Happy New Year! I am typing this from chilly Colorado, where I have been staying with my family for the holidays. The air is apocalyptically dry, and a burst of wind tore through with such force that a car alarm started. Our Christmas tree, naked and discarded in the lawn until the recycling service starts up, has been bouncing around like a tumbleweed.
Hard to believe, but it’s been a whole year since I started these posts. Writing them was my New Year’s resolution last year, and I’m so glad that I kept it up. It forced me to think through my feelings more thoroughly, and provided a perfect set of milestone goals across the year. Not to mention it leaves a wonderful record of what I was playing and how I felt, that I can now look back upon during this reflective time. Will I keep it up in 2022? I think I will. It’s not a resolution this time, though, but a habit. I think that’s the best way to treat a New Year’s resolution – not as a single goal to reach, but a practice to begin and develop, that can last a long time.
That said, there might be some changes to how I do this going forward. I am content with my small, intimate audience (thank you to all who read this, I love you) and I’m not really interested in spending effort to deliberately grow it. However, I do want the quality of my writing to be better. My editing could be improved – the organization could be clearer, the tangents cut, the word flow smoothed, and my voice could stand to be less dry. Acting solo, I worry I might be reaching the limits of my growth. The complications of collaborating with an editor or anyone else frightens me, but that’s what I have been thinking about lately.
On a similar line, I think it would be wonderful to share more writing through this channel. Many people have told me that this series has inspired them to write about the games they are playing, or about their own expertise in game development. To all you readers out there – if you want something cross posted through this newsletter don’t hesitate to reach out and ask! Perhaps this may one day become a magazine of various voices. I try to fill in the hole in game design writing that I seldom see elsewhere, but it is only a sliver of potential perspectives.
That’s enough dreaming of the future, though. Let’s look backwards!
All the things I wrote this year
December 2020 – Rapid fire thoughts on every game I played over the year.
January 2021 – How game-systems in Tony Hawk, Floor Kids, and Hitman approach free-form play.
February 2021 – Observing the evolving coin economy in Mario games.
March 2021 – Breaking down how Gnosia creates a single-player deduction game.
April 2021 – A collection of several lessons gleaned from doing a close reading of the credits of Link’s Awakening, with various related tangents in different mediums. Some people have told me this is their favorite one, and I think it was my favorite one to research.
May 2021 – Disconnected, rapid fire thoughts on New Pokemon Snap, Dicey Dungeons, FFVI, Bugsnax, and Rez Infinite.
June 2021 – Working through an existential crisis as I confront a cool game that totally omits my game design values in Trip World.
July 2021 – Various spicy takes on the systems in games and the systems for making them.
August 2021 – A love letter to what may be my favorite release of 2021. How did a visual novel without any deep game systems blow me away??
September 2021 – I take a break from writing about games to look at the evolution of Evangelion, and explore the complex relationship between business and art. Despite the change in subject, I spent much longer putting this one together than any other — it haunted me.
October 2021 – I try to define the change in priorities in the new Metroid and how that affects the taste of the game, for better or worse.
November 2021 – A thorough investigation into the creation and purpose of the humble Goomba, who I believe is an expression of game design brilliance. So many people told me they liked this one — I hope I can meet it and exceed it as a standard for next year’s posts!
December 2021 – … Oh right, I still gotta go over what I played this month!
What I played this month:
- I have wanted to play this game for almost as long as I have had a GameCube, but it wasn’t until I was off work this month that I finally got to give myself over to it. And give myself over, I did. I marathoned the game in the hopes of finishing it before my flight to Colorado, though I only made it halfway.
- I expected the gameplay to have some third-party jank or Moon: Remix RPG tedium, and was delighted to discover that it has Nintendo-quality gamefeel. The dangling powercord behind the titular character has fun, consequential physics, and has a satisfying POP when it comes out of electrical outlets. A random note plays with every step the character takes, and changes depending on the surface material. It is fun to exist in the world.
- The story is affecting, and the characters are lovable. The intimate nature of the gameplay makes the dramatic stakes personal and riveting.
