This article is available in both written and video format. The video shows the games in action in full 4K and 60 frames per second while I read the article as a voiceover, so if you watch the video you won’t need to read the written article that follows since it’s the same ‘script’.
Well, it’s been a year.
2021 has been a pretty stressful one for me, and not just for the obvious reason of the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to hang over the world.
Last year finally saw me returning to full-time games journalism for the first time in six years, as I joined VGC as its features editor.
I also wrote two books last year: a book about platformers called Jumping for Joy, and the N64 Encyclopedia. Both will be released in 2022.
Despite all that writing, and having a three-year-old to help raise on top of it all, I did somehow manage to find time to play some games last year (though many of these were reviews).
With that in mind, let’s mark the return of Tired Old Hack with that annual tradition: yer man Scullion’s 10 favourite games of the past year.
As ever, there are a few caveats to bear in mind before we get started:
• it’s in alphabetical order, not best-to-worst. I can’t be arsed deciding whether a game was my 6th or 7th favourite of the year. They’re all great: get them all.
• before you even think about writing a comment saying this, I didn’t “forget” anything. I haven’t played every game released this year, and this is my personal list. So no, I didn’t forget Metroid Dread or Deathloop or Halo Infinite, I just haven’t played them yet.
That said, let’s get cracking!
The cyberpunk aesthetic rarely does anything for me now.
It’s overused these days, and it takes something pretty special to make a game stand out from the rest of the other moody neon-lit environments I’ve seen over the years.
The Ascent does just that by not only creating a world that’s been meticulously designed but also wrapping it around a genuinely entertaining and satisfying twin-stick shooter.
Its cover mechanic adds a nice verticality to what usually feels like a flat genre, and it’s really satisfying to take out a big gang of enemies single-handedly.
At the time of writing it’s still on Xbox Game Pass, so if you’re a subscriber you really have no excuse not to at least give it a whirl and see if it clicks with you too.
I’ve always been a fan of arcade racing games, going all the way back to the days of Out Run and Chase HQ.
Even those that are generally considered to be a bit rubbish, such as Cruis’n USA, still managed to find a way to hold my interest, and to this day I’ll happily boot one up, jam the accelerator down and fling myself around corners with reckless abandon.
Cruis’n Blast is the spiritual successor to Cruis’n USA, but the main difference is that it’s a genuinely brilliant game, rather than fun in an ironic way.
It provides the sort of arcade racing action that you probably picture in your head when you think of ‘90s arcade racers, when in reality they were never actually this over-the-top and exhilarating.
Cruis’n Blast starts you off with a range of fancy vehicles, but then quickly shifts over to silliness allowing you to race as the likes of a helicopter, a unicorn, a triceratops or a hammerhead shark.
Meanwhile, the stages are full of ridiculous set pieces, my favourite being the London stage, which opens with the London Eye falling off its supports and rolling through the city, dropping its capsules on you.
No game last year provided such a consistent level of action and I still play it on a regular basis, months after reviewing it.
Forza Horizon 5
I don’t think it’s a massive coincidence that a Forza Horizon game has finally received wide support for game of the year contention now that Xbox has released a console that’s more popular than the Xbox One.
Anyone who saw my top 10 games of 2018 would have seen Forza Horizon 4 in there, and even though it didn’t enjoy the same sort of widespread appeal Forza Horizon 5 is now getting, that more or less did the same sort of thing, albeit this time there’s a change of location from the UK to Mexico.
To be fair, the fifth game’s not entirely identical. The new Accolades system gives players a bit more freedom to progress through the game by focusing mainly on the things they prefer to do, be that racing, exploring, playing online or collecting cars.
It isn’t massively different from its predecessors, then, but when its predecessors are so fantastic in the first place that can only be a good thing.
I’m just happy that the series is finally getting the widespread recognition that it deserves, rather than being considered one of the better titles on a console nobody cared about.
GoldenEye 007 HD
Okay, I know, I’m technically cheating with this one, because this Xbox 360 remaster of GoldenEye 007 was originally supposed to be released in 2008, but was ultimately cancelled for all manner of reasons.
That said, it was only this year that the vast majority of us even found out about it, and the fact it was then leaked to the public and made fully playable on modded Xbox 360 consoles means that to all intents and purposes it was ‘new’ in 2021. Look, it’s my list.
The 360 remaster improves on the original in every way imaginable, from a vastly enhanced frame rate and resolution to new textures and character models.
The twin-stick aiming brings it in line with modern FPS titles and it’s just generally a better game all around.
At the time of writing this, achievements for an Xbox One version have just been discovered, so with any luck this year we’ll actually be getting a proper, official GoldenEye remaster. Fingers crossed for 4K and 120fps support.
It Takes Two
You have to jump through some hoops before you can start playing It Takes Two.
Firstly, you have to find a willing co-op partner, and secondly, you have to make sure that they’re as handy with a controller as you are: this isn’t a game that provides handicaps for partners who may not be as well versed in video games.
This creates an unfortunate barrier to entry for a selection of players, but for those who fit the bill, It Takes Two is one of the greatest co-op experiences you’ll ever enjoy.
Its strength lies in its ability to constantly introduce new ideas with each stage, ensuring the gameplay never starts to feel stale or repetitive.
