by Jess O’Brien on
Smight and Emily from Arcade Pit break down their Top Ten Games of 2021
Arcade Pit is a weekly streaming gameshow in the spirit of Nick Arcade, but better! Brutal trivia and silly challenges, every Sunday at 8pm EDT! Since Arcade Pit is being represented by two people, this is a COMBO GOTY LIST. Emily’s top 5, plus Smight’s Top 5. Put ‘em together and, baby, that’s what I call ten. It’s Arcade Pit’s Top Ten Games of 2021!
Smight: This year has brought me even further into the realm of indie games; I played them almost exclusively. There were some tremendous releases that offered a lot of innovation and beautiful artwork. I also ran into some fresh roguelikes aiming to absorb hundreds of hours of my time.
Emily: 2021 was a hell of a year! Thankfully, part of what made the year was an absolutely great track of new releases. Even weirder was the number of highly anticipated sequels that were like… a decade in the making? NEO: The World Ends With You, New Pokemon Snap, No More Heroes 3, Metroid Dread- it’s like some kind of stars aligned just right to see people get exactly what they’d been asking for. Maybe it was the universe’s way of apologizing.
But regardless of why they happened, I’m here to talk about my personal favorite releases of 2021! (Things that didn’t make the list that I recommend checking out, by the way: Monster Hunter Rise, New Pokemon Snap, Inscryption, Loop Hero, Resident Evil 8.) Unlike Smight, I played a lot of mainline stuff this year and it definitely shows in my picks! Hopefully at least one of them might be new to you, because I recommend them all highly.
Smight’s #5: Nuclear Blaze
A firefighting platformer from the creator of Dead Cells?! My interest sparked up immediately. This game features some gorgeous pixel art. The fire and lighting effects do their job of making it clear where the water needs to be. Very nice controls too. The firefighter movement feels great, and there are new abilities to discover along the way. And cats! In trouble!! I wasn’t about to leave one behind.
This one takes place almost entirely in some sort of underground facility, which happens to be ill-equipped for heat. Finding out more about this place is part of the journey. Aside from fire, which hurts quite a bit, there’s electricity, backdrafts and explosions to worry about.
Nuclear Blaze features a lot of options for visuals to give you various degrees of the retro look. I also feel like this would be a good game for speedrunners to tackle. My main one criticism, the game might be a bit short. However, it was heartwarming to open up the bonus content and see a mode designed for children, with a note from the developer about wanteding their child to be able to play. The objective is to take your now-immortal firefighter through various areas to rescue all the kittens.
Emily’s #5: NEO: The World Ends With You
I found the original TWEWY a bit late into the game’s life cycle, when it had gone from niche release on the DS to having some growing amount of cult following. But what I did eventually find was an incredible experience that made me really reconsider how I thought about myself and others. The style was fantastic, the controls challenged me, and the music I still listen to today. One of my largest criticisms, and some of the highest praise I can give, is that it left me wanting more. So, could NEO capture the spark that made the original shine so brightly?
The answer, for me, was a resounding yes.
As someone that absolutely loves a smartly designed combat system, I want to praise this first and foremost: They somehow translated the feel of the combat from TWEWY into not only a different graphical style but a different control scheme entirely. The original’s two-screen dual-control scheme was appropriately mind-bending for the time, but given the lack of dual screen with the move to a console it wasn’t possible to translate it directly (though the remasters have tried to varying degrees of success). But the use of a single-button input for the team, with each button having a different method of input (hold and move, tap, timed hits, hold and channel, etc.) means that you still have to try and keep your different methods of attack straight in the heat of battle. The Beatdrop Gauge fills the same role as the old Light Puck used to, ensuring that your team is at their best when they all work together.
The music remains a highlight, with the entire soundtrack keeping the tradition of endless hits alive. Taking both from a wealth of new and classic bangers, there were only a few longer days where I ever found myself getting used to a song and not grooving along. Picking any favorites is a rough ask… but if I had to try, I’d say that Breaking Free, Scramble, and the evergreen TRANSFORMATION are all ones I keep coming back to.
As for the story- and I mean this in the kindest way- I don’t think I’m the target audience anymore.
It’s a bit bittersweet, but I always felt that TWEWY is a series that’s aimed at helping people find something in themselves, whether it’s the confidence to take the lead or the bravery to express yourself freely to others. And while I don’t think that I’m as strongly in need of its message anymore, I think that it accomplishes exactly what it came here to do.
The characters are all wonderful, and the collection of a larger party over the course of the game means that there’s more opportunity for all of them to bounce off of one another in fun and interesting ways. The hooded boy you keep seeing around, the one everyone calls Neku in hushed and slightly reverent voices, is a personal favorite and one I was overjoyed to see return. But the newcomers manage to not only hold their own but shine brightly as worthy successors, with Rindo/Fret/Nagi/Shoka all truly being brought to life by the incredible work of their VAs.
