My Five Favorite Games in 2018

It’s the end of the last day of January 2019, so I suppose I’d better get around to a retrospective on my favorite video game experiences of 2018, if I’m ever going to do it. Coming up with my five favorite games in 2018 proved difficult. You’ll notice it’s not five favorite games of 2018, which would have substantially limited the playing field. Rather, it’s the games that I played in 2018, which was still rather difficult. Looking over the reviews I posted over the year, I found that (a) I really hadn’t played all that many games in 2018, and (b) many of my video game experiences were downright mediocre. In fact, because I didn’t do a list like this for 2017, I’m bringing in Super Mario Odyssey to round things out, even though I wrapped up my experience with that game in December of the year prior.

So, in order of preference, more or less, here it goes…

5. Star Wars: Battlefront II

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No, not that one. The 2005 one, of course. I still have a lot of fun playing this game, and I’m beginning to suspect that I may never fully tire of it. I don’t care that it’s getting older. I still load this up when I just want to have fun. And believe it or not, this title, released over a decade ago, had relevance once more in the past year, as it received new patches for renewed online multiplayer in late 2017 and early 2018. So all in all, it’s just as good a time to hop into the game again (or for the first time) now as ever.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

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It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s sprawling, and it can be challenging. There are lots of collectibles–many of those collectibles, like outfits and hats, are rather fun to collect. It’s colorful, quirky, and weird. It’s a damn good Mario game and a damn good platformer. It was the first game that I played for the Switch, and it instantly made the console worthwhile.

3. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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If you’ve ever played and enjoyed a Super Smash Bros. game, you should like this. A huge roster of fighters, a variety of game modes, and a colossal pile of stages give any gamer more than enough content to work through, and there’s more to come. It’s flashy and addictive in single-player. It’s brutal (for a horrible player like me) but still fun in online multiplayer. And local multiplayer matches are still a blast.

2. 7 Grand Steps: What Ancients Begat

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This was a game I encountered by accident, and it was a deceptively simple and surprisingly rewarding game to play with a rich narrative spun out of chance and my own efforts at cross-generational success. This was a beautiful game, and I’m only disappointed that the planned series to follow seems unlikely to ever manifest. And this is also a really cheap indie title, so you really have no reason not to give it a try!

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I’m not a Zelda fan. I loved this game. It’s not only my favorite game that I played in 2018, it might be my favorite game ever. As I’ve said before, BOTW is a “massive game, and densely populated with secrets and surprise encounters. Experimentation and exploration are always rewarded. Most of the time, if you think to combine game systems to try something new, the game seems willing to let you do so. Add the characteristic quirkiness and clever puzzle-solving of a Zelda game, and it’s easy to see how this became an instant classic (and a new favorite of mine).”

And so concludes my list. What were your favorite gaming experiences in 2018? And what video games are you looking forward to playing in 2019?

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I can start my return to this site off really easily: I got Super Smash Bros. Ultimate over the holiday break, and I like it. It is a good game. I also really suck at it. That is all.

Just kidding; of course I have a lot to say. But I’ll temper my reaction a bit, as there’s no reason for thousands of words on a game that has already been played and reviewed and combed over a great deal already.

I’ll try to limit this to pointing out what I really like. (What little I dislike is mostly trivial.)

I like that the game starts with the original roster of characters from the first game on N64.

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I like that the roster rapidly expands, with new challengers appearing in reaction to your own experimentation with the game modes. Play Smash, play some of the side games, play the Spirit Board, and you’re bound to rapidly unlock new characters.

I like how many new characters there are to unlock.

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I like that many of the new characters are fun to play as, and that the old characters are worth revisiting. I like that I was shaken out of some predictable play patterns–at least some of the time. Pikachu has always been, and will always be, my go-to fighter, no matter how many times I’m steam-rolled in an online match.

I love the wide variety of game modes to play. I like the different in-game currencies that encourage you to play different game modes. The game’s interface seems inspired by mobile games, with a constant drip of content that encourages constant engagement and micro-management. The Spirit Board is a mode where you can unlock new support spirits to power up your fighters; spirits rotate out on the board over time. You’re thus encouraged to attempt to unlock spirits while they’re available and to check back regularly for new spirits. It’s a good way to hop in for a quick challenge. Likewise, there’s a shop where you can spend another type of in-game currency to obtain a rotating assortment of extra items, spirits, Mii costumes, and music.

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I also like the Adventure mode. It offers a broad, overly dramatic story that quickly becomes inconsequential to the actual events of the game. But I like the sprawling map exploration, the JRPG-like roaming of an over-world as you hop from battle to battle, the gradual grind and collection, the varied challenges, the overarching sense of purpose. I haven’t played the Adventure mode all that much yet, but I’m turning more attention to it.

I like playing with friends locally and online, though the online aspect still has a lot of refinement to go. While lagging seems less and less frequent, it’s still infuriating when it happens. And there’s not yet a way to play couch co-op while also playing with your online friends–although I believe that this will be implemented. I have less fun in the quick matches with strangers, but I’ve never had that much fun with multiplayer games. And let me point out, again, that I really suck at this game. There are only so many times you can get your ass served to you before it gets a little old, and I’m past the age and lifestyle moment where I could devote enough time to the game to GIT GUD, even if I wanted to. But online play can still be fun!

