Hey it’s been a yearly tradition for me to write a few words on every game I played over the past year, so here’s what I played this year. This is in rough chronological order instead of a ranking this year since it’s hard to order them, but if you made me decide at gunpoint then #3 is Celeste, #2 is Smash Ultimate, and #1 is Slay the Spire.
Celeste was pretty great overall. It’s just a solidly good platformer with some brutal levels later on. There’s some nitpicks with the controls (aiming the dash with analog is annoying but it uses slightly too many buttons to be comfortable on keyboard, I tended to switch between keyboard and controller a lot depending on the level) and the story (I thought the game did a fine job of being a metaphor for anxiety/depression without needing to literally spell it out for you in a dialog box in the middle of the game) but nothing about that detracts from the overall experience of the game, which was really tight and fun. Also it had great music.
Subnautica was pretty interesting and unique, exploring an underwater alien planet with crazy lifeforms and going deeper and deeper to try and find the way out. You were very rarely in any real danger during the game but it *felt* like you were constantly in danger, especially before you learned which creatures were peaceful and which weren’t. The first 2/3rds of the game were great during this exploratory phase, but the final third was a bit of a mess. Lots of fetch quests and backtracking and an end game quest that didn’t really feel like it did the rest of the game justice. Absolutely worth playing though at least for those first 2/3rds.
SLAY THE SPIRE
It’s a deckbuilding RPG roguelike where your attack and skills are cards. You build your deck as you go so you can’t just make an OP deck and stomp, you gotta build your way to that every run.
The gameplay and game design in slay the spire is SO GOOD. They found an amazing formula for a game with infinite replayability and ran with it. But also the art and sound and general theming of the game is just… terrible. It’s ugly, has generic music, and it’s theme is all over the place. What is the spire? What’s with the “geometric shape” enemies? They had this bird cult theme going for about a third of the enemies that they could have just run with and made that the main theme of the game, but they didn’t. It’s just a mess. But none of that matters because the game is just so good otherwise.
Last year I criticized Cuphead for being all style and no substance, and Slay the Spire is the polar opposite of that. It is pure substance, no style. It’s the anti-cuphead, and I love it. I played it more than any other game this year, it became my new “podcast game” cause it doesn’t require 100% attention so I can listen to stuff while playing. Game of the year.
DARK SOULS REMASTERED
Dark souls is perhaps my favorite game of all time, or at least top 3. So of course I bought the remaster. And I played through it like 5 times with different builds. It’s better than the existing version on steam (marginally), but it’s not a good remaster. They didn’t really change anything about it other than the netcode and a small handful of minor graphical effects, and they charged money for it. It should have just been a free update to the Prepare to Die edition already on steam. Still waiting on that true remake of it where they redo it in the Dark Souls 3 engine and fix the bed of chaos. So much missed potential here.
INTO THE BREACH
Into the Breach is a very tightly designed strategy game and every single scenario it gave felt like a difficult but possible puzzle, despite none of the specific puzzles you face being hand-designed. It was amazing spending like 15 minutes staring at a screen trying to figure out if there was a way to survive this turn without damage, and then finding the right sequence of things to do. It’s easy to understate how challenging this type of game is to design, but they did it. At the same time I just kinda felt like I was done after beating it once, so I’m not entirely sure why it needed the roguelike-ish setup. It’s the only part of the game that felt like cruft to me.
Everyone’s playing Fortnite. It’s a blatant attempt from Epic to capitalize on the popularity of PUBG, but it worked and became the biggest game ever. It actually fixed a ton of issues I had with PUBG, color coding weapons makes it easy to judge “what gun is better” for new players, and it just controls more fluidly. But also the fort building aspect of it is super wonky and I don’t actually think it makes the game better, it’s just part of the game’s DNA and can’t be changed at this point. It’s weird to get the drop on someone and have them immediately put up a giant wall before you can finish them off. I genuinely think the game would be better if they overhauled the building aspect of it somehow, like make stuff not solid until it finishes building, but changing something that ingrained in the game at this point would be like getting actual art assets into Minecraft. It became famous the way it is now, and that’s how it will remain forever.
LA MULANA 2
No other game offers the same experience La Mulana does. A metroidvania with weird controls where the vast majority of the gameplay is piecing together weird obtuse riddles to uncover the secrets of ancient ruins. It was extremely wonky, but also extremely unique and thus worth playing. The sequel is the same way. They didn’t fix the wonk, and parts of it were even wonkier. It was a frustrating experience start to finish, because every time I felt the game did something wonderful it ruined it shortly after. I felt so good when I pieced together one large game-spanning puzzle about the order of the doors to go through in the underworld, correlating notes and screenshots and spreadsheet maps together to figure it out. And then when I went to solve it, I couldn’t because for literally no reason you had to do this other game-spanning puzzle first (and it swaps one of the doors when you do). The game was full of this kind of almost-amazing-but-they-ruined-it design.
