And quite possibly, in the time it’s taken you to read this intro, Dan has inexplicably won a juggling contest, invented a new type of eating utensil and written several books on all the subjects previously referenced. For signed copies, please reach out to Dan directly on Twitter.
Dan’s Honorable Mentions: Loop Hero, Forza Horizon 5, Death’s Door, WarioWare: Get it Together!
10. Resident Evil Village
This game is dumb as fuck and I think I love it for it. None of it should work. The internet got all obsessed over the big lady and she’s barely even in it. All of the bosses seem like they’re from different games with different art styles. And the ending is some of the most gleefully dumb bullshit I’ve ever seen in a Resident Evil game, which is saying something.
“Gleefully” might be the key word here though, because it all inexplicably works. I laughed every time something ridiculous happened to Ethan’s hand and he just poured some gloop on it and everything was fine. I was enthusiastically onboard for the explanation that your dweeb-ass protagonist for the last two games is made out of mold and has been dead since the beginning of Resident Evil 7. Plus, the action and puzzles are all solid and a big mutant baby scared the shit out of me. Good game.
9. Hitman 3
This would have been way farther up if they hadn’t decided that the thing people love about Hitman is the DEEP LORE OF THE BAR CODE MAN and not, you know, dressing up like Big Bird and dropping a piano on someone’s head or something. THAT SAID, it gets better after your first playthrough and as long as you never play that train level again.
Dubai, the Knives Out level, Berlin, and the wine place are all top notch Hitman locales. And despite the overemphasis on lore shit, you really don’t have to pay attention to it beyond your first playthrough. It’s mechanically the best in the series, and there are lots of goofy ways to approach kills once you’re just picking stages a la carte and messing around.
8. Psychonauts 2
I was gonna call this the Terminator 2 of sequels, but that would imply that I liked the first Psychonauts. Not only did I dislike the first Psychonauts, but I had never enjoyed a single Double Fine game to date before this excellent platformer. I’ve always appreciated the vibe and writing of their games, but I always felt they fell short on the gameplay front. I’m not saying Psychonauts 2 is Super Mario Odyssey or anything, but the gameplay end of things is still super solid and was more than enough to keep me interested to see it through.
As a lifelong platforming fan, I was really happy to see an assortment of worlds that were more than “fire level, ice level, water level, etc.” Instead, it’s “germ-infested bowling alley level, casino hospital level, dental hell level, etc.” It’s loaded with inspired ideas, characters, and jokes, and I loved it from beginning to end.
7. Cruis’n Blast
Arcade racing is such a pure genre and I’ve missed it so much since…San Francisco Rush 2049? Rumble Racing? At least a few console generations. Just give me some unrealistic vehicles, impossible physics, and most importantly, a boost meter, and I’m on cloud nine. Cruis’n Blast knows exactly what it is and it excels at it, with one of the best theme songs in years to boot.
6. Mario Party Superstars
As I write this, I’m sitting at an airport bar on the way home for the holidays and one of the main things I’m looking forward to is concocting a drinking game out of Mario Party Superstars with my sisters and brother-in-law. We grew up on the series, and this compilation/remake/whatever seems laser focused on fans like us. Maps from the N64 games. The best minigames from the entire series. None of the extraneous bullshit from the map portions of the GameCube-and-beyond entries. It’s better than the already really good Super Mario Party, you can play it with a pro controller, and it launched with online play. It’s exactly what I wanted.
5. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
This would be on this list regardless of Bowser’s Fury, but probably not this high. Quick note on the 3D World part of it: while it’s not part of the core Mario series, that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the best Mario games ever. These tiny levels are so much fun and have a ton of variety, and they’re perfect for copious amounts of “co-op” bullshit. “Co-op” is in quotes because it’s “co-op” like Four Swords Adventures was, meaning you’ll spend just as much time throwing your friends and family into spikes or lava pits as you’ll spend working together.
But anyway, Bowser’s Fury. It was like five hours long and now all I want is a 50-hour long version of it. Tossing open world elements onto a long-running series is a hot thing these days, but this was an incredible example of how well it could work for Mario’s future. It had all the whimsy and joy of a full-fledged Mario title, but the ability to just hop on a dinosaur and go anywhere to hunt for shines added a really exciting new element. It’s like if all the stages of Mario 64 or Sunshine were just seamlessly connected to the hub world itself.
4. Halo Infinite
I don’t really consider myself someone that was let down by Halo 4 or 5, but I think that’s because I was never really particularly tied to the series to begin with. I appreciate the original Halo and its importance when it comes to console FPS (Goldeneye was better). I appreciate Halo 2 for being a trailblazer for console online multiplayer. Halo 3 was probably my favorite overall package, and Reach was great as well. But with 4 and 5, I remember thinking they were better than I expected considering they were from a new developer, but ultimately forgettable. And I felt they leaned too hard into lore stuff to satisfy the hardcores and not enough gameplay upgrades to keep people like me interested.
