Top 10 Video Games of 2017 (Game of the Year)

Here we are. The big one. Game of the Year.

Naming the best video game to be released in almost any given year is a pretty challenging endeavor – I say ‘almost’ because some years, like 2012, kinda suck in the video game department (I’m sorry, how else can you explain Journey winning so many GotY awards for 2012?). This difficulty is doubled, maybe tripled for a year like 2017. Despite some questionable directions the video game industry went into during the year (I’m looking your way, Battlefront II), when was the last time a year had so many stellar releases beginning right out the gate all the way to the tail end of the year?

Seriously, 2017 was a hell of a year for video games! It was like BOOM! Awesome game! BOOM! Awesome game! BOOM! Awesome game! It was murder on the wallet, but worth every penny.

With such a high watermark of a year now in the history books, the year’s best game must be named. Traditionally, I have acknowledged my top 5 games of the year. But for a year as exceptional to the medium as 2017, I had to up the ante to a full-blown top 10!

The following are the ten games that I feel stood out the most among the many greats of 2017. A number of notable titles barely missed making it on here (PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, for example, snagged my “Best Online Multiplayer” award for its intensity, but it lacks the polish of the ten games I’m listing here). I haven’t reviewed all of the games I’m about to list just yet, but I hope to get around to it. Also, as I always state when making such a list, these are my feelings for the moment, so if I later appear to change preferences to what I list here, that’s not necessarily a contradiction. Opinions change. The only things set in stone here are the top two.

Also of note is that, despite being one of the best games of this (or any other) year, I have exempted Mario Kart 8 Deluxe from this top 10 for the obvious reason that it’s a re-release. Same goes for Crash Bandicoot.

Now with that out of the way, my top 10 favorite video games of 2017!

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Sonic Mania Review

Sonic the Hedgehog is back!

It feels so good to be able to say that again, but it’s finally happened. Sonic the Hedgehog now has a new title to his name that lives up to the series’ most iconic entries on the Sega Genesis! In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Sonic Mania outdoes them.

Back in 1991, Sonic the Hedgehog hit the gaming scene, and quickly became a video game icon. Sonic was to be Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario, and indeed, for a few years, Sonic was even more popular than Nintendo’s famous plumber.

But it was not to last. While Sonic’s first several outings on the Sega Genesis (and its add-ons) are still highly revered even today, what he’s done since then has been a little less consistent. Mario proved to be a jack of all trades, seamlessly making the jump to 3D with Super Mario 64, transitioning into other genres with the likes of Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG, and still producing some of the best titles in gaming decades later with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Sonic, on the other hand, felt lost in time.

Though Sonic initially looked poised to replicate Mario’s versatility, the series would soon lose its footing. There wasn’t a proper Sonic title to be had on the Sega Saturn (and that console’s would-be Mario Kart, Sonic R, was a bit of a disaster), and though the Sonic Adventure titles on the Dreamcast were praised in their day, time hasn’t been kind to them, exposing utterly chaotic camerawork and more than a few notable technical issues. After that, Sonic became a multiplatform series once Sega went the third-party route, and things didn’t ease up for the blue blur.

During these years, Sega would try all kinds of experiments with their mascot. Some of these experiments worked to a degree, while others were all-time lows for the series. In many cases, it seemed like the Sonic franchise just leached its way onto anything, and that the developers at Sega would rather be making something else entirely (quite literally in the case of the infamous “Sonic the Hedgehog ’06”).

Whatever Sonic games that did shine during this time were those that played closest to the Genesis playbook, with Sonic Colors and Generations becoming fan favorites. Though sometimes Sega could get carried away with the nostalgia card, with the two episodes of “Sonic the Hedgehog 4” feeling like watered down, clunky versions of the classic template.

But now, we have Sonic Mania, and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Sonic Mania even includes an anime-style opening a la Sonic CD.”

Released as part of an extended 25th anniversary celebration to the franchise, Sonic Mania is perhaps a better gift to the series and its fans than they could have even asked for. Sonic Mania is everything Sonic should be.

Though Sonic Mania is published by Sega, its development team consists of notable members of the Sonic fan-game community. The game was helmed by Christian Whitehead, who was famously recruited by Sega to port a number of the classic Sonic titles to mobile platforms, and teamed by PagodaWest and Headcanon, who have a few Sonic fan-games to their resume.

