Under the Radar’s Holiday Gift Guide 2017 Part 6: Video Games

Unique Indie Games and Gamer-centric Gifts

Dec 02, 2017 By Austin Trunick
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Welcome back to Under the Radar’s Holiday Gift Guide. This section focuses on video games and game-related items, and we’ve done our best to track down some of the coolest, more outside-the-box releases from 2017. (Trust us: not one of these gifts would scream "last-minute GameStop purchase" when your friend or loved one unwraps it.) 

We have previously posted part 1 of our 2017 gift guide (for music reissues, music box sets, and vinyl), as well as part 2 (for board games) and Part 3 (for DVDs and Blu-rays). Part 4 focused on toys and other gifts for kids, and Part 5 featured pop culture-related collectibles. And don't forget that Under the Radar subscriptions also make a great gift.

Gear

Atari Speakerhat (Atari / Audiowear)

SRP: $129.00 - $139.00

After 45 years in the business, Atari – the company that arguably built the video games industry we know today – continues to expand its reach. They recently launched Atari Life, a hip lifestyle brand whose latest release, the Atari Speakerhat, leads our list. 

The Speakerhat is a fashionable baseball cap currently available in five varieties: a sleek, black-on-black version featuring the familiar Atari logo, blue and black snapback versions with “Atari” in white lettering, a Blade Runner 2049-licensed cap featuring the Atari logo and Japanese lettering, and a limited edition Pong version announced this week to celebrate the game’s 45th anniversary. What makes the Speakerhat unique are, of course, the two speakers seamlessly hidden under the bill. The Speakerhat is fully Bluetooth-enabled, meaning that you can link it to your phone for streaming music on your favorite app, or even place phone calls using the hat’s hidden microphone. The speakers deliver crisp, clear audio even at higher volume levels, and while the speaker placement in front of the face may seem atypical at first, we can vouch that in use they sound very close to what you’d expect from a pair of good headphones. (There’s a jack just inside the hat where you can plug in a headset when you want to keep your calls private.) Our favorite feature? You can pause tracks or answer your phone by pressing a button just behind your ear – this, more than anything else, is what kind of makes you feel like a cyborg when you’re using it. While the idea of a Bluetooth hat may sound pretty unorthodox, we found it to be a practical – not to mention cool-looking – piece of wearable tech.

If you’re thinking of giving one as a gift, we have to mention the Speakerhat’s striking packaging: it comes in a heavy-duty box (like you’d expect from any nice piece of audio gear) emblazoned with the Atari logo, and in the classic, blood orange color they’ve used as far back as the big, round button on the Atari 2600’s iconic joystick. (Buy it here.)

Music

Cuphead – 4xLP Deluxe Vinyl Soundtrack (Studio MDHR / iam8bit)

SRP: $100

Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil was one of our most-anticipated video game release of 2017, and with its unique art style – it was made to look like a 1930s Steamboat Willie-era cartoon – it’s no wonder: there’s nothing else out there that looks remotely like it. Not only is it one of the best-looking games to hit the market this year, but it’s the best-sounding. Cuphead’s soundtrack is an absurdly fun combination of jazz, big band, and barbershop quartet numbers, all sounding as if they were plucked straight from the dust bowl era. Game designers Studio MDHR have teamed up with iam8bit to ensure that the soundtrack’s vinyl release was equally era-appropriate. The result is four heavyweight LPs encased in a folio-style book, as if they were 78rpm records straight out of the 1930s. Their meticulous attention to detail is a thing of awe, from labels that look like the real deal, to gold foil stamping on the cover and art deco-style embellishments on the inner sleeves. They just don’t make records this lavish anymore. Cuphead is one of the coolest-looking vinyl releases we’ve seen in a long time.  (Buy it here.)

