(Note: Man, did this end up as unfortunate timing! Well, have something to read between Twitter refreshes.)

After a blissful period of unseasonably warm weather, the snow, alas, is again flying in Maine, which means it's time to take a look at another visual novel. I knew nothing about Zakuro no Aji going in except the evocative title, meaning A Taste of Pomegranate, and the front box art, shown above, which doesn't communicate much. Oh, and also that it was a sound novel not made by Chunsoft. I had no ideas about the plot premise or where it would go.

It turns out that my experience with the game was not optimal, because snes9x decided not to show most of the silhouettes that represent the characters in the environments. (Apparently, the option to show transparency effects under Display Configuration is clicked off by default, for some reason, so be sure to check that if you're messing around with snes9x yourself.) I didn't twig that anything was wrong, since the emulator did show some silhouettes, so I just thought the game was being lazy with its resources - which wasn't an unreasonable conclusion, given how it shook out. This means, though, that my screenshots aren't quite representative, as any silhouettes are probably going to be missing. I've watched a YouTube playthrough to see the game as meant, and while it would have been better to have had the silhouettes, I don't think it would have fundamentally changed my experience.

I ended up getting the best ending quite quickly. There are other scenarios, so I'm going to give the game at least one more go, but here's an overview of Zakuro no Aji's main story.

1. Cook, Serve, Delicious 3: Part of why I've labeled this my best experiences, as mine here isn't replicable. I played this throughout the several months when it was in early access, during which the dev pretty reliably served up one "stop" of about 30 levels on the game's food truck grand tour per month. This leads to almost 400 levels in the final product - a hefty challenge to undertake in one sitting, but a banquet when parceled out over an extended period. Throughout 2020, I had this really satisfying, almost-subscription-like consistent delivery of a quality gaming experience from one of my favorite titles, where nearly every month I had a new stage to play in a game I loved, echoing the "road trip" theme of the game very well.
Cook, Serve, Delicious is the type of game where the subject matter (a food truck sim) makes it easy to overlook how good it is, how satisfying the gameplay is, how every aspect of production, from the sound effects to the appetizing art, really just hits the spot. It's a perfect blend of gameplay that demands fast, in-the-moment reflexes and long-term strategy. It's beautiful, accessible, friendly, and smart. Finishing the crown Grand Finale achievement 44-point menu on the final level on the first try without ever having touched Deluxe Poutine before was one of the best experiences of my gaming life.

2. World of Horror: This title became so ubiquitous upon its release that it might be tough to step back and appreciate how exceptionally polished aspects of this game are. The art style is nothing short of a triumph, leveraging the distinctive style of Mac adventures to represent Junji Ito while filing off his rougher edges. The writing, similarly, is expertly evocative yet eschews the over-the-top and obvious, showing just enough to disturb and maintaining an atmosphere of low-level dread to set up the big visual punches. The music is killer, leaning into the beeps and boops of early computers yet getting into a real J-horror, Japonesque groove - I mean, listen to this. Any one of these would be enough to distinguish a title on its own; combining all three makes for one of the most stylish total gaming packages I've experienced. This isn't even touching the gameplay - which is, I understand, adapted from a card game called Arkham Horror but which must be doing something right on its own, as it's inspired entire channels dedicated to analyzing updates and tackling self-made challenges. I've gone through the game about a dozen times, and the modular style of gameplay - tackling a collection of five mysteries out of fifteen or so - is designed to combat the overfamiliarity that sets in with run-based titles by including aspects that are enhanced with experience and reward experts who know the scenarios' individual traps and puzzles and how elements of various mysteries can interact with one another. Recent updates suggest the dev might be falling into the trap of designing new content for the most obsessed users instead of a general audience (and he's incorporating fan-made content that doesn't meet the extraordinary standards of his own work - considering how essential his talents have been to the experience, he would be well-advise to curate very closely). But even as it stands, in an allegedly "incomplete" build, World of Horror is one of the best gaming horror experiences in years.

3. Kamaitachi no Yoru: The game was a phenomenon in Japan, kicking off a wave of "sound novels" and cememting Chunsoft as a visual-novel powerhouse, and it's not hard to see why. First, it's a classic, just really well-written murder mystery - it feels like one of the all-time greats as you're playing through it. Second, unlike its predecessor Otogirisou, it recognizes the importance of the graphical element in the video game medium and turns one of its primary limitations - the Super Famicom's low capacity for depicting realistic visuals for an "adult," somewhat-grounded story - into a strength, populating photorealistic settings with silhouettes that illustrate character actions and humanize the proceedings yet imbue the cast with an appropriate air of opacity and menace, in the process creating a visual style that became iconic. (The soundtrack, likewise, is understated yet very strong in a J-horror-meets-Unsolved Mysteries vibe.) The very human reactions of the cast to the proceedings - everyone gets believably scared and makes panic-induced errors in judgment - make events more involving than many of the more lurid and convoluted scenarios that populate Chunsoft's modern-day titles. Also: it has a great sense of humor. It's obvious that the creators really loved what they were doing.

4. A Short Hike: A short, breezy, joyful game that captures the feel of day hiking - the discovery and exploration of picturesque natural sights in a homey, manageable walk, rendered in a charming style reminiscent of Animal Crossing but still its own. An odd but crucial detail: I like how the game smartly declines to frame its beauty, save, appropriately, for the showcase at the end; it never lingers on the best angles by which to enjoy its sights or signals them as something to behold. It trusts the player to have awareness and curiosity to note and enjoy the lovely vistas on their own.
But the game will help pique that: along the hike, it'll offer little ways to connect with the environment, ways to get you interacting or looking, small little sub-goals or minigames on the way to the top of the mountain. You can do all or none of it - the goal is simply to get to your destination, enjoying what strikes your fancy, and what nature offers, along the way. Unlike, say, Firewatch, this is a game made by people who love the outdoors, and it offers a perfect balance of eye-candy walking sim and (completely voluntary) game activities. It lasted as long as I wanted and was sweet all the way. Gaming could use more short, manageable experiences that exist just to have fun and deliver fun.

5. The Dark Pictures: Little Hope: This is by far the best Western attempt I've played at developing a Silent Hill game. It's skilled at visualizing the suppressed as the horrific literal, and it smartly examines and even evolves a couple components of its inspiration's framework. The tale stands on its own two feet, though, as one of the wiser narratives I've encountered in gaming: though it can, as others have noted, be a bit abrasive at first, it's a really smart and reflective story about not jumping to conclusions or believing the worst about people and trying to be our best selves. It also shrewdly iterates on Supermassive's QTE gameplay to take a more holistic account of your actions throughout the game, making consequences seem far more earned while maintaining in-the-moment excitement. The production is top-notch, too, from the visuals to the music to just the expensive look of the damn thing. I'm glad we've come so far in cinematic gaming experiences.

Everyone is raving about Hades, having newly discovered Supergiant's roguelite upon its 1.0 release in September. Myself, I got in on the ground floor: I picked up Hades for a game to play during the holidays during its 2018 early release on the Epic store. I loved Bastion and Transistor's gameplay but found myself severely disappointed by their storytelling decisions, so I thought a longer, more combat-focused title - themed on Greek mythology, which I've loved ever since lugging around Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves when I was a kid - presented an opportunity to capitalize on the studio's strengths. Plus, I'd always been wary of early access, but since this title was from an established, trustworthy manufacturer, there wasn't the usual gamble of it being released in a normally-unacceptable state and abandoned - and it'd be neat, I thought, to have the unique experience of following a game from its very first public incarnation and seeing how it evolved to its end.

Well, I played everything that was available of Hades during that initial release - up until the Hydra, the mid-boss of the second area - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You probably know its strengths yourself: the combat and combat systems are as satisfying as they are voluminous. The voice acting is awesome, and there's a metric ton of it. Jen Zee's art bursts with personality, and these are some of the liveliest gaming incarnations of the Greek gods. The highlights of the Supergiant factory are indeed leveraged to the greatest effect.

...But I haven't gone back, for three reasons that are perhaps more about me than the individual game. Though, frankly, I think the game is the problem.

From the official Clock Tower 2016 calendar. Though we might not all be able to gather with those we love this season, here's hoping you enjoy your Christmas...crow.