Monthly Archives: December 2019
Also published on my retro gaming site, Retro Arcadia.
The best games released in 2019 were obviously the Switch versions of Elevator Action, Bomb Jack, Track & Field, Hyper Sports, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Virtua Racing and Out Run (which I finally finished after decades of trying, then obsessed over finishing every possible route). I also played and finished the seminal Final Fantasy 7 for the first time, also on Switch – still tells a great story and plays fine even if it’s not the looker it once was. Just like me! The Konami Contra, Castlevania and Arcade Anniversary Collections were also fantastic, giving me all sorts of fun, especially with my old flames Scramble and Nemesis, as well as TwinBee, which I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on since about 1985. And with SNES arriving on Switch, after 35 hours in just 10 days following its launch, found all 96 exits in Super Mario World.
Everything else is just filler, but as it’s new(ish) filler…
1. Baba is You (Nintendo Switch)
Fiendishly clever logic puzzler that gives you the ability to manipulate the rules of the level to reach a goal. Baba is You, Water is Defeat, Wall is Stop, Flag is Win, etc. All written in the single screen environments as individual words for you to push about and change, so if Flag is Win and Wall is Stop and the flag is surrounded by a wall, how about pushing “Win” around so Wall becomes Win and you can just move your little guy to the wall instead! I’ve never played anything so creative, so brain-busting and so satisfying when you eventually work out a puzzle – and quite how they came up with so many is beyond me. Absolute genius! And the hugely simplistic art style, which works great because it keeps you focussed on the puzzle, reminded me of the rubbish Eastern European cartoons you’d get on kid’s holiday TV in the 70’s, which I’d completely forgotten even existed!
2. Bleak Sword (Apple Arcade on iPad)
This is an absolute dark fantasy joy! One of the first games I picked up during my Apple Arcade trial, thanks to being grabbed by a screenshot of its super-minimalist monochrome art style that, combined with some great sound, somehow manages to invoke real atmosphere on a big iPad screen. It plays simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller, now supported on iPad with the release of iOS13. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it, whether played in bitesize chunks or extended sessions. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, it had me completely hooked within ten minutes, and it very quickly became clear this was coming from out of nowhere to become one of my favourite games of the year!
3. Resident Evil 2 Remake (PS4)
I played this almost immediately after finishing the original Resident Evil Remaster on PS4 – a game I bought day one decades ago on the original Playstation but barely ever scratched the surface of. Its old stylings had definitely outstayed their welcome by the end, but only heightened my appreciation for this full on remake of its sequel. I’d loved the 30-minute one-shot demo before release, and the full game didn’t disappoint – looks great, sounds great, and together with the game’s brain-testing narrative quickly builds up this incredible horror atmosphere and tension that just gets worse (in a good way). Especially when that big dude starts following you about. It doesn’t control like a 90’s nightmare anymore either!
4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill (Xbox One)
I took up an incredible £1 for almost five months of Game Pass offer on my son’s Xbox One, which included this equally incredible game that I’d previously been fully prepared to go full price on for PlayStation or Switch. You’re riding down a series of increasingly tough but beautifully stylised descents on your mountain bike, completing various levels of challenge on each. It is a bit like Trials from a different, low-polygon perspective as you explore every inch of each mountain to optimise your ride, with similar levels of infuriating difficulty and addictiveness. The controls are so tight, and the exploration, experimentation and general obsession needed to achieve the expert times is just brilliantly realised.
5. Graveyard Keeper (PS4)
If you asked me what ingredients would make my perfect game, Stardew Valley in a graveyard would be high up on the list. And this is pretty much that, once you get past the sometimes overwhelming busy work that’s teaching you (over many hours) about the tools you need to tart up your graveyard, morgue, house, crematorium, church and pretty much everything else in your surroundings whilst running an endless supply of often intertwining quests; all in a bid to get back to your real world. Nowhere near done with this yet but this beautiful world is inhabited by a definite graveyard keeper.
6. Trials Rising (PS4)
Speaking of Trials, here’s a great new entry into the Trials series with big production values and wonderful attention to detail; the most high fidelity controls you could hope for as you delicately juggle weight, brakes and gas across a massive variety of courses and challenges; and some great slapstick moments resulting from the hard as nails gameplay. I just wish I was playing it on Switch rather than PS4, but unfortunately there was simply no comparison, at launch at least.
7. Konami Pixel Puzzle Collection (iPad)
I came across this in Retro Gamer mag when I was on holiday in July. I’d never worked out what Picross / nonogram / etc. games were all about, but the fact that this went back through Konami’s 50 year history made it worth finding out. It’s completely free with some very unobtrusive static ads for recent anniversary collections, PES, etc. when you compete a puzzle, of which there are about five hundred, from simple to serious time-sinks, that all reference every Konami game you can think of and more. Great tutorial too if you’ve never tried one before – after which I got obsessed and spent about 50 hours on this, then Picross on Switch, Mario Picross on Game Boy… a whole new genre to love!
