Andrew in Steamland:
Gaming in the Trump Years
A lot of games and one new console were released in 2017, so let me get this out of the way right now: if your favorite game isn’t on this list, it isn’t necessarily because I hated it. I might simply have not played it, or maybe it’s exclusive to the Switch, which I don’t own. I’ve played a few hours of Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey on a friend’s system, and while I think they’re both great games – among the best in their respective series, even – I don’t feel that I’ve played enough to say for sure where they belong on a “Best Games of 2017” list. I know everyone expects them to be on here somewhere, but that’s how it is.
Then there’s Nier: Automata, the game all the non-Nintendo gamers expect to win. And while I played it and enjoyed it, Platinum didn’t time its release all that well. Just a couple months later, Bayonetta and Vanquish received PC ports, and I consider those a lot more fun than Automata. They don’t have the soul-searching introspection or unconventional story structure or bevy or entertaining alternate endings or high-resolution android butt cheeks, true. And I was going to put Automata on this list until I realized all my points in favor of it were along those lines. It has pretty environments, charming characters, some interesting story beats, sure, but what about the gameplay? It’s that little thing games have that distinguishes them from movies, and on that front I wasn’t incredibly impressed. It’s competent – why wouldn’t it be, Platinum developed it – but I never had as much fun with Automata as I did with Metal Gear Rising or either of the games mentioned above. That gave me pause: if the gameplay is merely good and it’s everything else that I really enjoy about the game, then does it belong on a list of the five best games of the year? Probably not.
Then there’s Hidden Star in Four Seasons, also known as Touhou 16. It’s the first Touhou to receive an official western release. The first real one, anyway, since NISA was already shoveling out fan games long before ZUN realized he’d have more beer money if he let people outside Japan play his games. Having pirated the entire series up to this point, I bought it and soon discovered either I’m horribly out of practice or the game’s unreasonably hard. It’s probably the former. Fundamentally, it’s the same as ever, with the same interface and poorly drawn youkai girls and lack of official English language support. You can still play as Reimu and Marisa, and going for a one-credit clear is still an ordeal. That isn’t to say I didn’t have fun with it; if I didn’t enjoy a game at all, it wouldn’t be on here, would it? It just doesn’t have a lot of shiny new options to play around with. It’s more Touhou and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
Finally, there are the remakes and re-releases. 2017 gave us Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and Danganronpa 1-2 Reload, introducing Crash to a new generation and rescuing Ace Attorney: High School Edition from the Vita ghetto. But then, what’s the point of saying “these games that were great years ago are still great”? You know it, I know it, so let’s move on to the new releases.
5. Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is an exploration-based game featuring unforgiving boss battles, a grim atmosphere, and an interesting mechanic that forces players to return to the place they died or permanently lose all the money they’ve collected. In a way, it’s the Dark Souls of- wait, don’t leave, it really is this time.
“Indie metroidvania with Dark Souls elements” might sound tired, since every other game that comes out these days is an indie metroidvania and every game that requires more player input than turning on the console is somehow Dark Souls, but in this case, it works.
The game is built around the soul meter, which is filled by dealing damage and can be used to heal the player. It’s a simple system that greatly enhances combat by requiring players to be aggressive while also learning attack patterns. Failing your way upwards through grinding for levels and tanking every encounter isn’t an option. Combined with a wide array of enemies to fight and oppressive visual design that uses darkness to great effect, and the result is a game that feels harrowing, even if you don’t actually die that often.
There are complaints to be made, like how half the charms (equippable items that enhance the protagonist in various ways) are worthless, or the scarcity of fast travel locations. There are also features that annoyed me even as I appreciated what they accomplished. The game doesn’t simply hand the player a map; to know where everything is, the player has to first find a cartographer, buy a blank map from him, then fill it in by traveling through the area. This must be done for every area in the game, unless you’re good at memorizing landmarks.
That’s the real sticking point for Hollow Knight: there’s a lot of walking and exploring to be done, which might alienate anyone who’s in it for the fast-paced, high-tension combat. And players in it for the challenge might not appreciate how much time is needed to find a bench so they can finally save their game and equip some charms for the next fight. As someone who found both parts of the game engaging, it’s a special experience.
However, I’m not sure anything that came out in 2017 is quite as special as Cuphead. Who could have predicted that one of the smash hits of the year would be a Contra clone dressed up like a Fleischer Studios cartoon?
Neither the gameplay nor visual style in Cuphead are innovative. What sets the game apart is how expertly crafted every part of it is. All of its assets are hand-drawn to convincingly look like something from the early golden age of animation. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this’ll be a walk in the park with your grandma Gertrude, though – Cuphead wants you dead.
