Is it fair to hold a Game of the Year Awards when you haven’t played what’s considered to be the year’s top games? I’ve asked myself this question multiple times. The biggest releases I’ve touched this year are Far Cry 5 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate; everything else has been mostly focused on 3DS content and downloadable games. Some people might get offended that I haven’t tried Red Dead Redemption 2 or God of War, and I can understand that. You want your favorite games represented where you feel appropriate. However, given that I can only play so many games in one year, for review or not, I’d rather focus on what interests me than chasing after every big release.

So, should I do an article on awards? The answer is yes – you’re re already reading it. It’s here. I’ve written twenty reviews throughout the year, and played a few more games on top of that; I feel that this is enough of a sample size to give out a number of awards. Due to the nature of my coverage, I’ve created eight categories that best represent the strengths of this crop of games: Worst Game, Best Re-Release, Best Indie Game, Most Original Game, Favorite Moment, Game in Need of a Shout Out, Best 3DS Exclusive, and Best Game.

Best and Worst Game are pretty self-explanatory – the best and worst experiences I’ve had with games this year. Best 3DS Exclusive exists because I continue to be fascinated by that system, while Most Original Game is there for games that try something new and stick the landing. Best Re-Release covers any HD remaster, port, or new version of a non-2018 game; Best Indie Game awards titles not handled by large publishers and/or were not released in a typical fashion; and Favorite Moment celebrates one scene or section of a game I enjoyed most. Game in Need of a Shout Out is pretty much for one particular game that I think deserves notice, but couldn’t fit in any other category.

At the end of this article, you’ll be able to find my general Top Ten Games of the Year list, but first:

A GAMING LIFE PT. 2 – 2018 GAME OF THE YEAR AWARDS

Secret of Mana

Worst Game – SECRET OF MANA (PS4)

While many people will pick The Quiet Man for this category, I think Square Enix’s other big shame of 2018 is worse. No one ever expected The Quiet Man to be something great. It looked like it maybe could have possibly been good based on the trailers – with about ten more qualifiers and asterixis attached to that statement. Secret of Mana, meanwhile, is a remake of a classic SNES RPG that looks like it was probably meant as a Vita-only release, but at some point was also brought to PS4 because no one plays their Vita anymore. Everything the developers tried to do to “modernize” the game is misguided – the character models don’t move their mouths when talking, the voice acting is horrible, the remixed soundtrack doesn’t hold a candle to the original, and then there are the bugs. The moment I realized bugs were here to stay was when I had a party member disappear from the game completely and would not come back until I reset my console.

The Quiet Man is an offensive and bad game that no one expected to be good, while Secret of Mana is a remake of a good game that went bad in almost every conceivable way. That’s all there is to it. Secret of Mana takes the award handily.

Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology

Best Re-Release – RADIANT HISTORIA: PERFECT CHRONOLOGY (3DS)

Atlus’ time traveling RPG Radiant Historia was a critical hit on the original DS, but never caught on with audiences. Now that it’s back on 3DS in its Perfect Chronology form, the game has never been better. The art style has been beautifully retooled to look brighter and happier, and the expanded story content (which can be integrated with the main story or kept completely separate) improves on the game’s already great narrative. You’ll have to make your way to the true ending to see credits, but it’s more than worth your time.

In comparison to other re-releases I’ve played this year, I can only think of one other game that came close to nabbing this award: Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, also developed by Atlus for 3DS. The reason I’m putting Radiant Historia over SMT is due to personal preference; I just enjoyed Radiant Historia‘s world and tone a lot more. All of the other re-releases I took at look at this year were either hit by technical issues, or had control schemes that didn’t feel great. Radiant Historia had neither of these issues, and wound up being one of the higher rated games I reviewed this year – that it walks off with Best Re-Release should be no surprise at all.

Distress

Best Indie Game – DISTRESS (PC)

Distress is a useful tool for understanding the narrative structure of a choice-driven story, especially for developers who want to increase the replayability of their game. Buoyed by smartly written characters and a sharp visual style, the fun of Distress is seeing all the ways the game can end, and extrapolating all of the story details based on making different choices. Going down one path might tell you something important about a character’s history that may be important to remember in a route where that scene won’t come up at all. Keeping it all in your head may take a mental flowchart, but each death is appropriately gruesome, and each successful ending feels triumphant; in my experience, these rewards were enough to keep me going.

