Nobody reading his needs me to tell them that the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic made 2021 a weird year for both the production and consumption of any form of entertainment. The fact that any new show, movie, game, book, etc came out this year is the result of nothing less than a herculean logistical effort and brilliant people still managing to find the passion to create something as the world continues to warp around them. Similarly, I found myself having more extreme reactions to this year’s releases than in years past. If I liked something, it helped me cope with what will hopefully be the most tumultuous event that I live through. If something sucked, it was a foolhardy effort that wasn’t worth risking the health and safety of the people likely meeting up to create it.
Those negative reactions in particular aren’t fair to a given work or the people who made it, and I’m going to try check myself on that kind of response in 2022 (or as living under a pandemic becomes increasingly normalized and accepted). Still, a good number of media tangibly improved my year and gave me a pick-me-up when I really needed one. So, these are all of my favorite pieces of media from 2021 that I encourage you to check out if my reaction to them resonates with you whatsoever.
I know this game came out in 2020, but with the timing of when I was able to get a PS5, I wasn’t able to play it until January of 2021, and I’m glad that I did! The PlayStation 5 remaster of Demon’s Souls is such a console generation defining experience that it validates the purchase (good luck) of a PS5 by itself. FromSoft’s first foray into the SoulsBorne genre that it would both spearhead and perfect is now easier to play than ever with Bluepoint’s quality of life improvements, namely less loading time between deaths.
Having only put a significant amount of time into Bloodborne prior to this release, I found Demon’s Souls combat to be more my speed. I classed as Royalty and having the ability to use midrange attacks from the start of the game gave me the spacing to plan out and then execute most encounters in a way I found deeply challenging and rewarding. More than anything, though, it’s the atmosphere and characters of Demon’s Souls that sticks with me.
For Unwinnable, I wrote about how much I appreciated exploring the collapsing kingdom of Boletaria and meeting NPCs who were all processing the trauma of this collapse. After all, I was going through a much less cool version of all of this in real life. I stand by everything I wrote in this piece, and believe in it more strongly now. Sneaking through the once bustling but now desolate areas of Latria was frighteningly similar to traveling out my neighbor, once COVID left it a shell of its former self. I’ll also always remember characters like Ostrava, Biorr, and Patches; with their widely different reactions to this strange, demonic world making it feel all the more real.
Then there’s the ending. Killing the mad, despot King Alant at the end of Demon’s Souls remains one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve ever had in a video game, and I cannot recommend this title enough.
I played Bugsnax simultaneously with Demon’s Souls and it was about the best gaming cocktail I could have asked for. Each game perfectly encapsulates one end of my gaming preference spectrum; Demon’s Souls is grandiose, intense, and weird while Bugsnax is quirky, relaxing, and weird. I’d need an entire, 2,000 word piece to get into all of the strange stuff that makes up Bugsnax, so just trust me when I say that it’s as bizarre as it is endearing.
I’m a sucker for the kinds of stories like the one featured in Bugsnax, where a bunch of broken, off-beat, and kind of shitty people have to work out their differences and accept that they all do genuinely care for each other. Benefiting from the first pandemic winter, this game’s depiction of a wholesome community warmed my heart during Chicago’s coldest months. It’s also one of the most casually inclusive and queer games I can think of, and cannot wait for Young Horses to release the Isle of Bigsnax expansion.
NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…
Nier Replicant is a haunting experience. The main cast of Nier, Kaine, and Emil are some of the most realized and lovable characters in video games, which makes it all the more devastating as the title slowly reveals that the world they inhabit can only crush their spirits and force them to fail in their ambitions. These three only have each other, and often not even that, as they flail fruitlessly at the circumstances of their lives and draw what little joy they can in the beautiful moments they create.
I was not nearly as awesome as I am now in 2010, and therefore played Nier Automata before I played any version of Nier Replicant. This colored my playthrough in two meaningful ways. The first is that I would often gasp and point at the screen anytime something I recognized from Automata appeared and I experienced a reference in the wrong order. The second is that the game’s themes of finding meaning in hopeless situations hits a lot harder knowing that these characters will not succeed in their quest per the set-up of the sequel.
I loved this game, even knowing how it had to end. The events of the new sections featuring a playable Kaine are also a delight and I love that this game now ends with a glimmer of hope instead of the loss that punctuates the original. This is a great game, and I wish other creators in the industry were willing to be half as daring and honest as Yoko Taro.
