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.

No comments: