Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)

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!

 


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Video Game Awards 2020: Best Multiplayer

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

 

Past Winners

2014: Mario Kart 8 (Online) and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (local)

2015: Splatoon

2016: Overwatch

2017: For Honor* (Online) and ARMS (Local)

2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

 

*Retroactively awarded

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Indie Game

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

 

Past Winners

2014: Shovel Knight*

2015: Undertale

2016: Stardew Valley

2017: Hollow Knight**

2018: Celeste

 

*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.

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Gameplay

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

 

Past Winners

2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

2015: Bloodborne*

2016: Dark Souls 3*

2017: Super Mario Odyssey

2018: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)

 

*Retroactively awarded after further consideration.

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Remake/Re-Release

One of the dumbest complaints gamers make (and boy, is that saying something) is how they hate it when publishers “force them to play the same game over and over” in regards to remakes and re-releases. Unless these publishers are villains in a Liam Neeson movie and have taken your loved ones, no one’s forcing you to play anything.

Re-releases and remakes in the video game world exist for a reason: gaming  advances so quickly, that re-releases are a necessary way to preserve them. It’s a very self-absorbed way of looking at things to assume that, just because you’ve played a particular game before means it doesn’t need another release (of course, gamers and shortsighted, self-absorption tend to go hand-in-hand). Movies get home video releases, which continue to be adapted into whatever the latest form of home video is. More popular movies even get theatrical re-issues. Video game technology advances so fast and moves on to the next thing so quickly, the medium needs some way to keep the classics around. Hence, remakes and re-releases.

They exist for the people who may have missed out on them the first time around, but still want to experience them. And they exist for the people who loved them enough the first time around that they want to experience them again. No one’s “forcing” anyone to play anything.

2019 was a pretty strong year for such remakes and re-releases, and though I didn’t get around to playing them all (sorry, I’ll try to eventually), I definitely know which ones stood out to me the most.

 

Winner: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered

 

One of my favorite handheld games/RPGs, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, was also re-released in 2019, and was a strong contender for this award. But I admit I agree with some of the issues fans have with the remake adding more dialogue (making it feel more bloated with words like Super Paper Mario or all the post-Bowser’s Inside Story Mario RPGs), and the new visuals just don’t have the same charm.

Thankfully, the remastered version of one of my other favorite RPGs – Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – didn’t suffer any such unnecessary changes. It’s the same fun, deep, emotional RPG it was back in 2013, only now with the additional sheen of the PS4 to make the Studio Ghibli provided visuals pop all the more. It’s just a shame that the Switch release of Ni No Kuni was in its original state and not the remaster for some reason (I get that the Switch isn’t the most graphically powerful console, but it seems like it should be able to handle Ni No Kuni, considering some of the other stylized games it houses).

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was my favorite game of 2013, and one of my favorite games of the decade. So to experience it all again – looking better than ever, no less – is nothing short of a treat. Now I just hope that if Ni No Kuni 3 ever happens, that Bandai Namco actually teams up with Studio Ghibli again for the artwork (yeah, they had some of Studio Ghibli’s artists work on Ni No Kuni 2, but it just wasn’t the same).

It’s good to be back in the other world.

 

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey

 

Past Winners

2017: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

2018: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch Version)

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair Review

In 2015, a small development studio called Playtonic Games – comprised of several former members of Rare – revealed Yooka-Laylee through Kickstarter. Yooka-Laylee was a 3D platformer that served as a ‘spiritual successor’ to the Banjo-Kazooie games, which are still seen as some of Rare’s finest achievements, and more than likely the only only 3D platformers not called Mario that genuinely compare to the Italian plumber’s fabled adventures. With the creators of such a beloved series crafting its spiritual follow-up, suffice to say Yooka-Laylee’s crowdfunding campaign was a roaring success.

