Game of the Year 2018: The Very Good Games

One year ago, it seemed impossible that the games of 2018 would live up to those of 2017. We were fresh off of an apparent renaissance of the entire Japanese AAA scene, from the innovations of Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Nier: Automata, to the unprecedented polish of Persona 5 and Gravity Rush 2. It was naive of me to hold 2018 to those same standards. While I waited for another genre-defining experience to sweep me off my feet, the year pressed on and a pile of exceptional games began to build around me. If the bar had raised in 2017, then in 2018, creators around the world rose to meet it. Most of all, new indie creators burst onto the scene with refinements across games of all varieties.

As I’m writing this, it’s already February, so clearly it’s not practical for me to write about every game I enjoyed in 2018. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try, though…! What follows is a list of what I enjoyed most: “The Very Good Games.” And coming later this week, we’ll make this extra official and follow up with what’s left: my top three favorite games of 2018. I wasn’t quite able to finish everything I wanted to in time, but with a list as long as this? I can’t say that I have regrets!

Zero Ranger

We’re kicking this list off with a bang: Zero Ranger is a trip. It’s half stylish shmup, half genre-history museum, and the more you’re able to endure, the wilder it gets. It starts off pretty standard gameplay-wise: you move, you shoot, you dodge enemy bullets. After completing each stage, you’ll choose a weapon to add to your ship. If you can make it past stage 3 (harder than it sounds!), you unlock a…well, it’s a spoiler, so just try and imagine a completely different kind of power-up. The difficulty curve builds step-by-step, urging you to climb along with it as politely as it reasonably can.

The conflict itself grows to absolutely bombastic levels, but what I loved most is how often (and sincerely) it pays tribute to other shmups. One mid-game boss is, quite literally, a Space Invaders stage. A UFO boss is guarded by rows of minions that crawl side-to-side, which you’ll need to blast through for an opportunity to damage the mothership. There’s a lot more along those lines, with references to everything from R-Type, to Star Fox 64, to Undertale, to Neon Genesis Evangelion. When I said it’s a trip, I meant it.

Destiny 2: Forsaken

For the first time in Destiny’s history, it feels like all of Bungie’s ambition has scaled neatly into a single compelling package. Whether you show up for the competitive multiplayer, the co-operative boss fights, or to explore its beautiful space action “sandboxes,” Forsaken pulls it all off. It’s a “forever game” that works for both the raiding diehard and people like me that have been waiting for a solid, Bungie-made science-fantasy FPS.

Its story campaign shines brightest of all: a tale of revenge that brings longstanding narrative threads out of the wikis and onto the main stage. Forsaken’s opening scenes bring about the death of Cayde-6, a fan-favorite hero and arguably the only memorable character from the original Destiny. Your player-character goes rogue to hunt down - one-by-one - the outlaws behind his murder. Each makes for a unique boss encounter that feels dangerous enough to have ended one of the galaxy’s strongest Guardians. Meanwhile, back on Earth, new dangers loom as the two remaining authority-figures have had their confidence rattled (maybe even permanently damaged) by the loss of their comerade. I had spent years not caring at all about Destiny lore, and now I can’t believe how anxious I’ve become for where this story goes next.

Tetris Effect

With just one trailer, Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Aesthetic™ Tetris unofficially claimed a place on this list. Such a pinnacle of trust was earned, to me, while Mizuguchi led Q Entertainment, whose games boast brain-stirring synesthetics and rhythmic game mechanics. Attaching that pedigree to Tetris — a literal mastercraft of game design — was an instant win.

Tetris Effect’s beauty unfolds in dozens of “stages” with exceptional art direction by Takashi Ishihara. Their spectrums of vibrant colors and shimmering partical effects combine for a visual feast, as tetrominos pulse to the beat. The soundscape is filled with tonal clinks and accents as you flip, slide, and hard-drop pieces into position. Until you hear it for yourself, it’s hard to imagine, but it’s a deeply affective experience.

Octopath Traveler

Octopath Traveler made a mark on the Nintendo Switch with the tasteful blend of iconic, Final Fantasy-inspired pixel art and Yasunori Nishiki’s staggering soundtrack. Admittedly, it’s far from my favorite RPG of the year, but it deserves recognition even if only for the way it captures late-90s RPG nostalgia. Genre fans widely consider this to be one of the greatest eras of gaming history, so for Octopath to modernize its vibe so successfully is no small feat.

I can’t praise its soundtrack enough - it’s compositionally and technologically exceptional. When story scenes give way to boss fights, the music seamlessly builds to a climactic peak, perfectly transitioning so that the boss theme can tear through from underneath. It’s cool every single time, and in my opinion, this move almost single-handedly shoulders the story’s emotional weight. I can’t say I was familiar with Nishiki’s work before Octopath, but you can bet I’ll be keeping a close eye on everything he touches from here on out.

