Every year I do a little wrap up of all the games I played over the last year and post a few thoughts on each one. This year, the list is in the order I played them (not the order they released), and not in a ranking order. If you want rankings, my top 3 this year are 1. Baba is You, 2. Sekiro, and 3. Outer Wilds.
RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN
Yeah this one came out in 2018 but I didn’t get around to playing it until 2019. It’s one of the most interesting and original games I’ve ever played. Simple enough concept, you just gotta identify every dead body on a ship, how they died, and who killed them. You are given limited information to help with this, but get a magic pocketwatch that lets you view a frozen in time scene of the moment they died. Within those scenes are other dead bodies, who you can also use the pocketwatch on. Cause of this you are effectively what actually went down in reverse order. The dithered black and white art style makes it much more difficult to actually parse what’s going on in the scene, so you’re forced to resort to other contextual clues to try and actually identify who’s who. Figuring out the game felt both like uncovering a mystery and like solving a sudoku. There really isn’t any other experience like it.
BABA IS YOU
Baba is my favorite game of the year, and possibly my favorite puzzle game of all time. Despite being a puzzle game fan, I usually don’t like “sokoban” style puzzles that much, but Baba manages to avoid most of what I don’t like about those puzzles (limited room to move around in) and focus much more on the high concept stuff (logical reasoning about the rules). Baba is all about rules, all the rules of each level are represented as pushable blocks in the level, and those rules dictate stuff like what’s pushable, what blocks your movement, what kills you, etc. It’s a simple but genius concept with near infinite space to play around in.
The thing that really elevates Baba from a simply great game to a phenomenal one is the late game stuff when it really starts exploring the weird stuff it’s concept can handle and starts getting meta. Pushing around individual letters instead of whole words, high level concepts like “empty” and “all”, but most of all the “Level” keyword, when you can start editing the properties of the whole level, creating new levels within a level, and messing with the overworld itself.
Baba is GOTY
Initially when playing Sekiro, I had thought Fromsoft may have jumped the shark on the difficulty a bit. Some parts of the game early on really just didn’t feel that fair and parts of it were really frustrating, however as I kept playing it eventually clicked. Most of my frustration came from trying to play it like dark souls or Bloodborne, which is just a recipe for failure here cause of how ineffective they made dodging. Despite having a lot of the same DNA as those soulsborne games, Sekiro plays quite differently, and adjusting to that is where the difficulty comes from.
The Genichiro fight on top of the castle is really where the whole game started to click for me. He is probably one of the best designed bosses in any fromsoft game: impossible if you haven’t learned what the game wants of you yet, but almost trivially easy once you get it. Took me a dozen or more tries to beat him the first time I played, and yet I don’t think I’ve lost to him since. He’s the filter that forces you to understand how to play, and once you get it then you’re good for the rest of the game.
All that said there are still some issues with the difficulty that shouldn’t just be ignored, putting both the Ogre and the Bull at the start of the game feels weird since they feel so much different than the rest of the bosses in the game. The Long Armed Centipede Giraffe (or that dojo guy) feels like it would have been a much better “tutorial” boss since those ones *force* you to engage with the parry system to beat them (and are trivial once you do).
I could talk more about it but really in the end, Sekiro is a Fromsoft game, and like all Fromsoft games they’re meant for a specific kind of person, and I am that kind of person, so I enjoy them all immensely and hope Fromsoft can keep this up for as long as possible.
Outer Wilds is an interesting one, by all means this should be a game I find incredible, and well, I guess it is, but my enjoyment of it is marred by the fact that I played the alpha of the game back in 2015. You see, Outer Wilds is one of those games that you get to enjoy *once*. Once you know what’s on the planets, they lose that “woah” impact. And for whatever reason, the full game didn’t add any extra planets that the alpha didn’t have. So while I remember being in awe at the interiors of some of the planets in the alpha, when playing the full version I just had a bunch of “oh yeah I remember that” moments.
That said, the rest of the game, the stuff added since the alpha, is pretty great. The story and lore you uncover while exploring is really something. Science Fiction can often feel stupid if the explanations for stuff feel like nonsense, but Outer Wilds pulled off really interesting sciencey stuff here, a lot of small discoveries that are clearly understandable that combine up together in a completely logical fashion to explain the main plot point of the game. Like it was really cool how you could figure out what was going on with the alien devices *before* the game really spells it out for you, just cause all the pieces made sense together.
