I Just Want to Play Wave Race 64
The year is finally coming to an end. If you’re reading my blog for the first time, my goal with these quarterly posts is to write a paragraph or two for each game I’ve beaten during each quarter of the year. There’s both an online community and a discord comprised of like-minded individuals who enjoy sharing their progress and impressions on the games they’ve completed throughout the year. During the fourth and final quarter of the year, I’ve continued to have some sort of post-vaccinated life. Although the pandemic continues to rear its ugly head, I’ve continued to dip my toes back into society over these past few months despite my reservations. I’ve reconnected with friends I haven’t seen since before the pandemic, been to the movies numerous times, went camping, got to the beach and even visited New York City for the first time. Because of this, I haven’t completed as many games as I have in previous years, especially when compared against 2020. With that said, here are the games I did manage to beat during the months of October through December. If you’d like to see what I’ve completed during the third quarter of the year, you can read about that here!
Game #37. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX, developed by Merge Games/Jankenteam, is probably my least favorite game that I’ve played in 2021. I have no nostalgia for the original Master System release and as an adult, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent with this remake either. Miracle World DX takes the same approach as Lizardcube’s Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap remake back in 2017; you can switch between both the new visuals/audio tracks on the fly, which is certainly a welcome addition. The developers did add some new collectables and modes, but from my understanding, it’s mostly a one-to-one remake of the 1986 (the year I was born!) classic. Alex Kidd is not an easy game, however. If the player takes a single hit, it’s game over and the collision detection with monsters and hazards is very strict; you’re almost always bumping into the sides of spikes or other traps causing an immediate death.
My least favorite aspect of Alex Kidd is the rock-paper-scissors (RPS) boss battles. This is one of the most infuriating mini-games I’ve ever experienced. There’s no tells/clues outside of an item that you can collect (which you can lose instantly if you die), so you’re expected to either guess and get lucky or bang your head against the wall until you beat your opponent. Apparently, I read after I finished the game that each boss plays the same hand every round, so while there is a pattern, you’ve got to have a pretty good memory to recognize the fact. The updated graphics in Miracle World DX look relatively nice, although I still prefer the approach to the visuals Lizardcube made with their Dragon’s Trap remake. There’s also a few tracks that I enjoyed, but there’s nothing too memorable here. I begrudgingly finished the game after a few short sessions. It’s not a terribly long game, but also one I don’t see myself returning to anytime soon.
Game #38. Sable, the debut game from Shedworks, is an open-world, non-linear adventure game, not unlike Breath of the Wild (BotW). In Sable, you play as a wondering nomad of sorts who, after completing a rite of passage, sets out into a barren wasteland to “see the world” and “encounter life experiences”. It’s a game with no combat or worldly threat, which was refreshing once I realized what I was playing. Sable is about low-key exploration, discoverability and relaxed gameplay moments. The BotW comparison is appropriate for many reasons, but one that specifically comes to mind is the fact that you can technically finish the game very early on if you choose to. In Sable’s world, there are many factions, tribes and professions to discover out in the wasteland and you’re tasked to engage with (some of it), but not all of it. Once you’ve had your fill, you’re asked to “head back home” to reflect on your journey, a sort of self-imposed retirement, if you will.
Exploring the world of Sable is an absolute joy. One of the very first objectives in the game is to craft a hover bike to make traversing the wasteland more manageable. BotW specifically comes to mind as a point of comparison as there’s almost always a landmark or something of interest in the distance that’s begging for your attention. The world seems specifically designed around eye-catching landmarks sprinkled around the map. While Sable is somewhat of a 3D platformer at its core, much like BotW, you also have the ability to climb nearly any wall in the game. The core gameplay mechanics center around a stamina meter, which dictates what you can climb/explore. Over the course of the game, you’ll find Korok Seed-like collectables which can be traded for stamina upgrades. There are small settlements, larger towns, crashed spacecraft, ruins and creature-filled caverns to discover and almost all of these areas rely on your stamina meter to explore. Everything you do in Sable is also tied to a job/profession of sorts, with the ultimate reward being a “mask”. The masks are a big deal in the world of Sable. Not only are they proof of mastery for a specific job/profession, they’re also needed to trigger one of the game’s many endings.
The writing is exceptional, too. Your main character doesn’t speak, but has internal monologues often. Conversations and quests will also play out differently if you’ve already completed something prior to speaking to the quest giver. Similar to Recompile (another game I finished this year and wrote about), the endings are mostly in written form, yet they’re quite insightful and still impactful. Outside of some fairly significant stuttering/performance issues at/near launch (which at the time of writing this have mostly been patched), I truly adored the world of Sable and I couldn’t stop thinking about once I saw the credits roll. I completed the game with nearly everything done and collected, but I chose the path of the Cartographer ultimately (which just meant unveiling the entire map). Sable is the closest I’ve gotten to experiencing the feelings I had when I first played BotW and for that reason alone, it’s a truly special experience.
Game #39. The Artful Escape, developed by Beethoven & Dinosaur, is a 2D side-scrolling, adventure game with some very minor rhythm elements. You play as Francis Vendetti, an aspiring artist who’s living in the shadow of his uncle’s legacy. As Tim Henson from Polyphia (one of my favorite bands) would likely say, “The Artful Escape is a game about playing boomer riffs.”. The Artful Escape is not unlike games such as Limbo, INSIDE, Another World or Heart of Darkness, however, there’s far less gameplay here or the puzzle-platforming you’d expect from the aforementioned titles, despite bearing similarities to the sub-genre of sorts. The Artful Escape is an audio/visual tour de force. It’s at its best when the music is swelling, you’re wailing on your guitar and the beautiful, alien-like landscapes take front and center. It’s not so much a game than it is an experience.
In the Artful Escape, you simply run left to right, holding down one button to strum your guitar as alien creatures and fauna bounce and weave in the background. Eventually, you’ll arrive at stage-like encounters where the game turns into a glorified round of “Simon Says”. I was playing on my Xbox Series X so a handful of the face buttons and bumpers are mapped visually onto boss-like creatures. From there, you simply press the correct button that lights-up in order to complete the encounter. It’s not the most rewarding/interesting gameplay sequence, but the spectacle of it all combined with the soundtrack sells it. The Artful Escape is yet another indie game about rejecting your legacy and finding your own voice. The visuals and art direction are beautiful, the music is undeniably good and an all-star casts rounds at the characters, including the likes of Carl Weathers and Jason Schwartzman. I completed the game with all of the achievements earned after a few short sessions, but there’s hardly any replay value here, unfortunately. It’s a one and done experience that I’d still recommend in a heartbeat.
Game #40. Toree 2, by Siactro, is the follow-up/sequel to Toree 3D, a short 3D platformer that pays homage to the PS1/N64 platformers of yesterday. I’ve said the same thing about the first game, but Toree 2 is the type of game you’d see someone speed-running at SGDQ/AGDQ at 2:00am. It’s also more or less the same game as the original only with different levels (and a better soundtrack, shout out to Sparkle Park (I Wanna Love U). You can still tackle stages out of order and the game culminates with a final boss that felt akin to something out of Klonoa: Door to Phantomile (my favorite PS1 platformer of all time). Just like the first game, there are stars/CDs to collect and A/S Ranks to earn in order to unlock additional characters.
Now that we’re two games deep, I’d love to see a more fleshed-out Toree game, perhaps one that is not so focused on speed-running. The core gameplay mechanics and overall structure of these games feels good though; jumping is just floaty enough, platforming is precise and the course design begs for the player to learn shortcuts, cut corners and master the controls. I completed the game with everything collected and half of the S Ranks earned. It’s an extremely short game, you can finish it in a single sitting, but it’s meant to be replayed and mastered. I’ll definitely come back to the game to complete the rest of the time trials down the road.
Game #41. Steel Assault, developed by Zenovia Interactive and initially launched as a Kickstart project back in 2015, is a 2D action-platformer that clearly pays tribute to 8/16-bit era games like Contra, Castlevania and even Metal Slug. I’ve said this countless times at this point, but we’ve been inundated with sprite-based, retro-inspired, 2D tribute-pieces for many years now. Steel Assault certainly stands out with its beautiful hand-drawn visuals, gorgeous background art and vibrant colors. The game itself looks and plays like a dream, too. Your primary weapon is an electric whip that’s satisfying to use, which can destroy certain types of enemy fire and be swung in all directions. You can also slide and knife/punch enemies up-close (similar to Metal Slug) when they’re in-range. The game’s biggest differentiator is a zipline of sorts that you can freely attach to most walls/surfaces. This mechanic is utilized very cleverly during boss encounters and even during some of the stage traversal.
The problem with Steel Assault is that it’s incredibly short. Lately, I have enjoyed shorter games, especially as I’ve gotten older, but this seems unusually brief. I’m not sure if this was the original vision of the game or a product of it being a Kickstarter project, nevertheless, what’s here is good but I definitely wanted more. The game is less than an hour long and it is comprised of 5 stages packed with mini-bosses, platforming challenges and boss encounters. The boss designs are probably the highlight of the game, they’re fun to fight and the game asks the player to gain mastery over their zipline in order to defeat them. I completed the game on Normal mode, but there’s a Hard difficulty (which kicks you back to the start of the stage if you die) and an Arcade mode, so there’s at least some sort of replay value. I hope the developers follow-up with a sequel or an expansion of sorts because I want to see more of Steel Assault.
Game #42. mon amour, developed by Onion Games and spearheaded by the legendary Yoshiro Kimura, is an arcade-y, “kiss-’em-up” hybrid of sorts. You’re a simple man who’s about to marry a princess, but three witches kidnap your bride-to-be, including all of the citizens in the kingdom, apparently. The story doesn’t matter, however, because mon amour is an arcade game in the most purest sense. It’s all about high-score chasing and mastering the game’s deceptively deep mechanics. mon amour is a single-screen game too; you start from the left side of the screen and your goal is to make it to the far side of the screen in order to plant a kiss on a “damsel in distress”. Similar to games like Flappy Bird (or the rocket ship mini-game from Onion Game’s very own moon), mon amour is a single-button game. As soon as the game starts, if you’re not tapping the “A” button (on the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, for example), your character will fall to the bottom of the screen and it’s game over.
There are around 50 levels/screens and every 10 levels/screens you can “bank” the citizens you’ve kissed/rescued along the way. Each level/screen is filled with traps and hazards, however. At the top and bottom of the screen, there are tall buildings which slowly expand from each end at the beginning of the level/screen, making your potential flying space much more narrow. If you run into one of these buildings (or any of the unique stage/boss hazards, such as fire-breathing Kaiju or meteors from an erupting volcano), you lose whoever’s behind you or rather, the individuals you’ve kissed along the way. Think of the citizens you’ve saved as hit-points (HP); if you take too many hits and lose everyone you’ve rescued, the run’s over and you can either start from the beginning of the game again or use the “Citizen List” as a sort of level select. The catch here is that while you can finish the game from the Citizen List and rescue some of the more hidden individuals more easily through this method, your total high-score potential will be much lower than if you were to start from the beginning of the game.
So you might be asking, “How does the scoring system work?”. It’s surprisingly deeper than one might think at a first glance. Here’s some pro-tips from someone who managed to break the top 100 positions on the leaderboard: When you get closer to the person at the end of the level/screen, an arrow indicator will surround them. Depending on how you approach them (from either above/below), you can control (generally) which direction the hearts will be blown from each individual. Hearts give you points, but they can also lead to bigger rewards. The catch here is that the more hearts that occupy the screen, the more potential there is for them to collide with each other, which in turn will make the smaller hearts bigger netting you more points and the potential for a higher total score. What’s genius about this is that it adds another layer to the game’s core mechanics. You learn very early on that you’re supposed to avoid the obstacles/hazards littered about the screen. But when going for a high score? It’s better off if you ignore the hearts and navigate your way through everything until the larger hearts form. There’s a classic risk/reward system at play here and it’s incredibly addicting.
In addition to the hearts that are strewn about the screen, there’s fruit and melons to collect, which give you points and a shield, respectively. Fruit will send a small shockwave once collected, which will move the buildings above/below you backwards. The melon provides invincibility for a short duration, which also allows you to “clear the screen”, so to speak. Think of the melon as a traditional “bomb” in an arcade shooter. You can complete the game in one sitting (a run of the game takes maybe 15-30 minutes), but it’s meant to be replayed in order to climb the online leaderboards. I completed the game with the true ending (which requires all citizens to be rescued) and I ranked 65th place on the leaderboards. mon amour is one of my favorite games of the year and it’s yet another reason why I continue to love Onion Games as a developer. What feels like a project that started as a jumping-off point from their very own mini-game found in moon and an extension of their free PC release, Romeo & Juliet, mon amour is a culmination of their previous works and one of the best arcade-y experiences you can find in 2021.
Game #43. TOEM, developed by Something We Made, as the subtitle suggests, is a top-down, black & white photo adventure. You wake-up at your grandmother’s(?) house, receive a camera and set-out on a road trip of sorts to photograph and experience a spiritual phenomenon known as the TOEM. It’s a wholesome, cozy, coming-of-age story that’s focused on helping others and taking pictures along the way. It’s hard not to think about Chicory when playing this game, considering it’s another black & white indie game from 2021 that focuses on low-stakes gameplay elements and self-reflection, however, that’s where the similarities end. TOEM feels more like a seek & find than anything else. Each area of the game has a set amount of tasks that must be completed before moving to the next location.
These objectives range from photographing a specific person/place/thing to solving some sort of minor environmental puzzle before snapping a photo (such as assembling a destroyed snowman or using a telescope to spot ships out at sea during a storm). The person/place/thing you need to photograph often blends into the environment or is cleverly hidden by the camera angle, which turns the game into a “Where’s Waldo” situation of sorts. I enjoyed the game well enough to 100% it and most of the elusive pictures and more challenging tasks are doable without a guide (although I had to look up one solution because it was just too cryptic). It’s not a game that blew me away or left me thinking about my life like Chicory did, but I’d love a sequel or a new project from these developers at the very least.
Game #44. Dojoran, developed by Nautlander, is an incredibly challenging 2D precision platformer. It’s yet another black & white indie game from 2021, although there’s no painting or photographing here. Dojoran barely has a plot, but it doesn’t really need one. You’re born into a world where you must learn from your ancestors before venturing out into society. There’s an intro cinematic and then you’re off to the races where you play as a frog in a series of increasingly difficult levels (28 total). The controls are simple; the frog can run, jump and eat apples in order to perform a double jump. One thing Dojoran expects you to master is the “edge-landing” technique (a term I just coined now). The game will expect you to land on the edge of a platform in order to proceed. Typically, these platforms typically have spikes on the edge but there’s just enough room to land in order to make your next jump. While there are spike pits, bottomless pits and other obstacles/hazards to avoid, each stage lacks any sort of thematic cohesion, which was only slightly disappointing considering its (cheap) entry-point.
