Make Me Mad's Games of the Year, Two-Thousand and Seventeen

Say what you will about the rest of this year- in the realm of Video Games, things went really well. There were some disappointments too, of course, but we're leaving the year behind us, and I feel we ought not dwell on all the things that bummed us out. It's a time for celebration! Let's talk about some of the stuff that was rad.

In that spirit, I should probably also mention that this list isn't about why these games are good, just why I like them. I have no interest in trying to argue they're good, because A) I'm generally bad at discussing the objective, mechanical features of games, and B) I tend to like a lot of bad things.

There are also some mild spoilers thrown in there in places. Watch out for that.

Also, since I apparently can't use italics in this list, just put the emphasis on any word with *these* weird little asterisks around them.

List items

  • 10!

    The sequel to the original Metroid has always been kind of a glaring hole in my game-playing resume, and this is hands down the best way to experience it. I'm all for any game that begins the arduous process of re-establishing the (formerly) well known and acknowledged fact that Samus Aran is a badass who takes no shit, and Samus Returns definitely takes a few steps in the right direction. I mean, it's a game about wiping an entire species from the face of a planet via lasers and missiles and the occasional backhand.

    I'm a fan of the majority of the changes that they made; the parry/melee attack does a lot to expand Samus' sometimes limited options when an enemy gets too close for comfort, even if I think there are some sections of the game (pre-beam upgrades, mostly) that might rely too heavily on it. The Scan ability in this game is also a pretty big deal, in that it turned what might have been hours of scouring the walls for breakable blocks into a quick sweep, allowing me to get back to the important business of putting super missiles to use.

    There were a few other things that bothered me- an area or two that seemed needlessly frustrating, and one particular boss- and despite that I came away from this game feeling refreshed, excited for what comes next for the Metroid series, and *that's* a feeling I was worried for a little while that I might not get to have again. It helps that it has what is probably the best finale that any Metroid- even the Primes- has ever had.

  • 9!

    Super Mario Odyssey is the 3D Mario game that finally made me understand why people like 3D Mario games. As a person who bounced off of Super Mario 64 about as hard as you can when I was younger- never even finishing a second world- I had kinda expected that I was just never really going to get to enjoy these games. They weren't my thing, and I'd written them off fairly decisively. Then I tried this game, and finished it in about 3 days because I was so drawn into this weird and infinitely charming world-spanning adventure.

    Traveling country to country in a flying ship that ended up carrying its own weight in stickers and souvenirs, chatting up the locals and reading brochures, tracking down the stores so I could mix-and-match outfits to look as cool as possible for my inevitable photo-ops... I got immersed into this strange, impossibly varied collection of kingdoms in away that I never imagined a Mario game could manage. It helps that the pacing was brisk, allowing me to clear most worlds in a couple of hours and continue the quest. Long enough to be left with a good impression of each area, and not enough for me to ever really get sick of one location.

    I don't wish it was longer, and don't really have an interest in messing with the extensive post-game. I'm just really glad I spent the time with it that I did. Also, man, Bowser's hair is *fantastic*.

  • 8!

    When this game was announced, I was actually kinda pissed about it. I didn't want it made- I enjoyed my time with the original too much. I enjoyed those characters, and that world, and I wanted their stories to have a definitive end. I was glad to hear that the second season would be a new story with a new cast. The idea of this game, though, filled me with apprehension. It was a double whammy- a prequel (which is already difficult to make work) and also a different developer. I knew I was guaranteed to try it, though, because good or bad I still feel the need to know what happens with these characters.

    Despite my fears, the game is actually pretty great. They nail the characterization of Chloe, and her new VA does a stellar job. Rachel Amber finally gets some time on screen, and she's as flighty and dangerous and weirdly charming as you'd expect given people's opinions on her in the original. The relationship between the two main characters works, and that's probably the hardest and the most important thing to get right. The only real issues I have are that things kinda fall apart in the last half of Episode 3, for both the writing and a few important voice performances- and that there are some glaring, unexplained plot holes that make it hard to reconcile the events of this game with Life is Strange Classic.

    What would have a few weeks ago been a heartfelt recommendation for a great addition to the Life is Strange story is now a more lukewarm recommendation, great for fans who don't care too much about the canon taking some dents or things not lining up in a way that makes sense. It's still a good time for anyone who enjoys these characters and would like to spend more time with them. Whatever it lacks, it has heart to spare.

  • 7!

    Persona 4 is a singular experience. No game is ever going to be that again (except for Persona 4 Golden, which was literally that again), nor should it be. I'd come to terms with this before Persona 5 was released, and was ready to just allow a new story and new characters to show me what they could do. Clean slate, no baggage.

