One of the things that stuck out to me was how much I wanted to do the act of "grinding," , where you just do a repetitive task for moderate character improvement, in video games in 2021. It was pretty critical to helping me get through so many dang books and podcasts. I read 56 books in 2021. This was an improvement on almost zero in 2020 and virtually none since college. The repetitive grind was replicated with my domestic life as well where I did a lot of cleaning to get through some of these books. I mopped my whole house twice thanks to Brandon Sanderson. Robin Hobb kept my vacuuming on schedule. I've even did some driving around to finish an audio book now and then ("Well, I guess I can drive an hour and half to go get a growler of beer. Sure."). Anyway, I put together some ordered lists of video games. Here they are.
Best Old Games of 2021
Here are the games I played in 2021 that didn't release in 2021. I ranked five for no reason other than I like to rank stuff.
The only thing I played through completion on the switch online service was Donkey Kong Country 2, the best Donkey Kong Country game. You'd think Switch Online would be better by now. It's not. That's wild.
Okay, so I have a rant that I put together explaining how one of the levels in Demon's Souls is perfect level design. Lemme go grab that real quick. You can skip it if you want.
The Shrine of Storms leads you perfectly to what might be the best encounter of the entire series.
The Silver Skeleton at the start of the Island's Edge are excellent at reinforcing the basic mechanics of combat In Demon's Souls and how attack interruptions work on you and on enemies. You learn and internalize this while the level design hints at ranged combat with the archer skeletons firing at you and the flying sting rays shooting the stingers. The game reinforces this with the Vanguard demon being big and present and scary, and then easily dispatched with a bow and arrow. You get through all of these encounters to finally fight the Adjudicator, which hints at ranged combat again.
You encounter one of the earliest magic damage weapons in 4-1 as well. This influences how you play 4-2, the Ritual Path. You first encounter Shadowlurkers and Reapers which reinforces and changes the expectations of how enemies behave. Shadowlurkers don't follow the same rules as the silver skeletons as they cannot be interrupted. These mechanical changes are intended to cause confusion and ultimately fear as these enemies are dangerous and hit like a truck. The Reapers are killed easiest with fire damage to reinforce what we learned about elemental weapons in the Island's Edge level. Then, once through the reapers, you have the most memorable NPC encounter in the series with Patches who kicks you down a hole. The boss of this area is The Old Hero. The old hero fight is great because it teaches you about boss fight gimmicks. If you listen to the hints other players leave, they will tell you a ring is important. Once you figure out that the boss is blind via mechanics and cut scene clues the ring that keeps your character silent, that didn't really make any sense, now has a purpose. This informs you that you may need to change your equipment just for boss fights to exploit specific mechanics and behaviors.
This all fits PERFECTLY into the encounter with the final boss of the area, The Storm King. This fight forces you to do the scariest thing the game has asked of the player yet - navigate the menus to change equipment in the middle of the boss fight. Every single game mechanic, with player hints, equipment, item weight management, and the dang menu play into the encounter with the Storm King. The specific weaknesses of the boss and how you plan for them are crucial. It's perfect. It's the best thing in the whole series.
Me, on a discord, edited for clarity
I really like Demon's Souls. I cannot believe it's been 12 years since I played it for the first time. I bought a TV and a PS3 the first time I saw the game in action. The remaster is a perfect example of why HDR is important to video games. It was a great reason to own a fancy TV then and it's a great reason to own a fancy TV now.
Best Games of 2021
Here are the games I played in 2021 that came out in 2021. I ordered five of them.
Undernauts is a Japanese developed classic dungeon crawler that deals with lower social and economic classed individuals waging life-or-death battles against monsters in a dungeon for mega-corporations to harvest energy. That's 2021, baby.
This is not the best Mario Golf game. This is, however, the best Mario Golf game I have played online with friends after a late night text of "Galf?" It's really fun to get on a voice chat and shoot the shit while getting in 18 holes. A Wiggler golfs now.
When I talk about "games that have that good grind in them" I am talking about Bravely Default 2. I loved exploiting the games systems to turn the boss fights into cake walks. Having the enemy heal you with every attack? That rules.
I’m only a couple hours into the video game Returnal and I’ve come to a strange realization - The active reload is using the wrong stimuli for how my brain works. Specifically, the noise that comes from the controller, the specific way the controller rumbles, and the information presented on the screen is all wrong for what I find intuitive with a modern video game. Housemarque (the developer of Returnal) should have used the new fancy controller to provide this information in a better way. I want the new controller to bump me when it’s time to press the button.
When I am firing the gun in Returnal, the game already utilizes the triggers on the PS5 to add some pressure when you squeeze the trigger button. They also add a specific “bump” on the left trigger for the alternate fire of the weapon you are currently using. When I am using the primary fire, I squeeze the trigger until the gun is empty and then leave my finger squeezed until I want to fire the next round. While this is definitely not proper trigger etiquette, it’s a video game, I don’t care. This becomes a real problem with the active reload window appears.
The active reload window starts when the gun is empty. It is a meter that fills up under your aiming reticle and then a larger bar is inside of the smaller bar. You need to squeeze the right trigger during this window to successfully utilize the active reload and reduce the time you wait for your character to fire the gun again. The controller goes through multiple phases of rumble while the meter is filling. It does a light shake, shakes less during the active reload window, and then shakes a bit more when you miss it.
