Ugly? That does it!
2018 has been a year of healing and introspection. After last year’s maelstrom of video games, this year was much more measured. We’ve spent a lot of time this year reflecting on the past and the personal and my list of 10 games will be thoroughly exploring that. God of War softened its teeth by being about a boy teaching his out-of-touch father to read. Spyro returned with the remake compilation to end all remakes. And Detroit: Become Human brought us back to our favorite gamer pastime of asking “Why does Sony continue to enable that French man to keep making racist uncanny valley simulators?” It was a spectacular year of highs and lows, of Deltarunes and Quiet Mans (respectively). But none of these games were quite able to reach to the highest heavens of Solon’s Top 10 List of the best video games of 2018.
10. SNK’s 40th Anniversary Collection
Yeah, you’re realizing what you’re getting in to now -ehh? You know Solon doesn’t play normal games like a normal human person ~ I’m a game designer, I am here to rip things apart and ask how they work, and the guts inside of SNK’s 40th Anniversary Collection is way beyond that of any normal human video game. If you caught my review of SNK’s 40th in October then you saw that it was something of an anomaly amongst games archives. In a year with some amazing compilations: Spyro Reignited, Megaman X Collection, and every single goddang Kingdom Hearts game in one box, how does a game containing part of this year’s annual Awful Games Done Quick livestream manage to rank as a must-play from 2018? One word: context. SNK’s 40th Anniversary Collection is an uncompromising archive of SNK’s work from 1980 to 1990. Instead of trying to bring classic games to a present level of value, it instead preserves the joys and the pains – the arcade highs, the console lows, and the creamy RPG middles – and it becomes a time capsule that gave me a rich understanding on what game development was like during the period. I’ll be playing it more as the DLC comes out for my own edification, but also this game has been one of my most valuable tools this year for teaching my middle school students about what goes in to game designs. SNK’s 40th has such simple lessons spanning over a wide variety of game genres, that it’s plain for any young designer to see how players approach enemies, power-ups, and lose states. Being able to have infinite quarters and a rewind feature helps a lot with this too, of course.
9. Forza Horizon 4
Here’s my hottest AAA take: Spider-Man, Assassin’s Creed, Fortnite, Forza Horizon, Red Dead, God of War, and Just Cause 4 as open-world games are all pretty much the exact same game. The industry has solved open world. It’s done and over. It doesn’t matter the subgenre, whether it’s robots or cars or spidermens; multiplayer or single-player; this style of game will usually get me going for a weekend, but then after that it is completely stale. It’s such simple arithmetic at this point that it’s hard for me to want to keep at trying them… And another thing! Who cares about the UK? Nothing tropical or exciting about the dreariest slab of rock this side of the Atlantic… Always cold and rainy, except when it snows, or the sun is out and glinting off of the new Jag I just found in a barn somewhere. Have you seen this thing? It’s not great, I slapped some Hatsune Miku stickers on the side of it and put a cheezy bumper sticker on it that says “HONK IF YOUR HORNGRY”. I’ve gotta tune the car more so that the weight distribution matches for my rear tire pressure, but maybe I’ll save it for the next car- oh! Another Forzathon is about to start, and all my friends are here ready to race in it with me. Hahah, and that stupid Halo song that I hate is playing again, just in time! Wait a minute, did they make a game that my irony poisoned hipster mind wants to keep playing? AM I LEARNING ABOUT CARS?? Am I not a totally jaded monster? Okay, maybe I am still, but Hot Wheels Horizon 4 is very cool and fun and lets me bang colorful cars together with friends while Siri calls me “El Pollo Loco” in an English accent. Also, shoutouts to the Peel P50. You’re doing your best in a four-wheeled world, you absolutely silly tricycle car.
8. Octopath Traveler
Octopath Traveler came out to huge aplomb and then kinda went by the wayside with a whimper, and I think people might be wondering why? Well, it’s a throwback RPG which is what everyone always wants, and before it was released there was still a lot of demand for that out of Nintendo’s young console. On top of that, nobody was certain to what extent the Bravely Default team could deliver for their first big home console game, but we were excited. Every free demo was devoured with delight and each new press release came with news that gave fans exactly the quality of life updates they were asking for. And then it came out to huge hype and we didn’t hear much after that. Do you want to know why? It’s a 50-hour JRPG which probably doesn’t fit within the newsworthy zeitgeist hype-factory that is games journalism, it doesn’t necessarily stream very well what with all the grinding, and with all that said -monkey’s paw- this is EXACTLY what people wanted out of it. The most surprising thing was that there were no surprises! It was an incredible journey of eight young heroes, each of whom went on their own separate journeys finding themselves, and each overcame struggles that will stick with me for a long time. I fought, grinded, leveled, and then broke the battle system in a way that is unsurprising but entirely fulfilling. Then I got invested in a world full of fun characters that came with some interesting endgame twists and turns that I have been thinking about all year. (The very first NPC you meet, a young, naive adventurer like yourself, accidentally opens the post-game dungeon up to the world of hell??? A dungeon that subsequently ties together the fates of all eight characters?) There will be a sequel soon that rides the exact same retro JRPG hype-train, and it BETTER be called either “Octopath 2raveler” or “Nonopath Traveler”. Like I talked about in my review, it accomplished exactly what it set out to do to the perfectly utmost, which isn’t newsworthy at all! Everything went exactly as expected… But it still has the coolest transition into boss battle music I’ve ever heard. That IS newsworthy.