Stages are short & sweet and each level has a collectable medal hidden somewhere throughout. Somewhere in the stage, there’s also a fly to collect, which grants you an additional hit-point (because otherwise, you die in a hit). Fortunately, checkpoints are well-placed and as I mentioned, the levels do not overstay their welcome. If you can complete the level without getting hit, the stage select will display the fly as a bragging rights of sorts (as far as I know, there’s no reward for finishing every level with the fly intact). I completed the game at 100% with the Platinum trophy earned and all flies saved. I died nearly 400 times and it took me close to 5 hours to roll the credits. It was a difficult game, sometimes rewarding, but one I’ll probably never return to. If you’re a masochist like myself and enjoy challenging platformers, you could probably do worse.
Game #45. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, developed by ArtPlay and Inti Creates, is the Castlevania successor everyone always wanted. More specifically, however, and I’ve said this before in previous posts, it’s essentially Castlevania III-adjacent. I’ve completed this game many times over the past few years and have already written about it, but since it has multiple endings, I’ve been replaying the game each year, getting my fix so to speak, shooting for a new ending I’ve yet to see. This year I streamed most of it on my Twitch channel and completed my replay during Halloween. I have one more ending to see and the boss rush to complete before I can put it away on my digital bookcase for good, so until then, I’ll see you when the next blood moon rises (which will be sometime in 2022)!
Game #46. Metroid Dread, aka “Metroid 5”, developed by MercurySteam and Nintendo, is the long-awaited, true follow-up to Metroid Fusion. If you exclude MercurySteam’s very own Metroid 2 remake back on the 3DS, Samus Returns, fans have been left clamoring for a new entry for what feels like a decade or more (and I’m not talking about the indefinitely delayed Metroid Prime 4). Metroid Dread feels like a dream game that shouldn’t exist by today’s standards. Not only does it capture what was so great about traditional, old-school Metroid games, it somehow carves its own place in a sea of tribute/homage-pieces that the independent scene has been chasing for years now. We’ve had games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight and Ori, for example, critically acclaimed “Metroidvanias/Metroid-likes” that, for some people, have surpassed classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. So, how do you make a new Metroid game for jaded, veteran fans and newcomers alike? MercurySteam was tasked with this monumental impossibility and they (mostly) succeeded.
Where as Metroid: Samus Returns felt like a resume-builder for MercurySteam or rather, proof that the development team from Spain could handle the legendary Nintendo IP with the utmost care, Metroid Dread feels like a mastery of the groundwork that was laid before them. With that said, Metroid Dread does feature a lot of the same elements found in Samus Returns; the counter system returns and the 3D backgrounds look better and more detailed than ever. Metroid Dread does play with your expectations, too. Instead of finding the morph ball upgrade early on, you’re equipped with a slide which mixes up the traversal during the early areas of the game. Most of the fan favorites are still here, however; the super missile, morph ball bombs, grapple beam and screw attack, for example, make their usual appearances. If there’s one area I felt Metroid Dread was lacking was its environment cohesion and sense of place. I never felt like I knew where anything was on planet ZDR. Despite there being elevators, tram cars and teleports connecting each zone in the game, they all somehow felt disconnected from each other. The game structure and flow itself is superb, however. You’ll often find yourself feeling lost when all of a sudden the game somehow organically pushes you towards the correct destination due to its pathing and upgrade placement.
Similar to Metroid Fusion, someone (or something…) is on the hunt to take down Samus in Metroid Dread. This time around, it’s a group of robot hunters called E.M.M.I. Instead of scripted moment/sequences from the previous game, the robots here are relegated to specific zones that you can freely enter and exit at your will. The robots here will react to your footsteps/presence and as soon as they’re alerted, the zone you’re in will lockdown until you can put some space between you and the enemy. As you progress further, you’ll gain the ability to destroy these hunters permanently, but they become aggressively more difficult as the game progresses. If a robot grabs you, the player is given two opportunities to counter their one-hit kill maneuver. These quick-time-events (QTEs) are super strict, most people (including myself) will die a lot during these sequences. The checkpoints, however, are fair and you’re right back in the action if you do happen to fail. While the idea presents a high-stakes, threatening environment, the fact that the checkpoint is just right outside of the zone makes the entire idea feel less impactful. With that said, if the game booted you back to your last save point, it would have created an even more miserable experience, so it’s a fine compromise as it is.
Samus herself is mesmerizing to witness and just a pleasure to control. She might be my favorite iteration of the character yet. Unlike the Samus found in Other M (the notoriously divisive Metroid entry from Team Ninja), the Samus here is confident, cool and downright badass. At times, her attitude reminds me of Platinum Game’s very own Bayonetta. After four mainline missions, she’s grown to become super stylish and her acrobatics are put on display throughout the numerous cinematics. Speaking of Metroid Dread’s cinematic flair, there’s so many dynamic camera angles, usually triggered during boss encounters, which truly shows off her strength and experience. I completed the game with over 50% of the items collected at around 8 hours logged. I’d love to go back and complete the game on the harder difficulty and unlock the remaining ending screens, but I’ll save that mission for another day. Metroid Dread is a phenomenal game and a triumphant return to form for fans and newcomers alike. Hopefully, MercurySteam and Nintendo get another opportunity to take us on a trip through space, but maybe not make us wait another 15 years, shall we?
