For a while now, every year has been getting faster and faster. I've been told that this would happen when I get older, and the flow of time has definitely lived up to the hype. However, that all changed with 2021. Somehow, the year 2021 feels like it was a decade long. For several different reasons, I feel like practically an entirely new person now than I did twelve months ago. The good news is that I think I like this current version of Jared a bit better.
As it relates to games, though, the slowness of the year actually translated to me playing more games than I thought I would (while finding a much healthier home/work/recreation balance than I had in 2020). At the beginning of the year, I set out to play as many 2021 games as possible, a goal I achieved by playing at least 15 games released in the past year. There were also a number of series-specific journeys that I embarked on, sometimes on a whim--replaying every 2D Metroid game, beating every classic Mega Man title, even beating a few Kid Icarus, Kirby, and Castlevania games along the way. All told across old and new, I completed about 50 games. It's not a race or a competition, but I am personally very happy with this number and the breadth of experiences I was able to get to this year.
Here are my collected thoughts on the end of this year in gaming. I'll start out a few personal awards and wrap up with a fleshed-out Top Ten Games of 2021. Some spoilers ahead, especially for Inscryption. Let's roll.
Best Moment: The Mountaintop Duet with Chicory (Chicory: A Colorful Tale)
Chicory is carried by its characters, and those characters are carried by a tapestry of dialogue and micro-interactions throughout the game. By contrast, the duet on Dessert Mountain is one of the few true set pieces in the game, and lands all the more for how unique it is in the context of the game. The lyrics of the duet between Chicory and the player character are warm, heartfelt, and really capture the core themes of the game. Lena Raine's composition is beautiful both in its in-game form and its performed, vocal version. The whole scene was very moving...and also, it's a minigame styled after Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents! In a game that was full of standout moments, this duet is the one that will stick with me.
In-game version: https://youtu.be/Ly_YZXswQe0
Vocal version: https://youtu.be/I4VttdTSVRw
Best New Character: Leshy (Inscryption)
Inscryption spoiler time.
When I first started Inscryption, the mysterious eyes behind the other end of the table were menacing and disturbing. The creator of the card game stood as my nemesis, the ultimate evil before me. I never, ever expected that by the end of the game, I would feel sympathetic toward that character--more than that, that I'd actually feel an emotional connection to him. Look, Inscryption is a game entirely about subverting expectations and being full of surprises. The biggest surprise of all, though, was that I ended up on Leshy's side. He just wants to play his game, man. That's all he wants. When he asks to shake your hand before being deleted, I got as emotional as I did at any point in any other game this year. "It was a good deck. You did well." Leshy, you big lug...
Old Game of the Year: Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
I played a lot of great old games this year, several of which I experienced for the very first time. I wrote about a couple of these experiences: my Metroid retrospective journey, my first time with Circle of the Moon, my long-in-coming Hollow Knight playthrough, and even my time with the delightful Banjo-Kazooie mod Jiggies of Time.
For a game I haven't written about yet, though, I want to show some love to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. This is now my favorite "classicvania" game by a longshot, matching and surpassing my love of Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse. Coming back to Rondo in the hindsight of having played both Igavania and Classicvania is a really fun exercise, because you get to see how it bridges the gap so beautifully between the two styles of the series. The level design, combat, and general structure are very classic, but the branching paths, secret-searching, and encouragement to explore the different levels through backtracking are very Metroidvania. It was pretty surprising and wonderful for me to see that many of the enemy designs that I thought originated in Symphony of the Night were actually drawn first from this game. Additionally, the option to play as Maria was a lot of fun. Ever since playing Dracula's Curse, I've always loved having more than one character option in Castlevania, and Maria is a joy to play. Finally, this game just absolutely oozed with charm. While I played and loved the PSP remake as well, I have to say that the delight of those TurboGrafx anime cutscenes is just a part of the whole package that I can't do without.
My Top Ten Games of 2021
10. Pokemon Brilliant Diamond
The Gen IV remakes boldly ask the question, "How far can nostalgia, and nostalgia alone, carry a game?" The answer, as it turns out, is to number 10 on my personal list. Look, this remake is rote. It does nothing bold or exciting. Aside from toughening up a few endgame trainers, it's about as phoned-in as a pokemon remake could be. But hey...it's Pokemon, and the core of Pokemon is enough to carry the day. I still had a lot of fun revisiting Sinnoh, and I did a hardcore Nuzlocke run through the whole game to increase the challenge and the fun. I still haven't done the Elite Four, actually--I intend to stream that battle, eventually. If you're interested, keep your eyes on the Discord, and hopefully I'll get that done before the end of the month.