The way the team at Light Machine has presented this fun, non-linear kind of storytelling makes it feel innovative in the visual novel space. It excites me more than any open world, and goes beyond comparison to a Choose Your Own Adventure-style novel. It’s more about choosing every path the story takes and seeing how they relate and compliment one another. For its ingenuity and engaging storytelling, it’s definitely Best Indie Game for me.

Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido

Most Original Game – SUSHI STRIKER: THE WAY OF SUSHIDO (3DS)

Remarkably, Sushi Striker feels like a new entry in the puzzle genre, rather than just another take on Tetris or Bejeweled like many of its contemporaries. Featuring an anime-style story and wrapped in an RPG shell, the mechanics of Sushi Striker are fast, responsive, and played best with the 3DS’ stylus. I’m not sure a lot of people will understand when I talk about how good it feels to stack up a pile of thirty sushi plates, throw them at the enemy, and then activate a special ability to do it again for a decisive victory – but it feels fantastic. It’s definitely a game that is better off shown than explained in text, but when it clicks, it becomes a blast.

Puzzle-based RPGs have been around here and there, most notably with Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, but what makes Sushi Striker so original is how it presents its whole package. Its world and characters feel vitally tied to its infinitely scrolling conveyor belts of sushi, and together they form a cohesive whole. At the same time though, I wonder if there’s a developer out there who couldn’t take the base mechanics of Sushi Striker, change them up a bit, and inject them into a new game of their own. It’d be worth it to see this type of puzzle game take off the way Tetris clones did, but I’m not sure if enough people played Sushi Striker in any incarnation for that to happen.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 2: Suffer the Children

Favorite Moment – CLEMENTINE’S ROMANTIC OPTIONS (THE WALKING DEAD: THE FINAL SEASON EPISODE 2: SUFFER THE CHILDREN) (PS4)

Now that Clementine’s story is wrapping up after four seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it feels like there aren’t many important choices left to make. This series has already given players insight into a single character on a level that’s rare for video games, but it’s avoided taking Clem down the road of romance until now. In the second episode of The Final Season this changes, and Clem can have either a male or female love interest, and it’s up to the player to decide how to make their approach. Do they openly flirt with the character that grabs their attention, or stay emotionally reserved? When the moment comes to discuss Clem’s feelings, do they admit to liking the other character? Do they try to go in for a kiss?

This is, to me, a major tipping point in LGBT+ representation in gaming, and especially for bisexual representation. Both characters in Clem’s love triangle are presented on an even keel, making it easy for the player to focus on which person they actually like more. If they don’t feel that either is a good choice, they can play into the moment as little as they want, too. But this flexibility adds a new layer to one of the most interesting characters gaming has produced in the last decade, and it becomes more impactful than another linear, predetermined romance. It’s my favorite moment of the year because the developers really go for it – with, admittedly, some rough patches in how it’s paced itself – and manage to hit the right emotional notes for it all to work out.

Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk

Game in Need of a Shout Out – JAKE HUNTER DETECTIVE STORY: GHOST OF THE DUSK (3DS)

Jake Hunter’s had a rough career outside of Japan. His first two games in the West were not received that well by critics or audiences, and other detective-themed games like Ace Attorney dominated the conversation. After nine years of silence, Jake has returned to the West with a new entry, Ghost of the Dusk, that I personally liked a lot. I love the storytelling and the characterization. I think the mysteries are pretty good, and the writing knows when and how to pull off a good twist, as well as when to hold back for an emotional moment. The game presents an interesting and realistic world that serves as a natural counterpoint to similar visual novels, and the hard-boiled aesthetic is personally satisfying.

