2021's Games of the Year, Part 1
This is a retro video game newsletter, but I still play new ones, you know.
Sure, this newsletter is dedicated to retro video games (or, at least, I try to keep it to ones that initially released multiple console generations ago). That’s no reason to avoid writing about my favorite games of the present day, however: if you’re looking for my favorite not-2021 games of 2021, I already covered that. This, and Friday’s feature as well, will concern themselves with the best games of the current year in gaming.
There are a couple of ground rules in place for eligibility. For one, I had to have actually played the game, and in a meaningful way. That seems an obvious point I shouldn’t have to make, but I’m making it so I can follow it up by saying that if a game you love from 2021 isn’t here, it’s most likely just because I haven’t played it yet, not because I hated it. There are quite a few games I bought in 2021 with intention to play, but I ran out of calendar year before I could get to it, or like, I’m still like half-a-dozen Ys games behind so can’t play the new one yet: maybe they’ll all be entries in the Not 2022 Game of the Year list.
I am not including ports in this list, either: sorry, Trails of Cold Steel IV, but you’re a 2020 Playstation 4 game that also released on the Switch in 2021, not a “new” game by this list’s reckoning. And if a game is a re-release of an older title, it better be a full-on remaster, and not just the previous game with more bells and whistles. So, no Super Mario 3D World even if I think it’s one of the finest games Nintendo has ever released, and no Raiden IV Mikado Remix, even if it’s the definitive version of the game. The one exception for ports, by the way, is if the game was previously only on PC. Disco Elysium is eligible even though it released two years ago, because any PC game that is going to get a console release eventually is basically invisible to me until it does. Disco Elysium isn’t going to do anything with that eligibility, though, because I only recently picked it up on Switch. It’ll get its chance to make the It’s New to Me 2022 iteration of these lists, don’t you worry. As will any Playstation 5 games from 2021, if I decide to get one/can get one in 2022.
Let’s get to it. Five games today, plus a fun little bonus section at the end, and we’ll get to the other five and the honorable mentions in part two. Given these are 2021 games, yes, there will be some light spoilers of cool shit that happens that I want to spotlight, but I’ll leave out explicit plot details.
No More Heroes 3
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: Grasshopper Manufacture
August 27, 2021
Did the world need another No More Heroes game? No, it didn’t, but in a truer, more accurate sense, yes, it did. At least, I needed another No More Heroes game, even if I didn’t particularly know I did. Subconsciously I must have known that I wasn’t finished with Travis Touchdown just yet, not when he hadn’t even stopped an alien invasion from destroying the Earth yet. Luckily, that’s just what No More Heroes 3 is about: the assassin’s rankings have gone galactic, and that means Travis and his ragtag team of loosely associated murderous weirdos have their hands full.
Well, the ones whose hands are still attached to their body after the aliens first strike, anyway.
No More Heroes 3 is a game where Travis’ cat, Jeane, can suddenly speak. It is not explained. It is barely addressed, other than Travis being surprised at the sound of Jeane’s voice, because there simply is no time to concern neither the protagonist nor the person controlling them with the details of why this house cat who has been around since the first No More Heroes can now both talk and surround himself with an energy shield that lets him fly, who cares, knowing the cat can do that is enough. No More Heroes 3 instead uses that that time to talk about all of the New Japan Pro-Wrestling tag teams that are better than the Freebirds, or to repeatedly dissect the library of work produced by film director Takashi Miike. When a character from another video game shows up to assist Travis at one point, he introduces himself with some version of “Oh, I’m from a different video game, nice to meet you.” And that’s all the explanation you or Travis get.
You’re playing a video game, and this video game knows it: if it is not of vital importance that you understand every detail, then the details will not be shared. No More Heroes 3 is so self-aware with its Being A Video Game that I believe it’s basically all the proof you need that Goichi Suda’s idea of a linked universe of work is much less Marvel and multiverses and time traveling than it is, well, Wreck-It Ralph. They're all just video game characters aware they're in video games to varying degrees, and those games exist in the real world, meaning Travis can appreciate the beauty of a Gotch suplex, because it’s real to him, dammit. Do not try to solve any complicated multiverse puzzle in Suda51’s work, because it doesn't exist: thematic and fourth-wall-breaking links are where he and his work are at. God, I love that man. Let him make a Zelda, who cares.
