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Top Ten Games of 2021

I used to do these write-ups on Facebook before they discontinued the "Notes" feature after learning I was the only person who actually took advantage of it. Even still, last year I barely wrote anything on the subject, mostly because I didn't have much to say. It was a bad year with an unappealing (to me, at least) selection of games from a medium that I so desperately want to see flourish despite its best attempts at making me question its continued existence. And for the longest time, I thought I wouldn't write anything on this year, either, if only because I couldn't find that one game to ignite a spark in me.

Since I'm writing this, you already know that I did find it, but for those interested in the other nine games preceding it, we'll get to them after establishing a few guidelines for what can make the list in the first place.

- Any game released in North America for the first time in 2021 is eligible for this list. This means that previously Japan-exclusive games are eligible (such as our #2 spot), but ports are not. This last part mostly applies to Golf Club: Wasteland, a game that I was extremely fond of that I learned very late into the year was a mobile game released back in 2018 before being ported to PC and consoles this year.

- In terms of relevant consoles, I own a Nintendo Switch and a not-terribly-great-for-the-medium laptop PC. So no, I didn't play most of the games people talked about this year such as Returnal, Deathloop, Psychonauts 2, or Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. I didn't even play Metroid Dread, but that's mostly out of spite since it wouldn't let me use the control pad to move. I don't care about 360-degree aiming if moving feels clunky, video game!

My go-to games include rhythm, platform, and fighting titles, as well as pretty much anything by Grasshopper Manufacture. I tend to not like turn-based RPGs, strategy games, or first-person shooters. Additionally, I am boycotting games made by Activision Blizzard until there is confirmation that working conditions have improved for those who aren't cis white men.

- On my lists, the number 10 game is one that I enjoyed but arguably shouldn't be included, and the number 1 game is one that I think the medium needed the most. It should be noted that the game I thought about the most, and that I am still most intrigued by, is #5, but we will build on that when we get to it.

For those who would just like a TL;DR version of this blog, the games proper will be listed in bold for your convenience. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy my musings.

10) In all honesty, I still can't tell if Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania is a port or not.

By technicality, it is: there aren't any levels that weren't in Super Monkey Ball Deluxe, the twelve mini-games went mostly unchanged to my knowledge, and the handful of new additions such as unique challenge modes and the option to jump like in the newly-maligned Banana Blitz don't really do enough to make it seem like anything other than a fan game. I suppose an argument could be made that the change to the physics is enough to make it seem new, since if you want to play this like you would the older games in the series you'll have a rough road ahead of you, but again: is that enough to differentiate it from its predecessors?

Well... even if it isn't, it's still the best game in the series, just with a bit of a different control scheme, a mixed bag of a new soundtrack, and the option to play as Beat from Jet Set Radio, Hello Kitty, and a Sega Saturn. In other words, it's kind of a self-aware mess, and as a self-aware mess myself I can't help but empathize.

9) Celeste Classic 2 managed to elude me for eleven months after its release.

Created in celebration of the anniversary of Celeste, this foray back into the series's (can you call it a series)? PICO-8 roots goes a different route with how you navigate the mountain. No longer is height your goal, but horizontal distance, achieved by replacing the dash mechanic with a grappling hook that Halo Infinite would be proud of. It takes a lot of getting used to, especially when trying to determine how it works with momentum, but it's an interesting approach that keeps it feeling fresh.

The "classic" in the title also refers to the removal of my least favorite of Celeste's additions, the ability to hold on to ledges. While it's not as noticeable an inclusion for maintaining forward momentum as it was in Madeline's adventure, since the grappling hook can allow you to freeze in mid-air when firing it, it helps keep the adventure short and sweet. Emphasis on short: even though I died about 430 times, you can get through Celeste Classic 2 in about forty-five minutes, maybe longer if you're not accustomed to platformers. Still, if you've got a hunger for strawberries and a knack for physics-based movement, you've probably beaten it twice by now.

8) I play Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon incorrectly.

The core gameplay of Pocket Dungeon, as the game itself will tell you, is half-puzzle game, half-Roguelike (I hate genres that use the names of games to describe themselves, but I guess "randomized adventure" doesn't quite have the appeal). You try to get enemies grouped up together so you can defeat them all at once, while at the same time quaffing potions to make sure they don't take you down as you wail on them. You can play with either one life (more Roguelike) or infinite (more puzzle game), with your ultimate goal being to collect keys to escape to the next level as you face down foes both old and new.

When I say I play this incorrectly, I'm less referring to treating the game by its genres and more how I actually move in-game. Every time Shovel Knight (or whoever else you choose to play as) makes a move, the world around you moves alongside them. In other words, to make a combo of enemies, you can waltz back and forth while they literally fall into place. Unconsciously, after realizing this was how it worked, I refused to move unless it was to the beat of the game's soundtrack (consisting of remixes from Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove by original composer Jake Kaufman). I created a spin-off of Crypt of the Necrodancer simply because it felt appropriate to play that way.

