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majormitch

Why stop at 10? In my new blog, I rank the rest of the games I played in 2023.

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2023: Ranking the Rest

Every year, we all gather to make our contractually obligated “Top 10 Games of the Year” lists. Also every year, many of us play well more than 10 video games. So what of the rest of them? The ones that didn’t make the elite 10? They’re games too! Thus, as I’ve done for a number of years now, here’s my way of speaking to those other games, in the form of ranking all the games from 2023 I played during the year. As I was writing this list, two things stood out to me about 2023 in particular. First, I don’t feel like I played any outright bad games from the year. Even the ones at the bottom of this list are pretty much fine, and I have at least some respect for them. They just didn’t appeal to my specific tastes and/or command much of my time over the other games on my plate. It was a competitive year in a lot of ways, and it’s important to remember that rankings such as this are relative.

Second, as I stated in my top 10 list, I did not get to nearly everything I wanted to play from 2023 (yet). I struggled to keep up with games this year more than any other year in a long time, and it shows on a list such as this. Alan Wake II, Octopath Traveler II, Lies of P, Dredge, Final Fantasy XVI, Spider-Man 2, Super Mario RPG, Star Ocean: The Second Story R, and Persona 5 Tactica are among the games I have at least a passing interest in playing, but have not touched as of this writing. I will do my best to plug away at them over the coming months, but depending on how stacked 2024 ends up being, I probably won’t get to all of them. Regardless, you won’t find them here. Anyway, that’s enough preamble: thanks for reading, and on with the list!

1-10: See my GOTY 2023 list.

So. Many. Songs.
So. Many. Songs.

11: Theatrhythm Final Bar Line. One of the main reasons I do this extended rankings list every year, is to give the “tough cuts” that barely didn’t make my top 10 their due. That’s especially true for competitive years like 2023, where a game I like as much as Theatrhythm Final Bar Line just barely missed out. Because let me be clear: this game is freaking rad. Sure, in many ways it’s not that different from the previous entry, Curtain Call, and I personally think I preferred playing it on the 3DS’ touch screen over a traditional controller (that’s probably the main reason it fell to #11). But the sheer number of amazing songs in this rhythm game is remarkable, and the RPG/quest mechanics continue to be iterated upon. I played Final Bar Line for dozens of hours, and would happily play for dozens more. It’s great.

12: Cobalt Core. I had a solid couple of weeks where I got really into this one. Cobalt Core has some neat ideas, and strikes the kind of balance I appreciate in roguelikes. I like mixing and matching different pilots and ships for every run, which regularly present interesting combinations that keep the game feeling fresh. The runs are the right length, and there are a good selection of difficulty options such that you can tailor it to your liking. But primarily it’s the engaging mechanics that pulled me in, and the fun type of thought process needed to survive a run. I fell off it sooner than I expected, and I do think the game needs a little more depth to last long-term. But I highly enjoyed the time I spent with Cobalt Core.

13: Humanity. This is a really cool puzzle game, and goes more places than I expected it to. Its Lemmings-esque core gameplay is satisfying, and I enjoy the thought process of guiding the endless horde where it needs to go. The visuals are also striking, and the soundtrack is a vibe. Then, as Humanity goes on, it layers in surprising variations to keep you on your toes. Some worked better than others for me, but overall it hits a lot more than it misses. If I have one major complaint, it’s that I regularly saw the solution to a puzzle, but then implementing it could be a pain and easy to fumble in a way that required resetting the entire level; what I wouldn’t give for a simple rewind button. That notable frustration aside, however, Humanity is a sweet puzzle game worth checking out.

Oh, AC6 looks great, too.
Oh, AC6 looks great, too.

14: Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon. I’m still in the middle of this one, so it could move up or down once I finish it. So far it contains both some notable highs and lows for me. Once I’m in combat, especially with a boss or other pilots, it’s a thrill. From Software is clearly comfortable making tight, satisfying action games nowadays, and Armored Core VI is at its best when you’re getting down and dirty, boosting around using all sorts of ridiculous weapons in a fight to the death. But when I go back to the menus and spend substantial time comparing minor numerical differences between mech parts? It starts to lose me a little. I also don’t like running into a boss that my build doesn’t have a great answer to, because it leads to the cumbersome process of: backing out of the mission, buying parts, re-assembling a mech, and replaying the entire mission again. The combat itself is good enough that it outweighs those other gripes, and overall I do like Armored Core VI despite said gripes. I’ll mainly have to see how it pans out as I continue to play.

15: Pseudoregalia. What a neat little game. It’s pretty small in scope, and it can sometimes feel a bit janky. But I will absolutely sign up for a short, focused game with some rad new platforming ideas. Pseudoregalia is all about platforming in a 3D space, showcasing some novel traversal abilities, and an interconnected world that’s equally fun to poke around in. I also dig the Nintendo 64-era vibes, in both its look and audio. It’s a good mix of old-school sensibilities with new ideas, and if you like the sound of a short and sweet 3D platformer, Pseudoreglia is very much worth a look.

16: Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. I found this to be a generally solid action/adventure game, with both some highs and lows. On the plus side, it controls well, as actions like wall-running, deflecting blaster shots, and force pushing still feel great. It also contains a pretty good ramp of new powers and abilities, looks and sounds excellent, and I still generally like the combat in these games. On the minus side, I didn’t enjoy the story as much as Fallen Order’s, and the expanded scope (and endless collectibles) of Survivor made the game drag on much too long; a few traversal heavy mid-game chapters in particular felt interminable. And of course, it was a technical mess at launch, though I luckily only ran into minor issues there. With better pacing, I could have loved Jedi: Survivor, and even with its issues I still had a perfectly enjoyable time with it.

I wish they had done a better job with the art style, but I still played a poop-ton of this game.
I wish they had done a better job with the art style, but I still played a poop-ton of this game.

17: Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp. OK, bear with me here: this is the game that caused me the most inner turmoil in this ranking. On the one hand, I had more fun playing it than just about anything else in 2023 (and played it more than most, too). It turns out Advance Wars is still a blast – there’s not much else quite like it, and its formula is timeless – and being able to play it on a modern device is worth something. Also, its revamped soundtrack is a goddamn delight. On the other hand, I think this is a poor remake. Other than the killer new soundtrack, the rest of the package is at best re-releasing the same 20-year-old games at a premium price, and at worst it’s not even as good as the originals. I do not like the new art style, the online multiplayer is lackluster, and the game is a technical mess; it runs noticeably worse than the GBA originals, and has its share of bugs too. If I judge Re-Boot Camp based on the raw fun I had playing it, it ranks highly simply because Advance Wars is still better than most video games. But if I judge the quality of this particular version of it as a remake? It’s not good. So I suppose it ends up somewhere in the middle for me, personally.

18: Fire Emblem Engage. Man, this game. The story and characters are insufferably dull, and there’s too much of it for how little it has to say. I have never been this disinterested in the narrative aspects of a Fire Emblem game before (and that’s saying something given Fates, you know, exists), which is a pretty damning thing to say about Engage. I also have mixed feelings about the Emblem Rings: for what they offer in occasionally interesting customization options, they’re also so powerful they make a lot of the game feel trivial, even on hard. However, Emblem Rings aside, the core tactical combat in Engage is as good as it's ever been. I especially like the new “break” mechanic, which adds some real meaning to the classic weapon triangle. Oh, and the soundtrack is great, too. Those points save Engage from being a huge disappointment, and instead relegate it to a game I mostly enjoyed in its moment to moment gameplay, despite its notable issues.

19: Jusant. The most recent game I finished as of this writing, I enjoyed Jusant a fair amount. It’s pretty short with not a lot going on in it, but the core climbing mechanics work well. I appreciate its tactile feel, as it successfully gets you to think about how you place your hands through a few different types of environmental situations, which I find satisfying. I like the look and style of the game as well. If only it had a little more meat to it in a meaningful way, Jusant would have resonated with me even more.

I don't know if you were aware, but this game has both tents AND trees.
I don't know if you were aware, but this game has both tents AND trees.

20: Tents & Trees. This is a pretty simple puzzle game roughly in the Picross family of puzzle games, and quite a good one. It’s not going to blow anyone away who’s played similar games before, but Tents & Trees puts enough of its own spin on things to be worthwhile, and the puzzles themselves are very good. It also has a clean look, soothing music, lots of puzzles and challenges to complete, and even daily puzzles to keep you coming back if you’ve done everything else. I haven’t exactly played a ton of it myself, but it’s a pleasant experience every time I pick it up.

21: Viewfinder. When you see Viewfinder’s core mechanic for the first time, it feels like wizardry. Being able to place a picture anywhere and step into it is highly novel and impressive, and that idea gets put to pretty good use throughout the course of the game. Eventually though, it did wear a little thin, and some of the later twists on that mechanic became more tedious than clever to me; the story also did not grab me at all. Viewfinder is a game defined almost entirely by its one central mechanic, and the variations they make to it, and it did that just well enough for me to like it.

22: Super Mario Bros. Wonder. I’m in a weird place with Mario these days. I originally thought about skipping this one, as a lot of recent Mario games simply haven’t done it for me like they seem to for other people, especially in the 2D space. But I eventually caved, and I think Mario Wonder is… fine? It’s a polished game with a great look and decent music, and the level design is generally OK (though playing this game also gave me a renewed appreciation for DKC Tropical Freeze, a relatively recent Nintendo 2D platformer with top-notch level design). The titular wonder seeds don’t do much for me, as they are mostly silly gimmicks with no meaningful gameplay implications, and the game as a whole is by far the easiest Mario game I’ve played to date. Mario Wonder is a breezy, inoffensive experience that was pleasant enough to play through (and I did complete the special world), but mainly left me wanting for more interesting platforming challenges.

23: Wargroove 2. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this sequel just hasn’t grabbed me like the first game did. Maybe it’s because Wargroove 2 is very, very similar to its predecessor, and can feel like a bit of a slog as a result. Maybe it’s because in what I’ve played of the campaign so far, there have been precious few missions where I could build units, which is my favorite part of these types of games. Maybe the boring story and annoying writing are bad enough to push me away. Or maybe it’s because I played a lot of Advance Wars earlier in the year, and realized that I prefer it over Wargroove enough that it’s hard to play Wargroove when Advance Wars is right there. Whatever the reason, despite thinking Wargroove 2 is a totally competent game, I simply haven’t gotten that deep into it, and I’m not sure how much more I’ll play.

It can be hard to keep track of everything in this game.
It can be hard to keep track of everything in this game.

24: Against the Storm. I jumped on board this end-of-year release largely on the back of strong reviews, and immediately found myself more overwhelmed than I expected. There is a lot going on in a single run of this “roguelike city builder,” to the point where even after a handful of runs I’m still trying to suss out some fairly basic systems. Against the Storm has a lot of moving parts, and its few tutorials couldn’t cover close to all the important stuff; not to mention the UI doesn’t do a great job of organizing the glut of information you need to track during a game. Some of that could be good or bad depending on your perspective, but for me, when I have so many games to play – and especially in a roguelike with a lot of RNG – I’m not sure how much I’m into this level of density. I think Against the Storm does have some genuinely neat ideas, and I have enjoyed poking around in it to a degree. But I don’t think it’s a roguelike for me long–term.

25: Pizza Tower. I’m still in the early stages of this one, and admittedly need to spend more time with it before rendering a meaningful opinion; it could easily move up or down once I play more. What I’ll say right now is that I really dig the style and vibe of Pizza Tower, but have found the controls a bit frustrating, and some of the mechanics a little confusing. What halts my momentum and which enemies are susceptible to which attacks aren’t always clear to me, and these are important considerations as I’m making split-second decisions while dashing through areas, sometimes on a timer. These things could certainly feel better as I play more, but at the moment Pizza Tower hasn’t quite clicked with me in the way I had hoped.

26: Doomblade. This is a very straightforward, and mostly solid Metroidvania that primarily relies on its unique movement mechanic. It plays almost like a twin-stick shooter, where you aim and target enemies or objects to zip right to them and attack. This also doubles as a teleport, and you can imagine how, in Metroidvania fashion, that gets a lot of use (and upgrades) for both traversal and combat purposes. In that way it kind of reminds me of Dandara, another Metroidvania that relies heavily on its unique movement for novelty, though in Doomblade’s case I found everything else to be a little too bland. Its movement alone wasn’t enough to keep me going past a couple hours, and even then it could sometimes feel too frenetic for my tastes. Doomblade lives and dies by its movement, and you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s enough to hold your interest.

What is an indie game?
What is an indie game?

27: Dave the Diver. I found 2023’s breakout not-indie hit interesting for a few hours… and only that. Its simple loop – dive into the ocean to catch fish, then play a minigame to serve said fish in the restaurant – was fun for a few hours, but wore thin very quickly for me soon after. I’ve heard that Dave the Diver adds in new mechanics and new types of gameplay as it goes, but in the almost five hours I played before dropping it, I had yet to see any of that. And honestly, if the other activities introduced were as shallow as that core loop, it wouldn’t make that much of a difference anyway; games that try for too many different ideas run a big risk of spreading too thin. I can see the appeal here as a mostly mindless game to chill out with, but for my tastes, I needed more depth in Dave the Diver to remain hooked. Uh, pun(s) not intended.

28: Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty. This is another game that I think is totally solid, yet did not hold my interest for long. In Wo Long’s case, it was primarily a casualty of the sheer avalanche of games I was more interested in playing this year than anything else. It came out on Game Pass during a brief window where I had a little time to check it out, and it seems like a game I would enjoy just fine with a larger swath of time to devote to it. But in 2023, that time had a lot of competition, and for as solid as Wo Long seems, it also didn’t strike me as special enough to rise above any number of other games. As such, once those other games started releasing, I wasn’t going to actively make more time for this one.