If you weren’t into the previous No More Heroes games, then this third (fourth, really) entry won’t be for you, either. If you enjoyed how the previous titles in this series looked at the video game landscape and tore it to shreds with insightful and incisive criticism that also made for hilarious and enjoyable gameplay, well, you’re probably already convinced that you need to play this one, too.
Developer: Petit Depotto
March 4, 2021
Gnosia was actually a 2019 Playstation Vita game first, but as that only released in Japan and 2021 marked its worldwide release, it more than qualifies for our purposes. Gnosia is a visual novel, but within it is a game within a game: you are stuck in a time loop, effectively playing Werewolf, in order to progress the story. Basically, each loop will feature a crew member or crew members who have been infected by the Gnosia, an alien that basically possesses bodies, and it is your job to uncover, along with the other crew members, who are the Gnosia posing as crew, and to put them away in cold sleep so your ship can make its next jump. Sometimes, you yourself will be the Gnosia, and it will be vital that you survive each night in that role, too, along with the other infected, in order to reveal more of the story and details that can be used to move the game’s narrative along.
Once you get comfortable with the rules, they shift, and there are enough potential roadblocks by the time all of the various pieces are unlocked that you're never quite comfortable enough to coast even when you know what's up with the gameplay. Things start out fairly slow so that you can absorb the way the game plays differently if there are multiple Gnosia, or if one of the crew is sympathetic to the Gnosia and will aid them in lying and covering their tracks, or if the dimension-destroying bug that will reveal itself only after all the Gnosia have been put into cold sleep if you don’t put that to sleep first, too. Your actions will cause certain crew members to like you more, and others to mistrust you: you can use how you’re viewed by everyone else in the crew to sway the nightly votes of others, in order to more effectively isolate the crew member you want to into cold sleep, removing them from the game.
Each crew member has their own personality and backstory, more of which will be revealed as you play, and which will sometimes make going against them more difficult for you, as if you really do know them and they aren’t just an artist’s rendering in a video game. If you find things getting repetitive, you should let the game guide you in the menu screen as to what kind of rules should be in place in your next round: it will keep pointing you toward ones where you can unlock more story bits and progress, so don’t be stubborn and ignore the assist. I found it compelling and difficult to put down; complaints about seeing repeat dialogue struck me as odd, considering you can skip through previously seen text with ease, and also the whole “you are caught in a loop” premise of things.
It’s a perfect game for the Switch’s handheld capabilities, but if you lack that yet do have a PC, it’s expected to release on Windows sometime in 2022, as well.
Neo: The World Ends With You
Developer: Square Enix Creative Business Unit I, h.a.n.d.
Publisher: Square Enix
Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows
July 27, 2021
The only things “wrong” with the sequel to The World Ends With You is that the name is extremely bad — how does that sound like a sequel and not some kind of remaster of the original, Square?! — and that it’s not quite as good as the game it’s a sequel to. Of course, naming any in-house Square Enix title as good or better as the original TWEWY is going to create a short list, so that’s not really a knock on Neo’s own quality. And the name? Well, that’s just a sales problem. The game itself is killer.
Once again, Square Enix created a game set in Shibuya, where you are forced to play the Reaper’s Game in order to survive. There is once again a deeper, darker plot in play than the surface-level “you’re dead and if you want to live again, you need to survive this game show for demons.” The characters are good, but their stories don’t hit quite as hard as those of the original game, and the lack of a control system that also works on a thematic level for the narrative of the game is basically the only reason it’s not as good as TWEWY’s. All of that being said, I still really enjoyed my time with the characters, the story, and this version of Shibuya, and the control scheme that’s here does work very well and is more reliable than that of the Switch re-release of TWEWY, especially once you can start assigning multiple pins (basically just attacks and spells, but make it fashion) to a single button.
