Author: Jed Pressgrove

An Essay Series on Video Game Remakes

by Jed Pressgrove

Below are links to all of the essays of my series on video game remakes. The series ended March 31, 2021. As always, thank you for reading.

What Do Video Game Remakes Say?
Galaga ’88: When an Arcade Masterpiece Should Be Left Alone
Super Mario All-Stars: Aesthetics Be Damned!
Rethinking My Stance on Remakes
Having It Both Ways in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
Resident Evil 2: Faking the Remake
Final Fantasy VII Elongated

Paper Mario: Sticker Star, The Most Underrated Pop Game of the 2010s

by Jed Pressgrove

During the 2010s, the game industry fed audiences at a gluttonous rate. Major releases often propagated open world ideology, which tells us that more is better and that we can obtain ultimate freedom in games. With a religious dedication to Content, numerous titles operated like buffet restaurants, offering constant character progression through the accumulation of experience points, comprehensive maps that reduce the likelihood of delayed gratification, and cookie-cutter tasks that sometimes reward the player for just showing up to the party, so to speak (in Fantasy Life, the common act of entering a shop and talking to a clerk is, ridiculously, a “quest”).

Years into the future, we may look back at 2010s pop games and find that many of them blur together like Marvel Universe movies. Paper Mario: Sticker Star, though, will be among those works that shall not be mistaken for any other. Sticker Star was the rare 2010s pop game that went full throttle with an unusual concept with little regard for whether people found it easily digestible. By and large, people didn’t give Sticker Star the credit it deserved. It contradicted what they were used to. It didn’t feed them like the typical 2010s pop game.

The (Consumable) Concept

Sticker Star revolves around the collection of stickers. Without them, Mario can’t defeat foes or access numerous locations. The kicker is that every sticker can only be used once, and Mario’s sticker album has limited space. Luckily, you see stickers everywhere. They’re plastered on buildings, trees, the ground, you name it. All Mario has to do is pull the sticker off whatever it’s stuck to.

Peeling a sticker comes with comic satisfaction. In cartoonish fashion, Mario puts some muscle into it. The player must hold a button to watch Mario tug and tug and, finally, snatch a sticker from a surface.

There’s a distinctive feeling attached to this action of holding a button, a strong sense that there’s a struggle in motion, however silly it might be. I can’t help but think that, in this small but significant respect, Sticker Star outclasses other pop 2010s games. One of the biggest trends of 2010s gaming was the need to hold down a button, whether to open a menu, enter a building, or initiate just about any other trivial activity you can think of. This trend, which continues to this day, tends to be annoying, if not stupid, in its unnecessariness. In 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, for instance, you must hold a button to pull a switch, yet the game gives no visual evidence that the protagonist must exert any extra energy to perform the menial task. No such disconnect exists with Mario’s sticker-pulling. Holding a button in Sticker Star is not merely about the game following a dimwitted fad — the requirement comes across as an essential way of communicating that the stickers really stick. It even lends suspense to the proceedings when baddies inch closer to Mario as he yanks on an adhesive label.

In a curious departure from modern inventory and menu design, Sticker Star doesn’t provide any description of its most special stickers, which are a slew of random real-world objects — from a bowling ball to a fan, from a radiator to a guitar. In many cases, the purpose of a special sticker is self-explanatory. Even a person with a sorry imagination could guess what a baseball bat would entail. But with certain finds, there’s a bit of mystery as to what the effect of the sticker will be. Ingeniously, the ambiguity both arouses the player’s curiosity and sets the stage for ironic visual punchlines when the stickers’ powers are revealed.

A Bold Revision of Turn-Based Combat

In the style of Super Mario RPG and the first two Paper Marios, touching enemies in Sticker Star initiates turn-based combat, and timed button presses lead to more effective offense and defense. Sticker Star has a distinctive take on this classic system: with the exception of running away, every action requires the use of one sticker, so if you run out of stickers, you can’t attack or heal. In most turn-based RPGs, efficiency is a goal. In Sticker Star, efficiency is a necessity. Wiping out enemies in a single turn not only saves stickers but also gives Mario bonus coins. Coins are for two essential things: (1) purchasing more stickers and (2) triggering a slot-machine minigame that can, if played successfully, allow Mario to use multiple stickers in one turn.

Fascinatingly, there are no experience points in Sticker Star, so success in combat is always a product of skill and, when particular enemies have resistances or weaknesses to certain stickers, thought. Sticker Star rejects the comfortable, widely approved notion that players should always grow more powerful to the point where they don’t even have to pay attention to the battle system. Grinding as we know it doesn’t exist in Sticker Star.

This provocative creative spin on a well-worn idea was a disappointment for many players and critics. Instead of recognizing the different philosophy of Sticker Star’s turn-based system, they focused on how the game didn’t meet their predictable expectations. This quote from Ben Lee’s review at Digital Spy represents a common line of thinking about Sticker Star:

But while the battle system is enjoyable, the battles themselves are let down by the fact that there’s no character progression at all. Mario never gains experience or levels up, and health increases are periodically found rather than earned. Mario copes with increasingly tougher enemies by picking up better stickers mostly while you’re exploring the world, which makes engaging in battles rather pointless.

The stickers being disposable also introduces a couple of problems. Firstly, you may feel inclined to save your best stickers for a tough fight or impending boss. This means that dealing with non-threatening encounters takes longer than it should as you’re deliberately using your worst stickers.

Secondly, battles don’t always reward you with stickers, so in most cases, fighting will slowly deplete your album. There are more than enough stickers in levels for this not to be a huge issue, but getting nothing useful out of battles inspires you further to avoid enemy encounters.

There are multiple problems with this passage. As I suggested above, the point of battling is to accumulate coins through efficient usage of stickers so that Mario can be prepared for more difficult segments of the game. You don’t always know what stickers will be the most helpful in a given level or boss fight, but maintaining a varied collection of stickers and figuring out which ones lead to the fastest destruction of your opponents is the challenge. Without that challenge, one would sleepwalk through Sticker Star, and the game would have little to distinguish itself from countless pop games.

“[D]eliberately using your worst stickers” is the exact opposite of what one should do in Sticker Star. Owning and using less-effective stickers results in inefficiency, which means fewer coins and a more depleted sticker collection. One’s strategy should be to remember the types of attacks that tend to do well against enemies with similar traits and to, accordingly, stock up on such stickers, whether by revisiting locations (stickers reappear in the same places after you exit a level) or going to a shop. Don’t waste your inventory space on stickers that don’t have broad applicability. The disposability of stickers is indeed a problem, as Lee states, but it’s a problem that can be solved with knowledge, experimentation, and intuition. Rather than getting stronger artificially through experience points, you get better by drawing on your literal experience as a player.

At one point in Sticker Star, I found myself low on coins and in need of certain stickers. I ended up looking for battles with four or five enemies at a time, knowing from previous engagement that I could take them all out with a single turtle shell attack and rack up dozens of coins in a snap. This is not to say I never avoided battles like Lee. Sometimes, to preserve your number of stickers, avoidance is key. What do you need more? More stickers or more coins to buy different stickers? This is the central management conflict in Sticker Star that influences whether a fight is worthwhile.

The unique appeal of combat in Sticker Star goes beyond mathematical considerations. Although Mario RPGs have always emphasized active button pressing during turn-based battle, Sticker Star takes the feel of it all to another level, and I’m not merely talking about the rhythmic timing involved with the many techniques. There’s a much different sensation when you jump on an enemy using a regular boot attack versus a steel boot attack. The former has an appropriate lightness and momentum to it, while the latter carries an illusion of extra weight coming down when performed — a delectable feeling that is noticeably absent in 2020’s Paper Mario: Origami King. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you fail to execute a particular type of hammer attack, the weapon snaps in two, and your very finger is left with a resounding sense of flimsiness. Because of this profound tactility, I have rarely felt as impotent playing turn-based games as I do when I screw up in Sticker Star.

The audio of Sticker Star further punctuates failure. When your hammer breaks, a sound effect suggesting immense clumsiness rings out. Even more devastating is when the standard battle music devolves into a bastardized, bizarro version of itself when Mario is near death. An awkward, ominous form of the previously upbeat melody is accompanied by an unpleasant pulsating bass line that evokes sloppy drunkenness. Although the timing for Mario’s moves doesn’t change here, the disturbing sonic transition can very well affect one’s performance as a distraction. The potential disorientation here is almost as powerful as the dynamics of the “Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy” stage in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. But unlike that SNES classic — which delivers its druggy experience with an altered soundtrack, wavy visuals, and inexact controls — Sticker Star achieves a similar effect with sound alone.

Boss battles represent another area where Sticker Star doesn’t care about the tenets of a traditional RPG. Unless you can identify a sticker that cripples the abilities of a boss, the game’s bigger fights are grueling and unforgiving. This characteristic of Sticker Star is considered a grave sin by more than a few critics. Here’s what Philip Kollar said in his Polygon review:

Boss battles also become more dependent on these item-based solutions. An ink-spewing squid at the end of one area is nearly impossible to beat if you don’t bring along a sponge sticker to soak up its attacks. Mixing combat and puzzles is a problem because it happens without warning and without a way to call up new stickers during the fight. If you enter a boss battle without the single specific sticker needed for victory, you might as well reset the game and try again. At least “Thing” stickers can be purchased in the town hub and replaced in your book after you’ve used them, so it’s not difficult to prepare once you know which sticker is needed.

While this analysis is more level-headed than others, Kollar’s suggestion that certain stickers are “needed” to advance in each boss encounter is not accurate. With a well-stocked inventory (i.e., plenty of health-restoring mushrooms, weapons that allow for higher combos, and special stickers), I defeated multiple bosses without exploiting their weak points, and the tension that came with these hard-earned wins recalled the suspense of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door’s Bonetail fight, the most difficult and meaningful conflict in that now-classic sequel. In fact, it could be argued that knowing which sticker to use against every boss in Sticker Star takes something away from the emotional potential of the game. If one, as I did, manages to eke out more than one nail-biting victory against Sticker Star’s bosses, one will be that much more relieved and jubilant when an optimal weapon is utilized. Many great games, from Castlevania III to The Witcher 2, are worth playing precisely because they scoff at our desire to dominate the competition as a prophesied hero would. I put Paper Mario: Sticker Star in the company of those works, which is a most unusual distinction for a Mario spinoff.

A World Ripe for Exploration and Satire

Despite its lackluster reputation, Sticker Star received a fair bit of praise for its level design. Stages are almost like toys that Mario can manipulate and break. Sticker Star’s visual style, which draws heavy attention to the paper- and cardboard-based artificiality of the environments, practically dares players to go wild with Mario’s hammer with the hope to find new routes or uncover items by busting up some contrived piece of the world. The game doesn’t skimp on variety, either. There’s an Egypt-inspired Yoshi sphinx structure with numerous nooks and crannies, a mansion that recalls the setting of the original Resident Evil, and a rafting adventure that has Mario facing the background, foreground, or the side of the screen as he rides a set of logs and dodges everything from floating barrels to Shyguys swinging on vines. There’s only a few missteps, like the ski lift level that essentially recycles a banal flying Goomba obstacle and a second rafting stage that features an underwhelming conflict with a giant fish.

At the same time, Sticker Star can demand an exhausting amount of backtracking, almost as an ode to the sigh-inducing back-and-forth traveling in the unforgettable Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Some of the pathfinding in Sticker Star involves head-scratching and pedantic solutions. In one level, ice must be melted to advance, but even though several stickers involve heat, only one of them will work for the puzzle. In most cases, the sticker must fit snugly into a specific space to bring about a new path. Yet, confoundingly, in a handful of situations, a sticker that would otherwise seem to have the wrong width and height is actually what needs to be used. The most extreme nuisance is Sticker Star’s third world, which demands Mario to hunt down and chase individual moving pieces of a yellow caterpillar. If you lack patience here, you won’t experience a significant chunk of the game’s levels, so as unrepentantly tedious as the quest is, it functions as a rite of passage, testing one’s gumption and will and highlighting Sticker Star’s rejection of both linear and open world design. (And once the ordeal is over, you’re rewarded with an amusing scene of the reconstructed caterpillar circling his treehouse like a furious train.)

If nothing else, the rough side of Sticker Star is worth enduring for the opportunity to see more of the game’s hysterical irreverence toward video game norms. To advance in World 1-5, Mario must set off an over-the-top chain reaction that has everything from trees to mountains to clouds toppling into each other like dominoes — the wacky sight reminds us that game environments are but grand contrivances, whether to gawk at as dynamic visual marvels or to influence with preposterous authority. World 3-4 has an area where Mario can use a bowling ball sticker to knock over some pins, but the ball, instead of rolling on the ground, flips in midair toward the pins for a strike. Afterward, a pair of instant replays underline the absurdity of the moment, lampooning the excitable pride that both developers and gamers take in awkward-looking imagery (I think of pretentious sports simulations and their ultimate failure to resemble reality). Within the aforementioned Resident Evil esque mansion, you enter a hallway to see a giant stapler crash through a window from the outside. As parody, this scene calls out the cheap thrills that typify the overrated survival horror genre. Sticker Star thumbs its nose at the sacred.

A Message to Sticklers for RPG Conventions

As weird as Sticker Star can be, it marked a return to the turn-based RPG combat that its predecessor, Super Paper Mario, abandoned in favor of pedestrian action platforming and gimmicky perspective-switching exploration (Fez before Fez). And yet, Sticker Star’s lack of experience points and lack of detailed storytelling made the game a false RPG to many. As I’ve suggested before, stakeholders in the gaming world sentimentalize the definition of “RPG” based on their subjective (and most likely nostalgic) histories with games. With this in mind, Sticker Star, despite adhering to a number of conventions that people associate with RPGs, is what I would call an unsentimental pop RPG.

The most powerful evidence of my claim lies in how Sticker Star mocks the fetishization of overblown spectacle that was popularized by the summons abilities of 1997’s Final Fantasy VII. The epitome of Final Fantasy VII’s bloatedness is the Knights of the Round summon, which lasts more than 60 seconds (what’s more, the player must invest hours in a banal chocobo racing and breeding minigame to even attain Knights of the Round). Although no attack in Sticker Star matches the ridiculous length of that spell, I couldn’t help but think about Knights of the Round and its ilk when I finally unleashed the goat sticker, which calls up a gargantuan version of the barnyard creature that chomps down on Mario’s enemies eight times to accordion music. The jaws of this humongous goat stupidly take up the entire screen. This evidence of artistic desperation, however sarcastic, should forever tie Sticker Star to the RPG, the most overly revered of all video game genres.

Ninja Spirit Review — An Ode to Offense … or Not?

by Jed Pressgrove

Ninja Spirit pushes the classic strategic maxim, “The best defense is a good offense.” In this side-scrolling platformer, it’s not unusual to be surrounded. Ninjas run at you from both sides, thrown shurikens and knifes threaten you from all angles, resilient brutes keep approaching you until they’re slain, spear-wielding murderers poke at you below platforms, and aerial foes are more than ready to deliver cheap shots. To give the player a fighting chance, developer Irem gives Tsukikage, the hero of Ninja Spirit, two fundamental advantages: (1) a circular sword slash that has high priority, a more-than-generous hitbox (especially when upgraded), and the ability to deflect projectiles, and (2) a power-up that can spawn up to two spirits that mimic the movement and attack patterns of Tsukikage. Tsukikage can also throw shurikens or explosives on the fly, with no regard for ammo. And so, mashing the attack button religiously in Ninja Spirit can result in awe-inspiring escapes from certain death. Tsukikage might have father issues like the protagonists of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden, but the stealth of Shinobi and the speed of Ninja Gaiden are nowhere to be found in Ninja Spirit.

Another critical part of survival in Ninja Spirit is jumping, but it’s a double-edged technique. Tsukikage can leap the length of the screen, which means that he can put a lot of distance between himself and an attacker on the ground with ease, but his jump is very floaty. The hero is quite vulnerable as he falls back down, assuming he doesn’t land on a higher platform. There’s another practical drawback: Tsukikage has limited maneuverability in midair. This lack of agility can be especially deadly around the jingasa-wearing, staff-spinning enemy, who can deliver a killing blow if he meets Tsukikage in the air. The risk-reward aspect of the jump in Ninja Spirit makes for a provocative design choice in a platformer. It’s both freeing and nerve-wracking to be able to reach ridiculous heights with the press of a button, particularly during the stage when Tsukikage must travel vertically — while making sure not to land in places where bombs are exploding — to reach a boss battle. (Two years after Ninja Spirit’s 1988 arcade release, Low G Man on the NES would feature a similar type of electrifying, anxiety-inducing jumping.)