New Pokémon Snap
In June of 2021 I upended my entire life to move to Los Angeles. This quixotic change was fueled by my desire to lead an interesting life and maybe meet some exceptional people. What followed this move was one of the most hectic periods of my life in which I nearly became stranded in the Mojave Desert, moved into two different apartments in the span of two months, and slept on an air mattress for nearly ninety days. More often than I care to admit, the thought crossed my mind that I was being foolhardy and that I’d be happier if I had stayed within my comfort zone in the Midwest.
New Pokémon Snap is not a revolutionary game. It’s a modern version of the Nintendo 64 classic that doesn’t innovate on the ideas of the original or push the Nintendo Switch hardware in any meaningful ways. However, as a fan of the original game whose childhood was partially defined by it, this game provided me with a psychic anchor at a time in my life when I needed one. I love this game and it’s one of my favorites of the year.
Resident Evil Village
Vampire lady big!!!
Lady Dimitrescu is reason enough to love the eighth Resident Evil game, but there’s more to the title than just the most simped over video game character in recent memory. There’s something for every horror game fan here. You want a cat and mouse game against a monster in a striking local? That’s in RE8. You want to be helpless and flee from an unkillable monstrosity? That’s in RE8. You want to kill hoards of ghouls and disgusting creatures that are only allowed to live due to the fury of a cruel god? You better believe that’s in RE8!
It’s the vibe of Village that makes it one of my favorite games of the year, though. Even if Lady D is only in the game for a short amount of time, she’s the perfect poster women for this title. This game is seeping with camp horror and always feels at least a little horny. After all, Hindenburg is basically a Victorian steampunk Nicolas Cage. What’s hotter than that!?
Does ever facet and plot point of this game make sense? No, but that only makes it more delightful.
Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars
Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars is an eccentric game based on what feels like the drafts folder in Yoko Taro’s Google Drive, and I desperately hope it turns into an anthology series. This game has a ditzy astrology elf girl, a muscle fetish, and queer subtext that really wants to be regular text. Also, some frustrating homophobia that was added during the localization process. Blagh.
This one blemish aside, I adored this small, tabletop inspired romp. If Square Enix wants to make one of these a year just so Yoko Taro can flex his short story chops, I’m down for that. So long as the sequels aren’t also NFTs, I’m ride or die for the Voice of Cards franchise.
No More Heroes 3
Suda 51’s latest, and likely final, entry in the No More Heroes series is the best game of 2021 and maybe my favorite game of all time. What it lacks because of obvious budget limitations, it more than makes up for with presentation and style. This is one of the most vibrant and visually distinctive games to grace the AAA genre in while and it’s incredible.
In this game, former toxic gamer Travis Touchdown is tasked with fending off an alien invasion that’s led by a metaphor for corporations and gatekeepers using nostalgia to advance their shitty ideals. All of the protagonists in this game are just the coolest 30 and 40 somethings who spend most of their time producing a movie podcast that maybe a dozen people listen to. Half of the boss aliens are smoked by other people who you have to fight instead! This game is ridiculous and it feels like it was made for me. If I could give Suda 51 a down payment on whatever game he’s making next, I would.
Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle
I thought 2021 was a down year for anime with few titles really sticking out to me, and the series I did watch rarely leaving much of an impression. Which is why I was so surprised that Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle resonated with me so much, being the kind of breezy and humor focused anime that I usually gloss over. It’s cute, it’s funny, and it makes fun of Dragon Quest tropes. What more could you want from anything you exclusively watched over lunch breaks?
This anime definitely benefited from the pandemic giving me an appetite for anything that could give me the warm fuzzies, but the dub is legitimately great and I enjoyed every episode.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean
Prior to this season coming out, a good number of JoJo’s “fans” would tell you that Stone Ocean is the weakest installment in the franchise. They are liars and misogynists. Both the Stone Ocean anime and manga are terrific and I don’t think I had more fun with a single piece of media this year.
Jolyne’s false imprisonment and sudden responsibility to join the generational struggle against evil that defined the life of her father and other ancestors is clearly playing with some ideas of what it’s like to live under an oppressive patriarchal society. Also, an amnesiac named Weather Report makes it rain poison frogs. Stone Ocean is the most bizarre animated installment of the series so far, and executes on its themes and messaging more coherently than any part to come before. It’s almost definitely going to be one of my favorite anime of 2022 as the season continues.