The soundtrack is easily my favorite from a game in 2021. Like with the clothes, like with the food, Neo: TWEWY’s Shibuya makes all of this just seem so cool. Some of the songs in this game are very heavily influenced by a particular period of the aughts, and while you might have laughed at some of that music back then, here, it’s not only good, but it feels convincingly cool, like it belongs in this game world, where The Youth spend their time and money on staying youthful. It’s hard not to love a soundtrack that combines remixes of excellent tracks from the original…
…(no I do not know why that dog is there) with nods to Coheed and Cambria…
…with boss music that decides that a world where Avenged Sevenfold is good instead of being Avenged Sevenfold is possible:
And that’s without me even getting into the way it extremely nails the retro-inspired modern take on 80s music that exists in more modern pop:
Such a great soundtrack. It also hits on Latin beats, funk, rap rock that adds the third genre of “lady singing to what sounds like a club full of dancers,” some acoustic bits, extremely 2005 rock but now with synths… it’s three hours and change of a whole bunch of genres, and Takeharu Ishimoto really outdid himself on many of them.
OK fine one more:
One of my favorite action RPGs from a year where I spent a whole lot of time playing action RPGs. It shouldn’t be your starting point with the series, given how heavily it leans on the previous iteration for storytelling and world building, but it’s worth playing both of them, anyway.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows
October 14, 2021
Dungeon Encounters is basically the polar opposite of Neo: The World Ends With You. Not in terms of enjoyment, no, but just in presentation. Whereas Neo: TWEWY worked so hard to convince you that Shibuya and its people and its fashions and its music were cool, and made an extremely splashy and eye-popping game world and experience to help prop up that belief, Dungeon Encounters is just… the basics. This is not a disparaging observation, by any means. Neo: TWEWY is a whole lot of substance and style, while Dungeon Encounters is essentially just substance distilled.
It was directed by Hiroyuki Ito, which is not a thing that happens much for console games these days. Ito is responsible for the Active Time Battle system of Final Fantasy IV, was the game designer for Final Fantasy Tactics and the director of Final Fantasies VI, IX, and XII, while also serving as the event planner for Chrono Trigger. While many of Ito’s 90s contemporaries with resumes comparable to his own went on to leave Square and form their own development houses, Ito stayed behind, but has almost universally been in the mobile and “Special Thanks” spaces since 2006’s Final Fantasy XII. Dungeon Encounters, then, is not only the return of Ito to a more prominent role in the console space, but it’s also the return of an understanding of what made his earliest battle systems work in the first place.
I don’t mean to make it sound as if one man put this game together, but Dungeon Encounters was developed by as bare bones a staff as could be managed, and its evident in basically every facet of it. The soundtrack only plays during battles, and it is just one guitarist noodling away, playing royalty-free classical music bits through an electric amp. There are no battle animations: Square has always had lovely portrait art, and now all that happens in Dungeon Encounters’ battles is that the portraits move ever so slightly to the right or left to show that they are the ones attacking or casting or using an item. The maps of the game look like they are squares drawn on graph paper, and have number and letter designations on them so you know what kind of encounters or areas you’ll discover by stepping on them. There are stripped down experiences, and then there is Dungeon Encounters.
Stripped down is not the same thing as shallow, though: there is plenty to love about Dungeon Encounters and its depth, as it’s a $30 dungeon crawler released in 2021 that hates you as much as the games that inspired it 35 years ago did, only now in HD. Going retro doesn't work if all you've got is a visual aesthetic, but this game understands why dungeon crawlers and ATB were such good pieces of the RPG puzzle of yesterday, and how they can still work today. There are 100 floors of increasing size, and they are not simple to get through. You begin the game with a small number of recruitable characters — a wizard, a soldier, women who are ready to take up arms for the first time, a giant cat — and when they all die, you lose. Like, forever. Start a new save up and try again. You can revive the characters you lose within the dungeon’s depths, of course, but it’s going to take some effort to do so: you’ll need to revisit the exact square they perished on, add them to your party if there is room, then revive them on one of the spaces that allows you to do that very thing.
