Welcome to the 2014 Gaming Bus Game of the Year awards! Before I begin, a laying out of the ground rules, as usual:
1) These are for games released between December of ’13 and November of ’14.
2) These are my personal favourite games, and that’s it. No other metric went into this, and this is far from scientific. If I were to review these as objective reviews, #4 might score lower than #9.
3) No Early-Access titles. Full retail releases only. (new rule)
4) These are games I’ve played, for systems I own.
#4 is very key this year, because this is the first year that the PlayStation 4 and XBox One were in full swing. In addition, the Wii U is still running, although at not nearly the same pace. However, I own none of those systems. Blame what you want for that – satisfaction with the prior generations, an injury reducing my spending money to buy $500 systems with, increased PC gaming, waiting for a must-own sports game – but it means there were a lot of AAA games that I didn’t get to play this year, or that I played on systems that couldn’t really handle them. A list of games that made most lists but I can’t put on my own:
Titanfall (didn’t play)
Bayonetta 2 (didn’t play)
Mario Kart 8 (didn’t play)
Far Cry 4 (played on PS3, need to play on PC)
Destiny (played on PS3, just didn’t like it)1
Dragon Age: Inquisition (played on PS3, which couldn’t handle it. Need to play on PS4)
In fact, looking at the games I came up with for my GOTY list, I was struck that almost no really big titles showed up. The bigger names were on handhelds, and the bigger publishers had their mid-tier games make it. I don’t know if I’m growing out of the AAA grind, or if it’s grown out of me, but there’s almost no big-name games that made my list. That includes sports games; for the first time since I started writing about video games professionally, no sports game makes my top 10 or honourable mentions list.2 Also notable is that many of the games on my list were spiritually much like the ones I played as a kid in the 90s. It’s like I spent the entire year holding up my hand against the motion of progress, resisting it as best I could.
With that in mind, let’s start with the oddball “award” I usually give out at this time:
2014 MOUNT & BLADE GOOD BAD GAME AWARD: The Mount & Blade Good Bad Game award is named after the game Mount & Blade, which I gave a negative review to on its’ release in 2008 despite having fun playing it. Since then, I’ve given out the award a few more times:
2009: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
2010: Record of Agarest War (360) 2011: Vacant
2013: Knights of Pen and Paper (iOS/Steam)
For 2014, we’re keeping it mobile:
Desert Golfing (iOS): It doesn’t get much simpler than Desert Golfing: you pull back to sling the ball along the desert, using a surprisingly robust physics engine to move things along, and once you get it in the hole, you move onto the next, generated hole. Then after 18 holes, you keep going. And going. And going. At the time of this writing, I was on hole 343, and I felt compelled to play four more holes. It’s the perfect cell phone game because it’s best played in small bites.
In fact, that’s the frustrating thing: that’s literally all it is. It takes 1,000 holes before players can register their scores on Apple’s leaderboards, and I’m not even half way there over a month after buying the game. It’s not even possible to delete the game’s save data; players have to delete and re-download the entire app. All indications are that this was an intentional design decision, and while that’s cute, it makes the game a pain in the neck on occasion, especially after I burn eleven strokes on a hole.
Desert Golfing is fun, and it’s cheap at $0.99. It has no pretenses, and doesn’t help the player do anything. That qualifies it for our Mount & Blade Good Bad Game Award.
Next, let us go over our honourable mentions for 2014:
Nidhogg – A local multiplayer game making any kind of list for me is an honour in and of itself; I simply don’t play local multiplayer, and it strikes me as a pretentious design decision. But Nidhogg is a fun game to play whether it’s against the computer or against one of the few people that would be into a game that makes the original Karateka look beautiful. Nidhogg might be the one game on my list that is as fun to watch as it is to play; the speed and depth of the game are not readily apparent, and watching two skilled players on Youtube is a joy to behold.
Luftrausers – If there’s one thing that Vlambeer is good at, it’s making bite-sized gameplay that requires skill and doesn’t hold the player’s hand. Lift raisers continues their tradition with a game that, even on consoles, is ready to play in seconds. Gameplay is simple, yet difficult enough to add layers of complexity, while having enough unlockables to keep players engaged. Everything Vlambeer touches turns to spastic gold, it seems.
Age of Wonders III – Combining 4X gameplay with a tactical battlefield that made my inner Fire Emblem fan tingle, AoWIII was my favourite 4X of the year in a banner year for the genre; Pandora: First Contact and Endless Legend were all good.
Transistor – The spiritual successor to Bastion was one of the most immersive games I played this year, with outstanding presentation and a seamless way to integrate exploration and storytelling. I wish the story itself was a little better, but Transistor is still worth playing through for the experience alone.
The Banner Saga – The best way I would describe The Banner Saga is to mix Final Fantasy Tactics with Don Bluth, and add in a touch of punishing difficulty. The Banner Saga’s difficulty plays into the wonderful Nordic atmosphere; if they wanted to simulate the feeling of an eternal struggle, they did it.
Finally, let’s go over Gaming Bus’s Top Ten Games of 2014!
Divinity might be the ultimate role playing game in that I find myself trying to role play two people at the same time. Sometimes, that leads to hilarious results, where I have my two characters, my two avatars, arguing with each other, threatening violence, and ultimately handling their actions with rock, paper, scissors. Imagine watching this happen in real life: me carrying on an argument between two people I’ve made up, with me voicing both sides, and then playing RPS against myself. What’s the over/under on how many times I’d be tased before they committed me?
Divinity’s brilliance is that it not only makes something like this normal, it makes it fun. The game is not easy – I had to restart early to get a more optimal pairing once I started to “get” what the game was about – but anyone with the willingness to dive in head-first will have an amazing time.
Before the genre became a bit passe, Geometry Wars effectively caused the dual-stick shooter to burst onto the scene when it was released for the XBox 360 back in 2006. The sequel underperformed, competing largely against all of its own pretenders, and because that’s what AAA publishers do, Activision did the maths, and decided that they had to scuttle the series. It sat dormant for years, brewing, until now.
Geometry Wars 3 took everything that was great about the first two games, released it again, added elements to make the game worthy of more than a few quick bursts of gameplay, and released it everywhere that would have it. The various ways to play a dual-stick shooter are all on display, and have been perfected. Geometry Wars is still the king, standing over all of the pretenders.
I can’t remember the last time I watched South Park regularly; I think it was when the movie was released. I watched the movie numerous times, laughed, we made jokes, and then South Park just kind of ceased to be; I figured it would last another year or so, and then fade away like most other shows.
I could not have been more wrong. The series is still going, and still specializing in raunchy, yet intelligent and timely humour. The Stick of Truth shows that not only do the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, still have “it” when it comes to South Park, they make a damn fine game when they’re actually paying attention to it. The Mario Kart and You Don’t Know Jack wannabes of the past have been replaced by a product that both emulates and eviscerates video game’s tropes, all while being an effective RPG in its own right. South Park: The Stick of Truth was good enough to at least get me paying attention to South Park again, even if just to know some of the references that I’m no longer “hip” with.
I picked up Astebreed about the same time I picked up another SHMUP I wanted to play, Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION. I was actually a little more excited about the latter game, as I’m a bit more familiar with bullet hell shooters. Astebreed was a bit of an afterthought until I started to play it for a Gaming Bus stream.
It wasn’t my most entertaining stream ever, and oddly, it’s the game’s fault. It’s hard to be funny or witty when totally immersed in a game, which is what Astebreed did to me.
I still couldn’t tell anyone about what the game is about – something about twin girls, and a standard anime archetype protagonist saving the world, standard fare for anyone who got into anime with Evangelion – mainly because the story was flying by me as I played. It didn’t help me understand much – hard to when “not dying” is the number one item on the docket – but it added to the game’s immersive atmosphere, which was helped by this being arguably the best combination of various shooting mechanics I’ve seen in one game. A combination of a standard shooter, Panzer Dragoon-like auto-targeting, melee fighting just for the hell of it, and a combo system that ties everything together into the health of the hero, Astebreed sewed many different games together and left it so most people couldn’t even see the stitches.
The Shantae series was, for a long time, a bit of an underground series; the few who played the original Game Boy Colour game knew it was a gem, but other than that, it went largely unknown. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was later released for the 3DS, but also fell under the radar a bit. WayForward, knowing their cult following and taking full advantage of the digital era, is out to make sure the series is no longer under the radar, with Half-Genie Hero in the pipeline and the Pirate’s Curse being released in October.
Risky’s Revenge isn’t on this list because it does something new and exciting; that’s not WayForward’s way. All the game does is take an existing template in a well-established genre and further perfect it. Everything that made Shantae great – the level and puzzle design, the inch-perfect platforming, the brilliant characterization – is back for the third go-around. Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is an outstanding platformer, by a company that does it better than anyone else at the moment.
I know what a lot of people are thinking: “awesome. Another crappy game that tries to sell me my memories from the mid-80s”. Anyone who dismissed Another Star out-of-hand on that line of thought – and I’ve seen the sales numbers, a lot of people did just that – missed a legitimately good game by any stretch. Developed on a single tilesheet, Vision Riders managed to fit in a 20+ hour game with all of the things that made the games we did grow up with wonderful. Even with such primitive graphics, I got a sense of wonder and joy from simply exploring the world, and was more excited to find easter eggs in this tiny game than I was to find anything in Grand Theft Auto V, the largest and grandest game world I’ve seen outside of an MMO.
