I managed to play a handful of games in December, rounding out the year with quite a mixed month. Things started on a high as I finished up my journey with Outer Wilds on PS5. Despite all the hype around the game in 2019, I didn't actually know too much about it apart from the fact it revolved around exploring a solar system that it stuck in a time loop so I very much felt like I was going in blind. At first it was definitely a bit of a slog, controlling the ship was a real challenge and the lack of a distinct goal meant that I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end somewhat. Thankfully I got the hang of using the ship (turns out the autopilot is the way to go, even if it is maliciously stupid at times) and I quickly realised that discovery was its own reward. I was constantly impressed by the depth of each little world, there were so many threads to follow that things soon felt like they were going to overwhelm me, I was grateful for the detailed log that lets you know if there are still details to uncover in each location. I won't spoil any of the details but it was such a joy to play through, even if the ending didn't quite hit the heights, the meat of the game was so enthralling that I can't really think of any criticisms. A must play for anyone that enjoys open ended exploration.
Next up I played through Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge on Switch, it was the last title from the Castlevania collection on my backlog and, after suffering through the original GB entry, my expectations were low for its 1991 sequel so I was understandably delighted to discover how much of an improvement it was. Much like 6 Golden Coins was a huge step up from Super Mario Land, Belmont's Revenge does away with the piddly sprite of the first game and offers up something more closely resembling proper Castlevania. The gameplay is also greatly improved, with sub weapons available to use alongside more fluid control (thanks to the noticeably higher framerate). Compared to the slog of the first game I had a blast making my way through the five castles, the boss fights felt more involved and offered up a much better representation of the series, even if the levels did feel a little repetitive. Despite its flaws though I feel like it has aged surprisingly well, it must have been very impressive back in the day and I can see why it is regarded as one of the best games on Nintendo's 8-bit handheld.
The Matrix Awakens doesn't really qualify as a game per se, there is very little in the way of playable content but I still feel its worth bringing up here. It's a sneak peak at the kinds of experiences we'll be getting in the next few years, clearly quite rough around the edges but impressive nonetheless. Visually the digital doubles of Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss aren't the most realistic but the real star of the tech demo is the realtime city, sure there isn't much in the way of interactivity but it was fun driving around and smashing into traffic for a while, speeding through the dense city streets. The lack of a 'story' and connection to Resurrections was a bit of a disappointment but I never really expected much from the demo in the first place and despite the stiff NPC's I can see how the new technology on offer in Unreal 5 will enable more dynamic and detailed environments in future releases.
I picked up Last Stop on Switch after seeing it in one of Nintendo's indie presentations, I'm basically a sucker for anything Annapurna releases, but I wasn't aware that it was developed by Variable State (the team behind 2016's Virginia) until the credits rolled. It's very much in the mould of Telltale or Life is Strange, offering an episodic narrative adventure game but Last Stop adopts more of a literary structure - there are multiple concurrent stories, following the lives of three Londoners who each encounter a brush with a supernatural force. The game is separated into 6 chapters, made up of sub-chapters, snippets of each characters stories which you can play through in any order you like. The voice acting can be a bit hit and miss but for the most part the writing makes the characters come across as genuine, even while all sorts of outlandish things are happening around them there is a lot to relate to with each of the main cast. Performance wise it actually holds up quite well on Switch, it is a little low-res at times but the framerate seemed consistent enough, although it is available on other consoles if you're looking for greater detail. It's very much a swimming in 7's sort of game but I came out of it feeling quite fond of the game on the whole, despite its flaws Last Stop certainly offered something unique that I've never experienced in a game before, it's an ambitious game that doesn't quite hit the landing but Variable State should be applauded for striving to create something so weird.
I played through the N64 version of Mario Tennis next, at least the first few cups that were on offer. I don't think I ever played it when I was growing up, usually when I was playing N64 with my friends we would be playing Perfect Dark, WWF No Mercy, Mario Kart or F-Zero X so even if one of my friends had owned a copy I don't think we would have wanted to faff around playing tennis. Mechanically its about as simply as a tennis game could be, the two face buttons offer up different shots while the analogue stick moves your character around the court, the only variation comes when a rally lasts long enough and you (or your opponent) are given the chance to smash a winner. To begin with I was enjoying the gameplay but it quickly wore out its welcome, I can't imagine it being much fun to win every cup with every character in order to unlock the two final tournaments, so I just played through to credits with the one character - it was an okay distraction to play through while watching TV but not something I can ever see myself going back to.
Next I dusted off my Wii U to play through The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on the Virtual Console. I'm not sure why but I don't remember being too aware of it when it first came out in 2004, I must have been too wrapped up in my teenage misery to pay attention to the latest game releases at the time. For those who are unaware it is another collaboration between Nintendo and Capcom, Hidemaru Fujibayashi's follow up to the GBC Ages titles and it feels in much the same vein as those earlier entries, giving a unique spin on the Zelda universe. I don't really have much to say about it, it was a joy to play through, following the usual tropes of top down 2D Zelda but it is executed superbly, helped by excellent presentation that makes it the most expressive 2D Zelda game that I've ever played through, I would have loved to have experienced it back in the day.
Finally I closed out the year with a very short one, They Breathe on the Switch. I spotted it on the eShop in a recent sale and liked the look of the visuals so thought I'd take a punt on it. It's a very simple set up, you control a frog as it descends deeper and deeper into a lake, avoiding the creatures that you encounter on the way dow. It's marketed as a horror title but I never felt like the atmosphere was particularly tense, it does become tricky to avoid the monsters but the generous checkpoints negate any hint of tension. I don't think I really took much from it, it only lasted half an hour or so but it didn't cost me very much.
In the end I played through a decent number of games this year but barely made a dent into my backlog - I really should stop buying games until I've played the ones I already own but who has the will to be that reasonable? Here's to another productive year in 2022!