Exit the Warrior

In 2010 or thereabouts, on a trip to Wal-Mart (I want to say it was to buy StarCraft II), my father reached into a bargain CD bin and pulled something out. “Have you ever heard this?” he asked. I hadn’t. “You’ll like it.” I did.

It was, of course, Moving Pictures, the seminal work from the progenitors of progressive metal, Rush. As a drummer, he suspected I’d appreciate their brilliantly talented rhythm section, as I obviously did, but there was something else in there, too.

As a deeply nerdy teenager attempting to find a place in the world, Rush resonated with me in a way nothing else had before. It wasn’t until later that I learned that that had, essentially, been what they’d been doing for over 30 years by that point. To the outcast, ostracized, and tragically unhip, Rush were the beacon. Rush “got it,” because Rush were it. They knew how hip it was to be square long before Huey Lewis did.

After devouring Moving Pictures front to back, I went on to pick up a best-of and added everything to my constantly-repeated playlist which to that point primarily consisted of “stuff my parents listen to” and the odd video game soundtrack. And a few years after that when Clockwork Angels came out, I immediately picked that up, too. I thought it was incredible. I still do.

While the virtuosity and impact of Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee is not to be understated, anyone will agree that the lifeblood of Rush was always Neil Peart. As the drummer he laid down consistently inventive and technically impressive beats, fills, and solos that easily placed him among the ranks of not only the legendary rock drummers like Keith Moon and John Bonham, but the jazz legends like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, as well. Instantly recognizable and impossible to emulate, Neil Peart was the quintessential prog drummer, even when Rush wasn’t making progressive music. But they always were, weren’t they?

The depth and weight of their music is not only due to the musical proficiency on display, but also to the lyrics set to it. Starting in 1975, Neil became the chief lyricist for the band, causing the band to take a huge leap from “Hey, baby, it’s a quarter to eight, I feel I’m in the mood” to “By-Tor, knight of darkness, centurion of evil” in less than a year. And while it’s true he wrote lyrics about wizards, spaceships, and talking trees, he was also writing about the human spirit, what it means to be free, and how the ordinary person can make a difference. While the legions of nerds that flocked to the band in the ’80s may have been brought in by songs about Sauron or black holes, they stayed because of the songs like Subdivisions or Mission that made them feel like they weren’t alone.

The R40 concert in Phoenix was the first concert I ever bought a ticket for with my own money, and the only time I ever got to see them. I didn’t understand at the time that it was the end of their story, but in hindsight it was pretty well telegraphed that this was it. The concert was a nearly religious experience, and shortly after it I bought every Rush CD I could get my hands on. This was just before I went off to college.

Rush became the soundtrack to my first year of college, and was the only thing that staved off the pervasive loneliness that arises when one leaves home for the first time. Songs like Far Cry, Prime Mover, and Grand Designs still remind me of walking around campus in the winter, feeling cold and moderately terrified of the unsavory characters that permeate Las Vegas late in the evening, but not wanting to return to my room that felt a bit like a prison. It’s certainly melodramatic to say so, but Rush’s music was really the only friend I had that first semester.

In the ensuing years I fully embraced my love for the band, forcibly introducing any friends I made to their music. I taped posters up all over my dorm room, blasted Rush records for the enjoyment of the people walking by in the hallway, and went to see Rush documentaries in the theater. I titled all of my essays after lyrics from Rush songs, bought and read all of Neil’s books, started a vaguely Rush-themed blog, and ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign based on Clockwork Angels. I was, and remain, fully entrenched. I know that, to many of my friends and loved ones, I’m the person who pops into their mind when they see or hear anything related to Rush. I consider this a great honor.

I owe nearly all of my present music taste to Rush; without them I’d not have found my current favorites like Dream Theater, Neal Morse, or Ayreon, or nearly any other progressive rock bands. Because, as few understand, while bands like King Crimson or The Moody Blues may have invented prog, it was Rush, and more specifically Neil Peart, who made it matter. The headiness, extravagance, and ethereal nature of progressive music was made relatable to the average nerd by Neil Peart, through Rush’s music. He knew the struggle of the geek, and wanted to make music that people who enjoyed things like 2001: A Space Odyssey or who knew what the word “Demogorgon” meant could connect with.

