Last year, Midland was barely denied back-to-back Song of the Year titles by Aaron Watson. This year, can a Minecraft/Dragon Quest mashup go with Midland could not?
To be honest, our first victory is that we actually have enough eligible games to fill out the field. 2018 was so sparse in terms of games that I found interesting that I had to include DLC packs just to put five names on my list. This year, Nintendo has had the opposite problem: The death of the 3DS means the company is free to go all-in on the Switch, and they’ve put out so many top-tier titles that a bunch of them have inevitably been lost in the shuffle. (Case in point: I bought Fire Emblem: Three Houses over the summer, and I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet.)”Top-tier” is one thing, but “fun” and “high-quality” are quite another, and honestly, on balance my feelings about the games I played this year were…mixed, to say the least.
So what titles caught my eye over the last twelve months, and which ones are good enough to compete for Game of the Year? Fire up the Zinnia battle theme and buckle up, because we’ve got some real doozies this year.
#5: Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn (Nintendo 3DS)
Remember 2017, where the one 3DS game on the list (Miitopia) actually beat out all of the Switch titles to claim the crown? This is the opposite situation: A field-filler that’s only on the list because Fire Emblem: Three Houses never made it onto my playlist. (And honestly, I’d call FE:3H a better game than this despite never even playing it.)
Where a game like Dragon Quest Builders stood out through addition, this game sticks out like a sore thumb through subtraction. This is hands-down the most unKirby game I’ve ever played, with his ability to fly and copy enemy powers (you know, the things that make Kirby games unique and fun) removed in favor of…silly hats and mediocre transformations? The controls were a total disaster, being overly touchy in some situations and painfully imprecise in others, and the game dragged you through the same dumb levels over and over in order to find all the collectibles (which got old quickly). The story and characters were flat, the art style didn’t really pop on the 3DS, and in the end, it just wasn’t fun to play.
This was a bad game on every level, and for all its years of service, the 3DS deserved a better swan song than this.
#4: Super Mario Maker 2 (Nintendo Switch)
As bad as Kirby’s Extra Epic Yarn was, at least I didn’t have many expectations for it going in. This title, however, was a letdown on so many levels.
In my review, I declared that “I have my issues with Super Mario Maker 2, but I also found that it captured the charm and enjoyment of its predecessor.” As time went on, however, those issues seemed to be the things that stood out the most:
- The lack of total cross-style support (which forced me to rethink level designs halfway through when I realized that I didn’t have the piece I needed).
- The lack of amiibo costumes (which sapped a surprising amount of fun from the creative process).
- The lack of the 100 Mario Challenge (Endless Challenge just doesn’t have the payoff that the previous mode did),.
- The lack of decent multiplayer support (I tried connecting with some friends for co-op play, and the lag made the game completely unplayable).
- The lack of continued support for the game (it took nearly six months just to get Spike, Pokey, and Link? And we still don’t have Bookmark functionality, not even on the Nintendo Switch Online app?)
It really feels like this game got lost in the shuffle as Nintendo hurried to release games like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Astral Chain, Link’s Awakening, and Luigi’s Mansion 3, and the company isn’t willing or able to invest the time into the game that it did to its predecessor. Did we all get spoiled by the fact that the Wii U went nearly two years without releasing a major title, so Nintendo had tons of time to invest in SMM and Splatoon?
Above everything, that creative spark I found in Super Mario Maker was the biggest omission from the sequel. I’m in a different place in life, and I don’t have the time or patience to put together the cool levels I made just a few years ago. It all adds up my biggest disappointment of 2019, and a game that’s spent more time collecting dust than anything else.
#3: Ring Fit Adventure (Nintendo Switch)
Video games have been taking a lot of flak for destroying society instead of improving it, and Ring Fit Adventure seemed like a direct answer to these critiques. With its use of exercise to progress through and save yet another generic fantasy world, RFA tried to show the world that games could be fun and improve it’s players’ lives at the same time.
The good news about this game is that the workouts are 100% legit. These exercises will get the heart pumping and the sweat flowing, and the color-coded enemy system encourages players to take on a variety of exercises on their way to victory (however, the healing system feels extraneous and is more discouraged than anything else). The bad news, however, is that the RPG elements mostly fall flat: The levels are generic and repetitive, the story builds up so slowly that it bores people before it hooks them, and the skill tree feels tacked-on and unnecessary.
In the end, the game is a rewarding experience, but rarely a fun one, and I found myself continuing to play only for the workout rather than the game. It was a laudable effort that will still appeal to (and immensely benefit) certain types of gamers, but I have my doubts that I’ll actually see the game through to the end.
#2: Pokémon Sword/Shield
For all the controversy these games generated, one thing stood out above all: Pokémon is still a darn fun to game to play, even twenty-plus years into the formula. Even without half of the National Dex, the world feels more full of monsters than ever before, and the Wild Area is a step towards the open-world experience we’ve been clamoring for, with its plethora of creatures roaming the landscape. I’m not a huge fan of the Gym Trials from Sun/Moon returning (they all still boil down to ‘run around and beat a bunch of Trainers), and the attempt to ratchet up the intensity around the Gym Challenge mostly falls flat to me (I don’t give a %&$# about the cheering crowd; I’ve got a Gym Leader to pulverize), but building, raising, and dominating with a six-stack remains one of my favorite things to do in video games.
The technical issues that plagued the Let’s Go! series are (mostly) resolved, camping is an intriguing option that I’m warming to as I play through the game, and the music is the best I’ve heard in a video game since Miitopia. Of all the games on this list, this if the first one that feels like an actual contender for Game of the Year.
But it’s not my Game of the Year.
#1: Dragon Quest Builders 2
Making a Pokémon party is fun. Making a baseball stadium? Even better.
As good as the original game was, the sequel felt like an improvement on nearly every front. The NPCs were more helpful and even chipped in to help build larger stuff, the creations were larger and more epic (and some much-appreciated QoL improvements made them easier to build, although it took me a while to actually find said improvements), and the story is just as deep and dark as before (the prison break, the traitor storyline, and of course the obvious-but-still-interesting Malroth arc).
Oh, and did I mention you get a whole freaking island to play with this time instead of a few tiny little towns? Unlike the original game, I actually stuck around for the post-game buildathon this time, adding a public transportation system, a giant park, and yes, a Camden Yards facsimile to my realm. (I don’t care that my villagers can’t play sports: I have ivy on my outfield wall and a neon Babs sign that puts Fenway’s Citgo logo to shame.) Where Super Mario Maker 2 never truly got my creative juices flowing, this thing had me zoning my island like I was a greedy real-estate developer.
Both Pokémon Sword/Shield and Dragon Quest Builders 2 were iterating on a pre-existing formula, but it was DQB2‘s changes that won out in the end, earning the series its second consecutive Game of the Year award.
So, is there a three-peat in the cards? I doubt it: Dragon Quest Builders 3 isn’t even a rumor yet, and I have a feeling Animal Crossing: New Horizons will be really tough to beat in 2020. (Heck, it’s got better odds of winning the U.S. presidency than Michael Bloomberg.) Still, 2019 was a moderate improvement over 2018, and hopefully the trend continues into next year, because with “Boyfriend Country” settling in on the music side, I’ve got to have something to look forward to…