Crono Maniac's Top 10 Games of 2012
by Crono Maniac

What a great year for video games. The Walking Dead came out and revitalized the adventure game genre while simultaneously expanding the boundaries of what is possible for interactive storytelling. Spec Ops: The Line commented on our escapist culture and forced us to look inward on what it means to spend hours a day slaughtering virtual lives. Mark of the Ninja, Journey, X-Com, Persona 4: The Golden, Fez; truly it is a great time to be a gamer.

Unfortunately, I didn't play any of those games. So here's a bunch of old and/or obscure games you don't care about.


10. Ziggurat (2012) and Super Hexagon (2012)



The iPhone library is way more expansive than I initially gave it credit for. In an era where companies like Nintendo and Sony are trying to make their portable systems more and more like movable versions of their stationary consoles, it's refreshing to play games that are actually designed to be played on the go. It's perfect for bite-sized puzzle games like the strangely addictive Triple Town or the physically painful Slice. But it works best for arcade-action games designed to be played in short bursts, the finest of which that I've played are Ziggurat and Super Hexagon.

Ziggurat is something of a modern reworking of the classic arcade title Missile Command. It's a game about crowd control, about making complex risk/reward-based decisions in the middle of a chaotic situation. It also shares Missile Command's evocative apocalyptic scenario, but where Missile Command ends with a low, rumbling Atari-boom sound effect and the words "THE END" superimposed over an explosion, Ziggurat ends with a cut to red, a hellish wail, and a blunt reminder that you will die no matter how many alien freaks you manage to take with you.

It's a game by Tim Rogers, a very smart man with many fascinating ideas and an unfortunately assholish internet persona. His writing espouses the virtue of simple, clean game design that tells interesting stories through mechanics and atmosphere rather than through cutscenes and dialogue. His "style" justifiably turns off a lot of people from his work, but Ziggurat is at least proof that he isn't totally talking out of his ass.

The second game is Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh, creator of VVVVVV and Don't Look Back. It seems to be a game about a simple concept: dodge the oncoming shapes. But it's more of a game about disorientation than navigating an obstacle course. The screen rotates in fluctuating speeds and directions, colors swap and shift in hue, the scale of the playing field is subtly altered by the booming beats of the soundtrack, and the patterns are arranged to confuse your sense of timing. Every single person I've shown it to has said "put it away, it hurts my eyes" in less than a minute.

It makes for a visually interesting game, as well as a very challenging one, as is cutely noted by the difficulty levels: "Hard," "Harder," and "Hardest," then the unlockable "Hardester," "Hardestest," and "Hardestestest." It's hard to approach at first, but after enough attempts you reach a state of flow where every pattern seems to pass you in perfect unison with your finger gestures, and when that finally hits it's exhilarating. I've beaten all but one of the levels, and it took many extended bathroom breaks to do so. It's available on Steam and iOS, so get on it.


9. Resident Evil (1996)



I'm sorry, Resident Evil. I'm so, so sorry. I bought you on PSN a year ago, played you for forty-five minutes, and then promptly turned you off and made fun of you on the internet. I mocked and ridiculed you for your static camera angles and awkward combat, for your limited inventory and rare ammunition, without even realizing that all of those features were in place deliberately. I didn't recognize you as the perfect, beautiful piece of game design that you are, that you deserved my respect and not my scorn. And for that, I am sorry.

Resident Evil is a game filled with design that resists the player. The inventory system is irritating and requires you to think carefully about what items you have on you at any given time. The combat is finicky and unresponsive, so most players will strategize so as to fight as few enemies as possible. And the fact that there is no way to get an infinite amount of healing items or ammunition means that it's possible to reach the end of the game and have no feasible way to win.

All of these design features are superficially obnoxious, but they make the game tremendously rewarding to get through. Games like Silent Hill took these concepts and dumbed them down to make them more accessible, and as a result they come across as comparitively limp gameplay experiences.

The only thing that doesn't fit at all is the cutscenes. It's as though they were trying to make a tribute to Z-grade zombie schlock, but they failed because the actual game was simply too good. Resident Evil the game is legitimately tense and scary, and it deserved a story that had the nerve to play itself straight.

I picked up Resident Evil for the second time on a whim, and after a couple of hours I had finally worked my head around its quirks. After that I couldn't put it down. For three or four days I was either playing Resident Evil or thinking about playing it, and immediately after finishing it I ran to a used game store and picked up every other game in the series that they had. If nothing else, it was a good reminder that sometimes first impressions can be deceiving.


8. Ecco the Dolphin (1992)



It seems like the whole "games-as-art" discussion is getting a lot of traction lately, and believe it or not I think that's a good thing. It's healthy to think critically about the things we enjoy, and the various editorials I've read on the subject have helped me enjoy games in new and interesting lights.

Case in point: Ecco the Dolphin, an arthouse game from a time where the term didn't really exist. It feels like a distant cousin of the R-Type games. Both are experiences designed to make you feel isolated in face of an uncaring universe that, for the most part, just wants you dead. Both convey this theme through deliberate pacing, oppressive aesthetics (both games have a huge crush on H.R. Giger), and murderous, unrelenting difficulty.

It all comes to a head in the last level, "Welcome to the Machine." It's a six-minute long autoscrolling level with no checkpoints and populated with monsters that can kill you in one hit. The scrolling is designed in such a way that sometimes you can get trapped simply by choosing the wrong tunnel earlier on in the stage, and the only way to pass those sections is pure memorization and trial-and-error. After that is the final boss, who has three seperate phases and can also kill you in one hit. Die on the final boss? Back to the Machine. Rinse, lather, repeat, die.

Is it unfair? Unquestionably. Bad game design? Perhaps. But by God it works. Somehow or another, it didn't piss me off at all and just made me want to try that much harder to reach the (disappointingly cheerful) ending.

It's my favorite kind of arthouse game, where all the arty visuals and thematics are intrinsically tied to the core gameplay. Ecco is cheap, mean, and occasionally downright evil. And that fits perfectly with the atmosphere that the game is trying to evoke. It may not be the most polished piece of work out there (the block puzzles and ear-grating sound effects are difficult to ignore), but it represents the kind of cohesive vision I hope to see more of from games in the future.


7. Hero Core (2010) and REDDER (2010)



I've gained a much greater appreciation for ambiguity over the last year. I like stories that ask questions rather than deliver lectures, stories where the answers aren't always clear and endings aren't always neat little bows where everybody lives happily ever after. This is partly why Iji isn't on the list despite my enjoying it earlier in the year; Iji is a game with many virtues, but subtlety and nuance are not among them. Instead, I've decided to give the freeware spot to two games: Hero Core, another game by Iji-author Daniel Remar, and REDDER, by Anna Anthropy, one of the best games journalists and freeware designers out there. Both games are deliberately stripped down, minimalist experiences that tell as much as they can in as few words as possible.

Hero Core is a 2D shoot-em-up done in the style of a metroidvania, a type of game I've gotten kind of sick of over the years. It seems like all a freeware game has to do to get boatloads of indie praise is to stick a bunch of upgrades in a boring maze and then add in some tedious combat and a dull boss fight. After playing garbage like the much-lauded Escape from the Underworld and Momodora 2 I thought I was pretty much over the genre. What Hero Core does to revitalize it is actually kind of ingenious.

You can get upgrades from beating bosses, and the upgrades make it easier to navigate the world and survive enemy encounters. But you don't have to collect any of the upgrades. You can beat the game without fighting any bosses. It's just that the ending areas are much harder, so the game subtly leads you towards exploring the easier areas first. It's so much more organic than all of the arbitrary lock-and-key nonsense in most of these games. It also allows the story to unfold more naturally as you find hidden details around the game world. The true ending is actually quite poetic and beautiful, and it accomplishes more in just a few sprites and text boxes than Iji does in a dozen lengthy cutscenes.

REDDER is another exploration-based game, only it's even more minimal in its approach. There's no upgrades, no weapons, no bosses, just a couple of songs, and only one real gameplay mechanic. But that's what's so cool about it. Anthropy had an extremely specific goal in the kind of effect she wanted to create in the player, and then stripped her game down to the absolute barest essentials of what she needed to manifest that effect.

She creates this effect through misdirection – by tricking the player into thinking the game is something less than it is. It's a little similar to the recently released flash game Frog Fractions, but whereas that game used misdirection for the sake of making one giant (admittedly hilarious) non-sequitur, REDDER uses it to make a genuinely profound statement about art and the relationship between artists and audiences. It's not for everybody (it's hard to ignore the fact that the core gameplay just isn't all that fun), but it's definitely an experience worth having.


6. Sonic Generations
It's become a cliché to point out that Sonic games have sucked for the better part of a two decades. Dodgy cameras, lazily-designed anthropomorphic cast-mates, extraneous game modes, voice acting, cutscene direction, pedophilic undertones, blah blah blah – it's all become so redundant. It's boring.