It’s just a shame about the localization. For all of the genuinely good storytelling the game has, it almost feels like an accident. A lot of the choices Aksys Games made in anglicizing this entry make everything muddled and weird – even the game’s setting. Previous translations transplanted the series from Japan to the USA, but this has been rolled back more and more with each successive game. The culture of the game is so distinctly Japanese, down to the unaltered Japanese voice acting, that it’s hard to humor the game by pretending it’s set anywhere other than Japan. As much as I love this game, I can’t excuse very obvious issues, like when the text insists on calling a bar a name that doesn’t line up with the on-screen sign. All I can justify giving Jake this time around is a glorified shout-out, and a pat on the back that says “maybe next time things will be better, buddy.” Whether that next time will be in a year or another in nine, is anybody’s guess.

WarioWare Gold

Best 3DS Exclusive – WARIOWARE GOLD (3DS)

WarioWare Gold takes advantage of almost every function of the 3DS to squeeze out the most technically impressive entry in the series yet. Microgames from other titles like TwistedTouched, and the original WarioWare are no longer separated by technology and can now enjoy living together under the same roof with a few new microgames on the side. The fully-voiced cutscenes still feel like a fever dream, and all of the funky unlockables will likely have people playing long after they’ve completed every microgame. The one thing they notably don’t use is the system’s 3D effects – and in 2018, that’s probably the last thing they needed to include.

What wins this game the title of Best 3DS Exclusive is that it feels tailored to the system – it’s underpowered enough that basic additions like voice acting still feel like a revelation, and it has enough new things going on that separate it from older entries on the original DS. If and when Nintendo decides to bring WarioWare to the Switch, it will also be an inherently different game; the Joycons alone invite a plethora of new possibilities. A straight port of Gold just wouldn’t work; meaning that if you want to play the new WarioWare at all, the only place you can get it is on the 3DS. It’ll remain there exclusively – probably forever.

Life is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads

Game of the Year – Life is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads (PS4)

This is the other major thing I struggled with when faced with an awards post. Is it fair to include Life is Strange 2 when we only saw Episode 1 in 2018? I think most critics would say no – that it’s better to wait until the full game is out and can be judged as a whole. I can see their argument, but the truth is that Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 has been my favorite gaming experience of the year since it came out. Copping out and agreeing to wait might have been okay if I felt that there was another game that came close to taking the award – but nothing does. If you want to get technical, Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology is in the second spot on my Top Ten list – but calling that title Game of the Year in 2018 feels inappropriate. Third would be Jake Hunter, but as I’ve outlined in this post already, it has some flaws that I think prevent it from being a strong Game of the Year contender as well.

So, in the interest of being brutally honest and fair with myself, I’m giving Game of the Year to Life is Strange 2: Episode 1, and I think it fairly deserves it. Its story is politically relevant to our times and told in a relatively realistic manner. There is a bit to do with supernatural powers, as is usual for the series, but those points are on the periphery, only coming up to move the plot along. I have a feeling this will change in subsequent episodes, but this approach works in order to introduce us to Sean and Daniel Diaz, and the horrible events that upset their quiet, suburban life. The adventure game mechanics feel expanded and refined over the first Life is Strange, and the details that are created to give the illusion of a lived-in world run deep. The “hip” slang of the first game is mostly gone in favor of characters who talk like teenagers and kids probably would. The worst I can say is that there are a few boring, slower-paced moments, but they’re necessary to balance out the moments that get intense and emotional. Overall, I don’t think there could have been a better introduction to an episodic game  in 2018, and as an experience it hit on pretty much level in ways other games did not. Hopefully when the other episodes launch the game will remain as strong throughout, but that’s a conversation for next year’s awards. Until then, I’m ready to plant my Game of the Year flag here, and defend it until the end of time.

My Top Ten Games of 2018:

  1. Life is Strange 2 Episode 1: Roads
  2. Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology
  3. Jake Hunter Detective Story: Ghost of the Dusk
  4. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
  5. Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido
  6. Distress
  7. WarioWare Gold
  8. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
  9. The Alliance Alive
  10. The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 2: Suffer the Children
Super Smash Bros… Ultimate?!?

Do you disagree with this list? You can let me know on Twitter, or by emailing me at dcichocki@tiltingwindmillstudios.com. If you’re going to be rude about though, please reconsider!