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2017 was pretty dope for The Free Cheese, and pretty dope for me. We completed a full calendar year of monthly cover stories, and I love how they all look together. We moved forward with a lot of new video content, unifying our look and branding. We brought on a fourth member to the podcast, and I’m happy to again be spending a few hours a week with Ben.

I got to travel this year, something I haven’t done since before this website was founded. During the end of spring, I found my way to Puerto Rico for a week. I got to lay in the sun and eat a lot of food. I can still smell the air when I close my eyes. In October, I visited Marfa, Texas and slept in a teepee for a few days. There was something magical about being in the desert with nothing around you but the stars at night. The silence of everything is still ringing. Then, I spent Halloween in New York. I got to wander through Manhattan again and blend into the crowds. I watched the hundreds pass by in costume and felt the heartbeat of the city.

I played a lot of video games too. Thanks to the Nintendo Switch, my plane rides were filled with Zelda, Mario Kart, and Super Mario Odyssey. I had the added bonus of killing time playing in New Donk City while in New York City just across from the Nintendo World Store. Amidst the traveling, I became increasingly hermitic this year and spent most of my time with a controller in my hands. There’re worse ways to go I suppose.

Of those games played, some of them were released this year and a few of them were pretty fantastic. You might say that I should make a list of the games that were my favorites and well, here it is.

13. Let It Die

Yes. This game was on my list last year. It’s also here again this year. You see, Let It Die released at a weird time. It came out just before we recorded our Game of the Year 2016 episodes and I didn’t have enough time to qualify it for anything. By the time we’d written these articles though, I played a bit of it and quite enjoyed it. Yet, I barely scratched the surface last December. It was the first two months of this year where I got really heavy into Let It Die. I started treating it like an arcade game, as it’s presented in the game itself. I would sit down to play with my stack of quarters, or predetermined amount of money on my credit card I was willing to burn that day. I’d play until I got tired or ran out of money.

I love the world that Let It Die created. It’s everything I love about Bloodborne but set in a punk rock nightmare tower filled with monsters that should only exist in horror comics from under someone’s bed in a 1980s movie. I loved finding new blueprints to see what gear I would unlock and I loved the satisfaction of finally clearing a floor and reaching the next level. I still jump back in from time to time and I’ve yet to see the entirety of what this game has to offer. Who knows, maybe it’ll be on my list again next year?

12. Hidden My Game By Mom 2

I think collectively this spot goes to all of the hap inc. games, but Hidden My Game By Mom 2 is the one that released this year and went on to win our Best Mobile Game award. It’s such a silly puzzle game that has a great sense of surprise and style. Every puzzle is a new opportunity to mess with your expectations and each one is short burst enough that they make sense on the platform. It’s a perfect blueprint for how (and why) Nintendo should make its next mobile game WarioWare.

Or just make one for Switch. Just bring back WarioWare, Nintendo.

11. Mighty Gunvolt Burst & Blaster Master Zero

Incidentally, Inti Creates has made it onto my list yet again. This year, as you can see from above, there are two entries on the list. I played both of these games back to back and honestly, they blur together a lot for me so I’m writing them in as one.

Mighty Gunvolt Burst is seemingly Inti Creates saying “No, that thing is not a representation of what we can actually do. A lot of bad shit happened during development of that game and it got out of our hands. Here’s a real Mighty No. 9 game.” It also gave them a chance to marry the two universes they’ve been a part of once again. Bringing the Gunvolt series back to play, Mighty Gunvolt Burst is essentially a Mega Man game. You play through a series of stages as your chosen character and you earn new weapons and upgrades from each stage you play. It’s not an exact replica of Mega Man, as Mighty No. 9 attempted to be, but rather a reimagining of how that style of game works.

Blaster Master Zero got me into a franchise I never thought I would care about. I missed the Blaster Master craze that was apparently sweeping through the nation (per my high school guitar teacher) and I never entered the world until the prequel released this year. Blaster Master Zero is a NES game ripped out of time. Both of these titles make me excited for anything that Inti Creates is putting out.