Also, Outer Wilds really reminds me of a 3D version of Aether (one of the flash games I worked on that really started setting my career in motion), in more than one way. Tiny solar system with tiny planets with puzzles to solve on them? Each planet having a musical instrument associated with it? Sounds quite familiar. If anyone knows if the devs of Outer Wilds were inspired by Aether please let me know!
Apex Legends felt like exactly what I wanted out of a battle royale, none of the weird janky building stuff Fortnite had and none of the weird awkward control stuff Pubg had. I played like 4 games of it then just haven’t played it or any other battle royales since. Guess it broke the addiction. Don’t really know why.
TOEJAM & EARL: BACK IN THE GROVE
I have a lot of nostalgia for the original Toejam & Earl on the sega genesis, I played it a lot as a kid and loved it, and it’s super interesting as it basically feels like a modern indie rogue-like… except 20 years before that really became a thing. So of course I gave this kickstarted-funded reboot with the original devs at the helm a try when it came out and… it’s Toejam & Earl. It’s essentially the same as the original game, same gameplay, same structure. Almost to a fault since it feels more like a retread than a sequel. Considering how rougelike design has evolved and advanced over the past decade… this one feels like a relic of the past.
AUTO CHESS / DOTA UNDERLORDS
Auto Chess (and later Dota Underlords) became my “podcast game” this year (“a game I can play while listening to podcasts cause it doesn’t take a lot of concentration”). There was a lot of hype about Auto Chess “continuing the cycle” of mods becoming full games (as Dota was a mod of WC3 that became a full game, and Auto Chess was a mod of Dota that has now become a full game), but I think people kind of jumped the gun on it when trying to convert it to a full game. Valve, Riot, Epic (via buying the original mod authors), and Blizzard (a bit later) all released their own version of the mod within months of it becoming a thing.
Despite being quite addicting, these games do not feel like they have enough to them to have the same longevity as the other card/draft games on the market, and it feels like they all tried too hard to stick to the janky mechanics of the original mod. Dota had almost a decade to refine its mechanics as a mod before those got copied over to the standalone Dota 2, and there was value in copying them exactly because they were tried and tested. Auto Chess only had a few months as a mod, and its mechanics were not refined. Underlords has slowly distinguished itself from the original mod over time but it still clings on to parts of it that just don’t feel right. Still, it’s addictive.
BLOODSTAINED: RITUAL OF THE NIGHT
I love Castlevania SOTN and Bloodstained feels like that. Gameplay is fun, art is kind of ugly but not in a way that ruins the game or anything. There’s some weird decisions regarding how to obtain progression-required items. The ability to move underwater is a random drop from an enemy. The spike armor is hidden away in a really weird place that would be better suited for a secret than a mandatory item. The speed boosting item makes movement much more fun but you get it at the very end of the game. It’s also weird to me that a game that borrows so much from SOTN doesn’t borrow the single most memorable part of the game as well: the inverted castle. There’s a final area of the game that’s quite cool that almost seemed like it would be that (I originally thought the giant area was going to be a whole copy of the original castle), but it was just a small area before the final boss. All the kickstarter backer rewards that got inserted into the game also felt really out of place. It’s not a bad game or anything, it’s good but not much else.
MARIO MAKER 2
I was hesitant to play Mario Maker 2 because I make games for a living and I was worried it would feel a bit too much like work. And for the most part… that was kind of true. I made a handful of levels that came out pretty good, but it did absolutely feel like work to make. But I did underestimate how fun playing random levels would be. There is some actually pretty cool and creative stuff that shows up in endless mode. VS mode is actually amazing as well, because while you usually get pretty bad levels in it, you have 3 other people who you get to share that experience with.
Dicey Dungeons is great. My initial impression was that it felt kind of light on content, but when it became apparent that the extra episodes on each character were more than just minor tweaks it really started opening up and revealing itself to be a much larger game than it initially seemed. Each bonus episode essentially felt like a completely different character with the way the rules got changed up. It’s a fun game and it’s soundtrack is sick as well.
