It's the end of the year and everyone is making GOTY lists. I decided to do something a bit different and talk about the best games I played this year without regard to when they came out. After all, most of the great games I played this year were from years before 2013, although I did play some great ones from this year as well. So you can expect much of this list to be a blast from the past.
The criteria for a game's inclusion on this list are that I have a) played it for the first time this year and either b) played it to completion or c) played it for at least five hours. For each game, I'm going to talk about how much I liked it as well as examining something that makes it great.
Honorable mentions that didn't quite make the list or didn't fit the criteria are Sleeping Dogs, Shantae, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Sleeping Dogs, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Electronic Super Joy, Thief: The Dark Project, Shadow Warrior (2013), Mirror's Edge, and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. It's obvious that 2013 was a great gaming year for me just from looking at the games that didn't make my top 10, but even more so from the ones that did.
10. Gunman Clive As the cheapest game on the 3DS eShop at $2, it's a bit ironic that Gunman Clive is one of the best downloadable games on the platform. Other than being short, it has everything going for it - it's affordable, it's mechanically sound, the level design is solid, and it has a distinctive and enjoyable sense of style. And a duck mode.
Unlike the other games on this list, which all have a distinctive element that I find worthy of mention, Gunman Clive earned its place on this list by just being incredibly solid in every way. I can't think of any real flaw in it. The length of the game might be a complaint if the price weren't $2, but the price is $2 and the game is plenty long enough to justify that price.
9. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 I had fairly high expectations for Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, and it met them exactly. It's very fun to play. The only real complaint I can muster about it is that it tries occasionally to do difficult platforming, but unlike its immediate predecessor Super Mario Land 2, Wario Land's mechanics are not well-suited for such challenges. There were a couple of times where I had to go back to a previous level and get the propeller cap just to make a particular jump. But those times were few and far between, and overall the game is very enjoyable.
What's great about Wario Land is that it takes the Mario Land formula in a new direction while keeping it fun. It eschews most of the frustration of difficult platforming, and isn't as challenging as its immediate predecessor, but is instead fun in the same way that Kirby games are fun. It understands fun to mess around and beat enemies in different ways and collect stuff.
8. Tomb Raider (2013) I've never played an Uncharted game because I don't have a PS3. Nor had I ever played a Tomb Raider game before this year because I didn't care. But I was alerted to the existence of this cross-platform Uncharted-style Tomb Raider reboot and somehow became interested in it, so I picked it up for 75% off during the Steam summer sale. I'm glad I did, because it surprisingly kept my interest until completion.
I don't actually know why the Uncharted-like parts of Tomb Raider kept my interest. But I do understand why the optional tombs were good - they were all interesting puzzles that displayed a solid understanding of level design and utilized the game's mechanics to their fullest potential. It's a rare treat to see a "cinematic" AAA game that actually understands its own mechanics and uses them in interesting ways.
7. Shadow Warrior (1997) I was never really into first-person shooters before this year. Sure, I played a decent amount of Left 4 Dead 2 because it's fun with friends, and mildly enjoyed bits of some retro shooters like Quake, but I'd never been really into a first person shooter until I played the original Shadow Warrior this year. It's a shame that today's "social climate" or whatever makes everyone mention the racist humor when talking about this game, because the gameplay is more deserving of mention.
What makes Shadow Warrior great is the level design. It's been described as mazelike, but that's only part of it. Doom and Quake had mazelike level design - everything in those games' levels had the same limited color palette, so it was easy to get lost like you would in a maze. Shadow Warrior, on the other hand, has creative and memorable visual design and a great deal of visual variety to complement the competent map design.
6. Dust: An Elysian Tail I had actually never heard of this game until the Steam summer sale this year, at which point I bought it at 50% off. I'm glad I did. It's unbelievable that Dust was mostly made by one person - it feels like a game made by a small studio of extremely talented and hard-working people.
Dust is a mechanically solid Metroidvania brawler, but the visuals are what really separate it from other games like it. If this were a list of the best-looking games I played in 2013, Dust would be #1. I don't usually get carried away with the graphics of games, but I can't get over how gorgeous Dust looks. The visuals legitimately contribute a great deal to the overall experience of the game - something that I wouldn't say about many games.
5. Pokémon Y A few years ago, I bought a game called Pokémon White Version. As a lifelong fan of the series, I was very disappointed because it was rather uninspired and didn't improve on the mechanics of the fourth generation in any interesting way. Because of that experience, I was a bit skeptical of X and Y until I finally picked up a copy of Y earlier this month. I knew that my skepticism was wrong as soon as I started the game. Unlike White, Y has heart - possibly more so than any Pokémon game since Red and Blue. And it truly feels like a new generation of Pokémon that makes the previous games feel dated by comparison for the first time since Ruby and Sapphire.
