2019 was a good year for video games, and also for Game of the Year. In the slow ramp up to the next generation, many long-awaited projects finally saw the light of day. Others saw their final content update. The 3DS had its last handful of major releases, and the Vita came that much closer to death’s door. Ubisoft released Just Dance 2020 on the Wii, the last entry to appear on the console, and with it brought the death of gaming in standard definition. Aside from occasional devices like the Panic Playdate, every console requires an HDMI cord, and every viable handheld has HD-quality screens.
As befits the end of a decade, 2019 felt like the end of an era; a transition into something new. The launch of Google Stadia, while not super successful, has nonetheless proven that game streaming is here to stay. Meanwhile, the search for “the Netflix of games” grows more prominent. The case for Microsoft’s Game Pass has never been stronger, with the introduction of PC Game Pass, and an ever-evolving library of console titles. Apple also introduced their own subscription service, Apple Arcade, which received strong word of mouth at launch, but has flattened out in the months since. Whether one or both survive the next couple years, the message is clear: digital distribution is adapting with the times.
Like any period of major change, some of these events are bittersweet, and some are awesome. I still believe that physical copies of games are important to the industry and should always remain a part of the system. However, it’s impossible to deny the doorways services like Game Pass open up, allowing people to try games that they never would have purchased on their own, essentially for free.
I also believe, despite the backlash Death Stranding received in some circles, that games driven by artistic vision will become more and more a part of our future. At a point when caring about graphical fidelity starts to lose meaning and profit-driven AAA development churns out products like Anthem, the weird and strange games that auteurs and the people around them develop feel more important than ever.
This is a weird way to set up a post about my Game of the Year awards, I realize, but context is important. I want to highlight what the industry was like at this moment so that when people look back on 2019 down the line, they can see the point when things changed.
A GAMING LIFE PT. 2 – 2019 GAME OF THE YEAR AWARDS
Most Disappointing Game of the Year – ALTERNATE JAKE HUNTER: DAEDALUS THE AWAKENING OF GOLDEN JAZZ (Switch)
I’m a fan of Jake Hunter. Or, more accurately, I want to be. However, the English releases of this long-running Japanese franchise make this difficult. At their best, the entries I like still have major localization issues, and at their worst, they end up like Alternate Jake Hunter. It takes place in the eighties, yet the modern computers and cars shown in the photorealistic backgrounds suggest otherwise. The script is formatted so poorly, it’s like the time I got a copy of Goethe’s Faust off Amazon and the text was littered with broken formatting code. The soundtrack is a mess, the placement of 2D characters in 3D space feels off, and the new Orchard of the Mind mechanic is impossible to read.
These aren’t the only aspects that make Alternate Jake Hunter Most Disappointing, though. Switching publishers from Aksys Games to Arc System Works seemed like a great idea, but turned into a wasted effort. I can’t believe someone really thought this mess was worth $40. The best thing I can say is that there are some engaging mysteries at Alternate Jake Hunter‘s core, but sinking your teeth into them is like biting into a rotten peach just to get the pit. Publishing visual novels outside of Japan is no easy task, but when you consider the low bar of quality Jake Hunter games have been under, putting this out feels like hammering in the final nail after the coffin’s already been lowered into the ground.
Best Re-Release – KIRBY’S EXTRA EPIC YARN (3DS)
When Kirby’s Epic Yarn first released on the Wii in 2010, the 3DS was just months from launch. Now, almost a decade later, the title has come full circle to be one of the last games the handheld will ever see. It trades co-op for new modes and features some downgraded visuals, but there’s still plenty of cute charm to find in this title. The handcrafted yarn aesthetic still looks great, and it’s a wonderful game to relax with if you’re looking for an easy, fun experience more than a huge challenge.
What makes this the Best Re-Release is that the transition from console to handheld is nearly seamless. With other titles like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, there was a novelty in seeing a Wii U game ported to the 3DS. You knew it was inferior hardware, but it was worth seeing how Nintendo made it fit together. Epic Yarn doesn’t carry quite the same baggage. Sure, content’s been altered, but the game still looks and feels pretty much the same as it always has. It also holds up more than the other major 3DS remake from last year – Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.