10. Everything

Everything had my heart from its ten-minute launch trailer. I got lost in watching random images of a strange world flash in front of me as Alan Watts narrated my own existentialism. The final game and my time with it wouldn’t be much different, only that now I was in control of everything.

To say much more would taint this game, but I really enjoyed my time with Everything. It opened my mind and set me back to balance at a moment when I was losing my footing.

09. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

This has to be a possible future of AAA development. I surprisingly played a lot of really big games this year, but I also watched the demise of a lot of ideas and what we’ve come to expect from single-player games. Ninja Theory was able to create something that looks and feels as big as the rest but provides you with a shorter, more intimate experience.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does some new things with storytelling and sound design that shed a light on mental health issues in a way that reminded me and those who played the game that we never know what is happening to someone who is standing right beside us. We never know what is happening inside of their head, even when they vocalize everything they know how to. As something impactful, Hellblade does it well. Further, I think that the design and presentation of the game and the level of quality and polish help to create a potential future for AAA development. I’d love to see some of the larger teams creating games to make something like this. As we’ve watched the collapse of the middle and the rise of the indie developer, I’m excited to see where games like this will take shape in the coming years.

08. Destiny 2

I’ve had a lot of exposure to the team at Bungie in the back quarter of this year. I’m currently playing through the Halo franchise for the first time now that I’m the owner of an Xbox One S, but my first introduction to Bungie was back in September with the release of Destiny 2.

After playing through the Alpha and Beta of Destiny, I never went forward with the full game. It didn’t seem like the thing for me despite my initial excitement at E3 2013 when the game was on stage with PlayStation 4. Oddly enough, I played a lot of Destiny 2 this year.

I created a Hunter and leveled her up to the max. I played through the full campaign and went back in for more. I saw my fair share of Strikes, Public Events, and I even spent a lot of time in the Crucible. I’m never one for PvP, especially in a first-person shooter. I’m just not skilled enough to hold my own and I often find myself getting killed just as I respawn. This year was the year for that to change. I set my PS4 up in my office with a small monitor and headset and for the better part of a month, I found myself chasing after medals and with a positive score in the end of many rounds.

What surprised me most about Destiny 2 is my fever to play it. Even as I type this and it’s been months since I’ve really played, I’m eager to jump back into it. I still want to find the perfect gear for my Hunter. I want to see what the other characters play like as well. I’ve yet to attempt the raid in the game. There’s still so much more to see and I’m surprised at how big of an impact the game had on me.

07. Injustice 2

If you asked me in 2013 what I wanted after Injustice, I’d have described a lot of what we saw this year with Injustice 2. The followup to what was my favorite fighting game in the last decade brought with it an impressive roster of unique fighters, a story mode that continues from the threads sewn in the original, and a gear system that changes the way you play the game entirely.

When gear was first announced as part of Injustice 2, my immediate feelings were worry. I didn’t think that it was going to add anything to the game and would ultimately leave each character with incredible balance issues. Thankfully, I’m not developing the game and those who are were able to make sure that everything works out in the end.

What we got was an incredibly deep gear system that allows you to customize your favorite character into the version of the character you love best. I was still able to carry my muscle memory into this game without issue and I can say that I’m still pretty dang good with Batman. A lot of my favorite characters from the first game got an overhaul, like The Flash, and there are a lot of new characters I found myself playing and enjoying. Additionally, Injustice 2 has some of the best-looking character models not just in a fighting game but in games. A lot of the game’s art and design lend to the creation of a world that I don’t ever want to walk away from.

Oh, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

06. Sonic Mania

A few years ago, Shovel Knight won The Free Cheese Game of the Year 2014. It captured our attention with its painstaking dedication to the craft and its incredible sense of self. Ultimately, it was the first example of a retro-styled throwback that delivered. It felt like a long-lost NES cartridge had been unearthed and polished up a bit for modern times.