There are lots of things I could say about what makes Y better than its predecessors, but the one I'm going to talk about is how fun it is to move around. The roller blades and the bicycle are both inexplicably fun to use. After years of four-directional movement in Pokémon games, having full 360 degree movement with the Circle Pad is incredibly satisfying and never gets old.
4. Dishonored Stealth games were never really my thing. But this game and Thief: The Dark Project (which isn't on this list because I'm not remotely close to finishing it) have sold me on first-person stealth. My one playthrough of Dishonored was low chaos, and I loved it.
Part of what makes Dishonored great is that it ignores modern game design trends that don't fit, something that all games should do but many don't. It has no quick time events. It doesn't have shoehorned in RPG elements, either - just a very natural upgrade system that you can use if you go out of your way to collect runes. And most importantly, it shows a strong attention to detail in its level designs, something that seems all but lost in the world of "AAA" games.
3. Jet Set Radio I finally played Jet Set Radio this year. I didn't expect too much from it, having gotten it for $5, but I was pleasantly surprised. By which I mean that it's now my most played game on Steam with about 50 hours of play time. It could be argued that the gameplay of this game hasn't aged well, but I found that I could keep a smile on my face even when the occasional physics or control frustration happened. Some such problems are averted anyway in this version because the HD port lets the camera be controlled by the right analog stick, but the biggest thing that Jet Set Radio has going for it is its sense of style.
The charm of Jet Set Radio's cel-shaded graphics and cheesy J-pop soundtrack can only have increased over time, and is helped by the lack of personality in many games since. It's just so likable. It's a rare case where the presentation of a game is great enough to cover for occasional gameplay deficiencies.
2. The World Ends with You The World Ends with You ruined my Christmas this year. I got Super Mario 3D Land and A Link Between Worlds for Christmas, but couldn't enjoy either of them on Christmas Day because they were not this game. For that matter, I kept forgetting it was even Christmas because The World Ends with You was better than Christmas. Saying that this game is the second best game I played this year doesn't do justice to how much I love it. It's more descriptive to say that it's the third best game I've played this decade after Cave Story and the #1 game on this list. Or that it's probably in the top 10 games I've ever played. Or that it has joined Custom Robo Arena and the Pokémon games as my favorite games for a portable console.
I bought it expecting a good time sink for upcoming time as a passenger on a long car trip. But few games have ever sucked me into their worlds as much as The World Ends with You had by the end of its first third. When I wasn't playing it, I was either thinking or dreaming about it, depending on whether I was asleep at the time.
The World Ends with You seems to take some clear influence from Jet Set Radio, and it's for the better. It doesn't quite have Jet Set Radio's level of style, but it still has a lot of it. Both games have distinctive J-pop soundtracks and a sort of rebellious punk attitude as well, not to mention the obvious Shibuya connection. But what distinguishes #2 from #3 is that TWEWY is able to take itself seriously and deliver a surprisingly engaging plot with well-developed characters within its world, and doesn't have to cover for gameplay deficiencies.
One thing I love about The World Ends with You's story is how it subtly subverts so many common tropes. One of the focal points is the relationship between a male character and a female character of the same age, but it doesn't try to include a love story. And even when Neku has to save Shiki, the game avoids the typical "damsel in distress" trope - it's not even remotely her fault or a sign of weakness on her part, nor is she sitting somewhere waiting to be rescued. And although the events of the game do eventually start to affect all of Shibuya, the story is never about saving the world, and it never factors into the main character's motivation. Perhaps because of how it plays with expectations, the plot of the game is rather unpredictable - I never felt like I knew what was coming. All of this was very surprising and refreshing to me, and deserves to be praised.
The gameplay is another aspect of The World Ends with You that deserves praise. It takes full advantage of the capabilities of the DS. People might say that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons invented one-player co-op, but they're wrong, because this game did it first. The frantic nature of controlling two things at once constantly gives any player room to improve and gives the battle system a great deal of depth.
Oh, and the music is great. I'm listening to it right now, in fact.
Now I'll stop going on about how great The World Ends with You is so I can get to #1...
1. Metroid Prime Yes, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I didn't play Metroid Prime until this year. This was mostly because I'd played a bit of Metroid Prime 3 a few years before and didn't get far because I was rather bad at it. But I'm glad I decided to give the series a second chance, and I'm glad I decided to start from the first game.
