Best of 2021: Five Special Awards

It’s been ten years of this and I finally have a small window to talk about TV shows. Kinda. Marvel and Disney made sure of that. So as you’ll soon see we have not one but two new special awards in 2021, alongside three returners. I have no idea which ones will be here next year and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The category I felt worst about cutting to make room was Best K-Pop rookie, but I just wasn’t following the industry for long enough this year to give a decent account of that one (for the record, it probably would’ve gone to Purple Kiss). Let’s get stuck into the standalone good stuff.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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Best Third-Party Game Publisher

Square Enix

I know I hit them pretty hard at the pointy end of this year’s disappointments list, but that was largely because of how good Square Enix’s game releases were this year. Beginning 2021 with a meaty JRPG on the level of Bravely Default II, especially at a time when almost no other third parties were showing up, put them in the early driver’s seat, but then… well, the months went on and still no real competition. Remember how the only new multi-platform games on physical shelves before May were Nier Replicant and Outriders? Yeah, both Square Enix.

Even when the other heavy hitters came out to play, neither the Western or Japanese publishing arms of Square were ready to put the cue in the rack. The long-awaited Neo: The World Ends With You delighted fans as a huge part of the JRPG July festivities, joined in that genre this year by SaGa Frontier Remastered and another surprising Yoko Taro joint in Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. The PS5 appearance of Final Fantasy Remake Intergrade drew massive praise, with its fantastic new story DLC in tow. Five of the company’s six planned Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters launched on PC and mobile throughout the year, each to promising general reception; then in quick succession came absolute narrative gems Life is Strange: True Colors and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Even a release as disastrous as Balan Wonderworld couldn’t mess up a year like this.

Only Capcom and Bandai Namco gave this title any real competition in 2021: the former with hugely successful brand-new Monster Hunter and Resident Evil releases; the latter absolutely bringing the quality with shock (Scarlet Nexus), reinvention (Tales of Arise) and high-value horror sequels (Little Nightmares 2 and House of Ashes). EA did put out unexpected wins in Knockout City and It Takes Two, but missed the mark on Battlefield 2042. Ubisoft failed to impress with a mix of flops and delays, Bethesda isn’t a third-party publisher anymore, and it sure wasn’t a good follow-up year for Activision-Blizzard, now was it?

Oh that reminds me, I only forgot to mention that 2021 was absolutely the year of Final Fantasy XIV, which not only released its titanic expansion Endwalker this year but is now the world’s most actively played MMO. It even needed to suspend all purchases earlier this month to try and give the servers a break. I honestly don’t think I’ll ever see a 12-month period this dominant for Square Enix ever again in my lifetime.

Runner-Up: Bandai Namco

Best Indie Game Publisher

Devolver Digital

This one was truly spicy in 2021, without a clear leader but plenty of worthy contenders. No major indie publisher from last year’s round-up failed to release a game that caught my attention this year, so ultimately I can’t help but feel we’re all winners in this world where cool game ideas are boosted to the top of the pile by smart marketing support.

Chucklefish bears the first mention, because they actually brought a game this year – and that game was the absolutely wonderful Eastward. They do seem to be going for quality over quantity still, but I’m totally fine with that if they keep spotlighting and releasing games at their current level. Team 17 seemed to fall off the radar slightly despite quite a few releases, but those releases did include Greak: Memories of Azur and Narita Boy, the latter of which I played quite a bit. Curve Games (formerly Curve Digital) brought crunchy graphical showcase The Ascent to the world and so cannot be discounted.

But the big four of 2021 pushed this one to the wire: Raw Fury released noir adventure Backbone and unwinding toy-builder Townscaper as strong support for their long-awaited headliner Sable, which launched with rough performance on some platforms but soared to critical success regardless. Annapurna Interactive and Humble Games both came mighty close, the former with the triple-threat Twelve Minutes, The Artful Escape and Solar Ash among others; in fact if the ridiculously cool Neon White had made its 2021 release date Annapurna may just shot up to top spot. But Humble well and truly held its own after an amazing 2020 by snuggling up to Microsoft with a suite of winners that all game to Xbox Game Pass day one: Dodgeball Academia, The Wild at Heart, Into the Pit, Unsighted and Unpacking are all so good -and so different from one another – that the publisher’s name should arguably have appeared under all the XGP ads running everywhere this year.

But after a classy, diverse, powerful 2021 display, Devolver Digital deserves to take this one. From solid shipwrecked platformer Olija to surprising free mobile sequel-ish thing My Friend Pedro: Ripe for Revenge to absolutely bonkers shock spin-off Minit Fun Racer, Devolver embraced their modern status as the deranged cousin of the stuffy triple-A elite with a line-up that didn’t skimp on quality; they fully leant into the hype around Loop Hero and Inscryption, neither of which disappointed once they released. But there can be little argument about what was their crown jewel this year: Isometric roguelike Death’s Door is the closest 2021 got to a Hades in terms of sheer word-of-mouth energy, and it was all Devolver’s to reap.

