A Not-So-Dry January

Despite my expectations of a slow month, January 2019 ended up coming in hotter than I expected. Though the number of releases still isn’t that large, the high profile nature of many of them is still surprising for a month right after the largest shopping season of the year. Or so I thought, anyway. Much to my surprise, this has become a fairly recent trend. Let me bring up the highlights of the last four years of January releases to show you what I mean:

January 2015 – This is the kind of month I expected January 2019 to be. The highlights include an HD remaster of the Resident Evil remake on multiple systems, a port of Saints Row IV to PS4 and Xbox One, along with the new Gat Out of Hell expansion, Brandish: The Dark Revenant on PSP, and the first episode of the original Life is Strange. Nothing bad, but mostly re-releases and remakes. A breather between the holiday season and the busier spring months.

January 2016 – A marginally more impactful month than 2015. For indie fans, there was Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, Oxenfree, and That Dragon, Cancer. On the 3DS front, players could get Mario and Luigi Paper Jam and Final Fantasy Explorers. Traditional big-box retailers also got in the new LEGO Marvel’s Avengers, while digital stores got more remakes and ports – Resident Evil 0 HD, A Boy and His Blob on current systems, and the new Amplitude on PS4.

January 2017 – A remarkably better year, filled with something for everyone. This month saw stateside releases for Yakuza 0, Gravity Rush 2, and Tales of Berseria; along with the 3DS port of Dragon Quest VIII. There was also the all-new Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue; the game that put the final pieces of new content in place for Kingdom Hearts III. 2017 was overall a great year for game releases, and January’s haul is merely a glimpse into what it was like.

January 2018 – Not as many notable releases as the previous two years, but four of them, including Dragon Ball FighterZ, Monster Hunter: World, Celeste, and Iconoclasts managed to hang on to be nominated for end of the year awards. This month alone was responsible for introducing more people to anime and making Monster Hunter palatable for a wider Western audience – no mean feat, to be sure.

The best reason I can come up with for why January has changed so much, is due to timing, money, and competition. Publishers move big name games out of the busy holiday season to they don’t get ignored in favor of other big names. These other games then sell well during the “off-season” months proving to other publishers that, hey, if that game sells well in January, maybe yours will too. This has the effect of spreading the competition throughout the year, leading to a constant stream of games, instead of a trickle followed by a large rush at the end of the year.

Not to tip my hat too early, but I think January 2019’s releases will be pretty great, too. Once again, there aren’t as many as there have been in other years, but Nintendo’s starting out strong, and there are a couple of indie games that look promising. Also, somehow, this month sees the release of a number of games that have been in the public eye, but held back for years on end. To see them all colliding at once to hit shelves is thrilling, as it’s sure to get 2019 started in the right way for a lot of people.

Lastly, just as a note, I won’t be talking about the new episodes for Life is Strange 2 and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, as I talked about them last week, but to me they’re just as important as any game on this list. See you in February.

I’m almost surprised it’s not called Switch Fit Boxing.

Fitness Boxing (Switch)
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Imagineer
Release Date: 1/04/19

What is it?
If you like Just Dance and Wii Fit, Nintendo and Imagineer have prepared a new sports game just for you. In Fitness Boxing, players punch, move, and sweat to the beat of a bunch of songs that were probably on the Top 40 charts at some point. I don’t know how much it brings to the fitness genre compared to every other game like it, but it’s interesting to see Nintendo trying to court casual audiences again.

Why is it important?
Fitness Boxing is important almost by circumstance – it’s the first major release of the year, and it smells kind of like Nintendo is trying to dump it and move on. Coming from Imagineer, developers of Quest 64 and some Metabots games, I can’t imagine why Nintendo would choose to release it like that, but here we are. Maybe Fitness Boxing will find its audience, but its release feels so incidental, I’m surprised to see Nintendo publishing it at all.

I ate more than a mushroom to get that way, buddy.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey (3DS)
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: AlphaDream
Release Date: 1/11/19

What is it?
A celebration of the tenth anniversary of Bowser’s Inside Story on DS, Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr.’s Journey takes one of the most beloved entries in the Mario & Luigi RPG series and gives it a new life. It’s very much in the vein of 2017’s Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga remake that also hit the 3DS, and continues the trend of Nintendo porting whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to its older handheld device.

