Gaming Memories: Donkey Kong Country 2

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

One of my favorite levels in Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest is called Bramble Blast. Set in a seemingly endless maze of thorny brambles that are deadly to the touch, you must navigate the level via a network of barrels that launch you through the air, rather than by traditional platforming. It’s a fresh twist, formed from simple mechanics that are explored thoroughly enough to become complex and interesting by the end. It’s a shining example of the kind of creativity that the best platforming levels have.

Also, it has this music.

But here’s Donkey Kong Country 2’s magical secret: it’s full of Bramble Blasts. This level is not a rare treat, impossible heights that the game never reaches elsewhere. Almost every level in Donkey Kong Country 2 stands out as something equally unique and special. Mechanically, most levels look to build upon the game’s tight and responsive core platforming controls to do something more. In some levels you bounce on moving cannon balls to cross large gaps. In others you ride dangerous roller coasters as they collapse underneath you. On rare occasions you need to carefully buoy yourself with flame vents as you ride a hot air balloon across a pit of lava. You may climb rigging on a pirate ship, scale directly up flat walls with the help of extremely sticky honey, or mount any number of animal companions that all have different navigational abilities. Running and jumping in Donkey Kong Country 2 certainly feels great, and there are still plenty of awesome traditional platforming challenges here. But it primarily uses that as a solid foundation to build upon, and explore a variety of other exciting ideas that are just as well-crafted as the core platforming. It makes for a game that is constantly experimenting and teaching, which in turn makes for a game that is constantly engaging.

Aesthetically, Donkey Kong Country 2 may be even better. The original Donkey Kong Country made waves with its pre-rendered 3D graphics. Not only does its sequel use the same technology to look just as good, but it gets substantially more ambitious in its artistic variety. Extending beyond the central jungle island theme of the first game, Donkey Kong Country 2 sees you explore pirate ships, lava caverns, oversized hornet nests, abandoned theme parks, ice caverns and more, all of which have an impressive visual flair. And then there is the music. Simply put, Donkey Kong Country 2’s soundtrack is as dear to me as any game’s; I legitimately have a hard time thinking of one I like more. Just like the game’s mechanics and visuals, its music also gets a ton of mileage out of its variety. In addition to Stickerbrush Symphony posted above (a fan favorite), I can easily rattle off half a dozen genuine classics originating from Donkey Kong Country 2: Jib Jig, Lockjaw’s Saga, Hot-Head Bop, Mining Melancholy, Flight of the Zinger, and In a Snow-Bound Land. Each of these has a very distinct sound that perfectly captures the vibe of the level(s) they appear in. It’s difficult to describe just how much these songs contribute to the game’s effective atmosphere, and their different styles further bring a fresh, creative energy to every moment. It’s also just extremely well-composed music that still holds up today; I’ve fondly listened to it countless times over the years.

Donkey Kong Country 2 delivers great levels from start to finish.
Donkey Kong Country 2 delivers great levels from start to finish.

I keep using the word “variety”, as that’s the main word that comes to mind as I think back on Donkey Kong Country 2. The best platformers have largely been defined by their variety, and this one is no exception. That variety impressively exists in every facet of its design too: the level design, traversal options, enemies and companions, art style, and music work in tandem to create a large and diverse suite of high quality platforming levels that most platformers don’t come close to matching (including the other Donkey Kong Country games, all of which I love, yet don’t quite reach the heights of this second outing). Finally, Donkey Kong Country 2 stands out to me as one of the first games I played that implemented collectibles well. Collectibles, when used poorly, can be maddening. But the ones here offer completely optional challenges that require both exploration and platforming prowess. They serve as a meaningful avenue for more skilled players to push themselves and be rewarded with even tougher bonus levels, without shaming the rest of us. It’s a smart and thoughtful way to accommodate varying skill levels, and something I always remember this series for. Donkey Kong Country 2 did it as well as any.

When Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest was released in 1995, the industry was undergoing a massive shift from 2D to 3D. The kinds of 2D platformers that dominated the 8 and 16-bit eras seemed destined to fade in favor of flashier 3D games, but Donkey Kong Country 2 served as a final, powerful reminder of just how good the genre had become. By combining mechanical and aesthetic variety into a cohesive whole that was satisfying on all fronts (did I mention its soundtrack is one of my favorites?), it represented the genre at the peak of its craft, and ended up being one of the last great games of its era. It’s an era that was very formative for me as well, and I’ll always fondly remember Donkey Kong Country 2 as one of the finest and most defining 2D platformers I’ve played.

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Gaming Memories: Civilization IV

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

In one of my first games of Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, my citizens were constantly unhappy. My cities were too crowded, they were working too hard, they wanted more luxuries, and I guess they didn’t like that we went to war that one time (the other guy started it, I swear). I did everything I could to appease them, because I needed them to harvest crops to feed our people, build structures of science and art and faith, construct inspiring wonders, and produce profitable goods; all to keep our civilization thriving and healthy. But no matter how many colosseums and theaters I built, they were still unhappy. It was then that I questioned my choices as a leader.

What will your civilization be?
What will your civilization be?

Civilization is, at its core, a game that constantly presents you with choices. Meaningful choices that ripple through the ages to define your civilization at large. Sometimes these choices are blunt: do you declare war on your encroaching neighbor, or instead work to establish a mutually beneficial relationship? Either could easily lead to large geopolitical shifts in the game’s world. But the decisions you face can also be much more subtle. In the above example, my early game choices to prioritize population growth seemed like a purely good thing. But it happened through a series of smaller choices, each of which had balancing trade-offs. Stack them up over time, and my civilization thrived in some ways (sheer size), and suffered in others (unhappiness). That’s the magic of Civilization: seemingly small choices add up to larger ones, with wide-ranging ramifications throughout your civilization. And the way you’re able to see those ramifications play out over time is precisely what makes them important. Zoom out from your in-the-moment decision making to see the impressive scope of a full game, and those choices shape the nature of history itself. Or at least, your own personal version of it.

Which leads us to another one of Civilization’s defining charms: this is a series about human history as much as anything. All of our culture, our technology, and even our conflict is captured here. On a surface level, I enjoy learning more about history, and Civilization provides countless opportunities for just that, which is routinely inspiring. But even more meaningfully, as a video game, Civilization does an amazing job at letting me live that history. All of these choices are not solely about min-maxing numbers on a spreadsheet, but also about forming your own version of human history. Are you going to focus more on art or science? Expansionist or isolationist? Democratic or communist? Peace or war? Civilization is a great, well-designed game that constantly presents the player with interesting choices from a mechanical perspective, and it would undoubtedly be a great game for that alone. But the fact that it sets those choices in what’s essentially a human history simulator makes them infinitely more poignant. It’s so easy for me to get wrapped up in the details of the moment, struggling to keep my civilization afloat against any number of challenges. Yet after making my choices, I often sit back and think, how did I get to this point? Did I do the right thing? What if I was wrong? Going back to my original example, did my focus on growth create a perpetually unhappy society? Was I treating my citizens poorly? Is this indicative of breakdowns in our own society? Civilization has regularly led me to moments of genuine reflection, and that it all comes about through my own play is one of the most powerful aspects of this entire medium.

