My Game of the Years for Every Year of my Life

In September of 1989, the world became a substantially greater place. That is to say, that’s when I was born.

It wasn’t long until I developed a deep love of video games, with my gaming life stretching back as far as I can remember. As the years have gone by, my love of video games has only intensified, as has my knowledge of them (at least I like to think so).

Starting around 2003, I decided to care more about what games I thought were best, or at least my favorites (which are the same as far as I’m concerned. MY WORD IS LAW!).  Specifically, I started to think about which games stood out the most to me in any given year. That is to say, my Game of the Years.

Since that time, I have retroactively named my favorite games of every year I have walked this Earth. From my days as a humble baby up to the present, I have more or less compiled a list of my Game of the Year from then to now.

Since I recently named my Game of the Year for 2015, I thought now would be a good time to share my Games of the Year from 1989 to 2015. Keep in mind that I go by the years of each game’s North American release, because I’m American.

Admittedly, some years aren’t as definitive as others, with a couple of the years being a toss up as it currently stands (again, many of these are retroactive, so if I catch up on a game from a particular year that I missed out the first time around, and it proves to be the best game I’ve played from that year, it will take the cake).

I may as well say right now that I feel 1989 through 1997 are pretty much set in stone, as are 2000, 2003 and 2005 to today. 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004 are marginally more flip-floppy, while I feel 1999 is currently feeling like a placeholder.

When the day comes that I feel those less decisive years become more definitive, I will create a new section of this site dedicated to my Game of the Years with more detailed descriptions of each. For now, I thought I’d shed some light on what I can in this post, especially seeing as I plan on revealing my favorite games of all time in the near future, I figured it made more sense to write about my Game of the Years before then.

So without further rambling, let’s hop aboard a DeLorean, boost up that Flux Capacitor, and hit 88 miles per hour. We’re going back to 1989!

Here are my Game of the Years from then to now (more or less). Continue reading “My Game of the Years for Every Year of my Life”

Limbo Review

Limbo

Though I am an avid supporter of the idea of video games as an art form, I have two major criticisms with many other stances that support the claim. The first is that many seem to believe that the concept of video games being an artistic expression is a newer idea, when in reality it’s easy to see that there’s always been an artistry to the medium. My other complaint is that the games that tend to be labelled as art are merely ones that declare themselves as such. The games that so desperately want to be viewed as something more than “just” a game, and continuously force themselves on the player as a means to prove their point, which only ends up making them feel more self-aggrandizing than artistic.

Video games that have truly artistic designs and narratives often go unappreciated for their artistic achievements, while lesser games can simply declare themselves as art and critics and audiences will follow suit. Though mainstream games have seen their share of such games, during the mid-to-late 2000s indie titles seemed especially susceptible to this epidemic.

Limbo can be seen as one of the poster children of this forced “art house” movement in indie gaming. Though it reaped critical acclaim and a devoted following due to its aesthetics, playing Limbo just a few short years later reveals how shallow of a game it really is.

In Limbo, players take control of an unnamed boy, who is searching for his missing sister. His actions include jumping and pushing and pulling objects, which he’ll need to do to solve puzzles and avoid countless one-hit kill traps.

The boy’s actions are incredibly limited. Perhaps it was inspired by Ico and its minimalism, but at least Ico could ward off monsters with a stick and had a second character to look after, which added some depth. In Limbo, the controls really do amount to little more than push this, pull that, and maybe jump a few times in between. Worse still is that the boy’s controls feel eerily similar to LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy. His jumps feel weighted down, making the platforming segments feel clunky and stiff. At least Sackboy had charm and player editing to fall back on.

LimboThe majority of puzzles also feel incredibly bland. You might push a box onto a button, which subsequently activates a trap, but also provides your only means of avoiding said trap. Or you move a bear trap into the path of a giant, menacing spider, thus sending it running out of your path. There are a few inspired puzzles later in the game, but they are in the minority, with most of the better ones just feeling like cheap knockoffs of ideas from more genuinely creative games like Portal and Super Mario Galaxy.

