My Game of the Year lists tend to have a look to them like they’re the ramblings of a mad man. There are few, if any, retail-release games, and even the ones that are have a tendency to make you scratch your head and wonder if I’ve taken crazy pills. So shall it be this year and every year- it’s partly budget constraints, partly the fact that I’m still catching up with the first installment of a series, and partially because my backlog is GIGANTIC and I’ve got to get through that some time before I die. But who cares about my backlog? We’re here to celebrate what I felt were the best things the year had to offer while I continue to not forgive myself for not being able to find a place in my top 5 for some of my honorable mentions.
5. Asura’s Wrath
Part of why I didn’t like The Walking Dead for so long is because I played Asura’s Wrath first. Apart from the choices, the two games are pretty similar, but I felt like Asura’s Wrath took the quicktime-event heavy gameplay style in a whole new direction in a way that gave it an impact that I’d really never expected from that style of game. Less about the quiet character moments (though it does try to have a few), Asura’s Wrath’s main strength is in its presentation and using its gameplay to make every impact and burst a fist-pumping moment that’s been smartly built up to and an incredibly cathartic moment.
Parts of the game almost seem like the developers were able to read your mind and know exactly what you’d be wanting and exactly where you’d be looking at the time. Everything, from the location of the prompt that tells you what button to press to even the perfect timing of the achievement pop-ups, tells you that the developers were working forever to nail every moment’s timing to the exact second. It’s a superbly well-crafted journey that actually has some surprising philosophical depth, while still being an exploration of the way that our anger can take over us and hurt others. Plus, the game was full of insane set-pieces and some of the best face-punches I’ve ever seen, and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. As soon as the giant Buddha man grew to the size of a planet and tried to smash me with his finger, which I punched so hard that my arms fell off, it was just a matter of what position on my Game of the Year list it would be on.
4. Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition
I actually played Minecraft for the first time when it was still a super early build that ran in an internet browser. A friend passed the link on to me, but I didn’t really care about it- it was a big world that had nothing explained and looked all blocky and weird. I didn’t even remember the name of it until it started getting attention from everyone for being totally awesome. Still, I held off on it just because I don’t really like playing games on my PC. When the 360 edition was announced, it sounded like it was finally time for me to get into Minecraft for real.
The best part of this version is the split-screen support, because it’s a lot of fun to throw it into multiplayer and lose three or four hours just building and surviving. It might be one of my favorite things about the game: how easy it is to throw on and just build and make and dig and stake out another location for me to build on. It feels like being an early human, slowly going from punching trees to making the world into something my own. I feel like I’m moving mountains, reshaping the world in an image that I want. It’s an incredibly powerful feeling, and since I bought it, it’s been a constant and fun game that always reveals something new to find or do.
3. Nintendo Land
When previews of Nintendo Land started coming out, everyone seemed like they were already bored of everything that the game had to offer. Everything seemed to be a derivative of the same idea, or just a simple use of the GamePad that didn’t really seem like it offered anything new. Was this supposed to be Nintendo’s big introduction to their new peripheral? I know it’s difficult-to-impossible to recapture the charm and success of Wii Sports, but it sounded almost like they hadn’t even tried.
This is part of why I don’t care about reading previews anymore. When you don’t have the whole game and are just playing a controlled experience, it’s easy to miss what makes a game actually special, and Nintendo Land has a lot going for it. The single-player games offer a surprisingly deep and difficult experience, simple on your first time through, but increasingly more challenging as you progress. The multiplayer co-op games smartly split duties between players using the GamePad and those using the Wii Remotes. Despite the fact that there are only 3 of them, the versus games almost provide enough fun for them to be a viable experience on their own. Pitting one player against another based on each player having a different amount of information is a surprisingly fun experience that works even with just two people, but really shines with more. It shows the great skill that Nintendo has in showing off their first-party peripherals, and really makes me look forward to everything else that the WiiU has to offer in the future.
Puzzle games continue to be one of the most pure gameplay experiences on the market. They’re all about creating a mechanic and iterating on the gameplay that the mechanic offers, giving you bigger and better challenges as you go on through. Pushmo did that perfectly last year- the difficulty curve was excellent and the game was simple, while still offering a lot of a challenge. For most of the year it was one of the best things I’d played. And then Crashmo came out.
When a sequel comes out to an already excellent game, it carries the risk of diminishing returns. It’s been a year full of let-downs as people see sequels to games they love that wind up completely underwhelming them. Instead, Crashmo surpasses the original game, which essentially means that it improved on one of the best games of the generation. It’s like downloading a miracle- the mechanics have been changed and refined so perfectly that it’s actually difficult to go back to just plain Pushmo now. Crashmo is incredibly fun, superbly well crafted, and has already been supported by the community in a way that’s led to some surprising and incredibly unique puzzle ideas. It’s a little weird for one of the best reasons to own a console to be an $8 downloadable game, but if you have a 3DS and don’t have Crashmo, then you don’t REALLY have a 3DS.
Earlier in the year, I watched Pi, the Darren Aronofsky movie, for the first time, and it really got me thinking about the idea of discovery, forbidden knowledge and the power of certain ideas. It’s been a theme that’s sort of stuck with me all year, as I started to delve into some light philosophical theory and began thinking about epistemology. The crowning moment for these ideas, the one that seemed to bring it all together in an entirely surprising way, was Fez.
At first glance, Fez is a simple game about a guy in a fez with a bunch of blocks to collect. That’s ok, but if that’s all you think Fez is, you’re gravely mistaken. In reality, the game is like a strange, simulated metaphor for science. As you explore, you discover something, and it opens new doors and broadens your horizons. But this new discovery only takes you so far, and you have to discover something new, or find a new way to use your previous discoveries, in order to progress in any way. Eventually you discover more, until you finally reach the end of your knowledge and discover that there might even be a new theory beyond what you’d been working on so far. It’s incredible, the sense of discovery and the feeling of walking with giants that the game gives you. Even the fact that we know the solution to the last puzzle, but not WHY it’s the solution, is a crazy thing that adds to the mystery and the theme of the game. Fez is a game that is not only a lot of fun to play, but a lot of fun to think about, and it’s with no hesitation that I give it my Game of the Year.
Honorable Mentions: Kid Icarus: Uprising, Pokemon White Ver. 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, Hotline Miami