ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review – 8.8/10

When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.

Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the  first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.

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There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.

The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.

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The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.

The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.

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The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.

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You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.

The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.

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The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.

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There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.

The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.

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Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.

I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.

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During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.

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During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.

The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.

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Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.

The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.

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As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.

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It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.

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2018 Year in Review

I’m gonna be honest and say that I was not looking forward to writing this post this year. Not because it was a bad year for gaming but because it was too good. There is just so much to say about gaming in 2018 that I didn’t want to take on the daunting task of trying to summarize it in a single post. There’s really no way to address all the positive things that happened in gaming during 2018. Outside of gaming, the last year was shit. Literally right up to the end of it. But gaming wise it was one of the best years we’ve seen in a long time. So while I’m gonna do my best to do this year justice in a single blog post, I acknowledge that I’m going to come up short. But this post is tradition so it had to be done.

As always, let me talk about how gaming in 2018 was for me personally first. This was an excellent year. I played more release window games in 2018 than I have for the last five to ten years. And I didn’t even break my oath to only buy three day one release titles. Due to review copies, which I’m now getting again in small amounts, as well as borrowing from friends, sales, and winning some contests, I was able to play many games while they were still relevant, which almost never happens. Some of the games I played this year include Monster Hunter World, God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Spider-Man, The Crew 2, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and of course Smash Bros. Ultimate. I also got a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey but I haven’t played it yet because I still haven’t played Origins, which I just got for Black Friday. So many of the games I played this year were amazing. I got four platinums. That’s not me bragging. Usually I only get one in a given year. I got four because games kept being so good that I wanted to fully complete them. Plus I played some amazing games from past years like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If I had to pick my absolute favorite for the year I would reluctantly say God of War. But we’re talking inches of difference between first, second, and third place. The game that I actually felt had the strongest narrative experience for me personally was Detroit: Become Human. The game that surprised me the most was Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I went into that game thinking I would hate it but it was great. Really it was just a full year of phenomenal gaming experiences.

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As for completing my gaming goals in 2018, I was pretty disappointing. I only managed to complete six of my 13 main goals and one of my bonus goals. This is much lower than my completion rate for 2017. I’m gonna try to be better and set more practical goals for 2019. The goal I’m most proud of myself for finishing is that I beat Final Fantasy VII for the first time. Now let’s talk about the highlights, good and bad, of 2018 for the rest of the gaming community. Highlights are in no particular order. As I said already, I’m not really going to be able to do this year justice but I’ll do the best I can.

PS4 Wins the Year

Many great games were released in 2018 on all platforms, but there can be no debate that the overall highest quality total gaming experience was on the PS4. SONY delivered exclusive hit after exclusive hit while still allowing players access to the great cross platform exclusives released in 2018 like Red Dead Redemption 2. The best overall platform for gaming in 2018 was objectively the PS4.

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God of War

In my opinion, this was the game of the year. I was very much against the idea of them making another Kratos game. I was worried about them changing the setting, changing the actor, and adding in a kid. I went into the game expecting something mediocre, but Cory Balrog managed to reboot a franchise that didn’t need to be touched beautifully. It was visually stunning, well written, expertly acted, and mechanically sound. While I wasn’t happy with the cliff hanger ending, I’m happy that a direct sequel will be made and I was extremely impressed with this game overall. And so was everyone else. It won several awards including PlayStation Game of the Year at the Golden Joystick Awards. At the time of writing this it has a 94 on Metacritic. It truly was a perfect reboot to an already great franchise.

Detroit: Become Human

As hit or miss as David Cage is, he delivered an amazing narrative experience with this one. This story was powerful. These characters were meaningful. This world was depressing while being extremely realistic. Parts of this game hit me so hard I thought I was gonna cry. The multiple social issues addressed were done tastefully while not being overly preachy. I will definitely go into the next Quantic Dream game with optimism. While this game didn’t score as high critically as some of the other games released this year, it is a respected PlayStation exclusive and was nominated for several awards.

