Hello, my darlings! It is me, tim rogers, founder and director of Action Button Entertainment, currently directing an androgynous apolitical abstract minimalist electronic sport called VIDEOBALL, which will arrive on all consoles and computer operating systems with a robust cross-platform online multiplayer user experience, 4K graphics, and 300fps animations in Q2 2014. With numbers like that, 12-year-olds the world over will forget all about Call of Duty.
I'm here today because I am in Indiana (as I write this), and being in Indiana reminds me of the time that I ate at La Charreada in Bloomington, Indiana with Kotaku's own Kirk Hamilton. I showed him my iOS game ZiGGURAT during that particular lunch, and he was real nice about pretending not to not get it (unfortunately, it would be Destructoid who actually got it). I have had some good times writing articles for Kotaku in this exact spot — the center of my parents' very brown living room sofa — since, heck, Christmas 2009. I wrote that one thing about Final Fantasy XIII, I wrote a weird Q&A column thing through which I met the dude I'd eventually ask to host my podcast, and I even had a good time writing a thing about Gasketball for iPad.
I'm here today for the only reason I've ever written for Kotaku: I just want to hang out with you people. I think you're cool humans to hang out with.
Today, I want to talk about video games that I played in 2013. I'm going to use what I now consider the best metric for judging the quality of a game: the amount of time I spent playing that game. Even as a person with my background in statistics, it took a while for me to arrive at this quality metric, just as it took Yelp a long while to arrive at the decision to include "Number of reviews" as a filter. A friend of mine works for Yelp, and we had a discussion about the "Number of reviews" filter: "It's definitely the only filter" he said. Originally, the "Number of reviews" filter didn't exist because Yelp didn't want to give an advantage to older businesses, though as smartphones approach ubiquity and people obtain the fever to review anything and everything, the "Number of reviews" filter finally found its relevance.
If we're talking about all-time play-time of games, I'm fairly sure that Super Mario Bros. 3 would top the list. I must have sunk 3,000 hours of my life into that game. That makes it my favorite game by a landslide. If only clickable "number of hours played" categories existed in my historical games library the way "number of plays" is a category in iTunes (I've listened to Boowy's "Honky Tonky Crazy" literally 1,262 times since 2010, so I guess that's My Favorite Song (no, wait, I've listened to "Superstar" by Jagatara 435 times, and that song is more than 20 minutes long)).
Of course, 2013 is just one year. How many more hours of my life will I play any of the games I played in 2013? I can't say.
Of course, I'd be lying if I got up here on this figurative soapbox and tried to tell you that any game other than VIDEOBALL was my most-played game of 2013. On my Twitch channel alone, you can see at least twenty hours of footage, and that doesn't include any of the dozens of hours that I played the game in the dark, by myself, against AI bots, or in the dark, by myself, against nobody, or any of the hundred-some hours at the marathon parties in my house before I realized learning how to stream to Twitch.tv would take up less than five minutes of my time.
VIDEOBALL is not released yet, and will therefore be exempt from my list. The dumb little puzzle game I designed, however, cannot be exempted from this list, so I'll start with it.
Honorable Mention: Ten By Eight, Action Button Entertainment, PlayStation Mobile
Time Played: ~ 18 hours
Hey now! Just because I made this game doesn't mean I can't put it on my list of Games I Played Most This Year. Here's how it goes: I played this game for about a hundred hours in the process of designing and directing it. Then, when we finally released it on the PlayStation Store and I downloaded it to my PlayStation Vita, I literally sat there on my sofa playing it for an hour. Then I played it on buses and trains for six more hours. I kept the PlayStation Vita by my bed, and I played it for another twelve hours over the course of two months, usually right before going to bed. That's 18 hours of Ten By Eight that I ended up playing, even after it was released. I swear only two hours of that involved a frenzied search for bugs we might have missed.
Before you accuse me of sleazery or shamelessness, allow me to respectfully inform you that I wouldn't have made a game I didn't want to play. I wanted a puzzle game that wasn't simple or boring. I wanted a puzzle game that was about management of territory. I wanted a pure game that was neither mindless nor stressful. So we made the "zen" mode of Ten By Eight, in which players can just eat the simple chaining mechanic buffet-style, and the "endless" mode, in which stone blocks cause a game over if they touch the bottom of the screen, and the "timed" mode, where the game gives players more chain-building star blocks than in the other two modes, and tests your spatial reasoning skills in a decidedly and mathematically more exciting manner. I find myself playing all three of these modes.
