2018 was a real busy one for me. Got a new job, finally started seeing a chiropractor again, and tried to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding immigration. Let me tell you, that last one is stressful as all hell and is also a big part of why this article took so long to get posted. Another large part of the delay is because of one of the games on this list. While I played quite a few games this year, these were the top 5.
Yes, this game did originally come out in 2014, but I didn’t play it at that time. This year, however, it came out on the Nintendo Switch, and I got to it. I love the silly cutscenes, the fast-paced action, and the entire style of the game. So, yeah, looking forward to number 3!
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Everyone is here! And so is a substantially bigger single-player adventure mode than I had expected. In a lot of ways, Smash is still that fun party game I had all the hype for in the N64, but in a lot of other ways it has just gotten… too crazy for me. I still have a blast with it, but I seriously have no idea what is going on half the time when items are turned on.
Undertale was a wonderful adventure through a world inhabited by monsters. Deltarune, even though Toby Fox denies it, feels like it is taking place either before the worlds were split or after the pacifist ending. It is only the first Chapter making it a much smaller experience than its predecessor, but the ways that the combat systems evolve and the cliff hanger ending has me itching for more.
#5 – Yoku’s Island Express
I have always enjoyed playing pinball. I am not great at it, but hitting up the local arcade and playing whatever table was there never disappointed. I have also had a long running love of Metroid style games, be they 2D platformers or something else. It is the base structure of those games that hooks me so much; gain new ability, use that ability to reach new places. It grants a sense of progression that boosting your strength score never can.
Yoku’s Island Express managed to blend pinball with the structure and progression of an action-exploration game. I love it. It has goofy music that makes you want to smile, an aesthetic that successfully blends cartoony and functional, and some frankly solid pinball tables connected throughout the world. And let’s be honest, how could the game that made me a speedrunner not make my top 5?
#4 – Into the Breach
In 2012 a little Kickstarter game was released by Subset Games called FTL: Faster Than Light. It was a run-based game where you managed a spaceship as it fled an oppressive military culminating in a fight against the flagship at the end. It ended up being a pretty fantastic game and had me really interested to see what they would do next. Well, what they did next blows FTL out of the water.
Into the Breach is often called a tactics game, but really it is more of a puzzle game. Like FTL, it is run-based, but instead of managing a spaceship, you control 3 mecha on an 8×8 battlefield. The objective isn’t to defeat the enemies, but to protect the buildings and maintain the power grid from destruction. Each map is randomized and sometimes have bonus objectives, like protecting a train that moves each turn. The reason it is more a puzzle game is because you get perfect information about all the actions that the enemies will take each turn. It makes each turn an individual puzzle to solve that will influence the next. Did you move a mech into a corner to save a building? Could mean you don’t have the movement to save them all on the next turn.
What’s even better is that the tools each mech team has causes you to solve the puzzle in completely different ways. The electric whip robot forces you to find ways to push the opponents together allowing you to deal chain damage to the group and stop the flood from becoming too much, while a team of rust buckets deploy smoke all across the battlefield to turn off or limit all the spaces the enemies can try to use. The goal of the puzzle is always the same, but the details and approach lead to so many unique scenarios. And when you fail… I guess it’s time to take your favorite pilot and jump to a different timeline. Maybe this time you can save some people.
#3 – Dead Cells
Dead Cells hit early access during May of 2017. I saw a bit of it near that time and thought it looked really cool; the kind of cool I definitely wanted to check out myself, but figured I should probably wait until the full game was released. While it took until August of 2018 for that to happen, it was well worth the wait.
Dead Cells is kind of like Rogue Legacy turned up to 11. They are both 2D-platformer rogue-likes with randomly generated areas to run through. Both have some persistent upgrades for your character granting new mobility options. And both have some pretty tough bosses to overcome. Dead Cells also draws from games like Binding of Isaac with many of its item unlocks, though. Each run will be seeded with random weapons and support tools from the items you’ve unlocked. This makes every attempt unique through the interesting combinations you find and makes you approach combat in different ways.
And, oh boy, that combat! It is blistering fast, with the visuals bursting with color among the mayhem. The controls always feel perfectly snappy, like you need them to be, allowing the game’s brutal nature towards the player to never feel unfair. The speed of control they give you and the clarity of visual information, even through chaos of a large scale fight, means that when I die, it always feels like my fault. I made a mistake, and I will do better… next time.