- I had always believed this game could be one of the best things I ever played, and so far I have not been let down! It will always be limited to a cult darling, but even among that class I feel like the love and celebration for this title deserves to be louder.
- The development studio, Skip Ltd. seems to have closed its doors within the last couple of years. Very sad.
- Chibi-Robo amiibos were available nearby, to my disbelief, and my dad grabbed me one 🙂
Need for Speed: Underground 2 (GameCube)
- Out of all racing games out there, this is the one I have consistently popped in and out of for the past decade.
- Adaptive triggers are a big selling point for the PS5’s new controllers, and after spending a couple hours with one at a friend’s place I couldn’t play racing games with the flaccid triggers of the PS4. Fortunately, the GameCube has powerful spring-loaded triggers that provide crucial resistance and granularity for a throttle. Such triggers are not well suited to all genres, especially First-Person Shooters, so the adaptive trigger technology is a good step forward for future consoles. Absent that technology, I was glad I could drive around for a bit with a GameCube controller.
- The art direction, which probably had aspirations for photorealism during development, paints a striking impressionism compared to modern crisp graphics. The textures are muddy and reflective, like everything has just been coated in rain, and the dynamic lights from the cars bloom in neon-tinged reflections.
- There is a Cingular branded SMS logo perpetually in the upper left corner of the screen, and I love it. Timelessness is overrated.
- I switched from Automatic to Manual controls for the first time and it was like discovering a whole new game. Manual transmission is so much more fun and engaging.
Chess (board game)
- My cousins and I played chess matches every night we were together. It ruled. Chess is a good game at all skill levels, imo.
Alright now it wouldn’t be an end of the year post if I didn’t highlight some favorites.
Best game I played this year:
Donkey Kong ‘94 (GameBoy)
- So good I played it twice in a row.
- This iteration of Mario has the most expressive set of movement in a jump button of any 2D game I have played. It is rivaled in 3D only by Mario 64, which adapted the movements wholesale from this game.
- The mix of action and puzzle hit in the perfect proportion for my tastes. Like Portal it makes you feel totally embodied with the character, while still demanding thoughtfulness over pure reflex.
- The love this game has for the arcade game roots made me appreciate the original Donkey Kong much more, and consequently it made me appreciate the arcade Mario Bros., and all the Mario games after. Platformers really are elegant and beautiful playthings, aren’t they?
Best game I played this year that came out this year:
ummmmmmm The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (Switch) ??
- Even that game originally came out over five years ago. Not a lot of new games came out this year, and I barely played the ones that did. Sorry, 2021…
- I hear Inscryption is super good! I never play games on the computer but I probably should have made an exception here.
- But I really like Great Ace Attorney!!!!!!!! I wrote an entire article dedicated to why I like this game so much, so I’m not going to rehash it here.
- I will add though: A not insubstantial part of my joy playing this game is that it operates so totally in a different playing field than the kind of stuff I work on, so I am less critical while playing it. My job is to design systems and spaces where actions have emergent consequences, and this is a linear visual novel with a rigidly authored set of interactions. That I am so captivated by something that is so wholly outside of my aspirations makes playing Great Ace Attorney the most relaxing time I have had with a game this year.
Other Favorite Discoveries:
Dear Brother (anime)
- Still haven’t finished it, but the direction is off the charts. Every part of the production compliments the whole. It is mature, not in subject matter or tone but in creators who are at the top of their game confidently geling perfectly.
Streets of Fire (movie)
- Gimme cheesy music, gimme action, gimme ill fated romance. This movie is the kind of popcorn that was made just for me.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
- So many people told me that this is the best Mario game but I didn’t listen until this year.
- Giving this my honest attention was eye-opening. Now I recognize all the ways the subsequent Mario games have been chasing this one. It is truly the finest example of the genre.
- I still like Donkey Kong ‘94 better tho.
- This deep dive on the technical architecture of the Famicom/NES and how it shaped the next phase of game culture has stepped up my professional understanding more than any other book this year.
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