One post isn't enough to do justice to the number of fantastic games I've played of late. I've played a large number of games from 2017-18 and I have three more that make the cut for the Greatest Of All Time in my books.
Released 1995. Played 2017.
Released as Mother 2 for the Nintendo SNES in mid-90's Japan, EarthBound is the quirkiest game I've ever played. Despite being over two decades old, the humour still feels fresh and the game mechanics are remarkably prescient of what future RPG's would continue to use.
At its core, EarthBound is a 2D JRPG where 13-year old Ness has to the save the world from the wrath of an evil...force(?)...called Giygas. It has most of the core JRPG elements such as turn-based battles, multiple party members, inventory management, and a Health/Battle Points system. What really distinguishes EarthBound is the absolutely insane variety in the enemies. You battle absolutely everything - from a pile of puke to Blue KKK Cultists to taxicabs and Salvador Dali clocks. In a stark contrast to the brain-dead NPC dialogue in modern RPG's, EarthBound has some of the funniest lines of NPC dialogue you will ever find. The soundtrack is enjoyable and surprisingly detailed in places, especially given the 4MB size of the game. To truly appreciate EarthBound, it's best to spend some quality time playing it slowly. Every single frame of this game just oozes with charm.
Just EarthBound things
Perhaps the best thing about EarthBound is how fearlessly creative it is. Unlike contemporary videogames, EarthBound doesn't hold back on breaking new ground for using familiar elements which would appeal to a broader audience. This fearless approach did result in EarthBound's commercial failure on launch in North America, where it was puzzlingly marketed with the tagline "This Game Stinks!". Perhaps Nintendo of America was banking a little too heavily on the gross fascinations of pubescent boys to turn EarthBound into a blockbuster success.
However, EarthBound is far from a perfect game. Being old as it is, not all of its mechanics have aged well. Put mildly, the inventory management system is a downright terrible. The turn-based combat gets very tedious after a while (though there is an AUTO battle mode to somewhat fix this). Moreover, the player characters move very slowly in relation to the size of the game world. The Run button from Pokémon games is sorely missed here. In all, it's quite clear that the game was designed for an era in which there were far fewer competing distractions for one's attention. As I played the game in an emulator, I 100x'ed some of the slower parts to get through the game. Nevertheless, a single playthrough of EarthBound was enough to convince me that this is a severely under-appreciated Nintendo classic. If videogames were works of art, EarthBound would be the forerunner of the Surrealist movement. It's one of Shigesato Itoi's and Iwata's finest masterpieces.
EarthBound was a key inspiration for Toby Fox's Undertale released in 2015. At first Undertale felt like a distilled version of EarthBound, sharing the same sense of humour, but with significantly better pacing and an interesting combat system. Yet, on finishing Undertale, I was more of the opinion that it was a watered down version of EarthBound. It didn't capture my imagination the way EarthBound had.
After the release of EarthBound, Itoi and Nintendo worked on Mother 3. Mother 3 endured development hell for twelve years, being cancelled and reannounced for nearly three generations of Nintendo consoles. In the end, Mother 3 was finally released for the GBA in Japan in 2006 (two years after the release of the DS!). Unfortunately, Mother 3 still hasn't been officially translated for an international release, making the series a lost Nintendo legend. If you're interested in the story of EarthBound's development and about the game itself, AVGN's video is a great 40 minute primer:
Portal 1 (PC)
Released 2007. Played 2018.
I had a blast playing Portal 1 this January after picking it up in the Steam winter sale. It's easily the most recognisable game on this list and it needs no introduction.
Portal 1 is the epitome of good game design. There's minimal hand-holding and the levels are perfect in length and difficulty to give the player an intuitive understanding of the game mechanics before moving on to the more complicated puzzles. Instead of being ornamentally detailed, the visuals are just sufficient to convey essential information without being distracting.
There are no low points during the game and the entire experience is thoroughly enjoyable. Portal 1 demonstrates perfect pacing in a videogame. So many things in Portal 1 are just right. Given it takes only six hours to finish and is available for as little ₹30 on sale, it's an excellent addition to anyone's Steam library.
