By: Kellam Templeton-Smith
It’s the beginning of a new year, and the beginning of a new console generation. While the seventh gen isn’t officially dead yet (what with a few killer titles like Dark Souls 2 and Ground Zeroes still in the pipeline), we’re definitely at the point where we can start saying our goodbyes.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a small selection of my favourite games of this gen – many well known, some not as much. For the sake of ease I’ll be discussing multi-platform titles in regards to the specific platform I played them on.
Nintendo has a rep for being light on “core” gaming experiences, which I think is a bit of a shallow analysis. You’re not going to get your dudebro cojones tickled (I believe this article just became rated N for NSFW), but Nintendo always manages to wield an impressive first party roster while having a lot of oddball friends tag along for the ride.
Vanillaware is a company that makes stunningly gorgeous games, with a highly stylized aesthetic (most recently seen in the much talked about Dragon’s Crown). Muramasa is no exception – a lush sidescroller based around collecting hundreds of different katanas and slashing your way through the Japanese country side. Two playable characters, a variety of weapons with different move sets and gigantic bosses hearken back to the best elements of classic gaming. For those of you with a Vita, there’s also a recent HD port with new characters and scenarios as well.
A stylish black and white (and red; so, so much red) brawler/game show where it’s Smash TV meets Mad Max. With play by play commentary by John DiMaggio. I seriously shouldn’t need to elaborate on this one – if you have a Wii or Wii U, you probably haven’t played this and should rectify that immediately.
It’s cool, I’ll elaborate just a little bit: the scoring system is based on how creatively you murder your opponents. Like, imagine plunking a tire down on someone to trap their arms, ram a stop sign pole through their face, and then plunk them in meat grinder. To a laugh track and commentators.
Trust me, it’s hilarious.
Do you have a Steam account? Have you purchased some of the Humble Indie Bundles? If you said yes to either, this little gem is probably crying itself to sleep in the confines of your hard drive.
With a UI ripped straight from the NES Legend of Zelda and gameplay akin to a roguelike twinstick shooter, one might be surprised at how engrossing this is. You play as an abused little boy named Isaac, escaping the murderous intentions of his psychotic mother. Descending in a body horror fever dream drenched in a late-night cartoon veneer, you assail your bloated and twisted enemies with your tears. Or urine. Or teeth. Or chocolate milk. Or a the spectral remains of a dead sibling.
It’s bizarre, it’s hilarious, and it’s offensive. It’s the pure distillation of that dragon most games chase: Fun. I’ve probably spent 50 odd hours on this quirky little game, and know many people who have that number climb into the hundreds. There’s also a remake on the way to look out for, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
A semi-sequel to one of Poland’s most famous modern literary creations, The Witcher feels like all the goodness of a classic 90s PC role-playing game brought into a modern 3D world. While the sequel is astonishing on a visual and technical level, the first game sets the stage for an engrossing, adult experience. There’s a great amount of content, and a plot that makes it hard to parse ally from enemy. The finale of the Witcher trilogy (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) comes out later this year.
I’d be stunned if you like gaming and hadn’t played this one yet. This was a watermark for storytelling in the first person shooter genre; in gameplay terms, in unraveling the story of Rapture, and in it’s meta-textual analysis of the player’s role in the game (something first explored by Metal Gear Solid 2). This is a smart, beautifully visceral, and creepy game that features an absolutely towering performance by Armin Shimerman as the main antagonist, Andrew Ryan.
Back in the PS2 era I always said the main exclusive I would get a PS3 for was Metal Gear Solid 4. It wound up being the first game I got for the console… and is still the best thing ever released on it (sorry, The Last of Us. You were great, but not this great.)
If you haven’t played this: go buy the MGS Legacy collection.
Now. Seriously. It’ll cost you around forty bucks, and contains the complete MGS franchise (sans weird non-canon stuff). It’s the best franchise ever. Honestly.
That’s a bold statement, but I’m confident with my choice – every main Metal Gear Solid game has been innovative, daring, mind blowing, meta as all get-out and goofy as hell. MGS4 is the culmination of a couple decades of game releases, and a half century of internal chronology. That’s a lot of pressure when trying to deliver a the best finale possible, but it does it.
I laughed, I cried (just a lil’ bit), I hammered my controller during the longest QTE in gaming history (if you’re familiar with the torture scene in MGS1, that was a sprint. This is a marathon).
There’s a dying old soldier on his last mission, trying to find his peace. A cyborg ninja dueling an immortal nanomachined vampire played by Phil LaMarr. Tanks that can jump kilometres away and moo. There’s also a hairless, diaper wearing monkey addicted to nicotine and energy drinks. Not to mention the always awesome David Hayter as Solid Snake. And, for a series known for its incredibly diverse and mechanically interesting boss fights, the finale boils down to two old men having a fist fight. It’s probably the best final boss fight ever (and yes, I’m including fighting Dracula’s evil chair at the end of Symphony of the Night).
When you lay it out, the results sound absolutely insane.
It really is.
And it works. It’s a franchise known for an absolute excess of everything, and some brilliant writing – reversing the male gaze, the players role and relationship to the proceedings, nanomachines. Hideo Kojima is never content to just write a conventional story. He’s probably also set a record for most triple crosses in a work of fiction.
The spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls (which was in of itself a spiritual successor to King’s Field). This has become a critical and commercial success, and with good reason- It’s got a damn good (/the best) melee combat system, an eerie atmospheric aesthetic, and one of the best mechanisms for story/lore delivery of any game out there. While there’s a moderate amount of NPC dialogue to give the player a vague sense of where to go, most of the information is delivered via the descriptions of items and their in game placement. It’s subtle, but it weaves a vivid tapestry of one of the bleakest game worlds ever. You’re free to enjoy the experiential aspects while puzzling out the lore at your own pace.
Microsoft Xbox 360
Hideki Kamiya is one of the masters of gaming. He’s given us only a handful of games, but each is an artful experience. With Bayonetta, he went back to do a proper successor to Devil May Cry (sorry DMC4 and DmC – you guys shit the bed). This manages to be one of the most outrageously over the top games ever made. It has incredible levels of polish and absolute precision controls, and features one of the most badass protagonists ever. It’s got the same basic structure as a DMC-style crazy fighter (enter area, exits are walled off, enemies spawn), but the level of dynamism and over the top visual ferocity is unparalleled.
The titular Bayonetta is a witch with extreme martial and ballistic prowess who also happens to be able to make her hair turn into summoned demons and torture devices. It also ends with you riding a motorcycle up a three mile high statue rocketing into space, fighting a god that shoots galaxies at you, kicking said god into the sun, and then having a dance party as the credits roll.
Unlike MGS4, I’m not going to praise the writing on this. Nonetheless, it’s pretty hard to eye-roll at something that is well aware that it’s ludicrous and just wants you to enjoy yourself.
Bioware’s attempt to craft their own sci-fi universe results in one of the best casts of characters in all of gaming. Are there plot holes? Yeah. Is the ending as bad and controversial as everyone said? Eh. (It’s muddled, but there was no way to write something that would please hardcore fans that wouldn’t have resulted in just walls of text. Feel free to look up the dude who released a 540 page document going over his wishes for how to write the game “correctly”.)
It stumbles in some of the execution, but it’s hard to dismiss a universe where I’ve personally angered God (who is basically robot space Cthulhu) and am best friends with a mercenary turtlebat-looking dude and have my own Enterprise analogue to fly around at my whim.
I’m being pithy in my descriptions, but Bioware does a tremendous job at making it feel like you’re interacting with a cast of other people, not DialogueBot5000s.
I’ve saved the best for last. On the surface it’s a seemingly generic 3rd person cover shooter in Dubai. Beneath the (admittedly beautifully coloured) surface lurks one of the most powerful statements in gaming ever made, and a timely one at that. In essence, Spec Ops is all about player agency, and decrying the gross levels of patriotic chest thumping that games like Call of Duty pay the bills with.
You play as the leader of a three man surveillance team (played by Nolan North in his most impressive performance, natch) sent in to Dubai to scout out a rogue American general. Feces and fans mingle, and you go on a harrowing journey of increasingly poor decision making. The best part is that each scenario in the game is one that any other action movie or game would have end in a positive result. Instead, you’re witness to (and executor of) escalating atrocities and fraying confidence from your (surprisingly dimensioned) squadmates. What starts out as the seemingly generic adventures of “buzzcut white dude you play in every game”, “heavy weapons black guy” and “cocky sniper” turns into three men going through hell together.
In a decade drowned in brown and grey military shooters with no end in sight, this was the antidote. Make me feel, make me think, and still deliver a solid game with a vibrant, rich set of visuals.
Now, I hate to end on a downer but let’s take a brief look at the inverse of this list. For all the incredible games that have come out, there are way more bad ones. Even horrendously terrible ones. Some, like Ride to Hell: Retribution, are becoming the stuff of legend. (By all accounts, Tommy Wiseau has found his way into game development and is having a blast.) I figure it’s pretty easy to make a bad game; low budget coupled with unskilled personnel will generally turn out crap. On the other hand, when you have a budget of a couple hundred million dollars, and nearly a thousand people involved, one would imagine it’s pretty easy to deliver an incredible experience.
Capcom decided to prove us wrong.
It’s almost hard to articulate every dimension in which this game is an absolute trainwreck. There are three separate main campaigns (and a 4th so utterly bad it’s not worth talking about, especially if you made the mistake of trying to co-op it), and there’s a problem from the get go – the story is told in non-linear order, with an attempt to interweave the three narrative tracks together.
This basically results in you having NO GODDAMN CLUE what is going on for much of the game. Even as Resident Evil plots go (which have always ranged from charmingly bad to almost offensively, boulder-punchingly stupid), this doesn’t make a lick of sense. Two of the three campaigns seem to have been made as afterthoughts – they sync up, but have almost no relation to the Leon/main campaign.
Each campaign features a different UI, and in one of them the UI changes twice for the first player, and THREE TIMES for the second player. Add to that the fact that the second player is shunted aside in two of the three final boss fights (and nearly useless in the third), and you wonder why the co-op is a feature Capcom felt was necessary.
When you add on the fact that it’s a murky, ugly game compared to RE5, that the controls are looser and sloppier, and the combat is easily winnable by mashing a melee button rather than employing anything approaching a skill (like with, y’know, firearms. Though for an action Co-op game it spends the first half of each campaign forcing you to hoard ammo, hence the dumbed down insta-win melee), you’ve got to wonder how it all came to this. This is the only game I’ve ever played where each set piece was either preceded or followed by a scene that I (or my brother, the co-op partner in this case) declared the single worst scene in gaming history. Now, as is pretty clear at this point, I’m prone to hyperbole, but I shouldn’t have this utterance escape my lips a dozen times in a 15-hour game.
When the credits roll and you see that the game had three lead designers and another fifteen to twenty designers on it, you begin to realize this was design by committee where NO ONE SAID NO. NOT EVEN ONCE.
So there we go – nine games from this past generation that I hope will entertain, delight, confound, and amaze you as much as they did for me. And, yeah, one that’s kind of worth playing with a friend just to stare agog at the truckloads of money Capcom heaved into the incinerator.