Gaming Bus’s Games of the Year for 2015!

Gaming Bus LIVES!!!

OK, “lives” might be relative. The DNS still works. The website loads. Our archives are there. But for how long it will live as a place that takes posts, I don’t know. I honestly debated writing this on this site if only because it’s seen two posts in the calendar year, and one was an obituary. I guess I do this out of sheer nostalgia: I haven’t not written a Game of the Year post since I’ve been a writer. I’m sure there was another reason I wanted to write this…

Oh. Right. 2015 was a freaking amazing year for games. That’s why.

Indie games were incredible. Mobile games were incredible. Even AAA games were largely inoffensive. What’s really happened is that developers are starting to get comfortable with the new console hardware, and PC gaming is as solid as ever, especially as we’re still able to game effectively on new AAA games with years-old hardware. The software – and never mind what they say about hardware, it’s always about the games – was impressive, both in quantity and quality. Narrowing down a top 10 was not easy, in the slightest.

Before going further, a run-down of my rules for my yearly posts, which have a couple of additions this year as we adjust to new ways of doing business.

1) These are for games released between December 1st, 2014 and November 30th, 2015.
2) These are my personal favourite games, for systems I own. No other metric went into this other than my personal enjoyment.
3) Games must be out of Early Access. If a game was released in full in this year, it qualifies for this year.
4) Ports don’t count. A game must have seen initial release in America in 2015.
5) NEW RULE: Major expansions of existing games count as games. Examples include Destiny: The Taken King and Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward.
6) NEW RULE: Free to play games only count for the year of their initial release. I.E.: Fallout Shelter counts, Path of Exile doesn’t.

Notably, this was the year I got a PlayStation 4 and a Wii U, meaning I was no longer behind on any non-Halo release.

With that out of the way, I’ll address some games that are conspicuous in their absence:

* Trails of Cold Steel and Xenoblade Chronicles X were released in December, and don’t qualify for this list. They qualify next year.
* The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC wasn’t considered because I am a completionist and the first game is a nightmare for that, so I’m getting there first.
* Bloodborne didn’t get considered because I haven’t played it yet.
* Metal Gear Solid V did not get considered because I barely played it, largely due to a messy divorce between Konami and I.
* I was gifted The Witcher on Boxing Day and I simply haven’t had time to get into it.

Next, is an award I’ve given out for years, called the Mount And Blade Good Bad Game Award. This is named in honour of the original Mount and Blade, which had great potential but wasn’t there yet. I liked it, but reviewed it poorly on DHGF. Thankfully, Warband, the sequel, turned out far better. Let’s hope the two games that “won” this year go the same way. That’s right: for the first time, we have a tie!

2009: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
2010: Record of Agarest War (360)

2011: Vacant
2012: Vacant
2013: Knights of Pen and Paper (iOS/Steam)
2014: Desert Golfing (iOS)

falloutshelter2015 (tie): Fallout Shelter (iOS) – Fallout Shelter is a typical freemium game in that it’s not free. They want you – need you – to buy lunch boxes to get any kind of “loot” worth keeping. But the funny part of this is that this game has a cap of how well you can do; once you get to 200 “dwellers”, you can’t have any more – “ValutTec regulations”, say the arbitrary rules, which is hilarious for a game set in the nuclear apocalypse – and if you get more, they wait impotently outside your vault. You have to basically kill off followers to get new ones.

That doesn’t mean the game is not addictive, mind. Training your dwellers, keeping stats up, all of that tickles the part of the brain that likes to achieve, that sees “level up” and smiles, knowing they’ve accomplished something, even if all that is is the need for another lunch box and the game’s punishing drain on my iPhone’s battery. I played this longer than I should have, and even started a second vault before I realized what the hell I was doing. As an ad for Fallout 4 and a time waster, it does the trick. But don’t expect typical Fallout quality.

fuckinghuniepop2015 (tie): HuniePop (PC) – Let’s get this out of the way: under any guise of humanity, HuniePop, as a product, is detestable. The game’s sheer lack of respect for females is galling. The characters are walking racist stereotypes with no individual personality; they’re there to be gawked at and masturbated to, and to suggest otherwise is to be laughed at by the game’s target audience. Even that part is underwhelming; the “porn” in the uncensored version of the game is weak. And the developer is a horrible human, supporting GamerGate in a weak attack on some cartoon villain version of “social justice warriors”.