Minit

The foundation of Minit is one of my favorite game concepts of the past decade: imagine Zelda, except every 60 seconds, you die. This hyper-dramatic framing makes ordinary actions, like “walk to town,” or “water the plants,” into matters of life and death. One minute isn’t very much time, sure, but it’s always enough time to do something. The real treat of Minit is deciding and planning out sequences of what that “something” is going to be.

Its “one-bit” artstyle is an adorable delight, as is its warm and retro soundtrack by Junko Kallio. Minit is the whole package, squeezed into a tiny box; a brief, but wholistically charming exploration of a brilliant idea. It’s projects of this exact scope that I would be thrilled to see more of.

Florence

Florence is a story of love, relationships, and personal goals - but probably not the one you’re expecting. In perfect diegetic motion, you’ll fill the shoes of young, urban professional, Florence Yeoh. You’ll scrub the screen to brush your teeth, tap through your friends’ social posts on the commute to work, and roll your eyes as you call home and get lectured about life. Her dull life changes rapidly when she stumbles into Krish, a street musician who is as inspiring as he is charming. Florence’s hand-drawn, comic-like panels are brushed in dramatic, highly contrasted colors that wordlessly communicate each scene’s mood. Wordlessly is the operative word, here, as it’s the game’s greatest strength - nearly everything about this game is communicated with art, sound, and interaction alone. All of this adds up to some of the most impressive and refined storytelling of 2018. For only a few dollars, Florence is a must-play.

Super Smash Brothers Ultimate

If Smash Ultimate’s name doesn’t speak for itself, its sheer size certainly can: a roster that boasts more than 70 playable characters, more than 100 stages, and nearly 900 songs from across gaming history. It’s probably the broadest fighting game line-up ever made, and yet the details and secret interactions hidden within any given character are unbelievable. Fully customizable game modes and flexible, character-specific handicap settings make it easier than ever to play the way you like with whoever you like (even if they take the game more seriously than you do). Every single Switch owner deserves to have this - it’s the best Smash game ever made.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

What would it look like if the creators of the original Castlevania trilogy followed up with “one more of those” in 2018? Curse of the Moon is literally that, and it’s every bit as good as you can imagine. From the soundtrack, to the 80s-inspired pixel art, to the classic feel of its movement and action, this game knows its vibe and hits it hard.

It’s way less predictable than it sounds, though! In your first playthrough, you’ll (probably) befriend new playable characters at the end of each stage. Or maybe you see your character, Zangetsu, as more of a loner? He’s basically a demon samurai, and come on, that’s pretty edgy. You can (secretely?) use his basic attacks to kill these characters instead, each granting Zangetsu a unique new ability. There are substantial narrative and mechanical consequences for this, of course, ultimately bringing about a more difficult experience as well as a completely different finale. I’ve spoiled enough, so I’ll chop it off here: if Curse of the Moon is anything to go off, then the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is one to watch for.

Mega Man 11

Even after decades of running and gunning, the classic Mega Man formula remains rock-solid: 8 stages, 8 bosses, and 8 unlockable weapons. So it was bold for Mega Man 11 to break from that convention with the “Double Gear” system: a short-term ability that can be toggled to either slow down time, or supercharge Mega Man’s weapons. That risk paid off, though, as the Double Gear was my single favorite game mechanic of the year!

What makes the Double Gear so brilliant is that it expands the strategic complexity of Mega Man without actually changing his iconic abilities. On its surface, it’s easy to understand, but it takes a lot of experimentation to learn how to properly use it. Is the time-slowing gear an offensive tool, or a defensive one? Is it better used for platforming, or for fighting enemies? The answer that I eventually came to is that it’s kinda’ up to you!

Mega Man isn’t alone in the use of the Double Gear, either, as each of the 8 bosses will take advantage of those same power boosts. That means there’s more to defeating a boss than merely finding the weapon they’re weak to. Mega Man 11’s boss fights aren’t just pattern memorization challenges - they’re dynamic, multi-phase challenges with several avenues to success. Long live the boy in blue!

Donut County

Ben Esposito’s Donut County makes a pretty good elevator pitch: you control a hole in the ground, sliding across town and devouring anything that fits inside. With each object that tumbles down, the hole gets a little bit bigger. It’s like an inverse Katamari Damacy, set in an equally bright, zany, and charming world. Its trailers showed off two melancholy raccoons, one laying on his back and slowly kicking his legs in the air as he stared at his phone. What a silly raccoon! And was that Sungwon Cho doing voiceover? I needed this game.

What I got was so much more than a fun indie puzzler. I mean, hold that thought for a sec, because it is really fun to drop a whole city piece-by-piece into a hole in the ground. Emptying out an entire highway of its bumper-to-bumper traffic was hilarious, and the writing is full of sardonic one liners. But the hole goes deeper. It’s a gameplay-as-metaphor critique of the elite, gentrification, and consumerism. Even without going into explicit detail, there’s a pretty clear line between the mechanics of an insatiable, ever-expanding hole and its controller. Donut County is ultimately the story of a privileged person that gets something very, very wrong. It wants to show us that “doing right” is an ongoing process that’s about more than words, but action. It all starts with being open to criticism, listening to the people that our behavior hurts, and learning to let go of self-motivated instincts.

