Another year is in the books and another set of records have been etched into history for games played (123) and games completed (78). Thanks, never-ending pandemic! Despite several high profile delays, it was actually a fantastic year in gaming filled with award worthy turns by familiar faces (see Halo Infinite, Bowser’s Fury, Psychonauts 2, and Metroid Dread to name a few) and sizzling newcomers like Death’s Door, Unsighted, Dodgeball Academia, The Forgotten City, and Unpacking.
For me, though, this year was mostly not about the new at all. It’s the year I finally decided to recommit to the physical and get heavily into retro gaming. As things have transitioned more and more digital, I have begun to worry that plenty of my old time favorites were going to become impossible to play, so I became fast friends with my local retro store and invested heavily in some older consoles in need of a loving home. Between the explosion of retro games in my house and having access to hundreds of titles on Xbox Game Pass, it’s no wonder I set new records this year.
As always, you can find your way around this extensive list by either starting below with games from earlier times or by going directly to Games from 2021 and My Top 10. You can also feel free to check out any of my previous Year In Gaming reviews from 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Note: A “+” denotes finishing the game or coming in first in a battle royale-style game.
Games Released Prior to This Year
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (Switch)+
A carryover from last year, AOC was my first completed game of 2021. Despite the relative repetitive nature of this Zelda-skinned Musou game, it somehow managed to never get old, and I found the 5 millionth wave of hundreds of enemies just as satisfying to destroy as the first. If you loved Breath of the Wild, you owe it to yourself to see all the fantastic things this game does with the characters and lore.
Star Wars Squadrons (PS5)+
Stay on target. Squadrons was exactly what I wanted from a Star Wars starfighter game, and it was the rare game that made me wish I had a VR headset. Surprisingly, I found the dark-side story to be a lot more interesting, and the tie-fighter to be the ship that was the most deserving of a rousing John Williams score. It was also kind of refreshing seeing a smaller scale Star Wars game that focused more on fun than production value.
Astro’s Playroom (PS5)
While 2020 saw me Platinum this delightful pack-in game, 2021 found me involved in a legendary set of back and forth speed-run matches with my friend Trey. It was a thrill figuring out how to shave precious tenths of seconds off our already blistering times, and it really emphasized just how tightly designed this game is. I can’t fully remember how our competition ended, but I’m going to choose to believe I finished with all the records.
My Friend Pedro (Xbox Game Pass)+
If you’re curious what My Friend Pedro is like, imagine dropping acid and giving rag-dolls double uzis. Then set that aflame with gasoline, and you come close to the wild ride that was my first big Game Pass win of the year. Pedro does an excellent job of making challenge rooms just the right size and adding amusing new physics puzzles throughout (like shooting off of a frying pan to hit your targets) that it never overstayed its welcome.
Call of the Sea (Xbox Game Pass)+
I love it when a game makes note-taking fun. Not since Return of the Obra Dinn have I had this grand of a time jotting down notes and trying to solve a mystery. By the end of this 10 hour or so first person adventure game taking place on a mysterious island in the 1930s, I practically had my own encyclopedia of hieroglyphics and one of the most memorable experiences of the year. Aside from the excellent puzzles, the performances are top notch, and the mystery at its center is both heartbreaking and riveting.
The Pathless (PS5)+
There are moments when The Pathless transforms into a rhythm game where you’re effortlessly gliding through the beautiful landscape and hurling arrows at massive bosses, and it seems like one of the greatest games ever. The moments in between can get a little slow and bogged down, but every single boss section never failed to amaze and invoked similar awe to that found in Shadow of the Colossus. Plus, you can pet the eagle!
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (Switch)+
Eleven years ago, the release of the final book, the Scott Pilgrim vs the World movie, and the Scott Pilgrim game all coincided with my inglorious exit from grad school, so naturally the story of the lovable loser who somehow always finds a way to end up on top while learning to grow-up struck a chord with me. After being unceremoniously de-listed years ago, the game’s return was more than cause for excitement for me, and the beat-em-up stylings of Sex Bob-Omb still hold up nicely thanks to a stellar combo system, a surprisingly deep RPG system reminiscent of River City Girls, and a satisfying difficulty that requires plenty of replay and mastery. It even produced one of my favorite game glitches of the year.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Xbox)+
The original Metal Gear Solid endures as one of my favorite games to this day, and I had its map full etched into my brain as a kid. I thought for sure there was no way Kojima could top that (especially after playing the off the rails MGS2), yet, sure enough, the maestro did it. As I sat in the woods, camouflaged just right for the current area burning leaches off my crotch, I realized that this was Kojima’s magnum opus. It was the most Kojima-y thing imaginable, and it was glorious (and now my #14 Game of All-Time).
Mega Man X (Switch)+
When the Saints were knocked out of the playoffs, and it dawned upon me that I had likely seen Drew Brees throw his final pass, I needed something familiar to help cheer me up. This 16-bit entry in the cannon-armed robot’s history (and my #18 Greatest Game of All-Time) proved to be exactly the shot in the arm I needed. While each level is perfection personified, nothing quite hits all these years later like completing the arduous process to unlock the Hadouken and seeing thicc Dr. Light.
Bleed 2 (Xbox)+
To be honest, I don’t remember much about this bullet-hell game that was free one month with Xbox Games with Gold other than it only took like an hour to beat and was enjoyable enough. So, if you can get it for the low low price of zero dollars and have nothing else to do, I say go for it!
Ratchet and Clank (PS5)+
At first, Ratchet and Clank, the PS4 remake of the PS2 original outing for the duo, seems like it’s trying a little too hard to be a movie, but by the time you’re helicoptering down using the robot on your back while firing massive weapons at strange mutants everything has come together to bring the joy of a PS2-era mascot platformer into the modern age of lush graphics and performance. There’s plenty of mid-2000’s merriment to be had, and it’s a fascinating portal into the world for those looking to also play this year’s Rift Apart.
Banjo-Kazooie (Xbox Game Pass)+
There’s only one GOAT of the 64-bit platforming genre, and it’s the bird and bear super team known as Banjo-Kazooie. Thanks to having a couple of years worth of quality of life improvements over the genre-defining Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie still plays smoothly over two decades later. I was so absorbed in my #19 Greatest Game of All-Time that I even found all the collectibles and completed all of the Xbox achievements. This year, I hope to continue the duo’s journey with Banjo-Tooie.
Donut Country (Xbox Game Pass)+
A new favorite pastime of mine is the Saturday Night Game Pass Binge where I download a ton of random Game Pass titles to explore without fear of commitment. Oftentimes when I do these binges, I only play a little bit of each title before deciding what I want to pursue further in the coming weeks. That wasn’t possible with Donut Country, as I found myself toppling this charming indie in one sitting. Solving puzzles by vacuuming up my surroundings with the black hole-esque donut holes never got old, and the Night in the Woods styled story kept me enchanted throughout.
HypnoSpace Outlaw (Xbox Game Pass)
It was absolutely hypnotic how well HypnoSpace Outlaw captured the aesthetic of the late-90s/early-2000s AIM and GeoCities filled internet. It did such a good job, that it was giving me a headache just looking at it, and I had to abandon this point and click game where you enforce rules across the internet after my first case of content infringement was closed. At least I got to brush my old AIM screenname, tmaclobotomy, out of retirement. Now, if I could just remember how to craft the perfect away message out of emo song lyrics.
Enter the Gungeon (Xbox Game Pass)
I think there’s a time pre-Hades that I would have been consumed by the explody-gun roguelike dungeon crawling fun of Enter the Gungeon, but expectations have now been ruined for these kinds of games. The dodge mechanic is extremely well executed, and now that I have learned more about its development from Jason Schreier’s Press Reset, I hope to give it another chance one day.
