20. Fire Emblem Heroes (Intelligent Systems, Mobile, 2017)
Watching Fire Emblem, after twenty years of relative obscurity, finally claw out of a passionate niche following and dive headfirst into the public consciousness of mainstream gaming has been electrifying to witness. Yet be it either the seminal Awakening or the critically-acclaimed Three Houses, nothing represents this rise to prominence better than Fire Emblem Heroes — the mobile game service that achieved the impossible of outselling a Mario contemporary. (Granted, Super Mario Run isn’t equipped with micro-transactions, but still!) Ignore the slipshod story and merely look at how Heroes reveres its history in gleefully reintroducing characters famed and unknown — familiar favorites from Path of Radiance or JPN-only hits in Genealogy of the Holy War — all the while appropriating them to customizable dream teams and skill set-ups.
I mean not to dismiss gaming industry’s concerns with micro-transaction feedback — indeed, Heroes isn’t shy about its gacha loop in obtaining coveted characters (Why else do you think they have over half a dozen Lyns and Camillas?) — yet for my tastes, the game’s Orb economy been extremely generous in its hand-outs; actually, I just received 19 Orbs while writing this! We’ve seen Nintendo stumble and fall in its accustoming to the mobile sphere, but Fire Emblem Heroes‘s devotion to malleable micro-management across an ever-growing three-year service — prime for incremental Uber trips or intensive hour-long unit tinkering — is evidence of their (or should I say Intelligent Systems’?) dedication.
Best Moment: When you finally, finally get the coveted unit you want; sadly, as described in Final Thoughts, I’ve yet to achieve that goal…
Worst Moment: Seriously, how many times am I going to hear Hana rave about her dead father? It’s bad enough I’m repeatedly subjected to repeat rolls, but two dialogue windows is just salt on the wound.
Favorite Unit: Takumi’s always been my go-to unit — hello, Close Counter and Vengeance! — although I’m also quite fond of Sharena, Azura, Raven, the numerous Ikes, and Brave Lyn.
Final Thoughts: When am I ever going to get Winter Lissa? With how much Winter Chrom kept cropping up, I get the impression he doesn’t want me near his sister — we were meant to be together, dammit!
19. Super Mario Maker (Nintendo, Wii U, 2015)
“What’s it like to make a Mario level?” Thanks to Wii U, the age-old question was delivered onto players into the do-it-yourself Super Mario Maker. Intuitive and clever in its retrofitting of four different 2D Mario classics (Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U) with new and old mechanics, Super Mario Maker invites us into the developmental minutiae of game development, encouraging trial-and-error as we gradually value the player’s perspective via telegraphing (don’t just plaster Thwomps for the sake of cheap deaths — place them accordingly so players can plan ahead); actually, given Mario‘s innate qualities of cause-and-effect, who’s to say the game won’t throw aspiring level designers a bone in happy accidents? (Wait, enemies can bounce off Note Blocks too? Hmm…)
In fostering an online community dedicated to rivaling Nintendo’s best (or trolling unsuspecting players with impenetrable death trap/softlock levels; your pick), Super Mario Maker‘s sandbox rewards both curious players seeking thrills and aspiring creators who carefully studied the modus operandi of Mario throughout the years; consequently, we’re treated to ingenious concepts that surely took even Nintendo themselves by surprise, what with stunning subversions in everything from Buzzy Beetle tennis to reducing the ever-helpful mushrooms as a level-clearing deterrent. All this and more’s applicable to 2019 sequel Super Mario Maker 2, of course, but with how the original went the extra mile with Mystery Mushroom costumes featuring familiar Nintendo characters as charming Super Mario Bros. sprites (Not to mention the crossover absurdity in its promotional costumes; I mean, Game Center CX‘s Shinya Arino and Nisekoi‘s Chitoge Kirisaki?), the impetus to shatter Mario‘s boundaries into echoing that of a Zelda maze, a Kirby song re-enactment, a Shaun the Sheep episode, or whatever else tickles our imaginative fancy was no longer exclusively Nintendo’s call — it’s ours.
Best Moment: When a level you’ve been meticulously designing for however long finally clicks together — all the better when it receives positive reception!