Smart changes made Civilization better than ever.
Smart changes made Civilization better than ever.

This is all true of any Civilization game, and Civilization IV remains one of the best. It was not my first Civilization game, but it was the one that made me fall in love with the series. First, while it’s always been a fairly complex series, Civilization IV made it much more accessible without losing any depth. This was mostly achieved through slicker UI, which presented information much more clearly. But I also feel like Civilization IV cut out a lot of tedium to put the focus more squarely on those big picture decisions. I spent less time deciphering information and micromanaging rote actions, and more time deciding how I wanted to shape my civilization at large. In addition to better usability, Civilization IV added some really neat ideas, such as religion and civics, which fleshed out the game in positive ways, both mechanical and thematic. It also rebalanced a lot of aspects that needed rebalancing, most notably improving the AI and adding checks to dissuade constant expansion. Finally, Civilization IV was a huge step up from an audiovisual standpoint. The new 3D engine (a series first) was gorgeous, and the soundtrack was a wonderful and worldly collection of music (see: Baba Yetu). This laundry list of tweaks is, in some ways, exactly what you’d expect from any sequel. But in the case of Civilization, these are the exact kind of improvements that help it reach its full potential. Civilization IV was Civilization in peak form, fully delivering on the promise that was always so obvious in the series.

Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of meaningful choices.” Civilization is full of choices, but more importantly, they are meaningful in ways that few games are. They are implicit in your play, and they directly shape your story in both mechanical and thematic aspects; no two games are the same thanks to the choices you make and the stories they create. Civilization IV is the entry that delivered on that potential for me, and had me obsessing over and reflecting on my choices. It stands as a shining example of the power of interactivity, the kind of thoughtful design that leads to thoughtful, engaging play. That’s what I love most about this entire medium, and I’m not sure many games have done it better than Civilization IV.


Gaming Memories: Final Fantasy VII

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII.

Midgar seemed huge. I spent hours in this city, becoming familiar with its inhabitants, its politics, its neon signs, its grungy back-alley streets. We went on bombing missions, evaded the Turks, and infiltrated the Shinra headquarters. Important people died, and shocking revelations occurred. And yet, after all those hours in Midgar, and all those twists and turns already, it felt like I had only scratched the surface of this massive city. There was a lot left to see, and a lot of questions left to answer. But while this was just the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, the rest of it would not take place in Midgar.

Midgar provided a wonderful opening act.
Midgar provided a wonderful opening act.

One of my most distinct memories from Final Fantasy VII is that very moment when I left Midgar for the first time. I was, perhaps naively, convinced that the entire game took place there. It seemed so impossibly large, and I had already spent close to the length of some entire games there, that I couldn’t imagine a larger world outside. So when I finally stepped foot into that larger world, and realized just how small Midgar was in the grand scheme of things, I knew I was in for something special. Final Fantasy VII’s opening act remains one of my favorites I’ve experienced in a game. It set up the world, let you explore a contained space, experiment with the mechanics, learn the characters and what the story is about. And then, once you had settled in and had a firm grasp of the basics, it took off the training wheels, both mechanically and narratively. It revealed that the area you’d been free to roam in thus far was but a small piece of a much larger game, one that only continued to become more impressive and daring as it expanded its scope.

What followed Midgar’s opening act was a globe-trotting adventure punctuated by some of the most brazen and powerful moments of any game I’ve played. When I think back to Final Fantasy VII, I primarily think of it as a series of bombastic set pieces and insane story revelations, dramatic moments that landed hard time and again. Every time I thought it couldn’t possibly up the ante any more, it did. When Shinra was murdered by Sephiroth, a legendary soldier everyone thought was dead. The emotional death of Aerith, and the unexpected loss of a beloved party member. Learning about Jenova, an alien life form whose cells were used to create Sephiroth. When Cloud discovered that all his memories in SOLDIER were fake, and had to piece together his past. We traveled into outer space, fought giant robots that rose out of the ocean, and conjured ancient magic to stop meteors from crashing into the earth. It was a pretty weird tale about politics, the environment, science, the concept of self, and all sorts of other ideas jumbled together in ways that didn’t always make coherent sense; not to mention the spotty translation of the original US PlayStation version. But it was exciting. Final Fantasy VII’s story was a ride, and while it could be too grandiose for its own good sometimes, it was an incredibly memorable one with numerous moments that stick with me to this day.

Final Fantasy VII was a good JRPG at its core too.
Final Fantasy VII was a good JRPG at its core too.

Almost as critically, that story and its pivotal moments were drastically more cinematic in their presentation than anything I had seen at that time. For as dated as Final Fantasy VII looks now, it had a bold, striking look in 1997 that was impressive. No such concessions need to be made for its music, however. The Final Fantasy series has a legacy of amazing music, and this one’s score ranks among my clear favorites. Final Fantasy VII was a tight, well-playing JRPG too, a fact that is often overlooked in favor of everything else it did. Its “active time battle” system was en vogue during the 1990s, and this one executed it as well as any. I particularly liked the simple customization of the materia system. It was intuitive and easy to grasp, but allowed for all sorts of creativity; you could build some pretty awesome combos with it. The encounter design was solid, and the game was paced extremely well and full of fun side content. I did essentially everything there was to do in Final Fantasy VII, and it never dragged or overstayed its welcome, despite being a sizable game. And then, when I finally finished, it gave me one final moment. I remember sitting there with my brother, who more or less played through it with me, staring at the post-credits screen for a good long while. We had just completed one of the most bizarre and impactful journeys we had ever been on, and I let it wash over me. Where would, or could, games go from here? I had no idea, so I did the only thing I could. I started up a new game all over again.

In a way, it can be hard to have a measured conversation about Final Fantasy VII anymore. It was such a cultural phenomenon that it garners extreme reactions in every possible direction. But I prefer to look back on Final Fantasy VII much more simply: it was a very well-made game that came at the right time and place for a lot of people, myself included. It was one of the first RPGs I played, one of the first 3D games I played, and easily the most ambitious one I had played from a narrative and cinematic standpoint at that time. But the thing I always think about most when it comes to Final Fantasy VII is its countless hard-hitting and unforgettable moments. Most games would give anything to have a single moment so powerful, but Final Fantasy VII pulled them off like it was nothing. Few games have wowed me quite like this.


