It’s fitting that Astrologaster is based on the stars, because frankly it’s a gas. It exhibits a merciless wit that is immensely effective in dismantling the romanticism and historical revisionism that often accompanies period pieces. But more importantly, it doesn’t seem too impressed—with the Church, with so-called literary greats, or with men, and in that sense, I identify with it a lot. Astrologaster takes no shit, but it doesn’t give any either.—Holly Green
19. Gato Roboto
Gato Roboto packs all the action and adventure you expect from a Metroid-style game into just a few hours of play. If you aren’t a completionist in thrall to the bewitching allure of that 100%, it’ll take even less time. It’s in and out before it turns into a chore or starts repeating itself, which sets it apart from most Metroid acolytes and even some official Metroid games. And although we wouldn’t advocate for an abridged Super Metroid or Metroid Prime (or even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), most games that follow in Samus’s bootsteps aren’t designed well enough to justify their length. Gato Roboto is here to remind those games that aimlessly dragging on and on isn’t a crucial part of the Metroid recipe.—Garrett Martin
18. Super Mario Maker 2
Super Mario Maker 2 has the same impact as the original, only with an updated set of options. It still leaves Mario exposed, not just giving you the tools to design your own levels but walking you through the process step by step. Sure, it’s not how these games are really made—you won’t be doing any coding or creating any art assets—but you can still learn some of the basics of level design, and have the freedom to follow or flout those rules as you see fit.
Freedom is the foundation of Super Mario Maker 2, and that freedom is a big reason why it’ll be hard to go backwards to a traditional side-scrolling Mario game after this. It lets us break the game apart and put it back however we see fit, and no matter how seamlessly Nintendo glues it all back together in the future, we’ll still see those cracks and see how everything fits into place. Even if Nintendo was still designing side-scrolling Mario levels as ingeniously as they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we would simply know too much to once again feel the way we used to feel about them.—Garrett Martin
17. Sunless Skies
Sunless Skies is a slow and deeply tonal game, its rich soundscape and florid prose drawing me in from its outset, immersing me in its science fiction of sky-trains and outer colonies of a thinly-stretched Victorian empire. It’s a game that feels both intensely modern and intensely otherworldly, with conflicts between factions illuminating greater questions about the role of empire and control. It’s also, notably, a game built around semi-randomized chunks of the world, lending each adventure a customized, specific feel.
Sunless Skies’ elements of randomization mean that each specific player’s games are ever-so-slightly different: while every playthrough will include the bustling bohemian flower-city of Titania and the octogenarian fungus-laden settlement of Hybras, their specific locations around New Winchester will shuffle. Sunless Skies, then, becomes as much about exploring the world as it is about interacting with characters.—Dante Douglas
16. Falcon Age
There’s a message in Falcon Age that resonates and pushes back against many established tropes of the genre. The backwater planet, of course, is still a planet. Planets have ecosystems, are populated by people, and all people deserve a right to peaceful existence and habitation. Where other sci-fi media, even games that I enjoy, like No Man’s Sky, present a fundamentally adversarial and resource-collecting relationship to planets and the inhabitants of them, Falcon Age shows a different side of the story. The planet, along with the creatures on it, are shown as valuable members of an ecosystem, and the game’s limited scope means that the world still feels alive, and concerned with things on a greater scale than you as a player. It’s a comforting feeling, and a bold statement for a development team to make with its first game.—Dante Douglas
15. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
“Fun” is a nebulous, subjective concept that many critics try to avoid, but there’s not a better word that sums up why Sekiro’s repetition never becomes a problem. Sekiro’s tightrope combat—a delicate balance of patience, timing and precision that can swing from stately to furious in an instant—is so physically and intellectually satisfying, and such a consistently evolving challenge, that it never grows old. It retains the same kernel of sheer, unabashed fun that you feel from the first time you get a handle of its defense-oriented, posture-disrupting action, but slowly tweaks it through the steady introduction of new skills and techniques.—Garrett Martin
14. Hypnospace Outlaw
For all that Hypnospace Outlaw is a story about the past internet, it is as much a story about our own, current internet—the internet that grapples with questions of the role of moderation, of brand engagement in community spaces, with ads and branded content. Enforcers are unpaid, but are asked to do the work of anyone from community managers to police, with little to no explanations given to users. Copyrighted content is blocked with an iron fist, unless the copyrighted content comes from a staff member of Hypnospace, in which case rules are built to be bent.
The metaphors of Hypnospace Outlaw come across fairly clearly as the game continues: this is a device meant to monopolize time that you otherwise would be resting. It’s a more literal interpretation of the same fears that plagued parents in the early 2000s, of staying up too late on the computer and not getting good sleep. In Hypnospace, you can sleep and browse—so long as you ignore the mild extra tiredness in the morning. It’s the blue-sky optimism of the dot-com bubble reinterpreted through a near-sci-fi lens.—Dante Douglas
The thing about Judgment is that, whenever I put it down, rather than think more about the game and what I was just doing, I thought about the possibilities it represents. I thought about the game that comes next, and the one after that. The stories that aren’t packaged as exceptionally well-told neo-noir crime thrillers. I was thinking about what developer Ryu ga Gotoku could do in a game without combat, one just about food, how place is physically constructed and interpreted, or the space that women occupy in Kamurocho. In a way, I wanted Ryu ga Gotoku Studio to do something more daring. And then I realized, while mechanically and narratively this game is an iteration, its daring is in the willingness to honor the humanity in everything, and then impress that upon me as a player.—Dia Lacina
12. Ape Out
Slaughtering tons of dudes has never felt so morally appropriate before. Ape Out makes a statement about animal abuse by focusing on a gorilla lab subject’s violent escape from captivity. It has the mechanical precision and deceptively deep game loop of a classic arcade game, but with a gorgeous aesthetic based on Saul Bass art and jazz percussion. Levels are packaged as if they’re tracks on old LPs, and the whole game looks like the cover to Miles Davis’s greatest hits come to life. It looks and sounds amazing, feels good to play, and has a just and socially relevant message, to boot.—Garrett Martin
11. Shenmue III
There’s a beauty to Shenmue III that I hope will not go unremarked on. A visual poetry that is simultaneously ungainly and stirring. Walking through the impressionistic fields of soft yellow and pink flowers in Bailu, seeing children practicing martial arts, all under the watchful ancient gaze of tremendous mountain ranges. Each person’s face in Shenmue feels unique (even when it’s not), emotive and full of life (even when gasping like a turtle). The framerate stutters at times, NPCs pop in unexpectedly, but the world feels alive, despite the limitations of budget and technology. It is genuine, honest. Opening a dozen drawers in Shenmue III is clumsy, awkward, and tedious. It showcases the limitations of the textures used, the lack of fluidity—but each trigger of the opening and closing animation is evocative. The emotional honesty of rummaging through a large dresser, which, when was the last time you thought deeply about what rummaging through a dresser even feels like? Shenmue III wants you to sit with those feelings.—Dia Lacina