2014 was a strange year for me when it came to video games. In other years, it always seemed as if there was an abundance of truly great games that were destined to become classics—such as 10-20 games or more that could easily go down on the top 100 (or 200) games of all time list. It didn't seem as if that same abundance was there this year, and I'm not sure if that was due to a number of large AAA titles ultimately ending up as disappointing or broken on launch, or even something else.
That isn't to say there weren't any great games at all, however. In a year where I actually played more games than ever (more than 50, I believe), I had a blast with many of them. And with that, here are the top 10 games I played during 2014.
10. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
Toad is unmistakably one of the least likeable characters in Mario games, but his very first solo outing as Captain Toad makes a strong argument that he's finally coming into his own. The game itself oozes charm, and while the puzzles are never too clever for their own good, they're extremely entertaining and fun to play through. There's quite a breadth of content as well, especially for those looking to complete all of the challenges. It doesn't hurt that it's extremely gorgeous to look at either; the whole game is polished with a visual sheen and care that could only come from Nintendo's EAD Tokyo team.
9. Hyrule Warriors
Like many others, Hyrule Warriors was my first musou game, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little hesitant going into it. A big worry of mine was whether the gameplay itself would be too repetitive and monotonous (what with all the hacking and slashing). The good news is that the game offsets that nature somewhat with a system that progressively unlocks more combos for you to use as well as having some characters be able to use some additional weapons, so as long as you mix up your combos and use them creatively, it never quite becomes too repetitive. And while the actual plot is a bit fan-fiction-esque, there are some interesting moments (especially between Sheik and Impa) throughout. In any case, the amount of content packed into it and the sheer action experience that Hyrule Warriors offers should definitely attract any Zelda fan.
8. Monument Valley
Developer Ustwo set out on the seemingly impossible task of making a game in which every level would look like a piece of art that you could hang on a wall. To say that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams would be an understatement. Every level and every puzzle is lovingly crafted and expertly executed on a level you rarely see from mobile titles. More than anything, Monument Valley sets a new bar for quality among mobile titles as a whole, and I'm excited to see what they do next.
7. Broken Age: Act 1
I must have a knack for putting partially finished games on Game of the Year lists. Last year, it was The Wolf Among Us: Episode 1, and now, Tim Schafer's latest magnum opus. Broken Age: Act 1 delivered on the hype it garnered after becoming the game that launched Kickstarter into the stratosphere in regards to using it as a means to crowdfund game development. Its plot and writing are some of the best I've seen in some time, and the game's art and setting instill a sense of wonder that I haven't experienced for years now. Act 2 can't come soon enough.
What—two years in a row? Yep. When Episode 1: Cry Wolf released last year, it was such a strong debut for the episodic series that there was no doubt as to whether or not it should make my list. For it to make the same impact and make it on the list again this year would prove to be a challenging prospect given that many episodic games have been known to lose steam over the course of its story. Not so with The Wolf Among Us.
While I felt that Episode 2 faltered a bit, every episode thereafter continually raised the stakes and added more depth to the story, culminating in one of the most intelligently devised endings yet for an episodic game. Episode 5: Cry Wolf had everything you could hope for from a finale: rising tensions, a climactic battle, and a fitting resolution to everything that transpired. The battle of wits with The Crooked Man during the finale is one of the standout moments in the game as it makes the player really reflect on themes of morality and question who the bad guy really was. It was a brilliant send-off for an incredible game.
5. Child of Light
It's difficult for me to describe what makes Child of Light a truly special game; I won't deny that a lot of it comes from its utterly charming aesthetic. It never pretends to be something it isn't; it's a fairytale through and through, and the way that it's expressed through the game's painterly visuals is superb, detailing such otherworldly scenes as a literal, living and breathing mountain, castles in the sky, underground caves, and more is fantastic. It's fantasy at its finest, and the narrative's poetic prose adds a sense of whimsy that you rarely see in games today.
That isn't to take away from its gameplay, however. The battle system, while derivative of earlier JRPGs, is also one of a kind due to the extra layer of strategy laid on it by its time-based nuances. It isn't perfect in every regard, but it adds up to some of the most intense boss fights I've experienced in some time. All of this easily makes Child of Light one of the best games Ubisoft has produced in years.
4. Shovel Knight
How strange it is that, in a year of largely droll AAA releases (on average), one of the biggest breaths of fresh air was a game that replicated the feel of retro games. But to say that Shovel Knight succeeded only because of its charming and well-done visuals would be a huge disservice to what Yacht Club Games achieved. Stripped down to its basic gameplay, Shovel Knight is brilliant not only as a reminder of what made games great in a simpler time, but also because it takes that design to the next level with its action, something that's readily apparent in the game's intense boss battles.
Above all else, Yacht Club Games created one of the best new characters and IP in years. Both Shovel Knight and the knights of The Order of No Quarter are cleverly designed, not to mention extremely likeable. It's rare to see this kind of creation have such drawing power to gamers and the regular populace outside of major animation studios like Disney, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli (to name a few), and that's just one of the many nuances that makes Shovel Knight a fantastic experience.
3. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS
Wait a minute, two games in one spot? That's not quite fair, is it? Well, if they were two completely different games, I might agree. While both have content unique to their version, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS are actually two sides of the same coin. The core game exists in both, along with all of the fighters, even if the Wii U version boasts quite a bit more content and variation among its modes.
Even still, it would be tough for me to say that I love one version more than the other. I've actually put far more time into the 3DS version (109 hours of this writing, in fact) and even completed it 100%. The Wii U version has been a blast to play with friends, and the amount of playable modes is so staggering that it's overwhelming. There's no doubt that series creator and director Masahiro Sakurai went above and beyond to make this the definitive version of Nintendo's mascot fighter, and I can easily say this is by far the best entry to date.
2. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Never did it cross my mind that Retro Studios would make a sequel to 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns. I never wanted it; in fact, it was almost a sure thing to many fans that they were hard at work on their grand return to Metroid Prime next. But when E3 2013 arrived and Reggie revealed what Retro had been working on, my heart sank, as did plenty of other fans. Returns was an admirable attempt at resurrecting the Donkey Kong Country franchise and I had liked it a lot when it first came out, but it was never a game that really stuck with me in the long run. It was a one-and-done deal, as far as I was concerned; no real need to look back.
When Tropical Freeze released, I knew it would be a competent and fairly "good" title; it came from Nintendo, after all. What I didn't count on was it being great or, dare I say it, incredible. Tropical Freeze doesn't change the game dramatically; it plays exactly like Returns but with subtle improvements and new additions (like the return of Dixie Kong and being able to play as Cranky Kong)—but where it goes from good to great is with its brilliant level design and variety this time around, all made even more amazing by returning series composer David Wise, who made arguably one of the best soundtracks of the year here. And where it goes from great to incredible is when you begin to uncover hidden paths, unlock secret stages, and explore levels so masterfully designed that you begin to realize that Retro was completely justified in making this sequel with all of their unused ideas left over after the release of Returns.
1. Mario Kart 8
To me, Mario Kart was a series that I looked back fondly on, but in reality had lost its magic over the years. Super Mario Kart and Mario Kart 64 were a big part of my childhood, though nothing ever quite felt the same after; I even ended up skipping Mario Kart Wii entirely and—despite owning it—still have not opened and played Mario Kart 7 (mostly due to being distracted by other games). Mario Kart 8 definitely looked impressive, but I went in with pretty grounded expectations given my feelings on recent entries.
It's a good thing too, because it shattered every expectation I had and then some. Simply put, Mario Kart 8 has the best and most exciting tracks to play through in the entire series, partially due to the added anti-gravity feature, which allows for tracks to twist and turn and rise up into the sky and shoot straight down. One course even has you riding up one side of a waterfall and down another, making for some intense karting action.
In addition to its fantastic soundtrack, Mario Kart 8 is not only arguably the best-looking Nintendo game ever made, it also has the best online multiplayer of any Wii U title to date. Playing through 12-player online multiplayer matches seamlessly with friends was like a dream come true and was, in many instances, one of the biggest highlights of my year. The recently released DLC pack made things even better with 8 entire new tracks and three new characters, making this the most fully-featured game in the series to date. Everything about Mario Kart 8 blew my expectations away, and I had the most fun and exciting times with it throughout 2014, and that's why it's undoubtedly my game of the year.