2018: Ranking the Rest

I recently posted my top 10 list for 2018, which is one of my favorite community exercises every year here on Giant Bomb. But like most years, I also played well more than those 10 games. What about the rest? Where do they stand? Because as nice as it to distill it all down to a set of 10, there are always many more than 10 games that color my year. This, then, is my chance to speak to those as well. This list is a “rough” ranking of every game I played from 2018. Don’t put too much stock in the exact order, but it’s in the ballpark. I also can’t play everything of course, but I did a pretty good job of prioritizing this year. I can’t think of many games I really missed out on (save maybe a couple giant RPGs like Dragon Quest XI and Pillars of Eternity II that I simply don’t have time for). At any rate, I enjoy doing this. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

As a side note, if you read my top 10 list, I expressed sentiments there about not getting into a lot of “big” games this year. I think you’ll see what I mean here, with a lot of big budget games listed, and some repeated sentiments from me in their descriptions; I was mixed on a lot of games in general this year. I guess that’s where I was at mentally, or maybe it was the games themselves. Who knows. And it ultimately doesn’t really matter, just a trend I noticed. And with that, away we go!

1-10. See my GOTY 2018 list.


11. God of War. The popular pick for 2018 is a very mixed bag for me. I primarily like the narrative trappings: the characters, tone, and story are engaging (despite some rough spots), I think the new setting is the perfect direction for the series, and the game looks and sounds incredible. But while I think throwing the Leviathan Axe is rad as hell, most of my time spent playing the game is mixed at best. The combat is serviceable but not amazing, the armor leveling system is broken and meaningless, and the game is paced too slowly and is too long for the ground it covers, both mechanically and narratively; I legitimately almost stopped halfway through out of boredom. I’m glad I finally did see it through, and I do really like some things about it. But God of War has one too many issues to crack my top 10.

12. Marvel's Spider-Man. Not too dissimilar from my thoughts on God of War above, Spider-Man is a mixed bag for me. Once again, my favorite parts are narrative related. I think the story arc is solid, with strong acting and writing sustained the whole way; it’s surprisingly good at portraying the relationships between its characters. The game also looks and sounds like money. What I don’t like about it is that, design-wise, it feels like an extremely generic, and sometimes dated open world game. Yes, the swinging is very fun. But everything else is standard and serviceable without being great. It’s a straightforward checklist style open world game, a style which has worn out its welcome with me. I got bored with it halfway through, before powering through the story out of a need to see the end. Also, those stealth missions, huh?

13. Valkyria Chronicles 4. A number of games on this list will be sequels I like, but also ones that don’t do enough different or new to stand out to me in a meaningful way. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is that in a nutshell; this seems like a very well-executed, but very similar version of the original Valkyria Chronicles. I liked that game a lot, and it has been nearly a decade since I played it. I also like this game so far, and while I’m still in the middle of it (meaning it could move up or down as I play more), my main takeaway right now is that it needs something more to differentiate and elevate itself for 2018. Still, if that’s what you’re looking for (and you could do much worse), this seems really solid.

14. Forza Horizon 4. Another straightforward sequel, this game is extremely well-made, but also extremely similar to the previous game(s) in the series. I had fun with the 15 or so hours I put into it, but don’t know that I came away with much that I didn’t get from the previous game. Other than I think it’s the right direction for this to become more of a live game. So Forza Horizon 4 is a still good time. And still one of the best driving series we have today. But it’s one too familiar for me to place any higher than this.

So close, and yet so far.
So close, and yet so far.

15. Dead Cells. This is a game I would like a lot more if it wasn’t run-based. I don’t think it controls as perfectly as most seem to think; it’s a bit too loose and slippery to me, and close combat in the late game is so punishing that traps feel overly incentivised. But the combat is still generally fun, and I like a lot of the upgrades. I mainly got really tired of playing through 30 minutes of early levels I had mastered just to have a chance at later levels I hadn’t. That always wears on me, and I don’t think any level in Dead Cells remains interesting after a handful of runs. That led to me inevitably feeling like it was a waste of my time, and I put it down before I finished. Which is the fate of most otherwise good run-based games for me.

16. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Oh hey, another sequel that doesn’t change much. As someone who has played every iteration of Smash, this feels very similar to previous games (especially the Wii U version). That said, this probably is the “best” version of Smash yet, and to people deep down that rabbit hole, the minor changes it does make are probably meaningful. But to me this is just more Smash. And while I’ve loved Smash before, and I do still enjoy a good round of Smash here and there, it’s been diminishing returns for a long time. This series has been around almost 20 years, and Smash Ultimate doesn’t do nearly enough to reignite that flame. Also, the process to unlock and play with all the characters is abysmal.

17. Onrush. This is a really cool idea, and a great take on multiplayer driving games that deviates from pure racing; it’s nice to play a game where you can do well in different ways. I also like the focus and reward for driving fast and recklessly, and the team dynamic is a lot of fun. It controls well too, and is enjoyable to play. All that said, this is a very slight game, which is a pretty large drawback and exactly what holds it back. There’s just not a lot here. But what is here is a good time while it lasts.

The theme of this list: a mixed bag.
The theme of this list: a mixed bag.

18. Frostpunk. I want to like Frostpunk a lot more than I do, because it has some great ideas. I just don’t think it’s a very balanced game. It’s one of extreme positive feedback loops: if you are doing well, things become easier, and if you are doing poorly, things become harder. My first game, where I didn’t know what I was doing, went bad real fast. Then I started over with what I learned from my mistakes, and cruised through the game without a single hiccup. That 12 hour victorious playthrough ended up being real boring down the stretch as a result, as I simply fast-forwarded with excess stockpiled resources. This game would be great if it could find a better balance to make the choices meaningful throughout its lengthy scenarios, and my experience was far from that.

19. The Messenger. This is another game I really want to like more than I do, and is one that I should theoretically love. But that’s why execution is so important; a good idea isn’t worth much if it’s not done well. And The Messenger does have its good parts: the music is incredible, and it controls super well. It falls apart for me in its larger structure, pacing, and level/enemy design. It’s primarily too big and repetitive, with the same handful of enemies populating every level in the entire game. You also eventually have to re-traverse all the levels in a less than interesting way, and it all goes on way too long for the mechanics on offer. I also don’t like the story and writing at all. Your mileage may vary on all of this, but for me I became less enamored with it the more it dragged on. I ended up not finishing it as a result.

20. Minit. This is one I enjoyed for the most part, but it’s simultaneously very short and often tedious. There’s a cool puzzle nature to figuring out how to progress that is usually fun, and it often rewards smart, efficient exploration. Except for when it doesn’t, and becomes less intuitive than it needs to be. I spent a good chunk of my time with Minit kind of ramming my head at various walls until I found one that broke down, which wasn’t as satisfying in the long run. It has great style though, and I enjoyed it just fine for what it was.

