My 2021 In Gaming

Time spins on, my friends. With each passing Holiday season, I’m reminded that my childhood was a long time ago, and it’s only drifting further and further away into the past. My parents gifted my siblings and I a PlayStation 1, our first video game console, in the Christmas of 1998. I remember plugging that PlayStation into our grandparents’ TV and we played through the first few levels of Crash Bandicoot 2 over and over again, since we didn’t own a memory card yet and as such couldn’t save the game. That was uh, let’s see… 23 years ago.

But it gets worse. Remember when I reminisced about my brother and I pooling our money to purchase a shiny new GameCube? I was a teenager at the time, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve aged since then… but that event happened 18 years ago. How is that possible? We think that just because we can clearly remember something, it must be recent. But that’s exactly how Father Time tricks you. The GameCube’s release date is closer to the NES’s launch than it is to today.

This planet meanders through space on the life raft that is our solar system, and we are so, so small. We are lichen growing and dying on the side of a cosmic boulder.

And yet we still love each other and argue with each other and build things and rebuild things. I may have over 30 years logged into my past, but I believe that I still have many more years in my future. I hope you found something to celebrate in 2021. I hope you worked on something that fulfilled you in 2021.

As for myself, writing is my passion, but I dislike doing it for a living, hence why I keep my day job as a Speech-Language Pathologist and I write about video games on this blog once a week. Personally, in 2021 I felt some semblance of returning to normal, but our society still hasn’t gotten out of the woods yet. I worry that the metaphorical woods are our permanent residence now. But at least I got to visit my parents and my brother in person, and that was a big moment for me. I wish I could’ve seen my sister in person as well, but it’s difficult when everyone lives in different states. My partner and I decided that we had had enough of the barren wilderness of Eastern Washington and we moved to the green side of the state. In addition, I found a much better job, cutting my stress levels in half. We’ve now spent over 6 months living in the Seattle area, and we are so much happier here — rain, crows, pine trees, and all.

2021 for me was also a year where I ventured even farther outside of my wheelhouse of Nintendo games and Indie games. I still played on my Nintendo Switch the most, but my PC actually saw quite a large fraction of use. I researched many influential indie developers such as Toby Fox, Keita Takahashi, and Jenova Chen before reviewing their works. I marathoned all of the Metal Gear games for my Hideo Kojima project. I also marathoned all the Metroid games again in anticipation for one of the most surprising announcements of the year: Metroid Dread. I ventured through modern classics that all turned 10 years old this year. I played lots of Platformers, JRPGs, and open world games. I tried a couple of new Fighting games, and I had a lot of fun with it! I even tried out Western RPGs, a genre I thought I’d dislike, but I actually found quite a bit of enjoyment out of them! I’m quite happy with how my year turned out.

Let’s move on to the awards then, shall we?

Best Game Not From 2021: Death Stranding

Death Stranding takes a big risk by making walking, a mechanic usually as easy as pushing the analog stick forward, into a difficult challenge thanks to its open world’s hazardous terrain. For some people, that risk doesn’t pay off and they find Death Stranding tedious. I understand this line of thinking. However, for me, the risk pays off immensely well. By breaking this rule of game design, Death Stranding creates a different experience altogether. The first 20 hours of Death Stranding was one of the most memorable openings to a video game I’ve ever played. Most of the time, open world games don’t actually make moving around in their environments very interesting — you could replace its world with a level select screen and you’d still get most of the same game. But I can’t imagine Death Stranding without its world. Every step to your destination requires several micro-decisions that you need to commit to. Navigating around each cliff, BT, and river always pulls me deeper into the gameplay loop. And planning my trip is almost as interesting as actually getting there — I often weigh the reward of taking more stuff against the risk of losing it all to the world’s plentiful perils. Yes, the game makes walking hard, but… it also made walking worth doing.

As the hours went on, I was even more impressed that Kojima managed to keep the gameplay balanced so that even as you installed paved roads and made the game easier for yourself and other players, the gameplay didn’t feel trivialized. The thrill of overcoming that rough terrain alternates with a warm fuzzy feeling of helping out other players. Kojima still has some issues with writing the actual plots of his stories, but his stranding mechanic is a genius ludometaphor that perfectly contrasts this gloomy world. I will remember this game for years to come. I didn’t actually make a formal review of Death Stranding. If you want more of my thoughts about the game, then you’ll want to read my multi-part analysis of Hideo Kojima’s design philosophy – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 most of all.

Wife’s Game of the Year: Hades

This may seem out of nowhere, since I don’t have a review of this game up yet, but that’s because my wife has been so busy playing this game that I haven’t had time yet to finish it myself!

Hades is nothing short of an achievement in game design. It’s a rogue-lite, meaning you have to start all over again after you die. Given its genre, you’d think that only hardcore gamers would like it. But the developer Supergiant Games smartly incorporates this start-over-again mechanic into its story. Whether you fail a run or not, you can progress the story and learn more about the characters, which are, as you guessed it, based on the Greek denizens of the Underworld.

The characters are so interesting, and the relationships you develop are so charming, that both myself and my wife have been taken in by it. There are romance options, which is exactly how to get my wife to play any game. If you find the combat tedious, you can also turn on God Mode, which upon death reduces the damage you receive by 2% every time, up to a limit. My wife has been playing it almost nonstop ever since we got it. Hence, her game of the year.

Runner-Up of the Year: Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Another expanded Wii U port makes it to my #2 game of 2021. This game offers the best of both kinds of Mario: well-paced linear Mario, and discovery-filled Sandbox Mario. Every level in Super Mario 3D World is like a catchy song that I just can’t get out of my head. And strung together, the whole game then was like one of the best playlists I’ve ever listened to. I finished the whole set and I just had to go through it all again! As I wrapped up Super Mario 3D World I couldn’t help but realize that I really should’ve bought a Wii U a long time ago. Water under the bridge, I guess. And then Bowser’s Fury was just as much fun, if not more so. I love picking and choosing little miniature platforming tasks as I pleased, and the dynamic Bowser encounters were, for the most part, a well-executed experiment. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a video game. For more of my thoughts on Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, click here.

Game of the Year: Metroid Dread

This was obvious, right? I hope it was obvious. Judging just from its smooth controls and acrobatic game feel, Metroid Dread would’ve won this year anyway. But the meticulous exploration, detailed environments, lean pacing, dynamic boss fights, spooky atmosphere, and dramatic art direction all lifted the game even higher. Metroid Dread matches the lofty pedigree of its predecessors like Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, and in some ways it surpasses them. Upon repeat playthroughs it’s clear to me that Metroid Dread is overall the best of the series. It’s at least my #3 Switch game of all time, though depending on the day it might be my #2 or even my #1. For more of my extensive thoughts about Metroid Dread, click here.

This coming year I have a few resolutions that I hope to reach:

  1. Review 22 indie games (being the year 2022) and make sure to cover games from diverse and less well-known developers.
  2. Continue my research on developers that made major contributions to the Indie game scene.
  3. Possibly start making YouTube videos? We’ll see on that one.
  4. Keep expanding my horizons, playing not only more 3rd Party games, but also other historically big publishers that I’ve neglected, such as SEGA and Xbox.

Here’s to a bigger and better 2022!

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