8. Cuphead (Nintendo Switch)
The hand-drawn and hand-animated 1930’s cartoon style graphics are probably the most stunning (and often most surreal and sinister) I’ve ever seen in a game. The 3-hour live big-band soundtrack is expertly played and fits that theme perfectly. But normal people will have torn their hair out long before they see most of any of that because it’s also one of the most brutal games you’ll ever play. You spend hours learning every nuance of the boss’ movements and attacks, and you’re still not good enough to beat it; then, of course, you get close enough to think it’s possible, and more hours later you do it, just to start again at the next one! And it’s perfectly suited to the Switch rather than the pervert platforms it first came out a couple of years ago.
9. Wargroove (Nintendo Switch)
I’ve tried these turn-based strategy games many times over the years and have always been crap at them, but always looked at Advance Wars and thought it might have been the one that hooked me had I not completely missed out on it. Then along came Wargroove, effectively giving me the same opportunity to find out. It’s clearly a great example of the genre and worthy successor to Advance Wars, but as much as I enjoyed it, I still don’t really get it!
10. Speed Demons (Apple Arcade on iPad)
Another great advert for Apple Arcade, this is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun.
What no Avengers Endgame? Yes, it caps off the dozens of films we’ve watched in occasionally spectacular fashion, but that’s all it does, and it goes on way too long. And it doesn’t feature any of my heroes like Motley Crüe or Charles Manson or Godzilla or John Rambo…
1. Star Wars Episode 9
Don’t care what anyone else says; I’ll watch this a hundred times just like the best of the rest of Star Wars. I don’t need things slowed down or spelled out to me, and I’ll happily spend years exploring the fallout. Brilliant lightsaber scraps, space battles and other spectacles delivered too. More than happy!
2. The Dirt
I was lucky enough to see Crüe live on their farewell tour, and a bit closer to their prime, so had high hopes for this. For years! This is a great translation from one of my favourite books ever to screen, is well cast, and manages to capture enough to tell the tale more or less intact and in a coherent way in under two hours. And what a tale! The highs and lows, the debauchery and lunacy of being the ultimate rock stars in a time when rock stars were rock stars and not members of Coldplay. Very, very enjoyable watch.
3. Godzilla King of the Monsters
It’s a proper Godzilla movie! Great-looking monsters in great-looking locations having great-looking fights. They all have their own theme music like wrestlers too. And loads of people that are so stupid they deserve everything they get! This should be the template for all films made in future ever!
4. Charlie Says
Banged-up Manson girls facing the music for their crimes, interspersed with loads of back story with the last watchable Doctor Who playing Charles Manson, and once you get over that, he’s a great fit! He’s enigmatic, creepy and a bit dim-witted all at once, and his hippy ranch backdrop is everything I imagine it to have been in real life; it’s really well set in terms of location and period. Loved the appearances of Dennis Wilson too – I’ve always been fascinated with The Beach Boys’ links to this nut-job!
5. It! Chapter Two
It can’t touch Chapter One for raw enjoyment, and it’s not as scary as it thinks it is, but it’s still as slick, with some really nice imagery and some great set pieces. Just drags on way too long, which would be fine if the extra minutes were for crazy clown action, but unfortunately it’s all there for getting dark and serious about the cast with stuff from its predecessor’s cutting-room floor, which I could have happily skipped. Still, that probably makes it feel more like authentic Stephen King, and Pennywise is great, and there’s a full length film in there somewhere that is a blast!
6. Rambo: Last Blood
More Commando than Rambo but it’s alright. Even if it’s not really Rambo. When Rambo eventually escapes the confines of the plot and goes Rambo, there’s some great violence and inventive set-piece kills in his home-made network of tunnels that even the Saw fella would be proud of. A reminder of how action movies used to be – a relic, yes, but Rambo will always a welcome one. That will probably do for Rambo sequels now though… it’s time that Cobra finally gets the one it deserves.
7. Lords of Chaos
Keep in mind it’s a movie and not a documentary – particularly if you’re a fan of black metal like me – and this will keep you entertained and quite often amused for the duration; the “inhaling death” scene is a personal highlight! It is shallow, it’s not especially accurate (read the book of the same name if you want a bit more factual) and tries too hard to shock at times, but otherwise you’re getting a Hollywood take on the beginnings of a scene and the somewhat tragic, deluded characters involved; a scene that I’m so glad will always be the opposite of Hollywood. And it’s alright.
8. Book of Monsters
This is a fantastic love-letter to low budget, funny, gory 80’s monster movies, with some of the best creature designs and practical effects bringing them to life that you’ll see all year. And the creativity behind the huge parade of monsters wreaking havoc at the teenage party setting (of course!) is all the more impressive when you consider this was beyond low budget. Great fun.