The big draw of the game are the aesthetics, which admittedly do create a nice sense of atmosphere. The game is entirely monochromatic, with all the characters and objects appearing as silhouettes. Limbo also features film grain and lighting techniques, in addition to minimal ambient sounds in place of music, to give it both a retro and gloomy atmosphere.

Aesthetically, the game is unique and pleasing, but when the game itself feels so hollow, it all only goes so far. On top of the less-than desirable controls and mostly bland puzzles, Limbo also has a cheap sense of difficulty. It implements a trial and error approach not out of ingenuity, but as a means to add difficulty in its absence. You’ll often run into an unseen trap and meet a gruesome end in order to know to avoid it next time. If there were more to the gameplay the trial and error approach may not be so bad. But without gameplay depth, it just feels like a lazy means to add difficulty to an empty game. At the very least, the automatic checkpoints are frequent, which means you quickly get the chance to correct your mistakes.

LimboEven if you’re viewing Limbo from a narrative standpoint, there’s not much to it. This is another game that utilizes minimalism in its story, but it uses it more insistently than wisely. It wants to be an interpretive narrative, but if it leaves room for interpretation it’s only because there’s nothing there, not because it features a rich narrative or deep thematics.

Limbo is also an incredibly short game, with the whole adventure taking a little over an hour to complete. Frankly, there’s not much incentive for return visits unless you’re hunting for achievements.

To put it simply, Limbo just isn’t a fun game. I know indie gaming hipsters might counter that statement by arguing that video games, being an art form, don’t need to be fun. But while video games may be an art form, they are still games. They’re interactive, and by definition they should be engaging to play, otherwise it makes it hard to care about their other merits. Video games can indeed be more than “just” entertaining, but they should still be entertaining as well. It’s hard to invest your time in a game if playing it feels like a chore.

No matter how much a game might demand for itself to be labelled a work of art, if it’s not a good game it all becomes self-defeating. And Limbo simply isn’t a very good game. But, y’know, it’s indie and atmospheric, so I guess it’s art.

 

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Spelunky Review

*Review based on the 2012 Xbox 360 remake*

Spelunky

Spelunky is one of the more notable indy releases of recent years, as its a favorite among speedrunners and those who appreciate an immense challenge. The game certainly has a lot to offer such groups, and it can even boast a bit of originality. Though it’s difficult to say how much enjoyment other audiences would get out of it.

The setup of Spelunky is simple enough. You play as the Indiana Jones-like Spelunker (or one of various unlockable characters), and you navigate cavernous regions in search of treasure and damsels in distress. You fight enemies that include bats, snakes and spiders, as well as skeletons, mummies and yetis, to name a few. All the while you try to collect as much gold and other treasures as possible while finding the exits that lead to the next level in line.

It may sound simple enough, but actually playing through it is anything but. The Spelunker can jump on some enemies and take them out with a whip, and he has a replenishable supply of ropes and bombs. Ropes can be set up to climb to out of reach places, while bombs can destroy large chunks of rock that may be in the Spelunker’s way (all of the environments are entirely destructible). Additionally, you can buy other upgrades and weapons from shopkeepers found throughout the levels.

Here’s where things get really tricky. Every level is randomly generated, meaning you never quite know what’s coming next. The Spelunker only has so much health, and the only way to replenish it is to find a damsel hidden on a stage and carry her to the exit. But the real dangers are the one-hit kill booby traps, of which there are aplenty. The worst part is that every time you die, you have to start over from the very beginning! There are no continues, no extra lives, nothing.

The game is actually really short, so those who dedicate their time to the game can learn all the game’s traps and layouts, even with the randomly generated levels. Some speedrunners can beat the game in just a few short minutes, and my hat goes off to them.

SpelunkyThe problem with Spelunky is that, unless you are among such dedicated people, you may find the game more frustrating than fun. Spelunky never eases players into things, instead it throws them into really difficult levels from the get-go. There’s no learning curve like in other difficult games such as Dark Souls or the newer Donkey Kong Country games (aside from some brief tutorials, but those merely show you the mechanics, and don’t give you time to prepare for what’s ahead). You’ll repeatedly die and have to start over, without knowing how the levels will play out the next time.

