And now, here we are, the big one. Game of the Year!
2019 was a pretty strong year for video games. Not quite as strong as 2018 or 2017, admittedly, but it had its share of highlights.
Let’s skip the fanfare and get right to the meat of things. These are my top 5 video games of 2019!
5: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)
Okay, first let me explain an inconsistency on my part. While this Link’s Awakening remake is one of my favorite games of 2019, placing fifth on this list, it was not mentioned in my award for Best Remake/Re-release. Meanwhile, the winner of said award (Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered) and its runner-up (Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey) aren’t on this top five list.
excuse justification is this: I was never the biggest fan of Link’s Awakening in its previous incarnations. But I feel the Switch remake is such an improvement, it feels like it could have straight-up been a new release in 2019. Meanwhile, Ni no Kuni and Bowser’s Inside Story, while having new features and visual gloss, are more or less just as they were, so they’re exempt from 2019’s top 5. And now if you’re wondering why Link’s Awakening didn’t win Best Remake/Re-release then, it’s because – even with my new appreciation for Link’s Awakening – I still feel Ni no Kuni and Bowser’s Inside Story are better games.
Make sense? No?! Oh well, moving on.
As stated, what makes the Switch version of Link’s Awakening feel special is that – despite being a remake of a title originally released on the GameBoy – it feels like a new experience. And even someone like me – who always felt the original (and GameBoy Color) release of Link’s Awakening wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – got absorbed in the Switch release.
By making a classic feel new, and delivering delightful, toy-inspired visuals to boot, the Switch version of Link’s Awakening was one of 2019’s highlights.
4: Luigi’s Mansion 3
Yeah, I know, I still gotta write my proper review for this one.
Anyway, Luigi’s Mansion 3 takes the best bits of its two predecessors – the sense of place of the GameCube original and the level progression and collectibles of the 3DS sequel – and merges them into a richly entertaining, vividly animated joy.
It may not quite recapture the same level of atmosphere that the first game in the series did back in 2001, but Luigi’s Mansion 3 is ultimately the better game, and the best in the series so far.
Luigi’s Mansion 3 constantly finds new ways to build on the series’ Ghostbusters-inspired gameplay, making for new means of fun and surprises at every turn. And the character animations are so fluid and cartoony, it elevates Luigi’s Mansion 3 to be one of the few video games to really nail visual comedy (E. Gadd’s running animation alone is hilarious).
Top it off with a surprisingly fun (if limited) online multiplayer mode, and Luigi’s Mansion 3 really pulled Luigi out of his more famous brother’s shadow.
3: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
I am on the side of the fence that defends the original Yooka-Laylee, though even I admit it wasn’t the game it could have been.
Whatever roadblocks lead to the polarizing reception of the original Yooka-Laylee need not apply to its surprise sequel/spinoff: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.
Abandoning the 3D platformer for its simpler (and far more consistent) 2D equivalent, Impossible Lair didn’t have to worry about fulfilling any Kickstarter stretch goals, or trying to recreate a beloved classic like Banjo-Kazooie (though Impossible Lair draws inspiration from Donkey Kong Country, developer Playtonic refused to refer to it as a spiritual successor, as they did with the original’s connections to Banjo).
What we got instead was not only absolving of Playtonic and validation for their mascot duo, but also one of the deepest and most creative platformers in years. With exceptional level design, collectibles that alter the gameplay in exciting ways, a Breath of the Wild-inspired setup that revolves around its titular final level (which the player can tackle at any time), and a predominantly David Wise-composed score (always a plus), Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair lived up to not only the reputations of the DKC alumni who now work at Playtonic, but also the Retro Studios-developed DKC games of the early 2010s. And with the gaming landscape being tragically starved of a Tropical Freeze follow-up, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair gave a much-needed scratch to a persistent itch.
An exquisite platformer.
2: Super Mario Maker 2
Infinite. Mario. Levels.
I could stop right there and Super Mario Maker 2’s high placement on this list is justified, but I suppose I should say a little more.
Although there are still some unfortunate limitations with this level editor (please, let me make bosses who aren’t Boom Boom!), and it can feel more like an expansion to the 2015 original than a full-blown sequel, the fact of the matter is that Super Mario Maker 2 approaches its level editor in true Mario fashion: it’s accessible without sacrificing a drop of depth, and puts an emphasis on making every last action fun (Media Molecule may have recently taken game-creation games to new heights with 2020’s Dreams, but they could still learn a thing or two from Mario Maker on how to make the editing process a fun game in itself).
Not every stage will be great, of course. But any game that gives players – no matter their age – the ability to test out their creativity is definitely a cause for celebration. The fact that such a game so happens to also be part of gaming’s most embraced franchise is icing on the cake.
1 (Game of the Year): Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel in order to achieve greatness. Sometimes, you just need to be so in tune and competent with your craft, that you can elevate even an old formula into the realms of excellence.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was never shy about its striking similarities to the Symphony of the Night-style Castlevanias (AKA the good Castlevanias. Yeah, I said it). Its entire Kickstarter campaign came about because Koji Igarishi wished to continue work on the Castlevania series, but Konami – having seemingly lost their minds – wanted nothing to do with it. So good ol’ “Iga” took it upon himself to make his own Castlevania equivalent. Not only did Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night prove to be a wild success on Kickstarter, but after so many similar crowdfunded “spiritual successor” games ended up disappointing their fans – such as Mighty No. 9, Shenmue 3, and the aforementioned Yooka-Laylee – Bloodstained got it right! So, so right!
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a fantastic follow-up to Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow, and the DS Castlevanias that still feels distinctly its own. Combining elements of said Castlevania entries, and adding in a few new tricks, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game chock-full of secrets, surprises, and a staggering amount of variety in gameplay.
With how big and expensive gaming has become, it’s easy to get caught up in big production values and Hollywood-style cinematics. While that’s not an inherently bad thing, it has often lead to the “game” aspect of video games to become secondary. What makes Bloodstained so special is that it’s a strong reminder of the strengths that are unique to the video game medium. Between the myriads of ways protagonist Miriam plays, and the intricate level design, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a video game through and through.
Although it may be a callback in many respects, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night should be a game studied by developers as we go into gaming’s future. It harkens back to the days when video games were video games, and the medium would do itself a lot of good to remember that mindset. It builds on classics while making an identity of its own,exhaulting the artistry of video games the whole way through.
As such, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my Game of the Year for 2019.
Previous Game of the Years
2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
2016: Dark Souls 3
2017: Super Mario Odyssey
2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Revised list of all the Game of the Years of my life coming soon…hopefully.