Mento's Month: January '20

So, new year, new hopes and dreams for the future instantly dashed by the successful US Senate criminal cover-up and the inevitable passing of Brexit and the great purging of our socialized healthcare and civil rights to follow. It'll be weird to think that, although the 2010s didn't really see much change besides smaller phones and better sunbeams in games, the end of the 2020s could very well see us all in oppressive autocracies led by fussy-haired Caligulae or permanently on fire or both. Meanwhile, The Good Place series finale makes a very convincing case for oblivion in the midst of it all.

Still, gotta remain positive somehow. The game industry is going through some sweeping - but not necessarily negative - changes also this year, as E3 possibly gasps its last irrelevant breath, the new generation of consoles prepares for battle against an upcoming era of console-free ethereal cloud gaming, and Giant Bomb hunts for a personality and imagination big enough to fill the SmackDown-branded sneakers of Dan "Dinosaurs Aren't Real" Ryckert. If nothing else, the game industry is going to be an exciting thing to watch over the next decade, and I don't doubt there'll be many more strong years for games. For 2020 we can (probably) look forward to Doom Eternal, Nioh 2, the FFVII Remake (or the first episode of it?), Cyberpunk 2077, Ghost of Tsushima, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, Deadly Premonition 2, and hopefully the localizations of Ys IX: Monstrum Nox, Yakuza 7, and Tales of Arise. Not a huge list so far, but one that will continue to grow as the seasons change.

My secular humanism has been stretched to breaking point, but I still have faith that we can sort everything out before the Doomsday Clock starts bonging the bong that ends the world. If the worst comes to pass we can at least pull up a deck chair with a bottle of whatever the newest brand of hard seltzer might be and an Animal Crossing-branded mint-green Switch and sit back as the wave of flames engulfs us all. Happy 2020!

Indie Games of the Month

January comprised the 151-155 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:

Constantly catching fireflies to not die when the fog comes around is not my idea of engaging gameplay.
Constantly catching fireflies to not die when the fog comes around is not my idea of engaging gameplay.

Smoke and Sacrifice (IGotW 151) is a game I wished I liked a little more, because I've been wanting someone to marry the Don't Starve style of survival sim with the strong narrative direction that you'd only get from an RPG or adventure game. Unfortunately, I don't think I have it in me to enjoy the endless cycle of toil that any survival sim is fundamentally based upon, as evinced by both this and Subnautica a little while back. It turns out when gameplay and chores become one, I check out. Especially as I have plenty of actual chores to do. Still, though, I imagine this would be a good way to teach our kids about the drudgery of grown-up life. Get them hooked on virtually taking out the garbage and filing their taxes now so the banality of maintaining a responsible adulthood can be a welcome surprise for once. (At least the game looked nice? Maybe not animation-wise, but it definitely had an aesthetic going on.)

The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game (IGotW 152) was a game that felt like someone's failed idea for a Cartoon Network pilot. Not to denigrate the game too much, because it was wholesome and silly in a way I can appreciate as someone who could use something to chase away the gloom for a brief merciful moment, but when you have the likes of Ace Attorney or Detective Grimoire doing the funny detective bit but having actual logical deductions and puzzles to solve, it's hard for something this insubstantial to stack up. Still, the number of gateways for young'uns to discover gaming continues to expand, which is an always encouraging thought.

Avadon 2: The Corruption (IGotW 153) and its deliberately archaic CRPG charm is mostly comfort food where I'm at in life, though perhaps if it hadn't popped up in the randomizer tool I use to plan my IGotW shedule I might've opted for something with a bit more of a budget. Avadon 2 does a lot with the little it has though, creating some entertaining encounters (more on that below) and a game-wide dilemma of choosing to either work for a feared authoritarian institution with no oversight and morals or siding with the rebellious forces of chaos as they prepare for a catastrophic shake-up that will end thousands of lives. I should start playing these games closer together, because there are some major characters that go through a journey across this series.