What makes it all worse is the way Spelunker controls. Now, the controls are far from broken, but the jumping feels too stiff, and running feels too slippery. Again, it could be a lot worse, but for a game that’s already quite difficult, the control quirks don’t exactly make things less frustrating.

The game features local multiplayer with co-op and death matches. Between the two, co-op will probably be the more fun option, provided you’re playing with someone who’s on equal footing with you in terms of Spelunky experience. The death matches are frankly just too chaotic, with most rounds lasting only a few brief seconds before a winner is declared (or isn’t, as it’s very much possible for all combatants to die).

I don’t want to sound like I’m simply writing off Spelunky. The game has many novel ideas working for it. The level design is actually really clever, and their randomness, along with the various weapons and items you can purchase, give the game a sense of variety and surprise despite its short length. There’s a good sense of creative freedom with how you want to reach every level’s exit (you can be more crafty, or simply blast your way through if you use your bombs wisely). The character designs are cute, with the Spelunker looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and Super Mario. The graphics have a nice balance between modern and retro, and the soundtrack is reminiscent of the old Sonic the Hedgehog games, albeit with an appropriately slower pace.

Spelunky is a good game, it just isn’t a good game for everyone. It caters to a very specific audience, and if you don’t have the patience for it, you might not even be able to appreciate its qualities.

 

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Top 5 Most Anticipated Games of 2016

Now that it’s December, 2015 is nearing its end. Along with preparing for the holiday season (and subsequently, the one-year anniversary of this site), Star Wars, and New Year’s Resolutions that I’ll probably stick to for five days, December also serves as a time to reflect on the year ahead.

This future-hype naturally finds its way into the world of video games as well. So as we all prepare to look back at the best games of 2015, we also look forward to our most anticipated games of 2016. And I am no different!

The following are my top five most anticipated games of 2016. They may look a bit different from most people’s selections, but for one reason or another, these games all have my attention. Let’s start with a runner-up then get to the top five!

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Honestly, I had six games that stood out that I could choose from, so I feel guilty about placing any of them as a runner-up. But since a “top 6” list just sounds goofy, someone had to take the fall. Since Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam comes out in January, I don’t have much more of a wait. So that bumps it to a runner-up on this list of anticipation (just go with it).

Aside from Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there hasn’t been a bad Mario RPG. Though Dream Team was a considerable step down from Bowser’s Inside Story, I have high hopes for Paper Jam. Being a crossover between Mario’s two ongoing RPG series, Paper Jam has the potential to bring a new sense of creativity to the Mario RPG formula.

I do have to wonder where Mario RPGs will go from here though. After you have both series cross paths, it seems like it would be a good time to give Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi a break, and maybe start a new direction for the Mario RPGs. But maybe that’s just me.

Now on to the top 5!

5: Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls 3

Platform: Multiplatform

Dark Souls is one of the better modern franchises in gaming (even if I kinda suck at it), and I’m really excited to die repeatedly play this new entry. I do kind of hope it adds more to the series than Dark Souls II did though. As great of a game as it was, I don’t want the third entry to just do what the first two already did. I hope DS3 can take all the good things from the series (of which there are many) and add some new twists into the mix as well.

What makes the Dark Souls series great is that it really feels like a modernized version of the kinds of games you’d play on the NES back in the day. It’s incredibly difficult, focused entirely on gameplay, and features a kind of progression that would feel at home on an 8-bit console. Yet it also feels brand new. The series has so far continued this trend through three games (remember, Demon Souls was the first game, Dark Souls was the second), and I’m confident it can repeat its success for a fourth time.

4: Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero

Platform: Wii U

Lack of multiplayer aside, Star Fox Zero looks to be the return to form I’ve been waiting for from the series. The gameplay looks like a modernized Star Fox 64, none of the weirdly sexualized characters from the subsequent games are present, and the story is going back to basics. It pretty much looks like the proper follow-up to Star Fox 64, which has somehow not yet happened in almost two decades.

If Star Fox Zero does indeed end up being this generation’s Star Fox 64, then it will be well worth the wait. Now I just hope the game’s delay into 2016 means they’re adding a multiplayer mode.