The spirit power-up is by far the most distinct aspect of Ninja Spirit, though. Not only does having two shadow versions of Tsukikage increase the likelihood of the hero warding off the onslaught of regular enemies, it can simplify many of the boss battles. That’s because in addition to copying Tsukikage’s patterns, the spirits stop moving when Tsukikage stops moving. If you’re fighting a boss who requires you to jump high in order to damage it with the sword, you can make the leap toward the boss’ weak point and then land on the ground and refrain from moving right or left. At this point, the spirits, which always follow Tsukikage’s lead while keeping a certain amount of distance from him, will be suspended in the air. From here, the spirits may land several attacks on the boss from their stationary, gravity-defying positions as long as Tsukikage continues to swing his sword. In short, clever arrangement of the spirits translates to easy offense and better safety for Tsukikage. Tecmo, the developer of the Ninja Gaiden series, took notice of this innovative tactical gameplay: Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos contained a power-up that allowed protagonist Ryu Hayabusha to spawn orange clones of himself that mimed his every move.

Ninja Spirit further cements its place in video game history with a part in its final level where Tsukikage must jump off a cliff and, for what can feel like an eternity, dodge ninjas that seem to be rising up toward him with their blades above their heads. Regardless of whether you’re playing the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ninja Spirit (which, unlike the arcade version, has a lifebar of sorts), one hit from a flying ninja leads to doom and means that you must start the plunge over. The ninjas are so plentiful that there’s often only narrow pathways between them, there’s no way to decrease your momentum during the fall, and Tsukikage can’t kill the ninjas. What makes the extreme trial-and-error challenge that much more intimidating is that the accompanying music sounds like it was composed by Satan. The unfair vibe of this segment is almost comical, but I respect the audacity behind the design. The segment marks a radical departure from the game’s typical brand of action. You can almost hear the team at Irem saying, “The best defense is a good offense — EXCEPT HERE.”

Return of Game Bias

by Jed Pressgrove

“[I]t no longer represents who I am.”

Several months ago I published these words about Game Bias on Twitter, that most reprehensible website. On the surface, this blog has been about game reviews and criticism, but it has just as much been a reflection of my emotional and psychological state.

At the beginning of this year, I recognized that the person who had been writing Game Bias for six years was dead. This was not a pleasant realization, but it was the truth. The person who had been writing Game Bias was possessed, driven to make his voice heard and to prove his worth through his writing. And that person, as interesting as he might have been, was facing a spiritual sickness by putting his worldly pursuit above all else, God included.

On top of that, I had become exhausted playing and writing about video games. Over the last decade, I played an ungodly number of games, particularly in 2017 and 2018. My savage urge to stay on top of the medium had whittled me down physically and mentally. There’s a reason video games are now labeled sports. Like any sport, they favor the younger, the fresher, the greener. I have no shame in saying that I burned out.

So why am I bringing Game Bias back? The answer is simple. This blog still means something to me, and I believe it still means something to my readers.

But the blog has to change, because I have. Although I remain as critical as ever of what I play, I find myself more contemplative than reactive now. Here’s what this means for Game Bias:

1. No more reviews of pop games. This isn’t to say that I won’t comment on any of the latest high-profile games here. But at this point in my life, I see little point in keeping up with the ongoing onslaught of repackaged mechanics, aesthetics, and stories. It’s been clear for a few years now that pop games have lost their personality to a head-turning degree. The offerings of the industry are increasingly isomorphic; thus, my preferred form of criticism, the review, has lost most of its relevance. You will also not see me regularly reviewing games at Slant anymore, though I’m not against writing a review for a publication when the effort feels justified.

2. More focus on game history. I’m still beating the drum that says people need to pay more attention to games of the past. Only then can we shine the biggest spotlight on the misleading claims and insidious trends of today’s game industry.

3. More conversations. Above I described that previous version of myself who wanted his voice to be heard above all else. I got away from something important: dialogue. You may not be aware of this, but Game Bias won the Freshly Pressed Award from WordPress because of a piece titled A Conversation about Race in Video Games, which featured the great retired game critic Sidney Fussell. I’ve also enjoyed trading posts with Chris Bateman over the years. I’m still thinking about how I want to pursue conversations about other topics. More to come on this.

I have other thoughts about the future of Game Bias, but those thoughts need more development.

To those who are familiar with my work, I hope you will join me on this new journey. To those who are new to my work, thank you for coming aboard.

Game Bias’ 50 Best Video Games of the 2010s, Plus 20 Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Many of the entries below use text from other articles. In these cases, the text is set apart by quotation marks, and a reference is provided. All other entries were written specifically for this list. Finally, you may notice contradictions between the order of this list and the order of a previous year-end list at Game Bias. For instance, in this 2015 year-end feature, Cibele placed below a few games that didn’t make the larger list here. To address such inconsistencies, I recall something that Armond White suggested about our evolving views on movies. He said something to the effect of “Movies don’t change, but we do.” The same can be said for video games and their audience. On another day, any of the 20 honorable mentions could make this list.

1. Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History

Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History presents a universe where everything can be predicted and reduced to a formula. But the game is anything but formulaic. As with the rest of his work, developer Jack King-Spooner is as likely to use photographs or sketches as any other graphical element, which results in a kaleidoscopic, hand-crafted, and abrupt aesthetic — it’s hard for the player to know what to expect visually. Other game conventions are subverted without hesitation, as in the hilarious scene where the audio in a particular room keeps repeating the answer to a supposed puzzle, completely spoiling the challenge and the hunt. To drive home the setting’s lack of humanity, character dialogue is delivered via robotic voice-overs; the overall detachment from emotion reaches its hysterical epitome with a surreally monotone rendition of Beyonce’s “Halo.” Later in the story, disorder threatens the systematic status quo in the form of the id, which is illustrated in both disturbing and freeing terms. The id breaking through the machine is most emphasized in an outro music video of sorts in which a choppy montage of highly discolored photographic images of a woman’s face is combined with the feint, distorted utterance of “Fuck me. Fuck my throat … ” until the words, after many repetitions, become abundantly clear in their carnality. The ending implies that reason can’t forever suppress our basest instincts. It’s the most electrifying, defiant conclusion I can identify in video games.

2. Dark Souls

“The ambiguity of your quest and the risk-reward mechanics behind the souls and bonfires are illustrative of a multifaceted existential crisis. Unlike the typical action-oriented RPG that gives players a clearer idea of progression and flatters them with material currencies, Dark Souls functions not unlike a cosmic horror story, demanding that you figure out the meaning of it all for yourself while engaging in questionable rituals centered on exploiting the spiritual essences of ostensibly living things. The idea of respawning enemies has been a common feature of video games for decades, but Dark Souls’s diabolical enemy dynamic—non-boss adversaries stay dead until you rest at a bonfire—raises doubt within the player’s mind about whether it’s even worthwhile to persevere within such a purgatorial framework.”

– “Review: Dark Souls Remastered,” Slant Magazine

3. Off-Peak

“Entering Off-Peak’s station is enlivening because you become surrounded by human expression. Works cover the walls and hang from the ceiling, begging to be consumed. You soon find things you can take: records, sheet music, cookies, and pizzas, the latter of which you devour slice by slice. Even if you resist this compulsion, Cosmo D’s visual arrangements promote fetishization and prolonged curiosity. Nonplayable characters sometimes have one distinctive motion that registers as an attraction, such as the black woman who rocks from heels to tip toes or the white man who drums his fingers on a table. I mention their skin color because everything about them forms part of a tapestried memory. Cosmo D’s multifaceted vision of diversity elates in a manner that character creation options will never achieve.”

– “Peak of the Year,” Unwinnable Weekly (Issue 58)

4. Spelunky HD

“I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6,” Game Bias

5. Assault Android Cactus

“You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update to 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.”

