Tuesday, January 7, 2020

My Decade in Games: The 2010's - Part 1

Welcome back! In these next two articles I'll be taking a look at games released in the 2010's. The previous articles on movies of the decade can be found here.

I wanted to go back and look at fifty movies and fifty games that meant something to me over the last ten years. Not necessarily the best or most important works released in these years, but the ones that personally meant the most to me. Each of these lists is divided into two articles and arranged by year. For each game I've included the system which I first played it on.

Alpha Protocol (PS3, 2010) - On its surface, Alpha Protocol looks and plays like a decidedly average third-person shooter/stealth game. What makes this game special is a role playing system that actually feels meaningful; players can completely change the game's tone, the relationships between its characters, and how it all ends through choices that aren't dumb, obvious good/evil choices. A decade later, Alpha Protocol is still the gold standard for reactive story-driven game play, and it's short enough to replay a few times just to see how much can be changed.

Bayonetta (PS3, 2010) - One of the all-time best brawlers, every boss fight in Bayonetta feels like it could be the endgame of another title. Focused on careful dodging rather than memorizing complex strings of moves, Bayonetta as a series just clicks with me better than any other games in the genre. They're also genuinely funny games with a weird and wonderful sense of style, featuring a cast of characters who would fit in on a fashion runway. The first game's cutscenes go on way longer than they need to, but this is improved on in its excellent 2014 sequel.

Nier (PS3, 2010) - One of the early examples of the "Sad dad fights to save his kid" games that would be popularized throughout the 2010's, Nier, like Alpha Protocol, looks pretty ordinary on its surface. It's a standard third-person action RPG with average combat, it's visually messy, and it's got a few really poor sidequests, but the game's story and characters are enough to surpass all of this. Set in a dying world that isn't quite what it seems, Nier's world building (while extensive) isn't what drew me to it. Rather, it's the family of misfits you build throughout the game, each dealing with their own trauma but ultimately finding something meaningful together. The phenomenally good soundtrack helps, too. Its 2017 sequel Nier: Automata improves on the original's game play, but never connected with me on the personal level that the first Nier did.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (PS3, 2010) - I've always been a big Pac-Man fan. The sequel to 2007's excellent Pac-Man Championship Edition, DX is by far my favorite installment in the series. Taking classic Pac-Man game play and adding a hypnotic audio/visual experience, Pac-Man CE was part of a trend that included titles such as Frogger: Hyper Arcade Edition and Space Invaders: Infinity Gene and continues in the modern day with the excellent virtual reality Tetris Effect. A 2016 sequel, Pac-Man Championship Edition 2, introduced some fun new elements but nothing beats CE DX.

Rock Band 3 (PS3, 2010) - Music games with plastic instrument controllers exploded in 2005 with the release of Guitar Hero; five years later Harmonix would release Rock Band 3, adding vocal harmonies and a keyboard controller, introducing a new layer of depth to the genre. For a long time, my PS3 was basically a glorified karaoke machine. I still love singing in these games, even if my interest in playing the instruments died off along with almost everyone else's. The keyboard was the one instrument that I ever really got into, but support was dropped from 2015's Rock Band 4. The series third game really feels like the end of an era, the genre at its peak before everyone moved on, coming a year after the wonderful The Beatles Rock Band.

Vanquish (PS3, 2010) - A ludicrously fast third-person shooter, Vanquish has players sliding and dashing all over the place shooting and punching larger and larger robots. The simple premise gives Vanquish the feel of an arcade classic brought into the modern age and its sense of progression from one gigantic threat to the next is just fantastic. Platinum Games released both Vanquish and Bayonetta in 2010, giving this console generation two of its absolute best action games in a short time. An upcoming 10th anniversary two pack including both Vanquish and the first Bayonetta is scheduled for release in February 2020, and I hope this gives a new audience a chance to experience these classics.

Spelunker HD (PS3, 2010) - A wonderful remake/expansion of Timothy G. Martin's notorious 1983 platformer known for its deadly bat poop, fatal stumbles, and tense oxygen management. I've seen the original Spelunker on a lot of bombastic Worst Game Ever lists, but I've been a fan since the NES version. It's a game that asks you to move slowly and carefully, thinking about each step and asking yourself, "Is it really worth risking the last of my air to get that treasure?" The HD version adds a massive number of new stages and a new visual style (the original graphics are also an option.) This is the perfected version of the original game's concepts; its sequels, Spelunker World and Spelunker Party, fail to capture the excellent stage design of Spelunker HD and infect the game with unnecessary grinding and free-to-play junk elements.

Dark Souls (PS3, 2011) - Pretty much everything that can be said about Dark Souls has been said; this follow up to From Software's 2009 Demon's Souls helped popularize a new style of action RPG, dark fantasy games focused on moving towards unknown horrors slowly and carefully, taking your time and learning something new with each death. There have been sequels, spinoffs, and a million indie game tributes, some of which do their own thing and some that just lift DS elements wholesale and hope for the best. The Souls series is light on story but deep with lore, each item and spell you find telling you a little more about its world, but I never got into that side of things the way many players have. For me, the twisty map design, satisfying combat, and the ability to help out other players in need is what keeps me coming back.

