2021 Game of the Year

This 2021 Game of the Year article could be longer, but I think I cover the necessary categories well enough to post one this year.  (I did a GOTY list in 2019, but not 2020.  It makes a return this time.)

Introduction

In 2021, as per usual in recent years, while I bought a large number of games, few are 2021 releases. Additionally, while I did try most of the notable recent releases that I did buy, there are many games I bought this year but haven’t played yet. I have spent a lot of time playing Mario Maker 2 instead of other games. That leads into an interesting question, that of playing endless online games — for me primarily Mario Maker 2, followed by Splatoon 1 and Dead or Alive 6 — versus shorter single player games either for new or old consoles. I like both, but those multiplayer games take up a lot of time and are quite addictive.

With that said, there are a few 2021 releases that I want to recognize. Following that will be a list of my favorite games that I bought in 2021, regardless of when they released. And last, my overall favorite games of the year regardless of when I first bought them. Hey, I played over 250 hours of Mario Maker 2 this year and still absolutely love the game, I need to give it continued recognition!

Please note, some of these games are available on platforms other than the one I mention, but I only list the platform I have the game on.

The Best New Releases of 2021

1. Cruis’n Blast – Nintendo Switch – One of the first arcade racing games to be released on console in the past decade, is an outstanding, incredibly fun experience that totally captivated me for the 20-ish hours that it took me to unlock everything and beat all of the challenges, getting every collectible.  This game is by a wide margin to best game in the Cruis’n franchise and is a must-play title for anyone who likes arcade-style racing games at all.  I should have written a full review of this game a few months ago, and still plan to.  I will save my full thoughts on the game for that.

2. Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury – Nintendo Switch (this is here for the new part, Bowser’s Fury.) – I don’t like Bowser’s Fury as much as the base game, but it’s still an incredibly fun Mario experience. While it is very well made, I do kind of dislike how Bowser’s Fury gets far away from 3D World’s design philosophy, unfortunately; I really like the multiplayer, level-based concept of 3D World, but Bowser’s Fury is an open-world single player adventure. What they made is great, but personally I would rather have seen more content in 3D World’s style. It’s also disappointing that you can only play as Mario in Bowser’s Fury, that was a mistake. This is the Mario game with a bunch of interesting playable characters, after all! Put them in the new part too! Still, it’s a fantastic re-release with significant added content. And Bowser’s Fury really is very good, for the short time it lasts.

3. Diablo II Resurrected – Xbox Series X (also on Xbox One) – This is a remake, but the new graphics mode puts it in this category and not just classic re-releases, I think.  The gameplay is the same as before, but the new dramatically larger storage chest makes this game MUCH MUCH less frustrating to play than the original version, since you can store so much more stuff!  Your inventory is the same size, but your storage chest has a whole bunch of tabs you won’t find in the original game.  The redrawn art looks fantastic in 4K, too.

4. WarioWare: Get It Together! – Nintendo Switch – This game is very good, but I was aa bit disappointed, as I will say below.  I think it deserves its place here anyway, though; if you can get a handle on its complexities, there’s a very rewarding experience here.
5. Magical Fairy Force – Atari 5200 (physical release was 2021) – I covered this game in my review, but yes it’s pretty good and well worth playing.
6. Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth – PC – I’m not the biggest Metroidvania fan but this one is definitely pretty fun.  It’s short and mostly easy, but has great graphics and animation and good music.  It gets harder later on, also, and the classic anime license is nice to see.
7. Age of Empires IV – PC – While I have always liked the Age of Empires series, I found it a bit too slow-paced.  This game is a very faithful classic RTS and that is fantastic to see, but… I still don’t entirely love the series.  This is good but not the best, I’d say.
8. Seasonal Assistant – Nintendo Wii U – This little indie game is one of the dev Ultra Dolphin Revolution’s last Wii U games, and it’s a similar NES-styled top-down action game, just like the previous two Assistant games, but with a holiday theme this time.  It’s pretty fun.  I hope Ultra Dolphin Revolution continues making games on some other platform after Wii U game uploads finally are shut off next year.
9. New Pokemon Snap – Nintendo Switch – I am a strong critic of the original Pokemon Snap for N64, but this game fixes most of the original’s worst mistakes.  Most notably, there is more than an hour of content this time!  Yes it’s true, you actually have reason to play the game more than once.  There’s a lot here and it’s well done.  The visuals are nice and the game has a good amount of stuff to find and take pictures of in each environment.
10. R-Type Final 2 – Xbox Series X (also on Xbox One) – While flawed, there is more than enough R-Type greatness here to make it deserving of being on this list.  This game is crushingly hard like you expect from this series but it makes you want to keep trying.  The game sometimes feels unfair due to near-invisible enemies or obstacles though, the graphics are visually bland and sterile-looking, and limited continues were an awful choice; R-Type DX, more than twenty years ago, does continues far better!  Still, it IS R-Type.

