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December 24, 2018 11 min read
Dan Ryckert is the Senior Content Producer at giantbomb.com. He also serves as Commissioner of Battle Club Pro, got married at a Taco Bell, hosts a podcast with his wife Bianca, has set two Guinness World Records, and wrote numerous books. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont with Bianca and their five dogs.
Oh hi folks! I’m Dan and I work at this website. At the beginning of the year, it didn’t seem like there would be many big releases in 2018. Now that we’re at the end of it, I’m once again having trouble whittling my list down to just ten of the many games I loved this year. Let’s start with some…
I did not expect Smash Bros. Ultimate to be on my top ten this year. Smash is a series that I’ve always admired more than I’ve enjoyed playing, with its nearly obsessive reverence for obscure-to-obvious Nintendo lore being more appealing to me than the moment-to-moment action. I’ve never specifically disliked the gameplay of Smash, I just never graduated from “fucking around in the dorms with items turned to high” to “carrying a CRT around and understanding what wavedashing is,” so the minutiae of Nintendo’s E3 Direct didn’t do much to spark my excitement.
What turned me around on the game is the amount of solid single-player content. For one, forcing me to spend hours unlocking most of the game’s ludicrously huge roster is actually a benefit. I’m not having a bunch of people over for Smash nights or whatever, so this gives me something to shoot for when I’m playing on a bus or a plane by myself. I probably wouldn’t unlock all of them if it was confined to basic Smash battles, so I love the World of Light campaign. Not only does it give me a ton of weird, obscure spirits to unlock as I progress through the giant map, but it also gives me the satisfaction of fighting/unlocking new characters in the base game pretty much every time I back out of it.
World of Light is also unbelievably creative with its challenges and spirits. These can be as obvious as having red, blue, and yellow enemies represent Dr. Mario’s germs or as weirdly specific as having Diddy Kong represent Data in a Mega Man Legends-themed challenge. A lot of these didn’t have much of an impact on the gameplay, but I really appreciate the many (MANY) fun nods to games and moments that you don’t hear talked about much anymore. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is unashamedly nostalgia-obsessed and caters to longtime Nintendo fans, and its breadth of content and attention to detail made me really enjoy my time with it even if I’ll never dive into the more competitive side of the game.
Even though I’m not a fan of Spider-Man or comic books in general, my ears perked up when I heard that Insomniac was making a game based on the Webbed Wonder (that’s probably something people call him, right?). I knew that Spider-Man’s abilities could make for a really solid game thanks to Spider-Man 2, and Insomniac excels with fun-to-control heroes with a variety of abilities.
Sure enough, it was the perfect match of developer and property. Swinging around the city felt and looked exactly how I wanted it to, and they managed to make me enjoy a story and characters that I’ve never had any previous interest in. Combat is functional yet unremarkable and some of the side missions feel a bit empty, but the thrill of zipping around the city and advancing Peter’s story was enough to make it a great, easygoing experience before the big holiday rush of releases.
ALRIGHT HEAR ME OUT. I’ve heard that Mario Party isn’t the most well-liked series on this website (although it seems like Jeff, Brad, and that blinking guy liked it!), but this is no-joke one of the best Mario Parties of all time. At least since the N64. Before I talk about all the new cool things it does, I will concede that the maps leave a little to be desired. They’re kinda small and not a lot happens on them for the most part, but I think the new things more than make up for that.
First off, it ditches that shitty “let’s all get in one car and go around the board” thing from 9 and 10. Mario Party is never supposed to be about “we’re all in this together,” it’s about ruthlessly robbing and screwing over everyone else on the board for your own personal gain and glory. Super Mario Party has you taking your sweet time by yourself while everyone else has to watch you roll dice and decide what mushroom to buy from a Wiggler’s basket or whatever. It also lets you amass AI allies that roll with you and occasionally participate in minigames, making it hilariously lopsided at times. An evenly matched soccer game can suddenly have Lucha House Rules applied to it and you can play with like seven dudes on your side against two idiots.