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Spider-Man

Insomniac Games managed to revolutionize the comic book game genre with this one. This game played perfectly. It looked amazing and had one of the best photo modes I’ve ever seen. It was written at the quality of a Marvel movie and even had a Stan Lee cameo. Hopefully it’s to games what Iron Man was to movies and we will now get a collection of amazing interconnected comic book games taking place in the same universe. It’s a PS4 exclusive though so if you don’t have one you better buy one soon so you don’t get too far behind in the timeline.

ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission

I’m not a huge fan of current VR and I have yet to be truly impressed by any games released on PSVR, or really any VR platforms for that matter. While I haven’t personally played ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission, the talk is that it revolutionized VR gaming. It’s been called the Mario 64 of VR. That’s a hefty claim, but if it’s true I hope it means that we’ll start to see consistently great VR games that make the platform actually worth buying for the majority of gamers. I do personally want to try this game after watching some footage but not enough to go out and buy one of those overpriced headsets. Hopefully as the library grows so will my interest in making the purchase.

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Tetris Effect

It warms my heart to know that Tetris still mattered to people in 2018. It still matters to me and always will. While I think the VR aspect of the game is overrated, it is an excellently made Tetris game overall. Filled with stunning visuals, hypnotic music, and an overall calming vibe, this may be the best Tetris game ever made. The price is way too high but it’s quite a good game for what it ultimately is.

PlayStation Won’t be at E3 2019

Just over a month ago, SONY announced that there would be no PlayStation/SONY presence at E3. The reasons why aren’t exactly clear but many people have their theories. Really this shows that SONY is so confident with the PS4 at this point that they’ve become arrogant.  Maybe that’s OK though. As long as prices don’t go up and they continue to release great exclusives it really doesn’t matter how they get the word out. In the age of the internet, it’s more effective to do news posts all year round like Nintendo than to launch all your bombs in one event. Personally I have no problem with them ditching E3 as long they continue to keep the public informed about current and future projects.  I find the fact that they cancelled PlayStation Experience in 2018 to be more unsettling.

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XB1 Continues to Disappoint

I have no love for Microsoft but I also have no reason to hate the XB1 or the people that use it. At this point I just feel sorry for them more than anything. They get all the cross platform games so that’s nice, but that’s not why you buy a console. It’s the exclusives that make or break a gaming platform and by any objective standard the XB1 is broken. The only truly great exclusive they released in 2018 was Forza Horizon 4. And while it may be a good racing game, that genre doesn’t justify consoles or those who purchase them all on its own.

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is to XB1 what No Man’s Sky, which wasn’t even an exclusive, was to PS4. It’s a boring, repetitive, mostly disappointing pirate themed farming scenario except the prizes are even more disappointing than those of Destiny. Even more depressing is the fact that it was developed by Rare, because we all expect better from them.

Backwards Compatibility

The one thing that the XB1 must be praised for is the backwards compatibility. The library of backwards compatible games continues to grow and that’s a beautiful thing. It still doesn’t justify the console overall, but it’s a noble thing that Microsoft has taken huge steps in preserving the overall useable lifespan of games. This is even more important in light of Nintendo literally suing private citizens for trying to preserve their older titles. I’d like to see PlayStation take on similar policies with the PS5.

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Sunset Overdrive

I have spent years waiting for them to port Sunset Overdrive to a platform I actually use. In November, they finally ported it to PC. While this is great news for PS4 users, it only serves to cheapen the value of the XB1 even more.  Porting an exclusive like that is a slap in the face to the entire loyal XBOX user base.

Nintendo Gonna Nintendo Hard

What can I say about Nintendo that hasn’t already been said about pet cats? They do whatever they want. They almost completely ignore public opinion on most topics. Nothing they do ever seems to make sense from the outside. They literally attack those who love them. But we still love them. The company doesn’t always make the best decisions, but they almost always make profitable ones. Sales wise, Nintendo owned this year. And that’s following 2017 where we saw Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They just print money.

Pokémon Let’s GO

Haters ranted and raved and continue to do so, but this game sold three million copies in the first three days after release. I haven’t purchased it but the more I see footage from it the more I want to. It looks the way Pokémon was originally intended to but couldn’t because of technological limitations. While I think it’s ridiculous to be charging $100 for it because of a single use controller, the overall concept of the Let’s GO games works. And linking it to Pokémon GO was a brilliant move. I doubt this is the last we see of the Let’s GO series.

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Smash Bros Ultimate

Simply put it’s the best Smash Bros. ever made. It is definitely missing a number of features like break the targets and a story mode reminiscent of the original game. But I would still argue that it’s the best in the series. And I do foresee patches and additions being added to it. I will be playing this a lot more than I already have and I don’t even have Nintendo Switch Online.

Super Mario Party

This was certainly a step in the right direction but it came up short. Most people who grew up with the original Mario Party wanted Super Mario Party to just be that with online pvp functionality. Instead they just did a small list of boards, lots of mini-games, and limited online functions. This game was so close to being perfect, but isn’t that what Nintendo does all the time? They love to get about 75% there and just screw up the end game.

Nintendo Online

This service is pretty much everything I feared for Nintendo. It’s peak predation in every sense of the word. The so called deals are basically non-existent. The number of games worth having the service for is super limited. The retro titles are too retro to warrant paying for the service. This is pretty much an additional paywall for Splatoon 2 and Smash Bros Ultimate that has to be repaid annually.

Switch Online cover

Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Scarlet

This is noteworthy more in how surprising it is than the actual game itself. This port of the latest Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball game was not expected to be available on the Switch. Even more surprising is the fact that the Switch version will be uncensored while the PS4 version will be censored. And let’s not forget the HD Rumble feature. Basically playing this game on the Switch is as close to feeling up a woman that the people who are gonna buy this game will ever get to. For a console and company that’s always packaged itself as the family friendly gaming brand, it’s quite shocking and meme worthy that Nintendo allowed this.

Ports, Ports, and more Ports

Ports on the Switch aren’t just for Wii U games anymore. Real AAA PlayStation and XBOX titles are making their way to the Switch and they play and look fairly good while also being portable. DOOM, Wolfenstein II, and Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition are just a few examples. And many more have been announced from current and past gens. Slowly the Switch is becoming the most versatile console to game on and the sales numbers show that it’s working.

Noteworthy Non-Exclusives

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Monster Hunter World

Supposedly this was the bestselling Capcom game ever released  . . . and rightly so. What’s great about MHW, and why it was so successful, was that they took an already award winning concept and made it accessible to all gamers. The idea of hunting giant monsters with a very limited narrative structure has always been a good one. The problem with past MH games is that they were always too complicated and had a steep barrier of entry. This game keeps what’s good about the past games but made it much easier for new players to jump in. The many limited time events throughout the year with various cameos like Ryu and Dante have kept the game relevant even several months later.

Battle Royale is Cancer

Cancer is a disease that takes already existing cells within a body and transforms them into harmful cells. As the disease spreads across the body, more and more cells are taken over by the spreading cancer until the life form eventually dies. I think this is a rather apt description of the battle royale genre. It has over taken the industry as the most watched genre on Twitch and developers have taken notice of that. More and more games are adding BR modes. It’s a genre that adds nothing particularly new to gaming. It just transformed traditional PVP into baseless 100 man maps with no story, no chance to turn the game around after dying, and no reason to care about the match once you’ve died. I think it adequately portrays how much people’s attention spans have fallen due to technological advances. I fear for the day that all games become Battle Royale and real gaming eventually dies.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2

What happens when you take The Witcher 3 and set it in the Wild West era? Something extremely popular even when riddled with glitches. I’ve heard people say this isn’t just the GOTY but the “game of the generation”. Slow your roll. It’s an epic achievement in many ways and Rockstar Games should be proud to have delivered something so impressive. That being said, it still has many of the various issues we’ve grown accustom to with Rockstar titles. While it was certainly one of the most impressive games of 2018, I’m fairly certain we won’t be talking about it once Cyberpunk 2077 releases.

