The last half of 2014 hasn’t been the most opportune time to be into videogames. If you pay the slightest bit of attention to game “culture”, then you don’t need me to remind you of how some people saw fit to flip over the dumpster where we keep all the stupid and send a wave of it washing down the street. The stain’s still there, and I dunno if we’ll ever get the smell out, but at least we’ve still got the games, right? Luckily, all those “triple-A” titles so many people were looking forward to delivered on their promi…
“Nightmarishly broken trainwrecks”, you say. “Crippled heaps of unplayable garbage”, you say. “To shreds”, you say. Well then. That… yeah, that sucks. But hey, look around. There may be a blight on the garden and we do have a pretty serious case of weeds, but there are still a few flowers coming up. See? There’s a blue one. And there’s a nice yellow one. And there… oh wait, that’s a mushroom. Wearing a backpack.
Though it was technically releaased at the end of 2013, Tearaway kicks off the list as one of the most brilliant games I played this year. So brilliant that I feel no remorse in having bought a Vita on a whim, even though I didn’t play much else on it. Not only do Media Molecule clearly know what they’re doing at this point, they’ve also pretty well developed their own voice that carries through across their IPs. Tearaway is a lovely example of that vibe, packing the same welcoming charm and hip, modern creativity present in the Little Big Planet series.
It made clever use of all the Vita’s hardware features without ever really feeling gimmicky, which can’t have been easy. It was also beautiful to look at, with its lovingly crafted papercraft world immediately becoming a place I loved to explore. But perhaps most impressive of all was how its characters, Iota and Atoi, were so lovable, in the way that makes you remember them as fondly as others who’ve been around many years longer. The warmth and charm of this game gets its hooks into you right from the start, and I can’t wait to play the next installment in the series. In the meantime, owning a Vita and not picking up Tearaway is a waste of a Vita.
I’m down with just about anything that provides me with more Midna, and Hyrule Warriors obliged in spectacular fashion. While I wasn’t a very big fan of Twilight Princess as a Zelda game in itself, I did love the design choices made in it, and I adored the dark visual theme of its world. Most of all Midna, who I think is such an incredibly awesome character that it’s an injustice not to bring her back in some manner once in a while. Having only casually dabbled in the Dynasty Warriors series once or twice, I can’t speak on how this game compares with its ilk, but I do know that it was a ton of fun in its own right.
Swinging the Master Sword into a lake of Stalfos and sending a spray of bones clattering in every direction is SO satisfying, and the game does a very good job of mixing up the challenges and objectives in such a way that it never stales. Each playable character feels unique enough to make you want to try them all, and leveling everybody up is properly rewarded. There’s also been a steady stream of DLC for this game, so if you dig it enough to keep playing for months and months to come, you’ll have plenty of incentive to do so. And no one could blame you, as it’s a fantastic bit of action and a very gratifying way to unwind.
It’s a bit difficult to describe Hohokum, but as its playable character snakes through its colorful worlds, it pulls along with it elements of games like Electroplankton, PixelJunk Eden, LocoRoco, and other unusual ventures some people might call “quirky”. I will not call it that because that’s a stupid word. But I will call it a lot of fun, and a very refreshing departure from most of the grit and gunfire you’ll find on the PS4. Hohokum is a welcome chance to just relax and screw around for a change in a videogame. No pressure, no necessary objective that must be completed upon penalty of death — just a chilled-out, pleasurable voyage for the eyes, ears and thumbs. If you have it on PS4, you can also download it for free to your Vita and play using a shared save file. If you own either system, Hohokum belongs on at least one of them. Bravo to Sony for keeping imaginative games like this one so well supported.
I have to admit, I’d never been deeply into this franchise before the 3DS release. I’m really a Capcom man when it comes to fighters, and I guess the quarter-circle systems are so cemented in my cerebellum that anything else feels unnatural. But I had of course played Smash in the past and had some fun, so this time around I decided to open up and let it in. I’m glad I did.
The amount of content stuffed into the Wii U version of the game is just staggering. If you had a few friends who were equally into it, you could play this all the way up until the next release without getting bored, and I hold replay value in very high regard. It’s fun seeing each character’s signature moves, and I love watching Nintendo flex its historical brawn with all the references to its own past. Leveling up Amiibos and collecting trophies offline, mixing it up and laughing with friends online, and all those extras make this game easy to enjoy. But you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?
We finally got a new Mario Kart in 2014, along with the first batch of DLC additions that have officially changed the face of Nintendo’s beloved chaos racer forever. Link? F-Zero? It would seem the whole driving on walls and ceilings thing wasn’t the only way in which MK8 has turned this franchise upside-down. Did I mention I love that about it? I am fully prepared for Mario Kart to become a racing version of Smash Bros., with an ever-widening roster of old friends from Nintendo’s rich history, ramming me off a ledge or passing by displaying whatever will be their equivalent of Luigi’s now-infamous death stare.
Give me Animal Crossing. Give me Mr. Game & Watch driving one of the cars from Oil Panic. Let me hear Pikachu’s (adorable) cries of anguish as a red shell ruins his afternoon. This opening of the gate came as a pretty big surprise, but simultaneously, I can’t believe they hadn’t already done it. Same goes for the replay functionality and online multiplayer, both of which had long been itching to be checked off my wish list. As for all the action, new items and courses in MK8, it’s been the best one since the N64 version, and a higher compliment than that, no man can give it.
Er, well, I suppose there is a higher compliment, but that goes to something else…
2014 Game of the Year
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
If this list had been for 2013, Super Mario 3D World might well have been in this spot. It was, by a pretty wide margin, the best Mario game I’ve played since Super Mario World on the SNES. It might also be the prettiest game this generation, and that gorgeous visual treatment has thankfully made it into its spinoff, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. I loved Captain Toad’s levels in 3D World so much that upon completing one, I almost looked forward to unlocking the next more than I did the main levels of the game. To say I was excited when it was announced there would be a full game made up of this stuff is putting it lightly.
When it finally arrived, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was everything I’d hoped it could be, plus a lot of fun new additions like the rail-shooter minecart levels, Mummy-Me chases and bonus stages. With no time limit, players are free to explore each diorama-like world at their own pace — one of my favorite things to do. This is further encouraged by the fact that everything in the game is Just. So. Pretty. The worlds are reminiscent of toys: LEGO playsets, smooth wooden blocks, shiny plastic buttons crying out to be pushed, velvety soft plush. You can look at any surface and know what it would feel like to touch it. And you want to touch it. You want to reach in and play with things. Even the Captain and Toadette themselves look like vinyl figures, and everything from their respective waddly walks to their adorable idle animations makes you love them more and more as you go on.
Stop for a moment on a ghost house level and your tracker will shiver with fright. Move a little too slowly with a Mummy-Me on your trail and they’ll exclaim their anxiety. There are so many finely polished little details in their behavior and mannerisms that the characters come right to life, and it wasn’t long before I thought of them as little friends. I really enjoyed being able to play as Toadette, who’s been my go-to Mario Kart favorite, and it’s about time we had the opportunity. Levels are distributed pretty evenly between the two characters, but I would have liked an option to choose between either one after finishing the game. Both were fun. I’ve always said that one of the most important things a developer can do in a game with playable characters is to make the characters playable. They should be fun to run around with no matter what you’re doing. Wind Waker got this very right, and Captain Toad does it just as well if not better. You could drop him or Toadette onto an empty white plane with no environment, and it would still be at least a little interesting and fun just to walk around being that character, watching how they behave.
Couple that with gorgeous, cleverly-designed, richly populated levels, and you have something magnificent that’s very hard to put down. Trekking through each little diorama is pure joy, and the whole of the environment cries out to be played with, poked, fussed over… interacted with. Satisfying your curiosity is always rewarded in some fashion — be it with coins, a hidden Luigi sprite, or even just something new to look at. When the next level is unlocked and presented to you it’s like looking upon a tower of candy and desserts. I never had the feeling that says “Ugh, look at this, this is gonna be tough.” Instead it was more along the lines of “Oh WOW, look what I get to do, let me in already.”
Maybe some AAA Rooty-Tooty-Hide-and-Shooty title makes somebody somewhere feel that way, but I doubt it. It’s too rare these days for a game to fill me with such unabashed joy. I’m hoping for lots of DLC, new challenges, and sequels. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker was an absolute delight, and I’m sure I will be replaying it over and over for some time to come, even though I’ve completed everything there is to do. Which is exactly how great videogames of my youth used to feel, and is what any game should aspire to. I’m proud to name it Game of the Year.