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The Curiouser Top Ten Games of 2019

Previously posted on my gaming page Retro Arcadia.

This year my SNES Classic Mini was finally joined by its previously impossible to buy NES sibling, plus a C64 Mini and almost a PlayStation Classic – I cancelled the day before it was shipped, not because of the controversial games list, but it just sounded like the finished article was very bare-bones and the emulation was crap. On the ones I didn’t cancel, I’ve loved pretty much everything on them more than anything that will ever be released again. On a similar note, I also love most of the old NES stuff that came with the Switch online service – especially the wonderful Tecmo Bowl, Balloon Fight and Mighty Bomb Jack. And on another similar note, I’ve loved playing a ton of the Switch Arcade Archives releases of Donkey Kong and 10-Yard fight, as well as ACA NEOGEO Super Sidekicks 3, and the fabulous Megadrive and SNK collections. And with a Switch now in my possession, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Golf Story from last year, and of course, Breath of the Wild, which I sandwiched between Ocarina of Time and the original Legend of Zelda (which I played on two different platforms almost in parallel).

Hovering just outside this list would be the Williams packs on Pinball FX, featuring some of the best tables ever produced; last-gen racing powerhouse Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4; Castlevania Requiem (if I’d played a enough of either game included in time); and a game I’ve seriously been waiting 25 years to play, Night Trap on the Switch, which might not be the most mechanically-varied game ever, but was a technical marvel at the time and is still a fun romp today. I’m sure that had I played it yet, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be somewhere around the top, but finally playing and completing Mad Max just before it was released only confirmed I’m a bit done with open worlds at the moment, and I’ve more than enough to keep me going until they finish patching it and the price drops. And I’d have loved to have Tetris Effect on here, but after fifteen minutes of my first game on the beta, the motion sickness began…

As always, the rule here is if it’s been released for the first time on a platform this year, it’s fair game…

1 Gris (Switch)

The very last game I bought in 2018 (at time of writing on Christmas Eve at least). If you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and probably heard) anything quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe aside from Journey, anything as powerful. It’s a dream to play, and a dream to experience as it becomes more and more beautiful as you progress, and subtly more complex. A genuine gaming masterpiece.

2 Minit (Switch)

I avoided buying Minit when it came out on other platforms in the hope it would appear on Switch one day, which seemed like the right place for it, and that day came but a few horrendously hot months later. Bizarre premise of your hero living for only sixty seconds in an old-school Zelda-esque black and white pixel art rogue-lite world, doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters. Sixty seconds at a time. But it really works! It begins with almost no context or instruction, but you soon work out how things work to progress your story, planning out your next sixty second life as you carry out the next set of activities for this one. Fantastic game, very different, and perfect on the Switch. And when you’re done with the story, there’s a couple more hours picking up the stuff you probably missed then new game plus where sixty becomes forty. Future cult classic!

3 Moonlighter (Switch)

That wonderful Stardew Valley vibe where minutes are actually hours. But with more fighting. Moonlighter is a greeat rogue-like by night, and shopkeeper-sim by day, where you kill for booty to sell to buy armour, weapons, upgrades, better shop stuff and things to liven up your town so you can access new dungeons with better booty. Fantastic to play day or night.

4 Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)

I searched Tokyo in 40 degree heat and 90% humidity for this bundled with the physical drum controller. I failed, but not long after it was all announced for European release and everything was well in the world again. I can’t remember the last time I had a stupid grin on my face playing a game, but there’s little here not to smile about, from the real drum you play along to a huge, bizarre playlist with, to the completely bonkers visual feast that could only come out of Japan happening on the screen. The ultimate party game, even if you’re the only one invited.

5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)

I never played Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour or Advance, so don’t lament the depth of their story modes apparently missing here. I did, however, sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours into Tennis (featuring Mario as umpire) on the original Game Boy. Jump into an online tournament on Mario Tennis Aces on the Switch, and that’s what you’ve got, dialled up to eleven with trick shots, specials, bullet-time and more, and all against real other people. There’s depth here too – after a few hours you start to notice little things that stack up to make all the difference; you work out how to properly use the trick shot or the blue glow around the ball or the star that sometimes appears on the ground or a dozen other minor things; and then you start winning one in five matches, then one in three, then two, and you’re reaching (and occasionally winning) tournament finals… Stunning looking game, polished to hell, full of character, and utterly addictive. Who cares about story modes (which is actually pretty enjoyable too)!

