The first year of the pandemic broke all my records for games bought (67), money spent on games ($768), and hours spent playing games (283). Thanks to vaccines and more access to friends and activities, 2021 saw a drop in all my gaming stats — but other than 2020, this year still outranked any other year in the past decade: I bought 44 games, spent $560.21 on games (for an average of $12.73 each), and spent roughly 174 hours playing games.

As the first full calendar year of the pandemic, 2021 also featured no game conventions for me to go to — the first year in the history of PAX East I haven't been to one. The lack of both travel expenses and hardware purchases (no PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X for me) meant that software was my only gaming expense in 2021, which my YouTube channel's revenue covered in full for the first time in years.

When someone on Twitter asked what my must-play games of the year were, I reviewed my list and didn't find many obvious recent standouts. Arcade Spirits, Metroid Dread, and Spiritfarer were the most memorable, but only one of those games came out this year. It's the nature of the backlog (or the nature of whose who wait for sales) to always be a few steps behind.

As is my annual tradition, here is my summary of every game I played, bought, or wanted to buy this year, as tracked on my Trello board. The parenthetical numbers represent the total for that category, followed by the change from last year.

Finished (10 / -6)

Arcade Spirits: a young man and woman, dressed for the beach, standing on a boardwalk.
Shadows of Adam
This was a fun 16-bit RPG in the style of Final Fantasy. I enjoyed exploring the world, discovering secrets, equipping new accessories, and finding post-game content. The story was lackluster, though, and lacked a strong ending.
Arcade Spirits
The only non-Switch game I played! I'd been wanting to play Arcade Spirits for awhile; then a friend reminded it was in an bundle I already had. I absolutely loved this visual novel, set in an alternative present where arcades still rule supreme. The writing was hilarious and the characters were relatable, leaving me eager for the sequel.
Cyber Shadow
The Messenger was not the Ninja Gaiden spiritual successor I was looking for. Cyber Shadow came much closer, and I had fun while playing it — though a few months later, I find it didn't leave much of an impression.
The First Tree
A narrator describes his relationship with his father while the player controls a fox navigating a variety of natural environments. The game emphasized the narrative more than the gameplay mechanics, though it was a timely game to play around Fathers' Day. I recorded a complete, six-part Let's Play.
Several friends recommended this game, though it didn't hit me as strongly as it did them. A mute protagonist navigates a linear, monochromatic world in her quest to restore color and heal from her past traumas. Despite most of the puzzles not being difficult, there were a few places where a lack of visual indicators left me stuck, leaving me nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Metroid Dread
The first original 2D Metroid game in 19 years! I bought Metroid Dread just before my first pandemic flight on a trip home to Massachusetts, which means I played it mostly in handheld mode. It was awesome to be playing as Samus again, though this was not her best adventure. The ways the game railroads the player are obvious and contrived, and one path I couldn't find left me absolutely blocked. A lot of the challenge of traversing the environments disappeared once the Screw Attack was obtained. It was certainly the prettiest Metroid game ever, though, and I enjoyed being exhaustive in my efforts.
Mark of the Ninja Remastered
I'd started this stealth-action game on the Xbox 360 but never finished it. It reminds me of Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, a game I loved on the original PSX, so I was happy to revisit and finish Mark of the Ninja on Switch.
Cursed Castilla
An old-school Ghost 'n Goblins-type platformer, Cursed Castilla requires extraordinary feats and few deaths in order to unlock the final stages and "good" ending. I wasn't up to the task, so maybe I can't truly count this game as finished.
Tetris Effect: Connected
Can Tetris ever truly be finished? Perhaps not, but Tetris Effect has a one-player campaign with a conclusive ending. I finished it on the normal difficulty, though it's the online multiplayer 3-vs-CPU that will have me coming back.
A Fold Apart
What an utterly lovely puzzle game. I knew it would be based on origami; what I didn't expect was a narrative of a long-distance relationship between two highly sensitive individuals. While I try not to succumb to such pessimistic thinking, I could definitely relate to how a poor word choice can send someone else into a spiral. Some might see the story as its weakest aspect, though. Conversely, the lack of story in the bonus chapters left me disengaged.