It's hard to describe what about Metroid Prime is great, because the entire game is made of greatness. So I'll talk about the level design. The world of Tallon IV is colorful and diverse. Each area is distinctive and memorable. By the end of the game, I knew my way around Tallon IV. I had familiarized myself with the layout of a fictional video game world like I would a real place. That is immersion.
Now that I think about it, I could state that more boldly: Metroid Prime is great because it's not afraid of backtracking. The backtracking in Metroid Prime is what let me familiarize myself with the game and immerse myself in it. It's what makes the difference between Tallon IV and something like Bioshock Infinite's Columbia, which felt more like a guided tour through a collection of pretty sights than a real place where people lived. Metroid Prime really is unique in how the primary focus is on exploring the world and discovering everything subtly hidden in it, rather than being forced to see everything that the developers prepared. The freedom and presentation style give the game an immense deal of depth, and makes it a real treat to explore and scan everything to learn about your surroundings, making the game's world your own.
Overall, 2013 was a great gaming year for me - probably the best I've ever had. I hope you enjoyed watching me gush over a bunch of old and new games as if I weren't hopelessly behind the times.
I picked up a 3DS XL on Black Friday this year, and upon looking through the eShop, I found myself attracted to the Virtual Console section. I soon purchased Super Mario Land 2 on sale, and then the original Shantae at its full price of $5. But I noticed one glaring omission: there are no Game Boy Advance games to be seen. In investigating why this is, I couldn't find a straight answer anywhere, so I put together the pieces of the puzzle myself. I thought I would share what I found.
It's common knowledge that Nintendo gave several GBA games for free to 3DS early adopters as part of its "3DS Ambassadors" program, and stated that they had no plans to release them on the eShop. Many people since have lamented this decision and wondered why this is. Nintendo never made an official response, but there's enough information to figure out why.
People who received the GBA games from the Ambassadors program have noted that the games don't go into sleep mode when the console is closed, and don't have save states or the other nice features that are available for Game Boy and Game Boy Color games on the 3DS. Wait, that sounds familiar. What other device played GBA games without support for sleep mode or save states?
The 3DS has native backwards compatibility with the DS, which is achieved not by emulation but by hardware compatibility, the same way that Nintendo always does it: the 3DS's two processors are compatible on an instruction set level with the DS's two processors. Likewise, the DS achieved hardware compatibility with the GBA by having one of its two processors have the exact same ARM7TDMI architecture as the GBA's. See what's happening here? The 3DS essentially has a Game Boy Advance inside of it even though it doesn't have a GBA cartridge slot. Those games from the Ambassadors program are missing the standard Virtual Console emulator features because they're not being emulated at all!
This leads us to the main problem: Nintendo hasn't developed an emulator for the Game Boy Advance. If you're like me, you might think of the Game Boy Player add-on for the GameCube, but it turns out that the Game Boy Player also had the hardware of a Game Boy Advance inside of it and didn't use software emulation. And although the native hardware solution for GBA on 3DS might suffice for games that Nintendo gives away for free, it doesn't meet their quality standards for products that they actually sell.
This will probably change in the future. Nintendo announced earlier this year that Game Boy Advance games will eventually be coming to Virtual Console on Wii U, presumably since they're struggling to sell that console while the 3DS is doing fine. It seems likely that the emulator they are developing will eventually find its way to 3DS as well, so I wouldn't be surprised if Nintendo announces it in the next year or two.
Hi, Plombo the software developer here. I share a brain, body, and Dtoid account with Plombo the gamer, who you might know from a couple of previous blog posts here. I'm considering writing a series of posts in which I do my best to explain the challenges, issues, and non-issues of cross-platform game development to gamers who aren't programmers.
First, though, I should introduce myself and my background. In my free time, I'm a developer on a 2D game engine called OpenBOR, which was originally made for a beat 'em up for DOS called Beats of Rage which was released in 2003. The engine has expanded greatly since then, and can now be used for most genres of 2D sprite games with some effort. More importantly, though, OpenBOR is very cross-platform. In addition to Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android, it has ports for the Wii, PSP, and Dreamcast via unofficial "homebrew" SDKs. I also contribute to software projects other than OpenBOR as well as some personal projects, but that's less important because none of those are cross-platform game engines. I plan on going into the commercial software industry once I finish my degree in computer science, although probably not the game industry because jobs there are hard to come by as I understand it.