Wizard of Legend (Xbox Game Pass)
Yet another dungeon crawling roguelike I tried during a Saturday night Game Pass binge session, Wizard of Legend showcased a certain sense of whimsy and humor that combined with cool Jedi-like magic powers definitely made it enticing. Still, though, the Hades effect was strong, and I just couldn’t get too invested.
Carto (Xbox Game Pass)+
The unabashed winner of one of my exploratory Game Pass nights, Carto made its mark by combining a ton of heart with a cool tile-based mechanic where you change how the world around you is arranged to solve puzzles and reach new areas. It even earned my highest honor for a Game Pass game as I bought it on the Switch as an extra kudos for a job well done by this excellent development team (yes, this is how I justify my newfound dedication to all things physical coexisting with my love of Game Pass).
After gleefully completing dozens of assassinations in this year’s Hitman 3, I knew I had to go back and check out the other two entires in the current trilogy. Hitman kicks off with a bang compliments of a fantastic Paris level that has you disguising yourself as a model to get near you target, and it closes just as absurdly awesome at a hospital for rich elites that lets you poison someone’s sushi and throw a heart in the trash. Part of the greatness of this series is that I know that’s not even scratching the surface of all the weird ways to take out your targets.
Hitman 2 (PS5)+
While I think Hitman 2 might be the weakest of the series, it’s still bloody brilliant, highlighted by an absolutely bonkers level taking place in the suburbs where I posed as an expert grillmaster, drowned a guy in a toilet (pictured!), and got my other target to blow himself up by his oxygen tank when he gave into the siren’s call of nicotine and opted to have a little smoke. I then calmly walked out of a nearby closet to make my escape. Be sure to grab the DLC for this one as the bank heist and tropical paradise levels are among the best in the series.
Hyper Dot (Xbox Game Pass)+
Here’s yet another example of a game I never would have bothered to try without it being “free” on Game Pass. The premise is simple enough and seems like something you’d see in a free-to-play mobile game – you guide a little dot through various challenge levels where you need to either stay alive or collect items, but the execution is superbly addictive and the difficulty, especially in the later levels, is sublime.
Spiritfarer (Xbox Game Pass)+
No game has been more successful at making me tear up than this beautiful management sim of helping people make peace and cross over to the other side. There were times I got hit so hard in the feels that I wasn’t sure I would be able to continue, but I knew the payoff would be worth it. Had I played it last year when it came out, it would have undoubtedly been high on my Top 10 list, and, as such, it also received my highest honor for a Game Pass title where I bought it for the Switch as well.
Mirror’s Edge (Xbox Game Pass)+
Playing through 2008’s Mirror’s Edge made me yearn for a world where the Parkour craze of the aughts hadn’t fizzled out. Hitting your groove and pulling off increasingly epic jumps, slides, and disarmings remains gorgeous all these years later thanks to truly inspired art design and a futuristic yet minimalistic color palette that goes a long way. I seriously was amazed how well it all still feels, and I would love to see the series or my own ruptured ACLs make a comeback.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (Xbox Game Pass)+
Sometimes jankiness can make a game lovable. While I likely would have been a little more annoyed by some of the slightly off things in this spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from that game’s creator had I paid full price for it, I was more than capable fo putting up with it as part of my Game Pass subscription and ended up finding it somewhat endearing. Despite the jank, the love for the source material was there making this something any Castlevania fan should check out.
Haven (Xbox Game Pass)+
At its heart, Haven is really just about watching the romance unfold between two star-crossed lovers who are forced to flee to an “abandoned” planet to pursue their forbidden love. Yeah it’s entertaining to rid the planet of the contagious Rust and glide around on flow threads holding hands, but the real highlights come in all the moments of down time where you get to see their love and the struggles that come with it unfold. Pour yourself an apple brew, and treat yourself to an extremely well written (and blushworthy) romance that is among the best I’ve ever seen in a game. This was the third and final game that received my highest Game Pass honor of also purchasing a physical copy of it on the Switch.
Coffee Talk (Switch)+
If you ever wanted your visual novels with a side of barista-ing, you should check out the quaint and soothing 5 hour or so journey that is Coffee Talk. The world is full of interesting characters based on fantasy (like orcs and vampires), and it is just super chill to make some latte art while lightly bobbing your head to the calm soundtrack.
Diddy Kong Racing (N64)
While Mario may get all the fame and glory for his kart racing, if you ask 12 year old me there was never a finer kart racer than 1997’s Diddy Kong Racing. Sure the characters maybe weren’t as recognizable as Mario’s (hey, they had Banjo and Conker!), but that’s more than made up for by having not one but three modes of transport as hovercrafts and planes are also selectable. Add in an overworld full of secrets, and Diddy Kong remains the Kart King to this day.
My #20 Greatest Game of All-Time, Goldeneye, is most remembered for its god-tier multiplayer, but I was irrationally excited to hop back in to the single player campaign. The controls may have aged the opposite of Pierce Brosnan’s glorious mug, but the objective themed missions are still a blast, and the large blocky polygon characters add a certain hilarity to everything. Now, though, I do need to figure out how to get my 3 best middle school buds together for some endless rounds of remote mines in the Bunker. Here’s hoping the only Q they care about these days is the one that makes James Bond’s gadgets….
Pokemon Snap (N64)+
For 3 or so hours one Saturday night, I got to feel like a kid again snapping pictures of my favorite original Pokemon. There’s not a whole lot to master, but figuring out ways to get the Pokemon to evolve or perform funny actions for my camera was pure joy and everything I hoped for when I bought my N64.
Kuukiyomi: Consider It (Switch)+
Imagine a WarioWare game where you have to choose what the polite thing to do is in mere seconds without much context and you have Kuukiyami: Consider It. For instance, as an invading monster you should choose the planet where the hero is not away (see above). There may only be about 2 hours worth of material here, but it’s all incredibly hilarious and unique, so I am grateful the How Did This Get Played? podcast recommended it.
Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope (Switch)+
During my paternity leave, I concluded I needed something familiar to play, and my #12 Game of All-Time, Shovel Knight, seemed more than qualified for the job. Just as before, it remains a nearly pixel perfect game, combining the best parts of Castlevania and Mega Man with a ton of humor, a lovable hero, and diabolical villains. I was having such a good time that I even vowed to grab all the collectibles.
The Darkside Detective (Switch)+
Based on the recommendations of a Twitter friend and an eShop sale too tempting to turn down, I decided to give the point-and-click adventure, The Darkside Detective a chance, and I’m quite glad that I did. While many point-and-click games can get a little too obtuse with their solutions, Detective successfully maintains a delicate balance of keeping things challenging yet accessible. Add in some absurdist occult humor split through several perfectly sized episodes, and you can do a lot worse for a weekend gaming getaway.
Growing up, I convinced myself (or my mom lied to me, who knows) that Tetris only went up to level 9 because that’s as far as I could make it before succumbing to the pressure and losing control of my block stack. I’m happy to report that as a grown ass man I made it to Level 13 with ease, and the original NES version might still be the most fun one around.
Tetris (Game Boy)
Take everything that makes the NES version unholy levels of awesome, remove just a little bit of color, and make it handheld. Yes, please!
Tetris 99 (Switch)
I used to be good at this game and capable of beating the 98 other tetromino twirlers. Now, not so much. I got complacent and the rest of the world passed me by. In my atrophied state, I’m lucky to finish in the Top 10. Still, whenever a new themed event (like the Metroid Dread one) comes up, I’ll give it a go for a weekend.