Worst Moment: Two words: Super Expert. The 100-Mario challenge was already tough enough, but it’s here where you’ll certainly experience no shortage of intentionally discouraging garbage — enough within the giant enemy swarm levels, already!
Best Song: It’s cool Koji Kondo made some original SMB/SMB3 tunes for Ghost/Airship levels and whatnot, but those creator songs are great meditative pieces. Dat nostalgia!
Final Thoughts: Man, I wish I finished that Pikmin costume level…or got around to a EarthBound-themed one.
18. Pokémon Black and White (Game Freak, DS, 2010/2011)
Our one and only DS entry hails back to what’s, to my mind, the last stellar Pokémon generation. While the world’s biggest media franchise has long since finally made the jump into 3D, it’s amazing how Black and White still feel like the last appropriate evolution; yes, it was only a matter of time until the Pokédex began bursting at the seams with Sword and Shield, but we’d yet to tolerate bumpy 3D transitions in railroaded routes and diminished returns in barebones post-game content. Black and White‘s Unova region is daring as it is grandiose, supplying us with an exclusively contemporary cast of catchable monsters as we traverse scenic bridges, ancient desert ruins, and cozy forests to the beat of a humbling tale of companionship.
Globetrotting adventures and boilerplate moralizing on friendship and responsibility are no strangers to Pokémon, of course, but Black and White‘s earnest diligence pushing the series forward scrubs over any cheesy storytelling. With a cast of especially well-designed Pokémon, much-needed quality-of-life upgrades (hello, unlimited TMs!), and an pseudo-MMO service in Dream World (now sadly defunct, but at least we can still trade old Pokes from the other DS games), it’s hardly any surprise Game Freak iterated upon their bold pseudo-3D frontiers with the chock-full Pokémon Black and White 2. Will Pokémon ever evolve like this again?
Best Moment: “Am…am I really gonna cross that bridge? Oh man, it’s huge! Oh, wow, that city! Ahhh, it’s all 3D! I can’t take it!”
Worst Moment: Scream all you like about “censorship”, but boy, I am sure am glad the localization scrubbe this….ahem, “awkwardness.” Seriously, what was up with that?
Best New Pokemon: For all of Black and White‘s out-of-the-box ideas in Klingklang and Meloetta, I find myself especially drawn to the “cool” designs here in Zekrom, Conkeldurr, and Krookodile. The elemental monkeys are the runaway winners are far as cuteness goes, although my favorite basic design lies in Smugleaf — er, I mean, Snivy.
Final Thoughts: I mean, X and Y were fine, but Sun and Moon’s constant interruptions and never-ending barrage of “WILD POKEMON CALLED FOR HELP! were thoroughly irritating, and I find it rather difficult to start much fuss over Sword and Shield’s Pokédex cuts when it’s already this vanilla and conservative.
17. Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, Wii/3DS, 2010/2015)
When Yoko Shimomura’s piano keys greet the Monado — embedded within a sprawling field, enduring the elements of countless days and nights — we know we’re in for something special from Xenosaga developer Monolith Soft. While other modern Nintendo RPGs in The Last Story and MiiTopia confined themselves to dedicated niches, the scale of Xenoblade Chronicles drew immediate attention in its wild new setting: the teeming carcasses of two expired gods, locked in eternal war between man and machine. From the very beginning, the looming environments surrounding Shulk and his chatty companions beckon us, disregarding any imminent Mechon threats and simply wandering about Colony 9’s expanses, solving its inhabitants’ quests, slaying its outdoor monster packs, and indulging in our party’s ceaseless banter. (“Reyn time, baby!”)
Any evident Wii limitations only prove its strengths; for instance, are the sidequests samey in fetch and monster-hunting objectives? Yes. Do they deviously play into Xenoblade‘s earnest encouragement of exploring every last inch of this strange new world? You better believe it. Outdated graphics? Sure, but I dare you to look at the screenshot above and tell me any grainy textures undermine the inviting artistry of everything from the all-encompassing cliffs of Gaur Plain to Valak Mountain’s light-protruding crystals illuminating the night sky, instilling our drive to scavange every abundant crevice, every open field both titans left behind in death. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may’ve finally put the series on the map — and by association, breaking new ground in a mainstay Nintendo RPG — but this inspired originator remains one of Nintendo’s most impressive, engaging debuts (And to think — Nintendo of America dared contemplate to pass on this; shame on them!).
Best Moment: Gameplay-wise? Again, stepping onto the iconic Gaur Plain tells us what we’re in for. Story-wise — the big reveals on Prison Island are when stuff gets real.
Worst Moment: I mean, I guess the game was already long enough, but the finale felt abrupt in tying up Xenoblade‘s grand themes with your standard Japanese shonen moralizing of “we change little by little” and “real strength comes from within!” all the while hastily shrugging off undeveloped reveals.
Best Song: Gaur Plain, anyone? I mean, okay, You Will Know Our Names is an amazing battle theme, but everyone remembers their first trip to the Bionis’s knee for a reason. Another instant classic lies within Satorl Marsh’s night theme, thanks to Manami Kiyota’s otherworldy vocals.
Final Thoughts: I wonder when the remake will launch — rumors are pointing towards a May release.
16. Kirby Planet Robobot (HAL Laboratory, 3DS, 2016)
From Kirby Triple Deluxe to Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, the past decade’s Golden Age of Kirby games has been a delightful boon for Nintendo’s most adorable mascot. Freed from the shackles of Sakurai-originated remakes and sub-par Flagship collaborations, HAL Laboratory stepped into Kirby‘s 20th anniversary with stride, continually pumping out one high-quality Pop Star adventure after another with a side buffet of delectable spin-offs. While Kirby Super Star may still reign king with its varied scenarios, not even during Masahiro Sakurai’s masterful fledgling years did the series’ output consistently maintain this level of excellence in gameplay, challenge, and production value. (Complete with this era’s intrinsic values — just observe Kirby‘s recent passion for fun world-building!)
If forced to choose a favorite, however, Planet Robobot is the one to scrape by. With each modern Kirby game relying on one all-powerful gimmick dominating the level design (Hypernovas, Super Abilities, and Friend Hearts being other contemporaries), the titular Robobots are the ones most active in play — cleverly molding themselves through Kirby’s signature Copy Abilities, their beefed-up movesets blaze through factories, trains, and mechanized fields with the trademark madness of a Kirby sugar-rush. (Just observe Fire Robobot torching Waddle Dee traffic above; seriously, those little guys can’t take a break!) In turn, Planet Robobot’s inspired to turn the rest of Kirby conventions on their head, wasting no time in transforming our customary opening tree boss fight into a camera-whipping explosion-filled melee (complete with a subtle environmental messsage!). Topped off with an engaging balance of flexible difficulty, and you have the best mainline Kirby game of the decade.
Best Moment: Kirby has resorted to action-packed shmups as final boss set-pieces in the past, yet I can think of none more rousing than this — becoming one with Meta Knight’s Halberd airship and taking down a giant killer machine gone rogue (one which happens to look awfully familiar…). Increasing the stakes in every phase and topped off with a teary-eyed ending, Star Dream set a new standard for Kirby finales.
Worst Moment: Planet Robobot can already get pretty tough, but The True Arena’s easily the most difficult challenge in series history. Simply put: the revised final boss will kick your ass, and many a swear word was uttered when I got lax during a certain, uh, “last-ditch effort”. (Contrary to Kirby‘s innocence, I know, but I suspect fellow fans know what I’m talking about. By the way, in case you’re still stuck on True Arena, I wrote a guide entailing how to beat the most difficult bosses.)
Best Song: Admittedly, while Jun Ishikawa’s and Hirokazu Ando’s techno take on the soundtrack was certainly interesting, I wasn’t as taken music-wise as I was with Return to Dream Land and Triple Deluxe. Regardless, Pink Ball Activate! was a rousing battle theme (particularly this version), and I rather enjoyed the title screen’s echo in the final boss fight.
Final Thoughts: For all of Kirby Star Allies‘s inherent nostalgia, I noted with a broken heart it didn’t live up to the rest of the Golden Age. Let’s hope we don’t hit a slump for the 2020s!