Barrett Courtney’s Top Ten Games Of 2019

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“2019 was a weak year for games.”

This is something I’ve been telling myself for most of the year. But the more I’ve thought about, discussed, and played games this year…the more I realized that the quality of the games should have never been in question. There were so many great games that came out this year and I should have dedicated more time to going out of my comfort zone and diving into Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Death Stranding, Devil May Cry 5, and so many more amazing games that a lot of people loved.

2019 was a weird year…for me. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so dissociated from games. I don’t know what started this disconnect but I have felt guilty that many 2019 games have fallen under the “wrong place, wrong time” category for me…and it started to feel like too much pressure to keep up with everything…or anything for that matter. This may be a weird way to start out my “Top 10 of the Year” list, but I’ve been wanting to get it off my chest.

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t force myself play everything just so I could be a part of the conversation, and while that might have been a healthy choice for me, it was a weird feeling because I wanted to join in on the fun for the games I missed. There was so much to love in 2019 from so many diverse and creative minds and I hope to one day experience everything they released this year. With that being said, I’m here to talk about the games I actually played and loved. It will probably be a different and weird list compared to others, but that’s what made this year pretty great. There was something for everyone. But not everything was for everyone and that’s totally okay.

2019 was a pretty cool year for video games.

(Also, shout out to Afterparty one time. It probably would have been on this list if I played more than the first hour. I’ll hopefully get back to it over the winter break.)

10. The Division 2

Division 2

While I never rolled credits and only heard about the joys of the endgame content of The Division 2 through stories, this game was one of my favorites this year because of the camaraderie surrounding it for the people I played it with. The amount of times we would prepare for the next encounter, countdown to engage, quickly have our plan turn to shit, and then pick ourselves up from there were endless and I loved doing it every time…mainly because of the regular crew I had on my journey. I learned a couple of years ago that one of the main appeals of multiplayer co-op games are the moments of triumph and failure we experience with each other, and The Division 2 gave us so many of those moments.

*Maybe The Division is the friends we made along the way*

Besides the experience of sharing this game and its moments with others, the gameplay and its loop really clicked with me just like launch Destiny 2 did. It’s hard to explain why but the constant loot pickups, inventory management, and upgrading had me thinking harder than I ever had before about what my loadout in a shooter will accomplish for the next mission. Experimenting with upgrades and different styles of loadouts was some of the most fun I’ve had all year and, again, I wish I stuck with it, like Mr. Miller and twitch.tv/fm3_ had told me to. It was so impressive that the follow up to a game I had only played the beta for got me so hooked.

Also, who knew…DC is a pretty cool setting for a looter shooter. Remember that Space Administration mission? Shit was dope.

9. Super Mario Maker 2

What’s not to love about a Mario game with *almost* endless possibilities? The first iteration was such a highlight of 2015 because of the silly, creative, and ridiculously challenging levels that we all made for each other. The follow up just added more to that (and was on a system people actually own).

Mario Maker 2 scratched every itch and hit every expectation I had for it. It’s hard to really put into words for myself of why it’s such a wonderful game…so I’ll just use the example of happening upon a level made by someone who decided to recreate the first dungeon from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time…in a 2D Mario game.

What? Why?? HOW DID THEY PULL IT OFF AND MAKE IT DOPE!?

The amazement of what people can do with this game is something beyond words. Nintendo really gave us something special with this series and encouraged us all to challenge ourselves on two different levels. Discovery and creation. To my own surprise, I made a few levels myself. I don’t think they’re anything too special or great, but I was still proud of them at the end of the day because of the amount of time I spent on the details and how they all connected together to make a level. I may not be a great level designer, but at least I made Twitch Star Nitrorifle question his existence with my unfair creations.

Also, we got like…100 original Nintendo designed Mario levels. How cool is that?

8. Ape Out

The best way that I can describe the perfect chaos that is Ape Out is to compare it to the likes of the modern iterations of Wolfenstein and Doom. But instead of a first person shooter, we have a top down beat ‘em up where you’re an ape fleeing from captivity. There’s just something about the mixture of level design, enemy variety, and tools at your disposal that makes every attempt so chaotic and makes you think on your feet that brought me back to those specific experiences with Wolfenstein and Doom.

But it’s not just the gameplay that I treasured, with its map that would alter itself after each death or the experimentation with weapons and how effective they are with enemies and the environment…the presentation of Ape Out is one of the major highlights this year in video games. The simple but striking art style fits so well with the jazz soundtrack that reacts to and flows with your gameplay. You’re not just helping this ape escape, you’re also conducting an improv jazz session (which is slightly contradictory, I know) and it adds so much to the frenzied emotions you have while reacting to whatever this game throws at you.

