Does this even need an introduction? It’s a blog about good games from the previous year that nobody played. Not a Top X, because I have a hard time putting ordering things, and all the games here deserve love in equal amount. That said, let us get started!
Let’s kick this off with CrossCode, an RPG that made me feel so much like a child that after the credits started rolling I tried to remember which day I was supposed to return the cartridge to the store. Everything about the game takes me back to a time of innocence and wonder when videogames were still new and my only worry was if Saint Seya was airing or not. You can tell it at a glance that this is a love project that took six years to make, which probably explains why it dropped with all the impact of a feather touching the surface of the moon, something that I find baffling in this crazy retro wave we’re living.
The best way to describe CrossCode would be if you took the combat from Ys, the charm of Chrono Trigger and the exploration of Zelda, made a cocktail and served with a side dish of mute protagonist. It’s amazing how well it balances these ingredients, just when you think exploring and killing mobs is getting old, the game throws in a dungeon full of puzzles for a nice change of pace, with new concepts and ways to interact with the environment that require some outside the box thinking to get through. Combat is fast, simple, but still nuanced enough that it never gets boring or tedious, with a special highlight to the many bosses you’ll face. It’s also challenging. So much that the game warns you about its accessibility options, that allow you to make everything easier/harder according to your taste. It’s a great option that reminds me of Celeste and that’s always a plus.
And what would an RPG be without a story, and I like CrossCode’s a lot. The setting for the plot is an MMORPG, and the devs get to acknowledge and play along with various tropes of the genre, like the unreasonable geographic locations, the eternal “coming in the next patch” state that MMOs live, gear that doesn’t change your appearance and so many more. It’s charming, it serves the plot, it’s easy for the audience to get into. In the 50 hours I put into my first playthrough I was never once bored, and the themes of empathy and sympathy weaved into the narrative are something I wish more videogames would explore. You can play a demo from your browser right now, so you don’t need to take my word for any of it, just check it out for yourself before deciding.
But if you’re not in the mood for a story and would rather have more concentrated doses of gameplay, then ZeroRanger—a shoot ‘em up ten years in the making—might do the trick. I heard some people describe this game as the Undertale of shmups, which kinda works but I find it reductive in a “Dark Souls of blank” kind of way. The former didn’t invent the use of mechanics as narrative devices the same way the latter didn’t invent bosses that give me a fucking aneurysm (old SNK arcades got me covered there). And much like those two games, ZeroRanger is best experienced if you go in blind, so forgive me for being as vague as YouTube’s TOS for the next paragraph or two.
The game is a love letter to the genre and all the things that influence it, dripping with so many references to other games and anime that if it were a movie, it’d be the Expendables. Fortunately, unlike that movie, ZeroRanger doesn’t rely on references, instead, it assimilates them and in the process, creates something uniquely its own. If you’re worried about the difficulty the genre is famous for, don’t. Most shmups are meant to be played repeatedly with the objective of chasing that ever so elusive high score (and/or the fabled one credit clear), with everything else being used as window-dressing. Ikaruga is a good example, regular free play probably takes less than half an hour to complete but getting your name on the leader boards can take forever. Not that there’s anything wrong with this—the challenge is at the very core of the genre—but ZeroRanger goes for a different approach. It is an experience that has a very defined beginning and end, with scoring being a secondary concern, and nowhere this is more evident than in the presentation. It makes excellent use of motifs both musical—with a killer soundtrack that would make the chips of the SNES proud—and visual—the game’s dual-color palette coupled with creative ship design gives ZeroRanger a distinct and instantly identifiable look— and those motifs are often used in conjunction to invoke all sorts of emotions. You can even find signs of foreshadowing if you know where to look. The game is full of those small details and it will take more than one playthrough to see them all.
That doesn’t mean it will give it to you in a silver platter, you’re gonna have to earn your happy ending baby. On a scale of 0 to Touhou, the difficulty is barely a 1 and checkpoints are plenty—making this a pretty good starting point for getting into the genre— but you’ll still die. Not to worry, death is, in and of itself, part of the narrative that actually acknowledges the cyclical nature that is playing a shmup, but I dare not spoil the specifics. Hell, you don’t even need to 1 Credit Clear the game to reach the true ending. So as long as you keep at it, you’ll get there. I’m not saying that this game is perfect, but I am saying that it perfectly executes everything it tried to accomplish, and the fact that I immediately started a new game upon finishing the credits is a testament to its quality. This is one of the greatest shmups of the decade and it will be remembered as a hidden gem. Also, here’s a demo, go try it.
Speaking of gameplay that must be experienced to be believed, let’s talk about Dusk, because sometimes, a man just needs to let off some steam. If ZeroRanger is like a wine that slowly reveals its secrets to you, Dusk is like absinthe hitting you in the face the second you drink it, but you already knew that when you opened the bottle. I would call Dusk a callback to the golden age of shooters, but that implies that the game is a homage to that time. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of that here but the game is so much more than that. It actually surpasses its inspirations in many regards and stands tall and proud with the best that the genre has to offer. In fact, I can safely say that I like Dusk more than I like the original Quake, and the only reason I can’t rank this higher than Doom is because of historical value.
Since I’m still in the mood for analogies here’s another: Dusk is for the FPS genre what Shovel Knight is for the platform genre. It knows that you know what a shooter is and it refuses to waste your time, avoiding the design pitfalls that plagued its forebears while having some creative ideas of its own. David Szymanski—pretty much the sole developer—is a man that really understands what made those shooters so iconic and it really shows. Over the course of the game’s three episodes, he masterfully balances frenetic action with slow, almost survival horror segments, some of which legitimately made me jump from my chair. There’s even some environmental storytelling sprinkled in. It helps that Andrew Hulshult’s music is part of the package. At this point, he is pretty much the Troy Baker of retro FPS music. Seriously, look up future shooter releases, his name is in all of them. This is not a complaint, the man is doing God’s work out there and I only wish him the best.
To tidy this neat package up, the multiplayer content (named Duskworld and if that reference went over your head I’m sorry) is the most frenetic, batshit lunacy fun I ever had with a shooter in a long time. This is where all the training you had with the single-player mode pays off: a fast-paced, skill-based deathmatch round uses the exact same weaponry and movement from the single-player content. I haven’t seen server-wide bunnyhoping like this since the days of Half-life, and it warms my heart to know people still know how to properly rocket jump. Even if it means I’ll inevitably get wrecked because I’m old and rusty.
And that about wraps it up. I’m sure there are plenty of other games I missed but these three are the ones I consistently find myself coming back to. CrossCode is still being updated with new content, Frag Night happens every Saturday on Duskworld and ZeroRanger just has some of the most hype moments I ever experienced in a shmup. Plus you know, I need to beat my high score. Each of these games probably deserves an entire blog for themselves, but for now, I will content myself with just yelling their names at the uncaring void of the internet. And hopefully, I convinced you to at least wishlist one of them.