This past Saturday, Front Mission Evolved‘s final act wrapped up, and its credits rolled, with the opening menu music on constant loop in the background. I quit to the Dashboard, checked my achievements, and ejected the disk. A languished Forza Motorsport 2 career notwithstanding, I was finished with my Xbox 360 backlog.
Bitprophet was done awhile ago, despite having a few more unfinished games, which he lost interest in after they became too hard. That said, he had no objections when, yesterday, I dug the 360’s box out of storage and pulled the console itself, a mess of cables, and about half of our games for the system out of our entertainment center. Inside the box was, in addition to more cables and an unused headset, the original receipt, dated from March 2008. For a long time before this purchase, we debated which system we would get to complement our Nintendo Wii, a PlayStation 3 or 360, and by that point, time was growing short as Grand Theft Auto IV was due out in less than two months. He eventually decided on a 360, and picked up Assassin’s Creed as his first game for the system. In the meantime, I busied myself with other systems, mainly the PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, and Wii. The first 360 game I bought for myself, Eternal Sonata, was purchased over a year later, and I didn’t beat anything on the system until Devil May Cry 4 in March 2010. A month after that, my Halo obsession started when I beat the PC version Halo: Combat Evolved. From that point on, I was especially glad that we went with the 360.
It’s time once again for my top ten games played this past year. Included with each selection is the developer/author, the platform it was played on, the year of release, and a bit about why I liked the game enough for it to make it on the list. I’ve also brought back the Honorable Mentions to highlight five games that didn’t quite make it, but are still noteworthy. So, without further ado…
• Glittermitten Grove – For its complex and quite funny journey through the land of More Than Just Fairies, despite an annoyance or two.
• Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – For doing the 80s homage thing right, and a structure that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
• Pokemon Sun – For having a great story and some wonderful characters in a franchise not typically known for either.
• Space Invaders Extreme 2 – For being a worthy sequel to a fantastic game.
• Mountain – For its whimsy and frequent moments of beauty and joy.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below Omega Force | Windows | 2015
This Dynasty Warriors crossover/spinoff started off as a guilty pleasure, but ended up being a genuinely good game, especially if you love the Dragon Quest series as much as I do. Aside from the tons of DQ fanservice present in everything from the playable characters to the numbers that pop out of attacked monsters’ heads, there’s a lot of fun to be had in running around grassy fields and dark dungeons swinging a sword at dozens of enemies. The gameplay isn’t very complex, nor is the story, but both are peppered with enough DQ staples to keep things interesting, and the latter in particular works well enough to be satisfying.
Persona 5 Atlus | PlayStation 3 | 2017
Despite its issues—the predictability of much of the story, the hypocritical treatment of Ann, the tired and offensive stereotypes, certain bits of repetition, the odd pacing problem—Persona 5 may be the slickest game Atlus has made to date. Sure, the Phantom Thieves’ tale wasn’t perfect, but it did feature some great arcs (such as nearly everything involving Sae or Sojiro) and fantastic dungeon crawling, plus a superb final act which manages to contain some genuine surprises. On the aesthetic side, the distinctive character models, eye-popping user interfaces, and Shibuya-worthy score lend the game an irresistible stylishness.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords Infinite Interactive | Windows | 2007
This match-three puzzle and fantasy RPG crossover was the most addictive game I played all year. The story is nothing special, but the RPG mechanics are made to fit into its puzzle trappings in inventive ways, the main one being the different types of mana that can be stockpiled via color matching and used for special moves. There’s an impressive amount of customization, a massive map, and tons to do and see. By the time I had finished, I’d hit the level cap and had exhausted all of my companions’ stores of sidequests.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call indieszero | 3DS | 2014
The first Theatrhythm was already a burst of Final Fantasy musical goodness, but this follow-up manages to improve on that even further, with an expanded selection of music (including tracks from spinoff titles like Tactics and Crystal Chronicles), new gameplay modes—most notably a quest system that strings together sequences of tunes—and many more characters. Perhaps the best part is that the core gameplay is as tight as ever, though Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Final Fantasy XII compositions aren’t as well-suited to a rhythm game as most of the rest. Either way, it was difficult not to wear a smile on my face while playing this.
NotGTAV NotGames | Windows | 2015
The first thing you should know about this game is that it is not Grand Theft Auto V, a fact that to this day confuses many, many people who post in its official Steam forums. The second is that NotGTAV is a Snake variant that is filled to the brim with British humour. Playing in turn as Welshman Daffyd, chav Darren, and (now-former) Prime Minister David, missions run the gamut, from running over campers with a lawnmower to steering your motorcade past protesters. It’s a simple, short game with a satirical heart, and as an added bonus, all profits from its sale goes to charity.
SteamWorld Dig Image & Form | Windows | 2013
Above all else, I found SteamWorld Dig to be relaxing. In between purchasing upgrades and solving puzzles, digging up ores, new paths, and other interesting things was a routine that proved to be as soothing as maintaining a farm in Harvest Moon. All of this takes place within a charming steampunk western world that’s quite pleasing to the eye. My one major complaint about this game is that it was over all too quickly, but fortunately, it seems like SteamWorld Dig 2 addresses this issue and then some. I can’t wait to delve into that one.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Nintendo | Switch | 2017
This welcome port of the WiiU’s Mario Kart 8 and all of its DLC (even those weird Mercedes tie-in karts) is also one of the best in the series. In addition to great new tracks like Electrodrome, Cloudtop Cruise, and a few homages to Excitebike and F-Zero, the selection of classics is tough to beat, with the highlight being a steampunky take on Mario Kart 64‘s Rainbow Road. Speaking of which, the newest Rainbow Road is a rare disappointment, plus there’s always the one classic course you wish was there but isn’t (Coconut Mall in my case), but these aren’t deal-breakers. Finally, I must note that the 200cc difficulty mode is absolutely bonkers.
Third Place Picross 3D Round 2 HAL Laboratory | 3DS | 2016
The original Picross 3D was my introduction to the Picross franchise; it was an sometimes tricky puzzle game that I played the hell out of. Picross 3D Round 2 goes beyond just being a fresh offering of puzzles and works in a new twist: two different types of blocks (resulting in either cubes or non-cube shapes) that not only enable more interesting, aesthetically pleasing forms, but a whole new way to unveil them, with color coded clues and markers. This was intimidating at first, but the learning curve is as smooth as it’s ever been in this series; once I got the hang of things, all I needed to concern myself with was the puzzles themselves. A wonderful travel game, and just plain great in general.
Second Place Road Not Taken Spry Fox | Windows | 2014
An unlikely pairing of two of my favorite genres—roguelikes and tile-matching puzzle games—should not work as well as it does in this game. The premise is fairy tale-esque: the player character is a ranger who, every winter, is called upon to save children who get lost in a haunted forest while picking berries. The game ends when fifteen years have passed and the ranger dies. It is a much darker tale than it appears on the surface, and has some cynical things to say about children and their relationships to adults and the world around them. The game part is smartly designed, even with over a hundred items and many more matching combinations in its randomly-generated rooms, and can get quite challenging. There’s also a simple relationship system and special difficulty tweaks to round things out.
First Place: Game of the Year NieR cavia | Xbox 360 | 2010
The future world of NieR (or Nier, or NIER, or NieR Gestalt) is grey, brown, depressing (especially in the endgame and everything that follows afterward), hopeful, funny, annoying, charming, weird, heartwarming, and very difficult to leave behind for good. This action JRPG—with touches of bullet hell—has so many markers of imperfection and second-tier craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to the combat, and yet it is also filled with so much love. Homages to other franchises and even entire genres are largely enacted through mere changes in perspective, and the music and voice acting are top-notch.
None of those aesthetic touches would work without NieR‘s world-building and characters. The post-magic post-apocalypse setting is barely explained within the game, yet the details—such as old railroad bridges, tiny canister houses mounted on the walls of a canyon, and the black and gold word clouds that are the Shades—are so distinctive that it’s largely forgivable. Then there’s the cast: affable warrior dad Nier, the uppity and proud Weiss, thorny loner Kainé, and kindhearted, ingenuous Emil, plus a handful of others. Seeing them bicker, cry, and support each other in unexpected ways made some of the more unbelievable parts a bit more forgivable, and helped lessen the sting of the game’s obtuseness and other smaller frustrations.
“Labor of love” is a term that is bandied around a lot for certain games, but cavia’s swan song NieR is absolutely deserving of the phrase. It’s not too surprising that NieR became enough of a cult hit that not only it, but even its indirect predecessor Drakengard have continued on with sequels after cavia’s death. Speaking of which, NieR: Automata is on my shortlist for games I absolutely must play in 2018, and it’s an experience I’m really looking forward to.
Since I reviewed a selection of games from the previous year, I figured, why not do manga as well? Unlike with the games list, there are few true “old” titles here: most officially debuted or had ongoing volumes printed in English in 2016. Sorry that this post is going up so late, but I’ve had other things distract me in the meantime. Still, better late than never!
As with the Games Selection, a bit of explanation is needed for the setup. The series are presented in alphabetical order, with no rankings whatsoever. After each manga’s title is the mangaka (if there is more than one, they are in order of writer/creator and artist), then the North American publisher, the first year of Japanese serialization, and the number of volumes I’d read up until the end of 2016 (followed, in parentheses, by the total number of Japanese volumes). Series printed in omnibus editions are denoted with an asterisk (*), but the numbers reflect the original volumes as they were first printed in Japan. Finally, all of the cover images used here came from Right Stuf or the publisher’s website.
– Jaco the Galactic Patrolman – for its humor, whimsy, and inspired Dragon Ball connections.
– Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer* – for its low-key, almost slice-of-life approach to modern fantasy heroics.
– My Hero Academia – for its fantastic blend of Japanese shounen and American superhero (with a small touch of indie) styles of comic art.
– Queen Emeraldas* – for its dreamlike treatment of the “space opera” genre.
– Wandering Island – for its detailed, sort of Ghibli-esque telling of its simple adventure plot.
Assassination Classroom Yusei Matsui | Viz Media (Shonen Jump label) | 2012 | 12 (out of 21)
The kids in Kunugigaoka Junior High’s Class 3-E don’t have a lot going for them. The other students bully and ridicule them, making them outcasts in their own hyper-competitive school. However, they have a chance to turn their fortunes around thanks to a secret government project in which they will receive a huge cash prize if they assassinate their teacher Koro-sensei, a grinning octopus-like creature who has destroyed much of the Moon and threatens to do the same to Earth. Koro-sensei, by the way, is a shining example to his profession, and through his lessons and various other adventures—the best of which often involve one-upping the horrible student body and administration that treats Class 3-E as outcasts—the kids come to love him. This complicated love/target relationship is at the heart of Assassination Classroom, and along with the gags, action, great ensemble of characters, and crisp, clean artwork, it makes this title one of the best that’s come out of Shonen Jump in recent years.
Emma Kaoru Mori | Yen Press | 2002 | 4 (out of 10)*
A tale of forbidden romance between a maid and a wealthy merchant’s son in Victorian England, Emma is rife with period detail, quiet moments, and breathtaking drama. I had originally read the first volume, then localized by CMX, several years ago, but only came back to it recently, and after the twists and turns which led to a crescendo in the fourth volume, I’m eager to keep reading until the end. The setting and characters appear to be the results of some painstaking research, yet there is also a Japanese flavor in the leisurely pacing which is a hallmark of manga. Some of the finely detailed art can be shaky at times when it comes to the basics, but otherwise, this is a very good slice-of-life drama.
Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto Nami Sano | Seven Seas | 2011 | 4 (out of 4)
The other school comedy on this list also stars an admirable oddball. However, this time, instead of a teacher, it is a student. Sakamoto-kun is cool beyond cool; a tall, suave wunderkind of mysterious origin who always seems to have the right approach to any problem. In this way, he makes the best of bad situations, gently guides his classmates in positive directions, and earns the admiration, or at least the grudging respect, of everyone he encounters. The art is strangely gritty for a shoujo manga, but also lends it a realistic quality which helps make Sakamoto‘s world more believable, and Sakamoto-kun himself stand out more. Sakamoto is humorous and inspiring, and at four volumes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and ends brilliantly, tying off the final loose ends left.
My Love Story!! Kazune Kawahara/Aruko | Viz Media (Shojo Beat label) | 2011 | 10 (out of 13)
Shoujo romances tend to be well-known for their drama and endless questions of will-they-or-won’t-they. There is drama aplenty in My Love Story!!, but where it differs is that the hulking Takeo Goda and petite Rinko Yamato become a couple by the middle of the first volume. What follows, then, is a cute and hilarious tale of their relationship, and all the little milestones they take along the way. Another, perhaps more remarkable, thing which separates My Love Story!! from most other shoujo is that the main point-of-view character is male. Goda is a somewhat clueless but extremely likable hero, and the scenes with his best friend Makoto Sunakawa are frequently enjoyable glimpses of an honest and true male friendship. Given the rough year that we will all undoubtedly face ahead, I highly recommend this series as a joyful escape. I will be sad to see it end—the final volume should come out in English later this year—but will be rooting for Goda and Yamato the entire time.
One-Punch Man ONE/Yusuke Murata | Viz Media (Shonen Jump label) | 2012 | 9 (out of 12+)
In a generic city, an aspiring hero and all-around normal guy named Saitama does a simple but intense training regimen and ends up losing all his hair, but gaining so much strength that he can defeat any enemy with a single punch. He eventually gets noticed by a few others—most notably the straight-laced cyborg Genos and villainous ninja Speed-o’-Sound Sonic—and soon winds up in the world of professional superheroes. Originally based on ONE’s webcomic, this funny, action-packed tale of an unlikely hero who makes up for his apathy for the formalities of pro-level herodom with heart and dignity is well worth checking out. The art is astonishingly good, too.
Orange Ichigo Takano | Seven Seas | 2012 | 5 (out of 5)*
A school drama with a science fiction twist, Orange is a tale in which its introverted protagonist, Naho Takamiya, receives a letter from her future self, who tasks her with preventing a small-scale tragedy. The constantly lingering question of whether or not Naho can pull this off, saving her classmate Kakeru Naruse by following her future self’s detailed instructions, kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s a romance angle as well, and all of this is ferried to the end by a wonderful supporting cast. I must note that although this is an excellent drama, one of the early spoilers carries a trigger warning with it; read this review if you want to find out more.
Otherworld Barbara Moto Hagio | Fantagraphics | 2002 | 2 (out of 4)*
This is a difficult one. It begins with a peculiar island where a young girl frolics with her friends, people can fly, and the residents are insulated from an ongoing war. Then it shifts to a “dream pilot” named Tokio Watarai, who takes on a curious request involving a girl who has slept continuously for years on end. Also, Watarai has an estranged son, Kiriya Kitakata, who has problems and concerns of his own. There is cannibalism, psychic phenomena, a Martian connection, and the constant recurrence of the term “Barbara”, usually as the name of an island which may or may not actually exist. Tying all this surrealism together is the most appropriate art style possible: collage-like, loose-bordered shoujo. Otherworld Barbara is most definitely an acquired taste, but if if happens to be yours, it is a fascinating one.
Princess Jellyfish Akiko Higashimura | Kodansha Comics | 2008 | 6 (out of 16+)*
If you like to laugh, loudly and often, this is one manga you don’t want to miss. In the first volume, our heroine, the jellyfish otaku and NEET Tsukimi Kurashita, has a chance encounter with someone from the direct opposite end of the social spectrum: Kuranosuke Koibuchi, a rich, stylish, attractive, crossdressing guy. Somehow, they become friends, and when Kuranosuke learns that the charming old building where Tsukimi and her otaku compatriots live is in danger of redevelopment, it triggers a whole big mess of adventures as he attempts to save it. Every single damn member of the cast is funny, and a few take us down some particularly hilarious turns as the story goes on. Kuranosuke sometimes acts a little too pushy in a believable but unlikeable way, especially early on, but otherwise, this is a fantastic series which I can’t get enough of.
Vinland Saga Makoto Yukimura | Kodansha Comics | 2005 | 14 (out of 18+)*
An ongoing masterpiece by the creator of Planetes, this is one of the most violent manga I’ve ever read, and also one of the most pacifist. Thorfinn is a young Icelandic boy who, thanks to some tragic events, gets swept up into Askeladd’s band of bloodthirsty Vikings. Over the course of many volumes, we not only see plenty of limbs lopped off, but also Thorfinn growing and changing through his interactions with his fellow warmongers, a captured prince, and others. In the second major story arc, which completed in volume 14, Thorfinn’s situation has changed drastically, and over time, he does as well. Vinland Saga is currently the best seinen manga you can buy in English, which is no small feat.
Yotsuba&! Kiyohiko Azuma | Yen Press | 2003 | 13 (out of 13+)
The adorable slice-of-life comedy Yotsuba&! isn’t undated as frequently as it used to be, so new volumes, when they happen, become even more of a treat. This series, about the adventures of an eccentric little girl and her family and friends, is charming up the wazoo, very funny, and sometimes even carries an air of nostalgia, depending on whether or not you had similar experiences when you were a kid. It’s lovely just to look at with its panels bursting with detail—and not just in the backgrounds, but the objects and animals as well. The humorous scenes are frequent, and they’re paced and executed with expert precision. Yen Press’ localization has also improved over the years, though it’s still nowhere near as good as when the now-defunct ADV Manga published the series. Yotsuba&! is a rarity in manga: a high-quality series which can be enjoyed by just about anyone, no matter how old they are.
Here’s my top ten games played in 2016, presented in the order in which I played and/or beat them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and a little bit about why it has made this list. As with last year’s Selections, these games aren’t ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups (the entries this time are a little less wordy, however). I have also added some Honorable Mentions at the beginning, since I played a lot of good stuff this year and didn’t want to overlook certain titles. Anyway, let’s get to it…
– Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure – for its appealing main character, and being the type of “b-game” that lingers in my mind long after finishing.
– Firewatch – for its incredible sense of place, and realistic characters.
– Bravely Default – for its masterful battle and character customization systems, and outstanding art direction.
– Pokemon Blue Version – for being a deeper-than-expected foundation, and Professor Oak’s nephew, the antagonist I loved to hate more than any other this year.
– Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – for returning the series to form, and bringing the “Justice Trilogy” to a satisfying conclusion.
There’s also a few great games which I played this year but didn’t beat or play enough of to consider for this list: Spelunky, Project CARS, and Picross 3D Round 2.
Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition Blizzard Entertainment | Xbox 360 | 2014
Playing a Diablo-style action RPG on a console, with my co-op partner sitting right next to me, is a wonderful experience I wish I could have more often. What’s most remarkable is that it happened with an actual Diablo game. The story is typical Metzen Cheese™, but told within suitably epic trappings and with a satisfying loop of fight and loot. For a console version of a very PC-centric game, the controls are remarkably good as well: somewhat complex, but thought out well enough that they soon become second nature. I do wish there was more variety in the loot available in the Resurrection of Evil expansion, and there’s only so much Metzen Cheese™ one can take at a time, but if you’re looking for a solid couch co-op game, this is one which I highly recommend.
Kero Blaster / Pink Hour / Pink Heaven Studio Pixel | Windows | 2015
Pixel’s follow-up to his masterpiece Cave Story is a run-and-gun shooter with a slightly more whimsical tone. In this outing, a frog gets teleported out onto the field to complete cleanup missions for his employer, but in the meantime, a problem manifests itself in the boss’ office. Despite the switching up of genres, the action should be familiar to anyone who has played Cave Story, and even improves on it in some small, but welcome, ways. Kero Blaster is, flat-out, a joy to play, and its two free tie-in games, Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, are worth checking out as well.
NiGHTS into Dreams… / Christmas NiGHTS Sonic Team | Windows | 1995-96 (Windows port: 2012) NiGHTS is the strangest game I played all year. It’s a mascot platformer with not much use for platforms; instead, the title character flies and floats around dense dreamscapes. I found the game disorienting at first, but once I got the hang of things, it was like nothing else. It is also not as difficult as certain similar games of its era, so despite one or two frustrating bits, I was able to beat it. One of the bonus features in the PC version of NiGHTS is Christmas NiGHTS. More than just a reskin of NiGHTS‘ opening areas, it is a charming demo with a standalone story and plenty of holiday spirit.
Undertale tobyfox | Windows | 2015
I don’t know what’s left to say about Undertale at this point. The characters are marvelous and true to life, and the plot slots them into archetypal JRPG roles in interesting ways (this is particularly true of Alphys). There is humor galore, from meme-ready running gags, to more traditionally funny scenes, to a certain unexpected and hilarious parody. There is also tons of heart, in several ways. Its fandom is crazy about this game and after one playthrough, and then another, it became easy for me to see why.
Doom id Software | Windows | 1993-95 (via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012)
Playing Doom—and beating all of its episodes for the first time—ended up being more than just a nostalgia trip. Despite the lack of modern niceties such as aim assist, weapon customization, and jumping, it plays just as well, and is as enjoyable and engrossing, as back in ’93. The only real low point is Episode IV, first introduced in The Ultimate Doom and included here, but even that would be a solid set of maps in most any other FPS. Doom is, and always will be, just that good.
Bejeweled 3 PopCap Games | Windows | 2010
A modern classic of match-three puzzling, with a sufficient amount of strategic depth and wealth of variant modes to keep things interesting, from the frantic (Ice Storm) to the relaxing (Poker). The epic music and voice-over were unintentionally funny to me at first, but after spending many hours switching gems around, I can’t imagine the game without them. Bejeweled 3 ended up hooking me so much that it became one of a small number of PC games which I felt compelled to get all the achievements in.
Catlateral Damage Chris Chung/Fire Hose Games | Windows | 2015
If you ever need something cathartic—no pun intended—to play for a few minutes or longer, I heartily recommend Catlateral Damage. It’s a first-person cat simulator where the goal is to knock everything onto the floor. The main campaign is short, but there is a decent amount of stuff to do and see, including some nifty themed maps, unlockable cat photos and playable cats, cat toys that grant stat boosts, and special limited-time events, like low gravity and chasing laser pointer dots. Playing a misbehaving cat is, as it turns out, an enjoyable way to pass some spare time.
Third Place Pokemon GO Niantic/The Pokemon Company | iOS | 2016
Looking at this strictly in terms of mechanics, and especially when it’s compared to its primary source of inspiration, Pokemon GO may be the worst game on this list. However, for me, it has also been one of the most engaging of the past year. There is something intriguing about going out into the real world to catch Pokemon and use them to fight at gyms. The team system encourages local rivalries, and periodic updates and special events have generally made the game better since it first launched. I currently have most of the Pokedex filled, plus a pretty beefy team of gym-fighting regulars, so I’ve lapsed a bit in my playing, but for much of the summer and fall, Pokemon GO proved to be a great way to get me out of the house for some simple exercise for an hour or three. If more second-generation Pokemon get added, I’d probably continue to do the same in 2017, since I’d love to see Skarmory, Marill, and other favorites in my ‘dex.
Second Place DOOM id Software | Windows | 2016
It feels odd to place this above the original Doom, which is one of the greatest and most important games ever made. However, in terms of how much I was captivated by each game I played this year, I feel that this new one deserves its place. It is, more than anything else, bone-crunching, and also metal, and at times quite witty. As a character, the Doom Marine is stellar, a silent first-person protagonist who brims with personality through mere eyelines and hand movements. The world he inhabits is sprawling, with some (mostly) cleverly hidden secrets, and incorporates the best ideas from all the previous numbered entries in the series and then some. The gameplay, and gunplay, is exhilarating, with one of my favorite parts being an ammunition and health drop system which, amongst other things, means one no longer has to hoard BFG ammo. It is everything I have loved about Doom made modern, and might be the finest single-player FPS campaign of all time.
First Place: Game of the Year Her Story Sam Barlow | Windows | 2015
My Game of the Year was decided early on. Rarely have I come across a game narrative that’s so pulpy, with so many what the fuck moments as in Her Story. It is very, very difficult to talk about why this is without giving anything away, especially that one word I felt compelled to search for after watching a certain amount of video, that one word which means so much to the plot.
First, let’s back up a little. In Her Story, you are an unknown and unseen person who is sifting through interview clips stored on a long-neglected police database. You start with the word “MURDER”. The interviewee is the wife of the victim. To progress, searching for additional clips through keywords, piecing events together along the way, is key. However, even after seeing the clip needed to trigger the option to end the game, it’s hard not to keep going, and yet, some hard answers remain just out of reach. I’ve seen every single snippet of video in Her Story and am still not entirely sure of what has happened. This is a game tailor-made for people who enjoy theorizing over vague endings, and love mysteries in general.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that I’m a stickler for good storytelling in games. Some of the games on this list, particularly Undertale and DOOM, have very good stories, but nothing like this. Her Story is a must-play achievement in narrative games, one that excels in both concept and execution.