6 Hollow Knight (Switch)

Specifically here for the first 30 hours, then another 15 hours after 36 hours, then a few more after 53 hours. I absolutely hated everything in between and deleted the game twice in disgust at two bosses I just couldn’t beat. Until I did. Very few games over the last almost forty years have hooked me like this gorgeous looking, vast metroidvania did – even when it was gone, it kept dragging me back. 80% love, 20% pure hatred, and probably the best £7.99 I ever spent on a game.

7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)

I’ve played the original Alto’s Adventure more than any other game on mobile (or tablet in my case). It’s the perfect, premium mobile game, and has been my go-to time-passer across thousands and thousands of miles on plane journeys over the last few years. Alto’s Odyssey swaps snowboards for sandboards, but is more of the same, and then some. The new desert backdrop is stunning, and the day/night cycles, variable weather – especially the storms – and multiple biomes to explore make for some outstanding eye-candy. And the one-touch, backflipping gameplay remains as challenging, skilful and perfect as ever.

8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)

Old-school Castlevania in all but name with some really clever character-switching mechanics, atmospheric old-school graphics and sound that make me want to live in it, and plenty to explore and go back to when you’re able. In the five hours or so to complete first time, it gets progressively more tricky, but aside from a few frustrating sections (generally involving moving platforms in the late game), it’s all do-able after a few attempts and some experimentation with the characters, even on veteran mode. My only gripe is the checkpointing on the double final boss battle – going back to the very start is a real pain while you’re dying over and over again to learn how to beat the second part! Once you’re finally done, definitely worth playing the newly unlocked nightmare mode to explore those places you couldn’t before you had the right characters available. Great game with a lot of retro-love oozing out of it.

9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)

Much like Zelda, I’d never played a Mega Man game before this year, and now I’ve played and finished three of them; 2, 1 and 3, in that order. I’m particularly proud of finishing Mega Man 2, over a period of months, as I completely avoided all the quality of life enhancements like rewind and save in-progress that come with this wonderfully presented collection of games 1-6 in the series. It’s not just the games though, most of which are bonafide hardcore classics; those enhancements, the mass of settings options and the museum of art that accompanies every game make it one of the best compilations I’ve seen. And it’s the reason why Mega Man 11 is missing – I’ve played the demo dozens of times and it’s awesome, and would certainly deserve to be here in place of this from what I’ve seen, but I’m going to be busy with games 4-6, as well as the Mega Man X game on the SNES Classic Mini, for some time yet!

10 Owlboy (Switch)

There’s still pixel-art everywhere this year, but this really is a marvellous lesson in pixel-art design, and a great Metroidvania game to boot. The sky islands you navigate in this vertical platformer are diverse and stunning. Controlling your owl boy feels great. The evolution of the game mechanics works brilliantly as you meet new partners in crime. And those characters are ones you really care about as you make your way through the thought provoking story. Another brilliant Switch indie.

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Games of 2017

The following is lifted straight off my other site, Retro Arcadia, but just to complete my annual trilogy on this one I’ve indulged myself with it here too…

I very rarely have the impulse to buy anything day one, and I’ve spent most of this year playing catch-up with stuff I’ve been given for birthdays or Christmas that I’d directed people to get for me at bargain prices – Wolfenstein The Old Blood, Doom (which was the only game that’s ever induced serious motion sickness in me then outstayed its welcome a bit but I finished it), Dishonored, Dirt 3 and the marvellous Trackmania Turbo were highlights. Lego Dimensions, particularly the Midway Retro Arcade level pack and all the old favourites of mine it included, has also been a mainstay, as has No Man’s Sky, which I’ve now pumped hundreds of hours into and it remained my go-to game until November when I decided I just didn’t want to play it any more. Special mention also to Super Mario Run which appeared right at the end of 2016 and I’ve continued to play throughout 2017. I also got a New Nintendo 2DS which opened up a whole new world of Nintendo games that I’d missed out on since the Game Boy Advance – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Tennis and much more…

1. Elevator Action

Seeing this appear out of the blue on the PlayStation Store new release list towards the end of November was a console generation highlight for me, only previously (almost) equalled by the same for Renegade a couple of years ago! Every time I play it I’m standing in front of an arcade cabinet in the cafe area of our local leisure centre in 1984, with the music from the Saturday morning roller disco in the background and a can of Dr Pepper from the only vending machine in town to stock it on the table beside me. It’s the arcade version of Elevator Action, released on PS4 as part of their Arcade Archives series, and by default is the best game released in 2017 on any platform.

