It’s that time once again for me and my fellow writers to share our favourite games of the year. I decided to do a similar spin as last year to highlight multiple game categories with a winner and a runner up. These are not necessarily the highest reviewed games, just the ones that left the longest lasting impression on me. And of course, sharing a quick summary of my reasons. Hopefully, you’ll discover some games you missed and maybe consider taking a look. Most importantly be sure to share your personal favourite games as we always love to hear your thoughts. Before we jump in I wanted to take a moment to share some of my personal development this year.
The year that was 2021
Another year has come and gone. For me, it’s been a mixture of some really sad lows with the tragic loss of a close friend and family member. But within all this sadness was a huge piece of good news. Behind the scenes, I found out earlier this year that my wife was expecting our first child. While this prospect was incredibly scary, it was the catalyst I needed to make some pretty big changes in my life. I started working out regularly and working more on my own personal mental health. Whilst at times it has been incredibly slow and difficult, I’m immensely proud of the progress I’ve made.
On top of that, I’ve continued to write for this fantastic website and find huge enjoyment in getting my thoughts on the page. Sometimes more so than the actual games I play. I can’t wait to welcome our new son/daughter into this world as this year concludes on a high note. Until that day though please enjoy my favourite games I reviewed this year.
Buzzsaw Award for Best Platform Adventure
Winner: Clan O’Conall and the Crown of the Stag
Clan O’Conall was a title that really took me by surprise earlier this year and was probably just a hair short of getting the ultimate GOTY title for me. A 2D platformer that has perfectly balanced action and puzzle-solving. It also has a beautiful hand-drawn art style and setting inspired by Celtic mythology, a rare thing to see in video games. I probably warmed to this so much as it felt like a spiritual sequel to one of my favourite 2D platformers Rayman Legends. It also has an incredible soundtrack that really needs to be released for sale so I can buy it already.
Runner Up: Ender Lilies Quietus of the Knights
I reviewed this pretty close to the winner of this category so this was certainly a very good month in video games indeed. Ender Lilies really stood out to me thanks to its dark yet beautiful art style. A mesh of a world shrouded in disease yet finding the light within that darkness. A 2D adventure with a clever mechanic where your guardian spirits do the fighting for you. A tough game but not so tough that I wanted to throw my PC out the window. Yes, this too also had a captivating soundtrack with some delightful piano numbers. A game that taught me even in the darkest of places you can be the shining light.
Notepad Award for Best Education Game
Winner: Cosmic Top Secret
When I came up with the list this year I always had Cosmic Top Secret in the back of my head. A very memorable game where you play as a daughter trying to piece together what her family was up to when they worked for the secret service. An adventure that educated me, humoured me but also really moved me in places. Especially when the game made reference to the mental health of certain characters and how cleverly this was displayed within the games art style.
Speaking of art, the game is cleverly presented in a sort of cardboard cut out design which works really well. Hopefully, by including it in this GOTY it may draw more people to check out this game. Consider adding it to the wishlist as I have seen it go on sale at a very affordable price.
Runner Up: Game Builder Garage
The first game review I wrote with Nintendo as the publisher. How happy was I? Game Builder Garage deserves a mention because it kinda teaches folk to code in a very Nintendo way. Cute characters with silly noises. This is not a title for everyone but if you’re looking to understand code, this is a pretty good place to start for total beginners of all ages. It’s also been impressive seeing the sheer talent of what people have created with this over the last year. But don’t let those people put you off. This title offers a nice space for you to let those creative coding juices flow. Then consider sharing your game project with friends and family.
Sunshine Award for Best Feel-Good Game
Winner: Rain on Your Parade
Easily the game that made me smile the most this year. You play a little cloud moving around in mini levels where you cause mischief by raining on things. Interrupt a wedding, paint a picture and even cause a zombie apocalypse. You really won’t be able to predict what this game will show you next. It may only be single-player but I played this with my wife. Swapping the controller between missions and just laughing at the utter spectacle on screen. If you’re having one of those rainy days in your head or need to cheer someone else up. This title might just add the sunshine you need.
Runner Up: Lunas Fishing Adventure
A very simple game where you fish, clear up garbage and plant your garden. However, sometimes adding a delightful smile to your pixelated character is more than enough to earn a runner up spot on this award. Luna’s Fishing Adventure was just a happy game to play. It may not push the boundaries of anything new but it knows how to soften even the most hardened of hearts.
Hooded Cloak Award for best Roguelike (or lite) Game
Yeah, I hear you this game technically was not released this year and it is pretty old. However, the original and its sequel did release to Nintendo Switch in 2021 so I’m totally counting it. Why this over the brilliant sequel? Well, I guess the reason is pretty personal. Spelunky marks the end of the era of the PSVita for me. One of the last roguelike games I used to reach for the Vita to play as a tradition every Christmas morning.