Game #47. Capcom’s Monster Hunter Rise for the Nintendo Switch appears to be the perfect compromise between old Monster Hunter (MH) and the more recent, best-selling title, Monster Hunter: World. Now running on the beautifully optimized RE Engine, Monster Hunter Rise finds its home on Nintendo’s latest hardware, striking a fine balance between catering to the series’ portable legacy while still offering a traditional home console experience. If you’ve played any MH game before this, you’ll feel mostly at home here. If you’re not familiar with the franchise and Rise is your first foray into the hunt, you’re still going to be mostly lost as the tutorials/onboarding leave a lot to be desired. Rise carries forward a lot of the quality-of-life (QOL) improvements first introduced in World, however, (such as unbreakable whetstones, infinite bug nets/pickaxes and load-less zones), while simultaneously offering its own unique gameplay elements to the mix. This time around, in addition to having a kitty follow you, you now have a dog companion to accompany you along your hunts. Just like in World, the non-playable characters (NPCs) act as offline hunters-of-sorts, so if you prefer to fight monsters solo, the game’s got you covered. Just like any other MH title, it’s best to be played with real people online and all of that is here and present, of course.
Monster Hunter Rise, just like any other entry outside of World, barely has a plot. There are village and hub quests, respectively. Village quests are for single-player only. They will take you through a “story” of sorts that last 20 or so hours if you’re an experienced player. The hub quests can be played solo or with others online and just like any other entry, that’s where the meat of the game is. You can essentially play any MH forever. They’re not quite “games as a service” (GaaS), but they’re also not MMOs. They’re somewhere in-between and they offer as much or as littler gameplay as you want there to be. I rolled the credits on the “story” and put the game down, unfortunately. I just didn’t want to make the time to play the online quests endlessly, nor do I have a dedicated friend group who were as interested in MH as I’ve always been. I’d like to return to the hunt sometime down the road, but my willingness to pick-up my insect glaive wanes as the weeks and months pass.
Game #48. Glyph, developed by Bolverk Games, is a precision 3D platformer with an emphasis on collecting things, mastering controls and completing time trials. You play as a flying beetle (scarab?) in a post-apocalyptical civilization of sorts. As you complete levels and collect gems (which are used to reconstruct the game’s hub world), you’ll gain access to increasingly difficult levels, including time trials. The story is a backseat to the gameplay, although there is an attempt at some world-building if you talk to the NPCs that are scattered about the stages. The best thing about Glyph, however, is its controls. It’s a physics-based 3D platformer, one that stresses building proper momentum in order to make tricky jumps. Sticking your landing is paramount in this game. The floor is essentially lava, outside of the ruins and platforms that dot the wasteland, Glyph will die instantly if they hit the sand. Glyph is the type of game that rewards mastery of the controls. You can perform a higher jump, for example, if you tap the jump button just as you’re landing. There are also boost pads, launchers and other traversal abilities such as a glide to help you traverse the environments. Once the controls click, Glyph feels amazing and it’s hard to put down.
Glyph is packed with content. The main stages feel like mini-open world environments. There are coins, keys and hidden unlockable skins to collect throughout each level. Gems are used to unlock more stages and time trials. The time trials offer bronze, silver and gold rewards, which grant the player more gems based on how quickly you can get through each tier. These challenges are more point A to point B, however, but they’re extremely challenging. Collecting everything in this game and getting 100% is not an easy task. I completed the game with a handful of the time trials completed, but there’s tons of optional levels and unlockables if you’re willing to spend the time. Glyph is definitely an underrated gem of a platformer this year. If you’re 3D platformer enthusiast, you could definitely do worse.
Game #49. Happy Game is yet another (horrifying) point-n-click adventure title developed by Amanita Design, the independent Czech-based developer mostly known for their cult-classic PC titles such as Machinarium, Samorost and the more recent, Creaks (my personal favorite). Similar to their other titles, there is no spoken dialogue in Happy Game and instead, the game opts for a fake, gibberish-like language (think Banjo-Kazooie if you’re unfamiliar). You play as a little boy who’s had his beloved toys and stuffed animals taken away from him by what appears to be a ghostly apparition. From there, the boy is spirited-away on a disturbing quest through surreal and nightmarish scenarios. It’s hard to describe Happy Game’s tone, but you could say it’s frighteningly cozy. The game is littered with smiley faces, bunny rabbits and other jolly things, but they’re almost always distorted or dripping in blood.
Happy Game is extremely short, but it’s not without its satisfying puzzles and “aha” moments. A lot of the game requires the player to click on certain objects/things in the environment, sometimes dragging/combining one object/thing with the other in order to proceed. There’s definitely a degree of trial & error, but there’s nothing too difficult here and most of the scenarios are thankfully logical (although, I did need a little help from a viewer when I streamed the game… who just so happened to be one of the developers!). Unfortauntely, there’s not a lot of replay value here, unless you really enjoyed a specific room/puzzle (which can be replayed through a level select of sorts from the main menu). With that said, Happy Game was an unsettling, clever and surprisngly delightful experience that’s worth playing if you’re a fan of the developer/genre. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m forever day-one for any/all Amanita Design games.
