I don’t think there are bad years for video games anymore. With everything from big blockbusters to small indie releases, there are just too many good games released for there to be a truly bad year these days. On top of the all the great, wholly new releases from 2019, I conquered a number of high-quality games from my backlog and played a trio of excellent remakes, so I’ve given both of those areas their own GotY after my top five for last year. Well, without further ado, here are my favorite games I played in 2019
5. Yoshi’s Crafted World
I could have chosen at least half a dozen games to fill this fifth spot on my list and been happy, but ultimately my heart said Yoshi. The adorable dino’s latest romp takes him through a crafted world like that of a child’s diorama. Constructed with all manner of milk cartons and paper towel rolls, yarn and felt and storage boxes, it makes for a lovely and cleverly-put-together backdrop. The level themes are diverse with some truly unexpected ones for the series popping up throughout the adventure. The gameplay features the usual mix of egg-tossing and flutter-jumping with some creative and awe-inspiring bosses to battle along the way. Many fans bemoan the fact that Yoshi games have never been able to match up to his first starring role in Yoshi’s Island. But few platformers in any series have accomplished that feat and I believe Good Feel’s last two entries in the series — Woolly and Crafted World — are the most worthy successors to Yoshi’s SNES classic that the series have seen to date.
4. Katana Zero
From its pixel art graphics to its cyberpunk setting to its thumping, techno-infused soundtrack, Katana Zero absolutely oozes style at every turn. The story makes smart use of dialogue decisions to both explore the twisty nature of the narrative and add humor to the proceedings. From a gameplay perspective, it feels sort of like the action game equivalent of the single-screen, masocore platformer. As a master assassin, you’ll run, jump and roll through each room, slicing down foes, deflecting bullets with your blade and flinging butcher’s knives at baddies. But one stray bullet or mistimed counter is fatal. Luckily, you can quickly reset things upon death. Each room feels like a puzzle to solve and besting the trickier ones with lethal panache can be quite satisfying. It’s an excellent new indie title marred only by the unfinished feeling I was left with after its abrupt ending. But that also adds to my yearning for a continuation of Katana Zero in the future. Here’s to hoping there’s more to come.
3. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
I wanted to like Yooka-Laylee so bad. But despite my affection for the lead characters — Laylee seriously cracks me up with both her design and dialogue — the throwback platformer left me cold similar to the way its inspiration, Banjo-Kazooie, did many years ago. I am thrilled to say that I adored this unexpected follow up to the original YL that trades in that game’s 3D collectathon style for that of a Donkey Kong Country-esque side-scrolling affair. On top of some exquisitely-designed 2D platforming levels, the Impossible Lair brings some innovation to the decades-old genre. It does so most notably through its Zelda-esque, top-down overworld map — which for my money is the best ever in a 2D platformer — but also via its uber-challenging final stage that rewards players that scooped up as many bees in the main game as possible. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is the must-play platformer of 2019.
2. Luigi’s Mansion 3
I have a huge soft spot for the Luigi’s Mansion series. Luigi is such a lovable protagonist and the charm levels on display are always through the roof. The franchise debut on the Switch is its best outing yet. It possesses the character and singular location of the original game while further building on the mechanical depth of Dark Moon. Of course, it brings some advantages of its own to the table. Chief among them is the sheer variety and creativity present in level themes. Luigi’s Mansion 3 takes place in a towering hotel. While some areas are exactly what you’d imagine in such a setting — a hotel lobby, a level of suites, a fitness center — others go in wildly unexpected directions like the medieval area pictured above or my personal favorite: a floor where you explore an ancient Egyptian tomb. Level design is superb. Bosses are as memorable as they are plentiful. And the cutscenes featuring our favorite fraidy-cat-plumber-turned-ghost-hunter will keep you laughing throughout. I loved my time with Luigi’s Mansion 3 and it is one of my very favorite exclusives on the Nintendo Switch to date.
This is a Remedy game through and through. Third-person shooter. Cinematic flair. Loads of atmosphere. A wild narrative with supernatural and science-fiction elements. Stunning visuals. Copious amounts of worthwhile lore to dig into. I loved it all so much. The combat is just a ton of fun, combining run-and-gun shooting action with lots of cool superpowers like telekinetic throws and levitation. The destruction on display in the frenzied combat encounters is a sight to behold. The story and world remind me fondly of my favorite sci-fi television series, Fringe and The X-Files, but with that very distinct Remedy feel to it as well. It’s a universe I can’t wait to dig into further via upcoming downloadable content. And it featured one of the most memorable cinematic setpieces in recent memory in the Ashtray Maze which combines many of the aforementioned elements with an added musical flourish for good measure. Control delivered across the board for me and is my choice for 2019 Game of the Year.
Backlog Game of the Year: The Witness
Let me get this out of the way: the ending to The Witness‘ story is pretentious, eye roll-inducing garbage of the highest order. Or should that be the lowest order? Well, whichever makes it the most garbage-y. But the gameplay experience is a revelation. It is unlike just about anything I have ever played. It made me feel smart in a way few games ever have. It had me surrounded by all sorts of notes and drawings I made (with an actual pen and paper) to help me make sense and track the game’s maddening internal logic. It had me absolutely obsessed with solving the island’s puzzles both large and small for a solid week, looking anywhere and everywhere (and even listening!) in the game’s world for a clue. There were moments when I thought I wouldn’t finish The Witness, but I kept coming back and eventually did. It was — without a doubt — one of the most singular gaming experiences of the last decade.
Best Remake: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Of all the games I completed for the first time last year including my top five from 2019 above, wonderful games I missed from previous years like The Witness and Gris, and other great remakes like Resident Evil 2 (the RCPD portion of that game is just top-notch) and Bowser’s Inside Story, Links’s Awakening is my absolute favorite. For years post-Twilight Princess, I groused about not having a new, fully-explorable overworld in Zelda. And then Breath of the Wild gave me exactly that… while at the same time completely dropping the ball on the dungeons. Link’s Awakening brought me back to a time when one didn’t come at the expense of the other. It has a compact-yet-dense, intelligently-designed overworld with lovable NPCs to interact with, secrets to find and side content to engage in. Just as fun as exploring Koholint Island is diving into its well-thought-out dungeons loaded with clever puzzles and unforgettable boss fights. Throw in a whimsical-yet-heartbreaking story and Link’s Awakening has become one of my all-time favorite entries in one of my all-time favorite series. I had only played a small chunk of the original Gameboy release, but this new version was a great way to experience the classic title, with an adorable art style and some welcome quality-of-life upgrades. It’s only marred by the sometimes shaky framerate, but that didn’t put much of a damper on the best gaming experience I had in 2019.
That will do it for my look back at gaming in 2019. Feel free to let me know your favorite games from last year in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!