Pulling the trigger during the active reload window is specifically a problem for me because I still have the trigger squeezed until I want to fire the next round. To accomplish the active reload I need to:
unsqueeze the trigger
squeeze the trigger
during the right window
This is a real issue as my brain does not even acknowledge the first activity until the window has already started.
What I would love to see is Housemarque utilize the new mechanics in the PS5 controller and provide more information directly into my hands with either the controller lightly yet forcibly pushing my index finger back into the firing position after every shot or just doing that for when the clip is empty. There could also be better ways to implement the specific rumble of the controller to do this than the path they’ve chosen as well. The rumble changing during this window is too subtle. The visualization is also hard to see when I am focusing on a 65 inch screen and not looking directly at the right location while I move my character away from bullets and monsters while not falling off of platforms.
I listened to Episode 685 of The Giant Bombcast where host Jeff Gerstmann specifically describes issues with his ability to see and follow the active reload. This is proof that I am not alone in my ability to follow the prompts as displayed on the screen. Housemarque missed the mark on ensuring the information was clear on exactly what to do to engage with the active reload system.
I would need to go back and play some Gears of War to remember how they communicate the active reload window as well. If my memory is correct, they used a separate reload button on the controller. This would potentially ease the mental gap in the squeeze/stop/squeeze-again as it would be a new cognitive action for the player to utilize. I don’t know if that is better or worse but, I distinctly remember hitting the active reload all the time in Gears of War and it feeling amazing.
I have to assume that there may be some regulatory issues with how much force a controller can apply to your finger as forcing back someone’s tense muscle could be a potential for injury. I also don’t know if the controller can apply force on the trigger once it’s already been pulled. Either way, there are better ways to communicate this mechanic than what they’ve selected.
Games were not a priority in 2020. They never are a priority but they are a thing usually to make time for. My relationship with games this year was a real roller-coaster so I've laid out what my year looked like to hopefully provide some needed context. I put these thoughts in spoiler blocks so that you can skip them if you'd like.
I had a really hard time after finishing my last big JRPG of the year back in March and threw everything to the side. The new plan I formed was to get back into gaming with the disguise of being "productive." It was easy to grab and mod every single device in the house to start running older games. This was games adjacent-busy work, without fully committing to the hard work of picking a game to play. The first game that had me no longer just "going through the motions" was The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. I didn't stick with it as much as a JRPG as good as that deserves but, modding it for the "optimum" experience gave me more games-ish things to do that still weren't playing video games.
Around this time my partner and I had been considering making the jump out of the city and into the 'burbs. We ended up buying a house and any free time I had before went into house hunting, dealing with and firing a realtor, getting a new one, getting a house, and also packing and unpacking everything. This meant the gaming setup changed drastically once we got unpacked. I picked up a fancy new TV as part of this change, as the old TV was pretty small for the room it was in (is the excuse I told myself to justify a new TV). I spent the end of the summer unpacking, grilling, and having bonfires. These were things I couldn't do in the urban area I was in for nine years. It was a good change.
As the weather shifted and I was able to stop doing "yard work" (wow, it's a whole thing, isn't it?), games entered my life again in an almost return to normal towards the end of 2020. The new TV meant I wanted to see some HDR content, the gaming PC being at a new standing desk meant I wanted to stand around and play some stuff, and all these modded devices meant that I went back to some games that I passed over before.
All this is a long way to say: I barely played 10 new games this year. So, welcome to my list of Games Worth Talking About in 2020, to Me, the Person Who Wrote This List! Come in, grab a lawn chair because furniture is still on backorder for a couple more months, and let's figure this out.
My messy list of everything I played this year can be found here.
The Things That Helped
Lockdown closing my traditional outlets for social expression was hard. Here is a list of things that helped.
Honorable Mention - Online Concerts
I have so many concert tickets that were cancelled and it sucks but, watching bands like Pup, Jeff Rosenstock, The Slackers, Run the Jewels, Goldfinger, and more over the internet, was good.
5. Online Trivia
My local pub trivia moved to an online trivia format for the first couple months of quarantine. It was my only social interaction with humans besides work. This was a huge thing to keep my friends and I talking and worked wonders on morale. We split this off into after hours Jackbox Games pretty often. It was good and then it was over after two months and time had no meaning as my only social pattern was gone.
4. Staying Busy - Buy a House
Once my partner and I realized we were trapped in the apartment, the apartment immediately became too small for the two of us. There was not enough room for both of us to work from the house, and sleep, and relax, as these all happened in the same room for pretty much every activity. We were fortunate to have started to put together a plan for buying a house at the end of last year. Houses can keep you real busy. Moving from my home of around nine years was an event and took a fair amount of time. I recognize how fortunate we were to be able to do this in 2020, or ever.
3. Let's Mod It - Old Games Are Back
There has never been a better time to play old games. Emulation has come far enough that I was able to join the discussion around Demon's Souls without getting a PS5 or dragging my PS3 out of boxes. Xbox Game Pass has all kinds of old games on it. It's crazy out there. Go play some old games!
2. Bike Rides - Cycling
I always forget that cycling helps, and then I go cycling and it helps. It happens every single time. I also went on a lot more walks this year as well. The sun! It's good (in moderation)!