29: F-Zero 99. Credit Nintendo for continuing to offer neat little freebies through their online service, and F-Zero 99 might be my favorite of the bunch so far. It’s still a very slight experience, and as an online-only competitive game, not one I was ever going to spend a lot of time with. But I respect it as a well-made thing, and enjoyed the little time I did spend with it perfectly fine. Having 99 racers on the track at once is also just a goddamn mess in the best way.

30: A Space for the Unbound. I feel a little bad for this one, because I think it’s a totally solid game with a lot of heart. I’ve really fallen off narrative-heavy, gameplay-lite games like this over the years, and it’s a rare amalgamation of factors that lead me to loving one anymore. I still take a chance on them every now and then, as I did here, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was pretty bored after a few hours, and I’m being honest when I say that’s no great fault of A Space for the Unbound, but mostly a result of where my personal tastes lie these days. Yet on a rankings list like this, I also have to be honest about my enjoyment of it, which is less than most games I played from the year.

I wish I enjoyed playing this as much as I like looking at it.
I wish I enjoyed playing this as much as I like looking at it.

31: Hi-Fi Rush. I know this seems like a low position for this fan favorite, and I do think Hi-Fi Rush has some positives going for it: I love its style and positive energy, and I can always appreciate a game that looks to incorporate rhythm elements into a more fleshed out genre. My problem with Hi-Fi Rush is quite simply that the basic feel of the combat did not click with me at all. I’m willing to admit that could be a me thing, but the timing felt immediately off, with attacks occurring on a minor delay that was hard to wrap my head around. I tried to adapt for a couple hours, but it never felt satisfying, so I dropped it. I also don’t think the platforming was very strong, and overall I was pretty bummed that Hi-Fi Rush didn’t work for me. It’s the type of game I wish I was a fan of, but the honest assessment is that I bounced off it more quickly than most.

32: Planet of Lana. Despite sitting at the bottom of this list, I don’t think Planet of Lana is a bad game, but it did hold my interest less than anything else I played in 2023. I spent maybe an hour with it, tops, and found myself bored even in that short time. Most of that is likely due to the fact that I’ve played games like this before, and this style has fallen out of favor with me over time. I very quickly realized what this game is, and just as quickly put it down. Still, I hold no ill will towards Planet of Lana, and it seems perfectly well-made for what it is. A nice thing about Game Pass is not only that it’s easy to try out games, but it’s just as easy to move on when they don’t click with you.

Bonus: Some non-2023 games I played and enjoyed in 2023:

What a rad little roguelike.
What a rad little roguelike.

Slice & Dice. What a cool game. I only first heard about this one in late 2022, and only got around to playing it at the start of 2023. But if I had played it when it came out in 2021, it would have easily made my top 10 that year. Slice & Dice is a seemingly simple roguelike with interesting dice mechanics, and a great balance that makes every encounter feel dangerous yet winnable; there’s an exciting tension to managing both short and long term risk-reward decisions which lends it a feeling that you’re always just on the edge of defeat. The classes are also distinct with interesting abilities, and unlockable rules sets promote surprising depth and a lot of replayability. Slice & Dice is one of the better roguelikes I’ve played in the past few years. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Marvel Snap. One of my most played games of 2023, I still continue to play way, way too much Marvel Snap. I finally hit infinite rank for a few seasons over the summer, started paying attention to the meta, and followed balance patches closely as I iterated through many decks over the year. And for the most part, I still enjoy it; it’s still a nice way to waste 10-15 minutes on your phone daily, and the constant updates keep things fresh more than a year later. That said, over the past couple months my interest has waned a bit, which is natural to happen for any long-running game. Will 2024 be the year I drop Marvel Snap? Stay tuned.

GoldenEye 007. When this finally got its long-awaited re-release on modern consoles, I decided to revisit this personal favorite, which I haven’t touched in literal decades. I played through the entirety of the campaign in the Xbox version, and even spent a little extra time unlocking some cheat codes. GoldenEye certainly feels a little clunky by today’s standards, though the new controls and updated visuals mitigate that to a degree. Yet I was also struck by how much fun I still had playing it in 2023. Some of that is certainly nostalgia, but it also has some ideas that remain cool and novel today; the varying objectives across difficulty levels remains a fantastic idea. Anyway, it’s great to see this classic finally playable on modern hardware, and I very much enjoyed my time with it.

Picross 3D: Round 2. I took my 3DS with me during an overseas trip in the summer, and played Picross 3D: Round 2 whenever I had some downtime during my travels. It’s still one of the best puzzle games ever made. That is all.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2023

Video game music, huh? It’s pretty good! Great, even. Here we are nearing the end of 2023, which means it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: recognizing my favorite video game music of the year. I’d say it was a pretty solid year for music in games too, with a couple of these soundtracks joining my all-time favorites. It was a deep and varied year as well, so much so that I couldn’t play all the games I wanted to, and I’m certain I missed some excellent soundtracks along the way (shoutout to Octopath Traveler II and Final Fantasy XVI, a pair of games I have yet to play but I know have great music). Music continues to be one of my favorite things about this entire medium, and this annual exercise of mine always gives me renewed appreciation for just how dang good video game music has gotten. This is my way of honoring that. Thank you for reading and listening; I hope you enjoy it, and that you have a wonderful day.

The usual disclaimers: I only considered soundtracks from games I’ve played, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to feature, and these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Finally, I apologize in advance for overlooking your favorite game soundtrack.

Fire Emblem Engage

Composer(s): Yasuhisa Baba, Kazuki Komai, Hiroki Morishita, Takeru Kanazaki, Fumihiro Isobe, and Takafumi Wada

Featured Track: Bright Sandstorm

Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ soundtrack is one of my all-time favorites, and while Engage’s score doesn’t hit those same heights as consistently for me, when it does hit, it’s nearly as good. Like its predecessor, it sprinkles its main theme throughout many other songs to great effect, particularly in its excellent battle themes; the music during the late-game climactic encounters really got me going. It’s a simple application of leitmotif, which Fire Emblem has leveraged for multiple games now, yet it remains just as powerful as ever in Engage.

Pizza Tower

Composer(s): Ronan de Castel, ClascyJitto, and Post Elvis

Featured Track: It’s Pizza Time!

I’m still in the early stages of Pizza Tower, but what I’ve heard of the music so far is a trip. It’s frenetic in a way that I don’t normally care for, but it works so well here because, well, that’s what Pizza Tower is. It’s a game with a clear, funky vibe, and video game music is often at its best to me when it enhances a game’s vibe. This soundtrack absolutely does that, and it also contains one of my favorite songs from any game this year in “It’s Pizza Time!” I get excited every time it plays.

Theatrhythm Final Bar Line

Composer(s): So many!!

Featured Track: Opening Movie

Is this cheating? Should I include a rhythm game that is almost entirely a collection of songs from other games? Especially when those songs are already considered by many (myself included) to be among gaming’s best? Probably. But I’m going to do it anyway. To state the obvious: Final Fantasy has a long legacy of great music, and Theatrhythm Final Bar Line collects all of that music into an excellent rhythm game. It doesn’t change or update those songs, and it doesn’t do anything particularly fancy with them. But it’s still worth celebrating the sheer number of amazing songs (385 of them in the base game alone!), spanning decades of wonderful games, packed into this gem.

Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp

Composer(s): Maddie Lim, Michaela Nachtigall, and Tommy Pedrini

Featured Track: Sensei’s Power

The original Advance Wars soundtracks were already personal favorites, but Re-Boot Camp gives them such a substantial glow-up that it stands tall all on its own. The improved instrumentation and sound quality across the board bring new life to old classics; Sami’s and Grit’s themes sound much fuller without losing any of their original charm. What’s more, plenty of themes are overhauled to fit a different interpretation or style entirely, and everyone gains an additional arrangement for their power theme, too. Drake’s theme gets so many new layers, Andy’s power theme goes to a rave, and that sax in Sensei’s power theme utterly slaps. I’m genuinely blown away by how much they go for it in many of these arrangements, which further elevates the peppy, exciting vibe that makes playing Advance Wars so damn fun.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Composer(s): Manaka Kataoka, Maasa Miyoshi, Masato Ohashi, and Tsukasa Usui

Featured Track: Main Theme

I was initially hesitant to include Tears of the Kingdom on this list, as many of its songs are the same as they were in Breath of the Wild, and I tend to favor more new material. But I think Tears’ soundtrack has enough new, quality music to make the cut. The incredible new main theme is a clear standout, and there are a couple new killer boss themes, too. I also appreciate the peaceful melancholy of the sky islands, along with the creepy undertones of the depths. It’s perhaps no surprise that much of the new music accompanies the game’s biggest new zones, which does a lot of work towards lending this sequel its own identity.

Humanity

Composer(s): Jemapur

Featured Track: Thrive

Humanity’s airy soundtrack lacks the kind of identifiable melodies I normally gravitate towards in video game music, yet it sets such a chill, mesmerizing tone that it won me over anyway. It suits not only the contemplative nature of the puzzles, but also the contemplative nature of the narrative, and I really appreciated that headspace it reliably got me into. It’s a wonderful example of music’s ability to bring together all aspects of a game in an enhancing, cohesive way.

Pseudoregalia

Composer(s): potatoTeto

Featured Track: Outside the Castle Walls (Empty Bailey)

Pseudoregalia is a pretty short game with an even shorter soundtrack, yet these songs still wormed their way into my ear. The exploration themes have a strong vibe that lend each zone their own identity, and the boss themes go way too hard (in a good way) for how few actual boss fights are in the game. It’s a short and sweet (and catchy) soundtrack that is also, like the game itself, very evocative of the N64/PS1 era in a way I can appreciate. My only wish is that there was more of it.

Baldur’s Gate 3

Composer(s): Borislav Slavov

Featured Track: Main Theme Part 1

What an appropriately epic soundtrack to match an absolutely epic game; and I mean that in every sense of the word. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a lengthy adventure full of danger, wonder, beauty, romance, loss, and so much more. It would take a special effort to do such an adventure justice, but Borislav Slavov did just that with this all-encompassing score. It swells magnificently with all the emotional highs and lows of the tale itself, and leverages leitmotif expertly to tie it all together with surprising thematic cohesion. The result is an iconic sound that defines Baldur’s Gate 3 as much as anything, topped off by a handful of truly memorable music moments that left me in awe. Like, seriously, Raphael sings his own goddamn boss music. What a guy.

Sea of Stars

Composer(s): Eric W. Brown and Yasunori Mitsuda

Featured Track: The Lost Village of Docarri

Picking a featured track was especially difficult for Sea of Stars, because my favorite thing about its soundtrack is how lengthy and diverse it is; no single song can capture the sheer breadth of excellent music on display. Upbeat traversal themes (including some wonderful nods to The Messenger) bring each zone to life as you explore. Homey vibes permeate the world’s villages. Vigorous battle themes intensify the game’s many encounters. And the cinematic moments are always accompanied by the appropriate tone, ranging from somber to bombastic. It’s a soundtrack that runs the gamut, and each song is a joy to listen to in its own way.

Cobalt Core

Composer(s): Aaron Cherof

Featured Track: Self-Defense

Cobalt Core’s music is relentlessly upbeat in a low-key way that I can’t help but appreciate. It has a few catchy melodies that work for me when they pop up, but most of the time, it’s content to settle into background vibe territory. That certainly works here for the chill game this is, as do the spacefaring undertones. It’s a soundtrack that lacks the bombast of most others on this list, yet is always one I’m happy to bob my head to as I think my way through another delightful space battle.

Bonus: Star Ocean The Second Story R and Super Mario RPG

I’m partially breaking my own rule here, but allow me to give bonus shout-outs to soundtracks from two games I have not played… kind of. I have not played either of these remakes (yet), but I did play the original Star Ocean: The Second Story and Super Mario RPG extensively; I adore both of these games and their soundtracks. I’ve listened to their respective remake soundtracks as well, and I think both are good to great updates to these classics that would easily stand among the others on this list. One of my favorite things about the current remake trend is getting fresh new takes on classic video game music, and both of these do that admirably. So allow me to give them their due here.

Star Ocean: The Second Story R

Composer(s): Motoi Sakuraba

Featured Track: Stab the Sword of Justice

Super Mario RPG

Composer(s): Yoko Shimomura

Featured Track: Fight Against a Somewhat Stronger Monster

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Back to the Beginning: Thoughts on Tears of the Kingdom's Narrative

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains major story spoilers for The Legends of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. It also contains brief spoilers for multiple other Zelda games, including Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild.

What does it take to topple a great evil? Especially an evil that has established a seemingly overwhelming power over those around it? What kind of struggle might any potential hero endure, what sacrifices might they need to suffer for good to prevail? And what lasting impact might such a grand conflict have on the world in which it occurs? These are important questions that many stories about good vs. evil ask. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, by contrast, asks no such questions. This is a story about good triumphing over evil in full, with Hyrule and its heroes ending right back where they started: order is swiftly and cleanly re-established. As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wish this story I had just spent over 100 hours had something more interesting to say.

Zelda games have regularly contained interesting themes.
Zelda games have regularly contained interesting themes.

To be fair, The Legend of Zelda games are not exactly known for having the most intricate stories ever told, among video games or otherwise. We usually know the basic framework ahead of time, because it is largely the same: an evil power (Ganon) rises up, and a courageous hero (Link) will rise to defeat this evil, guided by the wisdom of the princess (Zelda). In Zelda lore, it’s a cycle that is destined to repeat across time forever, with the spirit of those three major players being reincarnated into new heroes and villains every so many hundred or thousand years. It’s just how it is. So on the one hand, maybe I shouldn’t expect more from Tears of the Kingdom; this is just the Zelda template playing out once more, after all. But only expecting the same good vs. evil fantasy tale with nothing else interesting to say would be selling short what this series itself has frequently done before. Many past Zelda games have fleshed out this otherwise basic framework with nuanced details and interesting themes. Majora’s Mask is full of compelling characters making peace with their lives in the run-up to a world ending event. A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds contrast light and dark versions of a world and its characters, and ask if and how they might co-exist. Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild portray people living under Ganon’s rule for an extended period, and what they do to survive and cope.

