By Matt Gerardi
Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our critics celebrate the completion of Kentucky Route Zero and get lost in the wild enthusiasm of Kingdom Hearts III and the comforting simplicity of puzzle games. Plus, a look at the state of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee, 18 years into the game’s life.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been nearly nine whole years since the world caught its first glimpse of Kentucky Route Zero. It was all the way back in 2011 when Cardboard Computer’s magical-realist odyssey through the American South made its way to Kickstarter and raised $8583, more than enough to meet its now-unthinkably modest $6000 goal. KRZ’s reputation as one of the towering accomplishments of videogame storytelling has grown and grown as its acts and interludes dripped out into the world over these last nine years. Now, with its fifth and final chapterbeing released and the entire ingenious experiment available on a plethora of platforms, critics are finally able to take it on as a whole and deliver brilliant, sprawling meditations of their own. At least, that’s what Austin Walker did over at Waypoint, as he dove into the game’s five acts, pulling apart their gut-wrenching, deeply American themes of debt and shame and the vulnerable people whose lives get swallowed up in them.
Also newly released, but definitely slightly less American, is Kingdom Hearts III Re:Mind, the first major downloadable story expansion for the, ostensible, finale to the main trilogy of games in Square Enix’s beloved Disney crossover RPG series. Re:Mind is a bit of a remix, allowing players to relive the game’s ending hours from a different perspective and expand on one of its biggest moments. Heather Alexandra ran down the high and lows of the DLC, ultimately finding that Re:Mind does well by the main game’s sidelined characters and what it lacks in its variety of battles it certainly makes up in – what else – heart. “Re:Mind is nonsensical but also brash and confident,” she wrote. “That confidence is infectious, and sets the stage for further adventures in what was, at first, a bizarre corporate mashup.”
A game like Kingdom Hearts has won over plenty of fans precisely because it’s big and strange and audaciously convoluted. In a very personal essay on The Gamer, Whitney Meers argued for the appreciation of the exact opposite: the simple games that slide neatly into and bring order to our messy lives. She recounted the story of losing her dream job in emotional fashion and struggling through the crush of job searching, only to find solace and satisfaction in a tiny mobile puzzle game. “It’s time to give those puzzle games the appreciation they deserve for the roles they play in our lives,” she said. “If you’re looking for a simple way to reflect on challenges in your own life, perhaps a simple puzzle game can also help you connect the dots.”
And over at The Washington Post, Imad Khan followed one of the biggest weekends on the competitive Smash Bros. calendar with a brief reflection on the current state of Smash Bros. Melee. The game celebrated its 18th anniversary last November, but its competitive scene is somehow still going strong, with this past weekend’s Genesis 7 tournament boasting solid entry and viewership numbers and some dramatic action. But there are some indications that its popularity is finally starting to wane. Imad takes all these factors into consideration and asks: is this really the beginning of the end for Melee or just another lull in its years-long boom-and-bust cycle?
From Beyond The Circle
Critical discourse in 2020 has begun with gushing praise of one episodic adventure, the aforementioned Kentucky Route Zero, but last year saw the conclusion of a similarly poignant (if not nearly as subtle) episodic series that largely flew under the radar: Life is Strange 2. In light of the game’s conclusion, Patricia Hernandez, writing for Polygon, penned a fantastic essay about its story of racism and immigration in modern America and how Life is Strange 2 both reflects and caricatures her experiences living through it. “Life is Strange 2 may be clumsy sometimes, in that way video games often are, but it’s also doing me the courtesy of reflecting that what I know is true is in fact real,” she wrote. “Sometimes, that’s enough.”
One of those 2019 releases that did dominate critical discussions all year long was Outer Wilds, the stunningly ambitious space exploration game from Mobius Digital. Plenty of praise has been heaped upon it (including the award for Best World at the Critics Circle’s 2020 New York Videogame Awards), and writing for Unwinnable’s January issue, Yussef Cole looked back at the game and the conversations around it to suss out why, at this moment in history, it was perfectly suited to capture our attention. The resulting piece, now also available on Unwinnable’s website, is an insightful exploration of perspective and surrealism (as in, the artistic movement of surrealism, not just the overused term it propagated). He pinpoints the game’s poetic, fantastical approach to science-fiction and the end of all life as we know it as its most powerful asset, one that, like the Surrealists’ rebellion against the prospect of endless world war, speaks to the uncertainty and pain of our own times and offers “a glimpse at what one kind of ending might look like, so that we might become better able to reckon with our own.”
Finally, we’re going way outside the City, but still in New York, to Niagara University for news of another college making room for some interesting esports-related developments on its campus. The school has just opened a facility it’s calling The Nest (a reference to the name of its athletics teams, the Purple Eagles), which will function as a media-focused student lounge and serve as the well-quipped home of the school’s quickly growing esports club. It’s always nice to see more universities getting on board with the positive social impacts games can bring.
That’ll do it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you next week.
Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle