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2021 Ranked

At the risk of reiterating commentary that has been talked to death these past two years - life's been rough. I'm sensing now that life will never stop being rough. Pick your apocalypse - Covid mutations, climate collapse, American Civil War II - chances are we'll see plenty more evidence next year to support whatever end-of-the-world scenario you want to manifest into existence.

Me, I'm committing myself to a more positive 2022. Have to, right? After all, 2021 wasn't all bad. We got vaccines! Remember how good that summer felt for a couple of weeks before THE RISE OF DELTA? I'm sure we'll feel that feeling again soon. And if nothing else, we had video games. They will never leave us.

After a year of effort, I finally scored a PS5 in late November. While I could have probably marathoned through Returnal or Ratchet and Clank or Deathloop, I focused instead on some of the smaller games I've been dying to play for a year, games like Astro's Playroom and Bugsnax.

I played a lot of old games in an attempt to catch up to their new sequels. I played through all of Psychonauts for the first time. I somehow stretched Hitman 1 and 2 all the way through the year. I even got through Resident Evil 7. And then, after twelve months of coordinated planning and effort, I didn't find the time to play any of those franchises' latest releases. Maybe January will give me an opportunity.

As always, there's never enough time to get to everything. Committing myself to a full-time job, a family, and other hobbies and interests means that I can't just lock myself in my basement and slam through all the big games, as much as I might like to somedays. But this year especially, my list feels sparse, empty of the biggest hits. I'm frustrated that I haven't yet been able to visit many of the games that are winning year-end awards.

There were some phenomenal DLC expansions that iterated on some of the best games of the last decade this year. I don't always include those additional downloadable experiences, but this year, it felt right to shout-out those fresh perspectives. They were too good to leave off.

The list might change in the next few months, as I begin to pick away at that pile of glittering games from this year I haven't played, but even if it doesn't, I do feel like each of the games in the Top Ten have enough great qualities to recommend them to other players. I certainly had great moments with each of them this year. I'd recommend reading the list from the bottom to the top.

Cheers to the New Year. Let's make it the best one yet.

List items

  • If Metroid Dread's most laudable quality is its impeccable game-feel, Death's Door does them one better.

    Death's Door makes no secret about being built on the backs of game giants - Dark Souls for one, and The Legend of Zelda (equal parts Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, to my eye) for another. Games media tends to reward those games that broach new territory for the past-time. Recent Game of the Year titles like Outer Wilds or Player Unknown's Battlegrounds won fans over because there just wasn't much else like them when they released. While it's always appropriate to reward those games that exist on the cutting edge of design, we should not be so quick to overlook those that execute a proven design flawlessly. For my money, I can't find a single flaw in Death's Door.

    The narrative here is nothing that hasn't been broached before, but its execution is delightful. The game's use of text to announce new characters and bosses when they first appear is almost always hilarious. Despite playing as a crow in charge of reaping souls, the narrative's tone remains light, in a Lemony Snicket sort of way. Sure, death and combat are the bread and butter of this game, but every moment has a wink to it. And yet, there are flashes of poignancy couched within. After each boss is defeated, a friendly gravedigger will recite a short eulogy for the creature you've defeated. I'd be lying if I said these moments didn't make me feel at least a little in the wrong for killing those bosses dead.

    Of course, great action and great storytelling can be taken to even greater heights with the right musical accompaniment. The score here has to be one of my favorites of the year. In order to upgrade your character and acquire new weapons, you must fight four waves of enemies inside of carnivorous treasure chests. These sequences, which each begin with the word "AVARICE" smashing onto the screen in bold, white letters, are some of my favorite moments in gaming this year. The music swells with anticipation, the enemies are the toughest you've faced yet, new groups rising to take you down as you defeat each bunch. The eventual thrill of victory is intoxicating. I'd put up the "AVARICE" sequences as the perfect slice of Death's Door - the perfect fusion of story, gameplay, and score. These moments, and there are four or five of them in the game, are sublime.

    I loved Death's Door so much that as soon as I beat the final boss, I started a new save and played it through to completion a second time. Of course, since the narrative here is less than eight hours, it wasn't a tremendous time-sink. It's not like playing through something like Yakuza: Like a Dragon again. But I was compelled to relieve this game's perfectly devourable storyline (And, of course, I wanted to unlock the trophy for beating the game while only using the umbrella. A fantastic way to build a "hard mode" into your game without messing with enemy health or movement patterns.). I earned the platinum trophy here, and still I wanted more. I would have played twenty more hours of this game. I was pleasantly pleased with the end-game content that opens up after the final boss as well. There are more difficult bosses and challenges to overcome, plus fun collectibles that aren't punishing to amass.

