RetroRam’s Games and Lames of the Year 2018

It may be a little early to be considering my favourite games of the year, here in the middle of November, but the simple fact is I’ve done my game purchasing for the year, with the exception of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which comes out on disc in a couple of weeks. I am not expecting that to make this list, and I may even cancel my pre-order because right now I’m not in a gaming kind of mood.

This year has been one of transition for me as a gamer. I’ve been playing less, due to familial commitments. I dumped my PlayStation 4 and allowed my Xbox One S to become my main gaming machine. I finally accepted that Xbox Game Pass (and similar products) have a place in the world, and signed up for it using a discounted membership I bought elsewhere. So, without further ado, here are my games and lames of this year – which was 2018.

Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One) – Recently released, this is the latest in one of my favourite series. I love cars, I love racing games, and whilst I prefer the more orderly progression of the Forza Motorsport games, there’s a lot of fun to be had tearing about the countryside in a Ferrari F40, smashing through walls and collecting bonus boards all over. FH4 is set in the UK, albeit mainly the northern parts of it, which for a Brit like me is a nice touch. It’s nice enough racing around digital approximations of other countries, but to see familiar landmarks in a game is quite a feeling. It’s not the best of the series, indeed it has a few issues that I won’t go into here, but they’re hardly game-breaking, and the overall product is wonderful.

Celeste (Xbox One & Nintendo Switch) – Yes, I liked this game so much I bought it twice! On the surface yet another retro-styled game; the difference is, this one has class. Beautifully presented, the graphics are well thought out, and the music is amongst the very best you’ll find in an indie game, modern or otherwise. The story follows Celeste as she attempts to climb a mountain, struggling to overcome her own inner demons as much as she struggles to overcome the physical obstacles in her way. It’s a touching tale, the emotional impact only strengthened by that soundtrack and by some clever narrative choices. The game is tough as nails, with plenty of replayability in the shape of collectible strawberries hidden throughout, and each stage has a hidden casette (won by completing a smart rhythm-based section) which unlocks a harder “B-Side” (and later C-Side) version of the level. One of my games of the decade.

Dark Souls Remastered (Xbox One & Nintendo Switch) – Another game that I bought twice, having previously fallen in love with the original game on PC and PS3. One I’m not only happy to return to every few years, but in this case I’m paying both Remastered editions concurrently, more or less keeping up with myself in each copy! The Xbox One edition is truly fantastic, running super smooth and looking great. Sure, it looks like a game that is a few years old (because it is), but it does a lot to improve what we saw previously, even over the previous PC version. The Switch version deserves a mention because (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post) it is simply wonderful to experience the game on the handheld console. It makes some concessions with the graphics, particularly you’ll notice that spells and fire look far less impressive, but the fact that it is running with a quite steady framerate here is impressive. I’d put it next to Skyrim as a technical achievement for Nintendo’s famously underpowered console. Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, and this is simply the best way to enjoy it today.

The Messenger (Nintendo Switch) – In a similar vein to Celeste, this game has a retro style, and places you against difficult odds, expecting you to improve through repeated trial and error. It’s another well-made retro-styled game, with a great aesthetic and compelling gameplay. Well worth a play.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Nintendo Switch) – Not strictly a new game, this Wii U port came to Switch earlier this year, and it’s a great game either way. Essentially creating a full game from the Captain Toad bonus stages from Super Mario 3D World, this collection of puzzles has a delightful style and simple execution. Captain Toad can move in all directions, but he can’t jump. You must guide him to collect all the stars in a level and make it to the end, using the environment to your advantage. Each stage has a bonus goal, such as collecting a set number of coins or finding a hidden bonus item, and further replayability as you go back into a level and must locate a hidden piece of pixel art similar to those found in Super Mario Odyssey. The cutesy presentation hides a puzzler that becomes increasingly difficult as you progress, but never becomes infuriatingly obtuse. Switch is a natural home for this type of game, which was originally designed with Wii U’s Gamepad in mind.

Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition (Nintendo Switch) – I really wanted to love Final Fantasy XV. I’m not sure why, honestly, because besides 7 and perhaps 8 and 9 I’ve found the series to be absurd and.. well, a bit naff. XV does have a great look to it, and after some adjustment I came to quite enjoy the new combat system. Pocket Edition strips the game of many side quests and a lot of the boring exploration, replaces the shiny “real world” graphics with a cartoon, chibi style, and streamlines the experience, originally for smartphones. It’s a fantastic idea, and has opened the game up for those of us who, simply, can’t be bothered to pay through the tens of hours of the main game, but still want to enjoy the story and basic gameplay.