I really hope that you find by going through these lists that you get to notice everyone at Video Game Choo Choo had a game or two in 2018 that managed to personally identify and validate them. That’s a really big theme of 2018: games can be big enough or small enough for individual people. Wandersong is a game made for joyful people who sometimes get depressed and worry that if people catch them being depressed it will cause depression everywhere, so they just be happy all the time for everyone’s sake. That’s me. I don’t want to be some big hero, I just want to fix people’s small problems and sing a nice song to make them happy. As The Bard goes on this big adventure to save the gods they get to meet quirky characters all around the world, sometimes they fail and sometimes they succeed, but they always do their best and that is what makes this such an inspiring story. Also, the way this game uses mechanics to constantly tell jokes is hilarious and inspiring. Don’t give The Bard coffee, unless you plan on creating a weapon to surpass Metal Gear. It isn’t a perfect game, but it is my game and I hope you get the chance to try it too. Between this and Donut County you pretty much get all of Solon fully manifested into game form.
What more could possibly be said about Celeste? It good, go play. It is a flawless game with an even more flawless soundtrack. The B-sides feature some of my favorite games artists and the story features a cute boy from Seattle taking selfies and getting trapped in a crystal. While Celeste is a perfect platformer with a story as sugary sweet as strawberry pie about forgiving yourself and overcoming challenge, I wouldn’t say it was a ludologically challenging game. It’s a pixel-based platformer where you climb a mountain. Just like when we talked about open-world games above, this concept of the perfect platformer has been a pretty “solved” subgenre since Super Meat Boy almost a decade ago. The most brilliant things Celeste does is create short play cycles and allow players to freely organize their own micro and macro goals: “Go up” to “Clear levels”; and optionally, “Get Strawberries.” I don’t think it could be a simpler game. This is not to dismiss Celeste’s accomplishments at all! Celeste is such a strong and amazing game that I’m using it here as a barometer for what it means to crack the top five best games of 2018. And to crack the top five, there has to be risk. Which is funny because in retrospect I’ve never felt safer climbing a mountain than while playing Celeste. Very unlike last year’s mountain climbing platformer.
Solon was the last of the Scuttleboiz to obtain the rank of Pirate Legend, she wanted to make sure all of her friends were fully suited up in the garb of greatness before she officially performed Athena’s Shanty on the tavern floor before the mysterious strangers that patronize the pub. At least, that was her excuse. In reality, she’d already made her own legendary accomplishments long ago…
Solon was alone on the ship, as all her other boiz had gone to rest in their hammocks below decks for the evening. But with the wind at her back, Solon couldn’t deny the spirit of adventure filling the galleon’s decks. Although normally a calm deckhand, “Sticky-fingers” Solon decided tonight was the night for her to be the captain! She cranked the tiller Southwest towards Crow’s Nest Fortress, an actively defended fort known to be the demise of many fully-staffed ships, cursed to shit with armed skeletons, and home to a hoard of treasure for any crew brave enough to defeat the island’s captain. Solon tacked each sail individually to the starboard side to pick up wind, and while she approached the wretched island it began to fire upon her boat. This was an operation Solon had done dozens of times, but never at the helm of her own boat and NEVER by herself. CRACK!! Cannonballs peppered the portside hull of the galleon, and Solon had to make the choice to charge towards the island at full speed with the goal being to drop the anchor just as it passed the undefended backside of the island. A moment too early and she’d be a sitting duck for the canons to sink the boat, a moment to late and the momentum of a full-speed galleon would careen into the island’s rocks. SKRRRRT!!! The sounds of cannon fire stopped as the boat skidded to a halt. This was the island’s only blind spot. The bottom deck of the galleon was full of water, but the sailor dutifully bailed out and patched up the boat restoring it to ship-shape once again. Looking around, Solon breathed a sigh of relief as the coastline was completely clear of enemy ships. The hardest part was done!
Like clockwork, Solon worked through the undead waves of skeletons only stopping to reload on potassium cronchers, ammo, and sometimes to hang out with the ferryman who runs the ferry of the damned (they were pals).
