GOTY lists! As therapeutic as they are meaningless. On one hand, ranking individual artworks against each other to decide which is better and which is worse is exactly not what criticism is meant to do. On the other hand, looking back over a year of games and trying to summarise why the games that stood out for me did stand out for me is a really interesting and enjoyable writing exercise. It’s a chance to be reflective, to get away from the pressure of having to rush on to talk about the next new release.
The last couple of years now I have written Top 20 lists (this year it has ballooned to a Top 25) of my favourite games of the previous year. But more than just a list of titles next to numbers, I like to spend some time writing about each game, why I care about it and why it has stuck with me. So over the course of this week I will be posting my top 25 games of the year five games at a time so I can spend some time talking about each of them.
The numbers, meanwhile, shouldn’t be read as saying one game is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others. All the games on the following list are exceptional, and many other exceptional games came out this year that are not on this list. Instead, all the ranking represents is the amount that game has resonated with me and stuck with me.
As with previous years, I’ve tried to link to a few memorable articles written about each game, as well as anything I wrote myself. These are far from exhaustive lists, though, and I would love it if you could comment with any other relevant articles that I may have missed.
It’s a bit of cliché to say that this year has been a huge year for videogames, but it’s also entirely true. For the first six months, though, I don’t think I played a single AAA release that really stood out. It was the downloadable titles (especially on Playstation Network and iOS) that stuck with me this year. It wasn’t that there were no good AAA releases; it’s more that the big franchises that did have releases this year were franchises I have no investment in, like Mass Effect. This did give me a chance to catch up on all the 2011 games I never got around to last year, however: Saints Row 3, Rayman Origins, Driver: San Francisco, Dead Island (unfortunately).
Things changed slightly in the second half of the year, when a few more interesting games were released, and I discovered a few games that had slipped under my radar from earlier in the year. Still, in the 25 games that I’ve chosen to highlight as standout moments of my past year, only four of those are tradition AAA games, and this is something I’m really excited about. Not because AAA is stagnating or dying or anything like that, but because of the strengthening ecology of alternative strands of game development that are maturing around AAA. Sure, ‘indie’ (in its various strands) has been around for quite some time now, but it’s no longer a case of a rare indie/handheld game being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big AAA games. Now it’s a few AAA games that are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the far more worthwhile indie and handheld games.
But enough rambling. On with Part One of the list!
25. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games)
I’ve always had a soft spot for games that visualise music. As someone who loves listening to music but has absolutely no intellectual understanding of what is happening in the music I enjoy, games like Sound Shapes are excellent because they convey music in a language I understand: games. I can see the things making the sounds on the screen. I can see how they are working together to create a beat and a rhythm. Sound Shapes is particularly interesting to me as it is based on one of the few instruments I actually understand: the Tenori-On.
All platforming games have an unseen grid mapped over them (or perhaps sitting underneath them). We use this grid to mentally comprehend if Mario is going to make the jump or if he can just sprint right over the gap. In Sound Shapes, this grid also determines pitch and timing. Objects closer to the top of the screen make a higher-pitch note than those close to the bottom. Those to the left of the screen make a sound earlier than those on the right. As I move my little ball avatar across each world, I can see the song coming to life around me.
While most of the stages are entirely acceptable ‘music’, it is Beck’s “Cities” level that succeeds best as a song. As you progress through the dead city, the song works its way through an intro, a first verse, a chorus, a bridge, a second verse, another chorus, and an outro. Even the lyrics fit into the world of the level through platforms that take things very literally. It is the first time I’ve ever not been able to get a videogame level out of my head for days.
However, the very feature that should’ve boosted Sound Shapes’s longevity, it’s custom level creator, is its weakest point. The editor is fiddly, requiring you to choose what sound effects you want before you are able to preview what they sound like. A few good songs have been made, but in the weeks after the game’s release, there was little being shared other than Mario and Final Fantasy covers. I have yet to play the game on my Vita, though, so perhaps the touch screen makes things a bit better. Still, once I had played through the pre-packaged stages a few times each (and Beck’s stages a few times more), I found little reason to return to the game.
I wrote about the living dead cities of Beck’s “Cities” level for Unwinnable’s theme week on cities. Kirk Hamilton also wrote a bit about the same level (it really is the game’s highlight) at Kotaku.