#2 – Monster Hunter: World
Until the last week of 2018, this game was probably an honorable mention at best. It has DNA from a lot that I love; the preparation of the Witcher, intricate move-sets of a fighting game, a sprinkle of Shadow of the Colossus, and even a splash of Phantasy Star Online multiplayer. But something just didn’t come together for me… until Christmas. After a couple months away from the game, I experimented with some new weapons, and it all clicked. Damn, this game is great – and in no small part the reason it has taken me so long to finish writing this article.
The basic structure of the game is to go on quests to hunt a large beast, and to use the materials gathered from the beast to upgrade your weapons and armor, which allows you to take on even bigger beasts. The creatures inhabit beautifully rendered zones ranging from a beachside forest to miasma-filled caverns. Each area intricately is put together to capture a naturalistic sense of a space filled with small details of insects and plants. And the monsters breathe extra life into them, inhabiting these places as a habitat rather than a fighting arena. They will use the swamps to protect themselves with mud and have nests they will flee to when they get scared. The targets you hunt are given so much care in their animations and mannerisms, they bridge into feeling like real creatures. Even now, with over 100 hours in the game, I find myself choosing to catch a Tobi-Kadachi (a giant, electric flying squirrel) rather than slay it, because when I see it trying to limp away making pained moans rather than aggressive screams, it feels true to a real animal.
Choosing your weapons is where I made my mistake the first time around. This was my first Monster Hunter game, and I picked a weapon that I’ve since seen described as “the most complex weapon to be good with.” The amount of variance between all 14 weapons is wildly cool, and each one has unique and interesting move-sets. I generally like to be light on my feet and dodging around, but now I find myself having fun with playstyles I wouldn’t have dreamed of hooking me. The Gunlance, which forces me to walk like I’ve got those giant prison weights attached to my ankles, has turned into one of my favorite playstyles!
To top it all off, you can explore and hunt and do all of this with your friends. Assuming you have both watched the cutscenes for the story missions, and are friends on the platform without trying to make the game private, and… Ok, there are some pretty big missteps in some of the multiplayer functionality. From what I hear, this one is such a leap forward in that respect I cannot even imagine the hoops people must have been jumping through in the old games.
#1 – Celeste
Sometimes a game comes along that feels like it was made just for you. Celeste is, for me, one of those games. It is a game that grants me the 2D platforming challenges I loved growing up, and follows it up with one of the most relatable narratives I’ve experienced in gaming.
The game begins with an overarching goal to climb this mountain and a few small pits to teach you the verbs you’ve got in this game; jump, climb, dash. With these limited tools you then take Madeline through 7 chapters of extremely well designed zones, each with their own mechanics to interact with and secrets to find. Not to mention the incredible music put together by Lena Raine that can be haunting, empowering, and absolutely beautiful. As you progress you also meet a few other characters and begin to see that the game is more than just a journey to the top.
The game is about climbing a mountain, sure, but it is also about living with anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and failure. What makes it work so well is that, while the mountain is a big metaphor, the developers at Matt Makes Games are not afraid to get specific and raw about the emotional states Madeline goes through. It comes up early as she argues with a physical embodiment of the part of her she struggles with, but stays grounded as she makes a phone call to her mother to help with feeling overwhelmed. This is all by the end of Chapter 2, before an opportunity arises to have Theo become more than just a goof with an Instagram. Before having to take some deep reflections on how to actually get to the summit.
Once you complete the narrative, the game is far from over. For those who also adore the base mechanics of the game, they give you an epilogue chapter, extra hard obstacles courses themed to each zone, and even reveal actions your base tools gave you access to that only need to be engaged with in these challenges. These B-sides and C-side levels also come with amazing remixes of each chapter’s music from many other talented musicians. Seriously, listen to this stunning remix by in love with a ghost.
The only thing I can say gave me pause from loving every moment of this game was the cloud platforms. Those things did drive me up a bit of a wall at times. The fact is, Celeste looks, feels, and sounds wonderful. It tells a story that is easy to connect with and surprisingly powerful. And it all started with a message everyone could stand to hear a little more often.
You can do this.