Every December, instead of searching for a group consensus, Gameological looks back at the year in games through individual perspectives. These are the staffers’ personal takes on a few games that have stuck in their minds for whatever reason—big or small—and does not represent any sort of institutional expression. These are simply the Games We Liked.
And as with every year, you’re all invited to write your own mini-retrospectives in the comments. Just follow the rubric we’ve laid out here—set up your rationale in the first sentence and go from there. (It’s fine if your picks overlap with ours, because you’ll probably have a different specific reason for digging a game.) We’ll collect some of our favorite Games You Liked in a special edition of Keyboard Geniuses on December 30.
In today’s installment of Games We Liked 2014—the first of two—Anthony John Agnello, Sam Barsanti, Matt Gerardi, Joe Keiser, Patrick Lee, Calum Marsh, and Jake Muncy share their picks.
Anthony John Agnello
The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
I liked The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter because it took detective work seriously. Every step you take in Red Creek Valley as detective Paul Prospero, hunting for the missing kid Ethan Carter, must be deliberate and patient lest you step over some vital clue. From the start you can walk over almost every inch of the game’s crackling autumn woodland, from its stark bridges to its Twin Peaks-ready river power plant, but idly walking through won’t ever lead you to Carter. So you have to take it slowly, and the game never explicitly tells you to, beyond an initial warning that things are deliberately confusing. This is, after all, a mystery.
And once you start piecing together those clues, the eureka moments are downright bananas. To explain them in detail would betray the game’s intent, but it’s fair to say that The Astronauts gleefully take advantage of video games’ limitations when it comes to scale, setting, and imaginative reach—which is to say, they understand that there are almost zero limits. Carter can be a bummer of Lars Von Trier-film proportions, but don’t let that frighten you away from actually doing some good hard detecting.
I liked OlliOlli because it made me wince with pain. The first time I tumbled down a staircase in Roll7’s unassuming skateboarding game, crashing on each step like loose change on a marble floor, I felt every ridiculous impact. You can almost hear the little pixel skaters watching from the finish line shouting, “Oh, you got fucked up, man.”
OlliOlli lands its punches because it’s so smartly made. Roll7 keeps it simple: Skate from left to right; spend as little time on the ground as possible; grind on every surface you can whether it’s a railing or the blade of a helicopter. One button lets you build speed and nail landings; one analog stick rotates in all kinds of crazy ways and initiates your tricks. With just that, though, Roll7 creates an instant, seamless connection with what’s happening on screen, paving the way for mastery of Olli’s more subtle maneuvers. Even when you get good, though, there might come a time where the killer soundtrack or bright art pose a distraction, your skater wipes out hard, and that voice in your head goes, “Ooh damn.”
Super Smash Bros. For 3DS and Wii U
I liked Super Smash Bros. For 3DS and Wii U because they are so generous. Nintendo is like everyone’s great aunt who happens to be a good cook. “Look at you! You’re nothing but skin and bones. Sit down right now and let me make you something. What do you want? More characters? You want to make your own stages? Auntie Smash Bros. will make you something, baby.” Then when you insist you couldn’t possibly eat another bite, it fixes you another plate.
What’s surprising about these two new entries into the 15-year-old series is their largess. There was no need to make them so different. Indeed, it would have been more efficient and profitable to just make them identical except for their differing graphical styles. Instead, the Wii U expands Smash Bros.’ scale in brilliant ways with new stages accommodating up to eight fighters, while the 3DS provides ample single player. Just when it seems like every nook and cranny has been mined, one more option in its labyrinth of menus pops up. None of it feels cheap or rushed, and it’s all right there in the package, no need to buy some downloadable extra. Oh Auntie Smash, you spoil us.
I liked Alien: Isolation because it’s the first game I’ve ever played that made me involuntarily beg for mercy out loud. “Oh dear god, please no don’t!” I instinctually yelled that so loud in the privacy of my own home that my wife walked into the living room and announced I couldn’t come to bed until I’d consumed some other media so as to prevent xenomorph nightmares.
That’s not to say that Isolation is a perfect game. It kind of sucks. It builds a brilliant head of steam for 10 straight hours, climaxes with a barrage of noise and fury, then ruins everything by plodding on for another seven hours of tedious nonsense. But the back-half does nothing to diminish the success of the first hours. During the period of the game where you’re trying to avoid this monster, it really does feel like you’re Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s old movie. Even better, Alien isn’t a one trick pony. When you get a new weapon a third of the way through the game, suddenly you have the tools to manage the beast. Keeping that resource stocked just transforms the high. Is it flawed? Deeply, but it’s still unlike anything else.
