Bad year, good games
I don’t want to go into how calendar year 2020 has been an age unto itself, because I am positive there isn’t a soul out there that isn’t exhausted by the mere mention of the date, or try to spin how not having a job or certainty of continued employment for months hanging over my head (not to mention countless others across the world) has opened up new ways of looking at the world. It has been a year of surviving without crumbling under the weight of the endless parade of All of This. So in short, I had a lot of extra free time on my hands to play video games, much more than I normally do.
With all that extra time and a strong motivation to not go outside, I quickly removed Red Dead Redemption II and Judgment, two experiences that would have benefited greatly from lopping 20 hours off their runtimes, from my backlog and started grabbing whatever caught my interest, free of guilt. DOOM Eternal aggressively embraced taking everything that worked in the fantastic 2016 iteration to 11 and in the process missed some of the finer points that made it so enjoyable. Bigger and Badder DOOM was engaging enough in the week it took me to rip and tear my way through, but that razor focus and wit of the 2016 game was lost in a mountain dry lore and noise of a sequel trying to outdo its predecessor.
Then there was the painfully slight Resident Evil 3, which was in dire need of taking more notes from the recent Resident Evil 2 remake, one of my favorites from 2019. Instead of building on RE2‘s wonderfully tense game of cat and mouse in the Racoon Police Department with the Tyrant and stretching that across an entire game with the iconic Nemesis, Resident Evil 3 opted to give us more of the sewer alligator sequence. Scripted and flashy but wholly lacking in any sense of dread. The Tyrant forced players to shift how they navigated the RPD just as they were getting a lay of the land with thundering footsteps. The Nemesis could be banished with one of the plentiful grenades lying around the streets of Racoon city or a quick mash of a button. Modern Resident Evil remains a blast to play, but just a week after finishing, it had already left my mind and I was wondering how a new RE3 would look with the same thoughtful care as the RE2 remake received.
This year I saw Clementine’s long, winding journey to a home end in The Walking Dead: The Final Season, a story I’ve been checking in on here and there since 2012. Telltale’s Batman adventures were fun if silly, in that you’re essentially guiding a season of Netflix programming and getting yelled at for being wrong at every turn. Life is Strange 2 was more consistent in its storytelling than the original but ultimately bit off more thematically than it could chew on. And not that reminding was strictly necessary but firing up Katamari Damacy again on my Switch was a shot of pure bizarre joy in a rough year that desperately needed it. I even managed to score a PS5 on launch day with a winning combination of luck, being awake at the right time of the night, and smashing the Target checkout button fast enough. The bundled Astro’s Playroom, which I expected to be nothing more than a fancy five minute tutorial for the new DualSense controller ended up being a shockingly well put together little platformer. A reverential exercise in PlayStation brand recognition where you fill a digital museum with past consoles and peripherals you can find in real life gathering dust in your closet or the back of your local pawnshop, but damn if it wasn’t fun.
In another year, that would probably be about it. Between work and other hobbies, I tend not to plow through games very quickly, where even a 20-hour ride can stretch on for weeks or months. Not in 2020. So here are the standouts that got me through a tough twelve month trip around the sun. Some were impulse buys, “why not?” curiosities that were getting traction on my social media feed and piqued my interest. Some had been on my mental to-do list for years, that I had not gotten to for one reason or another. And I even found time to revisit some old favorites to see how they held up. Spoilers I suppose, to follow.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
I’m not a huge Final Fantasy VII fan, or at least wasn’t until this past Spring. It wasn’t my grand introduction to JRPGs or sweeping storytelling in video games. I missed the flashy FMV commercials that stole the hearts of many young players during its original release on the PlayStation. I didn’t play it until I was nearly 20 in the mid-2000s and in the decade-plus since, VII didn’t leave much of a lasting impact. Even on a recent playthrough this year, I find it to be too scattershot and convoluted to really latch on to. And so, up until the opening hours of Remake, I regarded the idea of revisiting VII with a modern coat of paint as Square Enix cynically leaning over the table and raking in the massive pile of money fans had been promising for years. And this feeling only increased with the announcement that the project would span multiple titles. Turns out I was deeply wrong.
Remake is both a fresh introduction to the world and characters of VII, through a much more focused and thoughtful lens, ready for a long haul for what will likely end up as a decade-spanning cycle of storytelling with much needed modern sensibilities, and a chance for many of the original staff to openly interrogate the original’s legacy and increased timeliness. And most importantly, build upon it. Remake‘s relationship with the 1997 original is far more complicated than a simple revisit with modern presentation and gameplay; the game, which only comprises the first leg of VII‘s planet-wide journey, sits in conversation with its source material and audience. Expanding and tweaking thoughts, with some fascinating deviations, and not always arriving at the same conclusions. Even calling it a remake seems to play into a clever long con.
The ending asserts, with some shaky but ultimately worthwhile plot shenanigans, that the future, in all of its potential for beauty and ruin, is wide open. To some of the cast, this represents a chance to reverse iconic tragedies. And to others, a looming unknown, where braced for upcoming trauma has been thrown in doubt, creating even greater worry. If we are doomed to retread old ground over and over again in our current popular culture, I wish even a fraction of those could give us something equally deeply considered. I could go on and on about Wall Market’s delightful Yakuza charms, or how the combat, drawing from the let’s say troubled XV, balances out the moment to moment action with the ATB strategy, but it was really everything working in concert. For the first time, I’m fully invested in Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and the rest of the gang and cannot wait to see what lies ahead for them.
Final Fantasy VIII Remastered
With VII Remake unexpectedly blowing my socks off, it seemed like the right time to launch that full dive into the PS1 era of the main series I had been meaning to do for about 15 years. VII remains a fun game with many memorable moments, but it still just doesn’t click with me. And I was about 20 years late to the IX party and if that isn’t the most charming storybook adventure romp out there, I don’t know what is. But in this Final Fantasy marathon, it was the often-maligned VIII that stole my heart in the long run and I can’t stop thinking about it. I wasn’t immediately hooked though. You’re thrown into an odd mish-mash of a surprisingly settled and quiet world with the big events existing as out of focus spiritual crises. Protagonist Squall and his friends are students at a school that functions as a private military company that asks no questions and doesn’t hesitate to kill. The opening cutscene sees his face prominently scarred in a knifegun duel with a fellow student. And yet the student body of Balamb Garden spends their time playing the furiously addictive card game Triple Triad and talking up the latest pop song. For the longest time, I thought the main party was strangely underwritten, lacking many of the broad, easily distinguished characteristics that so often color RPG casts. The Junction system is obtuse to a fault. The game’s atmosphere and mechanics seem intent on keeping you off balance, and this is all before your party starts to have shared, reoccurring dreams of being another group of soldiers from the past. As I made my way farther though, it all began to feel more and more deliberate.
The 1999 story of teenaged angst, fragile relationships, and growing up unfolds like an underwater dream, where major revelations and important events occur as if the developer’s stream of consciousness feelings about the shapes of ideas are taking form before your eyes. In the face of increasingly odd upheavals, Squall more than once has to shout the rest of the main cast down for asking too many questions. Standard foreshadowing is an alien concept here. So what if there’s a space witch on the scene ready to plunge the world into chaos with next to no announcement? Just roll with it. I imagine this game drives lore intensive wiki-minded fans up the walls. VIII may share many of Final Fantasy‘s staples—gil, chocobos, flying machines, summons, spectacular displays of magic, tales of old gods and witches, and many other aspects standard to fantasy stories—but it’s this fluid nature to the way the events drift to you and how the characters process them with their hearts over their brains that distinguishes the game as fantastical—driven by an emotionally tinged free-flowing imagination over a steady procession of ordered plot or gameplay mechanics. The seventh main Final Fantasy entry is an undeniable cultural juggernaut and the ninth feels like a hallowed classic in every sense of the word from the very first moments, but to me, the eighth is an understated treasure that like so many of my favorite pieces of art, only continues to grow on me as I let in simmer in my head.
Deadly Premonition Origins
It isn’t a big secret that Hidetaka Suehiro’s 2010 open-world mystery thriller is deeply indebted to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. Protagonist FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan, though he insists everyone calls him York, delights in freshly brewed coffee and homemade pie, is unfazed in the face of grisly murder scenes and the supernatural forces bearing down on the small town of Greenvale, and finds earthshattering wonder in the mundanity of the local diner. Every one of the many townsfolk has an interconnected secret or three. Side quests play out like just legally distinct enough episodes of the first season of the 90s show. It would be easy to call it a ripoff if it wasn’t so damned earnest. How can I not love a game that introduces its protagonist with him speeding down a dark rainy road, chain-smoking, reading a case report on his laptop sitting in the passenger’s seat, and conducting a very serious conversation about Tom and Jerry’s relationship dynamics? I cannot think of a better way to prime players for an open-world game experience full of side activities and tangents.
