The 10 Best Episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation Because I Am an Expert Now

When I covered the only three seasons of Star Trek, what we now call The Original Series, it was mainly out of historical interest. It was an important show that I’d — for the most part — never seen. I wanted to experience it, enjoy it, poke a li’l fun at it, and move along.

I ended up liking it quite a lot, though. I knew I’d be able to appreciate it, but I didn’t expect to come away from it as a genuine fan. The fact that I did was a nice surprise. Then I watched the films, and they were — for the most part — pretty good. Some I loved, but mostly they felt like slightly longer episodes of more-or-less average quality. I’m sure that was enough for fans who didn’t have BluRays and DVDs to turn to at the time, but for me it was just another six adventures that weren’t as good as the show usually was. I wish I had something more insightful to say about them, but I’ll cover them another day, probably.

Point is, I’d finished with The Original Cast. I really wanted to see Deep Space 9. But something stood between them: The Next Generation.

I could have skipped it, at least for the time being, but I figured, hey, why not check it out? I’d heard good things, and I know a few folks were curious to hear my thoughts about it. Unlike The Original Series, I had never seen a full episode of The Next Generation. I remember it airing regularly in syndication, so I’m sure I caught a few minutes here and there after Batman: The Animated Series, but it never grabbed me and, in fairness, I never let it. I didn’t have any interest. I had friends who adored it, but I didn’t really care to check it out.

That means that I went into this show even fresher than I went into The Original Series, and I had no idea whether or not I’d like it, nor did I know whether or not I’d want to cover it. Committing to a full seven series-in-review posts would have been a bit much, and I’m glad I didn’t make that commitment, because I sure as hell would have run out of things to say. I will say this, though: I think it’s a better show than The Original Series…even though I didn’t like it as much.

That’s just a matter of personal preference, of course. The cast was fantastic. It had great characters and ideas, even in most of its worst episodes. It also had a much higher number of great episodes, but since it had a much higher number of episodes overall, maybe that’s not a fair point.

I ended up in a sort of strange position: I liked it, but didn’t have enough to say to justify a whole series of posts. And I didn’t want to ignore it, because I thought it was worth documenting — in some way — the things that resonated with me.

I’ve settled on doing a top 10. This is by no means definitive. When I rewatch the series, this will change, without question. Maybe not the top spot, but everything else will jiggle around, at least a little bit. This is me as a first-time viewer, bringing all of my own baggage to the show and engaging with it on my terms rather than its own. It’s not fair, but it’s honest.

For other newcomers to the show, this might serve as a nice sampler of episodes; I was a newcomer, and these are the ones that I loved most. If you want to start somewhere, maybe one of these will interest you. For longtime fans of The Next Generation, these 10 little windows into my experience with the show should give you a pretty good idea of what I enjoyed, what I didn’t enjoy, and the reasons for each. In that way, I hope that folks can get something out of my unexpectedly enjoyable journey through a piece of TV history that I missed completely.

If you want some idea of the episodes that didn’t quite make my top 10 but were in firm consideration, here are another 10. Consider them either honorable mentions or the rest of a top 20 that I was too tired to finish. Either works! “A Matter of Honor” (season 2, episode 8), “Who Watches the Watchers” (season 3, episode 4), “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10), “Captain’s Holiday” (season 3, episode 19), “Devil’s Due” (season 4, episode 13), “Half a Life” (season 4, episode 22), “Conundrum” (season 5, episode 14), “I, Borg” (season 5, episode 23), “The Inner Light” (season 5, episode 25), “Lower Decks” (season 7, episode 15)

As you can see, season one was a big pile of crap.

Anyway, on to the top 10, and let me know what your favorites were. It’s interesting for me to see (already, as a newcomer) which much-loved episodes did nothing for me, and which much-hated episodes I liked, so keep it coming!

#10: “Attached” (season 7, episode 8)

I absolutely loved “Attached,” which is something I can say about any of the episodes on this list, but I want to emphasize it here, because it’s love alone that elevates it for me. (How appropriate!) There are better episodes. Smarter episodes. Funnier episodes. More memorable episodes. You get the idea. “Attached” isn’t quite a guilty pleasure — I think it’s genuinely good — but it would be dishonest for me to say that it’s really one of the 10 best things The Next Generation ever did. Instead, it’s just one of my 10 favorites.

The central premise is interesting: A planet wishes to join the Federation, but not the entire planet. The population is split into two factions, basically, and only one has any interest in joining. Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher beam down to chat with the leaders of the interested faction…but the two never arrive. They end up, instead, in what I’ll simply call enemy territory. In The Original Series’ “The Mark of Gideon,” Captain Kirk beamed down to a planet but never arrived, and there are a million interesting things that that episode could have done with that premise. “The Mark of Gideon” didn’t do any of them, but this episode makes up for it.

That’s just context, though. “Attached” is really about Picard and Crusher. They are prisoners, tethered together mentally by implants, sort of like psychic handcuffs. If they get too far away from each other, they are overwhelmed by nausea and unable to keep moving. But the longer they stay together, the more easily they are able to read each other’s thoughts.

Does any of that make sense? Who cares? It’s an excuse to get the two characters into each other’s minds, which ends up being not just fun and interesting, but important and moving. Coming near the end of the show’s run, “Attached” automatically taps into our own long history with these characters. We know that they care about each other. We know that they are attracted to each other. We know that they have a complicated relationship.

We also know what they can’t say to each other. Previous episodes are littered with loaded pauses, unfinished sentences, and tactical half-truths. I don’t think it’s fair to say that The Next Generation tried to position Picard and Crusher as a “will they or won’t they?” couple, but it did remind us — repeatedly — that they had feelings for each other.

“Attached” has them unintentionally revealing those feelings in the form of pure, shared emotion. Now they can no longer pretend that they don’t know. They can’t dance around it. They can’t clear their throats and wish each other a good night. Now they each know that the other knows how they feel.

Episodes of many shows benefit from unlikely pairings, exploring relationships that usually go unexplored on a weekly basis. Here, though, The Next Generation benefits from shining a brighter light on a very likely pairing. We’ve seen Picard and Crusher together often, sometimes for plot reasons, and sometimes because they simply enjoy each other’s company. They even dine together regularly, and one of this episode’s loveliest moments is a tiny reveal: Crusher makes elaborate meals instead of simple ones because she wants to make Picard happy…but Picard doesn’t like the elaborate meals and prefers simplicity. They were both too polite to say how they really felt.

But, of course, that’s just one revelation, and it foreshadows a much larger, more significant one: They now know exactly how much the other wants to be with them, and the fact that they are learning about and dealing with that as they are escaping an enemy prison is a great way of keeping the episode interesting outside of its (admittedly very good) character moments.

Once they each know how the other feels, there’s no going back. There’s no room for personal diplomacy or feigned ignorance. They’ve been forced into the next stage of their relationship; they just need to decide what that stage will be. Many answers could have worked, but I love the maturity of the answer that “Attached” provides: They know how they feel, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they are obligated to act upon it. They are both adults. Professionals. Friends. They’d enjoy spending the night together, but are they prepared for what the morning would bring?

And so they decide to not be together, and the fact that they actively make that decision means that the relationship has advanced. It’s not a reset button. It’s not a return to awkward social maneuverings and hesitations. It’s a decision reached by two adults who have now shared and discussed the facts at hand. It’s a beautiful and impressively heartfelt conclusion that doesn’t artificially keep the two apart, but rather reinforces the value of the relationship they already have. It’s absolutely lovely.

#9: “The First Duty” (season 5, episode 19)

"The First Duty"
Unlike his mother, Wesley Crusher is a terrible fucking character. It’s tough enough to have a “whiz kid” on your show without it getting annoying, but the number of times Wesley saved the day when the more-experienced leaders around him failed to do so was frustrating. If The Next Generation were about a crew of morons bumbling their way through space, fine. Instead, it’s supposed to be a crew of hyper-competent spacefarers, which is good, because I like that idea. But the fucking little boy always has to be even more hyper-competent, in spite of his lack of training, experience, or acting talent. Far too often, The Next Generation became The Wesley Show, by sheer volume of the problems that he alone solved.

It was “The First Duty” that redeemed him for me, even though it’s far from a redemption story for Wesley. In fact, it ends up marking the moment at which his entire Starfleet career begins to crumble. But it makes him an actual character, which was a concept puzzlingly absent from most of his appearances on the show. What’s more, it does so in a very recognizable way. What happens when whiz kids go to college? Well…they do some things that aren’t too bright. In Wesley’s case, he participates in a dangerous stunt that gets one of his classmates killed.

That would be enough to kick off a moment of important reflection, but it doesn’t stop there; Wesley also, with the aid of his friends, covers it up, lying to Starfleet and placing the blame on his dead classmate. Why not, right? That kid’s dead; his career is already ruined. What’s the sense in ruining ours, too?

“The First Duty” is excellent because it seems to be aware of a weakness that was built into Wesley’s character from the start. Of course he was an overachieving goody-goody; he was on a ship full of paragons. It’s easy to be a good guy when you are surrounded, exclusively and incessantly, by good guys. But plop him into college, where he will be surrounded by others who are imperfect, still learning, figuring out who they are, and he might latch onto the wrong people. Sure enough, he does. The first time he’s pressured by his peers, he caves in, resulting in the death of a friend. This further snowballs into Wesley lying to his school, his superiors, and his family, which only increases the severity of the repercussions he was trying to avoid.

And, well, good. Wesley should have to pay for this, and he pays dearly. He should have to learn to be a more responsible human being, because he’s clearly never learned it before. And he should cause others to wonder if their faith in him were misplaced. They confused intelligence for virtue, and the fallout is excellently drawn and explored. Picard eviscerating the kid for playing dumb is absolutely brutal, and just as necessary.

There’s no happy ending here. The happy ending was forfeit the moment Wesley and chums put their friend’s life in danger. Now there is only consequence, and consequence is something Wesley never had to face before. Kicked out of the nest, Wesley plummets, and it’s the most realistic thing the kid ever did. The very first time he’s given room to show who he is, he fucks up his entire life. Without a safety net, he pisses away everything he’s ever had.

And I’m not only speaking metaphorically; as punishment, the Academy strips him of the credits he had earned from serving on the Enterprise. He’s wiped his own accomplishments away, because he never learned how to not be a stupid fucking kid. It’s great. It’s meaningful. And it matters. This is Wesley in his truest form. What he does when nobody’s looking is who he really is. He’s not beyond redemption, of course, but he is actively in need of it…which finally makes him feel real.

“The First Duty” is a slap in the face of an established character, which usually doesn’t sit well. But, here, it’s not a character being put through the wringer because the writers ran out of ideas; it’s a character finally being tested…and coming up wanting. It was only easy for Wesley to be chivalrous when he was surrounded by chivalry. That’s an important realization for both him and us.

Allow me also to recommend “Lower Decks,” which serves as a partial sequel to this story. Another of the students involved in the coverup here — Sito — ends up serving on the Enterprise after graduation. Her relationships with Picard and Worf are shaped by the events of this episode, and they’re just as fascinating to explore.

“The First Duty” feels like it matters, which it should, and which is something we can never take for granted in an episodic TV show. Major kudos to The Next Generation for understanding and respecting the gravity of the story it told here.

#8: “A Matter of Time” (season 5, episode 9)

"A Matter of Time"
The Next Generation has plenty of episodes that focus on one-off guest characters, but this better than most of them by far, not least because Matt Frewer is a fantastic, funny guest in a fantastic, funny story. Both series of Star Trek I’ve seen have had a sort of spotty relationship with comedy episodes, but “A Matter of Time” succeeds simply because of how great that comedy is. It never becomes wacky to the point that it strains the show’s reality; instead, it revels in the weirdness that exists within the show’s reality.

In this case, the immediately bizarre Professor Rasmussen arrives in a time machine and explains that he is a historian from the future, here to observe the Enterprise crew on their current mission. Sure enough, the mission is an important one; the crew is providing assistance to a planet on the brink of cataclysm. The first-hand knowledge that Rasmussen obtains will help those in the future to better understand what happened. Only…it’s Frewer. The guy is clearly not what he claims to be, but there’s also no way for the crew to disprove those claims. And — thanks to the weirdness already within the show’s reality — who’s to say that a future historian wouldn’t travel back in time to silently study them? Isn’t that one of the least outlandish things that’s ever happened to these people? Something is wrong, but they can’t quite put their fingers on what.

The danger, of course, is that Rasmussen will alter the past, but he stays out of interfering. There’s even a fantastic scene between him and Picard, in which the latter implores him to share his knowledge of how things turn out, but Rasmussen refuses to help. The most he does is question the crew on various topics of historical interest, but even if he’s some sort of spy, he’s not asking about anything that’s classified; all of his questions are about things the crew understands to be common knowledge. Something must be wrong, but whatever it is doesn’t seem like it could be too dangerous…

Ultimately, they learn that Rasmussen really is a time traveler…only he’s not a historian from the future; he’s a thief from the past. His perfectly innocuous questions were meant to help him return to the past — where that knowledge is less common — and profit handsomely. (All that portable tech he crammed into his pockets won’t hurt, either.) But that’s just the broadest outline of the episode, fun as the concept is. Frewer elevates it to brilliance, with his strange demeanor and schoolboy fascination making him feel as much like a quirky scientist from the future as he does a flim-flam man out of time. The fact that his behavior is so far out of place among the Enterprise staff makes it even more difficult for them to read him; the guy comes across like a Looney Tunes character, and his interactions with them are always brilliantly off balance.

The Next Generation isn’t a comedy, but “A Matter of Time” made me laugh out loud more than most actual comedies do. There’s a big joke at the center of the episode, but the rest is just genuinely excellent comic business, kept afloat by a fun mystery and a lovable, eccentric guest. Frewer is a gifted humorist, and he takes a very good script and manages to wring every drop of comedy out of it for us to enjoy. Even in his simplest moments and most direct conversations, he finds some degree of humor in everything from his character’s posture to inflection to expression. He inhabits Rasmussen rather than plays him as a role, and every step in the character’s journey is a delight.

Rasmussen manages to fool the crew without making the crew look like idiots — they know he’s lying, they just don’t know what the lie is — and he manages to be both goofy and thoroughly believable as a con artist attempting to keep everyone else on the back foot. A show that traffics in comedy regularly should be able to pull this off, but a show that dabbles in it only rarely shouldn’t. Surprisingly, and wonderfully, “A Matter of Time” works on every level.

#7: “Frame of Mind” (season 6, episode 21)

"Frame of Mind"
The Next Generation dipped its toe into horror a good number of times, and an almost equal number of times, the episodes were big piles of horse crap. A chocolate pudding monster kills a main character. Everyone becomes monkeys and lizards. Stop-motion bugs take over the Federation. It’s awful. Absolute garbage, and rarely the fun kind of garbage. It’s boring garbage, and whenever an episode took on a spooky tone, it didn’t unnerve or worry me; it indicated to me that it wasn’t going to be one I remembered fondly.

Then there was “Frame of Mind,” which took the most difficult kind of horror — psychological horror — and handled it with aplomb. Not only was it effective, but it was so effective that I genuinely don’t know if I want to watch it again. It was legitimately frightening, and if I had seen this when I were a kid, I am positive that it would have given me nightmares. This isn’t a dipped toe; this is complete submersion, and it’s so well done that I get chills just remembering it.

It works as well as it does, I think, because Riker is very much a “normal” person. Most members of the ship’s crew have quirks that prevent them from being easy “everyman” characters, but Riker is just a guy. Tall, handsome, charming, competent…but still just a guy. This has led to a large number of pretty boring episodes about him, but in “Frame of Mind,” that normalcy is weaponized. Riker is so normal, so easy to identify with, that it’s not easy to maintain distance. If this is happening to him, it’s easy to imagine it happening to us.

The story unfolds in such a way that it’s never clear what is really happening and what is in Riker’s head. Sometimes he’s in Dr. Crusher’s play, as a man who is committed to an asylum against his will…and sometimes he is in that asylum, pleading for someone to recognize his sanity. Sometimes he’s preparing for a dangerous undercover mission, and sometimes he’s being told about how poorly that mission went, and that he murdered several people when it went wrong.

At no point can we believe that Riker actually snapped and murdered anyone, no, but that’s not his problem. His problem is that he’s locked away in an institution without a handle on what’s real, on what happened, or even on who he is. We know that his flashes to life on the Enterprise are at least rooted in the truth, but he doesn’t know that, and the doctors are working to convince him his memories are figments of a diseased imagination…something he gradually comes around to accepting, fighting against the incursion of visions that we, in the audience, know to be true.

It’s horrifying stuff, and Riker’s loosening grip on reality is played marvelously by Jonathan Frakes. Frakes is always good and sometimes great, but in “Frame of Mind” he is masterful, and the episode toys with reality to a degree that very few shows manage to do successfully. As someone who struggles with mental health issues, I’m always on edge when a show tries to do a “losing one’s mind” episode. It’s usually insulting, however well-intentioned, but Riker’s struggle with madness is not played for shock; it’s played for sympathy. The guy is hurting. The guy is scared. The guy is lost. It’s scary because it’s handled with total sincerity. This isn’t happening because the show wants to frighten us; it’s just happening. And that frightens us.

The play, too, could have just been a nice echo of the episode’s themes, but it is instead woven through Riker’s hallucinations so effortlessly that it becomes worrying in itself, with the man breaking down during performances, seeing the set around him turn real, watching characters bleed from one reality into another.

The ending is one of my favorites in the entire show. I won’t give it away, but I will say that the closure Riker achieves just before the credits roll felt like closure to me as well. I never want to revisit this one, and I mean that as an enormous compliment, because it was a near-perfect journey through Hell. It was horrifying and off-putting, and that’s exactly what this story needed to be.

#6: “Family” (season 4, episode 2)

I already knew going in that “The Best of Both Worlds” — the big bad beetle Borg episode — was held in very high regard. I’d never seen it before, but 30+ years of hype didn’t do it any disservice. It was still, clearly, very good. It doesn’t make my list, but that’s because, in my opinion, plenty of other episodes outdo it. One of those episodes is its immediate followup, “Family.”

This was by far the more interesting story to me, and I certainly realize that many of you will disagree. That’s okay. “The Best of Both Worlds” was about a man being kidnapped, modified, and essentially reprogrammed by a race of hostile robot aliens. Scary stuff, well executed. But “Family” is about what happens after that. It explores the mindset of a man who barely escaped death, who must now carry the lingering trauma of that experience, whose career is going to force him to face that precise adversary — and many others — again and again and again. The Next Generation didn’t have to tell this story. It could have just let the audience assume that Picard decided to continue living as a starship captain. Because, well, of course he did. And it’s not as though “Family” gives us a different answer. Patrick Stewart didn’t quit the show; end of mystery.

“Family” gives us an obvious answer, yes, but it also explores that answer. The crew returns to Earth for some much-needed post-Borg downtime, and Picard takes the opportunity to return home to the family vineyard, where life is simpler. Quieter. Easier. Safer. All things that a few episodes ago might not have mattered much to him, but which must seem incredibly appealing right now, after being forcibly modified by space aliens and barely brought home alive.

Picard’s question here is never even spoken, at least not that I remember. Nobody says, “You poor dear; why don’t you stay? We’ll fix up the guest room.” We just watch him go home, and we experience the question through the ways in which he interacts with his estranged brother, with his caring sister-in-law, with his wide-eyed nephew, and with an old friend who offers him a job on Earth, where the space monsters aren’t. It’s a story about Picard’s relationship with his family, and it’s also a story about Picard’s relationship with himself, with the direction he chose in life, and with what really matters to him.

All of that is great enough on its own, but it’s not the only thing that makes “Family” work. True to its title, other characters reconnect with their families as well. My favorite bits are the brief moments between Worf and his adopted human parents. In fact, those moments are fucking incredibly sweet and genuine. He’s embarrassed of them, in theory, but when they actually beam aboard, there is so much love between the three of them that it’s utterly disarming. Worf isn’t the best at showing that love in ways we’d expect from other characters, but it’s there, and it’s sincere. Everything involving the three of them — the genuine care and fondness that they have as a family — is incredibly moving, and it makes it so much easier to picture what Worf’s childhood must have been like. (Easier and a thousand times more amusing.)

Then there’s the bit with Dr. Crusher discovering a holographic message recorded by her late husband for Wesley. In one of the best moments for the character overall, and certainly his best moment before departing for Starfleet Academy, Wesley “meets” his father. The scene is long, well written, and perfectly acted. Father and son are finally face to face, but the communication can only go one way. Wesley gets to spend a little bit of time with the father he never had, but he can’t share anything with his father in return. He finally gets to hear a voice from the past, and then it’s cut off forever.

All of “Family” is well done, to the point that any of it could have been slipped into another episode as the B-plot, and it would have elevated that episode without question. Instead, we get all of it at once, in a sad, funny, thoughtful portrait of what these characters mean to each other.

This is like a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel that takes place entirely during the week following the horror, focusing on what happened next to the lone survivor, and that’s fucking brilliant. Space robots are cool and all, but this is the story that will stick with me.

#5: “Birthright” (season 6, episodes 16 and 17)

Going in, the two-part episodes I’d heard about were “The Best of Both Worlds” and “Chain of Command,” and I’d heard very good things about each of them. They were indeed pretty great, but the two-parter that hit me hardest and impressed me most was “Birthright.” Maybe that’s at least partially because I had no idea what to expect. Maybe reading about it will take away from the journey for you. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s one of my favorite episodes (or two of my favorite episodes, I guess), and I’m going to talk about it, so if you are allergic to spoilers, you shouldn’t have read this far anyway.

Early in the series, we gradually learned Worf’s backstory. As a child, his Klingon colony was attacked by Romulans, who massacred the residents. Worf survived, though his parents did not. He was adopted and raised by a human couple. Much later, the lie that his biological parents were Romulan sympathizers and responsible for the attack became accepted truth among his people, leading to Worf’s banishment from Klingon society. That’s a lot, but it’s parceled out in small enough chunks that it helps us nicely to understand Worf better. His history isn’t just “stuff that happened and elicits sympathy;” it informs his attitude toward humans, Romulans, other Klingons, friends, colleagues, family members, and so many others. Moreso than any other character, Worf’s history has molded him into who he is, and he is a profoundly compelling character as a result.

All of that is backstory, but it’s necessary for understanding “Birthright.” Here, he is approached by a clearly slimy (and I mean that only somewhat metaphorically) figure who claims that Worf’s parents are still alive, imprisoned by Romulans. Worf doesn’t believe it outright — dude has some fucking well-deserved trust issues — but he also knows that he must find out for himself. He sets out for the Romulan prison colony and does find survivors of the Klingon massacre…but his parents are not among them. That would be that, except that things at the colony are far more complicated than he expected.

The place is indeed a prison, but only in the loosest sense. It’s a secret and insular community in which Klingons and Romulans live not just side by side, but together. In the decades since the massacre, a genuine peace has sprung up between what were once captors and captives. Now they are neighbors. In the vaster reaches of space, the two species are still at each other’s throats, but here, what was once a detention camp is now a town.

Worf is understandably skeptical, but the residents seem sincere in their contentment, and the Romulan elder works closely and relies upon the Klingon elder to ensure something very close to true equity. Eventually, Worf discovers that the Klingons — many of whom were not yet born at the time of the massacre — are forbidden from learning their history, and therefore have no understanding of their own culture.

It’s a sharp ethical dilemma for Worf. Is peace enough? It’s a good thing, yes, but is it worth letting their culture die? The people may survive, but without their history, does it matter? There’s not an easy answer here, and “Birthright” explores both sides of the issue without firmly declaring either side to be correct. Take any two warring countries here on Earth and establish peace, and that’s impressive. But force one side to literally erase its history, its culture, its art, its heroes, its legends, its honor…and did you really establish peace between them? Or did you strip from one side everything that made it worth fighting for? And if you did strip it from them, didn’t you actually conquer them?

More than anything, though, “Birthright” establishes firmly that Michael Dorn is fucking fantastic. He is great beyond my capacity to praise him through words alone. Worf contains multitudes, and we see nearly all of them here, brilliantly realized, with honest pain and anguish, as he sees with his own eyes a vision of peace for his people, which comes at the cost of everything he values about his people.

It’s a fantastic, smart, thought-provoking episode that explores a very difficult question, with both sides making excellent points and neither side having a fix that works for everyone. It’s also an incredible reinforcement of who Worf really is, what he cares about, and what he’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of his heritage…even though that very heritage was quick enough to disown him. It’s incredible stuff, perfectly acted, and a hugely important experience for the character.

#4: “The Measure of a Man” (season 2, episode 9)

"The Measure of a Man"
There were good episodes prior to “The Measure of a Man,” but this was the first great one. It’s entirely about one single question, and the episode does not look away from it. In fact, it makes sure you pay attention to it, because it’s an important one: Is Data property or an individual?

The Next Generation had its share of clunky social commentary, but this episode — obvious though the parallel is — is elegantly handled, not least because the deck isn’t loaded in favor of an “of course he’s an individual” outcome. Data was built. Data was designed. Data was assembled and activated. All of those things point toward him being an object. A profoundly sophisticated machine, sure, but a machine. The debate is kicked off when a visiting researcher, Bruce Maddox, wishes to study Data, who is far beyond the types of robots anyone else is able to build. (There’s a whole story about Data’s creator that I won’t get into now — and which isn’t revealed in this episode — but allow me to simplify it by saying this: Someone built Data, but that person is gone and nobody knows how he did it.)

Data does not object to being studied in a general sense, but since Maddox’s methods will require him to be disassembled by people who are not guaranteed to know how to put him back together again, it would — in a sense — put his life at risk. Data therefore objects to this particular request, which Maddox finds absurd. How could a machine have the right to object to being studied? It’s elevated to the point of an official Starfleet hearing. A human being of course can’t be ordered to be torn apart for the benefit of medical science, but machines don’t have — and don’t need — any such rights.

Data is artificial life. Which of those two words is the more important one?

In a sense, everyone involved is too close to the problem. Maddox, understandably, sees only the fact that an opportunity to study advanced technology is closed off to him and everybody else in his field. But Picard — who serves with Data on a daily basis, who relies on him as a valued member of the crew, who seeks his counsel — sees only the “person” that Data is. And Riker, who is closer to considering Data a friend, is tasked with arguing against the android’s personhood. As the trial progresses, they discuss Data-specific things. He had a close, reciprocated relationship with a colleague, which suggests humanity. But he can literally be switched off and on at will, which suggests machinery. The trial explores both sides…but Picard — with some outside help — comes to realize that the ultimate judgment won’t be about Data; it will be about the fate of all machines like him.

Turn Data over to Maddox, and that could be tragic for one specific android. But set the precedent for doing so, and all sentient machines will be turned over to those who wish to do as they please, poke around in their workings, experiment on them, and dispose of them. And that’s probably the best-case scenario; Picard quickly comes to realize that the moment you strip personhood from this class of individuals is the moment at which they will start being treated inhumanely. Armies of them will be manufactured to labor in mines, to do work too dangerous for “real” people, to be created and destroyed solely to benefit others. It’s monstrous, and Picard realizes that he is occupying the precise point from which a hideous future could spring. If we bestow our machines with sentience, then it is our obligation to treat them humanely.

The moment it clicks for Picard is affecting and effective, as he realizes that he isn’t just arguing for the rights of an individual, but for the right to individuality for others to come. He is arguing for humanity to take responsibility and have respect for what it creates. The focus stays on one question, but the shift in perspective expands the discussion, the debate, and the decision.

In The Original Series, there was never any doubt for me as to who my favorite character was. It was Bones. It will always be Bones. But in The Next Generation, it’s a tight, tight race between Data and Worf, with Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn doing impeccable work on a weekly basis with characters who felt rich, meaningful, and unique. In a way, I feel bad for both of them; on any other show, they’d be the runaway highlight. Here, they’re together, and they’ll have to settle for being “also great.” (I’m sure that that just breaks their hearts.)

Overall, though, I think Data’s character led to better episodes, and “The Measure of a Man” was just the first of those. It was also the first time, I’d argue, that The Next Generation realized what it could be.

#3: “Tapestry” (season 6, episode 15)

What a truly lovely episode “Tapestry” is. In fact, it’s so good, that I genuinely suspect that I will have nothing to say. Nevertheless, here I go!

The episode opens with Picard dying on the operating table, due to complications with his artificial heart, which he has had since he was in Starfleet Academy. After he passes, he finds his longtime frenemy Q waiting for him. Q is…well, the character is great, and John de Lancie is amazing, but for the purposes of brevity, let’s just say he’s a supernatural being and leave it at that. There’s a little bit of classical Batman villain about the guy — at least in terms of the sheer delight he takes in toying with Picard — but here, at least, his intentions are noble: He’s willing to send Picard back in time, allowing him to make different decisions in his youth and avoid the altercation that led to his needing a replacement heart.

“Tapestry,” then, is what all of us dream of doing: going back in time with the knowledge and experience we’ve gained over the years to do things differently. And, just like all of us would do, Picard fucks everything up.

See, Picard’s artificial heart was established by previous episodes, as was the bar fight that left Picard needing it. The man regrets his actions as a brash and impulsive youth. He was a different person then, as were we all, and he’s embarrassed by that. He’s embarrassed by who he was and what he did and, in at least one case, what he didn’t do.

And so Patrick Stewart — the present-day Picard we know — goes back in time to take over for his younger self, doing things right for a change. We see that young Picard was a womanizer, was quick to violence, was prone to thoughtlessness. He changes those things by virtue of being more mature and measured in his dealings…which causes his friends to see him as disloyal, weak, and full of himself. He also takes the opportunity to make good on decades-old feelings for a female friend of his, but after they spend the night together, she regrets it. His regret has become hers, and it destroys their friendship. At the very least, however, he avoids the fight that cost him his heart…

And we flash forward in this new timeline to see what else it cost him. His milquetoast academy days resulted in him being just another cog in the wheel. He’s not commanding the Enterprise; he’s a nobody, serving under people who don’t know his name and can’t even be bothered to half-ass a compliment when he positively begs for one.

The lesson isn’t “it’s good to be an asshole.” The lesson isn’t “it’s bad to think twice before getting stabbed through a vital organ.” The lesson is, basically, you were a shithead. You, reading this. Too bad. Get over it. It made you what you are. You can spend your entire life regretting your bad decisions, or you can move forward and make something of yourself. Q’s gift to Picard here is a chance to undo his regret not once but twice: first in a very literal way, and second by helping Picard to accept the mistakes of his past and make peace with them.

Yeah, Picard screwed up big time, but that’s a stitch in the grand tapestry of his life, and if he rips it out, what is he left with? It’s a really sweet episode that, ultimately, is left hazy. Did Picard die? I don’t think so; I think he drifted into unconsciousness and Q took the opportunity to do him a big favor. But, being Q, he had to dress it up like some kind of life-or-death test, lest Picard end up suspecting that Q likes him, or something.

The timeline doesn’t really change. Picard still had that fight in the bar. Picard still suffers complications from his artificial heart. But now he’s able to accept the fact that he wasn’t always perfect, wasn’t always a hero, and wasn’t always a role model. It makes him appreciate what he’s accomplished since, rather than dwell on what he failed to accomplish earlier. It’s a masterpiece. And it’s still only my third-favorite episode.

#2: “The Offspring” (season 3, episode 16)

"The Offspring"
“The Offspring” is a sequel to “The Measure of a Man” in only a very general sense, and yet it feels like a perfect and necessary followup. It was also surprisingly good, considering how easily it could have gone off the rails. “Data’s humanity is on trial” is a setup that would require truly terrible writers to bungle, but “Data builds his own robot and treats her as his daughter” is one that very few great writers could get right. It’s a premise that feels ripe for catastrophe, and I’m still impressed, months after watching it, that it wasn’t one.

Data, again, is a unique android. (Simplifying once more out of necessity, so bear with me.) Nobody knows quite how he works, himself included. But he attends a cybernetics conference and something snaps into place for him, causing him to believe that he might be able to create another android. He does so, and successfully. This upsets Picard, to put it lightly. Building a machine is one thing, but imbuing it with intelligence and personality is creating life. What gives Data the right? Well, as Data suggests in return, the same thing that gives other crewmembers the right. The process is different, but why are only they allowed to create life?

Data’s not being a dick; he genuinely doesn’t understand the difference, which in turn causes Picard to wonder as well what the difference is, to the point that, ultimately, he ends up on Data’s side when Starfleet wants to take the new android away. Their argument is that watching an android learn, develop, and evolve as an individual would provide invaluable insight into A.I. They’re right. Picard’s argument is that they’d be taking a child away from her parent, which is abhorrent. He’s right, too.

So far, so “The Measure of a Man.” However, whereas that episode was ultimately about ideas and debate and philosophy, “The Offspring” is about a very specific character. Data’s daughter, Lal, isn’t a concept; she’s a person, and her struggles to understand who she is, why she’s being argued about, and why she’s being treated like an object, are heartbreaking. Much of “The Measure of a Man” was about future impacts to others. Yes, Data was at the heart of the discussion, but Data is also calm, mature, and not prone to emotional response. Lal is none of those things. Lal is a child, brought to life as the only one of her kind, without any experience or understanding of what’s happening around her or what’s being decided for her. She develops and experiences emotions more rapidly than Data ever could, and they are overpowering. At the same time she’s learning what life is, she’s learning how quickly others will restrict it for her and decide how she must live it.

That’s all heavy, heavy stuff, but “The Offspring” isn’t just that. It’s also funny, as a child who looks like an adult is still learning to interact with others. It’s sweet, as Data sincerely wishes to be a good father to her, without understanding what fatherhood is. And it’s marvelously acted, as Hallie Todd sells Lal’s fear and anguish as well as she sells her naivete and desire to learn. Brent Spiner does incredible work frequently as Data, and if the guest star playing his daughter failed to measure up to that man, well, so be it. Instead, Todd rises right to the occasion, hitting every note perfectly, in a way that never feels artificial or rushed, despite the fact that this particular story could have unfolded over several episodes.

Instead, in a single hour, we follow Lal’s entire life, from her birth, through her education, through her highs and lows, through her eventual demise. We share her entire journey, and it’s fucking devastating. The opening scene led me to believe we were in for a trainwreck, but by the end I started tearing up. And then, as the episode drew to a close, I didn’t cry, dear reader; I wept.

“The Offspring” hits hard, but it’s not manipulative. It’s just a story. It’s just a tiny little window into something that happened. But it’s a great one, and it’s an episode I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

#1: “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2)

Boy, things just don’t get better than “Darmok,” do they? Watching this, I had the same sort of response I had to “Balance of Terror” when I watched The Original Series. I was riveted. I didn’t just want to find out what would happen, and I wasn’t just enjoying the show; I was completely and thoroughly invested. And though the episodes are fundamentally different in so many ways, there’s a similarity in that they are both about thinking. For Captain Kirk, it was outthinking. For Captain Picard, it was understanding someone else’s way of thinking. In either case, they would have ended up dead if their wits weren’t sharp enough, though the circumstances themselves couldn’t be more different.

In “Darmok,” Picard and friends meet up with an alien race. They aren’t the first; encounters with this race have been fruitless in the past. The aliens aren’t antagonistic, but they’re impossible to understand, so discussions go nowhere. Picard meets them, and, once again, they make no progress. The aliens don’t understand him, and their own speech — full of proper nouns that are meaningless to our heroes — doesn’t make it clear what they want, either.

Then the alien captain beams Picard down to a planet, and the two meet in person. Nobody on the Enterprise knows what the hell is going on, and Picard assumes he’s been brought there to duel. To his great credit, he refuses. The alien captain tries to give him a blade, and Picard tosses it away. Both of them are trying to explain what they want, and neither of them are understanding the other. Aboard the Enterprise, Riker is having no better luck understanding the rest of the aliens, and every minute that drags by without Picard is a minute of torment for him; all he wants to do is blow up the alien ship and beam the captain back aboard, diplomacy be damned.

It’s a nightmare, basically, and the fact that the alien captain continues to not attack Picard only confuses things more. In fact, he helps Picard get a fire going during the night when the latter can’t do it himself. If the alien is a villain, he’s one in ways that Picard still can’t understand.

It all comes down, ultimately, to the fact that the aliens communicate by metaphor. And because we humans have no concept of the aliens’ histories and myths, their metaphors — referring to individuals and locations and events and situations — mean nothing to us, the same way our metaphors would mean nothing to them. The aliens repeat the same phrases, statements, and instructions, growing despondent as though they are speaking to a child who isn’t paying attention to what he’s told, and as the episode progresses, we don’t just learn what they mean; we figure out what they mean. The Rosetta Stone in this case is a shift in our understanding of language and of communication…not a translation, but an ability to visualize what they are speaking about.

The central repeated phrase, usually by the alien captain, is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Which means nothing at fuckin’ all to people who don’t know who Darmok or Jalad are, or where Tanagra is, or what any of those things represent. What it refers to is a historical — possibly mythical — touchpoint for the aliens: two individuals named Darmok and Jalad came together at a place called Tanagra to defeat a powerful beast together, sealing their alliance. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” as said to Picard, is a suggestion for the two to bond by defeating a tough foe, forging an alliance as legendarily strong.

By way of a more recognizable example, we could describe two antagonistic brothers here on Earth as “Cain and Abel.” It would be immediately clear to us which one was meant to be Cain and which one Abel, because that comparison says a hell of a lot to us, but it would say precisely nothing to somebody from another planet. Or “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” which all of us would understand even if we’d never heard it before, but to someone who doesn’t know if Rome is a city, a car, a food, a university, a concept, a statue, or a tasty tropical drink, it would mean very little. In fact, if they assume that “Rome” is something simple — something that should easily have been built within a day — they might conclude that the overall meaning of the phrase is the opposite of what we intend to convey.

Or consider something as offhandedly simple as “sour grapes.” We understand that phrase, but to an outsider, what’s a grape? Are they meant to be sour? Are they not usually sour? Are they valuable when they’re sour? Are they deadly? Does “sour” refer to the taste, the color, the age, the region in which they are grown? Do people avoid or reach for sour grapes? Assuming we eat them, is it preferable when they’re sour or is that to be avoided? We like some sour things; why wouldn’t we like grapes that are sour? What is the significance? It’s a phrase that says everything to someone who understands it, and nothing to anyone who doesn’t, and that’s fascinating. “Darmok” had me and still has me thinking about how I use language, let alone how space aliens might.

It’s impossible to discuss “Darmok” and give it its due, because it’s a long, brilliantly handled linguistic detective story. (And, don’t worry, I didn’t give it all away.) The episode introduces a puzzle and parcels out clues. Picard puts together enough that you’ll arrive at the same conclusion, but there are plenty of pieces left for you to assemble yourself, as you gradually come to understand what the aliens are saying, without translation, without Picard confirming anything, without somebody feeding you the answers. You hear the same alien language at the beginning of the episode as you hear at the end, but by the end you know what it means.

I remember watching this episode and, afterward, just sitting and thinking. Just exploring my own mind for a while, my own understanding of language and communication, and feeling more and more impressed by what “Darmok” accomplished. Then I spoke with a friend about something completely different and, without thinking (of course), used the phrase, “It’s the tip of the iceberg.” Almost immediately, my mind flashed right back to “Darmok,” and how a phrase that simple could so thoroughly confound somebody who didn’t understand what they were meant to visualize, why visualizing it would be significant, and what — precisely — about a bit of some ice in the sea was important to our conversation.

“Darmok” cheats in the sense that, no, the language isn’t realistic. But it’s not meant to be realistic; it’s meant to be just barely unrecognizable so that when we shift our perspective and realize how they actually convey meaning to each other, we not only understand their language, but understand ours a little better as well. We had more in common than we thought, something illustrated by what might be my favorite Star Trek scene so far, when Picard — in return for the alien captain sharing some of his own people’s legends — shares with him the tales of Gilgamesh.

The two connect and bond over the significance of stories in their cultures — the importance of mythology and common understanding — as the fire dies slowly at their sides, and it’s one of the most moving depictions of personal connection I’ve seen on television.

Understanding somebody with such wildly different experiences isn’t easy, but that scene made the effort feel important. “Darmok” is, without question, my new favorite episode of Star Trek, and it all came down to two men, working hard to understand each other, finally breaking through by sharing tall tales in cold moonlight.

And with that, I come to the end of The Next Generation. Now I can finally move on to the series I’ve been most interested in from the start: William Shatner’s TekWar.

Note: Credit to Saga of the Jasonite for the images. Couldn’t find a way to contact him and ask permission, but here’s hoping the credit is sufficient.

My 10 best games of my 2018

As I said last year, I don’t usually do an annual best-of games list because I don’t usually play many games close to their release. Once again this year, though, I did, and what I played felt like it was absolutely worth spotlighting.

So here we are again, yes, but I have the same problem I had last time: I want to include games that I missed out on the previous year. Games that would have made my list had I gotten around to them.

I’m still not quite sure of the best format to use for something like this, so I’m just going to stick three 2017 highlights in their own list, and then move on to my favorite 10 from 2018. My only real rule is that remakes/remasters don’t qualify…even though this year saw a mountain of truly great ones. Shenmue I & II, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Lumines Remastered, Katamari Damacy Reroll, and a bunch more.

The probably obvious caveat here is that I haven’t played every game this year, including some high-profile ones that, to be honest, I’d probably love. No Spider-Man, no Red Dead Redemption 2, no Hitman 2…I’ll get to them, but not in the last week or so of the year.

My best games of 2018 (2017 edition)

3) Prey

Prey is honestly the game that made me want to reach back into 2017 and spotlight it…and, obviously, it didn’t even end up being the best game I overlooked that year, which says something.

This was a massively pleasant surprise. I didn’t get around to it initially because the reviews were middling and I figured I’d wait for a sale. I regret that, because I wish I could have shown my support to the game with a full-price purchase.

Prey is difficult to discuss without spoiling some of its magic, suffice it to say it’s a sci-fi horror adventure that takes place on the space station Talos I in the immediate aftermath of horrific tragedy.

You are Morgan Yu, and your goal is…well, that’s your call. You can try to salvage what you can of the research that went wrong. You can try to escape and never look back. You can sacrifice Talos I — and yourself — to prevent the still-unfolding catastrophe from reaching Earth.

I’d be overselling the game to say there’s limitless freedom, because there certainly is not, but Prey is impressively versatile in ways so passive and quiet that a good deal of reviewers overlooked them. I remember one sequence midway through the game during which I really wanted some supplies behind a crate that was too heavy to move. Strength upgrades were available to me, but I had passed them up in favor of other things that I thought would be more useful. I couldn’t get to the goodies I wanted.

For whatever reason, I decided to fire my weapon at the crate…and it moved, just enough to make me realize I could blast it out of the way with enough firepower. And that was the moment Prey revealed itself to me. It’s not a matter of killing or avoiding an enemy…you can repair a turret to kill it for you, or hack a terminal to lock them in a room, or scale a wall to avoid them entirely, or or or or or. I returned to earlier areas of Talos I that I thought would be inaccessible until I found the right abilities, only to find that, actually, I just had to learn how to use the abilities I already had. Nearly every “lock” in the game is one you already have a key for, if you know what you’re doing.

Additionally, Prey has some of the best sidequests I’ve ever encountered, which surprised me considering the fact that just about every character is a torn, burnt, disfigured corpse on the floor somewhere. Reading two halves of email conversations, finding notes, listening to recordings…nothing about Prey‘s execution in this area is groundbreaking, but the writing is phenomenal. You learn about games the crew members invented and played to stave off boredom. You uncover a secret love affair that’s genuinely touching. You follow the stories of colleagues who knew something was awry but were silenced, one way or another, before they could speak up.

Prey is far better than it was given credit for being upon release, and if you skipped it, you really should pick it up sometime. Come for the scary monsters. Stay for the fragile humanity.

2) What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch is a dramatic masterpiece, not just within the medium but in general. I have never, in my entire life, been moved so deeply and so unforgettably by a video game.

The game is a walking simulator, to use that needlessly disparaging term, but it’s one that any fan of narrative, of characterization, of family dynamics, of simple storytelling truly needs to experience. There are important lessons here, for readers and for writers alike.

I’m being purposefully vague, so please don’t correct me in the comments, but you play as Edith Finch, who returns to her childhood home with adult eyes. The things she assumed were part of the standard childhood experience are revealed to her now as something quite different, and we piece together along with her the tragic history of the Finch family. Her family. Our family.

By exploring their old bedrooms, each of which has been sealed up and preserved like a shrine to the Finch who once occupied it, we learn about who these people were. And then we take control of them, one at a time, to live out their final moments. By the time we leave one room and move on to the next, we’ve genuinely gotten to know somebody. Somebody who…well, somebody who is already gone, leaving behind the clutter of who they used to be in a house that nobody will ever clear out. Their rooms are frozen in time, but time itself refuses to freeze.

Some of these vignettes are sad. Some are funny. Most are both. What Remains of Edith Finch is a series of emotional gutpunches that assemble into a profound statement about identity, about destiny, about personal growth. Every one of them matters. In an industry that loves to celebrate its own games for lasting hundreds upon hundreds of hours, What Remains of Edith Finch is a brief experience built of brief experiences. It gives you what it gives you, and then it moves on. Like each of the Finches themselves, it doesn’t stick around long. Just long enough that you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

I’ve liked a lot of video game characters. I’ve laughed with them and been afraid with them and I’ve helped them along. Then I eject the disc or the cartridge and get on with my life.

In sharp, painful contrast, I spent a part of my life with Edith Finch. I got to know her better than I think I will ever know most people. I cared about her. She mattered to me without me even realizing it.

You know.

Until it was over.

1) Nier: Automata

I’d be hard pressed to think of many years in which Nier: Automata would have had to fight very hard for the top spot. Not only was it one of the best-made games I’ve ever played, it was one of the most impressive.

There are games that play well, that look good, that sound great, that have intriguing stories, that have memorable characters…and then there are games that do all of these things, with each element of the experience working so perfectly in tandem, that it feels like it crossed over from another dimension in which they make games far better than we do.

Nier: Automata is one of those rare glimpses into another world, and I am privileged simply for being here to experience it. The soundtrack alone feels like something so beautiful we have no right to even come near it.

The story centers on a war between machines, with players taking control of the humanlike 2B in her battle against far less advanced, more obviously robotic enemies. At least, that’s how the first run of the game goes. The second time through, you play as 2B’s companion, 9S, experiencing the same story from a different perspective, filling in some narrative gaps, answering questions, raising a few more…

And then there’s the third time through, which I won’t spoil, but I will say that this time you play through a sequel story with a decidedly schizophrenic approach that both sheds light on and complicates both halves of the previous story.

Yes, Nier: Automata requires three playthroughs to even truly experience, but it rarely drags. The player-controlled characters all handle differently, and while 2B is damned good at bruising her way through hordes of enemies, 9S is far weaker and relies on his hacking ability, which takes the form of a shoot-’em-up minigame. You may play through the same story twice, but everything about it is different, simply by virtue of experiencing it through a different set of eyes. And this is triply true for the third run…

It’s impossible to say much about the game without spoiling some of its many surprises, but I will say that if you think you know the twist, that’s okay; you don’t. A number of reviewers — most infamously Yahtzee, who seems to play games just long enough to find something to complain about and nowhere near long enough to realize the game addresses his complaint — patted themselves on the back for guessing what they referred to as the “twist.” Play it yourself, though, and you’ll realize that that’s not a twist at all…it’s merely a plot point, and the story is far larger, more urgent, more compelling, more important than any singular reveal could ever account for.

The twist is what happens inside, to you, as you guide one group of robots against another, and learn more about human nature in the process than any video game should be able to teach us.

Buy it. Play it. Nier: Automata is a fucking masterpiece.

My 10 best games of 2018

10) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

I was in a very small minority that believed the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was the best in the series, which I believed right up until the Wii U and 3DS versions came out.

Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Brawl definitely made the series more interesting for serious competitors, but I wasn’t one of those. I’m still not. I never will be. The appeal of a series in which Kirby swallows Mario whole while Samus shoots at them and Link hurls bombs all around is its sheer fun factor, at least for me. That’s also why I don’t care at all about the rubber-banding in Mario Kart games. These things should be chaotic, beyond the point of fairness, because that’s what makes them fun.

Melee felt bigger, but was less interesting. Brawl felt like it tried to introduce some fun things (such as Assist Trophies and Smash Balls) that were far more annoying than they were probably meant to be.

Course correction came with the Wii U and 3DS games, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate manages to please both the silly and serious fans in seemingly equal measure…something I honestly would have thought was impossible.

Its default settings thrust me right back into exquisite chaos, and anyone who doesn’t like that can tweak any setting imaginable to better suit their desires…and then, brilliantly, save a variety of these settings for easy switching depending upon who you’re playing with.

It’s easily the best game of the series, and while I may have ranked it higher if I’d spent more time with it (it’s only a couple of weeks old as I write this), I probably wouldn’t have as a result of its appallingly poor online performance. It’s better than Brawl in the sense that one might theoretically be able to play a match online, but it’s far laggier and less reliable than the Wii U and 3DS entries. I have no clue how or why it took such a large step backward in that regard, but it is definitely unfortunate, because every other element of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is perfect.

9) Bleed 2

Bleed is a game I missed as it was an Xbox exclusive, but I grabbed it in a sale last year when it came to PS4. Since then I repurchased it on my Switch, just to support the developer (…well, and for the portabilty, because the game is perfectly suited to portability). It was a smooth platformer/shooter that wore its brevity and simplicity on its sleeve, and I found myself doing what I rarely have time to do anymore: replaying it over and over again.

Bleed 2 was an easy purchase when that came out this year. It seemed like it would be little more than another set of Bleed levels and, minor tweaks aside, that’s exactly what it is. And that’s all I wanted.

