The Games We Played 2018 [archive]
Completed scripts from unfinished game of the year videos
As part of my efforts to wind down, I’m cleaning out writing for work that’s been left in an incomplete state. These scripts were intended to be made into many short form videos, but I overreached and was not able to complete the videos despite writing and recording the scripts.
The videos that have been completed can be found in this playlist:
2018 has been long. When it started I was literally in a different place, with a different job, living a very different life. I was basically a different person. In real, measurable terms last year was a lifetime ago.
What didn’t change was that great games never stopped coming out. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that videogame “dry spells” exist — a new interesting game out every month of 2018, if not every week. I struggled to get my hands on everything I wanted to check out, and even now my phone is full of perpetually open tabs full of promising titles I haven’t got a chance to check out.
Even as I wrote this list new games came out and caused me to reshuffle this list. It’s probably going to happen again.
So instead of pretending there’s only a 10 games worthy of your attention I’m going to go absolutely beyond and give you a small taste of the infinite.
ANALOGUE SUPER NT
I started this year by looking back — way back — into the catalogues of Nintendo’s old systems. One of the biggest joys for me came this year with Analogue’s Super NT. Analogue previously put out the Analogue NT, a high end NES that used programmable hardware to replicate the NES, but the price was prohibitively expensive. This year they put out the Super NT, a more affordable unit that replicated the SNES hardware. Now we were in business.
The Super NT is definitely an absurd luxury, but picking one up let me return to a console experience that I’d barely tasted as a kid. It reminded me of the old joys like the heartfelt worlds of Kirby’s Dreamland and Soul Blazer, but it was exploring lesser known and fan translated Super Famicom games that was the most exciting.
The lovely Magical Pop’N charmed me with its cute art and exploratory platforming. Breezy Swordplay and platforming are married to non-linear level layouts, with each stage having a new area unlocked upon finding that level’s new gadget. It managed to get the joy of larger non-linear adventures, without the frustration of getting lost or lacking direction. Plus each gadget has a cool super move!
Shin Nekketsu Kōha: Kunio-tachi no Banka — or — The True Hot-Blooded Tough Guy: The Eulogy of Kunio and Co.!, a follow up to the River City Ransom games, impressed me with its ridiculous melodrama, moving into some extreme delinquient hijinks. Within the first hour Kunio is framed for murder, goes to jail, escapes, then returns to his old high school to fight a gang that’s taken over and trashed the school, all while the delapidated building begins to collapse beneath them, floor by floor. It’s some incredible melodrama.
The most bewildering game I played by far was Cu-On-Pa, a 3D puzzle game involving rotating blocks so that their colored faces match tiles on the floor. This is a game that’d be impossible to play without the fan translation by Aeon Genesis, thanks to the way it not only tested my spacial reasoning, but taught certain rotation techniques to get the cube faces where you need them. Of course, the stage layouts only get more complicated and the timers more stressful. This one is a gem for sure, but I didn’t play it too much because it made me feel like my brain was gonna explode.
Battle Pinball is a new favorite in the Compati Hero series, a crossover series involving Kamen Rider, Ultraman and Gundam, where chibi characters from each characters battle it out. Of course, this involves dodgeball and pinball. Battle Pinball in particular is fantastic, with good ball physics, detailed tables with plenty of animated characters, and multi-stage objectives. Listening to a remix of the Gundam theme song while shooting down Mobile Suits in an asteroid field is just the best.
Speaking of which, my favorite Super Famicom game of the year turned out to also be a licensed game…
GS Mikami Joreishi wa Nice body
GS Mikami Joreishi wa Nice Body, or roughly translated, Ghost Sweeper Mikami: Exorcist with a Nice Body! is an action platformer by Natsume based on the 90’s supernatural gag anime by Toei. It’s easy to overlook, since it initally comes across as yet another licensed platformer. I’m not even sure what led me to playing it, since I wasn’t familiar with the anime beforehand.
Upon starting it two things became clear: Natsume knows how to do pixel art, and the soundtrack for this game bangs. There’s a real nice rendition of the Ghost Sweeper Mikami theme, but even better are the stage themes, composed by Kinuyo Yamashita and Hiroyuki Iwatsuki, who worked on games like Castlevania and Ninja Warriors. Hell yeah.
There are seven stages, each with their own distinct theme and mood, often with gimmicks that only show up for that level. Mikami travels through abandoned shopping malls into haunted train cars, across construction sights, and eventually what looks like a cross between a Saint Seiya temple and the Playboy Mansion. She rides on cats, wards off possessed dolls and takes flight against witches.
It’s full of inventive scenarios, and the spritework gets across the humor well, with its own small gags thrown in. Mikami’s dress will even change colors between stages, cuz a girl has got to look her best, even during an excorcism.
GS Mikmaki also nails fundamental action game design. Mikami’s weapon (basically a purifying riding crop) works as a basic melee attack, but has some nuance. Holding up arcs it above her, which extends the hitbox but prevents any projectile firing powerups from activating. This move can also be used to hook onto certain platforms, which you can flip on top of from below, kicking enemies on the way up. Tiny details like the way the flip conveys weight, or how spirits and shots are repelled by your hits, give a real *oomph* to each hit.
Things get real wild by the last stage too, giving you a magic shot that creates platforms, letting you climb the stage by shooting them out then grappling and flipping onto them. All while the background pulsates between two colors, changing the gravity as it does. It’s a totally left field mechanic to throw in at the end — and it works!
GS Mikami is the perfect example of how rewarding it can be to go through a console’s back catalog. I played it on and off all year and it made me glad I stuck around. The idea that there could be even more games this good just waiting to be discovered keeps me excited about games.
What’s that you say? There’s another one? Based off another Toei animated series? OH, this looks promising…
DRAGON BALL ADVANCE ADVENTURE
As much as I love to explore old consoles, my heart is in handhelds, so it only makes sense that while I explored the SNES I paired that with the GBA and DS. So I went down the list dipping into anything I found remotely interesting. I figured Dragon Ball Advanced Adventure would be a typical licensed brawler, probably around the quality of something like the Return of King Picolo Wii game. Instead I got this…
One of the best damn beat-em-ups on the GBA!. And of all things it’s a Dragon Ball game! How this one flew under the radar I don’t understand, given how absurdly huge Dragon Ball is.
Turns out this game just so happend to be made by Dimps, the people who brought you the Sonic Advance series, Dragon Ball Xenoverse and uh, Street Fighter IV. Finding out they were founded by one of the creators of Street Fighter and Fatal Fury kind of puts this one into perspective.
There’s a fully featured fighting game mode in here, in addition to the adventure mode. The fighting is satisfying as hell, with strong feedback, an interesting meter system for building beam energy, the ability to reflect bullets, and a fun juggle system.
The original Dragon Ball is much more of an adventure comedy, and Advanced Adventure reflects that. The sprites get across all the character of Toriyama’s work, getting across both the exaggeratted expressions and dynamic fight poses in very small resolution. They even work gags from the manga into here, often as part of boss fights.
Some of my favorite are in the Oolong chase, where you take after him on the Flying Nimbus and watch as he tries to thwart you by going through all his transformations. There’s so many animations that show up a single time, for these one off jokes!
Oh, and speaking of pigs flying…
STAR FOX COMMAND
After playing and loving Star Fox Zero last year I decided to go through all of the mainline Star Fox games this year. Thankfully most of them are done in an hour or two.
What struck me is how experimental the series has been, and what a disservice it’s been done by people’s desires to constantly return to Star Fox 64, the most polished but least interesting entry in the series. I came away with two favorites: Star Fox Command and Star Fox 2.
Command took a while to get used to, as it totally eschews the set pieces and on rails shooting the series is known for. Instead it plays out as a series of open arenas connected by a strategy meta layer. Neither would work on their own — the route planning of the strategy layer is basic and the combat mostly focuses on taking down targets within a time limit. But together they create a sense of urgency and had me excited whenever I found a way to take down a squadron efficiently, and terror when the enemy advance left me with a single turn to protect my base.
Somehow Q-Games managed to make flying with the stylus feel great, with subtle aim adjustments and a really fun scribble motion used to do barrel rolls, which now create a satisfying vortex that sucks up powerups and is used in some level enders where you spin through rings to drill through the enemy motherships.
The surprise best part is how much story there is? Completing the game once unlocks alternative paths that lead to tons of alternative missions and story branches. It endeared me a lot to the characters and I can’t wait to get to some of the more absurd endings.
STAR FOX 2
Star Fox 2 almost makes more sense now. By waiting to put this out, Nintendo stumbled into a world familiar with run based games, and excited about low poly art and SNES style spritework. That, and furries are more popular than they’ve ever been. (Shout out to SonicFox).
Star Fox 2 puts every game in the series into proper context. Star Fox Command makes more sense as a sequel to Star Fox 2 than Star Fox 1 and 64. Dylan Cuthbert has even said in interviews for Star Fox Command that they put everything that was left behind in Star Fox 2 into Command, and it really shows.
The strategy layer, the open spaces you engage enemies in, and the considerations of pilots — it’s all here. About the only thing that didn’t make it into Command was the transforming Arwing, but Zero made sure to bring back the wonderful, friendly Chicken Walker. This is also part of why Star Fox 2 ended up lower than I initially thought it would.
Every idea here has been iterated on into its own satisfying game. And as much as I hate to admit it, the tech does hold it back. Dogfighting with Star Wolf is still exciting, as is intercepting hostiles and making your way to Andross, but it could play out smoother.
I ended up finishing the game on my first run by employing the same basic ideas in Star Fox Command. I never lost a pilot, and Corneria never reached above 15% damage. It felt tensionless. I’ll probably feel differently when I return to it. Star Fox 2 is a game I admire, and I’m glad I played last, after I came to appreciate all its ideas on their own.
2018 was a year of repeat trips. When things get chaotic it’s nice to have something familiar to return to. Nothing works better for that than a good rhythm game. And there were tons of great ones this year.
On my back catalog exploration I found two suprising DS titles. The first, Utacchi, is a touch screen companion to the Pop ‘n Music games. I could never get into Pop ‘n Music thanks to its complex button layout but Uttachi solves that problem by replacing button prompts with taps, holds and scribbles. It reminds me a bit of the Theatrhythm games, albeit with a more traditional note chart. There’s a good selection of songs and styles here, accompanied by cute genre specific characters that jam out as you play.
On a more character focused note, the other DS music game I played was Princess Debut, a combination dating sim and rhythm game where you have to learn to dance and build romances with princes before the royal ball. The story is basic, with some lighthearted moments with each of the princes. The dancing is more interesting, playing out like a slower Ouendan style, with an emphasis on gliding gracefully on beat between each note. It takes a while to get going, and could really use a freestyle mode, but I enjoyed the synthesis of the visual novel and rhythm bits. Weirdly, this one was made by CAVE, ya know the people who make those bullet hell shooters?
Princess Debut doesn’t have any bullet hell elements, but DJ MAX Respect sure feels like the bullet hell version of a rhythm game. Note charts are so ridiculously dense and fast the only way to keep up sometimes is to defocus and let your body respond before your mind processes it. It’s like an ultra instinct training program for rhythm games.
In terms of music, DJ Max Respect is like a premium box set of an artist’s discography. It includes tons of songs from previous versions of the game, alongside new ones and DLC packages for the other games not included. Of the Beatmania style games it is by far the most stylish and complete, with unique animations for each song, unlockable skin and note styles, myriad options for playing and a varied track list that spans several genres. Even the UI is incredible.
Mostly importantly, it includes easier variations for a lot of songs and less harsh rankings. You can still full combo a song and end up with a low rank for poor timing, but the worst you can get now is a C, which is more encouraging than previous games where you could complete a song and still get an F rank shoved in your face. With that change I started approaching it more like a bullet hell — first trying to survive, then learning the charts and going for score. That let me finally appreciate the wonderful hum of the series aesthetics.
Another aesthetic killer this year was Groove Coaster, Taito’s cyberspace rhythm rollercoaster. Groove Coaster eschews the standard note charts for a single track which turns, loops and bends along with the song, with hit and swipe notes appearing on or approaching the track. Every song turns into a ride, with complex imagery and perspective shifts that distract from rhythm games with more complex note charts. Nowhere else can I ride along with songs from Darius while wireframe recreations of its battles occur.