While Another Star wasn’t a complete representation of the era – the flexible difficulty is definitely a concession to the modern era – it has many successes that go beyond any decade. The characters suck the player in and never let them go, the story is well told and arguably paints a better picture with text than many larger games paint with pictures, and the soundtrack is amazing. Regardless of my relationship with the developer, Another Star is the definition of a hidden gem, and I will scream to the mountaintops to ensure that more people notice it.
Last year, Ni no Kuni made my top 10 at #5, largely for the sense of childlike wonder the game filled me with. Child of Light, despite not having the same credentials coming in, largely accomplished the same goals. A buoyant story with a fairy-tale like atmosphere and some solid RPG mechanics, Child of Light was a pleasant surprise coming out of Montreal. Even the game’s sad moments – in a game born from the story of a girl who can’t escape what she believes is a nightmare – have a pleasant vibe to them, like the part of a children’s story where the bad guy shows up but it’s assumed that everything will be alright in the end.
Child of Light runs well, looks beautiful, and is very well written. Even the standard Ubisoft issues – hello, UPlay – are minimal on the console versions. Ubisoft catches a lot of flack for many of the stupid AAA tricks they tend to pull, and a lot of that is deserved; The Crew, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Tetris Ultimate were slammed, and rightly so. But when they give their developers space to run, the results can often be magnificent, as is the case with both Ubisoft games on our list this year.
I noted with Another Star that there’s a cottage industry of people who grew up in my era re-selling my games back to me purely on a nostalgic factor. Some games do this well, some do it poorly, but in the end, games rarely make a major dent. That’s not the case with Shovel Knight, which dug into our collective conscious forcefully.
Get it!? Dug!? SHOVEL!?!? HAHAHAHAHAhaha… ha… screw you, I’m rusty.
Shovel Knight is a case of a team of professionals getting together and making a game with a goal in mind, and doing it with a set vision. That vision – a game that would have been a classic on the NES – was nailed. Shovel Knight is what would happen if Super Mario Bros. 2 and DuckTales had a baby. It looks, plays and sounds like an all-time classic that I would have grown up with, and while it might look and sound a little too good – there are a few instances of places that would exhibit flicker if they were tried on an actual NES, and the sound is too good – and might be a bit cheap with the difficulty (one aspect of the older games that has largely died off in evolution, thankfully), it’s a fantastic game with a lot of replay to be had for anyone both young and old. Old guys like me can play Shovel Knight and get misty eyed over Ninja Gaiden and Zelda II, whereas kids today can simply play one of the best games of 2014.
Square Enix has been under pressure for years to create another Final Fantasy like the ones we grew up with. It’s never quite made clear just which ones – I remember a time when Final Fantasy IX was the “retro themed” game – just to keep reinventing the wheel. Personally, I think it was gutsy, what the company did with Final Fantasy XII and XIII, even if I didn’t quite enjoy the end products as much. Sometimes, they would fail nobly, such as with Final Fantasy Dimensions for cell phones. Other times, they would fail dishonourably, with titles such as Final Fantasy: All The Bravest shamefully selling off all that good will.
Finally, with Bravely Default – itself a spiritual successor to a spiritual successor in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light – Square Enix got it right. They made a game that had the right “feel” of what we grew up with, and with it, had the best RPG in a strong year for the genre.
Bravely Default is a veritable checklist of things we love about the older games. Strong characters: check. Expansive world and dungeons: check. The Motherfucking Job System™: check. Bravely Default is a perfection of the older games, with some new wrinkles – the crowd-sourced town development and attacks – thrown in. It’s the perfect evolution of what can be a staid style of game if not given proper attention, and leaves the bar very high for future titles. Maybe it won’t replace Final Fantasy VI, but it can surely supplement it.
Before going further, let’s review my previous Games of the Year, some of which predate Gaming Bus:
2007: Football Manager 2008
2008: NHL ’094
2009: NHL ’10
2010: NBA 2K115
2013: Fire Emblem: Awakening
Now, the third ever Gaming Bus Game of the Year, and the first “indie” game to ever win my Game of the Year award…
Typically, games of the year do something that the player hasn’t seen before. Skyrim gave us the most expansive world we’ve ever laid eyes on. Portal redefined first person shooting to include puzzles. Dishonored integrated the morality system beautifully. By that line, Freedom Planet didn’t do anything to warrant mention with those heavyweights. Not only did it not introduce anything genuinely new, it reveled in its retro glory, wearing it like a badge of honour.
