Sturgeon's Law: The Year's Top 10%

Uni /

Sturgeon’s Law is as follows:
90% of everything is crap.

So, instead of doing a top 10, I thought I would do a top 10%. With ~120 games beaten this year (not including replays), that gives us a top 12. There isn’t an exact order to these, but the confidence goes up as you go down the list, until my game of the year at the very bottom.

Resident Evil 3
Compared to the smashing success of the Resident Evil 2 remake, this game got almost no positive reaction at all. Fans were upset that some of their favorite sections from the original were cut, and that no free DLC or extra modes were added for replay value. It seems like a pretty bad deal all around, but it’s less of a downgrade than it may seem. I replayed the original for a point of comparison, and found that the remake actually does a pretty good job reworking it into a smoother experience. The best example is the removal of the clock tower sequence, which is considered emblematic of a remake that cut too much. However, as memorable as the clock tower imagery is, nothing that happens there contributes to the overall plot. The area is fairly small, and it doesn’t introduce any new enemies. The question the developers had to ask was if the smoother progression of the narrative was worth the blowback from fans of the original, and they decided to take the risk. Even if they miscalculated the response, they still achieved the goal of giving Resident Evil 3 the action-movie pacing it was originally envisioned with. That’s the line that always divides fans with remakes, whether you would prefer the original flaws to be left intact, or reworked with potentially warped hindsight. However, with the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 both being so fundamentally different in style from the originals that the “remake” designation is stretched to the breaking point, the latter option is easier for me to accept. I can also understand being annoyed at the lack of replayability options compared to the multiple campaigns of RE2, but the additional difficulty modes and persistent item shop did a good job of keeping me interested all the way through the ultimate inferno mode. This review is more defending the game rather than explaining why you should play it, and that’s because I understand that even the other Resident Evil fans who are most willing to replay the game found the content to be lacking. It may make it into my top games of the year, but in this case, I don’t feel like my confidence in a recommendation is proportional to my level of enjoyment. I enjoyed the RE2 remake a lot, this is essentially more of the same. How much that’s worth is up to you.

Castlevania: Bloodlines
Just like Resident Evil 3, the confidence I have in recommending this doesn’t match how much fun I had with it. It’s classic Castlevania, and your enjoyment will be based entirely on your opinion of those games. If you aren’t a big fan, this game isn’t so amazing that it would convert you, but it’s still really good. That surprised me, with how most classic-vania attention is focused on Rondo of Blood and Super Castlevania 4, but Bloodlines represents a fusion of their best traits. The easy way to see this is with the differences between the two available player characters, John Morris and Eric Lecarde. John Morris plays like the standard whip-users of the series, only attacking to the sides and relying on subweapons for flexibility. Playing with him makes the game feel challenging like Rondo, just without some of the insane difficulty spikes that game is known for. Meanwhile, Eric Lecarde can attack in 8 directions and spin his spear, like how Simon in Castlevania 4 can freely target his whip. Also similarly to Castlevania 4, there’s an abundance of setpieces and atmospheric details to break up the standard hallways full of enemies. Whichever game prompted you to play Bloodlines, you’ll still have a great time, which is pretty impressive. I just wouldn’t recommend it if you haven’t played any classic-vanias before, since it uses passwords and limited continues, which can make it a frustrating starting point. I would instead point you towards the first one on NES, being the short and sweet game that all the others call back to.

Batman: The Video Game
Licensed games tend to be pretty bad, and Batman: Arkham Asylum is thought to be the first Batman game that did any good, but this NES action platformer managed to get it right. Coming late into the NES life cycle, the developers could use their years of experience to make everything look and sound amazing. It’s beautifully made all around, and the controls are smooth and well considered. You have fixed-arc jumps if you hold forward when jumping, but you can adjust your arc freely if you jump without a direction, letting you choose to focus on midair shooting or precise landing. Walljumps work without Strider-esque mashing, and there’s a little animation that plays before bounding off the wall so you can easily adjust to your new trajectory. It’s also nice that the difficulty doesn’t waste your time, with continues not sending you back to the beginning of the stage. The only time you lose progress is if you have to use a continue on a boss, which sets you back to the start of the most recent level. The only things I dislike are how your batarang ammo is maintained among deaths, so you have to farm it between attempts, and that the final boss is too hard. Other than those two gripes, Batman would be my recommendation for anyone wanting to start playing classic NES platformers. It hits all the same highs as its contemporaries, with none of the frustrating lows.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
I made this list in the same way I determine my top ten overall games. I take the games from my spreadsheet, delete the ones I actively dislike, then merge-sort the rest. Doing it this way helps avoid bias, as evidenced by the fact I’m talking about Sekiro right now. I didn’t like this game at all at the start, since it seemed like a confused mix of elements. It has a lengthy narrative intro and a heavy focus on stealth mechanics, with neither playing much of a role in the rest of the game. The level design is open ended like other From games, but without the weapons and armor which made exploration rewarding. Worst of all, the combat seemed mindless since stamina management was removed. You can just mash the attack button until your enemy parries and turns the tables, then you block until it's your turn again. I was left wondering if Sekiro was supposed to be about the narrative, the stealth, the combat, or the exploration, when each seemed to be watered down for the sake of the other. However, now that I've looked it over and beaten the game a second time, I can see that I wasn’t giving it enough credit. The combat actually does have some nuance, but the techniques are learned naturally over time instead of through an explicit upgrade system, which is something I really appreciate. The stealth is poorly introduced rather than poorly implemented, with its primary usage for most of the game being rapid repositioning and reengagement, not waiting in the bushes. After the clunky intro, the story hits a nice stride where new beats are frequent, but spaced out enough to allow for consideration. Once you reach the end of the game, it all comes together for amazing showdowns that look and sound like cinematic choreography. In the end, Sekiro isn’t bad at all, its first few hours just set you in the wrong direction. Luckily, being poorly explained is only a problem for so long, but the solid mechanics remain.

Brigador: Up-Armored Edition
A big draw of roguelikes is the moment where you find a powerful combination of abilities that feels amazing to use. Achieving victory after multiple failed attempts is a great feeling, and one that keeps people trying and retrying for hundreds of hours. However, replaying the same content for only a chance at a payoff can get frustrating, and leave players wanting a more structured challenge instead. Brigador is a twin-stick mecha combat game that attempts to merge the strengths of roguelike satisfaction and linear challenge: you have an extensive suite of mech customization options, and an even more extensive set of randomized missions and difficulty modifiers to tune your experience. Harder missions reward you with more money for parts, and it forms a loop where you get more interesting mechs to take on more interesting missions. With a mission-based structure and permanent unlocks, the roguelike comparison seems questionably relevant, but that’s the sort of mindset I recommend when approaching this game. How much value you’ll get is dependent on how much you like pushing yourself in terms of difficulty, experimenting with mech setups to tackle specific challenges, and trying over until you get the big payoff. What makes the process so enjoyable is how perfect the game feel is, with the weight of your mechs, the power of your weapons, and the sounds of destruction all being incredibly satisfying. Even if this was just a linear twin-stick shooter with twenty missions, I would think the combat is cool enough to be worth the price, but you get a huge range of missions and mechs that could last you a hundred hours. If you’re even remotely interested in the concept, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Total War: Warhammer 2
Warhammer 2 has a lot more going on than the historical Total War games. Untethered by the limits of realism, the door is blown wide open for a much more varied set of mechanics. Each faction’s units, goals, strengths, weaknesses, magic, and technology are incredibly different from each other, but this complexity actually makes this game easier for newcomers to play. With each faction being so specialized and distinct, it’s easier to understand how you should be strategizing. In a game like Shogun, your faction’s unique feature may be strong cavalry, but how much should you play into that? If you try to make a full cavalry army, you’ll either get destroyed by spearmen or run out of money, and finding the middle ground where you can take advantage of your bonuses without going overboard can take multiple campaigns. Compare that to an example from Warhammer, where the Skaven faction is geared towards swarming with cheap units and bombarding with powerful ranged gunners. The balance to strike is obvious, use the disposable units to tie up the enemy as you gun them down. If you have a magic user available, they can destroy anyone who flanks the gunners or turn the tables wherever the front line is breaking. Even if you’ve never played Total War before, this sort of strategizing will come naturally, and you can start having fun without the sort of Youtube tutorials strategy games often rely on. The accessibility combined with the abundance of content makes it easy for me to recommend, but the real question is if I can recommend buying it. There’s a ton of DLC, which is always a major turn-off, but you really don’t need to load up. Paradox games might lock entire game-changing mechanics behind DLC, but that’s not the case here. It’s just factions and faction leaders which you can pick depending on how interesting they seem to you. Personally, I would recommend buying Warhammer 1 and 2 to start, which will give you all the base factions from both games to use in 2’s combined campaign. The DLC factions are mostly based on gimmicks that shake up the standard gameplay, which isn’t a priority when you’re just starting out. Buying it this way also makes it fairly cheap to get into, especially when measured against the hundreds of hours you can get from it. If you’ve ever been interested in Total War, it’s easily worth your time and money.