WTF Bethesda

Bethesda went whole hog on not giving a damn this year. Not only did they put out the travesty that is Fallout 76, but they followed that up by saying The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield would use the same broken engine they’ve been using since 2011. Skyrim was an excellent game but it’s really time to move on to the next engine. I don’t completely blame the engine for all the problems with Fallout 76, but it definitely played a factor. Of course Bethesda is nowhere near closing down, but the fact that we keep letting them get away with releasing broken games is problematic to say the least.

Spyro Trilogy Remastered

When you find a winning formula you keep doing it over and over again until people get bored with it. Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a testament to how successful Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy was. They’ve also announced that Medievil is being remastered for 2019. Personally I’m OK with them remastering much older games and clearly everyone else is as well.

Spyro

Destiny 2: Forsaken

While I have no love for Destiny and would never buy another game in the franchise, it must be acknowledged that people really seemed to like the Forsaken expansion in Destiny 2 so kudos to Bungie for getting that right. That being said, Activision is doing everything they can to make people angry with microtransactions.

No Man’s Sky Patches

I still haven’t played No Man’s Sky but as they have evolved the game over time the idea has become more and more appealing. While I’ll probably never completely trust Hello Games, I will commend them for acknowledging that they screwed up with that game initially and have worked tirelessly to improve it, which they have and continue to do. I think NMS is directly responsible for Ubisoft’s decision to make Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which is an achievement in and of itself.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas

In my opinion, this was the hidden gem of 2018. I don’t know why it wasn’t talked about way more than it was, but I will admit that there are some inherent flaws with the way it was priced and distributed. I finished it and really enjoyed it, but I did feel like it was short at only 30 hours for an open solar system game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, Starlink is everything we wanted from NMS plus Starfox, if you play the Switch version. It’s really just a narrative focused NMS with the ability to fast travel, a manageable amount of content, and a real plot to follow. You also have multiple playable characters. I think the toys, specifically how they were priced, were a turn off for people. I have the digital deluxe version and I think that really is the superior way to play. If they had not done the toys and instead just sold the deluxe version content with all the characters available as the vanilla version and then a gold edition with additional story missions, that would have been a lot more successful. Because the game isn’t about the toys. They’re a gimmick to try to compete with amiibo. But the game itself is great and it’s a travesty how little attention it actually got.

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Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

The Assassin’s Creed franchise went through quite a few years of disappointing content. People, myself included, were fed up with the horrible storytelling and the awkward structure of games like Unity. Having finally played Syndicate this year, I have to say that it was actually quite good on all fronts. But it was still the old style of game that had become tiresome and overdone. Changing the formula in Origins really reinvigorated the franchise and Odyssey successfully continued that momentum.

Darksiders III

I don’t think it’s the game itself that’s necessarily noteworthy here. It’s the fact that the game finally released. When THQ shutdown, the Darksiders franchise was up in the air. Most people who had played the first two, such as myself, definitely wanted to see III released, but there were no guarantees it would ever happen. To see it finally release six years after II is amazing. I haven’t gotten to play it yet myself, but thankfully I’ll actually be able to because it exists.

darksiders 3

Gaming Industry Do’s & Don’ts

Ninja

If the battle royale genre is the cancer of gaming, Ninja is a tumor. This toxic hack somehow managed to become the face of Fortnite and end up as the first non-athlete to make it on the cover of ESPN magazine even after having said a racial slur during a live stream and basically throwing all female streamers under the bus. It just goes to show you that the influencer system is no different than systems of the past. Minorities and women get shit on while assholes get rich for doing little to no actual work. I hope this hack goes away and takes Fortnite with him.