More than anything, most previous Zelda games come with a sense of struggle and loss; great evil cannot be defeated without loss, and our heroes and their kingdom are left shaped by that struggle. In Ocarina of Time, as Link returns to the timeline of his youth, there’s a bittersweet realization that his childhood can never be truly recovered. In The Wind Waker, after a somber monologue from Ganon before his death, Tetra/Zelda and Link accept that they must leave Hyrule and the past behind, and search for a new land and a new Hyrule. In Twilight Princess, Midna elects to sever the connection between the two realms, sealing herself away from her new friends to maintain peace. In Skyward Sword, despite his defeat, Demise afflicts Zelda and Link with the very curse that creates this entire cycle. In Breath of the Wild, Zelda and Link initially fail completely, and only after 100 years of irreversible suffering throughout Hyrule do they complete their redemptive arc. In each of these stories, we see and feel the effect that this iteration of the conflict has had on the current set of heroes and their kingdom. Even when good eventually triumphs, evil leaves a mark that can never be fully erased or forgotten.

Potential for an interesting ending was right there.
Potential for an interesting ending was right there.

By contrast, the ending in Tears of the Kingdom shows neither growth nor sacrifice from its heroes, and no lasting mark in the wake of its central conflict. The game’s final words consist of Zelda and her new sages vowing to protect Hyrule, which is nothing more than a rote reiteration of the status quo. Furthermore, and to me the most damning aspect of Tears of the Kingdom’s narrative, is that all the sacrifices made and losses suffered during the game’s climactic moments (which were extremely well-produced scenes on their own) are erased with the mere wave of a hand. In the game’s most pivotal moment, Zelda decides to become a dragon as a means to restore and transport the Master Sword back to the future. This should be a profound sacrifice, as she loses her mind and her body in the process. There is an alternate version of Tears of the Kingdom where Zelda never reverts from this state, where she remains a dragon for the rest of her life, patrolling the skies as a reminder of the great conflict that took place here. I mourn for this version of the story that did not come to pass; it would have been the braver and more honest version of good triumphing over evil. Instead, Zelda is “cured” of being a dragon with nary a (satisfying) explanation. In the same stroke, Link’s arm that was gravely injured at the beginning of the game is also restored. Even an injured arm is a bigger cost than Tears of the Kingdom is willing to pay. It’s a comprehensively triumphant victory for our heroes, a story with no bite.

In these final moments, Tears of the Kingdom’s central message is clear: this is a tale about maintaining the status quo, about ending right back where we began. This (cartoonishly one-dimensional) iteration of Ganon is defeated just as quickly as he arrived, the “regional phenomenon” that were initially presented as great threats turn out to be mild nuisances for our hero, and everyone is able to return to their lives after Link does his thing. The only real lasting change comes from the geological shifts around Hyrule, its new floating islands and underworld depths: these are treated as archaeological curiosities from Hyrule’s academics and explorers, rather than a symbol of the conflict that took place. I can imagine history’s retelling of this period of Hyrule: “A bunch of rocks floated into the sky, we studied some ancient artifacts and cleaned up the associated mess, then moved on.” To the average citizen, Ganon’s presence in this event is barely noticeable other than an increased monster presence, and there is no lasting consequence from his brief resurrection. Tears of the Kingdom plays out like a “mystery of the week” side diversion, where even its one legitimately cool twist – Zelda turns into a friggin’ dragon! – is undone by the end. And arguably, the only central characters who show much development are newly introduced ones who have been dead thousands of years already, and are mostly seen through flashbacks: we see Rauru, Sonia, and Mineru grow and make great sacrifices, while Zelda and Link end up frustratingly stagnant.

Really, I just want more of bucket-head guy.
Really, I just want more of bucket-head guy.

Before Tears of the Kingdom came out, I was excited to see what it would do with a return to the same world we explored in Breath of the Wild. It’s the first time in the series’ history that we see a direct sequel revisit the exact same landmass, with the exact same people. There was an opportunity to create real continuity, and to explore questions Zelda games have never had the chance to explore. How do the inhabitants of Hyrule rebuild after the catastrophic events of Breath of the Wild? How will new societies and cultures be formed? What potential new challenges could arise? How will our heroes, Zelda and Link, adapt to their new roles in a post-Ganon world? (Well, until he comes back, of course.) We get small glimpses of these aspects around the periphery, and these are my favorite story moments of Tears of the Kingdom. One such example is the formation of Lookout Landing and the monster hunting militia that takes upon itself to fight off monsters. Stories like these – of people banding together to build new communities and care for each – other are wonderful bits of worldbuilding, and show how far the citizens of Hyrule have come since the dark days of the calamity. Yet they are few and far between. When it comes to the central A Plot, Breath of the Wild is largely forgotten in favor of making Tears of the Kingdom a standalone game with short-term memory. In the opening moments, a new Ganon emerges, your excess hearts and stamina are drained, you complete another tutorial zone to gain four more powers, and are instructed to visit the same four regions from Breath of the Wild. It’s a complete reset, uninterested in building on existing material from its direct predecessor in favor of repeating the same beats, and by the end we still end up right back where we started. That may be par for the course for the series, but as a direct sequel, Tears of the Kingdom had an opening to do something more.

There are many other points I could hit, but in the interest of keeping this essay a reasonable length and somewhat focused, I want to finish with one last instructive example. Like many, one of my favorite side quests in Breath of the Wild was the quest to build Tarrey Town. It was a poignant instance of diverse people working together to build a future for themselves, within a long-ruined world that promised no future for anyone. They showed great determination in taking control of their fate to develop something new and inspiring. Tears of the Kingdom attempts to replicate that same fan favorite questline via the Lurelin Village Restoration Project side quest, but rather than be a story about a community growing and building something new, it’s a story about reclaiming something they used to have. Just as Zelda, Link, and Hyrule at large seek to return to the status quo, so does Lurelin Village. Similar parallels could be made for the four regional phenomena as well, where the denizens of each region seek to restore the previous order. With rare exception, all roads in Tears of the Kingdom lead back to the beginning. And while that can be seen as a noble and worthy plight in the case of the individual actors, the overall narrative remains uninspired.

Tears of the Kingdom is a wonderful game that I had a lot of fun playing for over 100 hours. It’s a masterfully constructed sandbox that gives you all sorts of fun tools to play with; a Zelda game for the Minecraft generation. And for the most part, that’s all it needs to be, and should be celebrated for its smart mechanics and design. It will likely end up as one of my favorite games of the year. Yet I can’t help but be disappointed that it didn’t attempt to do more with its narrative, rather than less, compared to past Zelda games. Link defeats a new Ganon, and saves both the princess and the kingdom yet again, paying no price in the process. Hyrule and our heroes end up right back where they started; in the wake of what should have been a massive conflict, it’s as if it never happened in the first place.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this essay, I stumbled across other essays on this topic as I was in the middle of my own writing. Give these articles a read if you're so inclined; their authors are better writers than me anyway!

'Her Only Weapons Were Her Tears' by Harper Jay

'Tears of the Kingdom's ending is its own kind of tragedy' by Jay Castello

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2022: Ranking the Rest

The idea of doing a top 10 list of games every year makes a lot of sense: it’s a clear, simple way to share our favorite video games from each year. But for many of us, the story of our gaming years is more than 10 games. So, as I have done for a number of years now, my way of telling that story is to “rank the rest” of the games I played from 2022. This gives me a chance to briefly touch on every game I played, state why it did or didn’t work for me, from my favorites through my least favorites. It’s a cathartic exercise that I enjoy doing every year, and I hope it’s a fun read as well. Two final notes before I get started: first, I managed to play almost every game I wanted to from 2022 (and then some thanks to Game Pass), with only a few RPGs escaping my grasp (most notably Chained Echoes, which just came out in December). And second, while this is a “ranking,” don’t put a ton of stock in the exact order; it’s a fairly loose ranking. With that, here’s the list. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a great day!

1-10. See my GOTY 2022 list.

This was so close to being a favorite.
This was so close to being a favorite.

11. Citizen Sleeper. I really wish I liked this one more than I did, as it had some great things going for it: the dice mechanics were clever, the writing was excellent, the music was wonderful, and many of the story beats were genuinely touching. I really enjoyed Citizen Sleeper for about half of my playthrough, but in the back half of the game, as I became powerfully flush with cash and items, I found myself mindlessly clicking through days simply to get clocks to advance. It completely broke the entire experience for me, both mechanically and narratively, and those rote final hours pulled a game which initially felt like a lock for my top 10 just off the list. I wanted to like Citizen Sleeper so much more than I did.

12. Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course. It’s more Cuphead! And it’s good! It doesn’t really do much new, and I’m pretty indifferent on Ms. Chalice as a playable character: she has pros and cons and is an interesting option who I did play as for nearly all of the DLC, but I don’t know that I enjoyed her any more or less than if I had continued to play as Cuphead himself. Still, the new bosses and weapons are solid additions to a game that is still great at its core. It turns out that new, good content for Cuphead is all I really needed to enjoy it again.

13. Melatonin. More than anything, Melatonin makes me pine for a new Rhythm Heaven game that much more. Don’t get me wrong; this is a perfectly good Rhythm Heaven-like (it’s impossible to not make the comparison), with some really fun and charming minigames to play through, and the entire package is very well-made. I enjoyed all the time I spent with it, yet it falls just short of Rhythm Heaven’s greatness. It’s not that long, and it’s not as weird as Rhythm Heaven, which I miss. Still, in our current Rhythm Heaven drought, Melatonin is a welcome game to help tide me over.

#saddad
#saddad

14. God of War Ragnarok. My full thoughts on this exist in my head as an essay spanning thousands of words, as it’s a lengthy game with a lot I like, and a lot I find annoying. My highest level takeaway is that it feels too safe, too much of a generic blockbuster – with all the ups and downs that brings – to really endear itself to me, and that’s true on both mechanical and narrative fronts. It’s so clear the sheer effort and talent that went into making such a massive, lavishly produced game, and yet as I was playing it, I often felt like I was simply going through the motions. So without diving any further into that theoretical lengthy essay here, I’ll leave it at this: God of War Ragnarok is a good video game that I came away from feeling very middling about.

15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. Turtles in Time is a personal favorite, and Shredder’s Revenge does a good job at tapping into that classic while also feeling appropriately modern. It perhaps relies a little too much on nostalgia in spots, and the way you can spam special moves kind of breaks any difficulty balance it strives for. But overall I had a good time with this beat-em-up in the way that I can have a good time with any well-made beat-em-up.

16. Tinykin. Sometimes a lizard-brain collectathon is all you really want, and Tinykin is very good at satisfying that want. It’s a highly polished game that controls extremely well – which is worth praise! – that also doesn’t do much novel or exceptional beyond that. But I certainly had a pleasant enough time scouring each level for all the things, and being a tight, timely package helped me see it through to the end.

HEAR MEEEEEE, CALLING TO YOU
HEAR MEEEEEE, CALLING TO YOU

17. Metal: Hellsinger. I think I admire this more than I actually enjoy playing it, though I did enjoy it to a point. It has tight controls, exciting rhythm mechanics, and most importantly, a kick-ass soundtrack. More than anything, it's the way the music combines with the rhythm gameplay that makes Metal: Hellsinger stand out; it's the best use of music in a game I've seen in a while. There's nothing else quite like it, and if the final levels hadn't gotten quite as tedious as they did, this game could have cracked my top 10. As it stands, it's a game that needs something to help the pacing and variety down the stretch. I also probably need to get better at it.

18. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion. I’m still in the middle of this, so it could move up or down depending on how it pans out. So far, this has been a pretty rote action game; the combat is fine without being great, the level design is primarily dull corridor crawls, parts of it feel dated, the writing is rough, and not much has happened in the story yet. My hope – and the reason I’m playing this game – is that the story will pay off in the end, and fill in some of my gaps in Final Fantasy VII lore. I never had a PSP, and thus never played Crisis Core, so I was excited when this remaster was announced. And as someone who’s deep in the Final Fantasy VII rabbit hole, I need to see this through, for better or worse.

19. Rogue Legacy 2. I fell off the grind pretty quickly in the first Rogue Legacy, but stuck with it longer this time around. I don't know if that's more because the game changed, or because I did. Likely both. I've certainly gained appreciation for run-based games over the past nine years, and I also think Rogue Legacy 2 has smoothed out some of its variety and progression. It’s a game I usually have fun with while I’m playing it, and I will likely pick it up again here and there over time. Even if I never beat it, I’m happy to have Rogue Legacy 2 as a quick, fun game I can jump into any time.

yep
yep

20. Save Room - Organization Puzzle. Look, this is a silly game. Save Room is just the Resident Evil 4 inventory management system spun off into its own puzzle game that’s only an hour long. But, uh, I had fun playing it? It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and maybe my brain is just broken. But it nails what it’s going for, and I had a smile on my face the entire time I spent playing this goofy thing. I enjoyed Save Room more than a good number of games I played this year, and I don’t know if that says more about me, or about 2022 in games.

21. Infernax. I like a good throwback action game from time to time, and Infernax filled that role for a while for me (especially in the music department). I also liked the idea of having side quests and plot choices in a game like this; it was interesting to see those concepts applied to this style of action game. Unfortunately, I don't think the controls are as tight as I would like, and the end game became a bit too much of a grind for it to move up any higher than this. But Infernax is a neat game for a few hours.

22. Signalis. For the first hour or two of my time with Signalis, I was super into it. It had those good survival horror vibes that I’m a fairweather fan of: meaningful item scrounging, the tension of sneaking by enemies, the scrappiness of shootouts when they do occur, and an unnerving atmosphere. But the more I played it, the more its various tediums weighed me down, and the experience didn’t grow or change enough mechanically to offset those frustrations. The scale ultimately tipped just back over to the negative side of my survival horror preferences, and my primary feeling once I finished it was just one of being happy it was over.

FMV
FMV

23. Immortality. My stance on Immortality swung drastically during my time with it. For my first few hours playing, I was super into it: the FMV sequences were amazingly well done, and watching them to piece the story together was mesmerizing. However, once I was introduced to the game’s big “twist” or “reveal,” I lost virtually all steam. I enjoyed playing a grounded detective much more than trying to understand its larger metanarrative, which made the rest of the game feel like it was in service of a story I no longer cared about; not to mention the scrubbing felt very bad with a mouse. Which is such a shame, because the production level of the FMV scenes was kind of incredible.

24. Stray. The idea of playing as a cat can only carry a game so far for me, and once that novelty wears off, “the cat game” is a very short and simple action/adventure game. It does look great, and that cat animates real good, but it’s otherwise generic in a PS2 era B-game kind of way that doesn’t do much for me anymore. Especially with the guided nature of the platforming; maybe if I could jump freely, and it felt good, that would have helped. As it stands, there just isn’t much here for me to grab onto.

25. Dorfromantik. This is a chill and pleasant game that simply doesn't have enough going on to win me over. That's probably more a commentary on me than the game itself, as everything about Dorfromantik is well-made, and I appreciate how soothing the entire presentation is. But I need more to engage with in a game for it to really grab me.

More FMV
More FMV

26. Not for Broadcast. The acting in this one is the perfect amount of camp, and in my handful of hours with it, I had a few genuinely hilarious moments; that you have control over which camera is active allows you to play around with the acting in fun and novel ways too. It's a super clever game… that got more tedious the more I played it. As it introduced more gimmicks I simply found it more annoying to play, and ended up bailing once I realized how much more I had left. I think with a little streamlining and tighter pacing, Not for Broadcast could be kind of incredible. But this first pass didn't get there for me, which is a shame.

27. Kirby and the Forgotten Land. I only played maybe two hours of this, as the player two to a child at that, but even in that amount of time with limited capabilities I came to appreciate the craft on display here. The Forgotten Land looks great, runs well, and its more open structure seems like a good change for Kirby. I even found myself interested in going back to collect things we missed in levels, and to see the next upgrade for a few powers. I’ve never been a big Kirby fan, but I probably would have loved this one as a kid, and even as an adult I can see the appeal. Realistically there will always be other games I will prioritize over playing this one through to completion, but I respect it all the same.

28. Norco. I struggled with more text-heavy adventure games this year, Norco chief among them. I only made it through the first act, and while I do think this is a well-written and worthwhile story, I still found myself bored with it after just an hour or two. This is almost certainly a result of me and my tastes more than any fault of Norco specifically; I’ve never been all that into text-heavy adventure games or visual novels, and it’s rare for one to grab me. Unfortunately, Norco didn’t turn out to be one of those rare exceptions, and more broadly I found myself wanting to play games even more than normal in 2022.

work work
work work

29. Hardspace: Shipbreaker. This is a game that I think I have to be in the right headspace to enjoy, as it can often feel a bit too much like work (which, I suppose is the point). I think as a simulator, it pulls off what it's going for pretty well, and the idea of taking spaceships apart is a good one. But after I had successfully dismantled a handful of ships, I was already bored of the repetition; seeing how long the game is also didn't get me excited to finish it out. Still, Hardspace: Shipbreaker definitely has some neat ideas.

30. Trombone Champ. What a dumb game, albeit an amusing one for an hour or two. It's more a comedy game than anything else; the rhythm mechanics are mediocre at best, and it doesn't feel all that great to control. But I might argue the rough feel is intentional and in service of creating comedic moments. Trombone Champ has a number of such touches, and I was certainly amused by it for the couple hours I played (especially while streaming for Extra Life) – it turns out trombones are funny! But it also doesn’t take very long for the joke to run its course, and once you’ve had a couple laughs, you’re left with a pretty unremarkable game.

31. Prodeus. This is a throwback shooter – a "boomer shooter" if you will – with fantastic feel, some fun weapons, and a neat look. Past that, it simply didn't do anything new or interesting to keep me hooked for more than a few hours. Prodeus is a game that clearly knows what it is and executes it fairly well. But there's just not much here that I haven't seen a million times before, and I'm not a big enough fan of the genre to stick with another generic boomer shooter.

Think they're looking at rats?
Think they're looking at rats?

32. A Plague Tale: Requiem. I also played A Plague Tale: Innocence this year, so in retrospect, maybe I was setting myself up for burnout on this one: even with Innocence’s fairly short runtime I was ready for it to be over before it was. With Requiem being a noticeably longer sequel, rolling straight into it was always going to be tough, but I also think Requiem doesn’t make enough of the improvements you would expect from a sequel to a game that felt like an interesting but flawed first pass. Its stealth mechanics still feel stiff and tedious, and the linear and repetitive nature of the levels still wore thin for me after a few hours. Requiem is a visually impressive game, and there’s a pretty good story being told here. But the act of playing it always felt like a slog, and I fell off after a half-dozen hours.

33. Neon White. I’ve never been a score-chasing or speed-running guy, and I admittedly only checked this out due to all the hype. But I probably should have stuck to my gut: I bounced off Neon White pretty quickly for the same reasons I bounce off most games in this mold. I didn’t have much interest in replaying levels repeatedly just to try and get a better time; it was often pretty clear the route I needed to run, and I didn’t care to run it over and over to shave off a few seconds. And if you’re not chasing those times, there’s not a lot here for you. After giving it a real shot for a few worlds, I was just bored, and never came back.

34. Kaiju Wars. At first glance this seems to be a tactics game in the spirit of Into the Breach, but it doesn’t take long to realize there are some very different mechanics at play here. And unfortunately for me, it fell pretty flat after a few hours. It feels weirdly balanced, where you have to get the right moves early on before they snowball, and even then the way enemy movement paths are randomized can decide your fate all on their own. More than anything, the game really drags; a single level feels like it takes way too long to go through, especially since it’s often obvious what the result will be after the first couple turns. A brisker pace and some RNG tweaking would have gone a long way here, but as it exists, Kaiju Wars was far too tedious for me to stick with.

Maybe I just hate words.
Maybe I just hate words.

35. Pentiment. This is one I expected to like, but it has a very slow start that I struggled with immensely. It’s very possible that, had I gotten past the first couple of hours, it would have picked up and I may have enjoyed it. But after trying multiple times, I just couldn’t muster up any more enthusiasm for it. Navigating its space took too long and wasn’t fun, and the dialog was overly wordy without any real narrative thrust; I’ve heard there is a murder early on, but I never got there. Maybe the problem ultimately lies with my impatience, but regardless, Pentiment failed to keep my attention past its opening hours, which is a shame.

36. Vampire Survivors. I’ve never been a fan of idle or semi-idle games, but I checked this out due to the hype (and it being on Game Pass). It took at most 30 minutes to realize it also wasn’t for me, as there wasn’t much to engage with on any given run, and I’m never going to grind out that kind of repetitive progression. I’m sure Vampire Survivors is as good as any such game for those who like them, but I bounced off it the same way I have bounced off many others before it.

37. The Looker. This is meant to be a parody of The Witness, which is a great idea that has potential; it’s also nice that The Looker is free. But I just didn’t find it funny or entertaining enough. It only takes an hour to play through, but even in that short time I was bored more than anything. It needs better jokes, or something of its own rather than pure parody, to make it worthwhile. Or maybe it’s just not my type of humor. Regardless, The Looker did nothing for me.

Soundfall got really old, really quick.
Soundfall got really old, really quick.

38. Soundfall. My partner and I were eager to check this out, as it seemed like a neat idea for a co-op rhythm/action game. But it didn’t take long for the repetitiveness to set in. There just really isn’t much here, and once you’ve played a few levels – which only last a few minutes each – you’ve basically seen the entire game. We continued to play for a couple of hours, but nothing improved, and if anything dealing with loot only got more annoying. I like the idea of timing your actions to the beat (see: Metal: Hellsinger above), and I think the music in Soundfall is perfectly good enough. But everything surrounding that core idea was a let-down.

39. MultiVersus. Similarly to Vampire Survivors, I tried this out due to the hype, and it being free. And also similarly to Vampire Survivors, it took at most 30 minutes to realize I didn’t like it. The core issue here is that I don’t think it controls well at all; even ignoring the obvious comparisons to Super Smash Bros., which has decades of polish to build on, MultiVersus just straight up feels bad to play to me in a way that I will never want to play it again. Maybe that is partly inexcusable as a completely free game, but my time is still best spent elsewhere.

Bonus: Some non-2022 games I played and enjoyed in 2022:

Into the Breach. I gave this a shout-out on my actual top 10 list, but allow me to quickly say it again: Into the Breach: Advanced Edition is a fantastic update that got me to play dozens of hours of Into the Breach again this year, and is easily one of the best video games I played in 2022.

I spent a lot of time playing old games on new hardware in 2022.
I spent a lot of time playing old games on new hardware in 2022.

Monster Train. I got a Steam Deck this year (it’s great!), and I spent a decent chunk of time trying out a handful of older games on it (of different genres) to put the device through its paces: Dark Souls II, Civilization VI, Dicey Dungeons, and Dragon Quest XI are among the games I played a meaningful amount of while trying out the Deck. But the game that really took off on the Deck for me was Monster Train. I’ve always wanted a portable way to play it (without double dipping on the Switch), so the Deck was the perfect excuse to dive back in. And it pulled me back in deep: I spent dozens more hours playing Monster Train, including finally buying the DLC. It remains one of my favorite roguelikes, and I’m happy to now be able to play it on the go, which I will almost certainly continue to do into 2023.

Resident Evil 4 and Hollow Knight. I’ve had an itch to replay both of these for a few years now, and I finally did so at the beginning of 2022. And they both hold up! It’s probably been 15 or so years since I last played Resident Evil 4, and I was surprised both by how much I remember from it, and also how good it still feels to play. It remains an all-time favorite. And Hollow Knight I haven’t played since my initial playthrough when it launched in 2017, so in addition to replaying the entire base game, I also experienced all its DLC for the first time this year (one of my proudest gaming moments of 2022 was completing the Pantheon of the Knight). It’s a nice suite of new content on top of a fantastic game, and if anything, I like Hollow Knight more now than ever. I’m happy I made time to revisit both of these classics.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and A Link Between Worlds. I’ve replayed a handful of Zelda games over the past few years, and 2022 continued the trend with a pair of more (relatively) recent Zelda entries. The catalyst was seeing the first substantial trailer for Tears of the Kingdom, which inspired me to finally play the DLC for Breath of the Wild, which I hadn’t touched. In fact, I hadn’t touched the game at all since my initial playthrough, but it was a real treat revisiting that world again; it’s just as magical as I remember. I followed that up with a replay of A Link Between Worlds, which remains a fantastic (and underrated) Zelda game that holds up excellently (though I could do without that damn baseball minigame). I’m happy I made time for both of these in 2022. Hot take: Zelda is still good.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2022

Oh hey, hello, hi. Somehow the end of 2022 is already approaching, which means it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions: sifting through and showcasing my favorite video game music of the year. While I don’t know that 2022 was a banner year for video game soundtracks, I was reminded for the umpteenth time while putting this list together just how much good video game music exists every year, and how much better our games are for it. Music is one of my favorite aspects of this medium, and here’s my way of giving it the due it rarely gets. Thank you for reading and listening; I hope you have a wonderful day.

The usual disclaimers: I only considered soundtracks from games I actually played, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to feature (where possible), and these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Finally, I apologize in advance for overlooking your favorite game soundtrack.

Infernax

Featured Track: A Good Day To Be Alive (by Jason Letourneau, Jules ‘FamilyJules’ Conroy and Olivier Couillard)

Almost every year has at least one catchy throwback soundtrack, and in 2022, Infernax’s is the one that stuck with me. The old-school Castlevania vibes are strong here, and while it may not be all that novel anymore, it remained very fun throughout. Turns out a well-made throwback score still plays.

Elden Ring

Featured Track: Elden Ring (by Yuka Kitamura and Tsukasa Saitoh)

It speaks volumes that, despite the sheer number of times I booted up Elden Ring this year, I never got tired of hearing its main theme blast from my TV and fill up my living room. It’s powerful and mesmerizing, and always got me pumped to play. The rest of Elden Ring’s soundtrack is great, too. From ambient exploration themes to epic boss jams, it finds the right music for the moment, including silence when appropriate. A game as big as this is just as much about how you use music as it is the quality of the music itself, and Elden Ring succeeds on both fronts. From Software has worked with many talented composers over the years, and all of them bring their best in this masterpiece.

Triangle Strategy

Featured Track: March II (by Akira Senju)

Games in the lineage of Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics have a history of epic, sweeping musical scores, and Triangle Strategy follows in their footsteps wonderfully. Its soundtrack hits all the right notes through every twisty turn in this tale of geopolitical strife, and the battle themes in particular really landed for me; even after hearing them for dozens of hours, they never failed to energize me in the fight for liberation. It’s just good, high quality music, and easily one of my favorites of the year.