Portal 2 expanded on the formula established in Portal 1 with more complicated puzzles and new mechanics. The voice acting is even better with the snappy Wheatley and the hilariously deadpan delivery of Cave Johnson. However, the perfect pacing of Portal 1 didn't carry over to Portal 2. In several mid-game levels, the cluttered environment and confusing lighting effects made it difficult to find a white tile to open a portal. I would have much rather had the simpler lighting model of Portal 1 as it was far easier to visually parse. That said, Portal 2 still reaches the mark for a notable mention in my list.
Released 2011. Played 2018 - Present.
The final game on this list is also the one I've played the most this year. I was lucky enough to snag it on the Steam winter sale last year and it's easily the best ₹50 I've ever spent.
Spelunky is an insanely difficult 2D platformer with 16 randomly generated levels in each playthrough. There is no concept of saving progress in Spelunky and death is permenant. These two features make it impossible to play memorising the levels as you can in a conventional 2D platformer. Every moment of Spelunky is filled with compromise and multiple branching decisions. Picking the wrong one can send you all the way back to the beginning. As most monsters in the game have between 3-10 HP, the Spelunker isn't even much stronger than common monsters with just 4 HP, 4 Bombs, and 4 Ropes at the start of each run.
This makes death an innate part of the progression system of the game. With the lack of in-game saving, the progression is the evolution of the player in becoming better at playing Spelunky. Each death teaches the player a bit more about its mechanics. Death in Spelunky is almost always fair, implying that more often than not, death is due to your own mistakes.
The randomly generated levels give Spelunky infinite replayabilty for no two runs in Spelunky ever share the same levels. Certain patterns and obstacles may become familiar after a while but clearing an entire level requires coming up with a plan on-the-fly for each section. The best moments of the game are had in using a unfamiliar new item to sweep through the game in ways I would have never imagined.
I think I'm done for the day.
Getting better in Spelunky is the most satisfying feeling I have ever experienced in a game. An entire run of Spelunky from 1-1 to the final boss in 4-4 can be done in as little as 20 minutes, but it take just as many hours to get good enough at the game to do so.
Spelunky is also chock-filled with comic relief and dark humour. I absolutely adore the cartoonish art style which belies the incredible difficulty of the game. Nothing in the game takes itself seriously and even dying thanks to a chain reaction of events can be absolutely hysterical at at times.
You can rescue Damsels in distress for a point of health, but you also have the option of sacrificing them to the altar of Kali for a free item. Damsels are also effective projectiles and can be used for killing other enemies by throwing them. Shopkeepers, the ornery merchants of the Spelunky world, are another source of great amusement. Items from shops can either be bought or stolen. Stealing items puts you at the contempt of all the shopkeepers who will do everything to kill you for the rest of the run. It is this kind of crucial decision making which really gets at the heart of what makes Spelunky great. Mark Brown's excellent video explains the level generation system and goes into the crucial decision making process which makes Spelunky what it is:
The game is also incredibly mechanically sound. There are so many options for traversal of a level in which you need to go from the top to the bottom. Each tile of the Spelunky world can be destroyed using a well-placed bomb, making resource management an important theme of the game. Controls are also razor tight. Thanks to the low inertia of the Spelunker, playing the entire game on a keyboard is completely feasible. In fact, it's my preferred way to play Spelunky.
Not only is it super addicting to play, it's addicting to watch as well. My early forays in Spelunky were with my wingies jeering every death. I ended up becoming a far more careful player as a result. I tried to learn as much as I could about the game mechanics in every run. In some ways, this single player game brings people together more than some multiplayer games can.
Lastly, Spelunky also hosts a number of secrets under its 2D tiled world. The most significant of these is the much vaunted Hell run which requires true mastery of the game to complete. At the time of writing, I have clocked up 1500+ deaths in Spelunky, out of which I've reached Hell just five times.
I will go as far as to say that Spelunky is probably the best videogame I've ever played and I am absolutely HYPED for Spelunky 2 coming out in 2019.