The game is simple to play: you can swap the position of two tiles if doing so puts either tile into a match of three or more tiles (you can make matches around corners). However, tiles don't clear themselves. To clear tiles, trace a line from one tile to a tile of the same color. Release when you've selected three or more tiles. Don't stop at three, though: make big matches before clearing. Use a star tile (or many star tiles!) to chain together two (or more!) groups of three (or more!) tiles. On any permutation of the board, it's possible to clear all eighty tiles in one action. I'm proud of that!
Cliff Bleszinski played this game and, after a few minutes, told me to "put some Candy Crush bullshit in this and put it on Facebook, dude". I told him I didn't want to do that, and he told me that my Lamborghini wasn't going to buy itself. I said all I wanted was a 2005 Subaru WRX STi.
Ten By Eight did not afford me a Subaru WRX STi. That doesn't stop Cliff Bleszinski from being right about my Lamborghini not buying itself.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Time Played: ~ 2 hours
Duet (by Kumobius for iOS)
Time Played: ~ 4 hours
Duet is a game about two circles. One of the circles is blue. One of the circles is red. These circles begin at 3 and 9 o'clock positions on a larger white circular outline at the bottom of the screen. Touch the left side of the screen to rotate the circle-collection to the left. Touch the right side of the screen to rotate right. If either the blue or red circle touches any of the objects in a level, you die, the level rewinds, and you start over. The objects in the level move and rotate. The game gets harder.
The game has pretty music.
I played this for about four hours of my life because, hey: it's perfect. It's smart, simple, sharp, and challenging.
Disclaimer: at the time Kumobius sent me a promo code for Duet, I had already, myself, prototyped a dozen vertically scrolling games that use "left side of the screen" and "right side of the screen" as touch buttons. None of them are as good as Duet, though one of them is certainly stupider and harder.
If you have an iPhone and you don't have this game, listen to me: you will feel real cool about thirty seconds after you download it and open it.
Grand Theft Auto V
Time Played: ~ 6 hours
Grand Theft Auto V came out the night before I was to leave for a two-week business trip to Japan. My flight was in the early afternoon. I tend not to sleep the night before an international flight—this way I can sleep on the plane, and possibly avoid jet lag altogether. I picked up Grand Theft Auto V at midnight. I played it until morning. I didn't have a good time.
It's not that it was bad, or anything. I just wasn't in the mood to play it. The cars felt good—nice and heavy—and the guns felt good—nice and sticky—though I just didn't like the characters. Everyone was so mean. I felt bad having to shoot a guy in the face not two minutes after starting the game. Grand Theft Auto IV took its time before forcing me to kill someone. It let me take taxis to my destinations. I played that whole game without stealing a car.
I guess I'm being a dumb jerk about this game by trying to impose my preference for violence that is a hair short of "ultra." Or maybe I'm just getting old and I don't want to sit down with a super-big game anymore. It could be any of these things.
I'll tell you what, though: after playing the game for six or so hours, I was so delirious with sleepiness that interactivity was too much a burden to bear, so I finally started watching season 5 of "Breaking Bad," what with the finale being just around the corner. I got on that plane with two episodes of season 5 of "Breaking Bad" in my brain. I got back two weeks later and binge-watched most of the rest of the episodes. A day later, I remembered I had Grand Theft Auto V. I launched the game. It tried to download a patch. It crashed when I tried to open the game. It couldn't download the patch. I haven't touched it since. I'm sure I'll be in the mood again someday.
Time Played: ~ 10 hours
Wikipedia calls DIVEKICK a "parody fighting game." As I say in my infomercial of the year, if DIVEKICK is a "parody fighting game," then other "parody fighting games" include poker and checkers. If Starcraft is a professional sport, DIVEKICK is a crime scene.
I believe in DIVEKICK. Heck, I believe in DIVEKICK so much that I offered to do that weird infomercial about it for free. Well, I suppose they paid me with a free download of the game for PlayStation Network and access to the Steam beta.
