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.
“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)
It’s somewhat hard to believe, but as of today, March 3rd 2020, it has officially been three years since the Nintendo Switch’s release!
That’s right, three years ago today, the Nintendo Switch was launched, and with it, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the best game on the…
*Super Mario Odyssey exists*
…the second best game on the…
*remembers Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was ported to the Switch*
…the third best game on…
*looks at Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe staring at me on my shelf*
…. a really damn good game!
Seriously, the Switch has been a killer console. Its status as a hybrid between a home console and handheld not only makes it the most innovative console wince the Wii (oh Wii, I love you), but that seemingly simple factoid makes a world of difference. You now have home console sized/quality games on the go. It’s amazing when one thinks about it.
And the games! Oh, the games! Again, we had Breath of the Wild – possibly (probably?) the best 3D Zelda title – right out the gate. Not only has Nintendo kept up a (pretty) steady pace of stellar releases since then, they’ve also either ported most of the Wii U’s best games to the system, or have upgraded sequels to them available on Switch. And unlike pretty much every Nintendo console since the N64, the Switch actually has strong third-party support.
There’s just so many games! Both new and old games keep getting released on Switch, giving it a most impressive library (if only it could get its downloadable classics right. Just adopt the Wii’s Virtual Console library).
Yeah yeah, the Switch still has its share of problems, mainly relating to online features (why oh why do we need an app for voice chat?! That’s so convoluted!), but in terms of the library of games and its other features, I honestly think it’s my favorite Nintendo console since the Super NES (I still love you, Wii).
The Switch may have a bit of an uphill battle ahead, what with Sony and Microsoft preparing their next consoles this year. But I think it’s safe to say that the Nintendo Switch has already left an indelible mark on video game history.
*Review based on Katamari Damacy Reroll’s release on Nintendo Switch*
Coming out of the 1990s, which perfected gaming up to that point and then revolutionized it with the third-dimension, the 2000s had a lot to follow-up on. While some games from the early years of the 2000s did prove influential – such as Halo or Grand Theft Auto 3 – it didn’t take long for the decade to become complacent with where they were at. Games were determined to be “edgy” and “gritty” in the wake of GTA’s influence and the FPS boom of the time. Gaming seemed determined to rid itself of its so-called “kiddie” past by embracing violence, sex and adult themes (though in execution, gaming was arguably more juvenile at this point than ever). Color and creativity had no place in gaming anymore, all that mattered was being “cool” and “mature.”
Then along came Katamari Damacy.
Originally released in 2004 on the Playstation 2, Katamari Damacy injected some much-needed personality and humor – not to mention gameplay innovation – back into the medium.
The brainchild of Keita Takahashi, Katamari Damacy is delightfully silly. A bizarre, god-like entity called The King of All Cosmos has gone on a drunken stupor, and carelessly crashed into every star in the sky, destroying them. The King of All Cosmos then commands his son the Prince to replace the stars by creating “Katamaris.”
What are Katamaris? To put it simply, they’re sticky clumps that are made bigger with… stuff. The player, as the Prince, must roll a Katamari along the ground, collecting more and more stuff to make the Katamari bigger. The bigger the Katamari gets, the bigger the objects that can be attached to it.
The goal of each main level in the story is to make the Katamari a certain size by the time the timer runs out, while side levels (which see the Prince recreate the constellations) will have more specific goals, like collecting a certain amount of a particular object.
Earlier stages will have the Prince collecting office supplies and other such trinkets, while the later levels naturally keep upping the ante, with no person, thing or even place being safe from being clumped into the Katamari. It all culminates in a beautifully absurd finale which – in regards to bringing together every element a game has introduced up to that point in a fitting crescendo – should stand as one of the best final levels in video game history.
Katamari Damacy is as fun as it is nonsensical, with the game taunting players with any and every object around them. Players will likely try to discover their own paths through a stage, following a path of objects that gradually get bigger until they can best their high scores.
The graphics are nothing to write home about. Even with its HD gloss in its 2018 “Reroll” release, Katamari Damacy was clearly made with a budget. Thankfully, the humorous nature of the game gives it an art style that plays into its visual limitations, with the human characters looking like blocky Playmobil figures.
The music, however, is phenomenal. While there may have been some cut corners in terms of visuals, Namco (now Bandai Namco) clearly spared no expense when it came to the soundtrack. Almost every track in the game has Japanese vocals, and while I may not be able to understand what they’re saying, each tune creates a distinct personality for each stage. Some of the songs are riotously funny, while others are cute and soothing. Aside from Katamari’s own sequels, you won’t find many other game soundtracks like it. It’s wonderful to listen to.
