Just a little guy.
The year 2020 was a rough, hollowed out year for gaming and because of that, it brought to the forefront an incredible list of scrappy games. The grungy gutterpunks got to shine during that year as most games were rescheduled and pushed to 2021. Well, this year was 2021 and, as predicted, it’s been that year for a constant onslaught of clean and polished and pretty game experiences. Multiple sequels to legacy games that haven’t come out for literal decades came out this year like Baldur’s Gate 3 (early access), Psychonauts 2, New Pokemon Snap and multiple games that made MY list this year! On top of that, tons of indie games and smaller team projects produced in majority during the continued worldwide pandemic are starting to come out and that has had a heavy impact on the themes and mechanics of a lot of games coming out this year. With all of that intermingling with two delayed years worth of AAA games squeezed in, we’ll definitely be working through the games that came out this year for a long time, there’s just been so many of them! (And all signs point to this continuing through 2022 too. A small golden age for incredible and diverse games!)
As for my part in the proceedings… Hello! My name is Solon, and I fucking love games. I’ve spent this entire year with the pious duty of a court librarian dedicated to finding the best games that came out this year. And while I’ve beaten close to 100 games, I somehow wasn’t able to reach everything on my list of released games. After pouring through every ounce of these games, I’ve managed to condense that massive list of incredible games and art to just the Top 10 so without further ado, let’s get to the li-
Sea Of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life
OKAY, so first I’ve gotta set aside a few Honorable Mentions because this year has been so stacked. And you can’t just give MMO Expansions an entire slot on your Best Of list, that’s like saying a tomato is your favorite sandwich of the year! That would be stupid! Anyways, I’d say it’s a part of Washington State life to be defined by your push or pull to Disneyland. Like a West Coast Mecca, almost every person who lives here is either planning on going OR recuperating from a semi-annual trip to Anaheim. It’s just a part of life around here. However, of course, that bougie sign of normal life around here has long-been cruelly taken from us in a lot of ways by the global pandemic. Somehow despite that, I found a tiny slice of paradise this year on the Sea of Thieves. Sea Of Thieves has perfectly digitized one of my favorite Disneyland rides in a way that can not be understated; not only making it canon to Rare’s world but also expanding on the canon that has always been central to the ride itself.
To be able to crew a galleon with three of your best mates through the doomed and haunted Spanish fort was the most immersive moment of the year for me. I can viscerally feel, hear, taste, and smell the stale California water rushing alongside my boat-now-turned-log-flume. And while that was impressive in and of itself, the A Pirate’s Life update let me live out a dream I’ve always had which is to walk around the entirety of a Disneyland ride. Haven’t you ever wished to be entirely alone on a theme park ride? Free to walk around and explore the space at your leisure instead of simply being pushed through it? Not only does Sea Of Thieves let you do that, it has a veritable treasure trove of details and actual Disney ride lore for you if you do! It’s funny, because I’m not a Disney fan, I’m actually a big ‘ol hater of The D, but Rare produced a real Disney Magic moment with their entire heart, and that presence is so felt through this expansion.
Project Heartbeat is very VERY early in development right now but it’s also already proving to be a formidable rhythm game system. Think of it like Clone Hero is to Guitar Hero except it’s for SEGA’s Project Diva series. It contains all the rhythm game mechanics that every iteration of Project Diva has ever had and with those tools, players have started creating tons of tracks to not only their favorite vocaloid songs that are Project Diva mainstays but also many fun pop songs, shitposts, and crossovers from other rhythm games making for a diverse and rapidly growing catalog with infinite possibilities. Of course, these are all custom made tracks made by rhythm game perverts and the chart creation tools are still pretty cumbersome, and most songs you download can be hit-or-miss, but that doesn’t stop Project Heartbeat from being an incredibly fun time and a strong start to a dream project that I’ve always wanted to see! I’ll continue to play with this game as it’s been my favorite rhythm game of the year to mess around with and definitely deserves an honorable mention.
ANYWAYS, ONTO THE ACTUAL LIST
10. WarioWare: Get It Together
Penny’s a bundle of joyous positivity.
