All that glitters is gold. And after this year, I’ve no choice but to believe that all my gaming wishes come true. No, seriously — I wanted Kirby’s animal friends to come back; they did. I wanted Phantasy Star Online 2 to be localized, and now I owe Barrel a kingdom. STREETS OF RAGE 4 is gonna be a thing next year and Adam Hunter’s finally playable again. I didn’t even know how badly I wanted Sonic Mania or Super Mario Odyssey until the moment I saw them.
But nothing will ever hold a candle to how viscerally I reacted during the last few minutes of the February 13th Nintendo Direct this year. Anyone who I consider a friend knows how this Game of the Year list is going to end. But hey, it’s more about the journey than the destination, right?
Here are ten-ish... gaming-related things released in North America this year that I enjoyed the most. That sweeping statement ought to cover my bases and let me get away with a technicality or two, huh?
10) Kingdom Hearts III
This pick echoes how I feel about Persona 5. So much style, I’m tempted to use the phrase “practically peerless” yet again. It was enjoyable to actually play, barring a few rough edges. The soundtrack is the real mark of mastery. Gosh, though—the writing leaves a lot to be desired.
This isn’t your generic, “Lol, the plot of Kingdom Hearts is labyrinthine and hard to understand,” take — I understood everything pretty darn well. It’s just... the script constantly does wrong by the women of the series. The localization changed meaningful dialogue between characters in unsatisfactory ways, too. Nomura and friends scored use of a major IP in Frozen, but Sora, Donald and Goofy absolutely do not belong when they wander around in Arendelle. You get to see the iconic “Let It Go” song being sung by Elsa’s proper voice actress — and the Kingdom Hearts characters are just kind of standing off to the side like, “Oooh, pretty.” I’ve been able to suspend my disbelief with “Square-Enix’s take on Disney worlds” over the years.
So much style, I’m tempted to use the phrase “practically peerless” yet again.
But III was the first time where the properties used were so big that Nomura probably wasn’t given a whole lot of wiggle room to make his prized original characters feel like they actually belonged in the stories they were pushing forward. Kingdom Hearts III is truly “AAA” in terms of budget and Disney’s involvement... and the writing suffers for it.
Everything else, though, is so ridiculously cool and over-the-top that it managed to squeeze onto my list... despite me feeling more bitter than sweet. If I had a list of personal criticisms regarding mechanics in past Kingdom Hearts titles, III addresses every single one of them. It has more than just nostalgia going for it — the team has learned a lot since around 2001 when all this stuff started.
I have such a love/hate relationship here. But it still deserves this spot as one of the more memorable parts of my gaming year.
9) Trials of Mana
Seiken Densetsu 3 may have come out in 1995, but it didn't make its way to North America until this past summer. What we now know as Trials of Mana isn’t just a stellar SNES title — it’s the Mana series at its finest hour. Final Fantasy Adventure is lovely, and Secret of Mana will always have a nostalgic place in my heart. But I’d pay $40 for Trials of Mana all by itself, much less the full Collection of Mana package.
The mechanics that help make Secret of Mana a timeless classic to many have been refined here. Hit detection is much better overall, and you don’t have to level up a character’s magic spell or preferred weapon by using them hundreds of times. Rather than sticking with a small cast like the previous two Mana titles, there are six characters the player can mix and match to form a party of three. The story, final boss, and endings will vary depending upon who leads your crew and who joins them, adding a degree of replay value.
...Trials of Mana isn’t just a stellar SNES title — it’s the Mana series at its finest hour.
That said, nothing really holds a candle to Trials of Mana’s character class customization. I’ve genuinely never needed a dedicated healer (as is oft a trope of Japanese action RPGs). My most recent team of Hawkeye, Riesz, and Angela were powerful enough to steamroll entire groups of enemies & bosses while only needing to rely on consumable items to get the job done. Very few action-RPGs of its day can claim to be as balanced as Trials of Mana. It was a blast to play the fan translation on my PC multiple decades back...but it is a privilege to finally be able to pay for it and play it on the big screen. Truly, no entry in the Mana series has matched its overall quality, before or since.
8. Cadence of Hyrule
Rogue-likes — the genre that houses some of my favorites like Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon & Azure Dreams — are a guilty pleasure of mine. Crypt of the Necrodancer takes those mechanics and combines them with elements of a rhythm game. Every enemy, piece & part of the environment only moves when you move — but you have to move in sync with the beat of the song playing, or you’re penalized.
Cadence of Hyrule is this exact same premise, but with all the trappings of your typical top-down Zelda (spoilers, but you’ll see the best example of that elsewhere on this list). You can play as either Link or Zelda (finally!) & freely explore a randomly generated Hyrule, moving to the beat of the music…
...or not! Holy Toledo, the Fixed-Beat Mode baked into Cadence of Hyrule turned it from something I’d have to regrettably pass on (I am not the biggest fan of rhythm-based mechanics — there are valid reasons I’ll never “git gud” enough to keep up) into one of my favorites this year. Utilizing this mode turns the whole experience into “Zelda Mystery Dungeon” & nothing more... which I am absolutely, positively here for.
Brace Yourself Games has shown everyone that these unique indie collaborations should be a new standard for Nintendo.
I’m so happy Nintendo essentially licensed out The Legend of Zelda to a small group of talented fans. The custom art feels like a natural evolution of The Minish Cap. From a design standpoint, these folks took weapons & other mechanics from all the great top-down Zeldas and blended them into a short, sweet, infinitely replayable (due to almost every aspect being randomly generated) package. Brace Yourself Games has shown everyone that these unique indie collaborations should be a new standard for Nintendo. I hope it’s the first of many, to be frank. The old dogs at Tokyo EAD could absolutely learn some new tricks by allowing these one-of-a-kind spin-offs to elevate their most popular franchises.
7) Knights & Bikes
EarthBound, The Goonies, Moonrise Kingdom — a handful of titles across multiple forms of media come to mind when I think of adventures starring children that genuinely capture the whimsy of being a kid. Knights & Bikes is another example I can happily add to this list, headed up by the Lead Creator of Tearaway, and one of the programmers of titles like LittleBigPlanet and Ratchet & Clank.
Two little ladies (Demelza & Nessa) and their pet goose (an endearing fellow named Captain Honkers, the true Best Goose of 2019) explore the coasts of Penfurzy island on their bikes, looking for treasure & adventure. If you’re looking for fun without giant swords and guns, their weapons of choice to take down baddies are things like frisbees, water-balloons, something pretty heavily inspired by the Power Glove for the NES, and a boom-box. Their tale is the kind of coming-of-age story that’s spun literal children’s books. Themes can get fairly glum, and tensions can run fairly high towards the end — but this is truly an experience meant for the whole family.
It’s inclusive... genuinely fun to explore, and an absolute visual treat.
You can pretty much immediately tell this is from some of the minds who melded Tearaway and other Media Molecule-headed romps. It’s inclusive — to the point where you can pick whether or not Nessa’s a vegetarian & have Demelza alter a story she’s telling to reflect that choice — genuinely fun to explore, and an absolute visual treat. Knights & Bikes is a short, sweet adventure that left me hoping this single Kickstarted game gives way to an entire new transmedia franchise that brings new books, console entrees, and shows alike.
6) The Sega Genesis Mini
Y’all, this is the finest “nostalgic tiny console with a compilation of games” ever released. 42 games ported over by M2, the legendary developers behind the SEGA Ages titles, that turn everything they touch into the definitive versions of each game. While the SEGA Mini doesn’t quite elevate examples like Monster World IV or Sonic Spinball into the modern era with exclusive features that’d be present if they were all SEGA Ages titles — they are flawless ports. And the library features stuff you thought you’d never see released digitally again, like Mega Man: The Wily Wars, Dynamite Headdy, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and a good 10 other truly “deep cuts” from SEGA’s legacy.
...the finest “nostalgic tiny console with a compilation of games” ever released.
Rounding out my bottom five game-things of 2019 with something I can only spend a paragraph explaining (without going into each and every title offered, anyway) feels kind of odd. But while my SNES Mini will wind up collecting dust now that Yoshi’s Island is a part of Nintendo Switch Online, I feel like the SEGA Mini will take up one of my HDMI ports for many years to come.
5) Luigi’s Mansion 3
I’ve always been a bigger fan of Mario’s eternal understudy. Luigi is the closest thing you’d find resembling me in the Mushroom Kingdom — he’s a giant dork, way more timid & afraid than heroic, but ultimately motivated to do what’s right by his friends.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 releasing on Halloween was poetry. This series is really my only comfort food within the “horror” genre, because it’s more about comic relief & fun than actual jump-scares or grim gore. The first one was a fun, exploratory adventure that was honestly over too soon. The second rectified the former’s length problem, but was hindered by its attempts to break apart exploration into chunks with its “mission”-based structure that constantly sent you back to a sort of hub world just when things were getting interesting.
...it’s got a whimsy that outclasses even Super Mario Odyssey.
Exploring each floor of The Last Resort hotel felt more like I was playing a Mario-style take on Disney’s Castle of Illusion than the usual horror-inspired romp. This hotel has... a whole freaking pyramid inside it, a coliseum inspired by the Middle Ages, a dinosaur museum... let’s just say it puts Las Vegas getaways to shame. Every new floor had me wondering what kind of wacky place I’d be thrown into next. You’re not constantly interrupted by “Mission Complete” screens, and gathering up every hidden gem & Boo to be found took me a little over fifteen hours— not less than five, like the first.
The things that put Luigi’s Mansion 3 over the top for me personally concern Luigi himself, though. There are so many cute moments—his scaredy-cat nature is purposefully as exaggerated as it can possibly be, the bosses bring out the best parts of his personality... you can even pet the dog! It’s just good, clean fun. The line “it feels like a wholesome Saturday morning cartoon,” is the most overused cliche in the industry, but I’m using it here because it’s got a whimsy that outclasses even Super Mario Odyssey.
4) Gato Roboto
First think of Metroid. No, not “Metroid-like” or “Metroidvania” — actual Metroid on the NES. Now, make Samus a tiny cat that’s not capable of much except jumping, climbing, and being really gosh darn cute...until she gets in her giant robot mech. This is the recipe for Gato Roboto, my favorite take on Me(ow)troid since Axiom Verge.
While heading through space, a man and his cat end up marooned on an alien planet. Trapped, the man who would otherwise end up the hero of this story has no choice but to send his cat to explore in his stead. The good kitty winds up unfurling a devious plot of world domination at the hands of... a mouse that can talk??
...my favorite take on Me(ow)troid since Axiom Verge.
This is a romp that can be over as quickly as the original Metroid, but it’s also one of my most replayed games this year. Rather than evoke horror or a sense of unease like the series that inspired it, Gato Roboto chooses comedy and cute vibes. Level design has you piloting the mech most of the time, but often leaves kitty to its own devices. The robot armor can take its fair share of hits, but kitty can only be hit once before being kicked back to the last (very generous) checkpoint. There are plenty of ways developer Doinksoft chooses to mix things up mechanically — the robot armor isn’t the only thing the cat ends up piloting, for example.
I’m hard-pressed to come up with a few hundred more words to explain why, but gosh this was some of the most fun I’ve had in the genre in years. It’s definitely priced like an NES title should be, too — I genuinely feel you can’t go wrong picking it up, if you’re a fan of the genre.
3) Pokémon Shield
Half the reason why Pokémon Shield gripped me so hard was in how it was marketed. See, by the time the previous brand new entries, Sun & Moon, were out... over 80 of their brand new Pokémon were revealed publicly through trailers and other means. We knew what the starters were going to turn into, about most of the new “regional variants” — just a few Ultra Beasts and Mythical Pokémon were kept hidden. By contrast, before November 15th, Sword & Shield had officially revealed only 23. They went through pretty painstaking efforts to share as little information as possible before release.
The intent behind the two generations is markedly different — this one wanted to surprise me. And boy howdy, it did. Give or take 70 Pokémon, including Galarian forms and evolutions, were brand new to me & revealed solely during my adventure. I haven’t been this won over by the ole clever marketing machine since I first played Pokémon back when I was single digits in the late 90s.
I can genuinely say it may stay “my favorite Pokémon game of the last ten years.”
The Wild Area helps the Galar region to feel more “connected” than any region before it. From a spot on Route 5, you can see the city of Hammerlocke—that you’ll arrive in much later on—waaay off in the distance. Early on in my adventure, because it happened to be raining where I was exploring there, I was able to take down a Lv30 Onix with my Drizzile while I was over ten levels lower than it. Max Raid Battles, despite some flawed aspects, are genuinely the most addicting multiplayer feature to hit the series in multiple decades.
Both the new Dynamaxing feature & more limited Pokédex should do a lot to refresh competitive play. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, I’ll just say the story does a lot with a little. The Pokémon Company addresses a criticism of Sun & Moon being “too talky” by making characters say less, but hiding bits of character-specific backstory in their League Cards, which players collect as the story develops & can read at their own leisure. It has what amounts to my favorite endgame (the final few hours before the credits, and a bit after) since Black & White’s N sieges the Pokémon League.
Overall, I feel more positively towards Pokémon Shield than any previous entry since 2009, when HeartGold pulled my nostalgia strings hard. There are definitely community-related aspects that need to be updated in a patch, but if they keep nurturing the experience rather than abandoning it, I can genuinely say it may stay “my favorite Pokémon game of the last ten years.”
2) Baba Is You
Plenty of video games turn “breaking” them into a fun side thing you can do — like old debug mode cheats in Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Very few — and only one I can think of in the puzzle genre — make breaking & redefining rules it puts in place the whole point.
“You” is the player. And if the “Baba is You” text is on the screen, the player controls Baba. Other rules in place may be “Flag in Win” and “Wall is Stop” — where a wall in front of you would literally stop Baba from reaching the flag. If the word “Wall” can be moved, though, you might be able to push the Wall text down to replace “Baba”, making “Wall is You” and then literally reaching the flag as the wall that was formerly thwarting you in order to win. Here’s a trailer. Here’s an early example. Here’s an absolutely insane trick I pulled whose end result permanently turned a numbered level I cleared on the world map into a key — and into Baba (at which point I could freely move around the entire map, for funsies.)
If I were reviewing it, I’d fight pretty hard for a 10/10. It’s quite simply the new paradigm in the puzzle genre.
The amount of work it must’ve taken to create an engine that allows players to willingly break levels’ rules wide open, to the point where it has long-term effects on one’s save file, without everything falling apart is just staggering to think about. The brain-power it takes to solve Baba is You’s logic puzzles must pale in comparison to what it took to actually design them.
I have no additional gushing regarding narrative, visuals, or the soundtrack, this time. The engine & entirely breakable mechanics truly speak for themselves. Baba is You Is Win — Arvi Teikari’s peers will be trying to emulate its cunning for a very, very long time. If I were reviewing it, I’d fight pretty hard for a 10/10. It’s quite simply the new paradigm in the puzzle genre. You don’t just follow the rules to win — you literally rewrite them.
1) Link’s Awakening
I’ve played Link’s Awakening almost once a year, every year since 1993. It remains “the shining example that taught me how freaking amazing this medium could be”, the first one to make me cry, the one I’ve absolutely muscle-memorized. It is, quite simply, my favorite video game of all time.
It’s hard to overstate just how badly I’ve wanted this exact thing to dream itself into existence. A Link Between Worlds was a phenomenal modernization of A Link to the Past (don’t tell anyone, but I find the original pretty middling at best) in the form of a sequel. This re-imagining of Koholint from the folks at Grezzo isn’t a sequel. It doesn’t really break any new ground — or change much of anything, from a narrative or level-design perspective. At the end of the day, admittedly, I prefer it this way.
It reminds me a lot of how they handled Ocarina of Time 3D & Majora’s Mask 3D many moons ago: the Switch breathed new life into Link’s Awakening’s presentation — formerly stuck on the Game Boy — and allowed some mechanics (like being stuck with just two buttons for weapons) that age poorly about the original to be brought forward. Of course, while “uprezzed ports” could describe the 3D entries, Link’s Awakening on Switch dreams bigger. The whimsical, almost “storybook” art style & lack of a sweeping, orchestral soundtrack are polarizing to a few. But I recognize what both are trying to do, and I absolutely adore them for it.
It's an elevated version of my favorite video game ever made.
The new models for characters, monsters, and locales are an ideal way to keep the original’s proportions intact, and the new Koholint uses the colors from Link’s Awakening DX faithfully. The arrangements from Ryo Nagamatsu are definitely more subdued compared to A Link Between Worlds’ more “epic” feel — but the way he seamlessly blends the original’s chiptunes into his new takes are wonderful. Angler’s Tunnel was one of the tracks from GB Link’s Awakening that kind of struggled a bit—at the end of the day, it was just a sped up version of the “Cave Theme” from elsewhere in the adventure. Angler’s Tunnel on the Switch kicks off with slow harps at first, bringing in a new melody that feels more “underwater”. A few seconds later, the original GB melody plays in the background on top of it. That stuff right there happens a few times throughout the new old journey. Nagamatsu doesn’t reinvent the original soundtrack — he just does his due diligence to elevate it.
That’s what Link’s Awakening is on Nintendo Switch. It’s an elevated version of my favorite video game ever made.
Now, I just don’t know what else to wish for. Maybe, just maybe, Camelot will hear my plea.