This year, Sonic Mania did the same thing for the Sega Genesis. Sonic Mania finally did what I’d been looking for since I last held my Genesis controller and wanted something to follow up Sonic & Knuckles. I remember the flutter in my chest a few years ago when Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was announced, and I remember the clap of death that I felt when I played Episode 1.

Sonic Mania was so impressive the first time I saw it in front of me. The amount of detail in the recreation of levels I’d known and loved was impossible, yet right in front of me. I love the way that the developers were able take classic levels and remix them from top to bottom. Both the level design and the music were so well-crafted in a way that felt like these were sitting on ice for twenty years and released today with some 2017 polish. I hope we see more from this team and that they’re able to create an entire game of brand new stages and secrets.

05. Metroid: Samus Returns

The reveal of this game alone was one of the highlights of my year. Every January, we do annual predictions. Every June, we do E3 predictions. It became habit for me to burn a prediction on a new 3D and a new 2D Metroid game. This was the year when I finally stopped trying. I didn’t bother to use one of my prediction slots for something I didn’t expect to happen. Then, Nintendo unleashed an almost perfect* 2017 marketing campaign. Amidst a sea of releases for the Nintendo Switch, E3 hits and gives us a tease for Metroid Prime 4. It was just a logo but damn was it a powerful logo. I was still recovering from the sweating and crying as the aftershow began and Reggie gets ready to introduce one more thing.

Usually, these moments are there to show off a game that we didn’t see coming. I was anticipating something like, Codename S.T.E.A.M. or Ever Oasis, a game that is neat and made by teams that we already respect and love but ultimately something different. Instead, Reggie cuts us to a trailer that seems very Metroid and inevitably a Metroid flies by. Screaming.

The game itself became one of my highlights of the year. Back in 2014, I tried to play Metroid II: Return of Samus, but didn’t get very far. The game was easy to get lost in and I got swept up in other things at the time. Here, all of the modern design sensibilities are applied to the original Game Boy game and the world of SR388 came to life in a new way. Samus’ new melee ability was executed well and made sense in the world that MercurySteam created. It felt so good to be back in that universe again.

04. Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

If Plague of Shadows felt like Shovel Knight 1.5, Specter of Torment is 2.0. Really, Shovel Knight is the game that came out in 1986 with Plague of Shadows shortly after in 1987. Specter of Torment is the one that hit in 1989 that pulled in all of the experience from the prior years of development and brought with it some knowledge of what’s to come next.

Everything about this game feels so good. Specter Knight’s movement and combat felt rewarding the whole way through. There’s a speed to him that I didn’t know I was missing in this universe of games. Inevitably unlocking his ability to skateboard through a world on his scythe added a new layer entirely.

From a story and world-building perspective, Specter of Torment adds a lot to the background of Shovel Knight’s universe and to Specter Knight as a character. You learn about his history which turns out to have a lot to do with the history of this land. In this game, Specter Knight uses the Enchantress’ fortress as a main hub. I loved that it combines the idea of the world map and villages in Shovel of Hope into one main area to navigate through. It built a cohesion for this campaign that I really appreciated. Plus, its design as a castle lent itself further to the Castlevania comparisons I was already making.

03. Super Mario Odyssey

I love Mario. How could I not? However, I realized last year during the twentieth anniversary of Super Mario 64, how little I’ve experienced Mario. I never owned Super Mario 64 for some reason, and I’ve only played it up to a certain point. Anytime I try to go back through it now trails off relatively at the same part. I never owned a GameCube thus I’ve never played Super Mario Sunshine. I’ve played through every 2D Mario, but I’ve missed the 3D stuff outside of the Galaxy pair of games and 3D Land/World.

Super Mario Odyssey is just pure fun. It opens up these huge, little worlds for you to explore. Each one is hiding a ton of secrets and has a lot of character in every step. When I first saw the cap throwing mechanic, I felt a little weird about it not thinking that it would translate to my style of gameplay when it comes to Mario. Surprisingly, it worked naturally and seamlessly when I needed it to. I often found that I was only capturing enemies in certain puzzle-solving moments or when I needed something to help me navigate to a spot where Mario could not.