After a few hours of giving this fort the business, the cursed captain shows his face. “Hold Fast” Hollins, they called him, after The Cellophane Incident Of ‘03. Hollins may have been waving his gun at Solon as a sign of truce, but Solon waved her canon in reply firing two cannonballs directly into Hollins, finally breaking the curse of Crow’s Nest and opening the treasure trove exclusively to Sticky-Fingers! Scanning around the island one last time, there were still no ships in sight, and you could practically hear the money signs bulging out of Solon’s eyes, dear reader. Easy money!
It took about 30 minutes to load up all of the treasure, and now the deck of the dinghy glittered with treasure chests full of booty, opulent curios, and rich spices that the traders will no doubt fight amongst themselves to have. It’s only a ten minute sail over to the outpost and all of that cash is mine! All mine! As she unfurled the sails, Solon mused to herself out loud “Those Scuttleboiz are gonna be so proud of me when they find out I solo’d an entire fort! They’re gonna say ‘Solon! You’re our favorite sailor!’ an-” all of a sudden Solon’s musings were cut short as the sea turned inky black underneath the galleon. The wind died, and it could only mean one thing: Karen hungered for gold… [End of Chapter 13]
Folks say that Sea of Thieves didn’t have anything in it when it launched and I say they must not have a pulse if they weren’t able to produce any tales from playing this game. Cuz only dead men could tell no tales after playing a few hours of Sea of Thieves.
4. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
There is something unbelievable about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (pronounced Smultimate), something no other Smash game before it has ever had. A single thing put into the game that makes it go from another tired re-hashing of the franchise to something unbelievable: rest. Yeah, no, I was shook when I heard about it too – the designer of the game, Masahiro Sakurai, worked relatively normal hours during the production of Smultimate, and it’s made an incredible difference in the quality and the style this game has taken. Firstly, Smultimate is a somewhat unfinished game and it will continue to be built upon over the coming years, which is a concept previously unheard of from the renowned perfectionist! There are little things in here that are obviously not ideal like the Classic Mode’s “Race To The Finish” that is as bare-bones a mode as it could be, a lack of routes to unlocking your favorite characters, and collecting Spirits passes the time, but is largely insubstantial for right now. Instead, what is there is an online mode that actually solidly connects people. An endless pile of characters that do incredible jobs melding their own personal styles into the platformer-based fighting game.
Also, there is over 800 songs that can be played in a mode that turns the Switch into a personal walkman just for Nintendo’s curated video game songs? A friend of mine last week ran three miles OVER their personal best just because they built a playlist of Kirby and Splatoon tracks and got lost in it. All of these choices of where the designers’ attention lies might seem like weird choices, but they have also proven to be the right choices! The game has been incredible to play and it’s something I’m going to spend a lot of time in during 2019. You’re gonna fear my Jiggly, friends! And what I point to as being the culprit of all this success is a well-rested staff being able to focus on what matters most to make a fun experience for the most people. In a year full of examples of overworked staff making lousy games, Smash proves that companies should start paying attention to folks like Game Workers Unite whose requests to unionize the industry come with demands that simply make for better video games. My bet, going into 2019, is that Smultimate is going to bring in a huge crowd of new Smash players because it is much more accessible than previous entries to all levels of play.
3. Lucas Pope Presents: Whose Seamans Is This
I would never have guessed that there would be MULTIPLE. PLURAL. A FEW games competing to have the best rendered Galleon of 2018, and yet designer Lucas Pope made a galleon that made me weep like a baby. I don’t think I can accurately explain in words the overwhelming feeling I had after playing Sea Of Thieves for eight months and then stepping foot onto the Obra Dinn, an ACTUAL full-sized, three-mast galleon, and suddenly connecting the dots to exactly how late 18th century sailors felt at sea, how any civilized men could bare arms on their own kind due to seaborne paranoias. I’ve been on actual boats, and even galleons plenty of times in real life, I once took a class on mercantilism, race, and identity during the 18th century (I’m suddenly realizing how often boats have come up in my life, this is weird) – but those never connected me to the reality of 18th and 19th century sailing life quite like this did.
Return of the Obra Dinn is incredibly special and I didn’t think I’d be so into it because you need to be very smart to play it. In Obra Dinn, you are given the ship’s manifest (a list of names and ship-ranks) and an exciting story of all the major events that happened to the boat (now completely abandoned). All of the events are out of order, and you get to watch the last moments of life of every crew member. On its own that would be an exciting adventure to play out! But your task as insurance investigator is to go through time investigating every diorama-esque scene and identify the fate of all sixty of the boats crew members and passengers. I’m gonna tell you right now, 56 of them died straight up. And only one of them is addressed as “Captain”, so identifying 56 other victims simply by their disemboweled remains and what few words they shouted before they died horribly is not easy, but it is fun! Sorry, did I say 56 again after omitting the captain? Hmm, that’s probably fine. Either way, folks may think I’ve already spoiled too much, but none of that is nearly as important as the ending of the game that you only get after identifying every crew member’s fate correctly. Piecing the story together is unbelievably satisfying, the game is beautiful, and the music that plays throughout ties things together so well. There is so much emotion in this game that at night I still think about the Obra Dinn out there and the huge ocean that constantly threatens to swallow it whole.