– “Assault Android Cactus Review — Emotional Arenas,” Game Bias

6. Iconoclasts

“In Iconoclasts, an intersection of faith and government keeps a population in check, and it’s up to Robin, a silent Christ-like figure, to upend the system. Featuring the most striking pixel art of the year, this game never lets you forget that its world is full of human beings with competing beliefs and experiences. The narrative, reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s theatrics, emphasizes how perspectives and goals clash to awaken a new world.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018,” Game Bias

7. Cart Life

After seeing the sincere and vulnerable humanity at the center of Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life, I find it difficult to stomach the idealized cycles of toil in more digestible games like Stardew Valley and Wilmot’s Warehouse. Beyond its cultural relevance as a statement on the universality of making ends meet while dealing with personal matters, Cart Life has an instantly recognizable style, with its grayscale pixels and frantic typing mechanics, that points to both the harshness of reality and the inner drive required to live. If there’s one simulation to play from the past decade, it’s Cart Life.

8. Nier: Automata

“Eventually, 2B and 9S witness, in a scene both disturbing and fantastic, a horde of machines giving birth to two very human-like characters. After almost killing one of these unusual progeny, 2B and 9S have no idea what has transpired. 9S, unable to focus on his duty, asks 2B why machines would try to look like humans—a delicious irony, given that androids are essentially human-looking beings. But with one of the game’s most politically powerful lines, 2B shuts down the conversation, stating there is no point in considering “unsolvable problems.” Here, Taro illustrates what makes real-world bigotry tick: a cold denial of even exploring the possibility of common ground.”

– “Nier: Automata Review — Near Genocide,” Game Bias

9. Proteus

The spiritual suggestiveness of Proteus, from how you can walk on water to how you ascend to the heavens during the finale, comes from a place of joy, faith, and oneness. So many other first-person games of the 2010s — Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter — peddle deception, fear, and shallow nihilism, and that’s why their more polished environments lack the vivacity of Proteus’ expressionistic polygonal island. As people continue to look back at this decade, Proteus will represent the mature and hopeful side of video games, where themes of beauty and restorative power imply that salvation is within our grasp.

10. Octahedron

“Whereas the overrated Celeste is more interested in death and whining than creative expression, Octahedron can’t get no satisfaction with its basic idea of a hero creating platforms underneath himself to reach new heights. From level to level, developer Demimonde obsessively introduces wrinkles to his game, showcasing a thirst for change that recalls the passion of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.”

– “Octahedron Review — Sexed-Up Mechanics,” Game Bias

11. Jazzpunk

“Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.”

– “Jazzpunk Review — Are You Ready to Laugh?,” Game Bias

12. Actual Sunlight

“As an unsentimental RPG, Actual Sunlight provides a clear answer to a question from The Matt Chat Blog: ‘Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values?’ This question sounds like the beginning of a rant from Actual Sunlight’s protagonist. With its commentary on alienation, exploitation, the opiate, and the perversion of human nature through an economic system, Actual Sunlight substantially diverges from the typical ‘light vs. darkness’ RPG conflict, as well as the genre’s generally unquestioned emphasis on consumerism, materialism, and loot.”

– “Actual Sunlight Review — Actual Marxism,” Game Bias

13. Shenmue 3

“2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

14. Downwell

“The relentless kinetic art of Downwell has no peer in 2015. Ojiro Fumoto creates tension between the goals of survival and high combos with one simple rule: as you plunge into the well, you can’t stomp red enemies without taking damage. When trying combos, at first you might find that the randomly generated levels place more importance on luck, but the deeper you drop, the more you realize this isn’t true, as Fumoto includes destructible items that keep you bouncing, a wall jump, and methodically placed time suspensions. Your choices in Downwell — regarding weapons, health, ammo, and various types of upgrades and styles — must reconcile different advantages in timing and endurance. The final group of levels brilliantly marries surviving to the combo before you face one of the best designed bosses in the 21st century.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015,” Game Bias

15. The Norwood Suite

“Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

16. Beeswing

“Developer Jack King-Spooner’s games have always shared a provocative, hand-crafted quality that counters the polygon- and pixel-obsessed default of pop video games […] King-Spooner reveals his rural Scottish origin through a journey in which memory and art express the real and the artificial as complementary forces, much like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.”

– “The 25 Best Games of 2015,” Slant Magazine


“With the press of a button, the protagonist of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV quickly floats to either the ceiling or the floor via gravity. Although VVVVVV wasn’t the first game to feature this concept (see the Mega Man series or, for a less well-known example, 1986’s Terminus), it commits to the idea like no other title. The best segment of the game highlights the excitement of moving from one screen to the next: to nab one item, you must twice guide the hero through a treacherous series of tunnels with spikes as he’s pulled in midair for several successive screens. Later in the game, Cavanagh takes away platforms altogether for a few challenges to achieve an even stronger sense of nerve-wracking vulnerability and physics-defying adventure. VVVVVV looks and sounds retro, but Cavanagh’s willingness to take a premise to the extreme underscores the relentless drive of a modern artist rather any cliched attachment to nostalgic pleasure.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #15-11,” Game Bias

18. Severed

“Through Severed’s touchscreen/motion controls, developer DrinkBox Studios has reimagined the first-person dungeon crawler as a bizarre action game that requires both turn-based logic and frantic but precise timing. When you’re not interrupting enemy tactics or dicing up the bodies of foes into parts needed for upgrades, Severed mesmerizes with dream-like cuts as you move from one part of the map to the next and unsettles you with its ominous tone, which is sometimes punctuated by maddening melodies that evoke Philip Glass. The search for the protagonist’s family members is an emotional roller coaster that few games this year can match, with the denial of catharsis trumped by the rush of continuing a strange adventure.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2016,” Game Bias

19. Choice: Texas

“More universal than a political manifesto, the game is a reminder that humans are defined by their response to struggle. Choice: Texas emphasizes that a pregnant woman’s decision — as well as the responses of family and friends — is guided by conflicting emotions, practical concerns, and spiritual questioning, not by the philosophical ramblings of loudmouths in the U.S. abortion debate.”

– “Choice: Texas Review (PC),” Paste

20. Titanfall 2

“Everything in the campaign is designed to give you a rush, from laughably over-the-top villains to the remarkably fast burrowing through tight places to platforming sections that will make you think you’re seeing sideways.”

– “The 25 Best Video Games of 2016,” Slant Magazine

21. Topsoil

“In Nico Prins’ Topsoil, you play as a farmer with only 16 tiles of soil at your disposal. Each tile can accommodate one type of plant, and for the best score, you must keep the same kind of plants next to each other. As in so many puzzlers (from Tetris to Dr. Mario), the goal is to avoid disorganization, which inevitably leads to a cluttered screen and failure. What separates Topsoil from its predecessors is an underlying sense of peace that typifies the pleasure of interacting with the natural world. This serenity flows through the entire game despite being juxtaposed against the randomness of nature that spoils one’s best-laid plans.”

– “Topsoil Review — The Order of Disorder,” Game Bias

22. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

“As much of a horror game as it is a shooter, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the definitive edition of designer Edmund McMillen’s Freudian nightmare of a maniacal mother, excrement-filled rooms, and an uncaring God. McMillen evokes The Legend of Zelda in his presentation of a seemingly neverending dungeon full of random power-ups that deform as much as empower the tearful boy protagonist. The various elements that could offend, particularly the levels that put you inside a womb, reflect an abusive history where fear and hatred, not comfort and love, are compellingly tied to every aspect of the woman — an unflinching view of hell from the eyes of a child.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #15-11,” Game Bias

23. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

“One of the most impressive uses of blood and gore comes in 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons when the protagonists have to navigate through a path blocked by dead giants. Director Josef Fares uses blood in this instance to elicit a complex reaction of wonder, fear, disgust and sadness: The scene is majestic, tragic and grotesque. Even more unusual, you have to butcher some of the giants’ limbs in order to clear the way. This inspired combination of storytelling and puzzle shows that videogames have a long way to go before exhausting our dark curiosities.”

– “Bloodporne: Why Bloodletting Ought to Mean More in Pop Videogames,” Paste

24. Legendary Gary

“Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.”

– “Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece,” Game Bias

25. Subnautica

“Subnautica is everything the overrated Abzû should have been and more. Its alien ocean suggests a paradoxical masterpiece: few settings in video games are as inviting, yet no other open world is as frightening. As a result, crafting has rarely seemed as essential in a game, as new technology gives you the privilege to survive the depths of the sea. And 3D game creators, take note: there’s no excuse for clunky underwater mechanics when developer Unknown Worlds nails them so well here.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018,” Game Bias

26. Splasher

“This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that ‘more’ does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

27. Dirt Rally 2.0

“Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

28. The Stillness of the Wind

“In a possible nod to Barry Lyndon, Cardenas utilizes a slow zooming technique to imbue the proceedings with an added layer of gravitas. It’s as if the game’s camera is a godly presence, patiently and quizzically regarding Talma’s modest life on the farm and understanding her toil to have a spiritual purpose.”