    Death's Door is a pure joy from start to finish. It always feels fair, its bosses are creative, and its game-feel was entirely unmatched. It won't win points for reinventing the way we think about games, or even play them, but it will stand strong by reminding all of us of the joy that comes from a great game that's impeccably made.

  • Let's talk about perfect game-feel. That moment when the movements of your hands translate exactly to the movements of a character, when the time you spend mastering the motion of a being through a level leads to even greater understanding. Recently, this is Super Mario is Super Mario Odyssey. This is Zagreus in Hades. This is Wolf in Sekiro: Shadows die twice.

    This year, Samus Aran finally joins the list of perfect game-feel characters. Metroid Dread has perfect game-feel. Dread's control scheme gets intricately more complicated as you acquire the various beam and suit upgrades over your journey. It never becomes convoluded, though, and mastering this system is the only way to achieve victory over the many bosses. They are challenging.

    Metroid Prime completely reimagined the formula of the Metroid franchise, but Dread takes the series back to its punishing roots. There's an argument to be made that Metroid Dread is the toughest game Nintendo (or more accurately, Mercury Steam) has made in decades. Not since the days of sprite animation has a game by the big N raised such a challenge for the average gamer.

    But Metroid fans wouldn't want it any other way, invisible blocks and all. I'll say, it's not that "dreadful" of a game. Yeah, the EMMI enemies can be tough to manage, but there's not really any air of fright built from them. Finally being able to nail the timing window and avoid them by the end of the game is a pure delight.

    Fascinatingly, Metroid Dread attempts to conclude a multi-decade story arc whose previous installment was Metroid Fusion on the Game Boy Advance. Even having played through that game years ago, having vague memories of the X-Antibody, I don't know that the majority of game players are overly interested in the franchise's narrative. I've always appreciated Metroid as a series that values gameplay over narrative coherence. I'm sure there's lots to say regarding the narrative conclusions here. I'll be honest, I was expecting Samus to end up dead by the end of this one, especially considering her evolution(?) into a full-blown Metroid by the end of the narrative.

    I can completely understand why other folks have so many issues with this game. The invisible blocks alone are a byproduct of old, bad game design. I don't know that their presence adds anything of value to the game. We've also seen so many Metroidvanias find huge mainstream success in the last five years. Hollow Knight and the Ori games are stiff competition that don't feel the need to cling to relics of games gone by. Still, Metroid Dread is a phenomenal achievement. Almost nothing this year felt better to play through than this game this year.

    Will Nintendo wait another fifteen years to give us the next installment of this infamous bounty hunter? Surely the critical and commercial success of this one would mean yes. Hey, Metroid Prime 4 will probably come out sometime in the next decade at least. But even if it doesn't, I'm so pleased that Dread has been accepted by the community. I'm happy for Mercury Steam, who believed in this hero and this franchise enough for the Big N to let them do their thing. The final product is, to my mind, now the definitive Metroid experience.

  • 2021 was supposed to be the year that a new generation of consoles proved themselves necessary. Aside from a small handful of titles, we really haven't seen any console exclusivity yet. Most games are still available on PS4 and Xbox One, meaning that the graphical capabilities aren't yet fully unleashed. Games must still be designed for the audiences who can play them. Lucky as I was to secure a PS5 in November of this year, I've had my mind adequately blown by the rumble tech of PS5's Astro's Playroom. I knew that, as unlikely as it seemed, HD Rumble was absolutely here in a big way, ready to change the way it felt to play games, literally.

    Returnal, one of the few true next-gen exclusives available on either console, absolutely slams its technological feats on the table and asks all who witness it to tremble before its might. Particle effects like you've never even imagined. Load times between biomes that are trimmed down to mere seconds. Tactile rumble and adaptive trigger that literally allows you to feel individual drops of rain when standing out in the open. To play Returnal is to be reminded how much potential still remains in the realm of gaming to inspire, to wow its players.

    Housemarque, who became a household name to me after their excellent arcade games like Resogun and Nex Machina, finally have the first-party budget to craft a full-on narrative inside of their games.

    Returnal is absolutely, crushingly difficult. With the rise of rogue-likes, we've seen some emphasize the importance of building up stats that persist from game to game. Hades, in particular, gets much easier as you are able to play and upgrade Zagreus's base health or chance at legendary boons. Returnal provides no such easy pathways to victory. Like Sekiro, you must simply learn the patterns of enemies and persist.