But now with the Switch port, it feels like an end of an era and one to sort of celebrate. That and the game just plays great on Switch no matter what time of year it is. I still feel all the joys and frustrations as I traverse the catacombs. Spelunky feels as fresh as it ever did and I can still see myself enjoying this for many years to come. Not just for Christmas.
Runner Up: Road 96
A rogue-lite that I would never have expected to work. An engaging story with gameplay that focuses mostly on the narrative and mild exploration. You play as a young teen on a mission to escape to the border. Along the way you engage with multiple characters whose story you learn more about through subsequent runs. Whether you succeed or fail you always make rewarding progress. Even the failed runs are mentioned in future runs.
It’s a mixture I never would have guessed would work but it does. Made by the team behind the excellent Valiant Hearts. Road 96 does what few developers will attempt and tread into uncharted territory and it really paid off for me. I was hooked to the experience from my first run and didn’t play anything else until it concluded. I still think about this game today and regularly listen to the soundtrack in the background which is available to purchase on Steam.
Pixel Block award for best Retro Game
Winner: Clockwork Aquario
So many retro games were released this year it was very hard to choose just two. Clockwork Aquario scooped the award for me because not only was it a highly entertaining arcade game that was finally released after 30 years. But it’s also a game that came courtesy of one of my favourite game designers who worked on the Wonder Boy series Ryuichi Nishizawa. This title felt like a game my younger self would have adored back in the day. It may be late but I got to enjoy it now. This just felt like one of those retro Xmas gifts just for me this year.
Runner Up: G-Darius HD
I do love my fishy shmups and G-Darius HD was the one that left the biggest mark for me this year. Another arcade title I probably will never get to appreciate on an actual cabinet, but, I was grateful to enjoy it on Nintendo Switch.
This game made me feel like I was right back at the arcade with its spectacle and audio design. I also thoroughly enjoyed the enemy capture mechanic which brought a refreshing twist to the long-standing series. An ideal title to pick up and play after one of those days where you need to switch off your brain and play a darn good video game. G-Darius HD truly is the catch of the day.
Shiny Gem Award for Best Puzzle Game
Award: Shovel Knight Puzzle Dungeon
A title that came in at the 11th hour for this list. Combining the puzzle genre with roguelike design proved to be a winning formula for me. Easy to pick up but pretty tricky to totally master. Puzzle Dungeon has all the right ingredients to get your quick puzzle fix whether you like the Shovel Knight games or not. It also made it’s way easier to the top of this award by offering you multiple options to tailor the game to your liking. Almost any gamer can pick up this title and find something to love. It’s just a shame we don’t see more attempts at the puzzle genre.
Runner Up: Magic Twins
Magic Twins got its place here from being a puzzle game that you could enjoy in a local co-op. You play as two witches on opposite ends of the screen firing spells at colourful potions. If you like your puzzle games with a little added tension this is one to try. Of course, you can play it solo but the experience really came alive when I was playing it with my wife. Plus the game has a really amusing sense of humour where the witches come up with multiple humorous quips as well as making some angry but hilarious noises when you fail.
Stone Grinding Award for Best RPG
Winner: Shadowverse: Champions
I really didn’t expect a card game to climb to the top of my RPG list but here we are. Based on the anime which is based on the mobile game, Shadowverse kinda just captivated me with its card gaming shenanigans. Sure it has your typical anime narrative but when problems are solved by playing card games and not talking them through, it’s hard not to turn your head. It’s over the top upbeat and I loved it. Then you have the card battling which is simple to pick up and very hard to put down after one game.
Customize your decks, buy more card packs and find what deck works best for your style. A game that could have so easily exploited its single-player with microtransactions but didn’t. It’s a complete RPG card-battling adventure. I haven’t enjoyed a card game this much since Pokemon Card Game on Game Boy Color.
Runner Up: Witch Spring 3 [Re: Fine]
Like many of these categories, I had too many RPGs to pick from this year. I decided to go with a lesser-known title for runner up since this one kinda charmed me with its design. A remake of sorts from the mobile version of the game that felt right at home on Nintendo Switch. You play as a Witch in the woods, who soon becomes discovered by the outside world.
With a fun turn-based battle system and a rather amusing levelling up system that presents as a training montage. You can also ride a pig in this game as well as awaken other dolls to help you in battle. Another reason this left its mark on me is it made me consider picking up other titles in the series on mobile. A platform I usually avoid like the plague these days.
