Game Pass is just great, and single-handedly completely justified my jumping to Xbox after four generations of day-one PlayStations before it – just check out its mark on this list! Otherwise, the pair at the very summit might have just about clung on since my mid-year countdown, but plenty of exciting new imposters from there on in! And check out the little retro section down the bottom too – that homebrew scene will never cease to amaze me!
1. Resident Evil Village (Xbox Series X)
I wasn’t fussed about next-gen until the doors of Castle Dimitrescu were swept open in this game’s very first gameplay footage back in January, and we climbed the grandest of staircases under the grandest of chandeliers under the grandest of ceilings, and it was just the best-looking thing I’d ever seen in a game! That combined with the clear influence of Resident Evil 4 – my third favourite game ever – to have me more hyped about Resident Evil Village than even Shao-Lin’s Road on the ZX Spectrum back in 1986! And it more than lived up to that hype! A beautiful time, several times and counting. Exhaustive review here!
2. Cyber Shadow (Xbox One)
Back in January, on my son’s hand-me-down Xbox, I succumbed to another Game Pass subscription for this retro arcade platformer because a second one in the house for a month was still way cheaper than getting it on Switch! Little bit Metroid and a lot Ninja Gaiden – really punishing but begrudgingly fair, controls like a dream, and the levels are really well designed with some great variety, despite a couple of overly harsh checkpoints! And it’s also the best-looking and sounding NES game you could ever dream of, oozing this oppressive atmosphere behind all that polish. Review here.
3. Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton Reboot! (Nintendo Switch)
For something that can be finished in half an hour, you’re getting an amazing amount of game here! There’s the crazy looks, crazy sounds, crazy gameplay and just general craziness of Reboot itself, offering an accessible, modern, polished and did I mention crazy bullet-hell kind of witchy horizontal shooter with a ton of powered-up high-scoring depth if you want it. Then there’s a whole second version offering the unreleased-here 1993 Sharp X68000 “reboot” – the purity and best-in-class old-school aesthetic of the best version of a pioneering old arcade game that I fell in love with in 1991 and still stands tall with the best of the cute ‘em up genre! Review here.
4. The Artful Escape (Xbox Series X)
This game is absolutely stunning! It’s a brilliantly imaginative narrative musical journey, and when it appeared on Game Pass I really wasn’t ready for quite how blown away I’d be! The soaring, saturated rock guitar soundtrack that cleverly messes with you to harmonise your controller inputs, combined with ridiculous levels of visual creativity and no-fail cinematic platforming results in about four hours of pure exhilaration, thrills and psychedelic wonder. If you’re into music, just play this!
5. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection (Nintendo Switch)
I’ve spent decades having the time of my life getting killed on the first two levels (but mostly the first!) of this game’s various Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins predecessors, and I’m pleased to report that this one is no different! By far the most brutal in the series so far (although there are options for wimps and even optional mid-level checkpoints for all), and also the best looking, best sounding and, by all accounts, the most varied, though I’m unlikely to ever know much more about that!
6. Forza Horizon 5 (Xbox Series X)
Being a frames per second philistine meant that there was never any hesitation about sticking this into Quality mode from the outset and enjoying what is possibly the best-looking game ever created! I reckon it might be one of the best driving games ever created too, striking a perfect balance between simulation and outright arcade racing, and the amount to get your teeth into is as gloriously bewildering as the attention to detail absolutely everywhere you look. Mexico plays the perfect host this time too!
7. Schildmaid MX (PC / MacBook)
I had a big week for schmups back in November, first discovering Deathsmiles, which quickly became possibly my favourite ever in the genre, and then this from my friend and Video Wizard Michiel Kroder’s HitP Studio. Without any bias though, it’s so well thought out, from the beginner mode for bullet-hell babies like me to a bunch of more frantic modes for veterans, all built on seamless bullet-absorbing score mechanics, and, regardless of experience, everyone’s getting a wonderfully catchy soundtrack against some often-breathtaking 2D visuals. Oh yeah, it’s also one of the most exhilarating games I’ve ever played!