Game #50. Bright Memory, developed by FYQD Personal Studio, is an FPS with melee elements and light exploration. You can juggle enemies like it’s a Devil May Cry (DMC) game, but more specifically, it feels like the modern-day Xbox One equivalent to the 2004 Namco’s Breakdown. It’s an extremely short experience spanning just a handful of levels, but it’s oddly paced like an old-school Sega arcade light-gun game. There’s weird quick-time events, air combos, a simple experience system with upgrades, collectables, two bosses and even new game+ options. The story is completely nonsensical and it isn’t worth discussing, although there is a sort of late 90s/early 2000s SCI-FI tone/attitude that I appreciated. Time travel is involved, so that’s all you need to know and just when the game feels like it’s getting started, the credits start rolling.
Bright Memory has an interesting development history; it was created by a single developer and while an “Episode 2” was originally planned, the game has since been remade into a full-length title called Bright Memory: Infinite that, at the time of writing this, is only available on PC. The game, for its time, was visually impressive, especially considering it was primarily made by one person. Although it’s extremely short-lived, there’s something about Bright Memory that kept me wanting to replay the game, unlocking all of its achievements and maxing out my character’s abilities. While it’s a glorified demo of sorts, Bright Memory is an interesting proof of concept for a (presumably) better sequel.
Game #51. Elec Head, by solo developer NamaTakahashi and music by Tsuyomi, is a masterclass in 2D puzzle-platforming design. This game has been one of the biggest surprises of the year. I first saw it during the asobu event that aired on YouTube back in September of 2021. If you’re not familiar with asobu, “asobu is a community hub for Japanese independent developers; our goal is to support indie games and indie game development as a viable career and lifestyle here in Japan, through education, advising, promotion, and fostering connections with other indie devs both domestic and abroad.” (quoted from their website). The independent gaming scene has become so massive over the past decade or so that certain releases and hidden gems are getting consistently lost in the shuffle. While it’s been critically acclaimed by players from the more hardcore gaming community at large and a variety of outlets who did manage to cover the game, ElecHead hasn’t been getting the exposure it rightfully deserves.
ElecHead is simplicity at its finest. You play as a little robot buddy who electrifies any surface that they touch. You can walk left/right, jump and eventually toss your head (reminiscent of Dynamite Headdy on the Sega Genesis). With such a simple concept, you’d think the developer would run out of ideas or resort to some sort of gimmick to keep the game interesting. ElecHead does not rest on its laurels, however. It exceeded my expectations in terms of pacing, creativity and most importantly, making use of one’s limitations. Every screen is an “aha” moment that must be experienced to truly understand how well-made the game is. It’s the perfect example of teaching the player new mechanics/ideas non-verbally, without the need of tutorials, dialogue or even environmental storytelling (although there is some to a degree). I’ve said this countless times over the past few years, but we’ve been inundated in 2D, retro-inspired platformers. Sometimes, a game like ElecHead comes along to remind you to never judge a book by its cover. Does ElecHead spark joy? Yes. It’s honestly a perfect game and if it weren’t for one other release this year, it would have been my 2021 GOTY.
Game #52. The Good Life, developed by White Owls Inc. and Grounding, is a beautiful mess, which is a feeling I share for most of Swery’s games, the creative director behind The Good Life. On their Kickstarter page, which I backed in 2018, the game is described as “a debt repayment daily life RPG co-developed by SWERY’s White Owls Inc. and a development team led by Yukio Futatsugi, the creator of Panzer Dragoon and Phantom Dust” or rather “The Good Life is a Daily Life Simulator x SWERISM“. If you’re familiar with the director’s previous works (particularly Deadly Premonition), then you should more or less know what you’re getting into. If you’re unfamiliar, however, The Good Life is part Animal Crossing with a side of Harvest Moon and a whole lot of jank. The game feels like a lost Xbox 360/PS3 era game that’s simultaneously channeling the essence of your favorite, quirky PS2 era Japanese game. Are you lost yet? Good, because now you’re in the right place to understand what The Good Life actually is.
In The Good Life, you play as Naomi, a photographer from New York City who’s been sent to a fictional, rural farm-town in England called Rainy Woods. She’s been sent here in order to investigate a mystery surrounding the town while giving her an opportunity to pay off her debts (which is where the actual gameplay comes in). The big twist here is that each person in this town turns into a cat/dog at night. As a cat/dog, you can hunt smaller animals for materials, climb certain buildings, unearth hidden items or even take a piss to mark your territory. Unfortunately, the animal portions of the game were underutilized and ultimately felt like missed opportunities. The Good Life can also be very meta as it breaks the fourth wall often, but it’s usually saved by its excellent writing and localization. The cast of characters, to no one’s surprise, are charming and likeable. The citizens of Rainy Woods are weird and interesting, yet they somehow feel more grounded and relatable than Swery’s previous works.