This isn't how you should play Pocket Dungeon, of course; it'll result in a lot more ill-timed deaths and faster game overs from the dungeon being filled with enemies since you'll have less time to consider each new move. But when I play it "properly", it feels like I'm breaking a core rule that the game laid out even though I'm clearly not being punished for it. It's a bizarre mindset, and one that I kinda hope is touched on with a rhythm-based mode in one of the already announced bits of DLC for the game. For now, though, it just makes me feel silly, hence its relatively low position on this list.

7) There is nothing unique about Everhood.

Its protagonist is shamelessly Geno from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Its aesthetic is shamelessly Undertale to the point that there's a bonus boss against an all-knowing entity you can fight if you do the opposite of what the game wants you to do. It borrows elements wholesale from EarthBound, unsurprising considering it itself was an inspiration for Undertale. In essence, it feels like a project made by those who wanted to make something like something else, rather than pursue an original idea.

Which makes it very ironic that it ends up just being Undertale but better.

I like the characters more. I like the gameplay more. I like the writing more (or at least the humor; the metatextual elements and bizarrely Buddhist tone don't quite do it for me). The music is very, very good, which is fitting for a gameplay style that is based on rhythm. It's short, but easy to replay; it's hard, but not frustrating unless you want it to be. It's by no means perfect, especially for those who are easily affected by visual overstimulation, but I liked it more than I ever expected to considering what it is.

6) You can't call your game WarioWare: Get it Together! and have a single-player element be the best part.

With a new installment every week, the Wario Cup encourages playing the same game in different ways. One week you'll be tasked to do a series of games that involve quick thinking under a strict time limit; one week you'll have to play as one specific character as a challenge to see how well you can control him; one week you'll use two characters at the same time while trying to avoid getting them tangled up. It keeps the game feeling fresh and unique, as well as encouraging finding the best way of facing each challenge to obtain in-game prizes.

That's not to say the co-op is bad, just that it feels like it shouldn't have been the selling point. Not a lot of the microgames benefit from having two people with the exception of one specific boss game, and the multiplayer events lack the staying power of, say, Mega Party Games. While the challenge of learning the best way to face each microgame with each of the eighteen (!) characters you can choose from, there isn't enough variety to really reward that sense of curiosity. A lot of games ask similar things of you, whether it be finding the right item out of a selection, moving from point A to point B, and, somewhat bizarrely, spinning something around. There must be at least a dozen games where you just have to spin something. It's weird.

I'm tough on Get it Together! because I love the WarioWare series. I think having the characters interact with the game is an interesting idea, but there's a lot of room for improvement. With enough time, creativity, and willingness to do something else than make something spin around, I think it could get there.

5) Considering my username, you might be shocked to see No More Heroes III in this spot.

The main reason it's smack-dab in the middle is because I genuinely don't know if my interpretation of it is correct. I'm very tempted to do a proper video essay on the subject, so I might not include much of it in fear of showing my hand too early, but the gist of it is that it's either an incredible takedown of hype culture, the need to have games rushed out to meet artificial deadlines, and the importance of cherishing what you have rather than seeking out experiences that are meant to emulate them... or it's just a kind of mediocre action game.

There's a lot of evidence to support my theory. You can look at what Travis Touchdown likes and dislikes doing, you can study what parts of the far-from-utopic Utopiland seem complete, you can go as far as to explore how for the first time in the series it actively dissuades from pursuing a power fantasy. It is fascinating how all of these can go together, but again... are they actually meant to?

I used to say that while Travis Strikes Again was Avengers: Infinity War, No More Heroes III would be Endgame. In a sense, I was right: the former isn't as bombastic or "give the fans what they want" in nature, but as a whole, it has a lot more of a lasting impact. In a great twist of irony, the spin-off captured with certainty the essence of the series more than this direct sequel.

4) Speaking of games I'm not how to judge properly, here's NEO: The World Ends with You.

Or at least what I played of it; I only got to go through the demo available on the Nintendo eShop, which covers the first two days of what I presume will be three weeks of the Reapers' Game. I loved every minute of it (that didn't involve Fret): the music, the atmosphere, the gameplay, the callbacks to the original game. I wanted nothing more than to play even more of it... but I just never got the chance.

Part of me wonders if it'd make the number one spot if I finished it, or if it would be dragged down by some new element that would make me like it less. I've heard that it definitely struggles as it continues, especially with an overemphasis on the cast of The World Ends with You rather than the newcomers, but I loved that game as well. Would the gameplay be boring once I found a series of pins that would make me practically invincible? Would Fret be even worse? Would there be some sort of cringe-inducing writing that would prove Japan still doesn't know how the rest of the world functions socially?

Would've, could've, should've. For now, what I played was great, and I want to play more. Isn't that the sign of a good game?

3) If we were sorting these games by title length, Kuukiyomi 3: Consider it More and More!! - Father to Son would be a shoo-in.

