So it’s that time of year, and it’s been kind of an amazing one, both good and bad. But since it’s December and I’m now, inexplicably, someone with opinions about video games that people are interested in, I decided I might as well do what everyone does this time of year and recap games that came out in 2014 that I enjoyed. This isn’t a Game of the Year list, per se. I’m not ranking them, nor am I judging on any technical or critical merit or anything like that. This is just a list of games, in more or less random order. The only requirements are that the game was released in 2014 and spoke to me in one way or another. So, without further preamble, here are some games I liked. Maybe you’ll like them too.
Given that I’m more or less notorious for foisting this game upon the Internet, Desert Golfing seems like as good of a place to start as any. If by some miracle you haven’t seen my tweets or listened to my swooning about it, Desert Golfing is about as minimal of a game experience as you can get. There’s a four color desert landscape with a ball and a hole, and you pull back to launch the former toward the latter. Again and again. And again. And again.
The hook with this game is mainly that it’s simple enough that you can pick it up in two minutes and it has seemingly endless content. One hole will take anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes to complete based on complexity, but there are literally thousands of them; the developer recently released a patch for content beyond hole 3000. It’s also a throwback in that it keeps a running count of your score, and it is what it is; there are no mulligans, or save/restore points, or really any way to restart the game beyond deleting and reinstalling.
I initially wasn’t sure what I thought of this game; when I first talked about it on Isometric I had only gotten through maybe a couple of dozen holes and wasn’t sold on it. I’m creeping up to 2000 and still pick it up from time to time, so I suppose I decided I liked it ok. I ultimately appreciate this game for stripping down to the barest of mechanics and ending up with a fantastically addictive game that’s easy to pick up and put down. It’s not for everyone, surely; if graphics or story or any sort of congratulations from the game are important to you, you’re not going to find them here. The lack of those things, in this instance, is almost refreshing, though, and it’s worth trying, with the caveat that you may lose a couple of consecutive hours here and there in the process.
I’ve already written a fair amount about this game, so I’ll send you to that post for my full thoughts about Wolfenstein. That’s all to say that I loved this game for my own reasons that are very personal, but your mileage may vary.
As far as my opinion of the game beyond the non-personal aspects, though, I’ll say that I found Wolfenstein very entertaining as a person who doesn’t normally enjoy first person shooters. The developers made what’s now, sadly, a bold choice by scrapping any multiplayer functionality and focusing on making a great single player experience, and it worked for them. In a lot of these types of games, the story is typically an afterthought, but Wolfenstein put forward a compelling story with characters who weren’t just cardboard cutouts holding guns, and did so despite a setting that’s basically the definition of a cliche for this genre. Given that I had zero expectations of this game going in, this was easily one of my biggest surprises of 2014.
Confession time: I’ve never finished The Last of Us. I put a good chunk of time into that game but it never grabbed me like it did so many others. Maybe the hype had been built up too high by the time I played the remastered version, or maybe the mechanics of the gameplay got in the way of me being able to experience the story fully. Maybe it’s a combination of those things. In any event, I’ve been looking for a game that evokes that reaction I was supposed to have but couldn’t feel from The Last of Us, and I think This War of Mine may be it.
To put it as simply as possible, This War of Mine plays a lot like a Sims game, except that your characters are civilians caught in a besieged city during an unnamed war. (The developers have stated that they took inspiration from the war in Bosnia but the actual location is never divulged.) By day, you tend to your characters’ well being: They need to eat, to sleep, to take advantage of any small comforts you can cobble together, and you need to pay attention to their emotional well being as well. By night, you send out one of your survivors to scavenge for additional supplies.
