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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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2021 Favorites: Games

We played and enjoyed a lot of games this year. Weird, right? It’s as if we needed to escape. Anyway, here are some of our favorites.

Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City

As I admitted back in July, the endless-sandboarder game Alto’s Odyssey is my favorite iOS game of all time. This year, Team Alto brought an expansion of the game to Apple Arcade, and wouldn’t you know it? Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City is my favorite game of 2021.

If you haven’t played Alto’s Odyssey, you can play the new game from the start and the new levels will just get rolled in. I love the whole game for its beautiful graphics, its soothing soundtrack, and its simple mechanic — you tap to jump, tap and hold to flip, and if you’ve got the Wingsuit extra, use your left hand to fly. The expansion added an additional quest above the main game’s level structure, in which you collect items in order to unlock access to the Lost City, where you’re given a new menu of tasks to perform. The catch is that many of those tasks can only be performed in the Lost City, so you’ll need to keep on boarding to get back to the city and continue the tasks.

I played the whole thing, to the end. If I have any complaints about the Lost City, it’s an insufficient acknowledgement that I’ve maximized every part of the game. I crushed it, Team Alto! How about some fireworks?

These are tiny complaints. I couldn’t love this game more.—Jason Snell

Good Sudoku

I never understood the appeal of Sudoku, or to be honest, most newspaper games. My wife is an inveterate puzzle solver; she’s doing crosswords and playing Spelling Bee and has done some Sudoku in her day. But I never really got it.

One of my favorite iOS developers, Zach Gage, released Good Sudoku last year. One of the app’s stated goals is to teach people how to play Sudoku, with a difficulty level that ramps up as it exposes different solving strategies. It’s also designed to (optionally) remove some of the drudgery of paper-based Sudoku, so if you hate penciling in numbers you can skip that step.

Well, well, well. Guess what? I learned how to play Sudoku. I’m actually… pretty good at it? Not great, but pretty good. I get it now. And that’s all thanks to Good Sudoku.—J.S.

Mini Motorways

Dinosaur Polo Club’s Mini Metro is one of the all-time greats, a soothing game of connecting the dots as you build a city’s train system. It pushes all my SimCity buttons, and if you never experienced SimCity back in the day… that’s saying a lot. Only Tetris took more of my computer time in the 1990s than SimCity.

The follow-up to Mini Metro is the Apple Arcade game Mini Motorways, which is also great. You draw roads and highways to connected houses and commercial areas on various city maps. The traffic builds. You toss in a traffic light or a roundabout. It keeps building. It’s the most chill sort of escalating tension you’ll find. It’s strangely soothing.

The initial release of Mini Motorways was frustrating. I wouldn’t call it buggy, but I would say that a lot of the behaviors in the game just didn’t seem to make sense. Over time, Dinosaur Polo Club has ironed out those wrinkles. If you tried it early on and haven’t revisited it, I recommend that you go back. It’s a much better game now. I love it.—J.S.

Oculus Quest 2 games

Eleven Table Tennis.

We got an Oculus Quest 2 for Christmas last year, and I quickly found two favorite games for the VR platform. They’re not at all what I expected.

Beat Saber might be the closest thing to a “killer app” for the Quest. It’s a rhythm game like Rock Band, but you’re using lightsabers to cut flying blocks in time to the music. The game comes with a lot of Polish techno tracks, but you can also buy songs from recognizable artists if you’d rather slash and burn to Imagine Dragons or Panic! At the Disco or Billie Eilish.

Perhaps less cool than Polish techno is Eleven Table Tennis, which is… a virtual-reality table tennis game. I loved playing ping-pong as a kid. Was sort of obsessed with it for a while. Eleven Table Tennis is a spectacularly good simulation. The game’s AI is extremely good, and I was able to quickly find a level where I could win some of the time, but only with enormous effort. I haven’t had as much fun playing a game in a long time. There are also online games (I struggled with lag, alas) if you want to play against a friend or even a random opponent. If you have always loved table tennis and can’t justify buying a table, maybe justify buying a Quest 2 instead?—J.S.

Mario Golf: Super Rush

I’m not quite sure why I got into golf games in the first place, given that my ideal form of golf involves ramps and small windmills. And yet, I’ve enjoyed golf games ever since playing the first Hot Shots Golf on my friend’s original PlayStation.

This year brought Mario Golf: Super Rush for Nintendo Switch, the latest installment in that franchise, which features everyone’s favorite mustachioed plumber relaxing with a little light exercise. There are a few different modes, including an RPG-style campaign that I’ve played through, which sees your avatar travel from course to course, helping the residents and completing mini quests, all culminating in a big boss fight.

Some of the modes are a little too intense for me, in particular the game’s fixation on timed golf rounds. If I wanted tension and adrenaline, I’d play something other than golf, thanks. But it’s a charming game with a surprising degree of complexity and, of course, the usual humor that Mario games involve. (Late appearances by a particular dastardly duo provide a particularly welcome bit of comic relief.)—Dan Moren

Titanfall 2

Sometimes you don’t immediately run out to get a game, but the accumulation of whispers and recommendations over the years eventually leads to a tipping point. So it was with Respawn’s Titanfall 2, an FPS for PCs and consoles that came out back in 2016. Having never played the original Titanfall, which forwent a single-player campaign for an exclusively multiplayer experience, the sequel wasn’t high on my list, but over the last five years I’ve continually heard good things about it.

But a couple months back I was looking for a new game to play and noticed Titanfall 2 had made its way to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, removing any last excuses, and I’m here to tell you that the acclaim is warranted.

It’s hard to point to exactly what makes this game so good: at first, the storyline is fairly standard (you’re a soldier in a futuristic war who ends up having to pilot a giant robot) and the characters don’t immediately stand out, but the whole concept is just executed to a T. In particular, the shooter mechanics are extremely solid and there are multiple ways to complete your objectives in a given level, with a combination of stealth, combat, and puzzle solving.

But the moment that really blew me away comes later on when the game introduces a particular mechanic for a level that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. It’s a fun “holy crap” moment that makes you laugh out loud in delight even as you’re trying to stay alive. To say much more would spoil the surprise. If you play shooters at all, give Titanfall 2 a chance—trust me.—D.M.

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