But damned if there isn’t a good Match-3 game in there. A strangely strategic game that actually works, even if there are balance issues near the end, there’s a wealth of good ideas to be had in the actual gameplay portion of the game. It’s just a shame that you need a shower after actually playing it.

To finish that game’s analogy, we have one more round of foreplay: our Honourable Mention games. It took a lot of work to narrow this to five games:

Axiom Verge (PC/PS4) – I have a soft spot for Metroidvanias, which I share with just about every game developer, apparently; all of the best ones outside of Metroid and Castlevania are one-man jobs. Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge is no exception, managing to take an eight-bit aesthetic and add the oppressive atmosphere that made the original Metroid so wonderful.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence (PC/PS4) – It’s great to see Tecmo Koei ignore the boob jiggle physics of some of their other games for a second to bring this series back to prominence. Nobunaga has always played second fiddle to their Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, but this is a wonderful way to help people get more familiar with Japan’s Sengoku period.

Broforce (PC) – Sitting in consistent development for years, Broforce finally managed to break out this year, showcasing what everyone loves in the first place: a bunch of 80s heroes blowing shit up in the name of freedom and ‘Murica. Good, dumb fun.

Prune (iOS) – An addicting, hauntingly beautiful game about helping trees see the light of the sun. A bit esoteric, but gorgeous and soothing.

Downwell (iOS/PC) – Devolver does it again: Downwell is a brilliant game for short-bursts, preferably off the bottom of your feet. The only thing keeping this from the top 10 was the sheer quality ahead of it, and the phone version’s touch screen reliance.

Finally, the main event: Gaming Bus’s Top Ten Games of 2015!

Fallout_4_cover_art#10: Fallout 4
Systems: PlayStation 4, XBox One, Windows
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Original Release Date: November 10th, 2015

It says a lot about the Fallout brand, and the expectations surrounding it, that I feel the need to simultaneously explain why Fallout 4 rated so “low”, while at the same time making the theme of this entry one of disappointment.

Fallout 4 is a good game. It’s huge. There’s a lot of personality. The mechanics are well done. All of the bubbles that have to be filled in on the “good game” checklist are filled in.

But Fallout 4 is not a good Fallout game. All of the role-playing elements that made past games good have been boiled out, as if they were impurities. What’s left is just another AAA game meant to cater to the widest breadth of gamer possible. Gamers that thought Fallout 3 had too many of those pesky “choices” to make are fine with a game that has no real branching storyline except one, but it makes for a bland experience. Fallout 4 is vanilla. Very high quality vanilla, but vanilla nonetheless. For a franchise that made its mark on being moose track, that’s unsatisfying.

I like Fallout 4, but this game just made me appreciate Fallout 1 and New Vegas that much more.

her-story-script-01#9: Her Story
Systems: Windows, OS/X, iOS
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Original Release Date: June 24th, 2015

Her Story is not a “game” in the classic sense. It’s a visual novel with videos, but there’s no action to be had. But if there’s any consequence to the indie boom of the past few years, it’s that the whole concept of what a “video game” is has not changed so much as it’s expanded. Her Story is basically a search engine simulator to get a conclusion the author had in mind, but what makes it work is the story itself – at times wonky, but in other cases mind-blowing – and the acting work of debutant Viva Seifert.