Ape Out came out so early this year and, with it being an indie title, will probably be passed up a lot in Game of the Year conversations…which is unfortunate. It is such a blast and if there is anything you haven’t tried this year that you want to check out during the holiday season…please, check this game out. It deserves all of the attention and love that it gets.

7. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

I never understood what the expectation was for MUA3, but for me it did what I wanted it to do: take me back 10 years ago where I played MUA2 for countless hours and enjoyed this dumb excuse for all of these heroes to team up. Of course, 3 didn’t hit everything I wanted with alternate costumes and a deeper cast of characters (no love for Penance this time around?) but it made up for that with the new RPG-lite systems it introduced to the series which made the grind and gameplay loop addicting. Even with the amount of characters the game does have, I considered trying to level max every single one. I mean…I didn’t end up doing it but the game is so fun that I played with the idea for a bit.

I wouldn’t consider this game better than anything else on this list, but at the end of the day…it was comfort food with some added flavor. Sometimes you need a watered down Diablo to just sit back and relax with. And, of course, it was especially comforting to see these familiar faces go on another adventure together in a post-Avengers: Endgame world, with some fun additions here and there. I’ll never not enjoy putting together Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Wolverine on a team, knowing some of the team ups they’ve had before in the comics.

This game was a time capsule for me in the best possible way and brought me back to simpler days. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

6. Trials Rising

Trials Rising is super dumb.

Trials Rising is also rad as hell.

I’ve never been super into racing games outside of Mario Kart and a few others, so the Trials series never popped up on my radar until now. But when I saw the announcement trailer for Rising and learned that it was more a physics-based puzzle-like game rather than just a straight up racer…I knew I needed to try it out.

Trials has such a fun and unique take on the racing genre with its gameplay systems that it had me addicted for a few weeks. The constant loop of checking out new tracks, getting new gear, and unlocking new challenges for old tracks kept me coming back every day to see what I would discover next. But, of course, the main appeal was the great and goofy gameplay that could have me on the edge of my seat one minute and then laughing the next.

If you don’t know, Trials Rising’s gameplay is based off of two major mechanics while riding your dirtbike…speed and balance. The best way I’ve found to describe it is that it’s a simpler version of QWOP, but is still fun and engaging enough to keep you hooked just like the classic browser game. The amount of times I’ve flipped over my bike because I wasn’t going the right speed over a ramp (or even on flat ground for that matter) were endless but never discouraged me from trying to get gold medals for every challenge.

Now to elaborate on Trials Rising being dumb (in the best way): the game certainly has a VIBE…one I haven’t seen or been around since living in the midwest during the mid-2000s. I’m talking X-Games vibes but turned up to like…20. It’s great for that because it doesn’t shy away from what motocross and its community feels like. But Trials doesn’t just lean into that, it also goes super hard into ridiculously designed levels. Theme parks. Deserted football fields. You name it. The creativity from the developers at RedLynx shines in the unique levels, so much so that I’ve definitely failed a challenge or two because I wanted to see every little detail they squeezed in.

Trials Rising is super rad and more people should definitely check it out. While it’s not the *prettiest* on Switch, it’s the perfect pick-up-and-go type of game.

5. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

As someone who never played the original Link’s Awakening (and has played 5 Zelda games since the release of the remake), it’s hard to find the words I want to say about it. This Zelda game has me the most conflicted because at its core it’s a classic 2D Zelda game but with some design mix ups that seemed to be added just for the sake of being different that I wasn’t a huge fan of.

Granted, this is still Zelda we’re talking about…so at the center of everything…the gameplay, dungeon design, music, and art-style (of course) all range from solid to god damn amazing. So, in those aspects, I really did love my time with it. And to experience firsthand the story that I had heard so much about was gut punching. I’ve had the end of the game spoiled for me for years but it still didn’t make the impact of Link’s decision any easier to take in (even though he looks all chill about it in the final cutscene…dick).

My main complaint with Link’s Awakening, and the only reason why it’s not higher on this list, are the adventures you have to go on in between dungeons. While I appreciate the almost Tim Schafer level of obscure puzzles and order of operations to get to the next area…to me, it didn’t fit the classic Zelda formula I know. It’s the first time I’ve felt in a Zelda game that I actually had to talk to EVERYONE, and while I think that helps on a story level to make the ending of the game hit even harder…it just stuck out like a sore thumb to me. Like, come on, how was I supposed to figure out that I needed to swim under a bridge to get to a secret side-scrolling area to find the fisherman to get an item I needed to help me navigate myself to the very final boss?

