Another year falls to the march of time. So it’s time once again to look back at the games that came out in the past 12 months (the ones we had time to play, that is) and decide which audiovisual experiences deserve the title of “Game of the Year.”
I had the time and opportunity to play a lot of great games this year from all over the spectrum of genre, platform, and budget. These are the games released in the past year that I loved the most.
IT’S TIME FOR…
MY TOP TEN GAMES OF 2019:
10. Cyber Protocol
I stumbled upon this cool little arcade puzzle game while browsing through the Switch eShop. The art and the name caught my eye and the trailer reeled me in. Cyber Protocol’s visual style is incredibly strong, with its bright neon, chunky pixels, and VHS filters. Happily, it has a strong soundtrack to match, with thumping cyberpunk beats (that you can go and listen to on their own in the built-in music player) accompanying you on your chill day at the arcade. The sound design is extremely appealing as well, with bright blips and chonky blorps fitting perfectly with the techno-arcade nostalgia vibe the game is going for.
Basically, these three elements vibe together so well that the game’s goal of immersing the player in its desired aesthetic is easily achieved, and it feels very good to be in there.
If you’re looking for a story, look elsewhere. Cyber Protocol is only interested in one thing, and that is puzzle arcade gameplay. Each level is essentially a maze of traps, hazards, and Pac-man bits that you gobble up for points. But it’s not about finding the correct way out, rather the game offers you only one route to take, but challenges you to collect every last bit in each stage. The final catch here is that you do not have complete 1:1 control over your digital avatar. When you move in one direction, you continue moving in that direction until you hit a wall, no turning midway through your path.
All of this put together makes for an extremely enjoyable and challenging puzzle arcade game. Throw in the fact that it’s on Switch, making it easy to pick up and put down a stage at a time, and the fact that there seem to be TONS of levels, with new mechanics and obstacles introduced at a solid pace, and it’s a real no-brainer.
If you’re looking for something simple to while away the hours on Switch, I really can’t recommend Cyber Protocol enough.
9. Card of Darkness
Apple Arcade happened this year. And my initial skepticism slowly gave way to wonder as a slew of gorgeous, good-as-golden-age indie mobile games showed up seemingly out of thin air. While I still have some concerns about Apple Arcade and where it fits in the games-as-service narrative we find ourselves in, I have nevertheless found plenty to love in the games it has allowed some big-name creators to bring to life.
One such game is Card of Darkness, a joint project from indie mobile rockstar Zach Gage, and Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. If you know anything about these two names, you know pretty much all you need to know about Card of Darkness.
CoD is a dungeon-diving card game that plays out like a sort of solitaire roguelike. Gage has certainly proven time and again he knows how to make a good card game and put in on your phone, and this is no exception. As the game’s protagonist, a wannabe adventurer, you fight your way through various dungeons comprised of a grid of cards. There are treasure cards, health-restoring potion cards, weapon cards, and (mostly) monster cards.
The aim of each level is to carve a path through the rows and rows of cards to the other side to either fight a boss, or collect a Card of Darkness, a modifier you can equip to affect the game in various ways. One card gives you extra health to start with, another increases the value of weapons that appear, and so on. These modifiers get appropriately more complex as the game goes on.
The catch of each level is that once you interact with a stack of cards, be that picking up a potion or defeating a monster, that stack is now “marked,” and you must interact with every card in that stack before you are allowed to leave the room. Therein lies the great strategic conflict of Card of Darkness. Do I pick up that potion and heal myself? Or will I be dooming myself to fight the strong monsters that may lie below it?
On top of all of this is some EXTREMELY Pendleton-Ward-ass art and music, and that’s beautiful.
My one and only complaint is that Card of Darkness is ONLY available with an Apple Arcade subscription. So if you want to play this game at any point in the foreseeable future, you’ll need to pay Apple five bucks a month in perpetuity. The flip side there is that you also gain access to tons of other great games (one more of which you will find further down this list), but I would still love to be able to just buy this game outright. It’s easily worth the entire cost of my subscription, if not more.