Deadly Premonition is plain as day punching well above its weight class with its Shenmue styled clockwork recreation of a small town. The visuals struggle to hang together and keep an even modest framerate. The combat, best described as exactly what you’d think a pretty OK Resident Evil 4 cellphone game from 2007 would play like, feels like a hasty afterthought. Where rooms and enemy placement appear thrown together right before someone’s lunch break. Even on the recent Switch port, a full decade after its initial release, the game crashed on me at least once a play session. But it’s got heart and soul to spare, dammit. Greenvale’s long stretches of road and spread out vital locations chafe against modern open-world design sensibilities of a steady drip-feed of content but ring true as a simulation of a tangible place. Cars having set amounts of fuel or needing to keep York fed didn’t frustrate me because they’re ways in which Deadly Premonition has me go about the rituals of moving through a thoughtfully realized space.
Like Lynch and Frost, Suehiro and team revels in the details of small-town Americana, the eternal battle between good and evil hidden in the shade of pine trees and behind the lights of local bars, and the duality of the FBI Special Agents willing to jump down the rabbit hole looking for the truth of the universe. Constantly winking at the audience, hilariously tone-deaf, and holding together seemingly on gumption alone, Deadly Premonition was unforgettable. The recent sequel, A Blessing in Disguise, is an early priority for 2021.
Half-Life 2 + Episode One and Episode Two
This one had been haunting my Steam library for a good fifteen years now. Overestimating the power of my family’s computer back in 2004, I picked up HL2 wondering what all the fuss was about but couldn’t get the thing to run in any playable state. It sure seemed like something in those precious few frames at low resolution that did manage to make it through our underpowered rig though. A few years later I did eventually crowbar my way through City 17 and beyond thanks to the solid enough Xbox 360 port in The Orange Box collection and had a great time. So this year after rebuilding my computer and finally playing the original Half-Life and its expansions (thanks Steam Summer sale!), what better way to test out my fancy new setup than to crank all the settings up to ultra and at last get the full PC experience out of a game I bought a decade and a half ago.
Playing Half-Life 2 in 2020 is a somewhat surreal experience. Many aspects naturally show their age. Textures are flat and the heavy use of sharp right angles, particularly in the base game, is noticeable. The once groundbreaking character models, while still warmly expressive, have begun to resemble carved wooden figures. But the sheer craft of the project continues to blow my mind. Running through all of the Half-Life games in a week impressed on me just how much these games simultaneously function as narrative shooters and showcases of technological and design leaps forward. I could practically see the Valve team flexing in front of my eyes as they made the choice to have you awkwardly fumble around the dystopian City 17 filled to the brim with junk that obeyed the laws of physics only to flip all of that on its head a few hours in when you’re handed the Gravity Gun.
And it never lets up throughout. Episode One (2006) just keeps on rolling, refining the tight urban warfare of the later sections of the base game to perfection, and Episode Two (2007) sends you on a trek through forests and caves in one the most brilliantly pitched rollercoasters of scenarios and moments I’ve seen in gaming. And then there’s the cryptically textured world that surrounds it all, where you’re given just enough of a peek into the Orwellian workings of the occupying Combine but never the full story. The linear paths and snippets of flavor exposition of Half-Life 2 create a world in the imagination that is far, far larger than the sum of its parts. Along with the many barn-burning scripted moments, the game is a masterful three-ring circus of illusion and sleight of hand magic. The story of Gordan Freeman’s belated return to Earth plays like a winking metatextual call to arms to keep moving forward and in 2020, I still don’t think anyone’s truly managed to eat Valve’s lunch. I desperately want to play the recently released prequel, Alyx, just not quite enough to throw down a thousand bucks for a Valve Index VR setup.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars
It’s-a some of the best games ever made (Sunshine included, especially Sunshine)! Beyond Nintendo’s exploitative limited availability release plan and the disappointingly barebones presentation, it really was a joy to revisit these after so long. Mario 64 was the first “big deal” video game of my youth, blowing the presentation of my neighbor’s hand-me-down SNES games I had been half-heartedly poking at out of the water, and it was the first game I really sat down with and committed to learning. 64 marks my transition from treating games like casual toys to something I could really dig into and will always have a special place in my heart for that. Because of that, there was some fear going back, nostalgia and two-thirds of my life having gone by can shape the way you experience things, and turns out nope, Nintendo’s huge ambition to firmly plant video games in three dimensions is still on full display. Mario is a little slipperier than I remember and the camera should be considered a bonafide serial killer; all minor complaints in the face of a still hugely entertaining game.
