Cloudpunk

Finally, an expression of the cyberpunk genre other than Neuromancer that does not make me cringe. Cloudpunk is about labor, class, society, and the tension between the individual and the whole. Themes you’d expect but delivered thoughtfully. It’s the story of the long night shift of a first time flying delivery driver in a rainy megalopolis. The story is delivered through dialog as you drive back and forth (and up and down) through the stratified labyrinthine districts occasionally making impactful choices. The city is packed with kind, strange people and their heartbreaking stories. Raina’s journey could be a tighter, but it’s worth the ride.

Sonic Adventure 2

Never have I played a game that celebrates itself more. Sonic Adventure 2 is a bonanza of iconic sights and sounds. Every track sounds like it could be the main theme and every level could be the primary aesthetic of its own game, making Sonic Adventure 2 a mascot of itself. You play as a rotating cast of six near-perfectly designed cartoon mascots who then create and raise baby mascots called Chaos at a liminal nightclub/kindergarten/horse track called the Chao Garden. It’s frankly brilliant. If only the actual platform gameplay wasn’t nearly broken. SA2 is a classic, nevertheless.

Rivals of Aether

Rivals of Aether is precisely what it looks like: a fan-made Super Smash Brothers Melee type game rendered in pixel art. What you may not realize is that this is exactly why you should play it. Every input, every motion you make, has been scientifically, agonizingly, tuned to platform action perfection. Every detail of character customization and play expression caters to the longevity of play fighting game players so crave. This is not just in service to duplicating Melee but also to build on it with expansive character tutorials and training tools. Don’t know how to wave dash? You will.

Halo 5: Guardians

Halo 5: Guardians is lost in its own plot but the gameplay has been sharpened and if you want Spartan action in spacious, interesting levels, it’s here. Frankly, I wouldn’t have had so much of a problem with the centering of the multiplayer by making the entire campaign about commanding a squad, but… You know how sometimes you want to tell a story about the relationship between two people and how they both change and drift apart over time but you accidentally add SEVEN extra protagonists? It happens to the best of us but it also happens to 343 Industries.

Halo 4

Halo 4, while messy and confusing, has certainly solid gameplay so it still feels like Halo. The strangeness begins with the star of the show: the Prometheans, the dull new enemy class. I understand that a new developer means changes, some fundamental, but it’s difficult to square some of these choices. Why do the ancient digital computer creatures drop shotguns? Why did the forerunners build a huge hollow planet? Why is there weird dramatic Dad tension between Chief and Del Rio? Why retcon Forerunners are not humans? Why is Cortana so horny? If you loved Halo, don’t play this game.

Doom (2016)

Doom is a story about DOOM told in its own language. It is a Rosetta Stone of game design; a compass bearing unerringly towards 1993. Doom cannot escape its own conversation. Every musical track or beat of action cannot be regarded outside the original’s enormous shadow. Every splatter of blood reckons with itself as a response to its predecessor. Commentary on the speed, power, and polish of this game could fill many times more space than the game itself. Of course, all of it is correct. The title thrums with diabolical spectacle and joy. Doom is a magnum opus, again.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

In a society cautiously and then vehemently told to shut in, we found a greater interior. Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived like the proverbial window God is supposed to open when He closes a door. All prior mechanics refined to a soft velvety edge, change your appearance in a snap, rearrange buildings, rearrange the earth itself. Every day up to ten people will tell you they love you. Who could ask for more? Well, all of us. 350 hours is tremendous for a game, but it doesn’t a life make. Our new horizon was beautiful, but couldn’t stay all year.

Space Invaders Forever

Space Invaders Forever is a curious collection of three takes on Space Invaders, each representing a different design ethos. Space Invaders Extreme, a port of the handheld classic, imagines the original with DDR-style graphics. It’s great with branching level paths based on your score with the most interesting twists on the formula. Space Invaders Gigamax 4 SE is widened to accommodate four players, however, nobody owns 4 DualShocks so I’ll move on. Arkanoid Vs. Space Invaders is the most interesting one, mechanically speaking, combining the two games together. However, smartphone visuals, currency mechanics, and shrieking anime characters just feel cheap.

Perfect Vermin

Play Perfect Vermin. It’s just 15 minutes long and free. Sparing the details I’ll just say two things: one, it goes to places you will not expect, and, two, you get to destroy things with a sledgehammer. It has a briskly paced rise of weirdness and tension but never becomes outright disturbing, the simple art style precludes the overwhelmingly gruesome. The graphics, in fact, beautifully deceive the casual inspector into thinking it’s a novelty game. The story isn’t overly complex, but rather a solidly constructed open narrative. Expect surprises in cheeky gameplay twists. Perfect Vermin is bold, fun, and bitter.

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light is easily worth the $5.99. The core of the series is the duality of the legible, tactical gameplay and the thrilling friendship you feel with the individuals in your army. Happily, both of these concepts are present and strongly established even here on the NES. While I wish the game had tool-tips there’s really nothing to be changed. If you keep an eye on the instruction booklet you’ll be able to muddle through the first few maps until it clicks. A true Fire Emblem experience, sophisticated in its delicate simplicity.