This time last year, I decided I would log every game that I played throughout the year. I cannot remember why I thought that was a good idea. It put a lot of completely unnecessary pressure on me to not only complete games that I didn’t really want to, but it also discouraged me from playing games that don’t have a traditional ending.
This year I’m going to double-down on tracking the games I play, but in an effort to write more about them and to get away from throwing up a bulleted list once a month. I got through a chunk of my backlog of story-driven games in 2013, but now I want to spend more time with the games I’ve been skipping over - roguelikes, survival sims, MMOs, free-to-play games, mods, and small GameMaker experiments, for example. I find myself burnt out on shooty-type games with bullets and blood and guts and soliders, and much more interested in arcade-style action, interactive fiction (Twine stories) and weird RPG Maker and GameMaker projects. I want to start spending less money on the big publishers, and more money on people pushing boundaries from their living room, creating unique art and criticism. The Patreon system, for example, let’s me support awesome people like Mattie Brice.
Total games completed in 2013: 64
That’s an average of a little over one game per week, which sounds about right. Some of those games were only half an hour long, and some were 20+ hours. This year I’m going to be less shy about those longer games; I avoided too many of them this year for no other reason than I didn’t think I could get them finished in a single month. Stupid reason.
Feistiest consoles of the year: Ouya and Wii U
I want a PS4 and Xbox One as badly as most gamers, but the games just aren’t there. Until it takes at least two hands to count the games I want to play on PS4, I’ll keep holding out. And unless Microsoft starts showing a better value proposition, I’m not interested in spending $500 on a console that can’t keep up with the competition.
Their retail partners aren’t treating them very well. Any exclusive that does well on the system turns right around and announces a new and improved PC version. The Discover store is full of overpriced mobile ports, and the controller could use a little more time in the oven. But if you remind yourself that the whole system (with controller) is only $99, you might actually have some serious fun. That's cheaper than that shitty special edition of Call of Duty you buy every year!
Ever since the “Abominable Snowman” firmware update, the whole system is snappier, the UI is greatly improved, and it feels more like a console. There’s still only a few true Ouya exclusives worth recommending, but forget about that. There’s more than enough fun to be had with the top curated games on the Discover store, and you can try them all for free. And if you’ve got the patience and know-how, setting the system up for XBMC and emulation makes it an extremely capable little box that’s much more of a value than your $99 Apple TV or Roku will ever, ever dream of being.
A slow launch and weak third-party support make the Wii U… well, just like every other Nintendo system in its infancy. But things have leveled out, and there are now more than enough fantastic games available to make it easy to recommend. Incredible first-party games like Super Mario 3D World and Wind Waker HD are there now, and 2014 will deliver mega-hits like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros.
Since its launch we’ve also seen a price drop, a couple of firmware updates to speed things up, a growing selection of games available on the eShop, and even some updates to the 3DS to make things more unified between Nintendo’s handheld and console. Oh, and let’s talk about the power - sure, it’s not as powerful as the Xbox One or PS4. But the gap isn’t as large as it was between the Wii and the Xbox 360/PS3. It’s a fully capable system, with lots of 1080p games in its future, some of which are even targeting that 60fps sweet spot. Bottom line: it’s a great time to buy a Wii U.
Favorite game I played this year: The Pinball Arcade
Worst game I played this year: The Pinball Arcade
Oh yes, that TPA would be both my favorite and most hated game of the year will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s listened to me rant about it, or anyone who follows the game very closely themselves. The developer, Farsight Studios, has a history of coming up short.
I caught pinball fever this year - playing the mobile (Android) version of TPA constantly, and I eventually bought the Xbox 360 version, PS3 and Vita versions, even buying the old (out of print) retail version of their previous game, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection on X360. Each of those different versions had a series of pros and cons, but the promised (and already a year late) PC version was around the corner, so I threw money into DLC on each of the different platforms and held my breath. In the meantime, I even met some of the Farsight devs at the Texas Pinball Festival and had my opinion of them only lowered further.
Eventually a launch date was announced for the PC/Steam version, but Farsight promptly missed it, and publicly blamed Valve for the failure. Then they finally launched, but without any of the promised features of the PC version. The payment model for buying DLC was dumb (in-app purchases only), there were no discounts offered to folks who had already bought all of the pinball tables on multiple platforms, there was no way to gift individual tables to friends (still isn’t). There’s no Steam friends leaderboard support, they shipped the game with broken post-processing for AMD cards, and the list goes on. Then they missed their PS4 launch date, but caught up a couple of weeks later. Now the PC crowd is waiting on the features to be delivered that we were promised so long ago - cabinet support, DX11 lighting (already on the PS4 version) and a working leaderboard system. Oh, and they still haven’t released on Wii U, despite advertising themselves in 2012 as a launch title.
