The 10 Things I Liked About Roseanne’s Ninth Season

Last year, I started working my way through Roseanne for no real reason except that I remember enjoying it quite a lot as a kid. My memory of the show sure as heck got a lot of the details wrong, but I was right about the quality.

The writing was sharp. The casting was perfect. The acting was top notch. It was far more serialized than I remembered. Rewatching Roseanne made for a really fantastic revisit.

But ah, the sickle!

However much I was enjoying the show — including an awful lot of episodes I was seeing for the first time — there was always a grim specter on the horizon: season nine.

To provide context, prior to the recent Roseanne revival, season nine was the show’s final stretch, and it has a dire reputation.

It involves the Conners winning the lottery, which sounds like the sort of thing that could indeed be handled in any number of creative, intelligent, funny ways. Instead, B-list celebrities like Jim Varney, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim J. Bullock, and Steven Seagal are trotted out to play exaggerated cartoons as the Conners themselves largely splinter off on joyless solo adventures and engage in limp parodies.

I remember people complaining about how awful it was while it aired, which suggests that widescale dismissal wasn’t a conclusion we culturally reached only after consideration and reflection. My friends who still watched the show at that point all reported back about how much they hated it. Later, I worked with someone who adored Roseanne, and we exchanged fond memories of the show…but when season nine came up, she grumbled about “the lottery season,” which seemed to say it all. Even in this largely positive (and very good) Facebook fan group, season nine draws a lot of unexpectedly strong ire.

Needless to say, I was very excited to finally get to see those episodes for myself. I love garbage!

And, well…it really is garbage. Its hideous reputation is well deserved. The entire time I was watching earlier seasons, I refused to believe season nine could be quite as bad as everyone said. How could one of television’s best shows tumble so far so fast that it immediately became one of the worst? Even The Simpsons represented a gradual decline…how could Roseanne represent a plummet?

I could write a few thousand words about how awful it is, but you can probably find those elsewhere. Or you can watch it yourself, preferably after watching any number of the previous eight seasons so you can wonder what the hell happened, too.

Instead of tearing down something people love, I’m going to do something far less common on this site: I’m going to build up something people hate. I’m going to celebrate some of the things this truly terrible season of television did right. Because, hey, it really did do some things right. And after the nearly flawless eight-season stretch that preceded it…I think Roseanne deserves that.

This is my list of the 10 things I liked about Roseanne‘s final season. I’d say “Top 10,” but, frankly, I had to stretch slightly to even hit 10 so I think we can call this exhaustive.

I did set myself one rule: no “I liked that X didn’t happen” entries. This list is exclusively about things I actively enjoyed about the season, so I can’t say things like, “Tom Arnold didn’t make an appearance.” Or “Watching the show didn’t give me a brain tumor.”

Here we go.

10) The theme song’s lyrics


…alright, I had to reach slightly for this one. I don’t dislike the lyric-version of the theme song, which debuted for season nine. Having said that…I also don’t quite see the purpose. Roseanne‘s instrumental theme tune was (and remains) iconic. This is a bit like having somebody warble over the Hawaii Five-O intro; even if it’s good warbling, why mess with something that’s already great?

Surprisingly, though, this version of the theme song isn’t bad, and the lyrics actually feel like they fit and weren’t crammed into an existing melody almost a decade after everyone got to know it. The credit for that belongs to John Popper, who wrote and performed this version of the song with his band, Blues Traveler. (Blues Traveler was one of the first bands I saw live. NOW YOU KNOW THAT.) They also recorded new stings to play between scene and act breaks.

I feel a bit bad for Popper that his version of the theme is associated with this of all possible seasons, but that’s just the way the chips fell. Popper appeared in season eight’s “Of Mice and Dan” as blues musician Stingray Wilson, backed, of course, by the rest of Blues Traveler. It’s not one of my favorite episodes, but there was obviously some mutual respect between the band and the show, as Popper was invited to compose theme song lyrics (one hell of an unexpected honor) and DJ hung a Blues Traveler poster in his room for the rest of the show’s run.

Of course, the less we think about Blues Traveler and Stingray Wilson existing in the same universe the better, especially since we learn that “Run-Around” and “Hook” — actual Blues Traveler hits in our universe — were written by Stingray Wilson on Roseanne…no. No. We have nine more entries. WE WILL STAY POSITIVE.

9) The Christmas episode


Roseanne is understandably known for having great Halloween episodes. Personally, too many of them break reality for my taste, but I can see why they have their following.

The holidays I really thought Roseanne nailed were Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving episodes were more or less a gimme. As the extended family gathered in the Conner kitchen, we in the audience were guaranteed to see conflicts addressed, grievances raised, and great dialogue spread among a larger number of characters. A simple template, almost guaranteed to produce a memorable episode.

The Christmas episodes, though, were a bit less predictable. Maybe Roseanne needed some extra money and became a mall Santa. Maybe Dan took the opportunity decorating the house to bond with Becky’s brash new husband Mark. Maybe we get a peek at David’s abusive home life. Hell, maybe we give our Christmas episode over to Leon’s gay wedding.

I liked all of the Christmas episodes. I looked forward to them. And so I was genuinely worried when I saw that season nine had one was well. Was this godforsaken season really going to break the show’s perfect record with Christmas?

Actually, no. It wasn’t. “Home for the Holidays” is far from the best Conner Christmas, but it’s still pretty good. It’s the rare season nine episode that plays better in retrospect, too, as Dan’s periodic detachment from the celebrations make a very sad sense when we later find out why. See, Dan (like John Goodman) was absent from a long stretch of episodes, the character spending some time in California. Unknown to anyone else, he was also canoodling with another woman. Christmas represents his return to the family. He’s plagued by guilt. He has doubts about both halves of the equation. Does he really want that other woman? Does the fact that he’s even questioning mean he doesn’t want his family?

Especially heartbreaking is the gift Roseanne gives him: the burning of their mortgage, which she has paid off. After all these years together, the Conners finally own their home. Dan is devastated, and forced to account internally for the damage he’s done to his family when they should have been getting stronger. This is all something we only find out later, and it works perfectly.

Except, you know, we find out this whole thing never really happened and Dan never actually cheated and Roseanne never actually paid off the house so really there’s no point to any of this and whatever retroactive emotion we link to the scene means we have to ignore the later revelation that undoes this one but no. No. We have eight more entries. WE WILL STAY POSITIVE.

8) Dan’s ennui


So why was Dan away from his family for much of the start of season nine? A very good reason, actually. In season six’s “Lies My Father Told Me,” Dan learns that his largely absent mother is mentally ill. It’s a secret Dan’s father kept from him for many years. In season nine, after the Conners hit the lottery, Dan realizes that he has enough money to get his mother the help she needs, and takes her to an institution in California.

This is a nice development, even if it’s only to give Goodman an in-universe reason to take a few weeks off from the show.

What’s nicer, though, is that this isn’t a snap decision, or something that happens between episodes. Instead, in “Honor Thy Mother,” we see Dan building toward the idea, beginning with a very believable, general sense of malaise and ennui.

Dan has money now.

For eight seasons, he’s struggled to put food on the table. Sometimes he’s failed even to do that. He worked constantly and regularly for whatever someone was willing to pay. “Dan the Drywall Man” had a reputation for doing good work, but that reputation never got him far enough to take it easy. Yesterday’s paycheck won’t last through today…he needs to get back out there and find more work.

Until now. Now he has money. Now he doesn’t even need a job, let alone a series of jobs.

And for perhaps the first time ever, his mind has a chance to wander. He begins to question his purpose. He wonders who he is, and what he’s doing. He opens up to characters he usually wouldn’t, such as Leon, in the vague hope that somebody can give him guidance. Having the luxury to reflect on meaning can be a curse, because it may lead to you suspect there is none.

Ultimately, Dan decides to help his mother, which suggests that this mental listlessness had a positive outcome. But it’s in the course of helping her that he meets and falls for her nurse. The same aimless, desperate thoughts that led him to make one of the least selfish decisions of his life led him also to make one of the most.

It was a plot development born of logistical necessity, but like so few other things in season nine, it worked.

7) A few of the premises


Season nine was rife with idiotic premises. Does anybody really care if Jackie dates a Moldavian prince? Did anybody need to see the Conners go to Martha’s Vineyard so they could stand silently around while a bunch of nobodies told jokes about being rich? Was there any reason at all to embed a jokeless, condensed version of Rosemary’s Baby in the middle of an Absolutely Fabulous crossover?

And did I really just manage to list a bunch of shoddy premises without even mentioning the time Roseanne fought terrorists on a hijacked train? Jesus.

The season was full of terrible ideas, but there were a few genuinely good ones.

Roseanne and Jackie spending an entire episode at a spa together should have been great, and in any previous season we would have certainly gotten some great dialogue as the two worked through their problems, gave each other advice, reminisced, fought and reconciled…it, frankly, would have been great. Roseanne and Jackie had perhaps the most rewarding dynamic on a show full of rewarding dynamics, but season nine just has them get yelled at by exaggerated, unfunny caricatures. Oh, and then it becomes a fantasy episode where Roseanne thinks she’s Xena. Come on.

There are also a pair of episodes after Dan and Roseanne split up that should have been great. The first sees Roseanne driving aimlessly around Lanford, reflecting on how the town has changed over the years. The second sees her holing up in her bedroom, depressed, and refusing to come out. A better show — such as Roseanne so recently had been — would have used these opportunities to explore character, both Roseanne’s and those who tried to help her move forward in the face of domestic tragedy.

Instead, both episodes — both of them! — are little more than extended jokes on the fact that Roseanne eats junk food. Come on.

And yes, an unhealthy diet led to Dan’s heart attack at the end of season eight. And no, season nine’s junk food duology doesn’t remember or comment on that in any way.

Come. On.

Still, though! Good ideas. Credit where it’s due.

6) The kitchen table scene


The ending of the season — and, until a few months ago, Roseanne as a whole — revealed that much of what we’ve seen on the show, if not all of it, was either invented by Roseanne (the character) or heavily fictionalized.

This was a divisive revelation. The most significant difference, arguably, is that Dan did not survive his heart attack at Darlene’s wedding. (More on that in a bit.) But as much as people like to see that as a way to bracket season nine off as the contents of Roseanne’s novel and ignore it completely, the divergence between fact and fiction didn’t start there.

Roseanne also reveals that Jackie was always a lesbian, for one, and Roseanne invented a series of boyfriends for her. She also mentions that Darlene and Mark were a couple, as were Becky and David; in the episodes we saw on television, it was the other way around.

But that’s not what I really enjoyed. What I really enjoyed was the way in which these revelations were rolled out.