Not every element of Katamari Damacy has aged well, unfortunately. This is a PS2 game at heart, and boy does it play like one. You use both control sticks on your controller to push the Katamari, while only moving the left stick moves Prince around said Katamari, and turning the right stick on its own moves the camera (even if you do get the hang of it, the camera isn’t too reliable, as fitting into a crowded space or taking a rough bump can send the camera careening out of whack). You can also supposedly dash by moving both joysticks up and down opposite of each other, but as you can imagine given the primary control of the game, the dash only seems to work some of the time.
The awkward controls and clunky camera may be products of their time, and if memory serves correctly, I’m tempted to say that its immediately successor, We Love Katamari (the only other entry directed by Takahashi) was an improvement. But in terms of personality, humor and innovation, Katamari Damacy played a role in elevating gaming out of a creative dark age, and reminded us all that, deep down, games should be fun.
*Review based on Joe and Mac 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Service*
Developed by Data East and released on the Super NES in 1994, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics is the third game in its series (yeah, it’s one of those video game sequel situations), being the sequel to the original Joe & Mac, and Congo’s Caper, which was a sequel in world and gameplay but featured a different character.
Joe and Mac are two cavemen on a quest to reclaim a crown that was stolen from their village elder by a rival clan. Equipped with (what else?) clubs, Joe and Mac venture to various lands, fight rival cavemen and vicious dinosaurs, and in a strange, quasi-RPG twist, can find brides and build up their homes on the side.
The core game is an action side-scroller with a dash of platforming, where the aforementioned bashing of enemies with clubs takes place. But the game also features an old RPG-style world map where you travel between the stages, which is a nice touch that I wish more action and platformer games of the time would have adopted. Once the first stage is completed and you’ve visited the local village, you can basically choose the order in which you complete the other stages via the world map which, again, is a really nice change of pace for the genre.
On the downside, there are only six stages in total (not counting the final level, which is a boss rush), but at least they’re decently lengthy for a game of its time. While the stages follow usual platforming themes (there’s a snow level, a volcano, and a swamp), the level design is distinct enough to make each stage stand out. I especially like how different segments of each stage are given different titles, which pop up in a window in the middle of the screen.
As you might expect, each level comes with its own gimmicks. The snow level, for example, has a section that sees Joe and/or Mac cling to ropes to prevent getting knocked off the stage by an avalanche. Other stages have portions where the cavemen can ride on cute dinosaurs, who each have their own projectile.
Although the core gameplay is decently fun, these gimmicks drag the game down somewhat. While Data East’s attempts at level and gameplay variety are commendable, the level gimmicks aren’t nearly as successfully realized here as those in more famous platformers like Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country. It’s way too easy to let go of the ropes by accident in the avalanche segment, making it more difficult than intended. And as cool as the idea of riding dinosaurs is, they feel extremely underpowered. Remember how powerful Mario felt when riding Yoshi in Super Mario World? Well here, it’s the exact opposite. The dinosaurs Joe and Mac ride on die in one hit, while Joe and Mac themselves take six hits to take down. Worse still, each rideable dinosaur only appears in a single segment of the game. So chances are your experiences with each dinosaur will be insanely brief.
One cool aspect is how healing items also serve as power-ups. Eat a piece of meat to heal Joe or Mac, and then you can spit out a few bones as projectiles (although I wish using the club and spitting bones were used with different buttons, since it’s difficult to hit smaller enemies with the bones, but you have to use them up before you can use the club again). Eat chili peppers and of course you can spit fire, just like in real life. Joe and Mac can even gulp a handful of water to spit at enemies. It’s simple stuff, but I like the idea that these items both heal the characters and give them new abilities. Additionally, you can also get upgrades to your club, allowing them to shoot shockwaves in addition to simply bashing someone on the head.
The highlights of the platforming stages are the large dinosaurs that serve as the boss fights. Though most of the bosses are pretty easy, I like the simple idea that each stage gets its own dinosaur as its boss. It’s kinds of ideas that give retro games a fun sense of personality that many modern games lack.
While the main stages feature action and platforming, Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics attempts something of an RPG element in its town. During the levels, you can pick up stone wheels (think Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings), which can be spent in the village as currency. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game really drops the ball, as the RPG element feels pretty pointless and tacked on.
Aside from purchasing the same healing items you can find in the stages themselves, you can also purchase melons which – as far as I can tell – don’t do anything of note (a window pops up to tell you that the melon tasted fresh, but I never noticed it had any utilitarian usage in gameplay). Additionally, you can purchase flowers, which you can then give to one of three cavewomen behind a curtain. If the girl likes the flowers, she’ll marry your character. If you can get her flowers she likes two additional times, she’ll produce a child (just like real life). Finally, you can also buy upgrades to your home, making it bigger and have more in it.
What’s the point of all this? Nothing, really. You can go back to your home village and enter your home, but all that gives you is some basic dialogue from your wife and then you automatically leave the house. You also get to see your house during the end of the game, but again, it’s no different from when you drop by any other time. It’s bizarre, you go through all the trouble of collecting the stone wheels, only to spend most of them on a pointless side quest with random elements (you’ll probably spend a good few wheels on flowers only for them to fail to impress the girl). It’s as if the developers wanted to add this whole other side to the game, but barely got started on it before they had to ship the final product.
Still, the core gameplay in the platforming stages is decently fun and fluid, though they aren’t immune to what can only be described as “old video game jank.” That is to say, certain clunky elements that feel like the product of their time. For example, there’s one instance in the swamp level where you climb down a rope, and an enemy spawns mid-jump as you’re heading down. Unless you know that’s going to happen, you can’t avoid it on the first try, so hopefully you have more than one hit point when you get there. Another such instance happens in the caves of the snow stage, when an absolute barrage of enemies just keep coming at you. Perhaps this section (and others) isn’t so bad when you have two players and both Joe and Mac can take on the enemies. But the developers clearly had the idea of a solo player as an afterthought, because so many sections feel overwhelming for a single player.
If there’s one area in which Joe & Mac 2 gets things consistently right, it’s in the aesthetics. Visually speaking, the game looks amazing! I have stood firm in my claims that the 16-bit generation of gaming remains its most timeless era, and Joe & Mac 2 is another example why that is. The background graphics are rich in detail, and the character sprites are vividly animated (I especially like the contrast of the boss dinosaurs with everything else in the game. The cavemen and friendly dinosaurs look cartoony, but the boss dinosaurs are highly detailed and more realistic, relatively speaking). And though the soundtrack isn’t one of the many all-time greats to come out of the SNES library, it’s still upbeat and pleasant.
Joe & Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics can be a fun game at times, and with two players, you’re probably going to get even more enjoyment out of it. Unfortunately, without a buddy by your side, its faults are more apparent. Some poorly-realized elements in the main stages hold the fun back a bit, but the utter pointlessness of the RPG stuff on the side is what really feels like a missed opportunity.
Still, in this day and age of nostalgic comebacks, I wouldn’t mind seeing Joe & Mac make their long-awaited return. Hey, if Bubsy can do it, anyone can.
Seeing as we’ve entered a new decade, I – being the sappy, festive person that I am – decided to replay an old favorite as my first game played in the new decade. So naturally, I picked Super Mario World.
And then after that, I picked Dark Souls. That’s two all-time greats back-to-back. Not too shabby.
Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned I still have some 2019 games to review so I should really get back to them. I don’t know, I just felt like playing a game for the enjoyment of it for a change, instead of putting the pressure on myself to review it. Yes, I will still get back to those remaining 2019 games, notably Pokemon Sword. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself struggling to get through Pokemon Sword. It’s actually inspired me to write a future piece about my overall opinion of the Pokemon series. I find that I love the IP, the concept, and the creatures of Pokemon. But I’ve kind of realized I’m not the biggest fan of the games themselves. Of all Nintendo’s franchises, Pokemon is the one that – ironically enough – just doesn’t evolve.
But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’re talking Dark Souls. Originally released in 2011 as a kind of spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls would become one of the most beloved and acclaimed games of the 2010s. And frankly, it has very little in the ways of competition for the title of the most influential game of the 2010s. Seriously, how often do you hear terms like “Souls-like” these days? How many of its elements have you seen integrated into games of all different genres? As much as people want to pretend that Rockstar and Naughty Dog are the big influencers of gaming today, neither of those studios have seen their design philosophies reverberated into the works of others on such a deep level. Rockstar may have popularized open-worlds, and Naughty Dog has continued to make people think having a story equates to good storytelling, but Dark Souls has fundamentally transformed game design in ways akin to the grandaddies of the medium like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.