24. Angry Birds: Star Wars (Rovio)
It’s cool to hate Angry Birds if you’re a slightly older, ‘real’ gamer. It’s everything that’s wrong with our industry. IOS game with micro-transactions, gameplay based largely on luck, endless iterations of the same ideas instead of a complete overhaul, utterly ruthless saturation of merchandise. People see kids wearing Angry Birds t-shirts, holding Angry Birds toys, eating Angry Birds-themed birthday cakes, and they are aghast that Angry Birds to these kids is what Mario was to them twenty years ago.
Of course, this is just like complaining that the music Kids These Days listen to is terrible compared to the stuff you listened to when you were a kid, and it completely misses what is unique and enjoyable and excellent about Angry Birds. It misses that the fact Angry Birds is so easy to play makes it accessible to an incredibly wide range of players who otherwise might never try to play videogames. It misses the fact that not every game has to be based on skill, accessible only to an auteur elite, and that luck-based gameplay can be incredibly satisfying in its own right. It misses the fact that each incremental iteration of the Angry Birds franchise has both refined and advanced the base formula in really interesting ways.
Angry Birds: Star Wars takes the best of the original Angry Birds and the planetoid-slingshotting of Angry Birds: Space and adds a range of entirely new, Star Wars-inspired skills to create a range of new challenges. It is these skills that make Angry Birds: Star Wars is the best realised Angry Birds to date, and well worth the one dollar asking price. Obi-wan's force push, Luke's lightsaber, Han's laser—each is more interesting than any bird's skill in the previous games.
I wrote about Angry Birds: Star Wars for my “Pocket Treasures” column at Unwinnable, musing on how the two franchises don’t really come together so much as Angry Birds completely subsumes Star Wars.
23. Spelunky HD (Mossmouth)
We got off on the wrong foot, Spelunky and I. Now that it was out on Xbox Live Arcade, I was so excited to play and master this game that I had heard so much about it. As someone who typically loves simple yet difficult games like Super Meat Boy or Geometry Wars, I thought Spelunky would be exactly my kind of game. But when I finally played it, it just seemed unfair. How could I master a game that kept changing the playing field on me?
It’s a bit of a taboo to tell someone they played a game wrong (not that that stopped me). But, truly, there is a wrong way to play nearly every videogame. Sure, play any game however you want, but don’t blame the game when you don’t find it enjoyable. Certainly, when I first started playing Spelunky, I was playing it wrong. When I finally learned how to play it correctly, my experience improved considerably. Initially, when I was wanting to approach it like Super Meat Boy, I was hoping to master Spelunky in a way that would mean I could play it with my eyes closed. But this is impossible in Spelunky. The game is capable of screwing you over in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with your motor skills.
Then I read this piece by Jason Killingsworth and it all made sense. Spelunky isn’t Super Meat Boy; it’s poker. What you have to learn to master in Spelunky is the ability to improvise and cope with the hand you are dealt. Spelunky isn’t about winning or losing. It is about doing the best you can possibly do with this hand, and then dying.
Spelunky was an important reminder to me that how I want to play a game is not necessarily the ‘right’ way. Once I was willing to give a little, once I was willing to meet the game on its terms, I found the bombastic, slapstick comedy I had heard others praise. My deaths no longer felt like a bastard game laughing at me, but a game laughing with me at the unfortunate tribulations of my character. This is permadeath at its funniest.
Apart from Jason’s great essay, my two favourite articles about Spelunky were both at Unwinnable this year. Gus Mastrapa talks about Spelunky as an acquired taste akin to olives (my own experience seems to say this is an apt metaphor). Meanwhile, Chris Dahlen’s kid keeps sacrificing the babysitter.
22. Cool Pizza (Secret Library)
Cool Pizza is a simple and suave iOS game that drips with style. The slick visuals are full of life, as much in the animations that are bulging with life between their two frames as in the colour palette of black, white, and fluro yellow and pink. For perhaps the first time ever, the tilt controls feel perfectly right, used as they are to tilt a skateboard left and right as your skater chic protagonist just kind of dangles with a “whatever man” apathy. And then you jump and suddenly the skateboard is in her hands and she is unleashing a salvo of hits on monsters that look like rub-on tattoos.
