You know the drill – another year goes by and the world seems…exactly the same as it did before. The only escape is video games. Lots and lots of video games. As per the Unofficial Gameological Discord Server, here are my picks for 2021’s Gameological Not Just Game of the Year Awards.
I don’t really play multiplayer games so I gotta get creative.
The Return of the Obra Dinn
I’m pretty bad at puzzle games. I’ve bounced off Myst a few times, only have the brain capacity for Baba is You for short bursts, and never could get a word game routine to stick. I was afraid Return of the Obra Dinn would fare the same fate. The doomed ship’s mysteries surely wouldn’t outlast my ability to keep track of fifty names, positions, and causes of death straight. And you know what? Had I played the game by myself, it might have shared the same fate.
Luckily, I didn’t pick up the game alone. My girlfriend and I played the insurance appraiser simulator together over the course of a few days and it was one of our highlights of the year. Both of us had key moments where we pieced something together the other hadn’t, keeping the game moving at a comfortable pace where we were never quite fully stumped. Experiencing the game’s many twists and revelations was much more fun together, screaming at the television in unison when the next big moment clicked into place.
Obra Dinn is fantastically designed, from the way it handles checking your guesses in a way that leaves room for mistakes, to the surprising narrative turns that’ll have you leaping from your chair, it’s a must play for sure. We still hum the little tune that plays when you get three guesses right whenever we solve a non-Obra Dinn related puzzle.
The only problem is you get to play it once.
Hindsight is 20/21
The game where my thoughts changed after the fact.
Look, I fucked this one up, and that’s on me. I first played Nier Automata a few years ago and completed Route A. I had heard that in order to get the most out of the game, you had to replay it a few times. I thought this meant playing the same exact story again and just getting a secret ending or some such, so I just started playing the next game on my list.
Some of you are screaming at me right now. I deserve every bit of anguish thrown my way.
After finally learning that Routes B and on are actually quite different experiences, I sat down to really finish the game this year. Except, I had hardly remembered what happened in Route A, didn’t want to replay it again, forgot how the game worked mechanically, and didn’t know how chip system should be optimized. What followed was a clunky, less than ideal experience that had me dying in frustration during some of the game’s most emotional moments and scratching my head during some of the biggest revelations. My poor girlfriend watched on in pity as I squandered the excellent back half, wallowing in a broken experience of my own design.
I had to have the ending explained to me after the fact, a delayed gut punch that easily puts the game in league with some of the best video game narratives the medium has to offer. One day, I’ll go back and replay it all properly, hoping that my additional knowledge of the narrative enhances the replay. I know it will. Nier: Automata is something special, and it’s my own damn fault for ruining such a once-in-a-console-generation experience.
Rediscovering old favorites.
Dance Dance Revolution
Thanks to a good friend of mine and his fiance digging out their copy of DDR one day, our household is now undergoing a DDR renaissance. The pads are always out, the PS2 is always plugged in, and the minute our downstairs neighbors leave for the weekend we shake our apartment until the bookshelf comes down. It’s been a blast not just re-experiencing something from my youth, but getting better at it. I’m surprised how quickly I went from getting re-acclimated with Light mode, moved onto to Standard, and can now do Heavy for a good amount of songs. It feels great to get better at the game and find out I’m not as old as I feel (although one time I threw my back out for a week after a particularly intensive DDR/Beat Saber combination weekend). Nevertheless, it’s great to have rediscovered something so fun and also get some exercise while we’re at it.
In other words, fuck this game.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
Man, what a disappointment. After Final Fantasy XIII won my Unexpected Joy award last year, I was excited to dig into its precursor. I had heard all sorts of things about XII, and knew not to expect an amazing story or great characters, but I heard the combat was excellent and I generally like the grindiness of Final Fantasy games. Boy, what a mistake it was to have any hope in this game.
Not only was the plot awful, but the game’s characters were all dead air. They prattled on and on about macguffins in a way that at least XIII made so-bad-it’s-good. Here, everything was just boring. The music was grating and monotonous, as devoid of life and inspiration as the main cast. The combat, initially something that hooked me, quickly waned as I became annoyingly inundated with micro managing each gambit. Compared to XIII, which brings you up one level of strategy and had me thinking on my feet, XII just had me flipping back to make micro adjustments to be as efficient as possible, which was something I couldn’t get into.
