This was a weird year for me… it was the first year where I didn’t purchase a single LEGO set. What was originally a dark age and a post about how I was pretty disillusioned with LEGO in general last year has turned into what looks like a permanent exit from the hobby in general as I slowly sell off my collection. There are a variety of reasons for that, which is the topic for another article I’ve been working on, but I’ll save that for another day.
I’ve picked up some other hobbies in its place… a lot of writing for my D&D campaign, painting miniatures, playing games, etc. It’s been a big year for the Switch in my household, more than any other console. The poor Xbox One has been reduced to a video streaming box, the Playstation gets used a bit more, but the Switch is on several times a week. My daughter has just started to get into games, and has been spending a lot of time playing stuff like Kirby’s Star Allies and now Pokemon Let’s Go. Now if only I could get her to read the instructions so I stop getting “how do I get past…” every 45 seconds.
My Video Game Picks
This was an equally weird year for gaming for me… there are a lot of games I wanted to play but haven’t picked up yet. There are several reasons for that as well… in part that I have such a huge backlog I haven’t made it through yet so I cut down on my gaming purchases, but also because the game industry in general, and AAA games in particular, have been a giant wet garbage dumpster fire this year and they don’t deserve our money when a game first comes out.
I’ve been trying out holding off for sales, waiting for the Game of the Year editions when they come out, or just passing on games in general and waiting for the reviews. Unlike the more irrational segments of the interwebs that seem to lash out at reviews for a variety of reasons… I value them and have found the writers I tend to agree with and enjoy and listen. It’s saved me quite a bit of headache this year, and I sidestepped bantha poo piles like Fallout 76, Wild West Online, or Sea of Thieves entirely.
The only company that I tend to give a pass to on that front is Nintendo… they haven’t stopped to all the microtransaction nonsense, crippling games to unplayable points to encourage purchases, or releasing buggy, unplayable messes. However, the time aspect still applies, and if I don’t have time to play it, I don’t buy it. That’s why you won’t see games that I’ve heard are great, fun, etc… mostly because I’m waiting for it (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Spider Man, Forza Horizon 4) to drop in price or come out with a complete edition.
Red Dead Redemption 2
I liked the first Red Dead Redemption game, but I’ve also never finished it. Eventually I just went and watched the ending on YouTube so I knew what was going on, but it’s the kind of game that is simply overwhelming in scale and tends to lose my interest despite being a game I very much enjoyed. Honestly, this has happened with most Rockstar games (and a lot of open world games in general)… I really like them while playing but eventually just get distracted and never come back. Maybe it’s me getting old, but let’s just say “150 hours of content” or things like that are not a selling point for me.
That being said, this game is gorgeous and a technical marvel to look at. I’m certain it pushes my launch day PS4 to the brink, but even on my old TV and non-4k console, the game looks fantastic. It’s a game of little touches, with tiny little things in there that make you raise an eyebrow, smile, or sometimes just laugh. It’s a weird blend of a game, full of characters that are deep and interesting, presented as the protagonist but also very clearly not the good guy. I’m not through the game yet, but I can see the writing on where it’s going starting to play out, and look forward to being proven wrong.
Make no mistake… this is a game with more than its share of flaws. The control scheme is asinine and seemingly designed to actively punish players. The animations get tired and interfere with the gameplay, especially around campfires or near your horse. The inventory management system needs new synonyms for infuriating to describe it. Combat can be very strange, and the system feels clunky and dated (which Rockstar games have felt like for years). It also sacrifices playability for realism too much. Sometimes, you want some of that, but I would have gladly traded horse balls that respond to weather conditions for unrealistic looting that didn’t make me want scream at the dev team should I ever meet them.
What this game is, however, is engaging and in a lot of ways, unlike anything else. While so many games are around the big open or the huge event that sparks it off… RDR2 plays like a very slow burn that you can feel building in the background. While I’m certain that eventually there’s going to be a wildfire going on around me, everything that you go through early in the game has immediacy for what you are doing, yet not world shattering outside of your immediate circumstances.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
I mean, you knew this was going to be here, right? While I will never love this game to the level that Ace does, it is undeniably an amazing game. I suck at it, but it’s still fun. My wallet is also cursing all of the amiibo re-releases for this game as well, but at least I’m going to finally be able to finish up my Zelda collection without going destitute.
Bayonetta 2 (Switch)
The original Bayonetta was a good Devil May Cry clone that was more about missed opportunity than anything. It was a product that was clearly crafted with love, but it had a lot of little gaps that made it more of a “eh, not bad” game than a winner. By all accounts, the sequel, originally released in 2014, was a step up on every front… it only had one real problem: it was released on the WiiU. I own a WiiU, but I purchased it in June of this year to play some back Zelda titles.
Like the majority of gamers, I didn’t play what was otherwise a great game, so I was pretty excited when they announced that they were re-releasing the games for the Switch and would get a chance to play it. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed with it. It’s a bonkers and over-the-top action game that will entertain you while laying out a story that makes no sense, yet makes you laugh. On top of that, it’s a very unique aesthetic that makes you want to occasionally look up the names to see where they pulled in from.
It’s an old re-release, but worth every penny I paid for it and one I can still pick up for a quick blast of crazy fighting.
God of War
Make no mistake… this was my favorite game of the year. I honestly wasn’t that big of a God of War fan… I never played the original when it came out on the PS2, and only went back to it when the collection came out on the PS3. I maybe played through half of it, skipped the second, and then tried to get into God of War 3. They are fun, to be certain, but a kind of over-the-top that never resonated with me.
I honestly didn’t even plan to get this game when it came out, until I took a look at some of the lead-up videos before it was released. It certainly looked amazing, but more importantly, it looked different from the previous games. It felt closer to some of my favorite titles, things like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, or Horizon: Zero Dawn, and I decided to pick it up when it came out.
There’s so much about this game that was simply surprising. They took a character that was, quite frankly, irredeemable and very one-trick, and gave him an amazing amount of depth. I mean, they billed this game as Kratos having a kid in tow (early guesses were that the kid would die as the hook to motivate Kratos), and if there is a video game protagonist that should not be allowed near children… well, there are many but Kratos is certainly towards the top of the list. Yet they made him relatable, broken, and even tragic.
More than that, Atreus, the kid sidekick, managed to thread the impossible needle and be not only not annoying, but actually a pretty great character in his own right. The story is just great, the game is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the settings are interesting, the voice acting incredibly done… but most importantly, the gameplay is simply incredible.
This is a game that flows and moves in what feels to be such a natural way. The axe weapon, replacing the very iconic blades from earlier games, is very close to the most perfect gameplay mechanic ever. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t played it, but the only games that have come close to this lately are Super Mario Odyssey’s Cappy and Horizon: Zero Dawn’s bow attacks.
If you have a PS4 and don’t have this game, you need to buy it and start playing now.
Magic the Gathering: Arena
Okay, this might be a little bit of a weird pick, especially since I railed against some business practices in gaming earlier. I’ve talked about my love of the other big Wizards of the Coast product, Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ve had an on/off relationship with MtG dating back to Revised back in the 90s. I played about a decade or so ago (which interestingly brought me into the circle of a YouTube creator that played as well)… but I stopped playing when the cost started to get too much to keep up (basically when they introduced Mythics) and where I lived meant I had to travel 40 minutes to get to the shop where events were happening.
While I have no intention of getting into the physical version of the game again… that time (and place) in my life is well behind me… a friend of mine introduced me to the new digital version of the game. This is the 3rd or 4th try at making competitive Magic a digital product… and I’ve tried all of the previous versions before quickly giving them up. Buggy software was a near constant, and the pricing model of the earlier versions was simply awful.
The only ones that were fun were the ones that were more single-player focused, because they didn’t try to charge the full price for a physical pack for the digital game (or more), and then charged for the software on top of that. It all made for a mixture that was just awful to play and impossible to enjoy. Their new F2P version, Arena, somehow managed to get past all of that.
The biggest thing was that they clearly prioritized the play aspects of the game more than anything else. There isn’t trading in the game at this point, and to make up for that, the packs are priced lower than the physical versions, they give plenty of them away, and you can purchase it with currency you can earn in the game. I mean, it’s still Magic, so there’s always a “pay to win” aspect to it (like all collecting games), but as far as card games go, this has been a lot more fun than Hearthstone has been as of late. Even better, they’ve added “wildcards” to the packs and reward chains, where you can redeem them for any card you need of a given rarity.
Where it really shines, though, is the “special” game modes that they introduce. There are often 2-3 game modes at any given time, from the expected draft and constructed modes, to sealed modes and more esoteric fare like block-specific builds and pauper (commons only). More recently, though, they’ve introduced some modes that are only possible in a digital front, from crazy rule sets to strange conditions in deck building that have simply been a blast to play. Better yet, playing these modes often help you build up your collection, so you can spend your money (or in-game credits) and build the collection at the same time. This was the most surprising game of the year for me, because it went from not on my radar to being one that I’m playing almost every day.
The I Wish I Liked These Games More Section
This is a special bonus section for games that I’ve played but didn’t make this list. Maybe they’re really popular and didn’t quite hit with me, or critically acclaimed but didn’t do it for me.