Asura's Wrath (PS3, 2012) - Asura's Wrath is an "angry dad punches everything, ever" game that perfectly blends playing a video game and watching TV. Each of Asura's 18 base episodes open with credits scrolling over the action, have mid-show bumpers where commercials would go, and end with "Next time on Asura's Wrath" sequences. Unlike many interactive movies, Asura's Wrath foregoes exploration and puzzle sequences and focuses on pure, nonstop action. In spite of some missteps with how it was published (the story's final chapter was sold separately as DLC), Asura's Wrath is a relentlessly insane joyride and there's nothing else like it.

Journey (PS3, 2012) - Players guide a hooded pilgrim through the wilderness solving simple puzzles and experiencing beautiful environments. There are no enemies to defeat, no focus on violence, and no spoken language. There have been many indie titles since that follow this same design philosophy, but none have captured the loveliness of Journey, where players are matched with random strangers who accompany them on their odyssey. Players can only communicate with chirps and hops, and while you don't need a buddy to complete the game, having someone by your side makes the world feel warmer and less sad.

Pinball Arcade (PS3, 2012) - Digital pinball has come a long way since my days playing Nintendo's 1983 NES game simply titled "Pinball." FarSight's Pinball Arcade takes a different approach from digital titles such as Zen Pinball, focusing on accurate reproductions of real world tables rather than original boards. The original PS3 release was a little rough, but a PS4 port the following year would offer a much improved and prettier collection. Nearly 100 tables were released ranging from 1966's Central Park to Stern's 2016 Ghostbusters table. I've played a bunch of digital pinball compilations but FarSight's remains my favorite; sadly, the platform is effectively dead now, with the rights to most of the game's best tables lapsing and moving to another developer, making them unavailable to new players.

Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PS3, 2013) - When I first played the original version of Dragon's Dogma in 2012, I was a little underwhelmed. It's clunky, the writing's bizarre, and there's very little in the way of actual role playing. I'd later replay it when the Dark Arisen revision was released and my opinion would change drastically: I now love its cheesy acting, easy-to-break combat, and cornball wizard hijinks. Plus it's got a jester who looks like Wario. This is one of the few long games I've replayed multiple times, and at this point I've happily bought three versions of it across different editions and systems. Part of what drives the game is the ability to hire AI buddies from other players and send your own AI partner out into the internet to get rich and learn of goblins. To this day I still love seeing the bizarre creations people put into the world.

Guacamelee! (PS3, 2013) - An incredibly polished puzzle/platformer by Drinkbox Studios, Guacamelee! perfectly blends beat 'em up game play with Metroid-style exploration and some challenging platforming. The game's designed so well and balanced so fairly that even some extremely tough optional parts aren't too frustrating, since you don't lose much progress if you fail. It looks great, has an excellent soundtrack, and features very fun boss fights. Some of the jokes are awful, but they were toned down in the game's 2014 Super update before being doubled down on in 2018's less impressive Guacamelee 2, a go-to example of how more isn't always better.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3, 2013) - Revengeance is pretty much a dream game for me; Metal Gear is one of my favorite series and Platinum Games is one of my favorite developers. There are some hiccups in this Metal Gear spinoff (some writing is over expository and the game's final stages feel too short) but when it's good, it's spectacular; the conversations with the final boss are hilarious and the game as a whole works as perfect satire of dumb action games. Like Bayonetta, the focus here is on defensive options rather than combo strings. In Revengeance's case, your main defense is a parry system that, when properly executed, feels fantastic.

Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013) - One of two Wii U games where I keep saying, "This really needs a Switch port." A combination of the best parts of Mario games old and new, 3D World is a vast improvement over its 3DS predecessor, Super Mario 3D Land. Featuring four-player game play with character abilities inspired by my all time favorite Super Mario Bros 2, 3D World combines the linear obstacle course stage design of classic Mario titles with a decent amount of free, 3D movement. This is a must play Wii U title and one of the best in the Mario series overall.

XCOM: Enemy Within (PS3, 2013) - Like Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, Enemy Within is a revision of a 2012 title that expands upon its base game and results in a far better experience. 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a wonderfully designed strategy game, but it was extremely buggy no matter which platform you played on, repeated its maps and aliens too often, and didn't have much branching to its tech trees. Keeping the basic story and gameplay intact but adding far more missions, Enemy Within offers a greater variety of equipment and skills and some nice randomization options that make replays feel fresh. While I did enjoy 2016's XCOM 2 (in spite of terrible load times and plenty of new bugs), Enemy Within is my favorite modern take on the XCOM formula.

