I’ve taken some time off from writing to wander the earth for a bit, but I’m back — however briefly.
Most of what stood out to me this year actually... came out before 2018. I’ve played through every localized Ace Attorney romp for the first time, and I’ve stuck with Animal Crossing: New Leaf for 63 hours and growing after years of avoidance. I bought and 100%ed the underrated Sonic Colors DS, when the wait for Sonic Mania Plus was killing me.
The Switch port of Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was my first time playing that, and I adored it. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze...not so much. And don’t get me started on Hollow Knight. That's one I can only really recommend to the hardest of the hardcore of the exploration-based platformer & Dark Souls people. If you make it past the fifty hour mark and don’t put it down, you’re more grizzled and patient than I am.
Despite spending more time in the past, often against my better judgment, I managed to play ten 2018 games that I’ve decided are worth your time and attention. There are plenty of others that I really dig, but didn’t quite make the cut... like Detective Pikachu and WarioWare: Gold.
I kind of wanted to throw Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the list, too, but I’m not sure where I’d put it just yet. I haven’t been this figuratively glued to Smash since around 1999 on Nintendo 64, when I was a kid & this was all new to me. The Spirit Board and World of Light both make for near-endless replay value, I managed to unlock the full roster in just one weekend — it’s been pretty fantastic. But will I still feel fantastic about it a month from now? You get it.
Still — no matter what this list says, or what I decide to leave on the cutting room floor, my real Game of the Year for 2018 is Ace Attorney Trilogy on Nintendo 3DS.
10) Part-Time UFO
This is the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to put something exclusive to mobile platforms on a list like this. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that HAL Laboratory is responsible. Much like when Game Freak deviates from Pokémon, I like to see the folks at HAL venture outside of Dream Land to create a series like BOXBOY, and now this.
As with most phone-exclusive contemporaries: the concept is easy to pick up, difficult to master. Your cute lil UFO friend (who looks suspiciously similar to a certain UFO sprite from Kirby’s Adventure on NES) is just looking for an honest day’s work. He earns his keep by using crane-based mechanics to put cargo on a truck, meticulously place pillars and a roof on a building according to its design… you know — catch fish while avoiding explosives or eels, arrange cheerleaders in a pyramid, make sure a circus elephant can balance five different animals of all shapes and sizes. The usual stuff!
Does one “Platinum” something like this? If yes, this is the first time I’ve done so. All twenty-five achievements are mine to boast about! Now I’m totally certified to head to Japan and play one of those gashapon/UFO crane machines in the real world, right? I love the little touches sprinkled about as you’re completing each job. When you’re on a farm putting stuff in the truck...for this old guy that thinks you’re just some misguided youth... farmhands and animals cheer you on in a colorful backdrop. The girl that knocks over a museum totem pole that you’ve got to rearrange for her starts out crying, gets happier as you go along...and tenses up, bracing herself if you’ve arranged the totems in such a way that they might fall over again. The controls are concise enough that I was able to pull off extra-challenging maneuvers associated with the achievements, without frustration or throwing my phone against the wall. If the Nintendo Badge Arcade had crane controls as air-tight as these, the Arcade Bunny would go out of business.
It’s truly the most fun $3.99’s gotten me in years. There’s the usual cute costumes and catchy tunes. It’s better than BOXBOY, to me... with a full-color spectrum and a lesser price, to boot.
9) Yoku’s Island Express
The philosophy of most Metroid-likes is to explore some forgotten, isolating place... while cutting down or shooting up anything that gets in your way. You’ll eventually double-jump, earn a grappling device of some kind to reach higher places, and maybe learn to fly. While there’s plenty of outstanding variations on this formula, it’s all pretty samey if you break it down to the fundamentals.
Enter Yoku’s Island Express — the road less traveled. It’s the kind of experience I’m describing, but... pinball is your primary means of getting (pretty peacefully) from Point A to Point B. I’m used to seeing pinball articulated as a single-screen, arcadey score-attack, where the point is to just stay alive for as long as possible. With Yoku, it’s not so much about racking up combos and hitting the right places. You've just gotta skilfully smack your lil dung beetle dude to a hard-to-reach area where you’re exploring using the flipper and some precise timing. Nothing’s ever too difficult or punishing; if you fall into “the pit”, as it were, it's just a little loss of (otherwise plentiful) in-game currency, which is used to buy upgrades or access to fast travel.
I guess soft, fluffy, ultimately predictable games kind of dominate my list this year. It’s almost like I’m trying to escape a harsh reality. But seriously — Yoku’s world is filled with a ton of cute, interesting characters to meet... and deliver mail to! You’re the island’s (woefully underpaid) pinball postal service beetle. It struck a unique chord with me by making a genuine attempt to subvert expectations of an entire genre through pinball, even if it wasn’t always successful. While contemporaries of games like Hollow Knight and Dead Cells are plentiful in both the past and the modern era, Yoku’s best comparisons are just chilling in 1989.
