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Game of the Year 2017: Jonathan's Picks


Jonathan Higgins

“2017 in video games” is probably the most I’ve felt like a kid in a candy store since I'd actually been one.

 

There’s so much greatness, I didn’t even get to everything I wanted to. Games like Giga Wrecker, Pyre, and Hollow Knight are on my to-do list rather than my Top 10 list. But, c'est la vie! The sheer volume of games I could’ve included absolutely makes up for last year when I stopped at 9.

 

Before I get things rolling, here are my usual precautions and caveats: You won’t find Breath of the Wild on this list. While I’m happy I took a chance on it and saw it through, it absolutely brought me more anxiety than joy.

 

Still, it’s what’s chiefly responsible for me finally beating Majora’s Mask for the first time ever — so, in many ways, I’m grateful. I think this whole “Jonathan feels drained by large-scale games with complex systems” sentiment is what caused me to... not finish every main ending of Nier Automata in time to submit this list, for example. I hereby give every fan of that game permission to publicly shame me, ‘cause I should probably be among you.

 

Related: I didn’t even bother picking up Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and it’s taking me longer than I’d like to mash through Dragon Quest Heroes II — another game that might’ve made this list in some form.

 

Finally: I’m not omitting Pokémon Ultra Sun from my list because of some “rule” like previous years. I enjoyed it — it’s definitely what Sun & Moon should’ve been in the first place, it has its endearing moments, the post-game is phenomenal — but there are a good number of games released this year that are better than it. Is that controversial, coming from me?

 

Without further ado...

 

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10) Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap

 

My first favorite game of 2017... is a remaster of a game from 1989. While some of you may fight me on this, I feel like Lizardcube set a new standard for the “retro remake” fare. Every piece and part of the original release...including cheat codes that are almost thirty years old...is present and accounted for. You can switch between past and present audio and visuals with the press of a button, or adjust individual aspects of these as you see fit in the pause menu. Want a full-blown orchestra behind graphics built for the Master System? That’s your prerogative, friend.

 

The thing that gets me about the “new” Dragon’s Trap is that nothing about the original game was really tampered with.

 

They’ve added a playable lady character and extra flair here and there, but it’s so faithful to the original that mashing that “retro button” would give you the full 1989 experience if you wanted it. Not sure how many remasters out there feel bold enough to have so much faith in the original text that they’d fully include it within modern wrappings. While Lizardcube’s endeavors may not be the first of their kind...they’re definitely a first for a smaller crew, without Scrooge McDuck’s money bin or Square-Enix’s notoriety.

 

 

See also:

- Blaster Master Zero: This is another take on “remaster done right”. It modernizes NES gem Blaster Master in every conceivable way: there are many more types of weapons, less restrictive controls, save points galore, an expanded story, and... gosh, the DLC is great. It's got Shovel Knight, y'all.

 

 

 

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9) Slime-san

 

Four colors are all developer Fabraz chose to work with. I think the aesthetic choice might turn a handful of folks away, but...there’s definitely more to this arcade-style platformer than meets the eye. You won’t get any Game Overs, but you’ll die & retry ten-thousand times. There’s never any “death screen” or fade-out to distract from the action. If you mess up, the game just plops you at the last “checkpoint” and the action keeps going.

 

The game’s 100 levels are typically divided into about three very quick-paced sections. Bounce your way to the goal before your timer runs out and...intestinal fluids from the giant worm you’re inside catch up to you. Use your...slime powers...to slow down time and make precise jumps, or slurp up a few carefully placed walls. You’ve definitely seen “trial-and-error” style platforming like this before, but…

 

Slime-san’s world and layers of customization are what set it apart from contemporaries.

 

Entire towns filled with...celebrity bird parodies like 'Macawly Culkin', off-shoot arcade games that you use well-hidden coins to purchase, and more...are all trapped inside the worm with you. You can put a bow on your slime or their bird companion if you like, or handfuls of other innocuous costumes. You can even play as one of Slime-san’s family members that alter mechanics in various ways. One lets you jump a lot higher for more air coverage, but you can’t dash as far. Another lets you dash twice, but you can’t jump. There are numerous options available, and the game doesn’t punish you for choosing to play in a particular way. If you give this one a chance, it’s one endearing, weird adventure.

 

See also:

- Kirby Blowout Blast: It’s a modernized Kirby’s Dream Land, but arcadey in a different way. There are no Copy Abilities... just handfuls of levels [directly lifted from 1992] built for Kirby to inhale enemies and spit them out in ways that hit multiple other enemies in front of him to stack combos and get the highest scores possible.