I’m not sure whether it’s poetic or ironic that it literally took the fans to create the best Sonic game in over two decades, but the end results prove that Sonic Mania truly is a labor of love by people who love the franchise, for people who love the franchise.

First there are the obvious connections to the Genesis classics; the 16-bit visuals and character sprites make the game feel like a proud follow-up to Sonic’s initial outings, albeit taking advantage of modern hardware to make for some dazzling effects that weren’t possible back in the day. Additionally, the majority of Sonic Mania’s “Zones” are new versions of those found in Sonics 1, 2 and 3, Sonic & Knuckles, and Sonic CD. Some such “remixed” Zones even use the templates of their original forms, but with some new additions and tweaks, so that even when Sonic Mania is at its most comfortably familiar, it’s still full of surprises.

“Here’s the final boss from Sonic 2 in the first level of Sonic 1.”

For example, the game begins in Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. While that first-ever level of the franchise has been countlessly recreated in recent years, it’s never been done so poetically as it is here. The Green Hill Zone begins almost identically to how it did back in 1991, until suddenly you notice one of Sonic 3’s magnetic shields in place of Sonic 1’s standard force field, and the corkscrew loops from Sonic 2’s Emerald Hill Zone are at play. Alterations such as this are just the tip of the ice burg, as Sonic Mania is constantly finding ways to reinvent what we know about Sonic’s past.

That’s not to say Sonic Mania is simply falling back on nostalgia, however, as it also includes level design that is entirely its own. Along with a few brand new Zones unique to Mania, the second “act” within the returning zones are less remixed, and more built from the ground up. Sonic Mania really is the perfect marriage of the old and the new for the franchise.

The gameplay is, once again, Sonic at its purest (and best) form. Players can select Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, each with their own abilities (Sonic is fastest and now has a “Drop Dash” move to keep momentum after jumping, while Tails can temporarily fly and Knuckles being able to glide and climb up walls). You’ll run through stages collecting rings, which once again work as a kind of health system (get hit and you lose your rings, get hit without rings and you’re dead). You can collect the aforementioned force fields and shields from Sonic 3 (magnet shields pull in rings and grant a double jump, fire shields give a charging attack and can burn through certain obstacles, and bubble shields allow you to breath under water and jump higher). There’s also a new power-up in the form of blue rings, which are something like a ‘ring insurance.’ The blue rings will make sure that, the next time Sonic gets hit, he can still reclaim every last ring he held by clumping them together in a few giant rings. The blue ring may not sound like much, but in those times when you make a little mistake that would have otherwise cost you hundreds of rings, it becomes a godsend.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a 16-bit Sonic title without some 3D bonus stages. If you can reach a checkpoint with twenty-five rings secured, you can jump into a halo above said checkpoint and play a new version of Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s famous Blue Sphere mini-games (and yes, they’re as hard as ever). Should you complete a Blue Sphere mini-game, you are rewarded with bonuses such as new game modes and unlockable content.

“Sega Saturn FTW!”

But Sonic Mania once again goes beyond the call of duty by including a second such bonus stage, this one brand new (albeit inspired by Sonic CD). If you can find a giant ring hidden in a stage, you are transported to one of these new bonus stages, where Sonic (or Knuckles or Tails) have to catch up to a UFO to claim a Chaos Emerald. These bonus stages have you collecting blue spheres to pick up speed to reach the UFO, while also gathering rings to put more time on the clock, all while being presented in Sega Saturn-inspired visuals.

Another iconic attribute of the Sonic games were the soundtracks. And good heavens, does Sonic Mania deliver on that front. Once again the creation of a series fan (Tee Lopes, famous for covers of various Sonic tracks), the soundtrack to Sonic Mania includes stellar remixes from Sonic’s past (each returning zone gets a different remix for both of its acts), while the brand new tracks are more than worthy successors to the franchise’s legendary music. Though the soundtrack takes most of its cues from Sonic CD – which up to this point had the best soundtrack in the series, hands down – it also feels distinctly its own. It may even be my favorite gaming soundtrack of 2017 and, yes, it may even top Sonic CD for the title of “best Sonic music ever.”

If I had to nitpick anything about Sonic Mania (and you’d have to nitpick to have anything negative to say), it’s that some of the obstacles in the Flying Battery Zone feel a bit unruly and hard to predict, which lead to more than a few accidental fumbles; and the Hydrocity Zone can be a little on the confusing side. But again, any complaints to be had are minor.

