1. Live A Live: No, not every part of Live A Live works - it takes too many genuine risks for every punch to land. But, my God, so much does that even over 25 years on, it's still a revelation. Live A Live reexamines the RPG from every angle, from chapters hinging on taken-for-granted mechanics like searching the furnishings in a town for hidden items or the artistic challenge of emoting via overworld sprite art, to the typical assumptions that underpin the RPG itself. It does so, however, in a way that exudes love and respect for the genre and the story it's telling - it's not kneejerk ha-ha snarkiness or condescending finger-pointing but genuinely thoughtful and humanistic. The short scenarios give the gameplay and storytelling punch and variety; the graphics and sound are the pinnacle of the early-16-bit style they're evoking. Even the chapters that didn't work for me delivered sights and experiences far more indelible than any other RPG would dare to serve up: how many RPGs let you fight the toad shogun of Japan alongside Sakamoto Ryoma? It's really beautiful, a unique, special game that's clever and heartfelt. It's even encouraged me to look at life a little differently.
2. Tunic: I'm far from the first to say this, but: while "it's dangerous to go alone" references are thick on the ground in the world of indie gaming, Tunic is the first Zelda-alike actually to recapture what the original NES The Legend of Zelda felt like, focusing not on cheap dialogue pulls or visual quotes but that childhood sense of exploration and discovery. The techniques by which it accomplishes this - perspective tricks; images that can be taken one way but mean something else; the use of a fictitious system of writing that mostly obscures but, by dint of functioning linguistically, occasionally reveals - are supremely clever. It looks utterly fairytale and at the same time sleek and advanced. It is incredibly rewarding once you make those connections the game asks of you, and the revelations yielded are so often mind-blowing. It would be #1 in any other circumstance, but I'm afraid that games have to end well, and Tunic miscalculates and asks for too much - far, far too much - at the end. But for most of its length, it's the year's best balancing act: cozy, familiar, and fairytale, yet smart and shrewd to an unparalleled degree.
(I have more to say on this game, but a special note for the time being: disregard the opinions of anyone who complains about the combat. Yes, the combat has frustrations, but anyone who is still at the stage where combat is the primary concern has not progressed to the point where the game reveals its true focus, and issues.)
3. Loop Hero: I picked this up on impulse and had 50 hours of fun. You're probably familiar with it. Your little swordsman hero awakens in a void, devoid of civilization or life save for a little settlement at his starting campfire, and begins wandering. You repopulate the world, represented by the titular board game-like loop, with villages, ruins, swamps, meadows - and monsters will move in as well. As your hero fights them, he'll gain cards that represent not only scads of equipment but more potential locations to slot in on the loop.
Sounds somewhat standard, but your decisions are all strategic, none tactical. You choose what locations to place where on the loop, with what to equip your hero, but not his moment-to-moment movements: he moves relentlessly forward on his path and attacks automatically in battle. You have to place locations to ensure he gains the provisions and stats he needs to withstand the progressively-tougher enemies that appear each loop and the bosses that eventually rear their heads, but you also have to prevent him from being overwhelmed. Every location and piece of equipment has buffs and synergies, and the consistent flood of new cards ensures you're constantly active moment to moment and tripping upon new discoveries (uh, might not be a good idea to put that vampire manor next to a defenseless village). You also have to decide when to stop traveling the loop and get off at the campfire, as defeat mid-loop means the loss of almost all the materials you've gathered along the way to rebuild your settlement.
As you rebuild your home base, more people will reemerge, and the world will gradually remember itself. (The loop in the ever-transient outer world, meanwhile, will completely reset itself for your next expedition.) But how did everything disappear in the first place? The cornerstone to Loop Hero is the addictive gameplay that balances long-term planning, in-the-moment adjustments, and luck, but the (literal) worldbuilding plasters up the corners: with engaging writing in the worldbook or the conversations with newcomers, or some of the most beautiful pixel art anywhere.
4. Vampire Survivors: You know what this is. It spun stolen pixel art and mobile slot machine mechanics and lollercoaster XBLIG energy into sheer gold through sheer strength of gameplay and self-aware stupidity and actually leveraging some of the more dirtbag elements in gaming for unadulterated good. The dirt-cheap price and utterly constant updates were machine-gun kicks to the face of productions hundreds of times bigger and more expensive. It was brilliant, and there's no use in pretending it wasn't.