Rez Infinite – Collector’s Edition Vinyl Soundtrack (iam8bit)

SRP: $75.00

Few video games truly stand the test of time. Sure, many get overhauls or remakes, but it’s the rare one that’s re-released generation after generation. Since its debut on the Sega Dreamcast in 2001, Rez has reigned supreme in our view as, hands down, the best-ever marriage of music and gameplay in video games. The latest incarnation of Rez comes from Enhance Games with full VR support, either at home with a headset or in a fully-immersive version shown at trade shows – complete with an awesome-looking, cyberpunk “synesthesia suit” – which we’re just dying to take for a spin.  This beautiful collector’s edition brings Rez Infinite’s iconic, electronic soundtrack to colored vinyl (two slabs, plus a bonus 7”) packaged inside a 48-page, gorgeously-illustrated history of the game. (Buy it here.)

Thomas Was Alone – Music by David Housden (Black Screen Records)

SRP: €26.00

Val-11 Hall-A: Official Soundtrack – Music by Michael Kelly (Black Screen Records)

SRP: €32.00

Earthworm Jim: Anthology – Music by Tommy Tallarico (Black Screen Records)

SRP: €32.00

Major props go out to all of the game developers who realize that music is just as important to crafting a memorable gaming experience as graphics and gameplay elements. Mike Bithell’s 2012 platformer Thomas Was Alone is a case in point: the game’s strictly minimalist graphic design featured black-on-grey levels, with characters that were nothing more than tiny, single-colored blocks. Nonethelss, it used narration to give the game an exciting, emotionally-resonant storyline, and David Housden’s gentle score to instill it with a wonderfully cathartic tone. (Both the game and its soundtrack are superb ways to lower your blood pressure.) On the other end of the spectrum is the Va-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action soundtrack by Michael Kelly, a two-LP set assembling the full score to Sukeban Games’ unique and critically-acclaimed 2016 release. (The music is a blend of pulsing, ‘80s-inspired synth, Japanese rock, and vintage-sounding City Pop.)  Since its founding in 2015, Black Screen Records has collected and released an impeccably-curated line of today’s best indie video game scores on limited run colored vinyl (and in handsomely-designed packages: just check out the artwork on their newly-announced Shadowrun releases.) And Black Screen Records aren't just about modern game scores, as Earthworm Jim: Anthology clearly demonstrates. Appropriately pressed on worm- and snot-colored vinyl, this set collects Tommy Tallarico’s award-winning scores for the 16-bit classics, remastered alongside new remixes and never-before-released cuts. (Buy them here.)

Games

Well, you didn’t think we’d do a video games list without any actual video games, did you? If the proliferation of independent studios over the last decade has proven anything, it’s that there’s no limit to what a game can be, or who can make one. In this era, a game can be the effort of just a tiny group of people, every bit as much the realization of an artistic vision as a great film, novel, or album. For this year’s gift guide, we’ve decided to focus on what (in our opinion) are some of the most exciting indie games to hit the market in 2017. That doesn’t mean we’re not as excited about Shadow of War as the millions of others who bought it, but for the same price you could buy several of these indies and give someone a gaming experience that would be like nothing they’ve played before.

A nice thing to note is that for this holiday season you’ll finally be able to gift digital games directly to someone through the Xbox marketplace. (This has been an option on Steam for years, and we’re happy to see consoles begin to adopt it.) Switch and PS4 users will still need to get creative when giving a digital-only title. We recommend you do what we do: buy a prepaid gift card, grab a Sharpie, and write “To be used on [THIS GAME] only” across the front.

Aaero (PS4/Xbox/PC)

SRP: $14.99

If it wasn’t clear from our write-up of its vinyl soundtrack, Rez is among our all-time favorite games. A few others have tried, but no game has hit that same sublime intersection of music and gameplay as well as Aaero has.

The graphical style is abstract, to say the least. You control a spaceship as it speeds through alien landscapes. At points in the soundtrack, sounds will arise and a beam of light will appear on the periphery of your path; as levels rise and fall, the beam moves and you’ll try to keep your ship on that track. The longer you sustain it, the better your score. Enemy ships will appear from time to time, which you’ll need to shoot down before their missiles hit you. The music is intrinsic to all of this – everything you do is to the beat, and matches the song that’s pulsing through your speakers.