That single track doesn’t make it any less challenging either. It just let me focus more on getting down the underlying rhythm and feeling the music with my body.
That said, Taiko no Tatsujin is probably the best way to groove physically with a rhythm game. A new entry released on basically every platform since the PS2, but it wasn’t until this year that we were graced with another localized entry. The basics are simple — there are only inside and outside drum hits, in either single or double variations, and only one lane to worry about. Lower difficulties are simple enough so even kids can enjoy it while higher difficulties bring out the complex patterns. The rub comes with how you hit these beats: you can use the buttons, but you can also simulate hits with motion control swings or an actual drum peripheral. Drumming requires too much coordination for me to properly play higher difficulty songs, but changing it up and using my body instead of just my thumbs gave me a genuine sense of developing my rhythm.
Sometimes I want a rhythm game I can soak in. Something more like a night with the radio than a fist pumping concert. VOEZ and Deemo bring exactly that. Both come from mobile games with a long history of support and this year they continued to be updated with an absurd number of songs — entirely free.
VOEZ takes advantage of multi-touch, with a dynamic note chart whose column pulse and sweep alongside the music. It’ll even react to sweeps and hits, moving the columns appropriately and giving me the feeling of conducting the songs.
And if VOEZ is the conductor, then Deemo is the piano player. Themed around electronic and acoustic piano music, it tells the story of a little girl who’s fallen down a hole and the mysterious figure whose piano playing slowly causes the tree at the bottom to grow. Story scenes interject every few songs, though they’re mostly there to provide tone than heavy narrative. A proper campaign would have been nice, but this freeform approach worked, since I enjoyed it as something to bask in and pretend to play piano. They even added Toy-con support for a few songs, so you know I’ll be making that cardboard piano soon.
Pianista: The Legendary Virtuoso reminds me of what its like to play ACTUAL piano. The tracklist is all classical piano, sorted by movement, and each mode is highly structured. Tracks are grouped into sets of increasing difficulty and the judging on note timing is strict. And when I was done practicing Concours Mode was there, challenging me to finish four songs and hit the score target. To give you an idea of how harsh Pianista is, I managed a full combo on the first challenge and still failed.
There are 30 of these.
Other rhythm games make me think of singing along to the radio or drumming on your desk — Pianista reminds me of the real effort needed to learn an instrument. Concert piano is a serious business, and Pianista will be damnded if it will let you get away with anything but perfection. It’s harsh, but taken along with all the other rhythm games this year there’s a satisfaction and hunkering down and trying to seriously learn a piece — without the intense pressure of playing for a live audience.
Anamorphine follows the story of Elena and Tyler, a couple moving to Montreal to further Elena’s career as a cello player. The move strains their relationship and when an accident occurs each of them begin to fall into a depressive spiral. Of the strangely numerous games tackling mental illness this year I found Anamorphine the most compelling. Not because it tackles the subject well — its take is hackneyed and obvious — but because it translates emotional spaces into physical ones so potently.
Through space and image alone I began to understand the inner lives of Elena and Tyler. Each scene is an explorable still life, frozen except for the pulsating colors of Elena’s hair. I understood how Tyler’s world revolved around Elena, with only her allowed expression in a world of faceless visages. Emotional states are communicated in the way the surreal begins to intrude upon the familiar.
Anamorphine also flows like a single thought — each space folds into the next like a continuous corridor, communicating the passing of time or changes of settings. Which only makes it more abrupt when the memory ends and the scene freezes into a still image hanging on a gallery wall.
Shape of the World
Shape of the World is all about soaking in color and sound. You walk the earth as it draws in around you, then pass through gates that lead you into a new color scheme and mood. All the while an ambient soundtrack builds higher and higher to mirror your ascent.
My favorite little journey since Proteus.
Far Lone Sails
Mix the visual techniques of cinematic platformers with the fiddly mechanical systems of games like Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime and you get Far Lone Sails.
More than anything, Far captures that road trip feeling. The half conscious adjustments of the gas and steering wheels on a long straight road, the routine of constantly checking your gas tank and stopping at unfamiliar spots to refuel both your machine and body. And the scale — the realization of just how big the world can be — it’s all here.
Spintires Mudruner: American Wilds
Mudrunner is all the furstration and triumph of parallel parking on a snowed out street. It’s a tranlsation of the way tires crest and crush the waves of wet earth. The way the suspensions tries to push back, until it can’t. The grinding of the wheels as they steer back and forth trying to clear a path.
Ostensibly a game about delivering logs between stations, Mudrunner is more about slow, steady effort struggling against the constant complications that nature throws at you. Other driving games give me clean environments, or at least predictable ones. In Mudrunner, mud is its own character, a tempermental one that doesn’t always appreciate the conversation my trucks try to have with it.
Still, I keep talking, and the hours get long as I do. Clear mornings give to the subtle warmth of sunsets, and then to the terrifying darkness that eats up the horizon.
I suddenly realized that I need to break up with everyone at school. I’m dating all of them, of course, because I’m so popular. But it’s time for that to end. So with less than an hour on the clock it’s time to talk at a frantic pace, complete minigames and laugh heartily as I try to explain to everyone else why we’re not meant to be.
It’s a wonderful inversion of the typical conventions, and while it would be easy to turn that into a cynical, ironic or mean spirited game, Heartbreak High instead does it with good humor and sincerity. Gags come fast and are punctuated with minigames. Characters are broad but written with intention. By the end of it I had some affection for all of them, which of course made it harder to break up with them. So of course that’s when Heartbreak High chose to make me look back, reflect and asked me if that’s what I really wanted. It’d be a gotcha in any other game, but here it feels genuine, making it feel truly affecting.
Kirby Planet Robobot
Planet Robobot is the Kirby game where Kirby gets into a transforming mech, takes on a company that attempts to colonize and industrialize his planet for profit, then punches a CEO yelling about how uncivilized the natives are. There is no subtext here, that’s straight up in the dialogue.