Rocket League (Switch and Xbox)
Once a year, Rocket League and I engage in a delicate dance where I get crazy into it for about a month until I inevitably hit my skill peak, start losing ranks like crazy, and rage quit vowing never to touch the game again. This year, I got so into my quest to be the top soccer car player that I switched over to Xbox for better performance. The results spoke for themselves as I hit Gold Rank for the first time ever and recorded my 1000th career goal. As expected, though, the rage and sorrow were not far behind, and I called it quits after several sleep deprived nights in July where I acted like a gambling addict hungry for that one more win that would turn it all around.
T&C Surf Designs (NES)
In this odd NES title you can surf as a gorilla. Naturally, I was obsessed with this as a child. While, my brain could not figure out how to surf any more, I will say avoiding obstacles skateboarding remained incredibly fun or, dare I say, totally tubular.
Super Mario Bros. 35 (Switch)+
It only seems fitting that right before Nintendo took Mario 35 offline, my prowess guiding the plumber through seemingly infinite Bowsers popping up in the strangest places transcended anything I had ever thought possible. By the end, I was leading our mustachioed everyman hero to victory about 50% of the time and routinely finishing in the top 3. I was sure sad to see the game end, but it was probably for the best. Otherwise, I would still be saying “just one more” to this day.
Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
I love me a good Mario sports game. There’s just something extra amusing about seeing my platforming favorites put aside their differences and take a break for athletic fun. Unfortunately, this game didn’t quite hit the mark for me. The central conceit of transforming tennis matches into something akin to fights is intriguing, but the action just got too repetitive and boring for me.
Super Mario 3D World (Switch)+
Even though it may have just been a port, it was new to me, and I absolutely loved every second with the cat-suited Princess Peach floating through these 3D levels. I couldn’t get enough and gathered every secret coin before finally calling it a day. I’m sure this is a Mario I will revisit plenty in the future.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Switch Online)+
Yoshi’s Island embraces the “tripping balls” path of some Mario games. There’s plenty of weirdness to be had as you mainly control Yoshi and try to usher a vulnerable baby Mario from one location to another. This was my first time playing it, and I found it to be a really fantastic entry in the series. I hope you’re sitting down because I still haven’t quite recovered from the game’s shocking revelation that Mario and Luigi are actually twins.
Super Mario World (SNES)+
For the longest time, I’ve alternated back and forth between thinking the cape-adorning Super Mario World and the Raccoon-filled Super Mario Bros. 3 are the gold standard for 2D Marios. Now, I think I’ve finally come to the conclusion that Super Mario Bros. 3 is superior, but the expansive, secret heavy World still makes it close. The introduction of Yoshi and the maddeningly difficult Star Road that’s just as fun to unlock as it is to play remain highlights, and playing it on an actual SNES after all these years probably increased my enjoyment ten-fold.
Super Mario 3D Land (DS)+
I didn’t realize how much I missed having the DS in my life until I grabbed a cheap refurbished one I found on Nintendo’s website and plopped one of my favorite Mario games in for some two screen magic. After playing Super Mario 3D World it was really interesting to go back and see the building blocks for it being laid down in 3D Land. The levels are cleverly designed and make such wonderful use of the 3D capability of the DS that I found myself missing it as I now only have a lowly 2DS. Most importantly, though, once you beat the game you get to replay it as Luigi, which is all we can ask for out of a game or in life.
Super Mario Land (Game Boy)+
You fly a plane! You pilot a submarine! You shoot weird balls that bounce! You visit pyramids! Super Mario Land definitely feels like a team of people who had never played a Mario game were given a vague description of what Mario is and then made a game, but, as we all know, weird Nintendo is some of the best Nintendo. As a fairly short, 4-world adventure, it was an excellent little mini-diversion to help remind me of Mario’s more humble and strange beginnings. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the Game Boy titles and see just how wild it gets.
Donkey Kong Country (SNES)+
Those god damned mines. While dripping with beauty by pushing the SNES to its absolute limits, Donkey Kong Country is also notoriously difficult as epitomized with the mine cart dash of doom and frustration. Still, it was great to take DK and Diddy through their initial attempt to thwart King K. Rool especially for the opportunity to hear that underwater theme one more time.
Donkey Kong Country 2 (SNES)+
This sequel might just be the king of all Donkey Kong Country games. By taking everything that’s great about the first and adding a ton of new mechanics, animal friends, and mini-games, DKC2 manages to be the finest 16-bit game that looks like a 32-bit game of all time. Bonus points are awarded for absolutely nailing not having the big DK himself as a playable character since Dixie Kong is such a delight with her hair twirling badassery.
Donkey Kong Land III (Game Boy)
When I bought my Game Boy Advance, I was looking for games that didn’t cost a fortune, and this yellow cart fit the bill. Featuring Dixie and Dinky Kong, this game pushes the Game Boy to its limits much like the Country games did with the SNES, but in the end I just found myself wanting to play the main titles on a bigger screen.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES)
This game, much like the protagonist Zeke’s hair, still slaps. It’s weird, it’s a little scary, and it’s a ton of fun to rescue your neighbors from hordes of the undead, chainsaw wielding psychopaths, mummies, and giant babies. The only thing that stopped me from playing through all 50+ levels of chaos was knowing I have a copy of the new Switch version coming my way any day now from Limited Run Games.
The Adventures of Batman and Robin (SNES)
I probably rented The Adventures of Batman and Robin more than any other game as a kid. I even had a scheme cooked up to get my sister’s then boyfriend whose family owned one of the local video stores to bring it over in exchange for getting to see my sister that I was too afraid to ever enact. Thanks to some birthday money that I did not feel guilty blowing, I resolved to finally buy this overpriced cart to make the crowning jewel of my retro collection. It still manages to capture the essence of the 90s cartoon brilliantly if maybe a little too challengingly.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch)+
When my nephew came to visit this past summer, the boy had only one thing on his mind – Super Smash Bros (well that and Pokemon but, hey, they’re in the game). During an epic, Cheerwine fueled sleepover, we eventually discovered the ultimate winning tag team of him as Ridley and myself as my beloved Donkey Kong, reeling off 50 straight wins (ok maybe it was only 12) with these two behemoths of brawling.
Super Mario Party (Switch)
At one point in the sleepover, my nephew and I entered a battle of attrition to see just how long of a Mario Party match we could stomach (it turns out about 15 turn is the max a person can handle in one sitting). Still, it was a blast teaming up to figure out ways to sabotage the computer to keep it from winning (damn you, Waluigi!).
Streets of Rage 4 (Switch)
Yet another participant in this year’s grand nephew sleepover, the new gold standard in beat-em-ups is even more enjoyable with a second person in tow to help ricochet evil henchmen back and forth with.