– “Review: The Stillness of the Wind Is a Poignant Elegy for a Life of Purpose,” Slant Magazine

29. Guacamelee 2

“Not since Resident Evil 4 has a game maintained such a ferocious pace.”

– “Guacamelee 2 Review — A Tremendous Step Forward,” Game Bias

30. Hyper Light Drifter

“The anthropomorphic characters speak in images, with many of them depicting violent ethnic discrimination in a nod to Art Spiegelman’s comic-book masterpiece Maus. These pictures stick in the back of your mind as you traverse brightly colored environments full of nonlinear and hidden paths, the pixelations of the graphics encouraging a conflicted perception of beauty and fragility.”

– “25 Best Video Games of 2016,” Slant Magazine

31. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

32. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

“The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.”

– “Gamebias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017,” Game Bias

33. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt got more acclaim and was more strikingly humanistic with its depiction of everyday people in its world, but The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is the leaner and more morally profound game. In a powerful but risky bit of writing, a single decision at the end of the first act forever changes what we can see politically from the eyes of Geralt Rivia. And because The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings avoids the open-world bloat of its sequel, things like monster nests seem like notable and natural occurrences as opposed to just more content. The persistent intrigue of the game is palpable even in the introductory cutscene, an electrifying display of highly refined animation that shows a trained killer methodically assassinating every person on a ship.

34. Will You Ever Return 2?

The second trip to hell from developer Jack King-Spooner, this sequel involves a fairly unlikable protagonist who dies after he murders a stranger. The setting is among the most unpleasant in video game history, reflecting the negative characteristics of the recently deceased man back at him (the demons toy with his homophobia). There is a creative chaos to this game — deathly serious subject matter, such as confronting one’s unborn child (a fascinating provocation in a modern world acquainted with abortion), is sometimes accompanied by over-the-top satire, as when King-Spooner lampoons how turn-based RPGs announce level-up bonuses no matter the emotional context. In a twist of fate, the scene depicting the deadly sin of Greed utilizes images and quotes of Donald Trump, including some disparaging remarks from the current U.S. president about the work of Barack Obama, who sat in the Oval Office when this game was released in 2012. Will You Ever Return? 2 is as culturally prescient as it is idiosyncratic in its design.

35. Rock Bottom

“Amy Dentata’s Rock Bottom is a fantasy in which levels that represent a state of depression can be completed by counterintuitive means. The goal of Rock Bottom is to jump to higher platforms, but the only way to increase the power of your jump is to fall to your death. To further strengthen your legs, you must extend your fatal plunge by avoiding platforms as you fall from greater heights. If viewed cynically, Rock Bottom’s concept could be linked to suicide ideation, but I interpret its madness as wry hope for convenient change. Ultimately, the game is an affirmation of life after struggle, as suggested by the ending that celebrates the fact that the protagonist can finally jump without having to worry about escaping a hole.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions,” Game Bias

36. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

“The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019,” Game Bias

37. Kirby’s Epic Yarn

In a vacuum, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is not highly challenging, but as a Kirby title, it presents a deviation from formula to the extent where I was unlearning how I used to play as Kirby as much as anything while navigating the drastically varied levels. In a franchise with its fair share of solid games, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is the most daring of the bunch. It deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, as these games all reinterpret foundational elements of their respective series in an unusual, arresting way. Let it be known, too, that Tomoya Tomito’s piano-driven compositions carry a level of sophistication and personal touch that is unmatched in the music of most pop games.

38. The Talos Principle

“It’s a miracle when a videogame dares to address the voice of God. The largely secular, apathetic and bitter videogame industry too often ignores what providence can mean to human experience and thought. Going well beyond the spiritual tokenism of Always Sometimes Monsters, The Talos Principle stands among the brave, contemplative few (Earthbound, The Shivah, Proteus) that seriously consider a greater power and the realizations that consideration can bring.”

– “The Talos Principle Review: I Think, Therefore I Solve,” Paste

39. Overwatch

I reviewed Overwatch, but I haven’t played it the last couple of years. I understand the game has undergone changes. No matter. I won’t forget what Overwatch represented. It was an imperfect channeling of Street Fighter II, which had more evocative levels, a more outstanding sense of geography, and an aesthetic of violence that really no game can match. But Overwatch intended to be a people’s shooter, just like Street Fighter II intended to be a people’s fighting game. It successfully redefined genre for the masses through simple, straightforward craft.

40. XCOM 2

2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is more influential, but the battles in XCOM 2 have their own danger and suspense to them. XCOM 2 operates like a vice grip, calling for methodical precision. I can’t think of another 2010s game that better illustrates the idea of shit hitting the fan and all the feelings that come with that.

41. Crime Is Sexy

“There’s not a more vicious mockery of computer game politics than Crime Is Sexy. The sarcastic title has a double meaning, with the more obvious one being the jab at glorified crime series like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami. Developer Jallooligans puts force into this punch by making the 1980s-inspired David Hasselhoff song ‘True Survivor’ the score to its satire. In this context, Hasselhoff’s trivial 2015 Internet hit evokes the same type of retro sentimentality that the game industry churns out to make its celebrations of illegal activity seem like a part of every happy childhood. The self-aware yet unthinking heroism in ‘True Survivor’ has a parallel in today’s smart-assed consumers who get hoodwinked by industry.”

– “Crime Is Sexy Review: Punching Up, Down, or Across,” Game Bias

42. Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders

“Developer Taito borrows more from Arkanoid for the premise: at the bottom of the screen, you control a paddle-shaped ship that can reflect bullets from enemies. With a slide of your finger, you can move the ship anywhere on roughly the bottom third of the screen — a departure from Arkanoid’s single-plane, left-right restriction. This new level of spatial freedom, combined with the ease of the finger-slide controls, gives Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders a distinctive frenetic feel.”

– “Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders Review — A Breakout Success,” Game Bias

43. The Duck Game

“This quirky title from James Earl Cox III, one of the most fascinating and prolific developers of the decade, might not fit the traditional definition of a 2D platformer, but it effectively utilizes platforms in its depiction of a downward spiral of addiction and obsession. Absurdly, the protagonist is preoccupied with the idea of holding the legs of a duck as the bird flies. Unless you elect to hit ‘Escape’ on your keyboard, you get to see what happens when the hero indulges in this practice. In addition to the trippy premise, visuals, and audio, the amusing part of The Duck Game is that the platforms don’t matter. When you’re flying high with the duck, the platforms are unnecessary for vertical advancement, and when flying with the duck becomes a problem (the protagonist stops caring about hygiene and everyday chores as the duck’s strength wanes), you can’t leap well enough to reach your previous high. The implication is that if the duck weren’t in the picture, you could go from platform to platform like a normal video-game character.”

– “Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions,” Game Bias

44. Problem Attic

Although there is a logic to advancing through this bizarre platformer from Liz Ryerson, the overwhelming transitory vibe of the visuals and audio can have one feel as if one is glitching through the proceedings by the skin of one’s teeth. This quality makes Problem Attic unsettling and even irritating, as the awkward level design compellingly evokes a sense of unfair imprisonment. There is an unwavering conviction to Ryerson’s creation that asks for a similar type of commitment from the audience. An unforgettable, thorny, and inimitable rejection of gaming conventions.

45. Cibele

“Cibele’s non-vindictive message on romantic confusion trumps the cliched she-villains in Her Story. Some argue Nina Freeman’s game could have been an ego trip, as she plays herself both in voice-overs and on video. Yet Freeman possesses an attractive, humble warmth on camera when you’re not searching through computer files or playing an online RPG as her eponymous counterpart. Even though clicking enemies to advance the story can be dull, the depicted online relationship carries a believable self-awareness about the blurring between virtual and actual worlds. Blake, the immature boyfriend, sums up a theme that is contemporary in one way but timeless in another: ‘I don’t know about real life.'”

– “Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015,” Game Bias

46. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

“It’s a testament to director David Soliani and producer Xavier Manzanares that Mario + Rabbids never scans as a lazy attempt to make money off of the biggest mascot in video-game history.”

– “Review: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle,” Slant Magazine

47. Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

“Developer Zach Sanford doesn’t merely sell Millennial angst; he suggests there’s an overlooked spiritual connection between the generations of America’s past and present in a believable family context.”

– “Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition Review — Home Work,” Game Bias

48. Pyre

“Countless sports video games have come and gone, but none have touched on the political, spiritual, and emotional impact of sports like the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Pyre.”

– “The 25 Best Video Games of 2017,” Slant Magazine

49. With Those We Love Alive

This 2014 Twine adventure from Porpentine transports the player to a kingdom of sexually charged imagery. In a unique turn, the game orders you to draw on yourself to personalize the significance of the experience. Regardless of whether you do, With Those We Love Alive is hypnotic and exhausting in equal measure. As the artisan protagonist, you might travel in circles and wind up crashing in a bed repeatedly. When the events of the story become more lurid, it’s jarringly pleasurable to be swept out of the mundane into the grossly fantastic. The purple, pink, and blue colors, as well as the nightmarish textures of the soundtrack, are seductive and energetic. The narrative of With Those We Love Alive might be flexible enough to inspire individual interpretation, but its personality, equal parts alluring, oppressive, and vulnerable, is unmistakably consistent.

50. Steamworld Dig 2

In a break from the approach of its predecessor and that of many popular independent platformers, Steamworld Dig 2 doesn’t rely on procedurally generated stages, instead offering a superbly crafted and vast underground world for the player to dig their way through. Unearthing items has rarely been as exciting as it is in this sequel, which includes an ingenious hookshot mechanic that can be spammed to produce some breathtaking acrobatic feats in the precarious depths of the cave. In one respect, Steamworld Dig 2 is like going to a gritty job that you love; in another, it’s a worthy and epic update of Dig Dug, Mr. Do!, and Boulder Dash.

20 Honorable Mentions in No Particular Order

Shutshimi, Neon Deity Games
Dandara, Long Hat House
Penny Arcade’s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Zeboyd Games
Platformance: Castle Pain, Magiko Gaming
Into the Breach, Subset Games
Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo
Little Red Lie, Will O’Neill
Nier, Cavia (Yoko Taro)
The World the Children Made, James Earl Cox III
Snot City, James Earl Cox III
Talks with My Mom, Vaida
Replay Racer, Chris Johnson
Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo
That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games
Wasteland 2, inXile Entertainment (Brian Fargo)
Conversations We Have in My Head, Squinky
Westerado: Double Barreled, Ostrich Banditos
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Techland
Layers of Fear, Bloober Team
Dead Pixels, CSR-Studios

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019

by Jed Pressgrove

In my list of the 10 worst games of this year, I revealed my distaste for 2019 from a historical standpoint. But even during a year that caused me to question why I continue to spend so much time on gaming, my love for the art form remains strong. The following 10 titles spoke to me in very different ways. Several of them are tied to genres that typically fail to spark my imagination or maintain my interest. No matter the year, there are always miracles, there is always magic.

1. Shenmue 3

Every aspect of Shenmue 3 is personal and relevant to the philosophical values that power the creative mind and, I believe, the heart of Yu Suzuki. Shenmue 3 shows us by example what pop gaming has gotten wrong. In Suzuki’s world, there are no false promises of freedom, there are no lazily crafted NPCs, and there are no systems that seem tacked on in order to cash in on the capricious desires of a restless audience. Instead, there is a morality at play in Shenmue 3. Suzuki reminds us, whether through mechanics or dialogue, that dignity, patience, and interpersonal interaction give life richer meaning. 2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.

(See full review of Shenmue 3 here.)

2. Dirt Rally 2.0

Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.

(See full review of Dirt Rally 2.0 here.)

3. The Stillness of the Wind

The Stillness of the Wind continues to whisper to you long after its emotionally complex ending. A spiritual experience, this effort from Coyan Cardenas avoids a pandering, sentimental approach as it depicts the rural existence of its elderly female protagonist. Equal parts haunting and inspiring, The Stillness of the Wind counters the immature fantasy of Stardew Valley and asks us to consider the paradox of living a convicted life of labor.

(See full review of The Stillness of the Wind here.)

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.

(See more thoughts on Lonely Mountains: Downhill here.)

5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Figures that the most morally complicated Fire Emblem of the decade gets overlooked by many end-of-year award panels. Admittedly, Three Houses is almost epic to a fault, but its larger sociological point — that social institutions and movements drive individuals to violence against each other — carries undeniable weight. With the video game soundtrack of the year and passionate voice acting, Three Houses effortlessly conveys the gravity of its characters’ tragic hopes and dreams.

(See full review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses here.)

6. Islanders

The stripped-down city building of Islanders registers less as easy escapism and more as a logical exercise in efficiency. Like any good builder, this game is full of decisions and long-term consequences; the whole affair is simply presented with a coherence and simplicity that should make any developer jealous of GrizzlyGames. The intense focus of Islanders is like that of an arcade game, but somehow this simulation also manages to be relaxing.

7. Pathologic 2

One could argue that the nightmare logic of Pathologic 2 should be interpreted as misery porn. But hidden in the oblique dialogue and bleak imagery of this game is a lesson about the folly of pride and assumption. As one grapples with the intended difficulty setting of Pathologic 2, the harsh proceedings should raise questions about the intentions of the protagonist and the player. What are we trying to prove when we step in to save the world, especially when we take too long to take on the responsibility?

8. Baba Is You

Not since Scribblenauts have I found that a failed attempt at solving a puzzle can be just as enlivening as arriving at the solution. Unlike Scribblenauts, Baba Is You doesn’t allow one to fudge their way through anything. To advance in Baba Is You is to have a deep appreciation for logic, language, and patience.

(See more thoughts on Baba Is You here.)

9. Ape Out

Its hero is both violent and sympathetic. Its music is both entrancing and distracting. Its visuals are both minimalistic and over the top. Ape Out operates like an accident, yet it demands precision. A shell shock of a game.

(See full review of Ape Out here.)

10. Battle Planet: Judgement Day

Battle Planet: Judgement Day more than lives up to its ridiculous title. This deceptively simple shooter literalizes the concept of a lone force that can take out every threat in the world. An amusing mixture of twin-stick shooting and Super Mario Galaxy, Battle Planet: Judgement Day is far smarter than it appears in how it requires the player to think about when to use power-ups, which can be saved for later waves of enemies, and to maintain the stability of the planet by defusing bombs. Act without a multi-layered strategy, and your silly goal of being a one-person wrecking machine will swiftly end. For sheer kinetic thrills, Battle Planet: Judgement Day has few peers in 2019.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2019 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

2019 was the most regrettable year for pop games, at least based on my experiences with the world’s biggest hits throughout my life. Other years have perhaps featured more bottom-of-the-barrel releases, but 2019 defeats all when it comes to setting a low standard for overall quality and artistic expression. During the majority of 2019, no matter what kind of game it was, from Dead or Alive 6 to Wilmot’s Warehouse to Death Stranding, I felt as if I wanted to spit the lukewarm out of my mouth.

Two years ago, I started the Play Instead part of this annual year-end list. The idea is simple: for every bad game, I suggest one you should play instead for whatever reason. The catch is “play instead” choices don’t have to be great or even good games. While this list follows that same logic, keep in mind that we really shouldn’t, outside of comparisons for argument’s sake, settle for less than good. Video games can be, and have largely been, better than the offerings of 2019.

1. Resident Evil 2

If the 2010s proved anything, it’s that Capcom has embraced the absolute worst version of itself. The original Resident Evil 2 is an imperfect but fascinating and discomforting game. Here it is transformed into the most agreeable ride imaginable. Gamers, you’ve nothing to worry about. Papa Capcom’s gonna take care of you — and take your money while he burps you.

(See full review of Resident Evil 2 here.)

Play Instead: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain

Developer Yuke’s does the opposite of Capcom. It makes Earth Defense Force even tougher and more thematically incisive than usual … until Iron Rain seems to give up on level design and satire more than halfway through.

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Yet another independent title that presents tedious desk work as insightful entertainment. I’d rather peruse MySpace than spend another minute with Hypnospace Outlaw.

(See full review of Hypnospace Outlaw here.)

Play Instead: Nauticrawl

From developer Andrea Interguglielmi, Nauticrawl is like going to work but having no idea what you’re supposed to do to finish the job. Tinkering with switches, buttons, and levers in a mysterious machine makes for a solid puzzle. Bonus: No smug indie pretension to be found.