3: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Platform: Multiplatform

Though the Red Ash Kickstarter fiasco might have put a sour taste in gamer’s mouths in regards to Keiji Inafune’s Comcept studio, I’m still super excited for Mighty No. 9.

It’s hard to believe Mega Man hasn’t appeared in a game outside of Super Smash Bros. for over five years. But if Capcom won’t let us have the Blue Bomber, at least we have a spiritual sequel to look forward to.

Mighty No. 9 really does look like a Mega Man title, and hopefully the gameplay and level design can live up to that heralded series. As a huge bonus, the game looks to feature several different additional modes to add some replayability and change up the experience.

2: The Legend of Zelda Wii U

Zelda Wii U

Platform: Wii U (but maybe NX)

The latest “proper” addition in The Legend of Zelda series looks to be the most ambitious entry yet. It could be one of the last great Wii U games, or one of the first great NX ones. Or both.

The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming’s greatest series, and a new home console entry is always a big deal. But this one in particular seems to be aiming to change up Zelda conventions, and hopefully, as we learn more about the game, that becomes more apparent.

Though I really wish Nintendo would give the series another art direction as daring as The Wind Waker, I like the new cel-shaded look. It looks a lot like a more advanced take on what Skyward Sword did visually. But while Skyward Sword used its visuals to guise the aging technology of the Wii, this new Zelda actually looks to be taking full advantage of its hardware.

My two great hopes for Zelda Wii U is that it really does change up the series, since Zelda games, great as they are, lack the consistent sense of newness of its sister series, Super Mario, and that the main adventure is only as long as it needs to be. I’m actually among those who loved Skyward Sword, but I admit that game would have been better if it were trimmed a few hours shorter. There’s no need to stretch a game’s length just for the heck of it. I’ll take a 10 hour game that feels complete over a 60 hour one that feels largely comprised of filler.

Anyway, it’s Zelda. Of course I have it on this list!

1: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee

Platform: Multiplatform

Rare made some of the greatest video games of my youth. With a resume that includes the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 (arguably the best 2D platformer), Banjo-Kazooie (arguably the best 3D platformer until Mario went to space), Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and so many other classics, it’s a wonder how the developer has fallen so far from grace over the last decade.

Yooka-Laylee is something of a dream come true for me. The new studio Playtonic Games – founded by a small group of some of Rare’s finest former developers – debuted the game as a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series in a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. And so far, everything about the game is looking like a modernized version of the Banjo-Kazooie style of platformer.

Playtonic has been vocal in saying that the game isn’t merely a re-skin of Banjo-Kazooie, however, and that Yooka-Laylee is making the winning formula new again. The collectibles will all serve a purpose, the game will have a greater sense of freedom in exploration, and players will have some forms of customization in gameplay and progression.

After Nuts & Bolts more or less kicked Banjo-Kazooie fans in the… nuts & bolts, Yooka-Laylee looks like the proper follow-up to Banjo-Tooe that I’ve waited fifteen years for. It was even the first game on Kickstarter I’ve helped fund. The only other game I’ve funded since was Red Ash. And well, let’s just move on.

Yooka-Laylee simply looks to bring back a style of game that’s been all but forgotten in the last few console generations. Given the minds behind it, I have a lot of confidence they’ll be able to pull it off. Really, there’s no reason why Yooka-Laylee wouldn’t be my most anticipated game of 2016.

My Top 5 Games from E3 2015

E3 has come and gone once again. Amidst all the big announcements, awesome games, and presentations that aren’t nearly as bad as people are making them out to be, the event itself, while not without its highlights, was ultimately one of the lesser E3s of recent years. But, even if the show didn’t quite reach greatness, it still gave us a glimpse of some great games. Here are my top 5 games presented at the show…but first, some runners-up! Continue reading “My Top 5 Games from E3 2015”

Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight

On the surface, Shovel Knight might resemble any one of the countless retro-inspired indy titles that have been released since Mega Man 9 made 8-bit graphics popular again. While most such NES-inspired indy games seem to completely fallback on nostalgia, Shovel Knight is a much wiser game. It doesn’t bother to hide its inspirations of Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and, most prominently, Mega Man. But Shovel Knight understands that there were more to these games than 8-bit sprites and chiptunes. These games aren’t remembered for nostalgia alone, and they continue to endure because of the genius of their game designs. Shovel Knight seeks to replicate a similar genius, and while its inspirations are obvious, it does so in its own way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shovel Knight was a NES classic from gaming’s earlier days.