Eastward wins my personal award for "I wish I liked this game more." It's a gorgeous game, sporting some of the best pixel art that I've ever seen. It has a strong premise, too. But man...this game is slow. It's just so slow. Barely anything happens. I'm all for a game that makes you slow down and play at a more contemplative pace, but the talking-to-doing ratio in this game is a little much for me. Not only that, but the gameplay isn't particularly interesting for the stretch that I played. There is a lot of potential here, and I intend to finish the game eventually and hope to see the game fulfill its early promises, but for now the game falls to my ever-expanding backlog. I want to like this game, but unfortunately that feeling only gets you to number 9.
Cutest protagonist of the year, for sure. ElecHead is the definition of short and sweet, only taking me a little under 3 hours to 100%. The simple concept is that you are a robot that electrically charges anything you touch, and different surfaces will react differently to being charged or not charged. Two things are so important for a puzzle platformer like this: clever puzzle design, and crisp gameplay feel. ElecHead nails both aspects perfectly. It also has one of the best surprises in a game that I've ever experienced, revealing that the end of the game was just a few screens to the left of the beginning the whole time. You were capable of going there right away, but you didn't know it until you learned the breadth of mechanics through the natural progression. Such a cool trick. Soundtrack is bangin', too.
7. Pokemon Unite
You may not know this about me, but I was a League of Legends junkie for about a year. From 2012 to 2013, I played a ton of LoL. It was sophomore year of college, my classes weren't too bad, and my girlfriend at the time (now wife) was student teaching for most of the year. I became a MOBA degenerate.
Pokemon Unite scratched that itch for me. It's a MOBA that, for the first time in the genre's history, is actually approachable. Each match is only 10 minutes long, which fits much better into my adult life than ever getting back into the insanely long matches of LoL or DotA would. Your objectives and goals are clear, but the strategy and metagame still gets pretty complex and interesting, especially at higher gameplay levels.
Oh, and bonus...it's Pokemon!! It's clear that the developers of this game have a deep love for not only the MOBA genre, but also the Pokemon source material. Moves and signature abilities from Pokemon are mapped brilliantly onto the MOBA format. The cast has some of the obvious choices like Charizard and Pikachu, but they also went off the beaten path with roster inclusions like Crustle and, to my great delight, Mamoswine. It's always hard for me to rank multiplayer games in lists like this, but Pokemon Unite definitely deserves some love.
6. Axiom Verge 2
I did already write extensively about Axiom Verge 2, if you want to check it out. AV2 is a great entry into the pantheon of Metroidvanias, this time leaning far more into the -Vania than the original. Of course, it's not without its flaws; it's not always very clear what your next objective is (beyond the normal feeling of exploration that a Metroidvania is meant to provide, that is), and there are no real bosses in the game (which is a weird omission considering the fact that the bosses of AV1 were one of its greatest strengths). Those things granted, though, AV2 has a lot to love. It's stunningly beautiful, its soundtrack rips, and the story is a lot more interesting than its predecessor. The lightworld/darkworld mechanic is a nice addition to the AV universe.
5. Bowser's Fury
I am still not exactly sure what to classify Bowser's Fury as. Is it DLC? An expansion? A new game mode? Something new entirely? Whatever it is, it's just really good, OK? Super Mario 3D World was extremely deserving of a Switch re-release, so I would have been happy with just that on its own. However, we also got this delightful, less-than-ten hour, open-world campaign packaged along with it. Some people are saying that they hope this game represents the future of 3D Mario. I don't know if I'd personally go that far, but I'd certainly be happy to see some of these design elements mixed in down the road. The Kaiju Bowser structure sorta wore out its welcome, and definitely would not be a sustainable model for a longer game. For this bite-sized gem, though, it was fresh and fun. If you have a Switch and you haven't bought this package, you'd do well to snag it and get yourself two fantastic games.
4. Death's Door
We are now at the point in my list where every game had a significant bid for #1. Death's Door doesn't do anything particularly revolutionary--to be extremely reductive, it's the intersection of top-down Zelda, Dark Souls, and...uh, Marble Madness? (It's isometric, is what I'm getting at.) But while it's not breaking new ground, it perfectly executes exactly that which it sets out to do, and that's also immensely valuable. Not every game needs to be a watershed moment for the medium. Sometimes, taking known quantities and combining them masterfully is exactly what you need.
Death's Door has some of the cleanest gameplay of the year; everything happens exactly the way that you think it should. It has a nice amount of weapon and magic variety to play around with, and its magic/melee system ensures that you master both short- and long-range combat along the way. Besides its smart design, though, Death's Door hit me surprisingly hard with its story. You play as a reaper who is tasked with harvesting the souls of certain individuals who refuse to die despite it being their time, including the deity who is in control of death in the first place. Charming characters, believable writing, and a strong premise combine to deliver what amounts to my favorite overall narrative of the year. Killer music too.
It's tough to talk about Inscryption, because if I tell you the best things about it, I am robbing you of the potential joy of experiencing those things for yourself. However, deck-building card games aren't for everyone, and not everyone has the time to devote to every game with spoilers, so...well, keep reading if you want.