Rick and Morty
“He’s Mr. Nimbus! He controls the police!”
I’m trying as hard as I can to live a meaningful life that’s full of unique experiences that hopefully give me greater insight into the human condition. I think I’ve been fairly successful in this effort so far. However, I’m still a cis white guy in my 20s who’s online way too much and therefore am required to like Rick and Morty. Even if this season did have some duds (“Rickdependence Spray” and “Amortycan Grickfitti”), the the highs scraped the sky (“Mort Dinner Rick Andre,” “A Rickconvenient Mort,” and “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort”). Just like in past seasons, I’m sure I’m going to quote the best jokes from R&M season five for years to come.
Kevin Can Fuck Himself
To call Kevin Can Fuck Himself just a satire of the dumb husband genre of TV sitcoms would be a disservice to the program. It’s definitely casting a critical eye on that deeply problematic material, but it’s also offering one of the truest versions of small town America I’ve ever seen, showcases how people fall to what’s labeled criminal activity out of necessity instead of greed, and has an unprecedented depiction of the kind of charismatic alcoholic that casually ruins the lives of everyone around them. This show is so much more than just its gimmick of switching between being shot and staged like a sitcom to a drama, but that’s still one hell of a gimmick!
Even the supposed plot hole of Allison never even considering divorcing her husband Kevin and jumping straight to killing him is magnificent writing. Both the character and the writers know that she can never really escape her abusive husband, because he is just charming enough to make a part of her want to stick around. I’ve never seen a show tackle this kind of relationship and these kinds of characters with such nuance before and I cannot wait for the second season.
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson
This is the most quotable show in the history of television.
What We Do In The Shadows
I love What We Do In the Shadows. I made an entire video about why I resonate emotionally with Jackie Daytona! That being said, season three focusing more on character development and relationships instead of mining most of its humor from exploring the strange lore and rules of this world was a little bit of a misfire for me. I still loved this season of WWDITS, but laughed a little less in season three than in season two.
I can still appreciate the show after this shift and respect the decision to change things up. After all, the set up of these out of touch vampires living together in Staten Island would get stale eventually and the show couldn’t have undergone the massive change it’s setting up if it didn’t tie up loose ends. It was a treat seeing the Baron finally make his return and the joke with the Golden Retriever was one of the best in the series. Fingers crossed that season four keeps the charm of the first two seasons alive as things change further and the Guillermo and Nandor have the heartfelt reunion they deserve.
The Suicide Squad
I’m probably outing myself as a philistine right now, but the only movie that I saw this year that I thoroughly enjoyed was The Suicide Squad. Not to disparage the films that did release in 2021 and the work that went into releasing them, but I think everyone can agree that this was a more limited year for film. TSS was a bloody delight, though, and I wish it was the first movie I saw in theaters following the pandemic (that honor goes to Free Guy, a movie that absolutely does not deserve it).
I love this movie’s juvenal segments and serious messaging equally and am amazed that it blended those elements so expertly. Idris Alba’s Bloodsport getting into a style points kill contest with John Cena’s Peacemaker had me absolutely giddy as it happened. Once the movie revealed that Peacemaker is entirely representative of America’s idea of peace being a defense of the status quo that benefits the nation, that scene took on new meaning.
This is a maximalist movie that isn’t afraid to be stupid or schlocky and I admire it for that.
Sakamoto Days had its first full year of publication in 2021 and I vibe so hard with this manga. Focusing on the titular retired assassin and his found and actual family, this is the kind of more grounded battle shonen that I love. Sure characters have telepathy and casually perform superhuman feats of strength, but it has yet to go further beyond how you wish the world worked as a child. Everything is just a little extra and its wonderful.
The art also goes a long way in making this world feel lived in. Everything feels messy and just a little dirty, like these are actual locations instead of TV set facsimiles. The color spreads drive this feeling home; being bright and eye-catching, but also chaotic and just a little too busy. While I do need to call out this manga for brushing against fatphobia, I still can’t recommend it enough. Between an effortlessly cool and funny cast of characters, secret assassin organizations, and a whole lot of heart to bring it together; I really want to live in this manga.