Played on consoles using only the two sticks and a single trigger, Aaero is a game that’s easy to pick but difficult to master. Something that we found to be really, really cool about the gameplay is that you improve not by learning the levels or memorizing enemy patterns, but through familiarizing yourself with the music. If you can anticipate where a melody will turn, you’ll be able to better meet the challenge ahead of you. It’s such a seamless blend of gameplay and music that you’ll easily lose yourself in Aaero. Upcoming DLC will add new spaceships and tracks, and an imminent console update will add Xbox One X 4K and HDR support. (Buy it here.)

Aven Colony (PS4/Xbox/PC)

SRP: $29.99

When it seems like at least half of video games are based around wanton destruction, it’s nice to have the simulator genre to turn to when you'd prefer to create something for once. Aven Colony is a space-set city builder where your focus is not to build an intergalactic war machine, or rid your planet of alien threats, but to establish a self-sustaining colony where inhabitants can lead happy, healthy, productive lives. Aven Colony puts an impressively deep assortment of buildings and improvements at your disposal, and rewards attentiveness to your civilians’ needs and quick response to crises. On top of it all, there’s a well-written (and occasionally very funny) line of communications with your off-planet bosses that helps guide you through missions, which makes Aven Colony feel like a far less lonely experience than other games in its genre. With varied terrain types to use as your Utopian canvas,  Aven Colony offers both campaign and sandbox modes to play in. If you’ve ever enjoyed a game like Sim City or Tropico, you owe it to yourself to give this challenging entry into the genre a try. (Buy it here.)

Blackwood Crossing (PS4/Xbox/PC)

SRP: $15.99

Blackwood Crossing drops you right into its protagonist’s world with little preparation. Playing as teenage Scarlett, you wake up on a moving train with your little brother, Finn, in tow. It’s not long into your journey before you realize something is… off… about the world around you. Doors open to places you’d never expect them to, and Finn appears to have developed unexplained, supernatural powers. Are you awake? Are you dreaming? Where does your brother keep disappearing to, and why is everyone wearing cardboard animal masks that look like they were glued together by a child? Blackwood Crossing delivers an emotionally resonant back story for its characters wrapped up in a heavy dose of surreal dream logic; to say too much more would put us in danger of spoiling some of Blackwood Crossing’s most stirring reveals. (Buy it here.)

A Hat In Time (PS4/Xbox/PC/Mac)

SRP: $29.99

There’s hardly a frame of A Hat in Time that goes by that isn’t heart-meltingly cute – that is, when you’re not running from enemies, sprinting along the edge of a high precipice, or dodging attacks. You play as a little girl adventurer as she hunts through A Hat In Time’s large, creatively-designed levels for missing, magical hourglasses; the strange-sounding title is a reference to the different hats she can unlock, each of which grant her new powers, allowing further access to areas you couldn’t reach your first time through. (This gives the game a fun bit of Metroidvania-style exploration – you’ll be making mental notes of places you’ll want to revisit later, once you have more abilities.)

If you’ve ever wondered how a classic, 3D platformer in the style of Super Mario 64 would look and play on modern hardware, then look no further than A Hat In Time. This is pure, colorful, unadulterated platforming joy. (Buy it here.)

Kona (PS4/Xbox/PC/Mac)

SRP: $19.99

There’s a feeling that pervades almost every moment of the Kona: cold. Harsh, biting, bone-chilling cold – the kind that penetrates through you clothing, skin, and muscle, and creates a throbbing ache in your joints. As your character, private investigator (and Korean war vet) Carl Flaubert, braves his way through the cutting elements and white-out conditions of a sudden blizzard, you’re forced to keep a wary eye on his body warmth and mental state. If you don’t constantly find shelter and warmth, you put yourself in danger of freezing to death. Wander too deep into the blowing snow and you might find yourself face-to-face with a pack of wolves.

Kona firmly entrenches you in its setting: Northern Canada, 1970. Your character’s been summoned to a remote mining town by a wealthy businessman; you arrive to find him murdered in one of his business establishments. Complicating your investigation is the discovery that very, very few people in town would have considered him a friend. While other games such as Deadly Premonition and Virginia have mimicked the quirkiness or surreal imagery of Twin Peaks, Kona is the first game we’ve played that captures the distinctly Lynch-ean feeling of dread that, in this relatively normal-appearing place, something truly dark and awful could happen. (Think: Jeffrey discovering Frank Booth’s crime scene at the end of Blue Velvet, or Deputy Andy breaking down into tears at the spot where Laura Palmer was murdered.) Part survival game, part mystery-adventure, Kona is an engrossing journey. It’s the first of a proposed series, but boy golly does it stand well on its own. (Buy it here.)  