Unfinished (8 / -3)

Spiritfarer: a sailor and a cat on the prow of a ship during sunset.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill
Not being a mountain biker, I didn't think I'd like this game. Once I played it, I realized it's simply a reskinned Marble Madness. I love Marble Madness! And the variety of challenges offer Lonely Mountains great replayability.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury
I already recorded a complete Let's Play of this Wii U game eight years ago, but a friend got me the Switch version as a gift. The new content constituting Bowser's Fury was great fun, very much in the vein of Super Mario 64 — but I'm not moving this to my "finished" column until my friend T.J. and I complete the main game via online multiplayer.
Coffee Talk
Since I liked Arcade Spirits, and Coffee Talk came so recommended, I thought I'd give it a try. I liked the script, but the complete inability to influence that story was disheartening; ultimately, my choices didn't matter at all. And even though I followed a guide after my first playthrough, I wasn't able to unlock the second half of the game, leaving me uncertain how to proceed. Still, I'll probably play the sequel.
Warlock's Tower
I interviewed the developers of Warlock's Tower for the IndieSider podcast when the game originally released on iOS in 2017. I've gotten a bit better at it on Switch, though the puzzles get hard enough that I don't know if I'll ever finish.
I don't know that I'd play Spiritfarer by myself, but it's a wonderful couch co-op game, where two players can split the tasks of managing their boat. "You plant crops while I check what's in the oven; then we'll deliver this soul to her final resting place" is a typical agenda for us. The narrative doesn't hit me as hard as it did most reviewers, and the Switch version crashes more often than I'd like — but I'm nonetheless eager to finish this game in 2022.
Wizard of Legend
A game whose local multiplayer intrigued me, it scratches an itch that Gauntlet used to and which Nine Parchments did not.
Lode Runner Legacy
I love Lode Runner: I grew up playing the original on my Apple II, I made it the subject of my guest appearance on the podcast New Game Plus, and I eulogized the creator when he passed away. So even though I recorded a Let's Play of Lode Runner Legacy three years ago, it wasn't until this year that I bought it on Switch. I'm not a huge fan of the graphics in this iteration, but the multiplayer mode and the inclusion of all 150 original Apple II levels made it a sound investment.
The Gardens Between
I like the time-dilation mechanics of this puzzle game, but I'm only past the first few stages; I'm hoping it gets more complicated.

Evergreen (3 / 0)

Bomberman: a top-down view of a single-screen square map with the words "WINNER: GAMEBITS"
The classic card game is great for online multiplayer when I'm more interested in talking with my friends than in actually gaming with them.
ACA NEOGEO Puzzle Bobble
Also known as Bust a Move, I've been playing variations on this game since high school. I seem to have trouble saving my progress on the Switch version, so who knows if I'll ever actually finish it.
Super Bomberman R Online Premium
The core of this classic madcap multiplayer game is free; by paying for the DLC, I can host online tournaments with my friends.

Abandoned (4 / -6)

Telling Lies: A young girl staring at the camera, listening to a story.
Pac-Man 99
I thought Pac-Man 99 would have the staying power of Tetris 99, but it didn't.
BurgerTime Party!
I didn't get to try the multiplayer mode, which is where I suspect a lot of the replayability comes from. The single-player mode added new mechanics, but they seemed gimmicky compared to the simple yet difficult original coin-op.
Okami HD
Okami was recommended to me by several people: I like Zelda, dogs, and animation, so what's not to love? But the battles devolved to little more than button mashing, and I never recovered from the huge tonal shift from the mythological opening sequence to the childish humor of the Navi-like companion.
Telling Lies
Her Story never came out for Switch, so I thought I'd try its spiritual successor. Alas, this full-motion video game had a dull story and too many red herrings and disjointed conversations to keep my interest.

Unplayed (26 / -6)

