Zam's Top Games of 2017
Zam's grown a lot in the two years since its relaunch. From an unknown site to a... well, slightly less unknown site, but one which features a lot of awesome writers, we're proud to cap off 2017 by bringing you only the most artisanal, hand-picked videogame opinions. Alphabetically, of course!
Our writers' Game of the Year picks run the gamut from best-selling blockbusters to free text adventures. You'll see a few obvious trends, but the surprises are even more revealing. 2017 was a year of anxiety and major upheaval for many people, but it was also a year in which many of us discovered -- and found a way to articulate -- a heretofore unknown well of perseverence inside ourselves. Also Puyo Puyo Tetris.
You won't be missed, 2017, but we'll be talking about your games for years to come.
Cat Sorter VR
Kris Ligman: I admit some bias for this one. I was on the jury committee that selected Cat Sorter as one of IndieCade's 2017 award nominees, and yes, I cast one of the votes that would lead to it winning the Aesthetic Award. The game is pure, concentrated joy. Every interaction from manhandling the poor mutant animals to popping new appendages in place to flinging them into distant chutes is an act of unrestrained whimsy. VR is still a largely unproven technology, and certainly Cat Sorter is more a novelty and party game than the kind of thing that is going to redefine the industry, but this is another part of why it works so well: it knows exactly what it is and has no pretensions of being anything else. Also, I like cats.
Jamie Geist: If I could, I would likely pick Cave Story as my game of the year, every year. This year, I have the excuse to do so, with its re-release on the Nintendo Switch. In addition to Cave Story’s timeless gameplay, memorable characters and unforgettable soundtrack, this release includes a new co-op mode, never before seen in the game. Now I have an opportunity to make Cave Story someone else’s Game of the Year, every year!
Willie Clark: Cuphead has been a long time coming, but the end result really worked. It managed to break into my personal “Favorite Games of All Time” list this year, and I’ve already been scooping up Cuphead merchandise left and right. Of course, Cuphead isn’t for everybody, but if you can get into it for the animation and jazzy soundtrack -- and then stick around for the challenging gameplay -- you’ll find a game worth going back to over and over again, no matter how many times it kills you.
Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony
Steven Strom: Danganronpa V3 has stuck with me a lot more than I expected. The Phoenix Wright-like visual novel about teens murdering each other is a lot like its predecessors. So it drags in the middle, as you uncover clues to solve each new murder and watch the culprits be executed in Danganronpa’s classic, hyper-kinetic fashion, just as you’ve always done. Get through that, though, and you’ll reach one of the most expectations-shattering endings in videogames: a direct message from the developers that’s equal parts sad, hilarious, and puckishly infuriating after spending 30 hours on the game. Put another way, it’s everything Danganronpa always is.
Eron Rauch: Like the hazy mutability of a dream, Everything doesn’t simulate every discrete thing, but instead to gives you a vertiginous, poetic simulator of everything-ness. I know that sounds like some New Age platitude, but this is the exact kind of scale-swapping koan that the game hands its players joyfully and without stuffiness. Everything is a game that simultaneously relishes in the pleasures of simple formal resonances (how the splendidly rendered sushi, holograms, and moons all share the same spiral motions!) while also reveling in a maximalist kaleidoscopic bounty that would make a Dutch still-life painter blush. In a world insistent on efficiency and accumulation, on trying to bullishly solve problems and be brutally decisive, Everything is radical precisely because it is a lyrical reminder to about the value of contemplation and the long arc of time.
Everything is going to be OK
Eron Rauch: EIGTBO ignites a tragicomic blaze from the tinder of art-damaged zines, Geocities-era web design, surreal cartoon animal violence, LiveJournal blogging, and the overly-chipper but bone-chilling drone of all those platitudes we are expected to partake in like a numbing sacrament. While it rightly deserves the praise it’s been given for how its use of Herzfeldian dark comedy to cast an unwavering stare at the brutal ways society represses depression, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, and difference (especially in regards to women), it was the textural richness of the experience which transformed its elements into one of the most complex experience I had with a videogame this year.
Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood
Steven Strom: Final Fantasy XIV's ostensibly single-player story is a years-spanning saga that’s leagues beyond even the series’ best traditional tales. Its latest expansion, Stormblood, builds on that foundation with an intercontinental political thriller, where the player reignites the spark of rebellion against an omnipresent empire. Of course, this all manifests in XIV’s signature cooperative puzzles -- split between demanding dungeons and puzzling “Trial” bosses -- that test the limits of what’s possible in cooldown-based combat. All that, plus fascinating new character classes and much-needed updates to old ones, make the best MMO on the market that much better.
Brock Wilbur: I've never been into roguelikes, so imagine my surprise when the tale of a Fluff Ghost (?) with a time-traveling belt and a Bubble Gun became one of my most-played titles of 2017. You jump between Space Pirate Ships and plunder for gold while balancing the complications of elaborate trap-rooms, boss fights, and bizarre power-up collection systems. Using the titular flinthook to traverse puzzles feels as rewarding as jumping in Thomas Was Alone. The grinding for game altering elements yields a delightful back and forth between feeling entirely overpowered and suddenly being put in your place. Hard. And the chip-tune soundtrack is as delightful as the art style, making this game a must-play.
Brock Wilbur: Hello Neighbor may not be the greatest game of the year, but it is a memorable experience on every level. Even the game's development cycle creates a narrative that makes being a dedicated fan into a rewarding experience. Just the excitement of wondering where this game goes in the next year is enough for me to recommend it now. But be aware that if adventure game logic isn't your thing, this will leave you frustrated right out of the gate. Which is a shame, because the experience is as rewarding as it ethereal.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Kate Cox: I'll be honest: 2017 has been an incredibly hard year for me (as it was for almost everyone). I spent most of it re-playing old comfort-food classics, instead of exploring the new. But in the midst of my Dragon Age and Civ marathons, there shined a beacon. Horizon Zero Dawn takes the best mechanical parts from other series I've loved and remixes them into something incredibly smooth and satisfying. It borrows its sense of 3D exploration from Assassin’s Creed, its sense of people and how to converse with them from Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and its sense of how to learn what happened before the Fall – and how to pick up again afterward – from Fallout. And then it mixes them all together, and becomes something more than the sum of its parts: a genuinely diverse, completely fascinating world to explore, full of challenging questions about what it means to be human and how society works… and robot dinosaurs.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
James O'Connor: Usually a safe, mega-budget AAA title is a boring pick for ‘game of the year’, but there’s nothing boring about Breath of the Wild. I’ve never played a game that felt more dedicated to keeping me entertained and interested – this iteration of Hyrule is impossible to get bored in. I’m taken aback by my own fervour whenever I think about it. It’s truly magnificent.
Devin Raposo: On paper, NieR: Automata probably shouldn’t have worked. But Automata’s unconventional and sometimes rough veneer make slightly opaque a game experience which I’ve come to return to in my mind the most throughout 2017. Its score burrowed its way into my emotional subconscious.
Natalie Flores: Perhaps the best way to summarize NieR: Automata is to say that it is surprising. It’s an intricate and bold story that doesn’t hesitate to go places that, even by the end of the game, managed to still leave me astonished. It has android and machine characters that shocked me with a complexity and humanity that surpasses that of some human videogame characters. Its grace in weaving a variety of distinct gameplay styles is astounding to both watch and play, and its soundtrack still amazes me with how each track in it is as beautiful and memorable as the one before it.
Night in the Woods
Natalie Flores: Night in the Woods tackles its themes with relentless honesty yet an equal degree of empathy. It explores how utterly soul-crushing capitalism is for the lower classes; how a lack of access to money and resources intersects with mental illness to create a dangerous cycle that tends to go unspoken of; how someone who grows up in a small town in which people can barely keep their heads above the water feels like they’re destined to drown. And yet, in the same breath, it explores how vital it is to hold onto the hope that lies in treasuring the small, unexceptional, yet significant things in life.
Raymond Porreca: At times it's silly; at others, it's poignant. But most importantly Night in the Woods always feels human. Sure, its cast is a bunch of wayward, anthropomorphic animals who spend their time breaking shit and having knife fights, but there's an authenticity to the way they interact with one another that's all too relatable. Night in the Woods eventually leans into supernatural ramblings towards its latter half, but the game's unflinching and raw portrayal of twentysomethings in a nowhere town hits home unlike anything else I've ever played. This one's for the punks and the weirdos.
Nate Ewert-Krocker: Night in the Woods got me where I live. Mae Borowski’s angst-ridden return to sleepy Possum Springs preceded my own move back to the Rust Belt by about six months, but Mae and I both dealt with some of the same worries: our future, our relationships to our parents and erstwhile companions, not to mention unspeakable cosmic horrors that threaten to devour all things. Night in the Woods captures both the desperation and the vitality that animate these run-down American towns; the paradox of cynicism and hope necessary to be a resident. I recognize the shuttered storefronts, the statues in the town square, the aimless walks through the woods in the evening, and especially the late-night donut binges. But more than any of those things, Night in the Woods hits home as a story about how young people have to deal with the sins of their elders; this year, there might be no theme more appropriate.
Oxygen Not Included
Laura Michet: I loved the hell out of Don't Starve -- during my busiest moments in 2016, it was the only game I played -- so I figured I would be a sucker for Klei's next survive-em-up. And I am! Oxygen Not Included is a 2D base-management survival game currently in Early Access, but it's already uniquely interesting and totally charming to play, just like Don't Starve was. Klei is absolutely doing Early Access better than almost any other company out there right now. Oxygen Not Included has a timer to the next update always running on its menu screen, and each update generally complicates the game in a fascinating way. I have lost hours to this game and I hope to continue losing hours to it in 2018!
Nate Ewert-Krocker: I like Persona 5 because it lets you stay in one place long enough for it to feel like home. When the game first plunks you, alone and friendless, into a dusty, bare room above a hole-in-the-wall cafe in bustling Tokyo, it’s alienating in the way that arriving in a strange city should be. When, 80 hours later, you’re staving off the apocalypse and battling deities in true JRPG tradition, you’re doing so surrounded by two dozen friends with whom you’ve shared hosts of mundane memories. Persona 5 has style to spare and a to-die-for soundtrack, but what sticks with me are a million little moments. In my head, I can still hear the jingle of Leblanc’s door as I return in the evening, the soft greeting I get from Sojiro, the mournful strains of the vocalist as I consider what I can accomplish before the calendar page turns yet again. Even after 80 hours, that’s still a place I find my heart yearning for.
Peter Amato: Derivative it may seem, Prey is an evolution of classic immersive sims. While the “-shock” games pit players against malevolent AI, mutants, and capitalism, Prey simply teaches them to fear their immediate environment. Any object in the interlocking halls of Talos 1 could be a matter-mimicking alien, encouraging one to smack every suspicious lamp or shoe. And as soon as they grab the GLOO gun and gain their own power to change shape, pathways and possible solutions morph in ways the genre hasn’t known. Prey might look like its Looking Glass-born older siblings (and boy does it reference them), but it carves out a space all its own, one that lets players fit into it in whichever copied shape they choose.
Puyo Puyo Tetris
Laura Michet: If you ever go to a bar with me, and I pull my Switch out of my backpack and say "hey, let's play some Puyo Puyo Tetris, then SAY NO -- unless you would like to be publically humiliated by me, the Puyo Puyo Genius. I can see through the matrix. I can squash you, just like a Tetris block squashes hundreds of garbage puyos every time I play Puyo Puyo Tetris, the killer app for 2017's killer device: the Switch, a.k.a. The Nintendo Portable Puyo Puyo Tetris Machine. Tremble in your God Damn Boots, motherfuckers. Puyo Puyo Tetris is fantastic and the Disco Fish guy whose name I forget (Karate Fish?? Who cares. That guy. You know who I mean, that fish) is cool and good and one day he is going to shake my hand and say "Good job. You did it. You finally found a multiplayer party game you can beat your friends at." And I will smile and look directly at the camera and say, "Yes, I did, I beat my friends at Puyo Puyo Tetris quite often. Thanks."
Reigns: Her Majesty
Sharang Biswas: Reigns: Her Majesty is a cynical metaphor for urban dating masquerading as a kingdom (queendom?) management simulator. And it’s entirely wonderful. The whole game consists of short, often bizarre, encounters with a string of weirdos. Are they vying for your attention or merely attempting to puff up their self-importance through you? It’s an endless cycle of trying to be the perfect I-don’t-even-know-what for someone, only to be found wanting again and again and again. But hey, the game lies in perseverance. Dead? Reincarnate, begin anew. You’re a sucker for punishment and there’s plenty more where that came from. Maybe you’ll have a happy ending this time? If not, rinse and repeat.
James O'Connor: Truthfully, I got to very few games in the second half of this year. Life took over and there’s a lot of stuff still on my ‘to play’ list, so RiME sneaks on in place of Edith Finch, Wolfenstein, Assassin’s Creed, and other games I’m sure I’ll like. RiME has stuck with me more than it did for a lot of other players, judging by the range of reactions, but that ending (no spoilers) really got under my skin.
Brandon Sheffield: Seedship was a lovely surprise for me this year. It’s a great example of what can be done with Twine, beyond visual novels and other narrative-based genres. You play as the AI in charge of guiding the last 1,000 human beings to their new home on a new planet. You make choices based on your limited resources, as you navigate space hazards, communicate with alien races, and try to find a place where your sleeping charges won’t instantly burn up. Your reward, if you succeed in choosing a planet: You get to see what kind of society your humans will create. My high score is “Egalitarian Industrial Republic.”
The Signal From Tölva
Raymond Porreca: The Signal From Tölva might just be 2017's best-kept secret. In a year where open-world games seemed bigger than ever, The Signal From Tölva took a different path. It's a lean, barren departure that favors exploration over shootouts by asking players to search an alien planet for a strange transmission by hijacking and controlling robots. Tölva's greatest strength is its emphasis on slow-burn storytelling; a game defined more by stunning, otherworldly landscapes and digital mysteries than character progression or upgrades. Though it's methodical at best and slow at its worst, The Signal From Tölva is an atmospheric treat for sci-fi sightseers.
Brandon Sheffield: Hi. I like Sonic. More specifically, I liked Sonic until the death of the Dreamcast. Everything that came after that just felt like it was a forced epic with bad jumps (Sonic 2006), or a nostalgia pander with bad jumps (Sonic 4), or a fandom pander with bad jumps (Sonic Forces). Sonic Mania recognizes what made the original Sonic games good, while also refining some of the rougher edges. Rather than going for a “movement gimmick,” the new move in Mania (the down dash) just feels like something you’d want to do anyway. Oh, and the jumps are good. And now I like Sonic again.
Super Mario Odyssey
Devin Raposo: Super Mario 64 and later Sunshine showed us that games could be more than fun playthings: they could be worlds brimming with secrets. They could be spaces to dip your toe into for a brief few minutes of mindless traversal to pass the time or they could consume you for hours in their loving grasp. Super Mario Odyssey leaps back to those halcyon days where a Mario game was more than just a linear platforming challenge, whilst also making strides in a wealth of zany new directions. It confidently shows the player seemingly boundless amounts of absurd mechanical and aesthetic ideas which all somehow cohere and then kicks each of them to the curb before they wear out at such a frequency it boggles the mind.
Willie Clark: Mario’s latest adventure is not only a phenomenal return to form for the go-to Nintendo mascot, it’s also the most fun I’ve had playing a game in recent memory. It’s not perfect, but it is a pure joy to play and manages to revive a genre that was nearly dead for a new generation of players. It’s a shot of happiness right into the veins. Mario games may come out quite often, but they aren’t always this damn good.
Cole Tomashot: Without a doubt my favorite game of the year. There is an addicting sense of joy that radiates from the worlds and characters of Mario Odyssey that I feel has been lacking in recent 3D Mario releases. I am someone who very rarely completes 100% of a game, so the biggest compliment that I can give to Odyssey is that it has managed to hold my attention well after the credits and that I fully intend to collect every moon in the game. Even with fantastic games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also available on the Nintendo Switch, Mario Odyssey is still the best game to be released for the console.
Uncharted: Lost Legacy
Peter Amato: Sorry, Uncharted diehards: Nathan Drake was boring. And as the emotional scope of the franchise grew, so did it outgrow Nate. A Thief’s End may have deconstructed the original trilogy's pulpy shallowness, but Naughty Dog could only do much with the limited fallout of those by-the-book adventures. Enter Uncharted: Lost Legacy. This shorter adventure brings a new emotional resonance by way of the returning Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross, elevating the franchise to a place that it would be a shame to never return here.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
Cole Tomashot: Despite the issues I have with the game’s terrible sequence and gameplay, there are fantastic moments, settings, and characters that have stuck with me more than any other game in recent memory. The America presented in Wolfenstein 2 feels uncomfortably plausible because it draws from real American history and ideas. The poem alluded to in the game's subtitle gets at the heart of American ideals also represented through its diverse cast. Wolfenstein 2 emphasizes not just the dangers of complacency but also the value of resistance, by connecting it to the very real evils of our world.
Kris Ligman: Yakuza 0 is the first game to feature a story that had me go "hey, this is actually pretty well-written." I don't say that lightly: even the games generally held up as examples of "mature storytelling" consistently fall flat for me, but this? It's the kind of story for which "cinematic" and "literary" might actually apply for once. A portrait of late 1980s Japan on the verge of intertwined economic and existential crises, Yakuza 0 is as full of cheap gags about early cell phones as it is a bracing look at how to survive -- and stay true to yourself -- in a moral vacuum. It's not without its failings, but it builds evenly and shows its work. It has complex characters full of pathos and multilayered suffering. Fuck, it has internally consistent metaphors. What I am saying is: If I could trade all the big-budget, blockbuster games in existence for more like Yakuza 0, I would do it in a heartbeat.
There are many more games than these that we could've mentioned. 2017 showed us a diversity of stories and design philosophies, all of them too big to fit into any site's GOTY list.
What does the year ahead have in store for us? The news probably won't be any happier, but at least (until further notice) it will have people in it making great things, including plenty of games. Perhaps you will like some of them. Perhaps there are some you will not like as much. As the wise sage Katrina says in Animal Crossing: New Leaf: "Remember that bad times... are just times that are bad."
We'll see you in 2018!