From seasons one through seven, the intro credits saw the family and a hanger-on or two gathered around the kitchen table. Eating pizza, exchanging Chinese food, playing poker. Everyone was together, the camera slowly panned around them as they went about their interactions, and the only sound we heard was Roseanne’s laughter to close the sequence out.

Near the end of “Into that Good Night,” season nine’s finale, we see the Conners and their friends gathered around that table again, the camera pans around, they exchange and squabble over Chinese food…but now we can hear their conversations. It’s not an intro sequence; it’s just a scene. It’s playing out for us.

And, as it does, Roseanne looks around the table. Her narration tells us how different reality was from what we’ve seen, and each character, as we watch, becomes their actual selves. Leon starts vocally praising George H.W. Bush. Becky and Darlene abandon the relationships we thought they were in and immediately take up with the other Healy brother. And Dan…well, Dan’s chair is suddenly empty.

It’s an efficient and deeply effective way of essentially undoing much of what we’d learned about the Conners. Anyone who disagrees with the direction the series finale took is, certainly, entitled to that opinion. In fact, I largely share it.

But the manner in which it was executed? It was perfect.

It was a perfectly executed gut punch.

5) Fred Willard


If I had to guess, I’d say Roseanne expected to end with season eight. So many of the episodes in that season have to do with looking backward, closing out plot threads, or both. It seems like it was written (or at least conceived of) as a natural stopping point for the characters in a way that season nine absolutely doesn’t.

Season eight saw Dan meeting up with his old band, Roseanne and Jackie rooting through boxes of their childhood toys, the kids finding loveletters Dan and Roseanne wrote when they were dating, Darlene getting pregnant, Dan and Roseanne having one “last date” before their own new baby is born…and, of course, Dan’s heart attack, which we’ll discuss later. Even season eight’s intro credits featured a series of photomorphs, showing how each character looked when the show started, evolving into what they now look like, as it ends.

One of these episodes featured Leon, a character played by the fantastic Martin Mull, getting married. In addition to this episode (“December Bride”) being sweet, smart, and a laugh riot, we were introduced to Fred Willard as Scott, Leon’s new husband.

Willard wins Roseanne over immediately, and I doubt it took the audience much longer to warm up to him as well. The guy is a comic treasure to this day, and he fit Roseanne‘s universe perfectly. This wasn’t a hollow celebrity cameo (we’d get plenty of those in season nine); this was a new character we wanted to spend some time with, laugh with, and watch Leon grow with.

Season nine might be Roseanne‘s equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy, but it at least did give us more time with Fred Willard. That in itself can never possibly be a bad thing, and it helps that Willard still manages to be funny when the material fails him. He’s a natural entertainer, a legitimately good actor, and an anchoring presence in his handful of episodes.

If anything, he served as a great reminder that for eight seasons, and right up to the end of that eighth season, Roseanne had no trouble at all producing some of the best characters on television.

4) DJ becoming a film buff


Michael Fishman was seven years old when Roseanne debuted, which meant that his character DJ spent a good number of seasons without much to do. If I really racked my brain, though, I could probably think of at least one sitcom that gave its own young actor even less business. (And, to their comparative credit, Roseanne and Dan do often remember they have a son.)

Fishman wasn’t a bad actor, but he was young enough that it was difficult to give him many stories. As such, he was nearly always on the periphery, and a few times sat episodes out entirely.

This is all fine. I’d rather not see unnecessary characters crammed unnaturally into scenes for the sake of it, and Roseanne used the kid well enough. It’s a shame, though, that he was so young for so much of the run that he didn’t get to develop much of an arc of his own.

Until, shockingly, season nine.

Allowing DJ to reveal himself as a film buff (and blossom into a film maker) was arguably the only character choice in season nine that made sense. It not only gave Fishman more to do, but it was true to DJ’s character. We watched Becky and Darlene grow up actively, because they were at more dynamic times in their lives. Certainly one changes more between high school and college, or when entering the workforce, than one changes between grades in elementary school.

DJ’s legitimate love and knowledge of cinema, though, proves that he was developing in his own way when we (and his parents) weren’t looking.

He grew up in a house with the television always on. He consumed all kinds of programs and movies that the networks showed him. The Conners getting a VCR in an earlier season was a genuine turning point for them, and it allowed them to regularly head to the video rental store for an armload of things they’ve never seen.

DJ absorbed all of it. He developed a critical eye. He started to learn about why certain films worked and why others didn’t. He developed a taste in cinema apart from the rest of his family, just as Darlene had previously developed a love of literature and writing. It became an escape, and it shaped who he is. What’s more…that’s sort of what happened to me, as well. Too much television in the house may or may not have rotted my brain, but it certainly helped inform the way I see the world, and my desire to create. I absolutely am willing to believe the same thing happened to DJ.

Also, his love of cinema introduces him to Heather Matarazzo, playing a character also named Heather. Matarazzo is another of season nine’s few consistent bright spots, and I’m glad DJ (and we!) got to spend some time with her.

3) Darlene’s delivery


Roseanne lucked out when it cast Sara Gilbert. Lecey Goranson as Becky and Michael Fishman as DJ were perfectly fine and often quite good, but Sara Gilbert as Darlene gave us one of television’s best characters overall, and one of the most important characters to me personally. Gilbert should be, for my money, the gold standard for child actors, holding her ground right alongside Roseanne, John Goodman, and Laurie Metcalf…damned good company to be in.

There’s no way anyone could have known in season one just how deeply and remarkably Gilbert would inhabit the character, how much incredible work she’d do as Darlene over the years, or the creative freedom her strong performance would allow the writers. After all, they could trust her to work wonders with whatever they gave her. Uniformly, she did exactly that.

When Becky was recast (temporarily…sort of?) in season six, it took a while for viewers to adapt. But, hey, it worked well enough. Part of the reason for this is that Goranson — and I say this with no intention of being rude — was replaceable. She wasn’t terrible, but she certainly didn’t stand in a league of her own. Somebody else could fill those shoes.

Imagine instead if Darlene had been recast. It would have been a catastrophe. It wouldn’t have been possible.

All of this is to say that even toward the dragging end of Roseanne‘s deeply disappointing ninth season, it’s no surprise that Gilbert is still doing important work.

After the character was absent from many episodes, “A Second Chance” sees Darlene going into labor prematurely. Very prematurely. And the following episode, “The Miracle,” is about her and the rest of the family coming to terms with the very real chance that the baby will not survive.

Gilbert, for obvious reasons, is not at her caustic funniest. But she does turn in an impressive dramatic performance, as does Johnny Galecki as David, who we see become an adult over the course of the delivery, leaving his detached slacker persona behind to become a supportive, attentive husband and father.

As far as emotional episodes of Roseanne go, there have certainly been better ones. But it says a lot that when they needed one at the very end of their final run, they turned to Gilbert to deliver it.

2) Dan’s death


Technically, Dan’s death came at the end of season eight…we just didn’t know it. But since the revelation happens in season nine, and since the revelation is crucial, I’m happy to give this season credit for it.

In “The Wedding,” Dan suffered a heart attack after Darlene and David got married. If I’m correct in thinking season eight was originally meant to conclude the show, I’m confident in saying this was always intended to be fatal.

And yet…he survived. “Heart & Soul” came next, and was about Dan’s recovery. Then “Fights and Stuff” saw Dan and Roseanne sparring over his reluctance to lead a healthier lifestyle. Dan was alive, and the heart attack was just something to which other characters would refer now and then.

At the end of season nine, though, Roseanne reveals that he did indeed die that day. And, frankly, that’s how it should have been.

I love John Goodman. I love Dan. But “The Wedding” builds to Dan’s death so perfectly that it’s actually frustrating he doesn’t die in that episode.

He feels off as the wedding approaches. The makeup crew does a great job of making Goodman look more sickly as the episode progresses. He loses focus as Darlene and David exchange vows. When he tells Roseanne after the ceremony that he’s not feeling well and needs a doctor, Goodman sells the idea that this is serious. That this isn’t a cliffhanger. That something very important is happening and things are not going to be the same next week.

What’s more, Dan’s death is what gives real meaning to what he says to Darlene before she gets married.

He gives her a key to a safety deposit box that nobody else knows about. It contains money and valuables. What he tells her provides important context for what should have been his death…and it’s also far better writing than any weekly 90s sitcom deserved.

That’s your just-in-case money, Darlene. Now you’ve got a baby coming, and I just think, if you had more money laying around, you’d have more chances to change…I don’t know. Whatever it is you want to change. I just don’t want you to miss any opportunities, Darlene. Everybody thinks there’s plenty of time to do whatever they want. Believe me, there’s not.

Darlene reassures her emotional father. She tells him she isn’t going anywhere; she will still be around.

We need Dan’s death as the ironic punctuation to her promise. We need it to give his speech heft. We need it because that’s why all of this matters.

Without Dan’s death, it’s just something nice a father does for his daughter.

And that’s never, ever been enough for Roseanne before.

1) The Bev / Nana Mary episode


There’s no reason a late-game episode about Roseanne’s mother Bev (Estelle Parsons) and Bev’s mother Mary (Shelley Winters) sitting on a couch and talking to each other should have been great. The ninth season was full of experimentation that went nowhere, great premises squandered, and characters that seemed to be controlled by writers who no longer cared about nor understood them.

And yet “Mothers and Other Strangers” works. I don’t mean that in a relative sense, either. I mean it’s actually a truly great episode of Roseanne, and the only one in the entire season that feels like it belongs in another.

In the previous episode, Bev accidentally outs herself as gay. It was a fine enough revelation, but it’s this episode that keeps it from being a hollow gimmick. Bev finds herself in internal turmoil as a result of her confession, and is now forced to face it herself. And, true to life, once they start addressing one emotional issue, others come to light, and they have to face those, as well.

This leads her to take a trip to see Nana Mary, one of Roseanne‘s best recurring characters. She confronts her mother about her own childhood. About the fact that she never knew her father, let alone who her father even was. She works through a lifetime of repressed frustration and anger in the course of one extended conversation with the woman she feels ruined her life. Which is nice, because we’ve seen Roseanne and Jackie accuse Bev of doing the same thing to them…and Becky and Darlene accuse Rosanne of doing it to them.

That’s the thing with families. A decision is never just a decision. The fallout spans generations. A poorly handled conflict today changes the way a mother or a father handles their own children decades from now. And so on, and so on.

Mary raised Bev in an open and free environment; Bev raised Roseanne and Jackie in a rigid and strict one. Neither, this episode suggests, was right. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. Being a parent is hard. There’s never a right answer, and you just have to try really hard to not choose to worst one.