Shovel KnightShovel Knight works like many platformers from the 8-bit era, though its titular character has two primary means of attack: A simple strike with his mighty shovel or – pulling a page from Scrooge McDuck – a pogo stick-like jump. Shovel Knight also gains magic items throughout his adventure, akin to Castlevania, which grant him additional attacks or defensive actions.

Naturally, wielding a shovel as a weapon also means that Shovel Knight can dig up dirt to find gold and gems, which he’ll need in order to buy upgrades to his armor, shovel, hit points, magic points and the aforementioned magic items. But be weary, because defeat means that Shovel Knight loses a chunk of his collected treasure. If Shovel Knight can return to the spot he fell he can reclaim it, but should he fall again before regaining his lost treasure, it’s gone. The game lacks a traditional ‘lives’ system, so game overs are never a concern even in the game’s most difficult moments, but losing your collected goods is a fun, modernized compensation for the traditional game over.

The gameplay really is as simple as that. Run, jump, shovel, dig. But the game uses these simple mechanics to their fullest, and through some incredible and varied level design, it ends up being a deep gameplay experience.

Shovel KnightThe stages are strewn together through a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map, separated into four different segments. Shovel Knight allows players to select which order they want to tackle the levels in each segment, but every main stage in each must be completed before moving on to the next segment.

The main stages are lengthy platforming romps that not only grow progressively more challenging, but also more creative. Each main stage is capped off with a boss fight against a different themed knight (all of which includes the title of “Knight” at the end of their name, in a nice tribute to Mega Man’s Robot Masters). Additional challenges, boss fights and optional stages can be found on the world map, should you want to go the extra mile for completion and treasure.

Like many such indy games that build on old school blueprints, Shovel Knight is a challenging game. But whereas many of its peers feel the need to throw insurmountable obstacles at players right out the gate to prove their difficulty, Shovel Knight instead has a nice difficulty curve. It starts off with a simple introductory level to ease players into the game, and continuously becomes more difficult as the game goes on. This helps Shovel Knight’s difficulty feel more fair and, as a result, more fun than its contemporaries.

Despite Shovel Knight’s challenge, it finds a brilliant means to cater to players of varying skill levels through its checkpoints. The levels all feature numerous checkpoints, so more easygoing players don’t have to fret about starting a stage over should they run into a particularly difficult section. But those wanting to test their abilities can destroy the checkpoints – gaining additional treasure in the process – to render them moot, meaning they’ll have to go through the whole stage all over again should they fall. It’s a simple but genius mechanic that adds an interesting twist on difficulty and balance.

The game features an appropriately simplistic story, with Shovel Knight traveling to defeat the knights of the Order of No Quarter in order to unlock the Tower of Fate, hoping against all odds to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue his (presumed dead) partner, Shield Knight. What’s interesting about Shovel Knight’s story is that, simple as it is, the game finds time to provide some quiet story moments to make Shovel Knight a more sympathetic character than most of his 8-bit kin. And despite what the game’s title and its hero’s weapon of choice might suggest, the game and its story never once feel tongue-in-cheek. It earnestly pays homage to retro games and their simplicity, never falling prey to cheap and easy parodies.

Shovel KnightNaturally, Shovel Knight also includes a soundtrack reminiscent of the 8-bit classics that inspired it. Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is full of personality and energy, and can be compared favorably to many of the Mega Man soundtracks, which is no small feat. It also takes advantage of modern hardware by allowing more colorful visuals than the 8-bit games of yesteryear.

It’s hard not to be wowed by everything Shovel Knight accomplishes. Its tight, polished gameplay is complimented by fantastic level design, a nice difficulty curve, fun visuals and stellar music. It not only draws its inspiration from Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania, but it can sit comfortably alongside them in 8-bit glory.