Really fun part-monster, part-disaster movie involving a big alligator getting its kicks in a Florida hurricane. Everything looks good, the effects are convincing, there’s some nice gore, and everything is as ludicrous as it needs to be. It’s no Piranha, but what is going to be in 2019?
10. Captain Marvel
I’m increasingly disinterested in Marvel stuff, was in no hurry to watch Endgame, and was in no hurry to watch this, but it turned out to be alright! Not as self-important as it’s made out to be – just a decent superhero origins story, decent set pieces, decent 90’s nostalgia and a fit hottie in a tight superhero outfit… sorry, I mean empowered female lead. Samuel L Jackson puts in one of his better Marvel performances too. Apart from Rambo, my favourite superhero movie of the year.
Once Swervedriver drove over the horizon again, nothing else was going to top it, but after so many black metal big hitters last year, I was properly surprised by the strength of what emerged again this year. Special mention to some incredible deluxe rereleases by The Doors and Prince’s 1999 too – that transition from the title track into Little Red Corvette is still one of the most thrilling musical moments ever!
1. Swervedriver: Future Ruins
Close your eyes and it’s 1991 again. One of my favourite bands ever, still creating the best adrenaline-injected grungy shoegaze rock of any decade. Never buy your dad one of those cringeworthy driving anthem CD’s for Father’s Day – get him this instead. On vinyl and not CD of course – it ain’t really ‘91.
2. Gaahls Wyrd: GastiR – Ghosts Invited
Hugely innovative, experimental black metal from one of its masters that oozes evil and manages to invoke a mental and physical feeling of darkness and foreboding from start to finish. It really is deeply affecting! And Carving the Voices is one of the most mesmerising, haunting tracks you will hear this year. Incredible.
3. King Diamond: Songs for the Dead
Fantastic set of two live albums comprising two shows, Live at the Fillmore in Philadelphia and Live at Graspop Metal Meeting. And both feature one of my top ten albums of all time, Abigail, in full, as well as a bunch of other King and Mercyful Fate classics that never sounded better than they do live here. Awesome and essential.
4. Mayhem: Daemon
Punishing and hypnotic in equal measure, this is essential listening for any fan of black metal – even those that thought Mayhem might have been the original, but haven’t been the best for a long time. Composition, performance and production are all as good as it gets through the entire unrelentingly intense experience. This is proper, evil, nasty black metal, and proper Mayhem!
5. Slayer: The Repentless Killogy
Career-spanning live farewell from the greatest metal band of them all. And one of the most powerful live bands in history, which is why it’s not further up this list. Let me explain! Watching Slayer live is (was) like being pummelled by a wall of energy from the stage. There’s no experience like it, including trying to capture it on record, so as good as this sounds and as wonderful as Slayer’s greatest hits live might be, it’s not the full story. However, stick on some noise-cancelling headphones and whack up the volume on Raining Blood, and when the drums properly kick in you’ll feel like you’re getting a pretty good hint at what you’re missing.
6. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock
Whether in Husker Du, Sugar or solo, Bob Mould has always been an unbelievable but often overlooked songwriting talent, and this reaffirms that’s never likely to change. Soaring guitars, huge melodies and great production make for one of the best alternative rock albums since his last one.
7. Enthroned: Cold Black Suns
Everyone was happier when it was alright to be offensive. Enthroned are a beacon of light in this regard, without a care for wrapping this assault on the senses and sensibilities in cotton wool. This is a masterpiece of contemporary satanic black metal, with layer upon layer of sonic brilliance demanding your full attention and more. Oh yeah, closing track Son of Man is one of the most epic black metal songs ever written too!
8. Darkthrone: Old Star
Another Darkthrone album that (predictably, now) takes us in all kinds of new directions that all still have that distinct, sinister Darkthrone sound at their heart. This time there’s an aggressive doom-like quality, nods to old school thrash, and a generally epic feel to proceedings. Everything sounds really great too. And some of those riffs…
9. Dawn of Ashes: The Crypt Injection II (Non Serviam)
Heretical blackened industrial metal, full of signature electro bombast and massive blast-beats over some very competent melodic black metal guitars and horror-laced vocals. Its more of the same from Dawn of Ashes, and it’s exactly why I’m such a big fan!
10. Abbath: Outstrider
This man knows what he’s good at, and he’s better at it than almost everyone else. And I’m not just talking about corpse paint and wearing suits of armour! Fantastic collection of very, very good Norwegian black metal with the odd frill, but mostly it’s just the great songwriting that made him so influential, harkening back to his later work with Immortal, the odd hint of Slayer around Hell Awaits, and the kind of epic pacing Bathory would have been proud of.