From top to bottom, Super Mario Odyssey is the type of game that reminds you why Nintendo is Nintendo. It’s been years since the last big Mario game, with Super Mario 3D World in 2013 and this is exactly the amount of polish and detail that was needed to steer this direction in a new direction. Super Mario Odyssey gives the control back to the player. It’s not a guided experience in the way that something like Super Mario 3D World was. There’s no right way to complete a level. There are things that must be done in order to advance, but the acquisition of Moons in the game can be done at any pace and in many different ways. There’s a sense of freedom that bleeds through the game, inviting you to go further. There’s a reinvention of not only Mario, but of Nintendo and of the way we create these worlds hidden within the DNA of Super Mario Odyssey.

02. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild changed the way I approached games this year. I fell into a habit in recent years of reaching a point where I was stuck in a game, so I’d grab my phone and look it up. A lot of the time, it was me verifying that I was on the right track, I just had to go a littler further. The rest of the time, it was me taking away the surprise of discovery.

Right from the beginning, Breath of the Wild rewards you with discovery and reinforces the idea that in this world, going the extra step will pay off in some way. Rather than the obligatory checklist that drops its way into your minimap, you are uncovering the world as you wander. Any markers on the map are there because you found something and marked it yourself. It meant that the only reason I ever had to look at the top corner of the screen was just for my heading, to make sure I was still in the right direction.

Anytime I felt stuck on a puzzle within a shrine or found myself without a sense of direction, I quelled that desire to grab my phone and instead let the game talk to me. I found that if I tried enough different things within a shrine, I could figure it out. The reward for solving a puzzle was much greater than if I had simply read the answer somewhere. Further, as I occasionally struggled to find the next thing to do, the world is so vast yet populated that wandering in any direction would yield some type of discovery.

I was almost one hundred hours into the game before I found the horse god Malanya. For those of you who’ve found her, you know that it’s a hard thing to miss, yet it took me tens of hours before I stumbled upon her location. For those of you who’ve yet to find her, see what I mean?

That isn’t to say that the game’s ability to provide an adventure that spans literal days worth of time is an achievement itself. However, the fact that I can pick up that game now, twenty hours ago in-game time, or in another one hundred and still find new things that I’m actually engaged with- that’s the draw.

Breath of the Wild is a remarkable experience and one that will reverberate through video games in the way that games like Ocarina of Time and GTA III paved the way for so many games to follow. It encouraged me to never give up and to keep exploring.

01. NieR: Automata

It’s really tough to give a ranking to any of this list, but when it comes to NieR: Automata and Breath of the Wild, it’s even tougher. In fact, I wouldn’t have finished NieR if it weren’t for Breath of the Wild. Both games released within days of one another. I played through Route A sometime within the first month of release and didn’t feel entirely excited to see Route B, as it plays through a lot of the same material. Jumping back into Breath of the Wild reminded me of that sense of discovery and the reward of it that I just talked about, and I carried those ideas back to NieR with me.

What I discovered in NieR: Automata was transformative and profound. From a narrative perspective, NieR: Automata essentially tells one story in Route A. Route B shows you the same story from a different perspective, but it adds context and a few moments of flavor. Additionally, playing through the same areas again forces you to become intimately aware of your surroundings. You suddenly feel at home in this world, and you understand it much more because you kind of have to take it all in. Route C then becomes a sequel to the story you just witnessed and it feels like you’ve played through multiple games in one larger game.

I’ve struggled the entire year with explaining why I love this game so much. I have multiple unfinished drafts of a review for the game. I have little scraps of ideas for articles I wanted to write about the game. I think the best thing to say about the NieR: Automata is a quote by its creator Yoko Taro, that I now cannot find the source of:

“How much you enjoy something depends on your own heart.”

Thank you for hanging out with us this year.

*Region Free Means Mother 3. Come on, Nintendo. You were almost there.

Joe Dix

Joe is the creator of The Free Cheese. He eats a lot of pizza and takes thousands of pictures of his pugs Oswald and Earl every day.

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