You take control of Wryn, a girl with an exceptional command of both firearms and aerial acrobatics. The plot is barely an afterthought; it’s the gameplay that’s front and center. And though Wryn’s movement at first feels floaty and imprecise, it honestly doesn’t take long to master. And I can say that, because I am absolutely terrible at most shooters.

With the ability to launch Wryn multiple times (in multiple directions) during a single jump and the ability to slow time on command, playing Bleed 2 is an elegant dance of graceful brutality. Bullets and obstacles and enemies come from all angles, and you’ll have to learn how to snake around, over, behind each of them in the blink of an eye. Speaking of which, blink a few times before you start playing, because you won’t be able to during the game.

That may sound intimidating, but Bleed 2, like its predecessor, welcomes all comers. It’s exactly as difficult as you’d like to make it, and there’s no shame in playing through each level a few times on the easiest, most forgiving setting. In fact, that’s probably a pretty smart approach. Once you have a handle on what to expect, you can crank the difficulty up as many notches as you like and really test your abilities.

The entire game can be blitzed through in just a few minutes, and you’ll have fun for that time. But replaying levels at higher difficulties, squeezing off tricky shots while deflecting projectiles and weaving through swarms of enemies, feeling your heart speed up to keep pace with the pounding soundtrack…it becomes transcendent.

Bleed 2, again like its predecessor, provides some of the best arcade-style action out there. It’s no walk in the park, but it’s willing to teach you how to play it in the most rewarding way. And that’s worth learning.

8) Dead Cells

I want so much to love Dead Cells, but instead I have to settle for merely liking it quite a lot.

I think the game reaches a bit further than it really should, and the seams show too clearly as a result. It wants to be a procedurally generated metroidvania, which sounds like a great concept, but the limits on its procedural generation means you can’t backtrack to explore previous areas with your new tools, stripping it of the defining trait of metroidvanias. Instead, it’s just a roguelite with permanent upgrades, no more metroidvania than Rogue Legacy or Spelunky.

Dead Cells took two incompatible genres and tried so hard to make them work together that it’s frustrating to see how far short it falls of its own goal. What it does offer, though, is quite good.

It’s brutally hard, which is to be expected, but almost always rewardingly so. The nature of procedural generation means there are certainly times during which you’ll end up swarmed by powerful monsters and have very little chance of getting out alive, but it also means that other runs will hand you incredible weapons and items out of the gate, meaning you’ll barely struggle until the late stages of the game.

And that’s part of the fun. You get squashed like an ant; you squash everything else like an ant. The invisible hand of fate casts the dice, and while you aren’t told where they land you’ll sure as hell figure it out.

It’s a compelling gameplay loop. You find some items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. You come back to find more items and gold, and you get the shit kicked out of you. But each time, you become just a little better equipped, and you’ll make it reliably further. It’s not a unique formula, but Dead Cells handles it well. Many was the time I sat down for a single run or two through the game and ended up playing for more than an hour.

The game’s main problem is that it doesn’t realize what it already has. It doesn’t need to inelegantly cram two genres together when there’s a single genre it does quite well. It doesn’t need to be constantly winking at the fourth wall and throwing cutesy meta jokes at the player, because it has an affecting, brooding atmosphere that should carry the experience instead.

Dead Cells doesn’t understand its own attributes, but even the lumpy, unrefined game we got is much better than most other developers manage throughout their entire careers.

I just wish, to paraphrase a Frank Zappa album title, it would shut up and play its guitar.

7) The Messenger

When games look back to the NES era for inspiration, they tend to focus on Mario titles, Zelda titles, or, more rarely, Mega Man titles. That’s okay; it’s a testament to the quality of those games that they serve as enduring inspirations decades later. The Messenger, though, finds its inspiration in Ninja Gaiden, a notoriously difficult action platformer that was among the most addictive and compelling on the console.

The Messenger is essentially a spiritual fan update, tightening the level design, eliminating the outright unfair moments, and turning Ninja Gaiden into the smoother experience it always should have been, an engaging and simple adventure from point A to point B, with a direct emphasis on moment-to-moment combat.

At least, that’s what The Messenger is at first.

Before long, the game reveals itself as something else entirely. You earn the ability to return to previous stages with your more recent upgrades, finding longer, more interesting paths than anything you’ve seen before. You find portals that allow you to travel back and forth in time, giving the game a new visual style, a remixed soundtrack, and clever puzzles requiring an understanding of what a certain section of stage looks like in two timeframes at once. You are given quests by NPCs in areas you previously blew through in a whirl of steel.

The Messenger is a game full of surprises, and while the narrative ones weren’t always great, the gameplay ones certainly were. The time-hopping mechanic is possibly the best implementation of such an idea I’ve ever seen, with the sly pun of console generations representing the leap in actual, human generations.

There are also multiple ways of solving problems. A few times I found myself at the end of a puzzle without having used a number of things that were clearly carefully placed around the screen. If you have a mastery of your tools, you’ll be able to skip over certain crutches that less-skilled players will have to rely on.

I rarely have time to 100% games anymore, but by the time I finished The Messenger I knew I wanted to go back and find everything I missed. I did, and while the actual reward for doing so was a bit underwhelming, I felt great for having done it.

The Messenger is the best Ninja Gaiden game right out of the gate, and then it becomes its own kind of even better game from there.

6) A Hat in Time

I already provided some thoughts on A Hat in Time, so go read those so you know just how impressive it is that a game with that many faults is ranking pretty damned well on this list.

In the months since I’ve played A Hat in Time, I still remember it, think about it, smile at it. The only reason I haven’t gone back to replay it and find some collectibles I missed is that there are new levels coming in a future update, so I’ll save my second pass for that.

A Hat in Time is just a lovely, charming experience. And while you (and I!) can sit around at pick it apart and shine a light on its flaws, we can’t rob it of its addictive, adorable fun.

It has a lovely visual style (with the hand-drawn static images perfectly capturing a Saturday-morning-cartoon aesthetic), a remarkable soundtrack, and quite possibly the most varied gameplay in any 3D collectathon platformer.

Hat Kid as well is such a well-developed character…not in the sense that there’s much depth or complexity to her, but because absolutely everything about her informs a recognizable and consistent personality. Her animations, her abilities, her design…she’s having a ball in this game, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

There were no shortage of throwback games this year, as this list and many others will attest, but A Hat in Time did the best job of nailing that carefree feeling you used to get from sitting on the carpet and playing a new game long into the night. It doesn’t just take cues for its presentation from those retro masterpieces of your youth…it inherits their spirit.

5) Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball platformer, which is a combination of words that should make any healthy human being cringe. Every review of this game I saw before playing it made some comment along the lines of “this shouldn’t work.” Those reviews were positive, and I assumed that was because Yoku’s Island Express worked well enough for what it was. I never dreamed it would actually work brilliantly.

In the game you take control of a little dung beetle, rolling a big ball of…well, anyway, Yoku ends up becoming a postman, rolling all over (and above, and below) an island to deliver mail. Of course there’s also puzzle solving, combat, exploration, and so on, nearly all of which is handled by playing pinball with little Yoku.

This shouldn’t work.

I love pinball, but I’ve never been very good at it. I suspect most people who love pinball aren’t very good at it. It tests my reactions far more than it tests my ability to think ahead, or my accuracy, and any time I end up with a half-decent score, it’s because luck was on my side.

That’s fine. I can enjoy pinball without knowing what I’m doing. But there’s no way in hell I should be navigating a platformer, a genre reliant on precision, that way. Yoku’s Island Express, though, never becomes frustrating, and the times it gets closest to being frustrating have to do with puzzle solutions, not with pinball sequences.

I’m not entirely sure how it achieves this, but it’s certainly helped by the fact that Yoku never dies; you can always roll your ball back to whatever pinball sequence you’ve failed and try again. And when you’re relying on flippers and bumpers to navigate around the map, they are each carefully positioned to aid your progress rather than hinder it. You get the fun of pinball without the steep demand.

Yoku’s Island Express is a triumph in a way Dead Cells was not; this mix of seemingly incompatible genres feels graceful and correct. Whatever difficulties the developers encountered getting pinball and platforming to work together, they clearly worked hard to identify not just functional but elegant solutions to the problem.

It’s fun, beautiful, charming, and has one hell of lovely soundtrack. It shouldn’t work at all…and yet it’s better than most of the games I’ve played this year.

4) Dragon Quest XI

Most of my friends love the Final Fantasy series, and while I can understand why, it never quite grabbed me. Having said that, I did enjoy Final Fantasy IX a hell of a lot, and the little I’ve played (so far) of Final Fantasy X is promising. I hope to get to that one properly in the new year.

But the other games in the series…the older ones, the newer ones, the celebrated ones…they’re fine. I admire them, but I never actually want to play them. (And, to be frank, I had to take a long break from Final Fantasy IX before I worked up the interest to come back to it.)

But Dragon Quest?

Jesus goodness do I love Dragon Quest.

I really can’t explain why this series grabs me in all the ways Final Fantasy doesn’t. Maybe it’s because the cartoony aesthetics are more pleasing to my eye. Maybe it’s because it takes itself just seriously enough not to be ridiculous, but not seriously enough that it won’t stoop low for a good joke. Maybe…it’s just a better series.

I wanted to skip Dragon Quest XI because I knew it would eat up so much of my time, but I couldn’t. I broke down and bought it on release and invested more than 100 hours in it, which is a serious rarity for me. And while it didn’t do much that earlier titles in the series hadn’t already done, it did just about everything perfectly.

I’ve heard other fans describe Dragon Quest XI as comfort food, and I can’t think of a more accurate descriptor. It’s not meant to be dismissive; it’s a chance to have another helping of something you know you love. And, sure, it may not feel all that different from the helpings you’ve had before…but you love it enough that that doesn’t matter.

Dragon Quest XI is a perfectly tuned experience. If you’ve played and enjoyed any of the previous titles, you’ll find yourself in a similar place this time around, but with so many of the rougher edges sanded off.

The one area in which it might flag a bit is the narrative, which is by no means bad but also is nowhere near the kind of story that requires 100 hours to tell. Having said that, it’s something of an achievement that the game stays fun for that long without the strength of narrative to prop it up.

There’s nothing revelatory about Dragon Quest XI. It’s just Dragon Quest in its purest form.

And, honestly, that’s enough.

3) Iconoclasts

The Game Boy Advance was so perfect for comic book-like graphics, it’s a shame retro-styled games tend to focus on the NES/SNES eras for their visual inspirations. Iconoclasts, deliberately or not, reminded me in all the right ways of the GBA’s particular brand of presentation, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

I’m glad I did, because far from being the sunny throwback I expected, and admittedly would have been just fine with, Iconoclasts was downright revelatory. It’s a fairly simple 2D platformer that managed to weave a better, more affecting story than most RPGs I’ve played. It’s a brilliant tale told as simply and quietly as possible, which only makes it more powerful, and it has a downright unprecedented skill with characterization that I don’t believe any other platformer has topped. It’s an achievement for the genre, and one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

You are Robin, a working-class mechanic living under the oppressive regime of something called The One Concern. The adorable blonde collection of pixels seems as though it belongs in a much happier game, living a much more carefree life, fighting a far less threatening force. But Robin didn’t choose to be here. Nobody did.

Throughout the adventure, you meet and team up with other characters, all of whom, potentially, have a lot to offer your budding rebellion. None of them live up to their own potential, giving the narrative, at times, a very effective feeling of hopelessness, even as you make progress. It’s nice to have these characters along, because it prevents you from feeling alone. But it’s easy to see that when you’re fighting an organized, established, well-armed oppressor, the actual strength you gain in numbers is negligible.

That’s not to say the game is all that difficult. Most of the trickiest bits are puzzle-centric, and the penalty for failure is, at worst, starting a room over again. But the narrative sells the danger, the stakes, the urgency of doing, somehow, what you know you’re not equipped to do.

With minimal dialogue, simple character design, and backstory parceled out just enough that you have some sense of what’s happening, Iconoclasts manages to build a a remarkably rounded and realistic set of characters.

I came to know these people. I understood them. Even when they did something I wished they wouldn’t do, I understood why they did it. Toward the end of the game a certain character behaves in a certain way that should have frustrated me, except that it was so perfectly earned that I instead had to admire the way Iconoclasts built to that frustrating and yet fully understandable moment.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the pixel art gorgeous, and the gameplay rewarding. On top of all of that, Iconoclasts manages to be genuinely funny at times while always taking itself seriously. Dead Cells had to resort to winking at the audience. Iconoclasts finds moments of levity in the world it actually occupies. One of those approaches is infinitely more rewarding than the other.

2) Hollow Knight

I have a weakness for simple games. Games that understand what they’re doing, do it well, and keep it interesting. Nintendo has long been the reigning champion of this kind of game, turning Mario’s jump, for instance, into something that stays interesting across dozens of levels in dozens of games.

Hollow Knight understands how to keep simplicity interesting as well as Nintendo ever has, and it also adds layers of optional complexity that keep you learning all the way through the experience.

Hollow Knight is about a fallen civilization of insects. You play a cute little greyscale bug that wields a nail like a sword. So far, so adorable. But its gorgeous hand-drawn style aside, this isn’t a cartoon world. This is a dead world full of dying characters. The atmosphere is sombre and morose. You’ll find a new toy that you’re excited to play with and it will ultimately, unavoidably, lead you to new reminders that this universe has more of a past than it has a future.

Moments of levity only serve to remind you how much was lost. An elderly stag beetle with aching joints ferries you back and forth across the map, reflecting on what once was. A brave adventurer you meet early in your journey is a corpse you find much later. A cute little pillbug mines away, singing a happy tune…succumbing slowly to madness…eventually no different from any other enemy. You slay her. It’s a mercy.

Hollow Knight manages to weave a story of remarkable — but usually only suggested — depth. It keeps you on its own narrative surface. You can learn more about who you are, about what happened, about why your journey matters, but only if you look for it and almost never will you get a straight answer.

It’s a massive game that repeatedly feels like it’s ending only to open up again and again into new territory, and it never once feels like it’s dragging. It’s full of fantastically designed boss fights and surprisingly sympathetic characters.

Hollow Knight, without any question whatsoever, the best metroidvania I’ve ever played.

1) Celeste

As much as I love Hollow Knight, there was no doubt in my mind that Celeste would take my top spot. I hope you realize just how much that says in itself.

Celeste is a brutally hard screen-by-screen platformer in the tradition of Super Meat Boy, but where that game (and just about every other one that took inspiration from it) relished the opportunity to beat you down, Celeste works very hard to lift you up.

It isn’t easy. It starts off difficult and gets harder every single time you think you’ve gotten the hang of it. But it actively encourages you to keep going. It speaks reassuring things to you in its loading screens. It reminds you openly that optional pickups and levels are, indeed, optional. It encourages you to push through even when it feels impossible…even when you’re sure it’s impossible…

…which, beautifully, is also the game’s story. We play as Madeline, a young girl determined to scale a difficult mountain. Celeste is that mountain, and Celeste is the game in which you scale it. It’s Madeline’s struggle that becomes yours. You work together to accomplish a singular goal from opposite sides of a screen. And the frustration you’ll feel throughout the game is Madeline’s frustration as well. It’s a game that connects you directly, emotionally, with the character you play.

Madeline is hounded by anxiety, by depression, by crippling self-doubt. Like last year’s big surprise, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Celeste is a game about mental illness. But whereas Hellblade placed you in Senua’s mind — hearing and seeing and pushing through her various hallucinations — Celeste is external. We see her the way anybody else would see her…not as the nervous failure she believes she is, but as an innocent girl dangerously unprepared for what she’s facing. The more time we spend with her, the more we understand what’s happening in her mind. Why this foolish excursion is so important to her. Why she refuses to be satisfied with anything she’s accomplished, always bracing herself against whatever comes next.

I never finished Super Meat Boy, though I genuinely loved it. At some point it got too difficult for me, and had I kept trying I would have eventually succeeded. But I didn’t keep trying. I had my fun, and seeing it through to the end didn’t matter. That game joked about the irrelevance of its own story, and that was part of the fun.

Celeste takes itself, and its heroine, and its subject matter, seriously. And I did finish it. This game got too difficult for me, too…but by the time it did, I knew Madeline. And I couldn’t leave her shivering in the snow, reflecting not on how far she’d come but on how much she’d never overcome in the future.

I helped her overcome. It was important to do so. She needed someone. Playing Celeste, you get to be her someone. And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you do help her…

Well, you helped a friend. For now, at least, you gave her a reason to believe in herself. And that’s not something either of you are likely to forget.

What were your favorites of the year? Let me know what I missed!

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 as 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 makes 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 amazing. 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 from 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!