The Good Life is the perfect example of throwing everything into the game but the kitchen sink. It’s systems overload; there’s farming, mining, riding and sheering sheep, fashion, photographing, a day/night cycle, weekly missions, quests that are only available if you’re either a cat/dog, a tiredness and hunger meter, status ailments such as headaches, toothaches, colds, etc. Enough! Most of the main story quests ask the player to dip their toes into each activity the game offers, but none of it is rewarding/satisfying. There’s also a ton of fetch quests and item collecting, which becomes tiresome due to all of the lifestyle subsystems at play. I wish the ability to turn into a cat/dog was more prevalent than the half-baked farm/life-sim elements that are present here. The Good Life gives you all the tools/options, as cumbersome as they may be, to live a quaint life out on a farm, but it’s not exactly a place I want to “live-in” for very long. I finished the game with a handful of the side-quests completed, but I didn’t want to spend any more time in Rainy Woods than I had to, sadly. I really wanted to like The Good Life more than I did and I still feel torn about my time spent with the game. Here’s hoping Swery gets another shot at making something new because I truly adore his games, for better or worse.
Game #53. Ghost of Tsushima (GoT), developed by Sucker Punch Productions, is their latest open-world action-adventure game. In GoT, you play as Jin, a samurai who is tasked to reclaim the Tsushima Island during the first Mongol invasion of Japan. For the PlayStation studios that have been around since the PS1/PS2 days, I always enjoy analyzing a developer’s legacy, or rather, their design philosophies/roots that are still recognizable in their latest releases. While the through line here is difficult to describe, you can immediately tell that GoT is a Sucker Punch production. While most people have forgotten about their N64 roots (Rocket: Robot on Wheels), Sucker Punch Productions is mostly known for their Sly Cooper games back on the PS2. From there, they would graduate to Infamous on the PS3/PS4. Although Rocket Robot on Wheels is the outlier here, all of their previous works have characters sneaking around, climbing rooftops, and tiptoeing across beams and the sort; GoT is no different in that respect. With how critically acclaimed and commercially successful GoT has been on the PS4 (and into the current generation with the Director’s Cut on PS5), we probably haven’t seen the last of Jin’s exploits either.
I picked-up GoT at launch, played it for a few hours but then dropped it for months. This is typically my track record with open-world games. It’s nearly impossible for me to focus on them no matter how interesting/fun they may be. If I start any open world game, it notoriously takes me a year or two to finish one. While most people would suggest beelining it through the main story, it’s almost impossible not to stray from the critical path and explore all of the extra content that’s available (the same thing happened to me with Guerilla Game’s Horizon Zero Dawn and Insomniac Game’s Spider-Man, for example). With that said, meandering off the beaten road does have its benefits in GoT. The game’s flat-out gorgeous and exploring the island of Tsushima consistently rewards you with a beautiful landscape at the very least. Without spoiling the plot, the game’s mostly about breaking samurai code/tradition and it does so by incorporating stealth/assassination into both the gameplay and narrative. With that said, the game doesn’t really utilize a “good/evil” system found in their previous series, Infamous, which may/may not have been disappointing for fans of their previous games.
While GoT is your typical open-world game by and large, there are a few interesting mechanics unique to Jin’s journey. The Guiding Wind mechanic, for example, is an organic/natural compromise for finding your way across a relatively traditional open-world game map. Instead of setting markers on your map, with a swipe of the pad on the controller, wind gusts will point you in the direction of your (marked) destination. Tsushima Island is filled with your typical open-world distractions too, including strongholds to reclaim, town settlements where you can upgrade your character’s equipment, and a fair amount of collectables. I feel like I would have more to say about the game if I didn’t put too much time between my sessions. As I mentioned earlier, it took me nearly a year to finish a playthrough and there were months where I shelved the game for long periods of time. It’s not really the game’s fault per se, but more a product of my attention span lately, or lack thereof. I completed the game with a handful of the side quests completed, but I wasn’t in any rush to go for 100%. By the time the credits rolled, I wasn’t in love with GoT, but I’ll give new game+ a whirl down the road to see if I feel different about when I find time to revisit it.
Game #54. F.I.S.T. Forged in Shadow Torch is an impressive debut Metroid-like from a China-based indie studio, TiGames. I feel like I’ve written this twenty times already this year, but we’ve been inundated with 2D Metroidvanias/Metroid-likes for what feels like a decade now. While F.I.S.T. might feel more similar to something along the lines of Shadow Complex, it still carries plenty of Metroid DNA you’d come to expect from the sub-genre at this point. There’s upgrades which allow the player to backtrack to new areas, shortcuts to discover and max health upgrades to find. So, what makes F.I.S.T standout from the rest? Outside of its visuals, I’d have to say the combat system is the most interesting and rewarding thing about the game. Your mechanical arm can ultimately turn into three different weapons and they’re used both for combat purposes and traversal. Combat feels punchy and impactful, which it should be considering the size of that thing on your back. Boss fights are challenging as well and ask the player to master both their primary weapons and the handful of sub-weapons at your disposal, one of which acts as a parry mechanic.