If a character is petrified, you must find an altar to undo the petrification, and it is very unlikely that they will be on the floor it happened on, too. You can’t bring them with you — they are a statue now — so you’ll just have to remember to collect them later on in a different run. There are also characters who have already delved too deep and become lost, and if you find them and have the space in your party, you can convince them to join up with you. So, your party is always at four characters or fewer, but you can find other members to bring along, increasing the possible options for creating your party. The stats are basically similar across the board, with the weapons, spells, and armors you equip and the volume of characters being more important than who they individually are. You need bodies to throw at the labyrinth, because it is always one battle away from ending you. And someone else is going to have to clean up that mess.
One last thing: the game does not use hit points in the traditional way. Sure, if you run out of HP, a character dies and needs to be magically revived, but before any HP can actually be drained from a life bar, enemies need to get through your defenses. Your gear will focus on improving your physical or magic defense, and in the best cases, both. Once enough damage has been done to your magical defense, for instance, then the next magical attacks will start harming your HP. Your gear defenses restore after every battle, so you can take a ton of abuse without losing a single hit point. Still, you need to be wary: late in the game, there are enemies who can break your gear completely, and you need to coordinate your own attacks to take down the physical and magical defenses of your foes before they can penetrate yours if you want to ever get far enough for that to be a concern.
Shin Megami Tensei V
November 12, 2021
It is incredible that another JRPG released in 2021 that, in comparison, makes Shin Megami Tensei’s difficulty seem simple in comparison. That’s what happened to me, though: I played Dungeon Encounters before the latest in Atlus’ long-running demon-recruiting series, so any deaths in SMT have felt like they are very much my fault and a lot less rude than they usually do. It helps, too, that SMT V has finally introduced some of 2002’s greatest quality of life achievements such as fast travel, but you don’t play Shin Megami Tensei because you want to be catered to, do you? You play it because it is a post-apocalyptic game where you’re dealing with the forces of heaven and hell, and none of them want your life to be easy.
Negotiating contracts with demons remains a treat, and, as always, I love the juxtaposition of SMT’s gotta catch ‘em all format with that of Pokémon. In Pokémon, you’re catching a new friend, someone you’re going to lean on throughout the real-world years as new entries and adventures release. In SMT, if you aren’t melting down your demon pals an hour after recruiting them so that you can create newer and stronger demon pals from their essence, well, you’re not going to get very far.
I didn’t play SMT V right at launch, so I missed out on some of the technical issues with frame rates and slowdown and all that — there are still little hints that this game isn’t chugging along as smoothly as it should even after some updates, but it’s mostly noticeable in the movements of characters way off in the distance. They just look… wrong, a little stilted and mechanical. It’s just a little thing, though, in the grand scheme of them: this is still Shin Megami Tensei, and it is Shin Megami Tenseiing so hard in just the ways I want it to that I cannot help but say it’s one of the best JRPGs, and games, of the year.
Maddie’s Games of the Year
My daughter, Maddie, has been into games for a bit, but 2021 was the first year in which she started seeing some trailers for new games and asking that we buy them so she can play. She’s responsible enough (and learning to play enough) that we can leave her alone with a Joy Con or Switch Pro Controller and not come back to anything being broken or covered in peanut butter, so I decided to ask her about her favorite games from 2021, and what she liked the most about them.
All of these are Switch games, except for the last one. Get some mascots my five-year-old can appreciate, the rest of you.
Mario Party Superstars: “I like the beach level. I like that Bowser is ruining our games again.” [Ed. Note: She just got this game for her birthday a few days ago, smh recency bias.]
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury: “I like climbing the walls in a cat suit! I like playing with mommy and daddy. I can hide in a bubble when the game is too hard.”
WarioWare: Get it Together!: “I like the big purple Wario boss. Buying presents for everyone is fun! 9-Volt is my favorite character.”
New Pokémon Snap: “I love taking pictures of Pokémon! Pikachu is my favorite, and Charmander is my favorite, too. I want to find Pachirisu next. I can’t find him yet.”
Yoshi’s Woolly World: [Ed Note: This is Maddie’s version of It’s New To Me, since Woolly World released in 2015 for the Wii U.] “Making different Yoshis with the amiibo is fun! You [me] helped me collect yarn for more Yoshis! Daddy, can I have a green Yoshi toy?”
Well, yeah, I shouldn’t make my kid work for free just because I thought it’d be cute to see what she’s thinking. Time to find a green Yoshi plush.
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