When I entered a level in this game, I could be 100% certain that it would be on full blast at all times. Despite this, it never got old for me. Originally conceived as a boss rush game, Cuphead was expanded during development to include platforming and SHMUP stages, lending it some variety while still using the same basic mechanics: shoot, parry, die, die again, keep dying, win, feel like a champion. Maybe it isn’t the best game of the year, but it’s arguably the most satisfying. Even little things feel satisfying due to how expressive the animation is. And then there’s the ebb and flow of the super arts, powerful attacks that can be used after filling a meter by parrying damage and dishing it out. Unleashing one at the right moment can turn the tables on a boss or blast through a horde of enemies. It’s enough to make you forget that the game’s story is about collecting souls for the devil to pay off Cuphead’s gambling debt.
If I have one complaint, it’s that the timing for parries feels absurdly picky at times, to the point where I suspect the feature doesn’t always work properly. Often, I’d land the parry but take damage anyway. In a game where HP is a precious, terrifyingly finite resource, losing health on a successful parry feels decidedly off. That’s a minor blemish on otherwise masterful presentation, though.
3. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment
“Andrew, Shovel Knight is a great game and all, but it came out in 2014. What’s it doing here?” First: Shovel Knight is so good, it can be on whatever game of the year list it wants. And second: the Specter of Torment DLC happened to launch alongside an update that changed the way the game is sold, allowing people to purchase different stories independently as if they were completely separate games. Never mind the fact that I received Specter of Torment for free due to already owning Shovel Knight; this is my list and I’m treating it as a standalone game.
Like the previous DLC story, Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment changes things up by putting the player in the shoes of one of Shovel Knight’s foes in the Order of No Quarter. This includes replacing all of Shovel Knight’s items, attacks, and movement abilities with ones appropriate for Specter Knight, such as floating menacingly in the air, summoning skeletons to do his bidding, and riding his scythe like a surfboard. The more I played around with the different options available, the more I appreciated that every single one of them is both fun and useful, something not many games manage to pull off. The big, flashy powers like controlling the flow of time might seem obviously better, but there’s a place for everything, even throwing spectral basketballs.
The bread and butter of Specter of Torment are Specter Knight’s abilities to run on walls and execute a dash slash, launching himself through the air toward enemies and either gaining or losing height based on their relative positions. These two abilities blend seamlessly, letting players practically glide through levels without touching the ground. Once again, Yacht Club Games have absolutely nailed movement and controls.
Unlike the previous DLC, Specter of Torment comes with all-new level layouts and a remixed soundtrack. It also breaks with the tradition of the protagonist being part of an extended dance sequence. Not to say there’s no dancing – Specter Knight just refuses to join in because he’s a dork who hates fun.
All the charm, challenge, and collectibles you’d expect from Shovel Knight are present, along with a new game+ mode that makes one little adjustment that totally revamps the game. In this case, Specter Knight’s magic meter and health (excuse me, Darkness and Will) are combined into a single bar that drains at a constant rate. The restriction of having to finish levels quickly while avoiding taking damage puts a new spin on what’s normally a forgiving game.
The game also deserves credit for being one of just a few retro titles to convincingly look like games from the era it’s imitating. In a market filled with games like Undertale, that’s laudable.
2. A Hat in Time
Maybe I didn’t put Mario Odyssey on here, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get a 3D platformer with wide open levels and hat-based powers. Here’s a game that looked doomed from the start: a collectathon inspired in part by Banjo-Kazooie, funded through Kickstarter and developed by a new studio. To make the Yooka-Laylee comparisons even more explicit, Gears for Breakfast even brought on Grant Kirkhope to contribute to the soundtrack. The end result was an instant classic.
A Hat in Time follows the 3D Mario structure of a few large levels with a number of different objectives, plus a number of smaller obstacle courses that challenge the player’s master of movement, plus a boss or two in each level. But to leave it at that would ignore the creativity crammed into every level until it’s oozing out through the seams. The game begins in a mafia-controlled port, moves on to a movie studio run by birds in which the player helps rival directors with their films, then takes an excursion to a haunted forest where the protagonist sells her soul to a cackling demon who runs a postal service on the side. Each level has its own unique tone without feeling jarring.
It’s hard to think of any part of the game I didn’t like; the characters are bursting with personality, movement is smooth, levels are large without feeling empty or making it easy to get lost, the soundtrack is excellent, and the boss fights are some of the best yet seen in a 3D platformer. Whether solving a murder mystery or scaling an enormous mushroom, A Hat in Time never disappointed me. Its one shortcoming is a lack of content, with only 40 star- I mean, time pieces to collect. The developers have promised free DLC to remedy this, but as of this writing it hasn’t been released yet.