Tunic

Featured Track: Memories of Memories (by Lifeformed x Janice Kwan)

Tunic is a deceptive, mysterious game on multiple levels, and I appreciate how much its soundtrack captures the journey. What initially appears to be a typical heroic adventure transforms into something else entirely, and the music joins us on that journey. It taps into the mystery, the wonder, the suspense, the sadness, and even the confusion; it brought out any emotion I was feeling, as the best music does, and wrapped me in them. And just as importantly, it is beautiful music I could stop and listen to at any moment and enjoy wholeheartedly.

Rogue Legacy 2

Featured Track: Citadel Agartha (by Tettix and A Shell in the Pit)

The original Rogue Legacy had a fun, jaunty soundtrack, and this sequel follows it up nicely. It’s maybe not as memorable the second time around, and maybe doesn’t have as many standout tracks. But I still found myself regularly humming along as I played, and re-listening now reveals plenty of enjoyable tracks worthy of a mention.

Citizen Sleeper

Featured Track: Sleeper (by Amos Roddy)

Citizen Sleeper’s soundtrack sets a great tone for this contemplative adventure. One of the game’s big successes is how it brings the Eye to life, and the music is one of the key ways it does so. I don’t have the best words for it, but this music is somehow able to capture the game’s emotional core: the emptiness of space, the cruel and unrelenting hand of capitalism, the camaraderie of those who help each other along the way. I regularly found myself sitting back, staring at the Eye, lost in this understated but beautiful music.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge

Featured Track: King of the Spill (by Tee Lopes)

Shredder’s Revenge’s soundtrack continues the decades-long trend of fun beat-em-ups with fun soundtracks. Similar to Infernax, what it lacks in novelty it makes up for in pure spunk; I thoroughly enjoyed every upbeat track as we smashed our way through the game’s many stages. I also appreciate that it contains identifiable throwbacks to classic TMNT music, while simultaneously sounding like its own, modern thing.

Into the Breach Advanced Edition

Featured Track: Mist Eaters (by Ben Prunty)

With Into the Breach’s Advanced Edition update came four brand new fantastic tracks from Ben Prunty. They expand an already stellar soundtrack, simultaneously slotting in seamlessly to the existing songs, while also proving different enough to stand out as distinct and worthwhile additions. Into the Breach’s soundtrack remains one of my all-time favorites, and its new material only makes it even better.

Metal: Hellsinger

Featured Track: Stygia (by Two Feathers and Alissa White-Gluz)

What an absolute treat. If Sayonara Wild Hearts could describe itself as an interactive pop album, Metal: Hellsinger could say the same as an interactive metal album. The songs here are perfectly good on their own, but it’s the way they integrate into the game that makes this soundtrack stand out as one of my clear favorites of the year. If you can stay on rhythm while murdering demons, your combo grows, which leads to additional layers of the music piling on. And when the vocals kick in when you reach maximum combo? Just sublime. It’s a fantastic melding of gameplay, aesthetic, and music into a deliciously cohesive metal concoction, and a novel approach to video game music that will stick with me for a long time.

Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope

Featured Track: Battle of Beacon Beach (by Yoko Shimomura)

Sparks of Hope’s soundtrack features an all-star cast of composers: Yoko Shimomura, Grant Kirkhope, and Gareth Coker, each of whom have created some of my favorite video game music over the decades. This collaboration may not reach any of their previous heights, but it does mesh their talents together seamlessly, and uses all of their individual strength to great effect. The exploration themes are all comfortably whimsical, the cinematic moments pop with energy, and the battle themes (my favorites) caught me off guard with their quality and sweeping intensity. The result is a consistently delightful, and occasionally wonderful score.

Bonus: River City Girls

Featured Track: The Hunt (by Megan McDuffee)

River City Girls did not come out in 2022, but I played it for the first time in 2022, and its soundtrack is an absolute treat. It’s catchy in the way the best beat-em-up soundtracks are, but with an extra layer of care and love that is immediately obvious. The vocal tracks in particular capture the soul of the game so well, and are extremely fun on their own. I’ve played a lot of beat-em-ups with good soundtracks over the years, and I mean it when I say River City Girl’s stands among the best of the bunch.

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2021: Ranking the Rest

I agree with the general sentiment that 2021 was a “weaker” year for video games in the relative scheme of things. Yet not only did I enjoy the 10 games on my GOTY list, I also think 2021 was a quietly deep year, with interesting and varied games well past my top 10 (psst, every year has good games). I played more than 10 games that were well-made and/or did something interesting, but many of them also missed the mark in some way; hence why they didn't make my top 10. And yes, I also played games that just did not work for me at all. To those ends, this full ranking, which has become one of my favorite annual traditions, gives me space to briefly touch on what I did and didn’t like about every game I played from 2021. I think I was able to hit a good spread of games this last year – pretty much everything I wanted to that's not a time-sink of a RPG – so this full ranking gives a pretty holistic view of my gaming year. One last note: while this is a “ranking,” don’t put a ton of stock in the exact order; it’s a fairly loose ranking. And with that, on with the list, and thanks for reading :)

1-10. See my GOTY 2021 list.

Car game still looks good.
Car game still looks good.

11. Forza Horizon 5. Every year has a tough cut, and this was 2021’s. I’ve been on board with Forza Horizon since 3, and 5 is the kind of solid incremental improvement I’ve come to expect from the series: it’s downright gorgeous, and the world here feels a little more varied and engaging than before. They are slowly perfecting their formula, and I had a whole lot of fun with it yet again. That said, it is very incremental, and the main reason Forza Horizon 5 sits just off my top 10 is that I feel like I’ve done it all before. Playing it also kind of makes me sad we don’t have many (any?) other good arcade racing options any more… ahem, anyway, Forza Horizon 5 is still very good.

12. Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights. In this year of Metroidvanias, this is a very solid one; it kind of does all the basics well. I really like the aesthetic and the music. There’s a fun progression of abilities and powers that keeps up throughout the entire game. And I like the combat well enough, especially the boss battles. Ender Lilies only falls short by being very standard, which hurts it even more in a year like this with so many similar games that are more unique and/or ambitious. Its world is also too linear to allow for any meaningful exploration by my tastes, but your mileage may vary there. Still, I had a very good time with Ender Lilies, and it is a very well-made “one of those.”

13. Death’s Door. This is another game that does pretty much everything it tries to do well. It has a fantastic presentation, a wonderful soundtrack, it feels great to play, the progression is smooth, the levels and enemy designs are cool, and so on. Yet, at the risk of sounding like an ass, I think it achieves that in large part by not aiming to do a whole lot, and certainly not a lot new. It’s a very safe but very polished game, which is by no means without merit; exquisite craft is worth praising, and I did have fun with my time with Death’s Door. But for me I needed a few extra surprises for it to truly stand out.

Such a striking art style.
Such a striking art style.

14. Sable. I love parts of this one, and it really nails a vibe and feel that so few games do. It’s perhaps the most visually striking game I played this year, and its story of finding your place in the world is conveyed beautifully through its mechanics and world. It’s a world I got lost and invested in, which makes it such a shame that the whole game is kind of a technical mess. I encountered regular slowdowns and stutters, pathing and clipping issues, and just random bugs throughout. I never had an unhindered session playing it, and it dramatically affected the whole experience. If only it ran well, Sable could have been one of my favorite games of the year.

15. Wildermyth. This is one I really wish I liked more than I do, as I think the idea behind its procedural storytelling is neat. It had the potential to be an XCOM style game with even more memorable characters and personal stories, but the more I played it, the more it ran out of steam. The magic of its storytelling worked for me at first, but once I started seeing repeat events and thus saw the obvious machinery, the spell kind of wore off. And the tactical battles weren’t interesting enough for how many battles you fight by the end of a longer campaign, and the thin strategy layer became rote as well. Wildermyth started out extremely high, and I definitely had fun with it for a time. But the more I played, the more I soured on it.

16. Fights in Tight Spaces. Another game I wish I liked more: I like tactics, I’ve gotten more into deck-building roguelikes in recent years, and I really like the concept and style of this one. And I certainly had fun with it for a couple runs, as it’s super satisfying to wiggle your way out of a tough jam via clever use of your cards. But the more I played the more something felt off, be it the slow progression or your abilities, the lack of real synergy in card options, some objectives feeling strange, or just overall balance. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but the tactical depth I wanted just wasn’t quite there, which made me not eager to come back for more runs. Also, the runs are just too long.

#ethanshands
#ethanshands

17. Resident Evil Village. I did not like Resident Evil 7 at all, so I originally didn’t plan to play this one. Eventually I decided to give it a shot, and was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. There were definitely hurdles though, especially early on; I think the opening village escape sequence in particular was terrible, and more broadly the somewhat sluggish movement didn’t always work well for more hectic sequences. And the game’s variety naturally means different sections will work better or worse for different people, with my least favorite sections being in the first half. But I enjoyed the game more as it went, as I was able to collect and upgrade weapons, which led to more dynamic combat encounters. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but in the end I had fun with Resident Evil Village, and I’m glad I got around to it.

18. Subnautica: Below Zero. I greatly enjoyed the original Subnautica, and this sequel captures many of the same joys. In fact, its progression is even tighter, which could make it a more enjoyable experience for some. But overall I came away from Below Zero less impressed, which is primarily due to it hitting the same notes. Subnautica was a captivating and surprising game for me in a way that simply can’t land the same a second time without new surprises. Instead, the tedious aspects became more apparent, while the highs never extended quite as high. I started out being reminded of just how much I liked Subnautica, only to eventually feel like I was going through the motions. Which is kind of a bummer.

Welcome back, Yuffie.
Welcome back, Yuffie.

19. Final Fantasy VII Remake: Episode INTERmission. The dumbest name of the year, but I also had fun with this DLC chapter. Yuffie was fun to play with (if overpowered), and it continues the absurd excess that is Final Fantasy VII Remake. It may be more or less pure fan service, yet for this Final Fantasy VII Remake project, I am apparently on board with that. I even played all of that Fort Condor, which wasn’t even that good. Oh, and the new songs on the soundtrack? Incredible. So I guess I’m in deep. The story got real silly near the end though, huh?

20. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. This is another very safe but very polished game on this list. Where it shines brightest is in its technical aspects, which makes sense as one of the first true PlayStation 5 showpieces. It’s truly gorgeous at times, and also runs extremely fluidly throughout – at least on performance mode as I played it (though I did encounter a couple glitches of the disappearing objects variety…). Otherwise it has a solid story, solid level design, solid pacing, solid guns, etc., all without really doing anything that we haven’t seen many, many times before. So for as impressive as it is technically, Rift Apart can sort of feel unimpressive creatively.

21. Before Your Eyes. This is a short and sweet story, with a unique method of interaction and/or gimmick. If you have a camera (as I do), it detects when you blink, and doing so advances time through the game’s story. That means you can only stay in any given moment so long, which connects well with Before Your Eyes’ overall theme of valuing the fleeting life you have. I’m glad I experienced this story, and the use of the camera is clever, but it also didn’t stick with me hard enough to place any higher than this. And given the story is more or less the entire game, everything hinges on that.

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

22. Returnal. I’m of two minds when it comes to this one. On the one hand, it has a fantastic look and style, and an even better feel; the core action in Returnal is buttery smooth and very fun. On the other hand, I have a litany of problems with its structure and balance. The runs are extremely long and repetitive, with precious little enemy and weapon variety filling out runs that can take many hours. This is exacerbated by the fact that you’re incentivized to explore every room on every run, a tedious aspect that lacks any true risk/reward angle. It also seems pretty poorly balanced, with some weapons, items, and upgrades sticking out as significantly better than others (the shotgun is sadly terrible), which drastically limits the number of worthwhile builds and compounds the repetitiveness. It’s such a shame too, as the core action feels so good, which was enough to enjoy it for a time. But I can’t help but compare Returnal to other quality roguelikes (most or all of which are much cheaper), and see a huge deficit in variety and balance. It bums me out.

23. Boomerang X. This is a short and tight action game that I enjoyed playing, but never loved. I liked the boomerang and most of its associated mechanics, and I generally like very focused games that get a lot of mileage out of simple mechanics; Boomerang X nails that aspect. Yet for whatever reason, flying through the air and trying to target certain late-game enemies was more frustrating than fun to me, and by the end I was pretty tired of it, despite how short it is. Kind of hard to put my finger on, but Boomerang X just never clicked for me quite as much as I expected. I also don’t think I like the look or style of it, for what that’s worth.

24. Griftlands. Another one with runs that are too long, which is a complaint I had about a number of roguelikes this year. My first run took me at least six or seven hours, only to die on the final boss, which I probably would have beaten if I knew what to expect. Lo and behold, when I tried again, I won easily. I can enjoy the stakes imparted from the permadeath of roguelikes, but there’s a threshold where if each run is too long, it becomes too tedious. Which is a shame, because I did like a number of Griftlands’ ideas, especially the mechanics of negotiations, as well as the relationship system. I do think having to balance separate decks for negotiations and combat didn’t work that well, and the fact that the final boss is always direct combat kind of stinks; I would like the choice to prioritize my negotiation deck instead.

The grind did me in, but what a cool aesthetic.
The grind did me in, but what a cool aesthetic.

25. Loop Hero. I really wanted to like this one more than I did, more so than any other game I played this year. I absolutely love the aesthetic, and also think the little card interactions you discover as you play can be clever and fun. But the more I played, the more Loop Hero fell off for me. Its idle-but-not-really-idle nature got tedious, as there simultaneously wasn’t enough interesting stuff to engage with during a run, and also just enough important things to pay attention to that prevented me from checking out. Primarily though, I burnt out on the grind. I spent many hours grinding for resources on my way to completing the first act, and the grind showed no signs of slowing down. Loop Hero is a repetitive game by design, and one I decided I wasn’t on board with for the long haul. But I wish I was.