WarioWare up to eleven doesn't begin to describe the Kuukiyomi trilogy. If you think something could be possible, they probably thought of it. While the main challenge is to do the most considerate thing possible in your bizarre situation, the odds are you'll either be completely lost as to what to do (if it weren't for my sister and her knowledge of Japanese customs, I'd be even ruder) or just confused in general as to why your attempt to sit down on the bus to make room for another passenger resulted in you sitting on someone's lap. When you frantically try to get up so as to not be rude, you'll start doing chin-ups on the grab handles.

The best challege, in this game at least, comes as a pseudo-sequel to a game where you're trying to keep your partner from falling asleep in a blizzard and catching hypothermia. You smack him while he drifts asleep, because at least that's more considerate than letting him die. But as you smack him, you start hearing a familiar drum beat. Out in the distance, a stage rises, with Freddie Mercury himself standing there in all his greatness. Yes, you're slapping your partner to the tune of "We Will Rock You", and it's great.

What did I do? I left him to go see Freddie. Not considerate, but if he's back from the dead and in concert there's not a lot I wouldn't abandon to go see him.

Kuukiyomi 3 is just like the other two games in the series: bizarre, not the easiest to parse, but full of stories and laughter to share with those familiar and unfamiliar with the series. If you haven't tried them, I can't recommend them enough.

2) What a journey it's been for The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.

The games start as 3DS exclusives, presumably bound to stay in Japan because the Doyle estate would never allow direct references to existing Sherlock Holmes works to be brought where they'd be able to take them down. Then a group of fans create a translation that runs on native hardware (with a pinch of console modding) that feels like the real thing, but only for the first game. Then, years later, Capcom releases the duo in an official release, but now he's Herlock Sholmes and the whole thing uses British English, which both makes sense and leads to a few instances of uncertainty as to what certain phrases or grammatical instances mean.

Fortunately, these are also two of the best games in the series. Like my beloved Ace Attorney Investigations games, there's an overarching plot rather than a more episodic feel to these games that lends itself better to wanting to keep going that one bit more to find out about any new connections. The characters and writing are sublime, from the confident and occasionally sharp-tongued Kazuma Asogi to the "trying to look serious while always eating fish and chips" Tobias Gregson to, of course, Herlock Sholmes. Early on, there's a scene where he's investigating something while singing a parody of "My Way" to himself. When you interrupt him, he'll immediately challenge you to a fight. Herlock's great.

It comes with the regular caveats of an Ace Attorney game: some cases go on a little too long, some answers are found out way before the game wants you to make those realizations, and typos still ruin otherwise tense or dramatic moments. But after years of waiting, it's definitely been worth it.

1) There are a lot of moments where I realized Chicory: A Colorful Tale would be my game of the year, but one stands out more than others.

About a quarter of the way through the game, you return to your hometown to talk with Chicory herself about the strange goings-on in the kingdom, as well as approaching her about her self-doubts and depression she's been battling. Your character, a very cute dog named after your favorite food (the game defaults to Pizza, but I named them Pretzels), suggests that she draw you as a means of getting her inspiration back. Chicory agrees, but with one condition: you draw her in return.

As she paints you, Chicory asks you two questions: your favorite color, and how you're feeling in the moment. You don't get that benefit; you're just tasked with drawing her, though the game is kind enough to keep her image on screen as a reference point.

Now, Chicory is not the easiest game to draw with, at least with my limited options of an XBOX One control stick or a laptop mouse pad. Add on to that my extremely limited artistic abilities, and any time I'm asked to draw something it always seems more than a little amateurish. But I wanted to do the best I could, so I studied Chicory to the best of my abilities. The hand she keeps in her pocket, the diamond on her cape, the way her ears are structured. It wasn't a perfect replication, and I drew it a bit too large so it seemed like more of a bust shot than a full-body illustration, but it was the best I could do and I was proud of it.

Chicory, of course, draws something impeccable. But it wasn't that that moved me, but her reaction to seeing my drawing. She knew it wasn't good, like I knew it wasn't good, but what she saw was effort, a sincere attempt to make something that would make her happy to receive.

That is Chicory's strongest aspect: if you do the best you can, even if it's not a perfect replica or anything close to the pre-established drawings the game provides, it will see that you did all you could. It welcomes letting you use your own style, even to the point where it's okay if you want to keep the world looking black and white rather than filling it with color (I love the monochromatic aesthetic). It lets you take more hits while fighting bosses, while also respecting if you want to keep going with only the default number. If you just want to sit and watch your paint dissipate in the waters of Sip Lake, you can do so for as long as you'd like.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale made me feel okay about myself. I don't think there's any aspect a piece of media could have that's more important for this year especially, and for that, it easily takes my spot as 2021's game of the year.

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ThomasMendoza54's profile picture

Is this top 10 updated regularly?

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Hoan Vu

Hoan Vu's profile picture

These are the fun games I've played. I feel WarioWare is the best one out there. I sat playing games online all day, forgetting to eat, so my mother was very angry. But it's okay, when my mother sees that I'm good at this game, she's happy again

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