Sunshine was the piece of the collection I was most curious about revisiting as in the years since releasing on the Gamecube in 2002, it’s become a fairly divisive title in the Mario canon. It doesn’t take long to see why. Plainly the victim of being pushed out the door too early, Sunshine puts annoying difficulty spikes in your path on the regular, where situations go from pleasant, fitting perfectly in with the laid back, island vacation vibe, to hellish, throwing Mario into these abstract, lonely platforming torture voids that test your jumping skills like nothing else, with little warning. Mario’s multipurpose FLUDD backpack is a lot of fun to master though you can tell that so many of the challenges were not fully balanced with the device in mind. The emphasis on Blue Coin collecting to get the number of Shines up to a hundred and twenty speaks to last-minute stretching of material. I get why this one rubs people the wrong way.
And yet I love its cohesive world, where you can spot other stages in the distance, and commitment to its warm tropical atmosphere, with vibrant beaches and Mario even has trouble checking into his hotel. The vacation might have a few uncomfortable bumps but rough edges aside, Isle Delfino is still my favorite platforming playground of all time. And then there’s Galaxy, a stone cold masterpiece of pacing and explosive creative energy with disarmingly melancholy undercurrent to it. There’s never a bad time to be reminded of the classics.
Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes
2020 was the year I became a full-fledged Suda51 fan. I had played the first No More Heroes for only a handful of hours before giving up in frustration way back when and recently gave killer7 the proper attention it rightfully deserved thanks to the PC port, but I otherwise remained a distant observer. That changed with the surprise Switch ports of the first two NMH games in anticipation for the upcoming sequel and I once again learned the unimpeachable value of short and sweet games that aren’t needlessly stretched across 50 hours. After demolishing those in short order, I was a little hesitant to pick up 2019’s Travis Strikes Again, a sort of reboot that finds the disillusioned passing assassin bumming it in a trailer in the Texas woods, working through his Steam sale backlog and not wanting to deal with anything else. Word wasn’t super positive upon release and I expected it to be a small blip on the road to next year’s No More Heroes III—basically homework. Instead what I found was a frank and deeply personal dive into what it means to both digest and create art.
Travis Strikes Again is on the surface a reintroduction to the unapologetically tasteless character and an attempt to figure out where he sits in the modern gaming landscape. Barely concealed, just underneath that is Suda himself, who had not directed a game in a decade, working through frustration over difficult projects—a whole segment is devoted to his feelings about the strained Shadows of the Damned development cycle—and trying to find a voice again. Much of Travis’ interactions with the collection of haunted video games is a plain-spoken back and forth about what games give us as players and the fragile parts of their own souls that developers impart in them. And then it’s also a love letter to the indie gaming scene, with Travis more or less telling us to go check out some weird art projects because the people making them are putting their hearts and souls out there to do it. There’s so much going on in this game.
What colored the game’s reception on release was not completely off base, however, as the moment-to-moment gameplay of Travis Strikes Again quickly becomes a chore, with little variation or interesting iteration. This feeds into broader impressions I’m getting as I spend more time in Suda’s digital headspaces. They all create a distinct feeling of being at work, monotonously going through the motions. Sometimes intentionally, with No More Heroes reading as a scathing takedown of open-world game design, hitting much harder in 2020 than it did back in 2007. With Travis, this is more obviously as the result of limited resources. I’m OK with this because while I might have strained for energy to make it to the next boss battle or unlock another charming as hell old school visual novel chapter, in the long run, I’m left with a bizarre collection of themes and oddball ideas that stick around in my head far past the credits. Sign me up for whatever a rejuvenated Suda has to say with Travis’ next big adventure.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
The spin-off/side sequel to the 2018 Spider-Man is a resounding victory made through minor but careful adjustments. On paper, little of Miles Morales deviates from the original. The menus get a very slight reorganization that I probably only noticed because I fired up the game less than an hour after finishing Peter’s adventure. Miles navigates the same meticulously constructed Manhattan, now snow-covered, with a few new moves to spice getting from errand to errand but muscle memory takes over immediately. He still finds himself fighting bad guys in alleys and on rooftops in randomly generated crimes designed to sell that all-important “Spider-Man feel.” But Miles Morales soars over the 2018 game with smart shifts in perspective and characterization. Whereas Peter’s adventure takes a very wide shot approach to his Spider-Manning—a somewhat cold synthesis of elements from across the many iterations of the character and associated baggage that takes a while to find its own identity—here the game opens with the camera zoomed in on Miles, no costume, freshly moved to Harlem from Brooklyn, navigating his new neighborhood at street level. He’s still trying to figure out his footing and voice as the new Spider-Man while juggling a personal life, fraught with major changes; and it all plays out far more intimately than Peter’s many phone calls and menu text dumps.