Story based games are only as good as their story, and Her Story was almost impossible to put down. Immediately gripping, and finally enriching, Her Story is a tribute to a genre it will surely be seen as a bedrock example of.

yoshi#8: Yoshi’s Wooly World
System: Nintendo Wii U
Developer: Good-Feel
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: June 25, 2015

It’s apt that a developer called “Good-Feel” created this game, because that’s what Yoshi’s Wooly World was about: good feels. The whole yarn motiff worked out well with Kirby’s Epic Yarn on the Wii, so they put it on a system with a stronger engine, in the Yoshi’s Island world where it works just as well. We argue about measurable metrics such as gameplay and graphics and, as the science begins to be broken down better (and exposed more by another game on this list), how levels are constructed, but there’s no adequate way to enumerate and boil into a measurable just how happy and relaxed a game can make the player feel.

Yoshi’s Wooly World passes that test. It’s the only game on this list that my whole household enjoyed. It’s a game that others can play and enjoy, no matter if they’re experienced or relative newcomers. There’s a joy of exploration that made everyone smile as they found new things, and a way of implementing it that makes cooperative play a joy. Yoshi’s Wooly World deserves points for bringing non-gamers into the mix if nothing else.

nba2k16#7: NBA 2K16
Systems: XBox One, PlayStation 4, XBox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Original Release Date: September 29th, 2015

NBA 2K16 is arguably the greatest sports game ever. Both online and offline, it plays like a dream; no game outside of maybe MLB The Show approximates its sport as closely as this one. No other sports game can adequately show the difference between a superstar player and an average one. Its franchise mode is by far the best run mode in the genre. 2K16 is sublime.

The only thing keeping this – a sports game – from the top three is that 2K decided to break arguably its best mode, replacing the bog standard MyPlayer mode with a Spike Lee interactive movie that is mandatory, goes on for way too long, and is even less believable than Lee’s last overwrought basketball movie (He Got Game). It speaks well to just how solid NBA 2K16 is that their best mode can lay such an egg, yet the rest of the game is so good that it still makes the top 10 in a good year.

Dragon_Quest_Heroes_cover_art#6: Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below
Systems: PlayStation 3 (JP), PlayStation 4, Windows
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Square Enix
Original Release date: October 13th, 2015

The benefit of Dragon Quest is that its world is so well established that even all of the separate games exist in an overreaching canon that has been in place for thirty years now. While Final Fantasy has constantly reinvented itself, Dragon Quest has stayed remarkably consistent in its presentation.

Dragon Quest Heroes had the potential to be horrible, as does any game that take the Dynasty Warriors engine and shoehorn other elements in, but it works beautifully inside Dragon Quest’s established template, providing the same cathartic Dragon Quest gameplay fans have loved for years with all the comforts of such a venerable franchise, from the characters down to the music and sound effects. The addition of other popular characters from old Dragon Quest games was icing on the cake.

Dragon Quest Heroes has all the best elements of two franchises that fans love, with almost none of the annoyances. It’s a fantastically well made game that shows what SquareEnix is capable of when motivated.

Rocket_League_coverart#5: Rocket League
Systems: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, OS/X, Linux
Developer: Psyonix
Publisher: Psyonix
Original Release Date: July 7th, 2015

Whereas other sports games emulate existing sports and the performance of the athletes that play them, Rocket League does something completely different: it basically creates a new sport.

Oh, sure, the concept is simple, and I’m guessing its genesis happened over adult beverages one night where someone said “fuck it, let’s do football with cars!” That’s the kind of thing a 12 year old thinks up at recess. But then Psyonix added tight controls, a decent camera, and a novel scoring apporoach to the mix, and the result is an organized chaos that is simple to learn but takes a lot of skill to play right.

I see Rocket League becoming the new Team Fortress 2, where a simple game with an effective ruleset that future updates and a rabid fanbase cause to rise to a new level. That’s a double-edged sword – TF2 has since gone freemium and effectively ruined itself – but until that other shoe drops, Rocket League stands to be the game with the longest tail of all of the ones on this list.

