Nik Clay is a freelance video editor, sound engineer, musician, writer, and game dev living in Petaluma, California. His work often focuses on lesser known titles, the minutiae of art, and art’s relationship to its audience. He also has a penchant for the offbeat and over the top. Find him on twitter @nik_clay and on his YouTube channel.
I don’t think I’ve ever played so many different video games within one year before 2017. Everyone has talked this up at length, but the past year brought us such a wealth of diverse and groundbreaking games that it truly feels like there’s never been a better time to play games. This was also one of my busiest years, between living on my own for the first time and balancing a number of artistic projects, making time for games was hard despite just how great they’ve been. Still, perhaps some of my favorite games I’ve ever played popped up in the past 12 months, and I couldn’t be happier i made time for them. It was certainly easier to justify playing games if I told myself “its for a video I’m working on”, which worked out perfectly as this was perhaps my most prolific year in terms of video production. As 2018 grows ever closer, I almost want a slower year, especially so I can catch up on games I missed like Yakuza 0, Layton’s Mystery Journey, and Wolfenstein 2. Here’s hoping I’m able to really double down on my output and have even more to make!
10) What Remains of Edith Finch
This game is absolutely lovely. It’s sad, grim, bittersweet and hopeful all at once. It’s also chock-full of interactive moments that accentuate the story and further impart their messages onto the player—in that, it feels like the logical (more successful) conclusion of the controller gimmicks found in games like Heavy Rain. Each vignette, chronicling the last moments of each member of the Finch family, presents its own unique gameplay element, and always recontextualizes the analog sticks and shoulder buttons in new ways. These are all distinct, both in their mechanics and in how they reflect the game’s themes.This title is a rumination on the fragility of life and the pain and importance of remembering and honoring your loved ones, something I think most can connect with.
9) Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
I actually didn’t expect this game to make my list. I played it over the course of a few days and enjoyed it, but I don’t think it set in just how much joy it brought me until I reflected back on it. This game isn’t incredible, it’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a title that really struck a chord with me. The art style is so beautiful and impressive. The button that allows you to jump between the updated visuals and the original art on the fly goes to show that the surprisingly small team behind this adaptation did not simply hand-draw the sprites and tile-sets found in the original; they brought them to life. With a steady difficulty curve and tight, snappy combat, as well as the phenomenal art and music, this is a title worth seeing through ’til the end.
8) Splatoon 2
I’m not good at this game. In fact, I’m probably just plain bad at it. But I think that’s okay (although I’m sure the people who get matched with me would probably say otherwise), because I just about always have a blast with Splatoon 2. It’s a special breed of third person multiplayer shooter where you never feel inept for simply not doing as well as others. If you’re no good at firefights, you can still positively impact the outcome of a match by supporting your team from the sidelines, inking turf at a healthy distance from the action. It certainly helps too that the immensely satisfying game feel really ensures you have a great time. Sure, it could be easy to write this title off, claiming it’s just more of Splatoon 1, but I don’t see how that would be a problem, even if that were the case. Bringing the game to a console that is more powerful, comfortable and convenient, as well as making meaningful improvements to the game on just about all fronts is everything the original needed. I for sure played way more Splatoon 2 than I ever did the original. This game also probably has my favorite sense of style out of any games from the past year. The clothing, the music, the setting, and the dialogue all contribute to a distinguishable inkling culture that really feels alive. The world of Splatoon is thriving and trendy, while not being at risk of growing dated, as it’s very much a culture all its own. I’m not currently playing a ton of Splatoon 2, but I always make time for splatfests, and I’m considering paying for Nintendo’s online service just so I can keep up with those which, for me, says a ton.
Cuphead is one of a handful of games released this year that consistently left me intently thinking about it when I wasn’t playing. About what bosses I’ll see next, about how fast my heart rate got during many of the boss fights, about how much I wanted to be playing it at all hours of the day instead of working. I’ve talked at length in the past about how Treasure is one of my favorite third party development studios, and this title really plays like a brand new Treasure game with its harmonious gameplay and absurd amount of polish. Every aspect of Cuphead’s design, from boss fights to alternate weapons to palette choices, is so deliberate and fine-tuned. Not to mention the beautiful animation, score, and sound design. Cuphead is one of the most complete packages I’ve seen in a good while.
6) Nier: Automata
During my first 30 hours spent with Nier: Automata I thought I had found a new favorite game of mine. Eventually, though, I hit a wall with it, and the game lost a lot of its magic for me. Still, upon going back and completing it months later, I can say with certainty that while the game has a handful of somewhat fundamental problems, it makes up for those shortcomings with just how much it has to say and by how many means it illustrates what it’s saying. Nier’s combat, in all the forms it takes, was to me its weakest aspect. You do a lot of fighting, which got quite tiring, especially as I initially planned on seeing all of the side content. There’s also no autosave, and in later parts of the game, you’ll go a long time without an opportunity to save. My biggest piece of advice to those looking to experience this title is to play the game on easy and always remember to save any time you’re in an area where that’s enabled. Miraculously, in spite of all that, there is still so much to love in this game. The way every little detail of interfacing with that game in some way contributes to its central themes is absolutely incredible. From the UI, to the to music, to even the act of dying, they all reinforce that you are playing as androids with very particular systems and orders. Beyond that, the narrative and the side quests all have so much to say about the tumultuous—and even arbitrary and hypocritical—nature of our relationship to war, violence, productivity, and society. These subjects are no strangers to sci-fi dystopia, but Nier: Automata is a breath of fresh air for how much it ruminates on, and in how many ways it does so. For example, seeing the discrepancy between what aspects of culture the machine life-forms and the androids respectively adopt is poignant as a reflection of the attitudes we have about what it means to be individuals, and what it means to be a unit. I could talk for a good while about Nier: Automata‘s many layers and would still only be scratching the surface, so take my word for it. Even if you ignore most of the side quests in the interest time, it’s worth playing.