 

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Bioshock Infinite Review

Bioshock Infinite

It seems as the idea of video games as an art form continues to grow in prominence, many developers are determined to prove the legitimacy of the claim. Oftentimes they are successful in showing the artistic capabilities of the medium. In other instances, developers seem like they’re trying too hard to prove the maturity of game designs, to the point that the end results simultaneously feel both desperate to prove themselves and overly confident in their own abilities. Bioshock Infinite falls into the latter category.

Bioshock Infinite abandons the undersea world of Rapture from the previous installments in favor of a city in the clouds called Columbia. The hero is Booker, a man sent to Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth to ‘repay a debt.’ But rescuing Elizabeth won’t be so easy, as she’s being held captive by one Zachary Hale Comstock – a religious zealot who serves as Columbia’s ‘Founding Father’ – and Comstock’s mechanical pet Songbird, who keeps personal watch over Elizabeth.

What starts as a simple rescue mission quickly unfolds into something bigger. There are twists and turns aplenty, and social commentaries that are so overt and insistent that they diminish whatever intrigue they might otherwise have had.

Bioshock InfiniteColumbia serves as a commentary to some of the shadier aspects of American history. Set in an alternate 1912, Columbia’s fancy carnivals and idealistic nature serve as a thin guise for a haven of prejudice and racism. The people of Columbia demonize Abraham Lincoln for ‘leading America astray,’ while Comstock uses religion as a means to keep his people under his thumb.

It’s all a great deal ham-fisted. Never once does Bioshock Infinite attempt subtlety, its commentaries come off more like cartoonish vilifications than contemplative observations. In a more satirical game this sheer overtness might work, but for a game that takes itself so seriously it all comes off as overly simplistic and conveniently one-dimensional (and in some instances, hypocritical). Bioshock Infinite thinks itself artistically rich, but the narrative feels more like a loud agenda than something truly thought-provoking.

The gameplay is similarly uninspired, following in its predecessors’ footsteps without feeling the need to better them. When it boils down to it, Bioshock Infinite is an incredibly straightforward first-person shooter. You still get your run-of-the-mill weaponry, which are thankfully complimented by some magic spells (referred to as ‘Vigors.’ Though they don’t exactly reinvent what the original Bioshock crafted either). Booker’s movements and sense of control work just fine, but considering this same setup has been done by countless other games, why wouldn’t they?

The problem isn’t that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is broken by any means. It’s just that, for a game that exudes such monumental pride for itself, its gameplay has very little creativity that it can boast as its own.

Elizabeth’s inclusion has been lauded for her contribution to gameplay as well as story. But Elizabeth’s actions are as redundant as Booker’s. She carries objects, picks locks, and performs other such standard actions that the player character can normally do themselves in other titles of the genre. Her AI is at least reliable most of the time, but she’s hardly a game-changer.

Bioshock InfiniteCredit must be given where it’s due, however, and if Bioshock Infinite can rightfully be proud of any of its attributes, it’s in its world design. Columbia is a striking place, not for the preachy thematics, but for its structure and atmosphere. Columbia is a world of strewn about islands in the sky, yet it feels like a complete place. It’s sinister and terrifying, with mechanical monstrosities that evoke some genuine dread. Columbia effectively recreates a time period while simultaneously creating a time.

It’s all the more disappointing then, that the game and the story involved in Bioshock Infinite don’t share in the genius of Columbia’s design. The world can create moods, but the plot feels the need to scream its intentions at the player, and the gameplay merely settles for the status quo.

The attempted artistry of Bioshock Infinite comes off as forced. It’s as though Bioshock Infinite is constantly telling the players that every next moment will be the new greatest moment they’ve seen in a video game. It’s so sure of itself and yet so bland in execution that the entire experience ends up an overall forgettable affair. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t insist on itself, yet there’s rarely a moment that feels truly inspired, whether as a video game or as a narrative.

There are certainly worse games than Bioshock Infinite out there. There are a great deal of better ones as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find any game in any genre that loved itself even half as much as this.

 

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