    I hit two stopping-points during my play-through. Biomes 2 and 5. I smashed my controller against them for hours and could not find success. Coincidentally, or maybe not, when I was finally able to beat both of those biomes for the first time, I was able to then immediately beat Biome 3 on my first attempt and Biome 6 on my first attempt as well. Sometimes a good build is a good build. But in both cases, it was the loop that took the longest, the one where I successfully looted secret and optional rooms to build up my arsenal, that delivered success. That final boss was a straight-up psychedelic experience what with all of the multicolored lasers and projectiles that are crowding the screen.

    When Returnal is at its best, it's unquestionably one of the best games of the year. I loved the aesthetic of each biome, the perfectly attuned gameplay, the crazy advancements this new console is able to bring to life. Most folks will find this one too difficult, I think, but those that persist will be rewarded with some of the most satisfying gameplay of 2021.

  • Bowser's Fury

    For all the love and praise it received at the time, I still feel like 3D World is one of the most underrated titles of the last decade of Mario. Maybe it's because of its unfortunate habitat on the Wii U. Even with the Switch port, I'm sure most folks will never talk about this game with the reverence that it deserves.

    Bowser's Fury is the Breath-of-the-Wild-ification of Super Mario. Or maybe it's the Super-Mario-Odyssey-ification. Either way, it seems that Nintendo is more and more willing to embrace the open-world game design. There's not as much freedom as even Odyssey, and the island approach to these worlds mean that everything still feels pretty segmented.

    All that said, I can't deny that I completely devoured this one over a weekend session while my wife was away. Ten or so hours, and I was wrapped. It was delirious, it was joyous, it was everything that modern Mario platforming should be. There's just nothing else like it in gaming.

    There's still plenty more to be mined from these open world explorations. Having played through the entirety of Super Mario 3D All-Stars last year (Yes, I got every single star and shine in 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy. For the first time ever! Yoshi really IS on the roof of the castle!), I think while Odyssey is the best that Mario's movement has ever felt, there's something about the individual challenge of those stars and shines that doesn't translate to finding a couple dozen moons in the middle of the open without any serious work. There's a perfect version of these games that still hasn't been made. Maybe it's just the Platonic Ideal of Mario. I'll gladly take a Mario Odyssey 2 or a full-game version of Bowser's Fury as they attempt to get closer to it. I have a feeling, one day, they'll figure it out.

  • Echoes of the Eye DLC

    Outer Wilds objectively rules. I don't care if you couldn't figure out the spaceship controls (it took me a real long time), I don't care if you had to look up how to solve those fiddly puzzles in the final run (I sure did. I'm not proud.), I don't care if you think Mumford and his sons single-handed ruined the banjo forever the moment they picked theirs up and sang about a cave (No comment on that.). Outer Wilds is a glorious gem of modern gaming, the kind of experience that everyone should prioritize if they haven't done so yet.

    The fact that we got DLC for this singular experience was paradoxically pleasing and unsettling. Those of you who've seen credits know exactly how this story ends. There simply cannot be more to tell. Leave it to this imaginative, clever team to design an experience that can, in fact, exist within the pages of its primary narrative.

    You know how in Dark Souls and Bloodborne the DLC is hidden behind objects or NPCs in the world, and if you don't interact with them at the right time, you just can't access the content? I think that's a load of nonsense. Paying extra for content that you might not even encounter feels cheap in a way that even those challenging games never made me feel while playing. In game, Outer Wilds announces its DLC by simply alerting you to the presence of a new exhibit in the museum on Timber Hearth. That's it. It's up to you to access the exhibit, make sense of the secrets, and eventually, find your way to the new place where this DLC story takes place. This feels more fair to me in that this game is about puzzle-solving. One can access this content at any time, even if they've already beaten the game.

    Solving the mystery of the great darkness that blots out the sun at certain positions in the solar system was the first bolt of excitement. The slow appearance of that cold, rotating metal disc was awe-inducing in the way it felt to discover that, yes, there was a surface to Giant's Deep. Outer Wilds made its name on these moments. And there are some moments here that are now among the best in the game.

    Let me tell you, there were moments in this game that sent chills down my spine. And I don't mean that in a metaphorical sense. I'm talking honest-to-god goosepimples rippling over my arms and back. I was slack-jawed. I was gob-smacked.