“Old levels now feature new gimmicks, like these bouncing gels in the Chemical Plant Zone.”

Sonic Mania obviously plays the nostalgia card, it is so much more than simply a trip down Hedgehog memory lane. This is exactly the kind of sequel the franchise has been begging for for two decades, and the kind of Sonic experience Sega has tried to create themselves in the past, but couldn’t quite get right (Sonic Generations was probably their best attempt). This is the classic Sonic gameplay we all know and love, but it’s also smarter than the games that inspired it. The level designs – which contain so many alternate routes and introduce so many new gameplay gimmicks that they never lose a shred of their charm – are arguably the deepest in the series, and even have a Mario sense of exploration about them to track down their every last secret. And the boss fights are, bar none, the most consistently entertaining in the franchise. No matter how difficult (or easy) the boss fights got, they all provided something new and left their mark.

Sonic Mania is the game fans have waited ever so patiently for. It’s so lovingly crafted, and so well executed, that it may actually have you forgetting about Sonic’s missteps over the years and make you feel like the series never slowed down. From the obvious homages to the most esoteric of references, Sonic Mania oozes an unmistakeable love for all things Sonic (well, all the good things), and lives up to the very best games the blue hedgehog has ever starred in.

If Sonic Mania is anything to go by, then Sonic has finally returned, and in such fashion that it feels like he never left.

 

8

My Favorite Games from E3 2017

E3 2017 has come and gone. Everyone seems to be doing their E3 awards now, so I’ll do the same. Though I’m mainly basing this on my personal experience of attending the event, and since I couldn’t experience every game E3 had to offer, my selections will (mostly) look different than most peoples’. I decided to do something of a top five, but instead of ranking the games, I’ll award each one in its own category, to compensate for the long lines preventing me from playing more.


*Best Game I Didn’t Play*

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

There were plenty of games at E3 that I didn’t get to play, so I guess it makes sense to make a category honoring the best of the games I (unfortunately) missed out on. Of course, I kept track of all the big games from the show through…basically every source I could. And while there were a lot of games I wish I had the chance to play at the show, the one that I regret not getting the chance to play was Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom.

I loved the original game, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, on the Playstation 3. In fact, it was my favorite game of 2013, and one of the best RPGs of recent years. Though the sequel seems to be changing up the formula a bit in terms of combat, it’s still aiming to bring the ineffable charms of Studio Ghibli to the world of video gaming. And frankly, the new combat system looks just as fun (I really liked the “Dragon Quest meets Pokemon” gameplay of the original, but the Pikmin-esque elements are winning me over). In a year chock-full of great games, Ni No Kuni II is among the titles I’m most excited for. And with all due respect to the other great games I wasn’t able to try at E3, I’m kicking myself the most over missing out on Ni No Kuni II, whose line seemed to always be closed every time I tried to play it…

Yeah, I’m also eagerly-awaiting the remakes of Crash Bandicoot and Superstar Saga, but they’re remakes. It’s different.

 

*The “Wow, I Can’t Believe This Actually Works!” Award*

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

For years, I’ve found the Rabbids to be nothing but annoying. When I heard the rumors of a crossover with Super Mario, I was more dumbfounded than anything. Never would I have imagined that this oddball combination would actually lead to a very promising tactical RPG.

It’s Mario. It’s Rabbids. It has XCOM-esque gameplay. It has music by Grant Kirkhope. The Mario and Rabbid characters use sci-fi weapons… This is the weirdest concept for a game I’ve heard in a very, very long time. Almost like Ubisoft pulled a bunch of ideas out of a hat, and decided to put them together. But, if the demo I played is anything to go by, it actually works.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proved to be surprisingly complex with its battle system, and it seems to be using both Ubisoft’s Rabbids and Nintendo’s most iconic IP in a really creative way. Here’s hoping the final game is every bit as much of a pleasant surprise.

 

*The “Outta Nowhere” Award*

Dragon Ball FighterZ

As a kid, I loved the Dragon Ball franchise. As I’ve gotten older, I still have a soft spot for it, even if it loses any shred of story structure once it goes into the “Dragon Ball Z” territory and beyond. The planet-devastating action from the manga/anime series should be ripe for the picking for the video game world. But to be honest, I think that Dragon Ball games, at their best, have only ever been so-so.