As happy as I am about the return-to-form in the standard mode, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the new 2v2 mode. Instead of just forcing players to team together and play 2v2 minigames on a normal map, it completely reworks the structure of the board game element. They’re set on the same maps, but they’ve been turned into grids rather than branching paths. Whereas before you could occasionally choose whether to go left or right at a fork, in this mode you get to use the number you rolled to go in any direction you choose. You can work with a partner, telling them to beeline towards the star while you stomp on enemies, scoop up allies, and collect map-specific keys that will unlock new areas. When I saw the 2v2 option in the main Party Plaza, I expected a slapped-on team mode but wound up getting one of the most welcome additions to Mario Party in years.
It’s got other new modes, like a collection of rhythm games, a single-player “campaign,” and the weird thing where you put two Switches together for two minutes and never try it again. It also has a thing where all four players are in a raft and playing cooperatively towards a shared end goal, but again, that’s not what Mario Party is about. It’s good that Nintendo put so much more content into this package than in other Mario Parties, but the real star of the show is the return to traditional 4-player games and the excellent new 2v2 mode. I know that Mario Party isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me, and this one has already led to many hilarious hours with my family and friends.
I learned earlier this year to not say the words “Rainbow,” “Six,” or “Siege,” (or any words that rhymed with them) around Mike Mahardy unless I had two or three hours to spare as he gushed nonstop about his experiences with the game. He wasn’t the first to make me think that Siege was firing on all cylinders recently, as I had been surprised to hear the title pop up in discussion more and more in the last year or two. But it was his enthusiasm and descriptions of matches he’d taken part of and the intricate ways that operators play off of each other that made me decide to give it a real try.
After months of playing it, I still don’t feel like I’m anywhere near good enough to employ advanced strategy or counter enemy operators effectively, but it’s incredibly fun even if 90% of my matches end with me getting lit up like a Christmas tree as I wander into the wrong room. It’s all worth it for that 10% in which a plan of mine goes right and I’m able to sneak up on and interrogate an enemy as Caveira or create the perfect murder hole as Maverick. It’s the best game that I’m the worst at.
In 1998 I was a very cool 14 year-old that had no time for kiddie games like Pokemon or Spyro the Dragon. I was too busy playing games that taught me about adult things like nuclear war, genetic modification, and cyborg ninjas.
Believe it or not, that attitude may have been a bit misguided. It turns out that games that appeal to kids can also be fun if you’re a super cool adult! Yes, I was stupid to dismiss Spyro as the cartoony dragon game that my little sister played, and I’m thrilled to be discovering this at 34 years old. I’ve heard that the Reignited Trilogy is very faithful to the original games from a gameplay perspective, which really speaks to how fantastic they must have been back then. They’re great fun now even with no nostalgia tied to it, and it’s obvious that a ton of work has gone into the excellent visual upgrade. HD Collections and full-on remakes are nothing new, but Spyro Reignited Trilogy is one of the most well-produced and welcome examples of a series resurrection in recent memory.
Everything I played in VR before it was commercially available made me incredibly excited for the future of VR. Once headsets actually hit the shelves, I got less and less interested as I saw games released that felt like tech demos. With Tetris Effect, Moss, and especially Astro Bot seeing release this year, 2018 became the year that I believed in VR again.
Astro Bot would be a rock-solid platformer without VR. The character movement is spot-on, the level variety is impressive, and it’s got charm and visual style for days. Once you factor in the VR elements (and the controller integration that affords), it becomes something much more. Peering around corners and into holes often results in finding one of Astro Bot’s buddies, interacting with the environment and enemies with the controller gadgets feels great, and you’ll occasionally even use your head to knock a soccer ball back at an enemy or destroy a wooden obstacle. It may not be the most immersive “oh my god I feel like I’m really there” VR experience, but it’s not trying to be. It’s just trying to be fun, and I found myself smiling and having a blast from the beginning of the game to the end.
When I played this in Copenhagen for the first time earlier this year, my initial reaction was the same as most people’s: “this is definitely more Hitman.” That could sound like a criticism with a lot of franchises, but it was so welcome here. Considering that the series seemed on death’s door when Square Enix dropped it, “more Hitman” is an unexpected blessing.
