Welcome to the 2nd annual Ninfora Game Awards, AKA Eliwood highlights a bunch of games he liked this year and no one else gets a say.
Nintendo followed up their launch year for the Switch with a strong if somewhat less ambitious second year—though to be fair it's hard to top a launch year that includes a new Zelda game and a new Mario game. Still, 2018 saw plenty of great releases, including re-releases of some of the best Wii U games, a massive number of outstanding indie titles, and a little known crossover fighting game released just a few weeks ago. Like most years there were simply too many great games to include them all on this list, but here are some of my favorite titles of 2018.
Best Crossover Event of the Year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Sorry Avengers, but it's right there in the name of the game: this is the Ultimate package, a lovingly crafted ode to not just Nintendo but gaming in general. Smash is the perfect encapsulation of our beloved pastime, one that celebrates all of the incredible memories we've each built over the years as Nintendo fans—and then lets us beat the crap out of each other with them. Because for as much as Smash is an interactive museum of nostalgia, it's also one of the finest fighting games around, one that is so customizable to player preference that it works whether you're a pro competitive player or just picking up a controller for the first time. Not matter how you prefer to play, Smash Ultimate is an utterly addictive, mind-boggling display of fighting game design and Nintendo knowledge.
Most Delightfully Original Game: Yoku's Island Express
One part pinball game, one part Metroidvania, and starring a dung beetle working as a postmaster—apparently it's a formula just crazy enough to work, because Yoku's Island Express is undoubtedly a highlight of the indie scene this year. In addition to putting a fun and fresh spin on two game genres, Yoku features some of the most charming visuals and audio you can enjoy on the Switch. It's a game that just captivates you from the moment you start playing and keeps you enchanted throughout the whole experience.
Best Comic Book Adaptation: Battle Chasers: Nightwar
To be honest I didn't even know Nightwar was based on a relatively short-lived comic book series from the 90s when it first caught my attention, but Joe Madureira's distinctive artwork (also seen in the Darksiders games) is all over this, and was enough to pique my interest. Don't worry if you're not familiar with the comic either—the game stands perfectly well on its own and takes players on a uniquely engaging RPG adventure that blends elements of turn-based combat, dungeon crawling, and procedurally generated level design. The final product is certainly on the difficult side, but if you don't mind the challenge you'll find a deep and rewarding RPG that encourages you to craft your own strategies.
Most Thought-Provoking Game: Iconoclasts
When you first start Iconoclasts it seems like another cute, charming, retro-inspired Metroidvania, but it doesn't take long for the game to drop some heavy ideas on you. I suppose the title should've been the first giveaway that this wouldn't be your typical adventure story, but it's still a surprise when the game takes a turn for the more serious—a welcome surprise though, because Iconoclasts does a fantastic job of balancing compelling characters and their personal development with excellent 2D action/platforming design and incredible boss fights. It's an unforgettable journey, and the best compliment I can give Iconoclasts is: you've never played a game quite like this one.
Most Funky Game: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
I couldn't very well compile a list of games from this year and ignore the funkiest Kong around, now could I? Okay, so the Switch version of Tropical Freeze has some underwhelming additions—particularly the fact that Funky Kong is relegated to his own "easy mode" so you can't just swap to him on the fly—but even so, the core experience remains an absolutely fantastic display of 2D platforming. In the world of platformers it's so easy to tell when something just feels off, when the platforming mechanics don't quite click, but Tropical Freeze is pure platforming perfection, one that isn't afraid to push the player with intense but rewarding challenges.
Best Narrative: The Gardens Between
How do you make a great narrative in a game that doesn't feature any text or dialogue? Well, you'd have to ask The Gardens Between developer The Voxel Agents about that, 'cause they nailed it. A short, sweet, melancholy trip through the shared memories of two children is one of the most emotionally affecting games I played this year, and to take it one step further the developers also slipped in a brilliantly original puzzle mechanic that revolves around time manipulation. It may not be a long game but it'll absolutely stick with you.
Second Best Ultimate Game: Monster Hunter Generations Ultimate
MHGU was so close to wrapping up that Best Ultimate Game award, and yet Smash just had to release this year. Still, in the same way that Smash Ultimate is an insanely jam-packed collection of Nintendo nostalgia, MHGU is an insanely jam-packed collection of Monster Hunter content. The massive roster, variety of weapons/hunter styles, and of course the fun of jumping online to team up on a hunt makes for a wonderfully addictive game, the kind that eats up an entire Saturday afternoon before you can blink. It'll be interesting to see where the franchise goes in the future as well, considering the success of Monster Hunter World, but for now MHGU is one incredible treat for classic MH fans.
