I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
Bosses are cheap. They tower above your itty-bitty character, just as likely to kill you with a fatal boot stomping as they are likely to erase you with the BFG-GodMode2000 hanging off their arm. They use insane attacks, crazy bullet-hell stuff, turning the screen into a latticework of nasty-nasty-death-murder. They have a legion of flunkies at their disposal, ready and willing to throw their lives away in a human wave attack just to dull your sword or waste your ammo. They've got the dungeon all rigged up with traps, hazards, and bondage straps – just for you of course. Bosses are cheap as hell.
Except when they're not.
You don't see them too often, but there are some bosses out there who don't need all the pageantry and special gimmicks to make you squeal. There are are few pure badasses out there who can take you on at your own level and beat you. These guys aren't huge, they don't have an arsenal of overpowered fusion cannons, they have abilities and attacks comparable to you. Basically they play by the same rules - they're just better.
Who doesn't love a good clean fight? These bosses are almost always the most memorable and special. I've come across a few, but here are some of my favourites.
Dark Souls does boss fights right. They're practically the highlight of the game. Epic face-offs against insanely imaginative beasts, demons, and fallen Gods. Blatantly unfair pitched battles that will see you standing against everything from an insane dragon suffering a birth defect, to the infamous duo of Executioner Smough and Dragon Slayer Ornstien - a pair of gold-plated knobs who will doubleteam you until you rip the disk out of the system and bite it clean in half out of frustration.
Wait, what do you mean nobody else did that?
And because From Software is really good at what they do, they don't try to outdo themselves. Instead of going over the top for the final confrontation, they go under. They practically limbo into the final showdown with Gwyn.
The ultimate challenge you face in Dark Souls isn't some massive dragon or raging demon. He's a vaguely sad old man. Granted, he's a burly goddamn old man with a fuck-huge flaming sword who will wreck you in the beat of a hummingbird's wings, but still, a sad old man. You fight him in the sandy ashes of his once great hall while haunting piano music plinks away in the background. It's understated, refined, classy.
Gywn doesn't exactly mirror the player character's abilities, but it's close. He's approximately the same size as the player, fights with a conventional - if impressive - weapon, and has kind of exaggerated versions of the player's core attacks. More interestingly though are his weaknesses, those are what truly define him and make him unique. Gywn is the only true boss character who can be parried and stabbed with a devastating riposte, an automatic critical hit that will bring him do his knees. It's a fascinating design choice that I can't help but suspect was done intentionally.
More than just an interesting quirk for the final boss fight of the game, Gwyn's similarities to the player character are also thematically appropriate. I won't get into spoilers, but it makes sense for Gwyn to fight and behave much closer to an idealized version of the player than any other boss. It's an amazing example of using game mechanics to subtlety weave a narrative thread.
Those From Software folks, mighty damn clever.
Dante spends most of Devil May Cry 3 getting noogied by his much cooler older brother.
Dude, I can relate.
In my mind, Vergil is the Ur-example of getting picked on by someone you're own size. While DMC3 is infamously difficult and features some of the most bowel clenchingly nasty bosses this side of the river Styx, Vergil manages to outgun them all – and he does it by meeting you at your own level.
Vergil and Dante are brothers so it's only fitting they fight with similar, but individually distinct, styles. They have quite a few overlapping talents (the quick teleport "trick step", double jumping, a dive kick while using the Beowulf boots, etc) that make fights between the two really look like a pair of bickering brothers trying to one-up each other.
"Nuh-huh, I can do it better!" *impales brother with a 7 foot katana blade while blowing a raspberry*
But they also do things different. While both share a love of sharp pointy things, Vergil is just too classy to use something as crude as the over the top handcannons Dante adores. Instead, he has a few ghostly summoning swords to stab at people from a distance. Gameplay wise they are functionally identical – an annoying but low damage long range attack – but people are defined by their differences, and it's the little touches that really sell the sibling rivalry.
Vergil behaves so much like Dante that you can actually play as him in a New Game Plus mode in DMC3. It's pretty crazy at first, but eventually it feels as natural as playing as Dante. In the DmC reboot, there's an entire DLC pack where you play as Vergil. Granted, he wears a silly bowler hat in that game that makes him look like an MRA, but for the most part he's actually pretty alright.
At least when he's not being a genocidal butt-muncher.
Ace Combat 4 ends with this crazy assault against an elaborate underground fortress. You have to fly perilously inside of the massive facility to strike at it's very heart. It's protected by an anti-air superiority laser array, and the crazed remnants of Eurasia's most hardline military personnel. Zealots who rejected their orders to stand-down, instead, seizing control of the doomsday weapon their country secretly built, hoping to destroy a world they couldn't conqueror.
What played out, over-embellished, videogame tripe.
The real climax of Ace Combat 4 is when you finally splash Yellow 13.
AC4 is a beautifully made game. While all the action takes place in the burning skies of the modern battlefield, the story is told through the perspective of a child in your occupied homeland. You see the real cost of war as far removed from your high flying glory as could be. You also meet Yellow 13, the famed ace pilot of the Eurasian forces, and your narrator's unlikely friend.
In between missions, you see how your direct actions wear upon Yellow squad and the country you're trying to liberate. You see their hesitation, their discomfort with their mission but conflicting commitment to duty. You see the pain you inflict when you blow members of Yellow squad out of the sky. The story framing all leads to an inevitable showdown with your rival ace, Yellow 13.
Unlike other games, Yellow 13 doesn't fly some kind of anime super jet. He doesn't have any special ability, no Macross-style missile barrages, or physics defying jets. He's simply an extremely talented pilot in a standard issue Su-37. When you meet him (especially on the higher difficulties) it becomes a wonderful, if deadly, dance in the sky. Ace against ace. By far the most satisfying encounter of the game (maybe even the series)
And because of the way the story is framed, by the time you shoot down Yellow 13, you'll know and care more about him than your own player character.
It's actually kind of a huge bummer.
Ok, forget that. Let's talk about a different rival ace pilots we can actually feel GOOD about sending to a fiery, high-altitude grave.
(you have no idea how hard it was to find a picture of these dudes that wasn't weird porn)
Man, fuck Star Wolf.
What a fine collection of airborne pricks. Star Wolf is the rival squad to the Star Fox team in the classic N64 title. A group of jerkwards led by the perpetually cocky Wolf O'Donnell, you end up fighting them a bunch of times, pitting Arwing fighter against Wolfen attack-ship.
Wolf is always on your back. He laughs at your inferior piloting skills, constantly makes below-the-belt jokes about Fox's dead dad, and mocks the team for keeping Slippy on the roster.
(Well, he may have a point about hanging out with Slippy...)
Anyway, these guys are knobs. Defeating Andross is supposed to be the highlight of the game, but there is just no way that beating a giant, floating, space-chimp is going to be as satisfying as turning Wolf and his buddies into fucked up piles of burning wreckage.
You're a douche Wolf, and you can't hang with Yellow 13 in dogfight Valhalla.
After sneaking past the entire Soviet army, eating two of every animal on God's green earth, and somehow killing a dude made of bees, it's understandable that you might get a healthy heaping of haughty big-headedness by the end of Metal Gear Solid 3.