Dragalia Lost

It’s a bit hard to comprehend that a “gacha” game has clawed its way onto my Game of the Year list, much less an action game played with touch controls! I bounced hard off of Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius, Granblue Fantasy, Fire Emblem Heroes, and probably countless others I can’t bother to remember. Miraculously, Dragalia Lost is so fun, and so charming, that it’s overcome my aversion to this kind of game.

Let’s be clear, though: gacha games are inherently manipulative. They throw players on a free-to-play treadmill of temptation, relying on psychology concepts like positive reinforcement and variable ratio rewards to keep them addicted. Now, Dragalia’s developers at Cygames have proven far more generous than one could reasonably hope their gacha overlords would be. I’ve even thrown a few dollars their way - a choice that I made only out of confidence in my enjoyment of the game. If you’re not vigilant on where you draw that line for yourself, though, it would be terrifyingly easy to pump money into that treadmill out of desparation or frustration. So as I’m preparing to praise the game itself, it’s important to acknowledge its underlying systems are (and will always be) deserving of the utmost caution. Cool?

What immediately stood out to me with Dragalia was how engaging its action feels. Despite having to rely on basic, touch-based controls, there’s a shocking amount of nuance to its mechanics. Combo canceling, invincibility frames, reading attack animation telegraphs, queueing up your charge attacks during long attack animations - all of that stuff is there, on your phone. It’s wild! I’ve recently become strong enough for endgame content, and the coordination and strategy required rivals even that of traditional MMOs. Spread out for this attack, group up for that one, make sure to position the boss over here so we have enough room to dodge, you get the idea.

It’s just so much more of a production than I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Every few weeks the game is updated with new events, story content, characters, and boss fights (both solo and co-op). The localization, by 8-4 (of Fire Emblem Awakening fame), is a treat in every scene. The soundtrack is excellent, and oddly unique. It’s built almost entirely from j-pop artist Daoko’s songs. Even the instrumental tracks are chopped up versions of Daoko melodies, and as you browse the menus, your characters will bob their heads to the beat. The entire game has such a youthful, positive energy, and even after several months of play, I’m still loving that I get to have this thing in my pocket.

Dragon Quest XI

Dragon Quest has earned a reputation, especially in the western fandom, for almost-stubbornly clinging to tradition. The same core tenets have defined the series since the days of the NES: turn-based combat, Akira Toriyama’s character designs, and “monster of the week”-style storytelling. And rather than conforming to the shifting expectations of the market, Square Enix have continued to push out against the same walls that have always surrounded them. Dragon Quest XI bravely shows that there’s still value to be found in mastering the basics, and to me, it was hands-down the most ambitious RPG of the year.

In last year’s Game of the Year post, I said (of Breath of the Wild) that “an adventure worth having can only take place in a world worth exploring.” I feel echoes of that in DQXI; the thrill of exploring is largely what carried me from hour one to hour 80. Its cities and landscapes are breathtaking and packed with treasure chests, collectibles, and vistas. Maybe it’s the completioninst in me, but I couldn’t stop myself from wandering each and every path.

Although I historically have not come to Dragon Quest for the story, or even the characters, I was pleasantly surprised by how much XI’s grew on me. It centers around “the Luminary,” a fabled hero said to restore light to a darkened world, and his journey covers the world’s descent into darkness and eventual recovery. The story is at its best when it demonstrates how much more there is to heroism than getting a powerful sword to kill the bad guy. You don’t need to be a “hero of legend” or even a special person to bring about hope - it just takes some willpower and empathy.

Never is this more clear than in the actions of Sylvando, a circus entertainer that believed in the power of the Luminary when the rest of the world did not. At the end of the game’s first act, the fated shadowlord seizes reign over the world. The Luminary disappears, and in his absence, Sylvando leads a dancing, costumed parade on a grand march to “bring back smiles to the world.” Maybe that sounds trite in this detached context, but as I watched his spectators’ glowing faces, it warmed my heart, too. So far, I’ve avoided mentioning that Sylvando’s flamboyance and speech resembles countless archetypal gay men characters. These characters are far-too-frequently rooted in homophobia, and their mere existence is generally intended as a punchline. But Sylvando’s actions are never played as a joke, and in fact, the people he interacts with admire him. He’s respected and beloved for who he is, because he’s exactly the hero they need.

JRPGs are a genre that is almost exclusive about “becoming a hero through hard work,” and Dragon Quest XI is that rare game that earns its resolution. In a world that has way too much upsetting news, a handbook on ways to inspire is honestly something we need.