(Thinker, tinker, dreamer to the core)
(Singer, mechanic, she’s all that and more!)
Here comes the spotlight,
It’s what you’ve been reaching for!
WarioWare: Get It Together is the first WarioWare title I’ve played where it feels like more than a funny gimmick and instead it’s finally a fully furnished Nintendo game. Get It Together is a really special game where each individual microgame is a world unto itself that can be explored in different ways with each of the 18 characters having their own way of completing each five-second task. While some microgames are easy for 9-Volt to hit with a well-aimed yoyo shot, others become much harder and it may be easier or more fun to use one of the more platform-savvy characters like Ashley. So now not only does each microgame have the normal 3+ variations of difficulty, but with 18 different characters there are myriad variations to approach each microgame in WarioWare. The tradeoff is that there are fewer microgames, with a little less of that series-standard aesthetic innovation compared to previous entries. It’s a compromise to accommodate the modularity of multiple characters, and it smoothes over a lot of the cool edges that the series is known for. However, the tradeoff to THAT tradeoff is there are tons of interesting modes to play that involve all of the characters and mini-games in endlessly novel combinations, including an entire smash-bros-like platform fighter hidden inside!
On top of that, the two most sparkling points of WarioWare are Penny’s World having an incredible dynamic music track that changes depending on when you win or lose a microgame, and Nintendo finally committed to supporting a WarioWare game with online multiplayer features like weekly challenges, high score lists, and loads of collectibles that you can use to personalize your roster. So now, even beyond the novelty that WarioWare has always carried in its beautiful, weird soul, it’s also a much more professional and fully-loaded game brought into the modern era. Of all the second-party Nintendo games to come out this year, this is the one most looking towards the future of the series – and after all this time, WarioWare deserves it!
9. Shin Megami Tensei V
This is the only time you’ll ever see a game on my list I’ve left unfinished, so just know that every game that didn’t make my list lost to a game I only played half of. I don’t need to beat Shin Megami Tensei V. I don’t even have much interest in the story – the stakes of humanity in a battle between angels and demons? Nah, that’s not what we’re about here. We’re about Reverse Compendium Fusing demons that are impossibly powerful. We’re about building brokenly strong hot vampire babes that have had all their weaknesses replaced by Absorb Element stats. We’re about talking to fucked up little guys that think they are normal and regular. This is the intersection between math and aesthetic where the joy of discovering new monsters to summon in battle is only overshadowed by finding out what cool abilities they have and how they work in battle. I’ve had so much fun getting entrenched in the systems that I completely lost track of what is going on in the dehydrated story quests.
I climbed a mountain to slay a giant demon who wanted to enslave the world while he was sitting on a giant toilet. Maybe this is nothing out of the ordinary for Shin Megami Tensei, it’s my first time here, but the presentation impressed the hell out of me. The way the rock music shreds in once you start your attacks always rules so hard. I’m surprised you can even get this much power out of the Nintendo Switch! While I’ve been starting to jump hard off of open-world games of this style, I keep sticking to this one with its stark simplicity in overworld design being spaces you just sweep every square-inch of until you’ve licked the plate clean. And all the while there’s that constant pressure that something, somewhere out there can kill you in one hit and there just won’t be anything you can do about it… yet.
8. World’s End Club
I didn’t get to talk about everything in my review of World’s End Club earlier this year, but if you missed it, World’s End Club is a post-apocalyptic Japanese version of The Goonies written by the Danganronpa guy and directed by the 999 guy. It’s even more of a niche visual novel than either of their usual games, but ever since finishing it, it’s been stuck in my head. I keep thinking of these kids trekking across the entire length of pre-2000s Japan while keeping each other’s spirits up with songs and discussions of their future. I need the optimism that kids can bring while staring down the apocalypse! I keep coming back to Takegarou’s incredible character designs who are all cool and fun. More than even that though, I keep coming back to the climax where all the layered mysteries in the game not only get solved, but are so satisfying in the end that I forget about my problems with the NES-styled platforming mechanics- everything else just washes away. While it isn’t a game that is easy to recommend, World’s End Club sticks with me in a way that makes it transcend a lot of games that may be technically more profound but just don’t have that memorability to make it into the top 10. If anyone plays this game, please talk to me about it. I can’t promise anyone else will necessarily understand you, but I will. We can be in the World’s End Club together with Vanilla and Pochi and all our friends drinking an inexplicably sponsored 90s Energy Drink and riding a spontaneously spawned 10-kid tandem bicycle.
