Updated: Mar 17
50. SteamWorld Dig 2
I didn't expect the first game in this series to hit with me the way that it did. It was a pleasant surprise. But that means I didn't have that same unexpected quality going into the sequel. I had expectations now. Would it live up to them?
Not only did SteamWorld Dig 2 live up to the expectations set by the first game, but it went above and beyond the first game in every way. The exploration loop was even better and the growth curve was phenomenal. The first game felt like a mining game with exploration as a flavor; this felt much more like an exploratory game with mining as a flavor. Leaning more heavily into the Metroidvania design was perfect. Additionally, the story ramped up in a way I wasn't expecting it to. The first game's story wasn't anything to write home about, but 2's story was surprisingly intriguing. This was aided by the clever writing (see above) and enjoyable characters.
This series might have flown under your radar, but definitely check it out, especially if you are a Metroidvania fan. Be aware, though, that the other games in the SteamWorld franchise are each wildly different genres. SteamWorld Heist is a puzzler (think 2D SUPERHOT), and SteamWorld Quest is a deck-building game. I haven't played either one, but they're on my backlog. I love the fact that this studio branches out so much, but I'm also eagerly anticipating the next game in the Dig series.
49. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I set the Fire Emblem series aside after Awakening. I'm not sure what it was, but I just was not even slightly interested in Fates or Shadows of Valentia. In fact, I was pretty sure I was going to skip Three Houses, too, because it just wasn't speaking to me before its release.
Once it came out, though, my Twitter feed was going bonkers. Basically anyone I knew who owned a Switch was shouting from the rooftops how good this game is. After a few days of resisting, I got caught up in the zeitgeist and bought it. Turns out, it's great! I enjoyed it so much that I played through two different storylines, and I even watched the other two storylines in condensed form on YouTube afterward. Who knew that a game about child soldiers hanging out at War School could be so well done? The gameplay was excellent; certainly more challenging than Awakening, but still attainable. Mechanically, it's as great as Fire Emblem ever is.
The thing that I enjoyed most, though, was the stories. Although Byleth is mostly a player-insert character, I appreciate the way that you-as-Byleth have significant influence on the outcome of the world. It's not like you're seeing the same story from different perspectives; your choice of House creates four entirely different stories that are irreconcilable with each other. I'm not sure if Intelligent Systems has come out and stated which story is "canon," and I don't think they have to, nor should they feel obligated to. In the end, I see the game's story as being about the Butterfly Effect. The lesson is that choices matter and relationships matter, and those choices and relationships end up defining the outcome of every event you can think of. I started out with the Black Eagles and instantly concluded that Edelgard Did Nothing Wrong. Then I played the Golden Deer story and realized...all right, Edelgard Did A Few Things Wrong. The thing is, Edelgard is two completely different characters in those two stories, because if you don't choose her house then you don't interact with her and shape who she is as a person. Playing the different storylines doesn't give you a "full picture" of Dmitri or Claude or Edelgard or Rhea; it gives you four completely different versions of them, alternate realities that you create based on choice. (Honestly, this is the kind of extent to which I'd hoped Mass Effect 3 would go, in terms of how different the game could be based on Paragon or Renegade choices.)
I think the best way to enjoy Three Houses is to play it more than once and experience multiple stories, as outlined above. However, that's a pretty big ask, so I understand if people aren't willing to do that and end up disappointed that no individual story is as great as it could have been. For the record, if you only play the game once, I'd recommend that you play Blue Lions, which is the most complete on its own and requires the least amount of outside context to enjoy.
48. New Super Mario Bros. U
In 2017 one of my favorite games writers, Jeremy Parish, published a listicle of his favorite Mario games for Polygon. When he ranked NSMBU in the Number 1 slot, you'd have thought he'd called everyone's mother a dirty skank. People were incensed. They were outraged. Overall, it was taken way, way too seriously. I'm pretty sure he got death threats over it. I do think there was a mistake made here, but it has nothing to do with the list itself. Polygon published the list as a featured article and presented it essentially as "the definitive ranking of Marios," instead of selling it more as what it truly was: "here is one outsourced author's opinion on which Mario games he likes the best." They set Jeremy up, essentially. I hope they learned their lesson from that.
Thing is, though, NSMBU absolutely deserves to be in the conversation of best Mario games, and I'm not surprised that it tops certain people's rankings. It's accessible where it needs to be and challenging where it needs to be. It perfects the NSMB-style physics and gameplay. The level designs are the best they've ever been. Would I rank it number one? No, clearly; but I don't blame Jeremy or anyone else for seeing it ascend to that position.
To top it all off, the game is also packaged with a Challenge Mode, which is something I would absolutely love to see return. The challenge mode includes possibly the hardest level in Mario history, the bluntly-named "Don't. Touch. Anything." If you collect a single coin or bonk a single enemy, you fail the challenge. I uploaded a poor-quality gameplay video a while back that somehow still survives on YouTube. One of my proudest individual gaming achievements.
47. Golf Story
Speaking of proud gaming achievements, I got so hooked on Golf Story that I made a goal to get an Eagle or better all 72 holes in the game. I did it. Heck yeah.
Golf Story scratched the itch that I had since I played Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color: a golf game with a story. In fact, I'm pretty sure the developers have gone on record as saying they were directly influenced by the GBC versions of Mario Golf and Mario Tennis, and even if they didn't say that directly, they said it with every decision they made while making this game. The upcoming Sports Story drives the point home even further.
This game also accomplished something that very few games have been able to do consistently: it made me laugh out loud. I have high hopes for the sequel, and I hope the delay has been beneficial both personally for the developers and for the final quality of the game.