Anyway, there are few things more widely misunderstood in the gaming community than platform differences and the difficulties of cross-platform development. Since gamers are always heavily divided between platforms, the platforms that a particular game is available on is perpetually a hot topic for discussion. Problem is, most of the people who care are gamers who aren't programmers of any kind and have only vague, nebulous ideas of what is involved in cross-platform development and the porting process.
The world of "gaming journalism" does little to make this better. Most game journalists probably don't have a much better idea than consumers, anyway, because the game industry is obsessed with secrecy. Ideally, a developer who works or worked at a major studio would write in depth about this, and people could read it and be informed. However, to my knowledge, this hasn't happened. The secrecy and NDAs of the game industry are possibly responsible for this as well.
I'd like to do what I can to rectify the issue. Recently, I had the idea of writing a series of blog posts to explain porting and cross-platform development to interested non-programmers, drawing on my technical knowledge of games and consoles, and my experience with OpenBOR in particular. Although OpenBOR is less complex than your average commercial game engine, it faces many of the same development challenges and roadblocks that commercial cross-platform games do, and I'm at least familiar with many of the problems that it doesn't face. I also enjoy the challenge of explaining technical concepts to non-technical people, especially gamers. All things considered, I think I'm fairly well qualified to write about the subject.
Perhaps I've rambled a bit, but the reason I'm writing this post right now isn't to complain about gamers' ignorance or to brag about how knowledgeable I am. It's to ask you, the readers of the cblogs, a question: if I were to write this series, would you want to read it? I'd be happy to do so if there's interest, but it will take a lot of work. If it turns out that no one actually cares, I'd rather not spend the time researching and writing all of it. So please comment and give me some feedback like "sure, I'd love to read that" or "no, that sounds boring" or "did you really write an entire blog post about how you might write more blog posts in the future?".
It bugs me when people who voice their preference for past generations of video games are accused of being simply nostalgic, of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, of only remembering the good games from past generations and forgetting the bad. Perhaps that really is the case for some people. But looking back at the seventh generation of video games, I think there is a legitimate case to be made that previous generations were superior to it. At the very least, there's been a marked shift in the behavior and output of the "AAA" game industry this generation, and I don't mean trends like achievements or DLC.
I've played a number of this year's new games, from critically acclaimed AAA blockbusters like Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider to indie games like Electronic Super Joy. But two games I played for the first time this year made a much stronger impression on me than any of the others: Metroid Prime and Jet Set Radio.
I'm not saying that good games aren't made anymore, or anything similarly ludicrous. What I am saying, though, is that neither of the two sixth generation games I mentioned could have been made in the seventh generation, and that shows what gaming has lost amidst the improved graphics and controls that the seventh generation has brought.
Metroid Prime was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful game at the time of its release, and remains very popular and well-liked to this day. That makes it hard to appreciate how incredibly risky it was for Nintendo.
At the time development started on Metroid Prime, the last released Metroid game was Super Metroid in 1994. An entire console generation had passed without a Metroid game, and Nintendo could easily have left the series to die like countless other series that didn't make a transition to 3D. Instead, they gave the task - and budget - of turning Metroid into a AAA game in 3D to a completely new, unproven studio called Retro.
Even more significantly, Metroid Prime didn't fit neatly into any existing genre, meaning that it had no proven audience other than people who played the original Metroid games. It looked enough like a first-person shooter to repel fans of the previous games and players who don't enjoy shooters (one of the reasons I didn't play it until this year), but was different enough from one to not attract the shooter audience. It heavily incorporated first-person platforming, a mechanic notorious for not working well in any other game that tried it. And it was completely free of any spoken dialog, instead relying on the player to discover the world of Tallon IV by taking the time to constantly scan the surroundings and piece together the narrative. Given all that, the idea of Metroid Prime was such an absurd proposition that it's amazing it exists at all.
Such a high-budget, risky, genre-defying game would never have been made this generation. How many major big-budget titles have there been this generation that defy existing genre classification in such a way? The only one I can think of is Mirror's Edge.
The other game I played this year that left an impression on me was Jet Set Radio. I got its PC port for $5 during the Steam summer sale mostly out of curiosity, but ended up playing 46 hours of it to date. Unlike Metroid Prime, Jet Set Radio is a game that arguably hasn't stood the test of time especially well. Its physics and controls in particular are awkward and unwieldy by modern standards. Yet even through the inevitable frustrations it provides, I couldn't stop playing the game and thoroughly enjoying it. I attribute this to two things: it doesn't fit into a predefined genre, and it's absolutely dripping with a unique personality and charm. I already discussed the former with Metroid Prime. The latter is related, and is something else we don't see much of these days.
