Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 10 December 2014
2013's list was founded on the principle of raw innovation. 2014's thematic tie in-is a bit more fundamental; one cool idea. I can't think of a better way to express 2014’s drive other than games that left a profound impression by the efficiency and execution of a single great idea. In some cases I couldn't believe a game like this hadn't existed before, and others went so far down the rabbit hole of mechanical minutia they could have only been the product of everything that came before it.
If you want to go deeper into my increasingly obtuse criteria, all of these games (and probably all games I really like) somehow reproduced the feeling I experienced when I first picked up a videogame controller. Being born in 1983 and having a fairly normal middle-class white person upbringing, that game was Super Mario Bros. and the feeling was literal disbelief that I had agency over something inside of the television. At 31 I've got a better grasp on the process, but still find myself (occasionally) overwhelmed with my ability to exert some measure of control over it. Then and now, however, the general sentiment remains the same; a great idea is easy to recognize, but invariably more difficult to explain. With that in mind, I did my best to justify ten of 2014's best games.
I've always harbored an interest in fighting games, but never was quite good enough to put together any sort of manageable game plan. Memorizing giant command lists in Tekken and Soul Calibur didn't translate into a proper understanding of a fighting system, and even Smash Bros.' shared move-lists offered little guidance in the way of its finer intricacies. It's one thing to remember commands, but another to develop the contextual recognition necessary to properly deploy them.
Nidhogg issued a call for engagement that I responded to on a sort of primal level. Each player shares an identical set of mechanics, the likes of which are extremely limited and yet highly functional. Duel, vanquish, and run for the end is all that you need to understand. What allows Nidhogg to overcome its low-pressure ornamentation is the errant risk inside its objective goals. By managing fallen swords or consciously taking command of variable respawn placements, perceived failure quickly transitions to unassured strategy and grandstanding achievement.
The low-fi aesthetic certainly works in its favor, broadcasting its trappings as an open invitation. Anyone can play this. Give it a try. Through Nidhogg I've had some of the most intense and enduring virtual battles I've ever had with another human being, each of which offering sincere resolution whenever someone finally won. Being an adult and attending normal social situations, the convention of busting out consoles and controllers isn't as accepted as it was in my early 20's. When it happens, though, I'm secretly championing Nidhogg every time. My review
Luftrausers serves as the model for 2014's surrounding theme; one look and it's easy to recognize as a god damn great idea. Angry Birds likely had nothing to do with Vlambeer's inspiration in building Luftrausers, but both tap in to the same general belief that momentum is attractive, and destroying things with that momentum makes for a great time. Luftrausers adopts this philosophy and literally attaches giant engines and obscene weapons to its general premise, all geared toward increasing the efficiency of personal and unbridled destruction.
The remainder of Luftrausers' ingredients also do well to support its signature killing machines. The eclectic and evocative soundtrack dynamically shifts based on your chosen load-out. The dueling monochromatic aesthetic communicates the game's relative simplicity, directly appealing to a wider range of players. Unconventional ideas like a side-scrolling map, vaguely random enemy arrangements, and variable degrees of terse luck help shape Luftrausers as 2014's ideal arcade experience. That particular label may have lost some of its meaning, but the core that Luftrausers seeks to impress should recognize it — and feel right at home. My review
Plenty of games explore the relationship between narrative and gameplay, but few are reluctant to give all of its finer details away. Transistor does just enough in either category, but leaves a tremendous amount of room to speculation and experimentation. You're given instruction toward its basic functions, but left completely alone with regard to how you're supposed to operate them. Likewise, Transistor's plot and tone are relayed through its transient narrative and wildly imaginative locals, but not enough to fully explain its delicate story. Popular media, especially videogames, is content to slam on the gas and assault every available human sense. Transistor is better content to slow down and let the player find his or her own way.
This was sort of the last thing I expected from a game centered creatively and mechanically on a talking sword. I found Supergiant's previous work, Bastion, to be emotionally affecting but mechanically lacking — the team loved and appreciated beloved games of the 90's without considering how their parts functioned as a whole. Transistor better achieves this concept while obliging a separate style of game, one that's probably more fitting of Supergiant's range of influence. As it turns out, that's exactly what I was looking for, too. My review
LIGHTNING RETURNS: FINAL FANTASY XIII
Lightning Returns is a mess. This was the thesis of my review eleven months ago, and it’s the same general sentiment that I keep coming back to now. With that in mind, it's the kind of mess that's extremely fun to play around in. What I discovered with Dead Rising and solidified with Lightning Returns is that I greatly enjoy the threat of time set against a massive list of potential activities. The pressure should be unbearable, especially with each game meeting an unfortunate end if its needs aren't met in painstaking detail, but somehow an uncompromising time crunch makes me operate with ruthless efficiency. If I don't figure out how to get this done, then I've just wasted forty or so hours of my life.
