Jonathan Holmes’ favorite games of 2021

Bad year, great games

Hey kids! I hope you had a fun and frisky 2021. I guess it’s possible that you did, but for most of us, it was pretty torturous. I know I shouldn’t complain. No one close to me got super sick, I kept my job, and despite the constant stress and drain that came from maintaining in the midst of year two of a global pandemic, I still managed to get a bunch of cool projects done. I even have a sheep named after me in The Good Life.

But I also shouldn’t pretend to be happy with 2021 when I’m not. This year was disillusioning, both in and out of the games industry. Many great titles were relatively ignored while mostly-worthless trends like NFTs seemed to be everywhere. Tons of people in power throughout the industry were revealed to have done terrible things. And to cap it all off, the CEO of Square Enix capped off the year by saying that he wants to move in a “games are not for fun” direction. The cream was sinking to the bottom while the turds rose to the top. It’s enough to make you want to throw in the blood-soaked, stinking towel.

But there were many, many games that kept that towel soft and warm. Just playing games, as opposed to writing about them, talking about them, or thinking about them, did more to keep me going in 2021 than any other in my adult life. My total playtime with games was five times longer in 2021 than it was in 2020. Some of that was coping. Some of it was also keeping my kid engaged when he couldn’t play with his friends. But most of all, it was a way to make a deep connection with the people who made the games through their work, in a year when connection was in short supply.

Here are some of the games of 2021 that did the best job of that.

My favorite surprise of 2021: Astalon: Tears of Earth

I’m a sucker for games that are made by small teams, and they don’t get much smaller than LABS Works. Matt Kap, artist on Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Castle in the Darkness, founded the studio in 2018, and their debut game is a stunner. In a world packed to the gills with indie games of all shapes and sizes, all vying for your attention, Astalon: Tears of Earth humbly plops itself on your lap and says “Hey, remember Xanadu, the Japan-only PC prequel to Faxanadu, which is a weird NES game that you probably don’t remember?” Sadly, most people seem to have answered “No.”

And they’re missing out! But how can I explain that to you with just words? Well, if that Faxanadu reference was lost on you, then maybe you’ve heard of La-Mulana, the notoriously mean Metroidvania series? Astalon is like La-Mulana but fair, and with five distinctly different playable characters that have really fun powers. And it’s got key art by the creator of the 90’s anime series Dragon Half! It’s great stuff! But sadly, it just didn’t stand out for a lot of folks amid waves hands around furiously all of this 2021 shit.

I have been following Matt Kap for years, but I may not have known about Astalon if he didn’t cold email me and ask me to play it. As I did, I felt like I was sitting over Matt’s shoulder as he struggled through making the game, grinning big when a particular puzzle really came together and sighing just as big when he hit a major setback on his way to the finish line. For people who love the 8-bit era of sword and sorcery adventure games, Astalon is as authentic a love letter as they come. Anyone who loves the genre is sure to feel just as loved.

My favorite guilt-free game to play with my kid: S.U.M.

2021 was the first year that I ever had to teach a child (my son) how to do math. It’s harder than you might think. In a year that was already filled with massive problems to solve, there weren’t many days when, come 7 p.m., my brain was energized with great ideas on how to explain why a “10” is actually “ten ones” and not “a one next to a zero”.  The hardest, and also most interesting, thing about trying to teach a kid something new is you can only rely on the knowledge they already have for context.

You’re also restricted by their limited list of motivations. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and you can’t get a person whose brain naturally wanders towards blowing up monsters in Dusk (the boomer shooter) instead of tips and tricks on how to add up to solutions higher than 20. One night he announced “I want a game with monsters, where you don’t see the character you play, and you kill the monsters. That’s all I’m going to do.” He was putting me to task.

After searching the Switch eShop store for a few minutes, I found a game that met his criteria. S.U.M. Slay Uncool Monsters met all his criteria, and it also taught the boy basic addition and subtraction (it also has the option to do multiplication and division, but we’re not there yet). There were many times I wondered if I was making the right choices in 2021. Should I have let him even play a bit of Dusk, No More Heroes 3 (with the swears turned off), Axiom Verge 2, and Metroid Dread, or would they give him nightmares for life? Should I have instead been engaging in non-nightmarish, fatherly fun like tossing around the football and telling him about how good vegetables are for his skin? Or is that its own kind of nightmare?

I’ll never know for sure, but I have no doubt that we shared some virtual adventures that we’ll never forget, and that at least one of them made him way better than his friends at basic addition and subtraction.

My favorite “It’s great but I wish it was even better” game of 2021: Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread is the franchise’s Force Awakens. It sticks to the formula to a fault, calling back to all the surface-level things that fans praise in the series while shaving off all the rough edges that may not appeal to modern audiences. The problem for me is, those rough edges are exactly why the series has stuck with me all those years. My ideal Metroid moment-to-moment steps are: 1) Be thrust into an illogical, alien world 2) Get stuck 3) Experiment with new things (tools, techniques, and or strategies) 4) Discover what works 5) Master what you’ve discovered 6) Repeat.

There was definitely some of that in Metroid Dread, but the developers’ urge to turn Samus into “The Badass Action Hero that you know from the Smash Bros. series”  instead of a “plodding, slow jumping astronaut with little mainstream appeal” led Dread to feel more like a 2D Bayonetta title than anything else. And that’s not a bad thing! I really had fun with Dread. It just wasn’t a full return to the things about the series I really love. I didn’t get lost once! Everything was so clearly signposted. I also rarely felt afraid or intimidated. After getting killed by a boss or an E.M.M.I. a few times, their tells and patterns became clear, and they all became pretty easy to beat. And that’s cool! It’s nice to see Samus be fully empowered early on for a change.

It’s also a relief to see her finally win her psychological battles. More so than any other game in the series, Dread shows Samus come to terms with her trauma. In the end, (Spoilers) she fully embraces the ways others have altered her, and the rage she feels about it, and masters it all. Self-acceptance is a beautiful thing, and it was very loving of Nintendo and Mercury Steam to want to give that gift, and many others, to their #1 Sci-Fi Action star. It’s just that in order to also make the game a crowd-pleaser, they made Dread a sweet, super-powered breeze instead of the confounding storm of escape rooms that I grew up with.

My “I heard it wasn’t great but it’s actually amazing” game of 2021: SkateBIRD

When you love someone, their imperfections look beautiful. You can see why other people may not feel the same way about them, but you wouldn’t change them for the world. That’s how I feel about SkateBIRD. I get that, especially pre-patch, the game felt chunky and tough to grasp. But that’s exactly how real skateboarding feels for me, a 45-year old man who has definitely ollied once, but it was a long time ago. Even then, it really may have been more of a half-olly that mostly failed. At this point, who’s to say?

SkateBIRD embraces that kind of subjectivity. Come to think of it, there are a few ways that it feels more like classic Metroid than even Dread does. Instead of being a human with bird alien DNA trying to navigate through a bird alien hideout, you’re a bird wearing people clothes trying to do people things. The world of humans is not built for you, but with the right mix of tenacity and curiosity, you can go places you never thought possible, pulling off moves once thought unthinkable.

And that soundtrack! Imagine the music from Jet Set Radio, but with samples of bird-obsessed scientists awing at a majestic Heron Gull one minute, and a confident young lad declaring that the president is a racist transphobe the next. It’s truly an album for the ages.

My favorite “I heard it was bad but I wish it was even worse” game of 2021: GTA: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition

I cannot legitimately enjoy the GTA series. I have tried and tried, but on the whole, they just feel bad. I don’t think I would like the people that came up with them. It feels like they don’t even like video games that much. Sure, they like what games can do, but instead of embracing the surreality, the creativity, and the heart of the medium, they just want to recreate Quentin Tarantino’s ’90s movies. They want to let you be a sociopath who… loves to explore? I don’t get it. Playing 3D GTA games feels like working a boring-but-demanding job for asshole bosses, all at the cost of doing anything worthwhile with your time (and from some accounts, making them feel that way too.)

Of course, I’ve felt pretty alone with that opinion for the past 20 years or so. For a long time, it felt like there were two kinds of people in this world; the ones who steer clear of “Grand Theft Auto” because it sounds like a deep dive into the dank dumpster of our collective cultural consciousness, and the ones who can’t wait to take that dip. The folks in the first group usually think all video games are trash. That’s definitely not me. The folks in the second group usually have an attraction to being the “bad guy” in games. That’s not me either! So that’s been my pickle for the past two decades.

For the record, I also like the Star Wars prequels, hate Space Jam, and think that the N64 is Nintendo’s worst console by a country mile. For a long time, people thought I was a dunce for these opinions as well, but for whatever reason, time seems to have brought many over to my way of thinking. Apparently, the prequels are cool again, Space Jam is largely recognized to be an overwrought McDonald’s commercial, and people think N64 games look terrible! Welcome to my brain, everyone!

And that’s exactly how I felt when I saw how much people hated the recently released GTA: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. “Hey, this game looks like crap…” Yeah, they always have! “These missions are repetitive and dull…” Yes! Always has been again! “The rain in this game looks like bukkake…”

Well, that one’s new, but it’s definitely still on-brand.

