Thursday, January 21, 2021

One sentence about each of the 24 games I finished in 2020

I began 2020 intending to review every one of the games I finished during the year. Although I did that—to a point, via this post and this post—until the end of June, I completely dropped the ball after that.

I'm going to try to make up for things here—although, again, only to a point. Instead of writing multi-paragraph reviews of each of the 24 games I finished in 2020, I'm going to devote just a sentence to them.

Here are the blurbs in question, which I've organized according to when I completed them. (Alice in Wonderland was the first game I beat in 2020, while Paper Mario: The Origami King was the last.) 

Should you want additional details on any of these games, let me know in the comments section of this post. Or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

A unique, touch-controlled Metroidvania that's far more challenging than its awesome, adorable art style implies.

Detective Pikachu (3DS)

This Pokémon-themed adventure game may be aimed at kids but adults can enjoy it, too—as long as they don't have a deep-seated hatred of Pikachu, of course.

Heroland (Switch)

Made by folks who previously worked on Fantasy Life and Mother 3, Heroland is a theme-park-based, board-game-esque RPG with a superb soundtrack that intrigues until it overstays its welcome.

A beautiful, blissfully short side-scroller that does a surprisingly brilliant job of combining the Pikmin series' characters and controls with thoughtful platforming action.

Pokémon Shield (Switch)

I loved Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee! when I played through it in 2018, and I loved Pokémon Shield even more when I played through it last year—thanks mainly to its charming, Pokéfied British setting, slew of appealing new 'mons, and thrilling "Wild Area."

Raging Loop (Switch)

A terrifyingly engrossing visual novel that features "Werewolf"-inspired gameplay and a Groundhog Day-ish looping story.

Deadly Premonition Origins (Switch)

One of those "greater than the sum of its parts" games, with the positive parts of Deadly Premonition Origins being its quirky, compelling characters, WTF story, and weird soundtrack, and the negative parts being its "please don't make me do that again" combat and QTE segments.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch)

I've never had to live through a natural disaster myself, but I kind of (only kind of!) feel like I have thanks to this adventure game, which is harrowing not just because of drama and trauma it puts you through, but because of its iffy graphics and even iffier frame rate.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Switch)

Another RPG that's shockingly similar to a board game, SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions offers players a wide-open world, a minimum of direction, a ton of potential party members, and a predictably sublime OST.

The World Ends With You (DS)

A dual-screened action RPG that makes full use of all that acreage during its thrillingly chaotic battles, supported by some of the most stylish visuals around and fabulous, pop-tastic soundtrack.

Void Terrarium (Switch)

One part post-apocalyptic roguelike, one part human Tamagotchi—all set to an appropriately (and enjoyably) industrial OST.

Mr. Driller Encore (Switch)

Mr. Driller goes to a theme park and adds some much needed depth and variety to his eponymous series' previously straightforward race-to-the-bottom-of-the-screen gameplay.

Moon (Switch)

A melancholy "anti-RPG" that sends you into a game world to clean up the mess of an unhinged hero by saving the souls of slain creatures and helping its human inhabitants in various ways.

A Short Hike (Switch)

If you've ever dreamt of exploring—by land or sky—a mountainside getaway as an anthropomorphized bird and at your leisure, this is the game for you.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (Switch)

A touching, vaguely EarthBound-esque RPG that lets you time travel and tackle mechanical foes with the assistance of a robot that can transform into a boxer, cowboy, and more.

Kirby Mass Attack (DS)

Using your DS' touch screen to control up to 10 Kirbies through a series of side-scrolling and puzzle-filled stages is cool; if only it were more fun.

Part Time UFO (Switch)

Leave it to the masters at HAL Laboratory to create an instant classic that combines a claw crane, a balance-puzzler, and the most sickeningly sweet soundtrack you've ever heard.

Yomawari: Night Alone (Switch)

Yomawari proves that survival-horror games don't need to be remotely realistic to be fully and properly unnerving.

Super Princess Peach (DS)

Forget what you've read about this vivacious platformer; in my humble opinion, Super Princess Peach is every bit as good as your average Kirby, Yoshi, or even Mario side-scroller.

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (Switch)

Take the Bubble Bobble that started it all in 1986, replace the simple-yet-snazzy backdrops with ones that are simply boring, remove all the character from its kooky cast, and make the overall experience more awkward as well as less enjoyable, and you've got 4 Friends.

Mad Rat Dead (Switch)

Come for the move-to-the-beat platforming action (and the amazing OST that coordinates it), stay for the surprisingly touching tale of a dead lab rat who just wants to relive his final day—OK, and exact revenge on the scientist who killed him.

Time Hollow (DS)

Anyone who had a blast playing through Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Ghost Trick, or any of the Ace Attorney games should give this similar offering from Konami a go ASAP.

Again (DS)

This CiNG-made point-and-click adventure game isn't quite as great as the company's other DS efforts—Hotel Dusk, Last Window, and Trace Memory—but it's close enough to be well worth your while if you dug those titles.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

The Origami King gives me hope there's still some life left in Nintendo's depressingly inconsistent Paper Mario series, though I wouldn't mind at all if the next sequel's turn-based battles were more traditional than tactical as they are here.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

My favorite game soundtracks of 2020

When I was younger, I didn't have the greatest appreciation for game music. Oh, I dug a good background tune now and then, like Matoya's Cave theme from the original Final Fantasy or the overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. 2, but listen to entire game soundtracks (OSTs) when I was done playing? Never.

Nowadays, I regularly listen to game OSTs during my "down time," especially while working. The OSTs for Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Hotel Dusk: Room 215Kirby's Epic Yarn and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince are a handful of good examples.

The game OSTs discussed in this post, which are my favorites of the past year, have joined this rotation—for all the reasons shared below and more.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

In the run-up to Mad Rat Dead's release last fall, I asked folks on Twitter if they were planning to buy and play it. A few people replied they had pre-ordered copies simply because of Dyes Iwasaki's involvement. At the time, all I could say in response was "that's interesting," as I had no idea who Iwasaki was or why he would inspire such action. 

After experiencing, and thoroughly enjoying (yes, despite including it in my most disappointing games of 2020 write-up), this game and its soundtrack, I can see why. The electro-swing and glitch-hop tracks Iwasaki—and others, like Camellia and a_hisa—produced for the Mad Rat Dead OST are blissful. Not only are they the kind of tunes you can enjoy (over and over again) after you're done playing Mad Rat Dead, but during the act they provide exactly the kind of push you need to successfully complete this game's often-brutal side-scrolling stages, too.

Moon (Switch)

The hallmark of Moon's soundtrack is that it's full of songs made by actual indie musicians. As such, its vibe is decidedly different from what you normally get from game music. 

That isn't to say the tunes here are better than what is typical for the medium; rather, it's to say they're structured differently. I guess you could say they sound more like the kind of pop or rock or dance music any of us listen to in our daily lives—particularly if you tend to listen to music from more experimental artists. 

To put it another way, most of the music on Moon's soundtrack isn't as obviously epic or rousing or triumphant as it can be in other games, especially other RPGs. It's the sort of OST you might put on while enjoying a drink at the end of a long day, or even during a chill get-together with some adventurous friends.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

This Paper Mario sequel's OST is as eclectic as the rest of its contents. Some of its musical creations sound like they came straight from one of Mario's platformers. Others sound like they belong in a Broadway production. The rest? Many defy easy categorization. 

Most are also surprisingly subtle—to the point that you probably won't hum or even think of them much after you save and quit you globe-trotting adventure for the day. While you're actually playing The Origami King, though, they seem like perfect accompaniments to the action or activities at hand. 

That said, I often found myself daydreaming about tracks I had no idea I'd internalized, so maybe the music here is more infectious than I'm giving it credit for right now?

Part Time UFO (Switch)

Part Time UFO's soundtrack is as gorgeously simple as its graphics and balance-puzzler-ific gameplay. It basically consists of a single melodic hook (which centers on a robotic vocalization of its Japanese title) that is broadly interpreted into different musical genres, like country, disco, and jazz. 

The resulting tunes are so whimsical and adorable—not to mention really damn catchy—that I can almost guarantee you'll walk away from every stint with Part Time UFO incessantly humming its main theme.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Mobile, PC, PS4, Switch)

All the best role-playing games have stellar overworld themes and similarly sensational battle themes. The soundtrack for SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions checks both of those boxes—the latter one, especially.