Final Fantasy XII quickly fell to become my least favorite Final Fantasy game, usurping my previous pick of Final Fantasy VIII by an extremely large margin. Sorry, Van. I don’t hang out with nose pickers.
The one I don’t really think about anymore.
Resident Evil: Village
Resident Evil: Village is a great game. What it seeks to do, it does well, namely create the most fun haunted mansion ride possible and generate memes about ladies with big hats. The problem is that this year I also played Resident Evil REmake and Resident Evil: Zero for the first time, which both have such a strong, distinct Resident Evil-ness about them that they’re what readily come to mind when I think of the series. For a franchise that is known for being campy and weird, Village is an oddly safe entry in the series that plays all the hits, but doesn’t do anything particularly new or surprising. It’s a reliable game you can easily recommend for people looking for something new to play, but lacks the kind of staying power other Resident Evil games have in spades.
Finding fun where I least expected it.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Ah, the series that made me write a whole blog post about save scumming. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is an awful game. It’s obtuse in all the wrong ways, the gameplay is frustrating and repetitive, and pales in comparison to what would come right after. Yet, there’s something that really drew me into Castlevania II. Playing with the modern convenience of save states, the game feels like a living museum piece for the Castlevania series, introducing not only one of the most famous and oft metal-covered pieces of video game music, but laying the foundation for the Metroidvania genre that was to come.
The game as a whole is…bad, but I found myself consistently impressed with its ambition, from the day night cycle that spawns monsters in the towns to the way you have to collect items and use them to unlock areas later (in increasingly obtuse ways). I admire the chances that the game takes. They didn’t pay off this time, but would pay off in the series to come.
You know what this means.
Persona 4 Golden
Persona 4 is something special. Its music instantly solidifies it as one of those seminal works that you feel instant nostalgia for a month after playing the game. I was initially worried that the vocal-filled tracks would be distracting, but instead I reveled in being able to have video game music that I can sing along to. The music is unique, catchy, captures the emotions of the game perfectly, and there’s a ton of it to explore. Hearing any track from the game instantly transports me to a cozy corner of Inaba and its many dimensions, a place I’ll happily return to again and again.
Favorite Game Encounter
A particularly memorable single moment from a game.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Ghost Trick is a game a good friend and roommate of mine had been trying to get me to play for a while. He frequently listed it as one of this top games specifically for the twisty and funny writing. Initially, I saw the charm. The game was cute, had a good sense of humor, and had a clever take on reversing time to figure out the sole mystery of who murdered you and what your true identity is. Every once in a while, my roommate would come out of his room and check on my progress, smirking before slinking back to his den.
As the game went on, it quickly picked up the pace, revealing one twist on top of another in a cascading series of plot events that were so cleverly and tightly revealed that you couldn’t help but do one more chapter. Honestly, it had been quite some time since a piece of media had me burning the midnight oil to reach its conclusion. My roommate could tell the game had its hooks in me.
Then the final twist revealed itself – the true identity of the spirit you had been playing as. It was something I didn’t see coming, but fit the game perfectly. The main character portrait changed and I gasped…it was the same portrait that my roommate has used as his Steam and Discord profile picture for as long as we’ve known each other.
The final twist had been hidden under my nose for almost ten years all along.
Waiting for Game-dot
The game I’ll get to eventually.
The Mass Effect Trilogy
I started Mass Effect once and bounced off it apparently not too far from the end. The games have since always just fallen in the cracks for me, seeming too janky on a mechanical level, or because everyone I know seems to have moved on from thinking Bioware has the best writing in the game industry. No one I know really loved Mass Effect after freshman year of college.
With the release of the remastered trilogy however, I think it may soon be time to discover whatever the heck a Mass Effect relay is and romance me some aliens.
Game I Had the Most Fun Watching
Taking a backseat.
My obsession with watching Kingdom Hearts is now two-fold: I love watching very technical level one speedruns of people who make the games seem mechanically interesting, and I love watching people who hadn’t experienced the game as a wide-eyed child try to figure out why the fuck Cloud is hanging out with Phil and Hercules at the Olympic Coliseum while Mickey Mouse waxes poetic about the nature of darkness in our hearts.