Robobot is the peak of modern Kirby’s slightly more story focused efforts, one that slowly hints at the cosmic details of Kirby’s world, and has him trekking along as usual, oblivious of the larger machincations but determined to make it right regardless. The transforming mech opens up tons of inventive scenarios, including moments where the game just shifts into shooter segements. AND AND AND the stickers you collect through the stages can be applied to your mech.
The Kirby games have a reputation for being simple and straightforward, and while that’s true to a point there’s always a lot more to dig into for those willing to look. No other entry makes that as clear as Planet Robobot.
Kirby Star Allies
Two things are made very clear while playing Kirby Star Allies: it’s a celebration of Kirby’s storied history and definitely a game from the people who brought you Super Smash Brothers. Even by Kirby standards, Star Allies is absurdly dense with things to explore. At this point I think I’ve put more time into its post game modes than its already substatial story mode. And I’ve barely dug into its SECOND story mode that was recently added, which shows off the mechanical complexity that often went ignored in the main game.
Hal Labs definitely learned from their experiments with games like Team Kirby Clash, as this is the only mainline Kirby game where I found myself worrying about team composition, trying to find opportune moments to heal my team and applying buffs to attacks before battle. Each power and character has their own extensive moveset too, with some of them like Gooey switching between several elemental abilities, or tagging in other friends for an assist. Heck, one of them summons a mech from Robobot to switch up her moveset, and the last character is actually three who tag each other out.
Star Allies never hits the same highs that Robobot or Triple Deluxe do: its too broad to be as coherent or concetrated in its design. But it did eventually settle into its own identity. I don’t have the same affection for it that a celebration like this should bring me, but it’s a party that I didn’t mind staying around for until the next day came around.
Mega Man 11/10
As someone who loved the wonderful volume and color of Mega Man 7, 8 and the arcade games, I resented the backwards step of MM9 and its cruel emphasis on an exaggerated difficulty that the originals weren’t really about. Mega Man 10 fared a little better with its more inventive Robot Masters and stages, and the other playable characters helped endear it to me, but it still fell into a mean streak in the Wily stages.
Mega Man 11 is a sort of return to form for an absent series. It brings a cute new style with modern controls, strong action design, neat story bits and a more compassionate approach to difficulty. The new Speed and Power Gear abilities gave me some breathing room, and added welcome new functions to weapons. Mega Man 11’s generosity with weapon refills and new weapon selection wheel also forced me out of my habit of relying on the default Mega Buster, making it a more fufilling game of finding the right firing angles and making good tactical decisions.
Maybe because of all this, it felt flat in other places. Mega Man 11 feels of a piece with Kirby Star Allies. The core game is better than it’s ever been, but everything surrounding it made me want more. The stages aren’t as lush as the late series entries, with stages feeling closer to the sparseness of the NES games in an attempt to be more readable. The secondary cast are largely absent as well, with no appearances by Protoman, Bass or any others. There’s a lot of questions Capcom have left about the world of Mega Man and I’d love for them to explore that more.
I’m hoping Mega Man 11 becomes a foundation further games will build on.
I waited years for Monster Boy, the successor to the Wonderboy and Monster World games and after last year’s remake of The Dragon’s Trap I could not have been more ready for its release this year. And…I’m not sure I like it? It’s got everything — detailed, hand drawn animation, full of references and remixed themes from previous Monster World games. It even brings back the monster form mechanics from The Dragon’s Trap. By all accounts it’s everything you’d want from a modern Monster World…but it’s not what I wanted.
Monster Boy’s too sprawling, too talkative. Its map has the sensibility of modern Metroidvanias, stretching in every direction and promising more to see. Its characters constantly gabber, with dialogue frequently willing to slip into crude jokes, including repeated jabs at how fat you are and all too knowing references to previous games. The puzzles and boss fights slip frequently into gimmicks and rely on expendable magic that meant it was full of respawning baddies meant to recharge my reserves. Maybe I’ll warm up to it as I explore more of it, but it’s hard not to see how hard Monster Boy desperately wants to live up to the memory of its predecessors, but can’t seem to escape their shadows.
As I quietly worried that a modern WonderBoy couldn’t be made, Aggelos snuck into this year to remind me of everything I loved about the series. Storybird, who brought me the complicated charms of Chronicles of Teddy, perfectly recreated the considered, intimate design of WonderBoy. Everything is here — the connected puzzle rooms that fold the overworld and dungeon maps together, the RPG accented structure, the carefully arranged combat encounters.
Every upgrade felt meaningful, and weapons and armor changes were even reflected on my character, including the appearance and hitbox of my sword swing! Dialogue is curt, but not without its charms and there are little gags in the animations, like how monkeys will swipe a piece of gold from you the instant you turn your back on them.
All of it is bolstered by a smart elemental magic system that adds new traversal abilities and wraps into combat by providing new attack angles while forcing me to keep using close range attacks to charge my mana. With only three charges to start with, this restriction kept magic powerful but made me more considerate with how I used it. It nails the rhythm of the WonderBoy games, and adds nuances that reminded me of the way action Castlevanias approach combat.
By going for a small scale approach, Aggelos was able to capture the charm of its inspirations, without feeling derivative. There’s an intimacy to it that I appreciate in the same way I do the capsule worlds of GameBoy RPGS like Link’s Awakening. They manage to feel expansive not by their sheer landmass, but by the way the worlds interlock and nestle away hidden rooms.
Grapple Force Rena
SEGA homage? Inventive combat? How about we add some grappling hooks and FM synth to that mix?
Enter Grapple Force Rena, a late entry into the club of excellent action games this year, and one of the funniest as well.
There’s a playful use of its grappling hook, mixing it up between traversal, combat and puzzles that bring to mind the way Treasure games toss out mechanics. Dice? Pinball? Billiards? Uh, Pipe Dreams? There’s tons of great riffs on both the throwing and grappling action.
And the gags! None of the groan worthy “videogame humor” is here, just snappy dialogue, timing and visual gags to deliver a laugh. What a relief to play a game that knows how to set up and deliver a punchline, instead of trying to shove it all into snarky quips.
The writing in general charmed me. Its cast is familiar, but they’re each well characterized, and at least one supporting character really endeared me to them. Rena’s story even left me with a memorable conclusion, sending the archetypical plot to a slightly more emotionally complicated resolution and an epilogue that gives its due to the rest of the cast.