The Most Disappointing Game of 2021

Wario Ware: Get It Together! – While a lot about this game is good, it is also extremely frustrating and difficult in a way past games in the series aren’t. I liked playing through the story despite the frustration of the extremely different ways the characters control, but quit almost immediately after that because the weekly challenge mode doubles down on the worst and least fun things about the game in an unpleasant way.  The moving-a-character concept makes the microgames much harder to figure out in an instant than past games in the series, and the very different abilities and controls of the characters are by design highly unbalanced as well.  This makes the game more varied, but also more frustrating depending on who you are playing as at the moment. Once you get into the challenge mode and have to beat lots of minigames with certain characters, or such, while trying for good scores, the game quickly gets quite frustrating.  I finished story mode and enjoyed that, but quit on challenge mode after just a couple of weeks and have not gone back.  This game is good but for its series is a definite disappointment; the experiment of Warioware but with more complex, character-based controls is, I think, not a success on the whole compared to how the series was before.

Tales of Arise also disappoints me. It’s alright but not nearly as good as I was hoping, either in gameplay, story, world design, or graphics.  The story is predictable (wait, a Tales game has… evil racists? No!), the world mostly linear, the battle system somewhat odd in how the characters share meter, and more.  It does not make my best of 2021 list.

The Best Classic Re-releases of 2021

All three of these re-releases are exceptional, must-have games or collections if you have any interest in the games included!

1. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury – Nintendo Switch (for the re-release of 3D World) – Mario 3D World is one of the best 3d platformers ever. It plays faster than the original Wii U game, and I think I like the pacing of the original version better, but for those without a Wii U this is an essential purchase. For me, buying this made me go back to the Wii U game again. Still, it wins this category anyway because of how amazing the game is. Super Mario 3D World is a highly under-rated classic as good as almost anything in the series. It’s not quite Mario 64 or Super Mario World’s equal, but it’s a very high-tier game.

2. Blizzard Classic Arcade Collection – Xbox One (played on Xbox Series X) – Blizzard’s collection contains all of their non-licensed SNES, Genesis, and 32X games, including some all-time classics, and is very well presented.  I’m a longtime The Lost Vikings fan, and this game is there, and with a new mode that combines the best features of both the SNES and Genesis versions into one.  The pretty good topdown racer Rock n Roll Racing has some nice new modes, also.  This collection also includes the first ever re-release of a 32X game, the 32X version of Blackthorne.  Blizzard beat Sega at this one, sadly enough.  They even added the SNES versions of Lost Vikings 2 and RPM Racing as a later, free patch!  Pretty awesome stuff.  Seeing Lost Vikings 2 get re-released is particularly cool.  It’s kind of too bad that it is only the SNES version and not the next-gen one on PC/PS1/Saturn, but I know that Blizzard themselves only made the SNES game so it makes sense that is the one included here.  The game itself is the same, only the graphics and audio were changed.  I like the SNES graphics, it has nice sprite art versus the somewhat mixed quality CGI rendered stuff of the next-gen version.  I just liked the voice acting in the CD version.  Ah well.  [As for the missing licensed games, Justice League Task Force, for either SNES or Genesis, is pretty poor and is no loss.  The Death and Return of Superman for SNES is better, but the licensing would be a problem for sure and it’s still average.]

3. Gleylancer – Xbox Series X (also on Xbox One) – And in third but still really great, Gleylancer is a fantastic shmup and has the best CRT shader ever in a classic game re-release.  It’s very configurable and looks great.  And again, the game itself is one of the better ones of its time as well.  Gleylancer is very hard but well worth putting some effort into.  The game natively supports next gen consoles and outputs at 4K on the XSX, also.  Nice stuff.  They followed this up with a re-release of Gynoug / Wings of Wor, but I haven’t gotten that one.

