I wrote several things about video games I played in 2019 over the course of the year. There was my review of Alwa’s Awakening, a solid little Metroidvania title (and I’m excited for Eiden Pixel’s sequel, Alwa’s Legacy, which should be coming later this year). In other Metroidvania writing, I took more of a narrative approach in breaking down Lunar Ray Games’ Timespinner. I looked at Brace Yourself Games’ Crypt of the Necrodancer follow-up, Cadence of Hyrule. If you like music games like that, there was also my recent review of Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts. And that’s not even counting my articles of things I played prior to 2019 that only went up this year, like my look at Wandersong, or my three-title look at genre mash-ups. (And even older than that, I wrote about A Hat in Time from Gears for Breakfast over two years ago, which came up again this year thanks to a new level releasing back in May and a new Nintendo Switch port dropping last October).
But that still only wound up being a small slice of things I played in 2019. So I wanted to do some quick wrap-ups on other good things I saw last year; maybe I’ll come back later and write more about one or more of these if the right idea takes me, but for now, I want to at least give them a shout-out.
OtherThis is a grouping of things that didn’t really fit into my other groupings; I’m putting them at the start to not give the impression that I like them any less than the other entries here.
River City Girls (WayForward & Arc System Works)
I don’t go into beat-em-ups a ton, but I always appreciate well-made ones. And WayForward brings their normal expertise to the genre, making one that’s incredibly fun to play. The cartoon art style is great and really comes through in the pixel graphics, and in WayForward tradition, the soundtrack kicks ass. And I’m not enough of a connoisseur of the genre to know if this is an innovation or not, but I really appreciated navigating the interconnected map, which made things much more interesting than the traditional bidirectional gameplay of sidescrolling beat-em-ups.
Super Mega Baseball 2 (Metalhead Software Inc.)
This is easily the best baseball game to appear on a Nintendo console in over a decade (since I guess the Power Pro series back on the Wii?). I’ve always appreciated arcade-style baseball games, and having fully-customizable rosters is a nice feature that I’ve sunk a lot of time into.
Reverie: Sweet As Edition (Rainbite)
A pleasant entry in the 2D-Zelda/Action-Adventure genre from new developers Rainbite, who infuse the game with other influences to keep it feeling unique. Their world draws deeply from both other games like Earthbound and their home country of New Zealand. Overall, it’s a solid debut from this team.
Shanae and the Pirate’s Curse/Shantae: Half Genie Hero (WayForward)
I had been meaning to play Pirate’s Curse forever, and was pleasantly surprised when I got around to it. I had heard that it was a Metroidvania, and it kind of is (mostly the dungeons, although the islands outside of the dungeons have some elements). The general platforming experience is just strong, though. I liked it enough to pick up Half Genie Hero, and despite being more of a traditional platformer than Pirate’s Curse, I think I liked it better? They kept a sort of branching path element to it that felt more in-line with what Pirate’s Curse was trying to do than “Metroidvania”. And of course, the art direction and music for the series are top notch, as that’s one of WayForward’s specialties.
Omensight (Spearhead Games)
I really liked the writing and especially the set-up of this one. The setting is a little like Lord of the Rings, but with animals (or what I imagine the Redwall series was like, although I never read that as a kid): high fantasy focusing on a big war between fantasy nations, with different kingdoms (each a different species) allied against each other. That’s already pretty cool, but the plot set-up makes it even better: you are a sort of a guardian spirit for animal Middle Earth, returned because someone in the war summoned an ancient god to tip the war to their side but accidentally kicked off Armageddon. You now have to re-live the final hours of the world to piece together who did it, how, and what you can do to stop them. Gameplay-wise, it’s a solid action-adventure title that keeps its repeated levels fresh via small alterations in paths, context, or writing as you look for clues or do different objectives. The aesthetics and creativity more than make up for any nitpicks I might have about the gameplay.
Shovel Knight (Yacht Club Games)
I had already played it, but I got the Switch version for on the go play when it went on sale. This is one of the biggest indie games on the market today, so it hardly needs my stamp of approval. But if you haven’t played it, this is just a really solid platformer that learned from the best classic 8- and 16-bit platformers. Also, since it’s a running theme of this section, I just found out this year that Yacht Club Games was founded by WayForward alumni.