3. The Outer Worlds

The brighter colors, the humorous descriptions, the almost identical perks, the inelegant slow-motion action. All of it points toward a development team whose only goal was to produce a neutered version of Fallout 3, which was a neutered version of its predecessors. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone remakes The Outer Worlds with a different name.

Play Instead: Outer Wilds

If The Outer Worlds is a lesser version of Fallout 3, Outer Wilds is a better version of No Man’s Sky.  Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but we’re reaching the outer limits of good taste.

4. Control

As Matt Paprocki suggests, Control wants to be a left-wing statement of resistance in a most irresponsible, dimwitted way, but players don’t mind or notice because they’re conditioned to enjoy guns (even if they don’t own or use any). Control is Doom 2016 all over again: shoot fast and keep moving. Who knew political critique could be so formulaic?

Play Instead: Void Bastards

The title and gameplay loop of this brilliantly animated game appear to satirize people who find meaning and purpose in terrible things. Void Bastards is smarter about its lack of seriousness than Control is.

5. Devil May Cry 5

After one hour of playing the original Devil May Cry, I was intrigued by its counterintuitive adoption of Resident Evil’s changing camera angles and by the kinetic potential of its marriage of melee techniques and frantic gunplay. After one hour of playing Devil May Cry 5, I was tired of douchebag characters trying to look and act cool, as every time the fighting was about to take center stage, another cutscene would interrupt the action. Capcom sucks now.

Play Instead: Katana Zero

Like Devil May Cry 5, Katana Zero has its share of played-out ideas. Despite its limitations, Katana Zero reveals the fundamental loneliness of its protagonist in quiet scenes that recall the contemplative minimalism of the 1967 film Le Samourai.

6. Blair Witch

The real title of this game is Blair Glitch.

(See full review of Blair Witch here.)

Play Instead: Devotion

Just kidding. You can’t play it. But I managed to. It’s better than Blair Glitch. Its jump scares and hackneyed first-person haunted-house style also teach us a valuable lesson: banned art isn’t always good art.

7. Contra: Rogue Corps

Konami turns Contra into an arena shooter for modern audiences. Would probably be more popular with critics if it took shots at Donald Trump.

(See full review of Contra: Rogue Corps here.)

Play Instead: Sunless Skies

Unlike Contra: Rogue Corps, Sunless Skies is a sequel that understands where it comes from and where it should go. Although it ditches the lovable pirate-like dialect that energized the text of Sunless Sea, its more understated use of language is still a hoot: “He’ll receive the care of Magdalene’s finest. At least, Magdalene’s finest with a sense of charity, given that he has nothing on him to pay for their ministrations.”

8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The subtitle for Sekiro should have been “Shadows Die Countless Times,” as there’s nothing new about dodging and parrying boss attacks a la Dark Souls, and stealth tactics make most of the proceedings a cakewalk. Notwithstanding the incoherent claims of brainwashed From Software diehards, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now more predictable than they are difficult.

(See full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice here.)

Play Instead: Vane

Though it lacks combat, Vane is closer in spirit to Dark Souls than anything Miyazaki has produced after 2011. Both puzzling and ambiguous, Vane technically collapses before it ends, but what a memorable failure it is.

9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Earlier this year, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. It’s a great example of kinetic art that not only takes inspiration from but also builds on the work of a source (namely, the original Doom). Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s more plagiaristic approach is unimpressive, if not unacceptable.

(See more thoughts on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order here.)

Play Instead: Slay the Spire

Plenty of games copy and paste the turn-based combat systems of the past. But Slay the Spire’s card-deck-building premise, which will punish those who don’t pay attention to mathematical detail, brings a reasonable amount of creative forethought to a well-worn idea.

10. Neo Cab

Neo Cab often preaches about the inhuman qualities of corporations and technology, but so many of its features seem robotic rather than authentic, whether it’s the ever-shifting eyes of its protagonist, the out-of-place soundtrack, or the silly mood bracelet that restricts dialogue options. Humorless and dull, this game lacks the humanity that Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai captured in 2015’s Conversations We Have in My Head.

Play Instead: Disco Elysium

The dialogue of Disco Elysium can feel contrived from time to time, but its illustration of psychological struggle is more convincing and dynamic than Neo Cab’s forced stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Death Stranding Review — More Stupid Than Weird

by Jed Pressgrove

The landscape of pop games is in dubious shape. There are many reasons to reach this conclusion, from the prevalence of open world ideology to the way developers flatter audiences with made-to-order remakes. At first, Death Stranding appears to avoid the cliches we’re all used to seeing, as it involves a protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, whose main skill is carrying cargo on his back, arms, and legs. At one point, Sam bluntly explains, “Killing monsters and terrorists, that’s not what I do.” The line almost sounds sanctimonious when one considers how often “ambitious” games boil down to boneheaded violence. And yet, Sam shares this observation about himself not too long after he obliterates a phantom squid with grenades made from his own piss, and moments after uttering this dialogue, Sam can barrel through bandit-filled territory and punch the lights out of every last person who tries to steal the packages off his body. Director Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear Solid series and often pitied for his messy separation from Konami, has all the creative freedom in the world, but he can’t stop sabotaging an interesting premise with banal and laughably contradictory moments.

With Death Stranding, Kojima takes a page from modern independent first-person adventures like Proteus in which walking, as opposed to puzzle solving or combat, is the main type of action. But in a stroke of genuine design genius, Sam has it much harder than his counterparts in other traversal-focused releases. He must organize packages on his body in a manner that reduces the likelihood of him stumbling and falling as he treks across treacherous territory. If he starts to sway to the left or right, the player must shift Sam’s weight in the opposite direction to achieve balance. There’s also a stamina gauge to worry about, a meter that depletes rapidly when Sam trudges through a deeper part of a river. If you lose your footing in that situation, Sam will have to paddle himself to his feet and frantically attempt to recover goods the river has claimed. The potential for embarrassing ambulatory disaster is almost endless. With each step comes an appreciation for Sam’s immediate surroundings, whether they’re as intimidating as a steep mountainside or as seemingly innocuous as a jagged medium-sized rock on the ground.

In theory, Death Stranding is the most original and uncompromising big-budget game in a long time. This notion doesn’t hold, though, when you tally the common pop game problems that show up yet again in Death Stranding. The first and most obvious issue is unnecessary length and bloat due to a tremendous lack of editing, which has plagued games as different as Persona 5 and The Witcher 3. Kojima includes a number of missions that do nothing more than serve as contrived tutorials. Why does the simple idea of 3-D printing a bridge, for instance, have to come with its own mission that the player must find by holding down (rather than just pressing) a button near a terminal in order to open a hard-to-read menu from which you can initiate said mission? Kojima also peppers the game with cinematics that have no kinetic or thematic purpose. Why do you have to skip — which can be done by pressing the start button, then selecting “Skip” — three or four cutscenes just to accelerate the process of taking a shower? Why does an activity as boring as a shower even need a single cutscene?

Any sense of basic, decent storytelling is annihilated by Kojima’s idiotic commitment to video game norms. The main theme of Death Stranding is reconnecting a post-apocalyptic United States. To do this, Sam must visit an array of marked locations on a map and talk to holographic images of people. These individuals, with few exceptions, say pretty much the same thing — wow, I haven’t seen items like this in a long time, Sam, you’re a true legend, nothing here looks damaged, blah, blah, blah, blah. The experience is a lot like finding Toad at the end of every stage in Super Mario Bros. and being told the princess is in another castle. The main difference is Super Mario Bros. never claimed to be cinematic or a commentary on the state of a nation. What’s more, Super Mario Bros. didn’t include repetitive messages to massage your ego but to challenge you to keep going farther. In contrast, Kojima doles out titles like “Elite Handler” after a successful mission. One’s sense of self-worth would have to be beyond low to stomach such nonsense.

The nauseating ego-stroking element of Death Stranding is not an accident but a sincere part of its design. The game features a social media component wherein players can help each other by leaving behind ladders, lockers, and other tools in the wild, rugged world. From a mechanical standpoint, Kojima is clearly building on Dark Souls’ weakest concept, but he also nods to both Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as gamers can “like” conveniently dropped items from other gamers. In addition, Death Stranding’s fictional characters will give you “likes” for accomplishing missions. In the right hands, Death Stranding could somehow work as a satire of how neurotically obsessed our culture is with fleeting external validation, even as civilized culture crumbles around us, but Kojima plays it like a nincompoop would.