>observer_ (PS4/Xbox/PC/Mac)

SRP: $29.99

The year is 2084. The place: Krakow, Poland. Widespread pandemic took its toll on the world’s population; those that survived bore witness to the most devastating war the Earth has ever seen. In the years since, mankind has retreated from their grim reality into a haze of drugs and neural implants, the latter supplied by the Chiron Corporation, a corporate entity more powerful than any government.

Enter Detective Daniel Lazarski, an Observer: an augmented police officer with the ability to hack into suspects’ minds. (In this world, your very thoughts can be used as evidence against you in a court of law.) On an otherwise nondescript day, he receives a mysterious call from his long-estranged son. He traces back to one of the most dangerous slums in the city. He finds there a headless corpse – not his son’s, he hopes – and an illegal-looking implants set-up. It’s a case that will test him not only as a detective, but as a father.

Voiced by Rutger Hauer, you play as Lazarski as he investigates the bizarre murder and searches for his missing son.  You’ll interrogate witnesses, search for clues, and turn over crime scenes using not just your eyes, but implanted scanners capable of collecting biological and technological data. The game plays a lot like a hardboiled Hollywood noir film, but the greatest draw is its fully-realized, dystopian cyberpunk setting. With nosy robots, wires emerging from people’s skin, and glowing screens everywhere, it’s very much the sort of bleak portrayal of the future that you’d have seen in classic pieces of science fiction from Snow Crash to Max Headroom. Cracking the case becomes almost secondary in nature because you’ll be compelled to see and explore every corner of this immersive little universe.

A grimy, retro-futuristic world where the only splashes of color are supplied by the omni-present advertising posters, >observer_ just might be the Blade Runner game you’ve been looking for. (Buy it here.)

RiME (PS4/Xbox/Switch/PC/Mac)

SRP: $29.99

You wake up, face-down in the receding tide on a golden, sandy beach – behind you looms a mysterious, marble tower, partially crumbled over the centuries since some ancient civilization presumably erected it. Your character – a boy, a teenager at most – climbs to his feet. Taking control, you stumble at first. After a moment, you regain your footing… and you just go, to explore the mysterious island where you’ve found yourself washed ashore.

In our recent discussions about the films of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, we’ve repeatedly commented on the sense of wonder one finds in his movies. RiME is among the closest things we’ve found to conveying that same sense of mystery and magic. You’re given precious little information about the grand, gorgeously colorful environments the game sets you loose in, and just as little about the young man you’re guiding through them. Your exploratory platforming will you lead you to one puzzle after the next – often challenging ones, but not so difficult that you’ll ever want to stop playing. Throughout the game, there’s a gentle-yet-present sense of danger: the game may look bright and cheery, but it often feels quite mature. The game’s score – which is just outstanding – does its fair share in making RiME such an atmospheric experience; the swelling, emotive orchestral pieces once again call to mind the films or Miyazaki, and specifically the scores by Joe Hisaishi. (Buy it here.)

Tacoma (Xbox/PC/Mac)

SRP: $19.99

You’ve been sent to retrieve a valuable set of AI hardware from the debilitated orbital space station Tacoma. The station had been struck by debris, damaging the air supply and leaving the tiny, six-person crew with only a few days’ worth of oxygen. The Tacoma was equipped with an all-seeing surveillance system, and as you explore its abandoned control rooms, corridors, and living quarters, you can watch recordings of its crew as they contended with their dire situation. Now, nothing left behind but their personal effects and these digital ghosts.  

Tacoma provides a fascinating and voyeuristic-feeling experience as you get to know the small crew by listening in on their private conversations, or reading their electronic communications. The game gives you the ability to rewind and fast forward through their conversations, meaning you can listen to an argument and follow one crew member when they go their separate ways, and then go back to rewind and follow the other participant and see what they do next. The crew's stories branch and converge, and you’re able to follow them at your pace, and as you see fit. If you’ve played the modern classic Gone Home – made by this same team – then you’ll know how good they are at crafting wholly rounded, realistic-feeling characters. By allowing the player to unfold the narrative in whatever order they’d like, Tacoma provides a storytelling experience quite unlike anything else we’ve encountered. It’s one that’s going to haunt us for a while. (Buy it here.)