8. Risk of Rain 2
I have some very fond memories of the original, 2D Risk of Rain. And I was intrigued, but frankly a little worried, when Hopoo Games announced a follow up that would make the jump to 3D. Not that I didn’t trust Hopoo to design an excellent game, I just wasn’t sure that what excelled in 2D would excel in 3D. Luckily, I was wrong.
Not content to stand on the brilliant boldness of its incredible art style alone, Risk of Rain’s particular brand of roguelike gameplay fits beautifully in a 3D world. Traversal feels good, there’s a whole new roster of survivors with interesting new mechanics available that take full advantage of RoR2’s extra dimension, the available environments are well-varied, with more on the way all the time, and the breadth and depth of items on offer is as immense as ever, with many returning favorites and new additions.
Towering above all of this is the sheer amount of work it must have taken to not only design and render the same game in a whole new dimension in a way that felt similar enough to be understood by returning players, yet well-adapted to its fresh new digs, but also to create dynamic 3D animations of all playable characters and enemies. And of course, the hard work of…making the game go.
What I’m saying is this game is truly a monumental achievement for such a small, new team, and the fact that it’s fun is icing on the cake. The original Risk of Rain started life as a student project, and I couldn’t be happier that its success allowed the team at Hopoo to continue making games, especially such an impressive follow-up as this.
Risk of Rain 2 is out in Early Access on Steam and Switch. More content is continually being developed and added, and I can’t wait to see what comes next!
7. F1 2019
So this was the year I finally became an F1 guy. My dad has been a fan for years, but only ever got to watch sporadically because American broadcasting is weird. This year, I decided to get into it myself with a subscription to F1TV (that I of course share with my father) after watching the excellent Drive To Survive documentary series on Netflix, and listening to Waypoint Radio and eventually Shift-F1 (a podcast about speedy race cars).
It was only natural, therefore, that I also became an F1 video game guy. I had gotten the 2015 version in a Humble Bundle at some point, gave it a shot, and it hooked me. So I grabbed the 2018 version on sale and played that for most of the year. As in, I completed a full season of the career mode 😬
I did not expect the move to 2019 to be as big a change as it was. Right off the bat, it is EXTREMELY visually impressive, and DAMN smooth. I don’t know that that alone would have put this one on my list, but there are a number of other interesting changes that make 2019 a worthy upgrade.
For one, the addition of an abridged F2 season leading you into your F1 career lends some extra purpose to your endeavor, and introduces some rivals who graduate to F1 alongside yourself that you can share a personal connection with. It’s a cool gimmick that makes this F1 career mode more than just racing a bunch of rich and famous people.
At the same time I upgraded to F1 2019, I also…bought a racing wheel. Which is a lot. But this is who I am now I guess. Most people probably will not and should not buy a wheel, but suffice to say it feels very good, it makes this a whole new game in a whole new way, and it is much, much harder playing this way.
F1 2019 looks and feels as impressively smooth and beautiful as a top-tier racing game should. Codemasters, ya did it.
6. Link’s Awakening
I never had a GameBoy, Color or otherwise, as a kid, so I sort of missed this generation of games. The closest I got was playing through my friend’s copy of Pokémon Crystal on the GBC they let me borrow for a few weeks. And so I never experienced the original Link’s Awakening in its time, or ever went back to play it on the 3DS virtual console.
I decided to rectify that when this remaster was announced, and grabbed a digital copy on 3DS, but ultimately put it down before release. I’m really glad I did, because it made for a much better experience with this game. I played enough of the original to see what made it special, gain an appreciation for its classic visual style and music, and feel where it could be improved. But luckily, because I only got so far in the classic, everything still felt new in 2019’s Link’s Awakening. Every discovery was uncovered with fresh eyes.
This game is a magical little experience. I fell in love with its visual style from the first trailer, a bunch of cute little miniatures walking around a tilt-shifted model world like board game pieces come to life. The music was given the same level of care as well, with each theme and fanfare given a lovingly crafted orchestral update. Most often, a game’s music is what determines whether it sticks with me through the years, so that fact that I can literally hear the above screenshot speaks volumes.