While the mechanics, look, and structure of the game are largely unchanged, there are enough meaningful little additions to make it a better-playing experience overall. Picture-in-picture alerts, blending into crowds, and more obvious “mission story” moments are welcome, and some of the new maps (especially the Ark Society) rank among the best in series history. It also seems to have a rock-solid grasp on what makes Hitman funny, and somehow manages to make me laugh more than the first game without going too far into self-awareness. I ran through these new maps in a weekend--unlike the months-long procession of its predecessor’s release--but I know I’ll be replaying these maps over and over again for a long time to come.
From what I’ve heard, my time with Dead Cells mostly echoes the experiences of others who beat the game. I was immediately wowed by how damn good everything felt, from jumping to doing the ground slam to the excellent roll. I enjoyed the process of slowly and steadily unlocking weapons and new upgrades, and every new stage I reached or boss I defeated gave me a rush. Then, I started reaching the end game and it started to frustrate me (in a good way, mostly). Long runs ended unceremoniously with nothing gained from them. I’d repeatedly reach the final boss only to get smacked down almost instantly. The idea of doing “just one more run” became more and more daunting as my average runs were 40+ minutes long only to end with crushing defeat.
Then, I got that perfect run. The one where my loadout was just right, and I cleared every stage and got every possible power-up. I went into the final fight with confidence for the first time ever, and was thrilled when I saw the Hand of the King’s health bar getting knocked down significantly with every strike I landed. He eventually fell, and it gave me my biggest “jump off the couch” gaming moment of the year. All those ineffective, frustrating runs were forgotten in that moment and Dead Cells was cemented as my favorite roguelite to date.
I don’t wanna get all controversial here, but Tetris is a really good video game. I was never a big fan of the Game Boy, but that version of Tetris was good enough to make me push through the gross olive screen so I could rotate some blocks. I’ve loved many versions of Tetris ever since that childhood introduction, from the NES to the weird versions of it on SNES to the awesome Tetris DS to the memorable Puyo Puyo Tetris experiment. While I always knew how great Tetris was, I never felt the desire to push myself to learn things like T-Spins and obsessively shoot for higher and higher scores. At the time of this writing, I've put over 40 hours into it and I'm excited to get home and continue my attempt to get at least an S rank on every possible mode.
At its core, Tetris Effect is functionally no different than many of the versions I mentioned. Sure, there are some unique Effect modes and a new Zone function during Journey, but by and large this is classic-ass Tetris. I’m not one to experience whatever that fancy S-word is that I see thrown around a lot when this game is talked about, but I know that everything looks and sounds really cool and those Tetris blocks feel real good to slam down.
Several hours into my time playing God of War for review, I thought that I might not be into this new direction for the series. I wasn’t yet aware of the scope of this reboot’s story, so I thought I might have already been through half of another 8-12 hour playthrough (based on the length of previous titles). Up until that point, the combat had been serviceable but limited, and I didn’t feel like Kratos was progressing in meaningful ways in terms of gameplay.
I also worried about his progression as a character. While many now look back at the original trilogy as mindless screaming and killing, that’s part of what I loved about the series. It was brutal and immature and goofy, but in the same type of way that made me fall in love with Mortal Kombat as a kid. This new Kratos (and narrative) initially seemed too...grown up. The story was more subtle, with Kratos being sullen and quiet rather than the roaring maniac from before.
These early concerns proved to be no issue at all, and instead of dragging my experience down it showed me that there’s more to explore about Kratos. He’s still fucking things up left and right, but with an added depth to his character and a fascinating world around him. I was thrilled when the game kept opening up and revealing itself to be so much more than the brief stories from before. I never thought I’d compare a God of War game to Ocarina of Time, but I was reminded of it every time I got into my boat in the Lake of Nine. As I rowed around the lake and discovered new sidequests and secrets, it frequently reminded me of Hyrule Field serving as the hub of Link’s 1998 adventure.
As I went deeper down the skill tree and tested myself in the Muspelheim and Niflheim challenges, I got more and more of the rock-solid combat I expect from the series. By the end, it had delivered in every way I could have hoped for. It was longer than the original trilogy combined but never overstayed its welcome. Its gameplay started with a slow burn and then opened up and granted me plenty of rewarding combat options. Most importantly, it reinvigorated one of my favorite franchises by taking major risks with its structure, narrative, setting, and characters. I would have continued to play and enjoy God of War games in the old style if they had kept putting them out every few years, but it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as wondering what’s next in this bold new approach to the series.
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