8) Monster Boy & the Cursed Kingdom
If you even moderately enjoyed Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap when it was remade last year, this one needs to be on your proverbial radar. It doesn’t share the same developers, or even name (thanks, trademark disputes)... but it’s Wonder Boy V, for all intents and purposes. The “Monster Boy” can transform into five different critters by his journey’s end, and each lends a unique hand to the q-like exploration series veterans and new fans should come to expect.
The pig transformation acts as a mage, with access to different spells like fire and lightning. You can uncover secrets by literally sniffing them out. The snake shoots venom at foes, and it can scale mossy walls to reach new heights. The frog can breathe underwater and use his tongue like a grappling hook. While it’s very tropey and somewhat predictable overall, it feels exactly like a modern Wonder Boy should — almost to a fault.
Before I get too critical, let’s heap some praise: This is the part where I flail about excitedly screaming, “LOOK HOW CUTE IT IS??” The level of detail here is apparent just by looking at various screenshots, like the one above, but how lively the world felt in motion honestly took me by surprise. There’s real depth to Jin and other characters’ animations that have only been met by games with zillion dollar budgets, or contemporaries like Owlboy. The locations & various bits of plot are very referential to other games in the series, too! It helps firmly cement this as an officially licensed sequel. And, gosh, having your soundtrack arranged by folks like Yuzo Koshiro, Motoi Sakuraba, and Michiru Yamane is like the perfect marinade for a very meaty experience.
As with a lot of meat, though, I feel like Monster Boy may have been a better experience if it trimmed some fat. The difficulty spike in the early part of the adventure, as the pig, is not really the most welcoming sentiment. Things get progressively easier in the opening hours, rather than tougher! I totally understand how the pig is meant to be comparatively weak to most of the other transformations in the game. But I feel like just one too many evil-looking clouds have an affinity for bacon. A few of the later dungeons or quests tend to drag on just a bit longer than I feel they should, too. Still had a ton of fun overall — but the biggest contrast between Monster Boy and the rest of the series is its length, compared to the others’ briskness. For all I know, someone reading this might consider that to its credit, though. More power (and transformations!) to you.
Every moment you’re absorbed in this one is visually stunning. I seriously haven’t ever spammed the screenshot capture button on my Switch this much. GRIS tells an extremely surrealist, interpretive story of a girl in mourning... by destroying someone she cares about, draining the color from her world and robbing her of her voice. In the opening minutes, you truly feel the weight of her grief — you’re only allowed to stumble forward at first, then slowly move. Eventually, you stride...and your goal of restoring Gris and her world to their former, vibrant selves becomes clearer.
Both mechanically and narratively, the experience is very light. The story is told with no words; there’s very little text on the screen besides achievements as they happen and little mementos as they’re discovered. The practically peerless (especially on Switch) visuals and outstanding soundtrack are the primary means of conveying a much darker, more threatening message than Journey — the one all your friends will probably fight themselves not to compare this to. Where ThatGameCompany tells the hero’s journey through listless exploring with the help of other strangers... Gris’s escape from grief feels very isolating and melancholic at its core. The friends you do meet are treated and remembered fondly, but they’re ultimately few and far between.
The experience is so light, it almost feels like a short film. Gris regains sensibilities and abilities as color is gradually restored to her world. But it's all very brief. Level design is easily understood, never frustrating, and almost wholly linear. Honestly, this is in stark contrast to the nature of grief. Still: even if I saw the credits the same day I bought it, doing so brought me to tears. There’s very little you can do with a narrative that’s largely metaphorical. But the beauty of seeing someone in mourning find the strength to overcome it isn’t lost on me. Even if the story beats and levels are more interpretive than blatant, every last one is impactful.
6) Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu
I have no Individual Values-related excuse to strike Pokémon from my list this year, so here we are. Let’s Go Pikachu is honestly proof that what makes this hobby enjoyable for me comes down to so much more than interesting mechanics. Truly... this is like "baby’s first Pokémon." The Master Trainers you can battle with after the credits roll are certainly difficult in comparison to everything else. But the whole shebang is easy like Sunday morning.
Despite being considerably more experienced than its intended audience... and pretty averse to mandatory motion controlled throwing when not in Handheld Mode... I still thoroughly enjoyed my latest romp through Kanto. Your partner Pokémon is what keeps the magic going for me, really. At one point when I was playing with her, my Pikachu put out her paw & I high-fived it. Then she did the same with the other paw. After a few boops, she exclaimed with bursts of hearts and glee. This is exactly what I wanted Let’s Go to be.