1. Online Book Club
My friends and I had put off starting a book club for years. During lockdown, we realized we didn't really talk (besides texting) for about two months or so, and knew that we needed a trigger to get us back on track for a regular conversation. Enter Fantasy Book Club. Is it an excuse to get together and drink beer and talk on a video call every two weeks? Yes. Does it get me to read again? Yes. Does it rule? Hell yeah! Start one with your friends or a discord or something. Library cards are free. Do it.
The Old Games That Helped
Playing some old video games got me to re-engage with the hobby I use to relax (remember relaxing?). They helped. Here they are in a list!
With more time or a better year, I see myself getting through a bunch of this series but, for now I have added it to the backlog after a couple hours. The tactics-like combat is something I can engage deeply on, and the included fast forward mechanics in the re-releases help me to skip it when I am tired of the easier battles. I find myself drawn to these characters and want to see what happens to them through, um, one billion hours of other games? Oh no.
This got me through about a week or two of playing some video games. It happens to be a "just kinda okay" Monster Hunter substitute. What this game did allow me to do was be social on a discord and go through the motions of MonHun with some people when I wasn't being very social in other places. That's a win in my book.
I decided that before Streets of Rage 4 came out, I was gonna become a Streets of Rage person. I did this over a couple weeks and it was really fun! I played through them all over a weekend multiple times. It's still really good and the music still rules!
This is a slightly flawed but also very excellent JRPG. The game has an interesting story and an excellent job system to experiment with. The combat system of taking extra turns or saving up for more turns also still feels unique in 2020. The issues come up with how much backtracking and running around occurs in the later parts of the game. The version that came out in the states features the ability to turn off random battles which can make this not as painful. I am excited to see what happens with a sequel. Well, a second sequel.
I think if I would have played Shadows of Valentia, the mechanics "added" to Fire Emblem: Three Houses may not have seemed so incredible, as most of the big changes are already in this 3DS gem. Adding the ability to rewind a couple turns has made every fire emblem game before this mechanic a lesser game. The story seems totally "good enough" but, the split army management you do as part of the story is actually really fun and prevents me from super over-leveling like I did in FE:3H.
The Games of 2020 Ranked
Oops mostly indie games. Wow, they were amazing this year. Shout-outs to my pile of shame which includes mostly just Yakuza 7, Clubhouse Games and some other stuff that I don't remember.
This is a totally fine mobile game you can skip. That being said, I have enjoyed what I played of this game through the year and am even in a semi-active guild with a discord and everything. It's nice. WotV is a spin-off of one of the other Final Fantasy mobile games and is their take on FF Tactics. Sometimes it feels like FFT but, usually it does not and feels like a mobile game. I don't mind doing the upkeep everyday for the daily quests but don't think it is especially great either.
This was what I was playing leading into the first lockdown and it took me about a month or so to come in and actually finish it off. This game is mostly the same game it was before on the WiiU. The characters are just good enough to make me forget about all of my other Persona friends for a bit. As a newer Fire Emblem fan, I only got the references from FE: Awakening and those didn't feel necessary to the experience. It is easy to see the direct lineage between this game and Persona 5 and worth checking out if that is your thing.
Again, this is mostly a re-release of an older game but, way more work was done here visually so, it's also on this part of the list. This is a totally fine harvest moon game but, I think I may try Rune Factory next time as I'm looking for a bit more mechanically. This did well enough to remind me of what I like about this series and the changes in Mineral Town, where you get helpers on the farm, are cool enough that it kept me playing for a couple hours. Getting help on the farm is nice and feels pleasant when I get to shortcut a day of work in the game. I don't like how some of the progression seems locked around specific gift criteria.
This game is a classic beat-'em-up looking game that is actually a turn-based RPG. It also takes on the topics of police brutality, privatization and militarization of the police force, gentrification, racism, and other political topics in a way that felt meaningful and was funny enough to get me to chuckle several times. It didn't quite keep me on the hook for the whole game as some of the ability gating and leveling is not how I like those progressions to feel but I did like what I played for several hours and plan to return to finish it.
This is a wonderful and gorgeous game to play on a brand new television with HDR. I found myself really enjoying both the stealth and the combat. I was able to hit play and listen to some podcasts while going through the open world motions and have a good time. I am being told that there is multiplayer. Huh.
I don't care if this was on PC last year, Dicey Dungeons is an awesome switch game. This game reminds me of the WizKids release of DiceMasters back in 2014. The dice pool mechanics and the equipment abilities turn your random dice rolls into a well oiled machine. The different character classes all add a unique spin on how you need to manage your dice poll and what types of rolls you want to see. Dicey Dungeons fills the gap left by Solitairica as my run-based game I would take on the go, if we could ever leave again.
I really wanted to like Streets of Rage 4 so I played a bunch of old Streets of Rage before playing the new one and it worked. I was able to get over some of the initial character movement speed issues I had and find a character I clicked with. The combat seems more engaging, with better combos and more meaningful decisions between character move-sets, and the game is not nearly as brutal as it's predecessors. You can play it over the internet with friends who aren't able to sit next to you. I don't know if it will take over my go-to couch co-op choice Double Dragon Neon (now on switch!) but, there seems to be enough here that I'll keep running it with different friends.
I did not get to attend a single baseball game in 2020. This was bad, for me, a fan of this kind of boring sport. Enter Super Mega Baseball 3. This arcade-style baseball game has a new franchise mode that made me fall in love with my diverse baseball people. I got to cheer with them when they succeeded in saving the game and also hate their guts when they struggled with a clutch play. It was an awesome way to keep the baseball spirit alive.
In art of rally, you rally race through beautiful vistas and battle for the best time through multiple stages in a race. The game makes the driving feel like art with visuals to match. This is a game that you can work at getting exactly as good at it as you would like. There is also a free-driving exploration mode to find collectables and take nice photos in. There were enough tunable knobs on the difficulty that I was able to adjust the car handling and the AI to feel competitive at my skill level, which is low. It has a banging soundtrack to put you in the zone, or zone you out, or just put on and chill to. If/when art of rally comes to switch, I will buy it there too because a quick little race between commercials or something on the TV would be even better.
I am going to skip the beginning of a Game of the Year list where I recap small details that have occurred in our world. I don't do this as some sort of easy out or as a way to avoid confrontation. I am doing it because I spent all of 2019 avoiding 2019. I gave it the side-eye, I engaged in "discourse" until my mouth was dry and my throat hurt from screaming, I even started working out again. It's a strange feeling to think 2019 was rough because, personally, 2019 was relatively fine for me. I'd like to think I did what I could to make things a little better in the world at large this year: I rode my bike for three charities (one of these being for a local cause, which I think is important), donated to multiple electoral campaigns (again, some local), but I can probably make time to do more. I'll commit to doing what I can now to ensure 2020 is better.
Video Games were dramatically helpful this year when I wanted to take a break and process my thoughts. The ability to take the Switch with me when I go anywhere has continued to be absolutely amazing. It's a wonderful tool to bring people together, for Mario Kart or Neo Turf Masters or Smash, and be social. I don't think the roof-top party idea Nintendo pitched with was the ideal state but, anytime there is two or more people, taking the switch and a dock can be a real blast. The ability to also pick the switch up and share the TV instead of needing to go to another room when my wife wants to watch something also adds to the feeling of being available. If we're all avoiding looking out the windows, it is nice to do it in the same room.
Some of the fascinating discourse this year has been the lack of "good games" in 2019. I'm sorry if you feel this way but 2019 was absolutely stellar on the games front and should stand out as a year of future classics. So many games had so many interesting things to say and my only regret was not having more time to see them. The pile of shame this year is large and growing still at an alarming rate. I had to make time to write this now as I'm sure after the GOTY podcasts and list starting solidifying, the pile is only going to get larger. As always, I have kept a list of games I played this year here. I even wrote up some reviews of old games this year as community Giant Bomb reviews that can be found on my list.
The Best Old Games
Old games are the new New games. There are so many good ones getting ported to the Switch or other places this year that it was hard to keep up. Assume that Dragon Quest XI S is actually Number 1 on this list. Check my GOTY list from last year about how it's one of the best games ever made.
Geez howdy do I wish PoE 2 was a better game. I really enjoyed the first one but, after playing Divinity: Original Sin II last year, Pillars 2 didn't have the same thrill. Adding in some of the survival elements with stocking and maintaining the ship is a choice but, not a mechanic I was looking to engage with.
I think Halo: Reach does more to show Microsoft's current strategy than the announcement of a new Xbox. Please bring everything to PC and then let me throw a controller at it if I want. I have Xbox Game Pass now and I don't have an Xbox. This is WILD.
Speaking of things I would not have played without a subscription service, Subnautica is pretty good. Survival games are not my jam in any way and I really dug in to this for a couple weekends. I find the idea of that much water terrifying, more so than space for some reason, and diving in (hah pun) to this game was joyfully unpleasant.
I have a phone and am aware I could have been playing these games for a long time but, the Switch is the master at making me take a second look at something. These games are wonderful if not ALL of the writing continues to hold up to 2019's standards. I was happy to spend time with the visual genre novel as I don't have too much experience with them.
Double Dragon Neon was one of the first GB wiki edits I ever made. I'm not even sure if my change is on there or not but, I remember having so much love for the game and wondering if anyone was talking about it. I wrote something about it this year. Please go listen to the soundtrack, or I think it's on Xbox Game Pass so go play it. And please, play Neon with a friend.
When I say, Old games are the new New games, that doesn't mean that there are no new games at all. Rather, there are too many of everything. What I wanted to get to and did not is listed in the pile below.
Pile of Shame
Control, Baba is You, Photographs, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Astral Chain, Overland, Children of Morta, The Legend of Heroes (the whole freakin' series), Luigi's Mansion 3, Dauntless, MHW: Iceborne
These were fun weekends, getting on discord and chomping away at some Apex. I love the movement, how the guns feel, and finally found the closest thing to a Battle Royale for me. Now, Titanfall 2 is still a -*Vaudeville Hook removes me from stage*
One of the greatest things Mario Maker 2 did was introduce me to the 8bitdo line of controllers. The Switch Pro controller is criminally ineffective for playing a Mario platformer, which boggles the mind. Luckily for literally everyone, Nintendo has already created the perfect controller for platforming and RPGs, so 8bitdo saw the opportunity and filed the gap. Playing Mario Maker 2 is extremely fun. I like Mario, and weird stuff, and this is a great mashup of people making weird Mario stuff. I really wish Nintendo could figure out the internet in 2019 to make the discovery process easier but, there is always the next console maybe? No?