That's a big deal, as Kenji Ito's battle themes are the star of this game as well as its OST. I say battle themes, plural, here because SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions has several of them, including one for each of its four main characters. They're all splendid—filled with swirling strings that inspire even during the toughest of fights. (And let me tell you, you'll encounter some challenging bosses in Ambitions. Hell, you'll encounter plenty of challenging low-level baddies, too.)

In that way, at least, this enhanced version of SaGa: Scarlet Grace is more traditional than the rest of the game's components. Even then, it's hardly ho-hum or average. If a game OST could be described as "elegant," this one is it. Maybe that's why it feels like such a breath of fresh air, despite not being altogether unique.

Void Terrarium (PS4, Switch)

Is Nippon Ichi Software secretly the best producer of game soundtracks these days? I'm not sure, but I'd certainly make the argument that NIS is one of the best in this area at the moment. 

Not only is Void Terrarium's OST a prime example of the kind of brilliance that has regularly come out of this pint-sized publisher over the last few years, but so are the similarly noteworthy soundtracks concocted for Destiny Connect (highlighted below), Mad Rat Dead (discussed above), and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

All three are completely different, and delightful, beasts, with Void Terrarium's OST being full of synthy, sometimes crunchy, sometimes crystalline, backing tunes that, like their counterparts in Mad Rat Dead, positively propel you through the game's murky, post-apocalyptic dungeons.


All of the soundtracks discussed up to now were made for games that released--and that I played--in 2020. The following pair were produced for games that came out prior to last year.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (PS4, Switch)

The Destiny Connect soundtrack is probably the most traditional of all the OSTs discussed here. Even so, it's eminently listenable—in large part because it does a masterful job of tugging at the ol' heartstrings. A lot of the music in this Nippon Ichi Software-made RPG features twinkling piano melodies that help drive home the game's wistful and nostalgic story.

Don't worry, the Destiny Connect OST isn't limited to tearjerkers. It features several heart-pounding tunes, too. Most are string-heavy, all are properly dramatic. Again, they don't exactly break the mold as far as RPG soundtracks are concerned, but they're still impressive for how well they complement the overall experience.

The World Ends With You (DS)

If Moon's OST leans indie, The World Ends With You's tilts toward the mainstream. While the former is full of funky, dub-like ditties, the latter is bursting with pop-rock bangers.

Which one is better? Don't ask me. I think both are beyond magnificent. I'll tell you what, though: I never tired of hearing any of TWEWY's background tunes. Sure, I had my favorites, like "Give Me All Your Love," but the fact is, they're all gems that will energize you while you tackle the game's often-frantic battles. And, of course, they might energize you after you shut down your DS or 3DS, too. That's certainly been true for me in the months since I finished this dual-screened classic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

My most disappointing games of 2020

According to my notes, I played 44 games in 2020. (Yes, I keep notes on the games I play.) Not all to completion, of course, though I did finish a good number of them.

I loved most of them, too, as those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know. Some pleasantly surprised me. And while I can't say I downright hated any of them, I can say a small handful—the ones discussed in this post—disappointed me. Here's why.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

I know, I know—I must be one of the few people in the world who found Animal Crossing: New Horizons disappointing. Especially since it's not like I'm a newcomer to the series. I've played, and loved, every single entry. Yes, even City Folk. Also, I put just under 100 hours into New Horizons before I walked away from it early last summer, so I must've liked a thing or two about it, right?

I did, actually. It's easily the best looking Animal Crossing game around, or at least the cleanest looking. (I personally prefer the chunky, chibi-esque aesthetic of the original release, but I'm odd like that.) Its soundtrack is wonderful, too—though I once again hesitate to flat-out declare it the series' best.

Another feather in Animal Crossing: New Horizons' cap is it gives players more to do than ever before. Loads of people love that, of course, but I can't help but think it's chiefly responsible for souring me on the game. (Also helping matters: the animal villagers in this iteration seem to have less personality and less to say than they did in earlier ones.)