The Legend of Zelda (Switch Online)+
While I have started the original The Legend of Zelda dozens of times, this was the first year I actually finished it. Overall, you can’t help but be amazed at just how cleverly the whole world of Hyrule is designed for Link’s inaugural adventure. Sure there are things that show their age and the formula has been perfected well beyond what’s seen here, but there’s something positively magical about hearing that theme and deciding what direction to go next.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (DS)+
Oddly enough, the greatest “new to me game” I played this year might be this charming 8 year old DS entry that manages to mix the best parts of Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past for the perfect 2D Zelda adventure. The wall merging mechanic is phenomenal to both look at and perform, and the item renting system that lets you tackle pretty much any dungeon in whatever order you want adds a necessary freshness to the tried and true Zelda formula.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD (Switch)+
Stuck somewhere between the established 3D rules of Ocarina of Time and the unknown wonder of Breath of the Wild, Link’s final Wii adventure can at times feel like a game that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be (or maybe doesn’t quite have the hardware to let it be what it wants). The Switch remaster helps breathe new life into this 10-year old title allowing for it to be properly appreciated thanks to tons of quality of life enhancements. Most of all, though, it does a solid job setting the story into motion as the first canonical game in the series, and it has my favorite depiction of the Zelda/Link relationship yet. Now if only we could get Justice for Groose by having him appear in every game.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (Xbox Game Pass)
While I don’t have the patience to really dig into all that a title like Flight Simulator has to offer, I do have the basic geographic knowledge to find things that are familiar to me and promptly crash nearby trying to get a better look. As yet another Game Pass win, I had a great time checking out my house and simulating my morning commute via plane. I keep telling myself I will explore more of the world’s wonders one day (like flying inside a hurricane), so I have yet to delete this from my Xbox despite its hefty 100 GB size.
For years, I have wanted to check out the gorgeous painted world of Okami, and it’s been sitting on my Switch for a depressing amount of time. Despite all the hype I had going into it, things never quite clicked for me, and I gave up after 3 hours or so once i realized it was a lengthy adventure. The paint based mechanics and combat were fun, but the writing actually left me feeling a little let down. Ultimately, not being able to really get into the story was a deal breaker for a 30+ hour runtime.
Going Under (Xbox Game Pass)
Yet another quick Saturday night Game Pass trial, this dungeon crawling roguelike was highlighted by some really funny writing skewering the start-up world that I am all too familiar with. Unfortunately, the combat itself was a little lackluster, so I didn’t feel the need to dive deeper into the strange world.
Psychonauts (Xbox Game Pass)+
Meat Circus. The grand finale of this psychic summer camp coming of age story takes place in a meat circus, which yes looks and feels exactly like you would imagine. Even though a lot of the platforming aged about as well as the bacon you keep in your pocket to summon the legendary Ford Cruller, some of the more out there level concepts like the Godzilla inspired Lungfishopolis and the Settlers of Catan themed Waterloo World remain among the more inspiring design choices of the past twenty years. While you don’t need to play the original to enjoy this year’s sequel, the world building present within is well worth a trip down memory lane and stumbling through a few clunky mechanics.
I died. A lot. I laughed my ass off. A lot. Spelunky is an absurdly brilliant cave exploration roguelike that has some of the whackiest and most unexpected ways of dying to go along with loving homages to things like Evil Dead. It was perhaps the hardest game I played all year, but slowly unlocking shortcuts by completing increasingly difficult challenges was among the most rewarding gameplay loops of the year. I stood up and cheered when I finally beat the dreaded Olmec, and I can’t wait to take on the sequel in the coming year.
Resident Evil (PSOne)+
Itchy. Tasty. Those two words helped cement Resident Evil as the premiere survival horror franchise of the 32-bit era and launched a beloved series that’s still going strong 25 years later. Having replayed the Director’s Cut version last year, I was worried I would be bored by the original, but the unmatched 90s machismo cheesiness of those cut-scenes and line deliveries had a smile on my face throughout. As an extra way to spice things up (and to help prepare myself for the next game on the list), I even decided to abandon my usual choice of ultimate zombie-killing queen Jill Valentine in favor of the less heralded, boulder-punching Chris Redfield. This game just proves that after all these years you still can go home (to a zombie infested nightmare).
Resident Evil Zero (GameCube)
This was the game that made me jealous of my friends who had GameCubes growing up. Now that I’m in theory an adult with access to retro stores and disposable income, I decided it was finally time to correct this grave injustice. It still looks stunningly gorgeous in a way that only a GameCube game can, and the buddy system dynamic puts a surprising new spin on the classic Resident Evil formula, but the out there story never quite clicked for me, and I eventually put it down. Still, as I hope to replay all the Resident Evil games in the near future, I look forward to giving the intrepid medic Rebecca Chambers a second chance.
Silent Hill 2 (Xbox)+
Somehow, despite being a huge survival horror fan as a teen thanks to Resident Evil, I never really checked out the Silent Hill series. A coworker of mine has claimed repeatedly that Silent Hill 2 is the greatest game ever, so i decided I should finally give it a try. The results were unsettling and pretty damn fantastic. While not overly difficult, the tension created by the fog, radio static, and never-ending dread that Pyramid Head may be around any corner provided me with several thoroughly creepy nights. The story was appropriately dreary and morbid, and the acting was perfect 90s/early 00s era cheese leading to one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year.
Mortal Kombat 2 (SNES)
I now know it to be fact that Street Fighter is the better of the two primary fighting series from my childhood. But that game doesn’t let you knock your opponent’s head off with an uppercut and then do a cool pose. The tapping nature of the move system (as compared to the sweeping one of Street Fighter) remains inferior, but ripping apart your opponent’s torso and then finishing your next opponent by signing a nice autograph for them made up for it. It’s just a shame that I now must go through life knowing I’m a Johnny Cage main.
If you’re curious what a really clunky Kaiju fighting game from the first year of the SNES’s life would be like, look no further than Ultraman! I will admit some of the 16-bit anime inspired cutscenes are hilariously awesome, but the combat itself will leave you cold after a couple of levels or so.
The Tick (SNES)
Some things from our childhoods don’t age as gracefully as we remembered. Growing up, The Tick was one of my favorite cartoons, and I recall loving this beat-em-up take on the weird and wacky world of heroes, ninjas, and chair-faced evildoers. After a couple of levels, I was thoroughly charmed by this game, but then it quickly became apparent every single level was just a slight variation of fighting the same 3 or 4 ninja types through similar looking locations. Still, it was nice to hear that 16-bit rendition of the Tick shouting “Spoon!”.
The Incredible Crash Dummies (SNES)
While The Tick may have let me down, I found myself pleasantly surprised by The Incredible Crash Dummies. Aside from having the coolest toys growing up (that exploded off body parts!), I was always jealous that I didn’t have the game, and it did not disappoint. The central mechanic revolves around losing more and more body parts with each hit you take and was extremely well executed. The only thing really standing in the way of greatness is that it leaned way too hard into the crushing platforming difficulty common in those days.
Super Star Wars (SNES)
I can hear the jawas saying “ba ding” in this picture. That’s how many times I’ve played Super Star Wars throughout my life. Still having the muscle memory to jump into a hidden compartment inside the sandcrawler without even thinking really made my day, and I hope to give this and its superior sequel, Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the attention they both deserve in a retro playthrough later this year.
To be honest, I don’t really know what all was happening while playing this game, but I do know that it 100% nailed the ADHD feel of the show. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were just as zany as I had hoped, and one day I would really like to revisit it and see just what plans Pinky and the Brain have to “try to take over the world!”
Sayonara Wild Hearts (Apple Arcade)+
My love of this beautiful visual musical album is well documented, having appeared in my Top 10 Games for 2019. I have made a point to replay it every year since, and this year I was presented with a perfect opportunity when I finally upgraded my iPhone and bought a sleek Backbone controller attachment. As always, I didn’t simply beat the game and move on. I tried to absolutely master it all and worked on fine tuning a no-death run for about a month. While I didn’t achieve my goal, I know there’s always next year to get it right, and I cannot wait because wild hearts never die!
FANTASIAN (Apple Arcade)
This gorgeous diorama inspired traditional JRPG was my other big Apple Arcade get of the year. My hour or so with it was a blast, but in the end I put it aside to get back to my console games. With Part 2 just released, hopefully I’ll dedicate some time to it in 2022.