I just found out you can flush the toilets, and now I’ve gotta go back and play the whole game again.
Unpacking is an adult game that takes an adult level of patience and care. It’s probably the only game on my list that could be classified in that way, but hey I needed a lot of childish whimsy this year okay? Sue me, *Ah* *Dult*. So, when I reviewed Unpacking I talked a lot about it on a technical and emotional level, but as a consumer review I didn’t get to what makes it personally relate to me, so here’s how Unpacking transcends for me. In my day-to-day life I constantly clean up after two other grown men, and I have for the last six years. That’s how cohabitation situations usually look. You can make a chore wheel or whatever but it’s much easier and safer if I just regularly clean the house. Less stuff gets broken. In a few months that won’t be the case as my roommates will be on their way out into the next chapter of their lives. Part of me cleaning up so much after them was knowing that this wouldn’t last forever – it’s that part of the elusiveness of daily regular life that makes Unpacking such a special experience. It’s the hope that the next stage of your life is better than the last with the knowledge that just doing a regular household chore will make things better for you. It’ll at least make that week a little easier for everyone around you. I keep coming back to Unpacking not because it’s wholesome or super smart or engaging, it’s just for putting a little control back into my regular life in a way that makes everyone a little happier. I’m probably going to help unpack my roommates wherever they end up this year, and that will be very melancholic for me… But now I’m prepared. I’m an adult, after all.
6. Resident Evil: Village
“ETHAN! Winters…” That perverted self-mutilating hand freak and his associated cast of multinational monsters have now fully gotten me into what I’m finding out is without-a-doubt the stupidest game franchise I’ve ever played. My man doesn’t stop for a second to question why Chris Redfield (his best friend? Shortlist I guess) shoots his wife, and instead gets willingly thrust into an entire batch of his own partially-selfmade suffering… Again! Ethan is played off as a dumb protagonist (despite his intensive secret training on this exact subject) but it’s not just him, every character is about as stupid and incredibly powerful as he is. It’s stupendous – I get why people love this franchise now. And more than that, Village offers the smoothest entry into this franchise from everything else I’ve seen and played so far. There is very rarely any moment in the game where your path forward is confusing or obtuse and all the progression systems are built in a way to stay out of Ethan and the player’s way. It’s such a comfortable ride, I immediately went back to play it a second time where I finished the entire game in under 3 hours – which I’ve learned is a Resident Evil mainstay. Capcom has this recipe down to a science so much so that they can afford to not take it seriously for a second, and a comfortable Capcom always makes for a happy Solon! Ethan made his daughter from cans of BABY SOUP in an ancient catholic centrifuge!
Side note: I bet you dollars to donuts that every Chooch member has at least one Capcom game on their GOTY list. They really cleaned up this year as far as perfect quarantine comfort games go in a wide variety of genres. Anyways, this one is mine, sorry Ace Attorney and MonHun friends!
5. No More Heroes 3
I’m flying in the face of our Editor-In-Chief here telling you that No More Heroes 3 is a must-play game, but John is also completely correct in his review that it is heart wrenching seeing your favorite series sell-out all the games he’s supported up to this point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe or trying to baselessly lampoon the decrepit and creatively bankrupt Call Of Duty series. To see Suda51 using his most famous series to directly court Hollywood movie directors is boring and belittles you as the player.