Also halfway through the game it just doubled the amount of enemies that spawned, making exploring very frustrating. It didn’t need to do this. It should not have done this. It should have done the opposite of this. I already explored this part of the game, just let me get back to the hint tablets in peace so I can solve the puzzles.
Minit was cute, charming, and short. It was great for what it is, though I wish they would have done more with its core mechanic, more puzzles about being at places at certain times or coordinating with moving NPCs and such.
Zachtronics makes a new “Zach-like” game every year and they always end up on this list. I’m a programmer and I love their style of “games for programmers”. They tap into what makes programming fun (optimization and problem solving) and don’t try to be educational “learn how to program” games like other attempts at the genre. Exapunks is no different. It’s a solid fun game, but that’s about it. It feels like more of a retread than other Zachtronics games have been, like its very similar to Shenzhen IO. It’s not as pretty or giffable as Opus Magnum was. Had it come before that it might have been my favorite in the series, but currently it’s just “a good entry”.
I’m not sure guacamelee needed a sequel at least one where pretty much all the powerups were the same as the first game (though I don’t remember much of the first game). It’s fun and had some fun difficult platforming sections, but man it just uses too many buttons. Some of the harder platforming sections were not even that difficult but just remembering what button did what when you need to chain double jump, grapple, punch, transform, dimension swap, wall dash, and keep track of if you used a punch or not, it got overwhelming in a bad way. Missing a jump because you didn’t time it correctly is great, that’s what a platformer is about. Missing a jump because you pressed transform instead of dimension swap or forgot to transform back before grappling when transform and swap are both shoulder buttons, that’s not fun.
Magic: The Gathering is a really good game but for the longest time it’s online client was just terrible. I thought it was just that the game itself was not designed to be digital and there was no way to make it work that wouldn’t be clunky and slow, but they proved me wrong (mostly) with Arena. I played it a lot but man I hate the monetization. Just gimme all the cards for $60 and let me deckbuild, I ain’t paying hundreds of dollars for a full set just so I can do it again every few months when a new expansion launches. I don’t know why card games get a pass when they’re 10x worse than any loot box games that have come out recently.
For gameplay reasons, if you can’t afford to spend wildcards on more than one or two decks you are not incentivized to experiment with deckbuilding. You just go and look up the best deck to make and make that, and the ladder ends up full of copy paste net decks. This isn’t just because people want to win and aren’t good at deckbuilding, but the economy of the game *reinforces* it.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2
I actually didn’t get that far into RDR2 before deciding the game wasn’t for me. I got past the snowy part and just into the part where it starts to open up. I could tell it didn’t really learn any lessons from Breath of the Wild for how to structure an open world game, and it’s design felt very dated as a result. There’s just not that much stuff to do, everything is slow and clunky, and every mission being “go to the yellow dot”+”follow the instructions on the screen exactly” just doesn’t work for me any more. I killed a legendary bear… with a quicktime event. It’s pretty though.
SPYRO REIGNITED TRILOGY
I loved the spyro games as a kid and bought this just to bathe in filthy, filthy nostalgia. I replayed them on emulator a few years ago and thought they still held up pretty well (for PS1 games) but something about the remakes makes them feel… old and outdated. They modernized the graphics, but the gameplay (and the loading times) stayed in the 90s. I’m not sure they could have done anything differently though, such is the price you pay when you make a deal with nostalgia.
As far as the games themselves go, Spyro 1 ironically feels the most “modern”. It’s got it’s core gameplay as mostly platforming challenges (though very easy), and each world’s levels feel somewhat cohesively themed. Spyro 2 and 3 tended to rely too much on minigames in each level as the core of its gameplay. Was fun as a kid, but really that’s a design trend that deserves to stay in the 90s (or in mario party).
Valve’s first new game in years! It’s actually a really great framework for a cardgame, with a lot of refreshing concepts in it. Piloting decks is extremely deep compared to other card games, and games are always very close. Making judgments about which lanes to dedicate resources to or abandon is difficult, and you are forced to think multiple turns ahead and evaluate a large amount of possibilities. It’s fun, it’s skillful, and it’s deep. The current set is lacking a bit of interesting variety between cards, but that can (and should) be fixed as they release new sets.
But it’s ruined by its economy, much like magic arena and hearthstone before it. And it has a lot of balance issues currently, and because you can buy and sell individual cards valve had said they won’t balance cards. And unlike magic people aren’t really buying the value proposition here, and the game is crashing hard as a result. It’s a shame because it’s has so much potential. It’s *almost* a great game.
SUPER SMASH BROS. ULTIMATE
It’s smash, it’s always good. At this point the series is more about being a celebration of all things Nintendo than just being a fighting game, and it certainly does just that. The fighting game part is superb as always. The rest of the stuff in the game… exists. It feels like they literally never cut a single piece of content they made for the game, for better or for worse. The 20 hour spirits campaign is something for sure. Full of design issues and unnecessary gacha and RPG mechanics, but who actually cares. That’s not what you play smash for. You play it to beat the shit out of Pikachu as Simon Belmont. Smash Ultimate is everything it needs to be, and a lot more than that.