Like virtually everyone else, it seems, I am fully onboard the Animal Crossing bandwagon right now. Admittedly, this isn’t the first time. I obsessed over the original Animal Crossing on GameCube back in the day, as well as Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS (the Nintendo DS and Wii entries were also nice, but didn’t connect with me in the same way).
But there’s something unique about the timing of New Horizons that makes it all the more special. Something that I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen with a video game release.
It’s timely. But timely in a way that couldn’t be planned.
We often talk about movies with timely messages and themes (elements that can also be translated to games). That’s great and everything, but it’s usually intentional, with surrounding world events often inspiring or influencing the direction the creators take with their work.
But Animal Crossing – a video game series all about every day life and normalcy – comes at a time when such mundane affairs now seem like rare gifts.
As we’re all stuck in our homes during this COVID-19 pandemic, longing for the return of normal life; when we can go shopping, hang out with friends, go to movie theaters, and just do anything outside of our homes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is giving us that sense of normalcy through escapism.
Even under normal circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons would be a great addition to the series, as it adds enough new content and depth to the proceedings to make such a simple series feel engrossing all over again. But the fact that it has been released now, during this topsy-turvy time, makes it feel like something really special.
While Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always planned to be Nintendo’s big release for the first quarter of 2020, no one could have predicted that it would end up meaning a whole lot more than simply being a big seller. But with the world feeling more and more upside-down by the day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels like a rare treasure. I can’t remember the last time any work – let alone a video game – felt so timely, so unintentionally.
As we’re all stuck in our houses, wishing to go back to jobs and school (admit it, you miss them), longing to hang out with friends, and just continue our usual routines, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has given us the opportunity to bring a little normalcy back into our lives during an incredibly abnormal time. It’s not just a fun game, but Animal Crossing’s simple premise of a Nintendo-ized version of real life has never felt more welcome, or more blissful.
*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*
Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.
It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.
Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.
Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.
In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.
For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.
Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.
Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.
That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).
Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.
Handheld gaming has come a long way. Once a simple means to get a quick fix of gaming on the go, that convenience came at the expense of quality. But over the years, as gaming evolved, so to did handheld gaming, with the GameBoy Advance and Nintendo DS notably taking it to new heights and success.
Now, handheld games are largely indistinguishable from console and PC titles (aside from graphics). And most notably, the Nintendo Switch has completely bridged the gap between home console and handheld. By merging the two concepts together, Nintendo has created a hybrid console that stands as one of the best of all time.
Because handheld gaming has changed so drastically in recent years, I’d like to once again stress that, as long as traditional handheld platforms are still (somewhat) prominent, I am only including games released on said traditional handhelds and Switch exclusives. If a game is released on Switch, but also available on other, non-handheld hybrid consoles, it seems a bit unfair to refer to them as “handheld games.” So even though the Switch is a home console, its duel status as a handheld makes its exclusive titles eligible for this award. Ya dig?
Winner: Luigi’s Mansion 3
Yeah, I know Pokemon Sword and Shield was Nintendo’s big seller and most anticipated Switch title of 2019. But I don’t know, am I the only one who found them to be way too padded out? And to be honest, Pokemon – ironically enough – is the Nintendo series that seems to refuse to evolve.
That wasn’t the case with Luigi’s Mansion 3, however. Taking the atmosphere of the GameCube original and combining it with the more level-based structure of the 3DS sequel, Luigi’s Mansion 3 surpassed both of its predecessors with a game that’s consistently fun and inventive.
The Ghostbusters-inspired action of the series has never been so deep as it is here, and with the game absolutely exploding with personality, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is one of the unsung heroes of the Nintendo Switch.
Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey
2014: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS
2015: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
2016: Kirby Planet Robobot
2017: Super Mario Odyssey*
2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
*Retroactively awarded after deciding Switch exclusives should qualify for this award.
Multiplayer has never been more important nor prominent in video games than it is today. With the internet connecting players from around the world, more and more developers are putting an emphasis on multiplayer.
Sometimes, we wish to play video games to take us on epic adventures, but other times, we only want to connect with friends (or random strangers) and have some fun.