Peggle 2 (Xbox Game Pass)+
Also, as part of breaking in my Backbone controller for my phone, I decided to try out Cloud gaming on Xbox. I didn’t want to overwhelm my shoddy internet connection at first with something too demanding, so this 2013 sequel to one of my favorite mobile games of all time was a suitable starting point. All the charm, peg blasting, and Ode to Joy blaring are still there to go along with a few fun new characters and power-ups to make it worth checking out for anyone who was a fan of the original so long as you don’t mind some clear mobile micro-transaction prompts every now and then.
Murder! Death! Kill! A couple of hours traveling back in time to the sniping, humorous post-apocalyptic shooter were a grand nostalgic blast. The game still plays surprisingly fluidly for being almost 25 years old, and the plethora of items like blow-up doll decoys and different complex ammo types make each of the dozens of challenge rooms fun to blow through.
Of all the cute platforming mascots of the 32-bit era, Croc may have been my favorite. The game that helped usher in the dualshock sticks does feel a little rusty today, but there’s plenty to love and explore in this dated but cute platformer.
Sonic 2 (Switch Online)+
Just look at that screenshot of Tails piloting his best friend Sonic into battle, and tell me you don’t feel like you’re 8 years old again and positively giddy. While playing it on a Nintendo device may have felt like I was committing some kind of grand atrocity against the console wars of yesteryear, Sonic’s second outing still played unbelievably fast in a way that modern games can’t quite replicate, and the flashing lights of the Casino Zone and its many slot machines remain one of the finest levels of the era.
WarioWare: Gold (DS)+
Touch! Twist! Tap! There are really only 3 ways to play mini-games in WarioWare Gold, but all of them are, well, golden. After playing the newly released Get It Together, I was sure this DS title would feel dated, but to my surprise it proved to be superior in pretty much every way including an even crazier story and more manic feel throughout. Now to get my hands on some of the more insanely expensive Game Boy Advance titles with special cartridges.
As a kid, my sister and I were absolutely obsessed with trying to beat the most notorious great white shark that ever there was. Recently, I’ve seen frequent mention of this 8-bit licensed game among some of the worst games ever made, so I had to find out for myself if we had remembered it all wrong. I’m happy to report that fighting Jaws as a tiny little diver still freaking rocks, and it is everyone else who is wrong.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
There’s a whole lot to be frustrated about in TMNT, but there’s also a whole lot to love. Sure the damn dam level is among the most frustratingly absurd challenges ever thrown our way by the NES (which is saying a lot), but the care given to differentiating each of the four main turtles is admirable and frankly groundbreaking for that period in gaming history. There was something both oddly comforting and disconcerting in discovering that I could only make it exactly as far as I could as a kid where one insanely precise platforming section once again spelled my doom. Sorry, Splinter, I guess you’ll just have to stay captured a little longer.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (NES)
As a 6 year-old, I remember saving up my allowance for months and having my mom take me to KB Toys to blow it all on this superb port of the arcade beat-em-up that I blew countless quarters on at Chuck-E-Cheese. While I need to find a couch co-op turtle buddy for maximum enjoyment, the Turtles’ second turn on the NES seems to have withstood the test of time.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out (NES)
Punch-Out is easily one of my favorite games of all-time, but I had only ever played the Tyson-less Mr. Dream version. I couldn’t believe my luck when my local game store had the original gap-toothed boxing legend. Now if only I were skilled enough at the game to actually get to him…
In my heart of hearts, I believe that the ultimate proving of my 90s child street cred will be finally getting good at Paperboy. This year, however, wasn’t the time. After miraculously making it to level two, I kept being hilariously felled by the most random obstacles until I gave up. One day I’ll get there. One day.
Metroid Prime (GameCube)+
The idea is both simple yet impossibly complicated. Take everything that works so well about 2D Metroids and bring it into the third dimension. Somehow, this GameCube gem manages to pull off the feat better than I could have possibly hoped for, leaving me breathless at just how good it is. Even two decades later, it features one of the finest uses of first person view ever, punctuated by the occasional flashes where you see Samus’s face reflected in your helmet visor. While I may have played this too late in the year to include it in my Top 25 Games of All-Time, you can rest assured it will make an appearance the next time I do an update to the list.
Metroid Samus Returns (DS)+
In preparation for the first new 2D Metroid in over a decade, I decided to check out the 2017 DS remake of Samus’s second adventure from the Game Boy days. I had heard plenty of shining reviews of this game that was overlooked by many due to its unfortunate timing of releasing after the Switch had launched, and found that for all the praise, it may have been undersold to me. Thanks to a more linear hunt metroids to open up new areas structure, some fluid and fun new mechanics, and punishing bosses, Samus Returns was a fantastic take on the classic Metroid formula that paved the way to the superb Dread. I would definitely recommend tackling this prior to Dread if you get the chance to get accustomed to this new more physical style.
Metroid: Zero Mission (Virtual Console)+
After devouring Metroid Dread, I got super excited to try out a bunch of the series that I missed in the past like the two Game Boy Advance entries. One not quite so shiny new-used GBA later, and a quick look at the retro-gaming price charts, I suddenly was asking my best friend to send me his old Wii U that he no longer uses, so I could get the far more affordable virtual console versions. The many hoops and wait were worth it, though, as I loved every second of this reimagining of Samus’s inaugural mission. The worlds were lovingly crafted and impeccably designed, and the character of Samus was given some compelling backstory and tons of riveting moments to shine like an excellent stealth Zero Suit section that was clearly an inspiration for Dread’s E.M.M.I. sequences.
Metroid II: The Return of Samus (Virtual Console)+
Having already played the remake, it was awesome to come back and see the original Game Boy version. The first thing that struck me is just how much they managed to get out of that underpowered little handheld. The game looks gorgeous and has as surprising amount of variety in skills, weapons, and enemies for a Game Boy title. The early-going is a little rough as everything looks a little too similar making it difficult to get your bearings, but the second half with a ton of new Metroid types really kicks things in to high gear and makes it a worthy entry in Samus’s journey three decades later.
Metroid Fusion (Virtual Console)+
Going in to the last proper new 2D Metroid, I was fully prepared to readjust my rankings of the series. I had heard so many glowing thoughts about Fusion, but the end experience just didn’t match that. While the story is great (if maybe a little too expository in nature) and the use of the “stalking” Samus mimic provides some of the most bone-chilling moments in the series, the game ended up being slightly let down by the controls include a janky jump that auto-cancels too easily and an over-reliance on hidden environmental paths that are more frustrating than clever. Still, even a lesser Metroid is pretty damn solid.
Super Metroid (Switch Online)+
Revisiting the GOAT of all Metroids near the tail-end of my playthrough of the series was an absolute highlight of the year. During one magical day off, I powered through the adventure, setting a new personal record for completion time. While some of the mechanics may feel a little clunkier than they do in later titles, the environmental storytelling and level design remain unmatched to this day. Playing it at the height of “speaking the Metroid language” really elevated the experience and made my 20th or so time through the game my favorite yet.
Metroid (Switch Online)+
For my final foray into the Metroid series, I took it all the way back to the beginning. I was cautiously optimistic that it would still be somewhat fun given how old it is, and was pleasantly surprised that it held up well. The areas, while semi-confusing, provide just enough variety to give you a general sense of where you’re going and the crushing NES difficulty is made manageable by relying on save states and the handy-dandy rewind feature. It’s amazing to see how far the series has come, but at the same time it’s not shocking given the strong foundation the original set.