It’s less about a simplified Pokémon experience... and more about a lively Kanto that puts even HeartGold’s level of detail & polish to shame. Ditching random encounters is probably the best thing to happen to the series. The soundtrack is ultra-nostalgic. Being able to soar through the air freely, and interact with individual critters from other trainers just littered throughout the map — these are all nice touches. They went out of their way to make your Partner Pikachu or Eevee stand far out from the crowd with moves like Splishy Splash and (the meta-game-changing) Sparkly Swirl. There was little more than this ambiance and caring for my Pokémon propelling me to the credits.
Now, I’m raising my hard-fought-for mythical friend, and engaging in Catch Combos to go for them Shiny Pokémon. But, even as “the post-game experience” is kind of winding down for me... I still poke my lil Pikachu when she chills on my shoulder in Handheld Mode, or talk to Mew or Melmetal when they walk behind me.
It’s the little things that matter to me, and they always will.
It’s one thing to create a competent Super Meat Boy-esque experience, where each room is a tough platforming challenge that you’re meant to chip away at (until, inevitably, many get bored with not being good enough and move on before seeing the end). It’s another to respect your entire potential audience enough to create a wealth of Assist Options that can be turned off and on at any time. You can lower the speed of stuff around you by up to 50%, to make that tightly-timed jump as leisurely as you need it to be. You can make it so your grip on walls, that’s normally limited, is infinite. Want to be able to jump/dash twice, or infinitely, instead of just once? Go for it. Want to make yourself invincible so you never have to deal with any harmful obstacles in your way?
The sky's the limit. Celeste isn’t just a cute game about a strawberry-loving lady climbing a mountain and conquering inner-demons. You're given the freedom to customize the trials & tribulations of said mountain to your personal liking or ability. I wouldn’t have had the patience to finish this one without Assist Mode. Using it didn’t make the experience any less impactful for me! I still got to meet everyone in Madeline’s corner, get a bit extracurricular, and hear my favorite soundtrack of 2018 in all of its proper context. If I’m being honest, Lena Raine is probably my favorite composer in the past five years. When it comes to most of what I put on these lists each time I'm asked to, I’ll sometimes buy a t-shirt, a poster, or something. But gosh, in this case, I’ve collected soundtracks. There’s a B-Sides album, a Prescription for Sleep album, and more. I went on to play her interactive novel, and was delighted to see her show up on the “guest compilation album” of something a little further on up this list, too. She even covered DELTARUNE music recently!
Celeste features wonderfully drawn art, a very personal narrative, skillful level design, customizable mechanics, and music I still listen to eleven months later. Is there even more to look forward to?
4) Kirby: Star Allies
My endless, emphatic wishing for HAL to bring back Kirby’s animal friends is well-documented. And during the Nintendo Direct on March 8th, it...finally came true (y’all should’ve seen my Twitter mentions).
Here’s how I break this down: If Kirby: Planet Robobot is a celebration of everything Kirby is, then Star Allies is a celebration of everything his friends are. There are 37 friendly friends of the titular marshmallow maestro — ten of which are never-before-or-certainly-not-recently-playable characters from Kirby’s entire history, like Marx from Kirby Super Star, Susie from Robobot, and... yes indeed, Rick & Kine & Coo.
It would’ve been enough, for me, to just create these Dream Friends that lovingly celebrate the games they came from... with moves, icons, and victory themes that almost feel like they belong in Super Smash Bros. But each “wave” brought several new Celebration Pictures, what now totals to well over 300 music tracks, art pieces after the credits, specific skits that play while you’re sitting idle on the title or file select screens, and even more bells & whistles. I really could go on forever. In the “Guest Star Mode”, Dream Friends have specific portions of their campaign that feature recreated levels from their games of origin. They even threw in a brand new mode in the latest update that cranks an otherwise leisurely difficulty overall to “the Dark Souls of Kirby”. I’ll see myself out for that one.
It’s just... kept me coming back for brand new stuff, again and again. Spacing out each free update like they did made sure I spent a handful of hours with it every few months this year. At this point, there’s so much extra content that it’s hard not to recommend to anyone. Even if you have no idea where some of the special characters come from, they’re still super powerful and fun to play as. I’d love to see a longer, more varied & complex Story Mode in the next game...that actually worked all these wonderful characters into the plot.
It just wouldn’t be Kirby if I didn’t keep on dreaming.
3) The Messenger
I could write volumes on how masterfully The Messenger controls alone. Making sure a shuriken-throwing, wall-climbing, slowly gliding, water-walking, grapple & sliding ninja feels like you’re freaking cloud-hopping definitely isn’t easy. The folks at Sabotage didn’t just create something that feels a whole lot like you’re playing Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi III — they surpassed them. Handily. I haven’t been this giddy about a platforming game since Shovel Knight. This is my Axiom Verge for 2018 — the one I’ll never shut up about, the one I’ll be hyperbolic about and call “a revolutionary new paradigm.”
There’s a shopkeeper that shares witty anecdotes each time you see him in a level. I knew these characters were going to be something special when I wanted to hear the random fables this guy in blue robes would share only slightly more than I cared about actually advancing the plot. Past a certain point, he stops with the stories because you’ve seen a whole lot of what the game has to offer. Then, very close to the end, dude came back with an extremely personal tale that almost made me tear up. And I’m not even talking about the plot.
The way every piece, part and random one note of The Messenger messes with the fourth wall, the confines of levels and player exploration, and making all the places you visit feel connected is nothing short of brilliant. I’m pretty well-traveled in the genre, and I can’t think of any peers when it comes to how the proverbial scroll unfolds, mechanically — with much probably hidden behind SPOILER tags.
Sabotage released a New Game+ & quality of life update just a few weeks ago. You’ve got to beat the final boss again to unlock the meatiest part of it, so I went back... after two months or so of completely shelving my thoughts & honed “ninja instincts”. To my delight, nothing atrophied over that time. I saw the credits roll again, began New Game+ with all my amassed skills, new moves and equipment, and just... spent a little while completely mowing down the first few levels, that gave me trouble when I first started. So few video games feel like riding a bike, figuratively. This one does. I can’t wait to see the wild picnic they’ve got planned next!
2) Dragon Quest XI
They did it, everyone — it’s the polar opposite of Dragon Quest VII. The last time a Dragon Quest title was on my list, it was a niche choice at best... hard to recommend to anyone except the die-hards and the most patient of players. This time — I can scream and shout for everyone to buy and play and enjoy! I’ve even converted people.
Here’s the lowdown: it’s still very “old school” at heart. But its closest peer released this year, Octopath Traveler, is much more grindy, difficult, and demanding. DQXI is a very breezily-paced, relaxing RPG from the start until the credits roll, assuming you don’t pick the Draconian Quest option (built specifically for North American folks who scoff at everything breezy). The story works like any game in the series: perhaps it’s a bit slow to start, but once you gather everyone together... it’s a gift that keeps on giving. I mean that — the plot goes places that no other Dragon Quest dares tread... that few other video games dare tread. There are more than a handful of moments where you’ll fan yourself if you’re the emotional type. I’m immeasurably biased when it comes to these blinky Dragon Quest bouts... but there are multiple outlets that sing the narrative’s praises. It feels good to not be alone like I was with VII.
When it comes to mechanics, visual presentation, and narrative interest... this is the most streamlined Dragon Quest there’s ever been. It’s like critical darling Dragon Quest VIII, but twice as refined and three hundred fifty-six times as interesting. I’m still sad places outside Japan didn’t get to experience the “3DS demake version” but... gosh. I don’t even feel hyperbolic saying “this is the best Dragon Quest ever made.” It dethrones V as my personal favorite, and that’s not something I say lightly. The only real drawback is its soundtrack. It really is terrible, to me (plus a lot of others)... and a sure sign Sugiyama should probably make his exit.
The best possible Dragon Quest would’ve seemed like a shoe-in for my number one choice, right? Well... the only thing better than a new peak for my favorite series...is the underdog I picked up on a whim & never saw coming.
A video game hasn’t reached out to me and offered a big ole bear hug, like this one, since Undertale. And Wandersong doesn’t have a “Genocide route”. This is a wholly pacifistic tale about a side character... that the world in peril actually has no dramatic role for. The lil bard guy wants to do his part to save everyone... by learning the mysterious Earthsong. His quest takes him to every corner of his world, and there are plenty of happy adventures to be had... as well as knowledge to glean about why the world wound up this way.
Tearaway feels like a comparable peer to the warm, fuzzy vibe this tale emanates. While Media Molecule focuses heavily on player creation to deliver its ultimately charismatic message, Wandersong is (as its name might suggest) focused on literally bringing harmony to the player, and the world they’re influencing as the bard. When you’re not singing to solve dilemmas of the people you meet, you’re belting your own melodies for one reason or another — whether it’s to work through innocuous, abstract jumping puzzles, or just because you can. This story is really meant for everyone: you can’t mess up without immediately being able to try again, you’re never scolded for being off-key, and there are a myriad of accessible indicators to make sure you’re always doing the right thing at the right time, when you want to.
You spend your entire journey tirelessly defending things that most other contemporaries would have you cut down. You’re always looking for ways to de-escalate situations, give peace a chance. And while it doesn’t work out sometimes... nobody in this world ever tries like the bard and his friends. He’s no hero, by definition. He just makes everything better by being happy at it. I called my lil bard guy “Plea”, because I couldn’t name him after me. Wandersong genuinely feels like a plea for kindness and empathy.
It’s the most Jonathan thing I played this year, and is definitely in the running for “possibly ever”.