Honestly, everyone's a poet when there's creeping terrors behind every vent grille.
Honestly, everyone's a poet when there's creeping terrors behind every vent grille.

Stasis (IGotW 154) starts promisingly, as you awaken from a stasis booth and jerry-rig a couple of solutions to make steady progress through a hellish bloodbath of a research spaceship as the powerful gravitational forces of the nearby gas giant of Neptune threatens to tear the nightmare factory apart from bow to stern. Some strong Dead Space energy, coupled with an axonometric Infinity Engine-esque perspective and a whole bunch of incoherent inventory puzzles. I dug the game's atmosphere but I wish the puzzles had been a little more intuitive.

Vaporum (IGotW 155) is another game that has a strong atmosphere right out of the gate, adapting the tried-and-tested first-person dungeon crawler format for an uncommon steampunk aesthetic filled with tubes and valves and riveted metal. Advancement is centered around the player's "exo-rig" suit and affords the use of gadgets which can transform the battlefield or keep the player in good shape. Pretty handy when you're fighting no end of mechanical terrors and modified human corpses all warped by an ambiguously evil substance named "fumium" mined from an underwater meteorite. The bigger emphasis on storytelling and some handy quality-of-life features raises the game to the genre's highest echelon in my view, and I look forward to seeing more games of this type from this studio.

Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot

Wiki Project: Awesome Games Wiki'd Quick 2020

My stand-out this year was this insane Super Mario 64 Randomizer race, and it made me realize how sad I was that Dan was gone and wouldn't be able to convince GBE to build a feature around this hack.
My stand-out this year was this insane Super Mario 64 Randomizer race, and it made me realize how sad I was that Dan was gone and wouldn't be able to convince GBE to build a feature around this hack.

I began the year with another Wiki Project focused around the week-long Awesome Games Done Quick annual charity event put on by various Twitch and YouTube speedrunners. Each event has a mix of familiar classics like Super Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3 as well as an exhibition of games either too new to have been showcased before or too terrible for anyone with any iota of sense to have dedicated large portions of their free time towards mastering. It's that exhibition that often has our wiki meeting the realities of years of neglect, as many new games don't have much in the way of pages and the terrible ones have been mostly forgotten. I chip in to spruce those pages up - a task that doesn't require as much work as it sounds - just to make sure the Twitch channel administrators don't bump into any issues attaching our game pages to the stream (well, indirectly, through Twitch's interpretation of our wiki API).

This year's AGWQ blog kinda comes off a little more... incendiary than I meant it to, as I first ponder the speedruns I was personally looking forward to seeing most before going into a diatribe about which parts of the wiki are in the biggest state of disrepair. Probably not the best way to endear new editors to our database-in-progress, but maybe at least one that gives them a good idea of where to start. If you ever wanted the unenviable task of removing hundreds of prohibited second-person usages from slightly older game pages by all means have at it. (We mods should strongly consider starting a bounty program for cleaning up that business...)

The Games That Would Be King (2010s Edition - Part One)

My goal with this feature was to look at the games that defined the 2010s and highlight not only those trendsetters which had and will have a lasting influence on the games industry but those that could've easily had a similar horde of imitators had we all been paying more attention to them. "The Most Influential Games of Such-and-such-an-era" is a topic prone to disagreement and goalpost-moving, which is why I spent a little more time on conceptualizing a vision of the present where the likes of Sleeping Dogs and Fez had become paragons to emulate. As for Part Two, I'm sure way more time needs to pass before we can talk earnestly about the lasting influence of the games of 2018 or 2019, and it's more than likely I'll just forget when that time finally arrives. Or I'll be dead and gone. Either way, a win for me.

Grief Encounter: The Importance of Encounter Design

That's how I roll: leaving nothing but bloodstains and memories.
That's how I roll: leaving nothing but bloodstains and memories.

I'm going to try to cater blogs around what I'm playing a little more, rather than the routine weekly/monthly features I've been persisting with in previous years. It should allow me to play more games I'm actually invested in trying out rather than those I'm only playing because it's the next relevant destination in my whistle-stop tour of the Sega Saturn library or what have you. Grief Encounter was a potential first entry in a series that explores the importance of encounter design (hence the subtitle); an important but often critically overlooked aspect of RPGs that elect for a more bespoke quality to the battles and scenarios the player might become embroiled in. This inaugural entry specifically looks at five entertaining battles from Avadon 2, each of which was a case where the limited game mechanics or narrative lead-in were used in an unexpected way to create some memorable conflicts.

This is definitely more a thing of CRPGs than JRPGs: the latter is happy enough to toss mobs your way until a boss comes along and you're finally forced to consider elemental types or resourceful item usage rather than smashing the attack button until the victory ditty plays. JRPGs usually make up for that by being more mechanically interesting, if not always more mechanically dense. As I suspect this will be a very RPG-heavy year for yours truly (isn't it always the way that untouched 80+ hour RPGs just pile up and up?), I might be revisiting this blog format again.

List of Shame 2020: A Perfect Vision of Regret

List of Games Beaten in 2020

GOTY 2015 (Adjusted)

GOTY 2016 (Adjusted)

GOTY 2017 (Adjusted)

GOTY 2018 (Adjusted)

It wouldn't be a new year without a whole bunch of familiar lists. The annual Lists of Shame and of Games Beaten make a return, with the former incorporating a larger "wishlist" (games I don't own) than "backlog" (games I do own but haven't played).

I've also updated the last four years of GOTY 20xx (Adjusted) lists: an ever in flux reckoning of my favorite games from those respective years, adjusted to include those I've played since the year in question. The 2018 list is new, while the others have all been edited for another year of catch-up gaming. 2017 in particular has become a warzone, and I keep wanting to revisit my choices and consider putting certain games higher and lower with the benefit of hindsight and memory retention. In a weaker year, any of those top ten could've been my GOTY easy.

The Games of January

Luigi's Mansion 3

The only optional boss ghost. I still dusted him anyway because he weirded me out.
The only optional boss ghost. I still dusted him anyway because he weirded me out.

It comes a little too late for my 2019 GOTY top-ten, but I've spent much of January playing two games that would've easily made the list had events shaken out differently. The first of these is Nintendo's newest entry in a series that, subtextually, explores how much Luigi sucks as a character. Luigi's Mansion has always been part-ghostbusting action game and part-kleptomaniac sim as you pick apart a room piece by piece to find hidden stashes of cash and other secrets. The cash and secrets are mostly immaterial - the only important goal is to hunt boss ghosts and acquire the next elevator button - which is a shame because these secrets are where the game can best demonstrate its expertly intricate level design. A room could have any number of hidden panels or concealed wads of bills and using the new set of tools at Luigi's disposal - a "grapple plunger" to pull down furniture or toss it around, a blacklight to find invisible objects, a high-beam to activate light-based switches, and the ever-helpful doppelgunger that is Gooigi who can pass through pipes and grills on Luigi's behalf - makes exploration such a treat. The ghost-bashing was honestly secondary to that; every time those phantasmal gates slammed down over the exits and a new batch of colored specters emerged I found myself enjoying the game just a little bit less, especially while scouring previously-covered floors for any gemstones or Boos I may have missed.

There are times when the game got legitimately challenging, either because of a tough boss fight or some exceptionally well-hidden puzzle solutions. Buying hints to the locations of gems only gets you as far as the specific rooms they're in - and I'd discover later that buying these hints robbed me of the "best ending" - and often I'd be trying everything to shake that jewel from its hidey hole. Other times I'd just be on this elated autopilot, disassembling every chamber and corridor until there was nothing left to interact with and moving on like a swarm of locusts. I'm not sure if there's a name for this phenomenon, but I noticed it when playing Eledees all those years ago: there's something so atavistically compelling about encountering a well-organized room - maybe a bar stocked with bottles, or a bedroom filled with knick-knacks - and absolutely destroying the carefully considered order of the place. Maybe we humans, like the universe itself, are attracted to chaos and the fomenting of same. Would explain the past few years.

