The good news about 2021 is the world’s governments have all agreed that it’s been so bad it doesn’t count, and no one has to add the past year to their age. Sucks for American 20-year-olds, for sure, but it’s a small price to pay. The other good news is that, despite a weird-ass year for gaming, there were still a ton of real treasures to get us through. Here are the top 10 that kept me going.
I should add there are some significant omissions. Potentially some because I just haven’t carved out time to play them yet, games I might love, like Inscryption, Guardians Of The Galaxy, It Takes Two, Psychonauts 2, The Forgotten City, Death’s Door, Solar Ash... (There are too many games.) Others are widely loved that I just didn’t get on with. For instance, Deathloop, a game I should have been genetically programmed to love, but just couldn’t get past the tedium of the loop. Or Forza Horizon 5, which I just don’t get—it’s a very boring collection of boring races in a beautiful setting. Even Metroid Dread, with which I spent many hours, I ended up mostly resenting thanks to the retreading of its conceit only being broken up by bad ideas. You may now hate me. However, there was a lot to love...
In my other life, I trawl new releases for unknown hidden gaming gems. Clearly this means I play a lot of crap, but every so often I stumble on something truly incredible. This year’s most stand-out example was Scarlet Hollow, an interactive fiction game with a sprawling branching storyline, spread across the first two of its potential seven chapters. It’s a spooky tale of peculiar creatures in the woods, but also of an outsider visiting a small town, and her relationships with the people she meets.
It’s wonderfully written and drawn, with your actions having life-or-death consequences on the overall storyline. Most of all, there’s a wonderful collection of characters, whose feelings toward my character really began to matter to me. This is made all the more interesting with personality choices made at the start, that then influence how you can perceive the world, and how others react to you. One lets you speak to animals, which of course gives you a wealth of unique insight. Another makes you extremely attractive to others, which of course affects how they behave around you.
With a new chapter due early next year, I’m planning a fresh play through this over the break, and cannot wait to experience it all over again.
I had no intention to play Returnal. A boss-fight-driven game, with far too many echoes of Dark Souls about it—not my sort of thing at all. But then that bloomin’ Ari kept on about it, kept celebrating how great it was, and eventually I cracked. I am terrible at playing Returnal, and I’m loving it.
Seriously, I’m appallingly bad at this game. I won’t even confess how early on I’m incapable of getting any further, because it’ll become one of those things some patchily-bearded dickwad goes on about on YouTube for the rest of time, but it’s bad. And yet, I keep on playing. I’m like a 90s kid with a demo, replaying the earliest sections of a game over and over and over, never tiring of the same few scenes.
This game is so damned well put together that being awful at it feels majestic. Its combat is sublime, the enemies all uniquely excellent to fight, and the endlessly changing world a pleasure to explore again and again and again. And with the chance that maybe—just maybe—I might get less dreadful at it, I keep on going, imagining the glorious levels that lie beyond my current ability level.
Yes, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve never heard of Vomitoreum. The reason? Because all of games journalism is caught in a grim circle of the need for eyes on sites, knowing that posting about games readers don’t already care about won’t get read enough to justify the expense of creating the article. No one’s glad about it. In another world, where people still paid unseen for coverage from writers they enjoy (that was called “magazines,” younger readers), games like Vomitoreum would have come to fame.
It’s a first-person Metroidvania, but made like Doom, featuring 2.5D art inspired by the work of painter Zdzisław Beksiński. YES. The whole game is like a festering pustule of horror, made even more uncomfortable by a brilliantly unpleasant score.
While you control the game like a mid-90s shooter, aspects like health and healing are much more Metroid-like, as is your ability to explore the world. Of course you get a double-jump at some point, along with a handful of other abilities, affording that special feeling of returning to once deadly areas like a speedy colossus. Also, and this is important, it’s short. Not enough games are short. This one’s a perfect morsel.
Honestly, I’ve barely touched Super Mario 3D World. I’m not sure I even have the patience for 2D Mario games any more (and yes, ironically, 3D World is a 2D platformer). They feel archaic, almost anachronistic, made with a sensibility that gaming seems to have long moved on from. Even the proper 3D Marios now feel a part of history, rather than modern gaming. So if you wanted to fix that, what would you make? Well, you’d make Bowser’s Fury.
It might be 2021's greatest proof of concept. It’s perhaps indicative of how much I loved it that I don’t resent spending $60 on the full product just to have played the five-hour bonus section. It’s Mario for the 2020s, and I feel an almost total certainty that Nintendo will defy all good sense and never realize it as a full-length game. No company goes against all sense more often, and more frustratingly, and I think it far more likely we’ll get a new bloody Game & Watch Mario before the open-world game I clearly deserve.
Halo Infinite (Campaign)
My teeth are so damned gritted, putting this on here. There is SO much wrong with Halo Infinite, and I’m utterly infuriated by how uncritical reviews of its campaign have been.