21. Florence. This does a surprisingly good job at translating the feelings portrayed in its story to simple touch-based actions on a phone. It’s extremely short, and extremely simple, but Florence finds a way to be effective within its limitations. One moment in particular was among the most powerful I encountered all year. It’s a good story overall too. If only there was more to it, it would be higher.

22. Persona 3: Dancing in Moonlight / Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight. These games are basically overpriced song packs for Persona 4: Dancing All Night. They just have music from, well, Persona 3 and Persona 5 instead. It turns out all of these games have truly great music, and that by itself makes these pretty enjoyable for me. I wish the core rhythm mechanics had been improved, and that they didn’t cost so much for how many songs they come with. But if you’re like me and have an appreciation for Persona music and rhythm games, you could do worse.

I do really like this game's look.
I do really like this game's look.

23. FAR: Lone Sails. This is a short game with wonderful atmosphere, and I think some really interesting themes to consider. I just didn’t enjoy the act of playing it. Managing your vehicle is a fun loop for a bit, but once I realized the game never evolves from there it got old. I also think the “puzzles” are rote and repetitive. But as a short game with a good aesthetic wrapper, it’s kind of neat.

24. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. A short and sweet story that’s executed pretty well. It’s a bit of a cliched story though, and I think I’m getting a bit tired of this style of, um, “gameplay.” A couple sections in particular were not intuitive at all. But a good story is still worth celebrating here. One moment in particular got me real good, and the way the kid’s imagination plays into things is endearing.

25. Yoku's Island Express. This game made me realize that I simply don’t like pinball. At all. I enjoyed things about Yoku’s Island Express: I like the tone and atmosphere, especially the art and music. I also think it’s a generally well-designed world that is fun to explore. But I only got more and more exasperated every time a “pinball” section appeared. After a couple hours I didn’t want to do any more pinball. I did finish this one, but by the end it was almost begrudgingly so.

26. Overcooked! 2. Back to more sequels that don’t change much: this is more or less a level pack for the original Overcooked. Which isn’t terrible, as Overcooked is still fun, and I enjoyed my time playing this with a friend. I just wish it had done something new, or at the very least improved the feel and preciseness of the controls. Maybe it’s meant to feel like a sloppy mess though, who knows.

27. Guacamelee! 2. More straightforward sequels! I really enjoyed the first Guacamelee, but this sequel was really disappointing to me. It’s hard to place exactly why too, because in some ways it’s a tighter, more confident Guacamelee. It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but it’s also very similar to Guacamelee, and perhaps games have evolved too much (especially in the space where this game lives) over the past 5 years for this to cut it without doing something new for 2018. Guacamelee! 2 feels like it’s gotten left in the dust by the many more exciting games around it.

Do NOT order donuts from BK.
Do NOT order donuts from BK.

28. Donut County. This one gets by on its charm and style. The actual game of moving a hole around to have everyone’s crap fall into it is very straightforward, and pretty uninteresting. For all its comparisons to Katamari Damacy, these levels are too small and too simple to measure up; I didn't enjoy playing it. And while the writing and characters are funny in spots, it didn’t stick with me for long. It’s a short game that I got tired of before I even finished it.

29. We Were Here Too. Asymmetrical co-op games don’t get made that often, so it’s noteworthy when they do come around. Which makes it a shame when the ones that do come out aren’t all that polished. This one has some clever ideas, and I enjoyed solving some of these puzzles with a friend. It’s all about communicating what you see to your partner, and that’s a generally solid idea. But I think the game could do better with it. Despite its short length, it uses a lot of the same tricks as the previous game, has some puzzles I think are pretty bad, and is also surprisingly buggy. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

30. Mario Tennis Aces. Mario Tennis has been a pretty consistently unrewarding series to me since the Game Boy Color one, and nothing about Aces changes that trajectory. To be fair, they tried to spice it up with all the power meter stuff, which almost makes it more of a fighting game than a tennis game. But I personally don’t think that mode works well, and the classic way is still too bare bones to be interesting. There have always been better tennis games than Mario Tennis. Just because they stopped making those other games doesn’t make this one any better. It just makes me sad.

31. A Way Out. Man. I don’t feel like I often play games that I consider outright bad. Yet here we are: I think A Way Out is a bad video game. But kind of hilariously bad? I honestly did not hate playing through this, as my brother and I got some laughs from it. But it’s impossible for me to look at it and say it does anything well. Everything here is either extremely rote or poorly executed (or boring), the writing is completely terrible (hence the laughs), and the ideas it’s going for, both narratively and mechanically, are too basic to be interesting in the first place. I routinely could not believe what I was seeing as we played this, and it’s been a long time since I’ve personally played a game this bad. The world desperately needs more good co-op games, and unfortunately A Way Out doesn’t help that in the slightest.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2018

Say what you will about the games themselves, but I think 2018 has been a genuinely incredible year for video game music. It’s great to see developers experiment with all sorts of fresh styles, and the form is becoming so much more diverse and artful than I could have ever imagined. And it’s just high quality stuff across the board, in ways that elevate and empower the games we play. Even within my own tastes, I find myself looking at this list and marveling at the diversity and quality of sounds on display. Music is making video games better no matter your preferences.

So as a fan of video game music, I’d like to honor the medium by sharing my 10 favorite soundtracks among games I played from 2018. It’s one of my favorite personal traditions every year, and 2018 has plenty of great music to go around. I narrowed it down to 10 games, and picked a representative song from each of them. They are ordered by original US release date, not by preference. I hope you enjoy listening, and please share some of your own favorites too!

Also, a quick shout out to Octopath Traveler, which by all accounts has great music from what I’ve heard. I simply have not played it, and I only include games I’ve played. Sorry!


Featured Track: Confronting Myself (by Lena Raine)

One of the reasons Celeste is such a wonderful game is that it’s able to express its themes on multiple fronts, music included. As your emotions shift up and down, so too does the soundtrack, which produces tension, joy, relief, frustration, sadness, panic, elation, acceptance, and more. This game was a remarkable journey, and its music made its important moments land that much harder.

Into the Breach

Featured Track: Old War Machines (by Ben Prunty)

I spent a lot of time (too much?) playing Into the Breach this year, and I’m still not tired of this soundtrack. In true Ben Prunty fashion, it combines mystery, whimsy, action, and determination into a magical cocktail that pulls me right in every time. It fits the tone of the game so well, and kind of became the soundtrack of my year. That’s only partially because Into the Breach became my year. The rest is because Ben Prunty makes great music.

God of War

Featured Track: God of War (by Bear McCreary)

The original God of War games had awesome, epic soundtracks, and this soft reboot does too. But what I appreciate about it most is how it’s different. It retains the bombast that defined those games, but shifts the style perfectly from Greek to Norse themed. It also has more quiet, moody sections that impart gravity on the game’s more serious moments. It’s the subtle things that work best here.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

Featured Track: Defiler of Taboos (by Michiru Yamane)

Perhaps nowhere is it easier to see the Castlevania in Bloodstained’s veins than in its soundtrack. Castlevania has some of the most iconic and awesome music in video game history, and for my money, Bloodstained matches it note for note. These are some rocking tunes with catchy melodies that I’m nowhere near tired of listening to. Like, seriously. Listen to this shit.

The Banner Saga 3

Featured Track: Only We Few Remember It Now (by Austin Wintory)

Each chapter of The Banner Saga has had incredible music, and the third and final entry is as good as any of them. While there’s a lot of overlap with the previous games’ scores, this one ratchets up the tension and drama to match the increased level of desperation of the game’s events. And in the end, even a little acceptance. Plus, it’s still just great music.

Dead Cells

Featured Track: ClockTower (by Yoann Laulan)

There is a focus and intensity to a good run in Dead Cells that is expertly captured in its soundtrack. Better yet, the instrumentation has an exotic feel to it that matches each of the game’s varied, exotic levels. It knows when to cool down between levels, and ramp up for boss fights too, making this a well-rounded soundtrack with some great songs.

The Messenger

Featured Track: Hills of Destiny (by Rainbowdragoneyes)

The Messenger pays homage to gaming’s evolution through the 8 and 16-bit eras in many ways, but to me the music stands out more than anything else. It has some incredibly catchy and awesome tunes in both 8 and 16-bit styles that capture what made those eras great. And then the way it transitions between them really elevates it to something special. It’s rad.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Lucas Pope)

Lucas Pope seems to enjoy life off the beaten path, his music included. Less a full musical score than masterfully timed instrumentation, Return of the Obra Dinn really captures the feel of its mystery through it’s ominous and dissonant strings, horns, and drums. Some of these riffs are downright chilling, perfectly capturing the dread of the Obra Dinn’s grizzly fate. I love it.

Tetris Effect

Featured Track: Always Been, But Never Dreamed (by Hydelic)

I never knew I could have an emotional reaction to playing Tetris, but that’s exactly what this soundtrack did for me. Not only is it a lengthy list of incredible songs that cover a wide variety of musical styles, but the way it all reacts to your every move makes the music an integral part of your play. It’s kind of magical, and ranks among the most impactful musical experiences I’ve ever had in a game.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Featured Track: Bloody Tears/Monster Dance (by Michiko Naruke)

Super Smash Bros. has always done a wonderful job at taking large swaths of gaming’s most iconic songs, and adapting them to the rambunctious nature of Smash. And while most of Ultimate’s 800+ songs (!) are recycled from previous Smash games, there are just enough new bangers to stand out. This series remains the biggest celebration of video game music out there.

Bonus - Burnout Paradise Remastered

Featured Track: Girlfriend (by Avril Lavigne)



Gaming Memories: Elite Beat Agents

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

Once upon a time, Hulk was a star baseball player. The kids loved him. Until, one day, he inexplicably started to decline, and struggled to hit all those home runs anymore. First he was demoted to the minor leagues, then he resigned to be a janitor at the stadium. He was devastated. Then, out of nowhere, a giant fire-breathing golem appears and starts attacking the fans. The same kids that used to love Hulk. He wants to help them. So he does the only thing he can.

He calls out for help from the Elite Beat Agents.

Agents are...
Agents are...

At a glance, the titular agents don’t seem like they could help in this scenario. They are essentially a group of male cheerleaders dressed in snazzy suits and funky hats, but they nevertheless manage to solve problems around the world by dancing and singing. The power of song? Positivity? Magic?? No matter, it’s not meant to make sense, which is one of the fun things about Elite Beat Agents. It’s extremely silly, and genuinely funny at times - if not borderline insane. In the above example, the agents sing and dance, which inspires Hulk to use his baseball skills to defeat the golem and save the day. He defends by catching fireballs with his glove, he attacks by throwing fastballs, and he delivers the killing blow with a powerful home run swing of his bat. This all plays out as you tap your way through the song, and every song in the game is accompanied by a charmingly absurd situation. A young woman babysitting nightmare children. A lost dog trying to find his way back to his owner through busy streets. A weather woman trying to conjure the perfect weather day her son. Corporate intrigue, stranded on a desert island, an alien invasion. It goes on and on, and no matter how normal they seem at first, each scenario devolves into utter madness by its end. Elite Beat Agents’ sense of humor is one of my favorite things about it.

Of course, Elite Beat Agents is a great rhythm game underneath the quirky exterior; I wouldn’t like it so much if it wasn’t. As of the time of this writing, it remains my favorite rhythm game to date. I’ve always considered myself a fan of rhythm games, and at one point in life I was a solid band/music nerd. Yet a lot of them fall just short in one way or another for me. Either they manage to be too rote and mechanical, acting as glorified quick time events. Or they become too distracted with cumbersome peripherals, such as plastic guitars, drums, microphones, or dance pads. Elite Beat Agents, then, is able to leverage the Nintendo DS touch screen to find an effective middle ground. Tapping and swiping with the stylus is simple, intuitive, and precise in a way that elaborate peripherals often struggle. And the nature of touch inherently allows for more flair and style than basic button presses. I find the act of tapping and swiping on a touch screen to be highly satisfying, and the controls in Elite Beat Agents are responsive with great feedback; it may be the best use of touch controls I've experienced. It simply feels good to play, which is paramount to any good rhythm game.


It also allows the game to put the focus squarely on the rhythm itself. With nothing else to get in the way, Elite Beat Agents is as pure a distillation of the genre as any. That allowed me to fully absorb myself in the rhythm, and man, that rhythm is good. So good, in fact, that I couldn’t put the game down until I mastered every challenge it put before me. Let me reiterate this more clearly: I completed every. single. thing. I possibly could. That means for every song, all the way up through the highest difficulty, I got a perfect score. Again, that’s not just hitting every note for a full combo; I hit every note with perfect timing for a perfect score. And Elite Beat Agents is not an easy game. It took some serious effort, but because I loved the feel of the rhythm so much, I was excited to make that effort. I eagerly played each song over and over until I had, quite literally, mastered them. I loved the process of practicing, and the fact that it only had 19 songs was a boon for me. That smaller scope allowed each one to feel unique and hand-crafted, and showcase interesting patterns and design. This was counter to other rhythm games of the era, many of which contained dozens upon dozens of mechanically indistinct songs. Elite Beat Agents’ depth over breadth design, meanwhile, made mastering each song a delight. It remains one of my proudest video game achievements to date, and almost certainly my most impressive from a difficulty standpoint. It’s an incredibly rewarding memory I will always cherish. Even though I’m pretty sure my college roommate would rather die than hear any of those songs again.

