This year has been rather poor when it comes to games to put on this list. Partially because I’ve been concentrating on other stuff outside games overall, partially because not many titles have ultimately caught my eye that I’d like to get, and then that one last sin I seem to repeat every single damn year; I forget to list the games I played the first time this year. We should have a full list anyway, but before that let’s revise the rules. Firstly, a game produced in any year qualifies. Secondly, it has to be a physical release, so no digital-only stuff on this list, unless the game has some merit to warrant this, e.g. it’s a mobile phone game. There is a precedent for this. However, if it’s just a game released on Steam or DLsite, it doesn’t qualify. Thirdly, there is no order or a top slot. It should probably be mentioned that it doesn’t in what language the game is. Unlike the industry awards, I don’t discriminate against games for their language.
Sakuna is a hard game to recommend without caveats, but it’s a game that makes you want to play one more in-game day. A combination of 2D action and rice farming sim, there’s quite nothing like it on the market. It’s not Harvest Moon when it comes to farming, but at the same time, it’s a level more hardcore with pretty much everything that affects real rice farming affects in the game as well, from water’s height and temperature to everything you use in the compost. About a week later the Japanese release, I read some news around that the Japanese agricultural ministry had seen multiple spikes in the number of users as Japanese players went to check pointers on growing rice. The farming is intentionally made somewhat longwinded at first without any skills, as there are no real shortcuts. From picking up the stones from the field to manually hack the ground with a hove is all done manually. You could leave it for someone else, but that affects the rice’s quality and level. Similarly, there is no quick way to cut the rise. Get in there and start scything. Little things get piled up with each passing in-game year, which really creates a weird fixation on making the best rice you can all the while appreciating the stuff even more.
The action part comes in when you gotta get rid of demons inhabiting the island where Sakuna and company are exiled, as well as when collecting materials for your new tools, weapons, and clothing… and compost. The battle system is less refined than the farming part, which really shows which part got more attention. The action suffers from the usual 2D-action using 3D models, where you’re not exactly sure where the hitboxes are, and the ground being all roundish in most places sometimes causes you to misjudge a jump. Despite the game’s action being rather fast-paced, the controls themselves don’t really support this. The best example of this is what I discussed in the previous post about the jank in doujinshi games. Here it’s the inability to turn around if you’re using the attack button and in the middle of an animation. Rather than automatically changing the side you’re facing to with the next attack’s animation, the game will keep you faced to that direction as long as you keep tapping the Attack button regardless of the direction pressed. It is an overtly strict system that forces the player to be aware of the animation priorities and the way the game handles them rather than allowing the player to swish in an effective manner. This alone makes the action janky, as well as Heavy attacks being mostly useless. Well, if there are any enemies on the screen, it’s just better to play bowling with them, as you can rack up better damage by throwing small-fry enemies across the screen with the godly raiments Sakuna has, which also work as a Umihara Kawase-lite kind of tool when navigating stages.
Despite being butt-puckeringly frustrated in the action mechanics and how jank they are, Sakuna has an incredible amount of charm in every aspect. From worldbuilding to philosophical discussion among the characters to the best soundtrack of the year, in every point Sakuna fails it succeeds in two. It’s also one of those games that you play only a few rounds, but then say One more day, I gotta finish the rice before it gets cold and you find the clock hitting four in the morning. I truly hope that Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin will gain a sequel in the long run. Not perhaps with the same characters or the same theme, but still a combination of farming and action. Much like how Senran Kagura went from utter shit to one of the enjoyable fast-action games out there, Sakuna‘s sequel wouldn’t need to do much but to expand on farming and polish the action to silky smooth combat. As it is, Sakuna is a rough diamond that’s been cut but in a masterful way. Still, even a diamond with a failed brilliant-cut can yield surprisingly satisfactory results.
Also, play it with the Japanese voice acting. Nothing against the English cast, but holy shit Naomi Ōzora as Sakuna makes this game 15/10 will buy another copy.
Outright the best fighting game that’s come in a while. The early builds were rather lackluster in pretty much every term, but the play was solid. It was called shit by most people who only looked at the skin and saw low-budget graphics and simple looking play. Even some long-term fans disparaged the game without giving it a chance. Now with more development time and many, many patches and updates later the roster has been expanded alongside everything else. While its controls seem limited and simple, all that is there just to accommodate the ability to do almost whatever the player wants to do with their characters thanks to the freedom of action and movement, something that’s seriously lacking in most modern fighting games. In all seriousness, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid has become of the top tier fighting games because its system is stupidly fun and challenging in all its beginner friendliness.
If you’ve ever played Capcom’s VS series of fighting games, especially the Marvel games with tag-teams, you should know what to expect as that exact same blood is in here. While the buttons are simpler, similar to what the Smash Bros. series uses, the complexity comes from the proper usage of the different tiers of attacks and their timings. Team synergy is also stupidly important and experimenting with what you can do with your teammates is about as important as learning to use your main fighter. While I was initially afraid of the auto-combo system in the game, as that has been the death knell of so many fighting games in the past, the system isn’t what I expected. It’s more akin to having standard weak, medium, and strong combos in one button. While you can move from one tier to another, it must be done well before you’re in a certain spot of that tier’s autocombo. Which isn’t even an autocombo. It’s a new kind of system that doesn’t have any other fitting description. It forced my Guilty Gear ridden, Darkstalksers taught chaincombo brain to stop tapping forwards for hit per each button and become far more considerate of timings and positions in strange ways, something that was a must when learning to play Lord Zedd.
