It’s December 2014, and that means we’ve come to the end of another year fulla video games. I spent most of this year writing my master’s dissertation, so I didn’t have a chance to play as many games as I would’ve liked. Not to mention, the new console generation has begun to hit its stride, but those machines are currently outside of my budget, so I’m running old hardware here.
The general consensus of many games media outlets seems to be that this was a poor year for games. I’m inclined to agree; I definitely played more than ten games but I can’t even come up with a top-ten list. So without further ado, here's my top six.
#6 The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo
Michael Lutz & Kimberly Parker
Twine (Play it here)
If you were a kid who played video games in the 90s, you probably knew somebody at school who spread ridiculous rumors and made outrageous claims about all the latest video games and their supposed secret features. When pressed as to how he/she became privy to this (false) insider knowledge, the answer was often: “I have an uncle who works for Nintendo/Squaresoft/Sega/etc.”
Short, sweet and just in time for Halloween, Michael Lutz’s The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo uses this old boast as a basis to craft a chilling Lovecraftian piece of interactive fiction that is immensely enjoyable and replayable. Lutz is an excellent writer, and his bizarre narrative is complemented nicely by disquieting sound design and Kimberly Parker’s stylized background illustrations. The game even employs Twine’s syntax error messages in a creative manner, resulting in a meta-fictional conclusion that suits the subject matter perfectly.
The game gets bonus points for tackling the subject of gender and sexism within games in a heartfelt manner, something that is appreciated in the wake of this past summer’s GamerGate fiasco. Unlike big-budget Halloween contemporary The Evil Within, The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo is a unique and creative horror title that has a surprising amount of heart. I look forward to seeing more from Michael Lutz.
#5 Bravely Default
Silicon Studios, Square-Enix
Square’s long-running Final Fantasy series has come a long way since its humble 8-bit beginnings, and many former fans feel that the series has become an incomprehensible mess of style-over-substance; a mish-mash of random mythology, cool hair and pointless angst.
For the Final Fantasy player who misses ‘the good old days’, Silicon Studios have stumped up the goods with Bravely Default, a portable JRPG that is essentially Final Fantasy V with streamlined gameplay and better characters; characters who are brought to life by the game’s magnificent voice acting.
The game’s first four chapters are a wonderful journey that bring past adventures to mind while still doing something new and different. The game could’ve ended there and I would’ve been quite satisfied, but unfortunately it stretches out for an additional four chapters in which your characters find themselves repeating the same events and fighting the same adversaries over and over and over again.
The game was written by Naotaka Hayashi who also wrote the visual novel Steins;Gate and the two games have a great deal in common thematically. However, what worked for Steins;Gate does not work for Bravely Default, instead feeling more like cheap padding; a needless feature for a game that is already weighty without it. Bravely Default could’ve easily left me wanting more, but ended up overstaying its welcome. It’s still an excellent game, but one that should’ve ended many hours sooner than it did.
#4 The Binding of Isaac Rebirth
Edmund McMillen, Nicalis
PS4, PSVita, Steam
I finally got my hands on 2011’s rogue-lite The Binding of Isaac late last year, and it didn’t gel with me at all. Though I had anticipated the game, I was immediately put off by the controls and didn’t spend very much time with it. A few months later I decided to give it another go, and found that I was unable to put it down. I spent about 24 hours with it over the course of a week, honing my skills while dying repeatedly and enjoying myself immensely.
Eventually, I was all Isaac’ed out, but the flame in my heart was reignited when it was announced that remake/sequel Binding of Isaac Rebirth would be coming to Playstation Vita in November. Boasting pixel graphics, a wealth of new content and the ability to play the game on the go, I immediately dove back in on release day.
This is still the same Binding of Isaac you know: fast, furious, grotesque and difficult, but with a fresh coat of paint and a staggering amount of new content to unlock and figure out. Rebirth introduces different-shaped rooms and many disgusting new bosses to contend with. Even if you’ve had your fill of Isaac, Rebirth is just different enough to entice you back and suck you in for hour after hour. You’ll die a lot, and you’ll jump back in to die again with glee.
#3 DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
It’s a visual novel, it’s an adventure game, there’s courtroom antics and rhythm action sequences. Genre-busting comedy/thriller DanganRonpa is difficult to define, but proves to be an unforgettable experience. The story follows student Makoto Naegi’s admission to Hope’s Peak Academy, a private high school open only to the best of the best, and attended by numerous colorful characters who have been deemed the best in their field, such as the Ultimate Biker Gang Leader, or the Ultimate Fanfic Creator, among others. Makoto, who is otherwise unremarkable, has been admitted as the result of a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky Student.
However, when Makoto crosses the academy’s threshold, he quickly loses consciousness only to wake up in a classroom with steel plates welded over its windows. He quickly discovers he has been trapped in the school with fifteen other students by the self-proclaimed headmaster: a cute-but-sadistic robotic bear called Monokuma. Monokuma advises his charges of the school’s rules: If one student is to murder another and get away with it, he or she will graduate and be allowed to leave the school. If his/her crime is revealed and proven by the other students in a class trial, then he/she will be executed. The catch is, if the murderer does get away with his/her crime, all of the other students will be executed.
As such, the game’s episodes are divided into three parts: Daily Life, in which Makoto is free to explore the school and interact with his fellow students; Deadly Life, after a corpse has been discovered and Makoto and co. search for clues; and Class Trial, in which the students debate and present their evidence to accuse one of their fellows.
The trial, unlike the courtroom-based adventure series Phoenix Wright, takes the form of a number of different mini-games in which the player must use their wits and dexterity to expose inconsistencies in witness testimonies, spell out a piece of evidence letter-by-letter, or simply chip away at a suspect’s resolve by pressing buttons in time with an electro dance beat. Odd? Yes, and occasionally tedious. Particularly, pointing out inconsistencies may be a point of contention for some players: There are some instances in which there could be more than one way to express a single idea, but the game only recognizes one correct answer. Being told that your logic is incorrect simply because the game is only programmed to accept one answer can be jarring and frustrating. Adding insult to injury, many of the logic problems presented in these sequences are too easy or obvious.
What stops these mini-game sequences from becoming a chore is the fact that they are backed by some excellent and thumping music by composer Masafumi Takada (Killer7, No More Heroes). The same can be said for the rest of the game: Takada really outdid himself by creating an original score that uses unusual instruments and twists their discord into up-tempo dance pieces that please the ear. It was great to hear him back doing what he does best.
DanganRonpa has a hysterical sense of humor and has been translated excellently by NISA. I’m usually not a big fan of NISA’s work, as their sense of humor is often pervy and breast-obsessed, but they did a surprisingly fantastic job here. Each character has a unique voice that makes them likable and interesting; Otaku-parody Hifumi shines especially bright, with dialogue in which he compares his favorite magical girl anime Pretty Pudgy Princess to the works of JG Ballard. Antagonist Monokuma pops up to bookend chapters with amusing (and occasionally, revealing) non sequiturs that are a joy to behold.
While the game’s plot and characters are extremely enjoyable at face value, a little digging reveals DanganRonpa to be an outrageous satire of utsuge (“depressing game”) with despair-fetishist Monokuma functioning as the audience-surrogate; the player who hotly anticipates the next murder with baited breath. The post-trial voting and subsequent elimination also brings to mind the spectacle of participant elimination found in many reality television programmes. It’s deep, it’s self-aware and it’s stylish as hell. You won’t be disappointed.
#2 Ghost Suburb II: From Sleep Into the Eyes of Madness
RPG Maker 2003 (Windows 9x) (Get it here)
Put together single-handedly by Moga, Ghost Suburb II is one of the most unique RPG Maker titles I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. Boasting 8-bit/EGA style graphics with cute character designs, odd music and a mind-bending story, Ghost Suburb II is a fever dream that feels like the obscure witch-house mixtape of NES games.
The plot follows a nurse named Okay who hasn’t slept in a very long time, and her “friend” Gertrud, an antagonistic floating eyeball. The duo make their way around the hospital in which they work and the surrounding town, observing strange phenomena and vignettes as they go. Eventually, these seemingly disconnected events weave together to tell a cohesive story that is as disturbing as it is satisfying.
Ghost Suburb II plays with one’s expectations of the genre with an unconventional menu screen that lends itself nicely to the game’s delirious insomniac feel. The game’s battle system is relatively plain in terms of mechanics, but the wide variety of unconventional skill names and outstanding enemy designs keep things fresh throughout the game’s short duration.
It’s weird, it’s hot, it’s free. I really loved it. Play it!
#1 Huevos Rancheros' Gonad Golf
SmaphdySoft & Niwatori no Namida House
Oh yeah, I went there. Highly anticipated but heavily delayed, gamers around the world were squawking about Huevos Rancheos’ Gonad Golf this year. Did too many cooks spoil the broth? Does its seventeen-year development time not stand up in the world of 2014? Does it suffer from being released on an obscure and obsolete handheld? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding no!
Half biographical JRPG and half golfing simulator, take the reins of Huevos Rancheros as he leaves his mother’s home in Aomori Prefecture his quest to become the greatest gonad golfer that Japan has ever seen. After an early game event in which the player obliterates the local hunchback’s scrotum to save a kidnapped blind soapland masseuse, Rancheros learns that the stakes are higher than he had anticipated, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. You’ll fly to far-flung locations such as The Sewer, Ice World, Hot Volcano and Space Land, before facing off against the Statue of Liberty in a round of gonad golf with consequences that will alter the world forever.
Sombrero-sporting Japanese comedian Huevos Rancheros has been making audiences laugh for decades with his uncanny brand of stereotypical Mexican golf humor, a sense of humor that translates wonderfully (pardon the pun) to the Wonderswan screen. Pro-tip, play it under a high-powered light if you want to see all of the details; otherwise you’re just not having an optimum experience.
So, there you have it. 2014 has come and gone, and the future is not ours to see. Stay frosty, handsome!