Vampire of the Year:
That Kojima-esque portrait up there, by artist ExdeathAnimus*, is not in the official game, but Brauner deserves it. He's the best villain in the series outside Dracula. He's capable enough to hijack Dracula's own castle from him pre-Sorrow. He's invested in the whole "evil called forth by humans who wish to pay it tribute" angle but coming at it from the opposite perspective: he wants to use the castle to end what he sees as humanity's love of pointless conflict after two world wars. He'll actually abandon his plan if it endangers the lives of his adopted family. His paintings (he's inspired by a Romanian surrealist) breathe fresh air into the series aesthetic, serve as the basis for the first non-castle levels in many a moon. Plus: He has catchphrases that are fun to repeat. "BLOOD ART TECHNIQUE!" "A PORTRAIT. OF THE SOUL!!!" Pathos AND drama!! On top of it all, he has a killer exit line:
Brauner, you legend.
*As for our (presumably) non-vampiric portraitist Exdeath, I can't find a gallery, but they seem to post a lot on Reddit. They're drawing a lot of underappreciated Castlevania characters in this manner, from Malus to Nathan Graves to Desmond Belmont; you should check them out.
Most Japanese Game Over of the Year:
I ran across the suspense visual novel Scar of the Doll browsing Shaun Musgrave's new Switch game column on Touch Arcade, which has become my primary source of game release news. You're in the city looking for your incommunicado older sister; she's supposed to be attending an elite engineering school, but none of the students claim to have heard of her, and they're all mightily invested in stonewalling your investigation. While looking for a grad student you're told might have a lead by a soon-to-be-deceased alumnus, you run across a locket, which you can open to find...your photo. (You've never met this man before.) When my character eventually ran into this student, he was as unwilling to talk and unhelpful as everyone else; when she confronted him about the locket, he refused to answer and threw her out of the building. She then met an unceremonious dead end at the knife of an unseen stalker in a nearby park.
I was wondering what I did wrong, but the Game Over screen helpfully filled me in: see, even though the school and its students are covering up the disappearance and possible death of your sister and fatally flung another of their colleagues off a subway platform, you looked at an image that you didn't have explicit permission to view, and that means you deserve death. Just because you're trying to save your sister and yourself from a cabal of murderous vivisectionists and may uncover evidence of conspiracy and stalking through mundane examination of a lost object doesn't excuse betraying the sacred Online Fanarts Protection trust.
Oh, and don't think that opening the locket but not mentioning that fact to the owner will save you. He knows. He knows. As does God. Heaven bears witness to your sin - and that sin is lying prostrate before the Great Satan of fair use.
(Even your character's objection to the stalking falls in with this philosophy - not "hey, I thought you didn't know my family?" or "we haven't met; why are you keeping my photo in your locket, freak?" but: "it's not nice to take another person's photograph without their permission.")
Heartthrob of the Year:
DO YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU, MA'AM.
Though I supposed Vittorio Toscano cannot go unmentioned, can he.
Disappointment of the Year:
Last Call BBS is a collection of puzzle and casual games from Zachtronics, famed as the real creators of Minecraft and having made a series of involved programming-inspired puzzlers their bread and butter. Apparently, the studio is disbanding due to its head taking on a teaching position, and the story goes that Last Call is an anthology of titles Zachtronics never got the chance to develop into full-fledged games.
The framing of the collection is pretty great, based on the conceit that you've acquired an old computer from a Japanese company for which your brother used to work. Every time you load Last Call, the "computer" boots up, faux CRT static discharge and all; you gain gradual access to the individual titles by "downloading" them from an old, extant BBS. Every time you reach a milestone in a game, your brother will share via IM a story about the title's development at his company.
The first games are OK. There are a couple versions of solitaire that are neat: one introduces a couple rules changes to Klondike that tilt it more toward skill than luck and make it preferable to me over the original, and the other is a Japanese-themed Free Cell-alike that's limited but fun while it lasts. There's a Conceptis-like grid-based puzzle where you assemble dungeons based on a set of rules and numbers on the edges denoting the number of wall in a given row/column that could've been pencil-and-paper and is probably the strongest game in the bunch. There's a pseudo-Gundam model assembly & painting sim that's pretty neat and relaxing even if you don't think you'd be into that sort of thing (though painting the third model hinges on covering up round parts solely with straight-edged tape; why does this exist in a loving god's universe).
Then things take a turn for the worse. There's a neon cyberpunk skin of Magical Drop that asks, "Hey, how would Magical Drop be if, for some reason, you could move only one ball at a time?", to which the answer is: "Pretty unplayable, actually!". There are only four levels; I was lucky to see the third. There's a Giger-esque puzzler/mitosis sim wholly devoid of instructions that is rather impenetrable, and while I'm sure there's more there than what I'm seeing, the body-horror aesthetic doesn't personally invite me to go back for seconds.
Then there's 20th Century Food Court, the game that's the inspiration for this entry. For one thing, the title screen is like this:
But the goddamn game, 99% of what you see, looks like this:
The premise is that you're running a 24th-century recreation of popular turn-of-the-20th-century mall foods, but everything is automated, so you have to program a bunch of assemble-yourself modules to put together an increasingly-complex series of recipes. The programming here mirrors that of PLCs, programmable logic controllers - and if, like me, that isn't a term you heard prior to encountering this game, then, friend, you shouldn't even be loading this sucker up. 20th Century Food Court has absolutely, utterly no interest in teaching you - be it through an explicit instructions in a manual, tutorials, or clear error messages accompanying the latter portion of the trial-and-error process - about a very complex procedure. I had to watch Vinny at Nextlander go through some levels, and even then, my grasp was only hazy. I'd also be routinely flummoxed at seemingly random error messages that almost appeared to be downright bugs, such as the system flipping out over the lack of a receptacle under a food dispenser with one right in position at that very step. I got through the first few levels and could see there was something gameplaywise in the basic idea, but I'm just not being told enough to understand how to work these damn machines.
It shouldn't be like this! Malls are fun and colorful! The fake Yelp reviews with which you're rewarded upon completing a level are hilarious!
But the game is an ugly, unfun slog. Perhaps the "ugly" needed explicit intervention - get some vaporwave on those conveyor belts! - but the "unfun" could have been remedied just by telling me what the goddamn hell to do. Yes, Last Call was labeled as a collection of unblossomed projects the devs couldn't turn into full standalone titles - but that's not an excuse for putting stuff out in a genuinely unfinished, unplayable state. This problem was glimpsed in the Giger game but comes into full-bore here, and the "oh, we're, um, recreating the experience of downloading a weird title with no documentation" story absolves you of only so much. To steal from a Roger Ebert review: sometimes less isn't actually more. Sometimes less is actually less.
*Problem* of the Year:
You might have surmised from my short list that I haven't finished, or played, that many games this year. Part of this has been due to involvement in games in other ways - trying to wrap up a couple fan translations that have been going on for way too long; working on a couple professional projects. Part of it has been not really knowing where the time went between other work stuff and resolution of local and personal matters. It seems like this year never happened, and I'm honestly hard-pressed to account for where any of the time went.
Part of it, though, is the continued goddamn excellence of Dead by Daylight. It's too easy, when I have an hour to spare, to throw it into a few matches of Dead by Daylight instead of something longer. After working, I want to relax, so instead of opening up something that promises to be rewarding but will by necessity be emotionally involving and taxing, I instead opt to unwind with the soothing task of running for my life from a mad killer. It doesn't help that the game's enjoyed a engaging stream of updates, like a chapter for the Japanese Ring movies, or a second Resident Evil chapter with a murderous Wesker and plenty of snarky VA work that has you saying his lines out loud along with him ("Poooor performance indeeeeed"), and some Attack on Titan costumes that didn't interest me personally but were intricate and gave you images like Laurie Strode and Steve Harrington up by the Walls in the lobby. All this and fun sweaters. Some of the gameplay changes have been...controversial, let us say, but the devs have continued to pour attention and love into the game.
That total up there isn't indicative of the actual time I've spent playing - take out the time spent waiting in lobbies or futzing with builds and spending upgrade points, and it's probably half that, spread over the past year and a half - but that's still significantly beyond what I've spent on any other title. I've enjoyed the time I've spent with DbD, and my effective prioritization of it over other experiences has to do more with avoidance of mental exhaustion than obsession with the game, but I need to buckle down and spend more time with meatier, self-contained experiences (that's what she said).
The "I Wish I Liked This Better" Award:
Thumper is a rhythm game with - most of the time - no rhythm whatsoever. The music is near-always wholly irrelevant. Theoretically, you're bumping and grinding - slamming through barriers and into rails with showers of sparks - along down an abstract racetrack as an abstracted beetle through abstracted obstacles. When the music matches your movement, it feels great. The music rarely ever matches your movement. If you listen really, really closely, you can determine that movement cues coincide with notes in the soundtrack, yes, but with no rhythm - they're selected from anywhere in the composition (foreground melody, backbeat, etc.) at any spacing, so they come seemingly at random and effectively provide no guide for your actions. It also has a bad case of Tetris Effect fever, where the designers are so besotted with the light and sound showcase they're shoving into your eyeballs that they don't care if you can actually see the playfield to react - if you lose a health state, your field of vision is effectively obliterated for the next couple seconds, which can, and frequently does, prove fatal. (Also: if red guardrails are used along the track to indicate a button input and fatal obstacle, maybe don't use identical streaks of red to decorate your environment?)
My time with Thumper came to an end during a difficult bout with a fourth-level boss. Frustrated at the music's total lack of connection to anything in the to the gameplay, I turned it off. And I beat the level. The music was completely irrelevant to my progress in a rhythm game. What's the point?
Most out of Its Mind LP Moment or Sequence:
You kind of need the entire run-up to get the full experience of supergreatfriend's playthrough of the PS1 title Juggernaut - to appreciate how sharp a left turn it takes - but I'll try to set things up. Juggernaut is, by initial appearances, a first-person puzzler inspired by Myst and D following the protagonist's attempts to rescue his girlfriend from demonic possession by wandering a D-like mental castle formed from her clouded consciousness. It is deadly dull. This is not on supergreatfriend, who is a master of the LP form. It's entirely the game and presentation. The environments are extremely samey and gray and early PS1-nondescript. The game presents the player with too many then-unsolvable puzzle fragments that lead nowhere. There's a stiltedness in the text and lack of polish in the graphics that kind of establishes a low-quality atmosphere. Nothing happens. This goes on for four-and-a-half hours, during which you're lulled into the sense that nothing ever will happen.
And then comes the start of the fifth video, when the lead breaks down a wall with an axe, and...well, I'll let SGF take over from here. Things happen. And don't stop happening. The intro to this new turn of events, depicted above. The names. The attempts at, and I am making the biggest air quotes possible with my fingers here, "subtlety." The twists this new direction takes, which further the "plot," such as it is, in the most entertainingly dumb ways. It might not hit exactly the same without that baseline of boredom, but I imagine it's like watching a Neil Breen film for the first time. I actually would recommend viewing with the chat, as others' reactions to this madness help the experience immensely.
(Incidentally, I would also recommend the eighth video for a similar level of coherent incoherence.)
Ongoing Fiasco of the Year:
The implosion of Giant Bomb. Lord, where to start? I could dedicate an entire post to the buffoonery. They fired the guy who started the place - whose career was defined by an unjust firing - and outright celebrated their decision with a tone-deaf message, then got bodied in viewership when the guy they ejected decided to broadcast his new program directly opposite their own. They turned the site into a clearinghouse for pop-culture detritus like shows on internet memes, podcasts on bad albums, and...cringe comedy, evidently? They've formed ad & giveaway partnerships with the games they're covering; they've all but stopped doing Game of the Year...
OK, look: I haven't engaged with any Giant Bomb content since the Nextlander split. Giant Bomb ended in any meaningful sense when Vinny, Alex, and Brad left. Whatever's left is just a corpse. But there's a point where it's, like, OK, stop beating the corpse. Please stop beating the corpse.
Let's end this on a high note - by recalling the Most Memorable Live A Live Moments or Sequences. It's remarkable that one scenario of Live A Live culminates with you fight the shogun of Japan as a giant poisonous toad alongside Ryoma Sakamoto, and that's not even in the top 5 of remarkable events that come to mind.
Also, any time that "Megalomania" hit. It's like SGF says here: any time you're very evidently up against the final boss of a chapter and they're doing their speech, you're just waiting for it to drop. Absolutely one of the best pieces of gaming music ever - and for this year's remake, Yoko Shimomura, that legend, took perfection and made it even better. Even if the entire enterprise had been a flop, that one track would have justified it. A 2022 miracle!