Super Meat Boy (Nintendo Switch) – Yet another game I’ve purchased more times than is sane, Super Meat Boy is another of my all-time favourites, so when it surprised me by appearing on the Nintendo eShop I had to grab it again. A super-polished game that tasks you with navigating perilous stages to save your girlfriend, there is great humour to be found here. Stages have no time limit, but to meet a target time grants you “A+” status on each level, and each world has a number of hidden bandages (plasters to us Brits) to find and warpzones to uncover – these transport you to some very clever retro-inspired stages, in the style of Game Boy or SNES games. Various characters are unlockable as you progress, based on other indie games of recent years, and each controls differently with their own special power that can help you collect bandages that are just out of reach, or simply complete the stages in a different way. One of my essential games.

Labo (Nintendo Switch) – “Nintendo charging for cardboard,” they said. Right. Just as I gave Mini thousands of Euros for “some metal and plastic”. I felt compelled to add this one to balance the negativity in my review of Nintendo Switch Online (below), as Labo is in fact quite ingenious. Two packs came at launch; the one I bought was a general pack including a number of toys to be built, but there was also a massive wearable (for kids) robot, and more packs coming in the future I believe. When I got the pack home I spent a couple of hours building the piano. Well-designed and easy to build, using video instructions provided on the game cartridge, the final product is solid and has proved a conversation piece since. With the switch in place, you can… play piano on it. Multiple methods are available to alter the sounds the piano makes (through the console), and you are encouraged to experiment with your own solutions (such as cutting a piece of paper into random shapes to control the waveform produced). Other toys in the set include a fishing game and motorbike handlebars, which can be used as a controller for Mario Kart 8 DX! Now I’m just going to wait a few years for my son to be ready for it, and we’ll have great fun exploring the rest of the cardboard fun.

Those are some of my very favourite games from the past year. I can hardly end this without a bit of negativity, so here follow a selection of big disappointments, sure to stir some controversy. Whatever, this is my list.

Shenmue Collection (Xbox One) – I’ll be fair and say that this review relates only to the first game of the pair, as I’ve been unable to consider trying the second. The opening cutscene is laughably terrible, like a bad old martial arts movie, but without the charm. Once you gain control you find things don’t improve much, as the crappy dialogue is so poorly recorded and compressed that it makes your speakers buzz even at low volumes. The controls are of the kind best left forgotten in the new millennium, and the game’s attempts at presenting a real world are also very much of their time – with no place in today’s world. I bet you love me now, don’t you.

Flashback (Nintendo Switch) – I mean this isn’t a terrible game. It’s very good. For 1992. Not as timeless as some would like you to believe, this game is at times confusing, hard to control, and generally not as much fun as it should be at the price they released it for on Switch.

Red Dead Redemption 2 (Xbox One) – I really didn’t want to put this game here. Rockstar so rarely misstep for me, and I had high hopes for this one. GTA V, their previous release, is one of my all time favourite games. I’ve played through it three times at >40 hours a go, and never been bored. RDR2 however managed to bore me even during the introductary scenes. Once it’s over and you’re in the game proper, I just haven’t been compelled to progress. A handful of missions done (10% apparently) and I’ve basically been phoning it in. The game is beautiful, really doing good things with current generation hardware, and has all the hallmarks of Rockstar’s attention to detail and their version of realism. I didn’t really enjoy the previous Red Dead game either, until it started to click on about the fourth restart. I played that one to the end, ultimately enjoying the experience, but I guess the setting works less for me than one in the modern world, such as GTA presents. Ho hum.

Nintendo Switch Online (Nintendo Switch) – Something of an honourable mention, Nintendo Switch Online is terrible. The few online games I’ve tried to have of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe have been plagued by lag which means I have been hit from behind by someone in front of me, and failed to hit someone ahead of me with a red shell because they’re not actually there. Pretty annoying. The complementary NES games are something of an insult, or at least a disappointment. The same old games that have Nintendo sitting on their Laurels, repackaged for subscribers. Nothing but NES games. Before the system even launched, Nintendo had us teased with suggestions of a Virtual Console to include a back catalogue up to GameCube. This should certainly be possible on the console, and imagine how great it would be to revisit some of those games – except it appears Nintendo have realised they can re-issue these old games on a cartridge and charge top dollar, negating the need to sell them for a fair price online. This is becoming something of a rant. So strong are my feelings on this matter. The simple fact is, if you want to charge money for something – particularly something that was previously provided for free – you ought to make sure it works first. It’s not like there aren’t two decades of competing services to draw lessons from.

There you go. Some highs and lows of my year in gaming. You may agree with all or some of these, or you may not. Either way look me up on Twitter and we’ll chat about it! @BitlandGaming.

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