Around 2006, when Elite Beat Agents was released, rhythm games seemed unstoppable. Gaming stores were flooded with plastic instruments, and it appeared that simulating rock stardom was the clear direction of the medium for the foreseeable future. But it was a quirky Japanese game about male cheerleaders saving the world that I couldn’t stop playing. I loved its sense of humor. I loved its wacky scenarios. I loved its rewarding challenge. I loved the variety of its songs. And most of all, I loved how it felt. Tapping and swiping was so satisfying, and it allowed the game to put rhythm above all else. I gave myself to that rhythm in full. In return, Elite Beat Agents gave itself to me, and is as much a part of me as any game I've played.


Gaming Memories: A Link to the Past

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

I can still hear The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The pitter-patter of footsteps in the sewers. The swing of Link’s sword. Picking up a pot. Transitioning between light and dark worlds. Hitting a switch in a dungeon. Going up and down stairs, jumping in the water, firing the bow. The cry of a defeated boss. And the music. Gosh, the music. I can still hear all of it as if I was playing A Link to the Past right now. There aren’t many games I can say that for, but A Link to the Past is special. It’s a game that remains with me so many years later, as deeply as any game I’ve played. It’s a game I have a hard time not getting a little mushy about.

I know this place like the back of my hand.
I know this place like the back of my hand.

I imagine most of us have a handful of clear inflection points in our individual gaming histories, and A Link to the Past is one of mine. It showed me just how ambitious games can be, as its scope was heads and shoulders above anything I had played to that point. It took place in a single large, connected world, rather than across a series of self-contained levels. You collected a spread of interesting items that had many uses across said world. Numerous enemies, bosses, and dungeons tested your smarts just as much as your skill with a sword. There were countless secrets that felt magical, as if anything was possible; I came to expect the unexpected. This created a virtual space I wanted to actively poke and prod every corner of. It turned the focus towards a process of discovery, of learning the rules and intricacies of a world I had never been to. Unearthing surprising interactions remains one of my favorite things about video games at large, and A Link to the Past is full of them. You can identify hidden breakable walls by the sound your sword makes when it clangs against them? One enemy type turns into a helpful fairy if you sprinkle magic powder on it? Throwing your boomerang into a specific pond will produce a better boomerang? Such interactions may seem obtuse on the surface, but taken together they cultivate a mindset of curiosity and experimentation. It's that exact mindset that makes systems-driven and/or open world games so popular today, in 2018. But A Link to the Past was doing it in 1992, and it was the first time I thought about games that way.

That’s not to say A Link to the Past isn’t an extremely well-crafted game by traditional standards either, because it most certainly is. The Legend of Zelda series is regularly considered one of gaming’s best, and A Link to the Past exemplifies all of the series’ most positive traits. It remains a masterclass of game design, one of those rare games you point to and say "it does everything right." It controls well, it has a look that was stunning at the time (and still works today), and its soundtrack remains among gaming’s most iconic. Its world is meticulously crafted to afford the player ample room to explore and experiment, but offers just enough direction to not be completely overwhelming. The light world-dark world dynamic is an incredibly clever twist. There’s a great variety of enemies and bosses, and a progression of items and difficulty that feels right. The dungeons are full of great puzzles that test your spatial awareness, with rooms assembled just so to provide a consistently rewarding challenge. It’s the rare game that I find enjoyable to engage with throughout, without ever dragging or feeling tedious. Given the scope of A Link to the Past compared to games of that era, it’s hard to convey just how impressive that was at the time.

Did I mentioned A Link to the Past has many excellent dungeons?
Did I mentioned A Link to the Past has many excellent dungeons?

And still is. I revisited A Link to the Past earlier in 2018, for the first time in over a decade, and I was struck yet again by how well it holds up. This is the game that codified the template that would see one of gaming’s most defining franchises through decades of successful sequels, and looking back I can’t help but feel this particular entry stands the test of time better than any of them. Its freedom and sense of discovery is somewhat dulled in many of the sequels; consider how you can tackle some dungeons in any order, how some bosses and puzzles have multiple solutions, or how it’s confident enough to not tutorialize every detail. On the other end, A Link to the Past is never as obtuse as the original Zelda; you never have to resort to burning down random trees to find the next dungeon. Different people are going to land at different places on the Zelda spectrum, but to me, A Link to the Past hits a sweet spot of being neither too obtuse nor too directed. Aside from being a remarkably well-designed game in all aspects, that’s what stuck out to me more than anything when I revisited this classic again after so many years. Not many games, Zelda or otherwise, hold up this well for this long.

Zelda games have predominantly been, first and foremost, about a young boy going on a big adventure. Shigeru Miyamoto himself has talked about his inspiration for the series coming from his own explorations of caves, hillsides, and forests as a kid. A Link to the Past was my first Zelda game. And it was my first big video game adventure. Games have certainly grown in size in the decades since, but A Link to the Past was the one that made me realize just how big they could truly be; how much they could spark the imagination and provide spaces to explore, discover, and learn. I never looked at video games and their potential the same way in its wake. A Link to the Past is an important link to my own past, and defined how I viewed the entire medium going forward.

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Gaming Memories: Freedom Fighters

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

One of my favorite moments in Freedom Fighters happens whenever you destroy an important structure held by the invading Soviet Union army. You locate a bridge, a helipad, artillery, or some other critical objective, clear out the enemies around it, and plant your explosives. As the countdown timer ticks down, the blaring music fades, giving you a few seconds of silence amidst the chaos. Then, boom. Your target is engulfed in flames, and as your handiwork sinks in, a new choral song comes on loud and proud to highlight your accomplishment. You’re taking it to your invaders one big-ass explosion at a time. And it feels good.

Freedom Fighters is a game about mounting a resistance against an oppressive regime, and those moments where you land a critical blow are powerful. The narrative, while sometimes campy (in an endearing way), does a great job at connecting how these small victories add up in the bigger picture. Visually, the Soviet imagery shows just how prominently they have set up shop in New York, and seeing it crumble is stirring. Perhaps most importantly, Freedom Fighters underscores every moment with its epic soundtrack. I’m a vocal fan of video game music, and this one’s score sits near the very top of my favorites. Its unique combination of synth and choral sounds is bold and striking, and it was a grand step up from what video games were doing with music at the time; it felt like it raised the stakes for the entire medium. And it does it with impressive variety that always matches the game’s Cold War vibe. From the empire’s chilling march, to the resistance’s quiet resolve, to intensely desperate combat themes, Freedom Fighters’ soundtrack runs the gamut, and the way it dynamically changes tracks to match its big moments is highly effective. Any good soundtrack serves to enhance the game experience, and by that measure this is still one of the best.