Super_Mario_Maker_Artwork#4: Super Mario Maker
System: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EA&D
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: September 10th, 2015

Creating new Mario levels has never been a novel concept; ROM hacks have existed since emulation. But Nintendo, the same company that boiled a complex game like SimCity down for the masses in the Super Nintendo era, is the king of taking something that requires an involved skillset and giving laymen the ability to perform the task. Thus, we have Super Mario Maker, an open sandbox for Mario fans to create, share, and play levels.

The beauty of Super Mario Maker is that one doesn’t even have to be a talented level designer in order to get something amazing out of the package. The play modes that allow players to play random levels designed by other players is worth the purchase price in and of itself. But digging into the level creator is a wonderful way to stretch one’s creative muscles, whether it’s to see if they can make their own good Mario game, or to create chaos, giant Goombas and walls of fire as far as the eye can see.

It’s a testament to the game that the only problems are the ones Nintendo caused, such as the need for codes for individual levels and the limited upload slots. This is the perfect tool for Mario fans and has me wishing for a Zelda creator.

splatoon#3: Splatoon
System: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EA&D
Publisher: Nintendo
Original Release Date: May 28th, 2015

It’s a testament to how games are played online in 2016 that Splatoon – a game ostensibly designed with kids in mind – is the most mature shooter I’ve ever played, specifically because of the things it limits.

I’ll borrow the Team Fortress reference from my Rocket League writeup. Someone starting new at Team Fortress at this point is almost guaranteed to get their doors blown in. It goes beyond learning the weapons and the classes, and goes to learning all of the game’s inate quirks and unwritten rules. Splatoon democratizes that a bit, and in effect makes it so there’s more actual playing skill involved. By limiting the game to a few maps a day, players are forced to learn the new maps quickly.

But most important was the decision to remove voice chat. Serious players think they need voice chat in order to effectively communicate with their team; my experience through fifteen years of using voice chat is that it leads to either the team’s self-appointed superstar browbeating his teammates for poor performance, or simply being called names by a prepubescent. Taking away voice chat does two things: it means I can have an online experience free from the typical crap that turns me off to them, and adds a new skill to the mix: making it so that players have to pay attention to the map and read their teammates’ intentions from that. I prefer the spontanety to SOCOM-levels of coordination.

Lastly, Splatoon brought back the power of the support player. I am an average shooter; I was a decent sniper in my day in TF2, but beyond that, it’s not my milieu. But the rules of Splatoon – which make map coverage, not player-on-player action, the goal – means I can just take my paint roller and gain my team an early advantage. Splatoon is a wonderful game that is meant to include kids, but plays perfectly for adults.

ori#2: Ori and the Blind Forest
Systems: Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows
Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Original Release Date: March 11th, 2015

I will admit that I’m a sucker for atmospheric storytelling, especially if it looks pretty. I loved Limbo when it came out. Child of Light made my top 10 last year, and Valdis Story: Abyssal City made it the year prior. But while those games told a good story, none quite touched my soul the way Ori and the Blind Forest did.

Just the prologue is a heart-wrencher that rivals the beginning of the movie Up! in terms of making the person taking it in feel sad. It’s also a great setup for the rest of the game, which is a platformer that rewards exploriation while maintaining both a hopeful venier of recussitation and a punishing difficulty that counts the amount of times the player dies.

Death will come frequently. Ori is tough – not quite VVVVVV levels of punishment, but not far off – but set up in a way that never feels cheap. Success is rewarding while failure is a tool used to drive the player to greater heights. It’s wonderful platforming, and gorgeous to boot.

Ori and the Blind Forest is another in a line of games that continues to evolve the wheel that is the platform genre, rounding out the few rough edges left and polishing it to a shine.

Before the big prize, a look back at the past Games of the Year, per my list last year which included some retroactive changes:

2007: Football Manager 2008
2008: Space Invaders Extreme
2009: NHL ’10
2010: NBA 2K115
2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
2012: Dishonored
2013: Fire Emblem: Awakening
2014: Freedom Planet

Finally, the fourth ever Gaming Bus Game of the Year, which surprised me as much as anyone…

papyrusGAME OF THE YEAR: Undertale
System: Windows, OS/X
Developer: Toby Fox
Publisher: Toby Fox
Original Release Date: September 15th, 2015

My introduction to Undertale was through its retroactive hype. I’d heard it was good, just another in a line of one-man projects made with love, in a sea of similar projects. At first, I thought it would be no different than my #5 game of 2014, Another Star.