Angry Birds Transformers
I liked Angry Birds Transformers because it didn’t take the easy way out. There have been a handful of licensed Angry Birds games before this one, but they’ve all been the same original game with a different coat of paint. Even if you can swing a lightsaber, you’re still just using a slingshot to launch birds at pigs. The developers at Rovio could’ve done the exact same thing this time, and I still would’ve liked it because I love Transformers, but they didn’t. They made Angry Birds Transformers into a side-scrolling shooter.
You play as a bird/pig dressed as a famous Transformer—some from the old cartoon, some from the Michael Bay movies—and as the character runs across the screen, you tap on enemy pigs to blow them up or destroy the poorly built structures they’re hiding in. The pigs fight back, though, so when a situation gets hairy you can transform into a vehicle and try to scoot past obstacles. Each character has a different weapon and plays a bit differently, and it’s all solid enough to avoid some of the randomness that often plagues Angry Birds games. Plus, as far as I can tell, everything can be accomplished without having to pay a single penny, provided you don’t mind waiting around a bit. Oh, and the game features a soundtrack from Vince DiCola, who scored the 1986 Transformers movie, and it’s super rad.
I liked Titanfall because it had the nerve to make an impact in the world of first-person shooters. Way back in 2007, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed that genre forever, and when Activision fired the guys who created it for getting a bit too big for their britches, they went off and formed their own studio. It would’ve been safe to assume that their first game would be Call Of Duty with a different name, but Titanfall is much more than that. The mobility of your character alone made it a different beast, since it’s easy to chain parkour moves and double-jumps together in a way that lets players get around the map in a fraction of the time it would take on foot.
Titanfall is as hectic and brutal as using a robot to punch another robot so hard that it breaks open, then ripping out the pilot and throwing him into the air—which is a thing you can do in Titanfall. Maybe I should’ve led with that? Either way, it’s certainly not a coincidence that the latest Call Of Duty features robot suits and double-jumps. Titanfall isn’t the revolutionary advancement that Modern Warfare was (its “campaign” is a joke, for instance), but it refreshed the formula in a way that hasn’t been accomplished since.
I liked Sunset Overdrive because it rewarded my hyperactivity. I’m the kind of person who’s always fidgeting—shaking my legs, unknowingly breaking into a self-indulgent tabletop drum solo with my fingers. I’m acutely aware of the fact that it’s not the easiest trait to put up with (sorry, Teti), and so I try my hardest to stifle it. It’s nice, then, when a game indulges my need to be constantly wiggling my digits.
Sunset Overdrive’s setting, Sunset City is carefully constructed to facilitate perpetual motion. Another power line to grind on or wall to run along is always within reach, and once your character gains the ability to dash through the air, there’s no end to the forward momentum. Maintaining that speed and motion is hardly automatic, though. It requires an endless stream of button presses. Chaining all your maneuvers together and stylishly zig-zagging across the skyline is immensely satisfying in and of itself and engaging enough to overcome the mountain of tedious chores the game throws your way. The more you bounce around, the more your combo meter fills, fueling the superpowers necessary to survive the city’s hordes of homicidal mutants. It doesn’t just tolerate my tics; it rewards them. I appreciate that.
I liked Lethal League because every match is a heavy dose of uncut tension. The ingredient with the strongest presence among its weird hodgepodge of ideas is the same kind of ever-building, unpredictable pressure that makes hot potato such a harrowing childhood game. Every time a player smashes the deadly community baseball (one blow from it and you’re toast), they increase its speed, and with each successive shift in gears, the tension in the match thickens. Eventually, the ball is cutting across the screen at what feels like light speed. The only player who can safely sit back and watch is whoever smacked the ball last. They’re immune to its rampage. For everyone else, it’s hit or be hit.
Without much of a choice, you venture into the ball’s trajectory, wracked with panic. If you time your swing right, the game comes to a halt for a second as your character connects and musters up the strength to redirect this speeding bullet. In that second, lightning crashes and color drains from the world around you. It feels like it lasts forever. The valve is turned, the panic released and transferred to everyone else. Or you swing and miss, and the ball runs you over. That moment of glorious release is worth the risk, though—along with the look on your friends’ faces when they realize the pressure’s now on them.
I liked Nidhogg because it’s a competitive game that understands the value of a good boss fight. Every time I’m closing in on a Nidhogg victory, just feet away from crossing the goal line at the end of my opponent’s final screen, two words pop into my head (and sometimes out of my mouth): “final boss.” For my faceless fencing rival, it’s a do-or-die opportunity to end my momentum and start pushing back into my territory. But for me, it’s the final hurdle in my sprint toward a dignified end, offering myself up to a giant worm.