What stands out the most about Jet Set Radio is its style. Its cel-shaded art style remains distinctive even though other games have adopted the technique since its release, and the soundtrack is still phenomenal. Everything about the game has a cheesy, ridiculous, but unique and likable flair to it. For that matter, the entire game concept of "non-violent cartoon gangsters on inline skates paint the town with graffiti while running from over-the-top police brutality set to a catchy J-pop soundtrack" sounds like something conceived on LSD, and not something that would be actually made and marketed by a major publisher. There's nothing like it.
Of course, there have definitely been some games in the seventh generation that have a distinctive style associated with them. No More Heroes, Alice: Madness Returns, and Ninja Theory's entire catalog all spring to mind. But none of those games were hugely successful from a commercial standpoint. And even most of the games in that list stick to well-established gameplay formulas, relying on their art direction, setting, and storytelling to establish their uniqueness. The only one that incorporates unique gameplay mechanics to fit with its style, like Jet Set Radio does, is the low-budget and low-profile cult classic No More Heroes.
My point is this: during the seventh generation, large publishers have become averse to taking risks on uniqueness and innovative gameplay. Perhaps it's because the increasing cost of producing games and the demand for impressive graphics in every major release have made the associated risk too great. Whatever the cause, major releases from mainstream publishers have become stale because of the lack of new ideas and new genres. This generation has seen the rise of indie games that aren't afraid of new and risky ideas, but which don't have the access to large budgets and publicity needed to fully take the place of games like Metroid Prime and Jet Set Radio. Money is no longer in the same places as innovation and uniqueness, and that's why I think gaming has taken more steps back than forward this generation.
They just don't make games like they used to, and that's a bad thing. Really.
One of the most important decisions made by a console manufacturer in the last console generation was Microsoft's choice to make the wired version of the Xbox 360 controller work out of the box with Windows, and to introduce the XInput API to Windows so developers could make games that integrated with the controller as fully on Windows as on the Xbox 360 itself. Even the headset connection jack and the ring indicating the player number are fully supported for games on Windows.
This gamble paid off in spades for Microsoft, as over the last generation, the Xbox 360 controller has become an essential accessory for PC gaming. Most of the games that come out with controller support on Steam these days can be played without having to touch the keyboard or mouse after launching the game - everything can be done with the Xbox 360 controller, just like on the console itself, and the input prompts in games assume you're using it and not any other controller. This has happened thanks to XInput, which has replaced DirectInput as the universal standard way to implement controller support in games on Windows.
The status of the Xbox 360 controller as the universally accepted PC gaming controller as well as a console controller does merit one question: what will happen when Microsoft stops selling the Xbox 360? The natural successor would be the controller from one of the next-generation consoles. Much has been made of Sony's DualShock 4 controller supporting "basic functions" on PC from launch, while the Xbox One controller has only a vague promise of PC support sometime in 2014. That makes the DualShock 4 the first choice to take the Xbox 360 controller's place, right?
Not so fast. A reasonable interpretation of Sony's statement that the DualShock 4 supports "basic functions" on PC would be that it only supports the functionality supported by the Xbox 360 controller, so features like the touchpad and light bar won't work. But what it actually means, as it turns out, is that in addition to those things not being supported, the DualShock 4 doesn't support XInput.
That's a big deal. Remember earlier when I said that XInput is now the standard way to implement controller support in PC games? That's right, the DualShock 4 does not work out of the box with the vast majority of modern PC games. You have to use a third-party program called x360ce which makes your controller pretend to be an Xbox 360 controller for it to work. There are third-party controllers for PC that are XInput compatible and thus work out of the box, but Sony didn't put in the work for the DualShock 4 to be one of them.
Even when using x360ce, the problem remains that only the bare-bones controller functionality is supported. The audio jack and the light bar still won't work without actual driver support from Sony. As I noted at the beginning of this post, the equivalent features of the Xbox 360 controller are supported under Windows, and it's safe to assume that the same will apply for the Xbox One controller whenever Microsoft gets around to implementing Windows support for it.
Sony had a chance to get an early foothold among PC gamers with the DualShock 4, but missed it with a half-baked implementation. The official word is that "in regards to DUALSHOCK 4 supporting full compatibility for playing PC games, there are no details to share at this time." With the Xbox One and Steam controllers on the horizon, they need to come up with some details to share before long if they want the DualShock 4 to be taken seriously by PC gamers. We'll be waiting.