It’s this shift to an interpersonal focus where this not quite DLC, not exactly full blown sequel shines, from the main story about protecting the vibrant Harlem from a tech company looking to exploit a community so often sidelined and ignored, all the way down to the approach to collectibles, now directly connected to Miles’ relationships to his friends, family, and home. There’s even a great little arc told just through the progression of suits, where Miles is gifted a dinky Spider-Man Jr. suit, complete with elbow pads and a derivative color profile, by Peter early on. While a well-meaning gesture, it still casts him in the latter’s shadow and it isn’t until teaming up with best friend Ganke, where they craft a new one with his burgeoning bioelectricity powers in mind, that Miles can truly start to carve his own path as his own Spider-Man.
Opening up the map, littered with side activities, carried so much more personal weight compared to Peter’s buffet of open-world content sprawl. I loved getting down to street level and helping people find their cats or stopping a villain from intimidating local businesses and it was over too soon. After finishing all that the 2018 game had to offer, I was so afraid I was burned out on the idea of more Spider-Man before I even got to the main event and was happy to find that not to be the case. A mid-credits scene tells us that Peter’s story will continue, which was to be expected but I found deflating. Surely Miles will be a part of that, but I hope he gets the star treatment again.
Demon’s Souls (2020)
I wasn’t ready for FromSoftware’s gauntlet of death and despair a decade ago when casually picking up the original PS3 version. It took only minutes before the hope of having a fun fantasy co-op adventure with a friend was smashed into a thin red paste by the Vanguard Demon’s ax. I think I made it to the first shortcut in the Boletarian Palace before throwing in the towel. It didn’t actually take me very long to reach and I only died a few times in the process, but that now trademark atmosphere of desolation and loneliness, coupled with the demanding trial and error gameplay, broke me. Even before the dragon suddenly starts roasting a bridge full of pesky archers the game makes sure to inform you are not to be ignored, the idea of soldiering into the next fog-shrouded hell space was too much for me. Demon’s Souls won.
A decade later, we collectively know the routine. The swift deaths if you dare underestimate any given situation. The purposefully opaque rules and mechanics for the community to figure out in the weeks after launch (and for the rest of us to consult a wiki about). The kingdoms brought to ruin through man’s hubris and lust for powers they cannot control. And on the second try, it all clicked. Finding myself out of work for the second extended period in a year, I thought I could stretch Demon’s Souls across December, slowly pushing my way through Boletaria’s forsaken corners, but instead it took over my mind and became all-encompassing. I fought to the credits in just over a week. Going Royalty allowed me breathing room in the early hours, easily the hardest to push through, with less than honorable magic. King Allant grabbed me with his obviously telegraphed soul-draining ability an embarrassing number of times. Thanks to the amazing sound design and all the extra gizmos in the PS5 controller, I think I’m spoiled for life on the simple act of swinging a sword in a video game. A hell of a ride.
It was kind of amazing to play such a decidedly mean and idiosyncratic game, that in the first few minutes slams you into the ground and says “get used to that, loser,” with a level of production value typically reserved for revenge tales where you press the circle button to make bearded men beat in people’s skulls while they work through feelings over their dead wives and contemplate how violence might be not so good. While probably not a big deal for Souls aficionados, as someone who hasn’t fully embraced FromSoftware’s work just yet (ride or die Bloodborne, however), it felt good to conquer this challenge, insignificant as it was, in a year where problems only seemed to spiral.