This “final boss” moment is the most pointed, dramatic confrontation of every match, but in truth, Nidhogg feels like nothing but boss battles. Not the kind of David versus Goliath encounters that make up Shadow Of The Colossus, another “nothing but the boss fights” game. These are stripped down, one-on-one showdowns between equals—two players testing their skill and cunning. Landing a blow on your opponent (which turns them into a shower of neon-colored blood) is only a temporary respite. You’ve got a few seconds to continue your push into their territory while they’re out of the picture. But they’ll always reappear, and that moment when they do, staring you down from the end of a hallway, is about as thrilling and cinematic as it gets.
I liked Never Alone because it tied my actions to a culture I knew little about. Based on the oral tradition of the Iñupiat, Never Alone does more than build a world of ancient stories to crawl about in. It also goes out of its way to explain what the details of those stories are, and the roles they played in society. Some of the tales were spun to explain natural phenomena, like the Blizzard Man. But others emphasized the importance of co-dependence in a subsistence society or the dangers inherent in even the most beautiful aspects of the Alaskan wilderness.
Placing one little girl’s village-saving adventure into this context placed my actions into the continuum of Iñupiat tradition. When I know the thousands of years of back story about the dangers of the Manslayer, and understand how the story of the Manslayer probably saved countless lives throughout Iñupiat history, it makes the act of running from it more than just a clumsy rush from left to right. It turned it into an active experience in a society most will never see firsthand. I’ll take that over a hundred inchoate takes on European dragons in any year.
Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball
I liked Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball because it turned paying for a game into an awesome game in itself. The people who sell us games have a lot of ways to do so, but most of them pick one of two dull options: either they charge us up front, like a toilet cleaner salesman would, or they give us the game for free and then badger us for constant tiny add-on payments, like some kind of desperate badger.
Leave it to Nintendo to find a third, and in this case, best way. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball integrates the badgering mini-payments into the game itself. Rusty is a sad sack of a cartoon dog: He’s balding, his wife has left him with puppies to feed, and his nose hair situation is out of control. He runs a store that sells great short-form riffs on baseball, which are paid for with actual currency. He’s in a bad enough place in his life that it’s easy to haggle him down to what feels like an excellent deal, and it’s great to watch Rusty put his life back together with whatever scraps he can get from you. Yep: Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball makes it more enjoyable to pay Nintendo than to get a game from Nintendo.
I liked Bayonetta 2 because no matter what it did, it went all the way with it—and then went even further. This wild, erotic action game, somehow released by Nintendo, took everything to the limit. It wanted to be colorful, so the whole game explodes with vibrant light—gory reds, stainless whites, blue (and other color) skies. It wanted to be sexy, so it takes Bayonetta and blows her past even the ridiculous body proportions of Barbie, then put her in the regal attire of Mario’s Princess Peach, except the dress is hiked up to her navel. It wanted to have amazing action scenes, so the game begins with Bayonetta battling angels on the back of a fighter jet. Nothing about Bayonetta 2 holds back.
It also wanted to be a peerless, joyous combat game, and so it is and then some. Bayonetta 2 is a precision instrument of destruction, my button presses feeling like a one-to-one match with everything she did on-screen. Most every enemy in Bayonetta 2’s enormous menagerie is different from the next, making them all essential. And then those enemies are grouped with alchemic care, so the short, punchy battles are always different and delightful. Bayonetta 2 believes that everything worth doing is worth doing excessively, and then doing a little bit more. It certainly makes a strong case for the argument.
Mario Kart 8
I liked Mario Kart 8 because it showcases Nintendo’s place as the master crafters of digital toys. Nintendo has had more and more cause to remind the world why children still love Mario, and why adults still covet its entire history of cultural artifacts. They did this over and over again in 2014, but Mario Kart 8 is perhaps the best reminder in recent memory that Nintendo at its best produces confidently crafted works of effervescent delight and experiences that are worth remembering from youth to adulthood.
There are few games I’ve enjoyed looking at more than Mario Kart 8, which stands in the face of technologically superior rivals as the most aesthetically pleasing game of my year. There are few games I’ve enjoyed listening to more than Mario Kart 8; its score is both silly and awe-inspiring. And the racing itself, which artfully balances skill-based play with a fighting chance for everyone, seems like it will generate the sort of friendly rivalries that will last a lifetime.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
I liked Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes because it was a complete Metal Gear experience in a bite-size package. Infiltrate a politically sensitive area crawling with guards. Sneak to your first objective. Improvise a solution to your second after an unforeseen change. Fight your way to an extraction point after your cover gets blown. Finally, watch a scene that combines conspiracy theories, melodrama, and dorky camp. In any other Metal Gear, this would play out over the course of 15 to 20 hours, but Ground Zeroes crams the entire formula into just one-tenth of that time.
As if that weren’t enough, Ground Zeroes improves on the existing game and adds to the formula as well. The sneaking and shooting are more responsive and thrilling than ever. Big Boss can now drive vehicles, and prisoners of war can be extracted by helicopter. (Fun quirk: The rescue chopper can play you music on your system. Mine extracts POWs while blasting Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears Of A Clown.”) Some people gave the game heat upon release for being too short, an overpriced demo for the upcoming The Phantom Pain. If you ask me, though, it’s all lean and no fat, and the best Metal Gear game in years besides.
The Walking Dead: Season Two
I liked The Walking Dead: Season Two because it’s the best version of The Walking Dead. Robert Kirkman’s brainchild is no longer just a comic or a television series. It’s a cultural and ratings juggernaut. For all its popularity, though, the rambling story of Rick Grimes and friends is often fails to inspire the dread and despair it aims for. Equally common provocations are rolled eyes, stifled laughter, and boredom.
When I play Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead, though, I’m only ever either choking back tears or gripping the controller with white-knuckle panic. Not only do I actually care about Clementine—the doe-eyed star of both game seasons—but her world is so much more dangerous than Rick’s. Characters in Telltale’s The Walking Dead are not invincible until the season finale. They are incapable of the laser-accurate headshots of their printed and televised equivalents. They exist in a world that is fraught with the tension and emotion that the comic and show only pretend to have. It’s been years since I cared about what happens to Rick Grimes, but worrying about Clementine actually keeps me up at night. That’s how The Walking Dead should feel, but only Telltale is pulling it off.
I liked P.T. because it reintroduced curiosity into gaming. The idea that a game could be announced amid this much mystery—in the middle of the night, without explanation or context, until one of the many thousands of people playing it simultaneously discovered its well-concealed conclusion—seems a relic of another generation. Ours is an anticipation culture. We’re accustomed to launch events and press conferences, five-second teasers and industry rumor. We hear of projects the moment pen touches ink: So-and-so has signed up to work on such-and-such, forthcoming Q1 2029. We’re not used to being taken by surprise.
But P.T. was a surprise—an astonishing one. It offered big news: Hideo Kojima working with Guillermo Del Toro and Norman Reedus on a Silent Hill reboot. (Can you imagine the film industry equivalent? It would be as if, without having heard the slightest mention online, you went to the movies and were greeted by a trailer for a new James Bond film directed by David Lynch.) And P.T. is more than a mere press release or tech demo. A main course it isn’t—more like a five-star amuse-bouche. It’s only one L-shaped hallway and a bathroom, true, and owing to its rather haphazardly emergent structure might be exhausted after only a few minutes. But it nevertheless remains the year’s most quietly exhilarating experience. Atmosphere has always been a strength of the Silent Hill series. Here, it’s palpable.
I liked Sportsfriends because it revitalized the party game. Allow me to forward a theory. Rock Band was, I fear, the last time gaming as a social experience could penetrate the popular imagination. Now, the plastic drums and primary-colored guitars are in the attic. The suburban family Wii collects dust. A half-dozen years later, the party game boom of 2007 looks like a fad.
But the point of the party game was to share an experience not only with other people, but with other people who may not know anything about games. Sportsfriends (which recently made the move PlayStation systems to Mac, Linux, and PC as well) understands that. It is a “casual game,” in the sense that it requires next to no familiarity with gaming trends and conventions to play it. And it is a social game, in that it is designed to be enjoyed in groups (indeed, it can’t be played alone), joking and laughing, perhaps over a few refreshments. But there’s nothing casual about its craft. This is an exquisite piece of work, beautifully conceived and meticulously realized. The result, if you gather four controllers and three friends, is an evening of inspired lunacy, as you hoot and scream and tumble over one another deliriously. It is, in other words, a rigorously designed vehicle for preposterous, manic fun.
I liked Towerfall Ascension because it recapitulates 30 years of video game history. Developer Matt Thorson has always been forthcoming about his influences. That makes the work easy to describe: It’s Super Smash Bros. meets Bushido Blade meets the original Mario Bros., with, in his own words, a bit of Goldeneye and Yoshi’s Island thrown in. But what makes Towerfall so appealing isn’t what it borrows and synthesizes so much as what it concentrates and refines. This isn’t a nostalgic reverie by someone obsessed with Smash Bros. to the point of imitation; no, if anything it’s a self-made corrective by someone who wanted more from the games he loved. Certainly we got used to a lot of slips and imprecision in our favorite multiplayer games over the years. Towerfall represents an effort to return to those games and shear away their flaws—to perfect them.