As I mentioned earlier, F.I.S.T. does has some nice visuals, specifically in its art direction. Broadly speaking, F.I.S.T. has a steampunk-like aesthetic, but the game’s background art is, at times, beautiful. In the city areas, for example, neon lights and detailed signage adorn the sides of buildings while trolley cars bustle up and down the city streets. A lot of the areas in the game feel lived-in, which is not an easy task, especially in a Metroid-like where world-building isn’t always the focus. The worst thing about the game, however, is its writing. The dialogue and voice delivery drove me up the wall, perhaps due to the poor localization? I can’t pinpoint what I found off about the writing/dialogue in F.I.S.T, but the best way I can describe it is that it feels like a literal translation. I’m also not a fan of the protagonist’s deep, overtly serious Solid Snake -like voice and demeanor. I didn’t find any of the characters likeable, not even the loveable bear partner who makes your equipment. I honestly couldn’t have cared less about the story and don’t get me started on the wannabe “Catwoman” who may or may not be a love interest for our “Bucky O’Hare” here. I completed the game with a good portion of the collectables/items found, but I’ll come back to 100% it at a later date.
Game #55. I started my new game+ playthrough of Marvel’s Spider Man Remastered in 2020, but I finally finish the replay of the base game plus all of the DLC (The City that Never Sleeps) for the first time in 2021. This time around, I exhausted nearly everything that was to do in the game; 100% trophies, all Benchmarks (which was the worst grind ever), all missable audio recordings and JJJ radio calls. The only thing I didn’t do was max out my health (I got to 213 at around 120 hours, the max is apparently 250) as it requires even more excessive grinding that’s not worth anyone’s time (unless you own an actual Spider-Man suit). I’m not even a huge Marvel/comic book guy, but I love Insomniac Games and the swinging in this game just feels too good. I’m finally ready to play Miles Morales in 2022 and by the time Spider-Man 2 proper rolls around, I’ll be ready. Oh, and the Web Blossom is still overpowered.
Game #56. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut action-adventure game from Ember Lab. The studio behind Kena is mostly known for their animation background, specifically the Terrible Fate short film. They’re clearly a group of talented artists and animators, but what about the game itself? For better or worse, depending on what you value, Kena feels and plays like a PS2/GC era Zelda-like. At the same time, the game looks like something that a “AAA” first-party studio would produce in terms of visuals and production, perhaps even Pixar-like at times. While there are some minor blemishes here and there (like how some foliage/leaves in water do not react to your character’s movement), the game’s simply beautiful. Kena also reminds me of the types of games you’d receive at/near a system’s launch (as it did technically fall within the first year of the PS5’s release). Similar to how I felt about Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, it feels more like a promise/road map for what true “next gen” games will look like/be capable of.
This may also come off as a negative for some people, but the entire game feels like the first quarter of most 3D Zelda titles, specifically the young Link portion of Ocarina of Time (OOT). If you’re just following the main story, it’s about a 10 hour game. Just when Kena is wrapping-up, most 3D Zelda games are getting started. There’s essentially three areas/zones, with hub-like open spaces, interconnected environments, fast-travel points and mini-dungeons to conquer. There are numerous sub-bosses throughout the entire game, but each area culminates in some truly challenging boss encounters. Some have said it’s Souls-like with its challenging difficulty at times, almost border-line character-action game difficulty, but I think it’s still more comparable to the types of bosses you’d encounter in a 3D Zelda title. I completed the game on Normal, but I’ll revisit the game on the highest difficulty and will go for 100% and the Platinum trophy then.
Game #57. Touhou Luna Nights, developed by Team Ladybug, is yet another Metroid-like in a sea of a thousand Metroidvanias. You play as a maid who wields daggers in a virtual mansion of sorts, but none of that matters. The only thing you really need to know is that you get a sword familiar that’s akin to the one from Castlevania: SotN. What else is there to say about this game that I haven’t already said about F.I.S.T., Metroid Dread or any of the other dozen or so Metroid-likes I may/may not have played this year? Outside of some gorgeous sprite-work and a killer OST, Luna Nights has your typical trappings you’d come to expect at this point; HP max-up items, new abilities to backtrack with, hidden/destructible walls, a Castlevania: SotN-styled map with an accompanying map percentage, the list goes on. You’ve seen it all here before, but it’s definitely one of the better ones as of late, particularly due to its combat system and boss encounters.
Luna Nights has some interesting gameplay mechanics that set it apart from most Metroid-likes at least. Time manipulation is the focal point for the combat. Your primary weapons are daggers in addition to having the ability to stop time (both of which can be upgraded). When you throw your daggers, you consume MP. When you stop time, however, you can toss your daggers without consuming MP in one strong volley for massive damage. On top of this, you can gain back time when you “graze” enemy projectiles when time is frozen. You can also regain health if you “graze” the same projectiles in real-time. The entire game is built around this risk/reward system and most of the end-game bosses nearly require you to master these techniques. I completed the game with around 90% of the map completed and most of the items collected, but there’s a hidden post-game area with a true final boss that I’m clearly not prepared for. I definitely want to revisit Luna Nights down the road, but I think I’m finally starting to feel burned out on Metroid-likes (if that’s even possible).
See you early next year for my 2021 GOTY wrap-up!