Freedom Planet is not the Game of the Year because it introduced anything new, it’s the Game of the Year because it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and was my favourite game of 2014.
The easy comparison when looking at Freedom Planet is to Sonic. Many people dismissed the game out of hand because of the skin-deep similarities to the classic Sonic games of the 90s. Playing the game, however, shows that the better comparison is probably to Rocket Knight Adventures, though in reality it’s an anagram of most of the popular “mascot” platformers of the 90s. Each character seems inspired by a famous company from the 90s; Lilac is the closest thing to a “Sonic” character, while Carol takes inspiration from Chun Li and other Capcom characters and Milla plays the closest to a Nintendo character. Great care was taken made to fully voice out the cutscenes in the game, with many of the voice actors being very good despite the lack of any really big names. The soundtrack is also the year’s best, with independent chiptune artist Leila Wilson masterfully setting a tone to each stage that also makes great listening outside of the game.
The stages themselves are inspired, going beyond the standard Sonic tropes with some incredible battles, among them a ship-to-ship boss fight, all dragged along by a story with a bit of political intrigue but a lot of cuteness. I can’t understate how fun the interactions between the four main characters can get, with the sprite-based graphics telling the story better than polygons ever could. Everything in this game comes together beautifully, culminating in a well-developed title with a perfect difficulty curve and a genuine feeling of sheer joy while playing through it. Yes, it’s a little bit short, but would someone turn their noses up at a five-star plate simply because the portions are a little small?
Freedom Planet is what would happen if Sonic Team made a Sega Saturn game in 2014. In fact, if this was released for the Saturn, as is, we would regard it as one of the best games of all time, a model for all future mascot platformers. Even more amazing is the fact that this would have been a thirty person job when the Saturn was around; today, it’s possible with a third of that, with one man doing the majority of the work. This is Galaxy Trail’s first release as an indie developer, and they scored an all-time classic. Take a bow, Stephen DiDuro.
A trend on my game of the year list is easy to notice. Retro, retro, retro themed, retro… this was basically the year where I decided that instead of getting into anything new, I was instead going to pretend I was fourteen all over again. From a purely gaming perspective, 2014 was a transitional year, with the major consoles still getting the bugs worked out of them. This was a fantastic year for the indies to make a strong showing, and they delivered. While the flood of amazing indie games is sure to dissipate at some point – it’s getting harder and harder to stand out among an ever growing crowd – until then, we can just sit back and bask in their glory. The 80s and 90s were a long time ago, but their games were timeless, as their modern evolutions showed.
1 – Destiny is the dictionary picture version of a AAA game in 2014. It’s very pretty, and has a robust online presence, but there’s just no reason to go back other than the atmosphere. It’s a good atmosphere, mind, but there’s a part of me that wants them to flesh out the story a lot more. Destiny felt like a MMO in a sense, where what passes as a story is just something that passes players off from quest to quest under flimsy pretenses.
2 – The only game that came close was MLB ’14: The Show, and the only thing that game really did was not screw up what made it awesome in years past. Though in reality, the sports game I played the most was NHL ’14. NCAA’s dead, Madden is Madden, Live sucks, NBA 2K isn’t what it used to be, NHL ’15 should never have been sold, Pro Evolution ’15 was a juggernaut of goals,
3 – Obligatory disclosure: The developer of this game, Dale Johnson, has been a personal friend of mine since 2005, when we were both big names in the Fire Emblem community. That means I’ve watched Another Star’s development with varying degrees of attention since it was conceptualized. Former Gaming Bus staffer Crystal Steltenpohl is listed in the game’s credits for her testing efforts. For the “ethics” crowd: all it really means is that we tend to like the same type of games. That’s why Another Star stands out to me, but other games developed by friends of mine tend to fall off the wayside.
4 – WOOF. I got that one 100% wrong. NHL ’09 was a piece of crap. ’10 was much better, though. In fact, screw it: my retroactive 2009 Game of the Year is now Space Invaders: Extreme. If George Lucas can retcon, so can I, damnit.
5 – It’s important to note just where I stood at Diehard GameFAN: a lot of my choices had at least something to do with the fact that I was their only sports guy, and therefore, other than Mohamed occasionally picking a football title or maybe Guy picking NHL, I was the only prayer a sports game had of being mentioned. That weighed into my mindset a lot more than I think it should have in retrospect.
6 – Looking back in hindsight, I can’t see any other game but Skyrim coming out here, to the point where I’ll just retcon that in, too. Skyrim, Skyward Sword, and Dungeons of Dredmor, in that order. Boom.