5) Lost Memories Dot Net
This title really took me by surprise. Not because I had any doubt in my mind about the talent of the folks behind this project, but because I wasn’t fully prepared for just how much this game would resonate with me. The game’s story, cleverly told through instant messages between managing the protagonist’s personal website, is a deeply nostalgic account of what it was like to be on the still-developing internet as still-developing young person. The entire narrative is told through IM conversations and blog posts made by the cast, and the writing really shines in just how much a player learns about the cast through those means. The characters are, as with many young people, very conflicted and complex, dealing with more difficult emotions and relationships than they’re equipped to handle. I saw a lot of myself and my experiences as an adolescent, clumsily navigating the throes of social anxiety, difficult relationships with the paternal figures in my life, and internet friends in this game. Seeing that time in my life reflected in this title was deeply touching.
4) YO! NOID II
As I was assembling this list, I had to seriously ask myself a question. Which game did I like more, a first party Nintendo game, or Yo! Noid II? After much self reflection I went with the former, but it was very, very close as Yo! Noid II is a heck of a game. When people told me to play this game, I assumed it would be yet another meme-riddled bad-on-purpose try-hard schlockfest, the kind that seem to make occasional waves through social media for a second before everyone forgets about them. Oh, how wrong I was. In reality, Yo! Noid II is a ridiculous send-up to both 3D mascot platformers, and
hilariously misguided 80’s/90’s advertising campaigns, equal parts satirical and loving. I kept having to stop playing so I could pick my jaw up off the floor, at just how well this game actually plays, being so much more than it had any right to be. The blurry, jittery textures and the CRT filter give the game a deliberately dated feel, but the gameplay is far more modern than that. The wall running and yo-yo grappling are executed on fantastically, constantly being recontextualized to suit fresh new mechanics. I wouldn’t dare spoil them here, but Yo! Noid II has a lot of tricks up its sleeve, it’s constantly throwing curve balls at the player, and is somehow one of the freshest experiences I’ve had with a game in a good while.
3) Super Mario Odyssey
Strange as it may sound, I don’t think I enjoyed Super Mario Odyssey as much as a lot of people. On some level, something felt missing from it that was present in games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. That special something making levels feel less like levels and more like real places. That was a bit of a hangup for me, but everything else? Near perfection. It has never felt better to control a character in a 3D space than it does in Super Mario Odyssey. No matter your favorite 3D Mario title, Odyssey’s robust moveset will have you covered, and then some. The levels themselves, while feeling a tad more methodical than I perhaps would have liked, are absolutely packed with power moons, coins, and more, meaning there’s never a dull moment. Exploring is constantly rewarding, as the space between one collectible and the next is usually pretty small. Each kingdom is radically different from every other, and the different enemies Mario can capture present even more means of traversing, exploring, and collecting. Super Mario Odyssey is jam-packed with ideas and positivity, practically bursting at the seams with creativity and heart.
2) Night in the Woods
I feel like this is a pretty common thing to hear from people within my demographic, but I have never connected with a game more on an emotional level than I did with Night in the Woods. I saw some aspect of myself, my experiences, my friends, my family, my hometown in every single character found in this title. Night in the Woods captures the experience of being young, restless, and aimless through many different lenses and as the result of many different circumstances in its cast. Feeling stuck in a rut, having ideas and plans bigger than you think you can execute on, fearing others successes will make them leave you behind, suffering from a sense of ennui you can’t shake, all and more are problems plaguing the youth of Possum Springs, and they’re problems that have plagued myself and others. They’re all handled with delicacy and tact, but with a sobering frankness that is all but necessary when discussing mental illness. The setting is in an absurdly accurate depiction of the small American town. When protagonist Mae returns home to Possum Springs, she and her friends are quick to recount anecdotes surrounding the town’s many landmarks, and they all feel so real and familiar. Possum Springs feels lived in, and carries with it the same kind of baggage as any nonfictional town scraping by through economic depression and job scarcity. One of the things I appreciate most in this game is that in arguments and disagreements, hardly anyone is ever the “right” one. Conflict is messy and human, and while people are wont to hurt one another, talking things through and being honest will often make those wounds heal faster. Through the day-to-day routine Mae falls into, you see interpersonal problems resolve themselves simply by being proactive about conversing with those in the town. It is also so refreshing and very important to hear a game say that rest and recuperation are a fundamental part of coping with mental illness in a constructive way.
1) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
This is the first Zelda game I’ve ever truly loved. Something about past entries in the Zelda franchise have always turned me away. I’ve always had an adverse reaction to something about the combat, puzzle solving, and level design in these games. Instead of playing the games, I chose to like the characters and settings from afar. Breath of the Wild, in being so divergent from past titles, has absolutely blown me away. It takes elements from just about everything I love in mainstream games and blends them all together to unbelievable results. There is such a wealth of ingenious level design that always feels methodical, yet natural. I am still in shock at the size of this game’s map, it’s sheer scope, and how across the massive landscape I did not once encounter an area I thought was noticeably weaker than the rest. This is the game that I by far spent the most time with this year, clocking over 70 hours in the first 2 weeks it was out alone, obsessively playing it day in, day out with my partner in her apartment. Though not as moving or thought provoking as other titles, nor as visually or technically stunning, my time with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was genuinely magical. It’s too early to say for sure, but not only has this game topped my year end list, it may very well be high up on my list of favorite games ever.