The Golden Oldie – PERSONA Q: SHADOW OF THE LABYRINTH (3DS)
Something I don’t talk about much on this blog is my belief that playing older games is just as important as staying up to date on current ones. I decided to play Persona Q before jumping in to review Persona Q2, and though it took me several months and about 130 hours, it was all worth it. I grew to like certain members of the Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts, and I’m more curious than ever to check out the main series for myself. The chibi-art style won me over, and the heart and ambition at the center of this title help elevate this beyond a simple “Persona crossover game” label.
In a year when I also played a ton of other older games like Assassin’s Creed III, Titanfall, and Super Smash Bros Ultimate, this was the game I played the most. Granted, there were two campaigns to get through, but even if I had been asked to play for 200 or 300 hours, I would have. The combat is satisfying, the story is interesting, and even though I just met these characters I feel like I’ve known them forever. Persona Q is one of the best games on the 3DS – that alone makes it worthy of being The Golden Oldie. But if I were to to do a Top Ten of everything I played this year, this game would be right up there, next to Persona Q2 as one of my top five games of 2019.
Most Underrated Mode – BOWSER JR.’S JOURNEY (MARIO & LUIGI: BOWSER’S INSIDE STORY + BOWSER JR.’s JOURNEY)
I know Bowser Jr.’s Journey isn’t a new mode. It first appeared in the last Mario & Luigi 3DS remake, Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, but this was my first experience with it, meaning it’s new to me. The concept is similar to auto-battlers: players form an army of minions on a grid, and send their team to attack the opponents’ armies. Except for a few moves performed by the captain (usually Bowser Jr.), the player has no input over how their army fights. Strategic troop formation is the key to clutching victory, and leveling up individual minions keeps them in top fighting condition. It’s a separate RPG from the main quest that tells a fun story, and is worth playing even if you don’t like the Mario & Luigi games otherwise.
I’d hoped that after Bowser’s Inside Story‘s re-release, Nintendo would’ve seen the hidden potential in this mode and asked AlphaDream to develop it as a full game. Given the developer’s subsequent bankruptcy and closure last year, that seems unlikely. Which is a shame, because I can’t state enough how fun this mode is. There’s an elegance here that would make for a great Dota Auto Chess-style game for the Switch. If Nintendo wanted to get into that market like they got into battle royales with Tetris 99, I’d be totally on board. With a title like Bowser’s Armies and development done by a smaller studio like Vanpool, I can see it doing pretty well. This mode does not deserve to die an ignominious death.
The Shout Out – DAYS GONE (PS4)
A gorgeous look at the Oregonian landscape. A relatable, quirky protagonist named Deacon St. John. An interesting story set around a well-told romance (despite what some out of context screenshots may say). Freaker hordes that turn curious exploration into survival horror challenges. Days Gone doesn’t break from the open world formula in any major way, but it has a lot of aspects that are well worth your time. It’s SIE Bend Studio’s first console title in fifteen years, and strangely feels like an authored game. Perhaps not by one singular person, but by a team with a vision, and pride for themselves, where they are, and what they’re putting into the game. It certainly makes Bend, Oregon look like a fun place to visit.
Days Gone deserves a special shout out because it’s not the best at anything it does, but it’s a solid second place. When the initial reaction dies down and it becomes just another game on the PS4, I think people who approach it with an open mind will find a lot to like. The concept of an open world game with zombie hordes and a dash of biker culture sounds like a marketing research dream, but there’s something genuinely cool here. It’s better than you think, I promise.
Biggest Surprise – TETRIS 99 (Switch)
It’s easy to say “it’s just Tetris with 98 other people,” but that really undersells how fun Tetris 99 is to play. It’s more extreme than normal Tetris. Every match starts out simple enough, but once you get down to the top twenty, then the top ten, the tension amps up. At this point, I’m usually a nervous wreck, white-knuckling the controller, hoping I don’t get inside my head and make a terrible mistake. By the time I get to the top five, pieces are falling so fast I don’t even know what I’m reacting to; I start losing focus and blow it. I’ve never won a round, but this game hasn’t left my mind, and likely won’t until I’ve finally reached victory.
