Yes, technically it’s now 2018 and this is late, but we here at Outermode have long made our (meager) living questioning societal, economic, and legal norms, so why stop with the temporal?
The point is, here are the games (and sometimes game-adjacent-things) that we loved in 2017, the glistening few nuggets of interactive gold we dug out of the burning trash heap of the calendar year.
Breath of the Wild
After a launch accompanied by fears of a game drought, Nintendo turned it around and took charge of 2017, delivering such a banner year for the Switch that now I’m just worried about how 2018 will ever compare. That’s why it’s only with some surprise that I note that all three of my top games for the year are on my Switch – and that if I had rounded it out to five, Splatoon 2 would have edged one of those spots too.
Still, even among the Switch’s embarrassment of riches there’s a clear winner. Breath of the Wild is arguably Nintendo’s first proper open-world game, and in typical form the company muscled its way into the genre and showed everyone else what they were doing wrong. Emergent gameplay systems are tightly interwoven with degrading gear, minimal UI, and a staunch refusal to give into nonsensical ‘game logic’.
Best of all, it’s all built into a world where every hill, cave, or lake hides a secret, turning exploration into its own reward rather than an endless series of checklists. I finally finished with the game this week, after nine months, over 120 hours, and two DLC packs, and right now it’s easy to imagine that this might be my game of the decade, let alone the year.
Super Mario Odyssey
If anyone was going to come close to upstaging Nintendo this year, it was, well, Nintendo. Super Mario Odyssey would have been a shoo-in for GOTY any year but this one thanks in large part to a constant sense of playful invention.
This is a game fundamentally committed to surprising players, unleashing a torrent of new abilities, costumes, and worlds for Mario to explore, often throwing a brilliant, genre-defining gameplay concept out there only to drop it five minutes later and move onto the next fun thing.
Much like Breath of the Wild, it’s enamored with Mario’s past but more interested in figuring out his future, offering a Mario game fit for 2017 – complete with Mario in a wedding dress, mustachioed frogs, and a few endgame surprises that are simply too wonderful to reveal. I’d call this a return to form, except Mario hasn’t had a duff game in years – this is simply yet another example of Nintendo at its blistering best.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle
Zelda and Mario were easy picks for my top two games, but this spot was trickier. By sheer hours played, Destiny 2 seemed an obvious choice, but it’s too much a retread of the original – as is the otherwise wonderful Splatoon 2. Prey’s open-world hijinks were among Bethesda’s best, Resident Evil 7 scared the shit out of me, and Spaceplan put in a stunningly good showing for a smartphone clicker, but really my heart belongs to Ubisoft’s garbage rabbit mascots.
Mario + Rabbids should have been a shameless cash-in, Nintendo selling its soul for fart jokes and some Switch support, but instead it turned out to be this year’s smartest strategy game. It takes the basic XCOM formula and adapts it to the Mushroom Kingdom by bringing movement to the fore, with team jumps, ground pounds, and green pipes all serving to up-end your expectations. Taking cover and flanking enemies are still the central tactics, but just as often you’ll use pipes to suddenly appear behind them, or bounce over their cover to crash down on their heads.
Look past the (actually quite fun) slapstick silliness and you’ll find dense customization, stunning level design, and a difficulty curve that ramps gently up to unforgiving heights. Oh – and, like the rest of the game, Grant Kirkhope’s score is far, far better than it has any right to be.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Senua’s Sacrifice is a model of restraint, a game executed superbly within its narrowly specified design. At its core it is a modest third person action adventure, with a solid combat system and puzzle designs, but polished to a brilliant shine. The few bravura flourishes – the sound design and video direction particularly – stand out as risky concepts executed to perfection. Without an ounce of fat or a feature out of place, Senua is a model for mid-tier game development and something that feature-bloated AAA games could learn from. This before we get to the game’s foregrounding of a mentally ill woman as the protagonist; the reception has not been universal praise and there are elements of Senua’s narrative that I take issue with, but I struggle to think of a more prominent, multifaceted or autonomous mentally ill person in games.
A Douglas Adams short story in videogame form (note: not in any way anything to do with Douglas Adams), Spaceplan is part of an excellent subgenre of self-aware clicker games, and by far one of the most stylish. I played the free browser version and then splurged to play the Android version. I was elated to find yet more wit and even new mechanics in an extended second act that culminates in one of the most beautiful and surprising finales I’ve come across in any game, let alone the clicker genre. A bargain at any price.
I’m normally an introverted player, lapping up roguevanias and turn-based oddities. Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade pried open a chink in my armour, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds plunged in a stake. I think it’s the scale that works for me. While I don’t have the reflexes to break away from the middle of the pack in a Call of Duty or Titanfall, PUBG puts equal emphasis on environmental awareness and psychology. You’re never far from an interesting, life-or-death decision, and while I have yet to claim my succulent chicken dinner, I keep coming back to stick my hand in the fire. I’ve since unfaithful man memed away from PUBG in favour of Rainbow Six Siege, but it remains my adrenaline highlight of 2017.