Why is it important?
Nintendo has a surprising amount of content planned for the beginning of the year, starting with a boxing game and two Mario ports/remakes. I’m all for more 3DS games coming down the pipeline, but this is the first time I’m wondering why Nintendo decided to remake this game specifically. Is there a new Mario & Luigi game being planned for Switch? Luigi’s Mansion on 3DS made sense as a way to promote Luigi’s Mansion 3 coming to Switch this year. A Kirby’s Extra Yarn remake makes sense if you accept that Nintendo sees Kirby as an annualized franchise. But, Bowser’s Inside Story? That, I can’t begin to guess.

The Year of Luigi feels like eons ago…

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (Switch)
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 1/11/19

What is it?
A port of both New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U to the Switch, it’s basically more side-scrolling Mario, which is never a bad thing. The first trailer for this edition of the game introduced the whole “Bowsette” meme to the internet, thanks to the new Super Crown, which makes the now-playable Toadette into a Princess Peach-like character.

Why is it important?
This game is important because it’s Mario. Mario has been on pretty much every Nintendo console except the Pokémon Mini, and on several not made by Nintendo, including the Atari 2600 and Phillips CD-i. Some say that the recent side-scrolling Mario games are less important than the Mario Odysseys of the world, but that’s kind of like talking about Disney making a Frozen 2 instead of another original animated film. They’re both very important to their business strategy, just for somewhat different reasons.

The great thing about fictional characters is that they never age unless the author wants them to.

Onimusha Warlords HD (PC/PS4/Switch/XB1)
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom/NeoBards Entertainment
Release Date: 1/15/19

What is it?
Onimusha started as a mix of Resident Evil gameplay, a Sengoku-era Japanese setting, and plenty of demons and souls. The series prevailed for years on the PS2, but fell off by the time the PS3 came around. Several fans were convinced the series would never see a remaster in any way thanks to the use of famous Japanese actors for likenesses and motion capture (including Takeshi Kaneshiro as the main character), but Capcom has proven them wrong and (assumedly) renegotiated these licenses.

Why is it important?
The fact that this IP is back at all seems momentous to me. It’s nice to see Capcom courting the goodwill of its fans, because so often they seem to be in a contentious relationship with one another. I’m not sure how the tank controls and old school style of gameplay will be seen as anything other than clunky today, but if enough people are into it, perhaps we’ll see the sequels get the remaster treatment, too.

This is not my favorite art style, but I hope it suits the game in the end.

YIIK: A Postmodern RPG (PC/PS4/Switch/Vita)
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Developer: Ackk Studios
Release Date: 1/17/19

What is it?
YIIK is a JRPG-inspired throwback to the 1990’s, when the Y2K bug represented people’s fear of a new millennium, and games like Earthbound proved to be super relatable. YIIK isn’t the first game like this to hit the market, but developer Ackk Studios has invested a lot into making it a reality. A demo released back in 2016, and their originally planned Wii U version has now transitioned to the Switch. It’s been a long time coming; a statement that can be attributed to half of this list.

Why is it important?
I think YIIK has the opportunity to be the first big indie game of the year, provided it hits people like the developers want it to. A 90’s neon aesthetic combined with a game centered around mystery and intrigue could prove to be an intoxicating combination, especially given the unique Y2K setting. The trailer doesn’t wow me or anything, but I do think some people will gravitate to it just for the way it looks.

Air combat reinvented for VR

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4/XB1)
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Release Date: 1/18/19

What is it?
Ace Combat is, in a way, a lot like Onimusha. It was big on the Playstation 2 (and even the Playstation) for a while, but eventually died off. Unlike Onimusha, which still fits a general action game mold, Ace Combat disappeared along with most of the flight combat genre. It took Ace Combat 7 over four years to see a release, and I’m curious if this latest entry will drag it out of obscurity, or help bury it again like the last two entries, Assault Horizon and Infinity, did before.

Why is it important?
With Ubisoft’s Starlink failing to get off the ground last year, fans of flying games have little to look forward to. They need something else – a little Ace Combat, maybe, to get them jazzed up. If this doesn’t happen, and sales for Ace Combat fizzle out, then this genre is due for another long dirt nap. At least, until Nintendo makes another Star Fox, anyway.

Definitely your normal saving menu.