On its journey over to Switch, the game picked up some performance hitches here and there that are frankly surprising to see in a Nintendo game, and particularly one that was clearly so meticulously and lovingly recreated. However, it never amounted to more than some brief frame rate slowdown for me, and never impacted gameplay.
Coming from the original, the improvements made in this release are, to say the least, a relief. With more buttons to work with than the original GameBoy, you won’t have to spend nearly as much time in the menu swapping between items. B is dedicated to the sword, ZL is a dedicated run button, ZR is a dedicated shield button, and X and Y act as TWO swappable item slots. This was the correct way to bring a game limited by the hardware of its time into the present day.
Link’s Awakening is a delightful game that I can easily recommend to anyone. It has effectively recaptured what made the original special while bringing things up to speed for a new generation. And I mean look at it!
5. No Man’s Sky Beyond
This really is the game that keeps on giving. 2019’s new update completely changed everything again, but this time in a way that makes the whole game feel much more refined and much more fully realized as an experience. The Beyond update added some multiplayer elements that I mostly haven’t touched (you can ignore this whole bit if you like, though it is quite cool), but the updates to the rest of the game are leaps and bounds ahead of what came before. Just take a look at this changelog 😱
This is a true 2.0 update. It is literally a whole new game. Literally. I cannot stress this enough. This is not the same game that I played last year. The dream of flying through space just…living…just doing anything you want finally feels attainable in Beyond. I haven’t gotten to a point where I just feel stuck on Beyond, and that is, in itself, a HUGE improvement. Also quests no longer just fail…or disappear…or reset for no discernible reason. Mostly.
No Man’s Sky is a game I desperately wanted to love at launch, and I chose to love it, warts and all. But I did not like it. You know what I mean? No Man’s Sky, post-Beyond update, is a game I really, truly like playing.
It’s incredible that Hello Games have continued to support No Man’s Sky post-launch with so many free updates that affect the game in truly transformative ways. They clearly want this game to be something special, they clearly have a vision for what it could be, and they want to keep trying to attain that perfect version. And boy that’s admirable. Because We The Fans certainly do not deserve that level of support free-of-charge. But they sure do keep me coming back. And I just keep loving No Man’s Sky.
Who knows, maybe it’ll make next year’s list too.
4. Pokémon Sword
I love Pokémon dearly. This installment came at a great time for me, releasing the same day I happened to have a transatlantic flight, so I was eager to lose myself in this world for a while. And reader, the world is good. Last gen left me a bit lukewarm in certain places (but not because of my team of perfect friends – shoutout to my Primarina, Penelope, who is my beautiful trans daughter and I love her), but Sword/Shield hit me in all the right ways.
First of all, this is the first ever Pokémon game you can play on a TV holy shit! That gave rise to my favorite activity of playing this on the couch with my girlfriend at night after work. She fell in love with the game too (because come on), and now she wants play through herself!
Getting back to the game though, there are a lot of quality of life improvements here, such as flying to places you’ve already been without learning Fly, the ability to remember old moves and rename pokémon at any pokémon center, portable access to your boxes, and the most important change: walking in a circle over and over makes you do a cool spin move.
It also, of course, just feels really nice and good, like a Pokémon game should. The dynamaxing stuff is cool, the story doesn’t really seem to matter too much, and the new Pokémon are all very good. The game is also extremely beautiful. It’s amazing for these old eyes to see a Pokémon game with this level of graphical fidelity. Not just obvious stuff like walking around a lush 3D world, but even the menus are goddamn gorgeous.
Folks, the game is good. And I can easily see myself sticking with this one beyond the endgame.
3. Untitled Goose Game
AT LAST. A game that lets me live out my ultimate fantasy of being an asshole goose. Your main interactions are Pick Up, Run, Flap, and of course, HONK. Your list of objectives? Fuck up as many people’s days as possible and then steal some shit. What more is there to say?
Everything about this game works. The stark art style, the vaguely Mister Rogers-esque piano music, the lack of UI, the fact that everyone hates you. This game knows to get out of your way and let you goose. 10/10.
It’s also extremely short, great for parties, extremely approachable for folks who don’t usually play games, and surprisingly chill for a game about being a horrible nuisance. There are no timers, no points, no XP, just a goose and a list of things to do. You are left to your own devices as to how each task is completed, and the game will never nudge you along because you’re playing “wrong.”
YOU are the horrible goose. And you decide what that means.
2. Tangle Tower
Coming in as a strong runner-up is SFB Games’ Tangle Tower. This really came out of nowhere for me. It’s not the kind of game I would take a chance on at first glance, but it was lauded on Waypoint Radio, and I had a free trial of Apple Arcade, so I gave it a shot. It nearly took the #1 spot on my list.
Tangle Tower is a point-and-click murder mystery; immaculately illustrated, gorgeously animated, impressively voice-acted, and with a bold and colorful soundtrack. Before we even get to the story or gameplay, the game is an absolute joy to experience. It’s just a perfectly delightful piece of art. I love every little bit of it.
The game’s mystery is a delight to unravel as well, through a series of suspect interviews, hidden object clue searches, and simple puzzle solving. There are some really neat mechanics around using the information you’ve gathered to start to piece things together, which the game largely lets you do yourself, which feels very satisfying. I truly feel as though I, the player, am in charge of this case.
I don’t want to say too much more here, because…well it’s a murder mystery, but also you really need to get engrossed in this thing for yourself. If you’re still on the fence, please please get a load of this SOUNDTRACK.
Tangle Tower is also on Steam and Switch, so you thankfully do not need Apple Arcade to experience it. Do yourself a favor and pick it up ASAP.
1. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds starts like many games: with a quick, loosely hand-holding, yet elegant opening tutorial comprised mainly of walking around your town, talking to people who teach you about the world, and learning the game’s controls. As far as opening tutorials go, it does just the right amount of world-building without getting too bogged down in its own bullshit or wresting control from the player for a cutscene. And then everything changes completely. The game opens up. The solar system is yours to explore. And an ancient mystery lies waiting for you to unravel its secrets.
22 minutes later, the sun explodes, taking everything in the system, yourself included, with it. And then you wake up again.
Taken on their own, each element of Outer Wilds seems fairly simple. A bunch of different planets with different characteristics. A small ship with which to explore the solar system. Simple controls for yourself and your ship. There’s no inventory, and not many stats to worry about. Just oxygen, jetpack fuel, and health, all of which can be instantly refilled inside your ship.
But the way everything comes together, and the manner in which you are allowed to follow your own path and follow each planet’s clues, and rules, creates a grand sense that there’s always more out there, and lights in the player the fire of a clear and driving curiosity.
The 22 minute cycle is the perfect amount of time to get out there, learn something, find clues, wonder what it all means, die, and wake up once more, only to think, “maybe just one more cycle…”
This is a roguelike in which the “experience” you take with you when you die is the knowledge you’ve gained by exploring the solar system (a copy of all the important stuff is recorded in your ship’s onboard computer, so if you hate games that make you take notes, worry not). It’s perfection.
Thinking through my list of games this year, it became unavoidably clear that Outer Wilds deserved the top spot. There’s so much going on here that I love (and a lot I don’t want to give away). Every time I sit down to play, I learn something new that gives me that Civ-esque “just one more turn” feeling. It propels me endlessly forward through an intriguing space mystery, the conclusion of which I have yet to see. I can’t wait to discover more.
Everyone should play Outer Wilds. It’s such a special little thing. And it’s my game of the year.
And that’s the list, folks! Thanks for popping in for a read, and I’ll see you right back here next year for more of the same!
Did you play any of the games on this list? What did you think? Anything you loved that I didn’t feature here? Let me know in the comments below!
Happy New Year to you all! And happy gaming!