Cross-play allowed me to play people who had the game on Steam and other platforms, so that was a nice plus. It shows that this game is wanted to be a success, and with each update, the game has become more and more robust. In terms of visuals and content the game was hampered severely by its budget game status, and in few ways still is, but the core play is absolutely solid. Hopefully, this won’t be a one-off time as we haven’t had a properly well-made Power Rangers game in a long ass time.
While it may be a bit underhanded to put a collection to this spot, Aleste Collection gets on the list for two reasons; bringing a semi-affordable way to play otherwise expensive as hell shooting games for all, and making the GG Aleste a trilogy by introducing a completely new Aleste for the game Game Gear, which you can only play via the collection on modern consoles, or if you got the version with Game Gear Micro, on the tiniest screen gaming has seen. GG Aleste 3 is very much worth the admission with the caveat that you’re a fan of shooting games. It’s not the most difficult game out there, but in every respect, the game is polished and shows how well M2, the game’s developer, understands the genre and the series itself. As the game runs on M2 developed Game Gear emulator, it’s nothing short of accurate with optional slowdown and waits to fully emulate GG experience, which shows in quite the many paces how much a shooting game can demand from a console.
As a GG Aleste game, this third entry shows how something than peak even thirty years after the last game was out. It also puts a lot of expectations on Aleste Branch, which probably will make the devs sweat a bit. They put a high bar for themselves to beat with this single entry alone. As for the rest of the games in the collection, the original Aleste hasn’t aged all that well, all things considered. There’s just something about it as a series started that doesn’t play well, while Compile’s previous game, Zanac, outclasses it in few aspects. The same can’t be said for the other games. Power Strike II is a rare and well-regarded shooting game for good reasons. Its stage designs, enemy placements, and play balance it top-notch, offering good tunes to boot. The GG Aleste games may be the easier one of the collection, and overall when it comes to shooting games, though that can be seen as them being started friendly. Nothing prevents the player to drop the Life count and kick up the Difficulty, something that does have a significant effect on how you can approach the stages and encourages to properly learn the weapon usages. This is a blessing in disguise in some games, where stages consist of multiple static mini-bosses, which turn these momentary sections into a slight slog in the long run. Nevertheless, all these games are the kinds you’d find yourself coming back to challenge that one more round until you finally frustrate in the lack of skills.
By my own technicality, I can drop this here. Haven’t I played this game before? Many times on Umihara Kawase Shun Second Edition Kanzenban and digitally, but for the first time I got my paws on the actual first edition disc. The game is still the best in the series and shows how far it has dropped in quality since the first two games. The series has had a wild run over the last two decades since it became a cult classic in the West via emulation. It has never gotten popular per se, but with the release of Sayonara Umihara Kawase and all the ports it saw, Umihara Kawase finally got the recognition it deserved. With that came all the negative side effects that changed completely how the series would be structured and how the game’s play would advance. Long gone are the days of straight-up level-design to tackle, replaced by non-linear action with a heavy emphasis on story. All that still doesn’t stain what is a crowning achievement in rubber band physics coding and level design of Shun.
It’s not just the physics though, despite the game being all about them. The music is just the right kind of soothing you need when you’re sweating over a jump you’re trying to desperately make to happen and Umihara is swinging wildly, almost out of control. Graphics are spot on with nothing excess or minimalistic about them. They serve the need of the game perfectly and their visual style is still bizarre. It’s one of those things that never needed expanding upon, we never truly needed to know why or how. The world of Umihara Kawase was a strange mystery where tadpoles give birth to frogs and fish have legs to walk on.
I’d like to say that Umihara Kawase Shun is a rare perfect game, but they already did that with the first game, so this is the second hit in a row with the series. It’s a game of pure skill and play, with a skill ceiling not even the fastest speedrunners have managed to reach. Just don’t play the PSP port, it’s a buggy mess.
Another one by a technicality, I owned and played a physical copy for a few days before gifting this one away. I didn’t expect to like this game one bit. I expected to play to for few hours with friends who got me into it and drop it as one of the misfortunate purchases everybody makes. Maybe because the game promises a lot would let me down, wouldn’t fulfill any of my low expectations and I’d mull over the twenty euro I spend on it until I forget it exists until I get a message of new patches. Well, I ended up spending far more time than it was healthy. The Hunter: Call of the Wild is my new The Legend of Zelda; you’re dropped in the middle of nowhere with the very basic equipment and the whole world to explore and get around. It’s an adventure of the best kind and everything it does is game. While sure there are story missions in each map, the real meat is when you gather your equipment and simply explore the map and find an animal you want to take down. Tracking an animal based on its prints and marks left on the vegetation is something I expected to see in Monster Hunter World, and the same goes for the map sizes. They’re humongous and full of varied detail as well as hidden collectibles.