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes (Switch)
Publisher: Nintendo/Grasshopper Manufacture
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: 1/18/19

What is it?
As the director of stylish titles like Killer7, Flower, Sun, and Rain, and the original No More Heroes, Suda51 has made a name for himself with games that are arty, weird, and mesmerising. After a number of years working as a supervisor at Grasshopper Manufacture, Travis Strikes Again will be the first game he’s directly taken the reins of in over a decade. As a part of the series, it again stars Travis Touchdown and chronicles his work as an assassin against the evil Badman; but instead of the hacking and slashing the other games are known for, this one sees them facing off across several games inside a possessed video game console.

Why is it important?
No More Heroes is a Mature franchise through and through – the series is not above making players look like they’re jacking off the Wii remote, and Travis uses the bathroom to save the game. Though Nintendo is known more and more for publishing Mature titles like Bayonetta, seeing them handle Travis Strikes Again still feels surprising. Perhaps they’re doing it because Suda51 making a game carries the same excitement as whenever David Lynch gets behind the camera, I don’t know. They’re both such unique artists that you almost want to experience what they’ve made just because it’s them, no matter what the project may actually be about.

Ada Wong looks like she just walked out of wardrobe on a Hitchcock set.

Resident Evil 2 (PC/PS4/XB1)
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: 1/25/19

What is it?
Resident Evil on the Playstation was remade as Resident Evil on the Gamecube in 2002, providing new story, character beats, and gameplay sections after only seven years. Fans loved it, and expected Capcom to keep going and remake the sequels, too. Well, it took seventeen years, but here we are – almost exactly twenty-one years after Resident Evil 2 came out. Resident Evil 2 bigger than ever, prettier than ever, and has modern controls under the hood, making this less of a remake and more of a whole new experience.

Why is it important?
This is again a moment where Capcom is doing something for fans. If it weren’t for the next game on this list, I’d say Resident Evil 2 would be this month’s biggest title for both its budget and highly-requested nature. It’s a game that looks phenomenal in trailers, and follows up with the impressive tech debuted by Resident Evil VII. Seeing how that game turned out, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for Capcom to return to their roots.

I have to admit how cool Sora and co. look in the Monsters Inc. universe.

Kingdom Hearts 3 (PS4/XB1)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 1/29/19

What is it?
Kingdom Hearts III is The Sequel fans have been waiting thirteen years for. No more side games. No more HD movies and Final Chapter Prologues. This is it. So much has changed in the intervening years that hearing the story explained sounds like a conspiracy theory, and the number of potential Disney worlds that Sora and his companions can visit has increased practically tenfold. Back in 2005, when Kingdom Hearts II first came out in Japan, Disney hadn’t even bought Pixar yet, let alone Lucasfilm and Marvel. Thirteen years changes a lot, and none more so than Disney itself.

Why is it important?
I’ve seen more people get excited for Kingdom Hearts III than any other game in recent memory. For a number of years, it’s been one of the white whales of gaming, always anticipated by fans, and always held close to the chest by Square Enix, even once it actually began development. To see it finally come to an end is unbelievable. I keep thinking the games industry is going to run out of games like this, but then I remembered that Beyond Good & Evil 2, Star Citizen, and Tekken X Street Fighter are all still technically on the horizon.

As crisp and clean as a Mega Man-alike could ever look.

Dragon Marked for Death (Switch)
Publisher: Inti CreatesDeveloper: Inti Creates
Release Date: 1/30/19 (or 1/31/19?)

What is it?
Part of a grand lineage, Inti Creates is a company made of former Mega Man developers that never strayed far from their roots. They’ve worked on Mega Man Zero, Mega Man 9 and 10, Azure Striker Gunvolt, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, and even Mighty No. 9. Though not every game on this list has been a hit, they have this style of side-scrolling action platformer down on lock. This particular flavor is a multiplayer-centric take on dragons and princesses, but despite its more fantastical setting, it still seems right in line with the rest of Inti’s oeuvre.

Why is it important?
It looks cool, it’s only on Switch, and if YIIK doesn’t take off, then this will probably be one of the first big indie games of the year. I do find it interesting that Nintendo’s website says the game comes out on January 30 and the website for the game itself says January 31; that seems like such a minute difference that no one could get it wrong. Anyway, it’s nice to see that, even though Mega Man 11 ended up being developed internally by Capcom, that the team they usually rely on is still doing interesting new things, too.

YIIK certainly has a visual style, that much can be said.

If you would like to contact me regarding anything and everything, you can do so via Twitter, or by emailing me at dcichocki(at)tiltingwindmillstudios.com.