Roguelites & Roguelikes
2019 was the year I finally started trying to get into roguelites as a genre (after Crypt of the Necrodancer’s work in softening me up), and I found a bunch that I enjoyed. For those not aware, Roguelike is a term that is generally used to games based around randomized “runs”; each death means you need to start over from scratch on a completely new, procedurally-generated map (the name coming from 1980 game Rogue). I usually end up preferring the slightly less intense Roguelites, which have a similar basic framework, but include some sort of progression system to make progressive runs easier, things like buying more health or better gear to start each run with. Examples I enjoyed in 2019 include:
Sparklite (Red Blue Games)
One of the last-minute inclusions on my list, as I started playing it in the final days of 2019 but did the bulk of my playing in early 2020. I’m still counting it, though. Sparklite is a roguelite version of whatever you call the genre of 2D Zelda games, with the beautiful pixel art world map composed of random tiles that shuffle every time you die. So it’s a little like a less-music focused Cadence of Hyrule, in that regard. Either way, the game feels as fun to play as a Zelda game, the Sparklite you collect in each run can be used on every type of upgrade, meaning you can just go with whatever matches how you play. It’s pretty simple, but the game also doesn’t overstay its welcome, being short enough that you can finish it before it feels too much like a grind. I just finished it and am considering starting another run, and with this being Red Blue Games’ first non-mobile game, I’m fascinated to see where they go next.
20XX (Batterystaple Games & Fire Hose Games)
20XX is like a version of Megaman with new levels on every restart. They nailed the basic look and feel of the platformer, but making in a roguelite meant that they leaned a little less heavily on some of the instant-death mechanics of Capcom’s original series. Getting a super-upgraded Nina and going on a run to the final boss is just a lot of fun, and I can’t get enough of it.
Flinthook (Tribute Games)
Another pixel art platformer with a great sense of aesthetics, in Flinthook, you play as a swashbuckling, space-faring ghost pirate, using just a laser pistol and grappling hook to raid and take down the most dangerous threats on the high space-seas. This is the game that made me realize just how much I appreciate a good grappling hook mechanic, and flinging yourself around rooms gunning down enemy crew feels really neat when you get it down. I also really appreciate the sense of animation and character designs.
Moonlighter (Digital Sun Games)
Moonlighter is sort of from the same genre as Sparklite, a roguelite game in the 2D Zelda genre, which sets up some interesting comparisons. I like the main gameplay of Sparklite a little more, it’s more pick-up-and-play, and it feels closer to Zelda. But where the systems involved a lot more straightforward (like I said, the one currency you pick up is everything), Moonlighter goes for more systems, with an entire second half of the game where you sell your loot from dungeons to bankroll your upgrades and equipment for deeper dungeon runs. It’s and interesting combination of very different ideas, and I think it mostly works here.
Wizard of Legend (Contingent99)
We have our first entry from the “true roguelike” portion of this section. Wizard of Legend is a 2D action-adventure game that has you as an elemental magic user competing in a contest to challenge the best mages of the day. Really straightforward in conception, but executed perfectly.
Slay the Spire (Mega Crit Games)
Another true roguelike, Slay the Spire is a role playing card game, where you build a new deck of attacks and moves each time and progressively fight your way to the top of the titular tower. I’ve definitely seen people get way more into it than I have so far, and I probably need to spend more time with it to really dig in, but that won’t be much of a problem, since I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with it thus far.
A Robot Named Fight (Matt Bitner Games)
The other true roguelike on this list, A Robot Named Fight generates you basically a new Metroid map every run. The game has a similar starting point in tone to the Metroid series as well, although it definitely goes in a more horror-pulp look, with you as an android fighting off waves of fleshy mutant monsters. My personal taste is definitely more with Metroid’s sci-fi “quiet, isolated planet” feel, but the fact that I love this game just as much should show you how well Robot nails the gameplay.
Since it combines the two genres, it seems like a good time to transition to my next category:
A Robot Named Fight serves as a nice bridge into our next section (and especially the first title I list here), Metroidvanias. Metroidvanias are really one of my go-to, bread and butter genres, and I’m always on the lookout for more solid entries into the canon. There’s a lot of titles I I meant to get around to this year and didn’t quite reach, but there’s still some really good stuff I did manage to play (in addition to the aforementioned Alwa’s Awakening and Timespinner):
Chasm (Bit Kid, Inc.)
Like A Robot Named Fight, Chasm is a procedurally generated Metroidvania. Separating it is that only certain game modes utilize permadeath; in the main story mode, you’re allowed to keep trying again once you die. It’s overall pretty solid, and while the maps suffer a little from the curse of randomness (a computer generated map will just never top the best human-crafted ones), the rest of the game design is strong enough to make up for it, and I still liked it enough to go for 100% completion. I also feel like I need to delve into more arcade or speedruns of it, because I feels like it might be especially good for that, but I certainly don’t regret the time I spent with it. Just Bit Kid, Inc.’s second game (After a 2011 XBox Arcade release), I’m curious to see where they go from here.
Hollow Knight (Team Cherry)
This has become one of the biggest indie titles of the last few years, so it hardly needs my praise at this point. But I finally got around to it in my backlog, and yeah, it’s as good as everyone says. It’s just peak Metroidvania design, with a beautiful, tiny insect fantasy world to soak in.
Guacamelee 1 & 2 (Drinkbox Studios)
Guacamelee was another game I had long had a feeling I would like, but I had never gotten around to it. So when the sequel came out at the end of 2018, I decided to just try them both together. And yep, I enjoyed them just as much as I hoped. The movement and combat are as smooth as you could want from a combination Metroidvania/beat-em-up (and remembering how good that could feel was part of what convinced me to try River City Girls), the animation style and color palette are both eye catching and entrancing, I appreciate their dumb and silly sense of humor, and I enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny of these worlds.
Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight (Bombservice)
I picked this one up right after Timespinner, and it made for a nice follow-up piece to help me come down off of that high. The writing is a little more sparse and told through the environment, and the focus on movement and combat is a little higher, but otherwise, it’s a solid game that helped stave off post-game withdrawal. Very dark and atmospheric, Momodora has you running around a ruined fantasy kingdom, a missionary from a neighboring land who has found it overtaken by some sort of dark magic. A solid entry in the genre if you’re the type who’s enjoyed Timespinner, Hollow Knight, Dandara, Iconoclasts, etc.
Dandara (Long Hat House)
A similar type of game to Momodora, Dandara has you wandering around its interconnected, deeply stylistic world to pick up bits of the story. The two biggest notable differences being 1) Dandara’s unique movement scheme-you can only move diagonally, bouncing between walls in a zero-gravity environment (once you get used to it, it’s a really cool feeling quickly ricocheting all over the place taking out enemies); and 2) the tone, which takes some common inspiration from other Metroidvania sources, but remixes it in its own unique way-it feels almost post-post-apocalyptic? Something massive has changed in the world, but the encroaching doom has been staved off and your focus is instead on helping the freedom fighters and artists beat back the authoritarians that have risen in their place. It’s a little bit more out-there, but I appreciate Dandara a lot.
This is a really wide genre, featuring a lot of titles that aren’t really that similar outside of a focus on problem solving elements. Some of them are puzzle platformers that rely on using special abilities to pass obstacles, some of them are tile matching puzzles reliant on making patterns, some of them are something in between or entirely different.
Picross S3 (Jupiter)
I’m a huge sucker for picross puzzles, and Jupiter has mastered making games of it.
Automachef (Hermes Interactive)
Half restaurant optimization simulator, half block puzzle, in Automachef, you’re in charge of building automated kitchens in tight quarters to fill food orders in a timely, efficient manner. It sets up some fun questions, and it feels rewarding to set up the best answer to the problem.
Crossniq+ (FUTURE MEMORY)
I’ve written before about my love of tile puzzle games, and I’m always on the lookout for new entries into the genre. Crossniq has it’s unique take on things, making you clear plus-shapes instead of lines to clear blocks. It’s everything you’d want for a basic formula, plus all the extra features and modes you could want from a game like this.
Lumines: Remastered (Resonair)
If you read the link in the last blurb, you’ll notice this game got a name drop two years ago. Well, last year, I finally got around to trying it! I think I ultimately preferred Meteos, but I definitely appreciated Lumines’ blend of music and block puzzles. Ultimately, I kind of wish the soundtrack had gone a little more into pop music territory, maybe something a little closer to Sayonara Wild Hearts? It wasn’t quite the full atmospheric experience of Meteos, nor is it a hook-laden beast of a listening experience like Sayonara. But it’s still a unique entry in what I think is an underexplored intersection of media.
Baba Is You (Arvi Teikari a.k.a. Hempuli Oy)
One of the big breakout hits of 2019, Baba is a brilliant puzzle where the “programming logic” of the level is written on blocks that you can push around and rearrange to change how it plays. For those who haven’t seen it, an example would be in a level where the goal flag is stuck behind an impenetrable wall, change the text blocks from “FLAG is WIN” to “WALL is WIN” to make the blocking wall the new goal marker. Things get complicated from there quick, thanks to genius design.
The World Next Door (Rose City Games)
I played this one right around when I published my Genre Mash-up article, and I almost included something about it, but decided to leave things more focused. The World Next Door is one half modern fantasy world visual novel, one half match-three puzzle game, where you match runs to throw spells in combat and discuss the strange spirits appearing with your friends after. My biggest complaint is that the game feels too short, with an abrupt ending, and I’m hoping it gets a sequel to expand on the interesting ideas laid out here.
Hue (Fiddlesticks Games)
Something totally different than every other entry in this section, Hue is instead a puzzle platformer. If you played Runbow, Hue uses a similar mechanic, except under your control rather than automatic; platforms and walls are certain colors, and you can change the background to make those surfaces blend in to the background and vanish or stand out and reappear to allow you to progress. I’m a sucker for bold color palettes and color-based gimmicks like this, so this was right up might alley; it’s a good execution of those aspects.
This is less of a game genre, because all of the titles listed here do a good job of mixing and matching in different genres’ elements as needed for the purposes of serving their jokes. They’re all clever, tightly-written little games, and I almost wrote something up comparing their styles of comedy and gameplay elements, but I couldn’t quite nail the thesis well enough to bring it all together. Maybe I’ll circle back around to it again some day.
Untitled Goose Game (House House)
This one became something of a fan favorite for its silly set-up, but it really is a great idea. For those not in the know, the plot here is simply that you are a mischief-loving Goose trying to make life miserable for denizens of a small British town. The levels designs are really great, giving you all the props you need to set up intricate slapstick comedy routines to harass villagers, but allowing the improvisational comedy of players executing their own plans to pull off the routines. That’s a really hard-to-pull off combination of ideas, and the type of thing that’s really well-suited to video games as a medium.
Donut County (Ben Esposito)
There’s something really cathartic about the basic gameplay loop of Donut County: you move a hole around different maps, growing bigger with each bit of scenery you swallow up. There’s a slight puzzle in determining the proper order to swallow things, both to make your hole large enough to get the biggest elements and to trigger special interactions to bring down items out of your reach. Tying it all together are well-written humor segments to serve as the narrative cohesion for the levels, where you are the human and raccoon killing time by remote controlling said hole. The writing and aesthetics here are great, and really tie things together.
This is a goofy little debut game with a great sense of humor. You play as maybe an awakened beast, or maybe just a normal creature facing a case of mistaken identity: your character is a red, pill shaped thing with the gangliest legs ever put to code. A lot of the humor is in the surreal situations you find yourself in as you walk across the world, investigating the totally-not-suspicious Sunshine Corporation; you’ll find yourself in dance competitions with robots, searching for bloated caveworms, and appeasing the genie of the toaster. But a good part of the humor is also the slapstick, with a game engine built to emphasize ridiculous movements and writing that draws out the silliest reactions. It’s a little on the short side, but I didn’t mind at all.