Sonic Generations bills itself as a celebration of Sonic's vast and varied history, and that's exactly what it is. It's a celebration of everything Sonic – warts and all. It takes the rightly-revered Genesis Sonic games and does them justice in the 2D classic stages. But it also takes all of the good ideas littered throughout the modern Sonic games and hones them to a razor's edge. It actually makes you appreciate the value of games like Sonic Adventure, Sonic Heroes, or even Sonic '06.

It's so uncynical. Its attitude is "yeah, this had a lot of problems, but look at how cool this part was!" "Yes, Sonic '06 was silly, but Crisis City had some pretty nifty visual design!" "Yes, Sonic Adventure was problematic in some ways, but City Escape was really neat!" It makes me want to play all of the bad Sonic games just to see how they got to this point.

There were always cool concepts in the modern Sonic games. It was only ever a matter of working out the control issues and stripping away the excess. Sonic Generations does more than make Sonic relevant again – it makes you realize the worth of all of his previous failed exploits.


5. Touhou 11: Subterranean Animism (2008)



I have no idea how a series of obscure doujin curtain fire shmups gathered such a fevered following in the United States, but I'm thankful that they did. If they hadn't I almost certainly wouldn't have experienced some of the most unique bullet hell games out there. Having played almost all of them at this point, I can say that Subterranean Animism is almost certainly the best of the lot.

It's hard to explain why it's the best in the series. The music is fantastic, the graphics are gorgeous, and the gameplay is challenging, but those things are true of all of the Touhou games. What makes Touhou Number Eleven better than Numbers One through Ten?

Maybe it's just that it feels more like a complete story than a collection of pretty bullet patterns. The whole game is themed around descent. There's a real sense of dread as you go go deeper and deeper into the Earth, and the final boss is the single most visually impressive encounter in the whole series. It's the only Touhou game with a palpable sense of menace, and that counts for a lot in a shmup.

It's also really hard; moreso than usual I mean. Normal mode seems to be about as challenging as most of the previous games on Hard mode. I was thankful for the unlimited continues, as they allowed me to bash my head into one stage over and over for hours instead of starting over every time I run out of lives. Victory in Subterranean Animism will only come with persistence, and when it arrives it's incredibly rewarding.


4. Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991)



Okay, this one is cheating; I definitely played Metroid II before 2012. However, this year was the first time I really appreciated it, so I feel like I can talk about it anyway.

Metroid II is unique in that it's one of the few games I've played that successfully conveys the illusion that it wasn't actually designed. It strips away many of the abstractions present in the other Metroid games: color-coded doors, magic blocks with helpful icons, shine spark puzzles, giant statues that descend into the earth after blowing up bosses, large HUDs, maps, etc. etc. These abstractions aren't exactly bad – in many respects they actually make the games more fun and playable – but it's inarguable that they do make the various worlds seem less like lost civilizations and more like video games.

Metroid II lacks these abstractions. Even its perceived faults like the lack of a map and the zoomed in screen only help to make the game more claustrophobic and isolating. There's a constant feeling of dread as you descend deeper and deeper into the planet, and every step of the way leads to bigger and scarier horrors. And it caps it off with a climax that's absolutely brilliant.

The Metroid Queen fight has the same spark of genius present in the Draygon fight in Super Metroid. Both allow you to pummel them with missiles into submission, but they also have a well-hidden alternate solution that makes sense in the context of the gameplay mechanics. What makes the fights so cool is that they don't insist on the alternate solution. Metroid: Other M mirrors the Metroid Queen fight, but it misses the point by ending the fight with a tensionless God of War style scripted sequence. It doesn't feel organic in the same way as Metroid II does.

And then comes the ending. After a whole game of slaughtering metroids, Samus comes across the last infant of the species right as it hatches. Instead of exterminating it like she had every other metroid, she takes it with her and climbs to the surface. There's no timed escape sequence, just a peaceful climb with the baby in tow. It's an interesting contrast to the rest of the game, and it's somehow cathartic when you finally see the starry night sky. It also helps to characterize and humanize Samus. It's not exactly profound, and it's definitely not worth making a whole game just to elaborate on, but it's nice. Just ... nice.

Yes, Super Metroid is the better game. The controls are deeper and more satisfying to master, the world is more interesting, the ending is even more brilliant, and the presentation is gorgeous. But with all those positive additions came some fat as well. Metroid II isn't as impressive as Super Metroid or as demanding as the first game. It's just the closest the series has come to perfect. I'd say that counts for something.


3. ICO (2001)



Team ICO shares many of my design sensibilities. Both of their games, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, are minimal, stripped down experiences that try to convey as much as they can through as little as possible. It definitely seems to work; their games strike an emotional core with people that few other games touch.

ICO is admittedly the less accessible of the two. Shadow of the Colossus had an easily-grasped hook in the form of giant, impressive looking boss monsters. All ICO has is an extended escort mission and pretty architecture. But it's just so perfect. There is no excess in ICO. None. Even Shadow of the Colossus had a stupid collectible quest and an unnecessary HUD. But ICO tells its story so beautifully, without any bloat whatsoever.

What strikes me most about the world of ICO is the way the castle is structured. It feels like an actual place. All of the rooms connect together in a consistent, logical way, and whenever you get to the scenic vistas you can see all the places you've been to up to that point. It establishes the setting so well, which goes a long way to making the story work.

The combat is a little too simple. The game takes a lot of inspiration from the structure of Out of this World, but the reason the alternating puzzles and combat worked in that game was because of the brilliance of its central combat mechanic, something ICO lacks. But everything else is so well put together. The controls have weight, the puzzles are mind-bending and mix organically with the environment, and the camera strikes a good balance between showing off the architecture and keeping the game playable. It's just a wonderful little package, and it's something everyone should play.


2.


Alright, enough with the art games. You're alone on Mars. Scientists have opened a portal to Hell and everyone else is dead. It's you, alone, versus the legions of Satan. Grab a shotgun and crank up the metal, it's time to meet your DOOM.

There's a number of reasons playing DOOM in 2012 is incredibly refreshing. It's much faster than most contemporary first-person-shooters, and it's not afraid to throw dozens of enemies at you at a time. The lack of regenerating health means the flow will never get wrecked having to hide in a corner and wait to reach full health. And the various demons, posessed marines, and other miscellaneous hellspawn you encounter are much more visually interesting than nazis or terrorists.

But what really struck me was the level design. The various sprawling levels are large and often almost maze-like, and it's almost overwhelming at times. In the wake of games like Half-Life, this style of design has been greatly downplayed in favor of tighter objectives and linear cooridors. The irony is that, in this respect, serious-faced, self-important modern first-person-shooters actually require less thought to play than "dumb" games like DOOM.

DOOM is timeless. Even now when its technology has long since been outclassed, there is still a place in the world for shotguns, Beholder-knockoffs, and color coded keys. This is a game built to last, and over twenty years later it's clear that it has lasted.


1. Dragon Quest V (1992)



It's easy to forget how revolutionary the first Dragon Quest was at the time of its release. Computer RPGs at the time were notoriously convoluted and difficult to get into. That's not to say they didn't have merit, but they were still only released for an incredibly niche audience. Compared to RPGs of the time, Dragon Quest was simple, clean, and elegant, and this is what contributed to it becoming such a cultural phenomenon in Japan.

It also had an all-star line up of developers. Akira Toriyama drew monsters that were still appealing to look at even when converted into sprite form. And Koichi Sugiyama gave the game a unique aural atmosphere that's inspired everything from remixes to full-blown symphonic orchestrations. But the most important member of the team was Yuji Horii, who was in charge of the game world and writing, and in a single line of text he could imbue his NPCs with more genuine humanity than anyone in the cold, mathematical worlds of Wizardry and its ilk. Toriyama and Sugiyama gave Dragon Quest personality, but it was Horii who gave it warmth.

This raw, exposed-nerve humanity only revealed itself in brief moments in the NES games (there's something extremely unsettling about the Dragonlord's offer at the end of the first game), but it finally came to the forefront in Dragon Quest V.

Most RPGs use experience points as a gameplay mechanic, but few them are really about growing up. Dragon Quest V starts with your avatar's birth and follows him through his whole life. It's a brilliant hook, but what really makes it work is your dad. He's an idol to aspire to, and his exit four or five hours into the game is the single best use of the "scripted battle" trope I've ever seen in an RPG. Eventually you become a father yourself, and it all comes full circle beautifully.

The best scene is about two thirds into the game. I don't even need to say which one – if you've played it, you know which one I'm referring too. It's the only time in the game that interactivity is taken away from you for an extended stretch of time, but unlike in most RPGs it actually fits into the gameplay mechanics, not unlike a similar scene in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It makes you feel powerless. It's heartwrenching in a way that few other games have ever managed.

It's an RPG that's actually subtle, something that's far rarer than it should be. I fully suspect that it's the reason Square decided to step up its game for Final Fantasy VI. It almost certainly influenced the production of Earthbound. And I doubt that Horii could have done such a great job with Chrono Trigger if it hadn't been for what he learned in Dragon Quest V.

It's one of the best, most important games ever made, and it just got a spectacular remake on the Nintendo DS. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of RPGs is doing themselves a tremendous disservice by not checking it out.


Thanks for reading. Here's to another great year.







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