I don’t play games to beat them. Or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I race to finish as much as I can for GamesBeat’s game of the year discussion. What makes me appreciate a game more than anything is a memorable moment.
These are slices of a game that you can’t stop thinking about. Whether they are part of a scripted narrative or emerge from gameplay, they give you a story you can share with others. And to that end, I’ve gathered up five of the most thrilling and exciting gaming moments from 2019.
5. Solving a difficult puzzle in Baba is You
Baba Is You is one of the toughest brainteasers ever. It’s a game where you move words around a playfield. And as you move those words around into different “equations,” you change the nature of how the game works. You can move “stop” from “wall is stop,” and then you can now walk through walls on that stage.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but stages get difficult quickly. And this is what makes solving a puzzle in Baba is You one of the best moments of the year. You can’t help but feel like a genius when your lateral thinking finally clicks and you overcome a particularly devious set of challenges.
This would probably be higher on the list, but the game honestly made me feel dumb way more than it made me feel smart. And yes, I’m going to hold that against it.
4. Perfecting a 20-second speedrun level in Super Mario Maker 2
Super Mario Maker 2’s community is like a living organism. Without direction (or even the proper tools) from Nintendo, course creators have developed style trends including something called 20-second speedrun stages. These are courses where you have to run through a level and perform precision platforming exactly as the creator intended. If you fall off the authored path, you’ll die or won’t finish in time. If you pull everything off, you’ll finish in about 20 seconds.
What’s great about these levels is that they are long enough to feel challenging yet short enough to feel conquerable. So you might spend 30 minutes the first time you encounter one trying to get to the end without making a mistake. And when you succeed, you feel awesome. And big reason for that is because it makes you look like a pro player.
— Grubb (@JeffGrubb) June 30, 2019
3. Learning the identity of the Flame Emperor in Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I knew a few things about Fire Emblem: Three Houses before I started it. I was aware that it had multiple story paths and that the story had two halves separated by a five-year time jump. Based on that information, I made some assumptions about the way the game was going to work.
Spoiler warning for Fire Emblem: Three Houses — Ed.
Fire Emblem tested those assumptions when it introduced the villainous Flame Emperor. This is a character you fight against multiple times in the first half of the game. Then, as you come to the end of Part 1, developer Intelligent Systems makes the big reveal.
Edelgard, student at Garreg Mach, leader of the Black Eagles house, and heir to the throne of the Adrestian empire, is the Flame Emperor.
Sure, it’s shocking that one of the students turns out to be the villain, but what’s especially stunning about this is that it doesn’t change depending on who you decide to play as. I thought the game made her the Flame Emperor because I was playing the Blue Lion path. And if I chose to play as one of the other houses, maybe one of the other house leaders would end up as the villain.
But that’s not what happens. Edelgar is always the Flame Emperor. And learning that made the moment even more impactful. Each path really does show the different motivations and rationalizations of people on multiple sides of the same war. My playthrough isn’t just different than people who chose a different house — it’s counter to them. It made everything more meaningful, and it made me want to finish the game so I could go ask people what their playthrough was like.
2. Winning a match of Tetris 99
The battle royale genre is brilliant for a number of reasons. For one, it’s easy to understand. You want to outlast everyone else. But when you drop onto an island or whatever with dozens of other players all going after the same goal, you don’t expect to win. And that’s another brilliant aspect of battle royale. You don’t usually feel bad about losing because your odds of winning are so small. Then that leads into another genius element where when you do end up as the victor, it feels incredible.
Tetris 99, Nintendo Switch’s battle royale take on the classic puzzler, has all of that working for it. I don’t ever expect to win a match of Tetris 99, and that’s good, because it’s only happened once. And yet that one moment was one of the best things I experienced in a game this past year.
Because the thing is that you don’t expect to win … until you make it into the top five or so. Then, all of the sudden, the prospect of getting that victory hits you hard. This could be it. This could become your moment.
Your hands suddenly begin to shake as adrenaline begins pumping through your limbs. You become aware of how odd this gaming object feels in your hands. Manipulating tetrominoes turns more and more awkward. You can feel your heart beating and you have to remind yourself to breathe.
And then you lose. You get fourth or, even worse, second place. This may happen multiple times until you tell yourself you’re never going to win.
But then one time, you just keep pushing. You force out any thought and just react to the game on instinct. And even though you forgot to tell yourself to breathe, get a quick combo of four line clears in a row and watch that wipes out the last other player.
It’s difficult not to shout when this happens, but honestly, I didn’t even try to stop myself. I was too excited about what I had just done.
1. Jumping across the sun in Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a collection of astonishing moments. And the best comes after you’ve learned how its tiny, simulated solar system works. It involves a station that is orbiting meters over the surface of the system’s sun and is traveling at an incredible speed.
I noticed Sun Station early on. And I made a few attempts to land on it. It really is just above the sun’s burning face, and it moves at what feels like hundreds of kilometers per second. And the closer you get to it, the more flames burst out from the star and obscure your vision. But landing on it is so difficult that it becomes clear that a simpler method must exist (although you can do it the hard way if you choose to).
Eventually, as you learn some of the secrets of the Outer Wilds universe, you’ll find a way to get onto the sun station. But the vessel has broken apart, and you are on the wrong side. And to get to the other end, you have to jump out and use your suit’s limited propulsion to get to the other side.
This was one of the most intimidating and frightening moments I’ve experienced in a game. Standing at the opening and looking out into space and seeing death on all sides. In front of me was a broken bridge and the part of the sun station I needed to get to. Above is endless space. And below me is a pissed-off star that has already disintegrated me into my base elements multiple times.
But I didn’t have a choice, so I jumped out. And everything about that feels wrong. I know how fast this station is moving. I remember its impossible velocity and tight orbit around the sun from trying to land on it. And those memories are all sitting in the pit of my stomach with the expectation that I’m going to fly wildly off course or slowly desync from the debris and fall into the sun yet again.
I try to remain focused on the port on the other side. And I gently feather my thrusters to slowly make my way across. And it’s that contrast that really makes this moment stick with me.
Hell is lashing out at me from below and cold, freezing helplessness is opposite it. And I’m whipping around this sphere of endless hydrogen bombs at an irrational speed. All I want to do is freak out. And yet, I have to just gently tap the buttons and analog sticks to keep my momentum deliberate and under control.
I do keep my cool, though. And the moment is over in a snap. The chasm is tiny. So I make it to the other side and continue on with my adventure. But even though it was over quickly and the gap is small, the experience in my memory is huge. And it’s impressive that a game about landing space ships on a comet or flying through black holes is at its most memorial when it puts things on a human scale.