In defiance of Square Enix's highly controlled and hilariously deficient modern output, Lightning Returns feels like a gross assemblage of every idea the XIII team was too skittish or unprepared to implement in either of the other XIII games. Quests dependent on the time of day, a job system reminiscent of X-2's Dresspheres, a (more) pure expression of XIII's battle mechanics, an open-ended approach to narrative progression, and mercilessly unloaded statistics all coalesced into Square's craziest game of the last decade. Too weird to live, too rare to die, Lighting Returns is a loaded gun of unconventional ideas and bittersweet execution. My review
Honey Slug + Richard Hogg + Sony Santa Monica
My agitation when someone incorrectly describes Hohokum speaks directly to my passion for its incurious means instruction. Hohokum doesn't fall into the obtuse category of non-games (improperly) shoveled upon Proteus or Dear Esther. Not telling the player what to do isn't the same thing as offering nothing to do, and it's the former where Hohokum stands in defiance. There's an enormous amount of things to discover inside its disparate worlds, and literally poking and prodding at its odds and ends is the fun of the game.
Fly around, see what happens when you interact with stuff, and complete the puzzle demanded by the given context. It's a great idea, and one that I hadn't ever experienced with such consistency. Whether you're combating an elephant pulled out of psychedelic Indian folklore or properly assembling lost pieces of a roller coaster, Hohokum always makes sure you're doing something to further its cause.
Special mention also goes out to Hohokum's eclectic soundtrack, not necessarily by its insistence on reactive shifts in melody, but rather through the meditative quality behind its calm and collected rhythm. Culled exclusively from artists signed to Ghostly International, a record label with a penchant for relaxing electronic exceptionalism, each piece of music falls perfectly in sync with Hohokum's mission. Tycho makes the most significant contribution, with "Coastal Brake," "L," and "A Walk" practically defining Hohokum's lush soundtrack, but poignant offerings from Michna and Shigeto stand out as well. My review
DARK SOULS II
Dark Souls II largely gets off on being a slightly different version of Dark Souls. Marginally improving upon an established presence isn't typically enough to warrant a spot on any top ten list, but given the game being improved upon is Dark Souls — and it’s my firm belief that Dark Souls was the most important game of the last generation of hardware — Dark Souls II suits me just fine.
In all fairness, Dark Souls II had plenty going for it. Automatically de-populating Drangleic by vanquishing too many foes was, depending on your interpretation, either a welcomed bit of reprieve or a mark of shame (or, conceivably, a nightmare if you weren't good at racking up souls). Majula's warm embrace is something I'll never forget, even if the larger world lacks the contextual cohesion of its predecessor. Tack together a load of unforgettable moments - the dark stalkers in No Man's Wharf, the forced despair inflicted by The Gutter, the Bell Keepers in Belfry Luna, and the lurching assassins in Huntsman's Copse - and Dark Souls II certainly leaves enough behind to make its own lasting impression.
Dark Souls II also allowed me the benefit of knowing what I was doing before I went in. I appreciated the process of discovery granted by total ignorance with Dark Souls, but certain bits of foresight, I think, allowed me to enjoy Dark Souls II from the get-go. It didn't help so much when the game twisted and contorted its rules into unrecognizable moments of sheer terror, but such is the inherent risk and reward of playing the game. Reminding myself to breathe typically isn't in my list of conscious functions, but every boss fight in Dark Souls ended with an exasperated sigh of relief; I did it. In the case of Dark Souls II, I did it again. My review
KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO ACT III
In a medium defined by surreal escapism, none have done it with the isolated confidence of Kentucky Route Zero. Of all the ways to interpret its themes — a meditative dive into the plight of a rural culture, a vaguely detached observance of mortality, and a thoughtful rendition of transient relationships among them - what I kept falling back on was gaming's version of Twin Peaks. Alan Wake tried to reproduce Twin Peaks' setting and Deadly Premonition (probably) tried to create an identical copy, but only Kentucky Route Zero invokes a similar sense of wonder. It's not so much about following its plot as it is about sensing its characters.
Act's I and II wrote their own signature on Kentucky Route Zero's evolving mythos, but Act III's contribution came out bolder and brighter. The addition of Johnny and Junebug provided some much needed color to the cast, but with them also came a startling sense of player-authored personality. The Entertainment was the subject of a small sequence set between Acts II and III of Kentucky Route Zero, and seeing its live embrace in the form of Johnny and Junebug's concert sent its ambition soaring over any perceived horizon. Its affecting melancholy set against The Lower Depth's otherworldly aura was a perfect moment in gaming, and certainly my favorite portion of any game I played this year.