Trials Rising is not the worst trials game so that makes it, by default, pretty alright. Sometimes you just need to ride a motor bike real fast through some loops with explosions and be a weird perfectionist about it. Trials is great for giving you something to obsess over, optimize, and continue to improve on.
I got a real kick out of this beautiful wooden space ship. I just wish navigating it was a bit easier (yes, with a controller). I really enjoy the story and the puzzle solving a whole lot. It's great to play a game that is more about discovering the mechanics and how the world works instead of stopping you with arbitrary numbers or powers. I wish I loved Outer Wilds as much as everyone else does though. I really like it, I do, don't throw rocks at me, I just don't think I am quite as in love with it as everyone else is. That's fine because it is excellent. I am happy to hear people tell me how much they love it FOR DAYS. I'm happy for them and wish them the best. I just REALLY like it. I'm sorry, I know, I'm leaving. I'll leave my gamer badge at the door, geez.
Disco Elysium will be thought more highly of later on than how it is ranked on my list in 2019. Disco Elysium will change how a genre I love is played. Everything will be different now that it exists, and the failure to live up to the expectations it has set and how it tells it's story will crush games for years to come. Or it won't. I'm not sure yet. I know that it is one of the funniest, most complex, and most mechanically interesting games I have played in a long time. However, on this list, in 2019, I have put 5 more games above it. Why, you ask? I enjoyed these 5 other games more is all, my sweet friend. Lists aren't objective. I get to think something is one of the most important games I will play and rank it 6th. That's how the world works. Hell, I'm mad about it and it's my list.
The soundtrack to River City Girls is my second most listened to album on Spotify in 2019, falling only behind the band Pup. I went back and played Double Dragon Neon after playing this, and I love any game that makes me want to do that. Wayforward can make absolute delights in music, comedy, and combat. I think I would let Wayforward at any beat em' up they wanted. I wrote up some comparisons to this and DDN over here.
While the switch controllers are terrible for most things, the button D-pad on the Joy-Con is absolute perfection for playing Cadence of Hyrule. After playing some of the regular Crypt of the NecroDancer on PC on a keyboard, the precision offered in the individual direction buttons on a joy-con seems almost required to navigate in rhythm. The music for the Legend of Zelda is always delightful and good on Nintendo for letting Danny Baranowsky take a shot at really making it work in the NecroDancer style. As someone with 10+ years playing drums under my belt, I found the rhythm gameplay much easier than the original game and not much of a challenge. The inclusion to play it as an almost turn based game is a nice touch though. This game (and others from this year even) prove that Nintendo needs to get their act together and start releasing OSTs so that I can buy them.
I freaking love Castlevania. I do. Hands down, Symphony of the Night's intro with Richter was eye opening to me, and then Alucard shows up and it rules! It RULES!! I play through SotN almost once a year near Halloween. Nothing puts me in the mood for spooky stuff like killing Dracula. I am elated to have a new sequel spiritual successor to one of my favorite games of all time. Bloodstained plays pretty well once you can get your hands around some of the clunkiness weight behind the movements. Once I figured out how to do the dash-duck for faster movement, it felt much more like my back-stepping Son of Dracula of old. I had so much fun with all of the callbacks and references that I think I forgave this game for being kind of rough around the edges. At least I have something new to play around Halloween.
Puns: the Video Game. AI makes so many puns it is hard to keep track of them. Every single object you click on is some sort of wordplay and Dad-level joke that I laughed out loud at multiple occasions. I was initially not one for visual novels. I never really gave them a shot. After trying out Phoenix Wright earlier in the year and really getting my feet wet with them, I wanted to see what a newer one had to offer. I really enjoyed the voice-acting, the story, and the weird characters. I think the puzzles are some of this games weakest moments, not because they are bad, but because I ended up wanting to hear enough of the jokes that I eventually would rush through the difficult ones with a walkthrough. I was enamored with this rag-tag group of weird people trying to solve mysteries using dreams. I'm not sure I would recommend AI to everyone but, I really enjoyed my time with it enough to make it my number 2 game this year.
As of the time of this writing, I have spent 195 hours with Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I am currently on my third time through the game, this time with the Blue Lion house. I love FE:3H. I think it may be the best strategy game I have ever played and definitely the best since 2012's XCOM. When I am done writing this, I am going to go back and play more FE:3H. My first time through, I chose the Golden Deer, and loved Claude and his group of weirdos so much. When I fought the other students once the war started, I played the game more like a slasher flick, hunting down all of the former students with a mad professor hellbent on revenge. Once time came to play through with Edelgard and the Black Eagles, picking off my former friends from Golden Deer was a nightmare (except Ignatz). I regretted the way I had played before and tried to spare as many of the sweet innocent children as possible. Going through a third time, with the Blue Lions and Dimitri and Dedue, it is just as much fun to learn a third group of people to feel sorry for and care for preciously. When Felix eventually crosses blades with Dorothea, I will feel sad knowing the strange friendship that could be if I had just let them eat lunch together a couple times in high school. I will feel an ache of futility knowing that this all could have been avoided. And I will move Felix to attack anyway and cheer when a jaded little brother comes out the other side unscathed as the songstress dies defending the cause she and her friends believe in. The soundtrack to FE:3H is appropriately dramatic and exciting. It is a crime that Nintendo has not released it and I'm stuck on youtube playlists to enjoy it. I will say, new game plus is far easier and ruins some of the drama with the initial first time through. I'm a little too frightened to start the game on nightmare but, there is always a fourth route, right?