Inside is unsettling. You play as a kid breaking into some strange mind control research facility by completing increasingly difficult puzzles and trying not to get brutally murdered by guards or dogs. I have actually really “enjoyed” my time with it, but I keep choosing to not pick it back up so I don’t have to deal with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy (Switch)+
I started the Ace Attorney Trilogy way back in June of 2019, slowly working through the 15 or so cases spanning 3 titles. As I got close to the grand finale in 2020, I put it away for over a year, not wanting to say goodbye to Phoenix, Maya, Edgeworth, and the rest of the gang. Fortunately, the final trial was a fittingly off the rails way of wrapping it all together and reminding me why I fell in love with this “Objection” yelling, finger pointing defense attorney in the first place. In 2022, I hope to find similar joy in the recently released remaster of Phoenix’s ancestor from 100 years ago in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.
Over the Christmas holiday, my nephew, in his infinite wisdom at 8 years old, introduced me to this spaceship bullet-hell game from the creators of Returnal, and I was instantly hooked finding myself screaming non-sensical things like “human to the right!” over and over again. Before I left, I had even set it to download on my PS5, so we can hopefully succeed in our efforts to save humanity at last in 2022.
Sackboy: A Big Adventure (PS5)
Yet another title introduced to me by my nephew, Sackboy had me thoroughly impressed at its multiplayer design (and super funky costumes). It’s a game I’ll be keeping an eye out for sales on, so I can one day show my nephew a thing or two about how it’s played.
Games From This Year
MLB The Show 21
I used to have a yearly ritual of taking all 5’4 (and a half!)” of my unathletic self through the minors and into “The Show” as the flame-throwingist pitcher around. As time went on, this turned into an every 2-3 year excursion, and I eventually got a little too talented on the virtual diamond as my last attempt in 2019 featured 7 perfect games and just as many World Series crowns. So I was quite excited to see the hook had changed somewhat for this year’s version as the Road to the Show mode was now centered around bringing up a 2-way star à la Shohei Ohtani. It was a lot of fun spending a few months in the minors alternating between shutting teams down with my arm and burning them with my bat, but eventually the every day nature of being a two-way player versus the every 5 days of being a pitcher got to be a little too slow, and I decided to chase after other pursuits. Still, it was yet another Game Pass win.
Cyber Shadow (Xbox Game Pass)+
Much like Yacht Club games’s previous title, Shovel Knight, set out to recreate the feeling of Mega-Man and Castlevania, Cyber Shadow sets out to capture the look and feel of another 8-bit classic – Ninja Gaiden. In that respect, it succeeds in spades, crafting an ultra smooth and faithful adaptation that is the best feeling version of an NES Ninja Gaiden you could hope for. What keeps this out of the year’s Top 10, however, is that it fails to really innovate on top of that formula. There are some fun weapons to use and an underutilized cyber world shows promise, but in the end it’s just a very lovingly and faithfully crafted Gaiden-like.
Loop Hero (Steam)
Through my first 10 hours and 300 or so loops, I thought Loop Hero, an auto-battler combining deck building and a ton of medieval lore, seemed like it had my GOTY all wrapped up. Unfortunately, the game gets a little too grindy as it goes on, and I eventually lost interest before completing it. With a recent release on the Switch, however, I’m hopeful that i can find my way back to the world of loops and lichs in the coming year to see our hero through to victory.
Pac-Man 99 (Switch)+
Looking to fill the void in my life left by Nintendo closing shop on Mario 35, I found an almost worthy successor in Pac-Man 99 where you attempt to survive as long as possible as our ghost-eating friend while dodging never-ending waves of ghosts being sent by the other 98 players. I managed to find my footing incredibly early and climbed all the way up to #423 in the world. Following my 50th career win, I realized I had achieved enough and retired while still on top.
Disco Elysium (PS5)
Do you ever know you’re playing something truly special right from the opening moments? The gruff world of Disco Elysium and its roll-based take on detective work and hardcore politics had me instantly under its spell. Unfortunately, I started playing it right before the birth of my second child, and spending a few weeks away from it proved too much to overcome to get it going again. One day, I will start fresh and see it through.
New Pokemon Snap (Switch)+
There’s nothing incredibly fresh or exciting about New Pokemon Snap compared to its decades old predecessor. In fact, all the new Pokemon in it that I’m not familiar with may be a detriment to your enjoyment. But I will be damned if it wasn’t super pleasing to let my mind melt away and snap pictures of cuddly little creatures while laying in bed exhausted during the early days of kiddo number 2.
Knockout City (Xbox Game Pass)
It was almost refreshing playing an online game that wasn’t centered around blowing up other humans. The variety of dodgeballs and simple controls (run, jump, throw, catch) made this game incredibly easy to get into yet complicated to master. Matches could be thrilling, but there was a certain hollowness to them at times and some jankiness getting from one match to the next that made it feel like a game that would be worth coming back to several seasons down the line when they’ve ironed out a few kinks.
Mario Golf: Super Rush (Switch)+
Whereas I was disappointed in Mario Tennis, the plumber’s latest turn on the links was exactly what I was looking for. The main draw to me was the adventure mode campaign that was silly fun and reminded me of Golf Story. The actual golf itself felt great with just the right mix of arcade and simulation (including an excellent speed golf mode where you run to your ball to see who can finish a hole first), and my only complaint was that there wasn’t enough content to enjoy – something Nintendo has been improving with new courses and game modes that keep drawing me back every few months.
Boyfriend Dungeon (Xbox Game Pass)+
Have you ever wished you could date your weapons in a video game? Probably not, but Boyfriend Dungeon makes a compelling case for it by presenting a world where certain humans can transfigure into weapons the player can yield. As the game progressed, it became clear that it was a two weapon race (not counting the awesome cat) for my heart between suave business-man/daddy-issue having rapier Isaac and the free spirited artist/dagger with trust issues Valeria. The dungeon crawling may not have been anything special, but the visual novel underneath it all was endlessly fascinating.
The Ascent (Xbox Game Pass)
Sometimes a game can be too hardcore for its own good. The main gameplay loop of blowing up lots of baddies was enjoyable enough in The Ascent, but every bit of super edgy dialogue and over the top dystopia made me roll my eyes until I couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe with just a little more humor and fun it would’ve kept me going, but it just wasn’t my jam.
At times one of the most gripping and inventive games of the year and at others one of the most absolutely frustrating ones, DEATHLOOP found itself circling all over the wheel of GOTY-dom throughout my playthrough. There are essentially 4 main parts of the campaign – an exciting but overly long tutorial that sets up the immense promise of this timelooping Assassin’s duel featuring some killer powers, the thrilling first few hours of freedom where it seems like the game could go down as an all-timer as things start to piece together, an excruciatingly glacial middle quarter that you’re just trying to tie up loose ends by visiting the same scenarios over and over again, and a breathtaking finale where you complete the final perfect loop. Your milage will vary based on how much that third section annoys you, but for me it was more than enough to deprive it of a spot in my coveted Top 10.
Golf Club Wasteland (Switch)+
There are a lot of magical moments to be had in this post-apocalyptic golf vacation/late stage capitalism critique taken through what remains of a desolate Earth, and most of that has to do with the sights and the moody soundtrack blasting to you from a radio station light years away. The golf itself is rather hit or miss with some holes being far too long and arduous, but learning how Earth’s demise came to pass through Radio Nostalgia From Mars is one of the best ways you can spend four hours or so relaxing.