If you liked the original, I can’t recommend this one enough, yo!
Smight’s #4: One Hand Clapping
It was the absolutely fantastic artwork and concepts that made me want to give this one a shot. A puzzle/platformer that uses your voice as the key to progress. It seems like a perfect game for a streamer to embarrass themselves. I sure did, as I meandered through the intro stage, awkwardly humming some doors down. Getting used to the idea, I started shouting generators to life and clocks into position.
I wasn’t able to get away with just white noise for long; pitch and rhythm quickly became part of my quest. One Hand Clapping will have you singing duets in tune with animal friends to navigate through desert ruins, and drumming the darkness away on top of the mountains. My favorite sections recorded short samples from me to use later as effects, which produced some stellar sound design.
Using voice as a primary vehicle for solving problems is a new experience for me. The closest that I’ve personally encountered were the handful of Nintendo DS games that used the mic to detect any noise at all, and they didn’t do much. One Hand Clapping is completely designed around it. After the intro, you won’t get anywhere until you commit yourself to song. They also provide a healthy dose of accessibility options; You can adjust the range expected for your vocals, and enable on-screen displays to help guide your voice to the right tone.
Emily’s #4: Metroid Dread
That this game exists is wild beyond belief to me. After so long, I’d just kinda convinced myself that Fusion was going to be the furthest in the series timeline I’d see and the rest would be updated releases or well-crafted but self-contained stories. But almost 20 years later, I can finally pick up the sidescrolling Metroid game I didn’t know I needed all these years and it is FANTASTIC.
First and foremost, this game feels unbelievably smooth to control. Switching between all of Samus’ arsenal feels rough at first but more and more natural as time goes on, letting player skill grow right alongside the protagonist. The fluidity of the movement, the aiming, and the melee counters adds a degree of fast and tight play that I don’t know that I ever really felt from previous entries in the franchise.
Accordingly, the enemies in this game have been made significantly more potent. Bosses feel fast and threatening, enemies in the overworld feel like actual (slight) obstacles even into the endgame, and Samus feels exactly equipped to the situation as you make your way through the world.
But that isn’t to say that this game is as linear as previous installments had been accused of being. One of the biggest complaints against Fusion over the years has been how firmly the game holds you to a single route, and it seems like the developers of Dread really took that criticism to heart. Dread will absolutely guide you through what you would think is the ‘correct’ way on your first playthrough, an experience that feels tailored to guarantee you make your way through the game well equipped and constantly growing stronger. But a cursory glance under the hood of the engine and at a couple of the speedruns will reveal a much more open and flexible progression path than you might first see, and I think that’s a sign of level designers that have not only met but exceeded the expectations of their job.
If I had a single complaint to levy against the game and its levels, it’s that the EMMI don’t feel nearly as threatening as the SA-X once did. Billed as unstoppable predators, the threat falls a little thin considering how early you destroy the first and the reliability with which you’ll take them down throughout the game. That said, I still enjoy their sections as a small traversal puzzle to solve. But on either side of that puzzle is a truly engaging story.
The story too, for me, managed to exceed any expectations I had. Fusion was a hard act to follow, especially given the narrative density of the Prime games in the interim (and Other M, maligned though it is). But where previous games brought the world to life with dialogue and scannable environmental logs, it’s incredibly refreshing to see just how little Metroid Dread chooses to say with words directly. Samus’ story is told largely through body language, in how she handles the situations she’s put through, in exactly how unphased she remains after the numbers of wild adventures she’s had over the years. The care in her animations are an absolute highlight, even after finishing the game. And what dialogue is spoken, is all in service to a narrative that feels like it hasn’t missed a step in the time since the last installment.
Fantastic experience, relatively short but with fantastic replay value. Highly recommend if you’re a fan of the series.
Smight’s #3: Wildermyth
A procedurally-generated RPG campaign that ambitiously focuses on the details of your team, and allows for intense customization of the length and difficulty of the quest. Campaigns can be long enough that you’ll find yourself retiring an adventurer to old age and picking up an inexperienced replacement. Design your heroes, develop their backstories, and watch as they interact with each other and their environments. They’ll gain new familiars and abilities, earn scars, and probably lose a few limbs.
Wildermyth is a turn-based strategy and team-building campaign. Death and age are a big concern for your team. The degree of diversity is incredible; there are so many different ways to branch out each character’s appearance, abilities, and attitude. I designed my team to be led by a fearless warrior who wasn’t going to let anything through. Behind her, a wizard who specializes in turning rocks and trees into shrapnel, partnered with a ranger who didn’t know how to miss. If this sort of game appeals to you, Wildermyth is as polished as they come. Tons of content to explore and many settings to challenge you as you become more familiar with it.