    And it is really goddamn good, for the record. I don't even want to bother mentioning it's stylish as hell, because I mean, look at literally everything about it. You're phantom thieves (though you do a disappointing amount of actual thieving), your initial persona is Arsene Lupin in his finest red coat, you're hopping across casinos and through art galleries. I appreciated the dedication to the theme, with pretty much every dungeon being a stereotypical heist location, and the presentation is just about flawless- even when some of those dungeons become far more tedious than the randomly generated mazes of past games.

    I just wish I liked the main team more. The relationships between your fellow thieves feel, for the most part, fairly threadbare- less friends and more awkward coworkers. Outside of a few standouts, they're pretty boring characters, but I feel like that's made up for in the quality of your 'secondary' Social Links. The Sun, Star, Devil and Death Social links stood out to me as particularly great- high points of the entire series, not just the game.

    As for the story, I appreciate what they were going for, even if I feel like the moral gets a bit lost as things progress. There are some late-game character and plot reveals that feel like they only serve to make things more convoluted, and the whole final sequence felt oddly rushed and ill-fitting. Considering that's the last few hours of a *very* long game, maybe I shouldn't let it put me off as much as it did.

    So, I didn't like it as much as Persona 4, but that was never possible. I wish I liked it more than I do, but it still ranks as one of the best experiences I had this year. It starts strong, and it soars, and it doesn't quite stick the landing- but the leap itself was impressive.

  • 6!

    For as much as the not-quite-aimless wandering in this game is fun, What ended up making it one of my favorite experiences of all time was my decision to stick (mostly) to the beaten path. I followed roads and stopped at stables, talked to the locals, collected and cashed in side-quests. There were some detours, of course- Shrines spotted on hills or mountains a quick jog and climb away, or trips to particularly dangerous locales because I needed to restock on weapons/bows/arrows/shields/any combination of those things.

    What I found, in my fairly tame adventures, was that they didn't forget to include the things I've always loved about a Zelda game. I found a girl near the base of Death Mountain selling fireproof potions, encouraging me to race up on a timer while meteors rained down around my head. I couldn't help but smile at how familiar that whole experience was, and when I reached the brief respite of a mining camp a sidequest ensued that ended with me catching lizards and claiming an impressively bulky (but most importantly fireproof) helmet. Good enough to get me to the Goron City, but no further. That'd take some more doing.

    This sequence of events, this brief chain of entirely optional encounters that served to get me what I needed and where I was going, was what finally made me enjoy the freedom that Breath of the Wild offered. It wasn't just stumbling across fields and following a tracker to more shrines, or picking out destinations from a tower. I was reassured. I felt free to play however I wanted- even if I wanted to stick to the road more traveled.

  • 5!

    Nier: Automata was a game that I remember friends proposing as a kind of hypothetical 'best possible scenario' in terms of game development. Combining Yoko Taro, a man who cannot tell a story without fuckin' *going for it*, and Platinum Games, who have similar restraint issues with regards to gameplay- it almost felt like too much. It's one of those dream teams that sound amazing in theory, but in practice, you fear what you'll unleash with such a potent mix. It's the Mega Powers of making video games.

    It's doubly weird because I've been a fan of Yoko Taro since before I knew who he was. As a young boy who was deeply impressed with and probably psychologically scarred by the original Drakengard, I was sold on Taro's stories long before I actually learned his name. Or saw his 'face'. I had a similar, though less traumatic experience with the staff of Platinum Games, playing their games and idolizing them before I even grasped the concept that real people were creating these things I enjoyed. Before they were Platinum Games, even.

    With all that in mind, it's easy to see how Automata was primed to be one of my favorite experiences in video gaming. It was almost guaranteed a spot on this list from conception.

    What a relief, then, to find that it legitimately *is* one of the most impressive games I've ever experienced. It was also a fairly emotional experience, and while I won't go into all of the themes and ideas involved here- both because better people have already done so and because I want to actually finish this list- I will say that Ending E is perhaps one of my favorite things in any video game, ever. In fact, I'd remove that qualifier- it's one of my favorite things, ever. Especially in this day and age.

    "The person you save will be selected at random. As a result, this person... who cries out for help even as we speak... may be someone you intensely dislike. Do you still wish to help?"

  • 4!

    Cuphead was always going to be on a list of classics alongside Okami and Wind Waker- but originally I figured it'd only be there as part of the fairly exclusive "This game is going to look amazing until the end of time" club. I expected this game to let me down because of how outstanding it looked in every trailer. I watched it in motion and felt, in my heart, that it couldn't possibly be as good as it seemed. There was a catch, the other shoe would drop, and when people had their hands on a controller at last we'd find out that beautiful art and animation was a smokescreen.