The Void Rains Upon Her Heart (TVRUHH) has been publicly in development all year long, constantly being updated and built out for everyone to see. That’s a thing that happens now is that many games don’t get “released”, they get updated, and I don’t really know how to apply it to a GOTY sense, but this game is really important to me. It started at the beginning of this year small and quaint- a thoroughly fun experience for a short amount of time. But now I can finally say that this is the game I’ve always wanted to replace The Binding of Isaac, a game that I’ve had a fraught history with. TVRUHH is a bullet-hell rogue-lite game where you are a pulsing heart that shoots heart beats at monsters to “fill them” with “love”. I know… In words this sounds like a cheesy metaphor, but it absolutely works, I promise! If the monsters don’t destroy you, The Void will. The Void will always destroy you in the end, it’s a void that cannot possibly be loved, and it fills with rage whenever we insist on trying. Where Isaac was a game about negative reinforcement, TVRUHH is a game about positive reinforcement. Each boss has a variety of large, slow bullet patterns that you have to avoid to survive. You get a deep health bar and multiple resources to make survival easier, and then after each boss, the boss gives its power-ups to you in exchange for the love. It’s a loop that seems really shallow, but whenever I play TVRUHH I get fully engrossed in it, in the same way The Binding of Isaac used to when it was at one point one of my favorite games.
TVRUHH actually gives you the tools to become more skilled at the game! I was not expecting much out of it because I am trash at bullet-hell style games, but there are easy modes and training rooms that let you practice patterns, so you can do more than just try to get game-breaking weapons to win. As I progressed, not only did I unlock super weapons that were wacky and fun to use once in a while, but I was actually getting better at playing the game at a rate way beyond that of its roguelite contemporaries. As I put more love out into the world, I was getting more love back! I could withstand more of the game’s “rain” all the way up until I was actually playing on the hardest difficulty it offered! Since 2018 was a year of nostalgic throwbacks, I should not be so shocked to have a roguelite near the top of my list, but I really thought that phase was behind me and it is not at all. I want to love every monster, I want to break down their shields and rain love on their cores (this is exactly as metaphorical as it is literal). On our Let’s Play of it, we started giving them names like “Butthole” and “Hot Dad” and “Sunny Delight” as if they are our pets that we get to play with once again, each time a new set of boss cards comes out. I know it looks like a lot of stressful things are happening in this game, but both this and Celeste were my go-to chillout games this year. I continue to find things I’m fascinated in by the core loop of this game, and will continue to be pouring love into it throughout 2019 as development continues.
Solon’s Numbah One: Lucah: Born Of A Dream
When we’re talking about 2018 being about healing and introspection, we’re talking about soft nice games like Celeste, Octopath Traveler, and Deltarune. a lot of these games are throwbacks to simpler times like retro-styled platformers, RPGs, and beat-em-ups. So when Lucah crashed on to the scene, it defined itself as a radical act of violent self-care. Lucah is why I am here. This plucky character-action game that kinda looks like stick-figure Dark Souls came out in the middle of 2018 like Rocky Balboa came out of Philly; ugly, beat up, and set to fight in the heavyweight boxing match of his life. There were quite a few important independent games this year with queer themes that focused on mental health and, like Lucah, they were ALSO love letters to a very specific subgenre of games, which is incredible! But none had the style or technical aptitude that Lucah has.
There was a platformer, a puzzle game, an RPG, a bullet-hell roguelite, whatever you wanna call Wandersong, and this character action game. So what makes this different from games with pedigrees, made by people whose names we recognize, with styles that are easily marketable? I’ve been playing it all year and ever since I reviewed it, I haven’t stopped playing it. I keep coming back to its tight controls and sketchy atmosphere. I want to hear the *CRACK* sound of a perfect parry. I want to get better at this game, and I want to break it. It took me 9 hours the first time to finish the game to its ultimate conclusion, but with practice I’ve gotten a 100% speedrun of the game down to 2.6 hours, and I’m very sure it can go below 2 hours with more practice and better routing. Celeste made me cry, Deltarune made me laugh, but Lucah made me better. Lucah is a game that inspires me to be the best I can be, because it also is trying to be the best it can be. It isn’t perfect. Lucah is a bold game within a year of soft pastels that accepts its own imperfections while challenging itself to improve. Where other similar games this year settled, Lucah continues to keep swinging.