I like weird and obscure Zelda, but some of the design choices here felt very dated. Obviously that’s because the original game came out 26 years ago, but I think a remake would have been the perfect opportunity to update some interesting design choices.

Despite my issues with it, I still loved my time with Link’s Awakening. The updated art style brought this game so much outward charm and joy (which contrasts the themes and story very well). And it was a nice itch that was scratched to go back to some classic 2D dungeon design (although watered down) after experiencing a major shakeup to the franchise like Breath of the Wild.

Although I have my problems with it, Link’s Awakening was more comfort food for me (much like MUA3) and I’m happy I finally got to play what is considered an underrated part of Zelda history.

4. Borderlands 3

Full disclosure, Kinda Funny makes The Borderlands Show for 2K Games and Borderlands.

A lot of my enjoyment for Borderlands 3 can be summed up by a lot of the same reasons I liked The Division 2. The memories made playing this game with friends were some of my highlights this year, whether it was melting hundreds of enemies in seconds or trying to teach friends how to do a long jump with no microphone.

The reason Borderlands shot up way higher on my list though is because the world of Borderlands finally clicked with me. From the moment the intro cutscene played with all four choosable characters coming in and wrecking shop, I knew I was going to have a blast in this world.

Borderlands, until now, was always a “wrong place, wrong time” situation for me but the hype for this one had me really interested, especially now that I’m more into looter shooters (while with the past games, I wasn’t yet). I was already so invested from the opening moments of the game that before I chose which character to play as…I sat there and did a solid 30 minutes of research into which character I would like from a gameplay standpoint…and not just choosing which one I thought looked the coolest (which is what I would usually do).

Spending 20 or so hours with Moze in the world of Borderlands fighting the Children of the Vault, grinding to get level ready for the next story mission with friends, and managing my loot were such a damn delight. The only thing holding it back from being higher on this list is that it’s the first Borderlands game that I’ve put more than an hour into. There are some cool story moments that I enjoyed, but I believe they would have been enhanced if I knew the characters from previous games. Like I know Tina…kinda? Was that a cool reveal when she pops up? I think so? I’m not sure. But that’s only one *tiny* example of me really not knowing what was significant and what wasn’t. It was all really cool though, at least…what I’ve played (this is also a game I have not rolled credits on, but I’m definitely more driven to go back and finish the story than Division 2).

And, to be clear, me not understanding certain things in the world and story is totally on me and not on the game itself. After getting so invested, I wish I had actually tried a playthrough of the other games beforehand because that’s how much I like it.

But, of course, the main appeals were the gunplay, the mounds of loot you get to experiment with, and the upgrades you can make for you character to make really fun builds. The loop of testing out new weapons and learning what does and doesn’t work for you in this game is probably the best experience I’ve had when it comes to that kind of concept. And that’s just because there is so much to play with. (My one gripe though is I wish you could level up weapons by breaking down others, a very small gripe but one I kept thinking about.) And the gunplay itself is probably some of the best feeling gameplay I’ve had this year. I’m not really a first person shooter expert, but this one really clicked with me when it came to gameplay.

Borderlands 3 was a hell of a time, and with the super cool sounding DLC coming out soon…it might be the perfect time for me to catch up with everyone else who are still playing.

3. Pokémon Sword & Shield

(Not sure if it matters, but I played Sword.)

It’s easy to say that with each Pokémon game release, there are hardly any improvements and that it’s the same game as last but just with different ‘mon. Sword & Shield is the first iteration we’ve had in a while where it feels like Game Freak is actually implementing ideas and systems that will push the series forward in a direction that’s exciting and new for Pokémon. While I wasn’t so invested in the story this time around, the scale and presentation in Sword & Shield is just something we haven’t seen in a Pokémon game before and that’s why it’s a major standout for me.

Despite the wave of fans crying out for all Pokémon to be included in Sword & Shield, I really enjoyed the decision to have a more focused vision on what ‘mons were available this time around because it allowed me to experiment more with my team and not just fall back on ones that I know. It’s fun to roll credits with a crew that you weren’t expecting, and I treasured this game more because of that.

Now to elaborate my thoughts on the story: as we all know…it’s the same basic Pokémon formula but with hints and flavors of a side adventure. Contrary to some major Pokémon fans I know, the story for this game was the least interesting to me compared to Sun & Moon and X & Y. I’m not sure why it didn’t pull me this time around, but that’s okay because the presentation of what you’re doing throughout the story made up for it. The Galar Region has got some BANK. The feeling this game gives you when walking down the tunnel into a gigantic Pokémon Stadium with the thunder from the crowd ramping up is something I’ve always wanted in a mainline Pokémon game. And the tournament building up to face the champion is something we’ve seen in Pokémon shows before but were never really introduced in the games until now, and while it felt a little too telegraphed and not as dynamic as I wanted it to feel, it’s a welcome change up that I would love to see expanded on in the future.

Another new addition that I’m excited to see expanded on in later iterations is the Wild Area. While it was a great place to pop back into to grind and try out a few max raids, I wanted it to be more connected with the rest of the map and have it be the place that connects all of the towns together. After a few hours playing around with it, it felt so disconnected from the rest of the game. It’s not a major complaint, especially since this is a new idea that Game Freak is still playing with, it’s just one I would love to see pushed even further later on in the series.

I might be coming off more negative than I want to for Sword & Shield, but I did really love my time with it. X & Y brought me back to Pokémon and two generations later, I’m not regretting the return. And Sword & Shield brings new ideas to the table that could bring Pokémon down a very cool, new, and interesting path in future games.

It good.

(Also, I don’t care how sad he got…I enjoyed beating the shit out of Hop. Every. Single. Time.)

2. Katana Zero

While it didn’t stay at Number One, Katana Zero was my Game of the Year for most of 2019 and I can say with confidence that it is the *coolest* game this year. The neo-noir setting mixed with a 16-bit like art style and a narrative that bends your brain every time you think about it clicked with me from the get-go. Some of my favorite games from the past few years have flowed combat and story together like a beautiful harmony and Katana Zero reaches those heights.

While the gameplay is simple and isn’t as in depth as I wanted it to be, that’s quickly made up for by the design of the levels you traverse as a futuristic warrior assassin. The foundation of gameplay is simple but strong enough that the rest of the game is able to build on top of it and go to weird but fascinating places. If you don’t know, Katana Zero is a 2D action platformer that puts you in the shoes of The Dragon, an ex-military assassin with a katana that you use to take down everyone in your path. You have the ability to slow down time, dodge-roll, cut down your enemies, and block their bullets with your blade. Again…it’s all pretty basic stuff but what makes that all interesting is how it connects itself to the story.

The way the story explains why you’re able to slow down time and why you still live after every “death” is some of the coolest explanation a game has had about the “game-y” elements of it. And the way that element of the story becomes so important later on and how it twists the narrative of EVERYTHING happening around you and makes you question the reality of your character is some of the coolest storytelling I’ve seen in video games in a long time. But it’s not just how the story is told, the story itself and the mystery around your character and everything he experiences is such a damn trip.

Katana Zero did the same thing God of War did to me last year. I rolled credits, put it down, and thought, “I need more…NOW!” The way the story escalates and leaves everything hanging just out of reach from resolution made it feel like the perfect mid-season cliffhanger. The only downside is at the very end, the story cuts off at such jarring spot. But I guess that’s what makes me want to know what happens next as soon as possible. I have to give credit to Justin Stander, the developer of the game, for making a game and a universe that got me so invested in it so fast.

I know I may be talking too vaguely about why I really like the story, but I’m avoiding spoilers as much as possible because I’m not sure how many people have actually played through this game.

If you haven’t, play it. I really need Askiisoft supported for this so I can get a sequel and find out what happens after THAT ending.

1. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

The biggest compliment I can give this game is that it’s the first time since 2011’s Batman: Arkham City (my 2nd favorite game of all time) that I’ve said “Holy SHIT” in the first hour of a game at least a dozen times.

Respawn’s handling of the Star Wars lore, while also making a new and accessible story for hardcore/casual fans alike, is probably the best Star Wars has been handled since the original trilogy. I know that’s a very weighted statement (even with my love for the TV shows and Disney movies), but after thinking about it for a while…I believe it’s true. The story in this game rivals some of the best Star Wars movies and stories we have today. Granted, Fallen Order needed the background from some of the movies that aren’t loved as much, but it’s so impressive that Respawn can get an emotional reaction from me seeing Trade Federation and Republic ships being torn apart as well as during huge story beats that were tied to some major events from the prequel movies. There are a lot of earned nostalgic notes that pull on heartstrings and remind us how ridiculous but cool the Star Wars universe is.

