It’s been a long year, with lots of ups and lots of downs. We here at PNB spread our wings, and while we needed to take a rest stop, I’m still really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish through a sheer force of will. Along the way, it’s been a more diverse and downright fun year for games on a personal level.
10. World of Final Fantasy Maxima – Technically a port of 2016’s World of Final Fantasy (though with the number of changes made, I think it counts (also it’s my list, so stuff it)), Maxima scratched the Pokemon itch I was having this year that the Let’s Go games simply couldn’t do. All the little winks and nods to the plethora of Final Fantasy protagonists help pad out what is ostensibly a Pokemon clone. Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII telling you that it’s in your best interest to keep things cool with your sister may not mean much to most of you reading this, but as someone who played through XIII, that’s a cool reference that they didn’t beat you over the head with. While that’s not the most original take on the RPG genre, the game’s battle systems and evolution patterns kept me going chapter after chapter. Finding the right “stack” was surprisingly tricky in more than a few spots, and I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s quirky, and tries to be funny a few too many times, but that’s part of the endearing charm that made me keep playing.
9. Just Shapes & Beats – Rhythm games have reached such a ubiquity that it’s hard to really have one stand out. Finding the perfect niche for the existing rhythm game genre is simultaneously more difficult and more creative as time goes on. That’s where Just Shapes & Beats’ bit succeeds. Blending the bullet hell/shoot ’em up genre’s frenetic pace with an up-beat and fist-pumping electronic-infused soundtrack, Just Shapes & Beats is an extremely riveting ride from start to finish. The attention to detail on couch co-op nets it some additional points, as you’re able to have a showcase mode with no penalties, on top of an already stellar four player co-op mode.
8. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Plus – Easily the most fun I’ve had out of a Pac-Man game – and that includes the previous Championship Editions. The emphasis on co-op for this Switch update really makes the Pac-Man formula more fast-paced and fun than I’ve ever seen it before. With a killer soundtrack in tow, this game proves that you can still have fresh, new ideas in something as old and classic as Pac-Man.
7. Dead Cells – The new standard for Roguelikes, and for good reason. The level of control you’re able to eek out of your character feels like other games just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s an unfair comparison, but playing Dead Cells (and other tightly-controlled games on this list) really raises the bar for what I’m looking for out of a Roguelike. Varied weaponry, an interesting throughline between each and every run, and with just enough weirdness to keep me pressing on, Dead Cells is spectacular in everything it strives to do.
6. Gris – No other game this year encroaches on the subtle beauty of Gris. Within the trappings of a fairly standard, fun platformer lies a true work of art. It’s not an understatement to say that this game has hundreds upon hundreds of visual spectacles that could be put on a frame and sold at an art show. The game’s strengths don’t stop there, either. With a narrative spotlight on trauma and grief, the game’s beauty compliments the dire, yet inspiring story. It’s a shame that being so recent, Gris is bound to be lost in the end of the year shuffle. It’s a game that should not be missed.
5. Celeste – It’s no coincidence that Gris and Celeste share close spots on my list, as they hit me in very similar ways. Taking a genre known for intense gameplay and adding a more cerebral narrative to it all is something we haven’t seen happen in the platformer genre all that much. Sure, we had the Braids and Limbos of the world, but with Celeste, there’s a beautiful blend of the audible and visual aesthetic with one of the more grueling games I’ve played this year. In a way, it’s back and forth between these facets is echoed in its narrative, dealing with the likes of anxiety and depression, something that hits me to my core. A lot of fiction handwaves these kinds of struggles, but Celeste makes it work. It’s tough, no-nonsense, but completely worth your while to see to the end.
4. Monster Hunter World – I’ve dipped my toes in Monster Hunters of the past, and usually dropped off after a dozen or so hours. Monster Hunter World was the first entry to really get its hooks in me. The tangible progression of struggling against low-level creatures to brushing past them for the next big monster feels incredible. I’ll never forget facing down Nergigante for the first time, having to be carried by my more experienced friends. I fought him over, and over, and over again, and each fight felt like I picked up on another tick or quirk that had me learn more about the monster. And quite frankly, with the later game monsters, you have that same feeling all over again. It’s only downside is that once you’ve hunted them all, there isn’t all that much to do compared to previous games. With an expansion coming late next year, I’ll be more than happy to dive back in through whatever archaic rank they can think of.
3. Octopath Traveler – Everything came together perfectly in Octopath Traveler. The music is phenomenal, rivaling the JRPG greats like Chrono Trigger and Persona. The combat is an interesting blend of Dragon Quest, Pokemon and Persona. The visual “HD 2D” aesthetic of the game feels like literally no other RPG I’ve played. The narrative, while initially slow and sparse, feels like you’re assembling a team more than having one singular protagonist. It’s rooted in some old-school JRPG trappings that alienate some, but for me, it hit literally every note it was striving for. I couldn’t be happier with how the game turned out, even if the narrative isn’t anything to write home about for the majority of the story.
2. Dragon Ball FighterZ – Quite simply one of the greatest fighting games of all time. DBFZ perfectly balances the ludicrous speed and power of the Dragon Ball roster with their fine-tuned and exceptional Guilty Gear engine. Taking many noticeable changes from the likes of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, Arc System Works has one of the most visually striking and compelling games of the year. This is the game of my dreams, as a fighting game fan and as a Dragon Ball fanatic. There are so many little touches and references that match up perfectly to the anime and manga, from small moves to cinematic finishers. The lovely combo system that is rewarding for newcomers and even more rewarding for veterans is a great balance for how long-form, assist-based combos can function. It single-handedly raises the bar on what anime games can be, making the likes of most Naruto and One Piece games people have had to put up with look even worse.
1. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – God. This game. I truly don’t even know where to start. This is it. This is the best Smash has been, and likely ever will be. It’s a celebration of Nintendo, and now of gaming, that games have never been able to truly achieve. Through the Spirits mode, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate brings a tangible gameplay reward and element in its collectible non-playable characters. While trophies are more fun to look at, it’s really cool to put an Omega Ridley spirit in Pichu and watch him go to town. The idea of putting the spirit of a character into existing playable characters, as one Brain Altano put it, reminds me of pretending your budget-ass toys you had as a kid were, in fact, your coolest characters imaginable. Ultimate is able to juggle the casual and the hardcore more than almost any other game can come close to, all while being filled to the brim with fun references, moments, and characters. Also they put Ridley in a Super Smash Bros. game, so I feel obligated to give it points for that.
A few honorable mentions to games that I didn’t play a lot of but still enjoyed, didn’t like as much as my top ten, or didn’t fit my criteria for GOTY: God of War, Spider-Man, Hearthstone, Overwatch, Donut County, Fortnite, Mega Man 11, Crypt of the NecroDancer, Hyrule Warriors Definitive Edition