The situation with TPA apparently boils down to a developer house with terrible leadership and resource management. But hey, they’re the only ones who have the licenses to many of the classic tables they reproduce, so what can you do? If you want to play “real” pinball tables, this is the only place to do it. Some of the tables are incredibly beautiful, remarkably accurate recreations that you can lose yourself in for hours. But then some of them are pixelated cash-ins that have had bugs and poor artwork for years. The experience is inconsistent, and it can be startling to new players.
At least Farsight took a step in the right direction last month, announcing that they were going to be moving from a release schedule of two tables per month, down to only one. Hopefully this will allow for more quality control, and maybe even get them to go back and fix some of their older releases and upgrade their technology. But then again, looking at their roadmap for 2014, I don’t see any reason to think they’ll be more successful this year. On the roadmap is 3D support for PS3 and PS4, for example - something I demoed back in March 2013, when I was told it would released “any day now”.
If you don’t have a particular connection to any of the “real” pinball tables, then TPA is not the pinball game that I would recommend. Rather, Pinball FX 2 is the one you want. It’s got better graphics, wonderfully implemented leaderboards and incentives for competition, a huge selection of tables including 6 excellent Star Wars tables and even more selections from the Marvel universe. It has better portrait-mode support, a better pricing structure, more reliable developers, and even supports cross-buy between PS Vita, PS3, and PS4. It’s a fantastic introduction to pinball that’s easily accessible for all ages and skill levels, and the gameplay encourages fun and longer play sessions. TPA's tables, on the other hand, are just digital simulation of the real thing - and real pinball tables tend to be punishing, shorter experiences that reward precise play and execution of complicated goals.
Even with all of that negativity and criticism, I still have to admit that The Pinball Arcade is my most-played and favorite game of the year. It’s out on iOS, Android, Amazon’s AppStore, Ouya, PS3, PS4, and Steam. If you’re interested, try the mobile version first - especially if you have a tablet. There’s a free table every month, and you can try out any of the tables for free, up to a certain score. Maybe you’ll find a table that brings you back to a time and place you had almost forgotten about. And if you do, maybe the one-sided relationship with Farsight will be worth it for you, too.
Favorite game released this year: Gone Home
This game has been discussed and analyzed and critiqued and adored and cried over so many times and with so many words this year that I just don’t think I have anything new to say. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s haunting. It’s a remarkable thing to do with a piece of software - explore a family’s home. It always feels like they just left, or that maybe they’ll be back at any moment.
DmC: Devil May Cry
The sexiest game of the year. It’s stylized to perfection, hilarious at all the right moments, manages not to write the love interest into a corner, and successfully relaunched the DMC series with a rewarding, hardcore combat system that’s hard not to love. I can’t wait to replay it.
Explore a beautiful island and witness the changing of the seasons. That’s it, really. There’s no map, no HP, no inventory, no quests, no crafting. Just an island and the sounds it makes.
Kentucky Route Zero
It’s rare that the setting, genre and art style of a game all line up to create the perfect tone. Which is why you should play this - or at least the two acts that have been released so far - before the next one is released and people start adding it to their game of the year lists all over again.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
This game with no dialogue tells a better fantasy story than most RPGs in the same setting. You use each of the thumbsticks on the controller to move the brothers around. Once your brain adjusts, every second is a treat. Which is a good thing, since the game is so short.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
This is my kind of horror - a sinister story that unfurls slowly, revealing the true monster. Just don’t expect a sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent - this is a very different game, from a very different team, and they made something brilliant.
The Stanley Parable
Nope. Not going to even try.
Another series that was successfully rebooted last year. I played the PC version, which is to say the “Definitive Edition” that they’re porting to PS4 and Xbox One this year. The marketing around that “definitive edition” is shady and condescending, in my opinion, but it’s undoubtedly a better version than what was released on PS3 and X360. The game’s engine is incredible, and yes the hair graphics are cool enough to deserve the attention it got. The only thing that I didn’t love are the gratuitous death scenes. Some argue that they help set the tone of the game, reflecting the grave circumstances of Lara’s survival on the island, but I don’t think the devs really needed to go to all that trouble animating so many gruesome, unsettling ends for the heroine.