You see, I've long wished the series would go in the opposite direction—streamlining and simplifying things so the overall experience is more tranquil and languid. I know I could just ignore all of the busywork New Horizons throws my way, but that's easier said than done. Plus, it makes up the bulk of the game's content; I get the feeling giving it a cold shoulder might transform what remains into a snooze-fest.

In the end, I decided Animal Crossing: New Horizons just wasn't for me. No hard feelings, and all that. Oh, well. At least I didn't shelve it with my nose wrinkled in disgust like I did with two other games discussed here (Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, in particular).

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (PS4, Switch)

I guess I should've known 4 Friends would be yet another crappy Bubble Bobble sequel. What was the last acceptable Bubble Bobble title, after all—1996's Bubble Memories?

Regardless, I bought a physical copy of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends hoping for the best. Clearly that didn't pan out. Although it doesn't look awful in early screenshots and video clips, it's dreadfully and depressingly boring when you actually play through it yourself.

Visually, it reminds me of Super Bomberman R. Which is to say it resembles its full-of-character predecessors, but only at a glance. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that most of what made the earlier releases so charming has been power-washed from existence and replaced with dull imitations.

This is true not only of Bub, Bob, and the game's selection of baddies, by the way, but of its backdrops, too. The same component of the classic original release may have been on the stark side, but they were still both colorful and comely. In Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, they're frankly hard to tell apart. How someone could make a new Bubble Bobble without going wild on whimsical backgrounds is beyond me.

Sadly, the gameplay offered up in 4 Friends doesn't even begin to compensate for its uninspired graphics. Controlling the dynamic dragon duo just doesn't feel right. It often feels slow and sluggish—or, the polar opposite of this title's quarter-munching precursor.

Popping bubbles is even worse. The shimmering globules of gas and liquid that traditionally serve as both weapons and stepping stones in this series seem almost unbreakable here. That screwed up my go-to strategies so much that it all but ruined the rest of the game for me.

The only reason I soldiered on and finished Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was that it took me just two hours to reach its credit roll. Had it taken any longer, I surely would've dropped it like a hot potato right around that same milestone.

Kirby Mass Attack (DS)

I played Kirby Mass Attack after playing Hey! Pikmin. This is noteworthy because the two titles boast surprisingly similar gameplay that combines tactical thinking and puzzle solving with side-scrolling platforming. Unfortunately for Kirby Mass Attack, Hey! Pikmin does all of those things better—or at least it does them in ways that are actually fun.

That's too bad, because the idea of Kirby Mass Attack is a good one. Controlling multiple (up to 10) Kirby clones using your system's stylus and touch screen is intriguing—at first. Unfortunately, those intriguing controls lose a lot of their luster over the course of this DS title's overly long stages. The vast majority of them go on and on, as does the adventure that encapsulates them. This one-two combo thoroughly dampened my enthusiasm for Kirby Mass Attack—so much so it took me several months to complete. (And it's only about a 10-hour game.)

The thing is, Kirby Mass Attack could have been so much more compelling. The handful of surfing and tank stages offered up here are not only brilliantly entertaining, but delightfully brief. Sadly, they're the exception, not the rule.

In the end, I doubt I'll ever play through Kirby Mass Attack again. A shame, as every aspect of it suggests it should be a great game. Which it is, I guess; it's just not an enjoyable one.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

OK, this is a weird one to include here. Even weirder than Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in fact. How so? Well, I finished Mad Rat Dead, for starters. Also, I spent more than 10 hours with it along the way. And the cherry on top: I actually enjoyed—even loved—the overall experience.

All that said, Mad Rad Dead, which is one part side-scrolling platformer and one part rhythm game, regularly pissed me off. To the point that I often worried I might break my Switch in half over my knee, or maybe slam it into the nearest wall.

What about Mad Rat Dead caused such aggravation and anger? The gist is that it's difficult. Often brutally and cheaply so. There were numerous occasions during my playthrough when I thought I'd never successfully complete a certain section of a stage. I eventually did, but every time I swore under my breath that hell would freeze over before I'd attempt them again.