Castlevania Netflix Season 2

Castlevania is not just a great game cartoon. It’s just a great cartoon. The animation style, the storytelling, the acting, and the relationship with the games are all done perfectly. Cartoon production studios should take note of this show for literally any genre that contains violence and caters to an older audience. I hope we see other shows like this for other classic game franchises like Metroid.

castlevania

Monster Hunter Movie

The only positive thing I can say about this movie so far is that they cast Tony Jaa. That’s an A+ casting decision for a Monster Hunter movie. Other than that, this whole project looks like shit. They’ve shown tanks and modern looking guns. The casting in general seems to be steering more towards an American audience of people who don’t actually play the games. And don’t pretend like the Resident Evil movies were good. This all reeks of a cash grab franchise that will drone on for years and years against the desires of the people who actually play the games.

Kotaku

This is what happens when you cheapen the term gamer to the point of including absolutely everyone with a smart phone. The number of controversial articles they put out claiming games are destroying society, women, and the future is just appalling. Their twitter feed is one of the most entertaining comments sections you can read though so at least there’s that.

Diablo

I have no love for Diablo. I have no love for Blizzard. I have absolutely no positive feelings about Activison. In fact I’m worried that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will suck because of Activision. While I don’t support Blizzard in any way, I feel bad for their loyal fans who have spent years hoping for the next Diablo. Them announcing a mobile game and not even mentioning a proper next installment was a real slap in the face to all their fans. I commend that guy for standing up in the middle of their conference and calling them out. And then they followed that by announcing that all their franchises are getting mobile games. Clearly Activision has poisoned that already stagnant well and any smart person would jump ship rather than throwing more money into that pit or microtransactions, predatory pricing, and general disregard for their consumers.

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Goodbye Telltale Games

This hurt a lot. And the news came out of nowhere. I was so sad to hear that I won’t be getting The Wolf Among Us season 2 among other titles. I beat Guardians of the Galaxy this year and Game of Thrones last year. I was waiting for additional seasons of both. But really I should have seen this coming. I have said multiple times in the past that they seem to be taking on way too many projects. And I wasn’t aware of just how bad their licensing agreements were with a lot of these companies. The studio really was mismanaged and it’s a shame what happened to all their employees. It reminded me of when Visceral Games closed down, save for the fact that Telltale didn’t collapse because of bad management from an overarching publisher. Hopefully small studios will learn from this and stop trying to be too big for their britches.

Goodbye Prima Games

Prima Games closing its doors is the equivalent of seeing your childhood home demolished for me. I used to collect their player’s guides. I recall some of my favorite ones that I still have in a box somewhere. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X, and many others. But it makes perfect sense that they closed down. I’m shocked they lasted as long as they did. Printed gaming tips in 2018? GameFAQs has existed for more than 10 years. YouTube playthroughs and guides can be watched from your phone. Google can pinpoint the exact item you’re looking for and bring up a marked map of where it is in the game in seconds. Who was still buying player’s guides for any reason other than collecting and nostalgia? And they weren’t cheap either. Every time I saw a new guide released by them I was shocked at how expensive they were in recent years. They cost more than many games do now. All good things must come to an end and Prima Games had a great run.

prima guides

2019 Looks Amazing

There are a host of great looking games coming out in 2019. For PS4 it’s going to be the year of the samurai. For the Switch we’ll see new installments of some classic fan favorites. CD Projekt Red may raise the bar even higher than The Witcher 3. This is just a small sampling of the announced games for 2019.

  • Ghost of Tsushima
  • Kingdom Hearts III
  • Yoshi’s Crafted World
  • Medievil
  • Devil May Cry V
  • Nioh 2
  • Animal Crossing
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • The Last of Us Part 2
  • Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
  • Luigi’s Mansion 3
  • Shenmue III
  • Doom Eternal
  • Bayonetta 3

There is so much more I could cover but no one wants to read a 20 page blog post in 2019 and I really don’t have the time or energy to write one. Overall I’d say this was a really good year for gaming, unless you’re predominantly an XB1 user. I really didn’t cover enough of the bad moments but there were just so many noteworthy goods to talk about. I hope this is not an outlier year and that 2019 continues this trend of great gaming. My biggest concern at this point is deciding which games I’m going to take the time to play because there are so many worthy candidates. How was gaming for you in 2018? What games are you most excited about in 2019?

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