2019 may not have been the strongest year for multiplayer titles, but it still provided some good ones. Strangely, my favorite of the lot wasn’t originally from 2019 at all…
Winner: Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled
Back in its day, Crash Team Racing was – along with Diddy Kong Racing – hailed as one of the only Mario Kart clones to actually be as good as Mario Kart (considering the most recent Mario Kart at the time was Mario Kart 64, there’s an argument to be made that, in that era, CTR was actually the better racer). Though Mario has since unquestionably wrested that crown – due in no small part to the exceptional Mario Kart 8 – the remake of Crash Team Racing still proves to be one of the best mascot racers not called Mario.
Though its single player modes can leave a lot to be desired (there is seriously no reason for the time trials in a game like this to be that precise!), Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is all too easy to get sucked into when it comes to its multiplayer. With great track designs, a constantly expanding roster of characters, character skins, and karts, and a bevy of different modes of play, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is like a gift that keeps on giving.
Not bad for a remake of a game from the PS1 era.
Runner-up: Luigi’s Mansion 3
2014: Mario Kart 8 (Online) and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (local)
Now more than ever, Indie games are as vital to the gaming world as any other release. No longer relegated to being the pretentious, artsy corner of the gaming landscape, Indie titles now showcase all the variety and fun that their bigger budget counterparts do. Gaming is all the better for it.
Admittedly, 2019 wasn’t the best year for Indie games, and notable fell short of the string of strong years that predated it. Still, the little guys still managed to put up a good fight, and provided what I guess can best be described as my most “unique” selection for Best Indie Game of the year so far…
Winner: Untitled Goose Game
While Untitled Goose Game may lack the depth of some of my previous winners in this category, it makes up for it with its undeniable charm and sense of humor.
This breezy, wonderfully casual experience sees players take on the role of the Goose, who is out to have a productive day and completing his daily checklist of chores. Because he’s a goose, that means these chores are comprised of different ways to be a jerk to unsuspecting people.
Taking inspiration from Super Mario 64, Untitled Goose Game has the player tackling miniature areas (the game’s levels) and completing that area’s tasks as they see fit. Only instead of collecting stars like good ol’ Mario, the Goose’s only goal is to mess with the humans around them. Whether it’s moving a chair just as an old man is about to sit down, scaring a kid to lock himself in a phone booth, or stealing some dude’s flip-flops, the Goose’s tasks are always fun and funny.
It may not be the next Shovel Knight or Undertale, but not every Indie game has to be a classic like those games to be enjoyed. Sometimes, the good, simple fun of video games is all you need. And if Untitled Goose Game doesn’t put a smile on your face, you must have a heart of stone.
Runner-up: Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove
2014: Shovel Knight*
2016: Stardew Valley
2017: Hollow Knight**
*This particular award wasn’t given for 2014, but upon reflection, Shovel Knight was the clear winner that year.
**I originally awarded Cuphead with the honor, but upon further consideration, Hollow Knight is probably the more deserving of the two.
Gameplay is the lifeblood of video games. I mean, just think about what video games would be like without gameplay. They’d be really awkward movies, I guess.
Even if all else fails in a game, it’s the gameplay that can ultimately save it. Gameplay is the connection between developer and player that separates the medium from all others. It is of the utmost importance to game design.
Winner: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Okay, so Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t going to get any awards for originality in gameplay, as it is virtually a spiritual recreation of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with a little Aria of Sorrow thrown in for good measure. To Bloodstained’s benefit, however, Symphony of the Night remains one of the best games ever made, and Aria of Sorrow comes a bit closer to SotN’s quality than many admit.
Basically, we have a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Though many other Kickstarter-funded spiritual sequels came and went, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was the one that went all out and recreated the intricate gameplay and sharp level design of the game that inspired it.
Yeah, it might be “more” of the SotN-style Castlevania gameplay, but in a gaming landscape that’s grossly starved of such gaming greatness, Bloodstained is something of a godsend.
Runner-up: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
2016: Dark Souls 3*
2017: Super Mario Odyssey
2018: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)
*Retroactively awarded after further consideration.
It seems like every game today wants to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the player. Games have become so big, that they seem hellbent on adding as much content as possible as if daring themselves to see how big they can get.
This has had a notable negative effect, admittedly, with some games feeling more bloated than they should (do I need to bring up the Guarma section of Red Dead Redemption 2 again? It’s because of that chapter alone I scored the game an 8 instead of a 9). But the quest for content has also done good as well, particularly when it comes to titles with player interaction with one another. Which brings me to this year’s winner…
Winner: Super Mario Maker 2
Go ahead and call this cheating, but are you really going to argue with a game that provides infinite Mario levels?
No, not every one is going to make a great Mario level, and there are far too many undesirables out there making flat-out trolling stages. But there’s still so much good to be had, and so many players rethinking how Mario levels are played, that Super Mario Maker 2 truly is an endless toy box of fun. There are already more Mario levels than you could ever play in the game, and the number just keeps going up every day.
Mario gameplay is simply at the peak of gaming, so while other game-creation games may be more fun to build than to play, the fact that Super Mario Maker 2 has the timeless gameplay of classics to fall back on means it’s just as much fun to play stages as it is to build them. And the addition of Super Mario 3D World elements is icing on the cake.
Of course not every player-created level will be a winner, but that’s a small price to pay for infinite Mario levels.
Oftentimes, the games we end up loving are ones that catch our eye early on. Games may not always live up to our expectations, but it seems more often than not, we have an idea about which games we’re going to enjoy.
Other times, a game comes out of seemingly nowhere, with no hype or build-up, that ends up being an utter delight. A pleasant surprise, if you will.
Winner: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
I liked the original Yooka-Laylee, but no doubt it wasn’t the game it could have been. Others were less warm to it than I was, which surely wasn’t the response Playtonic Games was hoping for with their Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor. After that, I figured Playtonic would change course and try again with different characters down the road.
Instead, Playtonic admirably stood by the characters they made, and put them in a new scenario that was probably a bit more appropriate for an early title from a studio of Playtonic’s size.
Placing Yooka and Laylee in a don’t-call-it-a-spiritual-successor to Donkey Kong Country, Playtonic proved their belief in their inaugural IP to be justified. While Playtonic may have backed themselves into a corner with the first Yooka-Laylee – with Kickstarter stretch goals forcing their hand in certain directions – Impossible Lair allowed Playtonic more creative freedom with the 2D platformer genre.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair proved to be one of the best 2D platformers in years, and re-established Yooka-Laylee as a viable video game franchise. Considering the lukewarm reception to the original, and the fact that Impossible Lair was rather unceremoniously announced as part of a montage in a Nintendo Direct and released a short time thereafter, I’d say that makes for quite the pleasant surprise.
“Wow, nice graphic! I’d like to get my hands on that game!”
– The original US Legend of Zelda commercial
As a visual medium, video games have always had a focus on their visuals. While this has lead to some problems (remember when people used to deride a console for not having as good of graphics as another? *shudders*), graphics and art play a vital role in video games.
Following in the tradition of animation, video games use visuals to convey their vision. Whether it’s capturing a look of realism or displaying a striking art design, visuals – though not necessary for a game to be good – are vital to the video game medium itself.
Similarly, when it comes to naming what I think deserved Best Visuals of any given year, I go for either a title of striking technical realism (a la Uncharted 4) or wondrously imaginative art direction (like Cuphead). As far as 2019 goes, the winner for Best Visuals falls into the latter category, and is probably a bit obvious…
Winner: Yoshi’s Crafted World
Much like FromSoftware seemingly has a monopoly on excellence in video game sound work, developer Good-Feel has a similar dominance in visuals.
Starting with the hand-drawn, anime artwork of Wario Land: Shake It!, Good-Feel then elevated video game visuals with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, whose fabric-inspired graphics were carried over to Yoshi’s Woolly World. And now, Good-Feel has created a follow-up to Woolly World that changes things from yarn and wool to crafting materials like cardboard and plastic.
Yoshi’s Crafted World, in true Good-Feel fashion, is bursting with visual creativity. This was Good-Feel’s first time revisiting a Nintendo property they had already worked on, but that didn’t slow down Good-Feel’s imagination. The fact that they’ve managed to re-imagine Yoshi’s universe twice with different makeshift motifs is a testament to the studio’s unparalleled knack for visual invention.
Who know where Good-Feel will go next? One thing’s for sure, it’s bound to look astounding.
Runner-Up: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Switch)