“Mothers and Other Strangers” represents a ladder of damaged women who blame each other for doing the things they’re also doing to their children. It’s a smart, emotional, funny episode that certainly doesn’t justify the ninth season, but at least gives us something to look forward to when we watch it.

It’s an episode that matters, and that’s something I can’t really say about any of the others.

There’s good stuff in season nine. There really is. The reason it’s held in low regard, though, is that we’ve never had to dig for good stuff in the earlier seasons…if anything, it was difficult to find the truly bad stuff.

On the whole, the season is pretty awful. Nothing it does right outweighs the thousands of things it consistently does wrong. But if you can’t resist watching season nine…at least you know you’ll have ten things to look forward to.

And one shockingly fantastic episode to boot.

My 10 Best Games of My 2017

I don’t normally do “games of the year” lists, and that’s primarily because I’m only rarely playing games released in the current year. I’ll have one or two I look forward to, and I may or may not get around to them in a timely fashion. I’m usually working through a backlog, or revisiting old games that I already know I love. But this year, for whatever reason, I played a lot of games without being especially far removed from their release. And, what’s more, most of what I played was really good, and worth spotlighting.

In every case with the games you’ll see below, I wanted to sit down and write long, dedicated posts about them. In every case, I didn’t do that. (I’m nothing if not consistent.) So this is a good excuse to run down more quickly and succinctly what I loved about these games, and raise the main points I intended to raise in longer essays. Also, lists always get pretty good views and tend to engender discussion (and suggestions) so I hope you all enjoy disagreeing with me.

Oh, and because it’s my site and I MAKE THE RULES, I’m allowing myself to take games from 2016 into consideration. Why? Because I sure as heck didn’t do a list like this last year, and if I played them for the first time in 2017, I’m counting them. That’s why this is a top 10 of my 2017. If you don’t like it, take over my life and lead it differently. Really; I won’t stop you!

10) I Am Setsuna

Thanks to a really nice deal on Amazon, I was able to get Final Fantasy XV shortly after it launched for about half price. I was very excited, because I thought I’d have to wait a year or so before the cost came down enough for me to buy it. The reluctance to shell out full price, though, wasn’t really a question of money; it was a psychological barrier that I kept in place because I knew — knew — that if I started playing Final Fantasy XV, it would suck so much of my life away that I’d never get back.

But it was cheap. I’d be stupid not to buy it at 50-ish percent off. So I bought it. And I started playing it…and far from sucking my life away, it was a chore to ever boot up.

I didn’t like it. It wasn’t fun. All of the ingredients were there, and I didn’t feel tricked by the marketing campaign or anything. Whatever I expected to find, I found. It just…wasn’t fulfilling. Just like I expected, I was cruising around a big world in a cool car with my cool friends, pulling over to fight monsters. We’d meet eccentric characters, admire gorgeous landscapes, and let the plot unfold at (largely) our own pace.

But it wasn’t fun. I didn’t care. I tried to care. I played it for many hours after I realized I didn’t care, hoping I eventually would. But I didn’t. And so I booted up something else published by Square Enix. Something I also got on sale, which just kind of sat around. Something less ostentatious than Final Fantasy XV. Something easy to overlook. Something bracingly simple and unassuming. And I was hooked from the get-go.

To me, I Am Setsuna really does carve out its identity by contrast. On its own merits, sure, I think it’s a good game. But when stacked up against celebrity titles like Final Fantasy XV, it seems to actively pose the question, “Do you need all of that?”

As games grow larger and more complex, flashier and more advanced, are we actually moving forward? There’s not a definitive answer there. In fact, “not always” is about as close as we can get to a uniform truth. I Am Setsuna is a throwback to the narrative and gameplay simplicity of the SNES era, with graphics that are only marginally more advanced. Yet — or perhaps because of this — it successfully weaves its quiet story of desperation and detachment. It builds a world without hope, populated by characters without hope. Its central plot, after all, sees you serving as bodyguard to a human sacrifice, escorting her to her destination safely…where, of course, she will die.

It’s decidedly minimalist in every sense, right down to the breathtaking, heartbreaking soundtrack that consists almost entirely of a lone piano. I Am Setsuna isn’t overwhelming in its despair…rather it leaves opportunities open for you to find joy along the way, no matter how bleak the journey may be. Maybe you find it in those sparse, twinkling keys. Maybe you find it in the rare moments of levity between two characters. Maybe you find it in another character, who is willing to sacrifice his or her own safety to help you complete your mission.

The snowy wasteland of I Am Setsuna is its simplest and most successful innovation. As long as I live, I’ll never forget leaving trails through the frozen world to the haunting notes of a cold piano. As much as Final Fantasy XV worked to make itself memorable, it’s I Am Setsuna that I won’t forget.

9) Fallout 4: Far Harbor

I debated whether or not to count this as a “game,” but…what the hell. Sure, it’s technically an expansion pack for Fallout 4, but it provides a large, isolated map, unique locations, unique quests, a unique story, unique gear…you may need to own Fallout 4 to play it, but it is a complete and self-contained experience.

Mainly, though, I wanted to call it out for adding something that the base game was sorely missing: genuine ethical conflict. Granted, Far Habor doesn’t entirely scratch my itch in that regard — the most problematic ethical conundrums unfold off camera, before you arrive — but it at least raises difficult questions that are worth thinking through.

The plot kicks off in a way guaranteed to grab my attention: you’re called upon to play detective. As much as I love shooting Super Mutants in the head with a railgun, I like pretending my last name is Marlowe even more. Far Harbor asks you to travel along with out-of-time noir detective Nick Valentine (one of Fallout 4‘s more impressive characters to begin with) in search of a young girl who’s gone missing.

This conveniently takes you to the town of Far Habor, and the larger island around it. From here, in true Fallout fashion, you can do whatever you like. You can immediately seek out the girl, you can get embroiled in any number of sidequests, you can aimlessly wander in search of interesting locations and stories, or you can toy — deliberately or not — with everybody’s fates.

So, hey, it’s more Fallout 4. And while it’s my least favorite of the Bethesda-era games, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t enough appeal in that alone for me to enjoy it.

But at the center of everything in this expansion — both narratively and geographically — is DiMA, perhaps the richest and most complex character in the entire game. DiMA is a synth…the same model as Nick Valentine. He’s lived on the island since he escaped The Institute, and helped it grow. He assisted the Children of Atom when they arrived, and he’s helped the people of Far Harbor to survive the noxious fog that coats the island. What’s more, he’s successfully brokered a peace between these two mutually antagonistic factions. Oh, and he runs a large and efficient colony for refugee synths.

I plan on avoiding specific spoilers, but if you don’t even want to hear about general revelations in the game, skip to the next entry now.

DiMA is a good guy. He helps people. He keeps everybody safe.

And yet, as you dig into his history, you learn that he didn’t do any of this in ethical ways. If he’s a good guy today, it’s only because he was not one yesterday. As a robot, DiMA has the ability to erase his own memories, and he indeed does so. You are able to piece the deleted data back together, revealing DiMA’s misdeeds, and when DiMA learns of what he’s done, he’s appropriately horrified. He’s such a good person that he doesn’t even seek to justify his actions…he’s appalled by them.

And yet…he’s still the person who committed them.

The ethical question, again, is resolved by the time you arrive. DiMA already acted monstrously in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow. And, well, he succeeded. It’s brighter. Whatever you may think of his methods, they panned out the way he expected them to. The island knows peace. It’s a peace that must be actively and painstakingly maintained, but the residents are safe from each other, in a way that they truly are not in other areas we’ve explored in Fallout games. DiMA raises and answers his own question about the ends justifying the means before we ever meet him.

But once we do, we have an after-the-fact ethical question to face. Should DiMA escape justice?

That one’s entirely up to us. And while I’ve made my decision and completed the storyline of Far Habor, I think I can go back and forth on the right answer all day.

What’s more, that’s just one (admittedly major) aspect of the expansion. Elsewhere there is so much more to enjoy. There’s Jule, the tragic synth forced to live with a botched memory wipe. There’s The Mariner, the rightful owner of Far Habor who labors day and night to keep anyone in need of shelter safe. And there’s Kasumi, the missing girl whose identity crisis kicks the entire story into gear. She flees her home and family because she’s not sure who she is anymore…and no matter what you do in the DLC, neither you nor she will leave with a definite answer. Is she a synth? Is she a human being? The ethics behind the decisions you make will be at least in part determined by what you believe, but you’ll never know if what you believe is true.

In many ways, Far Harbor does Fallout 4 better than Fallout 4. It adds much more than an environment.

8) Inside

One of my favorite games of all time is Limbo. It was striking, surprising, and remarkably effective for such a simple game. (I never believed a game that only saw you walking, jumping, and grabbing could possibly feel so deep and profound.) Inside, a followup by the same team, somehow escaped my attention upon release. But I finally sat down to play it, and found myself impressed and in love all over again.

Not “in love” because my heart was warmed or inspired or…anything positive, really. Rather “in love” with the bravery of a game that unfolds in such oblique, mysterious ways, telling you more with every screen but never enough to truly orient you. Never explaining the who, what, when, why, or where. Never giving you a direct reason for progressing, yet compelling you to progress all the same.

Limbo was a remarkable achievement in that area, I feel. I’ve played through it multiple times and still don’t know what it’s about…beyond the obvious (but fair) observation that it’s about the experience. And it’s a great, unique, memorable experience to be sure.

Inside follows its predecessor’s lead in every way I could have wanted it to. Its simplicity, its mystery, its quality.

The nature of your plight seems to change multiple times over the course of the game. At first it feels like escape. Later, it feels like infiltration. Later still…well, if you played it you know what comes later still, but I won’t spoil it specifically here. This is in contrast to Limbo which, in my opinion, didn’t really define the nature of your plight in any way whatsoever until its ending. Inside is a little trickier, and plays a little bit more actively with your expectations.

One thing I regretted from my initial experience of Limbo was that I didn’t play it all in one sitting. I’d get a bit further, then do something else. I’d come back to it in a few days and make a little more progress. At one point I stopped playing, picked it up again the next day, and saw that I’d taken a break right before the end of the game. That’s part of the problem with not defining a clear goal: players never know how close or far from that goal they are. Had I known what I was chasing, I might have been more aware of the fact that I was nearing it.

And that always bothered me. It wasn’t Limbo‘s fault…I was mainly mad at myself that I put a break between the ramp up and the conclusion. I made sure to rectify that with Inside, which I saved for one long sitting, and I’m glad I did. I allowed the game to dictate its pacing, its rhythm, its flow. And so each segment — isolated though each may feel — worked in service of a greater psychological and emotional whole. What’s more, the running theme of agency was made so much more ipactful because I experienced it in so many ways over the course of such a short time.