These three remastered GTA games looked like cheap cash grabs, unloved and uncared about. That felt honest to me. A series about stealing stuff for easy money was trying to get away with a criminally shitty “definitive” version of their “classic titles”. Even better, they were so broken that they finally felt like video games again. Human faces suddenly appear in walls, cars grow to massive sizes for no reason, and people trash-talk before blasting off into space. Purely by accident, GTA had finally gotten weird and silly, and had become a worthwhile self-parody in the process. I was ready to buy the physical Switch port (the most broken version) on day one, just for laughs.

Then it was delayed indefinitely, as the publisher was surely aghast at these games finally getting the low review scores they always deserved. It’s a bummer that, after GTA finally went to being “so bad it’s good” from “so bad it’s boring” that Rockstar is undoubtedly trying to make them blander again. But who knows, maybe they will go full Cruelty Squad with the Switch port when it’s finally sold on the cartridge. One can hope.

My favorite small game of the year: Mon Amour

At the same time, I was feeling alone with my dislike of the GTA games on the PS2, I was falling in love with another open-world game on the console: Chulip, the exploration and kissing game. It was everything that GTA wasn’t: cute, funny, kind, and quick to punish you for stepping out of line. And in this game, you’re in line for a smooch!

Once again, history has proven my weird taste in games to be the correct one. Chulip is now worth a bunch of money on the resale market, and people much smarter and more interesting than I talk about how great it is all the time. The creator of the game has taken notice as well. His latest game, Mon Amour, returns to Chulip‘s smooching concept but makes it a simple Flappy Bird-esque arcade game. That doesn’t sound that great, does it? But it is! The music, the graphics, the comedy, all top-notch, but my favorite thing about the game is the way if feels. In real life, it’s hard to know if you’re doing things right, and that goes double for moving in for your first kiss. Mon Amour replicates that feeling of “moving forward cautiously, following your instincts, but ready to fail at any moment” perfectly. Subjectively, it’s perfect.

My favorite medium-sized game of 2021: Axiom Verge 2

Axiom Verge 2 is also about boldly moving into the unknown. At the start, it’s not a lot like the first game, eschewing old-school Metroid aesthetics for a more athletic, organic exercise. It’s about a new lead character doing new things in a new place, and while lore-hounds for the first game will find plenty of allusions to the original, this game definitely didn’t need to be called Axiom Verge 2. In fact, calling it that was a pretty big risk, at least from a marketing perspective. But the risk paid off, and in the end, it makes sense.

Just as the original Axiom Verge was, intentionally or not, an accurate reflection of the one-person development team’s psyche, the sequel catches us up with where Tom Happ, the creator of the franchise, is in his life today. He’s a dad now, working to create both a good life for his kid with one hand and to make even better games than he has before with the other. The path to meet both goals is indelibly intertwined. He can’t make money for his family if he doesn’t make good games, and he can’t make good games unless he creates honest work that could only come from him.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of my playtime with Axiom Verge 2, waiting to see exactly if, and how, Tom would pull off this dual aim. In the end, he nailed it. My only complaint about the game is there isn’t more of it. When the credits finally rolled, I was not ready to quit. Then again, that’s true of just about every one of the games on this list. Thankfully, most of them are sure to get some sort of sequel and/or DLC expansion at some point. They all did pretty well, so we probably won’t have to say goodbye to them anytime soon.

My favorite big game of 2021: No More Heroes 3

I can’t believe this is goodbye! No More Heroes 3 has so many hints of where the series could go from here, from movie adaptations by Takashi Miike to Back to the Future-style forays into the far-flung foibles of Travis’s offspring. (SPOILERS) I mean, he cuts his brother in half, and like five minutes later, is decapitated by him! And we still don’t know exactly how why! This can’t be the end, can it?

It is.

In retrospect, you can tell Suda51 was planning to make this the last game in the series. Last episodes of TV shows often swing for the fences in the same way. For a series, all the episodes before the final one have a specific job to do; to get you to want to watch the next one. The last episode doesn’t have to pursue the audience in the same way. It exists in a time where there’s no tomorrow.

For Quantum Leap, that meant capping things off with a bunch of small talk among characters you’d never seen before. For Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs, it meant bringing a heavenly Apocolypse down to Earth. For No More Heroes 3, it meant all that and more. We’ve heard that even more magic was planned for the game, and fans will always wonder what could have been, but there is no doubting that this is the fullest, most fun entry in the series. Just as our old pal Jirard “The Completionist” Khalil. He put hundreds of hours into the game and is one of the few people in the world to truly see it all.

Someday, I might see it all too. No More Heroes 3 is a game I plan to play for the rest of my days. It’s broken in all the right ways while fixing all of the things that were less than perfect about its predecessors. More importantly, it loves No More Heroes, and its fans, with all its heart. In a year where it was easy to lose sight of what was good, games like this reminded me why I love the medium, and I’m grateful for it.

Jonathan Holmes
"Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes