in the couple weeks I was going back to it on the regular.
Let me put it this way: On the back of this time with F-Zero X, I no longer feel the money spent on a Japanese N64 was wasted.
1. Final Fantasy VI
So much of what I love about Final Fantasy VI has nothing to do with the game.
I was a military brat as a child. In 2003, we moved from central Texas to Hawaii for three years. I would like you to briefly imagine a better place to be a middle class white teenage boy than O’ahu. You can stop now, it’s not possible. I was already a blossoming dork at the time, and my dad bought me my own personal computer around my 15th birthday. It was a Sony Vaio VCG-RB30. He even bought a discrete graphics card for it because somebody told him it was a good idea. Again, I defy you to tell me there was a more fortunate teenage boy.
I’ll even double down: I also met a beautiful young lady who also lived on base. And she was a musician, so we started a band! And we used to sneak out of our houses in the middle of the night to spend time together under the warm tropical starlight! And much later in life she invited me to her wedding, and we still talk! This is all true!
Fuck it, I’m trippling down:
(To this friend, if you ever read this: Hello! Please air whatever dirty laundry you wish! We can all laugh about this stuff now, it’s 20 years gone!)
Where was I? Oh yeah, this game. This wonderful friend was the person who introduced me to a thing called “Final Fantasy”. I don’t recall if they had a SNES or not, but somehow she showed me Final Fantasy VI. It reminded me of Phantasy Star II and Paper Mario, the only two other console role playing games I had ever experienced up to that point (yes, weird spread, I know). I was immediately interested, but alas I was wanting for a SNES. Well, jeez, that was no problem, as her brother was the one who introduced me to a thing called Emulation on a Personal Computer.
What I am suggesting is that Final Fantasy VI is intrinsically tied up with some of my earliest successes as a person interested in heterosexual romance, three of of my most formative and rose-tinted years, and hobbyist computer tinkering which has since morphed into the mode by which I have financed every single part of my adult life.
You’ll note that I haven’t said a word about the game yet. What is there to say? It was Square doing a 360 tomahawk slam dunk on a console it knew forwards and backwards. It features some of the best writing the company has ever done, with a translation which not only conveyed that story with care, but actually enhanced it so much that a Japanese company has since used this gaijin work as the basis for the post-facto canonical personality of its antagonist. It has the finest soundtrack on the system. It is a masterful piece of software.
In the full light of day, I am more than happy to tell you that the conditions under which this impossibly good work of art – weeks spent away from home sleeping under desks, life events missed – were probably not worth it. I would rather that the men and women who made this work had been able to rest easy than to throw themselves at this project for nearly two years. This was not the first crunch game at Square, and certainly was not the last.
I’ve also learned that the themes of grief and loss in Final Fantasy VI, and indeed the arc of these games from V through X, reflect the very real grief of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. His mother perished in a house fire; every time I think of the motif of persons trapped in a burning building in any of the games he has touched, I can’t help but think of Sakaguchi working through this very real traumatic experience in a wrenchingly public manner.
All we can really do is stand in awe of Final Fantasy VI as a creative work, and offer a profound thanks to the persons who poured themselves into this video game, this object of temporary amusement. That thanks is of course a damn sight more than Square Enix had the decency extend when it omitted the original credited persons from the Pixel Remaster version available on (hopefully more soon!) digital storefronts at present.
As for my own relationship to the series, I shortly thereafter bought a new sealed Greatest Hits copy of FFVII from a Sam Goody in the Pearl Ridge Mall for $15, introduced my midwestern cousins to FFX when visited Hawaii – probably to go to a beach or some shit, who knows – and today I get together about once a month to talk about this series with two other grown ass men who are still ensnared by these stories of magical robots, star-crossed teenage lovers, and exotic locales. I live a blessed life.