Every single time I have sat down to play Double Dragon Neon I am almost always a little drunk. I don't mean that as a way to detract from what the game does well. I mean it in that I am almost always drawn to the game in a specific mood. I was inspired to go back and take a second look at this game after finishing WayForward Technologies's new game, River City Girls, and because, well, I was a little drunk. I wanted to compare these two games as they both look at the 80s, and the series they are part of, in different ways. A smarter person would write this about nostalgia and how these two games view the 80s and their influences through different lenses but, you have me instead so let's talk about how they play.
Double Dragon Neon is a 2012 release that is more of a parody then a proper sequel of the Double Dragon series. The game references "Bro" culture early on and uses it throughout the whole game as a fallback for somewhat comedic effect. You do "Bro" things, like hi-five to get double damage or split health between players, say bro a bunch, and punch Abobos. It revels in 80s nostalgia with power ballads and a boss that is definitely Mega Man. The game uses a "stance" system where you level up with dropped items (cassettes) that increase damage done or power up special moves. The game is substantially different than the series it supposedly belongs to. The soundtrack is where the parody goes from standard tropes to something unique and really well done. Go listen. All of this culminates as a more overt love letter to the 80s than creating a new Double Dragon game. The license of Double Dragon let's Wayforward ground the game in a specific time and place, allowing for cultural shorthand that it can use or subvert.
Wayforward has gone on to prove that they don't need "Bro" culture with their 2019 release of River City Girls. Gone are all of the hyper-macho bro stuff, replaced with stylish characters and real personalities. River City Girls is also more a direct line to the River City series than Neon is to Double Dragon. You go buy things in stores, gaining power by eating unique things and picking up and beating people with other people. The soundtrack is used to evoke a very specific lens of the 80s. Instead of a parody of 80s power ballads, it drops the jokes from Neon for a vulnerable 80s and modern pop influence instead. Go listen as the soundtrack is incredible here as well. While Neon jokes, "Remember this dude!" River City Girls gives you a vision of the here-and-now with all of the influence attached and brought to a more modern age. The pixel art goes a long way over Double Dragon Neon's polygonal models to deliver something much more specific to the series the game is part of.
I would say Double Dragon Neon is actually the game I enjoy playing more. I like the combat, it is easier to jump in at the onset, and it's easy to drunkly hand a controller to a friend and explain. River City Girls wants you to pay attention and enjoy the story. I am substantially more likely to play River City Girls alone than with others as the systems are pleasantly complicated but it can be hard to have a friend jump in if you haven't been leveling both characters. River City Girls feels like a smarter and more sophisticated game. Maybe that's why I keep returning to Double Dragon Neon with a six pack and a friend in tow.
1. DoomThis is the DOOM your parents were afraid of in the 90s. DOOM (2016) feels like the DOOM 1 and 2 of yore. You play as a guy dubbed “The DoomBringer” that shoots demons in the face with a shotgun while never not moving. This game undoes the sin of making DOOM 3 a pretty alright survival horror game. It makes you forget that the modes that are not the campaign seem to be forgotten and unused. The only thing I could think while knee deep in demons with the most metal of soundtracks was how much fun I was having. The collectables are smartly placed in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. The guns all feel good. The demons are varied and need different approaches. There is a chainsaw. It is just in there and you can use it and it rules. The heavy metal electronic soundtrack sounds stereotypical in a way that screams the 90s while sounding obviously modern and it too rules. You should probably play DOOM. It rules.
2. Pocket Card JockeyI really like solitaire. I do. The games easily slides into the part of my brain that loves patterns. Pocket Card Jockey tests you with a more simplistic rule set to solitaire while pressing you to do it as fast as possible. All of these hands are done in the effort of making you horse race faster and have more energy than other horses. Your horse becomes better and faster as you develop the strategy aspect around a couple hands of solitaire and start winning races. You can breed your good horses and make better horses that race a little bit like each parent. If the mobile version had come out in the US, I probably would have never stopped playing this tiny gem.
3. SuperhotI don’t know if it is the super stark and simplistic style of Superhot or the novel and interesting mechanics that make it one of the best games I played this year. I would think that both contribute to punching a red “bad guy” in the face, grabbing the gun in mid-air, and shooting more bad guys in the face in slow motion. SuperHot’s combat puzzle is by far one of the best things you can spend time on this year.
4. Titanfall 2Press this button to GO BACK IN TIME!? Titanfall 2 may be the best Gundam game I have ever played. Shooting missiles at in game villains while they spout their evil doctrine at you could not be more robot anime. The fact that you teach a robot how to love again while running on walls and shooting really fast guns easily makes this one of the best games of the year. The online multiplayer dynamic of people with guns and also giant robots adds mechanics that feel fresh even in a sequel. My only concern is the lack of people playing online.