The Boss is more than happy to lance that swollen ego and watch it ooze out in puss and sadness.
Straight up, the Boss is a badass. She can do everything Snake can do. Camouflaged concealment? Check. Stealth assassination? Check? Close quarter combat techniques that will shatter your humerus like you dropped grandma's tea set? You better believe that's a check. And just try to get cute and smack her with the butt of your AK-47, she'll rip it out of your hands, break it down into little pieces, and then do the same to your jaw.
The Boss is by far the most dangerous opponent you meet in the game. Considering you also manage to destroy a 152 ton screw-propelled nuclear tank from the back of a motorcycle, that's saying something.
She's Snake's mentor, mother-figure, and kind of creepy crush. The headmistress of Murder School who only took a break from slaughtering Nazis in WWII to give birth in the middle of a battlefield. It's no wonder she can cuff Snake (Mr. Big Boss himself) around the ears like a disobedient puppy.
More than just the standard "end of a Metal Gear fistfight", The Boss flips the script. Her word is law in the jungle, and Snake goes from apex-predator to bottom-feeding prey at her whim. After playing the part of the sneaky assassin the whole game, it's incredibly alarming the first time The Boss gets the drop on you. When you lose sight of her in the bushes and try to poke around with that doofy directional microphone to find her, only to have The Boss yank you out of first person view, knock your head around like a soccer ball, and tell you just how disappointed she is with you. You're totally outclassed by this woman and you know it.
I would love to see a side-game in the series where you play as The Boss. Maybe a prequel that shows her and her Cobra unit's exploits during WWII. Tell me the title Metal Gear: Joy doesn't send a shiver up your spine.
It's a weird thing to say, but I love getting picked on by someone my own size. As much as I enjoy tackling huge monsters and blatantly unfair mis-matches, there is something so uniquely satisfying about fighting someone on the same level. It elevates the battle from yet another mere boss fight to a duel.
A duel where I might still get my arm broken in 17 places, but a duel nonetheless.
Honourable Mentions -
Protoman – Another Cain and Able story, this time with a sweet ass whistle theme.
Shadow Link – The real monster is YOU.
Jeanne – Rival Witch to Bayonetta, probably the only other person alive who could pull off those heels.
Fake Trevor, Sypha, and Grant – Castlevania SOTN has you face off against three former Castlevania characters in the coliseum. It's not fun being on the other end of the whip.
For a few years now game developer Paul Barnett has been speaking about his theory of a gamer's "golden age". This is the period of time in a gamer's life when they are THE MOST into games. When they are living and breathing videogames, just sucking them up and digesting them like one of those horrendously ugly fish you toss in the aquarium to keep the tank clean. This is when they will discover what they love about games, and what they hate about them, and they will generally carry those prejudices with them for as long as they give a shit about videogames.
The golden age usually occurs early in life (when you have an embarrassment of free time to pump into games), and is driven by two things, both largely out of the individual gamer's control - A) the era of videogame design they were living in. B) What they had access to. These two factors will pretty much cement your thoughts about videogames, whether you believe it or not.
When I first heard this theory I thought it was, A) completely obvious and potentially reductive, and B) 100% true.
As much as I would like to claim that I'm some kind of gaming aficionado who is able to appreciate videogames from any time or place, I know that's complete bullshit. I had a very specific golden age - between 1989 and 1995, I played just about every single NES, SNES, and Genesis game that was released in North America. I was a walking encyclopedia of game knowledge. The local rental shops knew me by name. I was subscribed to no less than three monthly gaming magazines, and I would still sneak a read other ones at the local grocery. Even though I've played games my entire life and continue to do so, I still harbour a vague and nagging sensation that the "best" era of videogame design is behind us already. Paul nailed me to a T.
Paul is a British guy who was born in the 70's, and his personal golden age is completely alien to me. He grew up in a time before the Nintendo made it big and in a place where a bizarre machine like the Spectrum 48K was the platform of choice. I can look at the games he played and appreciate them as quaint oddities, smugly considering just how far we've come since those prehistoric days. But to him, those Spectrum games are sacred, they've been the guiding light of his entire career, he's been trying to recapture the thrill and magic he felt playing things back then.
I have a "little" cousin that somehow over the past 15 years morphed from an adorable tyke into an awkward, gangly teenager. And now he won't shut the fuck up about the Nintendo 64. Anytime I see him and the conversation turns to videogames (which it does in a matter of seconds upon meeting because it's the only meaningful shared experience we can relate to), he waxes on about how games like Mario 64, Goldeneye, and Turok were the real deal. Granted, those are fine games (except for fucking Turok, I mean, what the hell?), but I can't conceive of them as anything other than a bunch of games from a weird system I played between hanging up my SNES and eventually caving in and buying a Playstation. The N64 was fun and I certainly enjoyed the games I played on it, but I can't venerate it. It's not sacred. It's not golden.
From my cousin's perspective though, my passion for late NES and early 16-bit generation games must seem as archaic and bizarre as Paul's obsession with his Spectrum and ancient Amiga games does to me. No matter who you are, games didn't get good until you started playing them.
But I am more fortunate than Paul or my cousin. My golden age is back again.
I know intellectually that games have actually gotten better over time, not worse. I may cling to my NES golden days, but in reality, the industry has never been better. Not just in terms of raw technical power (which is a deeply boring way to evaluate games), but in ways that really matter. The astounding variety of games out there, the myriad of tastes and desires they can accommodate. The sophistication of both gameplay and story telling in the better titles released in the last decade, games that are actually capable of communicating an emotional message (this includes indie darlings like Gone Home, and big action titles like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite). Games are fundamentally better in 2014 than they were in 1991. My brain KNOWS that this is true.
But try telling that to my heart.
In the storied history of Zelda games, Zelda II: The Adventures of Link is largely considered a bust. It's not an embarrassment like the god-awful CD-i games, but it certainly isn't a celebrated part of the Zelda legacy. If anything, those CD-i games get off light, they're so obscure and alien to the rest of the franchise that they don't feel like "real" Zelda games. Nobody, not even the most diehard anti-Nintendo zealot, seriously holds them against the series.
There is a grim lesson to be learned here – if you're going to fail, make sure you fail spectacularly.
Zelda II on the other hand is generally reviled. Hear the words "Zelda II", and you can expect to hear the phrase "black sheep", or "disappointment" shortly thereafter. It is most charitably described as a failed experiment. A somewhat baffling departure from the formula before the series established (and in my opinion, became a slave to) its tropes. A game that tried too hard to be radically different and failed to measure up because of it.
But I will never be convinced of this. Zelda II hit me at the absolute zenith of my personal golden age. Eight years old, monomanically obsessed with videogames, and always, ALWAYS, hungry for more. More adventure, more challenge, more mystery. I've written about it before, but Zelda II became the entire focus of my gaming passion for a period of time, I was transfixed by it. Zelda II, by it's own virtues and the convenient happenstance of when I played it, became my absolute favourite game, and has more or less held that position since. It cemented itself in my mind and became the de facto high-water mark I'd measure games against for (presumably) the rest of my life.
Obviously, this wasn't the case for everyone.