The biggest one on the list, and one that I recognize as being a really good game at its core, is Octopath Traveller. This is a game I should absolutely love… there’s so much to it to love. It’s a real throwback design, clearly built into the vein of some of my all-time favorite games like Final Fantasy II and III (or IV and VI). The individual stories are pretty fun, and shockingly adult at times for a Switch-exclusive title… but the grinding of the game kept me from pushing to hard. I want to play through all of the stories in the game, to find out more… but there is likely a hundred hours worth of just grinding to get there, and that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Far Cry 5, likewise, was a game that had some fun gameplay and the kernels of an interesting story, but it was like a reverse of Red Dead Redemption 2… where it blew up at the start and slowly started to burn more and more slowly. The game simply ran out of steam with me, and I got bored before finishing it, and opted to some google and Twitch/YouTube to see what happened. Gotta say, I sort of glad I didn’t play it after I saw the ending…
Lastly, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is to WoW expansions what Return of the Jedi is as a follow-up to Empire Strikes back (and yes, I realize that I’ve said that I really like Jedi… but we all have our favorite guilty pleasures). It’s a perfectly competent piece of software that is just disappointing as a follow-up to the amazing thing which came before it. The war story is long-since played out, and it hinges on logic that still makes no sense. There’s actually a ton of good story to be had in the game… it’s just that once you do that story, it’s all the war and the reasons behind the war this time simply do not hold up outside of “we need a war here.”
The whole thing feels rushed and half-assed, and that’s unfortunate. Worse, recent news out of Blizzard and the growing influence of Activision in their biz-ness, paints a worrying future for a company that used to be as highly regarded in my eyes as Nintendo has come to be.
My Movie / TV Picks
Movies are kind of the same way… I only tend to go to theater movies that are of the comic or Star-something variety. I haven’t had a chance to see
Into the Spider Verse (saw this just today with my daughter), Aquaman, or even get around to watching Incredibles 2 on Blu-ray. Also, I didn’t set out to make this into a list of comic book movies and shows, but it turns out, that’s mostly what I go to the theaters to see.
I should go full hipster and do the “I liked Black Panther before it was cool.” While not a long-time love of mine, I’ve been a fan dating back to the 2006 “wedding” storyline that was one of the bright points to come out of the first Civil War (so many other bad things came from an otherwise interesting story). While you can debate the good/bad of that, it made for some interesting and compelling reading and put two powerful heroes together.
While it was eventually ripped apart, there were a lot of interesting stories that came out of it, which you can see play out in some way with the movies. The City of the Dead, family relations, past sins… most of Black Panther was inspired by more recent comics. I went to a huge fan, though, with the announcement of one of my favorite writers, Ta-nehisi Coates as the lead on the new ongoing that started a few years ago. So this film was firmly in my view when when it was announced.
It also, somehow, with all the hype, managed to still greatly exceed any expectations. It was brilliant, colorful, and vibrant in a way that no other comic movie has come close to. It was well acted, well written, and had amazing characters. The villain, Killmonger (and he most certainly was the villain) was believable, nuanced, and probably the best movie character, not just bad guy, that Marvel has ever given us.
Plus, Shuri was just awesome.
The sequel to one of the best comic book movies ever made is, at the same time, better and worse than the original. It has one very serious problem at the outset, with a particular trope named after a kitchen appliance happening in the movie. One of the supporting actors has a lot of closet baggage at a time when you don’t want that in your products. And some of it felt “oh, again?”
Despite all of this, the movie was far more hits than misses. It featured one of the best cameo/Easter eggs of a “related” movie ever tossed in as a second-long joke. Some of the guest star cameos were simply amazing (seriously… Vanisher), and of course there’s always dear, sweet, Peter.
What Deadpool did well Deadpool 2 also did well: getting the heart and spirit of a character simply spot-on. Wade Wilson may have started out as a blatant rip-off and one-trick when Liefeld drew his original pouch and no-foot form, but what he grew into was something just fantastic and irreverent of the medium. We got more Colossus, more Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and the addition of Domino in a ridiculously over-the-top and yet spot-on perfect action sequence based on such a silly mutant power.
All of that being said, it was really Cable that made this movie shine. Josh Brolin played two major comic book characters this year, and I’m going to go out there and say that he was better as Cable than Thanos… and Thanos was a fantastic villain in Infinity War.
Speaking of which…
Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War is a masterful movie. While what I would call my favorite of the year (that would be Black Panther or Deadpool 2)… it was simply a masterful construct of a film, and unlike anything else we’d gotten in the MCU. The Russo Brothers had an impossible task: pull together fifty-seven trillion characters and twice as many plot threads and get something watchable. Okay, maybe not that many, but I’m pretty sure that one out of every three people on earth are in the cast for this movie.