Emily’s #3: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
This one’s rough to write about just because I genuinely do not think I can properly do justice to Disco Elysium in a couple paragraphs. That may be, in part, due to just how much there is to the game itself: Disco Elysium is one of the wordiest games I’ve ever played by not only a significant, but a widely significant margin. But this is a game that is built around, and works entirely in service to, a narrative that is meant for you to experience in a multitude of different ways. There are so many voiced options, different trains of thought, different responses to how your disaster supercop chooses to impose himself on the world around him.
So when I say that it’s absolutely mindboggling to me that it got voice acted IN FULL, I need you to understand what a massive undertaking it must have been. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is a miracle for existing, and an even greater one for all of the voice acting being done so well.
Part of what drew me in and kept me invested with Disco Elysium was the unique way your character is built. Your stats, in the absence of any active combat system, instead encompass a wide breadth of different facets of the main character’s personality. The Protagonist’s psyche is a wildly interesting collection of unique facets of his personality that all have their own wants, needs, and influence on how you can approach the world around you. The passive checks that are constantly running through conversations will occasionally pop in with a thought that feels appropriate, specifically because you’ve built your own version of the main character to think and act that way. It’s a way of characterization through character creation that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and don’t think I’ll see again any time soon.
Truth be told, I want to address every character in this review, mention every interaction, talk about every way the game impressed me. From the adventure with a couple young adults starting a club in an abandoned church, to the heartwarming interactions with a cryptozoologist at the local diner, to the conversations with the local union boss in a shipping container, to the constant comforting friendship of Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi (quite possibly one of my favorite characters of all time now), every person and interaction in this game left their mark on me. Even Cuno, whether I wanted him to or not.
But I feel like I can’t talk about it to someone without them having been there. Martinaise truly feels like a town to be experienced first, and discussed later. If you want an engaging story and world and you haven’t done so yet, Please Play Disco Elysium. The only thing I’ll say in advance is that when the opportunity comes to put some cryptozoological stank on yourself, I recommend taking it. Hobocop life isn’t complete without a bit of latent water strider stench, after all.
I missed the train on the deckbuilding roguelikes that really kicked off with Slay the Spire, so I hopped on the one to hell. Monster Train had absorbed so much of my time last year. I loved the visuals, music and general direction of the whole game. It’s a three-lane tower defense inside the train, with vulnerable crystal that needs protected at all costs. Drop monsters, spells and heroes down inside the lanes to confront the hordes of demons and angels that are after your cargo. The UI was very helpful for me during my introduction to the genre. It helped me determine what was happening, and what numbers and effects my team was pulling.
After learning the ropes and sinking some 200~ hours into Monster Train, I finally started to run into some endgame repetition; the balance would prove to me time and time again that some things just wouldn’t work, and others, like stealth, always would. So I moved on for a while, until the Last Divinity DLC released. When I came back, there was an entire new clan to play, many new heroes, and a new final boss. More importantly to me, a number of balance adjustments and new features that gave me deeper control over my team. The ability to sacrifice units to make a more powerful one was introduced, as well as the option to take on hazards for extra pay. Giving the player many viable options is what I look for in my roguelike games. So I really feel like this DLC has transformed a game that I love into a much more complete package. Needless to say, I’m much more open to the deckbuilding genre than I was before.
Emily’s #2: Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye
Echoes of the Eye is about fear, and I deeply respect it for that.
Let me back up. Outer Wilds is one of my favorite games to have played, that I truly regret never being able to play again in the same way. It is a game that, for better or worse, can be experienced for the first time exactly once. It accomplished everything it set out to do, and remains one of the few games to leave me crying with emotions I can’t even properly name. So when I heard that there was going to be DLC, I couldn’t quite figure out how they were going to manage it but I was overjoyed that they had taken the challenge.
I’m just as overjoyed to report that EotE absolutely kicks ass, and left me profoundly affected just as much as the original game.
By its nature, I can’t discuss much of the story proper. Part of the joy and wonder of Outer Wilds is in exploring the worlds of your solar system, piecing together the history and present of its collection of small worlds one 22 minute loop at a time. But I may be able to discuss the themes.
Outer Wilds, at its core, feels like a game that wants to talk about how we handle endings. Not of stories in a traditional format, but as a general concept. When it comes time to talk about how our protagonist approaches the catastrophic events of the time loop you find yourself in, it’s almost admirable that their first and foremost reaction seems to be curiosity. Led by the player, the Hearthian wants to know Why. For good or ill, they want to understand what is happening, and this is a sentiment shared by the Nomai before them. It’s a message of acceptance of the end that comes with this understanding, and that feels like a message I’ll carry with me for some time.
Echoes of the Eye is not about acceptance of an end. Echoes of the Eye, in setting and in story, is about an understandable and warranted fear of the end. This DLC is explicitly built to be scarier than its base game (an experience that already had its fair share of unnerving moments). But more importantly, it’s about how you process that fear and move onward. How you can put a light into the future, not for the absence of that fear, but in acceptance of it. And I think that’s beautiful.
Please play Outer Wilds. It’s a space exploration game with a 22 minute time loop mechanic, where you are given every tool at the start of the game and the only limiting factor to your exploration is how much you know and how much you understand. As a result, I can’t tell you much more. I can’t even tell you about the moments that brought me to tears. But I say that this game truly made me better value the time I have, and that I’ll always remember my time with it fondly. Scares and all.
Smight’s #1 PowerWashing Simulator
This isn’t a joke, I love this game! I’ve powerwashed a deck or two in my day and never thought I’d be putting some silly idea like this at the top of my list, but it’s so… good. Everything about it is so well done, and gets improved with each update. The maps are elaborate and beautiful, especially when they are free of dirt. The vehicle jobs feature intricate detailing with lots of individual parts afflicted with various gunk. The appropirate distance and pressure to use changes from piece to piece; rust won’t come off to a light dusting.
PowerWashing Simulator is a game about cleaning the filthiest, grimiest town of all time. Houses are absolutely caked in dirt. Playgrounds and parks covered in grime. With the help of a truckload of water and various nozzles and soaps, there’s a lot of washing to do. That’s what the game looks like on the outset, and it is, but the feature list is incredible. You can hit tab to highlight dirt, adjust your nozzles on the fly with a quickmenu, rotate sideways on hotkeys, and turn on autospray. (Please turn on autospray, for the sake of your wrists!) The PowerWasher’s tablet can be pulled up to figure out what parts are still gross, and set them to blink so you can identify them. Aiming at objects tells you how clean they are, what they’re made of, and what needs removed. You can even set the reverb levels of your washer!
There is a bit of a developing story, amusingly done through incoming text messages while you clean. I’m actually rather invested in finding the mayor’s missing cat. But what’s really impressive about PowerWashing Simulator is that, despite the polish, it’s still an unreleased, early access title. The developers have been providing huge updates to this game on a regular basis. The last patch included cooperative campaigns, and I have to say, it was the most fluid coop experience I’ve ever had. With almost no latency at all, I was able to hop on with my pals and start assisting on their projects. The overall experience, which I already enjoyed quite a bit, was dramatically enhanced by this feature alone. People who enjoy this sort of stress-free gaming session will find themselves checking for the next map release on a regular basis, along with the rest of us.
Honorable mention: The Binding of Isaac’s new DLC is extremely good. Unfortunately, you won’t be accessing it very easily without blasting through the rest of the game, which is extremely heavy, and pretty difficult! Because it’s so heavily gated, I didn’t feel it should make my list.
Emily’s #1 Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker
This is likely no surprise to anyone that knows me. I’ve been a massive fan of FFXIV for years, and so I won’t reiterate at length the things that the game, as a whole, continues to excel at. The gameplay is great, the spectacle largely unrivaled in the MMO space at this time, the community incredibly welcoming (but not right now, the free trial is closed, my world is queued, I am begging you to play something else so I can get in).
Instead, I want to talk about Endwalker specifically.
Endwalker, as a contained experience, is about hope and despair. It’s about loss and sadness as much as it’s about the joys both small and large that make life worthwhile. It’s a game that (much like Outer Wilds, actually) is about accepting that nothing lasts forever. That everything will end. That anything that we have is temporary, that there is no greater meaning than what we make for ourselves, and that ultimately there is no hope of ever truly living free of loss.
And Endwalker gets to be so many things to carry that message. Beautiful. Gut-wrenching. Overwhelming. Triumphant.
Now at a time when I find my own thoughts turning to the world at large, when I regularly feel defeated and powerless, Endwalker finds a way to remind me to always seek the lights in the darkness, small and fleeting as they are. It reminded me, in its own way, there will always be sorrow and suffering, but that doesn’t mean that we should never stop trying to do our part. That there doesn’t always have to be a meaning in what we do apart from the joy that it brings us, and the people around us. That we can be that light for someone else, or even for ourselves.
It encourages us to look at the life we live, despite the struggles we face, and asks us if it’s all worth it before leaving without waiting for an answer. And just as strongly, it encourages you to embrace everything that makes that answer Yes, and to always seek new adventures and new experiences. To acknowledge what drives us, and carry others even as we pursue those wants. To look at the questions that drive us, acknowledge that there will never be a single answer, and find our own. To tell us that an ending doesn’t mean our journey is over, just that it’s changed.
Because there will always be endings, both great and small. But it’s in the times leading to those ends, those fleeting moments, that we find the things that make it all worthwhile.
“In the same fleeting moment, thou must live, die, and know.”