Despite my gold-tinted glasses, Zelda II did indeed have its share of flaws. The difficulty oscillated between a legitimate test-of-skills, and unfair, frustrating "gotcha" traps and gimmicks. The latter half of the game features dungeons absolutely filthy with invisible pit-falls and serpentine mazes that are almost impossible to navigate without the use of a guide. The end boss is nigh-unbeatable without resorting to an exploit. And there are some famously embarrassing glitches and mistakes ("I AM ERROR" stands out). These are all pretty big problems.
My honest estimation of Zelda II is that it is a tragically underrated game. The scope of its imagination, its mastery of 8-bit pixel animation, and its incomparable soundtrack (perhaps the best score ever burned to an NES cartridge) are all forgotten because the game was A) Too hard. B) Too different. This is what is most frustrating to me, Zelda II has legitimate flaws to criticize, but they aren't the reason most people didn't like the game.
Whatever the reasoning, the sad fact is that as much as I love Zelda II, most people will never connect with it as the transcendent experience I remember it being. To other people, Zelda II was full of sloppy game design from a bygone era they are eager to leave fossilizing in the past. But my heart will never let go of the ideal image I have of it. To me, the qualities that made Zelda II what it was are the qualities I deliberately seek out in games.
This leaves me in somewhat of an awkward position. My golden age game is rife with all kinds of shit that nobody wants anything to do with anymore.
So thank Christ for Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is not a "retro game". You don't buy it from XBLA. It didn't need to run a Steam Greenlight campaign. It doesn't feature adorable throwback pixel-art graphics. But in all the important ways, Dark Souls is essentially the modern incarnation of Zelda II.
(It's also praised as one of the best games ever made. Not saying I was always right about Zelda II and everyone else was wrong, but...)
I've written about this before so I won't labour the point, but in a lot of ways, Dark Souls takes everything I enjoyed about Zelda II and brings those qualities forward into a new age, even the flaws. Maybe especially the flaws.
They are both deeply uncaring games. They give the player vague goals (ring the bells, put crystals in the seven temples) and set them loose into an incredibly dangerous world with no guidance. In both games, it is up to the player to find the right direction to set out from the opening area. The stat screens on both are utter nonsense until you understand them, which only comes from repeat trial and error (emphasis on the error). And they both feature enemies who will instantly decimate you until you learn how to deal with them. Whether you can't get past the Ironknuckles guarding the basement of Zelda II's first temple, or are getting humiliated by the Lizard Men of Sen's Fortress, it's the same challenge.
And the same sense of mastery.
Both games pay out over the long haul. If you stick with them and figure out the odd idiosyncrasies, they are a pair of the most rewarding games you can ever play. Maybe when you strip everything else away, that is what I've always been looking for from games. A mountain to climb.
Dark Souls is a game that came by it's old school sensibilities naturally. I don't think the folks at From Software specifically sought out to make a game that would appeal to people like me – they just made something they wanted to play themselves. It's a product of two individual factors – 1) that all the young kids that grew up in the 80's and 90's are now the grown up game designers of the 2010's. 2) that the industry has never been as massively vast and varied as it is now.
The boys and girls who grew up in the same general era, and embraced the same sensibilities as me are all grown up now. They're the super talented, highly educated, hyper impassioned current generation of game designers. While not every single one of those people are necessarily working to recreate the games of our shared youth, there are enough that take inspiration from them to bleed through. There are also enough studios, platforms, genres and distribution systems out there now to allow for such a wide variety of games that there are bound to be some made that appeal to the values that made my golden age what it was to me.
We've got games like Dark Souls to satiate the starving adventure nuts like me. After more than a decade of sleepy dormancy, the fighting game genre kicked back to life in the past few years. The resurrection spearheaded by Street Fighter 4, a game that directly aspired to play to the genres roots. SFIV plays more like SFII than it does the Alpha series, anime airdashers, or anything else. For the people that grew up on the PC we've got stuff like XCOM: Enemy Unknown coming out specifically tailored to get away from what has been popular for the past few years and back to what fans of the genre loved in the 90's.
That's just the stuff coming out that appeals to my golden age by accident. There is an entire sub industry out there right now that's specifically designed to pluck those old heart strings. Indie games that either seek to recreate that old experience, or to draw upon it and expand on it.
We happen to live in a time where it has never been easier for the individual passion project to flourish. Where a single creative or a small team can get together, make and meaningfully release a game. And guess what? The people doing that now are the same people who grew up in my golden age.
The gatekeepers are dead, you don't have to have a massive budget and industry ties to get published anymore. Steam, XBL, GoG, and all the other digital services out there changed the entire nature of the business. With the various Kickstarter, crowdfunding, and early access models out there (imperfect as they may be), small teams can drum up the funds they need for their game directly from the people that want them. This dovetails nicely with all the frustrated indie devs who want to pay homage to their roots, and all the nostalgic late twenty-somethings and early thirty year olds looking to reconnect to those games.
We've got stuff like Bastion out there, a game that plays like the best SNES game that was never released. Shovel Knight down-thrusting you back to the NES days. That Metal Slug vibe from the Neo-Geo days you thought were dead and buried lives on in Mercenary Kings. Booting up Steam is like stepping into a time machine for me.
Then there are more bizarre things. The Binding of Isaac, a game that pays constant nods to the classic Zelda dungeons, but changes the atmosphere from a young man's optimistic adventure to a small boy's nightmare. Games like Hotline Miami that embrace the spirit and maybe even the trappings of my golden age, but twists and contorts them in ways I could have never conceived of back then. Samurai Gunn seems like something I should have played with my brother in some dingy, dimly lit arcade, but it couldn't have been – the times just weren't ready for it back when it should have existed (if that makes any sense at all).
It's not just indies that are doing it. Backed by the crowdfunding model, even big name devs with real muscle are getting into the action. Tim Schafer is reselling the golden age of PC adventure games to anyone who dreams of those point-and-click days. Chris Roberts, the man behind the legendary Wing Commander series is back, with a game that he promises will take us back to the thrill of the dead space-sim genre. Even the father of Megaman, Keiji Inafune, is taking advantage of the freedom of the new digital age. If Capcom doesn't want to make a Megaman game that stays true to it's roots, Inafune is happy to do it on his own.
My golden age is back. They are making more of the past everyday.
I don't know about Paul's personal golden age, or my cousin's, they might never get the chance to recapture their glory days. It seems like if there was going to be a big resurgence of Spectrum games it would have happened by now (actually, now that I think about it, maybe games like Resogun and Nidhogg are the idealized version of games from that time). And as far as N64 games, it seems to me like most big name Nintendo games basically play like further refinements of the same ideas – a new Mario, another sprawling Zelda adventure like Ocarina of Time, a bigger, prettier Smash Bros. I don't fully understand the difference between the games released on the 64 and the updated version of those games released on the Wii U, but my cousin assures me there is one. It might be up to his generation to define and recapture that aesthetic over the next decade.
But for me, right now? It's 1991 again. There are dungeons to explore, mysteries to unravel, and challenges to overcome. The golden age is here again, long may it last.
There are two kinds of ways of looking at love. The first is the kind espoused by the Beatles. This is the kind of feelgood generalized love that binds us together as a society, lifts us spiritually, and is the hidden secret of the universe – that "the love you take is equal to the love you make".
Then there is the kind of love written about by ABBA (yes, ABBA, stay with me here). Where love is a savage and brutal game filled with emotional victors, and decimated, heartbroken losers. Where "The Winner Takes It All".
And in this case, that winner is Crackity Jones! Congratulations Crackity, you have a new pile of indie games to snuggle up with at night!
(Of course, there is also the type of love written about by Nick Cave, which is twisted, weird, and usually ends with a dead body or two. We're not going to talk about that love.)
A few months ago, I held a game giveaway to celebrate my favourite holiday, Halloween.
Now I'm throwing one to celebrate a holiday I have a considerably more complicated relationship with – Valentine's Day.
Valentine's is kind of a shit isn't it? For one, it's an ooey gooey feelgood holiday stuck squarely in the middle of the most dismal and depressing month in the calendar. I don't what February is like for anyone else, but if you live in Ontario Canada, February is the messy hangover of Christmas and New Years. All the awesome lights and displays are gone all the parties are over, but it's still wicked cold. The ice is thick, and all the snow has turned from picturesque white and fluffy stuff to brown mushy shit compacted into the gutters and curbs. It sucks.
Valentine's is also one of the most exclusionary events of the year. Not in a relationship right now? Well, look forward to a month's worth of commercials and products reminding you how lonely and pathetic you are! I'm very fortunate to say I'll be spending this year with my wonderful girlfriend, but I haven't always been so lucky. I've spent plenty of previous Valentine's Days sitting alone, listening to the Afghan Whigs, or Depeche Mode, or some other ridiculously self-serious band, cradling a bottle of cheap gin and wondering where it all went wrong.
But you know what always soothed my soul? Videogames.
This year, instead of griping about all my perceived issues with Valentine's Day and wallowing in my Holden Caulfield level of generalized angst over how "phoney" it is, I want to focus on the positive. This is a season to celebrate love after all. So why don't I share what I love with you?
I love indie games, and I love Destructoid, and I think it's about time those two crazy kids got together.
So here's the deal – I'm giving away a pack of some of my favourite indie games on Steam to one lucky winner, but to enter the draw, I want something in return. I want you to tell me about a game you really LOVE in the comments below. Is there a game you just can't quit? A childhood side-scrolling sweetheart? Have you had a torrid love/hate affair with a fighting game? Or are you like me, and just happily married to Dark Souls?
Tell me a game you LOVE, and I'll put your name in the hat. You have until midnight on Valentines to enter and I'll announce the winner next Monday!
The games up for grabs -
Rogue Legacy -
I absolutely adore Rogue Legacy. Of all the brutal roguelikes I've played in the past few years, Rogue Legacy has by far the best sense of humour about it. Over the course of making it to New Game++ and uncovering every item, I learned to fall in love with the Rogue family, quirks and all.
It's a grim world in Papers, Please. Oppressive, grey, and grinding. The perfect fit for February. But remember, no matter how bad the daily grind on the border gets, you're doing it for your family. That's real love comrade.
They say in space, nobody can hear you scream. But can they hear you love? (I know, I'm stretching to make FTL fit the theme. Check back next year when I can use Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime instead.)
Bastion plays it smooth at first, but by the end of the game, it will be tugging at your heartstrings. I get chills thinking about that last sequence and the music that plays – do it for love kid.
Risk of Rain
Sometimes love isn't about relationships, or even people. Sometimes love is about getting the perfect item drop and finally having a chance at beating this impossible as hell game.
A love story in every sense. Gone Home will take you on a journey that explores the bonding love of family, the fiery passion of youth, and a deep affection for a bygone era. Definitely the right kind of game for the season.
All of these games will go to one lucky winner! As always, please don't worry if you already have some of these or feel like you might not play some of them. If you win, you are free to trade em, gift em, or raffle them away in your own contest as you please!
I've heard fighting games described as speed chess with punches. When you boil them down, fighting games are essentially a series of choices. They play out insanely fast, and you may not even realize you're making them, but you are. When Ryu throws a fireball, you have a whole suite of choices available to you. Do you throw your own fireball to cancel it out? Jump over it and hope to hit him before he can recover and dragon punch you out of the air? Or do you choose to just sit there and block?
But there is one choice you make before any others, and it happens on the character select screen.
Looking back over the years, it's clear I've made a series of dubious choices.
Low-tier-heroes, characters with crippling flaws, or ones that just don't mesh with my playstyle, I've made a career of making the worst possible choices I could on that screen. I've never gravitated towards characters for any practical reason, instead latching on to ones that appealed to me in one abstract way or another.
In celebration of the recently established Dtoid Steam fighting group (which you really should join so you can beat me up too) I thought I'd share my favourite fighters that I've played as over the years.
Characters I've enjoyed getting beaten up as -
When my brother and I first played Street Fighter on a convenience store arcade cabinet so long ago, I was the one to take up the red gi; and it stuck ever since. We cut our fighting game teeth on hundreds of Ryu VS Ken battles, all the way through the arcade days and up to Alpha 3 on the PS1.
Over the years, Ken developed from a mirror copy of Ryu to a flamboyant braggart with flashy kicks, gimmicky tricks, and of course, his signature flaming dragon punch. While Ryu kept it solid and concentrated on winning matches, Ken insisted on bringing style to the proceedings – which I will use as the excuse for my slipping win average against my brother's Ryu in Alpha 3 to the day I die.
One of the few legitimately powerful characters I've played as, sadly, the stigma attached to flowchart scrubby Kens in SSFIV soured my joy with the character. These days I hardly ever use him for fear of being lumped in with that crowd and losing my precious indy cred. Goodnight, sweet jerkass prince.
Adidas should just give Cody an endorsement deal. I've worn Super-Star sneakers for years now largely because I thought they were baller on Cody. He just looks so cool! Tossing rocks at karate supermen, sneaking a knife into a street fight, and breaking out of jail whenever he feels like it, you gotta love the dude's style. Plus, he uses a wrench for his focus attack in SSFIV, you know I'm going to love that.
In my more reflective moments, I've wondered if Cody isn't a stealth criticism of some of Capcom's more belligerent fans. He's a sour man who has long since lost the spark of passion. He keeps fighting because it's the only thing he knows, but even that's become boring and routine over the years. Unimpressed, detached, and cynical, Cody is basically every long time fan that haunts the SRK forums, dumping on every change, patch, and new game, yet buying it up just the same.
But then I throw a rock at someone, hear that classic "ha HA!" gale of criminal laughter, and I forget all about it.
Vega is a Spanish ninja, who is also a nobleman, who is also a bullfighter, who is also a cage-fighter, who is also an assassin for a terrorist organization, who is also a serial killer in his (presumably scarce) free time.
Did I mention he's also a crazy self-obsessed narcissist? Yeah, Vega is a character that comes with a bit of baggage.
After dropping Ken, briefly (and tragically) flirting with Balrog, and finding out the hard way that I'm not good enough to use Abel, I picked up Vega in SSFIV. Despite his average-to-low status on the tier lists, he quickly became my undisputed main. In fact, he's the only character I've ever been good enough with to be considered legitimately competitive with. His emphasis on pokes, mobility, throws, and short but high-damage combos meshes with everything I enjoy in modern SF games (now if only he had a decent anti-air move or a real reversal).
I've used Vega for years now in my on-again-off-again relationship with SSFIV. It might just be the sheer amount of hours I've put in playing him, but he's become by far my favourite fighting game character of all time. From his joyously fun playstyle, to his ridiculous quips on the win screen (his SFxT version is written as a complete psychopath, while his SSFIV version comes off as a delicate dandy complaining about having to touch characters like Zangief and Hakan), I enjoy everything about him. Except maybe his appalling vulnerability to divekicks and wake up pressure.
So my favourite character is a preening narcissist who cheats? Yeah, I'm not going to think about it too hard.
Ok, so Killer Instinct is tragically lame, I won't dispute that. But get this, Fulgore can turn his head into a machine gun. Yeah. End of the fight, the opponent dizzy and on his last legs, Fulgore just grabs his head and *pop! BLAM BLAM BLAM!!* dead dude all over the place. Killer Instinct might be a joke of a game, but Fulgore's sheer audaciousness will always have a place in my heart.
He's such a product of the mid-90's I have no idea how they'll make him cool for his inevitable release on the Xbox one reboot of KI. But if what they've done to poor ol' Robocop is any clue, maybe our beloved robots of yesteryear are better left to rose tinted cyberglasses.
Always a snappy dresser, Lex Luthor shows up clad in a magnificent robotic suit in Injustice. Fit and ready to lay the smack down on some meta-human scum using the gift of (mad)science!
You've got super strength? You're faster than the speed of sound? Think your magical jewelry makes you hot shit? My boy Lex simply DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK. He's got rockets in his feet, a graviton generator in his chest, and an axe edged with Kryptonite. Bring it.
Sadly, Lex is in a neck and neck tie with Lobo as the weakest character in the game. His giant frame, sluggish movement, and slow to activate moves puts him squarely at the bottom of the charts. Projectile based douchebags like Sinestro have a field day with the infamous CEO.
But sometimes you have to suffer for what you believe in. And I believe in a bald super-villain wearing a robotic suit who was once the President of the United States. Godspeed you despotic madman.
Noob Saibot is super cool – in that lame mid-90's prepubescent boy way that isn't cool at all. He comes from the same dark corner of the teenaged psyche that you get Todd McFarlane comics and Heavy Metal magazine covers from. He's a ninja, FROM HELL, who looks like Darth Vader and attacks with GHOOoooOooOST POWERS. I may be a cynical old man, but the shrivelled grey heart buried deep in my mummified chest still skips a beat when I see something that unapologetically cheesy. I feel like Noob Saibot is the kind of character I would have airbrushed on the side of my van had I been teenager in the 70's.
Another low-tier-hero I fell in love with, Noob may have been doomed from the start to get his ass kicked by much more powerful kombatants like Cyrax, and Kabal, but goddamn did he have flair. A fireball that could invert the other player's controls or make them unable to block, combos that kicked the enemy into a clone of himself, and dear lord, his finishing move. Yeeeeouch.
Mean spirited even by Mortal Kombat standards.
Characters I've enjoyed getting sliced into pieces as -
Like many western nerds, I went through an awkward teenage phase where I thought Samurai were totally sick. Nothing could possibly be cooler than these dudes who were hard as nails, lived by a strict code of honour, and would quote poems as they died. So hardcore. I'd stay up late to watch the Shogun mini-series on the History channel, or see if I could catch an AM viewing of Ninja Scroll where they didn't censor all the lady bits and dismemberment.
I'll admit, it was somewhat of a sad period of my life.
As a result of this fascination, I ended up playing a lot of games involving sharp pointy things over the years. A lot of distinctly Japanese games and 3D fighters I normally wouldn't have been into, and I played a whole slew of whacky characters that just couldn't exist in any other type of game.
Years before we all looked like assholes playing Fruit Ninja on the Kinect, Ukyo was dicing up apples, and pears, (and people) midair with his eyes closed, making look easy.
Objectively, Ukyo embodies all the CLAMP-brand anime pretty boy stereotypes that make people roll their eyes. Pale, thin, delicate mannerisms, an elegant fighting style, and oh no, an incurable disease! WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP UKYO TACHIBANA?
But whatever, when I was 14, Ukyo was super cool. He was loosely (understatement) based on a real life Samurai – Sasaki Kojiro. According to the stories (that may or may not be true), this guy fought with an extra long katana he called the "drying pole" and had his own special technique dubbed "the swallow cut", so named because he was supposedly fast enough to cut a bird out of the air with it.
His illustrious career ended when a belligerent Miyatomoto Musashi showed up late and angry to a duel they arranged and caved his skull in with a boat oar like he was Dickie Greenleaf.
I know it isn't likely, but there is still some romantic part of me that likes to believe he recited some poetry as his brains leaked out of his ears.
I don't know why I like this guy so much. Maybe it's because he looked so authentic, so generic. He's the glowering humourless villain in a Lone Wolf and Cub story, doomed to be dispatched as an afterthought by the famed assassin. He'll wear that silly hat into the land of wind and ghosts.
Bushido Blade might not be recognized as a traditional fighting game, and it isn't. But that didn't stop me and my brother from spilling each other's blood in literally thousands of duels. Which I guess isn't all that much when you consider how many of them ended in a single quick slash. Somebody please tell Square that we are painfully overdue for a reboot of this quirky franchise.
I spent a bunch of time playing as the Highwayman type character in Buisido Blade, who was cool not only because was he a total ladykiller, but because he had a backup rapier he could whip out as a surprise and poke someone to death with, very cool. But Gengoro could do that cool sheath-style thing, and you just can't beat that no matter how many bonny sweethearts you seduce.
Soul Blade was a game heavily steeped in Eastern martial arts and weaponry. It featured a unique perspective on some often overlooked cultures and styles such as Korean spear fighting, and Chinese falchions.
So of course being the dumb white guy I am, I immediately picked the redheaded European dude in armour.
Latent ethnocentrism aside, I really liked Siegfried. He had easy to use combos, big sweeping attacks, and cheap ring-out moves. Plus, we had the same haircut at the time, and in his storyline, he had a troubled relationship with his dad (IE, he murdered him). Both of these were qualities I could root for.
As the series continued under the Soul Calibur name, and as Siegfried became a more important character in the story, he became inversely less cool. All of a sudden his hair changed from a glorious redheaded side part, to a generic Scandinavian ubermensch blonde. His storyline got even MORE emo (it started with patricide for Christ sake), and he went from a side character to the full on magic crystal Jesus of the series. I mean, his armour in Soul Calibur V is literally made of crystals and he can shoot a giant energy beam from his magic ice sword. Ewww.
This is why we can't have nice things Namco
Chosen Undead (Zealot)
Don't look at me like that. Dark Souls' PvP is every bit a fighting game as anything else on this list. It has it's own quirks, lexicon, and tactics. It's just super weird and happens to be tucked away in the middle of a single player game.
My experience with Dark Souls is not that uncommon. It immediately hooked me with its stark presentation, ball busting difficulty, and intriguingly mysterious story. I went through the game terrified of being invaded by another player, and not coincidentally, was slaughtered every time it happened. Flash forward 200 hours or so, and I'd beaten the main game multiple times, learned how to fend off invaders, and even, I'm ashamed to admit it, performed a few mean spirited ganks of my own as a Red Phantom. At this point in the game's life cycle, I wanted to test myself against other serious players. I wanted to duel.