You may have noticed that the screenshot I posted above is very unlike most of the screenshots you've seen of this game. That's because Inscryption is no less than 5 games by the end, though it is all built around one unifying card game with one consistent rule set throughout. Except for the FMV parts, those don't have the card game. And yeah, there's a whole fourth wall-breaking FMV section, if you didn't know that.
This game would not work as well as it does if the core card game didn't work. Thankfully, though, the card game itself is absokutely killer. In fact, Dan Mullins is currently making an endless mode that eschews the metanarrative and develops the card game even further. I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into that when it drops in its full form later this year.
The way that the metanarrative is delivered is really striking. It starts with some of your cards talking to you as you play, but there are so many slight and subtle changes and hints that happen as you move forward with each run. The first time Luke speaks out loud, I almost jumped out of my seat. When the Stink Bug and Stoat change their appearance without warning, I sat and stared at them for a full minute, just baffled at what was really going on here. When the FMV section started, I just laughed in disbelief. When the game turned into the Pokemon TCG for Game Boy, I giggled. When the game asked me to pick a large, important file from my computer, I felt like my privacy was being invaded. When the game picked names from my Steam friends list to turn into powerful cards to use against me, I was all the more motivated to defeat the faceless evil on the other end of the table.
Then, the end of the game came, and there were actually some powerful emotional beats, too! Inscryption didn't have anything all that profound and meaningful like Death's Door or Chicory, but it did get me to connect with its characters and narrative in a way that I simply was not expecting. And it all starts with a brilliant, simple little card game! Please play Inscryption, even if I gave some details away in this write-up. It's very much worth the time you'll spend on it.
2. Chicory: A Colorful Tale
As of my writing this, I played Chicory last week. Yeah, I know, it's kinda crazy that a game I played so recently skyrocketed it's way to #2 on my list for the year. What you've gotta realize, though, is that there was a second that I thought this game could be #1.
Chicory resonated with me on a pretty deep level. The two main characters, Chicory and the player character (whom I named Sushi), are each struggling with deep issues of their identity as artists. Chicory is struggling with perfectionist tendencies, afraid that she won't live up to the huge expectations foisted upon her as the Wielder of the Brush. Sushi, the accidental successor to the Brush, is struggling with imposter syndrome and that she's not truly deserving of the task. Without getting into too much personal detail, I really related to both Chicory and Sushi in my own life and with my own career. I often feel like I'm not good enough, or that I don't belong, or that I'll never meet the needs of the people in my care.
That's why the positive messages learned by both Chicory and Sushi really hit me in a big way. I played a lot of fun games this year, but Chicory is the game that really meant the most to me emotionally. For that reason, it launched itself to the top. It reminds me a lot of Celeste in that way--which makes sense, as Lena Raine did the music and Maddy Thorson was a consultant and tester for the game. There's a lot of common DNA there.
Chicory has a lot to love beyond the story, including the very fun and heartfelt moment-to-moment writing. Every character has at least 3 separate sets of dialogue every time you encounter them, and most characters get a completely fresh set of lines after each major event in the game. And oh yeah...it's a video game, too. A good one! The puzzle designs are fantastic; I had a ton of fun figuring out the solutions to each screen. Each new ability adds a fresh set of ideas to work with, and they're all enjoyable.
The biggest problem with Chicory, and the thing that prevented it from reaching the heights of my #1 spot, is the core painting mechanic. It can get pretty uncomfortable and imprecise. I played on Switch, so I was supposed to point my right joy-con at the screen to get things done. I just don't really have a good couch for that, you know? The way to play this game is definitely on PC with a mouse. I don't actually know if that's possible, but if it is, it feels like that would be the only truly good way to control the game.
Chicory is beautiful, and even with my personal frustration with the painting mechanic, I'd recommend the game to anyone without hesitation.
1 . Metroid Dread
There's really no universe in which a new, high-quality 2D Metroid isn't my game of 2021. While it obviously didn't hit me in the same emotional places as Chicory, it did hit me in one very key emotional place: my nostalgia. Playing Metroid Dread made me feel like a kid again, and that's a response that's hard to ignore.
This game is awesome, man. I wrote about it at length earlier this year, but to hit some of the key points again: MercurySteam learned all the right lessons from their outing with Samus Returns, providing a top-quality Metroid experience with their own spin. The EMMIs were menacing and perfectly terrifying, but not over-used to the point of being too obtrusive. The map was extremely well-designed and tuned to funnel you just where you needed to go. The game didn't hold your hand, but it never got too obtuse to where you couldn't figure out your next objective. I also loved how difficult the game got, without ever crossing into unfair territory.
Metroid Dread was the game this year that I beat and then immediately re-started to play again. Heck, I played the game almost 10 times before the year's end, getting a little faster each time. In a year full of great games, and full of some great personal Metroidvania experiences to boot, Metroid Dread gave me exactly what I needed.
And I didn't even know this game existed before June!!