Dragon Quest XI: a collage of characters
Fire Emblem™: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light
An NES RPG I'm unlikely to play, but it was on sale.
Civilization VI
A lost a semester of my undergrad to Civ2, so when a friend offered me their Switch copy of this game, I was eager to accept yet reluctant to play. Can I afford to get that involved again?
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
I really enjoyed the original Metroidvania in this franchise in 2019, and I was glad to see a smaller gap between the Xbox and Switch releases of the sequel.
Dragon Quest XI S
Dragon Quest is another series I've been playing since I was a kid, with Dragon Quest IV ranking as one of my favorite RPGs of all time. The last time I played one of the core games in this franchise was Dragon Quest VIII on PlayStation 2 in the fall of 2006, when I was unemployed. I'd love to re-enter this world, but I know it's the only game I'll play for several months. I also don't know: will I play it in 3D mode, or top-down, 16-bit sprite mode??
I picked up this puzzle game on sale because it reminds me of the Apple IIGS game Operation Lambda.
Manifold Garden
A first-person puzzle game I first saw demoed at IndieCade East 2016.
When my sister-in-law asked me for game recommendations for her song, Wandersong topped my list. I figured I should try it, too!
Double Dragon & Kunio-kun: Retro Brawler Bundle
I already have some of these games through Nintendo Switch Online, but the sale on the bundle was too good to pass up.
I interviewed Kine creator Gwen Frey for my podcast back when she worked on The Flame in the Flood; I'm interested to see what she's been up to since then.
Narita Boy
I backed Narita Boy's Kickstarter, but not at a level sufficient to get the game, as no Switch port was promised at the time. When it did eventually release for that platform, I picked it up.
I like Metroidvanias, though this one looks a little dark for me. Still, this podcast review is intriguing: "This is the most Catholic game I've ever played. It's all about guilt over things that you don't even know what you did wrong, and ridiculously extravagant and ostentatious acts of penance." (There's also a 70-minute making-of documentary.)
Thomas Was Alone
Another game I started on PS4 but never finished. The voice acting on this puzzle game is really neat!
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
A side-scrolling beat-em-up in the style of River City Ransom. I bought this game on Xbox 360 and thought its online multiplayer might make it a good addition to my Switch library. I haven't found anyone to play it with yet, though.
Another Metroidvania, and one I barely started in two-player mode on Wii U.
I hosted a PAX East 2015 panel with Unavowed creator Dave Gilbert, so I was excited to see his library extend onto the Switch.
Amnesia: Collection
Three games for $2.47!
I Am Dead
This is one of the few games on this list I'd never heard of before buying it. A puzzle adventure game, its motif seemed a good pairing with Spiritfarer, offering a posthumous reflection on the choices one makes in life.
Blaster Master Zero 3
Blaster Master Zero 2 came out mere days after I finished Blaster Master Zero. Although I haven't started the sequel yet, I figured I'd add the third one to my queue while it was on sale.
Actraiser Renaissance
I was so surprised and stoked by this game's release! I have many fond memories of playing the Super NES original, most recently recording a Let's Play four years ago.
Castlevania Advance Collection
I own the original Game Boy Advance carts of Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow, but I could never bring myself to stare at the GBA's small screen long enough to play them. The Switch ports should address that fatal flaw.
I already finished this monochromatic puzzle-platformer on the Xbox 360 over a decade ago — but for $1.13, I could afford to get it for Switch as well.
Collection of Mana
I played the original versions of the first two games in this collection, and I remember being frustrated as a kid that Seiken Densetsu 3 wasn't being localized for North America audiences. Naturally, I had to support the publisher when they finally did make that effort.
Moon Hunters
I put off buying this game due to the lack of online support for its multiplayer mode, but I could overlook that oversight when a sale put its price at 69¢.
Panzer Paladin
I've been digging retro NES-style platformers lately (Blaster Master, Cyber Shadow, The Messenger), and I enjoyed Panzer Paladin at a previous PAX East.
Big Brain Academy
I got this game at 50% off largely because I enjoyed the Wii original —  but without the pointer-style controls, I'm not sure how much fun the Switch version will be.
This tactical take on Oregon Trail reminds me of Dead Man's Trail, a zombie survival game also based on Oregon Trail. DMT's Kickstarter failed eight years ago, so I'll be playing Overland instead.

Not bought yet (5 / -3)

A Plague Tale: a teenaged woman holds a torch while leading her younger brother through a dark cave.
Twelve Minutes
Despite the time loop (a quality I hated in Majora's Mask) and the domestic violence, I still want to play Twelve Minutes. I thought it would be a Microsoft exclusive, so I was pleasantly surprised when it was released for Switch.
A Plague Tale: Innocence
I'd rather play the PS4 original than the Switch streaming edition (I have a general distrust of streaming media), but with my PS4 in storage, I may need to compromise.
Solar Ash
From the creators of Hyper Light Drifter, another game in my backlog.
Boyfriend Dungeon
A nominee in the Video Game Awards' "Games for Impact" category: "For a thought-provoking game with a pro-social meaning or message."
Where the Heart Leads
An abstract, branching-path narrative game — and a PS4 exclusive.

Unreleased (3 / -2)

Open Roads: A mother and adult daughter driving in a car.
Oxen Free II
The original Oxen Free is the only Mac game I've done a complete Let's Play of. You bet I'm down for the sequel.
From the creators of Towerfall and Celeste, two Switch games I've very much enjoyed!
Open Roads
From the developers of Gone Home and Tacoma, starring the voice talent of Keri Russell, and being published by Annapurna Interactive —  all things I like!