Playing this game made me dream of a sort of Twilight Zone series of games. Same engine, same basic controls, but with a different story unfolding in each installment. Maybe we could treat it like an episodic season of games (see the next entry), with a small number of regular releases. Each entry is self-contained, but we’d end up with an anthology of tales like Limbo and Inside. Games that disturb us the way the best episodes of Rod Serling’s series did. Games that explore major themes in artistic, artful ways. Games that mean far more than they say.

I doubt we’ll ever see this kind of game released at a regular clip, and I’m not even convinced it would be a good thing if we did. But I’m glad we at least have this pair of bizarre, disorienting masterpieces to return to again and again.

7) The Walking Dead: A New Frontier

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I seem to recall The Walking Dead: A New Frontier being advertised originally as The Walking Dead: Season Three. It’s not a crucial change, but it’s indicative of how detached this season is from the two that preceded it.

If you haven’t played the previous games, Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a series of episodic games that last around two hours apiece. Each episode picks up where the previous left off, and the decisions you make affect what happens in later games…along with who will or won’t be around for the next leg of the journey.

The gameplay is more about choice than it is about action. You certainly have your moments of popping zombies in the head, but the more important sequences are much different, such as when you need to divvy up the remaining food among survivors, knowing full well there’s not enough to go around. Or when you need to give your young charge Clementine just one piece of advice to carry her along through the unfolding apocalypse. Or when you need to decide whether or not to make a pass at your brother’s lonely wife.

Everything you do or say is likely to have some degree of consequence, which is why it was a bit surprising that A New Frontier followed new characters entirely, in a new setting, with a new goal. It wasn’t so much that your previous decisions didn’t matter…they still had the same emotional impact they ever had. It was more that they suddenly felt irrelevant, part of a parallel universe, as though A New Frontier were a kind of reboot.

And that makes sense to me. It gets increasingly difficult to sell a batch of games with the caveat that you should have played all of the previous batches as well. Starting over with new characters is fair. After all…it’s the end of civilization. There are more stories to tell outside of one small group of survivors.

A New Frontier did have previous protagonist Clementine, and it did actually follow up on a number of plot threads from the previous game, but its focus was firmly on newcomer Javier and his relationship with his estranged brother David. Someone buying this set of games without having played the others may feel a bit lost at times, but those times would be infrequent. Any important information would be information dished out here and now.

And, overall, I think that worked. It makes A New Frontier feel much more like a side story than a sequel, but it tells a compelling and deeply personal story about family, about relationships, about loss, and about identity. After all, Javi is and has always been the family fuckup. For him to be in charge of anybody, himself included, these must be seriously trying times.

Part of me wishes Clementine didn’t show up. As much as I like this latest branch of her story, forcing her into A New Frontier requires a pretty abrupt severing of much of season two’s narrative. In fact, I spent season two forming a very strong bond with someone I thought was an important and fascinating character…only to have her instantly killed off at the start of A New Frontier. It felt like a cold disservice to her more than it was one to me.

But I enjoyed A New Frontier for what it was, and the idea of an isolated season worked in favor of raised stakes. If this was the only time we’d ever see Javi and co., nobody had to survive to keep the story going. The family fuckup could well fuck up the family, and that would be that. Gravity could assert itself. Everybody could be crushed by the plans crumbling down around them. And, indeed, the story can play out a number of different ways.

However it plays out, though, you’re sure to have your patience, your loyalty, and your tolerance tested many times over. And that’s the best trick A New Frontier pulls. It places one of gaming’s most effective family dramas in the heart of a zombie swarm, where nothing’s likely to be resolved positively.

6) Battle Chef Brigade


Sometimes a game has a concept so perfect, I know I’m going to buy it no matter what. Even if the reviews are poor. Even if people tell me it’s junk. Even if it looks terrible. There are just some central conceits that are too perfect to let pass me by. Battle Chef Brigade was one of those for sure…and it also turned out to be pretty great, which is a nice bonus.

The idea is essentially that it’s Iron Chef set in a fantasy realm. So for that overlap between “nerds” and “viewers of Food Network” (a niche I am quite comfortable occupying, thank you very much) you really can’t ask for more. The gameplay involves hunting and killing the creatures that will serve as your ingredients, and then preparing your dish for harsh and particular judges.

Think an episode of Iron Chef in which the theme ingredient is crab meat, and we spend half the show watching Geoffrey Zakarian stalk giant crustacean monsters in a swamp.

That’s the kind of thing that should be fun even if it doesn’t work as well as intended, but Battle Chef Brigade works pretty damned well. The combat felt a little clunky to me at first, but once it clicks, it’s actually quite fluid and interesting. And the cooking sequences seem a bit lame at first — oh, a match-three puzzle game? yay… — but are actually more frantic and involved than you’d expect.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the game, though, is its art style. It’s light on animation, but heavy on character and personality. Everything just looks…lovely. The game establishes and maintains a distinct visual approach that reminds me of storybooks several generations removed from the ones I used to read. Maybe storybooks from an alternate reality, in which the heroine bravely leaves home to seek her fortune in cooking competitions.

And that heroine, I have to say, is one of the main draws of Battle Chef Brigade for me. Mina was just so charming that I wanted to spend time hunting and cooking with her, competition or not. I wanted to roam around town with her. I wanted to talk to strange and wonderful people with her. I wanted her to win, because she worked hard enough and wanted it bad enough that she deserved it.

The game is packed full of little side quests and character interactions that make it feel so warm. With competition at the heart of the game’s progression, only rarely does it feel truly combative. More often you have two skilled culinary artists squaring off with each other through mutual respect. There’s so much camaraderie in this game that it’s almost inspiring. It’s a nice and unexpected reminder that while two individuals may hope for different outcomes, they don’t need to be at each other’s throats.

Battle Chef Brigade is a great game to unwind with. There’s evidently also a daily challenge feature, unrelated to the actual plot of the game, which I haven’t tried yet but really should. It’s a game to visit and catch up with when you need a break from the real world. It’s a game where you might need to beat up a dragon to please a judge, and whatever the outcome, whether you win or lose, you feel good about the effort.

5) Sonic Mania


I grew up in a Nintendo household, which I’m sure couldn’t possibly surprise anyone. But, to be honest, I was never really jealous of those who had Sega consoles. There were fun games and crappy games on both sides, but I couldn’t imagine trading a Nintendo library for a Sega one. It seemed like it would be a huge step downward. So I’d play Sega when a Sega was available, but I’d go home to the comforting arms of Nintendo, where I belonged.

Except when it came to Sonic.

Sonic was…great, actually. My uncle had the first game, and years later one of the kids I babysat had the second and eventually third. I put a lot of hours into all of them — the second game especially, which I still believe is the best one — and felt, for the only times, a feeling of envy.

It still wasn’t enough to make me want a Genesis, but at least I knew if I had a Genesis, I’d have three great games I would not likely tire of.

They were fun. They were colorful. They had stellar soundtracks. There was always another secret or twist to the level design to discover. I’d be lying if I said I was actually much good at the games, but I enjoyed them a huge amount. Later in life, long after Sega stopped making consoles, I played those three games (& Knuckles) properly, and found them to have held up pretty well. They were still great, and I enjoyed playing through somebody else’s childhood.

But that was…it. 3D Sonic games never interested me much, and the ones I did play largely didn’t impress me. (I still hold to my opinion that Sonic Lost World on the WiiU was far better than anyone gave it credit for being, though.) So even though I finally got to become a Sonic fan, I didn’t care enough to seek out any of his new games. In other words, I didn’t finish the 2D games and dive excitedly into his other outings…I finished his 2D games and thought, “Yeah, those were good. That’ll do.”

Sonic Mania, though, made me pay attention. I’m a sucker for retro throwbacks in general, and this one looked like an actual lost title from that era. I was excited to give it a spin…especially when the reviews came in and were uniformly positive. When’s the last time that happened with any Sonic game?

It was everything I could have wanted. Brainless, inventive, giddy fun. It reveled in the series’ history, which I’m sure was a treat for bigger fans than I’ll ever be, but it also tapped into everything that made the original games work and refined anything that didn’t. It did a great job both of recreating what the original games were and what our memories of them were. Playing it put me immediately back in mind of how I felt when I was a kid, experiencing levels for the first time, wondering what could possibly come next.

Sonic Mania is one of the very rare games that I completed and then immediately played through again. In fact, I’ve made multiple trips through the game by this point, and I’ve enjoyed it a little more each time. It isn’t easy to live up to nostalgic expectation, but Sonic Mania outdid itself. Of course, even in 2017, it still comes in behind the plumber.

4) Super Mario Odyssey


Mario’s been quite a fortunate character in the sense that he’s never had any real missteps. He’s had a few games with mixed reception (such as Super Mario Sunshine) and a few outliers that are easy to ignore (such as Mario’s Time Machine), but, on the whole, Mario’s presence in something is a reliable seal of quality. His games are fun, addictive, and positively overflowing with joy.

So it says something that Super Mario Odyssey is clearly one of his best.

As much as this game gets credit for returning to the massive sandbox layouts of Super Mario 64, it also does so much new and does it so well. The most obvious innovation is Cappy, a sentient hat Mario tosses at enemies and NPCs to temporarily possess them. It’s a concept that sounds distractingly gimmicky on paper, but which is integrated so well it’s difficult to imagine Super Mario Odyssey being even half as fun without it.

Each of the worlds features new ways to explore it, new things to find, new challenges to complete, but as with any of the best Mario games, the real attraction is simply being there, hopping around, exploring, admiring the inventiveness of Nintendo at its best.

I knew Super Mario Odyssey was going to be great. I waited for its release to pick up a Switch, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. While the main storyline itself can be conquered in just a few hours, there are a total of 999 Power Moons to track down throughout the game, giving you a lot of reason to return to it many times over. My own plan is to pop in for a few hours here and there, finding whatever I can find, eventually getting them all…and then starting all over again.

Mario games are built to be replayable, and there’s no way Super Mario Odyssey will turn out to be any different. It’s a game that will lead to breathtaking speedruns. It’s a game that will be worth revisiting just to beat your times in the footraces. It’s a game you’ll think about long after shutting down the Switch, looking forward to when you’ll have time to boot it up again.

One very interesting evolution to me is the inclusion of vocal tracks. The music throughout the game is pretty solid, as is to be expected, but there are a handful of tracks on which there is actual singing, which I’m pretty sure is a first for a Mario game. What’s more…they’re really, really good, especially one that plays toward the very end.