Duelling in Dark Souls is always a dicey affair. Since there is no official matchmaking in the game (until the Artorias DLC anyway, and it sucks) or anything limiting player behaviour, ad hoc fightclubs and a general, and wholly unreliable, duelling etiquette organically coalesced to facilitate players who wanted organized PvP.
Although there are some common "duelling areas", and some loose guidelines (1 vs 1, let players apply their first buffs, don't kite the host into monsters, etc), you are never quite sure who is going to play by the "rules" (such as they are) or if the opponent is even down with a duel. There is a good chance you might just stumble into a random player's world, or be invaded by a bloodthirsty pirate who will gleefully backstab you as you meekly bow. Finding a "fair" fight in Dark Souls can be a feat all by itself.
But, oh sweet Christ, my Zealot just wrecked people. Built with an emphasis on strength and faith, my Zealot brought a massive two-handed Large Club enchanted with occult powers to battle. Unspeakable damage backed up with a few utility miracles, and perilously low defence from his midriff baring cloak and brass pants. He looked like a villain from a He-Man cartoon and fought like a beast. I had startlingly good results with his odd fighting style, way more than when I tried to build a more conventionally PvP oriented character.
Dark Souls is one of the only games I ever played where the super heavy weapons were actually balanced and fun. Every fighting game that features some useless grappler or unusably gimped "big" character should be ashamed – Dark Souls ate your lunch as an afterthought.
Characters I've enjoyed getting insta-air, unblockable, 19-hit comboed as -
Air-dashers are their own breed of fighting game. I'm a stodgy old man who was raised on the slower paced mechanics of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat and will likely die by them (fighting games are going to get real high stakes in the near future), so I've never been super comfortable with the high flying mobility and near infinite combos that define the air-dasher sub-genre. Still, some amazing games like Blazblue and Guilty Gear are just so downright bizarre and loveable that I've played them for years despite being a perpetual scrub at them.
You might notice I didn't put any characters from the Marvel Vs Capcom series on this list. That isn't a mistake, I'm just ready to stop lying to myself and admit that those games aren't fun. Call me back when the game isn't dominated by Virgil players and a single guy who figured out how to make Morrigan throw more fireballs than God Himself in the Old Testament.
If you poked me really hard, I'd probably tell you Dr. Doom is my favourite character in that series. Humm, another super villain in a robotic suit who rules his country. I think I may have a type.
Testament seems like the kind of guy who has all the lyrics from Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory memorized, but let's not hold that against him.
Guilty Gear is another one of those games that I thought I was wicked sick at, back when my fighting game universe consisted of my brother and a few friends. I'm not saying we were bad, we had a good degree of skill for what was going down in our peer group – this was one of those games where me and my bro were locked in an arms race, always trying to one-up the other - but JESUS, have you seen some of the people on YouTube playing this thing? It's like an entirely different game!
But anyway, I played as a whole lot of characters in Guilty Gear. The cowboy Samurai (and probable sex offender) Johnny, Slayer the eternally smug vampire, and noted 70's Brit-Rock enthusiast Axl Low, but Testament is the guy I remember the best. He had all these funky moves, traps he could litter the stage with and use to set up interesting combos, a monster he could summon from the bottom of the screen, and this "gotcha!" reversal that would inflict a poison state on the opponent. He was like no other character I ever played, incredibly unique.
Plus, one of his super moves referenced the Metallica song "Master of the Puppets", and that was cool at the time (I mentioned I was a dorky white teenager, right?)
Hazama fights using Michael Jackson dance moves, puts Dhalshim to shame with his Go-Go Gadget reach, and is one of the most unabashedly villainous characters of all time. How could you not love this insufferable prick?
Seriously, I've never seen a fighting game boss put so much effort into being an unlikable dick. M. Bison seems like a chill bro when compared to Hazama's relentless, needless, straight up petty trolling. It isn't enough for him to kill someone, first he wants to make a few cracks at their expense, explain how genius and unstoppable his evil scheme is, and maybe tie a young lady to some railway tracks just for kicks.
He's a jerk for sure, but you have to appreciate his commitment to the bit.
Chie was kind of an oddball choice for me. While I usually prefer defensive characters with strong pokes and good control of screen space, Chie is pure rushdown all the way. And I LOVED it. I would plunk down for a session of Persona 4: Arena and watch those spunky dragon legs just go-go-go all night. I even bought the DLC colour pack and glasses for her so I could dress her up like kung-fu Velma from an alternate reality version of Scooby Doo.
But then I stopped playing P4:A. Wanna know why? Because our very own Strider Hoang broke my fucking spirit.
I thought I had a pretty good Chie going. I was going online, winning more than I lost, climbing up the ranks. Then me and Strider got into a lobby for some "friendly" matches.
He effortlessly destroyed me 15 times in a row rotating through almost the entire cast. You could actually hear my soul crying.
GG, WP, uninstalling, suicide.
Maybe I'll try again whenever they release the sequel.
Honourable mention for a bunch of characters I never got beat up as but love -
The Entire Cast of Darkstalkers -
I'm a huge poseur who never played much Darkstalkers. A few rounds in a bowling alley here, a bizarre session in a train station there, no more than a handful of rounds. In fact, I bought the Darkstalkers HD re-release on XBL when it came out and barely played it for more than 15 minutes. The most time I've spent on the game was with my girlfriend last week (and she bodied me!)
Suffice to say, I have no talent, no attachment, and no cred with Darkstalkers.
BUT HOLY SHIT THOSE CHARACTERS.
I love classic movie monsters and I love fighting games. A franchise that marries these two ideas is a slam dunk in my books. I'm completely happy just looking at the character art and stages for the game, never mind playing it. What kind of fucked up world are we living in that this didn't become a classic? How are we seeing a new version of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, while Capcom puts the kibosh on any hopes for a proper modern Darkstalkers? This is the kind of injustice U2 should write an album about.
I may never "git gud" at Darkstalkers, and it may never see a revival like other fighting games, but it will always occupy a disproportionately, one could say monstrously, large part of my heart.
I may whine and complain about my characters, but make no mistake, I love each and every one of them. I think fighting games live and die by their characters. A game can have have the best mechanics out there, but if nobody in the character list stands out to me, I'm just not going to play it (looking at you Virtua Fighter).
Fighting games have given us some of the most iconic and beloved characters in video game history. When you ask me to name classic rivalries, I think of Ken and Ryu, Sub-Zero Vs Scorpion. When I think about the hardest, most unfair bosses I've faced, I remember M. Bison and I-No. Some of the most audacious and hilarious character designs have come from fighting games; just look at the cast of Guilty Gear or Darkstalkers. I love the one-on-one action of fighting games, I love to compete, but at the end of the day, it's the characters that keep me coming back for another beating.
2013 was a weird year in gaming. Old consoles winding down, new consoles stumbling out of the gate, and Steam growing bigger, stronger, and stranger all the time. According to all the previews, we have the promise of VR goggles, touch-pad controllers, and kinect skeletal-scans to look forward to in the future. Gaming in 2014 might not look anything like gaming in 2013.
But that's in the future. In 2013 there were still plenty of great games to play with a good old controller and monitor. Here are the BEST of them that I personally played.
It feels a little odd to proclaim Bioshock Infinite the best game I played in 2013. After months of watching the internet pick apart the game's shooting, storyline, ending, and "problematic content", you could almost forget that Bioshock Infinite was actually pretty damn great!
I'm not going to say Infinite was a perfect game, but I will say I enjoyed it. I liked exploring the beautiful, yet deeply disturbing world of Columbia. I enjoyed the interaction between the lovably wide-eyed Elizabeth and the jerkass sour Booker. And yes, I did enjoy breaking necks with the Skyhook, I am THAT guy. Give me a world where I can mutilate and ignite a bunch of racist crackers, and I'm probably going to do exactly that.
Some of my favourite gaming moments from 2013 came from Infinite. Listening to the Lutece twins bicker back and forth about quantum mechanics, watching Elizabeth dance on the boardwalk, and stumbling through the surreal ending sequence; these are the things I'll remember about Infinite, not how the gunplay was a little old fashion.
Bioshock was the game that propelled me to pick up a 360 and join the last generation of gaming. It seems oddly poetic that Infinite should be the swan song of that system. A beautiful note to go out on.
Runner up: Rogue Legacy
The genealogical "rogue-lite" Rogue Legacy is one of the tightest, most enjoyable games I've ever played. Jumping over spike pits, executing down-thrusts, and dodging traps, it was like stepping back in time to the glory days of SNES platforming. Only better. And with more irritable bowels.
Rogue Legacy managed to take the best parts of the harsh world of roguelikes, and marry them to more gentle world of progression based RPGS to create something incredible. Every run into the dreaded castle is still a tense "one-life, one-chance" affair subject to the whims of the RNG, but the ability to upgrade your homestead for future generations gives you a sense of progress and accomplishment – even when you prematurely impale your colourblind wizard on a spike.
More than great mechanics, Rogue Legacy has a lot of heart and charm. Maybe I'm a big softie, but I really appreciated the "anyone can be a hero" tagline of the game and the loving treatment of all manner of personality traits and medical conditions. It was a refreshing change to see a game celebrate imperfection.
Honourable Mention - GTA 5
I went into GTA 5 feeling a bit cynical. I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit for another GTA, but Rockstar did their usual magic with a few well crafted trailers and some excellent soundtrack announcements and, begrudgingly, got me on board for another go.
In the end, I'm glad I gave it a shot.
I have a lot of quibbles with GTA 5. The missions that have to be done "just so", the insanely lethal cops, the choice between a far too easy and unsatisfying auto-aim, and the floaty, frustrating cross hairs of the free-aim. There are a lot of little nagging problems.
That said, it is fascinating to watch GTA grow up. Rather than re-tell the sorry old "from hood to Kingpin" story again, GTA 5 has more complicated narrative split between three conflicting personalities. A narrative that challenges the very core of the GTA mythos with a middle aged wash-out, a young sell-out, and a batshit lunatic, and says "hey wait a sec, maybe crime doesn't pay after all." Watching the lives of the three protagonists continually turn into dogshit because of their choices felt way more convincing than Niko Bellic wringing his hands about being a criminal from the comfort of his new penthouse apartment.
I loved the city, I loved the soundtrack, and I loved the heists. I even loved the online when it worked. Despite all the little annoyances, I had a damn good time with GTA 5.
Okay, you want to know a secret? Enemy Within is my real GOTY. Yeah yeah, I know it's actually just some DLC for a game that was released last year, but nothing else blew me away this year like Enemy Within.
It's a masterpiece. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was already my favourite game of 2012, and Enemy Within took everything I loved about that game, made it better, added in a bunch of new stuff, and corrected some of the bugs and foibles of the original. The addition of new enemies that punish your old habits, the incentive of the new Meld upgrade to move faster and more aggressively than ever before, and a wealth of new classes, equipment pieces, and upgrades to experiment with makes Enemy Within play more like an entirely new game than some piece of DLC.
This is DLC the way it should be. Meaningful content that makes the game better, deeper, and doesn't feel like some tacked on cash grab. If there is one thing I would to see from the industry in the future, it would be less map packs and skins, and more Enemy Within.
We had a bumper crop of indy treasures this year and it's hard to pick a favourite, but Rogue Legacy edges just ahead of the crowd. Like I said above, its a fantastic game that I'd recommend to anybody.
Runner up - Gone Home
While most games thrive on the bombastic and spectacular, Gone Home is a celebration of the small and the personal. It is a quiet, introspective tour of a few relatively mundane lives and the minutia that makes them tick.
And that's amazing.
I adored my time in the Greenbrier home. I had more fun picking through the family VHS collection and snooping through their personal correspondence than I did nailing any sick headshots this year. As an unabashed pop culture nerd who grew up in the 90's, it's a given that I loved the obsessive level of detail the Fullbright team went to in their recreation of a mid-90's home. But more than that, I felt an emotional connection to the characters in Gone Home. I cared about them. I really wanted Sam to be happy and live the way she wanted, I was rooting for the dad with his schlocky sci-fi novels, and I was hoping things would turn around for the mom and she'd stop eyeing up the hunky park ranger.
If Gone Home did one thing, it proved that a well written, well presented, personal crisis can be more compelling than any alien invasion or nuclear threat.
Honourable mention - Papers, Please
If you ever dreamed about living in a Soviet state, going day to day on a government stipend, never sure when the boot of oppression was about to crush down on you, boy have I got the game for you. Also, seek help.
Papers, Please isn't a feel good game. It's a game of intense pressure, frustrating clutter, and uncomfortable moral choices. Putting you in charge of the Arstotzka border crossing, it's up to you to enforce the rules of the state on every travel seeking entry into the country, no matter how byzantine the documents get, how sad the old lady's sob story is, how sick your son is back at home, or how much unrest is brewing within the populace. Or not. Maybe you feel like you should take a bribe from that sketchy terrorist group and move the family into a higher class of domicile. Or maybe you'll take a kickback from your soldier buddy and detain a few extra suckers who's papers didn't measure up. Or maybe you're thinking it's a good time to start heading for the border yourself.
Despite your stationary position at the border crossing, there are an awful lot of choices hidden away in Papers, Please, and not many of them offer a clear distinction between good and bad. The game forces you into unsettling compromises and makes you come to grips with being a cog in a terrible machine. It's like nothing else I've ever played.
It isn't a horror game? There are no ghosts that need busting after all? Nope, it's way more awesome than any of that! What a lovely surprise.
Runner up – DmC
Hey, it didn't suck nearly as bad as everyone said it would! In fact, I really enjoyed myself!
Fact: I will never get tired of kicking that little shit-stain Nightwing through a skyscraper.
Injustice might not be as deep or as smooth as some other fighting games on the market. True to NetherRealm standards, there is a fair amount of jankiness and weird character imbalance to be found in their latest title. But you know what? None of that really matters because Injustice is fun. After a few years of highly technical fighters full of 1-frame links and arthritis inducing joystick gymnastics, it was great to break out a fighting game I could play with a few friends on the couch and have a good time with.