Then Undertale won the “Best Game Ever” GameFAQs 20th anniversary poll, taking out legendary games like Pokemon Red/Blue, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Mario 64 and former champion The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in the process. This actually had the effect of turning me off the game initially. The video game fanatic portion of the internet has a propensity, especially lately, of acting very stupid, and I figured the push for Undertale being the greatest game ever was the latest in a rash of instances where an organized mob decided to be counterculture solely for the purpose of being counterculture and watching people get upset. Basically, I dismissed Undertale because I strongly dislike being trolled by pimply-faced teenagers from Reddit.

I eventually played it after picking it up on a 20% off sale, and found that it was indeed a very good game, full of personality and spirit. I avoided spoilers as best I could, and found that it was a wonderful game that rewarded thinking outside the box. I spared enemies. I petted dogs. I dated a skeleton. Maybe it wasn’t quite the new Earthbound everyone said it was – Earthbound was, above all else, a classic-style RPG – but it was charming. I was prepared to put it in my top-10, and that would have been it.

Then I started to experiment on the second playthrough. That’s when I realized just what Undertale was.

Undertale is, at its core, a deconstruction of modern gaming tropes disguised in a game that happens to perfect what would normally be trite RPG battles. If it was a standard JRPG that used the “bullet hell” method of avoiding damage, that element would be a solid footnote to the package, something used in a bullet point to sell the product. But just about every step of Undertale is used to set up some kind of joke, or statement, or way to screw with a player’s normal perception of their game and its environment.

Giving specifics would spoil the effect of finding them, which is a high compliment to pay to the writing, but I’ll give one example. In one fight, you can’t really spare a particular enemy; you can try, but the enemy doesn’t say anything and continues to attack. Eventually, if you keep sparing the enemy, their defence drops a bit, but then they start repeating lines. That, in most games, is a cue that the player has exhausted all avenues and needs to do something else, but here, continuing on that path is the way to win the fight without killing the enemy, in a game where killing the enemy is something to be looked down upon.

There are so many ways the game changes the perception of what you’re supposed to do that it’s shocking to learn that Undertale is a one-man job, and barely a man at that. Toby Fox did most of Undertale himself, including the programming and design. This is the fruit of the indie generation; for every two-bit guy that wants to make the next big hit, this 24 year old – barely a man – managed to funnel his incredible imagination and vision into a solid product that continues to find ways to surprise even long after the game has been initially beaten. In the old days, Toby Fox would have been designing the graphics on Random Enemy 53 in some huge AAA EA game, if he was even in the games industry at all. Thanks to the democratization of the industry, he’s making award-winning video games.

Let’s get this out of the way: Underatle is not one of the top video games of all time. In terms of scale, it doesn’t match up to Ocarina of Time, whichever Final Fantasy one prefers, or any other timeless classic that has survived the times. It also cannot be ignored that those games created the tropes that Undertale plays off of. But in a fantastic year for the medium, Undertale stands out for being so full of soul, so full of spirit, and such a deviation from the random cash-ins that permeate Steam. Hats off to you, Toby Fox, you made the best game of 2015.

I was reading something from my old hangout recently, where many of the people who have been there for a decade bemoaned how bad 2015 was for games. In a way, I’m glad to be rid of such negativity, because anyone who can’t see what an awesome year this was for games of all makes, models, shapes and sizes is simply trying too hard to be counterculture. If you wanted retro games, they were there. If you wanted AAA games, they were there. Sports, puzzle, freemium to play on the bus, just about every kind of gamer imaginable had amazing things to do in 2015.

What a time to be into video games.

Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.