A Year of Video Games in Ten Moments (Part 1)
I played a lot of video games in 2017. Far more than any year in quite some time, really, probably going back to my grade school days. I've always played games, but more recently, as adulthood has taken hold, that hobby dwindled to easy to pick up and put down rogue like games, sports titles and the occasional triple A release, usually developed by Naughty Dog studios. That all changed in 2017, mostly thanks to glomming onto the content created by the folks at GiantBomb.com, who I'd always assumed I wouldn't like since they launched and learned this year that I couldn't have been more wrong. Delving into Giant Bomb's new content and archives made be nostalgic for a time where I played games more often, and with one of the biggest video game years of all time on the horizon, I set about reclaiming that part of my life with a gusto I hadn't had in over a decade.
In addition to playing all sorts of new titles that came out, the Giant Bomb staff turned me on to games I had overlooked in the recent past, inspiring me to pick them up for the first time (or, in one specific case, the second time). With the importance of video gaming in my life in 2017, as well as the significance of the year in gaming, it seemed only right to talk about my year rediscovering games in the form of a top ten list of my favorite moments from last year. This first half of the list contains a mix of games new and old. Time to get started.
10. The opera singer - Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (2017)
Surely one of the strangest games of 2017, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle surprised not only in being this bizarre mashup of Mario characters with Ubisoft’s minions-esque Rabbids, but that it was an X-COM style turn-based strategy puzzle game that happened to be really good. It's shocking just how much Nintendo allowed Ubisoft to mess with their most beloved intellectual property (I think it's entirely possible they just weren't paying attention to that weird little project in the corner while they were working on Super Mario Odyssey), poking fun at all sorts of classic foundational Mario tropes.
And the boss of the third world, a flamboyant, sashaying opera singer rabbid who spends half of the battle singing an aria chock full of all sorts of strangely specific and incisive Mario takedowns (“It’s a me! Let’s a-go!” The only words you know!) is Mario + Rabbids at the peak of its unhinged insanity. The fully voiced section follows a game that was to that point a series of grunts and yells from Mario characters and rabbids alike, so it’s quite the arresting experience especially when you consider it was all in service of what is essentially a diss track. Not all of the humor lands, but the sheer audacity of Ubisoft combined with Nintendo’s willingness to merge its properties and be the butt of multiple jokes makes for one of the most indelible experiences in gaming this last year.
9. Winning your first battle - Battle Chef Brigade (2017)
The battles of Battle Chef Brigade are incredibly stressful gaming experience, an ultimate example of trying to juggle so many disparate parts that can make your brain shut down from overheating if you’re not to careful. This super weird game, an anime Iron Chef mixed with a match 3 game and a 2D platforming beat-em-up is a metaphorical pressure cooker, and after some set-up when you finally find yourself inside the kitchen colosseum with a judge who wants a specific taste profile (marked by one of the game’s three different gem colors) and needs you to use a secret ingredient and there’s a 5 minute clock in the top right corner and you have to run out into the woods and hunt these creatures yourself to gather ingredients then run back and cook them all, rotating them to match gems bejeweled style all within the time limit that you almost melt from all the things buzzing through your head.
It’s a hell of a thing.
You’ve gotta hand it to the developers of Battle Chef Brigade that the cooking battles never get so easy that you can relax during them. Quite the opposite, really. Soon you have to cook multiple dishes for different judges, each requiring a different dominant gem color (or multiples that have to be balanced just right) but still needing the secret ingredient. I spent a not insignificant time if my life watching old school episodes of Iron Chef, and I am incredibly impressed how well Battle Chef Brigade manages to recreate the utter chaos and panic that comes from being in kitchen stadium. There is no game quite like this one.
8. Shining Lights, Even in Death - Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)
“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”
The first game I played for an extended period of time in 2017 was not released in 2017. I’m not sure why it took me so long to play through Metal Gear Solid V, but I could say the same thing about Metal Gear Solid 4, which I didn’t finish forever, so hey. Metal Gear Solid V is entirely different from its predecessors, much more of an open world sandbox that takes full advantage of the wild ideas hiding within the recesses of Hideo Kojima’s head. The story of The Phantom Pain is probably the weakest of the series, but the gameplay is absolutely the strongest, so you give a little and end up taking a lot in this case.
Mission 43 is deep within the utterly strange and divisive (and almost certainly unfinished) second act of The Phantom Pain, and it finds you forced to return to Mother Base to fight a new outbreak of the vocal parasites that were a major part of the game’s overall story arc in act one. You’re tasked with entering a quarantine zone and finding the source of the outbreak, only to discover that the infected can’t be cured and must be eliminated in order to ensure the new virus can’t spread to the rest of the Diamond Dogs. The design of the sequence is brutally ingenious, using the real names of soldiers you’ve recruited throughout the game to make sure there is some connection to the people you’re forced to kill. Sure, you spend so much time in the game fultoning random dudes that you can’t really claim to have a relationship with any of these guys, but recognizing their names is enough to generate empathy as you’re forced to exterminate members of your team. And every time you pull the trigger, the game makes it clear that you’re killing your own men, greeting you with a recorded “Staff member has died.” By the time you get to the end, your soldiers are saluting you and welcoming death, knowing they would rather sacrifice themselves than infect their fellow men. It’s quite the visual.
“Shining Lights, Even in Death” is Metal Gear Solid V at its most cinematic, a supremely well-designed scenario with a hell of an ending. As Punished Snake overlooks the sea, unable to callously throw away the ashes of the comrades he was forced to gun down. He takes their ashes in his hand and spreads them across his face, staining it white, and orders the remains to be pressed into diamonds so those who sacrificed themselves will never be forgotten. While The Phantom Pain rarely reaches the cinematic storytelling heights of the predecessors in its series, this mission reminds us just how good of a storyteller Hideo Kojima can be when he puts his mind to it.
7. “Press to time travel” - Titanfall 2 (2016)
Quite a few people overlooked Titanfall 2 when it was released in 2016, and I was definitely among their number. Thanks mostly to its coverage in GiantBomb’s 2016 Game of the Year discussion, I took advantage of a free month of Gamefly to try out Titanfall 2 (as well as DOOM, which barely missed this list). I couldn’t care less about the first Titanfall, in part because I didn’t have an XBox One at the time and in part because first person shooters without good campaigns just don’t interest me, but hearing that Titanfall 2’s story was arguably its strongest aspect certainly piqued my interest.
The campaign of Titanfall 2 does a lot of cool things, but the apex of that (though the GB folks ended up disagreeing with me on this point) is the fifth mission of the game, “Effect and Cause.” The specifics of the story aren’t all that important for context, but “Effect and Cause” finds our protagonist chasing down a missing Major with intel to explain the larger machinations of what’s going on in the world. But more important to the game is what Major Anderson had around his wrist, a Time Gauntlet. On the way to Anderson’s body, the game assaults you with incomprehensible and unexplained jumps back in time, returning you to a far less apocalyptic scene in the timeline. None of it makes any sense until you discover Anderson, dead and suspended in the ceiling that something’s clearly up. Finding his upper half gives you access to the Time Gauntlet, which leads to the prompt that titled this section popping up on the screen.
From that point through the end of the mission, you’re free to time travel between the two timelines whenever you want with the simple press of a button. It’s a pretty good gimmick, but it’s nothing more than a gimmick unless Respawn Entertainment did something worthwhile with it. And boy did they ever. Things start simply enough: you travel back in time to pass a closed door or rubble-blocked staircase. But Respawn ratchets the scenario up from there, as you encounter enemies in both time periods and blink in and out of existence to ambush them from behind, hearing their bewildered radio chatter as they can’t figure out where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And every time you kill someone in the past, their skeleton is waiting from you in the present. It’s deviously designed and deliriously fun, but that’s not the end of it, as Titanfall 2 makes full use of its platforming sections to have you wall-running down a corridor, flipping back and forth from time to time to reveal more walls to run across. It’s breathlessly entertaining, and one of the best designed individual areas of a first person shooter I’ve experienced since Bioshock.
6. Defeating the Shadows of Yharnam - Bloodborne (2015)
Yeah, Bloodborne came out in 2015, but I spent 70+ hours playing it in 2017. Souls games have always been out of my reach, and I actually bought Bloodborne back when it was released only to sell it back when I couldn’t make any progress. A number of factors caused me to come back to it two years later, and I can honestly say that slowly chipping away at the world of Yarnham and actually completing Bloodborne was quite possibly the single most gratifying gaming experience I had in 2017. And it would be impossible thinking of a better example of that than finally triumphing over the Shadows of Yharnam.
I’m sure that more seasoned Souls players might not have had as much trouble with the Shadows as I did, but I could barely survive more than one regular old enemies in this game, let alone three bosses all attacking me at once. I’m not very good at this game. I’m good enough to have beaten it and beaten the majority of the DLC, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually good at this game. And the Shadows of Yharnam kicked my ass in ways I didn’t even know possible. They were the first time in my second, rejuvenated shot at this game that I really wondered if I could actually beat it.
I wasn’t counting how many times it took me to finally take down the Shadows of Yharnam. Sometimes I’d come close, killing one of the three and nearly getting to the second. Sometimes I’d die barely making a dent in any of their life bars. It’s a baptism by fire (literally, considering one of them has a flaming sword and another shoots fire all over the place), a need to completely rethink what you’ve been doing to survive up to that point in the game, forcing your methodology to evolve a bit. But slowly, just as is so often the case in From Software games, you find little things you can exploit, little windows in the animations you can use to get a hit in or get out of dodge. After probably 40 attempts, each time forcing myself to make the long run through the forest back to their lair, I finally landed the killing blow on the last shadow, and the beautiful words PREY SLAUGHTERED appeared on the screen. The triumph of a moment like that is nigh indescribable. I let loose a silent scream, barely able to contain my excitement. My whole body was shaking, the adrenaline coursing. It’s the sort of moment you don’t get too often, and one of the most memorable times of my year.
And that's it for part one. Later this week, I'll drop in with my top five moments in 2017 video gaming, consisting entirely of games that were released that year. See you then!