That all changed when I played Dragon Ball FighterZ. Visually, it looks just like you’re playing an episode of the anime. Actually, considering the game’s animation is far more fluid than the anime’s, Dragon Ball FighterZ looks better than its source material. More importantly, it plays beautifully. The combat is classic, 2D fighting at its best.

The game oozes both depth and accessibility in its gameplay, with easy-to-learn combos and mechanics that definitely take some time to learn to use to greater effect. Plus, it rectifies one of my major gripes with most 2D fighters by making the matches decently lengthy. Normally, I feel like if you get hit by just a few moves in a 2D fighter, the match is nearly over. But here, players get to choose three characters apiece, with each one being decently durable, leading to matches that felt lengthy, but not so lengthy they overstayed their welcome.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited for a fighting game as I am for Dragon Ball FighterZ.

 

*The “Right in the Childhood” Award*

Sonic Mania

Sonic the Hedgehog was one of my favorite video game series as a kid, but somewhere along the line, the games started sucking. I – like many people – believe this all happened around the time Sonic made the jump to 3D. Some still swear by the Sonic Adventure titles, but I’m sorry, they really show their age. Not to mention they also began the trend for Sonic games trying to be melodramatic story-focused, furry-baiting nonsense, which focused more on introducing more small armies of dumb animal characters in each game than actually making a good game. The more I think about it, the more I think Sonic Generations may be the only 3D Sonic title I actually like…

Sega has tried in the past to bring Sonic back to his former glory, with the Sonic Advance/Rush titles being decent attempts that never quite felt right. A more literal approach was taken with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, but both of that game’s “episodes” felt like dumbed down, clunky versions of the formula.

But with Sonic Mania, Sega seems to finally be getting Sonic right! It looks and feels like the Genesis Sonic games in many ways, but also feels like a proper sequel to the 16-bit Sonic classics. It takes the best bits of Sonic’s most beloved games, while also making everything smoother, and adding a good dose of originality and creativity to boot. Plus, we get the classic pot-bellied, Felix the Cat-esque Sonic that we all love, instead of that obnoxious, desperately-trying-to-be-cool buffoon that the Hedgehog has become.

Whether or not Sonic Mania can repair the franchise as a whole is yet to be seen. But at least it looks like we’ll finally get one game that does the series proud.

 

*Overall Game of the Show*

Super Mario Odyssey

Earlier this year, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game which reinvented the foundations of the Zelda series to masterful effect. Now, Nintendo is aiming to do the same with the one franchise that is arguably more highly-regarded than Zelda.

Nintendo may be boasting that Super Mario Odyssey is returning to the “sandbox style” of Super Marios 64 and Sunshine. But it’s actually so much more than that.

Super Mario Odyssey looks to be rebuilding what we know and love about the Mario series. The worlds of the game are outlandish even by Mario’s standards, and that sense of originality is finding its way into the gameplay.

Instead of one-off power-ups being found in blocks, Mario can buy different outfits – with each boasting different abilities – which he can then wear whenever. The famed plumber is free to search for Power Moons (the replacement of Power Stars) however the player sees fit, with the episodic nature of past 3D Marios no longer limiting Mario’s options. And most prominently, Mario can take control of enemies, NPCs and even objects using his new magic hat, which means the gameplay is constantly changing.

Even with all the changes Odyssey looks to bring to the Mario formula, it still retains the level of polish, intricate controls, and bountiful charms you would expect from the Mario series. Odyssey looks to be a classic in the making.


Well, that does it for my E3 awards. I now leave you with this video of the Super Soul Bros. performing at E3 (pardon my recording skills…or lack thereof).

E3 2017: Day 2

Day two of my ventures of E3 2017 have come and gone. Today, I managed to play a few different games, and actually found some great surprises. On the downside, the AAA booths have proven almost too crazy to deal with. I made the exception for Super Mario Odyssey, and I hope to still play a few more AAA games if I’m able (I really want to try Sea of Thieves). But their lines are pure evil. Just evil.

On the plus side of things, I’m not the biggest fan of the direction many AAA games are taking these days, so missing out on them at E3 isn’t a personally crushing loss. But there are a couple of games I hope to catch tomorrow, seeing as it’s the last day of E3 2017 *sob*.