The gameplay is heavily inspired by Sega’s classic Space Harrier, but is far from a simple clone. The most obvious difference is that your skater is effected by gravity. Keeping her airborne requires you to keep taking out enemies, and a multiplier is added for every monster taken out without touching the ground.
It’s a simple game that is simply a pleasure to play. The only disappointment is that the game ends rather abruptly, cancelling any desire I have to try to top the leaderboards. With a finite number of enemies in a game, I know from my first missed multiplier that I won’t get a high score, so I give up. If Secret Library were to make an update for an endless play mode, I would probably still be playing Cool Pizza regularly. As it stands, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent together for a while.
I reviewed Cool Pizza for Unwinnable, and mused over how the game really struck some kind of 90s nostalgic chord for me (and probably an 80s nostalgic chord for those a bit older than me.)
21. Knytt Underground (Nifflas)
Most people have their Game of the Year lists up in time for Christmas. Personally, I’ve always preferred putting my list up in the first week of January. Really, this is mostly because I am lazy and really don’t want to be writing out a Game of the Year list before Christmas, but it also allows me to catch any games released in December that I might have missed. Nifflas’s Knytt Underground is one such game. This wasn’t immediately obvious, though. I had probably played for a good few hours before I realised just how hooked I was.
Just like Knytt and Knytt Stories before it, Knytt Underground is all about exploration. It is a metroidvania game in the way the world is a series of screens (or rooms) that slowly fill in a grid like map as you explore the world. Though, instead of allowing the world to open up organically in the traditional metroidvania way of finding power-ups and using them to access previously inaccessible pathways (something Knytt Stories did), Knytt Underground makes the curious choice to split the game into chapters, each one resetting the world with a character with different skills.
The first chapter has you play Mi, a sprite capable of climbing vertical walls. In the second chapter you play as a bouncy ball—incapable of climbing, but able to bounce far higher than Mi can jump. These two chapters are really just tutorials to get you accustomed to each character’s skill set before the game really opens up in the third chapter, where you play as Mi, who can now transform into the bouncy ball with a tap of a button.
And it is about this point, at the start of the third chapter, that you realise you are hooked on this game. It’s at this point that the entire world is suddenly open to you and you don’t know where to go so you go everywhere and before you know it you have discovered over 1000 separate rooms with plenty more to go.
Knytt Underground is all about exploration, but it is not just about exploring a geographical world. You are also exploring for a reason to be here. There is no great info dump telling you how this world functions or what your purpose is. Just like the labyrinthian map, Mi’s purpose becomes clear gradually as you explore the world. So too does the tensions between the worlds various fractions, living in impossible towns spread throughout the world. Underlining the entire game is an exploration of the tension between rational skepticism and ideological faith. The game seems to play as Nifflas’s own back-and-forward musings on the subject as characters explore the strengths and dangers of each.
The simple exploration is, at times, marred by overly fiddly platforming. This is often needed when trying to reach a hidden item or room. Some challenges take up several rooms, having you climb up a ledge and then transform into a ball in mid-air then land on a blue-plant to shoot horizontally across two screens to land on a yellow plant that will shoot you straight up another three screens. It is well-designed and challenging platforming, but it often seems completely out of place in a game that is otherwise an incredibly slow-burn of just wandering around a world and getting to know it.
One element that must be mentioned about Knytt Underground (but which almost doesn’t need to be mentioned at all) is the lavish, photographic backgrounds. Instead of flat, pixellated backgrounds, Knytt Underground’s world is a silhouette against realistic photographic images of flowers, fruits, mushrooms, trees, clocks. It’s a distinct, surreal, and fascinating stylistic choice and really gives the game a distinct character. An excellent little touch, on the Vita at least, is the ability to make the plants in this background shake by swiping the rear-touchscreen. Sometimes you will do this on purpose, but often it is an accident as your rear-fingers are just trying to find a place to rest, causing a kind of organic rustling of the bushes. It adds little to the game, perhaps, but it is great little flourish and an excellent use of the rear-touchscreen.
You never quite feel like you know what you are doing in Knytt Underground. At least, I don’t yet. I feel like I am perpetually lost and just fortuitously stumbling across the right person or the right item or the right quest. But it is a beautiful and intoxicating world—one I am entirely happy to be lost in.
Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]
Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]