Neil Peart’s life wasn’t a simple one — the tremendous personal losses he suffered in the late ’90s nearly spelled the end of the band, but ultimately the music brought him back the same way it brought light to the millions of ravenous Rush fans who never let piles of bad reviews spoil their love for the weird. On their final tour he endured severe physical stress from the various ailments that come from being the greatest drummer alive for four decades, but he didn’t let it stop him. He was deeply private, rarely appearing in an interview or another situation that would require him to deal with having praise heaped on him. He didn’t even ride the tour bus with the band, preferring to explore the world from the seat of a motorcycle. Even when he fell deathly ill, he wouldn’t trouble his fans with knowing so. He was, is, and always will be a legend.

Thank you, to the Professor, to the Watchmaker, to the Necromancer, to Pratt, Peke, Bubba, and the Ghost Rider. To the working man, and the new world man.

Thank you, Neil Peart. Rest well.

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Top 10 Games of 2019

That’s right, three posts in less than a month. Don’t get used to it. Let’s get started with some honorable mentions, which this year are going to games I didn’t get around to for one reason or another. Or, rather, for one reason.

Honorable Mention — Outer Wilds

Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds. This game is honestly a perfect recipe for a game I’d love. It’s got outer space, it’s got puzzles, and it’s got a Time Loop, which I always love (see: Groundhog Day, Majora’s Mask, Groundhog Day). That said, I don’t really make a habit of buying digital content on console and only really dusted off the PS4 for one or two games this year (as seems to happen every year). I can’t wait for it to come out on PC. 

Honorable Mention — Metro Exodus

I didn’t play much of the previous games in this series, which led to this one also sort of flying under the radar for me, but after its impressive showing at E3 a few years back I was definitely excited for it. … Not excited enough, as it seems, as I didn’t deem it worthy enough of getting my PS4 controllers to work and spending a day updating the console, but its post-apocalyptic semi-open-world setting and creatively immersive game design definitely seem like something I’d enjoy. I can’t wait for it to come out on PC.

Honorable Mention — The Outer Worlds

Not to be confused with Outer Wilds. As someone who always wanted to get into Mass Effect but never had the time or energy to commit to such a sizable saga, The Outer Worlds would’ve most likely scratched the space RPG itch. I can’t wait for it to come out on PC. 

Now that those are out of the way, let’s get on with the proper list.

10. Untitled Goose Game

If it wasn’t clear by my completely un-subtle jabs before, I wasn’t especially pleased this year by how many titles were taken out of my grasp by Epic Games Store exclusivity (sidebar — I’m totally fine with expanding the market beyond Steam, but I’d rather have an alternative that isn’t as feature-barren, malware-prone, and shadily funded). This was one of the games on that list, but I opted to pick it up on my Switch (my reasoning behind being reticent to buy digital games on PS4 but having no such qualms about doing so on the Switch make sense to nobody, including myself). There isn’t much to Untitled Goose Game, but what’s there is delightful. It’s a charming little stealth/puzzle game where you’re a horrible goose doing horrible things, and its style carries it a long way. The art and environments are simplistic but rich with detail, the gameplay is easy to pick up and put down, the piano-driven soundtrack that responds to your actions is lovely, and the game itself is just a damn riot. There’s not much to be said about Untitled Goose Game, but its certainly worth playing around with.

9. Luigi’s Mansion 3

All the way back in 2001, with the launch of the GameCube came a decidedly odd entry to the Mario series, a screwball horror/exploration title starring everyone’s favorite second banana. Somehow, despite how stupidly good that game was, we’ve only had two sequels to it in the almost two decades to follow. While 2013’s Dark Moon was fine, it lost some of the charm of the series and turned a surprisingly spooky experience into a point-and-click puzzler that was a bit too long. Luigi’s Mansion 3 regains a bit of the lost luster, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first. The singular, interconnected mansion of the first game still isn’t back, but our gigantic hotel feels a bit more cohesive than the separate areas of Dark Moon. And while the ghostbusting action feels a lot better on the Switch than it did on the 3DS, it still hasn’t regained its chops as a horror game, leaning into the action/puzzle side of things. Luckily, it does those things very well and provides a really fun throwback with enough new mechanics (Gooigi being the obvious standout) and collectibles to keep classic fans interested. On top of that, it looks great and has some really interesting puzzles, to boot. I’m always happy to see some of the GameCube magic return, and this gives me hope for games like Metroid Prime 4 (and maybe a Sunshine remaster? Please?)