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To reemphasize, I like that there’s so much to do, so much to try, so much to collect. There are so many fighters, spirits, costumes, levels, game modes, and songs. There’s a whole virtual jukebox built in to play all the songs that you’ve unlocked. And since I will remain fervently casual with the game, it’ll be a great experience to keep coming back to, to play with friends or to poke around in during special events. I’m not tired of the game yet, but when I inevitably become tired with it, I’ll be okay with putting it down and coming back to it weeks or months later to pick up where I left off. It’s a progressive improvement on the franchise, and it really appeals to nostalgia. There’s a lot of love for Nintendo’s game history here (and for many other classic video game properties, at this point).

This is a good game, and yet another indication that Nintendo is knocking it out of the park with the Switch and its first-party game releases.

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Starting to be a Vampyr

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays, as is my custom, but I also started a new game: Vampyr. I like Dontnod Entertainment’s games, I’d had my eye on this title for a while, a good friend had been strongly recommending it since its release, and it was on sale over the holiday, so it was easy motivation to purchase at that point. (And I wanted to play something other than Little Dragons Cafe for a while.)

I’m still fairly early in the game, but I like it. It’s flawed, but it has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s clear what the developers wanted to do with it. In many ways, it reminds me of Remember Me: it’s a game overflowing with ideas and intentionally crafted themes, a game that promises openness but doesn’t fully deliver, a game with a satisfying but maybe over-developed combat system. The dialogue system in the game is especially interesting; there are often robust dialogue trees, but it always feels investigative rather than interpersonal. Even when you unlock a secret and probe to learn more, the game presents this as using vampiric power to coax the user into speaking; you’re not getting closer to the speaker, but instead you’re stripping more valuable information away from a target. It’s lonely being a vampire, and that dialogue system adds to the loneliness–you’re isolated and poorly understood, even when surrounded by others.

So far, my biggest complaint is that I’m experiencing long loading times and a fair amount of lag when passing through area transitions (and sometimes in combat), despite substantially lowering the graphics settings. To be fair, that’s likely just an issue on my end; my computer’s getting close to a decade old, with only fairly minor upgrades since I originally built it. Still, while I don’t have the technical expertise to assess how this compares to other games, it does seem like even fairly recent games of comparable size and appearance have played more smoothly for me.

Interestingly, the game echoes certain plot elements and themes of Interview with the Vampire. I suppose some of that comes with the nature of a pseudo-historical fiction starring vampires, but a lot of the same motivations and goals drive the protagonists in both works. That’s the sort of thing I might want to write about more later–given sufficient motivation, and after completing at least one ending of the game.

For now, I’m just enjoying my time as an angst-filled vampire.

A Tarisian Ronin

It’s no secret that Akira Kurosawa’s films had a massive impact on international cinema. Spaghetti westerns and Star Wars especially have pulled heavily from the Japanese film master’s work. Nothing new there. And they’re also great movies, so it’s always fun and engaging to watch one.

I’ve only very slowly started watching Kurosawa’s films. It’s not something that I really have much of a drive to do; it just happens occasionally. I saw Rashomon in college. I saw Seven Samurai in the past year. And I just watched Yojimbo this week.

I wouldn’t even mention it, but it was funny to realize not only how it influenced the original Star Wars film, but how its plot was basically transplanted into the Taris portion of Knights of the Old Republic.

Yojimbo‘s plot in a nutshell: a masterless samurai enters a town torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by a father and son; the other is led by the former right-hand man of the father, who split off when the son was chosen as the heir. The samurai plays the two sides against each other until they destroy each other.

The Tarisian section in a nutshell: a masterless soon-to-be Jedi enters a portion of the city-planet that is torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by an old man; the other is led by his former right-hand man, after the elder gang leader refused to appoint him as heir. While the older man’s gang is depicted as fundamentally good and the younger man’s gang is depicted as degenerate and thuggish, there is still the option to play both off each other (even though the Light Side, presumably EU-canon version is that the eventual Jedi helped the “good” gang). Plus, since Taris ultimately gets wiped out via Sith bombardment, the hero’s meddling does destroy both gangs–from a certain point of view.

Oh, and there’s a subplot in film and game involving the capture of a woman by one of the gang leaders as a negotiating tool to gain power; said woman is freed at least in part by the efforts of the protagonist in both versions.

That’s all I’ve got. Funny to realize years later that a story I enjoyed is so indebted to an older source. It actually makes the Taris section, as mundane as it can be on replay as a bloated sort of prologue, rather interesting once more.

JW: Evolution appears to offer a finished story…for a price

I haven’t touched Jurassic World: Evolution in a while. I might not have even seen the newest game announcement if I hadn’t decided to look into its status following my Evolution of Claire review. So I was definitely surprised to see the news about the newest planned paid and unpaid updates to the game. You can read more about that, and see a trailer for the paid content, on Variety.

On one hand, I’m still impressed with the improvements offered by each round of unpaid updates. The new dinosaurs and the challenge modes of past updates were great expansions. Adding day/night cycles, better dinosaur feeders, expanded dinosaur behaviors, and new contract types are all great additions, as well.

On the other hand, my excitement’s tempered by two clear points. One, a lot of the unpaid update features represent improvements over a fun but flawed game–in other words, a lot of these features would have been good to have at launch. Two, the unpaid content pales in comparison to the paid content. And I’m rather annoyed at the prospect of paying any amount of money to actually see the conclusion of the story arc that was heavily developed and hinted at before being dropped entirely in the core game. (I griped about the story’s anticlimax in my original game review). This isn’t a sequel–this is merely a conclusion to the unfinished story, and they expect people to pay for that! That said, paying to be able to make zany dinosaur hybrids is tempting to me. (Yet again, the lack of ability to make custom, hybridized animals in the original release was a point I noted in my review.)

It’s great to see the team at Frontier continuing to expand and improve upon the game. But it’s also annoying to recognize so many of these improvements as features that would have made sense at launch. Adding them improves the experience, sure. But their absence made the game lesser than from the start. This isn’t a case of a complete game getting new add-ons. It feels very much so like the full experience is being doled out piecemeal, months after its official release. Is that an unfair criticism? I don’t know, maybe. So much of this is perception. I greatly enjoyed Evolution, and the new content does entice me to consider another return. This isn’t a great problem, but I guess news that should be sweet has an unfortunate sour note.

TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Team Star Fox

The hype around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has put me in a bit of a Star Fox mood. I’m somewhat surprised to find on checking now that I’ve apparently only mentioned the Star Fox franchise on here twice before–both times in passing. Not that there have been very many relevant opportunities as of late!

I’m pretty sure that Starlink will be my next game purchase. It looks fun, and what little I’ve read has consistently supported the idea that the Star Fox team is well-used in the Switch version.

I don’t actually remember how I first encountered Star Fox. I never owned any of the games as a child, though I suppose that Fox McCloud did feature heavily in even the original Super Smash Bros. But I do remember somehow playing it, then rediscovering it in my adolescence at the game room of my church’s youth group after services. I bonded with a socially awkward kid there who loved the game; we’d often engage in virtual dogfights together. Since college, I’ve slowly collected many of the Star Fox titles, though not all. I’ve never played the original SNES game. I’m not a hardcore fan. But there’s a lot of nostalgia and genuine affection invested in the franchise for me. When people my age think back fondly on the N64 era, they might focus especially on Ocarina of Time, but my special nostalgic title is Star Fox 64 (though it’s in constant competition in my thoughts alongside Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64Star Wars Episode I RacerDiddy Kong Racing, and the multiplayer in Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

It’s not just nostalgia, though! It’s a fun game franchise! The arcade-style dog-fighting was the perfect Nintendo take on aerial combat. The characters popped with personality, and the presence of Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco in each new release is almost as comforting as the familiar gameplay. Plus, the plot and setting and style pull hard from Star Wars and Top Gun and a whole slew of animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. It’s weird and cool–and I can’t help but notice similarities in basic premise and style between Star Fox and Beyond Good & Evil, another game I love, even though the actual gameplay is markedly different. Okay, actually, it may not be all that different when Star Fox Adventures, the Zelda-like action-adventure title, is taken into account. No, that’s not a game that I want swept under the rug; I loved it, inserting the characters into a radically different situation, playing with the universe a little more, taking Fox away from his greatest strength (and adding dinosaurs).

I’d like to see future games do more things like Star Fox Adventures. Not Adventures exactly; a Star Fox game is space-combat-focused and should remain as such. But slight iterations on previous gameplay, rehashing the same plot over and over, are getting stale. In contrast, I liked the experimentation with additional gameplay features in Assault, and the fact that it wasn’t just another copy of the original game’s plot, though it was probably still a little too familiar and safe. It still focused on arcade-style starfighter combat, but it at least wasn’t just the same game with prettier graphics yet again.

At this point, I’d like a new story, but I wouldn’t mind a recap of the original game if it gave more depth to that tired narrative, especially if that relatively short game experience represented only the first act of a new effort. Star Fox 2 seemed especially innovative in form and progression of story, and with its release finally happening on the SNES Classic, I wonder if we could see that developed into a current-gen remake. Meanwhile, the franchise obviously affords the opportunity to deepen characters and lore, even if the games rarely take advantage of this; the opening cinematic to the critically panned and fan-derided (and personally ignored) Star Fox Zero suggested those possibilities, and in fan project circles, there’s the hilarious and endearing A Fox in Space.

In fact, Star Fox has an unfulfilled promise of depth that causes a rare itch in me, the urge to actually write fan fiction. I rarely write fiction at all anymore, and fan fic is really low down on the priority list for me, but if I were to write it, my attentions would be divided between Star FoxStar WarsThe Elder Scrolls, and Jurassic Park. All of those franchises offer areas of lore, or off-screen events, or underused characters, or just blank spaces for wild extrapolations that I’d like to see explored more.

But the bottom line is that I’d just really like to see more Star Fox.