Part of the undeniable charm of the JRPG genre is the inherent weirdness that it bestows upon our boring, AAA-loving Western selves. By adding a dash of the unexpected and sometimes nonsensical to the mix, these games inspired a wealth of creativity in game design for all genres, and their success convinced other markets to take bigger, bolder chances that have paid off in spades with recent triumphs like Untitled Goose Game. This endearing ball of oddity shines the brightest in the frequent use of random-ass minigames or mechanics that break up the repetitive grind of neverending enemy encounters. Perhaps the brightest beacon of the delightfully strange minigame can be found in the 1997 masterpiece Final Fantasy VII where you can revel in over 20 amusing diversions from the impending end of the world and the pain of lost beloved characters. Hell, they even constructed a theme park, the Gold Saucer, devoted to these mesmerizingly short but sweet gameplay changeups.
In my 30+ years of playing video games, many moments have stuck with me. Whether it's the wonder induced by the first time finding a warp pipe in the OG Super Mario, the shock of traveling forward 7 years to a world of ruin in The Ocarina of Time, or the sheer terror instilled by zombie dogs crashing through windows in Resident Evil, video games have provided a treasure trove of new experiences and emotions. No moment, however, has had as big of an impact on me and my view of what video games can be as the death of Aeris in the greatest JRPG of all-time, Final Fantasy VII. While it's importance has remained strong over the past two plus decades, my relationship and reaction to one of video game's greatest tragedies has evolved.
One year ago, while writing this post, I thought I had perhaps hit my limit for games played in a year at a mind-boggling 71 (well up from the previous year's 36). Somehow, in the grand lead-up to fatherhood, I managed to surpass 80 games/collections this year between a combination of further exploring the many wonderful ports constantly coming to the Switch and checking out most of the latest AAA titles (sorry, Sekiro, I'll get you next year). Overall, it was another solid year for games even if it didn't feature as many all-timers as the previous two years that this current golden age of gaming had produced. For me, it will always be a year defined by the games that took the biggest, riskiest swings making the most profound impacts. While figuring out my top 3 titles may have been among the easiest decisions I've had to make on this blog in years due to the few titles that truly distinguished themselves, narrowing down the top 10 proved to be one of the hardest thanks to an abundance of strong if not transcendent releases.
One of my earliest fantasies in life was becoming a wise and powerful Jedi. While wearing out the assorted VHS tapes we had the original Star Wars trilogy recorded on, I'd imagine myself engaged in death-defying combat featuring the greatest fictional weapon ever created - the lightsaber. There may have been an overwhelming likelihood of enduring a lost weapon and severed hand or two for most lightsaber users that not even a WiiMote strap could remedy (cc: Binge Mode), but an artificial appendage seemed like a small price to pay for an instrument so perfect. As science and my general clumsiness have not yet caught up to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, my only true outlet for lightsaber twirling Jedi-dom has been in the world of video games. Respawn Studios's latest release, Indiana Jedi and the Temple of Miktrull Jedi: Fallen Order, is a glorious amalgamation of a multitude of game types ranging from Uncharted crossed with Metroid Prime-style exploration to Dark Souls style fighting. Almost all of the myriad facets come together for one of the most enjoyable games of the year, but, above all else, the true highlight of Fallen Order is how good it feels to wield a lightsaber.
Despite having not played a Hideo Kojima game since the original Metal Gear Solid back in 1998, I decided it was time to break that lengthy drought by picking up the new social media/gig economy/Norman Reedus simulator, Death Stranding, so I could see just how weird the preceding two decades had made the gaming world's most notable auteur. Within an hour, all of my wildest hopes for pure video game absurdity had been met thanks to a crying baby attached to my suit and Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro informing me that he stole my fluids while I was unconscious to study them. If I had hit the power button then and never returned, my investment would've been worth it, but fortunately I kept going and soon discovered the true draw and greatest achievement of Death Stranding - the links between all the players undertaking this massive journey together.
This year has had its fair share of great games, but it has been seemingly devoid of the type of era-defining classics that made 2018 and especially 2017 such amazing years. Fortunately, this recession to the mean trend was bucked by the mesmerizing sense of adventure and call to exploration provided by Outer Wilds, the most memorable game of 2019 by far. While unraveling the mysteries of the universe on both macroscopic and quantum levels in between countless rounds of hilariously dying in unfortunate space mishaps or being engulfed in the Sun going full on supernova every 22 minutes, Mobius Digital's adventure game for the ages captivated my gaming senses by empowering me with the freedom to craft what feels like my very own adventure, unique from what anyone else will experience.
Dread is a powerful thing. When strong enough it can control our every action or even lead to complete shutdown and inaction. My first time playing Naughty Dog's seminal masterpiece, The Last of Us, four years ago was filled with an ever growing sense of dread and despair. This world was no longer safe for humankind and especially the young child you're trying to protect, who may just be mankind's last chance for survival. Every alley crossed and home searched was just another opportunity for an emotional hammer to be dropped on you until you were completely devastated. I didn't know what was coming, but I knew it wouldn't be kind. Each time that end of the world banjo music started so did my goosebumps.