    Remember that time in The Dark Bramble when you had to sneak your ship through the mouths of gigantic anglerfish that looked like they were dead but were actually just asleep? Remember that time you pushed a little too hard on the accelerator and a shriek burst from the skeletal maw of those monstrous beasts? Remember how it made you scream? Echoes of the Eye will subject you to a similar horror multiple times. This DLC is a pocketful of dread, a series of unsettling encounters that gave me the absolute willies.

    Credit must be given to the score, an intrinsic, gorgeous part of the original game, that is taken to new heights by the unsettling, alien compositions that fill this experience. The color palette of The Traveler, all naturalistic light greens and blues in the overworld, all frightening dark greens and blacks in the other place, is gorgeous.

    As glorious and terrifying as most of this experience is, there are some choices in the final moments that are easily the game's most frustrating points to date. Failure to complete certain objectives within a certain time frame can render an entire run bust. It takes minutes to return to the spot where you lost it. Just like last time, I had to look up some guides. There were moments in the solving of those final mysteries that felt impossible on a first attempt. Worse, the constantly ticking clock, and the necessity of returning to this place upon every twenty-minute reset was more frustrating the closer I got to the end. It dramatically undercut what may have otherwise been a year-defining experience.

    That said, Echoes of the Eye was touching and terrifying, mystifying and maddening in the way that only Outer Wilds can be. Bless this studio and this creative team. May they continue to craft experiences like this one for years to come.

  • League of Legends came into my life at a delicate time. Back when I was a freshman in college, a friend of mine first came to know the addictive behavior that was playing League of Legends. Even before I knew anything about the game, I knew that even the premise of enjoying the game, dedicating hours to playing it, was a sure sign of disaster. I downloaded the game onto my Dell laptop that was primarily purchased for composing essays for English classes, because I could, and queued up for games with my friends.

    Immediately, I was petrified. The game was stuffed with concepts and characters that I could never begin to wrap my mind around. I spent the summer of 2012 reading character guides, familiarizing myself with terms like Creep Score and Jungler Leash. It was insane. And then, when I played the game, I was merciless mocked by the online players for being absolutely, monstrously terrible at the game.

    Wild Rift solves Leagues problems in two primary ways.

    1) It reduces match time. Thirty minutes is too long to play a singular game. It supposes that I have time to do multiple of those per day. Wild Rift knocks match time down to an average of fifteen or twenty minutes. They go down easier than that bowl of chips and guac.

    2) They made it possible to mute all chat and implemented a smart ping system that allows non-chat using players to still communicate with their team. I know League PC has their own smart ping system, but Wild Rift's is the best smart ping in the genre outside of Apex Legends.

    The result of these changes? Wild Rift is my most-played game this year by a Grand-Canyon-sized margin. Over 300 hours of laning and last hitting and loving the majority of it.

    That is, until recently. Patches have attempted to fix up match-making, but if you're attempting to play a low-stakes game outside of the ranked mode, you will be matched with anyone, and you will likely have a terrible time.

    Wild Rift is excellent. A mobile game that feels better than the PC game it's based on. League of Legends is dead. Long live Wild Rift.

  • I'm not sure when the fascination with time loops grew to such heights. Perhaps we just noticed it because the pandemic years we've been living through have felt cyclical and impossible to escape like our worst imaginings. 2020 aside, time loops have become a genre to themselves, and this year saw dozens of them. The Forgotten City is modest in its presentation. It doesn't have the indie cred that a game like 12 Minutes had (at least, before everyone actually played it), and it lacks the AAA polish that something like Returnal brought to the table. It hangs out in the crevices. Some might argue there's not much game here to justify the relatively high price tag. I'm here to tell you that The Forgotten City is a joyride once it kicks into high gear, a glimmering jewel of passion. It should not be missed, especially if you've been enjoying the recent popular trends of revisiting the same interactions time and time again.

    There was a moment during my first play-through of The Forgotten City where I had met just about everyone, and the loose threads were piling up in my inventory. I had a number of possible pathways, but they all felt interconnected to the point where resolving other lines was necessary. And then suddenly, a whisper of a voice suggested a possible way forward. I suggested an intruder investigate a set of ruins that was set to crumble momentarily, and as the roof of the building shattered onto him, the story threads unspooled themselves perfectly. I played through practically the entire rest of the game in that one sitting, delighting in the ways these moments wrapped up inside of themselves.

    The game can be janky. Its small development team, its humble beginnings as a Skyrim mod, peak through during one's playtime. But more than those small blemishes, the heart and the dedication to crafting an engaging story are strong. Fans of Majora's Mask, of Outer Wilds, must surely give this one a try. If time-loop games are here to stay, and it certainly seems like the are, The Forgotten City is one of the best I've yet played.