 

 

 

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8) Yono & the Celestial Elephants

 

I’ve called this one “Elephant Zelda” since I first saw it. Instead of a sword and shield, Yono is armed with just his trunk... and whatever quirky objects he can pick up, drink up, or spit out on his foes. Mechanically, this Switch exclusive is cut from the simplest cloth. Puzzles are tried and true, if not a bit repetitive, and no singular aspect is built for anyone above entry-level to video games as a medium. In terms of its engine and execution, Yono’s journey is short, sweet and relaxed. Despite my five-hour-long run-time, though... there’s plenty of extra stuff to do and find. You can change up Yono’s looks, or dig into the lore of a complex world hidden underneath such a simple game.

 

Niklas Hallin’s writing should not be underestimated. Some of the lines NPCs just casually drop, because Yono comes from a line of creatures celebrated as deities, will definitely make you think. If the cute aesthetics and sense of whimsy don’t reel you in, the depth of the game’s characters and plot absolutely should. For not knowing this game even existed until close to the end of this year, Yono’s journey sure did everything it possibly could to stay fresh in my mind. Plus... I mean, who doesn’t like carrying around a cute hedgehog on your back through an entire dungeon, just because you can?

 

See also:

- Blossom Tales: Coming to the Nintendo Switch before this year is over, this Zelda-like from the creators of Rex Rocket is the closest thing you’ll get to A Link to the Past on the newest Nintendo system. While the script isn’t as strong as Yono, the ambiance definitely is — and it’s much closer to traditional Zelda fare.

 

 

 

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7) Finding Paradise

 

Both To the Moon and its newly released sequel are story-driven experiences that focus on two doctors... traveling through a dying man's memories, with intent to artificially fulfill his last wish. The former... absolutely wrecked me, like the first ten minutes of Disney Pixar’s Up, or the very end of WALL-E. Soon as I found out Finding Paradise was coming out just days before I was meant to submit my list, I insisted on delaying until I’d played through to the credits. I’m very glad I did.

 

As far as its premise, make no mistake: this is absolutely “To the Moon 2”. But the execution this time around is very different. Tip-toeing around such tiny scripts [this one lasted me no more than five hours] without spoiling is difficult, so pardon my vagueness.

 

To the Moon resonated with me because it made me think critically about the important ways my most cherished loved ones influenced my life, particularly when navigating trauma. Finding Paradise resonates with me because I’m still thinking critically about myself, how I shape my own memories, and the profound ways an active imagination and isolation can play tricks on the mind.

 

You’re still playing as the same two doctors from the first game — but the folks who’ve enlisted them, Johnny and Colin, are two completely different types of people. The strength of both scripts will appeal to different players in many completely different ways.

 

See also:

- Rakuen: Bring your tissues, if you’re down for an emotional journey that blends the harsh reality of being a hospital-bound young boy with a world of fantasy, like from a story you might read your own kids. Rakuen was created entirely in RPG Maker, like Finding Paradise.

 

There isn’t any combat to speak of — the primary focus here is on exploration, solving puzzles, and storytelling. The plot expands upon real-world problems of the people around the boy and his mom, through vignettes told in a fantasy world the two can freely travel to and from. Everything is colorful, charming, and... eventually impactful, even heart-breaking. Rakuen is absolutely the most emotional experience I’ve had this year in games.

 

 

 

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6) Persona 5

 

In terms of style, Persona 5 is without peer. You’re not going to find a user-interface quite like it. Menus, scripts, battle animations — everything is wonderfully woven to create the ultimate campy comic book aesthetic that resonated with millions and made this particular Persona title the most successful yet.

 

While I wasn’t so much a fan of being a “Phantom Thief”— the 80 hours I spent absorbing the world was a wholly worthwhile endeavor. And hey — ATLUS continues to be “God-tier” about delivering the best kinds of difficulty options. Safety Mode made the entire game feel the closest to a simple visual novel as it’s ever been, rewarding heaps upon heaps of extra experience points and money, removing all sense of “difficulty” from my journey.

 

But, I had a lot of problems with the game’s writing, particularly regarding both pacing and plot. I’d have put this game a bit higher on the list, for how much I enjoyed the characters, soundtrack, and other things it’s done incredibly well. Constantly flashing back from the point that happens at the game’s opening got tired very quickly. The script didn’t respect players’ intelligence as much as the previous game — whose true ending and villains were hidden underneath a mystery that was up to the player to solve, rather than automatically executed (or painfully obvious).