There’s a lot that Super Mario Odyssey does that I didn’t expect it to do, and there hasn’t been a moment yet that’s disappointed me. It’s all just been varying degrees of fun and exciting, and watching Mario march through and pay tribute to so many aspects of his heritage is like taking a trip through my own life, as well. I’ve known Mario since Donkey Kong, and I’ve actively followed his adventures since Super Mario Bros.

I care about the guy. I care about what he gets up to. However old I get, however rough the world gets, Mario’s still smiling, still laughing, still showing us new ways to have fun.

Super Mario Odyssey acknowledges the character’s history in a way that reminds us of his consistency, his reliability, his steadfast refusal to accept defeat. On the rare occasions that he does stumble, he hops right back up, better than ever before.

3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I could have played Breath of the Wild much sooner than I did…but I didn’t want to. It got great reviews. People said it was the best in the series. My friends assured me I’d love it.

But I remembered Twilight Princess. People said the same thing about that.

And I remembered Skyward Sword. People said the same thing about that.

At some point, after you stop enjoying something, you need to stop going back. Especially when that something costs you $60 a pop.

I love the Zelda series. Nearly all of the games blew me away and became instant favorites. I still feel that A Link to the Past > Ocarina of Time > Majora’s Mask > Wind Waker represents the greatest sustained run in video game history. But then…I stopped liking the games. They began to annoy me. They no longer trusted me to play them. Exploration gave way to exposition. Problem solving gave way to following instructions.

I stopped caring.

So Breath of the Wild came out, and people liked it. I was glad they did. I was no longer convinced that I would.

What I failed to realize is that it addressed every single one of the concerns I ever had with the series. While I was quite fond of a few helper characters (Navi, Tatl, The King of Red Lions), it was nice to play an entire game without anyone bleating answers over my shoulder. While the overall lack of combat difficulty in some other recent titles never bothered me, it was nice to play a game in which I really did need to pay attention to everything I did in every fight, lest I wind up dead at the bottom of a ravine. And while I never really minded the predictability of dungeon weapons, it was nice to play a game in which there were so few of them, and I instead had to scrap by with whatever I could scavenge.

Breath of the Wild is clearly a Zelda game, and yet it’s so little like what Zelda has come to represent. It’s Zelda stripped down to its elements, and then built back up with a much stronger framework. Playing it was revelatory. It was the Zelda game I had always wanted, and yet never expected. And while a few areas felt disproportionately hard, I get the sense that I could have made them much easier on myself had I visited some other areas first and stocked up on better gear. That’s something I’ll keep in mind for my next playthrough.

What I really loved about Breath of the Wild was how much fun everything was. Not just the battles and dungeons, but everything. Sitting at a campfire cooking meals should have been dull, but watching the ingredients pop and sizzle in the pan was actually pretty hypnotic. Hiking from town to town revealed new things on the journey each time, whether it was fellow travelers, monsters, or environmental puzzles to waylay me. Even getting around — the singular act of motion — was thrilling. Paragliding, climbing, surfing down sheer rockfaces on my shield…everything was fun.

I don’t get it. I really don’t. Breath of the Wild is nothing like what I would have described as my ideal Zelda game, and yet it’s the perfect Zelda game. It’s engrossing. It’s rich in detail. It’s alternately hysterical and brutal. It’s cute and it’s shocking. It’s personal and it’s cruel. It’s overpowering and it’s empowering.

It’s a great game, and as much as I love Nintendo, it’s a more mature one than I honestly thought they were capable of creating. (Short of creating an all-new IP, at least.) It represents a brave new step forward, and a massive gamble on rendering a reliable formula almost completely unrecognizable.

The payoff was massive. Breath of the Wild was everything the best games should be, and the only thing I truly dislike about it is that I’ll never be able to play it for the first time again.

2) Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

As far as video game titles go, you can’t get much more generic than Hellblade, which is why I was not only surprised it was so unique, but was also surprised that it’s an incredible, respectful, admirable portrayal of mental illness. Surely the best and most accurate in video games by a wide margin.

I didn’t know that aspect of the game even existed when I started playing it. I’d heard good, vague things about Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, so I tried not to read much about it, knowing I’d eventually give it a spin. All I knew (or at least retained) was that you played as Senua, who traveled into a dangerous land with the severed head of her boyfriend attached to her hip.

So, fine. Explore this crazy world, fight these crazy monsters, finish this crazy quest.

I didn’t expect that “crazy” would be such a defining aspect of the game, though.

The very first credit in Hellblade goes to a mental health advisor. The moment I saw that, I knew the game was either destined to become one of my favorites, or one of my most hated. Fortunately, it almost immediately established itself as the former. As somebody who struggles with mental health issues — anxiety being the relevant cocktail ingredient here — the swirling, conflicting, smothering narration that precedes, overlaps, and follows every action Senua undertakes is all too familiar to me. So much so that I had to stop playing the game at several points, just to recover from it.

Senua is plagued by voices. Real? In her head? It doesn’t matter. She hears them. They criticize her. If she backtracks, they laugh and mock her for getting lost. If she takes damage in battle they give up on her and write her off as dead. If she teeters on a small ledge over a steep drop they tease her and assure her she won’t make it. They are relentless.

This is what life is like for me. Not the same voices, not the same words, but the same experience. I’ve never seen it represented so accurately, and I believe that the accuracy is helped a lot by it being attached to an interactive experience. Watching a film about mental health issues may be instructive, but experiencing them in response to your actions, hearing every little thing you do wrong get criticized, learning to second guess yourself in anticipation of oncoming criticism, diminishing your own accomplishments, becoming overwhelmed by voices that are in your head and which you cannot control…

It’s nightmarish, and Hellblade respectfully renders that nightmare. It’s even smart enough to let the voices conflict at times with each other. Some seeming to offer genuine encouragement while the rest tear you down…but you know it won’t be long until they’re all on the same side again, their faith in you completely lost, their unwillingness to believe you’ll ever accomplish this or any goal you set for yourself. Reminding you of your failures with every step you try to take forward.

It’s remarkably affecting, and I think very helpful to players who don’t suffer from or understand mental illness. I’ve had friends (often very good ones) who don’t understand why I can’t hang out whenever they’d like to, or why I shut down in certain social situations, or why I worry so much about things that don’t even register to them. Some of them get frustrated. I can’t blame them. But I do think a game like this is extraordinarily valuable. It translates the language of mental illness from something they can’t see or hear into something they can actively experience and feel. Hellblade would be great for that alone.

But it’s also an impressive game in general. It’s beautiful, in a haunting, desolate way. The sound design is incredible. The swordplay is deceptively rich. And Senua herself is probably the single best looking video game character I’ve ever seen. Not exactly in terms of attractiveness, but in terms of…humanity. She looks real. I’m not controlling an avatar…I’m controlling Senua. A person. A person who moves and reacts and responds realistically. She’s the most human video games character I’ve ever known…so expressive. So unique. So fragile.

Early in my game, the voices were correct. I didn’t make it across a narrow ledge. I fell and died. And I didn’t think, “Oh well, I’ll try again.” I thought, “I killed Senua.” And I felt awful.

That alone set Hellblade apart from anything else I played this year.

1) Persona 5

A few years ago, my good friend Matt practically bullied me into playing Persona 3 and Persona 4. I’ll be grateful to him forever as a result, not least because having these games under my belt allowed me to participate in the brilliant wave of anticipation for Persona 5.

The game suffered delay after delay, with very little information or screenshots being communicated through the official channels. I don’t think anyone truly expected that the project was dead or dying, but we knew almost nothing beyond the broadest strokes what Persona 5 was even going to be.

Then it was released, and it was a strong contender for the most stylish video game in history.

Everything about it was so…correct. The character designs, the animations, the voice acting, the environments, the battle system…and, yes, these things all built upon and learned from the Persona titles that came before, but they still felt so right here. They were the latest link in an evolutionary chain, but they were also uniquely Persona 5. Held together by a striking black and red color scheme and a modern pulp aesthetic, every moment of the game is beautiful, and beautifully designed.

It also may have the best soundtrack of any game, period. I’m dead serious. In fact, I think it would be unfair to compare many other game soundtracks to this one, as it would be a sorely mismatched fight. I very much enjoyed Persona 3‘s hiphop and Persona 4‘s J-pop, but Persona 5‘s smokey, jazzy, chanteuse numbers are on a plane of their own.

Overall, I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I did its two predecessors, but any complaints I have would be minimal (as you can probably guess from the fact that it’s still the best game I played all year). It’s a fun, often dark, sometimes silly time…an RPG of epic scope crammed into the space between school nights, one in which the beating back of evil has to be scheduled around exams and class trips, one in which life or death dalliances with your friends won’t keep you flirting with that cute girl you know, because whether you survive or not, you’re only young once…

It’s an adorable game full of impressively rounded characters, and while I’d argue that a few of them miss their marks, so many of them land well enough that you’re never far away from the next engrossing backstory. Each of the characters — major and minor alike — are haunted by some mistake in their past. Spend enough time with them, and you might just get to see them move, finally, forward. Persona 5 is a game full of isolates, full of characters who want only to connect, but don’t see themselves as capable or deserving of connection. Gradually, one by one, you can help them to tear down their walls…achievements even more satisfying than slaying the biggest monsters.

There’s so much to love here. Ryuji, the first friend you make at your new school, seems like your run-of-the-mill knucklehead, but soon comes to reveal real vulnerability and loyalty. There’s an overachieving honor student who is asked to spy on you, and if you pay attention while roaming the city, you can spot her doing just that. And Futaba’s story arc is probably the most affecting and heartfelt in the series…which is saying something. I found myself genuinely moved by her struggles, and being very defensive of her throughout the rest of the game.

She was human. As so many of these cartoon characters revealed themselves to be human.

I’ve heard many people say that Persona 5 is too long. And, you know what? They’re probably right. But just like every Persona game, it also feels just a bit too short. By the time it’s over, however long you had together, you still wish you could have just one more day with your friends.

And there you have it. My top 10 games of 2017-ish. What did I miss out on? Let me know; I may feature those games in my best of 2028 list.

(Screengrab burgled with permission from Full House Reviewed.)

My Top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd Episodes

This past Friday, James Rolfe — best known as the Angry Video Game Nerd — published a video featuring his personal top 10 episodes of that series. By this point, I’ve seen every episode…multiple times, in the cases of the ones I liked. Yes, I’d argue that the quality has gone downhill in recent years, but his top 10 video, I think, explains why: the episodes James names as his favorites are actually the ones that I’d probably name as my least favorites.

His desires aren’t in line with mine. He likes story lines and special effects and external zaniness. I like reviews. Sometimes they dovetail well, sometimes they don’t. He seems to like it when they don’t.

Which made me wonder about my top 10 Angry Video Game Nerd episodes. And as I’m moving this week, I figured this might be a fun post to leave you with, in case I lose internet access for a while.

For the purposes of this list, I did consider multi-part episodes (in which a game or series is covered in more than one sequential video) to be one review, but treated sequel episodes as their own entities. Otherwise, this should be pretty straightforward. Oh, and, there’s no Mike Matei to be found in the entire list. Funny how that worked out.

So, here you go. My personal top 10 episodes of a video game review show that’s shockingly been running almost as long as I’ve been online. I hope you enjoy.

10) Indiana Jones Trilogy

Episode 48: Like James, I’m starting my list with what I’d consider to be a “standard” episode. And I’m not really sure why this one keeps coming to mind, so if you’d like to, feel free to sub it out for The Simpsons, Dracula, Spider-Man or something. But the Indiana Jones Trilogy episode does a great job of providing exactly what I want to see when I tune in. The games are reviewed comprehensively, the observations are well made, the jokes are funny, and James has a clear and obvious love for the source material. (Well, the films at least. The odds of him having much love for these particular games are pretty slim.) What’s more, he reviews three related games, which I always love. Videos featuring multiple games will make up a lot of this list. While one-game reviews are often very good, I think I enjoy the variety of hopping around within a singular theme. Also, I enjoy videos about these middle-of-the-road bad games. The ones that aren’t worth playing for laughs on your own, but still provide plenty of fodder for comedy from a distance.

9) Action 52 / Cheetahmen

Episodes 90 and 91: Fruit doesn’t hang any lower than Action 52, but the sheer volume of crap crammed into a single cartridge really does make it worth revisiting over and over. Many game critics got to this one long before James did, but there’s still a lot of entertainment on display here. In fact, his skits and jokes don’t make this one at all; rather, the game humiliates itself by failing to load, throwing up glitch after glitch, and even preventing itself from progressing. Action 52 is an easy target, but a fruitful one. It’s a funny game to watch anyone play, and it’s only right that angry reviewing’s elder statesman got to take his jabs as well. The second part completes the review but it also looks at the Genesis version and Cheetahmen II, so it’s absolutely necessary to see them as halves of a complete whole. For what it’s worth, I actually did play Action 52 as a kid. A friend of mine owned it, and part of the appeal of James’ video, I think, is the marathon plow through game after game that reflects my exact experience of it at my friend’s house. Surely one of these games will have to be good…

8) Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties

Episode 74: Easily one of the out-and-out funniest episodes. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is more of a terrible amateur film than it is a game, but that just means James has a wealth of different things to criticize it for. Due to the nature of the game, this feels more like a truncated Let’s Play than a proper review, but it’s absolutely hilarious. This one has been a favorite of mine since it was first uploaded. It doesn’t advance the AVGN formula or do anything especially unique, but it’s one of James’ most successful comic outings in my opinion, and for that reason alone it deserves a place on this list.

7) Street Fighter 2010

Episode 85: There’s a lot to love about this one. It covers multiple games, provides an interesting history of the Street Fighter franchise, and it gives a relatively unknown game (by Capcom NES standards) a spotlight it surprisingly ends up deserving. But I think what I really love about it and what makes it stand out in my mind is that it serves as a perfect illustration of what kept us playing these extremely difficult, often unfair, relentlessly punishing video games. James starts off predictably enough, complaining about the controls, the difficulty, and the absurdly tenuous connection to the Street Fighter name. But then something clicks. Sure, the game in many ways sort of sucks…but it’s overall compelling enough to keep him coming back. He pushes through, gradually. He engages with the game on its own terms, even as he lambastes those terms. He doesn’t just learn how to complete a level, but how to complete it quickly, without taking damage, and while collecting all of the powerups. Why? Because you have to, otherwise you can’t finish the game. Obviously James has (rightly) given up on many games in the past. He reaches a roadblock or finds some reason to call it quits, and you can’t blame him. So for Street Fighter 2010, which certainly seems like one of the most difficult games he’s ever played, it says an awful lot that he actually takes the time to finish it. In doing so, he reminds us of what we’ve all gone through. It likely wasn’t Street Fighter 2010 for most of us. It may have been Mega Man. Or Battletoads. But we all had those moments, when we cursed at a game, hated a game, raged against a game’s refusal to play fair…and yet fell in love anyway. A truly great episode.

6) Back to the Future ReRevisited

Episode 94: The earliest AVGN episodes (or Angry Nintendo Nerd episodes, I should say) were great for what they were. I remember watching them with my friend Mike, who couldn’t believe what he had found. I couldn’t believe it, either. Almost nothing James was saying about those old games was new or even especially insightful, but for the first time it felt like the frustrating experiences we had as kids were actually universal, and somewhere out there, some guy in a white buttondown was profanely articulating them on our behalf. It was a riot, especially because there was nothing else like it at the time. It felt genuinely novel. But, of course, James’ style progressed, and watching those old episodes, it’s easy to see their rough edges and puzzling omissions. James saw it, too, and used this episode to re-review those games, paving over the holes and fleshing out criticisms he’d barely scraped before. The centerpiece is Back to the Future on the NES, which somehow provides even more material than he wrung from it the first time around…and we get proper looks at other Back to the Future games as well. What I really love, though, is the ending. As often as James tries to cram actual narrative into these episodes — and as often as I’d argue it fails — sometimes a real-world twist like what we get here achieves more than careful scripting ever could.

5) Virtual Boy

Episode 42: My absolute favorite kind of AVGN episode. This one looks at something that’s not obscure, exactly, but which relatively few viewers will be personally familiar with. James provides a history lesson, places the product in its proper context, and reviews every single one of the games released for it. (Initially he left out Jack Bros., but I’m linking to a later version of the video that includes it.) The Virtual Boy was a high-profile failure, and probably the first true stumble for Nintendo…a company that in so many young eyes — mine included — could do no wrong. I sensed something was off as a kid, and the Virtual Boy was probably the first thing Nintendo ever made that I didn’t want at all. Watching this video, I see that I didn’t miss out on much. Surprisingly, most of the games turn out to be either fun or inoffensive, leaving the hardware itself to shoulder the blame for the system’s failure. Many of the best AVGN episodes teach me something beyond “the controls in this game are bad.” This one provided a great overview of a gaming curiosity I only ever experienced in the periphery. Eventually I did get to play a Virtual Boy at a convention, and I was actually impressed with how well it handled the 3D effect. But as this episode demonstrates, the gimmick failed to justify the machine’s existence. James’ video provides a perfect eulogy.

4) Godzilla

Episode 77: A friend of mine isn’t a huge fan of the AVGN, but he does enjoy James’ other big series: Monster Madness. He says this is because James has a real knowledge of and passion for cinema…and I’d say the same thing about my friend, so I’m willing to believe it. Monster Madness used to be a yearly series that would run every October. It’s been discontinued, but every so often James’ clear love of film bleeds into an AVGN episode. This may be the prime example, as he’s able to identify obscure characters from these Godzilla video games and trace their cinematic histories…including characters who didn’t even originate with that series. The whole “licensed games are garbage” thing is well worn by this point, but I think an episode on garbage Godzilla games is deserved. After all, why wouldn’t Godzilla games be awesome? He’s a giant monster who smashes things. How hard could it be to make a fun game based on that? You’d have to actively try to make them lousy by stripping away the very essence of who Godzilla is and what Godzilla does. Sure enough, every game the AVGN covers here does exactly that in its own way. And James’ frustration and disappointment in that fact feels far more natural here than it does in so many other episodes, as he clearly cares about the franchise…and just wanted one game he could enjoy along with the films.

3) Ghostbusters

Episodes 21, 22, and 23: I remember thinking the very first AVGN episodes were nothing if not exhaustive. Then we got a three part episode about Ghostbusters on the NES and I realized I hadn’t seen anything yet. Ghostbusters, like Godzilla, seems like a can’t-miss video game premise. You have popular and recognizable heroes, awesome gear that every little boy wanted desperately to get his hands on, and an opportunity to create fun and inventive ghosts for players to shoot at. And, like Godzilla, Ghostbusters went out of its way to miss. It’s an extremely strong concept for a game that is botched spectacularly. The three-part nature of this episode may sound like overkill, but it makes sense to me. It implies a “can’t look away” sort of reaction to the game, which mirrors the one I had as a kid. Yes, Ghostbusters was terrible…but I kept renting it. Kept playing it. Kept hating it. All the while, I guess I couldn’t believe my eyes. I returned over and over again to the game, hoping for it to finally click. Hoping it would reveal itself as the great game I knew it should have been. Hoping I’d realize that I was just playing it incorrectly, or looking for the wrong things. With this series of videos, the AVGN lets go of that hope with a comprehensive review, suggestions for improvement, a look at the game’s many ports, and reviews of other Ghostbusters games to cleanse the palate.

2) Bible Games

Episode 17: The AVGN’s first masterpiece, for sure. The videos prior to this were often funny and were absolutely novel for their time, but this is the video that, in my estimation, made it clear that the concept had staying power. Laying into a good portion of the Wisdom Tree catalog, James spotlights exactly what’s wrong with these offensively lazy Christian cash-ins, approaching them almost entirely from a game-design standpoint and leaving the viewer to decide how true or genuine the didactic intentions of the developers were. Did they truly feel they were saving souls? Or were they just counting on parents to throw money their way without knowing better? The answer’s pretty clear to me, but James does a great job of highlighting his own sampling of absurdities, leaving it to you to pick up on the rest. This one is still and will always be an easy favorite. James dipped back into the Bible games well a few times since, but in my estimation, none of the sequel episodes rise quite to the highs of the original. (Bible Games 2 came pretty close, though.) Taken as a relic of a time when “the NES had Bible games” was a genuine and hilarious revelation, this video is great. Familiarity has dulled its edge a bit, but there’s still a great deal of fun to be had from watching. This is one of those “often imitated, never duplicated” situations, and Bible Games is exactly what every angry reviewer to follow (including yours truly) strove to measure up to.

1) Castlevania

Episodes 79, 80, 81, and 82: The very first AVGN episode was about Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, kicking off this surprisingly long-running series with a look back at the archetypal game James wished he could love. 78 episodes later, he returned to that series with a four-part retrospective that isn’t just my favorite AVGN material, but which is easily some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I end up rewatching this miniseries around Halloween every year, and I enjoy it a little more each time. The jokes and observations are good, of course, but what really pushes it over the top and makes it worth revisiting is James’ profound love for the series, and for classic horror films in general. He makes the most of his shtick, of course, but this is probably the closest we get to hearing from the “real” person beneath the persona, with his memories of the first five Castlevania games, his later experience of the games on other consoles, and a well-earned paean to the series that closes the entire thing off perfectly. I understand that James and I appreciate different things about his output, but the fact that this didn’t make his top 10 is astounding. I don’t know how the AVGN will eventually end his series, but I’m confident he couldn’t possibly go out on a higher note than this.

What are your favorites? Anything you’d especially disagree with above? I’d be curious to know. Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon!

The 10 Best Wii U Games. Period.

Ah, the poor Wii U. It never did quite capture hearts the way nearly all of its predecessors did, and I’ll be the first to admit that it never came close to reaching its potential as a home console. Nintendo had the odd strategy of baffling consumers with it and then plopping it onto shelves in the hopes that it would somehow take care of itself.

It never did. We know that. And just four short years later, Nintendo quietly killed it off, like a cast member it could never figure out how to integrate into plots. Last night the company hosted a live debut of The Switch, the Wii U’s replacement console. It’s officially dead, and it’s never coming back.

But there is one small benefit that comes from a console with such a short lifespan: it’s pretty easy to pinpoint its highs. And because it struggled for releases I can honestly say that I’ve played an uncommonly high percentage of games available for the system.

As such, I’d like to present to you the ultimate top 10. And, no, there’s absolutely no Mario here. (Perhaps that was one of the problems?)

As secondhand Wii Us become more plentiful and less expensive, this list might help you decide what to pick up in order to build a collection. And, you know what? If you just played these games, I bet you could trick yourself into thinking this was one of the best systems yet.

I will point out before we start that downloadable games are not exempt from consideration…but none of them made the list. I don’t think there was anything in the Wii U eShop that really demanded download, the way the Wii had with World of Goo, the two classic Mega Man reprisals, the BIT.TRIP series, the Art Style series, Castlevania: The Adventure Rebirth, and lots more.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that as much as people referred to it as a “first-party system,” there’s a good amount of third-party releases on this list. I honestly didn’t expect that, but I was pleased to see it.

The Wii U had some truly great games. It’s just a shame they were destined to be overlooked.

10) Sonic Lost World

I have no idea why this game gets brushed aside the way it does. I suspect it’s just because of the (rightful) prejudice that’s developed against modern day Sonic the Hedgehog games, because Sonic Lost World is a great deal of fun, and certainly one of the best titles in the series post-Genesis. I do remember reading a lot of grumbling about how closely the game attempted to emulate (or…rip off) Super Mario Galaxy, but having played it myself, I can only conclude that those people are parroting conclusions they couldn’t have possibly reached themselves. It’s nothing like Super Mario Galaxy…unless you count all the times that Sonic runs upside down or on the sides of walls, in which case the series has been ripping off Super Mario Galaxy since 16 years before that game was released. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun, unfairly dismissed, and one that’s definitely worth appraising on its own merits. It won’t change any lives, but it’s a very enjoyable few hours.

9) Nintendo Land

No, it wasn’t Wii Sports. No, grandma didn’t want to play it. No, it didn’t show off the console’s abilities in as urgently engaging a manner. But Nintendo Land was a legitimately great pack-in. Granted, on its own it was pretty dull, but playing with others was a blast. The concept — a themepark-inspired collection of minigames based on Nintendo’s various properties — was solid, and while the games weren’t of a uniformly high quality, the experience had a lot to recommend it. There were arcade games, adventure games, racing games, and even games that were more like puzzles. It was fun, and easily the best implementation of the Miis on the entire console. What’s more, the Luigi’s Mansion game is still probably the single best use of the gamepad, allowing some genuinely tense games of hide and seek between a group of players sitting next to each other on the couch. I’ll admit that I didn’t play Nintendo Land much, but whenever my friends and I did pull it out, I was reminded of just how much fun video games can be.

8) Batman: Arkham City

I’m noticing at this very moment that this is the only game on the list that was never exclusive to the Wii U. I think that may say something. As much guff as the Wii U got for lacking exclusives, the ones it did have were pretty darned good. Batman: Arkham City was playable on all of the major consoles of its generation, and I’m not going to tell you that this is the best way to play it. I don’t know that for sure, and I certainly don’t remember the gamepad giving me much more than a (welcome) map. But I will say that the game was great, superior to its already excellent predecessor Arkham Asylum in every way…except perhaps in focus. Arkham City probably had a bit too much going on, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, I distinctly recall fatigue setting in a few times over. If you self-police, though, and refuse to let yourself get bogged down in the far too numerous sidequests, instead cherry-picking only the ones that seem most interesting to you, you’ve got a great game, with some of the most satisfying combat I’ve ever experienced. Some will tell you that Asylum is the better game. Others just as quickly point to City. Either way, though, you’re in for a soaring, dark, bone-crunching treat.

7) Bayonetta 2

I’ll admit, Bayonetta 2 makes this list due at least in part to the fact that the game came with a complete, remastered version of the first game…for no extra charge. I’d never played Bayonetta, so this was the perfect opportunity to do so. It was even better than the rave reviews led me to believe. It was brilliantly excessive and often deeply funny, with an attitude of unbridled, over the top abandon. And, somehow, the sequel had even less restraint. But what really made the game — both games — great was the combat, which seems confusing until you actually start trying the things the game teaches you. It’s the kind of game that seems to have endless combinations of buttons to remember, and which necessitates practice screens to get them right, but once you’re in the flow of an actual fight, it just…works. What seems impenetrable is revealed to be natural, and that’s a fantastic trick. To this day I’m not sure if I ever learned to play the game properly, or if Bayonetta and its sequel are just that good at making your mistakes look so stylish. Bayonetta herself is also one hell (ahem) of an engaging protagonist. Kudos to the games, as well, for taking a hyper-sexualized character and not making her seem hyper-sexualized at all. Bayonetta is just who she is. If that happens to be sexy, then so be it. You can stay there in the gutter; she’s got other places to be.

6) Rayman Legends

Rayman Legends is vastly inferior to Rayman Origins, its predecessor on the Wii. It doesn’t feel as inventive or unexpected (the uphill battle faced by all direct sequels, admittedly), and its mandatory gamepad sequences are, to be blunt, pretty awful. They entirely break the flow and pace of the game, and I can honestly say that I felt my heart sink every time I saw that I was in for another one of those levels. The fact that they seem to take the place of the mosquito-based shoot-em-up sequences from Origins made them even more disappointing; those levels broke format in a way that was exciting and fun. These just clog up the machinery. So why is it on this list? Because it’s still great. It says a lot about how fantastic Rayman Origins was that its far worse sequel is still wonderful in its own right. The levels (the standard ones, anyway) are all fun to play and full of surprises. The animation is fluid and downright gorgeous. The soundtrack is brilliant. And the musical levels? The musical levels are rightly lauded, and deeply rewarding to perfect. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the Wii U’s best games sees the gamepad being its biggest detriment. I’ll give Ubisoft credit for trying, though, and I mean that as a genuine compliment. But in the end, it was just a stone around the neck of an otherwise perfect platforming experience. And even with that hindrance, it’s a standout title of the entire generation.

5) Lego City Undercover

Grand Theft Auto is a fun series, but Lego City Undercover proves that you can have a lot of creative fun in an open world without having to lean on the appeal of mindless violence. (This isn’t meant to take anything away from Grand Theft Auto and its ilk; it’s just a genuinely nice surprise.) I adored Lego City Undercover. It was every bit what I imagined my little cities to be like when I built Lego structures as a kid. Racing around, finding new locations, tearing down and building up new buildings and objects…it was just fun. Much ado was made about excessive loading times, and that’s absolutely a fair complaint, but once you’re outdoors the entirety of Lego City is yours to explore, unbroken, and so the loading times don’t interfere with the action so much as they draw a line between chapters of the story. The writing and voice performances are also brilliantly funny, with silly jokes and sharp wit sitting side by side, peppering every conversation with laughs and making the game that much more of a delight to play. Lego City Undercover looked like a cute, simple kiddie game. But it was actually one of the best open world games I’ve ever played, and one of the few that kept me coming back long after the story was finished. I’m hoping that, one day, we can get a better-loved sequel.

4) Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I remember when Donkey Kong Country Returns was announced for the Wii. People went ape. B-) ok but really tho, there was a huge amount of excitement about the return of the classic SNES-era platforming series. And, surprisingly, once the game was released that excitement was actually justified. Donkey Kong Country Returns wasn’t just another sequel; it was a great game. Less fanfare greeted Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That was to be expected, as it didn’t have the immediate “wow” factor of its predecessor. But that’s also a bit disappointing, as Tropical Freeze is absolutely the better game in every regard. Its levels are more varied, its soundtrack more memorable, and its character roster doubled. (The ability to play as Cranky is every bit the reward we always knew it would be.) It also seems to have a much more rational difficulty curve. Whereas Returns hit unexpectedly hard early in the game and never really eased up after that, Tropical Freeze feels more like an adventure of satisfying ups and downs. I’ve played through this one multiple times, and I’m sure I’m not done with it. I’d even say it’s the best Donkey Kong platformer yet. And if you don’t agree, brother, you’re…bananas. B-)

3) Yoshi’s Woolly World

I expected to like this game, but I never expected to love it the way I do. I was a big fan of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and I think most people were…even if they wished for a higher level of difficulty. I never understood that criticism; Kirby games certainly didn’t have a reputation for being anything beyond “pretty damned easy,” and, frankly, the fact that you couldn’t die didn’t make Kirby’s Epic Yarn a cakewalk; there were optional collectibles for those seeking a challenge, and many of them were very well hidden. The reason I bring this up is that Yoshi’s Woolly World not only addressed the difficulty concern — both through collectibles and tough as nails secret levels — but it’s a better game overall. What’s more, I’m not even a particularly big fan of the Yoshi series. This one won me over with its perfect blend of platforming and exploration, fairly pitched challenge, and visual aesthetic that clearly lands on the all-time-best list. It’s one of the few games from this generation that I bothered to 100%, which was surprisingly difficult to do so. And I loved every moment of it, and I’m currently playing through the entire game again with my girlfriend. Yoshi’s Woolly World could have rested on many things: its cuteness, its series pedigree, its visual invention. And yet, every aspect of the game goes at least one step beyond expectation. It’s sweet, charming, and deeply fun. It reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. And that soundtrack is just so pleasant and comforting…I can still call to mind specific songs from certain levels, which is something I’m not sure I’ve been able to do since the SNES days. Yoshi’s Woolly World is the best of classic gaming combined with the best of modern gaming. It’s this generation’s unexpected masterpiece.