Cloudbuilt projects a commitment to success only sustainable by games with insanely fine-tuned player mechanics, and levels designed to test those mechanics. Super Meat Boy did this with 2D platformers, and Cloudbuilt does it with—uh, well, fast-paced, 3D third-person parkour with a touch twitch-based shooting. Other games (like Jet Set Radio and Sunset Overdrive) have featured elements of functional parkour and other games (like Mirror's Edge) have used it as a cornerstone for other ideas, but none have made it their absolute concentration. From its beginning until its end, Cloudbuilt is laser-focused on providing the player with options and challenging them to engage those options in the most efficient way allowable.
Like Super Meat Boy, Cloudbuilt is also an exceptionally difficult game. There's a bit more non-linearity to Cloudbuilt, levels aren't trying to be much more than potential venues floating in open space, but it still boils down to two basic means of play; work your way through it piece by piece, or build a route and repeat it until you nail it. The narrative of a comatose and physically mangled heroine didn't do much for me, but Cloudbuilt's vivid imagery — opaque pastels, wild agriculture, and the occasional dark and dreary neon nightmare — works well within its cel-shaded trappings. In its end Cloudbuilt isn't especially easy to wrap your mind around, but there's something to be said for a game that openly declares its mission and doesn't make concessions if you don't agree.
Bayonetta 2 explores the finer points of fucking shit up. This is Platinum Games' modus operandi, and yet somehow there work never stagnates. It can be odd (The Wonderful 101), abrasive (Anarchy Reigns), and overly aggressive (Metal Gear Rising), but it's never boring. Platinum's insistence on internal iteration and only releasing a technically-sound and mechanically complete final product closely follows, of all development studios, Nintendo. In a fall season when almost every major title debuts in some sort mangled or half-broken state, Bayonetta 2 makes a statement by a releasing pitch-perfect product on day one.
On its own, Bayonetta 2 did well to push the boundaries of character-action games. Bayonetta was defined by the intensity of its over the top circumstances and pushing its characters and context harder and harder throughout the game. Bayonetta 2 not only flexes more technical and artistic muscle, but out allows the player a better sense of agency inside of it all. This is something Grasshopper Manufacture and Ninja Theory, whose games are drenched in style, haven't quite learned. Pushing the line is meaningless without a correspondence with player input. Bayonetta 2 responds by not only having the best mechanics in the business, but levels designed to explicitly test and focus their potential. Coming from Platinum, it would have been silly to expect anything else. My review
Ice Water Games
In the gaming landscape of 2013, there are plenty of games about exploration and even more games about pure survival. Some make these objectives a sideshow (Far Cry 4) and others feel designed to explicitly test the player's ability to manage their environment alongside their mortality (The Forest, Rust) - but few get by on narrative alone. Gone Home, Dear Esther, and other narrative-focused, non-traditional games have found success in a relatively limited environment, but have done so with a fairly easy to follow and linear story.
Eidolon responds by going against every convention in the book. Its environment, loosely based on a “post-human” Northwest Washington state, is geographically larger than (probably) anything I've played, and yet the only means of locomotion is plodding foot traffic. Its story isn't a single tale over a short period of time, but rather the lives of a myriad of characters spread out of the course of a dozen generations. Its narrative isn't absorbed from discarded audio-logs or sequential text-dumps, but rather an incredible collection of newspaper clippings, personal journals, sketches, portraits, promotional flyers, town records, and photographs. Whatever happened in Eidolon's world is long gone, but scouring its vast expanse in search of clues is an endearing hook that makes it last for hours.
Of all the games in this list, I think Eidolon has the most objective problems. The survival aspects aren't especially well thought out and mechanically irrelevant. Its crude visual construction, while allowing for plenty of sequences that are equally breathtaking and unique, starts to feel a little same-y after a while. Likewise, either stumbling upon narrative bits randomly or obliging its primitive navigation system can infuriate the impatient. Wrapped inside of it all, however, is a game that honestly asks, "What happened here?" and drives the player to answer it with each and every piece of new information. Spacing the information out acts as an informal break, challenging the player to apply it to Eidolon's sweeping narrative until the next bit is discovered. In its end Eidolon could have found a couple of ways to be a better game but, even in its present state, it's the only game of its kind. My review
Past year’s top ten lists: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013
Other games I greatly enjoyed this year:
Sunset Overdrive - The last to be cut off my top ten. The pure joy in navigating Sunset City alongside classic Insomniac combat made it my most surprising AAA title of the year. My review
Jazzpunk - Funniest game of the year, and it also receives The Stanley Parable Award for Advancements in Weird-Ass Narrative.™ My review
The Walking Dead: Season 2 - A familiarity with its systems and operations prevented Season 2 from affecting me the way Season 1 had, but it remains an engaging and, occasionally, intense experience.