8. Art of Rally (Xbox Series X)
From the second I laid eyes on the first screenshots of this, I knew it was absolutely for me! What I didn’t quite appreciate though, was that behind the heavily stylised low-poly visuals there was a proper rally game waiting to get its hooks right into me through a 20+ hour career mode! It might look like an old top-down arcade racer reimagined, but there’s a serious – if stripped down – and authentic, twitchy, skilful rally driving experience here. And I do like one of those!
9. Outriders (Xbox Series X)
Finally, I found my new Destiny! For a while at least… Fantastic feeling cover-shooter built around an addictive, repetitive and often joyfully mindless progressive level-up and loot loop that feels loads better if you jump in with others, though the flexible difficulty system means it works fine solo too. The magic classes mix things up, there’s various enhancement systems and all kinds of modification possible, a ridiculous amount of better weapons and armour to keep finding, and the story isn’t bad either. Looks mighty fine as well!
10. Narita Boy (Xbox Series X)
Toss up between this and Genesis Noir for the final place on my list, but Narita Boy had less jazz so here we are! A pleasantly modern-feeling sort of metroidvania homage to the eighties that starts a bit bewildering as you’re dumped into a complex story made of complex language, but persevere a while and your back and forth will reward you with enormous environmental variety and loads of different enemies to overcome with increasingly fluid combat. And as you’re wandering and wondering at some glorious pseudo-Tron visuals and a fantastic synth-wave soundtrack, you’ll even start to work out what it’s all about too!
We just mentioned Genesis Noir, but here’s a few more honourable mentions for stuff that just missed out here… If it was a top fifteen, Halo Infinite and Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Series X would definitely be there, and I’m still thinking I should try and find a way to squeeze them into the top ten without anyone noticing! Pac-Man 99 on Switch also came close, but paying for alternative skins shouldn’t be the only way to allow for colourblindness. And against all the odds and my better judgement, I really enjoyed deep-nerdy Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance when it appeared on Game Pass too. Don’t tell anyone!
I’m going to allow myself some very special honourable mentions from an old friend too….
Travel Through Time Vol. 1: Northern Lights (ZX Spectrum)
For anyone interested in ZX Spectrums, you have to check this out! It’s up there with the machine’s best racing games, whether Enduro Racer and WEC Le Mans et al from its original run, or anything like 4K Race Refuelled or Just a Gal that followed more recently. Speaking of which, it’s from the same developer as Just a Gal, but this time the ingenuity, creativity and sheer craftsmanship on display here will blow you away even more. Just stunning. Full review here.
Vegetables Deluxe (ZX Spectrum)
Match-three meet ZX Spectrum – your paths never properly crossed until now! Four modes of tile-matching madness that so shockingly well-suited to a Kempston joystick that you’ll barely notice the ridiculous amount of colour coming out of those character-full vegetables filling the play area! This puzzle genre has always been a joy to play when it’s done right (and isn’t full of dirty micro transactions), and you’re getting the full works here. And here’s a full review.
Danterrifik III (ZX Spectrum)
Yes, you read that right – another 2021 Spectrum game! This is a triumph of both minimalist design and the most brutal of old-school split-second, pixel-perfect punishing platforming. The intricate black, white and occasionally red Nazi-soiled religious imagery would look like this on any platform, and the exquisite soundtrack is as good as has ever graced the Spectrum – you might even think you’re listening to a Commodore 64 while your 99 lives are being chipped away in very rapid succession! Review here.
That’s it for this year. Resident Evil Village undoubtedly my game of the year, but I’m now going to quickly speculate about what might be there in 2022 so we can come back then and see what happened… Hollow Knight: Silksong is the clear favourite at this point, but that’s all reliant on it actually coming out, and we’ve been there before! Regular viewers will know I love my witchy shooter series Cotton, and we’ve also got the all-new Cotton Fantasy to look forward to, and given the amount I spent on the Collector’s Edition pre-order it had better be game of the year good! Apart from that, I thought Windjammers 2 was supposed to be here by now so hopefully that finally appears this time around, and same for new Zelda. Also got my eye on Blood Bowl 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, but given I only knew about three of this year’s top ten this time last year, who knows, and that’s the most exciting thing!