You can’t talk about this game without addressing the Undertale elephant in the room. The fanbases of the two games practically overlap, but I ended up in the sliver that loved Earthbound but not Undertale This was surprising given their similar premise, being simple RPG’s with a vibrant cast of adolescent characters on a humorous but mind bending quest. What ended up making the difference between the games is that Earthbound does a better job at actually feeling like a journey, conveying the joy of conquering challenges, the anxiety of being far from home, and all the feelings in between. Each area you visit feels different and contributes a unique perspective on the game’s themes, and the plot is kept simple to let those messages get the full focus. The lighthearted presentation and jokes may be what people talk about, but the jokiness belies the wistfulness of an adult writer thinking back on childhood, and it frequently gave me a moment of pause. At least, it did that some of the time. Sometimes it’s just crude 90’s humor. And truthfully, a lot of the journeying can be dull, with the simplicity of the RPG mechanics not feeling so great when you have to fight basic enemies for hours. In particular, I would say the hump of the game is in between the end of the intro and getting your second companion. Once you get over that stretch, the combat starts feeling a lot better, and the story keeps escalating until a wonderful finale. I hope the fanbase and the excessive hype behind it haven’t soured people on actually playing this game, because it does deserve appreciation.

Desperados 3
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun had prerelease marketing that consisted almost entirely of “Did you like Desperados and Commandos? Then play this!”. It’s a pretty bold strategy when both of those series had been dead for a decade and weren’t the kind of mainstream hits that most people would recognize. Even so, the move paid off, and Shadow Tactics was praised as a great iteration on the isometric stealth gameplay those series were known for. Then, the Shadow Tactics team actually got to use the Desperados IP for their next game, and iterated upon their iteration of iterative franchises. Suffice to say, Desperados 3 doesn’t shake up the formula at all, it’s just another layer of refinement on a stealth system that works. Stealth where you can see every guard and every view cone is so fundamentally solid that all the game really needed was a polished interface, fun abilities, and interesting scenarios to use them in, and all three goals were met. At first, the characters seemed too similar to the ones from Shadow Tactics, but enough changes and powerful new abilities were included to make it fresh. The final character in particular allows for so much creativity that the game becomes something new entirely, and I played for hours just testing out all the possibilities. The variety in missions actually gives you a reason to take your time experimenting in this way, and it’s not just sneaking around plain bandit camps. However, one of my few criticisms of Desperados 3 is that you may feel like you’re always surrounded by bandits anyway, since you’re repetitiously sneaking up behind guys, killing them, and dragging them into bushes instead of slipping by without a trace. The variety in the other aspects is enough to keep things fresh, but I would certainly like to see some thought put into the ghost playstyle when the next game adds another layer of polish. It still might not be at the point where I would suggest this to people who aren’t stealth fans, but it comes extremely close. If you are a fan, it’s an unqualified recommendation.

Also, it's one of two games on this list that actually came out this year, so it wins my Game of 2020 award. Good work Mimimi Games!

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
When a series gets popular after a style change, the original games enter a limbo state. The fanbase gets split into two, and depending on how widely available the originals are, their unique qualities can be forgotten. Metal Gear is in a particularly weird place with this, being a narrative-focused series where everyone outside Japan missed out on the story of the first two entries. However, with the Metal Gear Solid games being cinematic 3D experiences, most people seemed ok with just ignoring the old 2D top-down games. Many of the unique moments from Metal Gear 2 were reused in Metal Gear Solid anyway, so it became even easier to ignore the old ones. Even if people wanted to play them, there wasn’t a way you could do that until Metal Gear Solid 3 Subsistence included translated versions. All of this is to say that for a multitude of reasons, Metal Gear 2 has become a footnote in the Metal Gear franchise, when it’s actually a fantastic game that fans of the series and stealth fans in general should play. It hits the perfect middleground for stealth games, where the information about your visibility is perfectly clear but the situations are varied enough to be consistently challenging. Without the need for the Solid games’ abstracted Soliton radar view, Metal Gear 2 actually has the denser spread of challenges and the more interesting set of gimmicks. The amount of twists on basic stealth mechanics like noisy floors, hiding spots, gadgets, and security systems is honestly mind-blowing for a game from 1990, and it’s kept short enough to where none of the gimmicks wear out their welcome. In a way, it’s like Metal Gear Solid but without the downsides commonly associated with those games. There are no long monologues of questionable relevance, no slumps in the pacing, and no abandonment of stealth mechanics after the first hour. Fans and non-fans can enjoy it equally, it’s just a great game that can stand alone.

Blood: Fresh Supply
When you play a lot of games, it’s easy to forget the staggering level of work that goes into game development. You expect guns to go bang and enemies to fall over, and that seems easy enough, but every sound and reaction effect needs to be purpose-built to feel satisfying and suit the game’s tone. Every weapon needs an entire suite of secondary animations, like trying to shoot without ammo or using an alternative fire mode. Enemies should react differently to being shot, set on fire, or electrocuted, so the complexity multiplies with every new weapon and enemy type. Having variety and reactivity in this way is a massive undertaking, but Blood proves how polish in these areas can elevate a game to greatness. In most shooters you get a boring handgun by default, but here, you get a flare gun. It doesn’t just set enemies on fire when you hit them, it fizzles menacingly until they burst into flames and start flailing wildly. You might expect to get a hunting rifle for long distances, but in Blood you get a voodoo doll, sadistically jabbing it to take down enemies. The focus is on B-movie horror brutality, but it’s done in such a tongue-in-cheek way that it never feels mean spirited. You’re just there to have a good time sprinting at the insane speed of a 90’s shooter protagonist, blasting cultists with some of the most satisfying weapons ever put into a computer game. The cherry on the top is the custom difficulty system, which lets you tweak the game to whatever you find the most fun. There’s the usual damage modifiers for you and the enemies, but also settings for enemy counts and aggression levels for each type. You can make it a run-and-gun with hordes of weak enemies, or a horror shooter where you have to be careful with your resources. As long as you enjoy shooters, you can have fun with Blood. Since a rerelease took until 2019 and it never got a quality sequel, it’s been criminally overlooked, so I encourage even the shooter skeptics out there to rediscover this classic.

Outer Wilds
Some games are recommended because they’re perfectly polished, some get recommended because they iterate on the systems people already like, and Outer Wilds doesn’t meet either criteria. There are times I got frustrated, times I tried correct solutions that didn’t work, and times I was pretty bored, but I still recommend it. The reason why is because of a third criteria that’s hard to find in large-scale exploration games: total originality. I value the experience of discovering Outer Wilds’ uniqueness more than I value the comprehensiveness of my recommendation, so to keep it short and spoiler-free, it’s a first-person spacefaring adventure about uncovering the cause of a natural disaster. You’re not given any direction on how to accomplish this, you just hop in your spaceship and head out to whatever planet looks best to you. There’s no hand-holding or patronizing tutorials, you’re expected to go and explore just for the joy of uncovering a mystery. All the triumphs, the beautiful moments, they’re all earned by your diligence, and success isn’t just handed to you. While being left to your own devices can make the times you’re stuck feel a little agonizing, the payoff at the end is easily worth it. If that sounds even remotely interesting, please give this game a chance. If there’s any game that deserves a chance to surprise you, it’s this one.

Alien Soldier
Solo game development is a high-risk high-reward prospect. The developer’s dream game might not appeal to anyone else, or it may be crippled by the need for one person to exceed in all the arts of game making. However, if the game does manage to come together, you can get totally unique experiences that just exude personality. For Alien Soldier, it was the vision of a Treasure employee named Hideyuki Suganami who wanted to follow up Gunstar Heroes with the ultimate 2D shooter. Even though the Genesis’ hayday was over by the start of development in 1994, he wanted to make the definitive action game for it before 3D hardware had totally overtaken the market. That’s a tall task for one guy, but I would be confident in stating he succeeded. Alien Soldier really might be the best 2D shooter of all time, and you can feel Suganami’s understanding of the genre through all the mechanical polishes most people wouldn’t even think about. For example, most sidescrolling shooters either lock you in place as you shoot or force you to shoot in the direction you’re moving, but in Alien Soldier you can freely swap between the two to handle different enemies. You swap weapons with a weapon wheel, but since some players might push right to rotate the wheel clockwise, and others would push right to select the option on the right, there’s also a linear display to prevent confusion. In a nice touch for expert players, the health/ammo/damage bars can be set to either be graphics, numbers, or hidden entirely. These polishes still aren’t standard in 2D shooters, and most don’t have the smart pacing that this game does either. Alien Soldier has short levels that mostly serve as a way to recharge your health and ammo between the incredible boss fights, and there’s no wasted time or filler levels. It’s the ultimate example of an “all killer, no filler” game, it’s wonderfully imaginative and challenging from front to back. My only suggestion for when you play (and a hint at the game’s over-the-top personality) is to flip the difficulty from SUPERHARD to SUPEREASY. Hard mode is meant to play like an arcade game with its limited continues, but easy mode lets you just select a new set of weapons when you die, in case your current set is unsuited to the current challenge. It really is hard to talk about this game without getting into another one of those little polishes. I could gush about all the little things this game gets right all day, and still wouldn’t be able to convey how cool and fun this game is. Please play it, it’s $1 on Steam and easy to emulate. Actually, I’ve offered to buy people copies before, and I’m extending that offer now. Just hit me up and I’ll buy it for you. That’s how much I want people to try this game.