2) Pikmin 3

Whenever a new Nintendo console is released, you can expect to hear the same questions about a few of its franchises. “Where’s Metroid?” “Where’s F-Zero?” “Where’s Star Fox?” Well, I don’t join in those particular choruses, but I sure as hell wonder where Pikmin is. After skipping the Wii entirely (ports excepted, only one of which, I think, was even available in this country), the series returned on the Wii U. And it wasn’t just the comforting return of a great series…it was the best title, easily. I loved Pikmin from the moment I played it on the GameCube. In fact, much of what I loved about that game came from the biggest criticism other people had about it: the strict time limit. I felt that it added some real stakes and facilitated a different kind of approach to problem solving than I would have employed otherwise. Normally I’m a careful guy; give me a strategy title, and I’m going to take a lot of turns to accomplish my goal, but I’m also going to come through relatively unscathed. Take too long to accomplish Pikmin‘s goals, though, and you suffocate on an alien planet. The game encourages and requires a sort of artful carelessness, which often fences you into having to deal with the consequences of a decision you previously made in a fit of panic. It was beautiful, it was fun, and it was my favorite GameCube game. Sure enough, the sequel eliminated the time limit, and felt inconsequential as a result. I never even bothered to finish that one, whereas I played through Pikmin many times, eventually earning the best ending. Pikmin 3 offers a great middle ground. There is a time limit, but it’s one you can extend by playing well, giving you the chance to progress more or less at your leisure…but punishing you with much tighter deadlines if you don’t take your task seriously. In short, it’s the sequel the first game always should have had. It looks better, it plays better, it sounds better, and it’s a thousand times more focused than Pikmin 2. Pikmin 3 would have been destined for this list even if it was a lazy reprise of the first game, because the first game was just that good. But what we got was a phenomenal experience, and one I’d be grateful for even if I enjoyed nothing else on the Wii U. And it’s still not the system’s best title…

1) Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

The Wii U didn’t have a distinguished life. It was never well-loved. It may not even be remembered fondly. But the games on this list aren’t good ones; they’re great ones. And yet when I sat down to write it, I know immediately what the best of the best would be. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is my favorite game on the console, and one of my favorites in years. It’s an incredible, fun, addictive experience that didn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserved. It was also one of the few to use the gamepad in any truly meaningful way, turning it into the interface for a messenger app used by the characters. So, that’s nice. But it’s not what makes Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE so great. No. That would be the incredible, colorful, memorable visuals. The absolutely stellar soundtrack, consisting of some great, original J-pop songs. The brilliant combat that occupies perfectly the space between complex and frustrating. And the characters. Oh, the characters. While Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE gets flak for its story — which, to be fair, is pretty light — it’s really a game about its own characters. As much as it often seems to be otherwise, it’s not about finding and fighting a big monster. It’s about people discovering who they are. Figuring out what they want to be. Finding the right ways to get what they need. It’s a game about friendship, about support, about coming to understand each other. It’s a game about teamwork, and about the power that comes when you find yourselves pulling together in the same direction. (Ellie best girl btw) It’s an adorable, unforgettable experience, with a long campaign and lots of optional sidequests that flesh out the world and the characters that occupy it. I found myself seeking out as many things to do as possible, just to spend a little more time with the game…and that’s not something that I do often. There was a bit of disappointment surrounding this title when it was released, due mainly to the fact that it was initially pitched to the public as a crossover between the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei franchises. The result is a game that isn’t much like either, and that’s understandably disappointing for anyone who was hoping for the best of both. But Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE is a near-perfect RPG in its own right, and one of the most engrossing I’ve ever played. Not because I wanted to see what happened next…rather because, for once, I didn’t want to leave.

The 10 Episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 You Must Buy to Remain My Friend

Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson

Vimeo now has Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes available for rent or purchase. That’s fantastic news in itself, but the best part is that they’d like to make more episodes available in the future…episodes that have never been legally available due to rights issues.

Their catalogue right now consists of 80 episodes…which is plenty to keep people busy, but also more than enough to overwhelm the uninitiated.

Episodes are an hour and a half long, after all. It’s an investment of time to decide whether or not you even like the show…and the fact is that they’re not all created equal. Each episode features a riff of a complete movie, which is what causes distribution rights issues, and also either boosts or restricts the comic mileage. Some films are ripe for riffing, others…not as much so.

I want people to support these videos, as this might be the only way we do get proper releases of long-missing episodes. At the same time, I want the people who support them to…y’know…WATCH THE GOOD ONES AND ENJOY THEMSELVES. So here’s a quick and dirty list of 10 legitimately brilliant episodes that are available right now. And since I haven’t seen all 80 yet, please let me know your own suggestions in the comments.

10) Eegah (1962)

(Season 5, Episode 6, Host: Joel)
EegahStarring the recently-deceased Richard Kiel, this is a perfect “gateway” riff for the uninitiated. Every aspect of terrible filmmaking is on display in Eegah, from hilariously awful ADR to incongruent musical sequences. The film itself is about a giant prehistoric man who lives on an (ostensibly) snake infested mountain, and then he goes to a swimming pool. This riff unseats Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure by featuring the single funniest usage of the song “Tequila.”

9) The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)

(Season 8, Episode 12, Host: Mike)
The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up ZombiesI’m pretty sure the folks making this movie realized what a pile of shit it was before they released it, which is why it has a title that screams parody…and nothing else about it that does. An evil sorceress and her hideous assistant Ortega do that voodoo that they do so well, I guess, even though the zombies that the film is named after are barely in the thing. There’s also an incomprehensible comic relief character, and it all adds up to one of my favorite underappreciated riffs.

8) The Final Sacrifice (1990)

(Season 9, Episode 10, Host: Mike)
The Final SacrificeA Canadian action film that reminds the world of why there aren’t more Canadian action films. One of the great joys of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is watching them pull apart a film that means so well…and yet accomplishes nothing. Good intentions and horrid execution are a perfect comic match, and those are the films that lend themselves naturally to hilarious mockery. In The Final Sacrifice, the central pairing of heroes is so bungled it becomes a film-length joke in itself, with mustached pick-up truck enthusiast Zap Rowsdower helping a gangly youth find his father’s lost Lemon Mines.

7) Soultaker (1990)

(Season 10, Episode 1, Host: Mike)
SoultakerBoth films “starring” Joe Estevez make this list, and with good reason. Soultaker is some kind of severely mishandled meditation on fate, mixed with a story of love that outlives life itself, and has Joe Estevez. Joe Estevez plays Joe Estevez to perfection, as a Joe Estevez who takes souls with a little plastic ring he found under the couch. There’s a lurking sense of menace that never actually shows up, because that menace is played by Joe Estevez.

6) Gamera vs. Gaos (1967)

(Season 3, Episode 8, Host: Joel)
Gamera vs. GaosAny of the Gamera films are good choices for download, as, for whatever reason, the giant flying space turtle lends himself well to being made light of. Go figure! I almost chose the first film, Gamera, instead, but ultimately I’d have to give Gamera vs. Gaos a slight edge, as this one sees our meat-filled hero duking it out with a ropey-looking bat monster that appears to be in constant pain. There’s also a blood fountain. Like, one that somebody built on purpose. It’s pretty great.

5) I Accuse My Parents (1944)

(Season 5, Episode 7, Host: Joel)
I Accuse My ParentsMystery Science Theater 3000 is mainly remembered for riffing awful sci-fi and monster movies, and with good reason. However I Accuse My Parents is strong evidence that any kind of film, in the right hands, can become a comic masterpiece. This one is about one young man’s helpless slide into juvenile delinquency…the tragic and direct result of winning an essay contest. (I’m not kidding.) I’m sure somebody’s going to be upset that I put this one well above The Final Sacrifice, but I don’t care. This is one I absolutely love, with its bizarre tonal shifts and bungled moralizing. No, it doesn’t feature a man in a stupid rubber suit, but the riff is brilliant all the same.

4) Mitchell (1975)

(Season 5, Episode 12, Host: Joel)
MitchellIt’s the last of Joel’s riffs, and quite possibly his best. Mitchell is about one heroic cop that doesn’t do things by the book, but he gets results, dammit. Oh, and he’s played by Joe Don Baker, which means that this thrilling, devil-may-care attitude is filtered through an obese, repulsive idiot. As a character, Mitchell embodies perfectly the disconnect between intention and reality that Mystery Science Theater 3000 exploits so well. Mitchell arranges drug deals with elderly ladies, gets in shouting matches with children, and seems to forget what case he’s working on, as the crime that opens the film gets resolved off-camera through a single line we hear on the radio. Oh, and he comes with his own theme music. This one is a must see.

3) Werewolf (1996)

(Season 9, Episode 4, Host: Mike)
WerewolfAnything in the top three is good for an hour and a half of straight laughter…but I admit I have a slight preference for the Mike years over the Joel ones, so your mileage may vary. Werewolf is the other Joe Estevez masterpiece, and it is brilliantly, perfectly, gorgeously awful. It’s also, I think, the only werewolf film that features the titular monster driving a car. The lead actors (and / or the screenwriters) have no concept of correct grammar, and the big twist at the end of the film is something you’ll see coming from the opening credits. Speaking of credits, this one closes with a great singalong that’s worth the price of admission in itself.

2) The Pumaman (1980)

(Season 9, Episode 3, Host: Mike)
The PumamanYou know when a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy comes out and people who see it say things like, “No, it’s really good. Actually good, like a good movie. For real.” That’s because of movies like The Pumaman, which gave a truly terrible name to superhero films, a stigma that lingers to this day. Fortunately, though, this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 justifies the staining of the genre’s legacy. It’s an unforgettable film about an Indian who throws people out of windows, a man who adopts the powers of the puma (including flight for…some reason…), and an awful lot of poorly choreographed fighting…which this movie equates, inexplicably, with jumping from one side of the room to the other. Donald Pleasance is in it, too, in the role that made him wish he’d never been born.

1) Laserblast (1978)

(Season 7, Episode 6, Host: Mike)
LaserblastThis is it. The holy grail of movie riffs. Granted, “Manos”: The Hands of Fate isn’t available for download, but even if it were, I’m sorry…the Laserblast episode is the single funniest thing I’ve seen in my life. In fact, I remember watching this one when it first aired quite vividly. I didn’t know what it was called, but a few years ago I happened to see it again, and so many of the jokes came back to me. The two idiot cops, the absurd alien teleconferences, and a sex scene represented by kneaded back-fat all kept me laughing for weeks on end as a teenager. I think I only saw it once on television, but it’s stuck with me ever since, and revisiting it (which I’ve now done multiple times) never diminishes its charm or its brilliance. If I had to recommend only one, this would be it. Yet I can easily recommend all 10 on this list, and I look forward to reading your own suggestions below.

Tusk.

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