 

I just think the writing — which is what made me fall in love with Persona 4 Golden when I finally gave it proper time and attention — wasn’t nearly as strong as it could’ve been. If you’re willing to overlook things I’m hesitant to, however, Persona 5 comes highly recommended from me.

 

 

 

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5) Chicken Wiggle

Official GP Review

 

Of all the games Jools Watsham has his name on, this one’s the most criminally underrated.

 

I feel like the folks at Atooi put everything they’d learned from Mutant Mudds, Xeodrifter, and every other gem in their library into creating what is single-handedly their most refined work. I’ve said it time and time again: Mutant Mudds is one of my favorite games ever. While the mechanics felt a little samey to some, I never had a dull moment. Chicken Wiggle could’ve easily chosen to follow that same philosophy across its 54 story levels, but...instead, it’s chocked full of as many power-ups and level-bending options as anything in Super Mario’s early outings.

 

I’d say a strong argument could be made for every two levels introducing a new type of challenge — whether that takes the form of a suit for the titular chicken-worm duo to wear, something for them to ride in, or some obstacle to overcome. Watsham definitely addressed my one main criticism of Mutant Mudds Super Challenge, that things felt like “more of the same.” This experience is anything but.

 

And there are hundreds of user-made levels to prove it. I think crafting an experience with user-creation in mind actually helped Atooi to stay on its proverbial toes, making sure there was always an opportunity to teach players to look at the creative process of level design in new ways. Having spent hours with Super Mario Maker on Wii U, I can absolutely argue that Chicken Wiggle dares to be comparable. There are a handful of different ways to play, and infinite value in doing so as long as Atooi continues to check up on the community from time to time.

 

The game might not be a huge commercial success for Atooi. But to me, it’s their finest hour.

 

 

 

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4) Miitopia

Official GP Review

 

This one definitely reminds me of my inclusion of Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past on my list last year. Miitopia is absolutely not a game I can recommend to everyone. It’s got its fair share of flaws (best discussed in my review), but...I’m still playing through it trying for the last handful of particularly cruel achievements.

 

At 103:34 according to my 3DS Activity Log, it bests my total time spent with Breath of the Wild, Persona 5, and Pokémon Ultra Sun so far. Even after I’m done, I’m still going to remember it as one of my most positive experiences on Nintendo 3DS, simply because I got to see a very long story -- with its share of humor, twists, and turns -- play out while starring people I like a whole lot.

 

The value you’ll draw from Miitopia correlates with how personal you decide to make the experience. It is truly the ultimate realization of what the Mii “brand” is capable of—telling a story where the identity of every character, major or minor, is entirely up to the player’s whim.

 

I shared many endearing moments or twists from the plot with my friends in real life, whose Miis I’d cast in various roles. Everyone does this with new games as they all play through them together, on Social Media or otherwise. But few will feel as personal to me... as my fictional journey with friends I don’t get to see too often in the real world.

 

 

 

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3) Night in the Woods

 

I know a text has influenced me in profound ways when I find it more difficult to talk about than the rest. When certain emotions swell in me, it's easy for me to reconcile with and transfer to the page: Kirby games make me feel as colorful and bright as they are; a game like Axiom Verge makes me feel pretty unsettled. Night in the Woods... kind of punched me in the gut.

 

I never expected to feel such real emotions from a surreal cast, like this.

 

Everyone involved with the creation of Possum Springs and the vibrant folks that populate it is... so absolutely in-tune with what life is like for small-town folks. This is a story that highlights the almost mundane simplicity of everyday life in a place that doesn't move much, that almost feels isolated from the rest of the world. It's a story that stresses the importance of friendships — every shared moment or shared slices of pizza can have meaning, if you let it. But most importantly: as the story unfolds, and you get to know Mae and everyone around her as each day passes... you start to see how broken everyone is, or feels. And that not everything in such a dullsville town is as it seems.

 

The music, the visuals, the strength of the script... because I found so much I could personally relate to, everything grabbed me. And it’s all honestly yet to let go. If you've had a tough year, or if you've ever felt uncertain about where you are in life... maybe this experience will grab you, too. Maybe the right words for me to say are... that the echoes of Mae’s struggles and everyone around her... make me want to hold onto my loved ones even tighter, next time I see them.

 

 

 

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2) Super Mario Odyssey

 

“If Breath of the Wild intimidates you so, how the [redacted] is an open-world Mario so friggin’ high on your list?” While the Kingdoms of Mario Odyssey are indeed large in scale... the systems that guide both Mario and Cappy are anything but complex. Mario doesn’t have to eat fresh meat to survive. Rain doesn’t inhibit Mario’s ability to jump or climb. With the exception of the giant dinosaur... Mario’s abilities don’t degrade or run out.

 

The first few hours of “Breath of the Wild” were something I had to overcome to enjoy. Mario, though? Within minutes...I was right at home.

 

The same muscles I’ve trained since Super Mario 64 were getting their usual workout again. Mechanically, Breath of the Wild set out to reinvent and refresh Zelda. But Odyssey wasn’t out to reinvent anything. Even the capture mechanic is just a modernized means of acquiring something like a fire flower or tanooki suit. It all made me feel comfortable and welcome in every Kingdom that came my way, like I was a tourist. Everything about the full package was indeed utterly refreshing — no hub worlds, no being kicked out of a level back to the start with every moon you’ve acquired, sometimes being able to grab hundreds in one go, etc. But one of my favorite parts about Mario Odyssey is its familiarity.

 

Still, the brand new “worlds” brought about emotions I’ve never felt in a Mario game before. The “New Donk City Festival” totally made the room a little dusty. And the entire endgame is probably one of my personal top 10 moments in all of video games, much less Mario as a series. I was messaging friends in all caps, insisting they let me know whenever they reached a particular moment in the story or the post-game so we could all squeal about it.

 

There is so much to love—lots familiar and nostalgic, lots more brand new and exciting. Odyssey proves that Mario doesn’t need to completely “reinvent the wheel” to feel revolutionary.

 

 

 

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1) Sonic Mania

Official GP Review

 

I still fight myself on whether or not Christian Whitehead and company actually managed to surpass Sonic 3 & Knuckles, my second favorite game of all time. I think they may have — and just the fact that I’m contemplating this speaks to how strongly I feel about Sonic Mania.

 

Since the Dreamcast era, Sega themselves have always been ultra-concerned with trying to reinvent Sonic in ways—appearance, mechanics, whichever. Sonic Mania proves that going back to the basics is what it takes to make Sonic critically and commercially successful as a brand again. And this group of fans, known in the “Sonic fan-game scene” for a good decade or so, have proven that students can surpass those who inspired them.

 

I was initially a bit concerned when SEGA indicated that it’d be filled with more old levels than brand new ones. But Whitehead and company knew exactly how to mess with players' expectations for both types of Zones. Each and every second “Act” of an old level turns familiar environments on their heads. One of my groomsman and I, who met thanks to a Sonic the Hedgehog 2 message board on GameFAQs (methinks I’m showing my age a bit), stayed up until super late when the game came out, exchanging texts back and forth about the various ways the Sonic Mania team masterfully pulled off its first few zones. There’s just so much care and attention put into the idea of not just creating a good Sonic game, but throwing in things that appeal to longtime or lapsed fans finally making a comeback.

 

Within the first week, I went from having no idea what was in Sonic Mania... to playing so much, so often, that I was able to complete a “No Save file” without breaking a sweat. Every old level subverts expectations. Every new level has brand new surprises that long-time fans will find both fun and captivating. Both old and new work together to create the ultimate “modernization of Classic Sonic” — the 'Genesis feel' that’s so fast, you feel like Sonic’s going to break the game he’s confined in, without any need for a “boost” button.

 

Fully completing the new Mario is held back by troublesome Power Moons, like the infamous jump rope challenge... various bits that feel redundant... almost like padding. The reason I chose to marginally place Mania over Odyssey... is because I’m going to wear this game out. Super Mario Odyssey is a game I’ll replay whenever I feel like taking a trip to new and familiar worlds. Sonic Mania is absolutely going to be a part of my routine — something I mash as much, as often, as Mutant Mudds, Shovel Knight, Cave Story, and the other games in the Jonathan “canon”.



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Interesting picks to say the least, but I'd say the cynic in me is happy to see that Breath of the Wild is nowhere on this list while Persona 5 is very present! What's more, someone finally drawing attention back to Sonic Mania. I feel like everyone loved it, then immediately stopped talking about it, not even many nominations from what I remember. Either way, nicely done! 

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