Of course, I only got through those seemingly impossible stage sections by using—over and over again—Mad Rat Dead's rewind function. It's a nice option to have, especially in a tough game like this, but it comes with some pitfalls, too. As in, constantly dying and rewinding kills the flow of the game. That wouldn't be such a big deal if this were a typical platformer, but the platforming in Mad Rat Dead is closely tied to the title's background music. Mad Rat Dead is at its best and most enjoyable when you're in a groove, dashing, jumping, and smacking baddies to the beat. That high takes a hit whenever you croak, and if you're anything like me, you'll croak a bunch while playing this quirky Nippon Ichi Software release.

If only Nippon Ichi's developers had thought to, or been able to, include an easy mode. That alone would've made Mad Rat Dead a lot less disappointing for me. Granted, I'm still glad I bought and finished it, and I even have strangely fond memories of the experience, but I'd be more glad if it had been a less halting and harrowing affair.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

My 'pleasant surprise' games of 2020

Given my oft-positive attitude toward this hobby, you might assume I approach every video game with the expectation that I'll at least somewhat enjoy it.

In fact, I go into a lot of games with fairly low expectations in that regard.

The games highlighted here are prime examples. For various reasons, I was wary of them before I pressed start for the first time. In the end, though, I adored each one.

What prompted that wariness, and how did I turn it into adoration? Read on for all the juicy details.

Again (DS)

Considering my love of now-defunct game developer CiNG's other releases for the Nintendo DS—Trace Memory, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, and the latter title's sequel, Last Window—you could be forgiven for thinking I've owned a copy of this similar, Kemco-published offering since I first became aware of it.

In reality, I only bought Again a few months ago. I'd previously dragged my feet because numerous folks whose opinions I respect warned me that it doesn't hold a candle to the other CiNG-made mysteries namechecked above.

Although the aforementioned friends were right that Again isn't as stellar as CiNG's earlier efforts, it's still pretty great. The art style and soundtrack aren't as resplendent as the same components are in, say, Hotel Dusk, but they're hardly repulsive. On the contrary, I actually like the J.B. Harold Murder Club vibes Again gives off visually, and the worst I can say about its background music is that it's "fitting."

As such, I'd personally recommend Again to anyone who, like me, enjoyed Hotel Dusk or Last Window, in particular. It lacks some of the brilliance of CiNG's more highly praised products, but it comes close enough to those highs—and provides a few pleasant tweaks of its own—to be well worth your money and time if you've got even a little interest.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (Switch)

Unlike some of the other games discussed here, Destiny Connect intrigued me from the word go. Those positive feelings toward it dissipated in the run-up to its release, though, thanks to several previews that suggested it was a bit of a stinker. Still, I persevered and maintained my pre-order.

Shortly after I got around to putting it through its paces last fall, I nearly sprained my shoulder patting myself on the back for that prescience. Destiny Connect is one of the sweetest RPGs I've ever played. Nearly every aspect of it makes you think wistfully about your childhood—especially if that childhood was spent in the US. It feels vaguely EarthBound-ish in that way.

Does this mean Destiny Connect is an overlooked classic in the making? Not quite. The time-traveling story has its moments, but it also tends toward being disappointingly juvenile. Battles can be fun, due in large part to a customizable robot named Issac, but they can be repetitive, too. Speaking of repetitive, Destiny Connect takes place in and around a single town. As such, you get to know it really well during the 20 or so hours you spend with the game. Some might feel like they get to know it a little too well, if you get my drift.

All that said, I'm glad I took a chance on Destiny Connect. Not only that, but I'm fairly sure I'll make my way through it again down the road. I found it unexpectedly winsome, and the soundtrack was far better than it had any right to be. That, combined with its relatively short length, all but ensure at least one future replay.

Disaster Report 4: Summer Memories (Switch)

I was thrilled when I heard Disaster Report 4 was coming to the Switch. I'd long wanted to give this much-ballyhooed series a try, but the PS2 has never been my cup of tea and the PSP entry is a Japan-only no-no for me. Then I heard the Switch port was a blurry, choppy mess.

Still, I held my ground. I'm no stranger to games with frame-rate issues, especially, so I could handle whatever Disaster Report 4 dared to throw at me, right? I could, in the end, but I've also got to admit the often-molasses-slow action tested my resolve more than I anticipated.