This is where the game gets interesting, and harrowing. Your survivors are not trained killers; they’re just normal people trying to survive to the next day in the hope that the war will end and normality will resume. So when you break into someone’s house, and there are people still there, you’re left with the decision of how much to take, if anything, and what to do if they confront you. After all, your survivors need food and supplies, but so do these people; can your survivor live with herself if she needs to raid their fridge? What if she needs to defend herself and kills someone, or is wounded and then becomes a burden on the group? Or worse, if she dies, both leaving one less person to help and leaving the group without any supplies from that night’s run? The effect of every decision is harrowing in a way I’ve rarely seen, even in games like Mass Effect where that’s the series’ calling card.
What’s more is that the game provides a tension I’ve never felt even in survival horror games. Even if your survivor is armed, she may only have one or two bullets, or a knife. So the threat of someone with a gun behind every closed door is ever-present and almost overwhelming. The atmosphere in this game is intense, to say the least.
This War of Mine isn’t for everyone. It can be really, really overwhelming emotionally to play, and I usually could only go through a couple of day/night cycles at a time before having to put it down. As far as demonstrating the realities of a civilian in war, though, this game excels brilliantly, and it’s important to play if you think you’re up to it. I can’t recommend it enough.
Super Smash Bros (Wii U)
We play games for a lot of reasons, but we all started (and most of us continue to) because they should be fun. I love being able to play a game and experience something from a different point of view, or learn something new about someone else, or about myself. But sometimes, I just want to put my feet up, grab a controller, and beat the crap out of Mario for a while.
The Wii U version of Super Smash Bros is easily one of the best party games I’ve played in a long, long time. For years, Rock Band was my go-to for that, but after playing 8-player Smash with my Isometric co-hosts over Thanksgiving, Super Smash Bros takes that crown. It’s endlessly fun for players of any skill level; my kids would be happy if the game was just a blooper reel of characters flying into the screen, really. There’s a deeper game there too, if you want it. But if you don’t, you can just mash buttons and still have a great time.
I’m hard on Nintendo a lot, because I know they’re capable of making amazing things and sometimes they get away from what they’re good at. Super Smash Bros for Wii U is Nintendo at the top of their game. It’s lovingly crafted, expertly balanced for all skill levels, and a pure delight. I’ve gone through periods where I regretted buying a Wii U at this time last year, but this game in particular has pushed all those reservations aside.
Full disclosure: I host a podcast with Brianna Wu, the head of Giant Spacekat, called Isometric. But if you’re reading this you probably know that already.
I first saw Revolution 60 way back at PAX in 2013, after getting to know Bri on app.net. It immediately struck me, even in that really early state, that Bri had something special on her hands, and that held true all the way through to the final release.
Rev60 is a cinematic space adventure with a really unique combat system that plays almost more like a rhythm game than a traditional combat engine. It’s super easy to pick up (and I should know; I was included in the play testing of the early builds and probably played through the tutorial level a hundred times), and really difficult to put down thanks to the fantastic story that unfolds as you traverse the space station. The presentation is phenomenal, as well, from the graphics, to the score, to the full voice acting.
I don’t think it’s any secret that mobile gaming, on the whole, took a turn for the worse in 2014. But Revolution 60 was easily one of the exceptions to that rule. It’s an ambitious game that delivers on its promise, even more so due to the fact that it was a first effort put together by a team of four people. And hell, it’s free to try so you really have no excuse.
I’ll be honest: For the first two hours that I played Shadow of Mordor, I hated it. I generally don’t like stealth games; I’ve tried multiple Assassin’s Creed games and given up on all of them fairly early on, and I ragequit Dishonored about halfway through. But once I got past the initial difficulty curve, there’s a really good game waiting, and it’s something that I don’t feel like I’ve played before.
This game is open world in the true sense of the word; there are some story missions, but they eventually give way to just hunting down these war chiefs however you want. I initially thought the nemesis system and the fact that the orcs remember how they dispatched you the last time around was a gimmick, too, but I’ll admit that after Krimp the Devourer showed up after I thought I’d killed him for the third time, I had an unexpectedly angry reaction and kind of wanted to make it my life’s mission to wipe him off the face of the Earth. Or of Mordor. Whatever.