My Favorite Games I Bought in 2021 That Released Before 2021

1. Space Dungeon – Atari 5200 – this absolutely exceptional twinstick shooter is something any fan of the genre MUST play! My review is written and will be posted once I finish the rest of part three of Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries.
2. Super Mario 3D Allstars – Nintendo Switch – This is in second because while exceptional, all three included games were previously available on other consoles.  This collection got some controversy, but is mostly great.
3. Polybius (2018) – PC – Jeff Minter makes amazing games.  This rail shooter is one of his best.  I wish I had a VR setup, I’m sure this game looks unbelievably cool that way…
4. Gate of Thunder (Japanese copy) – TurboGrafx CD – Stiflingly enclosed top-tier shmupping defines this game well.  It’s fantastic but claustrophobic at times.
5. Moose Life – PC – More Jeff Minter rail shooter goodness!  And yes, it’s very very good.  I don’t like it quite as much as Polybius, but it’s a cool game in his inimitable style.
6. Immortals: Fenyx Rising – Xbox Series X (also on Xbox One) – I was surprised by how good I found this game from last year; I’m not an open world game fan at all, but this one has enough structure to work even for me.  There is a decent balance of exploration and clear forward progression here.  The combat and controls feel good and it looks quite nice.   I don’t mind the story either, and like the ancient Greek setting.
7. ToeJam & Earl – Sega Genesis – I don’t love this game like some do, and never have, but after playing more of it I finally started to see why people liked it so much.  This game is basically a non-violent roguelike, which is a pretty interesting concept.  It executes on the idea fairly well.
8. Battlemorph – Atari Jaguar CD – The low framerate is the main thing holding back this otherwise interesting futuristic flight combat game.  Battlemorph isn’t as good as Warhawk on PS1 or Starfighter on 3DO, but is a good game that plays well and has nice variety and decent depth.  Once you get used to it this game is quite fun.
9. Castlevania Anniversary Collection (Nintendo Switch) – This is a solid collection of Konami classics.  It’s too bad that Rondo of Blood and the later two Game Boy games (GB Kid Dracula and Castlevania Legends) aren’t included, but it’s otherwise good.
10. Contra Anniversary Collection (Nintendo Switch) – Finally, a cheap way to play the Japanese version of Contra Hard Corps, with multiple hit points!  I wish they had the hit points option with English text mod here, but still, it’s pretty awesome to see.

Honorable Mentions: Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 (Xbox Series X), Vanguard (Atari 5200), Kingdoms of Amalur Re-Reckoning (Xbox One/Series X), Blaster (Atari 5200), Gridder (Commodore VIC-20), Tunnels of Doom (TI 99/4A), Trials Rising (Xbox One), A Magical High School Girl (Nintendo Switch), Dragon Quest Heroes (Playstation 4), Jewel Link Chronicles: Mountains of Madness (Nintendo DS), Super Demon Attack (TI 99/4A), Scarlet Nexus (Xbox Series X), Treasure Island (TI 99/4A), Mia’s Picnic (Nintendo 3DS), Reader Rabbit (Apple II)

And lots more highly deserving games that I bought but never got around to playing. Shame on me for that…

What I’ve Mostly Actually Been Playing In 2021: My Favorite Ongoing, Endlessly Playable Games

1. Mario Maker 2 – Nintendo Switch – I played over 250 hours of this game according to Nintendo this year, and I believe it; this game is just about the perfect game, conceptually. I mean, it’s very far from perfect — Nintendo made many significant mistakes here — but it’s great despite them and I absolutely love everything about Mario Maker. I badly wish that instead of abandoning it Nintendo had given the game the support it deserves, but even just what we have is one of the best (and worst, but that’s part of the fun!) games ever made.  Nintendo may have mostly abandoned this game, but it’s my favorite regardless.

2. Splatoon – Wii U – After getting up to A+ rank I greatly slowed down how often I play this exceptional game, but it is still the best console first or third person shooter ever made and I still go back to it as a result. Splatoon 2 isn’t anywhere near as good for several reasons, first among them the much worse input lag. That game feels noticeably worse to play than this one. I’ll stick to this game, thanks.  It is still amazing and still, thankfully, has an active community of people playing it online, particularly from Japan.  Finding a game rarely takes very long.

