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.