  • For the majority of my life, games existed for me as entertainment. I loved my Nintendo series - Pokemon, Zelda, Smash Brothers, Mario - mostly because of my relatively sheltered upbringing. I was absolutely not allowed to play anything outside of the appropriate age range, and I didn't really care. As I grew into high school, my Wii and DS were the only consoles I needed at the time. Yet, as I got older, I began to hunger for more meaningful experiences. Kirby's Epic Yarn was adorable and all, but it lacked a depth that I was beginning to crave.

    While not owning a PS3 or an Xbox 360, I was also reading reviews of games everyday on websites like Gamespot and IGN. Obsessively, I catalogued the scores of the time. I can remember the thrill of the release of Grand Theft Auto 4, even though I knew I wouldn't have been allowed within thirty feet of a copy. I knew about the conversations surrounding games, but I had no means of playing any of them.

    One Christmas, I asked for The World Ends With You for Nintendo DS. According to the media outlets I consumed daily, this game was a hidden gem of the system, the kind of experience that everyone should be playing. It was the first time I can remember trying something out because someone other than my friends at school told me to. I recall feeling hesitant to even ask for it in the first place. My only connection to Square's work at the time was my appreciation for Kingdom Hearts.

    The World Ends With You spoke to my adolescent self in ways no other game had. I loved the characters and the twist-stuffed narrative. I even had a shirt with the player pin design on it! I'd wear it to school and no one had a single clue where it came from, so I'd get compliments from people who definitely would not be complimenting a shirt based on a video game. I'd smile and keep my secrets to myself.

    Strangely, much like Pokemon Snap, I thought the Wii U was the perfect console to host a sequel to The World Ends With You. I even knew the perfect title - The World Ends With U! Get it? Clearly, the staff at Square did not see what was so obvious to me.

    Unexpectedly, a sequel to The World Ends With You arrived this year, nearly fifteen years after the original game dropped. Expectedly, it has sold just as well as the previous game, which is not much. These games are the definition of niche entertainment, and I'm practically positive that unless you were a teenager when you were first exposed to them, you'll find little to enjoy within.

    Neo gets so, so much right. The manga-like aesthetic of the dialogue sequences, speech bubbles and all, is upheld just like the DS game, and now it's, at least part of the time, voice-acted. The battle system, despite being completely reworked for a platform with only one screen instead of two, feels spiritually tied to the previous game. It loses a bit of its uniqueness, but it does keep the entertainment value up. The soundtrack recycles some old favorite tracks, but it also introduces a couple handfuls of new tunes that fit right in. One track in particular, Breaking Free, is so excellent, so perfectly pubescent in its fiendish snarl about perfection and those adults who just don't get it, brought a goofy grin to my face every time it screamed its opening riff. I felt like I was sixteen again.

    But Neo's not perfect. I love the way in which the story attempts to bring in characters and conclusions from the original game, but the result causes this narrative to feel so much less essential. The original game's protagonist, Neku, struggled through a personal journey to connect with other people, to take his place in the world around him. It was wildly uplifting, a message that most teenagers probably need to hear at some point in their life. The conclusion of Rindo's narrative is that he...should be more...decisive? It feels trite, especially compared to the first. The new side characters are infinitely more interesting than the protagonist, a problem that never plagued the original. But then again, maybe my teenage brain wasn't critically consuming this media in the way I am now. Like Kingdom Hearts, certain games play differently to different age groups.

    Still, how lucky are we that we even got this sequel? Warts and all, I'm grateful it exists. I'm okay to let this series go, which is a good thing considering this sold so abysmally. If you have any reverence for the original game, please consider giving this one a shot. If you haven't ever played the original, dig up DS and maybe you'll enjoy that one too.

  • The modern Guardians of the Galaxy are the best group of heroes to come out of the last fifteen years of superhero filmmaking. While they're not perfect, I hold up the two films as some of the best the MCU has to offer. The adventures of Star Lord and friends got me into reading the actual comics. I was able to meet Mantis and Adam Warlock long before they even appeared on film screens. My wife loves them too. There's just something about their interplay that makes them inherently root-able and infinitely watchable.

    When Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy was announced at E3, the world collectively shuddered. The trailer was loud and obnoxious. The lingering bitterness of Square's The Avengers resurfaced in the back of our collective throats. And despite Square's insistence that this new game would be entirely single-player (No microtransactions! None!), the hesitation and disinterest remained.