This is a must-play for anyone who remembers Nintendo 64-era platformers fondly. Forget Playtonic – there’s nothing their game does that A Hat in Time doesn’t do better. It even kept the JonTron cameo.
I know what all of you are here for. You probably skipped all that filler up there so you could get to the important part: what is the best game of 2017? Last year was an all-you-can-eat buffet of incredible indie titles, plus enough high-profile releases to fill a list five times this size. So how can I pick just one? To answer that question, we must first travel to the distant past: the year 1991. In that year, Sonic the Hedgehog burst onto the scene like a newborn star, releasing in quick succession five of the greatest platformers ever made. And the collapse was just as spectacular: 23 years of one failure after another, punctuated by the occasional surprise hit that came tantalizingly close to recapturing its former glory. This is the series that both single-handedly broke Nintendo’s monopoly on the console market and gave the world the most infamously terrible game of all. Each new release is a gamble, every minute of gameplay a furious tug-of-war between the series’ inherent goodness and Sonic Team’s predilection for self-destructing fabulously. But in 2017, we finally got it: a Sonic game that’s not simply good, or “great except for all those fishing levels,” or “fun if you install this mod,” or mediocre with high potential. No, the fans finally caught the mirage we’d spent over 20 years chasing.
1. Sonic Forces
Yeah, sure, there was that other Sonic game released around the same time, but it was a glorified ROM hack anyway. Forces is the game that moves the series forward in a bold new direction, rejecting 3D platforming, with its inherent imprecision and camera woes, along with old, boring 2D platforming. Sonic Forces blazes a bold, one-dimensional trail into the future. Everyone knows how frustrating it is to play a game and accidentally guide their character into a pit, losing progress and precious time. But in Forces, Sonic automatically sticks to the center of the already claustrophobic tracks that make up most of each level. Should the player move the control stick sideways in a mistaken attempt to see the rest of the stage, Sonic will drift back to the center. In fact, the control stick isn’t needed at all; the boost ability causes Sonic to blast forward at full speed, turns him invincible, and continuously refills itself. Hold down one button and the game plays itself, eliminating the need to waste time learning the controls or acquiring skill. And that isn’t the only area where Sonic Team placed the player’s convenience first. At some point, every gamer has run into a seemingly unbeatable enemy, wondering just what’s wrong with their game. Not so in Forces, where enemies are stationary, have no attacks, and don’t even react to Sonic’s presence. They’re more like spikes with a different model, contributing visual variety to the already gorgeous environments.
It should come as no surprise that Sonic Team placed a high priority on graphics, spending half of the game’s four-year development cycle on the Hedgehog Engine 2 lighting system. The result is a beautiful game that, in places, might even briefly approach the level of Sonic Colors, an eight-year-old game for the Wii. Not just any studio can pull that off. The graphics in Forces are so resource-intensive that certain parts of the story simply could not be animated on current hardware, and instead had to be rendered as static text on a black background.
Which brings me to the story. This took up another year of dev time, and it shows. After spending as much time working on the plot as they did on the game part of the fucking game, Sonic Team blew everyone away with an original story in which Eggman has already won and a ragtag band of resistance fighters must win back the ruined, polluted planet from him. No Sonic story has ever attempted anything like this before. Cutscenes are rich with avant-garde presentation, such as new villain Infinite’s death being so confusing, nobody really knows whether he actually died. Other enemies are defeated in cutscenes, with no opportunity to fight them during gameplay.
In addition to its revolutionary qualities, Forces brings plenty of nostalgic appeal to the table. In this adventure, Modern Sonic is joined by Marketing Gimmick Sonic, whose sidescrolling gameplay has been greatly enhanced compared to the clunky, outdated Genesis games that inspired it. In the old games, the player had to learn the game’s physics and use slopes to build momentum, knowing when to roll and when to jump in order to clear levels quickly. In Forces, Sonic Team eschewed any kind of physics system entirely in favor of manually scripting Sonic’s speed at all times. On entering a ramp, loop, etc., Sonic instantly accelerates to the appropriate speed, removing the need for players to do much of anything but hold right. This innovation eliminates the frustration of playing old Sonic games and taking damage or dying (the lives system is also out, incidentally – now you can retry levels as many times as you want, no matter how bad you are) because you forgot how to play the game.
I’m truly grateful Sonic Forces exists, because it shows us that the fleeting blunders of the past represent no trend. After Sonic Boom and Lost World, fans can rest easy knowing the franchise is back and better than ever, safe and secure in Sonic Team’s capable hands. And in retrospect, could it be any other way? I mean, can you imagine a bunch of neophytes waltzing onto the scene and doing Sonic better than Sega ever did?
Whoops, don’t know how this got here.