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

This is one of the most joyous gaming experiences I’ve ever had! It also gives me the chance, as someone living on a farm in the country with no intention of ever farming or even vaguely embracing country life, to experience all of that stuff from the comfort of my own living room! You just do whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s clearing some land, doing up some buildings, growing some crops, fishing, looking after your chickens, playing the arcade games in the village pub, mining, building a fence, beach combing, helping out villagers or just wandering about the place. Slow-paced, open-ended, great looking and wonderful – just like the life waiting right outside my front door if only it wasn’t so much hassle!

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

For this game I did get that rare impulse to buy day one! Pokemon Gold (see below) very recently introduced me to a series I’d missed out on for decades, but this brought me right up to date with a stunning handheld masterpiece. The world is brimming with life (including some great Pokemon), the story will cost you hours that you thought were minutes, and even the necessary grinding stays fun. So much gameplay here and I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you’re still the sceptical non-player that I was until a couple of months ago.

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

I’ve never really played as much Everybody’s Golf as I should have, given I’ve owned iterations on various platforms since the original Playstation release. I have made up for that a bit with the latest one though. It’s still instantly familiar, albeit with a PS4 sheen and all kinds of modern gaming depth, maintaining a very simple mechanic that makes it very easy for a quick nine holes to turn into ninety!

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

Okay, it’s another pure re-release (but definitely not the last one in this list), this time of an ancient GameBoy Colour game with no 21st century bells and whistles added, but it was my first ever Pokemon game, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it and its fantastic immersive world hasn’t aged a day, so definitely deserves to be in the top half of this list. Check out a more detailed post I did on this here.

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

Before you think it, it’s a remaster and not a re-release! But anyone, I’m playing by my rules here so anything that came out this year goes! This collects some of the more recent titles, updating them with incredibly fast moving and great looking graphics, but the core gameplay remains, meaning it’s still the best futuristic racer out there and was a joy to come back to.

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

For a free-to-play game built around loot crates, this is an incredibly generous, very focussed tactical fighting game. Production values are off the charts; it’s accessible but deep; there’s some very saucy characters, and in my 30+ hours with the game I collected the strongest possible units and rinsed every mode in the game without ever feeling I was grinding for it; without ever spending a penny.

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

This game is pointless. And that’s most of the reason I love it. I don’t care that it’s constantly (though completely unobtrusively) reminding me that I can spend money that I won’t spend. I’m quite happy waiting for stuff to appear that I can use to help out the animal people hanging around my campsite who give me money and materials to buy more stuff then wait for that to appear while I fish and catch bugs and rearrange things. The most casual, relaxing, mindless and fun waste of time I’ve played this year.

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

I’d have loved it if this didn’t have the word “Biohazard” in the title and been able to maintain the feeling of Texas Chainsaw inspired anxiousness that built up in the first few hours before the ooze started appearing. I’d also have appreciated it being a few hours shorter. But all the same it takes the series back to its horror roots, even including a nice nod to the dogs jumping through the windows in the original. It’s a lovely looking game, great attention to detail with surprisingly varied settings, and happily the puzzles aren’t too obscure, the inventory system isn’t too restrictive, and the save points aren’t too far apart.

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

Some of the mechanics are creaking a bit by today’s standard, but this remaster (the last on this list I’m proud to announce) will bring a tear to the eye to anyone that’s not read Rogue Trooper since they were a kid in the 80’s! Okay, it’s not a patch on the Spectrum version that everyone’s forgotten ever existed first, but just to spend a few hours running and gunning across Nu-Earth and bringing back all those 2000A.D. memories makes it essential!

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Games of 2016

The majority of my limited gaming time this year seems to have been spent in last year’s The Witcher 3, which eventually got finished just before Christmas. Absolutely loved it but had had my fill after sixty hours. Also want to mention Until Dawn, which would have been near the top of last year’s top ten had I played it in time. I got my first platinum trophy with another favourite game from last year, Rocket League, and finally got to play and complete something even older when Grim Fandango appeared as a PS+ freebie. Here’s games that actually came out this year; it’s a bit mobile heavy, mainly thanks to the above, and moving to an almost medieval house with an equally medieval internet connection. 
  1. No Man’s Sky. It didn’t take me that long to work out that just beyond the technical marvels lies something very shallow, but as someone with very limited console gaming time, and no interest in cooperative or multiplayer play, this is pretty much all I want from a game. There’s a story of sorts if you want it, but the joy of this for me is making my own story at my own pace. Beautiful achievement. 
  2. Crashlands. This game knows exactly what’s fun about exploration, crafting and survival games, and lets you concentrate on the fun, rather than learning arduous systems or recipes. Really nice progression, whether you choose to follow the story, the side quests, or just enjoy mooching around for new stuff to make. I’ve literally lost hours and hours on this recently, usually stopping only to recharge the battery on my iPad. Incredible mobile gaming achievement. 
  3. Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade. Not strictly a game in its own right, and quite a bit different from the mass of other packs we’ve collected over the last year in that it’s as much of a retro gaming compilation as a standard level pack. And it includes some of my favourite games ever! 720, Spy Hunter, Toobin, Rampage, Super Sprint, Paperboy, Gauntlet… Unbelievable, as is the Lego Spy Hunter car, which I only wish I’d owned thirty years ago!
  4. Tomb of the Mask. This one came early in the year on iOS but I’m still playing it. It looks like a Spectrum game, plays like a casual mobile game, and like Downwell before if, is deceptively sophisticated and very addictive.
  5. Trackmania demo. That’s right, a PS4 demo has made if into my list! I’m sure had I felt the need to buy the game yet, the full version would be here instead, but I’m still more than happy dipping in and out of this, trying to better what I’ve done before and enjoying the insanely high speed, highly polished arcade racing. 
  6. Galaga Wars. Last year my high score craving was satisfied by Pac Man 256, and this year it’s another modern take on ancient history with this. Plays mostly like the original, albeit with a bit more freedom of movement, looks great, and employs a very fair and unobtrusive free to play model. Frantic and addictive. 
  7. PinOut. Fantastic endless pinball game on iOS. Mechanically it’s normal pinball, but you’re flipping the ball up the screen to the next set of flippers against the clock. A lot of fun, very addictive, and a special mention for the extremely stylish eighties-esque neon look
  8. Clash Royale. For a game I grew to hate after about twenty hours, I continued playing it for over one hundred more! The height of gaming addiction, and whilst I never spent a penny on it, I can fully appreciate it sitting at the top of Apple’s top grossing charts! 
  9. Atari Flashback Console. Okay, also not strictly a game, and I’ve only owned it for less than a week, but it’s endless Atari 2600 action in my filthy mitts! This is pure gaming history, and whilst of course there are duds in the sixty games pre-installed, the classics like Frogger, Missile Command, Centipede and Asterois deserve to be mentioned in top ten lists at every opportunity.
  10. Tricky Towers. A PS+ freebie in the summer, and one that probably has a permanent place on my PS4’s hard drive. Essentially Tetris, with frantic and fast-paced challenges in single player mode, but where it really shines is in local two player, where you race to build your tower to a certain height whilst trying to scupper your opponent’s. Great to play with the kids, though if you’re a past Tetris master just remember not to go too nuts for the first few goes!

My Top Ten of 2015 – Games

Not sure why I decided to do this, but throughout the year I’ve been keeping top ten lists of games, films and albums. Here’s the games one. Possible use for it is nostalgia in the future. Others to follow, with other potential uses. 
 
1. Journey (PS4)
 
Wow. In 35+ years gaming, nothing has ever gently drawn me in then completely sucked me dry like that did. Unbelievable experience. Simply stunning in all respects. Nothing more to add, except the PS4 version came out this year and I’d never played it before, so it counts!
 
2. Rocket League
 
Online gaming came too late for me; my reactions still feel okay at 43, but I’ve never had the time to pour hours into the likes of Call of Duty or Destiny and become truly competitive. I think I’ve second-placed in a couple of deathmatches but generally I’m happy not to be last! Then along came July PS+ game Rocket League to change all that. It takes a while to get the controls and the slightly off-kilter physics (which you can’t really complain about in a game involving jumping cars playing football with a giant futuristic baseball), but once you have, the game plays to a level of maturity, understanding it’s nuances, reading what’s happening and biding your time. With this in mind, my trepidation about heading online turned out to be completely unfounded. Whilst others generally seem to be frantically chasing the ball – very much like an under-8’s football team might – I’ve found myself not only contributing to my team (for once) but also being the match winner! Also enjoying season mode and local multiplayer with my 8-year old son (who’s recently moved on from the moths to a flame approach to football). The game runs great, looks good, and is as much fun as you think a cross between Speedball and the original Twisted Metal might be (complete with Sweet Tooth if you stick with it). And last but not least, I got my first ever Platinum Trophy on this – all it took was playing it to death!
 
3. Star Wars Battlefront (PS4)
 
If you’re a Star Wars fan carrying all the gaming implications of being a 43-year old dad, this could be one of the greatest games ever! Yes, as bemoaned in all the reviews by twenty-something veterans, it’s shallow, there’s not many maps, loadouts are simple and anyone can pick up a perk. But if you’ve got an hour or so every couple of days to do your gaming thing, these “inadequacies” are a right old bonus, especially when the visuals and audio simply scream Star Wars! And if you have a kid, give the split screen co-op survival missions a whirl. It’s great fun, and the most immersive Star Wars experience since some of us sat down in a certain arcade cabinet over thirty years ago. 
 