The "Frustrating Yet Rewarding" Award: Runner 3
From his first humble days as the star of Bit.Trip Beat, Commander Video has lead a unique video game career—who could have predicted that those early pixel days would lead to the insanely surreal landscape of Runner 3? Regardless of the setting, the Commander finds himself in another addictive rhythmic race, this time adding some helpful new features like double jumping. The game is still tough as nails though so it's not a game for the easily flustered, but the insane visuals, catchy music, and addictive "one more try" mentality of the game will keep players coming back for more.
Best Surprise: Valkyria Chronicles 4
No, not because I didn't think it'd be good, I'm surprised we got the game at all considering the last numbered entry in the franchise was a Japan-exclusive PSP game and just last year Valkyria Revolution was released to overwhelmingly poor reviews. But VC4 recaptures all of the charm that made the first game a hit: a fun cast of characters, engaging strategy gameplay, and stylish presentation. There's something hypnotic about playing a strategy game, something that pulls you into the experience completely, and VC4 perfectly captures that feeling as well.
Best "Nintendo Difficult" Game: Hyper Light Drifter: Special Edition
Hyper Light Drifter takes several cues from classic Nintendo game design—the Zelda influences are clear enough as you explore an open 2D environment initially armed only with a sword—and not least of which is the classic sense of difficulty that the game poses. Still, while some "Nintendo Difficult" games were unfairly challenging, Hyper Light Drifter finds the perfect balance of difficult-but-fair. No player death can be attributed to a cheap shot on the game's part, only a failing of the player to play carefully given the limited tools the game provides. And no matter how many deaths you rack up, there's always a driving incentive to try again.
Most Beautiful Game: Gris
There are a lot of beautifully made games on this list, but none of them can boast the same incredible combination of aesthetic and technical design that Gris has. Every screenshot of the game is captivating, combining surreal details with a gorgeous watercolor effect that truly makes the game feel like a living painting. The animation is mesmerizing, and to top everything off the soundtrack is beautifully moving. The gameplay itself is perfectly enjoyable as well, but the art and music of Gris stands out far more.
Best Port or Remake: Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition
This was actually a pretty competitive category with all of the Wii U games that have been ported to the Switch this year (and no, Smash Ultimate does not count as a port!). And while Hyrule Warriors may not necessarily be the best game overall out of the many ports released, I'm giving it a special mention for truly being the definitive version of the game: all of the DLC that has been released over the years and all of the features from the Wii U and 3DS versions combined into one game makes for a pretty fantastic experience at a great value. Even after playing for hours upon hours there's just a seemingly endless amount of content, and although it can feel a bit repetitive at times it's always fun to demolish groups of Bokoblins and Stalfos.
Best Roguelike Game: Dead Cells
Despite the growing resurgence of the Roguelike format, I'm often frustrated by the cycle of playing, dying, losing everything, and starting again from scratch, so it should be clear that I don't take an award like this lightly. Roguelikes distinguish themselves by focusing on the journey and not the destination, and that's something that Dead Cells does perfectly. There's a beautiful rhythm to the combat in this game, its speed, fluidity, and most importantly its variety which allows you to easily try new things playthrough after playthrough. You may not always reach the end boss, but it's always an exciting journey.
Best Game Starring the Grim Reaper: Flipping Death
Zoink Games returns to their roots with this spiritual sequel to Stick It to The Man, and it's just as bizarre, goofy, and absolutely charming. Flipping Death doesn't take itself seriously at all and the result is a hilarious game about the afterlife and the restless spirits that inhabit it. The writing is without a doubt the highlight of the experience—this is definitely the kind of game where you want to talk with everyone just to enjoy all of the dialogue—but in the midst of all of that oddball comedy the developers have crafted tons of unique and clever puzzles as well. With its exaggerated and cartoonish graphics and voice acting, Flipping Death is the definition of quirky, and it's also a must-play this year.