The ending is a little bit weak, which for a game about plot is a slight disappointment, but that aside, in terms of pure gameplay it’s a fantastic two-player title and a journey that’s not to be missed, as long as you know someone good enough to accompany you on it.
I’m sure a lot of hilarious folk will tell you that Bloober Team’s latest horror game The Medium has that title because that’s roughly where its Metacritic scores lie.
But there was something about this brilliantly atmospheric title that just caught my attention and held onto it throughout its fairly brief duration.
I think it’s because to some extent it reminded me of the brilliant Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, in that it’s a horror game where the player can’t actually fight back, and the only way to survive is to avoid the horrors you encounter.
More than that, though, it’s just a beautiful-looking game, and its interesting split-screen gimmick makes really effective use of the extra power of the Xbox Series X by essentially rendering two worlds at the same time.
It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you fancy a horror game that isn’t massively difficult, isn’t 30 hours long and focuses more on explanation than combat, then The Medium is a fascinating wee adventure.
Nintendo’s remakes and remasters
Let’s face it. I could probably have filled half this list with all the remakes and remasters Nintendo released this year, but rather than give you a hugely predictable list, I decided to just lump them all into one entry.
The most notable one was released early in the year: Super Mario 3D World didn’t change too much from its Wii U version but it didn’t really have to, because it was already fantastic as it was.
What was more interesting about it was the addition of Bowser’s Fury, a curious wee take on what could be the future direction of Mario games, with one large open-world environment split into smaller islands. It was brief, but great fun.
2021 also saw the release of Skyward Sword HD, a much-needed 1080p revamp of the somewhat underrated Wii exclusive. I think a lot of people turned against it at the time because motion controls were starting to become a bad word by then, but time heals all wounds and it feels like it’s appreciated more these days, partly thanks to this new version.
At the end of the year we also got Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, which were the very definition of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. Although the gameplay didn’t differ too much from the DS originals, I still spent weeks enjoying its newly chibi-fied environments, and just falling in love with Pokémon all over again.
Easily the most interesting one for me, though, was the Famicom Detective Club games. These were both previously only released in Japan back at the end of the ‘80s and I’d always wanted to try them out, so to finally get an official localisation after more than 30 years was quite special.
Add to that the fact that they were beautifully remade with fantastic illustrations, as well as the option to switch between newly arranged soundtracks and the original Famicom Disk System music, just made the whole thing a massive love letter to a series that nobody in the west saw coming, and I think that’s why I loved it so much.
I’m really not usually a fan of procedural generation in games, so when I was handed Returnal for review, I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.
It turns out, however, that Housemarque’s first attempt at a third-person action-adventure game is so compelling that I found myself staying up to 3-4 in the morning giving it the old “one more go” routline each time I died. Which was a lot.
It’s funny, because Housemarque is generally known more for its 2D shoot ‘em ups like Resogun and the Super Stardust games, and in a sense Returnal still plays very much like one of these.
Each enemy has its own attack pattern and you’ll spend plenty of time diving out of the way of enormous seas of bullets, just like you would in a shoot ‘em up.
I think this level of action and the fact that everything constantly runs at a nippy pace made me warm a lot more to it, and as such it’s one of those rare examples of a procedural generation game that clicked for me.
Sonic Colours Ultimate
I’ve always been an unashamed fan of Sonic games: yes, even the rubbish ones. Sonic Colours was never a rubbish one, though: its main problem is that it was a Wii exclusive that arrived at a time when a lot of people had lost interest in both the Wii and Sonic games.
As such, a lot of players didn’t discover Sonic Colours the first time around, with some presumably fobbing it off as the latest in a long line of disappointing Sonic games.
This wasn’t another Sonic & The Black Knight or Sonic Unleashed, though. Sonic Colours is what happens when modern 3D Sonic gameplay works as well as it possibly could.
This HD remaster still has its fair share of bugs – especially on the Switch version at launch, though most of these have since been fixed – but when everything all clicks together, it’s a fantastic combination of 3D high-speed sections and slower paced 2D platforming sections, with the Wisp power-ups adding a bit of variety.
If you’ve been dismissing Sonic Colours all this time because it’s a relatively recent Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Mania, you should really give it a chance, because it’s about as good as the modern 3D era Sonic gets.
Finally, here’s one I gave an average score to when I reviewed it for Nintendo Life (though that score did come with a disclaimer).
At face value, Wrestling Empire is an absolute mess. It’s got more bugs than the storage cupboards of a spider farm and it looks uglier than a hate crime, but the great thing about it is that it’s in on the joke.
You can fill up the ring with an obscene number of wrestlers all at once and watch as the whole thing devolves into a complete uncontrollable shambles, and that just makes the thing so entertaining.
I stand by my original score of 6/10 because I think for the vast majority of players hoping to play a decent wrestling game, they’re not going to find it here. This isn’t anywhere near on level of the likes of WWF No Mercy or even the modern WWE 2K games (yes, even the bad ones) in terms of stability.
But anyone expecting a laugh and doesn’t mind a game that fully embraces how broken it is will have a hilarious time with it, especially if you can find others to struggle with it alongside you.
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