Thumper (PS4/Xbox/Switch/PC/Oculus)

SRP: $19.99

Thumper brands itself as a “rhythm violence game.” You’re a space beetle, ripping through the darkest stretches of the universe beyond the speed of light. Inky, black tendrils emerge from the horizon like galactic seaweed; you tear along a singular track of light, hitting beacons and leaning into turns until a massive, terrifying visage of evil rises from the darkness. You’re the only thing – whatever you are – that can stop it.

If Aaero wowed us with the alien beauty of galactic bodies and foreign worlds, then Thumper drops us into a frightening vision of cosmic horror. An altogether different breed of rhythm game, Thumper is less about getting lost in a groove and all about absolute, uncompromised precision. There’s little room for error in Thumper: two mistakes and your ship is torn to pieces. (The frequent checkpoints make death somewhat forgiving, but certainly don’t sugarcoat the game one bit.) Each tap or turn comes on a beat, and is part of the soundtrack – which is ominous, heavy, and awesome, packed with crushing percussion and unearthly drones. (One half of the creative team behind Thumper is Brian Gibson, bassist for noise rock duo Lightning Bolt, so expect the game’s score to push some experimental boundaries.) Thumper doesn’t hesitate to punish you for failure, but the challenge makes each beaten segment feel all that more rewarding.  

For those of you gaming on the PC and PS4, the game is fully equipped for VR support. We weren’t able to test it in that version, but we can imagine how much playing in a headset would increase the feelings of high speeds and endless, cosmic despair that drip from every element of this game. (Buy it here.)

What Remains of Edith Finch (PS4/Xbox/PC/Mac)

SRP: $19.99

As you unspool the rich, deeply tragic history of the seemingly cursed Finch family, What Remains of Edith Finch can feel at times more like a moving work of literature than a video game. You play as Edith, who was passed down the Finch family home when her mother died. As you explore the large, old house – Edith hasn't been there in years – you'll find that many of the rooms have remained largely untouched, almost frozen in time from the years when your relatives lived there. Gradually, you'll put together the Finch family tree, and learn how each member met their sad and often untimely demise. 

What Remains of Edith Finch tells an affecting, heartbreaking story; you'll see the last moments of each member of the Finch family portrayed in beautiful, metaphorical passages. The stellar writing, beautiful graphics, and inventive imagery come together to craft a gorgeous tale. Edith Finch's mysteries will take around three to four hours to piece together, depending on how much time you spend examining every corner of the finely-detailed Finch home – if there's a games industry equivalent for the Academy Award for Art Direction, this is the title that deserves it. 

(Buy it here.) 

DropMix (Hasbro)

SRP: $99.99

DropMix is a new music mixing game from Hasbro and Harmonix. It comes with a game board and 60 game cards. Via Bluetooth you connect the game board to an app on your phone or tablet. Each card features the bass, beat, loop, or vocals of a specific song. When placed on the game board it plays that part of the song. There are five card spots on the board and so you can mix and match different parts of different songs, coming up with unique mash-ups à la Girl Talk. In Freestyle mode you can just mess around, but in Clash mode you can battle a fellow mixer. It comes with songs by Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A Tribe Called Quest, Carly Rae Jepsen, and others. You can buy bonus 16-card packs for various genres, including rock, pop, hip-hop, and electronic, which adds in artists like MGMT, Weezer, The Jackson 5, Rick James, Miike Snow, OutKast, Salt-N-Pepa, and others. The recommended age is 16+, but we don't see why younger teen music fans couldn't get into this as well. It seems perfect for a holiday party. If you've ever fancied yourself a DJ or mash-up master, here's your chance to test and showoff your skills while also having a blast with your music-loving friends. Our only hope is that they add more indie rock music into future bonus card packs. By Mark Redfern (Buy it here.)



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