This got out of hand.
For the past five or so years, I’ve kept a running list ranking my favorite games of the year. I add new games as I play them, idly tinker with it once every month or two, and sometimes make big swings when a game turns sour over time or I find myself returning to it more than I expected. It’s a fun exercise that sometimes shows up in content form here on Nintendo World Report. As 2021 comes to a close (my first with two kids), I’m accepting that there are more good games than I have time to play, so what follows will be a variety of lists: My Top 25, My Top Ports, and My Top 10 “Games I Wish I Played.”
Let’s start with ports...
Top 5 Switch Ports of 2021
I don’t have any nostalgia for NeoGeo Pocket or the fighting games that are everywhere on it, but I’m including this because the golf game is real fun. Also, from a less pithy place, I’m happy to be able to experience these games from a console that was never really attainable for me. I love seeing collections like this because it gives me a chance to experience games and platforms I never have been able to before.
Playing through Pokemon Shining Pearl makes it seem like developer ILCA had like four weeks to put together a remake. Before the crucial day-one patch, this game was a mess and even with bandages plastered on, it’s still janky. Crucially, that almost made it more nostalgic for me. I would prefer my Pokemon remakes be more ambitious than this, but Shining Pearl just felt achingly like I remembered it on Nintendo DS. The momentary hitch before you enter any battle is likely not intentional, but the fact that this seems to be put together with duct tape and a glue gun an hour before the project was due reminded me a lot of the memorable jank of the original Pokemon games. I devoured Pokemon Red and Blue as a kid not because they were smooth, bug-free experiences; but because they were deliriously fun in spite of how broken they were. This remake will not sit near the top of my favorite Pokemon games, but I loved it for the woebegone husk that it is.
Things I learned about the Castlevania GBA games:
- 1. Aria of Sorrow rocks
- 2. Circle of the Moon is okay
- 3. Harmony of Dissonance is not
- 4. Making the music not tinny GBA garbage was a great call
- 5. I appreciate the few gaming soul embers at Konami makes these collections happen.
- 6. DS games next, please
I adored Skyward Sword when it came out on Wii. I still stand by my 10/10 score. It was a masterclass in Wii design and has a lot of genuinely superb moments. 10 years can tweak your perspective a lot though and I was surprised to find that playing Skyward Sword HD - for the first time since 2011 - didn’t really alter my opinion of the game at all. I’m a harsher critic than I was in my youth so it wasn’t a slam-dunk 10/10, but from a personal level, this game still rocks and the changes they made for the Switch version with button controls, visuals, and design cleanup here and there just solidified a memorable experience for me. Also it’s another opportunity to geek out at how fascinating the trajectory and evolution of 3D Zelda games has been. And after Breath of the Wild, it was nice to be reminded that that team can make some killer, epic dungeons.
1. Tony Haw....um Tetris Effect Connected
There’s an alternate timeline where I had to wrestle with whether or not to cover Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 HD on Switch because of the horrific allegations of workplace abuse at Activision Blizzard. I reviewed the game unaware of the depths of the horror that was going on at that company. If I had to go back to it, I just wouldn’t have covered it, which is an easy thing to say in hindsight but that’s also what we as a website did with Diablo II on Switch post-allegations so I think someone would be around to make sure I didn’t get soft for my fave skateboarding series. Either way, my review of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 HD is out there if you want to know why this would have been my top port of 2021. Or you can just ignore it and go check out Tetris Effect Connected, which is a really excellent game with a Switch port that had a lot of thought and care put into it. And I’ve got my fingers crossed that there are no skeletons in the closet for the developer.
Top 25 Games of 2021
I’ll cut out the pretense and just get to it. Here’s my top 25 games of 2021. I had a second kid in June and spent a lot of the year in some state of anxiety, so the amount of games I played is probably overall down from past years. Also the fact my 3-year-old has an interest in games means he has some say in what we play. It’s usually old games. Or Mario stuff. Let that be your bias guide. (Note: all games are played on Switch unless otherwise noted)
Call it recency bias or whatever, but the new Big Brain Academy is really chill. Since finishing my review, I’ve gone back to it more than I expected, messing around with the mini-games and the online play. As my kids get older, I can see breaking this one out for local multiplayer. Maybe it’s overpriced at its initial $30 asking price, but this is a cute little thing.
First of many disclosures: friend of the site Syrenne McNulty worked on this game. Also it’s a brain-bending puzzle where you combine elements from the periodic table. I have retained nothing from chemistry classes, but this is still a very enjoyable and challenging collection of puzzles.
Mario Golf sneaks onto my list mainly because I just kept playing it. At launch, this was one of my most disappointing games in recent memory (WarioWare: Get It Together helped pull it back from being the most disappointing game for me in recent memory), but that’s largely because the single-player adventure is terrible and the controls and mechanics were starkly different from the veritable perfection of old Mario Golf games. Then something happened: I found joy in the new mechanics. I don’t think it’s 100% what I want out of a golf game, but it suited the experience of Super Rush well. Also playable Chargin’ Chuck rules, my 3-year-old son loved messing with the game, and the three free post-launch updates filled out the initially stark selection of courses.
Northplay is a developer that I believe doesn’t get enough credit or notoriety. Their 2018 release Conduct Together is an electric and maddening arcadey train management game that felt like Flight Control but for trains. In 2021, they went and made Flight Control for planes, which is, well, just basically Flight Control. But there’s a style Fly Together employs that is deliriously goofy. From the moment you hear the silly vocals of the theme song to the first time you play with the pointer controls in multiplayer, Fly Together is wildly fun. I just wish it didn’t come out during COVID because eight-player multiplayer sounds wonderful.
21. Hatsune Miku Logic Paint S
I feel like a Picross game has to make my list every year and while I dug the Sega Picross game from the OGs at Jupiter, the Hatsune Miku Picross game is an unheralded marvel. When I played it, it was a little janky and buggy, but it combined a lot of the modern niceties (such as automatically filling in rows when completed) into a pleasant package. I have no real affinity for Hatsune Miku, but this stole dozens of hours of my life away.
I wasn’t as blown away by Spelunky 2 as I was the original, but it’s a fantastic sequel to one of the most brilliantly designed indie games. Seeing all the meta twists and turns is super cool and while I don’t expect to see every element of it because I’m mediocre at the game and lack the time to invest in getting better, it keeps up the magic of the original by still being very fun even in continual death.
19. Cosmic Express
The second Syrenne McNulty disclosure callout of this list (and not the last!) is for Cosmic Express, another diabolical puzzle game where you try to lay down tracks in a way to pick up passengers and drop them off while not overlapping and also reaching the exit. The difficulty picks up quickly, but once you start speaking the puzzle language, you have a remarkable amount of flexibility of what direction to go into. When you’re stuck on one puzzle, you can just bounce to another.
Guys - they made Journey but it’s free to play. Yes, that means there are some caveats and maybe it’s a little less magical when you are pushed to buy some cosmetics and junk, but it’s still a free-to-play Journey. Check it out!
17. Mario Party Superstars
I was skeptical of Mario Party Superstars at first and maybe repackaged HD nostalgia for full-price is worth digging into further but for now, I’ll just relish the fact that this is the first Mario Party in more than a decade that I just enjoyed without caveats. Some of that is because I played it with my kid, but also the fact that this removes most of the game gimmicks and just trots out classic Nintendo 64-era boards means it’s a no-nonsense party. Or at least a no-nonsense as a random, frustrating, dopey-ass hootenanny can be. Also I think I’m over motion minigames in Mario Party. Just do buttons from now on.
16. Clap Hanz Golf (played on iPad)
My Apple Arcade affair ended after Fantasian came out, but Clap Hanz Golf was one of the more delightful surprises to come out of it. Made by the company behind Sony’s Hot Shots Golf/Everybody’s Golf series, Clap Hanz Golf is the straightforward arcade golf game I wanted initially from Mario Golf Super Rush. The controls are a little different because it’s on iPhones and iPads, but it works very similar to the tried-and-true three-click methods of the past. Also the progression for the single-player is great.
I’ll be real: I played Cyber Shadow so long ago that I had to go back and re-read my review to remember how I felt about it. So, let’s cut out the middleman. Cyber Shadow does a great job of harkening back to old NES action platformers, and when it came out, I said this: “Through it all, Cyber Shadow knows why people have fond memories of NES-era action platformers, whether it’s the thoughtful level layouts, unforgettable boss battles, or eye-catching visual embellishments. This is not a game for the faint of heart, but more for the persistent. I came away from this retro romp satisfied, primarily because it harkens back to the classics while still carving out a distinctive game that rightfully deserves to enter the pantheon of stellar 2D ninja games that includes the likes of Ninja Gaiden and The Messenger.” (Note: I used “harken back” in this write-up before realizing I used the same phrasing in my review. At least I’m consistent?)
14. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
This is a slight cheat to my personal rule of “only count games I played for the first time in the year” for my list. I technically played an hour or two of Alba on iPad in 2020, but I played much more after it came to Switch. This is a charming and delightful open-world exploration game that feels kind of like if Breath of the Wild was a game about environmental preservation in the real world as opposed to navigating the wilds of a post-apocalyptic fantasy realm. It’s incredibly fun and playful and also probably the best open-world game for kids I’ve ever seen.
13. A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build
The third (but not final) disclosure that friend of the site Syrenne McNulty worked on this game on my list. A Good Snowman is a joyous puzzle game where you have to go from room to room rolling snowballs in such a way that you make snowpeople. You can hug the snowpeople after you make them. They all have names. Sometimes there are two snowpeople. It’s incredible. Also, after you make all the snowpeople, there’s even more game hidden away. It rules.
12. Fantasian (played on iPad)
I have not finished Fantasian, but still my time with Fantasian is worthy of placing it this high on the list because from what I’ve played, it’s what I wish JRPGs have evolved into. From Final Fantasy creator Hironobou Sakaguchi, this is a vintage turn-based RPG with multiple party members, level ups, skill trees, and strategic magic attacks. It also introduces things like the Dimengeon, where you can send random encounters in a world into a different realm so you don’t have to be constantly interrupted while exploring. And then you take on all of the banked battles at once for bonuses and crazy fights. Also the world is made up of real life dioramas and it’s visually astounding. Man, I should find time to finish Fantasian.
A recent addition to the list after I played through it on Switch, Loop Hero is so smart and clever. It takes the loop of a roguelike and turns it into an idle clicker in a way that is still extremely engaging and rewarding. It’s more like a roguelike management sim than it is an actual RPG as you’re just watching numbers rise and fall as you try to survive another loop and get more resources to upgrade your town.
10. Actraiser Renaissance
During the Nintendo Direct when this was revealed, I immediately shriveled up and died when I saw the look of this remake of an all-timer Super Nintendo game. It looked terrible. Nevertheless, I dove in and played through it and it turns out that the visuals were the only thing about the game I didn’t like (and even they grew on me over time). The dynamic fusion of light SimCity elements and middling action platformer combat that worked so well in the original is deliciously present here with some modern enhancements. The SimCity stuff gets a little more tower defense-y, but not in a way that sucks like Sol Seraph. Instead, the nagging little imperfections of Renaissance feel like the original game. It’s not perfect, but it’s the right balance of unique ideas and electrically amazing Yuzo Koshiro music to be enjoyable from start to finish.
Dungeon Encounters was announced almost in silence weeks before its release but it might be my favorite thing to come out of Square Enix this year. It reminds me of Etrian Odyssey, which is always a good thing, but best of all it’s just pure turn-based RPG battling delight. Directed by Final Fantasy luminary Hiroyuki Ito, this is a dungeon crawling game that takes place on a gridded map. You run into battles and events that are all numbered and can basically be plotted out in advance. The overall abstraction works so well because of how compelling the battling, the exploring, the loot accumulation, and challenge is. This is an RPG that makes you solve a puzzle for hidden treasure that’s a numerical logic puzzle multiple times. It’s not for everyone, but it sure as hell is for me.
Overboard oozes style, with its lavish visuals, immaculate hook, and multi-threaded narrative. You control a woman on a cruise ship who just pushed her husband overboard and you have to work your through the ship talking with the others on the boat to clear your name, frame someone else for the murder, and get away without anyone the wiser. You do this by exploring different narrative threads and finding out secrets about everyone on the boat. Aided by a hint progression system that points you in the right direction, this just flows gloriously from start to finish.
7. A Monster’s Expedition
The final game I need to caveat by saying that Syrenne McNulty is a friend of NWR and thus I’m technically compromised but like whatever A Monster’s Expedition rules regardless of who I know. This is a gorgeous, thoughtful game where you go from island to island, solving puzzles in an expansive world that keeps iterating and evolving as you progress. I was stumped many times, but part of the joy of this game is that sense of challenge that erodes as you learn the lay of the land. On top of the raw puzzle mechanics is a charming narrative conceit of a monster exploring human trinkets as if it were a museum made by monsters.
Listeners of the NWR podcast Connectivity have heard me wrestle with what I termed “the Atlus Line” - a concept where I’ve realized I’m having difficulty grappling with the fact I like a lot of Atlus games but am regularly turned off by some questionable content or subject matter. Just go read anything critical about the game Catherine for examples. I was worried about Shin Megami Tensei V for that reason. Would the content in Shin Megami Tensei V overwhelm my appreciation of the demon-negotiating and hard-as-nails battles? Well, it’s in my Top 10 for the year so clearly it didn’t. The latest in the long-running series retains everything I enjoyed about the 3DS entries while also expanding on in largely good open world areas and a flexible difficulty system (and one of the better introductory tutorials in the whole series). Time will tell if this is truly the breakthrough for the MegaTen side of the Atlus coin, but I walked away from this one thoroughly content.
One of the later additions to this list, Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon is an electric combination of puzzle game and roguelike elements. It’s hard to wrap your head around at first, but once you start learning the ebb and flow of moving around the Wario’s Woods-y screen, it’s easy to get lost in runs. You start off as Shovel Knight, but just playing the game will net you many more playable characters that all have unique skills that can totally change how you approach levels. This is just such a finely tuned puzzle game that adds so much through secrets, alternate routes, and wildly different characters. I look forward to what the DLC brings.
Dodgeball is cool. I always dug the Kunio-kun dodgeball games over the years. I also like whimsical RPGs. Dodgeball Academia fuses the two together as dodgeball becomes your primary battle system is a school-based RPG that is pure joy from start to finish. This was a game I didn’t know even existed three months before it came out and it wound up being one of the sincerest delights of the year.
I was on board for the first Axiom Verge once it seemed like a loving ode to vintage Metroid, but underneath the grungy pixels was a multi-faceted throwback to a plethora of NES-era games (my elevator pitch has been Metroid mixed with Contra) tossed in with some truly novel additions and twists. When Axiom Verge 2 was announced and looked so wildly different in execution, it immediately became one of my most anticipated games. I was struck by how fundamentally different the sequel was, as it tosses out the combat-heavy boss battle focus of the original and makes it all about exploration and discovery. Guns were your weapon of choice in the first game, but melee was the combat du jour for the sequel. Where it wasn’t different from its predecessor is how it still took familiar tropes and mechanics and joyously twisted them in a way that made you take old gameplay tools and use them in thrilling new ways. I know Axiom Verge 3 will probably take another 5 or so years to show up, but I can’t wait, especially if it carries forth the fusion of creativity and retro appeal.
I dug Super Mario 3D World on Wii U, but shortly after it came out, I sorted it out as one of my lower-tiered Mario games. So when the Switch port was announced, I filed it away as a thing I’d play with my child (since the multiplayer is great) but didn’t think I’d go that wild over it. Then Nintendo revealed Bowser’s Fury - the substantial piece of new content added to this game. Bowser’s Fury is maybe my favorite 3D Mario game as it’s a focused, 5-ish hour adventure with playfulness, creativity, and challenge. The way the developers took the feel of 3D World and turned it into a more traditional 3D Mario is incredible. It’s just a joy to play in that world, whether it’s climbing around as Cat Mario or riding the seas on Plessie’s back. Thanks to my kid, I’ve replayed chunks of Bowser’s Fury numerous times in 2021 and I’m nowhere near close to tired of it. The unexpected effect of all this is I honestly think 3D World might be one of the best Mario games now. Call it Stockholm Syndrome because of living with a kid who loves “kitty Mario” during the pandemic or whatever, but 3D World is incredible. What a comeback after I found faults in every 3D Mario when replaying them in 2020. I can’t wait to see what the next 3D Mario game is.
Metroid Dread exists and it lived up to every impossible expectation for me. I already had a good feeling about how it would feel after loving how Mercury Steam made Samus control in Samus Returns, but I had my reservations as to the labyrinthian map and new additions like the E.M.M.I. robots. All of that washed away as the robots brought the titular dread when you went into any of their sparsely sounding lairs and the map criss-crossed in a natural way that also allowed for plenty of exploration and sequence breaking, but also rarely left you totally stranded. There’s also some big picture stuff in the limited but effective plot that landed very well for me. While I hope this isn’t the last of Samus’ 2D adventures, I felt a great sense of closure to the overall saga that started on NES. I feel like I don’t have much more to say about this aside from muttering “they actually freaking did it” over and over again as I cross my fingers and hope I feel the same way about Metroid Prime 4 when it comes out in 2025.
Top 10 Games I Wish I Played in 2021
To wrap this up, here’s a list of the 10 games I wished I had time to play. I usually have the ability to do some year-end clean-up for my top games list, or at least don’t miss as many throughout the year. That, uh, did not happen for me in 2021 for a variety of reasons so I’ve reached a point where my list of games that came out in 2021 I want to play is dauntingly long. I had to make cuts to fit in just 10 because it was starting to get out of hand.
Klei makes very good video games, like Invisible Inc. and Mark of the Ninja (both also on Switch), and the way this deckbuilding roguelike makes encounters out of conversations as well as combat seemed fascinating. I recently picked this up during a Black Friday sale, but as you’ll notice is a trend on this list, I have not even booted it up.
I appreciate Monster Hunter a lot and have gotten into approximately two of them (Monster Hunter Tri on Wii and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate on 3DS). I enjoyed what I played of Rise when I played the demo but just knew dedicating 40 bajillion hours to this game wasn’t in the cards for me as I was about to welcome a second child into the world. Still, it’s there. Waiting for me. Demanding I grind out new armor sets and play all the cute Capcom DLC crap.
I played the first case of The Great Ace Attorney and loved it. That’s it. I have no other excuse. This game seems rad. It’s just a lot of game and it’s intimidating.
Another Black Friday purchase, I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about this adorable black-and-white photography adventure. This might be the candidate for game I should have just sat down for a day and played.
Speaking of photography games, here’s one that’s less chill than Toem but has every bit of the great reputation. Maybe someday...
Listen TWEWY stans, I did my part. I bought this damn thing when it came out. The physical copy is currently unwrapped next to my other Switch games.
4. The Gunk
I hold no guilt over not playing The Gunk since it came out less than two weeks before I wrote this, but I still really want to play it.
3. Beast Breaker
Beast Breaker unfortunately came out the same day as a Nintendo Direct. I feel bad for the fine unionized folks at Vodeo Games, and as such, I super bought this game and then, uh, turned it on once. Listen, it’s been a rough year. Also full disclosure: friend of the site Syrenne McNulty worked on this game.
2. The Wild at Heart
I played an hour or so of The Wild at Heart on Xbox when it came out earlier in the year there, but never played further, through no fault of the game. It’s a 2D adventure game that has major Pikmin vibes and low-key Luigi’s Mansion vibes. I should get back to this one.
The Indie World shadowdrop to close out the year was also the next game from the developer of Wandersong - an unsung masterpiece that’s also available on Switch. I gleefully played a demo of this at the last gaming convention in normal times (PAX East 2020) and was hoping it would come to Switch eventually. It came out on PlayStation and PC earlier this year and the response was immaculate. I’m thrilled this is now out on Switch so I can play it sometime soon. Everything I’ve heard is that it should live up to the hype.