4. Pac-Man 256 (iOS)
 
When I heard another version of Pac-Man was coming in 2015, this turned out to be the game I wanted it to be. Endless high score chasing with some great opportunities for strategy with power-ups, multipliers and learning the behaviour of each ghost. Controlling just like Crossy Road, with the hours I’ve spent on that, was a bonus too! Having a fairly unintrusive free to play model also helped.
 
5. Alto’s Adventure (iOS)
 
This has been my go-to game on the dozens of flights I’ve made this year; I might start with something else but always end up coming back here. Gameplay wise, it’s an endless runner on a snowboard with a nice scoring mechanic and a progression system based on unlocking new characters with different skills to help you progress through objectives, which can take hours to complete at the later levels. The trick system is simple but requires skill and the physics system demands risk calculation and timing. The real draw are the visuals though – it looks stunning, with dynamic weather effects, the passage of time through day and night, and incredible attention to detail in the terrains and backgrounds. And when you combine this with the easy-on-the-ears soundtrack and effects that sound like a board on snow, it’s very easy to get completely lost in.
 
6. Batman Arkham Knight (PS4)
 
Didn’t grab me like the two previous games I’ve played – at no point did I see an air-con vent in real life and prepare to get inside it like in Asylum! But it’s a hell of a game. Looks stunning, the story doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the combat and the gliding feel as good as ever. Lots of people seem to have disliked the Batmobile; I had no problem with the Batmobile, but absolutely detested the later drone / tank missions involving it! Don’t often turn down to easy, but there’s only so many times you can restart something before you ditch it (which very nearly happened even on easy) or put a controller through the TV. In retrospect it didn’t really detract from a great experience though.
 
7. OlliOllii  2: Welcome to Olliwood (PS4)
 
This was a free monthly PSN game early in the year. I never got around to the first one, always believing it would end up as a PS+ freebie, then lo and behold the sequel appears on there first. It’s one of those games where there’s a good chance you’ll delete it after ten minutes, especially when it’s free, but persevere and the controls start to click, and after a while you start to master them, then as unnatural as they probably are, they become second nature. That said, it never stops treading a very fine line between frustrating – mainly due to forgetting to press a button at the right time – and utterly addictive, and getting five stars on every level can easily become an obsession. 
 
8. The Order: 1886 (PS4)
 
A couple of massively frustrating stealth and enemy spawn-a-thon circle-strafe sections aside, where I’d die too many times for it to still be enjoyable then repeat over and over again from a far too distant checkpoint, I very much enjoyed the story, setting, atmosphere and steampunk environment… Despite the continuous references to Jack the Ripper, who didn’t actually appear until 2 years after the game is set. Not sure why they didn’t call it 1888 – much better marketing angle too!
 
9 . Shooty Skies (iOS)
 
This is to Galaga what Crossy Road is to Frogger. Absolutely fantastic arcade shooter coupled with a load of chunky pixel characters to unlock if that’s your bag. The single finger touch controls work perfectly, especially the risk-reward long press explosions. Game Center leaderboards combined with the accessibility mean that there’s a good chance you’ll have some scores to chase against people you know too. Great free to play model too, especially if unlocking stuff isn’t your bag!
 
10. WWE Immortals (iOS)
 
When I started playing this, I’d have never believed I’d spend the hours and hours I did spend getting to the end of it, without paying a penny, much like I did last year with Trials Extreme on iOS too. There’s very little strategy to the simple combat, other than knowing when is best to tag in and out to make best use of special moves. The real strategy is in playing the free to play model, knowing what class of characters to spend your in game currency on and when, then which moves to unlock and when… This was the real joy in the game that kept me hooked. That said, the identikit Mortal Kombat version that came later really did nothing for me.
 
 
Other notable games that I’ve enjoyed this year, but are not strictly 2015 releases, include Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, which clocked in at around 50 hours, such was my enjoyment. Wolfenstein The New Order, which almost never got completed thanks to a really frustrating lack of checkpoints in a boss battle at half way. Crossy Road, which I dread to think how many hours I’ve put in! Monument Valley, care of a free code from Starbucks; not generally one for puzzle games, but it wasn’t that taxing (i.e. it was logical), looked beautiful and was ultra-intuitive. A bit like Limbo, care of PS+.