So this is a good game. I’ll point out that it’s extremely violent; the way orcs are executed by the dozen is almost casual once you gain enough power, and that may be disturbing to some people. But if you can deal with that, Shadow of Mordor is really compelling in a way I haven’t really seen before. It’s been the game I keep coming back to lately, even though I have other games waiting for me on the PS4.
It’s no secret that I have an overwhelming amount of nostalgia for the NES. I didn’t get that system until 1990, after five years of near constant begging. (In retrospect, having kids of my own now, my parents’ conviction was impressive; I would have caved after a year or so of constant asking, probably.) That was also the last non-handheld system I got until I had enough money to buy my own in college (and even that handheld was a Game Gear so that barely counts). So while everyone else had moved on to the SNES and Genesis, and later the PSOne, I was playing through Mega Man 2, Super Mario Bros 3, and Battletoads for the eightieth time, because that was what I had.
So when I tell you that Shovel Knight is up there with the best of the NES classics, I don’t say that lightly. Though it borrows heavily from the classics of that era, mainly Mega Man 2 and Zelda II (with some Super Mario Bros 3 and DuckTales thrown in for good measure), the resulting game is something completely new and fresh, and it takes me right back to sitting in my childhood bedroom, sitting a foot away from my 13” TV. The problem with playing older games sometimes is that they were written in a time when we didn’t know as much about what makes a game convenient for the player. While Shovel Knight isn’t an easy game, it has modern conveniences like frequent checkpoints, as well as a way to disable those things if you want a true old-school experience.
If you grew up in the 80s and played any games at all, you need to check out Shovel Knight to bring yourself back to those days. The developer truly gets what made those games special, and the game oozes enough style and charm to keep you coming back for more even when the going gets tough. Maybe try to track down some Ecto Cooler and put on some New Order for the full experience.
I like pinball. A lot. I also like RPG mechanics. So this game is basically a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a game for me. (And I love me some peanut butter cups.)
Rollers of the Realm is a pinball RPG. You acquire a party of different classes of pinballs, and have to clear a series of increasingly difficult enemies across a set of fantasy themed pinball tables; you switch between them by trapping the ball against a flipper. Instead of attacking your character, the enemies attack your flippers; the more damage they take, the more they start to degrade and wear away. If your pinball character falls out, they die and need to be revived by using up mana that you accumulate by hitting targets.
The pinball mechanics are really well executed, and the story is campy but enough to keep you entertained while you’re resting your trigger fingers in between tables. This isn’t the first time this concept has been tried (Pinball Quest on the NES immediately comes to mind), but it’s a rare enough subgenre that Rollers of the Realm really surprised and delighted me as a fan of both pinball and video games, and it’s worth checking out if that describes you also.
Speaking of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Crypt of the Necrodancer is another game that’s two great tastes that taste great together. I debated whether I should even put this game on the list, given that it’s still in an Early Access state, but I’ve gotten enough enjoyment out of it in its current form that I’d be ok even if it never got another update.
Necrodancer is a rhythm based roguelike dungeon crawler. Each dungeon is randomly generated, and your goal is simply to survive as long as you can before the monsters overwhelm you. The catch is that each level of the dungeon has its own soundtrack, and you can only move along with the beats of the song. This takes what’s become well worn territory and creates something completely fresh and new. When you get into it, you actually start to feel like your character is dancing around the stage rather than moving, and you quickly learn that the game is less about attack and surviving the counterattack, like most of these games, but rather maneuvering around the monsters’ movements to avoid getting hit in the first place.
It’s easy to get jaded after playing games for as long as I have, but Crypt of the Necrodancer really took me by surprise in the best way. Even in this early access stage, there are a ton of little touches that show how much the developer is committing to the concept, like how the shopkeeper in each level gets a vocal part but only when you’re near the shop. You can even import your own music, or plug in a dance pad and use that to control the game if you have one. If you like rhythm games or dungeon crawlers at all (and especially if you like both) you shouldn’t wait for the full version to get into this game.