5. HitmanHitman is the “mathematically” best game of the year. Holy shit, did they add a lot to hitman. Did you see the levels of detail as you made out your mark across a busy market square teeming with people? Did you notice when Agent 47 looked a lot like a world famous model at the fashion show and you can just use that to your advantage? Or did you notice the marks in the Christmas level are literally the thieves from Home Alone? Hitman is a weird little stealth puzzle that continues to entertain each and every time you engage with it. The one-try-only missions in the game really test your patience and develop the best language to talk to your friends about how you totally screwed something up.
6. ThumperPlaying Thumper reminds me of when I used to try and break down the drum parts to Prog-Rock songs. Thumper may be best played on feel while ignoring the 7/8 time signature. Also, it is violent and best played loud. I am hoping to set aside more time at the beginning of 2017 to improve my leaderboard position and get into some of that new content.
7. Clash RoyaleI wish I hated Clash Royale more than I did. The game does so many things right that it can be very hard to forgive the game it’s faults. When you hit against the players that have spent some real money on the game, the simple mechanics change for the worse as someone has paid for more and better aces up their sleeve. The gap of the have versus the have-nots convinced me to uninstall this otherwise superb strategy game from my phone.
8. DuskersGive me a game where I can use the keyboard over the mouse any day of the week. It might be my daily work usage of putty consoles that makes the movement and command abilities in Duskers feel intuitive to me. The act of slow navigation with drones into dangerous and dark spaces is absolutely thrilling. My heart is consistently racing while I navigate my tiny drone, harry, through typing which door to open as well as harry’s command to gather everything he finds in the room that may or may not have a monster, all in one line of input. You know, just like work.
9. Uncharted 4: A Thief's EndUncharted 4 may be the second best Uncharted game. That idea alone makes it one of the single best games of the 2016. The very-well-already-wrapped-up story of Nathan Drake shines through in this last chapter so well, I very much forgot how upset I was that they were making another game. This was an excellent Uncharted game that will not change your mind on what an Uncharted game is.
10. Final Fantasy XVPut these Anime boys in this car and drive them straight into my heart. The redesigned combat really brought this game to 2016. It is too bad that so many other parts, like the story, stealth, and hunting missions feel like they came out of a game from 10 years ago.
Pile of Shame:
Overwatch - I think I would either love or absolutely hate overwatch. No clue which. Maybe next year I will find out.
Hitman- I really need to play more hitman and I am excited about what Season 2 will bring
Stellaris- No time for a massive space opera while I too busy even read about massive space operas.
The King of Fighters XIV - This is really on here because of how weird 2016 felt with fighting games. While the move to 3D didn’t help the art style one bit, the combat seems to continue its execution in excellence for the King of Fighters series. Now that a visual improvement patch is coming out in January, you best believe I hope to spend time breaking my hands on this game.
Hyper Light Drifter - I played a bit of this game before the new visual improvement patch was released. I can’t wait to come back to this apocalyptic sword-slashing hyper-future art style soon.
Tyranny- If it was not for Pillars of Eternity, I would probably already have 20 hours into this release. I just need more time.
Gears of War 4- I like Gears of War. I have a PC and can play it. I just didn’t. That’s too bad because I’m sure some friends and I could have a blast with hoard mode.
Thing I am Excited to Play More of:
Let It Die - What a Grasshopper Games start to this game. I have played the first couple of hours and made it a couple floors in and already, this game is right up my alley. As long as the free-to-play mechanics don’t get in the way, I really want to see more of the weird mushroom lady and skateboard-riding Grim Reaper in my Dark Souls-esque rogue-like.
Best Old Games:
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen- So, I think steam has something like 74 hours logged for Dragon’s Dogma while I think 30 to 40 of those are actually true. The combat of Dragon’s Dogma is smooooooth. Like liquidy smooth on pc. I had played a fair amount of this game for free when it was released on Playstation Plus and had a tough time with frame rate issues. In my mind, the art and scenery of this game had earned a deserved place at 60 frames a second. You were stabbing, and slashing, arching, and casting at a speed that 30 or less framed seemed inadequate for. I love that the day-night cycle affects gameplay in such an interesting way as well as how unique and weird the pawn system is. All of these systems make this very much feel like an import game of old.
Pillars of Eternity- The writing on Pillars continues to be some of the best in the business. The new expansion gave me a fantastic reason to jump in past hour 70-something to keep going and remember where in the story my Paladin was punching Dukes in the nose over land disputes.
The Pinball Arcade & Stern Pinball Arcade- Stern has some of the best tables in the business and Pinball Arcade continues to be the best way to experience them at home beside buying tables outright. They have now branched out and made some licensing deals with stern (one of the last manufacturing companies) to sweeten the pot when it comes to getting new tables like Ghostbusters. Pinball is great and this version feels great.
Diablo III- This is still good but I think 2017 will be a better year.
I didn't even realize it until I started putting this list together, but 2018 was the year of "returning." We went back. I specifically went back enough that I did not play 10 games that came out in 2018. *GASP* I know, right!? As the world has continued to be on fire, games jumped right back to what we are familiar with, chasing after everything in a hazy memory. This resulted in some great games that pulled on every fiber of my memory strings. In a year defined by change (for me personally and the world at large) it was nice to "go home."
Pinball - Joust is something I never thought I would see in person. Two player pinball is just so freakin' weird that I figured they would all be busted beyond repair. Happily, the Cleveland Pinball Convention had one and it actually worked! After the novelty wears off, I'm sure it would be considered "fine" but I had a blast as the weird competitive and co-op nature of the arcade game comes out in pinball form.
