The complete video version of this review is above, but if you’d prefer to read, here’s the rough script for your reading pleasure.
Launching with Apple Arcade this fall, Grindstone was one of the several games that stood out in a pack of surprisingly good mobile games. Grindstone looks and plays similarly to a million other games on the App Store today, but it does a few things particularly well to separate it from the standard mindless mobile game.
This is going to sound like faint praise, but I was struck by how much Grindstone felt like a pay-to-win game, just without the pay-to-win elements. Wherever the developer would have put an impossible level or some sort of time mechanic that made you wait to play again, they just put something fun instead. This turned the game into something fun and addictive, rather than something that was trying to trick me into paying 99¢ here and there to get to the next level. It really showed how much fun a lot of these seedy mobile games could be if they didn’t have to rely on micro-transactions to turn a profit.
Grindstone also just so happens to be a really fun game in its own right. The color matching mechanic is done well and sits on top of an art style that I really love. The animations are fun, and the music and sound effects make getting long combos extra satisfying.
Grindstone is free with an Apple Arcade subscription, so check it out if you’re already paying for that.
4. Resident Evil 2
My Resident Evil catalogue is woefully limited, as I’ve only played 1, 4, and 7. I liked 1 and 7, and 4 is one of my all time favorite games, but I never got around to playing RE2, which I’ve heard nothing but praise for over the years. After playing this remake all the way at the start of 2019, I totally get the hype now.
I made a video about this game immediately after finishing it, and at the time I had basically nothing but great things to say about it. Much like my #1 game of the year, which we’ll get to soon, this game takes place in a relatively small environment that you get to know incredibly well as it slowly opens up for you. I haven’t played the games since February, but I still have a crystal clear image in my head of the police station map, and if I started the game again today I could get everywhere with basically no hesitation.
The game just oozes quality from every pore, though. The visuals are outstanding, and the audio is, forgive me, to die for. And from a gameplay perspective, this game strikes a perfect balance between the action of RE4 and the dread from RE1.
Holedown didn’t technically come out in 2019, it was released in the late summer of 2018, but I didn’t come across it until this spring, and as Screen Time on my iPhone will tell you, I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit in this game.
I don’t even have much to say about it, other than the fact that it’s a game about bouncing balls off of bricks to make them go away, so that you can hit other bricks. That’s really it, but it’s immensely satisfying to slowly chip away at layer after layer of obstacles. Developing new strategies for how to get combos that completely wreck the board just never gets old for me.
There is a progression system in the game that is fun, but it really opens up when you unlock everything and get into the endgame content, where it lets you go as deep as you possibly can, which just turns into a personal challenge to get deeper than I have ever done before.
This is a one-time purchase game with no micro-transactions, which is good because they have me on the hook right now.
2. Death Stranding
I could probably spend an hour talking about this game, but I have about one minute for this video, so I’ll be brief.
Death Stranding is a game all about community. The story is about reconnecting the people of a devastated United States of America, and the gameplay starts off as a lonely, solo affair, but gradually reveals itself to actually be about how none of us can do it all alone and we need the help of others to get where we want to go.
Minor spoilers for the rest of this part, but there are parts of the game where you need to spend resources to build roads and bridges which will make the game world much easier to traverse. The amount of resources needed are way more than any one person could contribute in a reasonable amount of time, but if everyone contributes a small portion of what’s needed, you can get there. There are people connected to your game, and your contributions to a road are reflected in their game, just as theirs are reflected in yours. When enough real people contribute to the road, it finally gets built and all of you benefit from each other.
It’s just a wonderful feeling once this hits you, because you start thinking “oh man, this is going to take me literal days of grinding to even get close to affording this road” but once you realize it’s a team effort, you look at the world in terms of how you can contribute, not just how you can achieve things for yourself.
And this feeling of compradore extends to everything else in the game. There are storage lockers around the world and you can put things you don’t want to carry into a private or public locker. If they go into the private locker, only you can retrieve them later. If you put them in the public locker, anyone connected to your game can take them and use them for free. I started primarily using the private locker, but soon found myself compelled to offload as much as I could into the public locker. I would never see my items again, but I could almost always get what I needed from the public locker because everyone else was contributing to the community cache of goods.
And it goes on and on like that. You get notifications when people use and like the things you left in the world, and those likes count towards your in-game ranking, so it’s all building upon itself to get you to share more. The more you share, the more you get back, and that’s a beautiful thing.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
This is the second remake on this list, and it’s much more of a direct remake than the Resident Evil 2 one we’ve already talked about. This probably won’t be many people’s top game of the year, but this was the game that I simply enjoyed moment to moment more than anything else this year.
In my review of the game I called it a puzzle box where it’s small enough to get an intimate understanding of the world, while needing to solve basically every riddle it has in order to complete the story. It speaks to the brilliance of the team who worked on the Game Boy original that this game world is so well constructed that much like the police station in Resident Evil 2, I was able to keep this whole game world in my mind and I was navigating it like it was my hometown, only pulling up my map in rare cases.
The puzzles in this game are fun and satisfying, if not terribly difficult, and the combat is incredibly easy on the normal difficulty setting (especially if you complete the color dungeon to get either the red or blue costumes which make things even easier), but I found this to be exactly what I wanted at the time. Not every game needs to push you to “get good” as the game pummels you. This game was relaxing and satisfying, and that was just what I wanted it to be.
Oh, and the art style! I love the look of this game, and I know that’s not a universal feeling, but I think they did a great job of converting the old game into a style that is distinct, while also maintaining the overall vibe of the original game. I would love to see a whole series of 2D Zelda games converted to the Switch in this art style. Bring on Seasons and Ages! Bring on the original Zelda! And of course, bring on A Link to the Past!
If I did my list based on the games that innovated the most or had the most content for your dollar, then Link’s Awakening would not be in the top 5 of the year. It’s a relatively short game at about 15 hours and it’s very much a tile-for-tile recreation of the 20+ year old game it’s remaking, but my list is based on enjoyment, and there were no better video gaming time for me in 2019 than the 15 hours I put into this marvelous game, and that’s why it’s my personal game of the year.