Back 4 Blood (Xbox Game Pass)
The two Left 4 Dead titles are the finest zombie shooting masterpieces of all-time, so I could not wait to see what the creators of those came up with 12 years after their last. Unfortunately, all playing Back 4 Blood made me want to do was jump back into Left 4 Dead. It felt solid enough to play but got a little overly complicated with the deck building system and lost a lot of the heart of the originals. there’s definitely a lot of good here but just not enough to command my time.
WarioWare: Get it Together (Switch)+
When I first played this ADHD inducing mini-game bonanza, I thought it was brilliant. Then I played WarioWare: Gold on the DS and realized that this was lacking a lot of the frantic fun of the previous entries by having you control characters instead of just using touch, tap, and motion controls to get things done. Still, the story is absolutely bonkers and the mini-games (especially the retro NES inspired ones) are all fantastic.
Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain (Switch)
One day I will prove that I am smarter than the weird host of Big Brain Academy. Right now, I’m just about 200 points off with a Brain Grade of S- and Brawn of 3100. This game is well suited for a nightly little brain challenge by taking a few tests that throw 5 random games at you and seeing how far you can go, and, as such, is often a part of my bedtime routine.
Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon (Switch)
I have a feeling that if I had put more time into this rogue-like puzzler it might have ended up at least in the honorable mentions column, but I simply didn’t devote enough time to learn the intricacies and fully enjoy the latest adventure of my favorite shovel-wielding hero. The heart and humor all seem to be present and accounted for, so I can’t wait to really dive in soon.
Bowser’s Fury (Switch)+
If this is a prototype for the future of Mario games, consider me fully in. This 6 or so hour fully open-world take on Mario was pure unadulterated bliss. I made sure to find every collectible before finally bidding adieu to this cat-filled, Godzilla-Bowser gem.
Persona 5 Strikers (PS5)+
The care given to the story of Persona 5 Strikers was outstanding. At first I thought I’d merely be in for a fun but repetitive Mosou take on my beloved Persona 5 (my #2 game of 2017), but what I got instead was a worthy sequel that made me wish I could spend all of my free time with the Phantom Thieves. It also helps that the game was blessed with the best combat I’ve seen in a Mosou game yet thanks to successfully melding the beat-em up hordes of enemies approach with the turn-based mechanics of a Persona game.
Dodgeball Academia (Xbox Game Pass)+
No game brought me more joy than Dodgeball Academia. In fact, keeping it out of my Top 10 was the hardest call I made. Part sports RPG, part sitcom, and all heart, the students of Dodgeball Academia always found new ways to put a smile on my face even through the tough loss of my cat, Swarley. I’m glad I had these optimistic underdogs in my corner, and I really hope this turns into a franchise that gets built upon.
The Forgotten City (Xbox Game Pass)+
There are plenty of games featuring time loops these days, but not many have mysteries as compelling as the one at the center of Skyrim-mod turned full fledged game, the Forgotten City. As an archeologist sent back in time through a portal, you find yourself in an ancient Roman society that has quite a unique spin on the Golden Rule – if any one person in the village sins, the entire village is turned to gold statues. Piecing everything together, learning about various religions’ takes on the afterlife, and deciding who to side with are all thrilling, and that final loop was among the most satisfying I’ve ever seen.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PS5)+
Somehow this gorgeous mix of a Pixar film, Uncharted, Ratchet and Clank, Dark Souls, and Pikmin manages to nail every single influence for one fo the most somberly enjoyable indies of the year. If that insane devil’s combo hasn’t sold you, just know that the bow and arrow doubles as a grappling hook.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale (Switch)
A touching tale of anxiety, depression, and learning to believe in yourself, Chicory helped me ring in the New Year as I rolled credits on it just after midnight on January 1st, 2022. This 8-10 hour indie had just to right amount of heart to kick off the new year on a note of hopeful optimism, and the memorable journey of an ordinary dog turned chosen one likely would have cracked my Top 10 had the painting puzzle solving and combat mechanic been just a bit more refined.
Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox Game Pass)+
At one point in Forza Horizon 5 I beat a train in a race by less than a tenth of a second. That’s the kind of excitement waiting for you at every turn of Forza‘s 20 or so hour journey through the Mexican outback. Immediately accessible (just accelerate, brake, and turn), Forza felt like a combination of a true The Fast and the Furious game (minus the family) where you’re controlling a car like an extension of your body combined with the escapades of a Tony Hawk Underground. The highs were insanely high (driving a DeLorean off a ramp at exactly 88 mph), but things did get a little over repetitive by the end leading to it just missing the top 10 podium.
My Top 10
10 a) Hitman 3 (PS5)+
Hitman has always been one of those series that I wanted to get into but just never found the time for. This year, that all changed with the final entry in the latest trilogy that lets you create complex Rube Goldberg machines of murder unlike anything else in gaming. The opening level taking place atop a skyscraper in Dubai was a great entry point into the world, but the second level that has you solve a Knives Out style whodunnit in the midst of taking out your target might be the best level I played this year. While maybe not fair, this game also gets a lot of points because it lets you play both Hitman and Hitman 2 inside of it, providing hundreds of hours of sandbox mayhem in one convenient package.
10 b) Halo Infinite (Xbox Game Pass)+
I need to make a confession. Despite being a teenage boy in late 90s and early 2000s, I never really liked Halo. Sure, I’d play a round with my friends every now and then, but I usually desperately wanted to do anything else. I’ve never really been into shooters, and I was never particularly adept at not getting constantly murked as Master Chief like a n00b. Something positively clicked inside of me with Halo Infinite, however. First, I found myself absolutely enthralled by the surprise release of the game’s multiplayer in November and even worked my way through ranked play to reach a previously unimaginable Platinum standing. I wasn’t just enjoying Halo, I was suddenly good at it!??! Couple that with a fantastic single player campaign that launched in December and featured some fun yet rough open world segments and the best grappling hook of the year, and I’m just as surprised as you are that a Halo game sits inside my Top 10. Hell, I even now have a weekly game night with friends from college that I don’t embarass myself at. I definitely never thought I’d see the day.
9) Unsighted (Xbox Game Pass)+
I have seen a lot of reviews refer to Unsighted from Brazilian developer Studio Pixel Punk as the best Metroidvania of the year, and that’s precisely what I was looking for when I picked it up. However, I think it’s more apt to say that this game takes its cues from the Zelda series, and it also reminded me a lot of Crosscode with its puzzle solving and dungeon specific power-up sequencing. The parry-heavy combat presents a challenging but never unfair dance, and the puzzles are just right to make you feel smart but never babied.
It’s so much more than just a well crafted emulation of another standard bearer, though, because of the ticking clock at the core of it all. As time progresses, your friends will turn into the dreaded Unsighted unless you sacrifice valuable resources to extend their time or beat the big bad. This provides a sense of urgency that dictates your every decision from whether or not you should search nearby ruins that aren’t connected to progressing the story or you should let you dog companion take a nap. Sometimes the results might mean you just can’t talk to your friend any more but other times it could spell the end of a critical store that no longer has an owner. This is a game that demands multiple playthroughs as you attempt to minimize the casualties and find as many sequence breaks as possible. If that sounds too stressful, though, don’t worry; there’s also an explorer mode that removes the clock (which I may have turned on as I got close to the end so I wouldn’t be in as much of a rush).
8) Resident Evil Village (PS5)+
Prior to overcoming Ethan Winters’ severe hand trauma in Resident Evil Village, the 8th numbered entry in the long running franchise, I was worried the series had peaked. The transition to first person perspective in the 7th game seemed like a last gasp effort to stay alive following the critical failure of the 6th game, and everything appeared to be shifting more to random horror than the Umbrella Corporation Zombie world of games past.