The Outer Worlds

Space. Space never changes. Or if it does, it takes a real long time.
Space. Space never changes. Or if it does, it takes a real long time.

Speaking of cynical, The Outer Worlds has been a hoot so far and the New Vegas successor I'd been longing to play. Again, maybe because my mind isn't in the right place to enjoy its smarter choices, but I've been less intrigued by the Morton's forks and challenging dilemmas of the story arcs and faction choices and entirely focused instead on looting every location and filling my ship with food, booze, meds, gear, and decorative trophies to my sprees of larceny. It's the moments when my companions snipe at each other or I clear out an entire marauder camp in a matter of seconds with a combination of a high-powered rifle and time-dilation powers where the game shines best, and collecting a bunch of side-quests is really more of an excuse to get out there into the cosmos and see what I can find.

I love the coziness of the good ship The Unreliable and my endless storage box of filthy lucre, I love my immortal companions and their cheery misanthropy, I love that the game's injected its zeerustic "capitalism-run-amok" personality into every object description and overheard NPC chatter, and I love just luxuriating in another Bethesda-like open-world RPG with no particular destination or goal in mind even if (or maybe especially because) it's a little more compact than usual. It is perhaps more finite than I'd like - I've probably seen every type of item a dozen times each by now - but it's been scratching an itch I didn't even know I had. I'll have something more definitive to say about my overall experience with the game in next month's round-up, I'm sure. For now, I'm taking it sleazy as I cross the wilderness of Monarch, exploiting my recently acquired perk that causes headshots to do explosive damage to all enemies around the newly-headless corpse and cackling like a madman.

Other Distractions

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The Good Place Season 4: For a show that became impossible to predict as it concluded the first season with the biggest twist its high-concept premise could have, only to keep changing the rules for every subsequent season, The Good Place found a way to end that make perfect sense for these characters and the vision of the afterlife Michael Schur had created. I'm obviously not going to go into any details, and it's hard to even establish what this final season is about without spoiling three whole seasons of them getting to this point, but it's the sort of definitive ending that Schur pulled out for Parks and Recreation, where we see where everyone ended up many, many Jeremy Bearimys later. That very last episode is extremely bittersweet and one that will sit with me for many years to come.

For a show to have so many great jokes and character moments and for all that to eventually take a back seat to its whiplash narrative direction and poignant messages about moral philosophy and the meaning of life is a startling prospect for primetime television, and especially for an NBC sitcom - a format usually content to stick a camera in front of a couch and have the smallest child spout a familiar catchphrase while falling over to the rapturous braying of a canned laugh track. I'd say this show was a once-in-a-lifetime special happenstance, but I also suspect that its legacy will produce many more shows like it that aren't simply content to toss one-liners around and instead tackle big questions with the same wit and grace. If not, I'm sure there's still some jokes left over on what a nightmare Florida is for whatever NBC's next big thing ends up being.

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BoJack Horseman Season 6: If I'm a little more morose than usual this month, it's because BoJack Horseman saw its final chance to punch me in the gut and took it. A show as wonderfully funny and creative as it could be devastating, the final season - as unfortunately bifurcated as it ended up being - ends the only way the show could've done, leaving nothing certain except that life is hard but ultimately worth living to its fullest, because there's nothing else to follow (for as much as I wish The Good Place turns out to be accurate). The show is regularly at its most inventive and captivating during its "penultimate episode bummers," where BoJack is taken to a new nadir and the finale has to pick up the pieces for the next season to follow up on. It's sort of the same dynamic as witnessing the night of a social event that goes horribly out of control followed by the rueful morning after. This season's penultimate episode - "The View From Halfway Down" - might be one of the most emotionally powerful episodes of television I've ever seen, and certainly one of the most daring. Of course, that could say more about how little I challenge myself with any artistic medium that an animated show about a Hollywoo(d) horseperson could hit me the hardest, but I also think that wouldn't be giving this show enough credit.