But Freedom Fighters is much more than bombast and a great soundtrack; it arguably has more substance than its already considerable style. Its solid third-person shooting is driven by streamlined squad mechanics, and built upon stellar level design. I’m normally not one for dealing with squads in shooters, but Freedom Fighters’ arcade nature makes it simple and fun to command your surprisingly competent squad members around the battlefield. And the way each sprawling, nonlinear level is laid out provides all sorts of opportunities to spread out and tackle objectives from different angles. It goes a long way towards making you feel like you’re part of a team that’s working together to complete an objective; so many games miss the mark by having teammates that are little more than window dressing. Your squadmates truly matter here, so much so that they’re often more effective than you are. That makes it easy to become invested and rely on them, and the fact that you’re always convincing new fighters to join the cause furthers the game’s theme of mounting a resistance. You get to see your troops grow dramatically in number over time, which makes for some killer final levels where you are leading a veritable army against formidable fortresses. It’s a great payoff.


Yet my favorite design idea from Freedom Fighters is one I’ve not seen much since, and certainly not implemented this well. You regularly have multiple levels to choose from at once, and completing objectives in one will affect another. For example, destroying a helipad in one level will prevent helicopters from spawning in another. This creates an elaborate network of cause and effect, and you’re able to bounce between these levels at will; you can even leave mid level and see the effects of your handiwork elsewhere. The result is that you can strategically plan out how you go about systemically taking down the empire at an infrastructural level. Which, yet again (catching on yet?), supports the game’s theme of mounting a resistance against your oppressors. It’s rad as hell, and I had a blast exploring multiple approaches across multiple playthroughs. It’s dynamic enough to reward experimentation, and I enjoyed my later playthroughs on higher difficulties just as much as my first. It’s impressive any time a game gets so much mileage out of simple ideas, and Freedom Fighters is more robust than most. I remember all of my time with it fondly.

Freedom Fighters is a game about mounting a resistance against an oppressive regime. Not only is that apparent through its story, visuals, and music, but also through the very core of its mechanics. You inspire and recruit a team of rag-tag rebels looking to fight back. You plan out the best way to dismantle your invaders’ infrastructure. And you execute across superbly designed levels. I love how everything ties together under a central theme, and it’s much rarer than it should be for a game to put such level of care into everything it does. I’m a big proponent of cohesive design, and in that aspect, Freedom Fighters is refreshingly holistic. It’s also got spunk, super cool ideas, and (at the risk of beating a dead horse) a goddamn amazing soundtrack. It’s the kind of game I play and think “Why can’t more video games be this good?” Maybe that's overly idealistic, but at least we got Freedom Fighters.


Gaming Memories: Super Mario RPG

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Super Mario RPG.

There’s a fancy hotel in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars called Marrymore Hotel. For the most part it works like any other inn in the game: you can pay a small fee to rest and heal up your party members. But Marrymore also has a fancy deluxe suite, which functionally serves little purpose. It’s also way more expensive, and you can choose to stay there for more nights than you can afford. Most video games wouldn’t let you do something you can’t afford, but Super Mario RPG isn’t most video games. If you stay for too many nights, your punishment is to work as a bellhop, performing tedious tasks to pay back your debt.

Mario RPG's combat had a great idea that's not been used enough.
Mario RPG's combat had a great idea that's not been used enough.

Super Mario RPG is a game full of character. That’s not limited to the actual characters in the game, but also the game itself. It has fun with the little details like Marrymore Hotel, which pays attention to your negligence and makes you pay in a playful way. NPCs in the world idolize Mario, imitating his jumps or playing with toy figurines. It rains when Mallow cries, Bowser kisses Mario at one point, you fight what are basically the Power Rangers, and it has this music. It’s a supremely silly game, but also a competent one; it never sacrifices its solid mechanics for a gag, which is the downfall of so many funny games. Super Mario RPG’s core loop is typical by JRPG standards of the time -- this was a collaboration with the Squaresoft of the 90s after all -- and crawling through dungeons, leveling up, and finding more powerful items and abilities works just as well here as in its contemporaries. Most importantly, Super Mario RPG leans into one fresh idea that I still don’t think is used enough. Timing additional button presses on your attacks and blocks greatly increases their effectiveness, which makes its turn-based battles feel surprisingly active. You have to constantly stay on your toes, and execute with perfect timing if you want to survive some of the game’s tougher battles. It’s exciting.

But Super Mario RPG is also a game full of characters. You of course have Mario, who is as expressive here as he is in any game. He is joined in the fight by both Peach and Bowser, which was a real treat at the time to see them fighting alongside our hero. But it’s perhaps original characters Mallow and Geno who steal the show among the main cast; Square’s writing chops are really let loose with them, and also with the game’s large and diverse cast of supporting characters. There’s Toadofsky, who you aid with his “composer’s block” by jumping on tadpoles to create music. There’s Johnny, the honor-bound shark pirate who turns to your side after seeing the cowardice of a foe. There’s Valentina and Dodo, who take control of Birdo and temporarily rule the land in the clouds. There’s Exor, the giant talking sword that jams itself into Bowser’s Keep at the start of the game, driving Bowser from his home and into an alliance with Mario. And of course, there is Booster. Who, um, well... is Booster. Your search for the titular seven stars takes you to every corner of the Mushroom Kingdom, interacting with all its wacky inhabitants along the way. Your adventures are not limited to funny encounters either: there are just enough serious, tense, and heartfelt moments sprinkled along the way to make this a more emotionally resonant game than it initially appears.

Don't we all.
Don't we all.

All of those features come together to make Super Mario RPG a polished, endearing game that is a blast to play. It also has a great look to it, and a wonderfully energetic soundtrack that remains one of my favorites. But the 90s were full of solid JRPGs; it took something extra to wiggle its way this far into my heart, which Super Mario RPG most certainly did. Looking back, it served as a fitting coda to numerous facets of my gaming youth. The SNES was the first gaming console my brother and I had for ourselves, and Super Mario RPG was one of the last great SNES games ever released, mere months before the launch of the Nintendo 64. Nintendo’s next console marked the end of not only the SNES era, but the 2D era as well, and Super Mario RPG captured so much of what was great about both. The SNES is almost certainly the console that’s had the largest impact on my gaming tastes, and it was dominated by Mario-inspired platformers and Square-developed JRPGs. Super Mario RPG, then, was a celebration of everything both Mario and Square. To this day it remains one of the few dream crossovers that, quite frankly, doesn’t suck, and it’s hard to imagine a better send-off for possibly the most defining period of my gaming history.