100 Best Videogames that Never Existed
Nate Crowley’s hilarious retrospective of imaginary videogames is the most fun I’ve had with the medium all year. Starting as a “One Like = One Fake Videogame” twitter gambit that ran to over 1,000 entries, one hundred of Nate’s batshit creations were fleshed out with extended ruminations by Nate on their artistic merits and place in a wholly imaginary version of games history, illustrated by the concept artists of publishers Rebellion. It’s a glimpse on a morbid and whimsical alternate timeline where game development is fixated on British alcoholism, bald-headed TV icons and a psychotic commitment to puns. The result is treats like “Fish Puncher”, “Wolfglance Tycoon”, “Winelord” and my personal favourite, “Pig Falling Out Of A Biplane Music Video Maker”. The circle is now almost complete, as to celebrate their 25th birthday Rebellion ran a game jam creating some of Crowley’s ludicrous designs. Until they get a release the book is absolutely delicious.
In spite of my – arguably overly intellectualised – quibbles around it’s politics and intellectual naivety, Absolver definitely deserves some game-of-the-year recognition. Crisp aesthetics, wonderfully fluid animation and bizarro card-collecting-cum-beat-em-up mechanics fall together with remarkable elegance to create a genuinely unique fighting game of dazzling strategic depth.
On the topic of unexpectedly enjoyable punch-ups, 2017 is the year that Bayonetta arrived on PC, allowing non-console owning schmucks like me to finally play it. While I had long regarded the claim that Bayonetta is a feminist icon with (I think) well-deserved skepticism, I may now be tempted to concede the point. Despite sitting well within the classic video game character category of “woman inexplicably clad in a skintight body suit”, Bayonetta does at least have less common qualities like depth-of-character and self-definition and impetus outside of her relationship to a man. On top of that, the actual game is wickedly slick and an utterly, unashamedly bonkers adrenaline-romp through Christian mythology and beyond, which helps. It turns out 2017 is the year I got into action games.
Little Nightmares has held a special place in my heart this year. Its gratuitously creepy visuals, unrelenting sense of foreboding, and just-on-the-nose enough underlying themes of consumption and greed have haunted many an idle thought. A typical platformer it may be at mechanical level, but the set pieces are superlative, the filmic details sublime.
Final honourable mentions must go to both Jettomero: Hero of the Universe and the unexpected delight of Spaceplan. Both one-man development projects that showcase the insanely high level of quality that tiny projects can achieve. The former tells the surprisingly empathic tale of an unstoppable robot learning their true place in the universe. The script is clunky at times but usually in such a way as to be charmingly naive rather than frustrating. It may out-stay its welcome by an hour or so, but the experience of trying to carefully tread through the scattered colonies of humankind as they, uncomprehendingly, attempt to bring their military might to bear, is a fantastic mixture of slapstick comedy, poignant melancholia and dramatic irony. Spaceplan has been covered in innumerable aspects by the Outermoders, but suffice to say that no clicker game ought to be this good. Jake Holland’s epic, absurdist space campaign pulls you to the wild, esoteric edges of contemporary astrophysics, and beyond.
Cuphead! What a clever, complete and beautiful game Cuphead is. Cuphead is a decidedly old-school run ‘n’ gun type shooter situation in which you conquer a series of actually kind of difficult bosses, all through the lens of 1930s, Max Fleischer-era cartoons. It plays like a mix of Gunstar Heroes, Contra and just about every Japanese shmup you’ve ever played.
By focusing on the bosses, it really gets to the core fascination in this style of game – a process of slowly and methodically peeling back the layers on a series of initially imposing situations, to arrive at a remarkable feeling of control and understanding that’s rare to find even in this genre.
A typical level in Cuphead begins like this: You begin, you marvel, mouth agape, at whatever incredibly animated scene is in front of you, you feel overwhelmed within seconds by the barrage of attack patterns, you die. Slowly, gently, you begin to understand the different patterns, you learn what to do when cued in by a particular sound effect or the boss animating in a certain way, and before you know it you’re past the midway point with a life or two to spare. And then, the boss transforms into something completely new, the feeling of complete paralytic overwhelmedness returns, and you lose that life or two. The process begins anew, but before you know it, you’ve eked out a little more progress, gained a little more insight, and what was once a terrifying and overwhelming situation becomes All Part Of The Plan on the road to that final 30 seconds you still haven’t cracked yet. But you will – and that feeling of accomplishment is of the proper, fist in the air, shout into the television kind. The good stuff.
Cuphead is more than just a good bullet hell/boss rush game though – it’s also one of the most incredible looking video games ever released. It’s not uncommon for games to lock into a certain cultural aesthetic in a throwbacky way, but these always look like games trying to look like something else.
