For your consideration, Retronauts presents our favorite video games of 2018
Because we cared enough to celebrate the very best
2018 may have been a bad year for life itself on our planet but the creative output in the video game sector was sensational. We asked our staff of writers to pick two games they wanted to hold aloft as their personal favorites of the year with one condition: the games had to at least be reminiscent of older games (this is Retronauts, after all). So if you wanted a GOTY list that excludes all mentions of cowboys, battle royales, and web-slingers, you have come to the right website.
Please note that this list is unranked and is arranged in ascending order of title length.
Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Steam
It's not your imagination: 2018 was drowning in indie Metroidvanias, so much so that writers began speculating that we had "too many," an absolute fallacy. Case in point: Chasm debuted this summer and it's a Metroidvania you can play and replay forever but never get the same map twice thanks to procedural generation. With a variety of weapons and subweapons at your disposal, Chasm purposely channels the best Castlevania feelings in its combat (yes, there are whips, boomerangs, and even a sword familiar!) along with that series' reputation for detailed sprite art. Better still, Chasm sees Castlevania's attack options and raises them by making nearly all the upgrades improve your character's mobility. By the end I was bouncing off walls and gliding over enemies' heads to stab them in the back. Forget the apocalypse; those doomsday cultists should have seen me coming. - Feit
Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Steam
I’ve died hundreds of times playing Celeste. I’ll probably die thousands more before I’m done. Intense difficulty isn’t a new feature, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game that uses challenge to encourage play quite the same way this one does. Everything about Celeste apart from its punishing platforming feels like a warm mug of cocoa on a cold day, from the chill, pulsing soundtrack to the story (a literally dreamy exploration of anxiety and self-doubt) to the low-fi graphics; that, combined with the low penalty for failure, reinforces the theme of self-discovery through struggle without ever feeling like a chore. - Zack Handlen
One of the frustrations that comes with a genre that mainstream hegemony sees as "solved" is having to politely talk around the constant stream of presumptuous dilettantes who want to turn said genre on its head without ever playing or understanding anything that matters. At a glance, ZeroRanger, released this year after almost a decade of development under the name FINALBOSS, could be mistaken for one such game: it's an arcade-style shooting game that homages other shooting games to the point of absurdity, and the "twists" towards the back end of the game, such as they are, could wrongly be interpreted as a cynical rush to graft an Undertale-esque deconstruction to a supposedly unclaimed format. After playing for a little while, it became apparent that ZeroRanger's narrative trappings weren't an attempt to smother the player with cleverness so much as they were designed to guide novice players towards the correct path to enjoying arcade-style games and to wean them away from the bad habits that often ruin these games for newcomers — an admirable goal for any game, and one I've borne witness to in showing this game to other people. It's also an extremely solid game besides, and let none of us pretend we're above a ChoRenSha reference, alright? (Unfortunately, it really doesn't screenshot well, but rest assured: if you don't like the default green-and-orange color scheme, there are alternate palettes including colorblind-tested palettes that are available right off the bat.) - GSK
Nintendo Switch, Steam
Retro-styled indie games biting off the mechanics and look of beloved classics are not only nothing new or novel in 2018, they've actually become tiresome and trite. Even so, there's room in our hearts for the few that manage to bring something new to the format, and Sabotage's The Messenger deserves to sit right at the head of the table with the likes of Shovel Knight. Conspicuously patterned after the NES Ninja Gaiden trilogy, Sabotage's debut release captures and improves on their lithe, nimble feel through spot-on controls and a steadily growing array of skills that allow its protagonist to perform feats Ryu Hayabusa could never have imagined. What really sets it apart, however, is the mid-game twist in which you (spoiler!) travel forward through time into a 16-bit version of the world that turns what initially appeared to be a series of athletic linear stages into something akin to a metroidvania adventure... then allows you to turn back time again in order to strip away the upgraded graphical patina to reveal secrets and passages. In a field dominated by one-trick ponies, The Messenger shows off a full routine and nails every move. - Jeremy Parish
FIGHTING EX LAYER
Arcade, PS4, Steam
In a year of especially peculiar fighting game crossovers and revivals, Fighting EX Layer stands out as the most remarkable; a literal April Fools' Day joke turned hail mary project by the veteran indie studio Arika, FEXL reunited the offsiders from the mothballed gaiden series Street Fighter EX in a new, standalone 2.5D fighting game that takes the EX series' DNA, dated animations and all, and infuses them with a much-needed touch of speed, an optional easy-input control scheme and a new-millennium "gougi" systems that lets players choose between pre-set decks of character traits that gradually unlock over the course of a game, allowing for constantly-evolving matches and giving enterprising players plenty of fun little mechanics to string together in a manner that's arguably more expressive and authentic to the feel of classic fighting games than the name-brand Street Fighter that's currently on the market. If the current fighting game scene is a smorgasbord, FEXL's home cookin'. - GSK
Sonic Mania Plus
Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Sonic Mania was a slavish recreation of Sonic the Hedgehog's glory years, and Sonic Mania Plus is the same thing with knobs on. The refreshingly inexpensive DLC added a new Encore mode, remixing the aesthetics of the existing 13 zones and offering a handful of changes, as well as including two extra playable characters - Ray the Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo from the 1993 trackball-based arcade obscure-'em-up, Segasonic the Hedgehog.