Watching speedruns of Kingdom Hearts has me itching to try a higher difficulty run of my own, but the real joy this year came from all of the perplexing faces, groans, nonsensical questions, and curse-laden exclamations that came from my girlfriend as I watched her play through the game for the first time in her life. It truly is a befuddling game that when viewed through fresh adult eyes makes one constantly beg the question how in the hell did this get made?
But I’m glad it did, because it’s going to continue to provide hours and hours of enjoyment for me.
You’re next, Alex.
Best DLC of the Year
Whatever happened to the word “expansion”?
Echoes of the Eye – Outer Wilds
This “DLC” was a strong contender for GOTY for me. Echoes of the Eye expands and refines the concepts explored in the original Outer Wilds package with a new sense of exploration and dread. To talk specifics would spoil any bit of the DLC, but its surprising depth, clever puzzles, and commitment to horror pays off in spades (the option to “Reduce Frights” at the beginning of the DLC definitely sets the tone). It’s certainly the scariest game I’ve played this year, also in part thanks to an expanded musical palette that still haunts my dreams.
It’s something every person who at least appreciated Outer Wilds should try. The DLC area is much less finicky in the control department and everything takes place largely in one area, which makes it feel less like a giant, confusing, at times guideless experience, and more like you’re an archaeologist, slowly unearthing one grotesque puzzle piece after another. The moment when I realized the DLC was far, far deeper than it initially let on was also was runner up for “Favorite Game Encounter.”
I’m still thinking about The Stranger.
Best VR Game
VR stands for virtual reality.
Resident Evil 4: VR
Oh man. What an experience. Resident Evil 4 is already a fantastic, near perfect game, setting the stage for third person action games while retaining an identity all to its own all these years later. It was much to my surprise that the VR version of the game somehow feels like the way the game was always meant to be experienced. The game is panic inducing enough with its mobs of slow, groaning, shambling enemies threatening to overwhelm you while you reload. In VR, that experience is amplified a thousand fold. The first person view adds an extra layer of claustrophobia, and having to mechanically reload your guns while an enemy starts a chainsaw outside the door to your safe haven made my blood pump harder than an aerobic workout.
It’s truly phenomenal stuff that even topples Half Life: Alyx as the best VR game for me. Everything is translated to VR perfectly, from inventory management to weapon reloading. It’s just pure fun that trusts you’re going to figure out how this VR thing works, and it’s so intuitive that it gets away with it. If you have an Oculus Quest, please play this game.
Game of the Year
The Big One.
Persona 4: Golden
Yes, I’ve done it twice in a row now – completed my Waiting For Game-Dot entry from previous years.
What could be said about Persona 4 that hasn’t been said before? It’s simply one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s one of those rare, once-in-a-generation games that that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. It’s filled with mystery, wonder, humor, and a lot of heart. The RPG mechanics are superbly designed, and although it’s quite long, I never really felt like it was overstaying its welcome.
I just…feel really happy when I think of Persona 4 and those cozy, February days spent huddled on the couch saying “just one more day.” I found it easy to slip back into feeling like a teenager myself, uncovering the mystery of Inaba with my friends, feeling like I could solve all the world’s problems on our own. I wish I had played it before I reflected on my longing to go back to high school through games (and now see how the Three Houses social mechanics pale in comparison).
Persona 4 was something special that I’m glad I played when I did. I’m thankful I’ll always have a place to go back to if I want to feel like a kid again.
Odds and Ends
Here’s the breakdown for most of the games I completed this year, in order of completion:
|Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
|Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
|Persona 4 Golden
|Resident Evil Village
|Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
|Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
|Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
|Super Castlevania IV
|Super Mario Bros. 2
|Devil May Cry
|Final Fantasy VII Remake – Episode INTERmission
|Return of the Obra Dinn
|Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
|Super Mario Bros. 3
|The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD
|Super Mario World
|Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening – Special Edition
|Resident Evil: HD Remaster
|Resident Evil Zero: HD Remaster
25 games totaling
14d 16h 26m 05s, not counting some games I couldn’t get a time for, such as all the hours and hours I sunk into Final Fantasy XIV this year. I did a lot! Including catching up on all the classic Mario games, gitting gud at Devil May Cry, and boning up on a lot of Resident Evil. It was a year filled with more catching up than new releases, to my surprise, but I’m poised to jump into some more friend favorite entries in 2022, like Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Fire Emblem: Paths of Radiance and more.
Bring it on, 2022.