Thankfully, Disaster Report 4 is far from an action-packed game. The bulk of your time in it is spent walking around sections of the fictitious Hisui City, talking with its citizens, and even helping some of them when you can. You're rarely asked to do anything that requires quick thinking or reflexes, which goes a long way toward making the regular frame-rate drops (some might call them plummets) less aggravating.

Helping matters even more is that the story in Disaster Report 4 is surprisingly captivating. It alone made up for the game's many shortcomings for me, in fact. Which I think says a lot, considering just how janky every other component of this title can be at any given time.

Hey! Pikmin (3DS)

Hey! Pikmin is another of those games that the masses warned me against buying or playing. I tend to ignore such warnings, though, and instead make up my own mind about games that interest me. And Hey! Pikmin interested me from the moment it was revealed, let there be no confusion about that. I know it's not a mainline sequel and strays far from the series' roots, but I liked the look of it and so picked up a copy shortly after its 2017 release.

As is sadly typical of me, I didn't boot it up for the first time until many months later—in early 2020, to be more specific. What I encountered as I ambled my way through its plethora of side-scrolling, puzzle-filled stages made me wonder how Hey! Pikmin could be so hated. Not only does it sound and look great, with graphics that have a lovely watercolor tinge to them, but its gameplay is equal parts engaging and enjoyable. This isn't a fast-paced platformer a la Mario; it's slower, more thoughtful, and that lets you savor everything in a way that's difficult to do when the scenery is racing by as it does in speedier examples of the genre.

Honestly, the only criticism I can hurl at Hey! Pikmin is that it chugs now and then. The slowdown here is nothing like it is in, say, Disaster Report 4, though. Most seasoned game fans will barely notice it.

So, my comment to anyone who has even a passing interesting in Hey! Pikmin—and still has a working 3DS—is to grab a copy and give it a go with an open mind. I think it'll pleasantly surprise you, too.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

I'm one of those annoying cranks who loved the first two Paper Mario games and then hated every additional sequel that came after. As a result, I started The Origami King with the lowest of expectations. Actually, I almost didn't start it, period, as I got it nearly five months after it released—and even then only because my mom bought it for me as a birthday gift.

Paper Mario: The Origami King provides a good first impression, thankfully. Had it not, I would've hustled away from it and never looked back just like I did after spending a disappointing handful of hours with Sticker Star and Super Paper Mario. Which isn't to suggest that the entirety of The Origami King's opening salvo is hunky-dory. Its puzzle-centric, turn-based battles are unique yet annoying early on—and take their sweet time to become anything close to pleasurable. Boss fights are better in this regard, but they also frequently feel like obstacles that need to be overcome rather than events that should be enjoyed.

The good news here is you can avoid the vast majority of non-boss tussles. Doing so allows you to savor every other delightful element of this effervescent RPG, like its jaw-dropping, craft-heavy visuals, its subtly amazing OST, and its witty-as-always between-character banter.

Pokémon Shield (Switch)

Pokémon may seem like a series I'd love to pieces, but the fact is I'd only ever finished two of its many entries—one being the original version of Pokémon Red and the other being Let's Go, Eevee!—before Pokémon Shield came into my life. I've played a few other Pokémon games than this trio, of course, but dropped all of them within a few hours for reasons I couldn't even begin to recount.

Given that and the general online pissiness that preceded Pokémon Shield s launch, I almost passed on this latest mainline release entirely. I can't remember why I eventually did a 180, but I'm glad I did. Shield captivated me from the word go. I found its British-inspired setting enchanting, for starters. I also had a positive reaction to the raid encounters the game introduced.

The aspect of Pokémon Shield that most grabbed me, though, was the new "Wild Area." No joke: I could spend all day in this open-world addition to the series, thanks to the changing weather and similarly dynamic mix of collectible 'mons.

I know a lot of Pokémon fans found Shield (and its companion, Sword) disappointing, but I couldn't have had a better time with it. And that's saying something, as I devoted more than 80 hours to its amiable adventure before calling it a day.

Super Princess Peach (DS)

Technically, my November playthrough of Super Princess Peach wasn't my first. I previously experienced its cheery and colorful world in 2007. Because I didn't much like the game at that time (or, um, in 2011), I quickly erased it from my memory bank.

