In 2018, my relationship with gaming changed. What was once my primary hobby became mostly a weekend activity, and a sporadic one at that. Games that I would have raced through in a matter of days became months-long affairs. Many games I started went unfinished, due to lack of either time (Deltarune) or skill (Pato Box). I even bought or downloaded some games without so much as installing them (sorry, Vampyr!)

As my real-life responsibilities increased, I finally understood why so many adults struggle with completing big games. There just aren’t enough hours in a day to play Spider-Man, God of WarRed Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant KingdomValkyria Chronicles 4, and Octopath Traveler all in the same year. Tragically, every single one of those games ended up passing me by.

But I did manage to complete a number of smaller titles. 2018 was the year I got back into indie gaming in a big way. In contrast to 2017, when my top 10 list was dominated by major AAA titles, my 2018 list consists mostly of smaller titles and indie fare. By most standards, it’s a bizarre list, but who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a hidden gem in here.

I’m an editor at community-driven pop culture site The Avocado, and I was invited to contribute my year-end top 10 list to them. For that reason, most of this post is copy-pasted from there, though there was quite a bit of action around the #10 spot since then. By the way, if you want my full list of games I played this year, you can find it at this link.

Without further ado, here’s the list! (All screenshots are my own.)

10. Gris [Switch]

Gris

In some ways, Gris is a deeply flawed game: it can be an obtuse, trial-and-error experience, and its wordless narrative never really amounts to much. But man oh man, is it a sight to behold. It’s one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever played, exquisitely animated like a line drawing filled in with watercolours in motion. The platforming is tight, and the game constantly throws new mechanics at the player. If only all games could be this pretty.

9. Marble It Up! [Switch]

Marble It Up!

When it comes to Super Monkey Ball clones, you could do a lot worse than Marble It Up!, which was built as a collaboration between a collective of indie game studios. Clever level design, butter-smooth controls, and a killer soundtrack help make this one of the most purely fun games of 2018. Just try not to lose your marbles completing some of the more difficult challenges! (Pun intended.)

8. Semantris [Browser]

Semantris

Machine learning is very much en vogue these days, having taken the worlds of technology and academic research by storm. Nowadays, everyone wants to train neural networks to classify images, pilot autonomous vehicles, or even create fake anime series. Google decided to train a neural network to make word associations, based on millions of online conversations. Who knows what they actually plan to use the technology for? But for now, they’ve used it to fuel a delightful pair of browser games called Semantris, where the player’s goal is to make the same kind of word associations that the neural network would. The key is not to figure out which words are most associated with each other, but rather, to figure which words a computer would think are most associated with each other. While Google might be training computers to think like humans, games like these encourage us to think more like computers. What a weird world.

7. Q.U.B.E. 2 [PC]

Q.U.B.E. 2

After the release of Portal in 2007, first-person puzzlers exploded in popularity. Games like Magrunner: Dark Pulse, Quantum Conundrum, and The Talos Principle tweaked the formula that Valve perfected. Out of all these games, Q.U.B.E., with its colour-coded puzzle blocks and sterile white environments, felt the most like a Portal clone. Its sequel, Q.U.B.E. 2, will do little to convince you that Toxic Games isn’t just in the business of copying Valve’s far more popular series; if anything, while Q.U.B.E. was a pretty faithful recreation of Portal with different puzzle mechanics, Q.U.B.E. 2 apes Portal 2 pretty heavily, even going as far as to include a transition from clean, modern environments to run-down, historical ones. But hey, originality is overrated. Puzzle games live and die by the strength of their puzzles, and Q.U.B.E. 2 more than delivers on that front. The game’s brainteasers hit that sweet spot just between ease and frustration, and the puzzle mechanics build on each other in clever ways. Few games are as good at teaching you how to play them as Q.U.B.E. 2.

6. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories [Switch]

The Missing

With a Swery game, you kind of know what you’re going to get: a quirky, somewhat janky – okay, very janky – adventure with a creepy vibe that owes a few too many debts to Twin Peaks. And that’s exactly what The Missing is: a clever, atmospheric puzzle-platformer that crashed my Nintendo Switch about five times. But with a Swery game, you also know that there will be numerous twists and surprises. To spoil them for you would be doing you a disservice, so let me just say that the game makes good on the pronouncement in its opening text crawl: “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.”

5. Mario Tennis Aces [Switch]

Mario Tennis Aces

Mario Tennis Aces didn’t turn out to be the grand tennis RPG that some fans were no doubt hoping for. What they got instead was more akin to a fighting game, where characters can unleash special moves and even have their rackets take damage. Playing the game is a bizarre, almost balletic experience, but it’s also deeply strategic; players have to make split-second decisions about whether to conserve their energy for massively powerful shots, or spend it on less powerful shots that could earn them quick points. I’ve sunk about 85 hours into Aces, and that’s just in the single-player modes. Rarely has a sports game been this addictive. (The steady drip-feed of free new content helps.)

4. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life [PS4]

Yakuza 6

A single motif permeates the final entry – at least until the upcoming reboot – in the Yakuza series: legacy. The question of how past generations influence future ones lies at the centre of The Song of Life, resulting in a more sombre and subdued game than previous Yakuza titles. Gone are the multiple playable characters and the outlandish, over-the-top espionage shenanigans, leaving an opportunity for series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu to ponder the kind of life he built for his adoptive niece, Haruka. (Okay, let’s be real; she’s pretty much his daughter.) But don’t fret: that doesn’t mean that The Song of Life is overly serious. This is still a game where you can sing karaoke, frequent a cat café, and even don a mascot costume for the kids! Let it never be said that Kiryu doesn’t know how to have a good time.

3. Quarantine Circular [PC]

Quarantine Circular

A cynic might call this short narrative adventure from Mike Bithell an Arrival rip-off, and in all honesty, that’s not wholly inaccurate. But to describe it as such misses the subtle character work that goes into crafting a seamless story with branching paths and shifting perspectives. If nothing else, Quarantine Circular demonstrates the value of stepping into someone else’s shoes when in the midst of crucial philosophical and ethical debates.

2. Chuchel [PC]

Chuchel

Amanita Design’s games have a reputation for blending quirky humour, goofy animation, and fiendishly difficult puzzles. For Chuchel, however, the studio stepped away from their bread and butter of deceptively obtuse point-and-click adventures to deliver what is effectively a series of puzzle “vignettes,” interspersed with a bunch of weird, delightful mini-games. It’s not just endlessly inventive; it’s also a knee-slapping good time.

1. Yoku’s Island Express [PC]

Yoku's Island Express

What a strange, unique, remarkable little gem. If nothing else, Yoku’s Island Express will go down in gaming history for taking what seemed like an absurd premise and just rolling with it. (Pun very much intended.) But somehow, combining pinball wizardry with the platforming and exploration of a Metroidvania works like gangbusters. Each segment of the map is an obstacle course full of flippers, bumpers, and other sundry doodads, and there are dozens of secret nooks and crannies to explore. It’s all held together with a gorgeous, hand-painted art style reminiscent of Ori and the Blind Forest (another Metroidvania) and a light (but not irreverent) touch. Rarely has a new studio come out of the gate with a masterpiece on their hands, but Villa Gorilla’s debut title makes a strong argument that it’s deserving of the distinction.

And there you have it: my Top 10 games of the year. Honourable mentions go to Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth – Hacker’s Memory, which I completed last night, and Forgotton Anne, which once held the #10 spot but gave it up to Gris.

Now, for the worst game of 2018!

One of the worst fucking games I’ve ever played: InnerSpace [PC]

Garbage. Just utter fucking garbage.

I take no pleasure in bashing indie labours of love. But I’d be remiss if I just let the absolute tire fire that is InnerSpace get off scot-free. Holy fucking shit, this is a terrible game. Just absolutely, utterly atrocious. The entire premise of the game seems to be, “What if we made Abzû, but it was impossible to control? And we added shitty ‘puzzles’? And we added dialogue? And we used only, like, three fucking colours?” There is not a single element of this game that feels like a good idea. Here’s a thought: if you want to make a game themed around exploration, maybe don’t make it hard to actually get around the world? Like, maybe flight controls were a bad idea? And maybe letting PC players control the player character with mouse movements would have been a good idea? The fact that I have to suggest the concept of mouse-look to the devs should tell you what kind of game we’re working with here. And you know what the worst part is? Aside from a weird resolution glitch in the tutorial, the game isn’t buggy at all. That suggests InnerSpace‘s quality isn’t the result of a troubled development cycle or running out of time; it means the devs actually fucking think this game is good. To everyone at PolyKnight Games, you are bad at making video games. Please, for the love of God, find another line of work. I refuse to believe that you don’t have other talents that could actually benefit society in some way. Microtransaction-laden shitfests might be more contemptible, but at least I understand why they’re made: they generate a craptonne of revenue. But for the life of me, I can’t fathom why a game this misguided in both concept and execution even exists.

Alright, enough negativity. 2018 was an interesting year for gaming. It wasn’t as rich in amazing titles as 2017, but how many years are? 2019 is shaping up to have really neat-looking titles, including animal RPG Biomutant, the long-awaited YIIK: A Post-Modern RPG, and the even more long-awaited Psychonauts 2. I’m hella pumped.