Looking Ahead

Just looking at the release schedule for February 2020 and it appears "Fuck You, It's January" has decided to extend itself another month. Barely anything here worth mentioning, barring a few games that I'm not so much excited about personally but second-hand excited for those looking forward to them. Suits me; I've still got a stack of new games bought over the holidays to take a stab at. If the year continues being this underwhelming I might even be able to catch up with some Trails, Tales, and Yakuza (which almost sounds like the title of a great slice-of-life anime).

No idea what to make of all this. Hopefully it's fun?
No idea what to make of all this. Hopefully it's fun?
  • 4th - The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. I've heard some good things about the Dark Crystal prequel reboot (preboot?) and it looks like the tie-in game's taking a semi-serious stab at an axonometric strategy RPG in the vein of a Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics. I've never stopped loving that kind of game, even if I did get burned out on Nippon-Ichi PS2 SRPGs once upon a time, and I'm hoping this game manages to do well by the format, the show, and the license as a whole. No pressure.
  • 11th - Yakuza 5. The HD-ified third PlayStation 3 Yakuza is joining its two predecessors and filling out that Yakuza Remastered Collection that went on sale a few months back. Yakuza 5 is perhaps too much a good thing - I don't think a single entry went on as long as it did, or had as much content - but everything from the fourth game on has been peak Yakuza: a combination of serious storytelling and less serious side-stories, urban activities, and absurdly violent and chaotic brawling. Anyone powering through all three of those Remastered games on the trot might find themselves hitting a wall of diminishing returns here, but there's still so much to commend. My favorite is that they took the "the Pooh Home-Run Derby flash game is impossible" meme and figured out how to put it in this game.
  • 14th - Dreams and Snack World: The Dungeon Crawl - Gold. I've been burned too many times by MediaMolecule's very loose grasp of what makes a good platformer to be too excited by Dreams, but it does seem like a bottomless well from which creativity can spring forth, leaning hard into enticing those trendsetter content creators that took the shaky physics and building tools of the LittleBigPlanet series and put them towards projects that were unrecognizable compared to the single-player levels. I'm sure Giant Bomb will dip into the best of those creations a few times this year, if not try to build something themselves. Meanwhile, though I'm skeptical about roguelikes, Snack World is the newest big multimedia franchise from Level-5 and I'm still so besotted with their early material that I want to keep giving them new chances, even if I've bounced off everything they've produced since White Knight Chronicles (with the notable exception of Ni no Kuni).
  • 25th - Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection. I keep meaning to check out the many eras of Capcom's Mega Man I missed, having only stuck around long enough for the Mega Man Legends series for PS1. The Zero/ZX games are more explormer-like in their construction, which suggests to me that I'd probably enjoy them a whole lot. I won't have any clue what's going on in the story - I think these games assume you've played all the Mega Man X games back-to-front - but if I got through Kingdom Hearts III in one mostly confused piece I'm sure I can handle these too.
  • 28th - One-Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows. I'm not really a proponent of fighting games, and I only enjoy Ranking of Fighters when they're checking out something terrible that they can collectively mock in unison, but even I have to admit to being curious about a One Punch Man fighter. The way they figured out a means to get around the fact that Saitama is completely invulnerable and insurmountable is a brilliant one - with no means to afford a car or even bus fare, he has to walk everywhere, which was a major factor of the Deep Sea King arc - and I'm curious to see what Jeff makes of it, as it'll probably be his first exposure to the show and these characters. I'm also happy for the whole Giant Bomb Fighter Ranking Science team in general, because February looks to be a good month for them: Street Fighter V: Champion Edition on the 14th, a new update for Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late on the 20th, and the Switch port of Samurai Shodown on the 25th.

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