    I was wrong as *fuck* and I'm still pumped about it. Cuphead is one of the best games I've ever played. It did have some glaring bugs when I went through it the first time, but most of those have been patched now- and I enjoyed it enough that I played through them, rather than wait for a fix. I think Cuphead is one of the only games I've ever wanted to gush about to people who don't really care about games, one of the only things I've wanted to show off to people I'm pretty sure wouldn't be interested anyways. Seeing it, hearing it, playing it, it's just something so impressive and marvelous that I want to spread the word. Cuphead starts good, stays good, ends good. There's no part of the game that feels forced or phoned in or lacking for inspiration and passion. It's hard to find a more consistently great game than this, and I imagine it will be for quite some time.

    ...Also, Hilda Berg is the coolest boss. Fight me.

  • 3!

    Originally, I really liked the idea of Nioh because I just wanted a Souls-esque game with a different style. I can only hack up so many vaguely dragon and wolfish monsters in nondescript european castle and town settings for so long before I start to want a change, and Japan has long been a wellspring of fucked up, weird-looking monsters and rad architecture. I was after a competent Souls clone with a different coat of paint. After years of sequels and spin-offs that seemed to be unable to improve upon or even just recreate what I liked in Dark and Demon's Souls- at least without significant backsliding in other areas- I'd given up on one of these games managing to recapture my interest in the same way.

    I feel bad for underestimating this game, because what I got was anything but another forgettable clone- Team Ninja seem to be the only people who looked at the Souls games as they came out and put thought into how to meaningfully change them for the better. I'm not sure I've ever seen a game change quite as drastically as quickly as Nioh did between the initial demos and the final release, and the post-launch support has been incredible to watch and experience. The game now is a very different beast than the version that I got at the start of the year, and the tweaks made have all been for the sake of convenience and balance in a way that makes for a more enjoyable experience without compromising on difficulty.

    And it is difficult, no argument there- but it's fair in a way that I'm not sure I've ever thought of a Souls game to date. Being able to always view the current health and- most importantly- stamina of your opponents is a pretty big deal, as while the enemies may follow slightly different rules than you, there's a universal understanding that when your stamina bar is empty you're going to get wrecked. It's a matter of presentation- Nioh is unafraid to let you see the enemy's stats as you fight them, to watch various status effect meters fill and empty as you land hits. It reminds me of the DM running your tabletop game deciding to roll their dice in the open, instead of behind a screen- no need to fudge the numbers, and whatever happens, happens. It can be brutal, but it's honest.

    The dedication to improving the game, continually, long after release- along with an already incredible and complex combat system that I find more intense and satisfying than anything I've encountered in one of these Souls-likes before- leads me to hope that other developers learn from Nioh as much as it clearly learned from them.

  • 2!

    I can't remember the last time I was so fascinated by the world a game presented me with. I went in about as blind as possible, having seen little besides a few screenshots- I was sold on the art style alone, because it's gorgeous and I'm easy. It turned out that it was the right move, as the game fairly literally tosses you into the world without much of a primer and then naturally, intelligently (and optionally) feeds you details and information as it becomes relevant. That slow drip of knowledge became, as much as anything else, a reason for me to progress through the game.

    I wanted little more than to learn more about the wonderfully bizarre world (rendered as beautifully as I think anything in a game ever has been) and my own place in it. I wanted to know more about the Downside, and the Titans, the Scribes, the Rites. I wanted to know about the Commonwealth, and how it had deteriorated to such a sorry state, and the crimes for which the Nightwings and other triumvirates were being punished. I wanted to know *more*, in general. I wanted to know everything.

    I was never going to get that, because you should *never* reveal everything. Nonetheless, I was always eager to engage with every highlighted bit of text, to speak to my teammates and Sandra whenever possible, to simply exist in and take in as much of the world as I could- knowing that my time in it was going to be all too short. It's fortunate that one of the best ways to learn about the setting was (naturally) by speaking with the characters living there.

    The Nightwings might be my favorite collection of characters in a game in a very long time- the relationship between Jodariel and the Stowaway in particular unfolded in a way and at a time that forced me to reevaluate many of my original plans for how I'd see through the rest of the game. Similarly, my encounters with my rivals in the other Triumvirates- both friendly and unfriendly- had me tempted to throw a match or two, to allow freedom for the elderly Alder or the unexpectedly sympathetic Barker. Unfortunately for them, my desire to see the Nightwings ascend- and remain together- outweighed my charity.

    At the end of it, I decided that I'd probably never come back to this game- not because it wasn't great, but because things played out in such a perfect manner that to go back and change that story seems almost blasphemous. I do miss my time in that world, though, and can't help but be a *little* envious of my character's retirement to a quiet library in the Downside. I'd totally throw myself down a magic river for a chance to read all of those books, is all I'm saying.

  • 1! Seriously!

    This was fuckin' *unexpected*, people. So much so that I'm going to let myself rant and go a little long on this one. There's a part of me that's convinced that some time I'll look back and think this was the wrong choice for my top spot, but then I just remember how all around *great* this game is.

    Let's not mince words: The first Evil Within was a disappointing game. It was supposed to be a triumphant return to form for Survival Horror as a genre, and instead it- well, I'm not as down on that game as most, but it's fair to say that it set an incredibly low bar for a sequel to clear. I'm shocked and ecstatic to say that The Evil Within 2 is not just a dramatic improvement for the series- I think it sets that new benchmark for the genre that people hoped the original might. I think this is the best game of the type that I've played since Resident Evil 4. In no uncertain terms, I think it's *better* than that game. At the very least I *prefer* it, and I suppose that's what counts here.

    As ridiculous as it might sound, that's something I was pretty sure I was never going to need to say or type. There's a reason that RE4 has been released so many times across so many platforms, and is so well regarded. I consider pretty much all of the praise it gets to be well deserved- and I feel like The Evil Within 2 is a more complete, consistent package.

    It does well what I expected it to do well- shooting, mostly. That's good, obviously, though not what I'd call a big deal. What I do want to call attention to is how well all of the *other* things in the game work- and there's a *lot* there. This is one of the first games with a stealth system where I never felt confused as to whether or not I was hidden, or seen, or heard, or any combination of those things: at no point did I wonder whether or not I was sneaking successfully. It's presented clearly and worked pretty much flawlessly. That became a running theme throughout the game, and I could keep talking about this for some time- suffice to say that mechanically, it's better than I expected and as good as I wanted.

    The places where I feel the game really stood out were places that I frankly expected it to fall flat. The first game toyed with the idea of a shifting, dreamlike reality- but largely focused on gore and violence and brutality. It felt lazy, and the second game seems desperate to make up for lost time- immediately you're thrown into an art gallery that is infinitely more interesting than anything in the first game, and full of surreal changes in layout and scenery as you attempt to make your way through. It feels authentically dreamlike, and this is something they keep up throughout the game's run time- it's pretty impressive on a technical level, as well, but mostly I was glad to see them using the idea of the setting to the fullest.

    Among the many failings of the first game was the inability to establish a memorable cast, or even really giving the characters involved depth beyond vague archetypes of "Gruff" or "Mysterious" or "Wears gloves". It's startling, then, that Sebastian Castellanos is my favorite protagonist in a video game this year. More than an interesting character, he became compelling and sympathetic throughout the story, struggling with his own self-loathing and guilt- things turned into very literal barriers to his progress by the mental world of STEM. When the time came for Sebastian to accept and move past his failings, to fight back and actually start to prevail against his tormentors, I was downright *proud* of the man. It felt good, to see him win, because he *deserved* it. It's been a long time since I liked a main character that much.

    The entire cast, really, was impressive- Stefano deserves a lot of credit here. He's miles better than anything the first game even dreamed of- a stylish, intriguing villain who is both legitimately scary and surprisingly likable. Well, when he's not turning radical dreamspace murder into radical dreamspace art, or threatening you with knives. He's hands down the best villain the game has to offer, and many of the scenes with him rank as the high points of my experience throughout the game.

    Even the supporting cast, mostly comprised of Mobius operatives stuck in Union with you, managed to ingratiate themselves to me by acting fairly realistically- for the minions of a comically evil Illuminati-esque organization, anyways. O'Neal, for a seemingly one-note cowardly tech guy, is actually a fairly reasonable dude who just wants to live through this shit. Hoffman, social awkwardness aside, is intelligent and practical as well as a true believer in Mobius' ideals, and it's interesting to get that perspective. Sykes, on the other side of that coin, is more about the paycheck than the mission. Torres has C4 and machine guns and a legit tragic backstory and motivation. I don't have to tell you how cool she is, but for the record? Pretty cool.

    So, yeah. This has already gone on longer than I wanted. It's one of the best games I've ever played. It's got great characters, an interesting world, is legitimately scary, is fantastically paced, has fun boss encounters, and as soon as I finished it I wanted to jump back in and play more. I probably will, once this holiday nonsense has calmed down. It'll be a good way to kick off 2018.