Fast-forward to 2017 to the release of Yooka-Laylee, and the game’s final reception was unfortunately a lot more mixed than the game’s initial success would have suggested. Though it was a solid effort, a number of technical issues and a few outdated elements prevented Yooka-Laylee from reaching its full potential. Though far from a bad game, it wasn’t the second coming of Banjo-Kazooie we all had hoped it would be.

Thankfully, Playtonic didn’t let the disappointing reception hinder them, and in the Summer of 2019 they announced a surprise sequel, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, which was released a few months thereafter. Unlike its predecessor, Impossible Lair is a 2D side scrolling platformer akin to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. Though Playtonic has insisted to not refer to Impossible Lair as a ‘spiritual successor’ to DKC as they did with its predecessor and Banjo-Kazooie as to avoid setting this sequel up for disappointment, it actually is a strong improvement over its predecessor, and a worthy follow-up to the Donkey Kong Country series.

It’s apparent that Playtonic has learned from Yooka-Laylee’s missteps. While we can hope that means their next 3D platformer will be a real winner (especially considering that genre could do with another classic outside of Mario after all these years), Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is such a strong 2D platformer that it should do away with any skepticisms people may have had towards Playtonic after their maiden voyage, and re-establishes Yooka-Laylee as a viable video game franchise.

While Rare were the developers of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES, that series was eventually passed on to Retro Studios during the 2010s. Retro Studios resurrected the series with Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, and made the series their own with the masterful Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Wii U (and later Switch). While Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair pays homage to Rare’s SNES Donkey Kong Country titles that many of Playtonic’s team members helped create, it also seems to be a loving tribute to Retro Studios’ efforts with the series. In particular, Impossible Lair seems to be doing its best at a game of one-upmanship with Tropical Freeze. Although Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair can’t quite match up to Tropical Freeze, it is undoubtedly the best 2D platformer to be released since.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair sees the return of Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat, as well as their enemy Capital B, who is trying to takeover the “Royal Stingdom” of bees with the use of his new bee mind-controlling scepter. To ensure Yooka and Laylee can’t stop him for a second time, Capital B. has constructed the titular Impossible Lair, an insanely difficult platforming stage that will push Yooka and Laylee (and thus, the player) to their limit.

Similar to the DKC games, both characters essentially serve as a hit point. Get hit once, and Laylee flies away (though there are a few seconds where she can be recovered, and should you lose her, you can bring her back by ringing a Laylee bell). Get hit twice, and Yooka dies. Fall down a bottomless pit, and it’s instant defeat.

To survive the Impossible Lair, Queen Phoebee – the matriarch of the Stingdom – can grant the duo of Yooka and Laylee the aid of her royal guard, who provide a shield for the heroic duo, with each royal guard serving as an additional hit point for the shield. But there’s a catch, the royal guard have all been imprisoned by Capital B.

This is where Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair draws some inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Should the player have the skill/patience, it actually is possible to head straight into the Impossible Lair and, yes, even beat it (though the challenge is so incredibly steep you may have to be crazy to try that). Or you can experience more of the game, rescue the royal guards, and use them to create the shield for Yooka and Laylee. There are forty-eight royal guards in to be found in total, but again, you can attempt the Impossible Lair at any time, no matter how many guards you’ve rescued.

It’s a seemingly simple twist to the genre, but one that ultimately makes for a great change of pace. The concept of the final level being readily available from the start of the game, with the completion of the other stages giving the player more strength to brave said final level, might be the most refreshing twist to the progression of 2D platformers since Super Mario World introduced multiple stage exists and branching paths in its world map. It’s easy to imagine player’s seeking the toughest challenge trying to conquer the Impossible Lair from the get-go, though I’m on the side of the fence that believes a game is best when you experience it to its fullest.

The other big twist Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair brings to 2D platformers is its overworld. Instead of a map screen to select stages, Yooka and Laylee are thrown into a connected world that takes on a top-down, overhead perspective, akin to the 2D Legend of Zelda titles. New stages are found throughout the overworld, and usually require the player to solve a puzzle in order to unlock them. Additionally, each of the game’s twenty stages (not counting the Impossible Lair) features an alternative version, which feels like a more fleshed-out realization of the ‘level expansion’ concept from the first Yooka-Laylee.

While these changes Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair makes to 2D platforming progression are very much appreciated, I must admit most of the game’s drawbacks come from its overworld. Though the idea of unlocking platforming levels in a Zelda-style overworld is a great concept, the puzzles found in said overworld can sometimes be a bit cryptic, and it can often be vague as to where you’re supposed to go next, which prevents the concept from reaching its full potential.

Thankfully, the stages themselves are far better realized. As stated, these are the best side scrolling platformer stages since Tropical Freeze, with levels constantly introducing new gameplay elements into the mix, and the alternate forms of each stage providing even more variety. One stage may get flooded in its alternate form, while another gets flipped on its side. One stage gets frozen over, while a conveyor belt-themed stage will move in reverse the second time around. The twenty proper stages – and their alternate forms – all feel distinct from one another, feel lengthy without ever overstaying their welcome, and are consistently creative.

Quills return as the equivalent of Mario’s coins or Banjo’s music notes (or I suppose most accurately in this case, Donkey Kong’s bananas). Also returning are the Tonics from the first Yooka-Laylee. Quills are found all throughout the stages and overworld, while Tonics are found exclusively in the overworld (sometimes very well hidden), and often require puzzle-solving and Yooka’Laylee’s acrobatics to find.

Once the player finds a Tonic, they use the quills they’ve found to purchase them. The player can equip up to three Tonics at a time. You can unlock the ability to equip four Tonics, but the downside to this is that the process of unlocking the fourth Tonic slot will take you towards the 100% completion mark, and you may wonder why you need that additional Tonic when the game is that close to being finished.

The Tonics provide new twists to the gameplay, or simply change the aesthetics of the game itself. The cosmetic Tonics might change Yooka and Laylee themselves (like giving Yooka a comically oversized head, or making both members of the duo silhouetted), or change the visuals of the stages themselves (such as comic book graphics or heavily pixelated filters). The gameplay Tonics can either help the heroic duo (like giving Yooka more time to reclaim Laylee after she flies away), or hinder them (such as giving enemies an additional hitpoint or reversing the player’s controls).

You may wonder why you would want to equip Tonics to hinder Yooka and Laylee, other than to provide an extra challenge for those looking for it. There’s actually a valid reason for it: the Tonics that make the game more difficult will add to the quills you gain during a stage, while the beneficial Tonics will subtract from them (the cosmetic Tonics thankfully don’t alter your quill count at the end of a level). Again, it’s a fun twist on the traditions of the genre.

Whether or not you like to play with visual-altering Tonics or not, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is quite the aesthetic treat. The graphics look as smooth as the first game, but likely due to the simpler 2D setting, it doesn’t suffer from the same technical blips. The levels look great and the backgrounds are lovingly detailed. It’s just a beautiful game to look at (though I must admit some of the cosmetic Tonics could be a little eye-straining for me).

Like its predecessor and the DKC titles its emulating, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair also features a top notch soundtrack. Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope provided the overworld theme, while fittingly enough, Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise created a number of tunes for the game’s stages. It’s a lovely, atmospheric soundtrack, with the David Wise pieces sounding like a direct follow-up to the composer’s work on Tropical Freeze.

The game as a whole feels like it’s aiming to be a follow-up to Tropical Freeze in a gaming landscape that’s desperately starved of one. Though it undoubtedly follows the rulebook that many of Playtonic’s staffers themselves created with the SNES Donkey Kong Country titles, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair feels every bit as much a love letter to Retro Studios’ second Donkey Kong offering. It’s only fitting then that Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is the first 2D platformer to come around since Tropical Freeze that can rightfully be compared to it. That in itself is one hell of an achievement.

 

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*

It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.

But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).

Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.

Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders

There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.

Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.

Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green)  give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.

With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.

Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.

If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.

The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.

 

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