26. ElecHead. This is a short and smart puzzle-platformer. In some ways it feels a little out of time; this was the type of indie game that was all the rage circa 2008-2012. Today I think it’s very clever and well-made, and I enjoyed my brief time with it well enough, but it also didn’t really stand out as anything memorable. I do really like its style and music though, and I think it does a good job of embedding its secrets wordlessly. It just needed something… more to stand out.

I've shot so many grunts in the face over the past 20 years.
I've shot so many grunts in the face over the past 20 years.

27. Halo Infinite. I'm only speaking to the campaign, but this one is kind of baffling to me. You have Xbox’s premiere franchise debuting on its new console, with years of build-up, a core combat system that continues to feel extremely good, and presumably a lot of time and money behind it. Yet Halo Infinite’s open world could not be more bland and rote. It’s a barren world full of very similar activities – where you go to a place and fight the same handful of enemies we’ve been fighting for 20 years – across a single environment that lacks any diversity or meaningful detail. At best, it feels like an old, mid-2000s open world game. At worst, it feels creatively bankrupt, with bad writing no less. I had fun with the combat (and the grappling hook) for a short while, but if the only thing Halo has to offer anymore is the same fights yet again, I might just be done with Halo.

28. Age of Empires IV. In a way, it’s nice to see Age of Empires back after such a long absence. At the same time, this one feels so similar to the older games – specifically Age of Empires II – that it kind of feels perfunctory. Not that it isn’t made well, as it most certainly seems to be. But I would have personally preferred something a little more contemporary that found a fresh way to do a RTS in 2021. As it stands, I almost feel like I could have played Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition instead and gotten the same joys from that. I didn’t really spend much time with Age of Empires IV as a result.

29. Trials of Fire. Say it with me: the runs are too long. That was my main gripe with Trials of Fire, though I also didn’t find the underlying game all that gripping either. In a crowded field of deck-building roguelikes, despite the tactical nature of the battles (which I do like in theory), Trials of Fire doesn’t stand out as one I care to spend my time on over others. It’s hard to quite put my finger on too. Maybe juggling three sets of cards and gear felt too tedious, or maybe the classes didn’t feel all that balanced, or maybe there are simply better games of this type out there. Or maybe the runs are just too damn long.

I found Inscryption kind of... dull?
I found Inscryption kind of... dull?

30. Inscryption. This year’s biggest indie hit (at least in the circles I travel in) didn’t do much for me. The card game wasn’t strategically engaging compared to so many other better card games out there right now, and the pacing was all over the place; the first act was by far the best, while the rest of the game dragged considerably. In fact, if I had known how dull the rest of the game was going to be, I probably would have stopped after that first act. I also did not care for any of the story stuff, especially the meta and/or ARG parts of it; it felt like it was trying too hard to “blow my mind,” despite nothing in it really being that crazy. To be fair, that type of storytelling rarely works for me, and Inscryption didn’t change my mind.

31. Deathloop. At its best, this one is functional at a few things: the action and stealth are serviceable enough, some of the powers can be fun to use, and the art style is neat. But I have a litany of issues with Deathloop that pulled the experience down. The balance and progression feels off, as I had my gear fully decked out before the halfway point. The AI is dumb as bricks in a way that removed most of the stakes. The fact that there is only one way to “break the loop” removes most of the creativity, and makes the convoluted setup and high amount of repetition feel pointless. The story and adolescent writing got more annoying as it went. The more I played Deathloop, the more I tired of it and felt like I was just going through the motions, and worst of all were the technical issues. I experienced multiple crashes and progress-halting glitches, frequent frame-rate dips, pathing and clipping issues, long load times by PlayStation 5 standards (weren’t we supposed to be done with those?), all in a “next-gen only” game that looks like a last-gen game. I came away from Deathloop more frustrated than anything else.

F this book.
F this book.

32. It Takes Two. This is some of the most obnoxious writing and acting I’ve experienced in a game in a long, long time. The platforming is solid enough, and the co-op nature is perfectly functional and occasionally clever; in other words the game part is totally "fine" (aside from some legit pacing issues). The problem is that the characters never shut up, and I hate pretty much everything they say, especially that insufferable book. None of it is funny, most of it feels like it's trying way too hard in a juvenile way, and I think the overall themes and plot are kind of a bad message. And It Takes Two’s gameplay is not nearly good enough to overcome those high hurdles.

33. Cyber Shadow. In theory I should have liked this one more. I generally like side-scrolling action games in this mold, but Cyber Shadow never quite clicked with me. It felt a little too archaic in some spots, especially in the frustratingly lengthy segments between checkpoints. Also, you can’t duck? It’s odd little things like that that add up, and while I by no means think Cyber Shadow is a bad game, I bounced off it faster than expected. It probably doesn’t help that there have been a lot of really great retro action-platformers in recent years, which makes any new one’s shortcomings more glaring.

34. Everhood. For whatever reason, I just didn’t get into this. I tried it somewhat on a whim, and the trailer also suggested some amount of rhythm aspect to the battles, which was appealing. And that’s kind of true? But not really, as you don’t move in any rhythm, instead bouncing around the field reflexively. Anyway, I also didn’t get into the whole vibe, and got bored pretty quickly with almost every aspect of the game. The music is probably neat if I kept playing long enough to hear more of it. But I didn’t.

35. Pac-Man 99. I tried this out since I had it, but didn’t get into it. I like Pac-Man, generally speaking, but clearly not enough to go all eSports with it. The strategy here is also a bit different, and while I admittedly didn’t play it a lot, it seems kind of antithetical to normal Pac-Man strategy? I don’t know, I guess I didn’t really figure it out. Either way, nothing about this compelled me to play more than just giving it a shot.

Yikes.
Yikes.

36. Twelve Minutes. I bounced off this one almost instantly. I was looking forward to it too, as the concept remains great. But everything about the execution just did not work for me. Every little action is painfully tedious to perform, and the solutions needed to progress are incredibly particular and nonsensical. I found myself going through the same series of tedious actions repeatedly in hopes of more or less blindly landing on the right solution, which I found excruciating even after a couple loops. Also, the writing was pretty cringy, and everything I’ve heard about where the story goes from there… yikes. I consider a very tiny number of the games I play “bad.” But in 2021, Twelve Minutes qualifies.

Bonus: Some non-2021 games I played and enjoyed in 2021:

Bug Fables: The Everlasting Sapling. This is a fantastic homage to the OG Paper Mario style of RPG, and one I thoroughly enjoyed this year; I’m glad I was finally able to get around to it. It’s super charming and well-written, with great characters and world-building, and a solid combat system and side quests to boot. When I redid my GOTY 2019 list, I made sure to make a spot for Bug Fables.

Advance Wars- still good!
Advance Wars- still good!

Wargroove and Unravel Two. I played through both of these games with my partner this year (the Double Trouble DLC campaign in Wargroove’s case), and had a very good time with both of them. Wargroove in particular was a treat to return to, as it remains a great tactics game, and the co-op campaign works very well and has some clever ideas. As does Unravel Two; even if it’s a bit simple at times, it mixes up mechanics well, has some clever puzzles, and looks and sounds very nice.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. Partially as a follow-up to playing Wargroove again, partially as a “I forget a lot about Days of Ruin” curiosity, and mostly a total spur-of-the-moment thing, I picked up and replayed the entirety of Days of Ruin this year. And despite remembering it as my least favorite Advance Wars game, I had a lot of fun with it this time. Maybe it’s been long enough since I’ve played true Advance Wars, or maybe it feels better when playing it during a weaker year, or maybe Advance Wars, even a “weaker” one, is just very good. Regardless, I had a very good time with this. Oh, and its soundtrack rocks.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Link’s Awakening. After playing through the 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time at the end of 2020, I carried that Zelda momentum into 2021 with two more remakes. First up was the 3DS version of Majora’s Mask, followed by the Switch version of Link’s Awakening. It’s been a long time since I’ve played the originals of either, and my first time playing their remakes, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. In fact, I probably enjoyed them more than their original versions, thanks in large part due to improved visuals and some needed and modern quality of life improvements. Hot take: Zelda is good.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2021

It’s time yet again for one of my favorite annual traditions: a look back at my favorite video game music of the year. And 2021 was another year full of varied, excellent, and just plain kick-ass video game music, including the 10 scrumptious soundtracks I’ve chosen to highlight below. Music is a huge part of what makes video games special to me, and each of these games were made much better by the sweet tunes that accompanied them; a fact that brings me endless joy within this medium. Taking this look back is my way of showing that appreciation.

The usual disclaimers: I only considered soundtracks from games I actually played, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to feature (where possible), and these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Thanks for reading and listening, and have a wonderful day!

Loop Hero

Featured Track: Cosmic Temperance (by blinch)

I admittedly only played through the first act of Loop Hero, but its aesthetic was immediately striking, and that includes its soundtrack. I don’t know precisely how to describe it, but it has a sound that’s as broken and as mysterious as the game’s world itself, which contributes greatly to the mood. And while its music is, appropriately, slow and plodding during the normal loop gameplay, its boss themes slap incredibly hard.

Astalon: Tears of the Earth

Featured Track: All I could find was this soundtrack trailer (by Matt Kap)

Every year seems to have at least one totally rad, throwback 8-bit style soundtrack, and this year Astalon: Tears of the Earth’s score stood out to me. It’s upbeat and jaunty in the ways I remember many of my favorite NES-era soundtracks for, but also feels just modern and distinct enough to stand out from this year’s pack. I happily hummed and nodded my head along to these tunes every time I played Astalon. It rocks.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale

Featured Track: Supper Woods (by Lena Raine)

It was difficult to pick a single featured track here, as Chicory’s lengthy soundtrack has so much variety. And what’s magical about it is that every song is not only wonderful on its own, but they all match their moment perfectly. From the big band vibes of the big city, adventurous music through the woods, peaceful melodies by the river, the introspective music of the game’s quiet moments, determined and heroic themes of scaling the mountain, and even some intense boss battle themes; Chicory’s soundtrack captures all the ups and downs of its touching and personal narrative, yet pulls it all together to form a beautifully powerful and cohesive vision.

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights

Featured Track: North (by Mili)

Ender Lilies’ soundtrack is interesting because it showcases neither the adventurous heroism nor the moody ambiance that the genre typically ventures towards. Instead, Ender Lilies’ music is consistently full of sorrow, while also conveying a quiet but strong sense of determination. For a tale about trying to, against all odds, save a kingdom that is already dead, it’s both an incredibly fitting and also a very high quality score.

Death’s Door

Featured Track: Inner Furnace (by David Fenn)

Death’s Door contains some really fantastic music moments and touches: such as when, in the inner furnace, the music ramps up in intensity and the pistons that you have to dodge start clanking in rhythm with said music. There’s simultaneously a drive and a whimsy to Death’s Door’s soundtrack that regularly stands out, which matches the tone of the game perfectly. It can be somber, adventurous, or downright bombastic, but it’s always great music that feels very intentional for its moment.

Axiom Verge 2

Featured Track: Monsoon (by Thomas Happ and Mayssa Karaa)

The first Axiom Verge was a great Metroid-inspired throwback that had an equally great Metroid-inspired soundtrack… until it didn’t. Axiom Verge was arguably at its best when it subverted expectations, and what I love about Axiom Verge 2’s soundtrack is that it leans even harder into the series’ weirder tendencies. It’s a varied soundtrack that gets deliciously weird at times, yet it also captures the otherworldly nature of the game’s setting extremely well. And then it ALSO mirrors the game’s narrative themes in its tone and instrumentation, which goes the extra mile in delivering an impressively holistic creative work.

Sable

Featured Track: Glider (by Japanese Breakfast)

The excellent vocal tracks from Japanese Breakfast get top billing on Sable’s soundtrack, and the rest of the soundtrack is nearly as strong. One thing I really appreciate is how personal and representative the soundtrack feels. Every area of the game has a distinct sound that fully captures the vibe of said area, which includes both the empty, open areas as well as the various settlements scattered among them. It lends the game an honest quality, which makes its most touching moments feel earned.

Unsighted

Featured Track: Scorching Steelworks (by Fernanda Dias)

Unsighted’s soundtrack has a really fun and varied use of instrumentation, which also lends it a really distinct sound; especially compared to similar types of games; it’s great to see this kind of experimentation even within established genres. One example: in its Zelda-like dungeons, Unsighted often leans into a jazzy, downtempo style, which it pulls off surprisingly well and I got really into. At other times it’s very piano heavy, sometimes very rock, but no matter where it goes, Unsighted’s soundtrack is always a treat.

Metroid Dread

Featured Track: Artaria Theme 2 (by Soshi Abe and Sayako Doi

By Metroid standards, Dread is not one of the stronger soundtracks in the series; and many of its best songs are rearranged versions of the established classics at that. Yet a subpar Metroid soundtrack still compares well among the general landscape, and Metroid Dread’s score still hits more than it misses. I most appreciate when its original songs stand out more than background noise, and there are a handful of really solid new tracks that generate atmosphere in the way Metroid music often has.

Unpacking

Featured Track: Own Two Feet (by Jeff van Dyck)

Unpacking’s soundtrack does an absolutely wonderful job at capturing the feeling of moving; even more impressively, it captures how moving feels different at different stages of life. In childhood, moving is bright-eyed and curious. In young adulthood, moving is exciting and hopeful. After a breakup, moving feels like a reset button. And at some point, if we’re lucky, moving feels like being at peace with life. Unpacking’s soundtrack nails all of these emotional beats throughout the journey of life, and is such a special example of how a game’s score can elevate the experience.