Runner-Up: Humble Games

Best Game Expansion Content

Bowser’s Fury

The wording may have changed slightly, but this is still spiritually the same Best Downloadable Content Pack award – Nintendo just did something real funky to mess up the syntax. Rather than releasing the reasonably short – but by no means content-light – open-world 3D platforming experiment Bowser’s Fury as DLC for Super Mario 3D World, or even as a separate game purchase, it’s just included with the latter for the standard Nintendo physical game price. And although I didn’t actually get to play many pieces of videogame expansion content in 2021 – DLC or otherwise – in my opinion the package’s sheer freshness and fun has it beat out the likes of Ghost of Tsushima’s Iki Island and Final Fantasy VII Remake‘s wonderfully Kingdom Hearts-esque naming project “INTERmission” – the latter of which gets the runner-up position for its magnetic introduction of Yuffie to the new Remake universe.

Bowser’s Fury feels joyously loose in a way Mario never quite has, while retaining the superior control and visual pop the series is so consistently good at nailing. The open-ended area-unlocking system and plentiful secrets add value to the brisk core gameplay experience, and the comically huge scale of the recurring boss encounters makes for tremendous fun. Freed from the shackles of the linear-focused Super Mario 3D World engine, this experiment could make for an amazing open-world Mario adventure one day.

Runner-Up: Final Fantasy VII Remake INTERmission

Best MCU Television Show

Wandavision

I don’t think anyone has ever successfully made me watch five full new-release TV shows in one year before, but such is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s proven ability to hook hordes of viewers for the long haul that even my historic distaste for the long-form visual medium couldn’t get in the way of me doing just that. Marvel Studios put out four new movies in 2021, but the year will likely be remembered for adding a new TV episode to the MCU for 35 of the 52 weeks.

Picking my favourite from the bunch therefore made sense, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Every show does at least a couple of things really well, but the first three all suffer occasionally from a claustrophobic reliance on green screen and not one of them is outstanding. Balancing audience expectations in a wide universe with compelling, relevant storytelling is evidently rather difficult. Falcon & The Winter Soldier drops too many plot threads despite some admirably big swings and fantastic action; What If really only hits with around half of its standalone episodes (though it hits hard); and there’s a reason Loki needed a second season.

The recently-concluded Hawkeye clearly benefits from being made in its own subsequent wave of filming (as a production not explicitly delayed by the pandemic) – it has already learned a few lessons from the other shows and its wonderful cast certainly helps. But the one that kicked everything off (which, it’s worth mentioning, was not the original plan) is still my pick of the bunch. Wandavision shows the true advantages of having Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen and Kathryn Hahn on your payroll, making astonishing stylistic moves with every string of its production and telling an effective story about grief in the process. I will not be forgetting Episode 4 (or 8) in a hurry.

Runner-Up: Hawkeye

Best Videogame Adaptation

Arcane

That’s right; if you’re already talking about TV and you have this kind of opportunity, why not double up? This, dear reader, was the sixth full show I completed in 2021.

Videogame adaptations are (slowly) getting better as writers get younger (see Detective Pikachu, Tomb Raider, and Sonic the Hedgehog in recent years), but they still have yet to sell the illusion that they aren’t being cynical – or at least have enough fun that it doesn’t matter. One main character – and maybe two scenes – in this year’s Mortal Kombat fit the latter description, and though it technically isn’t an adaptation of anything, Free Guy keeps a surprisingly clued-in and pertinent plot about modern game design out of its trailers. But as K-Pop and competitive hero shooters have learned recently, if you want something done right, you give the task to Riot Games.

Alongside longtime collaborators Fortiche, Riot have created a unicorn: A videogame adaptation without any source material familiarity required of its audience. Sure, Arcane functions as a prequel for half a dozen of League of Legends’ most iconic individual champions, but half the show’s principal cast is entirely new to the (already extensive) franchise lore – and the unnecessary degree of wordbuilding the developers have been doing over a decade gives the artists involved a huge playground in which to paint some of the most striking animated set pieces I’ve ever seen on a screen. The soundtrack is a winner as well, culminating in a supremely confident, perfectly-directed finale that may send a few more people to Summoner’s Rift – but clearly doesn’t believe it needs to. Just do yourself a favour and watch it.

Runner-Up: Mortal Kombat

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ajuric on Dec 23, 2021 at 8:13 pm

    Best Ryan image? Personally, I’m torn between the national geographic Golden rectangle one and the “omg cake!” image

    Reply

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