Time for End-of-Year Lists! We’re Doing Games, Because Books are for Dorks!

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Oh, settle down. While that header is accurate, it’s not the entire reason I’m talking about my ten favorite games of 2017 as opposed to other media. I simply haven’t read any books published this year. I almost never read books in the year they’re published, which I understand is not very author-friendly of me. Despite that, there’s an ocean of books out there that I haven’t read. There are major authors whose works I’ve never explored. Hell, there’s books I would like to re-read for this here blog, and even though I read a ton, there simply isn’t enough time. I’ll get to 2017 books in a few years if they stand out, I guess. I also don’t watch very many movies. Christ, I still haven’t got around to watching that Dark Tower atrocity, even though it’s the first film to come out based on arguably my favorite books of all time. I’m looking at best-of lists and only recognize a few films, some of which I suppose I’ll get around to watching some day. I liked Logan a lot, I guess. But games? Those I do play, and I even occasionally play them in the year they’re released.

This year has been bananas for video games. My personal list is going to be greatly handicapped by the fact that I do not own a Switch and that I only just recently picked up a PS4. That Switch is going to be happening in 2018, though. Both Zelda and Mario look like all-timers, so I think it’s time to pick up my first Nintendo console since the Gamecube. Outside of Nintendo, there are a few titles that I intend to get to but haven’t had the time yet. The new Assassin’s Creed looks legit, and Night in the Woods looks like my kind of story-driven indie. I’m sure there are others. Meanwhile, it’s about time to get into what I have played. In reverse order, here we go.

10. Everybody’s Golf

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It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a dang golf game. Yet there’s something therapeutic about picking your club and making your shots and running around a nice virtual golf course. The actual golfing plays exactly as you’d expect. There’s a swing meter, push the button at the right times, there you go. It’s the packaging and progression that makes the game enjoyable, though. This is like, custom anime golf. There’s a robust character maker that’s super fun, which allows me to make goofy anime versions of myself and my favorite fictional characters. The more golf you play, the more accessories you get to dress them up. So it’s dollhouse funtime like The Sims, but also golfing. Everything is light and airy, and makes for a good game to play while listening to podcasts or whatever. The only real knock I have is that progression is slow. It takes a lot of golfing to unlock new courses, apparently. I’ve been playing for over ten hours at this point and I’m still stuck on the first course. Everything else is solid, though, so if you like golfing without having to actually golf, this is a good time.

9. Wonder Boy: The Dragon Trap

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I was an NES kid. Pretty much everyone in this country was, back in the day. I’ve met plenty of people who didn’t know the Sega Master System even existed. Lucky for me, back in my dim, distant youth, I had a neighbor buddy who had one. In retrospect, he was lucky to have me and my Nintendo next door, because otherwise he would have been a playground pariah (at least insofar as video games are concerned, if I recall this kid was quite the little jock so popularity-wise he was fine). I mean think about it. I had all the hits, the major franchises that sad, Sega-only kids would have missed out on. Meanwhile, he had what? Time Warriors? Meh (This is disingenuous, we played the shit out of that mediocre game and one of the few games I actually owned on NES was Super Pitfall, arguably the worst game I’ve ever played). Yet one day he has me over to his house, and he has this new game. Wonder Boy: The Dragon Trap. It was a platformer like Mario, but dang. It was so much more than that. Truly, it was ahead of its time. Sure, you run around and jump over things and, you know, platform. But also you have a sword. And suddenly there’s this mini-RPG, like Dragon Warrior but way better looking and way more actiony. I had never seen anything like it in all my 9 years on the planet.

Did I mention that as you adventure through the world, buying new equipment and being rad, you beat cool boss monsters and gain the ability to transform into different animals? Animals who also have swords? Because you do and it’s awesome. The Dragon Trap was the first and last game my Master System owning buddy had that I was actively jealous of. Of course, he lived next door and we were bros so I totally finished it, but still. That game left an impression. Imagine my surprise when this relatively obscure game merited a total remake, with dope new art and music. The skeleton of the game absolutely holds up. Like I said, it was ahead of its time, and even now the basis of the game feels great and plays well. The new coat of paint — it’s all hand-drawn art, and it’s beautiful — polishes up this wonderful forgotten gem. Oh, and you can push a button and it seamlessly reverts to its 8-bit glory as well. This bit of nostalgia might be fairly niche, I don’t expect everyone lived next door to the Master System kid, but the game holds up and I highly recommend it.