However, No More Heroes 3 is also a dense and far-reaching game where I get to see Travis living something akin to his best life in a game where we get to meet new friends, reminisce on nostalgic moments, connect to the outer parts of the KILLTHEPAST universe, and absolutely obliterate cool,sick,sexy new villains of galactic proportion. High highs and low lows all over this game, but not just in the way that No More Heroes is known for since all these games are crappy and incredible – actually NMH3 is super polished in a mainstream accessible way that kicks ass and sucks ass in a strange surreal kind of way that no other game could really suck like – I appreciate that. This is unlike anything else in games, and it engages with the whole industry on so many levels. I’m watching Suda and Travis take their biggest international (intergalactic) swing at things and not leaving anything on the table. Is this Suda51, and by extension Travis, losing their grip with common folks by pandering to bougies marvel execs? In some ways, but that’s also a road I’m fascinated to continue watching since we now know Grasshopper Manufacturers is in talks to make a Marvel videogame. Even when on the inside, Suda51 is an outsider. So the story continues, and that story keeps getting more and more rich and fulfilling and alienating every time I get deeper into it.
Travis may be the world’s intergalactic champion, but does Sylvia even notice? Travis gets to tag team with the WWWWW Heavyweight Champion, one of my favorite new characters this year! Travis is comfortable, his friends are mostly kinda alive, and arguably… he might even be Happy? Seeing him express his hyperfixation on Miike-directed horror films in a podcast with his best friend is one of the most relatable things. And don’t even get me started on the presentation of this game! It’s got banging tunes, bold imagery, and a diverse selection of artists who all get to put their name on helping with it. It becomes a collage of all things No More Heroes adjacent and I love that. I want this to be the future of ‘auteur style’ where the ‘auteur’ who gets to have their name on the box is using this platform to champion others above themselves. I believe auteurism to be a function of neoliberalism in a way that can’t really be avoided (although plenty of dudes lean into it in cringy ways) and what happens in No More Heroes 3 paves a pathway to make that way just a little less awful. No More Heroes 3 is one of the best games of 2021, despite narrative quirks, because it represents a plausible future for creators within the games industry at large that I deeply respect.
4. Road 96
Fuck cops. Fuck the police. Fuck 12. Fuck the corrupt government and private institutions that protect and empower them. I don’t think games in 2021 are being clear enough with this very core concept that’s so simple and global that children can understand and deeply relate to resisting the police state they live in. We’ve had 5 years since Donald Trump entered office (along with an international fascist wave of global leaders) and that’s enough time to start getting games to stop fucking around with centrist ideologies and both-sidesism. There is no excuse, and this stupid Fortnite-looking game proves it. Road 96 goes hard, it’s also easily the funniest game I played this year! Life Is Strange has to take a back seat because the 14 year olds in Road 96 are driving fast, shitty sedans and we ain’t asking how they acquired them. Don’t see shit, don’t say shit!
Road 96 revolves around putting a fragile teenager in increasingly absurd and precarious vignettes or scenarios as they try to illegally cross the northern border of their fascist country. It’s extremely dangerous but with a colorful cast of repeating characters leading you and wacky mini-games to engage with, there is never a dull moment. Sometimes you are attempting to de-arrest teens by rallying an entire bus to fight a cop with you. Other times you are hacking electrical grids and singing Bella Ciao with teens to get the signal out that resistance is possible. Maybe you’re just bowling with a heart-of-gold trucker, mixing cocktails for a serial killer (who is looking for you), or being the lookout for two bumbling idiots trying their worst to run a bank heist. Road 96 is a game full of moments, sometimes light, sometimes dark and heavy, other times really sensitive. And all the while it is focused on the main theme that we’ve all gotta protect each other from forces of oppression, even if those forces are our family and friends. Action needs to take place now and not by asking nicely. If you want a fun game that will radicalize our Fortnite generation of gamers, Road 96 is a really fun anarchist/socialist game that I can wholly and absolutely suggest to anyone of any age. AND HOW AMAZING IS THAT?? Go play Road 96 right now, you won’t be disappointed, and you’ll be singing Bella Ciao along with us all! Also, please leave as much money as you can under the secret money rock for the next teen who comes through after you. It may be the difference between life and death for them.