But Fallen Order’s story isn’t just great because it smartly incorporates things from past movies that feel more earned than just “Hey! Remember this!?” Fallen Order’s story also brings Star Wars back to the familiar themes of the original trilogy and masterfully slips them into a new story about a hidden Jedi named Cal Kestis and his friends, who are made up of a fun cast of characters that are more integral to the game than you would think at first glance. But the core of the story, and the main appeal for me, is Cal’s journey in a post-Order 66 galaxy and how he has to deal with that on a variety of different levels. Avoiding the Empire isn’t an easy task, of course, but the emotional and mental weight of knowing that you are one of the very last of your kind is a heavy burden to bear. Cal’s arc of rediscovering who he is as a Jedi, and the importance of that in an era where no hope exists, is one of the most beautifully done arcs in the Star Wars canon and is why Fallen Order might possibly be my 2nd favorite Star Wars story told so far (followed closely by Ahsoka Tano’s entire arc throughout the shows).

 

Tragedy and how we deal with it has always been a major component to Star Wars, and Fallen Order explores how everyone deals with that differently more so than any Star Wars movie. You truly feel and understand the desperation of the protagonists. How they all overcome their demons is the core of what the journey of a Jedi should be about. On the other side, you see how tragedy can completely shake a person’s world view and send them down a path that you cannot follow.

Jedi: Fallen Order does so much service for fans who dig into the nitty gritty lore and for casual movie-goers alike. Yes, there are certain moments that I believe are heightened if you watch the cartoon shows, but the way those moments are presented, I believe, could still be fun for people who haven’t watched Season 5 Episode 6 of The Clone Wars. Speaking of the Star Wars shows, Fallen Order wraps itself up nicely like a season finale of a TV show. It completes several arcs in a very satisfying way while leaving just enough to make you want to see where Cal Kestis and his crew wind up next.

Story aside (because I could go on forever about it…please, someone have me on a spoilercast), the gameplay and design of the game was the first time a “Souls-Like” game finally clicked with me. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for Dark Souls and the unique combat systems it introduced to the gaming industry, but the worlds and aesthetics of those games were always a huge barrier that kept me from getting past the first hour. I have a major love for Star Wars so I was finally willing to give a game like this a fair shake and for a first complete “Souls-Like” experience, it didn’t disappoint. Fallen Order may not be as masterfully done as the other games with this style of super difficult but rewarding gameplay, but I’m a novice in the genre so I feel like I can’t give great commentary or comparisons when it comes to the games that came before it. But I finally get the appeal. There was a certain part of the game I was getting upset at, and I was asked if I was having fun or even liking the game. And the answer was yes. Although it took me a good hour and a half to beat this certain boss, my frustration wasn’t on the game but rather myself. I KNEW that ONE animation the boss made would lead to a certain attack, why did I block and not dodge? I was getting my ass beat and getting frustrated…but I was having a lot of fun and loving the experience. The relationship with this kind of gameplay style is certainly very weird and hard to describe, but I now understand the feeling of satisfaction when I finally learn the language of a boss enough to masterfully take him down and show him how much of Jedi I have truly become.

The last thing I want to shout out before wrapping up are the dungeons in this game. While more would have been welcome, having a hint of Zelda thrown into the middle of a Star Wars game inspired by Dark Souls was amazing. Each one rang true to classic Zelda design in the aspect of “all of the pieces of the puzzle are definitely here, I’m just an idiot.” Figuring out how all of the pieces clicked together and solving the puzzle felt just as satisfying as some of my favorite Zelda dungeons.

I could wrap up my thoughts with problems I had with the checkpoint system, the *very* few bugs I ran into, or the signposting in Jedi: Fallen Order, but those complaints feel so small compared to the reasons why I absolutely adore this game. Every aspect that Respawn nailed in Fallen Order flowed so well together so much that I truly felt the gameplay connected with the other systems and even the story to an extent. Many Star Wars games have had you travel across the galaxy as a Jedi, but Fallen Order feels like it truly earned why you are a Jedi in this game because it smartly injects the ethos of the religion into every aspect (except maybe the ropes and sliding…)

While I have given up on wanting to 100% the game (I tried but halfway through the 2nd planet, I quickly realized it was a bad idea), the amazing story and fun gameplay have me wanting to go back for another playthrough.

Star Wars is rad and this game reminded so much of why I still believe that to this day.

*Barrett Courtney is the social media coordinator for Kinda Funny and directs some of their podcasts. He has a strong passion for Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Batman. He’s addicted to replaying video games that he loves (like the Batman: Arkham series once a year), so much so that he’s currently playing through the 11 mainline Zelda games. He’s not too sure why he does it to himself.*

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