For several years, I posted “roundups” of all of the games I played in a given year. After the 2011 edition, I lapsed on this and have not written one since. Having to remember every game I played in a 20xx and write up a little something about it got to be tedious, and didn’t play well with my inherent laziness.
All that is why, when I decided to revive this feature, it was with new restrictions. This time, I will be covering only ten games: those which left the strongest impressions on me within a given year, regardless of release date. This restriction also enables me to write a bit more about each game.
So, without further ado, here’s my ten for 2015, presented in the order in which I played them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and my obligatory summary. They are not ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups, which were relatively easy choices, at least for this installment.
Mighty Gunvolt Inti Creates | 3DS | 2014
Although I am not a big fan of anything that resembles Mega Man, this game charmed the pants off of me. Few “retro” style games that truly want to be “retro” ever come close to the faithfulness to the era that Mighty Gunvolt achieves: here, it really does feel like you’re playing an NES game. The art and music are lovingly crafted, as is the localization from the original Japanese, which sprinkles bits of “Engrish” throughout. The biggest aspect which feels “modern” is the difficulty, which isn’t as punishing as its predecessors, but that’s all for the better.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch Young Horses | Windows | 2014
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Octodad, which forces the player to unlearn everything they know about controlling video game characters. The player character is a giant octopus masquerading as a human surburban father, and controlling him—through a scheme where arms and legs are affiliated with analog sticks and shoulder buttons—is as difficult as you might expect, given the circumstances. Not drawing suspicion to yourself in your everyday life is the goal of the game, a lighthearted sitcom of a tale which comes complete with a catchy theme song (but no laugh track, thankfully). Although a certain part came off as slightly unfulfilling, there’s nothing else that would cause me not to recommend this.
Gone Home The Fullbright Company | Windows | 2013
This is one of those games I put off playing for awhile due to the neverending hype and discussion surrounding it, but I finally did so this year. What it ended up being was an exploration through a massive old house that was alternately nostalgic, goofy, and suspenseful, a miniature 1990s teenage soap opera told in first-person in-between references to Bratmobile and The X-Files. That this tightly crafted, intimate little story generated as much controversy as it did is bewildering. Gone Home is—somehow, bizarrely, sadly—groundbreaking for the video game medium in its everyday mundanity and small human dramas, but it’s also good, and hopefully this sort of thing will become more commonplace in the future.
PixelJunk Eden Q-Games | Windows | 2012
I play few platformers anymore, not so much for lack of interest (Kirby burnout notwithstanding), as that there haven’t been any really good ones in awhile. I came to PixelJunk Eden not knowing much about it, but finding within it just the refreshing sort of platformer I needed. The visual style is minimalist overall, but can get pleasantly noisy sometimes in a structured Sonic Youth sort of way, and it’s accompanied by some cool electronic music and suitable sound effects. The physics are floaty but believable; the diminutive player character moves around like it’s in water. Although the paths weren’t always clear and, thus, it became way too easy to get lost in certain late-game levels, I had a really good time with PixelJunk Eden.
You Must Build a Boat EightyEightGames | Windows | 2015
This game, the follow-up to 10000000, almost didn’t make this list. It’s on here because I returned to the game again, months after first beating it, to go after more crew members and achievements. That’s when I fell back into its rhythms. With more tile types and general complexity than 10000000, my original feeling was that You Must Build a Boat was too overwhelming, and somewhat inelegant. Somehow, this doesn’t matter any longer. Its density and mechanics have their own kind of beauty and rhythm, and it has proven itself to be just as well-balanced and addictive. That, plus the new rooms and crew members that get added over the course of the game gives it more character than 10000000 ever had. That’s not to say that YMBAB is better than 10000000, but it is most definitely a worthy successor.
Roundabout No Goblin | Windows | 2014
This game is unlike anything else out there. It’s got a groovy 1970s setting complete with funk music, rounded chunky fonts, trippy drug references, and suitably toned live-action FMVs. The story centers around Georgio Manos (pictured), a silent protagonist and up-and-coming revolving limousine driver. With the support of her comrades, she ferries people all over town and deals with various bits of drama. Oh yes, and as her title implies, her limo does indeed revolve around and around while she drives, which is where the challenge comes in. It’s all very silly, a little bit difficult, rather fun (and funny), and over all too quickly.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector Hit-Point | iPhone | 2014
My husband and I waffled on trying this out for ages, and a patch from earlier this year which added an English-language option basically gave us little excuse. So, one day over the US Thanksgiving weekend, we each downloaded Neko Atsume from Apple’s App Store. What a great decision that was. A few times a day, after setting out food and toys, we check to see which stupidly cute, beady-eyed cats have visited us. Another aspect which has won us over: it’s free to play, with microtransactions available, but we’ve never once felt the pressure to buy any extra gold fish (the top-level in-game currency). We just take our time and enjoy these adorable digital felines at our leisure.
Third Place Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX SEGA | 3DS | 2015
I’m afraid I might be biased when it comes to this choice: I’m a fan of Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, plus I also have a soft spot for both Nendoroid figures and tactile rhythm games. Project mirai DX features a robust selection of songs featuring music software developer Crypton’s beloved stable of Vocaloids: classics, fan favorites, and lesser-known tracks spanning a nice range of styles and BPMs, from many of the best producers in the scene. There are even a few songs with additional vocals supplied by special guest GUMI (aka Megpoid), a Vocaloid published by Internet Co. Ltd. All of the characters are represented in their chibi Nendoroid forms, thanks to a collaboration with Good Smile Company, and have a certain lively appeal to them that the blander, regularly-proportioned Project DIVA models lack.
The touchscreen-based gameplay mode is a joy to play (the button-based one isn’t too shabby either, though not as much fun), and there are several diversions—a room to decorate, character outfits, reversi and Puyo Puyo minigames, a music player, etc.—that are entertaining ways to take a break from the main rhythm section every so often. Despite the rare misstep (such as a certain pair of popular but overly repetitive songs), it’s a must-have for 3DS-owning Vocaloid fans, and probably the best rhythm game on the system overall.
Second Place Analogue: A Hate Story Love Conquers All Games | Windows | 2012
Stories with a strong sociological bent are still relatively hard to find in games. While my 2015 manga slate was filled with brilliantly humane works like Vinland Saga, My Love Story!!, and Assassination Classroom, there hasn’t been much like those on my gaming one. Analogue: A Hate Story is one of the rare exceptions. Like (the absolutely amazing, seriously it’s a masterpiece) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Analogue is a feminist examination of a specific period in Asian history. In this case, it’s an extremely repressive Korean society recreated on a long-lost starship, whose story is told through the logs maintained by, and the commentary of, a pair of AIs named *Hyun-ae and *Mute.
What follows from there is a dense, intertwined tale of family, hierarchy, social expectation, doomed romance, dashed expectations, and horrific violence, with the occasional bits of humor, which helps lighten the mood from time to time and rounds out the characters. It’s a gripping tale, one as fine as in any good comic or prose story I read this year, and I’m looking forward to playing its sequel, Hate Plus, in the year ahead. In fact, Analogue was all set to be my personal Game of the Year, but then something else came out…
First Place: Game of the Year The Beginner’s Guide Everything Unlimited Ltd. | Windows | 2015
I really don’t know where to start with this one without giving away what happens during a certain scene, a scene that matters so much when it comes to how this story is ultimately interpreted. When that scene happened, I understood much more, but only to a point. By the time the game ends, there’s at least two apparent large plot holes and some uncomfortable unanswered questions, which aren’t helped by the fact that the entire thing has been narrated by Davey Wreden, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, seemingly playing himself. There’s also that cryptic dedication…
I’m going to dig further into this now, and although I won’t reference anything too specifically, there might be some parts that could be considered spoilers, so turn around if you need to.
What The Beginner’s Guide is ultimately about (or at least it seems so to me) is audiences, the great bugbear of creators everywhere, and how uncontrollable they are. It left much the same impression on me as The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which dealt with a similar theme on multiple levels. In that film, which is based on true events, an inventor does amazing, innovative work but finds that his lofty ideals don’t line up with reality. Such is the situation in The Beginner’s Guide, where Davey takes us through a tour of the works of “Coda”, a friend who has dabbled in game development before suddenly stopping. Who Coda is and what their works really mean is beside the point. It is Davey and his presentation of Coda’s games which really matters here.
The result is a fascinating, but somewhat worrying, journey through all sorts of unfinished first-person games. There are a lot of dialogues that go nowhere, enclosed spaces, and strange surprises. Davey is not wrong to have interpretations of these creations. The wrongness that is present becomes evident later on, and, in the end, I don’t blame Coda for their actions, though perhaps they were somewhat naive in how they handled their games. It’s an interesting and ultimately heart-wrenching story about creation, interpretation, modification, and everything in between. I wonder if anyone who isn’t a creative type of some sort would get it. I wonder, like many others, if this is based on something which really happened. I do not wonder if this sort of thing continues to happen in the real world, because I know it does. It sucks, but it still happens. It happens to a lot of us, and though it might take awhile, things will be okay again.
A copy of Halo sat amongst other barely or never touched PC games—stuff like American McGee’s Alice and Half-Life—for a number of years. Early in 2010, I decided to change its status, and got around to starting it on April 17th. This decision was one that I’m still feeling the effects of.
It did so many things right: consistent world design, likable characters, unique (for a first-person shooter, anyway) music, good equipment, and great momentum. There was also the big plot twist, a moment when so much seemed to change; I believe this was also the moment when I became hooked.
It’s not like the game didn’t have any problems, as it had a streak of sameness and repetition running through its many grey corridors, but as with any flawed piece of brilliance, the magic of the rest was such that they were minor concerns.
After Master Chief and Cortana’s adventure on Installation 04 came their next one, which starts in orbit above Earth. The situation had become grave, the enemies less cartoonish, and the animations a touch less snappy. Realism and gravity—in a galaxy filled with whole races of aliens that could speak perfect English, a Forerunner civilization that rivals StarCraft‘s Xel’naga in terms of crazy conundrums, and Sergeant Avery Johnson (minor spoilers in link)—was trying to worm its way into a realm that was fun and exhilarating above all else.