NES Remix (Wii U, 2013) - The other Wii U game where I keep saying, "This really needs a Switch port." NES Remix and its sequel are both absolute delights, taking classic games (and some not so classic) and chopping them into bite size pieces, a combination of retro gaming and Nintendo's Wario Ware series. Some games work better in this format than others, but the whole experience is just great, even if you do have to play NES Tennis. A compilation of the two NES Remix games was released on 3DS in 2014, but this one really needs a Switch release.

The Last of Us (PS3, 2013) - Naughty Dog's PS3 swansong, The Last of Us is an excellent mix of narrative and action game play. While its core plot and game play aren't anything new, Last of Us' presentation is so top-notch that it stands above and beyond similar games.  The Remastered edition later released on PS4 makes an already pretty game look even better and includes a fun Photo Mode as well as the excellent Left Behind prequel DLC. There's been a million "Dad protects a kid from monsters" games since, but Last of Us still stands out as something special.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014) - Mario Kart 8 features my favorite set of courses yet. I love the low gravity zones, where your karts drive up and down walls and ceilings and the course just spirals around everywhere. In spite of all the madness, it's never hard to see where you're going or follow the action. There's a really great replay mode, letting you watch the game's goofy facial expressions in slow motion. Mario Kart 8 is the first entry to branch out into other Nintendo franchises, with courses from The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero, and Excitebike showing up as DLC. The whole package was collected in the 2017 Switch port Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch (PS4, 2014) - An average man struggles with maintaining a healthy family life and keeping his deepest, truest self closeted. In this case, the true self is an octopus wearing a man's suit. Octodad's focus is on silly comedy and light humor, but it's actually got a really good core message about being true to yourself and honest with the people you love, even if it hurts. It's also a ton of fun at parties, as people struggle to fling the ungainly octopus up flights of stairs and through grocery stores. After almost a decade of dad games, Octodad remains the best.

P.T. (PS4, 2014) - An obtuse first person puzzle-horror game that took weeks of online communities working together to fully solve, P.T. was a free downloadable game by Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima and director Guillermo del Toro. When it was first released, their connection was kept secret, and the first person to complete the game had no idea what they'd done to finish it. The time spent contributing and watching communities dig through every bit of the game to try to reproduce the win conditions was a fantastic social experiment, and it all served to reveal that the game was intended as a teaser for the new Silent Hill title that I couldn't have been more excited for. P.T. is a great looking, terrifying experience that simulates the desperation experience of repeating the same actions over and over praying for a different result. The whole project ultimately fizzled out and the full game was never released, with Kojima's time at Konami ending and the creation of Kojima Studios. No new Silent Hill games have been released since.

Shovel Knight (Wii U, 2014) - When I first played Shovel Knight I had no idea it would still be getting excellent expansion packs all the way into 2019. This retro-inspired platformer just grew on me more and more as I replayed it, and its additional campaigns, focused on three of the game's boss characters in brand new stories, turn Shovel Knight from a great game into an phenomenal one. It does away with old-school holdovers like limited lives and offers a great and fair checkpoint system. The last five years with Shovel Knight have been a wild ride and I can't wait to see what Yacht Club has to offer next!

Transistor (PS4, 2014) -Supergiant Games made a name for themselves in the indie gaming scene with 2011's Bastion, an action-RPG with a unique narration style, a wonderful soundtrack, and pretty, hand-painted environments. Transistor is a spiritual sequel that introduces a new turn-based/active hybrid combat system and a digital world on the verge of collapse. Like Bastion, Transistor is an audio/visual treat with unconventional storytelling. It's a love story, a sci-fi adventure, and a cautionary tale about online societies. Transistor caters to players of all skill levels with a highly customizable difficulty system, letting players add custom modifiers to make things a little (or a lot!) tougher until they've found the perfect setting.

Murdered: Soul Suspect (PS4, 2014) - Players take the role of a recently deceased detective in Salem, MA with the ability to spook the living and take control of cats. Bonus points for having a pun in the game's title! Soul Suspect focuses on exploration and digging up clues to solve a handful of murders (including your own) before Detective Ronan can move on to the afterlife. There's no combat and only a handful of (not very good but mercifully short) stealth sequences, giving this game the feel of an old school point-and-click adventure with modern quality of life improvements. This isn't a deep game, but its world is so fully realized and lived in that it feels great to just spend a few hours haunting around Salem solving crimes and meowing at people.

Pix the Cat (PS4, 2014) - What happens when you take the loud, colorful dot-munching frenzy of Pac-Man Championship Edition, marry it with the ever-growing claustrophobia of Snake, and throw in a dash of the bird-saving heroism of Flicky? You get Pix the Cat, an exciting and stylish score attack game by French developer Pastagames. Pix the Cat is a title that absolutely nails the feel of an old school arcade game and never burdens the experience with the type of filler that often pops up in modern attempts.


Click here for part 2, covering games released 2015-2019.

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