    Like just about everyone else, I was shocked by the positive reaction this game immediately received upon release. Inspired by the multitude of glowing reviews, I picked up a copy, hopeful to enjoy in sharing the game's narrative with my wife. Over fifteen or so hours, I found myself pleased that those initial impressions of the game were so off the mark. Guardians of the Galaxy, it turns out, is far better than it has any right to be.

    Let's also be clear - there's plenty to dislike about this game too. Star Lord's shout-tastic delivery of his lines during the heat of combat? Brutal. That fake-ass hype music that plays when you call a huddle, perfectly emulating the sludge that Imagine Dragons has been churning for over a decade? Cringe-worthy. The combat itself? Simple and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

    All that acknowledged, the story-telling here makes everything worth it. I'm as shocked as the rest of the world. As frustrating as Peter Quill's performance is, there's no denying the laugh-out-loud hilarity of Drax the Destroyer, the fantastically Russian Cosmo the Space Dog, the wild, performative theatrics of Mantis. The ensemble is spectacular, and collectively, they give heart to a touching story about grief and family. Most important, the game nails exactly what an adventure with these heroes should be - a journey across bizarre, unfamiliar planets, encounters with beasts made of teeth, gelatin, fangs, and armor, and a painfully referential, but perfectly assembled mixtape of 1980s power hits. If the thought of blowing up space aliens to Starship or Blondie makes you happy, I think you'll find enough joy in this one to recommend it.

    The positive critical reaction, and the growing fan response will likely mean a sequel is green-lit. Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect game for a sequel. The team has proven they can craft meaningful narratives. Some additional time to improve the gameplay will undoubtedly benefit the next game. If you're sick of superheroes, I can totally understand why you might hate this, but I can't deny the moments of genuine laughter that erupted from my mouth while playing this one.

  • We've seen a great surge of indie games tackling mental health struggles in recent years. The pandemic has left all of us, some more than others, struggling to find motivation to persevere. I know this spring time I struggled with one of the heaviest bouts of bad feelings I've had in my life. I felt like my professional world was crumbling beneath my feet, like I couldn't do enough to stop the erosion of civil existence at my school. Summer got me through that, but I know how difficult it's been for all of us to survive these pandemic years.

    Chicory is a warm hug of a game, a delightful experience with a sweet cast of characters all lovingly named after food. I love Chicory's heart, as does just about everyone who's played it. It's impossible not to love that sweet lil' pup (Pizza in my game. I'd love a real-time poll giving me the top five most popular names in the player-base) who just wants to make the world a brighter place. Just look at her! Sitting on that bench with her little half-smile. She's adorable!

    Even though you can tell this experience was tailor-made for a mouse and a keyboard, the move to PS5 works fairly well. Triggers drop the paint, and the right stick or the touch pad can control the placement of the brush. Surprisingly, I ended up preferring the stick over the touch pad. I just felt like I had a greater sense of control there.

    For as sweet as Chicory is, I wish the gameplay was more challenging. The choices made here - no punishment for being injured by a boss, plenty of hints in the event you get lost - are, I think, an attempt to ensure that the widest possible audience can play and enjoy this game. But I don't feel the desire to be a great creator like the game wants me to. I never feel the desire to paint in the scenery of the world around me. The navigation of the world is fine, the dungeon puzzle-solving is frequently impressive, but the combat encounters, despite looking great, never had any real stakes to them.

    I know it's bad form to compare games to each other. Each game sets out to do its own thing, but its tough to not see ways in which other games have done this kind of stuff better. A game like Celeste did a phenomenal job of wedding the game's thematic conversations with its gameplay. You felt the same struggle that Madeleine did because that game was dang hard. Chicory has the desire to tackle similar subject matter, and I do think the conversations about expectation and depression are what this game does best, but I never hit the highs of something like Celeste since I felt so little stakes.

    Still, Chicory has enough to recommend it to plenty of folks. It has massive appeal. I can't imagine anyone not enjoying their time with this one.

  • Is it cliche to say that Pokemon Snap was a wild idea? Pokemon was a force of nature, but its primary means of representation was through 2D animation - whether it be the gray-green screen of the GameBoy, or the colorful animations of the TV series. Pokemon Stadium was the first game to realize these pocket monsters in three-dimensional forms, as they might have existed in the flesh. But the constraints of the turn-based battle system meant the creatures didn't do much aside from wiggle in their respective corners of their colosseums. Pokemon Snap was the first game in the series to imagine how these magical mice, these smiling piles of sludge, these flaming, flying beasts might function when they weren't knocking other creatures unconscious. And rather than ask the player to engage in the series's standard combat, the game simply asked you to take their pictures.

    The game was a complete reinvention of what Pokemon had thus far been. It was not a simple re-skin of another beloved classic, like when Pokemon Puzzle League copied Tetris Attack's homework and didn't even remember to change a few of the answers to make it seem less obvious. Pokemon Snap was a whole new creation, and despite being able to finish the game in under six hours, I think it left a mark with just about everyone who played in back in the late 90s and early 2000s.

    Strangely, a sequel was anything but guaranteed. Even the strange experiment of Hey You! Pikachu! got a pseudo-sequel of sorts with Pokemon Channel for Nintendo Gamecube. Fans of the original game clamored for a worthy successor. Claims of a sequel's obvious future success abounded: Imagine what they could do with current hardware! There are literally 700 more Pokemon that could be included! The Wii U is the PERFECT console for a sequel!

    Well, more than twenty years later, New Pokemon Snap arrived, to the joy of disenfranchised millennials everywhere. For better and for worse, New Pokemon Snap, is exactly the sequel you expect it to be. The gameplay has not changed. You're still given points for snapping engaging poses and keeping your target in the center of your frame. Your photographer still sits comfortably in a vehicle as it travels automatically on a predetermined path. You can chuck apples and glowing orbs (which replace the less-than-animal-friendly "Pester Balls") at anything and everything.

    That's not to say there aren't a handful of new features this time around. Courses can now be traveled during the day or night. Although this can change the Pokemon that populate each pathway, more often than not, it simply rearranges their placements within the course. There does not seem to be an overwhelming difference in the species you'll find depending on the time of day. You can also uncover new pathways through the same course by scanning the environment or trigging a specific Pokemon to perform a specific action. These add replay-ability to courses you've visited several times, but others are frustratingly obscure to uncover on your own.

    To the gratitude of millions, any concerns that the game would be the same length as the original game have been smashed to smithereens. There's an almost overwhelming amount of content here. While the original game had less than 70 Pokemon to photograph, this one sports well over 200. You'll also be collecting four different photos of each Pokemon species according to an in-game star-rating system that I still can't quite understand despite having spent twenty hours playing the game. Additional courses and creatures have been added as free DLC since the launch. If you were concerned for the length of this one because you remember completely finishing the original game over a weekend before returning it to Blockbuster on Monday, rest assured that you will not complete this one before you're tired of it. I would bet that most players won't even complete their "Photo-dex" before deciding they're time with the game is finished.

    I can't imagine a fan of the original game being disappointed by this sequel. At the same time, playing the game as an adult exposes the limits of its game design. The photo that scores the most points isn't always the "best," because how can you even put a score on a subjective piece of art anyway? I'm grateful that we all had the chance to relive our childhoods, and the moments of bliss I had while lining up the perfect shot or glimpsing a monster I had not yet seen were delightful. It's time for Pokemon to explore new grounds with innovative game ideas. I'm excited for the future, and I have no doubt that I'll eat my words after playing through Legends: Arceus in a few short weeks.

  • With a cast of characters as massive as Pokemon, it was only a matter of time before some studio decided to make good on the Poke-MOBA. Pokemon Unite was derided by the fanbase at large upon reveal. The thing about MOBAs is you either love them or hate them. And that feeling can change on a daily or even hourly basis in accordance with the most recent in-game experience you had with your randomly assigned teammates.

    Pokemon Unite gets credit for being much better than one might first expect from a free-to-play game. These days, the quality for those is much higher anyway, but Unite has developed a fantastic battle system that keeps most games competitive. The choice to hide the scoreboard for the entirety of the match is a wild choice, one that I think a different developer would likely not have made. I can completely understand why the playerbase would be frustrated by not knowing where their team stood in relation to their opponent aside from a vague "We're really far behind!" pop-up at the half-time mark. That said, the secret scoreboard means that players are more likely to hang around and try to win. Crazy upsets are more than possible thanks to a late-game Zapdos steal, or a coordinated ace.

    I love the way the game brings these fantastical creatures, many of them my life-long friends, to life. It's super satisfying to see them fit into the classic MOBA roles - Machamp is brilliant as a mixed fighter, Eldegoss is right at home as a support, Gengar is the perfect jungler. For a couple of hot weeks in the summer, I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming positively that the game received by the community. Turns out, there's a way to do MOBAs that does not have to be alienating or frustrating. I honestly believe MOBAs have the potential to provide gamers with what organized sports provide athletes - that overwhelming sense of satisfaction when the individual becomes an intrinsic part of a whole, when coordinated efforts are able to overcome significant differences of skill. Makers of these games just need to find the right way of getting players into this genre, the right balance of accessibility and complexity. For the most part, I think Pokemon Unite does a phenomenal job.

    I'm pleased that others were able to find satisfaction in drilling into the specifics of items and build paths. Strange as it is, I know how exciting that can be. Ultimately, this game might have been higher on my list had another accessible, satisfying MOBA not completely dominated my playtime for this type of game all year long. Despite initially being viewed as a wild experiment, Pokemon Unite has come into its own and proven that it deserves to be taken seriously.

  • Is this the part where I say 2021 was the first year that I played Mass Effect? I missed this massive (haha) series because back in 2007, I was too busy swinging my Wii-motes back and forth and playing "Even Flow" for the four hundredth time on my plastic guitar. Aside from the purchase of a Playstation 3 literally days after the launch of the Playstation 4, I completely missed out on that generation of "important games." I spent the final two years of my college experience attempting to catch up on the Bioshocks and Uncharteds of the games world, but I never got to Mass Effect.

    With Legendary Edition, Mass Effects 1-3 are finally all available on one disc, or, in my case, one digital file launcher. I'll confess that, as of today, I only finished the first game. My virginal journey into the franchise's various galaxies, unfolding fifteen years after the general public first came face-to-face with it, resulted in a combination of resonant high-points and eye-rolling frustrations.

    I find the combat design here to be interminably frustrating. The difficulty balance was almost never even close to being competitive. I was either wildly under-leveled, possessing all the punch of a splash of tap water, or I was a gargantuan titan, felling all who opposed me with a single shot from my sniper rifle. Boss sequences would either take me two hours or two minutes. It got to the point where I would struggle through a combat encounter and then save the dialogue for the next game session because I knew how much more I was going to enjoy playing through that stuff than the combat.

    I do think that the narrative, for the most part, holds up quite well. I especially love the moments where serious decisions must be weighed and selected. Choosing to eradicate the Rachni was not a moral choice that I agreed with, but it was one that My Shepherd would have made. The call felt heavy but important for developing his character. By the end of the narrative, I had convinced myself, through My Shepherd's interaction with my space-travelin' buds, that the once-cold military man, traumatized through a lifetime of armed conflict, was finally starting to open up and understand the value of interspecies cooperation. In other words, what started out as a Lawful Neutral run had morphed into a Lawful Good one. We'll see if Mass Effect 2 encourages My Shepherd to break the rules even more than he was. My flirtations with Renegade have been quelled, and I sense that I am fully Paragon from here on out.

    Someday I'll play through the other two games. I've heard Mass Effect 2 is the best of the bunch. As it stands, I've finally begun to formulate a proper appreciation for this franchise, for its execution in giving players a one-of-a-kind role-playing experience. Few others can claim as great a success as this one.

  • I've never played through Shovel Knight or any of its DLC. I have no real affinity for Ninja Gaiden as a series. I'm not exactly the target audience for this latest effort from Yacht Club Games. Nonetheless, Cyber Shadow was a notable release back in January, and I had fifteen bucks that I could spare. I went in with an open mind.

    Cyber Shadow's a tough game, there's no disputing that, and despite periods where I'd set the game down for months at a time, thinking to myself, "Well, there's no way I'm ever getting past that," I would pick it up later and find out, miraculously, that I could overcome that previously impossible challenge. I've only put seven or eight hours into the game, not enough time to complete it, but I'd say that I've enjoyed the majority of that time. I think the game looks quite good. One would expect such vividly realized designs from a studio that's made their name on eye-pleasing retro-throwbacks. The music, in particular, is absolutely bangin' in places. If the cybernetic lasers and the katana slashes and the multitudinous deaths of the player character are the fluffy, golden-brown pancakes, the score is the 100% certified pure Vermont maple syrup drizzled all over it. It was this score that often gave me a final boost of assurance to overcome most of the game's demanding boss fights.

    I'm not sure Cyber Shadow has the staying power it needs to become a classic, and I can't speak to the success of its narrative since I consumed it in bite-sized chunks over the entirety of the year, meaning most of it was cybernetic mumbo-jumbo to me. But each and every time I picked up the game, I couldn't stop myself from thinking, "You know, this is alright." Sometimes alright is good enough.