Injustice takes the recognizable faces of the DC universe, translates their weird powers and abilities into a 2D fighter better than I would have imagined, and pours a healthy helping of crazy-sauce over the whole thing. You have a single-player story where Superman is the badguy, Aquaman feeds his opponents to a shark, and people get launched into orbit on a surprisingly regular basis.
Step to my Lex Luthor and I'll show you what a man with a kryptonite axe and satellite death-ray is capable of.
This isn't a tie, it's a combination winner. While I wasn't super blown away by either game on their own, I think playing both games one after the other benefits them both and creates an experience greater than the sum of their parts.
There are a lot of similarities between Machine for Pigs and Outlast. They are both modern "non-combat" horror games where you have no way of actually fighting the monsters and have to focus on escaping or hiding from them. And they both explore the similar subject matter, just at different ends of the century – Machine for Pigs wallowing in the misery of industrialized London, and Outlast exploring the cruelty of a mental asylum/medical research lab operated by a modern American corporation.
The "gameplay" in Machine for Pigs is remarkably thin. The puzzles are generally straight forward, and the sanity meters and tinderboxes of the original have been replaced with a much greater emphasis on story and narration. It's less of a game and more of a visual tour of a story.
So it's a good thing that the story is great and the visuals are every bit as disturbing as you'd expect from an Amnesia game.
Outlast, ironically, cleaves closer to the original Amnesia's game design, exchanging batteries for your night-vision camcorder for lamp oil. It is the exact same mechanic, forcing you to scrounge and explore for resources to keep things nice and illuminated, and ramping up the pressure as you get turned around and lost. You can't help but begrudge every wasted second as your batteries run dry.
Amnesia weaves a classic Gothic tale of a desperate man broken by his prophetic vision of the 20th century, while Outlast uses the trappings of the modern found-footage horror film to trace back the lurid history of the past century and the horrors that have been committed in the name of progress. Machine for Pigs does a better job of creating a palpable atmosphere, while Outlast provides the game mechanics to balance it out.
The two couldn't have dovetailed any nicer if the developers had planned it!
In a year crammed with amazing sequences, I would have NEVER expected that my favourite gaming moment this year would happen in Outlast.
But then again, nobody told me about Dr. Trager.
In a game full of disturbing imagery, traumatized and broken people, and unhinged psychotics trying to kill you, hearing Dr. Trager's voice over the intercom, urging you to the safety of his medical ward, is a light in the darkness. Finally, somebody sane in this place!
Too bad Dr. Trager is probably the most unhinged psychotic of them all, and expressly intends to turn you into a traumatized and broken person.
With a perfect blend of pitch black comedy you can't help but giggle at, mixed with truly terrifying acts of malice, Dr. Trager's introduction is by far the stand out sequence of the game. It was the moment I went from kind of passively enjoying Outlast with an indifferent attitude, to REALLY engaging with it with white-knuckled intensity.
And oh God, what that man does to your fingers...
Runner up – XCOM Base Attack
It isn't any kind of surprise when it happens, but the mission to defend the XCOM HQ in Enemy Within had me grinning ear to ear. Then grimacing. Then crying.
After taking it to the aliens in the field time and time again, I felt surprisingly vulnerable fighting them on XCOM's own turf. Underneath it all, it's the same old mechanics with the same old enemies. But seeing them stomp all over your own digs? Having to send out rookie XCOM security guards as cannon fodder while your real squad makes their way through the base? It feels like they've invaded, broken some kind of unwritten rule of the game.
Fending off carnivorous Chrysalids under the glow of the XCOM strategic holo-globe is a moment I won't soon forget.
Honourable Mention - Bioshock Infinite, Girls just want to have fun
Unlike a lot of people, I didn't have as big a problem with the violence in Infinite. Still, the best moment of that game is undoubtedly touring the fair ground with Elizabeth. Her childlike excitement at finally being out of the tower and meeting new people is such a tender and wonderful sequence. And when “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” comes on over the circus calliope, it's just a perfect moment.
I know, I know, NOBODY CARES ABOUT MECHWARRIOR BUT YOU, WRENCH! But it's my list and I'll sulk if I want to.
Look, I don't think anyone who played MWO's protracted open-beta for any length of time was expecting miracles. After the harrowing near-year of disasters, set-backs, position reversals, and outright developer hostility, most of us kind of knew that MWO's launch wasn't going to be everything we might have hoped for.
Still, even the lowest of standards couldn't have prepared us for the wet-fart of a launch we got.
After more than a year of promises about a launch that would feature a new and improved UI, a switch to the fabled DX11 graphical drivers, bug and balance fixes galore, and the dangling carrot of role playing as a Mechwarrior for your chosen House in GRANDSCALE community warfare, MWO's launch did NOTHING. It was little more than PGI peeling off the beta sticker and insisting to the roiling masses that, yes, the Emperor did have new clothes, and yes, they were FANTASTIC.
It's not just that PGI made a bad game (and they did). It's that they squandered so much potential. The MechWarrior franchise has been begging for a new game for years. The fanbase was so passionate for this game, so willing to spend crowd funding bucks to get it going, and so eager to support the developer and oblige them during every disastrous patch that broke the game in strange new ways. The background lore for BattleTech is so rich, and bizarre, and campy, and ready for a fresh take. All the stars were aligned for a triumphant return for this once beloved PC gaming institution.
But instead of tapping into any of that, the lead developers at PGI loosened their belts, pulled down their slacks, and took a big old dump on all of it. Months after launch and we're still hearing the same lies they were spinning this time last year, the gameplay is more stagnant and broken than ever, and the predatory F2P hooks more greedy than you could believe. Grab your $500 Golden Clan mech now! What a deal!
Fuck you MWO, you broke my Goddamn heart.
Ok, you can call it a gimmick, but it was a gimmick I LOVED. Infinite's use of chronologically displaced pop hits set to turn of the century rag-time tunes and instrumentation not only subtly conveyed a bunch of information to the player about Columbia without a lot of clumsy exposition, it also sounded amazing. I ended up listening to the old tymey versions of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” and “Happy Shiny People” long after I was done with my time in Columbia. I'm flatly embarrassed at how much I loved the calliope rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.
Runner up - Risk of Rain
Risk of Rain is an odd game that I don't expect everyone to love. But EVERYONE should at least listen to the soundtrack. I maxed out on chiptune stuff a few years ago, but Risk of Rain brought me back in a big way. Probably because it's so different from the regular chiptune milieu. Instead of driving beats and an emphasis on aggressively electronic bloops and bleeps, Risk of Rain comes at you obliquely, with sad stray piano notes and haunting strings. It's beautiful and sad and hits me straight in the heart. Look out for Chris Christodoulou, I bet we'll see him composing for games a lot more over the next few years.
Honourable mention - Machine for Pigs
Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, the soundtrack to Machine for Pigs is imperative to the experience. The strings may eat you.
I might have enjoyed shooting the racist shitheads in Columbia a little too much.
Origins was a bit of a let-down, but by God I just love snapping limbs as THE BAT.
You could smell the internet shit storm a mile away. I still think the Xbox One turned out OK, but that announcement with it's emphasis on sports, TV, and restricting used games will haunt them for years to come. A total meltdown.