RPG - Dungeon World was a fun throwback to how you thought D&D was supposed to be played before you learned about a 5 foot step. I was able to run the game for a couple months and it brought me to a great streamer for general Role Play advice (Adam Koebel). The game also has enough real structure behind GM'ing that I feel like I can take it and apply it to other role playing games.
Boardgame - The best boardgame I played this year (and every year) has been Skull. Skull is without a doubt, one of the best games to use for introducing people to the hobby. It brings in the luck and skill of poker in a fraction of the time. It helps that every time I played this game, it was usually to introduce old friends to a new hobby.
I lost an entire weekend with my phone plugged in to the charger, listening to podcasts, and playing Pocket City. I forgot how good SimCity is and Pocket City adds enough of a change here and there to make the game really shine on mobile. You are able to build a utopia with ample housing, fresh produce, humanely cared for livestock, fair taxes, public transportation, and burn all of the banks down when they outlive their purpose. This is the future millennials want. I played the "paid" version on android and found the pacing excellent. It would be nice for some more "end game" style content which is a good sign that I just want to play more of the game.
I cannot believe Richter, Alucard (as an assist), Solid Snake, Cloud, Sonic, and Mario are in the same game. The Persona 5 announcement was nuts. I screamed out loud when I saw it. This game hands me my childhood all wrapped up with the mechanics of a Nintendo 64 game, covered in Pokemon and Fire Emblem? How did so much Fire Emblem get in here, geez. Get a hose and wash some of this off. I am not a Smash Brothers fanatic but it was excellent to see Nintendo get this right.
I missed my large Kratos man, and seeing him in a world he did not understand, clinging to a past he would rather forget, solving his problems the way he used to, was an excellent return. He cannot change who he is but, he can try and leave something better behind. Except, he can change. He can become more of the person his son wishes him to be. When nostalgia and keeping things the same reigns supreme, Kratos bashed an axe right through the mold and showed that things can change, and for the better.
Nothing is more simple than big, challenging monsters that need to be dead so I can make my gun sword cooler. If you can work around questionable colonialism messaging, Monster Hunter is the tried and true "grind and make the numbers go up," gameplay that I loved from Diablo. This was my first Monster Hunter and, I am actually incredibly happy about that. All of the mechanical changes paired excellent with a combat system that 2018 was primed for. I loved playing online with randoms, which was a relative first, as everyone was the nicest person in the world. Here is to hoping there is more of that in 2019.
Throw out all of the additional JRPG mechanics from yester-decade and nail it with a great cast and story. Wow. Wow wow wow wow wow. It seems that as I have grown older, I generally play one or two 100 hour RPGs a year and DQXI was the best I have played in years. Some of the most relatable, honest, and earnest characters of the last decade, sacrificing everything, in an attempt to save the world from a big bad that already won (METAPHOR). This was my first Dragon Quest game but, I have made room in the backlog and recognize I need to play some others.
Part of going back to experience the rest of the series, I actually played this on my phone before starting XI. The android version was actually good and mobile seems a nice place to play more of the series on. That's great as they clean up some of the grinding and the controls actually, for real, work. I am as surprised as you are, honestly. I had played the NES version in the past, too late, and too young to figure out any of the puzzles. What I did eventually play a lot of was Dragon Warrior Monsters so, seeing some of my favorite monsters and where they came from, before starting and seeing them fully rendered in XI was a real treat.
Spark Mandril please and thank you. I love this freakin' game and the Mega Man X collection did "fine" at presenting it. Mega Man X is not the best in the series or even the best soundtrack, but it works for me. I played through both the X collection and the PSP Mega Man Maverick Hunter X version this year to get the location remixes. That's what I wanted from the X collection, more options like Maverick Hunter to make the game feel new again. I will take what I can get, which is still good Mega Man.
The triumphant return of Alucard. This game, even when it was released, was a fragment of your memory, warped and distilled to something even greater. That the US never had Rondo didn't really change all of the memorable monster and boss encounters throughout the game. I still get chills every single time that second castle comes from the sky. I actually really enjoyed the Dracula X version of this game for the updated voice acting. Also, Richter mode still rules.
I am not sure if I think this is an actually better game than Symphony of the Night but, I greatly enjoyed my time with it more this year than I had when I played it on PSP a decade ago (oh god, time). This version deserved to be played on a TV as the art held up surprisingly well for a polygonal game. Richter Belmont is the best dressed Belmont and the improved voice acting in this game does wonders to make him a character a US audience can care about. He is one of the few Belmont's to debate philosophy with Dracula! Now, with that out of the way, play the game as Maria, don't be crazy.
It seems crazy to me that we need other companies to step in a make good Bioware games but D:OS2 follows in the wake of other companies stepping up and knocking this style out of the park. Great characters, good story, important choices, more choices, good tactical combat (that felt more like XCOM than Baldur's Gate), and SO MUCH STUFF. I loved being able to reroll characters on a whim, completely changing my play style whenever I wanted. Where before in old RPGs I might have been locked in to a specific play style, D:OS2 let me change my mind and continue on my way. Excellent changes and updates to a style of game that continues to pull itself through time.
Top 5 Bloody Tears
This very good song received a lot of play from me this year. Here are 5 versions, ranked. Honorable mention goes to Netflix Season 2.