Cuphead nails it, completely – all the hand-drawn animations look like they’ve been lifted straight out of the 1930s, and watching the game in motion feels like those animation processes and traditions had somehow continued into the present day. Seriously – there are moments where the game doesn’t just capture the stretchy and manic aesthetic of the 1930s, but supersedes it.
And then – and then! There’s the way in which the aesthetic is just so ridiculously well-suited to the genre. Just look at the classic Betty Boop short ‘Minnie the Moocher’, and you’ll see so many aesthetic similarities to run ‘n’ gun and boss rush games. There’s the adversary, transforming in distinct phases and firing out a series of looping, repeating sequences at the protagonists, there’s the constant series of skin-of-your-teeth near misses, there’s even the fact that in most of these cartoons the protagonists scroll from left to right on a flat plane.
Stuff like this – and the way Cuphead uses it to tease out the similarities with the gaming genre in which it sits – means that there isn’t a single moment in the game where the big nerdy video gamey videogame mechanics ever feel at odds with the game’s aesthetic. It all just works perfectly harmoniously, and it leaves me thinking that maybe the audiences for Max Fleischer’s early cartoons – fast-moving, pepped up sequences in which fragile protagonists navigate a narrow path around deathly, hallucinatory creatures, rapidly flying into and out of the screen – maybe those audiences were looking for the same rush that shmup fans in 2017 were looking for.
Cuphead’s triumph is that it feels like a 1930s cartoon that impacts people in 2017, and a 2017 videogame that would have impacted people in 1930. It finds common ground between 90 years of change. Oh, the music’s fantastic too.
Hello, it’s your friendly neighborhood videogame writer, bringing you an end-of-year listicle to soothe your mind as you descend into a xanax daze with a little help from that kitchen rag soaked in gasoline.
Chapo Trap House
But that’s a left-wing politics podcast! LISTEN. I’VE BEEN GAMING FOR YEARS. I’M A HARDCORE GAMER. YOU WILL LISTEN TO THIS PODCAST BETWEEN GAMES OR DURING GAMES, YOUR CHOICE. IT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH GAMING.
Ah, a videogame. A videogame in which 100 people shoot each other to death on an island for some measly Gamer Points, all to receive loot crate after loot crate filled with the same white baseball cap. One day the rich will have the poor outfitted with microchips and control them from home — dropping them on an island to shoot each other to death for Bitcoin. Then we’ll look back on these Game Of The Year awards as a real turning point in human history.
Not Destiny 2
I preferred the incomprehensible, inconsistent, and oftentimes just plain vacant plot of Destiny to the jingoistic rollercoaster of Destiny 2’s campaign. What once felt like a queer wonderland that just happened to involve shooting aliens now feels like manipulative narrative bombast without an ounce of mystery or originality. I played Destiny’s campaign many times through precisely because it was slightly bland and incomprehensible, leaving space for my imagination and the sophisticated game mechanics to do their thing. I couldn’t even return to Destiny 2’s once. The plot was so nauseatingly boring and maximalist, I’m half-convinced that Max Landis wrote it.
Mario and Zelda and Mario Kart on Switch
Nintendo did it again! Fun games on a cool system! I can barely feel my face. My entire entertainment diet is either PG-13 pixar-alikes or HBO-style trauma porn. The rest is actual porn. I like to play my Switch on planes. I like the colorful characters and the immaculate mechanics of Nintendo’s in-house development. I like to imagine a world in which–
Old Games Making It To New Systems
Prime suspects: Path of Exile on Xbox One and Skyrim on Nintendo Switch. I played a lot of these two. The former is Diablo 3 for people who want a better game than Diablo 3, the latter is um… a rhythm game for Orcs.
Forging a New Left and Working Towards Local, Regional, and International Unions That Serve the Working Class Fairly
The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The “first-world” economy is built on slave labor abroad and the sales of deadly weapons to war-torn regions. The working class is pissed off because they’re getting squeezed into oblivion — but they’re being told they already have freedom. The freedom to choose between satanic fascist twats on the right and liberal big-business shills on the “left”. We need to confront capital or this is all going to blow. We need to address the ultra-wealthy elite’s incredibly damaging behaviors. It’s time for a grassroots movement aiming for a sustainable Social Democracy and reining in of corporate malfeasance. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this. Not a videogame.
Divinity: Original Sin 2
This is a Good Game! It was clearly made with love by a talented independent team (Larian Studios in Belgium). Inventive and varied — like Dungeons and Dragons at its best — the game is full of rich details, immaculately interwoven systems and fantastic writing, Divinity: Original Sin 2 gets a big ol’ recommendation from yours truly (if you like role-playing games and fantasy, that is). Old-timey gold miner voice: they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, son!