And what depth it has. This is a wild, uproarious game, and in the frenzy of a four-player match, with gravity shifting and lava rising, it can sometimes seem like madness. But it isn’t. Everything about Towerfall is exact, from the patterns of its enemies (which move and attack with chess-like regularity, making them difficult but always fair) to the precision of its controls (which are so tight that they can be not only grasped but mastered). This is a game made with the utmost care because it knows that people will play it carefully—obsessively, even.
Pix The Cat
I liked Pix The Cat because it made a puzzle game feel like a French disco. This isn’t quite a rhythm game, in the traditional sense. Your movements are predicated on the arrangement of the game board rather than the sound of the music’s constant chug and thump, and you don’t need the tap-tap precision of a timing-based game like Frequency or Patapon. Nevertheless, music is Pix The Cat’s lifeblood, and it courses through the puzzles with urgency and verve.
I like the idea that a game’s aesthetic can have virtually nothing to do with its core mechanics and yet in the moment feel inextricable from them. That’s how sound and image work here. The blissed-out neon vibrancy of the puzzle boards, the Day-Glo bounce of the eponymous cat, and, of course, that irresistible Daft Punk beat, winding around you faster and faster: They aren’t so much niceties or trimmings as the foundation of Pix The Cat’s appeal. Naturally, it helps that the mechanics themselves have been fine-tuned to excellence, and were the game adorned in any other way would no doubt merit praise. But Pix without its lights and beats would be like Lawrence Of Arabia on a smartphone screen or Shakespeare in stripped-down contemporary English: You’d be gouging out its very heart and soul.
I liked Destiny because I’m still playing it. Since its launch this September, I have logged at least a couple hours into Bungie’s shooter every week, which is unprecedented. These sorts of games tend to lose their luster when I realize how bad I am at them, and even when I love a game, I’ll rarely spend such a long time with it. Protracted, months-long experiences of a single play-through are a rarity, but Destiny has been just that, and I can’t put it down.
It’s also another game that casts you as a blank cypher shooting aliens in the face (on the moon! On Mars! In, uh, Russia!), but Bungie has been in the shooting aliens in the face business for decades. They know what they’re doing, and here, it all just feels so right, from the quiet slinky sound your guns make as you line up the sights to the way the zombie-moon-cult Hive monsters melt away like a pile of burning leaves when you line up a critical hit. The last shooter I played that felt so smooth and had such excellent feedback was, well, Halo. And while Destiny is a poor follow-up to that Bungie series in a lot of ways—story, difficulty curve, enemy variety—it provides a never-ending list of reasons to shoot aliens in the head. And that’s good enough for me.
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
I liked Kim Kardashian: Hollywood because it made me understand why people like casual games. I downloaded this mostly on a lark, spurred on in part by my undying love for Kanye West and a desire to understand what the kids these days were on about. I didn’t expect to be playing it for long, and I certainly didn’t expect to like it.
In Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, you play as Kim’s newest protege, eking out a life of fame and fortune through modeling, commercial appearances, and a whole slew of glamorous nightclub outings. It’s a bit silly, but it’s also addictive, requiring you to engage in tasks on timers, a conceit that encourages checking in over and over throughout the day (or to speed it up with real-life cash). It became a part of my routine, which made it a fun distraction and also deepened the role-playing elements, my celebrity wheeling and dealing (not to mention my burning, passionate rivalry with Paris Hilton doppelgänger Willow Pape) feeling like a part of the fabric of my real life. It’s easy to get snobbish about games like this, but I think I get it now. Casual games work on your schedule, something bigger games stubbornly refuse to do. They could take a few lessons.
Dark Souls II
I liked Dark Souls II because it had holes I couldn’t fill in. Like all the games in FromSoftware’s loosely connected Souls series, Dark Souls II is a game about the pain of loss and the desperate need for recovery. It’s a game where what’s absent is felt as deeply as what’s present, where every encounter carries the memory of the battles you’ve lost and the dropped souls you need to recover.
Dark Souls II takes you to the decayed kingdom of Drangleic and asks you to look for answers, to recover the story of what happened here and why you arrived when you did. It forces you to pore through item descriptions and boss mannerisms as you explore places no one alive has walked for—a few years? A few generations? That never becomes clear, and that ambiguity is what’s fascinating about Dark Souls II. The original Dark Souls’ Lordran was cryptic, but a clear story lied in wait for intrepid fans to piece together. Drangleic, though? I’m not sure. The lost kingdom’s inscrutability pushed me to play meticulously and obsessively, each greatsword swing a cut closer to figuring it out.