Sportsfriends - In a world where Nidhogg didn't exist, Sportsfriends would have made my top ten. Johann Sebastian Joust is one of the best party games ever made, and Hokra, Bara Bari Ball, and Super Poll Riders are excellent companions. My review
Shovel Knight - I didn't think it was possible to simultaneously scratch a Duck Tales, Mega Man, and Zelda II itch, but Shovel Knight nailed it.
P.T. - Though less of a game and more of viral problem solving/marketing phenomenon, P.T. still managed to repeatedly scare the living shit out of me. I have a feeling Silent Hills won't carry its desperate theme or unsettling disposition, but it was worth it if P.T. influenced something else along the way.
Velocity 2X - This would have been fine if it acted as a tidy remake of Velocity alongside its new and inventive horizontal, on-foot segments. The last few levels, however, when Velocity 2X makes good on its literal title, are completely sublime.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter - It's funny what seeing a game through to its end can do. A narrative I was judging as disappointing and inept revealed its potency in its final moments. It’s probably the best looking game of the year too. My review
Alien: Isolation - I support a commitment to a craft, even when it’s abrasive to the point of being uncomfortable. There's a better seven-hour game somewhere inside Isolation's bloated twenty-hour narrative, but what remains is far from disappointing. If nothing else, it's an exceptional Nostromo-era space exploration simulator. My review
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS - I bought this game twice and haven't spent more than five hours with either version. When the 3DS Smash came out I couldn't get around its obtuse and imperfect controls, so I waited for the Wii U version. When that came out Nintendo didn't see fit to supply the market with enough any GameCube controller adaptors, further fucking any incentive I had to play it. There's an incredible game here, and one I can't wait to wrap my head around and explore with my friends, I just lack an appropriate means to engage any of it. Steve Schardein's review of the Wii U version, and Greg Schardein’s review of the 3DS version.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Could have been easy fan-service, which it unapologetically is, but it's also fairly rich and inventive dungeon crawler. My review
Murasaki Baby - In 2014 you can still find high quality, touch-based, and totally unique exclusives for the PlayStation Vita. My review
GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition] Montage Parody The Game - Peak internet. Danielle Riendeau covered this neatly over at Polygon.
Flash Game It'll Take You Five Minutes Just Play It Game of the Year - The Last Night (and it's being pushed into a complete experience sometime in the future)
Most Disappointing Game of the Year - Infamous: Second Son. Whether it was marketing hype or my own dumb expectations, I thought Second Son was going to be the first "real" videogame to push and define the current generation of consoles. What I received was a slightly better version of a game I loved five years ago, which Sucker Punch already remade once with Infamous 2. A new generation should come equipped with new experiences, not better looking versions of the same things we've been doing for the last decade.
Games I regrettably missed this year: Drakengard 3, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Fantasy Life, Dragon Age: Inquisition, OlliOlli, The Banner Saga, This War of Mine, 80 Days, A Bird Story, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Broken Age: Act 1, The Evil Within, Kirby: Triple Deluxe, Lords of the Fallen, Super Time Force, D4.
Total games finished this year (which I keep track of because how else can I hope to assemble this list): 87
2014 games I finished this year: 55
Greatly looking forward to in 2015: Final Fantasy Type-0, Bravely Second, Firewatch, anything VR related, Yakuza 5, No Man's Sky, Bloodborne, Mighty No. 9, Scalebound, Persona 5, Galak-Z, Metal Gear Solid V, Tearaway Unfolded, Severed, Xenoblade Chronicles X, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Superhot, Just Cause 3, Star Fox, Volume, Yoshi's Woolly World, some playable version of State of Decay, Fallout 4, Hotline Miami 2, Ratchet & Clank. Usually I also list The Last Guardian, Mirror’s Edge 2, and whatever Square Enix is calling Final Fantasy XV at the time, but I'm finally ready to acknowledge none of those are coming out. Ever.
Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 19 October 2014
We recorded a really great episode, which I'm not just saying because our work typically ranges from "man, this is pretty bad," to, "yeah, but why is this three hours long?" Mark Shepherd joined us for the fourth time in Flap Jaw Space's four year reign and first time in 2014! We called upon his tremendous insight and deep-reaching appreciation of the 16-bit era to power rank our favorite ten titles from the Super Nintendo's library. The following games enjoyed considerable discussion:
Act Raiser, Act Raiser 2, Breath of Fire, Breath of Fire II, Captain Commando, Castlevania: Dracula X, Chrono Trigger, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Cool Spot, The SNES' inferior Aladdin game, Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country 2, Donkey Kong Country 3, EVO: The Search for Eden, Earthbound, Earthworm Jim, Earthworm Jim 2, F-Zero, Fatal Fury 2, Final Fantasy II (IV), Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy III (VI), Final Fight 2, Hagane: The Final Conflict, Illusion of Gaia, Joe & Mac, Killer Instinct, King of Monsters, Kirby SuperStar, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, The Lost Vikings, Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, Mario Paint, Mega Man 7, Mega Man X, Mega Man X-3, NBA Jam, Ogre Battle, Pit Fighter, Primal Rage, Rock 'n Roll Racing, SimCity, Soul Blazer, Secret of Mana, Sparkster, Maximum Carnage, Star Fox, Star Fox 2, Street Fighter II Turbo, Stunt Race FX, Super Adventure Island, Super Bomberman, Super Castlevania IV, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, Super Mario RPG, Super Metroid, all of those Super Star Wars games, Super Punch-Out!!, Zombies Ate my Neighbors, and Steve's endearing favorite, Uniracers.
It's important to note that Steve spent like eight hours editing this, specifically injecting contextually appropriate air-raid sirens, along with music from many of these games in the background of their respective discussions. Episode 82 is also mixed in stereo to accommodate the incredible amount of music, so don't just listen with one ear-bud and let Steve's insane work go to waste, you animal.
The thematic current game tie-in for all of this, of course, is Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS™, which three of us bought and have played at length. We detail the merit of items versus no items, go over the best and worst stages, DLC speculation, our early favorite characters, the necessity of assist trophies, omega stage satisfaction, how character movement influences and propels the hardcore crowd, and Smash 4's chance at ascending Melee.
NOT DONE YET. We also found time to talk about Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, Nintendo's iterative design process, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs, Unseen 64, A Link Between Worlds, Steve's regret over his dog's extensive mortality, Dark Souls II: Crown of the Ivory King, somehow more Diablo III talk, amiibos, the relationship between politics and sports teams, Ebola, and craigslist videogame collecting. Eric also tried to talk about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter but as that was happening Steve ran up the stairs like an NPC with no modelling or animation for individual steps, which stymied any apparent discussion.
Duration: 3h, 15m. Recorded: October 6th, 2014.
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Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 25 August 2014
To be perfectly honest I have no idea what happened to Episode 78. We recorded it, it's right here, but the blog post I made for it two months ago either vanished or never existed.
Further complicating matters, we decided to record two different episodes three weeks apart and then stitch them together into a single episode. Episodes 79 & 80 are now Episode 7980.
In Episode 79 we discussed the cosmic return of Comic Sans, the availability of haunted SpeedTrees, accidental nudity between family members, Steve's brilliant rendition of retroactiveshitstorm.com, the dissolution of physical encyclopedias, Master Shake, becoming older and realizing you're the person old-you hated, crowd-sourced governments, firework accidents, and strength build's influence on Johann Sebastian Joust.
Videogames got in the way again, so we talked about Dark Souls, the Many World's theory application to Dark Souls, Among the Sleep, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Mario Kart 8, Infinity Runner, Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, Wario's Woods, Dragon Age Inquisition, Time Spinner, the invalidity of E3, the necessity of 60 frames-per-second, and Shovel Knight.
Then we digressed into an hour long discussion on the social politics of Tomodatchi Life; a game none of us actually played.
We reconvened three weeks later to record Episode 80, detailing such topics as the incredible stupidity of The Strain, stomach parasite excretion, Caucasians, suspending disbelief when watching intelligent ape films, Steve's absurd faith in American Hi-Fi, the time Steve interviewed James Gunn at E3, Very Bad Things, Edward Furlong's arrest record, humans wearing animal tails, Mike Patton, and Seth MacFarlane's enjoyment paradox.
You guessed it, we talked about games too, including Chris' purchase of a Wii U, New Super Luigi U, Mario Kart 8, OpenRA, Diablo III, Velvet Sundown, Kentucky Route Zero, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, the ageless visage of Zelda, and a yet another debate on the validity of acquiring Magus in Chronotrigger.
Because the show was nearly five hours, we also power-ranked the year 2007 in videogames.
Duration: 4:43:02. Recorded on 07/16/14 and then again on 08/06/14.
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