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Gaming Memories: Oblivion

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 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 the spring semester of 2006, I was studying abroad, far from home. For five months my gaming time was limited to handhelds, and while I used that time to play many wonderful handheld games, I couldn’t help but see footage of then “next gen” games for the newly released Xbox 360, and get excited about the chance to experience them. My interest in the new console slowly but surely turned from indifference to awe, and when I returned home for the summer, I made the plunge. And there was one game that drove the purchase drastically more than any other: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Cyrodiil was a beautiful world to explore in its day.
Cyrodiil was a beautiful world to explore in its day.

Oblivion started with the standard Bethesda opening: you went through a brief tutorial in a closed, linear environment -- in this case a jailbreak through the sewers -- to emerge out into its vast, beautiful, and open world. From there, you could go wherever your curiosity took you. It’s a powerful and effective moment in a lot of their games, but experiencing that moment on a console in HD for the first time remains one of the most visually resonant gaming moments I’ve had. Cyrodiil was a bright and diverse land that was immediately appealing, and its visual splendor enticed me to explore right away. I especially appreciated said diversity, which was one of Oblivion’s biggest strengths. While you first emerged into rolling green hills, your adventures could take you to all sorts of varied locals: dense forests, pristine lakes, radiant coastlines, frigid mountains, murky swamps, and so on. Situated in the center of Tamriel, Cyrodiil inherited the geography of its surrounding provinces around its own periphery, which proved to be a welcome boon. It made my exploration consistently enjoyable and often surprising, and combined with how gorgeous the game was, I didn’t stop exploring until I had seen everything I could. All of Bethesda’s open worlds are a treat to explore, and Cyrodiil is one I remember more fondly than most.

Oblivion was also a more polished game than its predecessors, which made the process of exploring and engaging with the world much smoother. While plenty have argued that Oblivion “dumbed down” the franchise to some extent, I personally appreciated its more streamlined approach. Combat in particular received a welcome boost with Oblivion: it was much more responsive and visceral, and thus more engaging and less tedious for me. The menus and UI were also cleaner, which made keeping track of quests and my character’s stats and gear much simpler. As such, Oblivion made it easier than ever to remain focused on The Elder Scrolls’ core strengths of freeform exploration and intricate character-building, strengths which were still very much intact here. Exploration, in addition to the natural beauty of Cyrodiil I described above, could also reveal countless likable characters and fun quests. The core questlines were worthwhile in their own right (shout-out to The Dark Brotherhood), but you could also stumble into surprisingly interesting one-off quests in all corners of the world. Character-building leveraged The Elder Scrolls’ iconic open-ended system once again, which allowed players a lot of control in crafting highly unique and personal characters. Oblivion carried on these traditions splendidly.

It might have been broken, but it sure was fun to create my own super character.
It might have been broken, but it sure was fun to create my own super character.

Yet for all its polish, one aspect of Oblivion remained rough: its skill and leveling systems were convoluted and easily breakable, which had results both good and bad. On the one hand, levelling up could potentially be a negative, which is counterintuitive and nonsensical. Since enemies in the world gained levels when you did, depending on exactly how you leveled, it was possible to fall behind the curve. On the other hand, if you understood how it all worked, you could easily manipulate Oblivion’s systems to become an unstoppable god. It was totally wild, and once I wrapped my head around it, I went on to have one of my most memorable experiences building a video game character. I planned, I busted out the spreadsheets, and I carefully abused the system to create a character with the maximum possible stats and skills at the lowest possible character level, thus keeping enemies at their lowest possible level as well. In addition to being incredibly overpowered, it was also a blast to have a character who was good at everything: sword and shield, giant hammer, bow and arrow, stealth, charisma, any flavor of magic you could want. The joy of character-building in The Elder Scrolls is in how malleable it is, how you are never constrained to character archetypes and can dabble in everything all at once. In Oblivion, this was true to the point of being completely busted. Yet I loved every minute of it; nothing was off-limits for my super character. It was the ultimate power fantasy, and the personal effort I put into the process made the payoff that much more satisfying.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took the freeform exploration and intricate character-building the series was known for, streamlined it without losing much depth, and took advantage of more powerful console hardware to make a stunning leap in audiovisual presentation. It felt like the perfect storm for the series at large, and while there was certainly a “right time, right place” effect for me personally, it was undoubtedly the perfect storm for my enjoyment of it. After getting a Xbox 360 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I spent most of the summer of 2006 exploring Cyrodiil and all it had to offer. It was a magical time I’ll never forget.

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2020: Ranking the Rest

OK, now for the bigger list: after making my top 10 list for 2020, it's time to rank the rest of the games I played from the year. It's a tradition I've stuck to for a few years now, and it gives me a chance to briefly speak to all the new games I played over the year. It's fun, and hopefully paints a more holistic picture of my gaming year; though I should say that it's a fairly loose ranking, so don't put too much stock in the exact order. I also managed to hit pretty much everything I wanted to in 2020; obviously I can't play everything, and I'm sure in a few months I'll discover something important I missed and think "if only I had played that last year!" But for the time being, I'm pretty content with where I'm at, and the number of games I managed to hit. If anything, I touched more games than usual in 2020, but there's a very good reason for that: between Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and straight up free games in many places, there are so many games I can play nowadays without having to pay anything extra. That makes it easy to just jump in and try a lot of different games that I would have likely not tried otherwise. That probably inflates the sheer number of games on this list, but it's also kind of neat to have that ability. Anyway, on with the list, and thanks for reading!

1-10. See my GOTY 2020 list.

#nostalgia
#nostalgia

11. Astro's Playroom. Ah, 2020’s tough cut, the game I liked a lot but barely missed my top 10. This is a super charming platformer, and a great showpiece for the new DualSense controller; it’s more or less the PlayStation 5’s Wii Sports equivalent. It helps that it’s a free pack-in too, and I enjoyed most of my brief time with it. My main gripes are, first, other than the controller gimmicks it’s a fairly basic platformer. And second, some of the more gimmicky levels that leaned harder into motion controls could be pretty annoying/frustrating. But otherwise Astro’s Playroom is just a cute, endearing, well-playing platformer that anyone with a PS5 should absolutely play.

12. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. I don’t think I like this sequel quite as much as its predecessor. That’s perhaps mostly due to a loss of novelty; throwback games can work great the first time for me, but not as much the second time without something new. But I also think the levels themselves are a bit more tedious, and while Hachi is cool, his invincibility kind of broke the game for me, as I was able to cheese my way through so many scenarios that way. Those gripes aside, this is a still a great 2D action game, with cool characters, engaging scenarios, and a totally rad audiovisual presentation. The first Curse of the Moon was an awesome game, and even if the sequel doesn’t reach the same heights for me, it’s still pretty cool.

13. Doom Eternal. This is not a bad game, but as a follow-up to the excellent 2016 Doom, it’s pretty disappointing for me. I feel like they didn’t quite grasp what made that game so much fun for so many people, but instead doubled down on the more tiresome aspects of its combat, lore, and tone. It carries too many layers of systems to juggle during combat, which makes it feel like you have to follow a pre-prescribed list of actions to be successful. If you do that, combat can still be thrilling: the guns are awesome, the enemies are exciting (well, not all of them…), the music is rippin’, and the movement is as fluid as ever. So I did have plenty of fun during those moments where everything clicked, and the highs of Doom are still as high as ever. But Doom Eternal simply did not land those moments consistently enough, which is a bummer.

Such a beautiful game.
Such a beautiful game.

14. Ghost of Tsushima. It’s been a few years since I’ve played an open world game in this particular mold, and this one mostly reminds me why I do so as infrequently as I do: it’s too big, too messy, and too repetitive for the fairly basic mechanics it has on offer. It’s real easy for me to get burnt out well before it’s over, and that happened here as well. However, Ghost of Tsushima does have some things going for it that makes it stand out among similar games. Mainly that its world is downright gorgeous, but also the combat and stealth control pretty well. There are a lot of nits I could pick about it (screw that yellow bird), but if you want a lizard brain checklist to follow, Ghost of Tsushima is probably as good as any open world game for that.

15. Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I liked 2018’s Spider-Man well enough, but also got worn down by its open world bloat around halfway through. Miles Morales does better by being a tighter, more focused experience, and I really like all the characters and the story. But I think my fatigue from the previous game carried over to this one, as I was pretty bored with the combat and other challenges almost from the start. Which maybe just means I don’t like the basic gameplay of Spider-Man all that much? It has me questioning whether I will play any more Spider-Man games… but I was still happy to see the campaign of Miles Morales through.

16. Murder by Numbers. I like picross, I like Phoenix Wright, and this loose mashup of both concepts works well enough. I think both the picross puzzles and the narrative take a little bit to really get going, and the individual cases lack the same level of buildup and excitement you’d get from a Phoenix Wright style courtroom showdown. But picross is still fun, the puzzles here are (eventually) good, and the story and characters endeared themselves to me by the end. Scout’s a real one.

A straightforward but fun beat-em-up.
A straightforward but fun beat-em-up.

17. Streets of Rage 4. I don’t know that there’s a ton to say about this one other than it’s a generally very well-made beat-em-up across the board. It certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and beat-em-ups probably only carry so much weight nowadays. But if you enjoy a “good one of those” and have a buddy to play it with, I found Streets of Rage 4 to be worth it; especially if you have Game Pass. Also, that soundtrack is legit.

18. Star Renegades. Talk about “kitchen sink” design; this game’s mechanics have mechanics, and it pulls them from a wide array of influences spanning multiple genres. In some ways it doesn’t come together all that well, and can feel like a bit of a scattered mess. But when it clicks, there’s some really cool stuff here. I especially like the tactical battles, and the way character abilities interact with enemies as well as the timeline to pull off some cool stunts. And, as a roguelike of sorts, if it wasn’t as long and as grindy as it is, I would be willing to play more runs to try out more characters. But as it stands, while I appreciate and genuinely enjoyed the time I put into Star Renegades, I doubt I will dig through the bloat to come back for more.

It's a silly game, but the art is striking.
It's a silly game, but the art is striking.

19. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. I’m still in the middle of this, so it could move up or down this list by the time I finish. Its art is gorgeous, and it has a lot of interesting storytelling ideas in the way it allows you to bounce between each characters’ story, and see how they all interconnect from different angles. As for the story itself… it’s a lot of sci-fi anime nonsense, and in a way I’m not sure it earns yet. It can be heavy-handed or self-important in moments that mostly feel silly to me, and the battles themselves are too rote to be engaging. So the jury is still out on this for me, and given that like 90% of this game is its (barely interactive) story, how the story unfolds is going to dictate my final impressions one way or another. It certainly has potential, but needs to step it up from here.

20. Lithium City. This is a short but fun romp that has a lot of great style, both in its visuals and its soundtrack. It feels pretty good to play too, though a couple late-game stages were more frustrating to me than I feel they needed to be. The main thing holding it back is that it’s a pretty slight experience, and doesn’t always feel as varied or as inventive as it could be. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, but Lithium City still does it pretty well.

21. Spiritfarer. Man, this game could be so much better than it is. I love the art, animation and music, I love what it’s doing narratively, and I love how your actions propel said narrative. Sadly, it’s all brought down drastically by terrible pacing that unnecessarily stretches everything out way too long. I spent more time growing carrots and brewing coffee than anything else in Spiritfarer, and those rote management tasks ultimately overshadowed the other enjoyment I was getting. There are some truly touching moments in Spiritfarer, but this is a textbook example of an otherwise great game being all but ruined by being too long.

Four-in-a-row anyone?
Four-in-a-row anyone?

22. Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics. What a cool package. None of its individual games are all that noteworthy on their own, and I admittedly didn’t play a ton of it. But by collecting 51 classic games together, adding in excellent tutorials and some challenges to chase, it’s a good bet that anyone could find something they like here. I enjoyed the little time I’ve spent with it, and could easily see myself picking it back up down the road, especially for multiplayer.

23. Resident Evil 3. This is nowhere near as good as 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake, a game I truly loved. RE3 has less interesting environment and encounter design, less variety, worse progression, and somehow, an even dumber story and cheesier acting. Yet, taken as a campy, lighthearted romp, I had fun with this short campaign. The shooting still feels solid, the guns have that kick to them, and I could laugh at all the stupid shit going on. It’s your quintessential “popcorn flick” type of game, and on those grounds I had a solid time with it.

24. Wide Ocean Big Jacket. This is a great story that is also paced well and ends in a timely fashion: the writing is great, the characters are great, and the length is perfect. But, at the risk of sounding like an ass, it didn’t do much for me as a game. It’s a good story that I enjoyed seeing, but its story is the entire game itself, and I think said story could have worked in another format just as well, if not better.

Gross.
Gross.

25. Carrion. This is a great concept, and I was happy to check it out via Game Pass. I’m not sure the monster controls worked for me as much as I would have liked; it often felt chaotic and imprecise, which was annoying in the moments when it required precision. Its world design was also sometimes uninspired, and I got a little tired of it before it was over. But in the moments it worked, Carrion proved to be one of the more interesting and unique games I played this year. And something about playing as the monster terrorizing the bad scientists is just fun.

26. Star Wars: Squadrons. I feel like they played it too safe with this one. Its production values are incredible, with a look and sound that should make any Star Wars fan happy. And the feel of flying these iconic ships -- even with a controller as I experienced it -- is totally solid. So while I did derive some enjoyment on those fronts, both the story and the mission design are just too bland, straightforward, and repetitive to have any real impact. I would guess the lasting appeal of Squadrons will be in its multiplayer (if anything), but as someone who only played the campaign, I found it lackluster.

27. Umurangi Generation. I love the vibe and the music, and I respect everything it’s trying to do narratively. But, as with many games in the lower half of this list, I simply didn’t enjoy the act of playing Umurangi Generation all that much. Taking pictures was a pretty rote affair, and the game’s levels were all pretty short and simple, meaning I was unfortunately somewhat bored during my play. Still, I respect this one quite a bit.

What a neat thing.
What a neat thing.

28. Microsoft Flight Simulator. I’m still not a flight sim guy, and I don’t know that I really enjoyed anything about the process of actually playing this game. But man, I think it’s one of the coolest games this year. Just the way they rendered the entire world and let you fly anywhere is super rad, and the most enjoyment I got in my short time with it was just picking some locations -- both personal and exotic -- that I wanted to briefly fly over and look at in awe. It’s a magical thing that, if I liked flight sims, would probably become one of my favorite games. As it stands, it’s something I marvel at more than I enjoy playing.

29. Paper Mario: The Origami King. I like a number of things about this one, including the art, the writing, and parts of its adventure game aspects. Unfortunately I did not like the combat at all, nor the minimal character progression they implemented, both of which are meaningless at best and frustratingly tedious at worst. And ultimately, the sheer amount of combat overwhelmed The Origami King’s better aspects for me, leading to me abandoning the grind about halfway through. If only they could make worthwhile combat in Paper Mario again...

30. XCOM: Chimera Squad. Man, I had a time with this one. I love XCOM in the broad sense, and the idea of a smaller spinoff sounds appealing. And while it certainly doesn’t have the depth of a full XCOM game, the characters and unique mechanics it introduced seemed like they could be engaging for a short while… until it all came crashing down at once. After slogging through a lengthy (hour+ long) boss mission, and tediously save-scumming my way through the actual boss -- which was a difficulty spike orders of magnitudes higher than anything the game had trained me for at that point -- the game bugged in a way that I could not complete the mission after defeating the boss. My only recourse would have been to restart and replay the entire mission again, and at that point, I was over it. I moved on, never to return. Why did you have to do me dirty like that, Chimera Squad?

In another life, this is my favorite game of all time.
In another life, this is my favorite game of all time.

31. Crusader Kings III. I want to like this game more than I do, and I love hearing stories about it. But every attempt I’ve had at getting into a Paradox game has fallen flat, and Crusader Kings III is no exception. I think for how my brain works I need more explicit goals to work towards, or some form of timely endgame, as the open-ended nature of Crusader Kings always leaves me unsure of what to do. The level of complexity on display doesn’t help; I’m not going to spend dozens (hundreds?) of hours learning all the ins and outs needed to fully enjoy this game. I’m truly glad it exists, and am thrilled so many people seem to be loving it. Just not one for me.

32. Valorant. This seems like a very good game that I won’t play much of, as someone who simply doesn’t spend a lot of time with competitive multiplayer games. But as far as free multiplayer shooters go, based on the few rounds of it I tried, Valorant seems pretty solid.

33. Ghostrunner. I love the idea of this game, and some things about it are really strong: it has cool powers, looks great, and performs well, which is a must given how fast-paced and precise the action needs to be. Yet something about the feel of the game never clicked with me. After plenty of experimenting and practice, I would still miss seemingly simple platforming jumps regularly, and the bullet-time dodges felt similarly finicky. I don’t know that I can pinpoint exactly why it felt so off to me, but as someone who has enjoyed plenty of challenging 1-hit death games before, Ghostrunner’s basic, core actions just never felt as good as I needed them to.

34. Risk of Rain 2. I enjoyed parts of the first Risk of Rain, but I ultimately ended up feeling similar about it as I do a lot of roguelikes. In 2020, after the genre has expanded and found ways to appeal to more people -- myself included -- it has become more apparent that a lot of "older" roguelike design doesn't do much for me. Risk of Rain 2 rebuilt itself in 3D, and has some of the same interesting quirks as the original, but overall it succumbs to the same tired roguelike pitfalls to me. I have barely played it, and might play more in co-op at some point. But otherwise I have no desire to touch it again.

I didn't think it was possible to make Superhot boring...
I didn't think it was possible to make Superhot boring...

35. Superhot: Mind Control Delete. I really liked the original Superhot, but where that game knew how to take its admittedly simple idea, pace it appropriately, and end before it got old, Mind Control Delete spends way too long repeating and watering down those same core ideas. Those ideas are still fun in spurts mind you, but after a few hours of rinse and repeat with Mind Control Delete, it managed to make Superhot boring to the point where I didn’t want to finish it. That feels like some form of gaming sin.

36. Super Mario Bros. 35. Another freebie that also didn’t do much for me. The idea of a Mario “battle royale” is amusing, and playing Super Mario Bros. is still fun. But Mario 35 takes too long to ramp up, and then when it finally does, I don’t particularly enjoy the type of play the late game incentivizes. I’m admittedly not a big battle royale person, but the balance on this one just felt off to me, and I ended up not spending much time with it as a result.

37. Perfect Vermin. It’s free and like 20 minutes long, so I hold no legitimate ill will towards this game. But I appreciate the metaphor it’s trying to convey more than I appreciate its actual execution, which I don’t feel enhanced its message in any meaningful or satisfying way. This game didn’t do much for me as a result.

I wanted to like KRZ, but alas.
I wanted to like KRZ, but alas.

38. Kentucky Route Zero. I really wanted to like this given the positive reception for every episode along the way, and I waited nearly a decade for all five episodes to release before diving in. Yet what I found was nothing but profound boredom. Yes, there are worthwhile themes and some effective imagery here. But the writing and narration style didn’t do it for me the vast majority of the time, and navigating the world was more obtuse than I could bear. My lasting memory of Kentucky Route Zero is that it put me to sleep almost every time I tried to play it, which makes it one of my biggest disappointments of the year.

39. Jump Rope Challenge. Is this a game? Does this count? I don’t know, but it was free and I downloaded it and did my reps for a few days. As a free thing intended to get you moving, it’s perfectly fine. As a legit workout tool, it’s pretty bad; it never accurately counted my jumps, often either double counting, or not counting them at all. Motion controls continue to be fickle at best, and there are countless better video game exercise tools than this, including better options on the Switch itself.

40. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. I only tried this because it was all the rage for a month or so in the summer, and it came free with PlayStation Plus… but it took me all of three minutes to realize I hate how this game feels. The controls are (perhaps deliberately) imprecise in a way that made the rote platforming more frustrating than I could stomach, and after three games I decided that was enough. I get that this game isn’t supposed to be serious, and a “fun time party game” type of thing. But I don’t consider that an excuse: poor controls are poor controls, and I’ve played plenty of better “fun time party games” than this. This may sound harsh, but I did not enjoy any of my (admittedly limited) time with Fall Guys.

Bonus: Some (but not all) non-2020 games I played and enjoyed this year:

BRONZE RANK
BRONZE RANK

Sayonara Wild Hearts. This "playable pop album" is an excellent take on what a music video game can be. I played through it twice, and found it to be a memorable and somewhat moving experience; not to mention its soundtrack is incredible. This would have made my 2019 top 10 had I played it in time.

Final Fantasy VII. I replayed the original this year before the remake came out, and honestly, dated visuals aside, I think it holds up. Maybe that's just my nostalgia talking, but I liked seeing the story again after so many years, and the materia system is still cool.

Kind Words. This is a really neat idea, executed well. I had some pretty touching interactions in the short time I spent with it. I'm glad it exists.

Tetris Effect. I replayed the campaign once it hit Game Pass, and Tetris Effect is still kind of magical.

Dandara. This is a neat exploration focused game, and while I didn't outright love the movement, I enjoyed seeing some new ideas in this space. Combined with cool art and good music, and it was a short and fun campaign.

Super Metroid and Ocarina of Time. I replayed these two all-time favorites this year. It has been at least a decade since I've played either, and it was nice to revisit both during a very stressful year. Both hold up well, and it was very nice to revisit some classics.

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My Favorite Video Game Music of 2020

Oh, hey, it’s December again. Which means it’s time for one of my favorite annual traditions, where I look back at my favorite video game music of the year. And regardless of everything else 2020 threw at us, allow me to make a bold claim: there was a lot of great video game music in 2020. Not just high quality, enjoyable music, but also music spanning all sorts of styles, genres, and game types. That diversity is one of my favorite things about video game music, and while I limit my list to 10(ish) soundtracks, it’s worth noting there are well more than 10 noteworthy soundtracks every year, 2020 included. The medium continues to be strong, and our games are all the better for it.

The usual disclaimers: I only considered soundtracks from games I actually played, I picked a single representative song from each soundtrack to feature (where possible), and these games are ordered by their original US release date; not by preference. Thanks for reading and listening, and please share your own favorites!

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Featured Track: Escaping a Foul Presence (by Gareth Coker)

The first Ori had a wonderful, emotional, sweeping orchestral score, and the sequel’s is every bit as good. It runs the gamut of emotions too, as it can be adventurous, playful, somber, or even downright terrifying as the situation demands. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a great playing game that’s also an artistically resonant one, and its soundtrack is critical to its appeal.

Doom Eternal

Featured Track: The Only Thing They Fear Is You (by Mick Gordon)

I’m tempted to say “Doom Eternal is another Doom soundtrack by Mick Gordon” and leave it at that, but that’s probably too flippant. Yes, this is another Doom soundtrack by Mick Gordon, but it’s worth stressing how totally rad that is. He has once again captured the heavy metal, demonic fury of Doom with a new face-melting score, and it remains one of the many delights of playing a Doom game. Put another way, I don’t take my Doom soundtracks by Mick Gordon for granted.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Featured Track: 5am (by Kazumi Totaka)

Animal Crossing’s quirk where each hour of the day has its own dedicated song is both one of its frustrations and one of its charms. On the one hand, it means I never get to hear certain songs -- such as the excellent one I’m showcasing here -- because the hours I play games don’t vary that much. On the other hand, it does mean that I’ve come to identify the hours I do play with their respective songs, and those songs manage to capture the vibe of those hours surprisingly well. It’s a tangible, playful, and endearing way to make music a more prominent part of the game experience, and it’s also just good, catchy music.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki)

(Side note: It’s hard to find music from this game on YouTube; it seems Square-Enix is aggressive about taking it down. I did what I could.)

There are many reasons why Final Fantasy VII Remake’s soundtrack is as downright incredible as it is. First, the sound quality, instrumentation, and arrangements are just fantastic. Second, its “adaptive soundtrack” does a magnificent job at shifting between the many variations of each theme to fit the situation; it’s such a smart way to handle music in an interactive medium. Third, Remake draws from some of the most iconic and beloved music in video game history, and effortlessly leverages their nostalgic appeal while also rearranging them into something new and modern. That’s a tough balancing act for any remake, but Final Fantasy VII’s absolutely nails it.

Streets of Rage 4

Featured Track: Rising Up (by Olivier Deriviere)

Despite having a Sega Genesis in the house in the 90s, I was never that much of a “Sega kid.” I didn’t even hear about, much less play, a Streets or Rage game until decades later, but once I did I immediately recognized their soundtracks as legitimately rad. So if a new Streets of Rage game needed to get one thing right in 2020, it was the music. And thankfully, from my vantage point, it did. It’s just fun music from start to finish.

Lithium City

Featured Track: All I could find was the entire soundtrack (by John Camara)

Lithium City’s soundtrack is one that’s just fun to jam to, and it also contains more variety than it initially appears. While a lot of it is (very good) techno-murder beats, my most memorable music moments in Lithium City came from unique set pieces, where the music changed tone to acknowledge the larger setting and happenings. It takes good music, and leverages it in simple but effective ways to better the game itself.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2

Featured Track: Chains of Fire (by Ippo Yamada)

I’m not sure I like Curse of the Moon 2’s soundtrack as much as its predecessor, but even if it doesn’t reach that incredibly high bar, this sequel’s soundtrack is another awesome one that captures the spirit of the NES Castlevania games through and through. It’s a rockin’ score that’s fun to jam to, and wonderfully suits That Man, Zangetsu, and his companions as they venture forth on their demon-slaying quest.

Spiritfarer

Featured Track: Main Theme (by Max LL)

Spiritfarer’s best moments are the emotional sendoffs you periodically give your animal companions, and those moments wouldn’t hit nearly as hard if the music accompanying them wasn’t as touching as it is. Spiritfarer’s soundtrack can be as playful or as caring as the situation demands, and I’m not sure the game would have worked that well without it.

Paradise Killer

Featured Track: Paradise (Stay Forever) (by Barry Topping)

With character names like “Doctor Doom Jazz” and “Lady Love Dies,” and a striking art style to match, it’s pretty clear up front that Paradise Killer has its own unique vibe. And that’s as apparent as anywhere in its soundtrack: this thing is a friggin’ groove. Its funky mix of jazzy vaporware tunes set the perfect backdrop for wacky and the surreal setting of Paradise Island, and had me nodding my head to the beat the entire way through. I love when a soundtrack so expertly enhances a game’s vibe, and that’s exactly what this one does so well. It also, as the kids say, slaps.

Hades

Featured Track: In the Blood (by Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett)

Look, I don’t think I have to convince anyone that Darren Korb, Ashley Barrett, and the folks at Supergiant Games can make a great video game soundtrack. And with Hades hitting version 1.0 this year, it adds more new music that meets their incredibly high standards once again. I especially like how they incorporate many of their lyrical songs into the game itself, represented and sung by in-game characters who are in fact musicians. It’s one of the countless endearing details that make Supergiant’s games so good, and of course, it wouldn’t work if the quality wasn’t there. But it absolutely is for these songs, which are all absolute bangers.

Bonus: Sayonara Wild Hearts

Featured Track: Begin Again (by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng)

I didn’t get around to playing 2019’s Sayonara Wild Hearts until 2020, so it missed my music list last year. But to everyone who said this game’s soundtrack is incredible: you were right. I couldn’t stop listening to it all year, and even if it’s a year late, allow me to give it its due now. Just killer music from top to bottom, and with the music all but being the game itself, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a wonderful new take on what a music video game can be.

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