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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Our Games of the Decade - Clark


List by Clark A.

It's hard to believe, but we're at the end of a decade this month, and it should go without saying that a lot has happened in video games over that last ten years. Just think: at the start of the decade people were playing Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PSP and Nintendo DS. There's been two new generations of consoles in that time, and one new Sony and Microsoft device. In addition, in that time VR made a comeback, and streaming games has just started to get steam. DDNet started as a humble little blog right at the end of 2010, and it's been fascinating to watch the site evolve and change as the industry.

To celebrate this huge transition, from one decade to the next, we've decided to get the team to share their most noteworthy games of the decade - the games that they found most memorable, or had the biggest impact on them. We'll publish these at a rate of one per day, and first up is Clark!

For my list, I wanted to represent the decade from start to finish. To ensure that, I personally imposed a "one game per calendar year" rule and banned all re-releases/remakes/remasters. I've had to take liberties with release dates across various regions, but each game on this list released somewhere that year. My choices here are often swayed by intangible factors like nostalgia and aren't necessarily indicative of what I believe gaming should strive for. Maybe a game was the best in a series I've loved for decades or perhaps it stood out amongst the crowd. Here are some of the most memorable experiences this decade doled out for me.

In 2010, online communities panicked at the notion Xenoblade Chronicles might never leave Japan. Nine years later it has spin-offs, sequels, ports, an upcoming remake, and even a spot in Super Smash Bros.

Was that fear justified? Only Nintendo's localisation departments know, but I dread a world without it. Though in many ways the original Xenoblade is a typical JRPG, its massive scope took me aback on the underpowered Wii. By "scope" I'm not strictly referring to the amount of quests and busywork to complete (although yes, those are substantial). Exploring serene, picturesque environments atop a colossal titan's back set to the tune of some of the finest compositions in the JRPG genre is downright ethereal. There's a depth to the lore that makes completing all the side quests set in such a world rewarding, not to mention the main story's handling of weighty revelations. The real-time combat system inspired by MMOs offered its own intrigue that unraveled over the course of dozens of hours. Xenoblade 2 is my most played Switch game by a wide margin, but once the remake of the original lands next year, it will surely have a contender.



Pokémon Black and White (2011)

Pokémon has been omnipresent in my social life since the Game Boy days, but when a pal asks me which game is the best, there's only one answer.

Pokémon Black was bravest sequel in the series, bar none. For starters, it could have easily reused the engine from preceding DS games but opted for a quantum leap forward with the first fully animated Pokémon in the series and sprawling cities that pushed the system to its limit. It then introduced 150 new Pokémon but purposely tucked away all 493 of the old ones so that each patch of grass and trainer battle offered childlike wonder to even seasoned veterans. The story towers above its peers, blatantly invoking Taoist philosophy while daring to finally address hanging moral dilemmas associated with using animals for spectator combat and human ambition. Nier-level philosophy this is not, but for the single biggest multimedia franchise on the planet, the level of devotion to its underlying themes ought to be commended. The game's richer lore was paid off with a climax that plays out unlike any other Pokémon game and a legitimate numbered sequel that serves as a testament to its ambition. Modern entries like X and Sword are fun time-killers for me, but they lack the nuance and unflinching vision that Black swore by.




Released years after the PSP's peak relevance, I'd forgive you for never hearing about Generation of Chaos: Pandora's Reflection. It's the kind of game I'd forget is releasing if not reviewing games for Digitally Downloaded, but boy am I glad I happened to be doing that one fateful week.

Pandora's Reflection is an oddity even within its own series, featuring a small-scale tactics battles that take place on one screen. It's slick and easy to grasp, but the way it embellishes the genre by adding rhythm elements and day/night mechanics makes it gripping for the long haul. A story centering on the conflict between the upper and lower classes of society is grounded in reality by a brother's devotion to his dying sister. Throw in mermaids and valkyries then you've got a fantasy setting with plenty of charisma. The more I played it Pandora's Reflection in the months following my initial review, the deeper my love for it ran. If you can't be bothered to boot up your PSP or Vita in 2020, Sony still gives away avatars for the game for free, so at least the game's pleasant art continues to live on.




100% Orange Juice is a cross-over board game with little star power to its name, but it doesn't need any to offer the finest party experience I've stumbled upon.

Against all odds, 100% Orange Juice has beckoned me home for years. It's a humble board game with both new characters and ones hailing from obscure shoot 'em ups developed by doujin group Orange_Juice. Some of said new characters received spin-off games because of it, making 100% Orange Juice like a central hub from which the developer can launch fresh ideas. The minimalist aesthetics are right up my alley and the soundtrack is endlessly endearing with its per-character anthems that rotate throughout matches. The rules are straightforward and emphasise luck, but put four characters with impressively varied play styles on one map and the extent of player influence feels just right for a party game. As a result, it's not a game I can ever envision getting tired of and my friendly experiences with online community makes that notion even tougher.



This decade played host to a slew of brilliant life simulation games, so it was tough thinking up a worthy representative to put here. With Animal Crossing poised to steal the 2020's already, I'll give some love to the less appreciated Story of Seasons.  

The artist formerly known as Harvest Moon boasts a formula that's never going to grow old, even as I do. Living life on a farm presents all kinds of daily micromanagement opportunities that are suitably thematic, such as milking cows, shipping goods, and chopping logs. Though there are goals the game presents and some lax time restrictions to move the proceedings along like real life, players are largely free to live life how they see fit. Want to be rich? Find true love? How about a cute shirt? This particular entry has a degree of polish I feel surpasses many of the classics and the modern Natsume-made experimental efforts. Its approach to farming rewards long-term investment as always, but it lessens immediate wait times substantially. Players have more opportunities for engaging tasks such as social interactions, exploration, and development. The freedom means it's a great game for two minutes or 200 hours.