3. The Nintendo 3DS Picross e Series – This kind of doesn’t count here since there are a limited number of puzzles on the 3DS games, but I’m including it anyway because I play a Picross puzzle or two just about every day and yet still have a vast numbenr left. I’ve finished several of the games in this series now and will keep going until I play through them all. I have little interest in the Switch games due to the controls, you need touch with stylus for this kind of game to play its best.

4. Dead or Alive 6 – Xbox One (played on Xbox Series X to finally make the load times tolerable) – This game is the one I like but also kind of hate but keep going back to the online multiplayer of.  The over-sexualization, monetization, unlock procedure, and more are big issues with this game, but it has great fighting mechanics, is addictive, and has people still playing it online on Xbox.  The Xbox version on a Series X is also one of the only 3d fighting games with 4k60 graphics.  I got up to A+ rank earlier in 2021 but then started losing almost every single match, so I stopped playing for quite some time and have only sporadically gone back. I still lose most of the time, which was not the case before Tecmo announced the game was being abandoned. I think the players who aren’t really good mostly quit the game at that point and never returned. It’s frustrating because the mechanics are really good, but what can you do…

Overall Game Awards: My Favorite Games of 2021, New or Old

1. Super Mario Maker 2 – Nintendo Switch (and also Best Ongoing Game)
2. Space Dungeon – Atari 5200 (and also Best Old Game)
3. Cruis’n Blast – Nintendo Switch (and also Best New Game)

Honorable Mention: Polybius – PC (not new but a must play!)

I think this top four covers my favorite games of this year quite well.  All of these four games are absolute must-play classics. Cruis’n Blast, best new game of 2021!  Buy it today if you haven’t yet, it’s one of the most purely fun things I have played in a long time.

 

Platform and Special Awards

 

My most-played consoles of 2021

Please note: I am sure that number one on this list is first by a good margin, but I don’t know for sure what the order of the rest of the systems is for certain.  I’ve just got to guess.

  1. Nintendo Switch
  2. Xbox Series X
  3. Nintendo 3DS
  4. Nintendo Wii U
  5. Atari 5200
  6. Atari Jaguar / Jaguar CD
  7. PlayStation 4
  8. Nintendo DS
  9. Sega Genesis
  10. TurboGrafx-16 / CD


Special Awards

Best Graphics: I know I got this game in November 2020, when I was so lucky as to get an Xbox Series X on launch day (due to having pre-ordered it day one), but experiencing The Falconeer in 4k 120fps is an experience that is hard to forget.  The game is good but definitely has some jank, but the graphics, reasonably high poly count flat-shaded polygons, look incredible.  Other than that, this is another game from not 2021, but Dead or Alive 6 in 4k60 does look quite nice.  As for games from this year, I’m not sure; the winner probably should be Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Xbox Series X release, but I haven’t played that.  Of the games in my top eight at the top of this post, it’s Diablo II Resurrected.  It’s a nice looking game with some fantastic lighting.

Best Music: For new games, is it cheating to say that Diablo II has a truly great soundtrack?  This game has the exact same music as the original from 2000, but it is really good…

Worst Company: Activision-Blizzard.  I may be a huge Blizzard fan, particularly of their games released between 1993 and 2003, but they sure earned this one no question!  They still make some of my favorite games ever, but between the sexual harassment and the hiring of awful former Republican party officials, Activision-Blizzard and their very long-term boss Bobby Kotick well earned this “award”, sadly.  On the other hand, but it looks like most of the worst behavior came out of the World of Warcraft team, a game I have never liked anyway, so… the Blizzard I loved, as far as I know, largely isn’t directly connected to that stuff.

Best and Worst Level Design: Super Mario Maker 2.  You sure get a lot of the worst from this game, though that’s part of the fun, but some people have made really good levels as well.  It covers the full gamut of quality and that is one of the amazing things about the game; there is an endless amount of content, and while it certainly is not all worth playing, more than enough is to fill as many hours as I want to play it for.

Best Surprise: My discovering how incredible Space Dungeon for the Atari 5200 is.  This game is seriously incredible.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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