Early Bird Award for Best Early Access Title
The sequel to one of my favourite rogue-likes of all time 20XX saw its sequel released to Early Access this year. Even in its very early form, this game was an impressive upgrade from the original. A new, beautiful and colourful pixelated graphical style. Fast and fluid gameplay that I dare say I kinda prefer to the infamous Mega Man series. The series this game takes heavy inspiration from. To top it all off it also has a very impressive level creator feature that may even give Mario Maker a run for its money. And this all comes from a small but very dedicated indie development team. Also, the soundtrack is brilliant and I still listen to it while writing reviews.
Runner Up: Lens Island
An island getaway that nicely mixes crafting, farming and one of my favourite genres; dungeon crawling. The choice is up to the player. Of course, to get the most out of it it’s best to have your hand in each of these features. I particularly liked this title as the game allows you to play at your own pace. Just want to focus on growing crops and selling them to the local town… Go for it!
Fancy a challenging run through the dungeons with deadly enemies, have at it. Or just enjoy exploring the island. The game may only be in its early stages of development at the moment but it’s already showing some pretty huge promise with what might come later.
Best Otter Game because Otters Rule
Winner: Space Otter Charlie
Space Otter Charlie is a glimpse into our not too distant future where humans have left Earth and the otters to clean up their mess. So they go off on their own space adventure to find a new home for themselves and the rest of the animal kingdom. A simple low gravity platformer that is exploding with charm and the odd otter fact. A fun-filled adventure that is suitable for all ages. Easily gets the most important GOTY award because its main character Charlie is just the cutest with his little space suit and otter noises. But it also happens to be a short but very entertaining title.
Runner Up: Arietta of Spirits
Who would have thought 2021 would be the year we were blessed with two video games featuring otters? That’s probably a record. Arietta of Spirits is a short but entertaining Zelda like adventure. The otter featured in this game is your spirit companion, Arco, who offers plenty of wise words and humour to share. But also a few magical spells to aid you on your quest. I think we would all be a little happier if we had a spirit animal (doesn’t have to be an otter). Arietta of Spirits is a nice short but sweet adventure also suitable for all ages.
Extra Runner Up: Holly the Otter
Like my awards from 2020, this is not a video game, I thought I would just share yet another otter I adopted for my wife this year (current total 3, I’m not weird). Holly is a Eurasian Otter and was found in Inverness with her two siblings who sadly did not survive. She is being well cared for by the good folks at the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) and is being rehabilitated with the intention to be released back into the wild within the next year. Holly has beaten the odds and deserves her award even though she’s probably happy just swimming about in her pen.
James’ Overall GOTY 2021: It Takes Two
It Takes Two was a game that reminded me of the joys one can feel while playing video games. A bizarre tale where two parents are on the verge of a divorce and then somehow get turned into two dolls made by their daughter. They must work together to get back to their bodies and also learn a bit more about themselves and their daughter along the way. It’s a game you can only play with another either locally or online but you’re going to experience so many things. The levels are massive with different themes to explore and constantly changing but entertaining gameplay.
There really is no time to be bored with this game. It was an experience my wife and I were smiling throughout and talked about for days, weeks and even to this day. To me, this is video games. Something to enjoy with a loved one no matter the hardships going on behind the scenes. A game like this is a rare commodity today and out of the over one hundred reviews I wrote for the site this year I could not think of a better choice for my personal Game of the Year.
Before I leave today I did want to take some time to express my gratitude to some special people.
For starters, I want to thank everyone that visits this website and took the time out of their busy schedule to read one of my articles. You could have been looking at pictures of otters, but, you choose to come here and for that, I want to express my gratitude. This also extends to all the folk who left comments good and constructive. I know I sometimes spell the name of your favourite RPG series wrong but I mean well.
Special thanks to our patrons who help keep the lights on the site. Thanks to your assistance we are able to continue to keep the site ad-free. You guys are the best.
Thank you to the top chapettes, Yvonne and Paula for allowing me the platform to express myself and providing plenty of support and assistance behind the scenes.
Thanks to all the other writers, all of whom have provided many entertaining reads when I manage to take a break from real life.
Thanks to my lovely wife for editing my work and making sense of the utter nonsense I write.
Thanks to my friend codenamed: Stripmagjong. For offering emotional support and a weekly gaming night to chat and de-stress from the troubles of real life.
Thanks to my other personal supporters who have been following my writing shenanigans since the retro writing days and continue to view my work after all this time. You truly are awesome.
Last note. Maybe you are reading this and want to get into the writing game yourself but maybe you’re a little hesitant. Don’t be afraid. Pick up that old pen and paper or dust off the keyboard and do it. I’ve never considered myself the best writer. But I love doing it. Writing is a hobby where you can truly express yourself. Whether you want to write 5 words or 5,000, don’t be afraid to give it a go. You might just discover something wonderful about yourself.