8. Borderlands 3

Another entry in the ‘finally a third game’ category, Borderlands 3 brings us back to Pandora for the first time in 7 years, along with a bunch of other fun locales, with a fantastic new set of playable characters. Borderlands 3 should be commended for the amount of new things it tries, but unfortunately only about half of them work. While the new playable characters are great additions to the crew, too few of our old favorites are in attendance, and the ones that are are given little weight in the story. Essentially the entire story rests on the shoulders of two characters, neither of whom have ever been especially compelling, and rather than bring in some old greats like Dr. Zed, Salvador, or Gaige, they instead bring in some new characters who are thoroughly pointless or recycle the same jokes we’ve seen a hundred times before (but this time with more poop). Our villains are quite interesting, when they’re not just trying to be Handsome Jack 2.0, and some of the story twists are legitimately exciting. While the gameplay is largely improved by a handful of quality-of-life improvements (being able to replenish your ammo at the touch of a button is genius), the game’s performance on console is sadly lackluster, with the game operating more as a slideshow than a real game when playing splitscreen (again, can’t wait for the Steam release in April). While it’s certainly a much more different experience than we got in the Pre-Sequel, the writing and humor suffer a drastic dip in quality. Ultimately, it’s more Borderlands, which is always a good thing, and the shlooter mechanics this series invented are honed to a fine point.

7. Tetris 99

There really isn’t a whole lot to say here. It’s a Tetris battle royale which, against all odds, works incredibly well. It’s really the kind of game that has to be played to be believed. I mean, it’s Tetris. Haven’t you played Tetris? What else do I have to say?

6. Darksiders Genesis

The Darksiders series has always held a special place in my heart for how well it leans into its absolutely ridiculous setup. You play as the four horsemen of the apocalypse wandering a post-nuclear winter Earth armed with comically gigantic weapons and a horse made of fire. Genesis strays from the Zelda-meets-God-of-War mechanics of prior entries and instead presents us with a co-op top-down experience that’s somewhere between a twin-stick shooter and a dungeon crawler. It’s satisfying in its simplicity, and while it lacks the constant loot-grinding of most dungeon crawlers, it provides an ample supply of collectibles and upgrades while telling an engaging tale about Strife and War, brilliantly voiced by Chris Jai Alex and Critical Role’s Liam O’Brien, respectively. The change-up in game style seemed like an odd choice at the start, but after an hour or two I wondered why the series hadn’t done it yet. Genesis works equally well as a solo experience or a cooperative one, and rekindled my excitement about the bizarre lore of these silly games.

5. Apex Legends

Not one, but two battle royale games on this list? It’s the end times, folks. Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Dogs and cats- …. you get it. Apex Legends, from Titanfall developer Respawn is a brilliant game, and the first battle royale shooter that I’ve actually connected with. Where predecessors like PUBG and Fortnite failed, be it with sloppy shooting mechanics, unnecessary gimmicks, or shoddy communication, Apex succeeds. The shooting feels tight and precise, the mobility skills a la Titanfall pilots add a crazy amount of dimension to the action, its respawn system makes for a simultaneously more tense and less punishing experience, and the ping system it introduced was so revolutionary that its competitors have already copied it. I’ve often praised the Titanfall series for being perhaps the perfect shooters, since they’re easy to pick up, give multiple paths to success, look and sound great, and — most importantly — feel amazingly fun to play. Apex translates all of this seamlessly to the battle royale genre. The only bad thing I can think to say here is that it might make Titanfall 3 take longer to get made. And also that I suck at it. But that was honestly a given.