This ridiculously deep cut rather effectively summarises the problem with Sonic Mania, which is that its going concern seems to be making players go "ooh, that's that thing from that thing", rather than crafting a distinctive experience that's memorable on its own back, rather than coasting in the slipstream of the series' criticism-immune Mega Drive heyday. Of course, it's an excellent play - that's why it's in this article, but I can't help but wonder what could have been if they'd just had the freedom to make a truly new game. - Stuart Gipp
Never Stop Sneakin'
Nintendo Switch, Steam, iOS
I have a personal problem: I love video games but I'm not good at video games, which means a lot of indie games (including a few on this very list) deserved my full attention only to raise the stakes to the point that I had no choice but to quit. Never Stop Sneakin' by comparison became my ultimate chill-out game by letting me indulge in a high-speed stealth adventure where I never lost control or felt overwhelmed - at least, when I wasn't laughing at the twists and turns of the absurd plot which I assume is only half as ridiculous as the Metal Gear Solid games it sends up. Procedural generation means each infiltration is slightly different than the last and dozens of player/weapon model choices means you can be an attack helicopter wielding a pair of bananas stealing secret plans to a time machine to rescue every President of the United States ever (even the bad ones) if you really want to. - Feit
It’s a simple (if convoluted) premise: with a magical watch that lets you view snapshots of death, discover the fates of the crew of incredibly unlucky Obra Dinn. The genius of Return is how thoroughly it explores that premise without ever wearing out its welcome, sticking to a limited set of mechanics in order to tell its story. Combined with a graphic design that mimics computer visuals from the early ‘90s, the whole thing made me feel like I was sitting in computer lab in high school, stealing time from learning BASIC so I could figure out just who did what to whom, and why. - Zack Handlen
428: Shibuya Scramble
Rather than simply imitating an old game like the rest of this list, 428: Shibuya Scramble actually is retro by the Retronauts 10-year rule. Having debuted for the Japanese Wii in 2008, 428 made its way west for the first time this year so American and European audiences could finally see for themselves why this text- and still-image-driven adventure scored one of Weekly Famitsu magazine's rare and coveted perfect scores. A complex crime and mystery caper, 428 weaves its story out of the seemingly unrelated (and frequently incidental) lives of half a dozen Tokyo residents. By rewinding the day's events or leaping back and forth across characters' timelines, players gradually unravel a dire plot with grave implications for the world. But all the complexity in the world wouldn't matter if the story itself weren't worth telling. Thankfully, 428 works in large part because of its excellent character writing; the cast ranges from whimsical (a girl trapped in a mascot suit) to somber (a troubled chemist whose rocky marriage is further upended when his daughter is held for ransom), but they all ultimately play a part in the same tale. The excellent production values count for a lot, too—428 plays out through still photography and printed text, but the camera work is great, and the text is brilliantly timed (along with the musical score) to set the pace and tone of the story. If you've written off Japanese visual novels as corny anime sagas or harem romances, 428 will change your mind about the genre. - Jeremy Parish
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
Nintendo Switch, 3DS, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Steam
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an 8-bit style "prequel" game by Inti Creates, made as a stretch goal for the long-delayed Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Kickstarter. It's creative, beautifully crafted and exciting to play, with plenty of alternate routes through the levels, items to collect and giant boss battles to overcome. While its upcoming big brother is a Metroidvania, Curse of the Moon is old-school, linear Castlevania "homage" through-and-through, and all the better for it. Comparable to Shovel Knight, It's a throwback faux-retro game that actually captures the feel of its era while adhering to more quality-of-life-friendly mechanics for our dizzying modern times. - Stuart Gipp