8. Steamworld Dig 2

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What is it about digging that is so inherently fun? I know I’m an old, but I’ve put my time into Minecraft, let me tell you what. This game isn’t that, but there is an awful lot of digging happening and somehow it’s still quite engaging. If you didn’t play the first Steamworld Dig, you missed out on a small, contained little game with a lot of charm. You’re a robot with a pickax, and you roam around underground digging up various resources. When you’re full up, you can go back to town and sell your stuff. You turn that money into equipment upgrades, which in turn allows you to dig deeper. That’s the loop, and the sequel is pretty much the same thing. With such a simple gameplay loop, the progression needs to feel meaningful to be worthwhile, and since this is on my list, obviously Steamworld Dig 2 pulls it off. It’s fun to dig around. It’s fun to figure out what equipment I need to upgrade. There are improvements in mobility as well, which makes it more fun to move around. Oh, and there’s a delightful little story here as well. It’s not terribly deep, but the tiny robots all have tons of personality and it’s just a good time. This is an excellent palette-cleaning game, as it’s fairly short and to the point, but is still a satisfying time. It’s just neat.

7. Cuphead

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In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not even close to done with this game. I just finished the first island, in fact, so it looks like I’m about 25% done? Whatever, I get the gist of the game, and there are two things you need to know. The first, and most important thing is this: Cuphead looks and sounds like nothing you’ve ever played. The entire aesthetic is based on the animation of the 1930’s, and Cuphead pulls it all the way off. It’s just perfect, and is impossible to explain properly, so if you haven’t seen this game in action watch this thing.

The whole game looks like that, which is flippin’ nuts. The presentation is obviously the main draw here. The music is perfect. The animation is perfect. I’m in awe of how this game looks and sounds every time I boot it up. Many incredible looking games came out this year, but it’s hard to argue that Cuphead isn’t far and away the best (although Nier: Automata has better music, sorry it just does).

The other thing you need to know about this game is how brutally, unforgivingly, incomprehensibly difficult it is. And guess what, Cuphead? I actually don’t need to know how many times I died. I know it’s a lot! If you come into this unawares, this game will wreck your shit. I’m not great at games, but I do occasionally enjoy a challenge. I felt pretty good about finishing Ori and the Blind Forest, for example (another beautiful, difficult game). This is something else entirely. I can’t play much more than an hour at a time, because I will get mad at myself. That’s the key thing, though. Yeah, it’s ridiculously hard, but it’s mostly fair. Plus, when I eventually triumph, I feel like I did the thing and didn’t just luck out. Then I can go check out the next amazing-looking boss. Cuphead‘s real good, y’all.

6. Prey

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I think in any other year or any other time Prey would have landed higher on my list. This kind of game is all the way my jam, so I’m surprised that it didn’t resonate with me quite as much as I would have otherwise expected. I mean, it seems to take place in a corporate-dystopian future, which I’m obviously into. Prey features a deep, detailed, lived-in world where I can poke around to my heart’s content. The character work is pretty strong. You play a scientist/executive for an evil future-corporation bent on exploiting dangerous alien technology. You’ve been subject to various brain experiments which have rendered your memory incomplete, however. Most of the game takes place on a space station that has gone through rough times. The aliens you’ve based your work on are loose, and they have a bad habit of turning people into alien-zombies. Oh, and if they get back to Earth they’ll infect humanity and wipe us all out. The story is pretty strong, but I was more drawn to the environments and the chasing down of various items and upgrades. Possibly one reason Prey didn’t hit as hard as it could have is because many of the coolest upgrades were only available to those who make particular choices in the narrative. I played the story in such a way as to close that avenue of gameplay off to myself. All that said, however, Prey is still a good game and well worth your time, especially if you pick it up on sale for twenty bucks.

5. What Remains of Edith Finch

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I like all kinds of games. I like loud shooty games. I like anime-ass JRPG’s. I like spooky horror games and old games and hard games and easy games and whatever, I like games. I also like quiet, meditative walking simulator games. I quite enjoyed Gone Home, for instance. What Remains of Edith Finch is one of those. It’s very short — as in you can finish it in two or three hours — but that hardly matters. Sometimes it’s nice to get in and out in a single sitting, you know? More important is the story, and how it’s told. This is a first person game, which puts you in the shoes of young Edith Finch returning to her childhood home on Orcas Island, Washington (incidentally, I made my first visit there mere weeks before playing this game, and they nail the look and feel of the island). It’s a, uh, unique house. From the outside there is a proliferation of random rooms attached willy-nilly to one another. Once you get inside, it’s a mess. A lovely, interesting mess, but a mess nonetheless. Eventually, you start poking around the various rooms, and the story unfolds in a series of vignettes, all of which provide some context for the story of the Finch family.

What Remains of Edith Finch sets itself apart from other walking simulator experiences in a couple of ways. The first is the quality of the storytelling. Obviously this is the focus, so the narrative needs to hold up. It totally does. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the story deals with the history of the Finch family, who are understood to be under a curse. With the exception of the matriarch great-grandmother, they all die young. The weird add-on rooms are there because when another family member dies, they seal the room up and build another for the next one to live in. It’s weird but effective. Each room contains a story, and the way the story is told is the other unique aspect of Edith Finch. Usually in these games, you literally just walk around and look at things. That happens here, but with each new vignette is a new way to play. These little mini-games tie into the sad story of a particular member of the Finch family, and they’re pretty much all effective. Some more than others, of course, but each new room provides a new experience. The overall story is lovely and contemplative, so be prepared to think about the nature of death. I can’t recommend it enough. What a beautiful experience.

4. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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If there’s one game on this list that sums up the larger trends of 2017, Wolfenstein is it. Holy shit, what a crazy thing. I’ve already written about The New Colossus at length, and it really is a remarkable game. Well, it’s a remarkable story. The actual playing can be a little rough, and not necessarily in the fun, rewarding way. There were some sections I definitely had to cheese my way through, just so I could get to the next banana-beans, wonkadoodle story moment. Seriously, go play the thing. It’s been $30 on various sales, so it shouldn’t set you back too much. It’s worth it to blast through on easy and experience the vicarious, visceral thrill of blowing up filthy Nazis real good.

3. Pyre

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I was not expecting a game about mystical basketball to be this good. I actually never expected a game to be about mystical basketball at all, if I’m being really forthright here. What a weird thing. There’s just so much world-building and characterization and personality in this game that it’s hard to figure out how to best word an explanation of what is even happening here. Okay. Okay, so there is a world unlike our own known as the Commonwealth. I surmise that once upon a time there was an apocalyptic event, and now humanity has rebuilt to some extent. Reading is illegal in this new society, and you’re a reader. Uh-oh. Criminals in the Commonwealth are punished by mystical exile, and so when the game opens you’re unconscious in the Downside, which is where the banished criminals end up for life. You, henceforth known as “The Reader,” are picked up by a motley trio in their rad wagon and are allowed to recover. After you talk with these folks for a bit (which include a large demon-lady and a talking dog with a dope mustache), you start to discover a little bit about the world.

What sets the game off is their realization that you can read. A sentence to the Downside is for life, except for one rarely-used outlet. There is a Rite which can be performed at certain times, and when one is successful, they are able to ascend back to the Commonwealth totally exonerated. That Rite is the aforementioned mystical basketball. If this all sounds super weird, well, it is. Yet the narrative unfolds so naturally that when you’re actually playing, it all makes sense. Add to this some of the most phenomenal art and music this side of Cuphead, and the entire experience is nothing short of brilliant. The characters are all great, and as you get attached to them and the stakes of the Rite continue to rise, the choices you make throughout become straight up poignant and at times heart-rending. The mystical basketball is actually pretty fun — which is good since that makes up the actual gameplay portion of the game. The story molds itself around the outcome of your games as well, which makes for dynamic, interesting storytelling. Pyre is one of the few games I’ve played where I’m seriously considering starting another run to see how different choices affect the outcome. What a delightful game.

2. Horizon: Zero Dawn

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Choosing between this and what will be number one is a tough call, especially since I think I enjoyed playing Horizon more. You can read my extended thoughts, of course, but I think what keeps Horizon from claiming my top spot is that despite the exceptionally well done story and beautiful world, it doesn’t break much new ground as a game. It’s a big open world adventure game, and I happen to like those quite a bit. I had a great time exploring the post-post-apocalyptic world of the Southwestern United States, and I enjoyed my time with Aloy as well. After a while, though, I was just whipping through the world looking for the next story event, and while I really liked the story, it lacked just a little bit of the audacity that propelled the following game to number one.

1. Nier: Automata

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Nier has unavoidable and obvious flaws. Many of the environments are dull and look, well, kind of bad. The map is terrible. There’s no real reason the main character is dressed in a leather mini-skirt. I can see how people would get bored with the immediate gameplay. It has a weird structure which makes people say things like “oh, you have to finish the game a couple of times before it gets good.” That’s not actually true, mind you, but it is shorthand that I’ve seen quite a bit. Now, I’ve written a big old article about Nier already, so I’ll keep my effusing brief. This game, right straight up, pushes narrative structure and philosophical themes further than I’ve ever seen in a video game. Now let me be clear: nothing in Nier is new ground if you’ve taken a Philosophy or English 101 class in a university. That’s not meant to be a condescending shot at video games, either. This kind of sheer Post-Modernism just isn’t something one is accustomed to seeing in a big video game, is all. And I’m so glad that I have now. Nier: Automata does not fuck around. It is not interesting in sparing your feelings, and it will exploit you emotionally. If you persevere through the five main “endings” (and really the endings thing is a misnomer, it’s just a single, fragmented narrative) the game has all manner of effective tricks to force you to consider your relationship with games. Nier is by no means perfect, but it is absolutely the best game I’ve played this year. It’s not often a game goes to this length to subvert your expectations. Nier does this without reservation, and for that I commend it.

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