ZEAL’s Games of Not This Year
Five contributors list their favorite game of 2015, that didn’t come out in 2015
Diddy Kong Racing (1997)
In 2015 I quit playing videogames and haven’t touched them since I made that decision, except once. My sister was having a meeting at our house so a bunch of people were over, and one of them brought her eight-year-old son. I guess she hadn’t really planned on entertaining him because he was running around the house, and at one point appeared in my room and started curiously examining an inflatable butt plug I’d left on the floor, because I’m a disgusting animal. In a bid to keep him out of my space, I brought him back downstairs and hooked up my Nintendo 64 and popped in least violent game I could find, which was Diddy Kong Racing.
Maybe because it was so rough and the characters were so unfamiliar, but DKR always seemed more expansive and strange to me as a kid than the much more critically acclaimed Mario Kart. We played it for about a hour, which mostly ended up being us bumping around, not worrying about actually racing, and discussing whether it was more irresponsible to let a badger or a crocodile fly a prop plane. It was silly, goofy fun, and it was pretty neat to share a game I’d played as a kid with someone who hadn’t been born until much later.
Probably a lot of us — especially those of us invested in designing or understanding games — should play games with kids more often.
Okage: Shadow King (2001)
This year I was reunited with a bunch of my old games, including an old favorite Okage: Shadow King. My 13-year-old self was initially interested in this game because the art style combined anime with Nightmare Before Christmas goth tooniness, but then the story blew my tiny mind.
Gameplay-wise, Okage covers the bare bones of a basic JRPG structure and never elaborates. It doesn’t matter. The story is the real point of this game. This game appears to be a basic JRPG in order to set up your expectations. The silent protagonist, Ari, is not merely an unlikely everyman hero, he’s not the hero. Ari is a bystander to the story, the fact that he’s the player character is misleading. Although he’s the one leading the party and swinging a sword, the other characters call him meek and boss him around.
After gathering some party members and fighting some bosses, Ari and crew become aware that their world is not what it seems. It’s a pocket dimension made by a sorcerer’s power, created as a safe fantasy-themed playpen for his daughter to be a princess in. The daughter, however, has been lost for years and the sorcerer replaced her with a magically animated doll and carried on.
Okage’s story and dialogue is where the game truly shines. Walking through towns and talking to NPC’s yields some truly hilarious exchanges or heartbreaking vignettes. The NPCs are all labelled as what they obviously are, for instance “Scared Young Man” will tell you something like “Oh! Oh! I’m so scared!” We later find out that “classification” is the name of the villain’s magical power, by classifying someone as “scared” they remain scared forever. With the vast majority of the population classified as “Clueless Villager”, no one ever caught on to the villain’s scheme. Even pieces of information can be “classified;” Several NPCs will tell you a fable, insisting it’s the funniest joke they’ve ever heard, even though it has no punchline. A strange old man living on the edge of the world will tell you he created the story to mock the villain’s obsession with his daughter. The villain reclassified the story as a “joke,” so villagers will tell you a story about a lost child through peals of laughter.
Okage is a weird little story, but it remains totally unique. It’s thoroughly enjoyable even though it’s bad at being a game, or at least the kind of game I expected it to be. Ultimately it’s about the stories we tell about ourselves, and not to let other people narrate how you think of yourself. And it’s nice to be reminded that it’s okay to make weird little stories.
Breath of Fire III (1998)
howdy, zeal contributor eva problems here with my game of the year that was not released this year but that i played this year anyway: it’s Breath of Fire 3. for any number of reasons. like because back in the day it came out at exactly the most formative time for a confused kid like me to see a bunch of hot furries and an androgynous protagonist splicing crystal genes together to turn into different kinds of beautiful dragons. because it turns out a lot of games end up being about desperately yearning to be a lesbian when you want that but don’t even know how you want that and can’t even dredge it up to address it. because all you have is the screaming of your heart and everyone around you can read everything from your eyes except for the most important thing, that you’re not a boy, you aren’t a man, you never had a childhood, you’re not even human, you’re a dragon, and nina keeps saying “he’s not a bad dragon!” but at this point you don’t even care if you’re a bad dragon or not. they killed good dragons too.
and because it has the best fishing game of the whole series, let’s be honest.
Conversations With My Mother (2013) & Resident Evil 4 (2005)
I recently moved across country for the third time in three years, from the rapidly-inhospitable gay home of the Bay Area to the similarly gentrified but seemingly more flexible goth home of the Pacific Northwest. It was stressful, obviously, but especially as it meant leaving behind a new job I actually liked, an old relationship I didn’t really like, and a bunch of possessions that found a new home on the sidewalks of Berkeley neighborhood.
So I ended up replaying a lot of old games to make myself feel better, a habit ingrained in me from a childhood spent in unstable housing, where the only things I ever kept were DVDs, games systems, and files on hard drives.
Conversations With My Mother, which, yes, is a game by merritt kopas who is also on this list, was one of the first Twine games I ever remember playing, sometime after I first moved to the Bay, on a friend’s computer, where I also cried then too. I replayed it after mentioning it casually in an OkCupid message, one of the first exchanges I had after changing my profile’s zipcodes, and was surprised again at how easily it cut me open, even after knowing all the “endings”. It hurt me in a way I needed, but also in a way that reminded me of how temporal hurt & change & pain can be. I replayed it several times over the last few months as a quick, cathartic sting.
Resident Evil 4, by contrast, was a game I played to feel happy. The slapstick violence, the campy writing, the fact that you’re playing as a horror twink all indulge in my love of fun, over-the-top media, lowbrow in an unapologetically skillful way (and Resident Evil 4 shows a lot of skill, as a horror game that is actually fun and funny to play). It was purifying in a different light — it reminded me of being a shitty little nerd in high school, who loved B-Movies and sublimating gay cultural desire. I’m still replaying it; it’s one of the games I put off end-of-2015 insta-classics such as Undertale in favor of.
Not Video Games (1973–2014)
My Game Of The Not This Year are cartoons directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, which I understand is not a video game, but also it’s my magazine and I can watch anime if I want to! This is maybe the first year of my life I am playing games in the year they came out, so I am having the worst year for what is normally the only way I like to play video games (it’s why I started ZEAL in the first place!). And maybe this is because a bit of what made games so fascinating to me when I was little was how they had all this strange inaccessible context outside them, that you would see hints of in magazines or on the internet, there might have been six games before it you had never played, or it was based on the manga and only volume 2 of the OVA was available at Blockbuster. If you did enough research you could find all of these hints to a whole world behind this little artifact of it, and even if the world was very silly, I felt so proud of myself and accomplished? I still feel this way!
I think Tomino is characterized as a somewhat brutal director because he tends to end up killing all of his characters if he can get away with it, but then there are all these sentimental touches to the universe. I watched the movie Be Invoked because it deeply influenced Evangelion, and even though I really think I like more the interiority of Evangelion’s characters, but Be Invoked is a much more optimistic film, even though literally everyone in the universe dies at the end? The giant robot that was made to be sold as a toy company destroys everyone who participates in war, but it loves children and will do anything to protect them. I really want to love him for thinking of that. I watched all of Steven Universe this year too, and that show understands much better how to be suitable for children, but Tomino’s shows seem to long for this compassionate resolution to hopeless misunderstanding that feels kind of sweet (don’t tell Tomino I said that)? In Gundam there’s this supernatural power that you could compare to like Jedi or something but instead of being space wizards it’s supposed to be this new way that humans can communicate with each other so they’ll stop killing each other all the time. There were many other great and interesting things about those shows but I wasn’t expecting to see those sentimental feelings in his work and so of course they’re my favorites.