Grapple Force Rena is a simple joy, but it’s constructed with real nuance and effort. A lovely gem of an action game.
Speed Brawl is what would happen if you turned Marvel Vs Capcom into a Dustforce style time attack racing game. Then added co-op and RPG elements on top of that.
There are dizzying aerial combos, an elaborate tag system, specials, supers, and movement options that let you swing around the environment and bounce off walls to keep your momentum going forever.
Both the high speed platforming and brawling work well on their own, but by turning fights into a time trial it pushed me to improve my rankings in a way that traditional brawler ranking systems don’t. This is basically a brawler for both the people who S-rank Sonic the Hedgehog levels and the ones who spend all day in the lab making fighting game combo videos. Turns out that’s the perfect game for where I am right now.
What if Rainbow Six was a lightgun shooter?
SEGA’s killer arcade game, Ghost Squad, envisions you as an elite tactical unit, storming a room and eliminating hostiles with precise, deadly aim. All with their trademark hammy acting and satisfying gunplay.
On top of that it introduces an action button that lets you do everything from subdue hostages, defuse bombs or get into intense knife fights. This is basically a crash course in how to design a tight, breathlessly paced shooter.
I played the Wii port of it last year, which got me into it, but this year I had the pleasure of finding it in a local arcade and made it my mission to finally finish it. The heft of the gun, lining up the sights, the mechanical action that rattles as you let off shots, and the tactile sensation of switching modes and activating the action button — all of that contributes to the fantasy and it was even easier to get absorbed into the moment.
If you don’t play it (which you should) at least take a look at the attached video for a look at this man getting way too into Ghost Squad, with honestly inspiring results.
The Void Rains Upon Her Heart
The Void Rains Upon Her Heart is a shooter where an alien girl fights off monsters in an endless rainstorm, teaching them to love as they continue to break her heart. Of course, this takes place as a boss rush shoot-em-up.
It’s a premise that could easily come off as corny as hell, and sometimes there’s definitely a saccharine taste to it, but it never comes off as anything but sincere.
And I’m a sucker for sincerity.
SHOOTER FIGHTER HYBRIDS
Shooters and fighters have steadily become my obsessions, so there’s a perfect niche for me and that’s the strange world of shootemup fighting games. My 2018 was strangely bountiful with these, and more importantly, friends that I could play them with.
The first of these is Maiden & Spell is a beautiful new entry into that niche, with a soft fantasy aesthetic. It takes after the mold of games like Senko no Ronde and Psychic Force, but uses a life system that gives importance to every hit. Other bullet hell arenas are like boxing — having you weave in and out looking to score a series of punches. Maiden & Spell is fencing — with opponents stepping and poking, looking to corner the other and score the lethal hit.
And this is all only in the demo. Maiden & Spell isn’t out yet, but it helped get my friends into an otherwise overwhelming niche, and set them up to explore more of that space.
After Maiden & Spell I found it only natural to follow up cute with cute, and took my friends with me to finally give La Petite Princesse a real try.
The sequel to Twinkle Star Sprites it’s a versus shmup that operates similar to competitive puzzle games like Puyo Puyo. Each player is separated into their own side with waves of enemies coming down. By firing well placed shots you can cause chain explosions that take out other enemies. Chains turn into fireballs that rain down on the other side, which can be countered by catching them in a chain or using a charge shot. Of course, you could save that charge shot and build enough meter to send a boss attack their way too.
Fights turn into chaotic back and forths, which can be over in flash. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure why I had won, or only missed the chain coming my way in the noise. The real game began when I started paying attention to both sides, reacting and anticipating my opponent.
Between the character designs, the frantic rhythm and the pastel hues I had a lot of fun digging into La Petite Princesse. There really is nothing else like it.
Okay, maybe I lied. Turns out a spiritual successor to Twinkle Star Sprites and La Petite Princesse came out in 2018, and it’s called Rival Megagun.
If your prefered flavor of anime is less adorable candy colored fantasy and more mecha style space operas, then Rival Megagun has you covered. The basic set up is the same as Twinkle Star Sprites: destroy chains of enemies to send attacks to your rival’s side of the screen.
But while Twinkle Star Sprites leaned more towards competitive puzzle, Rival Megagun draws more from traditional shooters. Your default gun fires at a rapid pace, and chains are created by destroying enemies in quick succession. Chains are only cashed in when the combo drops, filling your meter as they do. Charge shots are now longer defensive, but offensive, sending attacks directly to your opponent. Boss attacks also return, but this time its you turning into the boss, giving you a chance to apply pressure using a powerful new moveset.
Rival Megagun has the same enjoyable back and forth of Twinkle Star Sprites, but the chaos here is more managed and there’s a greater emphasis on balancing the all out attacks with smaller strikes. Big chains and boss attacks are alluring, but carry a lot of risk with them. Sometimes sending small barrages when my opponent found themselves in a bad situation worked just as well as flashy boss attacks.
Rival Megagun undoubtedly owes a lot to Twinkle Star Sprites, but it has its own sense of cool and changes the rhythm up in ways that give it its own identity. Playing these together only solidified my affection for both.
WELCOME TO FIGHTING GAMES
After so much shooting, the time comes to put down the guns and get back into some close combat competition. 2018 continued my descent into the labyrinthe worlds of fighting games, and there were no shortage of old and new games for me to explore. One encouraging trend was the release of so many titles looking to give more people an accessible starting point.
The most hype of this year’s fighting game newcomers was definitely Lethal League Blaze, which can basically be summed up as a funkadelic racquetbrawler. You smash a ball against all four sides of an enclosed room, looking to outplay each other as the ball builds up to an ungodly speed.
Improvements over the original Lethal League only serve to make it more hype — the health system means balls increase to the color and time distorting high speeds and the addition of a new throw mechanic lets you mix up opponents and force them to make difficult reads more often. That constant uncertainty kept me on knife’s edge the whole time, giving every match a relentless pace. That would have easily made Lethal League exhausting if not for the strong aesthetics and soundtrack channeling the street culture energy of youth.
While Lethal League goes for the MAXIMUM aesthetic, Pocket Rumble goes for a more minimalist one. It’s a living homage to the Neo Geo Pocket Color, with SD character designs and pared down color palettes. Like its inspirations, it does well in translating the core of fighting games to pocket size, but this time they went a step further and removed the complex commands. Specials are done by holding a corner direction and attack button, and supers by pressing both buttons at once.
The pared down controls free them up to add complexity elsewhere in the roster, with puppet characters, disjointed body parts, werewolf installs, parries and unique meter mechanics ensuring every character has a totally different approach. It draws from a wide range of fighters and communicates the appeal of each of them while cutting away the demanding execution that locks off tools from beginners and prevents them from playing the real game.
I got all kinds of people to play this with me and even in the short sessions I saw them adapt and find counters and learn their tools. It put us onto an accelerated pace to the gambits and mindgames that make fighters fun, instead of making it into an extended control learning session.
More a curiosity than a success, SNK Heroines tries its hand at simplifying the fighter genre and ends up with a bizarre mixed bag of results. Even as I warmed to the kitsch hyper-femininity that initially put me off, its insistence on making the characters visibly uncomfortable at all times made it hard to shake the creepy aura it put out. There’s a weird tension where the desire to be genuinely cute constantly collides with the obvious fetishistic lens it applies to each girl.
Weirder still is the tension between how it attempts to simplify and retain the complexity the genre is known for. It tosses out crouching, the four button control scheme, and even gives blocking and specials their own dedicated buttons. No need to worry about high-low mixups or aerial crossups, just make good use of spacing and your tools.
Or that’s the idea anyhow. In practice the lack of normal attacks makes it hard to get in with anything but a dash or instant air dash, and the juggle centric combo system makes long, difficult to execute combos the norm. For long time fighter fans SNK Heroines will feel stripped down and predictable, and beginners won’t learn much from dying to two or three combos they don’t have a chance of pulling off themselves.
Who is this for? What the hell was SNK thinking with this one?
Now if you doubted it was possible to keep what makes fighters great with simplified controls then Blade Strangers is here to prove you wrong. Like SNK Heroines, Blade Strangers pares down attacks to two normals and a special button, but with an additional unique attack button.
What’s remarkable about it is the way it retains all the dynamics of the genre. Combos focus on tightly spaced juggles, but high damage isn’t going to happen without spending meter. Playing proper neutral is important too — aside from certain specials there are no air dashes here, you gotta get in the good old fashioned way.
Blade Strangers is slow to start, but when you settle in the pace picks up FAST and fights get chaotic. Between the fundamentals focus and the esoteric cast I’m looking forward to digging further into this one.
Dragon Ball Fighterz took the stage this year with its hype presentation and competitive scene, but I didn’t end up diving into it since I was in several other anime hells.
Fighterz’s tag battles were too much for me so I slowed it down and revisited an old favorite, finally picking up a cart of Dragon Ball Z Hyper Dimension. For an older title there’s a lot of the mechanical complexity seen in modern games. Shades of Fatal Fury show up in the 3D attacks that let you dodge into the background and get a hit in. Opponents can be smashed into other stages, including flying areas with free movement. And there’s a clash and counter system to get you out of bad situations and reverse the situation with the right read.
My favorite detail about Hyper Dimension is how health works as a universal stamina bar, draining as you use special beam attacks, with ki charging being the primary way to replenish it. What I love about this is how it translates the desperate back and forth of the show, letting you eeke out just a little more fight in a bad situation. Combined with the fantastic pixel art work and time of day changes it does a tremendous job of getting across the mood of the series.
Ok so I played DBZ, so naturally Sailor Moon has to follow. This year I began to catch up on the anime series and with serendipitous timing, Sailor Moon S for the Super Famicom saw its scene find a spotlight. Again, there’s a lot here that feels comtemporary, but the unique hook is how absurdly broken it is.
Combos are very lenient, specials can be canceled from any attacks, there’s a half screen backdash that can be done both after a hit and in blockstun and sends you airborne so you can air specials. Specials and throws can be done out of blockstun, too. And each character’s desperation moves can be done as many times as you want when at low health and almost always hit for more than half a health bar. The result is a game with intense pressure, with tons of fast and lethal options available at almost any time. It’s ridiculously fun and expressive, and combined with the optional special attack shortcuts makes it an easy choice for casual, roaring fun.
Completing my journey into anime hell, I finally began to wade into the deep waters of Under Night In Birth. Under Night is simultaneously one of the most welcoming and most overwhelming fighters I’ve ever played. Every button has like two mechanics attached to it with a ridiculous nonsense English term associated with it, and every character seems to have unique tools that result in varied and complicated game plans.
At the same time it’s very fundamentals focused, and watching my spacing and blocking properly got me a long way even against overwhelming pressure. Combos can go on long thanks to its cancel system, but the same leniency also let me confirm small hits into decent damage. No character feels underpowered either. In fact EVERYONE seems overpowered, with at least two moves that had me screaming THAT’S CHEAP AS HELL and laughing as I got washed away but an opponent pressing a single button I couldn’t deal with. Then it was my turn, and I made them suffer but grabbing them a screen length away if they dared to push a button.
Under Night is intimidating, but strangely welcoming. It provided a good inbetween for the low execution games and the more demanding traditional fighters.
FIGHTERS PART 2
As part of my continued descent into fighters I kept playing Street Fighter V, going so far as to seek out locals to learn from new people and avoid the stress of online. Matchmaking doesn’t happen in real life, so this meant taking a lot of Ls, and while it wasn’t as helpful as it was for other games, it was definitely easier to take in good humor. For the most part.
On the online front I ended up in a lot of casual sparring with a friend, which probably helped more than anything else. I also explored a lot more characters, saw the underwhelming characters I loved get some buffs and finally made it into Super Bronze in ranked. So I guess Silver rank is just another year of continuous play away hah.
What’s surprised me most is how much cleaner I’m able to play when my senses switch on. Blocking has become more consistent and I drop a lot fewer juggles now. Maybe one day I’ll have a clear understanding of Street Fighter that these first 80 hours haven’t brought me. Or I’ll come to my senses and quit.