It doesn’t do a lot of good for my anxiety, but Tetris 99 is some of the most fun I’ve had all year. I never would’ve expected Tetris to circle back around in the late 2010’s and become as cool as it’s ever been, but this and Tetris Effect prove me wrong. Tetris is a chameleon. As long as developers are smart enough to shape its timeless design into something as cool as this, it will always live on.
Best Handheld Exclusive – PERSONA Q2: NEW CINEMA LABYRINTH (3DS)
Persona Q2 improves on the original in many ways. It streamlines the battle system, gives plenty of room for each member of its nearly 30-member cast to shine, and weaves a story that’s even more tragic and relatable than the first. With the game’s movie motif, dungeons have free reign to lean into their respective genres without feeling disjointed from one another. Plus, with Persona 5 in the mix, Atlus borrows from that game’s menu design and wisely centers the experience through Joker’s eyes only. It’s everything I could have asked for in a sequel.
As one of the last major 3DS titles, it’s impressive. The degree of thought and preparation invested into this game goes beyond anything else the 3DS saw this year. Atlus could’ve churned this out as a cash grab to lure fans of Persona 5. They could’ve not made a game and left it at that. But this is the kind of game that has an entire dungeon based around musicals – with original numbers and a storyline! It blossoms as a worthy successor to the original Persona Q and is easy to recommend to anyone that likes RPGs, whether they’ve played a Persona game or not.
Best Console Exclusive – DEATH STRANDING (PS4)
I was on board for Death Stranding’s brand of sci-fi weirdness from the beginning. Some aspects can seem ridiculous, and other parts made me uncomfortable, but Hideo Kojima’s vision of a futuristic, dystopian America is full of interesting ideas. Not just the Timefall, or the relationship between life and death with the BBs, BTs, and Beaches, but in the gameplay too. Hiking around to deliver packages is so peaceful. It makes me feel like I’m taking time out of my day to help others, and my assistance is usually rewarded. If not by an NPC, than by the kindness of another player somewhere else in the world. In such a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, joys are few, but a well-placed ladder or bridge is always a welcome experience. Death Stranding‘s online component stands out as one of the most positive ideas a game has introduced all year.
This positivity means a lot. People used to talk about how Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis AI system would change games, but after playing Death Stranding, I’d rather its ideas about interacting online catch on instead. Encouraging people to be nice to each other when we’re all faceless, pseudonymous avatars is more remarkable than it has any right to be. I hope it inspires other designers to start thinking of ways they can promote positivity and being nice to others in their games, too. There’s nothing quite like Death Stranding in the world right now, but it feels necessary, and I think we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
Game of the Year – LIFE IS STRANGE 2 (PS4)
Despite not being thrilled with the ending, I still have to give it up for Life is Strange 2. It’s kind of like watching a TV show, and early on in the season you’re convinced it’ll be one of the best shows ever made. Yet, because it’s on an obscure streaming service, doesn’t have a great title, or something else, no one else you know is watching it. You can talk about it episode by episode until you’re blue in the face, but the best response you can get is “I might watch when the season’s done.” The journey is continually captivating, and so many aspects of it hit your sensibilities in just the right way, it’s all you can do to get your feelings out about it in any form, whether that’s around the water cooler, or typing into internet and hoping someone listens. In my case, Life is Strange 2 has been my Game of the Year since the first episode won last year.
I like how political this game is. Sean and Daniel Diaz are fascinating protagonists to learn and grow with. The choices that Sean makes always have consequences both intended and not, and they usually make the story better. This isn’t an adventure game about big explosions and set piece moments; it’s about the small, emotional scenes between a parent and their child. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a person of color in modern America, but Life is Strange 2 finds ways to communicate what that might feel like. It challenges players to find empathy even in the most specific and incredible situations. The ending leans too hard on the very stereotypes Dontnod tried avoid when crafting this tale, but this is a case where the journey is everything, and the destination is just a period on the page.
- Life is Strange 2
- Death Stranding
- Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth
- Tetris 99
- Days Gone
- Yo-kai Watch 3
- Luigi’s Mansion 3
- Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn
- Yoshi’s Crafted World
- The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Do you love this list? Hate it? What’s your Game of the Year? I’m open to hearing what you have to say in the comments below, or at twitter.com. Or, you can email me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios(dot)com. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!