4. Baba is You

Seems like every year we get a puzzle game that introduces an entirely unique concept and manages to create something unlike anything else while still being incredibly satisfying to play. In 2017 it was Opus Magnum, in 2018 it was Return of the Obra Dinn. This year, it was Baba is You. While not a whole lot to look at (cut it some slack, it was made by one guy), Baba is You is deceptive in just how deep its mechanics are and how devious its puzzles become. The central conceit of the game is that you can affect the rules by which you play. Maybe you take the sentences “Baba is you” and “Flag is win” and swap some words around so you control the flag and have to touch Baba to win. Or you maneuver things so that you control both Baba and all the rocks on the stage, and can walk through walls. Or you can float over lava, but now you have to touch a key to win the level, but the key also moves every time you do and you’re also controlling some gears. You get the idea. The complexity ramps up quickly, and the game gets really challenging in the later levels. Baba is You is full of charm and is as smart as it is adorable, and it makes for the best puzzling experience of the year.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

I had a difficult time deciding whether or not this game belonged on the list, considering it’s technically a remake of a nearly 30-year-old Game Boy game. That said, while Link’s Awakening for the Switch manages to be an incredibly faithful reproduction of the monochrome classic, it still feels, looks, and sounds like an entirely new experience. First and foremost, Link’s Awakening has a delightful art style that makes the world and its inhabitants look like they came out of a 1960’s Christmas special, and I mean that in the best way possible. The game is simply beautiful, and the music recreates the classic tunes (like the inimitable Frog’s Song of Soul) while breathing so much new life into them. The game itself ages surprisingly well, and little new needs to be added in order for this to remain a challenging little adventure game with tons of heart and depth. Sure, there are the invariable issues that all of the classic Zelda games have, such as struggling to find the specific bush you have to cut down in order to progress, but luckily some helpful tweaks have been made that make the overall experience a joy. Link’s Awakening is probably the strangest game in a series known for some truly weird things (remember the hand that comes out of the toilet in the Stock Pot Inn?), and this bold choice in art direction absolutely pays off, making Link’s Awakening a must-buy for anyone with a Switch and a love of adventure.

2. Slay the Spire

Holy cow, Slay the Spire is good. Imagine, if you will, a deck-builder like Dominion or Mage Knight transposed over top of a roguelike adventure game with unique character classes, varied encounters, and challenging boss battles. Now take whatever you were imagining and make it about ten times better, and you’ve got Slay the Spire. Truth be told, I forgot this game actually came out in 2019 (it came out in January and had been out in early access for two years prior, sue me), but I’m glad I realized it did in time to tabulate this list, as it definitely earns a high spot. Slay the Spire is just so … satisfying to play. Everything synergizes together so well, and compiling the perfect hand of cards to deal with a tough boss is one of the most gratifying experiences I had in any game this year. Honestly, it just works in a way a lot of roguelikes and most deck builders don’t. If you missed out on this one, do yourself a favor and pick it up. You won’t regret it.

1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Wow, I liked a Fire Emblem game, what a shock. Back in 2013, Awakening was my game of the year (certainly an unusual pick in a year that gave us The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V and … that game where you wander around a house and rifle through your sister’s laundry). I’ve pretty much loved the Fire Emblem series for as long as I’ve been aware of it, which, as with many Americans, means since Melee. I’m a sucker for good tactical strategy, and the storylines and character interactions in the Fire Emblem series add an extra level of enjoyment (despite how anime it all is). Three Houses pretty much condenses everything great about the last few Fire Emblem games into one package, essentially offering three-and-a-half games for the price of one. While the story is a mess at times and some characters are essentially useless, there’s just so damn much here that you can’t really complain. The original crunch of the tactical strategy is here, with some great additions like adjutants and gambits to add some extra options on the battlefield. The environments are more varied than ever, the extra toughness of the demonic beasts is a welcome challenge, and the monastery hub world is a vast improvement from the awkward overworld of Fire Emblem Fates. Not to mention that the story is engaging, the characters and support conversations are as fun as ever, and the game looks gorgeous. It’s certainly the best the series has ever looked, and while sometimes the combat errs on the side of too easy (which is always fixed by difficulty settings) and the story can veer off into anime nonsense, to my mind it’s the best Fire Emblem game since Path of Radiance, and the best game of 2019.

 

And … there we have it. As usual, it was tough to rank those last three, and any of them honestly could’ve taken the top spot depending on the day. What do you think? Hit me up on the Twitter or throw a comment on here. Disagree with my picks? I don’t … I don’t really care. It’s my list. I didn’t make you read it. See you next year.