In any other game, releasing vehicles as abysmally designed and uncontrollable as those in Infinite would see the game derided across the board, recognized as risible. But in Halo, it’s... nostalgic? It’s fun that they’re terrible? Pshah, I say. Pshah to the lot of you. And a grappling hook half the length of anything in any other game? That’s not a feature, that’s a permanent frustration. The lack of interesting upgrades? The abysmal boss fights? The cliche-fest of the writing?And that achingly awful opening? Let alone the Groundhog Day repetition of the final couple of hours.
And yet, during a surprisingly gruesome cold, Halo Infinite wholly occupied my sick days, spent stuck on the couch. Its Ubisoft-me-do map of enticing icons, the pleasure of clearing out a base from half a mile away with a sniper rifle, making a mockery of the arrival of reinforcements with the ridiculously OP Ghosts (the only borderline-controllable vehicle in the game), all keeps me very content.
It’s basically a better Far Cry, stripped of that series’ bloat, fuss, and revolting storylines, the mechanics of map clearing and base battling delivered with deft hands. And when you’re stuck on the sofa, glugging Lemsip and ibuprofen, it proves a superb tonic.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
I wavered on including this, because...well because I’m silly. I had a whale of a time playing it, even reviewed it for popular gaming website, Kotaku dot com. But I think there’s a thing that happens after time passes, where what stopped a game from being a stand-out classic starts to become its narrative. Rift Apart is not just a showcase for the PS5, with its extraordinary graphics and controls, but it’s a really splendid third-person platformer. It’s just, well, it didn’t change anything.
That lack of impact, it makes a game like a light-hearted film, a fun entry in the MCU or something. You have a great time at the movies, shit explodes, laughs are shared, and then you get on with your life. It’s not something you think back on, or muse over with friends. It existed, in its moment, and then was done.
I find those sorts of games harder to include when looking back on the year, but I think that’s a mistake. Pleasure in the moment is important, even if it doesn’t inspire or influence or change your life. Rift Apart was a big bunch of fun, even if it squandered its own extraordinary rift tech, and deserves to be remembered for that.
Tux And Fanny
How would you like to play a game with incredible writing, an amazing bloopy score, dozens of hidden minigames, and a fly’s existential crisis? Yes, exactly, which is why you need to give Tux And Fanny a look this Christmas.
Yes, it doesn’t look great in screenshots, but trust me, this is one of the funniest, weirdest, most constantly surprising games of the year. Tux and Fanny are friends, and they just want to kick a ball around—except it has a puncture. Which is the launching point for a tale of mixed-media surrealism, that extends from a Proteus-like first-person photography game in some beautiful, unsettling woods, to collecting floppy discs to play lunatic games on their PC. Oh, and a lot of helping a worm get through various digestive systems.
This is only on Itch and Switch, presumably because nothing else rhymed. Genuinely, it’s one of my GOTYs, so deeply packed with ideas and oddities.
I am so very, very done with laser-bouncing puzzles. Or I thought I was, until I discovered that SOLAS 128 has taken the concept and developed it into something masterful.
At its core, it’s about redirecting beams of light using mirrors—a puzzle idea as old as gaming itself—but in its delivery it re-realizes this as something enormous, a vast meta-puzzle made of discreet chambers, new areas opened up as light can reach them. Then it’s all set to a rhythm.
In a just universe, SOLAS 128 would have found the same fame as Baba Is You, or other indie darlings that somehow break through. It’s an intricate and quite brilliant creation, and would be a very welcome addition to your Switch library.
It would be plain denial on my part to not include Cookie Clicker. I spent a ridiculous amount of time having this running on my PC this year, and worry just by writing about it here I’ll boot the damned thing up again. It’s a game in which you click on a cookie. Sort of.
It’s been around for the best part of a decade, but only came to Steam this year. I was asked to look at it by Patricia for a story, and then got very, very stuck. I look back at this article I wrote about how I had been stuck playing it for so long, and laugh at my gorgeous naivety, the low numbers my cookies were in at that point. I later learned about the existence of quindecillions.
It’s extremely good, I should add. There are so many gags in there, and enough new content drip-fed to you that it always feels like you’re progressing, even if it’s for the most futile reasons imagable. But then, video games!
Yes, sure, this came out in 2020, but it is unquestionably one of my games of 2021. After discovering it on GamePass, I spent so very many hours diving deeper and deeper into its realms, loving that it could be played in small bursts.
As with too many games, my progress was eventually prevented by tedious, ridiculous boss fight difficulty spikes, but I was delighted by for how long I could bypass these with sneaky diversions and alternative routes. In the end, I met a difficulty wall for which there was no workaround, and eventually tired of all the game that came before it. But up until that moment, had such a splendid time.
I dream of a world where rogue-lites like this allow repeated play to eventually develop a character who can walk through boss fights that were once impossible. Sadly we do not yet live in that world, but it’s saying something that UnderMine was enjoyable enough despite this to hit my top 10.