That said, playing Halo Infinite made me remember just how fundamentally excellent that Halo toolset is. There’s not a lot that’s revolutionary here, but it feels like they blew up that second level from the first Halo into a whole game and sprinkled a bunch of fun activities everywhere. None of the activities are mindblowing if you’ve played any open-world game since San Andreas, but there’s something to be said for just grapplejacking a Banshee and flying to a FOB to take out as many grunts as you can before you take too much damage and have to divebomb your fucked-up ship into the first Elite you see. The toolset and physics of Halo are perfect for approaching these little objectives in a variety of ill-fated ways, only to laugh at your ragdolling corpse before trying a different approach.
In retrospect, I wish I would have skipped every cutscene. Unless “holograms talking to/about other holograms” is your fetish, there’s nothing of value here. The story and some of the required missions are the weak link here, but the open structure and excellent multiplayer are more than enough to make it one of my favorite games of the year.
3. Death Stranding: Director’s Cut
Ok. I spent a large part of my 2019 Game of the Year energy on my hatred of Death Stranding, and I meant every word of it. I don’t want to repeat things I’ve said a million times since then, but the Director’s Cut allowed me to revisit the game with a new mindset that really made me appreciate what Kojima was going for here.
The short version of my change of heart: When I played this the first time, I was literally sprinting through it to experience as much of the game as possible before embargo so that I could speak to it on the Beastcast. I was trying to (poorly) speedrun a game that is in no way conducive to that type of play. A couple years later, this Director’s Cut comes out, and my wife Bianca decides to give it a shot. I watch her a bit as she takes her time, surveys the land, decides on the best path forward, and generally just kind of takes things in and takes her time with the game. This strikes me as a radical new way to play Death Stranding, despite the fact that it’s probably the approach Kojima had in mind to begin with. I start it again without any attempt to speed through it, and you know what? This game is fun as hell.
Don’t get me wrong – the story is indulgent, insane nonsense. It’s Kojima at his best and worst. For every story element that was hilariously batshit (cutting a ghost baby’s umbilical cord with magic handcuffs), there was an overlong explanation of something that was just as confusing AFTER the explanation (“ha” and “ka,” afterlife beaches, Troy Baker’s whole thing, the fact that the President is your mom and also your…ghost wife?). It’s a bad story, and I don’t think it’s one I’ll come to appreciate years later like I did with Sons of Liberty. I think it might just be bad.
But to be honest, I really had a great time delivering packages for like 60 hours. And I want to go back, even! It’s just a big, goofy world, and there’s some very real gameplay satisfaction to be found in things like completing highways, getting all of your distribution centers to the five-star level, and designing a nation-spanning zipline network.
It’s not Metal Gear, and it’s not trying to be Metal Gear. It’s also not as good as Metal Gear. But it’s certainly not the stain on the industry and Kojima’s reputation that I was so loud about it being when it was first released. In fact, it’s a really good, really weird video game.
Some of my favorite games are the ones you know you’re gonna love within about ten seconds of controlling your character. Returnal is one of those. It took a few seconds of moving my analog stick, jumping, and dashing to realize I was going to love this. It already looked great, felt great, and had a great atmosphere. Plus, it was the most ambitious project Housemarque had worked on to date, and I had loved all of their smaller, arcadelike projects in the past. Everything was coming up Returnal from the very beginning.
Several runs and deaths later, I realized that it also satisfied one of my favorite things about a great loop-based game — I didn’t mind dying. Dying just meant that I got to start an exciting new run, and who knows what kind of great build I could wind up with this time? If I had to compare this feeling to another recent game it’d be Dead Cells. The moment-to-moment action is just so satisfying and rewarding that I couldn’t possibly be dismayed at the idea of having to play it more after a death.
1. Metroid Dread
As an unapologetic lifelong Nintendo mark, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about my Metroid fandom. It’s great for sure, with Super Metroid, Fusion, Zero Mission, and the first Prime serving as my favorites, but I never held the series in the same esteem as the Marios and Zeldas of the world. Hell, I’ve probably spent more time talking about Star Fox for some reason.
But Metroid has brought me a ton of joy over the years, and Dread serves up every element that I’ve loved throughout the series and refines it to a near-perfect degree. Like Returnal, every single motion and action feels snappy and satisfying, with certain abilities like the parry making you feel cool as hell every time you hit it perfectly. It feels good enough when you’re parrying some little flying dork, but when you hit it on an E.M.M.I. it’ll have you reaching for a cigarette afterwards.
Every boss fight feels perfectly tuned in terms of difficulty. I’d get my ass kicked the first time, last a little longer the next time and learn some patterns, then get the job done with a sliver of life left on attempt three or four. It can be a difficult game at times but it never crosses the line into frustrating. Exploration involves less wandering than usual thanks to some handy quality-of-life map functions, as well.
I think it’s likely the best Metroid ever, and just typing about it makes me want to pull out my Switch and start a new playthrough.