When I originally reviewed Dark Souls Remastered, I awarded it a rare 10/10. While I don’t think awarding a game like Dark Souls with top honors is misplaced, I do admit I have (at least temporarily) lowered my score of it to a 9/10. Not because I think any less of it per se, but I might prefer Dark Souls 3 and (especially) Bloodborne in the ways of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s very specific series of games. It’s a case of “which giant is the biggest among giants.” Even Dark Souls 2, the supposed “black sheep” of the lot, is still a great game. This is a series which definitely feels like a 10/10 is warranted somewhere though, it’s just tough to say which one is the definitive installment.
The first Dark Souls still seems to be the most beloved overall (with Bloodborne being its closest competition). And it’s definitely a fair argument. There’s just so much about it, from its level design, monsters, intricate gameplay, countless atmospheric locations, and genuinely original lore that makes it all so memorable.
In fact, Dark Souls is a game so good that I bought the remastered version twice, the first time around on the PS4, and the second time on the Switch (because Switch has everything). With my current playthrough, I decided to take the Switch version for a whirl, though in retrospect maybe I should have gone back to the PS4 version first since I’m only one trophy away from platinuming the game…
Eh, another time. On the plus side of things, Dark Souls Remastered looks and plays just as well on Switch as it did on PS4. And the great thing about the Switch version of any game is, of course, that you can play it as a handheld. Sure, I usually play Switch docked as a console, but to have the option and ability to play something like Dark Souls as a handheld game is just wonderful. It’s such a huge advantage for Switch games, and I don’t think that detail about the console gets the recognition it deserves. Again, Dark Souls as a handheld title, with no compromise! I love the Switch.
Anywho, my current playthrough is reminding me why I love Dark Souls so much. You always hear people go on and on about the game’s legendary difficulty, and while it certainly is a steep challenge, there’s so much more to Dark Souls than its challenge. This is a game (and subsequently, series) that seems to have an intimate knowledge of game design. What at first seems simply like brutal difficulty is actually a lesson in patience and dedication. Approach Dark Souls as you would most other games, aiming immediately for action and to take out your enemies, and your haste is destined to fail.
When you die in Dark Souls, you lose all of your acquired souls (essentially experience points and currency rolled into one). But you’re given a chance to reclaim them. Learn from your mistakes, make it back to where you died, and succeed where you once failed, and you can reclaim your lost souls. It’s a terrific risk and reward mechanic that firmly asks the player to study every element of the game, as opposed to simply running in and killing stuff willy nilly.
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2019 title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (another 2019 game I gotta get back to) was beloved by many, even receiving Game of the Year by a number of outlets. But that particular game has – so far – not clicked for me in the way the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games have. A large reason for this is that it removes the “reward” aspect of the aforementioned risk and reward scenario. In Sekiro, whatever experience you’ve accumulated is lost and gone for good immediately upon defeat. It’s a difficult game that seems to send the player into its challenges blindfolded, and then arrogantly punishes them for not being able to overcome said challenges the first time around. That’s not the case with Dark Souls. No matter how difficult Dark Souls gets, there’s always that semblance of hope that makes you want to persevere.
I’ve heard some people describe Dark Souls as being about “hopelessness,” and some even referring to its dark world as “nihilistic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As grim and elegiac as the series (Bloodborne most definitely included) can be, Dark Souls is ultimately an incredibly hopeful experience. It may not be apparent at first, and surely the uninitiated will get angry a time or two at its seemingly unfair odds. But as you struggle, and endure, and pick yourself back up and carry on, you begin to realize what makes Dark Souls special.
Dark Souls isn’t simply a ‘hard game.’ It’s a work of art that teaches you the importance of even the smallest ray of hope in the face of hopelessness itself. The brooding, often-grotesque monstrosities of Dark Souls at first seem to mock you in defeat. But as you learn to press on, and learn from your experience, and know that with just a little extra effort you can conquer anything, you end up doing just that. And when you finally fell a particularly dastardly monster, the sheer joy and relief that washes over you as your foe vanishes into light is euphoric. And by the time you make it to New Game Plus, you are so wizened from your experience that you feel like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Superman, knowing every nook and cranny of the game while being able to topple foes that once seemed unbeatable.
It’s hope that got you there. Hope that Dark Souls beautifully, deceptively implants into you. So many video games these days are hellbent on proving the artistic merits of the medium by means of replicating cinema, but Dark Souls is one of those titles that becomes a work of art by fully embracing its nature as a video game.
No other medium could instill hope in its audience in the same way Dark Souls does. Hopefully, its players will be able to take that message to heart, and let that same kind of hope help them in the real world as well.
Suffice to say, Dark Souls has earned its place as one of the best games of its decade.