John's Expanded 2014 Games of the Year List
by Crono Maniac

There were a TON of great video games that came out in 2014. I've got a big old unordered list of 'em to share with all of you, and rest assured there are plenty more.


A Night in the Woods

A Night in the Woods is about mundane horror. Most video game end-of-the-world scenarios are overblown, but Amy Dentata's 10-minute-long first-person exploration game eschews melodrama at every turn. In the end this makes it much, much scarier. I look out into those lights at the end and the realness of this scenario, this world, strikes me in a really uncomfortable way. It's a slow-burn with no real catharsis, just building dread that doesn't go away when you shut the browser window.



Threes

The difference between a strategy game explicitly balanced for both low and high-level play and a game designed more carelessly is often difficult to discern. 2014 granted us a fascinating case-study in this difference: 2048 and Threes are superficially identical, but the latter is unquestionably, undeniably a richer experience. While they're both immediately appealing to new players, 2048 can be "solved" almost immediately, which is a death knell for games meant to have long-lasting appeal. I've pushed and pushed and pushed against Threes all year and it's still rewarding me with deeper play.

That's the main difference between the two games: 2048 is fleeting. Threes is eternal.



Curtain

Curtain is something like a dark companion piece to Gone Home, alike in many ways but grimmer and more down-to-earth. It's about the abusive relationship between two women, and how that dynamic manifests itself over time in the cluttered home you spend most of the game exploring. It's not a cheery story at all, but it earns its darkness in a way many of these kinds of games don't quite manage.



Monument Valley

A lesser game than Monument Valley would've simply progressed as a series of disconnected puzzle sequences, without any regard for storytelling or catharsis. There are countless "atmospheric" puzzle games online and on the app store that don't actually construct their surface elements around anything meaningful. Monument Valley isn't just great because its individual pieces are well-made. It's because all of those pieces work together to create something greater. It's not especially deep or anything, but it's a complete story, and that means the world to me.



The Floor is Jelly

Ian Snyder's The Floor is Jelly starts out as an ode to the pure joy of play. Leaping and bouncing around the floors and walls of this game's wonderfully crafted levels is euphoric. The game's control of physics and momentum is pitch-perfect, as is the immaculate sound design. It's just really fun to play!

Then the last third hits, and the game falls apart. Deliberately. It breaks itself down into all of its component parts, and examines each piece individually. Instead of a traditional climax, the game studies itself and what makes it special. It looks at video games as a whole, and their inherit, eerie instability. It's a reflective game, like REDDER or Naya's Quest, and when it finally breaks apart completely at the very end it feels like the only thing that could happen.

Video games are illusions, just like all art. If we push hard enough upon what looks like a solid surface it'll always eventually bend inward. No matter how solid it looks, it's actually ... jelly.



Spacepants

Spacepants is a well-made, extremely funny iOS action game. There's a great flow to the difficulty curve, and I appreciate the attention paid to balancing high-level play. I never felt like the game was treating me unfairly, even at higher and higher levels of challenge. That it was made by a twelve-year-old in Game Maker Studio serves as a great argument for why making design tools more accessible is an absolute good.



Desert Golfing

Desert Golfing is about slowly, laboriously making your way across a treacherous landscape, with no retries or do-overs to erase your innumerable mistakes. It's a nifty little art-piece: while its mechanical nuances are enjoyable to figure out, they're really only present as a functional way to make traversing the landscape more of a challenge.

After all, a traditionally well-crafted game with the same set of rules would probably take about 50-80 holes to fully explore the interesting interactions possible in its system, and Desert Golfing goes on for literally thousands of holes. But the rules are there - while play feels fruitless and often unrewarding, the player's interactions are important and meaningful to the piece as a whole. (Maybe that's why as an interactive art piece it resonates with me more than this year's Mountain.)



Helix

Michael Brough is a master craftsman who frequently makes perfect games. Helix is another one. It has the best use of touch controls in an action game I've ever seen - just moving around is joyous, and learning the ins and outs of circling and ensnaring the many enemies is one of the deepest and most strategic experiences I've had with a game this year.



Emotica

The whimsy and joy in anna anthropy's Emotica is special to me personally because it's what finally inspired me to go back and finish up Dance Party in May, months after my then-girlfriend now-wife Anna had finished all of the necessary art. Like Dance Party, Emotica is a lovely little mess of gently-interweaving interactions, and exploring all of its different creatures, spells, wizards, and sounds was an absolute delight.



Gay Cats go to the Weird, Weird Woods

Gay Cats go to the Weird, Weird Woods is the whimsy of Emotica focused into an even tighter experience. You only explore a handful of screens, but they're stuffed with adorable interactions and effects. And unlike Emotica it has a hilarious conclusion.



Flappy Bird

100% of what makes Flappy Bird an engaging, unique experience is the expertly-tuned downwards acceleration of your Cheep-Cheep-esque avatar. None of the clones get it exactly right. It's just fast enough to give motion tremendous weight, and just complex enough that mastering it is a worthwhile challenge. Terry Cavanagh's Maverick Bird comes at it from a different angle by assigning a diving motion to a separate input, and is perhaps as engaging, but Flappy Bird is still the game I kept revisiting as the year wore on. (My high score is 162.)



Kero Blaster

Cave Story was an immaculate video game that married rock-solid game design with storytelling sensibilities that would have been at home in a top tier SNES JRPG. In contrast, Kero Blaster is simply a cute, sweet, delightful, fun, pleasant, entertaining, amusing romp. There're none of Cave Story's eerie ambiguities here, it's just a razor-sharp, incredibly enjoyable platformer. That may be too slight for some, but as a lifelong devotee of Mega Man X, I'm happy to spend my time with Kero Blaster.



Lullaby for a Heartsick Spacer and Take Care

Lullaby for a Heartsick Spacer and Take Care approach the same story from two different perspectives. In one you explore a tiny, procedurally-generated alien cave and find a tiny nook to curl up and rest in. In the other you reach across the void to calm a tormented stranger.

The former is about giving yourself a moment of total calm, of finding solace in nuzzling yourself up in a warm blanket and forgetting the world's troubles for a little while. The latter is about comforting a witch whose cry for help manages to reach you even if you're a total stranger.

Like many of kopas's games these are works about empathy, about small moments of perfect kindness. They're little lights of human goodness that I can reach out to when I'm in a dark space. And the world can always use more light.

(When I said this list was unordered, I was lying. These two are number one.)



Pokémon Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby

I dismissed the third generation of Pokémon games offhand for a long time, mostly because it was such a pronounced step back from the immaculate Johto games. It seemed like the beginning of the end. The villains were no longer down-to-earth gangsters engaged in mundanely awful crimes like violently harvesting Slowpoke tails or killing Cubone's mom. Instead they were typical JRPG villains who wanted to save the world by destroying it, an artistic choice the later games would rarely recover from.

While that's true, it incorporates its apocalyptic plotting more intelligently than something like Pokémon X and Y. There's a palpable weight of history to Hoenn, of ancient beasts locked away long ago, with only ruins and cave drawings hinting that they ever existed. When these creatures finally show up there's real awe to it. The cast of characters is lovely as well − your friend from back home, the frail and meek child who desperately wants to be your rival, the slick and confident Pokémon champion (who actually plays a part in the game's story!), and your work-a-holic gym leader dad.

I think Patricia Hernandez nails it the best: Ruby and Sapphire are gentler Pokémon games. They're filled with small towns, open waters, and kind friends. It's a world I'm happy to be a part of for a little while.



Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS

The essence of Smash Bros. is one really really good idea: it's a fighting game where instead of lowering your opponent's health bar to win, your goal is to knock them entirely off of the stage. Vital corollaries to this one really really good idea include: 1) each fighter has a percentage meter that goes up when they're attacked, and when your percentage meter is higher your attacks knock you farther back, 2) moves are executed with simple button + direction pad combinations, rather than the execution-intensive elaborate move inputs of other fighting games, and 3) characters have different movesets that affect hitboxes, damage amounts, and knockback in a variety of interesting ways.

Obviously you could make the argument that all of the ancillary elements in these games (namely the stage layouts and the very random items) impede this gorgeous core design, but really it just means Smash works for two kinds of play equally well. It's the fun party game you can pull out with friends and just enjoy all of the chaotic nonsense on screen, and it's a pretty damn intense one-on-one fighting game when you're in the mood for something more meaty. Granted, I have no idea if it really works at a competitive level (I'm never sunk a lot of time into fighting games), but as it is I quite enjoy it.

I've read that the developers at Nintendo for the original Super Smash Bros. had this design idea before anyone thought to add in the ensemble cast, which makes a ton of sense to me. Smash's fan appeal obviously contributes to its popularity, but I'd wager the primary reason that it's endured for decades is that, at its core, it's a great game.



Just ... everything by Stephen Lavelle.



Jake Clover too.



Shovel Knight

Hurg. Yeah, it's good. Levels go on a little long, but it's good.



The next ten are simply my favorite games I played this year. I talked about them in-depth on the SMPS Game of the Year 2014 Podcast, and they're listed here for the sake of completeness.

10. Kagirinaki Tatakai (1983)


We're too careless about the history of this medium, and mini-masterpieces like this are exactly the kind of games that are slipping away from us. Hold onto them tightly and don't let go.

9. Sonic Adventure (1998)



An affront to art, taste, and common sense. And yet, I adore it.

8. Metal Gear Ghost Babel (2000)


Subtly, one of the sharpest and best Metal Gear stories. (Could've done without that cardboard box maze though.)

7. Hunters: Relic of the Stars (2011)


An epic. Starts slowly and humbly, then gradually ascends into transcendent opulent nonsense.

6. Ib (20??)


The scariest and best horror game I've played in a long time.

5. Sabbat: Director's KVT (2013)



"You are... not entirely certain how to operate this genital."

4. METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE (2013)



"I am frustrated with the world's injustices, so I will find the people responsible and CUT THEM INTO BITE-SIZED PIECES!!"

3. Final Fantasy Legend II (1990)


One of the most mechanically taxing and dramatically rich games I've ever played. Genuinely makes you feel like Luke Skywalker, against all odds, barely managing to blow up the Death Star just in the nick of time.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000)



The most soul-enriching game I played this year.

1. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (2002)



An astounding artistic achievement, and one of the best games I've ever played. It's as self-evidently perfect in its design as games like Ikaruga and Tetris, and it's a beautiful story.


Thanks for reading, and happy new year!






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