Kojima’s childish sense of reality is confirmed by how he frames the Kumbaya politics of Death Stranding. Throughout the game, Sam (whose last name is Bridges) works for a company called Bridges to connect the disconnected citizens of the former United States of America with digital and literal bridges. Yes, Kojima’s having fun with the dumbest wordplay in video game history, but there’s also no indication that he questions the simplicity of Death Stranding’s proposed political philosophy. Kojima’s outlook on existence itself, as expressed in Death Stranding, suggests that he does want us to grasp for any positive feeling, however silly. “Once there was an explosion,” the game states, referring to the Big Bang, and later on, another line declares the world could experience an explosion “that would be our last.” When presented with this godless and shallowly nihilistic viewpoint, it becomes harder to blame Kojima for encouraging players to cling to Zuckerberg- and Dorsey-endorsed methods of interaction. But to praise this grade-school level of thinking is far more troubling than gazing at the scorched imagery of this turgid stupid game in art-school clothing.

Disco Elysium Review — A Confounding Effort

by Jed Pressgrove

The most distinctive aspect of Disco Elysium is how it focuses on the mental. Although this odd RPG follows Planescape: Torment’s lead (see: the hero with amnesia, the heavy dialogue, the uneven point-and-click-based character movement), it emphasizes psychology over morality as it unveils a tale about a loser cop trying to solve a case after a nasty binge with alcohol. In some respects, Disco Elysium pulls off its intent quite well and in comical fashion, but the more one pays close attention to the script, the more one might tire of multiple limitations in the writing.

The protagonist of the story is an irresponsible, questionable, and sloppy gumshoe. Movie fans may recognize the character type as an extension of what Robert Altman and the Coen brothers respectively explored in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Disco Elysium’s novel idea is to muddy up the text-based dialogue with voices from within the detective’s head. These voices show up more or less based on how the player distributes skill points. For instance, if you put a lot of points into “rhetoric,” the Rhetoric Voice promises to interject in more discussions to clue you in on what characters are actually saying with their words. The catch is if too many points are put into any single category, the related voice can become a hindrance to the officer’s investigation of murder and other crime, as it will always be battling for space, creating psychological noise.

Initially, this concept of competing voices impacting the flow of the game seems like nothing but a good thing because of its dynamism. It’s fascinating to see how specific attributes will result in chaos or, often unexpectedly, insight. Disco Elysium also offers specific thoughts, most of which are high concept or convoluted, that the cop can dwell on for skill increases or decreases (sometimes it’s preferable to have less of a skill, as previously suggested).

Disco Elysium couples all of this with the hero’s memory loss in order to produce as many hilarious moments as possible. To lead designer and writer Robert Kurvitz’s credit, Disco Elysium has its fair share of remarkable dialogue. The detective’s baffling responses are often comedy gold, such as the instantly memorable “What is money,” a phrase that parodies the conceit of a story featuring an amnesiac lead. The humor can go from absurd to vicious, as when the Conceptualization Voice says of Cuno, the profane child who throws rocks at a dead body: “If there ever was such a thing as an ugly kid, then this is it. He’s almost exquisite in his ugliness.”

The more I was exposed to this style, however, the more the act grew a bit thin. At times, these voices simply make a scene longer, and this is precisely when the premise of the game appears more contrived than inspired. In this way, the game’s greatest strength, randomness, becomes its most annoying feature. For instance, at one point the slimy union leader Evrart Claire says, “I’m just kidding, of course.” It’s immediately obvious Claire isn’t joking based on everything that can be observed about him. Unfortunately, the script, in its overanxious attempt to be clever, will rub this fact in one’s face based on a particular skill point distribution. After Claire’s lie, Authority Voice can chime in with “Is he [just kidding]?,” and then Rhetoric Voice can reply, “He’s not.” With two short lines, Disco Elysium calls more attention than necessary to Claire’s fundamental dishonesty, which had already been beaten like a dead horse.

This sort of repetitive writing raises the question of whether Disco Elysium represents a conscious attempt to create maximum potential for internet memes. (God knows that independent releases need all the references they can get. “Indie,” after a few years of receiving considerable attention from a curious public, has not been a fresh or even strong marketing label for some time, as big-name games like sequels, franchise spinoffs, and “new IPs” — that loaded bullshit term — from beloved companies continue to dominate the pop landscape.) Even though the psychology-based premise is innovative, comedic timing still trumps all. If the audience begins to predict the approach, the laughter won’t be there. This is the downside of tying the protagonist’s inner voices to the mechanics of the game. The dialogue should be unexpected when it is, in many cases, expected. This contradiction results in a significant number of weak punchlines.

More troubling is how the writing spoils its overall illustration of humanity’s struggle by drawing attention to Kurvitz’s confusing political perspective. Disco Elysium’s setting is a dangerous section of a city. The infrastructure is a joke, the population suffers from poverty, and the powers that be are corrupt. Not many trust or respect the cops, and the union is more of a criminal organization. The implication is this place suffers primarily because of structural, not individual, factors. Not only does this allow us to have sympathy for the characters, even if they’re destructive or unlikable, but we may also presume Kurvitz leans left.

This assumption is confirmed by an act of self-censorship. When Cuno, the aforementioned hellish brat, uses a slur against gay people, only the first letter is spelled out. This example by itself might beg for a tangential debate about what an artist should do or whether it even matters since we all know what is being said. But the incomplete word essentially repeats to us that, yes, the designer leans left. And yet, later on, Cuno hurls an uncensored racial slur at Kim Kitsuragi, the detective’s fellow officer. On the surface, it’s a technical inconsistency in the writing. In reality, it’s an oversight that underlines how hypocritical and pandering a progressive can be. The suggestion that certain slurs should be censored over others is one of the most idiotically distracting things I’ve seen in any work of art, and so, in line with the rambling style of this game, I’ll end on that red herring.

Ape Out Review — Hotline Miami Revised

by Jed Pressgrove

Early on, Ape Out seems to sell itself as Hotline Miami “if you were an ape,” mainly setting itself apart with a percussion-driven soundtrack that responds to what the protagonist does, such as barging into a room and smashing three or four gun-wielding humans into bloody flesh. A beat accompanies one’s successful kills. The way the audio punctuates the violence is at first attention-getting, even disorienting. The drumming in question is taut and crisp, superbly executed.

After some time the interplay between the music and the action doesn’t matter. Figuring out how to advance through the increasingly difficult stages becomes the point. The drums serve as redundant distractions from the split-second reactions that will keep the ape alive. This is not to say the music is an absolute gimmick; it’s just not as essential as the evolving score of Octahedron, a game where the marriage of sound and imagery is sexier, less contrived, and more fluid.

Once survival instincts and ideas dominate the thoughts of the player, Ape Out reveals itself as easily superior to its main influence Hotline Miami. Despite Ape Out’s graphic violence, it’s easier to sympathize with an escaped ape than with any character in Hotline Miami. That sympathy proves indispensable, as it makes the stakes appear larger and more dramatic. Ape Out’s man vs. nature theatrics are far preferable to Hotline Miami’s self-aware, unflinching cynicism, which is a repetitive nod to the rebellious knucklehead politics of 1990s fare like Mortal Kombat and Loaded.

Even though Ape Out has far fewer methods than Hotline Miami for inflicting lethal harm on opponents, the game demands one to do more with what’s there. During the beginning of the game, progress can often be made by simply punching threats as they appear and running for another room when it looks like the ape might get shot. A little later, such an elementary approach will get exploited by a growing number of gunmen, explosives, and dead ends. The ape has to start picking up enemies, throwing them, and using them as shields to account for the extra firepower of the men and the more maze-like structure of later levels.

The player learns quickly that the basic key to having a chance is keeping the mouse cursor near the protagonist. This positioning allows for quicker changes in direction, enabling the possibility of consecutive individual kills when one is surrounded. The throwing mechanic, however, works best when you move the cursor to the target to achieve maximum accuracy with the throw. Deeper into the proceedings, as the game calls more and more attention to the position of the mouse, as well as to the offensive and defensive opportunities presented by the whole bodies of still-shooting assassins and the scattered body parts of fallen foes, Ape Out achieves a blunt combination of brawn and brains that cannot be matched by many efforts this year.