I picked up a SNES Classic Edition in early 2018, and spent a couple hours revisiting Super Mario RPG. Before then it had probably been at least 15 years since I last touched it, but it all came back in an instant: I was quoting lines of dialogue as if I had just seen them the day before. Super Mario RPG is part of my gaming DNA. Its music, its characters, its world, its combat; it’s all a part of me in a way that few games are. And it wouldn’t even work if it wasn’t an extremely well-made game either. Super Mario RPG is the perfect blend of charm and execution, a magical gaming cocktail that feels like home to me, even as it made its own home in my heart.


The Myth of Difficulty

Hollow Knight is a video game that first released in early 2017 for the PC. I played that initial release, and it ended up being one of my favorite games of 2017. There’s a laundry list of things I love about it too: The world is incredibly well-designed and full of details I love exploring. The art style does a lot to bring the world to life, along with the diverse set of creatures you encounter. It has a host of meaningful upgrades that alter what you can do. The music is great, the map system is clever, and the combat is effective in its simplicity and responsiveness. Best of all may be how it all comes together to create a singular, impactful vision. I could go on, but I think you get the idea; it’s a wonderful game that I appreciate for many different reasons.

Is Hollow Knight a
Is Hollow Knight a "hard" game? Does it matter?

And yet, Hollow Knight seemed to slip under the radar throughout 2017. Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, though, and everyone seems to be talking about it. That’s what a release on the Nintendo Switch gets you these days, and while I’m super excited more people are now playing and enjoying Hollow Knight, the main talking point doesn’t appear to be any of the things I most appreciate about the game. Instead, most blogs and reactions I’ve come across are about how “difficult” Hollow Knight is. So much so that a friend (who has no interest in playing Hollow Knight himself) asked me why I never mentioned the game’s difficulty before. The best answer I had was that I never really thought about the difficulty; it simply wasn’t all that important to my appreciation of the game. And I’ve always felt that way about the games I enjoy. But why is that? Why is this aspect of video games, which has defined much of video game history and culture (for better or worse) never been important to me? I’ve continued to think on the topic, and while that original answer I gave to my friend remains true, I think I’ve finally realized more fully why.

Difficulty doesn’t exist.

Difficulty is an entirely mental construct, and something we use to explain all sorts of things that have more to do with ourselves than a game itself. When we get frustrated by not making clear, tangible progress by a game’s metric, we call it difficult. When we feel lost, stuck, or have to reload a checkpoint? When we feel like we failed? The game must be difficult. But I would argue it reflects player behavior and/or mentality more than anything, and the key is that every player is different. Some players could lose progress in a game and get frustrated or get down on themselves, where others could simply acknowledge that they’ve learned from their mistakes or gotten more practice, and soldier forward without being bothered in the slightest. Others still may get excited about it, and say “Aha, I didn’t realize that could happen!” before jumping back in with renewed vigor. And of course there are the masochists that take it as a challenge, and see beating the game as an opportunity to test their skill. I’m not trying to argue than any reaction is better or worse than another (though I would be a happier person if I never saw the phrase “git gud” ever again), but rather that everyone reacts differently to different situations.

That gets to my problem with the idea of difficulty: it’s subjective and impossible to define, an unmeasurable and theoretical metric that isn’t actually present within the games we play. Is a game difficult if you can’t reliably make progress every second you play it? How do you even define progress? If it’s getting closer to beating the game, then doesn’t dying from a mistake, but learning from that mistake, gain you knowledge and practice that also gets you closer to completing the game? You could argue almost anything as a form of progress, a necessary step on each individual player’s journey toward their goal within the game. I think games and our relationship to them are more nuanced and personal than a simple, universal scale of player skill vs. video game difficulty. Everyone has their own path through each individual game; there are simply too many variables in play to codify the idea of video game difficulty.

I was a math major in college, and whenever anyone asked what my major was (you know, the typical icebreaker question) and I said math, the near-universal response was “Wow, math is hard. You must be smart.” But I never felt math was all that hard, or that I was all that smart. I’d then ask what their major was, and they’d say something like biology, or psychology, or business, or English. And I would think, “Man, those all sound way harder than math to me.” Math was something I enjoyed, and something I wanted to spend time learning more about at that time. Therefore, whatever potential challenges came with that didn’t seem all that daunting. Math excited me, it motivated me, so the individual steps of the process were fulfilling and worthwhile. Biology, on the other hand? I always hated biology, and the work I had to put into it always felt, well, difficult as a result. I eventually realized that the classes I found “harder” were nothing more than the classes I didn’t like enough to want to do the work for.

Fighting through adversity for things I love helps me grow.
Fighting through adversity for things I love helps me grow.

The same has been true for me with video games. The biggest and truest sign of whether I’m into a game or not has always been my gut reaction when I meet any form of adversity. If I die, for example, and feel excited and eager to jump right back in and try again, then I clearly really like that game. A favorite example of this was Resident Evil 4 -- a wonderful and fascinating game for many reasons -- which I played obsessively when it came out, including through many sections that tested me through many deaths. But I didn’t bemoan each death. Instead, I felt it was a chance to try again and figure out how to improve. Conversely, if I die and feel the urge to set a game down or go search for help, then I probably don’t like that game very much in the first place. The supposed roadblocks I hit are nothing more than indications I don’t really want to play the game in earnest and that it's not worth any more of my time; I was only going through the motions until that point because that’s often what people do until adversity strikes.

But how worth it is that, really? Just going through the motions in games that don’t provide any kind of adversity? I’ve read a lot lately about how happiness requires struggle and growth. Humans are real good at getting used to anything, and if you were to somehow obtain all those things we stereotypically think of as making us happy -- a great job, enough money to cover what we need/want, great relationships, all the knowledge and skills in the world, etc. -- how long would it be before you got used to them, and then subsequently bored. We need new problems to solve, new things to engage with and see, and new things to, you guessed it, challenge us. These challenges don’t always have to be back-breaking, but it’s through our struggles that we grow and learn, no matter how messy they may be. Most things that come easily aren’t worth much, because it’s often the struggle itself that provides meaning, that lets you know you are in fact growing and moving towards something you care about. There’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures, the games that go down easily and don’t push us to think or grow. But they’re like junk food: they feel good in the moment, and are well and good in moderation. But basking in it too much ignores the substantial stuff we need to be truly happy and healthy.

I would argue that if you’re not willing to work through adversity for something, then that something isn’t worth much to you to begin with. Conversely, if you enjoy what you’re doing to the point where you genuinely want to push through, then that struggle feels completely worth it. It’s not about “no pain, no gain” or “git gud” (gosh, did I really use that phrase twice in one article?). It’s about finding the things you’re willing to deal with any amount of adversity to pursue. That’s your biggest indicator of happiness, and once you find such games, you won’t even think about whether it’s difficult or not; you’ll be too absorbed in the process to notice. That’s why difficulty is a myth, and why I don’t think any of us should avoid adversity in the games we love, but rather embrace it.