Resident Evil found its way by recalling what made it so great in its past as the influences of 2005’s Resident Evil 4 are clear throughout especially in the European setting and prominence of the merchant character. What really makes this game top tier, though, are that it keeps you on your toes by having essentially 5 or 6 smaller games inside of the main one that all feel utterly unique. Two of them – the House Dimitrescu section where you’re being stalked by the most memorable 10 foot tall lady vampire ever and the House Beneviento puppet sequence that seems more Silent Hill than Resident Evil but in the best way possible – are among the finest things the franchise has ever put out. By the time I was finished, I couldn’t wait to both go back and replay all the previous entries in the series and see what the future holds for this suddenly very alive favorite.
7) Returnal (PS5)+
The winner of this year’s “Hurts so Good” Achievements in Repeatedly Dying trophy goes to the roguelike bullet-hell PS5-exclusive Returnal. As an astronaut stuck in a timeloop on a strange and dangerous planet, you have to solve the mystery at its core and figure out how it connects to your past for any hope of freedom. Any battle, especially the fiendish boss ones can turn deadly at a moment’s notice, but thanks to some sick weapons, parasites that produce both rewards and handicaps, and an exceptional power-up system, I never got tired of picking myself back up and trying again. It’s a toss-up whether the puppet horror in Resident Evil Village or seeing the other astronaut in Returnal gave me greater shivers down my spine this year.
6) Ratchet and Clank Rift Apart (PS5)+
From a base gameplay perspective there isn’t a whole lot new about PS5-exclusive Rift Apart compared to 2016’s Ratchet and Clank. There’s still the same basic platforming and weapon upgrading. Hell there’s even still rail grinding that hasn’t changed since the PS2. But how Rift Apart presents it all is what sets it apart. Thanks to dimensions shifting before your very eyes without a single load time to be found, this truly feels like a next-gen experience and the best possible incarnation fo the lombax and robot buddy.
While as a technical showcase it’s incredible, it also reaches new heights compliments of the alternate universe Rivet and Kit that somehow manage to outshine our established heroes. Every single thing about this game is an absolute blast, so much so that I made this a rare Platinum.
5) Unpacking (Xbox Game Pass)+
For large portions of its runtime, Unpacking is the most calming zen-filled game ever as you simply empty boxes and place the contents where you think they should go. All the little sounds the objects make that change based on where you set them down are just perfect and the folding up an empty box animation might be among the most potent releasers of serotonin in all of gaming. There are other times when things get incredibly stressful as you try to fit your stuff among that of roommates and significant others, but those stressful times are what ultimately makes the grand payoffs even better as you progress through the life of one young woman from being a child all the way through adulthood. I went in merely expecting a soothing placement game, and before I knew it, I had one fo the most touching stories ever being told to me without a single word ever being uttered. I mean there was so much dust in my eyes from unpacking all those boxes at the end and when that diploma scene happened (anyone who played knows what I’m talking about).
Despite its placement this “low” in my Top 10, I think if you asked me what game you should show a random person who didn’t usually play games to convince them how great they are, this would be the one I would pick.
4) Monster Hunter Rise (Switch)+
I became a fan of the Monster Hunter series back with 2018’s Monster Hunter World, but I did not really appreciate how remarkable it was until this year’s Rise. Despite being on the far less powerful Nintendo Switch, Rise managed to make hunting giant monsters for shiny trinkets you could exchange for cool armor and weapons feel just as epic as something the most powerful PC could put out.
Part of this was due to a wonderful variety of monsters that all felt unique to hunt and somehow never got old when you farmed them repeatedly for gear, but what really made the game was its emphasis on playing online. Whether with randos or with friends, hunting in a large party added a whole new level of thrill to things as you tried not to screw up and cost your party the prize or you tried desperately to keep someone in over their heads alive or just tried to look super cool with your giant sword. Everyone had to work together with their massive swords and bows to take down each beast, or it would be back to camp empty-handed. Even getting from point A to point B never felt old thanks to adding a ridable canine friend, the palamute, and a cool new grappling hook-like item called the wirebug that had major implications both inside and outside of battle.
3) Psychonauts 2 (Xbox Game Pass)+
We’re now at the point of masterpieces in the GOTY list. In the 16 years that passed since the original Psychonauts, developer Double Fine figured out how to perfect the formula. The janky platforming was tightened up a great deal, and every single brain from the messed up cooking show to the psychadelic concert to the gorgeous 2D library feels like they would be in the upper echelon of brains from the first game.
The improvements don’t stop there as they also include a far larger world and set of characters than its predecessor. Hell, the location of the first game is just one of the many intricately crafted sub-areas found here. The end result is quite possible the most remarkably imagined game world I have ever come across, and I would gladly spend forever playing through new brains if they dropped them every few months or so.
2) Death’s Door (Xbox)+
I don’t believe a single other game made me stop everything I’m doing quite like the glorious amalgamation of Zelda, Dark Souls, and Hollow Knight known as Death’s Door. To start, it just felt excellent to play. The combat (especially the boss battles) and exploration are both top notch. The two person development team didn’t just emulate those titles that clearly influenced them, they made it entirely their own.
What truly makes Death’s Door stand out, though, is the atmosphere that combines the somberness of the subject matter of death with a ton of absurdist humor that achieves the optimal balance. Sure you may play as a crow employed as a reaper dealing with the complicated bureaucracy of death, but the world it’s happening in is full of excitement, mysteries to solve, and characters like the above pictured Soup Head (yes, his head is literally made of soup due to a curse) at every turn. Only once I had made certain that I had seen every inch Death’s Door had to offer was I ready to even think about another game.
1) Metroid Dread (Switch)+
While I believe it would be perfectly reasonable to give a decent percentage of the games in my Top 10 the GOTY, there was really no other choice for me than Samus’s epic return to Metroiding. As soon as I finished it, I knew the race was over, but playing through the Metroid series only further confirmed my suspicions that Metroid Dread is not only a masterpiece but also the Game of the Year.
For all the other Metroid titles I played this year, I found myself trying to get through them as quickly as possible. That’s not a knock on them, but rather that I really wanted to see how quickly I could get through them for the best ending possible. My Samus was quick and to the point. There was no time for lollygagging or sightseeing. As outlined in my post about how Metroid Dread nails exploration, the exact opposite was true of my first playthrough. I wanted to collect everything. I wanted to solve every environmental puzzle and discover each little secret because it was all just so fun to do (and so I could be fully powered up for the thrilling and intense boss battles that are the finest the series has ever seen). Unlike the other games in the series that I’m content to revisit in a few years time, I’m already planning multiple more runs through Dread for this year – one where I get all 100% of items (I fizzled out at a mortal 91%) and one where I see how quickly I can go for a better comparative understanding of how it ranks against the rest. I simple can’t get enough of this incarnation of the ultimate bad ass Samus, now made infinitely more awesome by her Metroid infused DNA and the silkiest smooth mechanics the series has ever seen.
Well that’s “all” for my year in gaming for 2021, but there is plenty to look forward to in 2022 including the big sequels Horizon Zero Dawn: Forbidden West and God of War: Ragnarök to go along with the latest Soulsborne game – Elden Ring. Still the fun and excitement should not be contained to just the latest and greatest things as I seek to expand my retro collection and hope to give the Zelda series the same love and attention I gave to Metroid this year. Not every year needs to set new gaming records, though. Here’s hoping I don’t just play everything in sight but also take the time to write about my experiences more and get back to working on building my own game. Surely, those are resolutions I can keep.