What if aliens and cryptids were both real, fought humans, and occasionally each other? Well then, Dandadan would happen so long as a brash girl and shy boy met each other, immediately caught feelings, and started fighting against those monsters with their own supernatural powers. Actually, that’s not quite right. The boy’s testicles also need to be stolen by by an old woman and a good chunk of the plot has to revolve around getting them back.
Dandadan isn’t for everyone, but, holy shit, is it for me. I love the idiots in this manga and will weep when they both find the courage to express their feelings to each other. Mix that with a great supporting cast, some visceral images, and some compelling rumination on romantic relationships; and you have a one of a kind manga that I eagerly read every Monday.
From Dorohedoro author Q Hayashida, Dai Dark is a manga that could only be made by Q Hayashida. Every protagonist is a mass murderer, but they’re also super best friends and a total sweethearts. Death is a central character, and they’re a self-absorbed sociopath who is very respectful of people’s pronouns and chosen names. Every character is a beefcake and smokeshow.
This whole series takes place so far in the future that obviously human characters are called aliens, but also magic is definitely real. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next chapter of Dai Dark and I can’t wait to find out! There’s nothing else like this series and it’s one of my favorite manga of 2021.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Jojolion
The eighth installment in the JJBA franchise ended this year and was the most divisive in its lengthy history. Some set ups are never resolved, supposedly important characters are barely explored and make limited appearances, and the final power up is poorly explained and arguably unearned. With all of that being said, Gappy is my second favorite JoJo and this is one of my favorite parts of the series.
Witnessing this goofball, four-balled man learn how to not only be a person, but a JoJo’s protagonist was an experience I won’t soon forget. This entry also has some of the most intense fights in the franchise thus far, and a final antagonist that’s the closest the series has ever gotten to cosmic horror. I’m going to be rereading this JoJolion until part 9 drops; thank you for only getting better with age Araki.
JelloApocolypse’s What Scooby Doo Character is the Best?
If you don’t have some level of fondness for Scooby-Doo I don’t want anything to do with you. The long-running franchise remains a pristine entry point to the horror and mystery genres of fiction while also becoming a cultural institution in its own right. I have spent far too much time thinking about Scooby-Doo characters and plotlines, and so too has creator and voice actor Brendan Blaber.
This nearly hour long video is a masterful character analysis of each member of Mystery Incorporated that’s as funny as it is thoughtful. There’s clearly something about these seemingly one note characters and their relationships that have allowed them to endure in the pop-culture spotlight for so long, and Blaber thoroughly explores what’s given them such staying power. Also, the costuming in this video presents a level of style and confidence I could only dream of.
Tim Roger’s ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS Tokimeki Memorial
There are very few things I like more in life than listening to very smart, passionate people talk about the things they like in great detail. Tim Rogers is an expert at this. His over-the-top presentation style and proclivity for earnest tangents into experiences that shaped his life and identity lead me to believe that I would enjoy listening to this man read the phone book.
(Please don’t make a video where you read the phone book, Tim Rogers. I will watch that and have a great time in the moment, but I know I won’t feel good about myself afterwards.)
I had not heard of and did not care about Tokimeki Memorial prior to Rogers making a six hour video about the game, which was never officially released in the U.S. After watching the more than feature length experience, I now have a deep appreciation for TokiMemo and see it’s influences in a dozen or so of my personal favorite games of all time (which might be the focus of a future blog post). Speckled in this comprehensive review and analysis, Rogers inserts anecdotes about his own experiences as an awkward teenager and how the game conveyed a faded reflection of his former self.
These eloquent ramblings were more relatable than I’d care to admit. If I can someday be half as good at writing and talking about the things meaningful to me as Tim Rogers is, I could die happy.
There you have it, nearly 4,000 words on my favorite pieces of media from 2021 — and this was a down year! I wish I had some grand takeaway connecting all of this media to the pandemic or the many life changes I went through in the past twelve months, but anything I could bring up would be cliche or was said better elsewhere. All I know for sure is that I don’t think I would have gotten through last year if not for these works, and I’m deeply thankful to each and every person who helped make them happen.
Even if your role in these projects was just a paycheck or a holdover until a better gig came along, you helped make something that was deeply affecting to me. If by chance you read this, please know that you have my admiration and I hope that your project fulfilled you as much as it did me.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading! I promise that I’ll dial it in next post and write at length about a particular subject instead of maundering on about my big feelings towards twenty different pieces of media. Until then, good luck and stay safe.