Anyway, the great news is that I spent most of the day with my brother, so we got to experience a number of games together. First we played Dissidia Final Fantasy NT, the newest edition of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy spinoff fighter for the Playstation 4. It was pretty fun and interesting, though I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. In a game placing two teams of three against each other, I came in last place in the losing team, while my brother got first place on the winning team. Ouch.

I got a bit of vengeance, however, with one of E3’s biggest surprises. Dragon Ball FighterZ had a bit of a line, but it was definitely worth it. The game is a classic-style, 2D fighting game from the makers of Guilty Gear, and uses the same beautiful cel-shading as said series, which looks as close to hand-drawn animation as possible.

Dragon Ball FighterZ uses a team system, with players picking three different characters. The demo consisted of six characters from the anime franchise: Goku, Vegeta, Gohan, Frieza, Cell and Majin Buu. Both me and my brother picked variations of a Frieza, Cell and Buu team (because Saiyans are boring). The game not only looks gorgeous, but the controls and gameplay are incredibly fluid. Better still, unlike many fighters, where it seems like characters are eliminated rather quickly, it took a good few minutes before either of us knocked out our first character. I ultimately ended up victorious in my match against my brother after a hard fought battle. But the real story here is how disappointed I was when my time with the game ended. I wanted it to keep going. Dragon Ball FighterZ was that much fun.

“The bounciest game of the year.”

Another surprise of the show was Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash. Yeah, yeah, this is a series all about waifus and bewbs (as if that’s a bad thing), but it was fun. It basically works like Splatoon meets Super Mario Sunshine, with teams of bosomy, bikini-clad ninjas using squirt guns against each other. Once you have an opponent down, you can continue to squirt them to remove their bikini top or bottom for extra points (convenient lighting prevents all-out nudity). Look, it’s actually a fun game, okay! I know sites like Kotaku are probably already writing their SJW-fueled negative “review” of it. But it’s harmless fun, and more humorous than anything.

Sadly, due to long lines and rather chaotic crowds, I didn’t get to actually play much else, but I did get a good looksy at Sony’s booth, and made another trip to Nintendo’s. That Spider-Man game looks great, and call me a sucker, but I’m really excited for the PS4 version of Shadow of the Colossus, even though I’ve already played it on PS2 and PS3.

I really wanted to try out Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, but the lines for it at both the Nintendo and Ubisoft booths were closed by the time I made it to them. Strangely, Ni No Kuni II’s line was “temporarily closed” the first time I approached it, and then closed for the day the next time. So I guess I know which games I’m starting with tomorrow.

“I never thought I’d want to play a game featuring the Rabbids so badly…”

I did get to play one additional game before the day was done though, Sonic Mania. The Sonic Mania demo allowed you to play as all three characters (Sonic, Knuckles and Tails), and had two different stages to try out (the classic Green Hill Zone and the brand-new Mirage Saloon Zone). I decided to go the classic route and play as Sonic, though because Green Hill Zone seems to be recreated in every Sonic game in existence, I picked the original level instead.

I have to say, it’s hard to get very excited for Sonic games these days, but Sonic Mania has been on my radar since it was announced last year. Even with under ten minutes of playtime with the demo, I think I can safely say it’s the best Sonic game in years. It looks, sounds and feels like the golden age of Sonic games. Though I might even say it controls even more fluidly than the classic Genesis games, and the fact that it’s on modern hardware means that, even though it’s still 16-bits, it can allow for far more complex and robust animations. Sonic Mania is now a game I can’t wait to get my hands on, and it’s been so long since I’ve felt that way for a Sonic title.

Well, that about covers everything I actually managed to play on day two of E3 2017. There’s one more day left, and still a few games I want to be sure to try (mainly Mario + Rabbids and Ni No Kuni II, but if I can manage Splatoon 2, or the Crash Bandicoot and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga remasters, I’ll hopefully squeeze them in as well. And I wouldn’t mind another go at Super Mario Odyssey, provided the line isn’t two and a half hours long).

Even though I may not get the opportunity to play a good deal of games on the show floor, just being able to be at E3 is a real joy for me. As a kid I always wanted to attend E3, and now I actually get to go and play some of the most anticipated upcoming games on the show floor. That’s pretty cool the more I think about it.

Here’s hoping for another trip to E3 in 2018!