Of course, when you want to hunt, you want the right weapon for it. There’s a rather wide variety of rifles to choose from, less so in bows and handguns. Lures, scopes, and so on need to be purchased and most equipments require some leveling up in order to be unlocked. This applies to skills that help you, for example, keeping your arms leveled so that the scope won’t wander off all the damn time. That is honestly the game’s biggest fault; it starts slow and hard. It is most enjoyable when you get the kind of build you want and then go after the prey. Each prey is ranked by their size, and using the wrong rank weapon gets you penalties. Shooting a rabbit with a 7mm Regent would yield minced meat rather fast while using buckshot against a bear prolly would get your ass whooped.
This sort of simple idea, yet hard to realize, makes Call of the Wild a game that keeps pulling me back. I might get mauled by a bear and ragequit, yet after a day or so I come back with better equipment and take cover in a hunting hut, calling it in for some time. Then see it walking towards a lake just beyond the vegetation so you barely see it, and then make pin-point accurate shot straight through its neck. The game is full of these moments that you make through each and every decision, and they end up being hunting stories with other players. This is storytelling through play at its finest, where the framework allows player to realize their own stories within the game.
Something about this game is breathtaking. The graphics may not be top-notch, but often I end up simply wandering through the unknown forests and see vegetation I’ve never seen before, listen to one of the best sound design I’ve heard in a game, and just suck the atmosphere in. There’s little music, which only serves the notion of being there in the wild. You may hear crunches in the snow in the distance, and the hunt begins anew.
Honourable Mentions for those who didn’t make the cut
Metal Wolf Chaos XD 2004, Xbox, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam
A game everyone wanted localised, and then everybody seemingly forgot about. Metal Wolf Chaos XD is a fun short romp full of memorable one-liners and moments to take from, but ultimately the game suffers from being an Xbox game ported to modern machines. It’s not bad by any means, but something about its controls makes the game unsatisfying to play despite everything else being pretty damn spot on. It’s a recommended game for sure, but hype and joking can carry it only so far.
Shubibinman 2 1991, PC Engine
PC Engine games are full of jank. You can see what they want to with many of the games and somehow fail with them. Subibinman may not be a Mega Man clone, but if it was, it would be for the better. The game is charming, but it also exhibits what was the mediocre play design of the time. However, the game feels almost unfinished, something that could use a few rounds of polish to tweak jumping arcs, weapons, hitboxes, physics, and pretty much everything outside graphics and charm. It’s a game I really want to love and like, but ultimately ends up being a middle-of-the-road game that tried really hard to be a nice 2D action game, but just can’t hold the candle against the big boys in the genre.
The Wing of Madoola 1986, Famicom
Before Sunsoft hit gold with their games, they had numerous games that just fell short. The Wing of Madoola might be a cult classic, but it’s janky controls and combat makes it a curiosity at best. A significant curiosity though, as its place in the popular culture scheme of the time fits like a glove. Magical girls with bikini armours were all the rage at the time, after all. While its stages are linear, it also plays with non-linearity with some of the stages, though often this ends up with the player having to make a separate detour to a dungeon for items. It’s one of those games where you should never stop either, as enemies spawn constantly and swarm to your current location. This is severely hampered by Madoola being significantly underpowered early in the game, but at least you can defeat enemies fast with a Turbo Controller. While the Famicom had started to see quality games by 1986, The Wing of Madoola sadly can’t cut it no matter how much I’d like it to throw it up there.
Panel de Pon 1995, Super Nintendo, Satellaview, Game Boy
No, I don’t have a copy of Tetris Attack. I have the Japanese original with cute girls innit. Panel de Pon has been remade and remastered few times over, with Pokémon Puzzle League on the N64 being one of the more famous examples of its reskins. The format of the competitive puzzles was already perfected in this entry. It’s the best puzzle game I’ve played this year in a physical form, but it doesn’t ask me to return to it at any point. I don’t feel a need to throw it in at any point and give that five-minute whirl or so. While it is a fun game, it is kind of meh. Works better on the DS though.
Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo 1993, PC Engine, PSP
Also known as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, the game was one of the additions to PC Engine that was a must. A very generic decision I know, but also one that was done very deliberately. While it’s often played out as the best of Castlevania next to Symphony of the Night, that’s overstating it. Both of them don’t hold the candle of the top spot, but that’s neither here nor there. Rondo of Blood is still a top list game because of its branching paths and stages, stellar music, and spot-on controls. The voice acting, anime scenes, and story are garbage, but that matters none. However, it got dropped to this latter list simply because it’s not Castlevania III and ultimately it’s not as enjoyable as Super Castlevania IV. It stays in a spot where it wants to be that best classical Castlevania but at the same time falls short for small reasons. Things like small irritations in the stage designs, how the enemies work or simply how there’s sheer lack of evolution in how a Castlevania plays out. It’s still an enjoyable game to play, but I’d rather pop in some other game in the series, like Lords of Shadow.
Happy new year to you all, see you on the other side.