After randomly encountering some screenshots of it early last year, I decided to give Super Princess Peach another chance. This time around, my response to it couldn't have been more agreeable. I especially appreciated Peach's extensive repertoire of moves. Yes, even the semi-questionable (sexist) "vibe" moves.

Speaking of which, Super Princess Peach simply feels good to play. Controlling Peach is a joy. Watching her bounce and flounce around each pastel-plastered stage is a joy, too. There's a sort of comic-book quality to the visuals here that is beyond charming and puts New Super Mario Bros' comparably uninspired aesthetics to shame.

Although Super Princess Peach can be a bit too straightforward for its own good, I didn't find it to be such a cakewalk as to be boring or not worth my time. The game is fairly Yoshi- or even Kirby-esque in that way—and being analogous to those classics is rarely a negative, in my experience.

Friday, January 01, 2021

My favorite games of 2020 that weren't actually released in 2020

Although I recently declared Moon, Paper Mario: The Origami King, and Void Terrarium to be my favorite games of 2020, the truth of the matter is I had an even better time with the trio of pre-2020 titles highlighted here.

Combined, I devoted nearly 170 hours to Raging Loop, SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, and The World Ends With You. That alone should make it clear just how much I adored them. But why did I adore them? Keep reading to find out.

Raging Loop (PC, PS4, Switch)

Visual novels, VNs to those in the know, can be hard sells for folks who aren't fans of the genre. I know that all too well. It took me a long time to come around to these interactive books myself—and even now my experiences with them tend to be hit or miss.

What made the difference for me and Raging Loop? I'd say its horror-tinged story and rural-Japanese setting played key roles. So did its distinct and well-developed characters. Most important of all, though, was the tension this Kemco-made game introduced at the outset and then steadily built upon over time as its Werewolf-inspired mystery progressed toward its thrilling conclusion.

Will you enjoy Raging Loop if you tend to dislike VNs or scary stuff? I doubt it, to be brutally honest. That said, if it intrigues you at all, I'd highly recommend giving it a try—especially if you come across it during a sale. 

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Mobile, PC, PS4, Switch)

Akitoshi Kawazu's SaGa games are known for taking the RPG genre to all sorts of weird and wonderful places, but Scarlet Grace: Ambitions takes the cake in that regard. For starters, although you and your intrepid party explore a world map just like you would if you were playing a standard RPG, that's all you explore in SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions. There are towns and dungeons here, but you don't enter them; instead, you peruse their "contents" (for lack of a better word) via a menu. In the former, that can mean chatting up a local or checking out a shop's wares, while in the latter, it typically means engaging in one or more battles.

Speaking of battles, they're both the focus and the highlight of SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions. As well they should. They're brilliantly strategic, not to mention addictive. The main hook is that your actions can alter a fight's timeline, and if you manage to defeat a baddie positioned between two (groups of) party members, you're compensated with what can be a tide-turning "United Attack." Your opponents play by the same rules, though, so there's a risk-reward element to this SaGa's turn-based fights that keeps you on your toes.

Beyond these tussles, SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions offers those who tackle it a magnificent OST (composed by Kenji Ito), a multitude of recruitable characters, and the kind of impressively—and sometimes befuddlingly—open-ended adventure that has been this series' calling card since day one.

The World Ends With You (DS)

The World Ends With You is the kind of game that makes you wonder what the Dragon Quest and, especially, Final Fantasy series could become if the suits at Square Enix let loose a bit. Almost everything about this action RPG makes you raise your eyebrows in appreciation: the stylized visuals, the modern setting, and the impressively eclectic soundtrack, especially. 

The frantic, dual-screened battles bedazzle, too—though they just as often bewilder. As exhilarating as controlling and otherwise keeping track of two characters can be, it can be exasperating as well. Still, once the fights in The World Ends With You click with you, they almost feel transcendent. When's the last time you said that about Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy—or any other JRPG, really?

Honorable mentions:
  • Again (DS)
  • Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (PS4, Switch)
  • Hey! Pikmin (3DS)
  • Pokemon Shield (Switch)
  • Yomawari: Night Alone (PC, Switch, Vita)