Either way, this is going to a crossroads for me soon. I’ve got questions, and the only answers I’m gonna find are in the heart of battle.
Expanding my fighting game knowledge meant learning new styles, and while I’ve spent tons of time with platform fighters I rarely looked at them in depth. Turns out this was the perfect year for that.
Brawlout started the year off with a heavy technical focus, channeling the spirit of competitive Melee, married with concepts from more traditional fighters. I found it as sterile and one note as competitive Melee itself, but at the least it did give me a taste of the combo flow and rhythms of movement in platform fighters.
Roof Rage burst onto the scene with a more interesting take on integrating traditional fighter mechanics, pairing it with martial arts archetypes. And Leon the Professional I guess. Death can still come from being launched off screen or out of recovery range, but characters also have a regular health bar. Hitstun lasts a LONG time in Roof Rage too, making it important to play neutral well since a single good hit leads to a lot of combo opportunity.
Characters in Roof Rage might play dirty, but thanks to the hitstun and health bar, I had to play clean. It taught me to play a lot smarter, and respect my opponent’s options. Oh, also there’s a sweet parry, rewarding a clean read with a LONG freeze that sets you up for big damage. It does a lot to communicate the deadly combat and tense stand offs of the martial arts films it’s replicating.
One game overshadowed all platform fighters this year. Super Smash Brothers Ultimate. Nintendo’s all star roster and endless fan service captures casual and hardcore alike, and since its release it seems to be the only fighter anyone is talking about.
If I’m honest though? It doesn’t feel like it earns the title of Ultimate. The roster is fantastic, the newcomers like Richter are a joy, and the returning cast all feel more viable. In pure mechanics it’s the best the series has been.
But it feels like an anniversary party on a budget. Trophies are gone, replaced with still images stripped of the historical context they used to provide. Several single player modes are missing, including a proper All-Star mode, one of my favorite ways to play the game since it showed up as The Arena in Kirby Superstar. And compared to other platformer fighters there’s tons of control options missing, including options to remove the need for analogue movement and fast ways to remap your controller between games. And as good as the roster is, Ultimate forces you to work tediously for it, starting you with only 8 of the 72 characters, meaning none of my mains were available at the start. An honestly backwards move for a fighting game.
Once I got settled in I started to enjoy myself more. Learning how to move and anticipate opponents has been fun, and I’m playing new characters and enjoying reexploring old ones. Classic Mode has been a quiet joy, filled with silly scenarios paying tribute to each character. Alongside the ridiculous scenarios of the story mode it reminded me of the way I used to play Smash, coming up with custom rulesets to constantly change up how I approached the game.
That’s Smash at its best, a sandbox of toys stack on each other to create a cacophony of color when you knock them over.
Smash Bros might have the big money and worldwide appeal, but Slap City has my heart. It ended up as my surprise favorite platform fighter, easily beating out Smash Bros.
There’s a lighthearted, slapstick tone to Slap City, from its silly lyrical menu theme to the way it flashes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH in big letters across the screen when a close game finishes.
It’s also somehow one of the most technical and accessible fighters in the genre, bringing over all the tech from Smash Bros Melee that people love, but making it possible to do without destroying your hands. Seperating normal and strong attacks (aka tilts and smashes) onto their own buttons not only reduces the precision needed but opens up a unique “air strong”, a set of chargable attacks that provide deadly kill set ups.
Combos are way more consistent too. Juggles are easy to follow up and a “clutch” button even provides instant momentum reversal on certain moves to help mix up opponents. How exactly you approach combos will depend on the character, since each has their own unique approach — with plenty of visual gags thrown in.
It’s hard not to laugh when a character named Business Casual Man spouts marketing phrases to power up his attacks then smacks you across the screen while a giant SELL! text bubble appears. Or when a bodybuilding fishman trust falls on you to knock you into a helicopter, spiking you into traffic.
Sessions of Slap City with my friends always ended in uproarious laughter, even for the losers. It’s hard to stay salty when you’re so busy cracking up.
Never one for reason, not only did I attempt to learn both traditional 2D and platformer fighters, but I thought I might add on 3D fighters as well.
Soul Calibur 6 ended up as my casual 3D fighter of choice. Every round of Soul Calibur is the climax of a fantastic melodrama. The announcer declares your entrance with flowery prose as each of you step into the perfect romantic vista, and declare your intent to win. Then the ballet of blades begins! Swords clash and deflect each other, armor breaks apart, and on some occassions a dishonorable opponent will pull out a matchlock or straight up lasers and machine guns. Rude.
Soul Calibur’s cast have the bluntest blades made, so instead of fatally wounding each other they have to resort to slapping each other around with juggle combos. Don’t think this makes it a less lethal game. Characters move fast, and threat of ring outs means a bad step can lose you the round instantly. Damage is laid down fast, and alongside the parry and comeback mechanics a whiffed attack or obvious move can change your fortune quickly.
Each button also provides a counter to another button, so at the basic level I always felt I was a button press away from shutting down my opponent. The calculus of counters turns it into a game of outstepping the opponent, with mental projections of all their options quickly converging, as I made my guess and hoped I defended against the right one.
A breathless, beautiful game that will hopefully continue to bewilder me for a long time. Also probably way too horny.
If there’s one reason I didn’t play as much Soul Calibur 6 as I wanted it’s Tekken 7. Tekken 7 is the first fighting game that got me taking notes and drawing flowcharts. Soul Calibur 6 is a fresh back to basics approach. Tekken 7 is the bastard offspring of two and half decades of legacy bullshit.
Movement is so awkward serious players resort to backdash cancel tech to move more freely, wake up options are on inexplicable combinations of buttons I always forget and every character has a movelist of techniques and strings 100 entries long, with few universal options carried between them.
What really messed with my head though was how analogue it was. 2D fighters operate on binaries — you’re standing or not, you run or you walk, a string hits or it doesn’t — there are some exceptions, but for the most part everything is communicated clear and fast. Tekken is not that. If a string doesn’t “jail” you can find yourself parried or whiffing right over their head, even if the first hit lands. Moves can have high and low crush properties that go through attacks that might otherwise hit you in a certain stance. But the hardest part for me to wrap my head around was that the transitions between crouching, standing and getting off the floor are all their own unique state with their own possible moves.
And for some reason I cannot stop playing it. Once I got to grips with the basic flow of Tekken I slowly worked options in one by one and formed a game plan. The satisfaction of blocking a string and taking my turn, or punishing a whiff is incredible. I’m still garbage, getting locked down by basic strings, but I can see the path forward, beckoning me.
As if I didn’t have enough trouble with precision movements in fighters, I also somehow ended up playing a ton of hard ass platformers as well.
I’ve minced no words about my distaste for the structure that most Metroidvania style exploratory platformers follow, nor the tedious routines of the Dark Souls style corpse runners. So it’s an achievement that Dandara, which combines the two, stuck with me at all.
The combination of surreal aesthetics, fluid and unique point to point movement mechanics and considered level design really stuck with me. It avoids the trap of labyrinthine, barren map design and makes each collection of rooms into individually named challenge maps.
Restricted movement forced me to consider how much space to jump at a time and when to do it. Dandara isn’t scared to play with convention. It turned certain corridors into one way paths, meaning the paths I took back to a room were often different than the one I took to get there. My favorite moment was when I collected a skull that not only opened up new paths, but activated new obstacles, permanently changing the layouts I was previously familiar with.
New Metroidvanias come out every week, but none of them have matched the inventive movement and level design of Dandara.
What did manage to impress me with its stage design this year was Celeste, a masocore platformer from Matt Thorson, Noel Berry and their team.
While Thorson and co made their name with Towerfall, it was Thorson’s previous work with games like the Jumper series that made me look forward to this one. And Celeste definitely builds on that legacy, with considerate movement mechanics that are explored exhaustively through its many levels. It’s hard to get at what exactly makes these levels so excellent without getting bogged down in the details, so suffice it to say that it’s a combination of small practical aesthetic touches and stages that build a step at a time into tiny eureka moments.
Discourse ran away with this one though. Celeste has built a reputation for being the compassionate and meaningful game about difficulty and mental health, and while I found it kind in both design and narrative its reputation is definitely overstated. Assist mode, for how admirable and appreciated it is, isn’t the first of its kind and never goes as far into letting you break the game as say, Even the Ocean does, and feels like it’s been given a spotlight because of how it seemingly contradicts the “hardcore” nature of the platforming. Likewise, the story is charming and well written, but doesn’t provide the in-depth rumination on mental health, or any substational statement on the subject at all, despite what you might have heard.
Don’t get me wrong — Celeste is a tremendous and heartfelt platformer, but the greater desire to ascribe some great importance to it is offputting, as the elements that get most talked about are neither its best parts, nor the best examples of compassionate design.
Sometimes a game is just a really good platformer that resonates with us. That should be appreciated on its own merits, without the need to wrap it in a grandiose sense of Importance.
I don’t think I really enjoyed playing Cultist Simulator. First off, it has a really boring name. But that hides what is basically a complex mechanical approach to generating interactive fiction.
The use of timers and mundane tasks provides ambient commentary on the differences in class that you get with each starting point. Working as menial job that sapped my energy felt a lot different than the when I began as the Bright Young Thing, wealthy and drawn into the dark world through seedy club activity. Eventually, I settled into a role of an artist, using the sense of mystery around me that would otherwise draw suspicion from the investigator to create paintings that funded my occult activities. Each run also has the chance to be folded into the next, with references made to previous characters. One run started when I found the journals of a dead doctor, the character from my previous run. It gives a sense of the kind of people who get drawn into these cosmic horrors, and their crossing paths to it.
It took a while to understand of that at all. Cultist Simiulator throws you in without explanation, and to this day I’m not sure what half the cards do, or how to properly combine them. It’s obtuse, bewildering and sometimes just boring — but it’s exactly those qualities that do an incredible job of hinting at the greater cosmic horror flittering in the corner of your eye, hiding in the unspoken parts of the city.
Yakuza 6 is the “last” Yakuza game. It’s not the best one. The team was clearly still finding their footing with the new engine, and Zero and maybe even Kiwami 2 come away cleaner overall in terms of themes and storytelling structure. But Yakuza 6’s Onomichi, a seaside town with shady gangsters (including one played by Beat Takeshi??) and a shop that sells delicious grilled seafood, is one of my favorite cities to ever grace videogames.
Onimichi’s got an air of eternal nostalgia for things I never experienced. There’s a sense that time doesn’t move as fast there, that you can escape from the cacophony of the world there. Of course, for Kiryu Kazama no matter how hard he tries the world of Yakuza will pull him back in, so the soap opera melodrama and shirtless brawling returns again. Maybe Kiryu will finally get to rest after this adventure, let someone else tell a new Kamurocho tale.
I played every version of Lumines I could get my hands on the lead up to to Lumines Remastered. Like going through the discography of your favorite artist. I swear I’d have played the Gameloft cell phone game again if I could find a way to do it.
Lumines Remastered isn’t the best Lumines game. I don’t even know if it’s the best version of the first game. It doesn’t have the stylish menus or additional tracks of the first PC version, or the Rez collaboration of Puzzle & Music. But it is the contemporary entry, and returns with with a clean, modern treatment for the original. It’s still that amazing liminal space of sound and puzzle to slip into.
Play Lumines already dammit. I don’t care if you start here or not, just go pick one up.
Any year I play a Mizuguchi game it’s almost guaranteed to make the top of my list. But even after revisiting Rez and Lumines, somehow it was a Tetris game that surpassed them all.
How can something so familiar feel so transcendental?
Tetris Effect brings together stylistic techniques from Lumines, Rez, and Child of Eden and applies them to modern Tetris. There’s the same “skin” system, with unique music and visuals for each level. But this time it’s organized into small EPs, each connecting together and slowly form an intimate, humanist narrative.
Tetris Effect sometimes strikes broadly in its attempt to be universal with its imagery, but it’s so successful otherwise its hard to hold it against it. Its collection of sound and imagery speak to our connections with each other, and the larger world, in the same way stories like Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix or the Quatsi trilogy do in their best moments.
For me it was a reminder that for all my cynicism and doubt, there is a part of me at my core that is still optimistic. Not bad for a puzzle game.