Yoshi's Island was my gateway into a deeper appreciation of video games, so it's untouchable as my favourite game of all time. Though it lacks the challenge and tightly designed levels of Yoshi's Island, Yoshi's Woolly World taps into Yoshi's appeal as a character in unprecedented ways.

A game composed entirely of yarn automatically wins points for playing into the visual appeal of Nintendo's cutest mascot character, much like Kirby's Epic Yarn did years before it, but it's how it uses that aesthetic that pleases me. The ensuing level designs are appropriately imaginative and memorable in and of themselves, but the game encourages players to go for 100 per cent completion by offering dozens unlockable Yoshis you can play as. From Moo Moo Yoshi to Cookie Yoshi to Spooky Yoshi to Watermelon Yoshi, finding out which Yoshi you're going to rescue next is a thrill. Short of Nintendo mailing these guys to you and placing them on your shelf, that's the best reward you could ask for in a video game. Musically, it features the catchiest main tune of a modern Yoshi game and is more versatile than New Island or Crafted World. I will never forget my dumbfounded reaction upon hearing this track for the first time. What else can I say? Yoshi's Woolly World is bliss in digital form.




It's unfortunate that so many video games based on anime are rushed for the sake of meeting tie-in schedules. Thankfully, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness is an outlier in that it can stand alone and would still be among my favourite visual novels ever.  

Psycho-Pass, the psychological anime helmed by the likes of Gen Urobuchi, posed many questions about mankind's upcoming moral dilemmas in an increasingly technological world. As an officer of the law, Mandatory Happiness tasks the player with enforcing "justice" as overseen by a system beyond any one human's knowledge or judgment. At the same time, its shortcomings are all too apparent and will play out in increasingly bloody fashions. The game tells a wholly new plot within the anime's universe from the perspectives of both new and old faces. It then takes advantage of the new medium to offer a multifaceted "choose your own adventure" experience that tracks the player's decisions - immediate and moral - and factors them into the game's direction. This means your choices are heftier than many visual novel equivalents. It also means it's a game I'm not forgetting any time soon (for better and worse with the grave and increasingly real subject matter).




I've reviewed more than 20 Sonic the Hedgehog games for DigitallyDownloaded.net over the years, so to say I'm invested in the blue blur would be an understatement.

Sonic Mania is a modern Sonic game I don't need to qualify enjoying with a bucket of asterisks and an essay-long disclaimer. When a retro-style platformer surpasses the very classics it's aping, that warrants celebration. I could gush about how the game boasts level design I've long yearned for 2D Sonic games to embrace, but I can't deny the sheer sense of style and identity here make me giddy like a 10 year old too. A Puyo Puyo boss fight? The return of Bean the Dynamite? A reference to 1993's Sonic Popcorn Shop? Those little winks reward years of following the blue dude with 'tude through thick and thin. Meanwhile, musical mastermind Tee Lopes didn't just remix Sonic songs. He made them more dynamic, composed spanking new tracks I love more than the classics, and unified both through a subtle, overarching leitmotif. I find myself busting out the soundtrack constantly and it makes whatever I'm doing 200 per cent more radical. Sonic Mania is the game I never knew I wanted.




A predictable choice? Sure, but slotting anything else here would have been disingenuous given my gaming history.

The reason Super Smash Bros. Ultimate means so much to me isn't necessarily the fighting itself, even if I do indulge in online fisticuffs. It's because, despite a roster of now 80+ characters, I have dozens of anecdotes about all of their games. I visited Game & Watch Galleries with my grandparents, plucked Pikmin with my siblings after a trip to Blockbuster, traded Mewtwo to a moderator of some long-dead forum, and fought my uncle's Ken for a bag of chocolate eggs. While character movesets and outfits obviously draw great inspiration from the source material, Ultimate's new take on classic mode siphons greater nostalgia by recreating scenarios based on the adventures of these characters. The central story mode achieves similar greatness with wonkier rules and a focus on the more obscure characters I love. Ultimate goes leagues beyond Smash 4 by properly contextualising its fanservice and speaking to their appeal across four decades of gaming.



Fire Emblem is another series I've been playing for over a decade and this one easily gets my vote for Game of the Year 2019. Many plot threads and game mechanics in Three Houses are loosely inspired by Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, which is high praise since that one ranks in my top five games of any decade.

Three Houses centers on a war that unfolds very differently depending on the player's choices across hundreds of hours. While I stopped caring for the more tedious micromanaging and padding on subsequent playthroughs, it was a negligible price to pay for a story that steadily escalates in nuance over 100+ hours. You've got dubious nations, flimsy alliances, a dodgy church, a shady cult, and damaged individuals shaping the continent of Fódlan through their bravery, lies, laws, and rebellions. The playable cast is slimmer than most in the series, but this grants them unprecedented characterisation and turns their lives into case studies that raise questions about the central narrative. We've seen player-influenced moral dilemmas from the series before with Fates and Radiant Dawn, but I'd argue Three Houses' execution of the unreliable narrator and political bias is the best so far. The route each player picks first will shape their assumptions going forward. For better or worse, this bias manifests in online debates between people who have only played one or two routes, proving the game's point plays out in the real world. Even then, players who have played them all come to unique conclusions about who is right.



- Clark A. 
Contributor



Our Games of the Decade - Clark
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