It’s Borderlands 2 again. At least that’s what it feels like. It’s a very enjoyable game overall and if you liked Borderlands 2 (I did) you’ll like Borderlands 3. Is it special? Eh not really. I feel like the game stops you way too much for plot stuff, and the villains are a bit insufferable this time around. There were so many spots where they were *almost* interesting, but it kept pulling back. They never managed to be quite as funny as Handsome Jack was, but they also never really managed to seem as threatening or interesting either. They were just there, being annoying. Still the gameplay was pretty good for the most part.
LINK’S AWAKENING REMAKE
It’s Link’s Awakening again. The second remake of it! Link’s Awakening is a great little zelda game, so it follows that the remake is great as well. The art style fits perfectly for it’s dreamlike setting. Is it a bit overpriced at $60? Yeah I think so, especially since it’s just a remake of an existing game. If I wasn’t doing decent financially these days I would have passed on it, which is a shame since there is a lot to like about it.
I love Zachtronics games and Molek Syntez is no exception. I’ve written about it basically every year in my end of the year gaming wrapup blog post. I love how these are games *for* programmers that are not meant to be “educational programming games”. That said, Molek Syntez is towards the bottom of the rankings of the zachtronics games for me. It’s not quite as pretty as Opus Magnum and not quite as pure or streamlined as their assembly programming games. The bonding priority stuff is really what takes it down a notch for me, there’s a weird arbitrary rule system for which bonds get formed/broken if there’s a tie, and it basically just makes optimizing require way too much trial and error.
Medievil is one of those games that is forever burned into my memory. On the PS1 the game felt huge because every level was different, and yet they all had some sort of thematic bridge between them. I don’t even really remember playing the game all that much, I just remember “oh yeah there was that ant hill level, and that level with the frozen whirlpool, and the crystal caves, and the giant pumpkin”. And the remake has all of that. And it looks great and really captures the feel of what the original was going for aesthetically.
This remake follows the “copy the gameplay and level design exactly” philosophy that a lot of remakes seem to have adopted recently. Unfortunately, Medievil’s gameplay has not aged well, unlike the other games that have been remade recently. Medievil is not one of those remakes that should have stuck so close to the original, it just feels weird as a result. Modern graphics with 1998 “we don’t really know how to make a 3D game lol” gameplay.
Pokemon Sword & Shield are… uh… well they’re probably tied with X&Y for “least favorite Pokemon game”. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or anything, Pokemon is Pokemon and the stuff people were really mad about barely mattered in the end (“dexit” is only relevant if you were planning on transferring pokemon over from other games, there’s still like 400 to catch during the main campaign, which is on par if not more than past games have had). There is something to say about how easy it’s become, I was massively overleveled for most of the game (5 levels higher than the gym leaders), despite beelining it through the plot as fast as I could.
People sometimes blame this on all the quality of life improvements (like the exp share and the lack of HMs and the ability to access the box anywhere and npc heals and stuff), which… well yeah that kind of is the case, but also removing tedium is generally good! It’s good that grinding is easy and not necessary, it’s good that you don’t need to waste slots in your party for HM slaves anymore, it’s good that you get healed after some fights so you don’t have to fly back to the pokecenter before continuing. But they should have compensated for this by upping the levels up the gym leaders a bit or letting them have a full team or something.
Additionally, the story was very weak, the game constantly interrupts you for story stuff, but every time they do it’s over NOTHING. If you’re going to interrupt me for story all the time, I expect that story to at least be engaging, and it never really got there. At least the Wild Area is cool and that’s something that hopefully will be improved and expanded upon in future games. Also being able to avoid wild battles as much as you want is also a great change as well.
Yes I know this came out in 2018, again I didn’t get around to it till recently though. It was pretty great overall. I love metroidvanias so when the game finally became a metroidvania it was a pretty cool moment, though I think I enjoyed it more during the linear part just cause the warp points are a bit too spaced out during the metroidvania part and it kinda just felt more like replaying all the areas again instead of being a “true” metroidvania. Still, its a solid game and I don’t have that much more to say about it.
Katana Zero was fun and enjoyable, but it felt a little bit *too much* like Hotline Miami to me. The gameplay was fun, it was basically just Hotline Miami but as a sidescroller, and if that was where the similarities ended that would have been fine. Unfortunately it also feels like literally every other aspect of the game borrows from Hotline Miami as well. The general 80s VHS aesthetics, the synthwave soundtrack, the themes and writing, the plot, it’s all too similar. It doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a fun short game, but it could have been so much better if it was more of its own thing.