The Award for Most Complicated Title: YS VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
Seriously, at a glance this title looks like someone just mashed their keyboard for a bit then submitted it as a video game. But crazy title aside, YS VIII is a fine addition to the Switch's slowly growing collection of RPGs, one that offers a fast, fun combat system, a richly engaging environment to explore, and a story that balances out its cliché elements with a satisfying mystery. It's a decent blend of classic and modern RPG elements—appropriate for a franchise that has lasted over thirty years now.
Best Chicken-based Combat in a Game: Guacamelee! 2
For all of the addictive indie games released this year, there's only one that lets you seamlessly transition between a buff, masked luchador and a squawking, belt-wearing chicken. Guacamelee! 2 follows up the original game with an equally fantastic Metroidvania that combines addictive combo-friendly combat with tight, challenging platforming. If the game is perhaps too similar to the original, it can be forgiven simply because the gameplay formula is yet again so well polished, whether you're juggling enemy skeletons as a luchador or fluttering over hazardous pits as a chicken.
Best Sci-Fi Adventure: The Fall Part 2: Unbound
2014's The Fall was one of the best examples of classic, thoughtful sci-fi, because while plenty of games have sci-fi settings, few actually explore sci-fi themes, the ones that question the nature of society, reality, and intelligence in an increasingly technological world. It's not an easy topic to translate into an entertaining game, but developer Over the Moon has once again managed it with the second installment of The Fall. Unbound expands on the heady topics of the original and adds a lot more unique and challenging puzzle gameplay as well, though fans will once again have to endure a cliffhanger ending. The wait was worth it for part 2 though, and hopefully it won't be as long for part 3.
Best Nostalgia Trip: Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu & Eevee!
It was almost exactly twenty years ago that I pestered my mom to buy me a copy of Pokémon Red after my brother received Pokémon Blue for Christmas, sparking a childhood love of Pokémon that has admittedly waned over the years. Returning to Kanto in Let's Go, Pikachu! was still a time machine though, one that meticulously recreates a landmark game of my childhood with beautiful, adorable new graphics. Not all of the changes made to cater to Pokémon GO players are necessarily improvements but it's still pretty heartwarming to see all of my old Poké friends in charming HD, even for this trainer who gave up trying to catch 'em all a long time ago.
Most Culturally Unique Game: Mulaka
"Educational" isn't usually a well-regarded quality in a video game, and even that label isn't quite right for Mulaka, but still, the game offers a fascinating window on a Native American culture that few people would have heard about otherwise. In the same way that so many other games draw upon Greek mythology, Japanese folktales, etc., Mulaka draws from the stories of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico and builds a beautiful adventure game out of it. Some of the gameplay elements lack polish, but the overall journey is still compelling, and you're guaranteed to walk away with a new insight on a native Mexican people.
The "Looks Aren't Everything" Award: West of Loathing
If you only judged this game by its cover you probably wouldn't be impressed, but after a few minutes with West of Loathing you'd change your tune completely. This quirky, story-driven RPG absolutely delights in winking at the player, making fun of game mechanics tropes and generally just being as absurd as possible, and it's a genuinely hilarious ride while it lasts. That's something few games can truly boast: this is a comedy game through and through, and it works perfectly as one.
Game of the Year 2018: Octopath Traveler
Yes, I know this is my love of JRPGs shining through, but Octopath Traveler truly was an incredible experience on the Switch this year, one that beautifully plays off the nostalgia for SNES-era RPGs while also taking a chance on a unique system of eight characters with eight individual stories. Frankly, everything about this game is surprising, from its stylish HD-2D graphics to the fact that it's an exclusive third-party game for the Switch, but putting aside all of the quirky aspects of the game, Octopath Traveler is a fantastic RPG. It obeys the single most important rule of RPGs: make every battle interesting since otherwise exploration will just get tedious, and the game's shield-breaking and skill-boosting mechanics mean you always have to put a little thought into your attacks. The game also perfectly balances this with giving you the freedom to build whatever team you want to—with eight playable characters and twelve character classes there is a lot of room for variety and experimentation. Maybe some of the game's features get to be a little too quirky for some players, but it's refreshing to see a game take such an original direction with narrative, visuals, and combat mechanics, and most of all to see all of these aspects come together so well. Ultimately, just like the characters in its story, Octopath Traveler gathers disparate elements into a greater whole, one that takes players on a wonderfully unique and engaging RPG adventure.