3. Hot Wheels Unleashed
At 1/64th scale Hot Wheels: Unleashed is both the fastest and the slowest racing game to come out in 2021. This game tracks how far you’ve drifted in inches, and if you reset your car enough times you can see the ‘realistic damage’ from someone leaving their thumbprint over your car’s windshield after having to put the car back on the track over and over. Hot Wheels: Unleashed is at a glance very simple, however it is the absolute dream of a Hot Wheels game! You can do stunts, you can drift and boost fun looking toy cars, you can paint your cars with your own liveries, and of course you can make your own tracks. That’s it! The ‘story mode’ is just AI races and time trials on each track to help unlock more cars and tracks to work with, and even that is fun by itself, but the real charm comes from being able to access all of these features through the online community. Upload your tracks, play other tracks based on how highly they are rated, search for fun, cool, or wacky car liveries and tracks that your friends have made, and of course race your friends on your weirdest hot wheels track. Bang those cars together on figure 8s and get everyone to drive the sussy baka amongus bus into each other. Do some sick jumps, roll your car, reset it, and try again! It’s everything I could’ve asked for from a Hot Wheels game and it’s one of the only times where licensed properties like Batman and Barbie are not only welcome but actually make sense for microtransactions. The team at Milestone is doing a great job and aside from some fickle server bugs that still need squashing, it’s the best time I had all year playing games with my friends.
Now excuse me, I’ve got a date with Engineer Insane.
2. NEO: The World Ends With You
Fifteen years. I’ve waited for the sequel to one of the most fundamental games of my childhood for fifteen years. Since then I’ve grown up, become an adult, learned a lot, and seen a lot. I’ve seen enough to know that even if a sequel did happen it would probably be a cash in on a cult classic and its niche following. We’ve seen that from the crappy ports, the cheap media tie-ins, and the drip-feed of crossover events with evermore disappointing Kingdom Hearts releases. Fifteen years of deafening silence did not prepare me for this game being unbelievably marvelous. The dialogue presentation is diverse and exciting, the battle system is completely overhauled making for a really cool action-RPG hybrid unlike anything else, the clothing is stylish and comes with wildly cool effects, the food you can eat is so diverse and fun, and the music… the music is back. IT’S ALL BACK! Fifteen years worth of games have had the blueprint to good-ass tunes in their Nintendo DS and they’ve almost entirely ignored it. If any Square Enix RPG had the balls to put big bombastic J-Rock in their game over the last fifteen years, full of dramatic themes, motifs, and culture they’d probably be AHEAD of NEO on this list!
Fifteen years! But let’s get past the presentation, mechanics, and aesthetics to the main point: how often did Solon cry playing NEO: The World Ends With You? Well, let’s focus just on talking about the characters because this game is massive in a way where I could obsess about each individual character or mechanic or presentation styling choice for a looong long time. Rindo and his party’s dialogue is refreshingly realistic complete with Line-styled texting where your enemies struggle to text you pics of their location without getting their giant thumb on the lens, and the protagonist just quickly sends them a default chocobo sticker that just says “kweh?” You get left on read at rough times. Strangers and even enemies will send you vaguely threatening texts in ways that show their adroit phone abilities, or lack thereof. And the long, winding conversations that are had throughout the game speak directly to a more modern generation – instead of Neku struggling to find his authenticity as an angsty teenager; Rindo, Fret, and Nagi are struggling with trying to be accepted within their rag-tag group. All three are looking at the other two seemingly-perfect people next to them and asking, “why can’t I be more like them?” This insecurity while trying to look ‘put together’ is palpable, especially while more adult rivals are constantly falling into traps of mistrusting and using each other for their small, short-sighted gains while being preyed upon by the Reapers.
