A lot of video games come out every single week. Even if you limit yourself to only big, retail releases (ignoring smaller independent games, which would be a mistake) the market is very crowded, and it can be hard to know what to spend your money on.
Here are some quick thoughts on some recent video game releases that you might want to pay attention to.
Donut County (PS4, iPhone, PC)
Donut County is a simple, colorful game in which you control a hole in the ground, moving it across the screen in order to drop things (tires, chairs, stereos, animals...) into it. When things fall into the hole, the hole gets bigger. Driving this addictive gameplay formula forward is a story about a careless raccoon who destroyed lives (and the better part of the town he lives in) by controlling holes with his cell phone.
Also, it's a game about gentrification. Seriously.
It's short, it can be buggy and it doesn't have quite as much meat to it as I would have liked, but for a few bucks ($5 on iPhone, $13 on PC, Mac and PlayStation 4) it's a charming and fun way to spend a few hours.
Dead Cells (Switch, Xbox One, PS4, PC)
Every year, there tends to be a small handful of independently-developed video games that really capture the hearts and minds of a wide audience, charming critics and gamers alike. Dead Cells is one of those games.
It's a difficult-but-rewarding action platformer that evokes memories of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night despite being far more about combat than exploration. Every run through the game is unique, and every death is permanent -- when you're killed, you start over, and your next trip through the game's levels will be quite different than your last.
Not all is lost in death, though. Slowly but surely you'll unlock new weapons, abilities and gameplay modifiers to help you survive each encounter. Couple that with the gradual increase in your sheer skills, and you'll be able to take on the last boss before you know it (or, you know, in like 30 hours of playing). If nothing else, it's one of those games that you might have to play just because everybody else is.
Lost Phone Stories (iOS, PC, Switch)
What would you do if you found somebody's lost phone and were able to unlock it?
If your answer is "Snoop around on the phone to try to find the owner, but also because I'm nosy," you're terrible, but I understand.
What if, while snooping, you started to get the feeling that something darker was going on with the phone's owner? That maybe their phone wasn't necessarily "lost," and maybe they're in some very real danger?
That's the premise behind the two Lost Phone games -- short, mostly text-based narratives that are played entirely through a fake cell phone interface. You'll have to solve an occasional puzzle and think outside the box here and there, but the bulk of these stories involves reading through e-mails, text messages, notes and other things in an attempt to solve the mysteries behind the phone's owner.
Salt and Sanctuary (Switch, PC, PS4)
I confess, when Salt & Sanctuary first started taking the world by storm in 2016, I skipped it in large part because of its art. Games from the very small team at Ska Studios (The Dishwasher, Charlie Murder) have a very distinct style that many people love, but that I had trouble getting into.
Sleeping on this game was a mistake. It's an impressive 2D game that blends exploration and RPG elements with a very deliberate and finely-tuned combat system. The easy (and, at this point, cliched) comparison is to the hit Dark Souls series of games, but the connection is both apt and high praise. Salt and Sanctuary takes a lot of smart lessons from Dark Souls, but it's also something that stands tall on its own.
The game is in the news again because it was just released on the Nintendo Switch, which is a pretty perfect platform for it. It's a fine game when played on a TV, but its structure and steady pacing make it a great fit for portable play.
Crush Your Enemies (Switch, PC, Mobile)
While I don't always love its writing or its attempts at humor and story, Crush Your Enemies has style that I can appreciate. It wears some Conan the Barbarian influence on its sleeve (and in its title), but in terms of gameplay and graphics it's much more reminiscent of the classic Warcraft strategy games, from long before the series became an online RPG.
It's a much simpler affair, though, consisting of bite-sized battlefields and straightforward controls that work well on a console controller. It's easy to pick up, but fast-paced and fun. If you have a Switch, that version can be great for bus rides or just for when you have a few minutes to spare.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Switch, 3DS)
This game was a ridiculously charming, underrated puzzle game for the Wii U -- a platform that, sadly, never had a sizable audience that could appreciate this game to its fullest. Now on the Switch and 3DS, Captain Toad's adventure is being given a new life, complete with new levels (based on the recent Super Mario Odyssey) and more things to accomplish.
It's not the longest game you'll play all year, but its adorable animations and approachable-but-thought-provoking puzzles will entertain you from beginning to end.
Tempest 4000 (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
Here's the good thing about Tempest 4000: It's Tempest.
Here's the less good thing about Tempest 4000: It's still Tempest.
This modern take on the arcade classic comes from game designer Jeff Minter, who has plenty of experience making good Tempest games (starting with Tempest 2000 back in the '90s). It's trippy, it's got great music, it's got familiar-but-addictive gameplay, and for $20 on PC it can be a cool trip down memory lane (the $30 price tag on consoles is a harder sell). But you might feel too much like you've been here before, and there's not a ton that can keep you coming back for more.
Pro tip: The PS4 version is the one I'd recommend least, thanks to some sub-par motion controls that are required for interstitial bonus stages.
Lumines Remastered (Switch, Xbox One, PS4, PC)
"I like Tetris," you say, "but I wish it had a little bit more color and a lot more of a beat." Well then do I have the game for you.
The original Lumines, now remastered for modern consoles, was a system-seller on the PSP when it was first released in 2004. Like Tetris, the gameplay is all about rotating blocks and dropping them into a play area with the intention of clearing blocks to score points. The 2x2 blocks you drop are made up entirely of two different colors, with your goal being to match the same colors into large squares or rectangles that will be wiped away as the game progresses.
Where a lot of the charm comes in, though, is that the entire experience is musical. Blocks are cleared in time with the beat of whatever song is currently playing, and the pieces you drop contribute to the overall tune. It's not an overly difficult game, and there's something both hypnotic and relaxing about Lumines when you really get into a groove with it.
While Lumines Remastered is a fine throwback on PS4, Xbox One and PC, it feels right at home on the Nintendo Switch, where you can play it while on the go.
Hollow Knight (Switch, PC)
Sporting beautiful visuals and a haunting soundtrack, Hollow Knight takes inspiration from some of the best exploratory 2D games in gaming (like Metroid and Castlevania) for an adventure that will keep you diving deeper and deeper underground until late in the night.
While Hollow Knight has been enchanting PC gamers for awhile now, the game got a surprise "available right now" launch for the Nintendo Switch at E3 in mid-June.
Yoku's Island Express (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC)
Take pinball. Throw it in a blender with exploration-based side-scrollers like Metroid and Castlevania. Have it star a cute dung beetle and feature some nice, upbeat music. Now you've got Yoku's Island Express, an incredibly charming adventure where most of your movement involves pinball flippers and bumpers. It's fun, charming and easy to love.