What makes it so different is that for the first two thirds of the movie, it feels like its building up like any other movie. We got some very painful things early on (Heimdal and Loki… WHY?!), but a lot of what we saw was the normal “good guys getting knocked around but still trying fare.”
And then it gets to the last third of the movie, as the stakes started to ramp up. A major character death (which I have to assume will somehow be undone, but it’s the one I’m really curious about going forward), and then the conflict gets more and more heated. The stakes feel both earned and intense, and I’m just going to say it that I’m with Star Lord, he’s an idiot but that was entirely in character (and relatable).
It keeps building to the eventually heroic salvation that you know is coming, as more and more danger gets ramped up, and then…
The good guys lose. Half of the universe dies. Our hearts get absolutely wrecked with the words “I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark” and then ground into nothingness as Stucky gets half torn up into nothing. The end of this film, silence, is just so… heavy. Watching those credits go by, knowing that it ended on that, simply hurts. We have one more movie before the next installment shows up, and we get the answer to “how does this get fixed”… but knowing that something will happen to bring back the money-making heroes (given that we know half of the vanished have movies coming in the future) doesn’t diminish the power of this film.
Daredevil: Season 3
While I am incredibly bummed out that Daredevil was cancelled by Netflix (at least more or less, unless ABC TV brings it back in a couple of years), if there was a way to end the series, this was it. While I’ve enjoyed all three seasons, the second season had some very uneven points (the Hand… ZzZzzzzZZZzzzzzz, the Punisher 👍), and this one wasn’t perfect… but in a sense, it was perfect.
The Kingpin is the best villain in any comic book property at this point. Part of this is because he’s had 3 seasons to gain nuance and depth, but it’s more than that, to be honest. He’s well written, complicated, and at the same time terrible and relatable. More than being a good villain for TV or movies, he’s also such a fantastic capture of the spirit and intensity of the comic character he’s baked on. The whole season is worth it just for watching his plots and plans unfold.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet
It’s my favorite show of all time. At any given time that I have a video playing in the background while playing a game, working, or writing… there’s probably a 50% chance that it’s MST3K. I’ve seen every episode, except one (Hobgoblins… it’s just so bad), multiple times. In some cases, dozens of times (ROWSDOWER!). I could provide you my top-picks for this and probably write a half dozen articles just covering the show… so I was pretty excited about it living on again on Netflix.
I was a backer of the revival on Kickstarter, I went to one of the recent live shows (which was so great), and I am a regular customer of RiffTrax and other adjacent projects involved with the show. Now, all of that said, I wish there was more here, but look forward to it coming back for a 13th season in the future (hopefully sooner, rather than later). This batch wasn’t all winners (they tried to make Atlantic Rim good, but… ugh, that’s Hobgoblins-level bad), but if you were a kid that somehow got tricked into watching Mac and Me back in the 80s, this is the season you’ve been waiting for.
For the record, it’s every bit as bad as you probably remember it being as a kid. I mean, what was it with movies in 1988 and having citizenship ceremonies as the climax of the film? At least Short Circuit 2 had the decency to chrome out Johnny 5.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This is a late entry to my list, as I just got back from the theater after finally seeing this movie with my daughter. She may have been wearing the Spider-Gwen costume I got her for Christmas as well, and part of the reason it took me so long is that I was planning on seeing it with her.
I had pretty high hopes for the movie, as I’ve covered while I was posting the trailers here and it’s safe to say that those hopes were still exceeded. The story was good, which I was expecting given the team behind it. I’ve maintained that Miles Morales is one of the best characters added to the Marvel canon in the past decade (Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel is the other), I’ve loved the addition Gwen Stacy / Spider-Gwen / Spider-Woman and the weird “what if” universe that she’s in, and my favorite event Marvel has done in recent memory was the Spider-Verse stuff (given that most of their events suck out loud, it’s not like there was stiff competition). And this movie did great with all of them.
The dialog felt very authentic to the comics it was based on, it gave us a superhero that actually had a great and supportive family, it made Aunt May kick butt, referenced the craziness of Marvel continuity in general. But more than anything else, it was simply a stylistically gorgeous movie that utilized the fact that it was animated so very well (I mean, I’d like framed prints of some of that final battle).
Also, you have to love a joke that makes fun of the stupidity of memes, the 60s Spider-man cartoon, and Spider-man 2099 at the same time.
Anyways… that’s my list of various things. Always curious what else others would recommend out there.