Although I wasn’t sure what to make of this change of tone, with it came a closer look at the Covenant and their motives, and the introduction of a new playable character, the Arbiter. This disgraced Elite was a welcome change from the UNSC’s perfect super soldier and whatever seriousness that was imbued in the story suited him quite well.
The air may have changed, but the action didn’t. In fact, the ante was upped, with dual wielding, new equippable weapons (including the truly badass Energy Swords, which were present in the first game, but not a useable option), and frantic battles. Unfortunately, the final fight, which aimed to be the pièce de résistance, fizzled instead, thanks to a shortsighted bit of level design. The ending was a cliffhanger this time, as the “trilogy” formula had now been settled upon.
The action outdoes itself again, and there are crisper graphics this time around due to this being the first Xbox 360 outing for the series. Also still present is the gravitas, with extra emphasis on Chief and Cortana’s relationship, which takes a turn away from the first game’s buddy-movie-screwball-comedy antics to something a bit more tender and weirder, with a slight whiff of retcons.
As for the rest of the plot? Muddled and nothing to write home about, with a none-too-subtle throwback to the first game at the end and some non-closure closure.
Although I’d put up with it for three installments, here is where the formula really started to wear thin. Despite being an RTS, taking place two decades before Combat Evolved, and featuring a whole new cast of characters, a familiar three-act structure was in place. It would all be eyeroll-inducing were it not the most fun I’ve had with a game in this series since pre-final battle Halo 2.
I am and remain a PC person when it comes to first-person shooters (though, as I’ve said before, the Wii’s controls for first-person games are damned good). With Halo Wars though, I found a console RTS with a control scheme that suited my style of play fairly well. It was also, sadly, Ensemble Studios’ final game.
The second in the Not-Master-Chief non-trilogy puts the player in the role of an Operational Drop Shock Trooper during the events of Halo 3. Its emptiness, coupled with basic character animations attached to equally basic characters, brought to mind the first game, more than any of those that had been made previously, albeit with a moody touch of noir on top. The story was modest and significantly different, in terms of structure, from the ones that had come before it. Perhaps the one thing I liked the most—and this is the only time it has happened in the series—is that the main character is not only nameless, but pretty much voiceless, a true silent protagonist whose UNSC-issue boots I can easily slide into.
ODST is a wonderful game, but aside from the rare bit where it’s obvious you needed to have played Halo 3 first, its biggest frustration is representative of something that I’d noticed about the console Halos I’d played to this point: the save system, or rather, the lack thereof. One of the great things about modern PC games is they haven’t forgotten about the value and necessity of manual saves. Autosaves and “save and quit” features are all well and good, but not if one wants to go back and try a different approach, as I did with ODST when I realized that I was unraveling the plot’s core mystery in the wrong order. Redoing the previous mission over again, I found my acquired weapons gone and my checklist cleared of any real progress. This was why I deleted my save file and started the game over again. That said, it is unfortunate that certain other progress markers, namely the Xbox Live Achievements and the in-game audio file unlocks, could not be similarly wiped clean.
Bungie’s final Halo would have it come full circle: in the beginning of their Combat Evolved, we learn that the planet Reach, which had been colonized by humans, has fallen to the Covenant, and that Master Chief is the last of the Spartan II-class soldiers. This game, then, tells a story of the doomed right from the start; I knew going in that the Spartan I would play, and the others in Noble Team, would fail to save Reach and die. The story did have a few surprises left, though, including one which was badly explained in-game, and only clarified by reading some forum threads and the facsimile diary that was included in the game’s special editions (I have the Limited one).
Interestingly enough, although the nameless protagonist “Noble Six” was not silent this time, gender was both obvious and up for grabs: Six could be male or female. Even with an already solid range of good-to-great women characters in the Halo universe, and the existence of female Spartans having been established since at least Wars, that I could make Six any gender I wanted was a welcome surprise. I went with the male option, though.
Male or female, Six is your typical Halo human protagonist: if s/he’s not already a decorated and admired soldier, s/he has an impressive track record. Only Halo 2 stands apart in its presenting the player with a flawed protagonist in need of empathy and redemption, and even then, the Arbiter is only playable for half the game. On the other hand, Master Chief (and his sidekick Cortana), Sergeant Forge, the Rookie, and Noble Six are characters who had admiration and/or respect on their sides prior to their in-game adventures, and could be considered canonical Mary Sues.
Although I have enjoyed my time with all of them, I continue to love the Arbiter the most.
Epilogue: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and Four
After a month-long binge on the not-Master-Chief non-trilogy, I am done for awhile. Anniversary, a remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, sits in my backlog, and there it will remain for awhile longer, mainly since there are virtual worlds I want to delve into that do not involve space marines. Halo 4 will come out later this year, but unless there’s a real must-have preorder bonus, I won’t pay full price for it. I don’t go in for the multiplayer on these games, otherwise I would certainly have my order in already, and $60 for what will surely be another eight-hour (or, heaven forbid, shorter) campaign is too much.
I do plan on buying and playing it, however. Despite whatever gripes I may have, Halo still has that special something.