These kids are dead, playing a ‘Reapers Game’ that they probably can’t come back from. And it barely even phases them because they are all so set on ‘winning’ (which has been described to them as ‘impossible’ and ‘rigged from the start’) that they can’t even see how much their opponents are trying to trick and kill them. That threat barely even registers most of the time, because they are so sure they will wake up the next day and take on the next task. The pining existentialism of the previous game is completely gone, replaced with determination and a force of will that could be a naive misplacement of responsibility onto a younger generation… Or, just maybe… A generation of youths always on those darn phones are actually gonna save everyone. These kids can do anything, and they will, and this is a threat, and it’s also the best hope any of us have. They have to be strong enough to save us all even while we destroy ourselves. The World Will Not End With Them
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
A tomato is my favorite sandwich of the year. Mmm yum, I love to eat my own words! It is official that not only has Final Fantasy XII been dethroned as my favorite Final Fantasy game, but Final Fantasy VII has also been dethroned as the undisputable greatest game ever made. I am not fucking around here. To make even a single Endwalker is why any of the blood sacrifice required for making video games feels worth it. Every individual level worth of quests from Level 80 to Level 90 has some kind of WOW moment in it and each of those moments compounds upon the events and themes of all the rest of Final Fantasy XIV as well as Final Fantasy as a franchise. The themes are healing and uplifting while being extremely relevant to today. How do we say goodbye to a dying world without becoming consumed by nihilism, defeatism, or existentialism? Can The End be a moment of construction instead of wholly destruction? Who will be with you after the apocalypse and at the end of all worlds and what will be your relationship beyond all things material? To what end will you walk?’
With the same themes of anti-imperialism, communalism, cycles of history, the immaterial power of the spirit, god-killing, and a little bit of the plot-relevant magic that carry through every other Final Fantasy game, Endwalker delivers in every possible direction, including the overhaul of the combat systems being more dynamic than ever. All of the endgame systems have advanced considerably to be more accessible to new and old players. Male Viera are beautiful, and the closest the franchise has ever gotten to graphically interpreting the immaculately sketched linework of Yoshitaka Amano. And each zone is wonderfully distinct in a way that delivers on varied evocative moments, so much so that just hearing each zone’s music can put me into some very specific moods.
Here’s the thing that nobody is talking about with this game though, especially since it pertains to the very sensitive subject of suicide. It takes an incredibly deft hand to write characters and scenarios dealing with self-absolution and systemic cultural life purge without belittling people who have taken their own lives, and FFXIV: Endwalker does that. This is a game that talks about death in huge, sweeping ways without dismissing the personal and intimate act of suicide. Normally in games, we’re used to being confronted with the topic in ways that distance and decenter the player from having to confront suicide- as a somehow unethical or unjustified end that happens to ‘other’ people with ‘other’ problems. But in Endwalker, the pen does not falter for a second with the idea that creating your own end is not only a rational way but sometimes a necessary way to ease suffering, take control of your world, or even express the end of your culture as a final act of your communal humanity.
Depression is endemic throughout Eorzea and despair becomes transformed into apocalyptic fear, yet even still the Warrior of Light walks on. This was such an important message to hear this year. I struggled with the loss of someone within my local community I hadn’t realized was so close to me. I still am a lot I guess… But thinking about the scions and especially Venat pushing through it all with a mix of determination, spirituality, faith, friendship, and a little hard-headedness, just to fight for the hope of a better world, is enough right now. It’s more than enough! It’s proof that games can be not only good but great, even while being in development under the AAA machine for over a decade non-stop. For an MMO to not only stay relevant but also become greater and greater with each subsequent release and not flag for even a moment should be impossible. This game shouldn’t exist. That any game, much less an MMO going into its fifth expansion, is as evocative as Endwalker is is nothing short of a miracle!
As we continue into 2022 and beyond, I’ll be holding on tight to the games I played this year as each entry represents widely different moods, tones, and flavors. This year has been rich in games that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but I fear even more than ever that this could all fall away in an instant. I spent a lot of this year fighting what feels like an all-consuming depression. I feel it inside our shared community here, in the school I work in, in my family and friends, and I feel it in myself. The games have helped tremendously for me to fight against this, and they continue too! I’m so grateful for that. But I won’t deny the precarity of the situation. I’ve been working harder every day, spending less time with friends and family, and yet I feel less financially secure than ever. I know I could be one bad GFX card short-out or car repair away from spiraling into debt. A lot of people are in that same situation, and it sucks so much. It’s why I fight so hard to make good work for our community: writing and editing videos that our crew can be proud of. It’s why I fight to livestream so often to make sure people have an upbeat and positive place to be late at night so we don’t have to feel so alone. And it’s why I fight to keep chooch alive, because this community and all the people in it are worth the sweat it takes to keep these wheels turning. We all need that hope, and in whatever form the future of VGCC takes, I’ll make sure we’re still there for eachother.