Everything New is Old Again: A Game of the Year 2022 Essay by Chris Wilson of Backstage Gaming

2022 was the first year in a long time where I’ve played an appreciable number of new games, as they were coming out; I’ve recently put together a more current PC, my ticket came up for the Steam Deck, and all things considered, I was able to put aside some more dedicated “Let’s Finish These Games” time than I have in years past. Even so, the games I found myself thinking about the most are ones that felt very much engaged with the past, either of their own series or of games as a whole, and I was left with some thoughts about where we’ve come from, and where we might go while we look back on that past.

Tunic and the Implementation of Nostalgia

Tunic felt like it was made for me in a way that very few games do, and almost all of that was on the back of nostalgia. Everything about the game’s presentation, from the low-poly, isometric aesthetic to the chip-tuney music to the main character’s familiar looking green top. But that’s nothing new; games in general, and indie games in particular, have been pandering to our memories of the 8- to 64-bit days for years. Tunic, however, goes the extra mile; they’re not using nostalgia to sell you the game, but to guide you through it.

The main gimmick of Tunic is the manual. As you explore the world of the game, in addition to your sword and shield and other tools, the main collectables you’re seeking out are pages of the game’s manual, written primarily in an invented script, but with clear indication that the A-button definitely does something, and it looks like there might be a sword over there, and… The minute I found the first manual page, I was hooked. I was hurled back in time, to excitedly peeling the plastic wrapper off the box of a new game to pull out the rulebook and flip through the instructions and flavor text and illustrations inside. It was a fundamental part of the gaming experience for a lot of people my age and older, and seeing that feeling not just alluded to, but incorporated as a major piece of the game’s design and progression was something genuinely special.

And you need those manual pages to make your way through the puzzle-box world of Tunic. They’ll guide you from zone to zone, teach you (sometimes indirectly, other times more explicitly) how to interact with your environment and what your various options are. The sense of, “Holy cow, I need to visit 18 different spots,” this game gives when you find a page that finally makes some new piece of the puzzle click into place is unmatched. And replaying the game adds whole new layers to that, since once you know what the D-Pad is for, you can do that from the start! You always could, you just didn’t know until you found that pesky page.

Tunic is the kind of nostalgic design I hope we see more and more of as the people who grew up with those old tentpole games start making their own. Not nostalgia to sell you the game, not an artificial patina to make something feel familiar, but a genuine attempt to make those things we miss from years gone by feel important and alive and truly baked into the experience of play.

Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Breaking Eggs

Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a weird game. It’s a Pokémon game with a dodge-roll and no gyms, where routes are replaced with large open bubbles, and where you can no-scope catch a Pokémon from the top of a mountain while running from all of its friends. It left an odd taste in a lot of players’ mouths, and truth be told, I don’t love it. But, I love what it represents, and I can’t wait to see Game Freak try again.

Legends: Arceus was the first major departure from the mainline Pokémon formula in years, and arguably the biggest shake-up the brand has seen outside of the Mystery Dungeon series. Battles took place more organically, without the music sting and transition into a Final Fantasy-esque battle dimension, leaving you free to move the camera and even move around the world while your Pokémon fought. Wild Pokémon could turn their attention to your human avatar, adding a new layer of danger to the already intimidating creatures. You craft your own Pokéballs and healing potions in the wild from scavenged materials, fill out your Pokédex not just by capturing but by observing your animal companions, face off in boss fights throwing onigiri at enormous monsters… they threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall for this game, and frankly, not all of it stuck.

Those boss fights I mentioned were a low-point of the game, the story felt like a real afterthought, there were visual and performance issues a plenty (now pretty standard for Pokémon games on the Switch). In their rush to change things up, some level of polish was left by the wayside. But at time of writing, I’m currently diving pretty deep into Pokémon Scarlet, and let me tell you, I miss a lot of Legends: Arceus’ weirdness. I miss throwing Pokéballs in real time, I miss the adjustments to the battle system and how moves were learned and swapped. I think, overall, I like Scarlet more, but I’m much more excited for the next Legends title than the next mainline Pokémon game. I hope Game Freak is able to iterate further. And I hope they get a good 4 to 6 years to really fix up the game’s engine while they’re at it. That would be nice, too.

Chris Wilson is a friend to Super GG Radio and one of the hosts of Backstage Gaming, a fantastic podcast about storytelling in video games.

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