I mostly contacted the DIVEKICK guys because I played the game at several conventions and knew I wanted to have it in my house. So I concocted this elaborate plan to make a commercial for them, and it worked perfectly. They sent me the beta right away.
DIVEKICK is a simple game. The central idea is that it's a two-button, one-hit-kill fighting game. One of the buttons makes you jump ("dive") and the other button makes you kick ("kick"). Kicks generally execute at a sharp downward angle. You're going to love the way you kick. Grasping, understanding, and finally mastering the geometry of the kick and its relationship with the height of the jump. Whoever's foot touches the other player anywhere on his or her body first wins. That's it.
In addition to being a parody of fighting games, bloated full of obtuse jokes you'd need a printout of the whole internet to understand, it is a pure electronic sport contest that communicates with ruthless efficiency which of two players' reaction time is shrewder than the other's.
My friends don't like playing DIVEKICK. This is because the game can make people angry. No: it makes people violent. My friends are all civilized people. They'd never scream at or kill me or each other. The anger is silent and passive. Their anger is a concealed knife. The fact is, DIVEKICK separates the adults from the children when it comes to reaction time. A lot of people in the "Fighting" "Game" "Community" don't like DIVEKICK. They say it's not a "real" game. These people are being pipsqueaks. They're afraid of DIVEKICK, because DIVEKICK is a pure contest of valuating, predicting, and baiting your opponent. The game also happens to be simple enough for a non-game-playing person to pick up, understand, and possibly excel at in under two minutes. DIVEKICK reaches right in to the players' brains and entangles itself with their psychology.
Some argue that the game has too many characters with too many moves and that it's not possible for a newcomer to understand all of them at first glance, and I think that's a fair point. Still, I believe in the game as one that a non-fighting-game-player could pick up and excel at without knowledge of other games.
However, yes, my friends don't like it. We played it for an afternoon before I read the scary vibes in the air and we switched back to VIDEOBALL. One of us was going to kill all of the others if we kept playing DIVEKICK.
The best way to play DIVEKICK is online, against faceless opponents. You feel great when you win, and you feel hilarious when you lose. It's like tossing a ball of paper into a wastebasket. It's the kind of game you can play on the toilet, possibly forever.
Like Ridiculous Fishing, DIVEKICK was crucially important to how I think about game design: it inspired me to make prototypes in an attempt to comprehend its essence. I made about a dozen one-on-one two-button electronic contests. None of them were as good as DIVEKICK, though as with Ridiculous Fishing, I anticipate enjoyment of the continuation of this quest into 2014 and beyond.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD
Time Played: ~ 20 hours
For the love of god: it's the most visually confident art direction ever in a video game, and it's in shrieking beautiful 1080p. Why would I not buy this? I would have to be insane to not want this. It's not even my favorite Zelda game—at all—and I needed it on my massive television. This is what video games promised us way back with the introduction of the first high-definition televisions: someday, a game with all of the pees would arrive, and we would weep. So here it is.
I am playing it real slow. I am sipping it like whiskey. I've never gotten all the way through this particular Zelda—it was a little too leisurely paced for me, though now it arrives just when I want more chilled-out, hang-out-able video game experiences.
My primary joy with this game, however, is to pop it in when people come over, so they can all scream and weep about its graphics.
In a show of devotion with which I've surprised even myself, I've come back to this game at least two nights a week. I play it for an hour at a time. I try to leave myself right at the end of one little set piece and right before what I detect is a bigger set piece. My saved Link is right outside the gates of a fresh dungeon as I type this. I'll be heading back into this one in 2014.
Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo, Wii U
Time Played: ~ 20 hours
I played every demo level of Super Mario 3D World at E3 2013. I played every demo level twice as every character. The lady demoing the game at the booth might have thought I was a weirdo.
"Do you . . . actually like this game?" she asked, when I came back for the fifteenth time.
"Wh-what? Uh. Yes, I do. Wh-why do you think I don't?"
She shrugged with her eyebrows. "Uh . . . I don't know. It's just. I don't know. It's . . . it's not that good, is it?" She said this last part in a whisper. As a person wearing a plasticky dress with a Nintendo logo on it, she probably wasn't supposed to be saying things like that.
I became suddenly aware that she might have thought I had been hitting on her. I decided to crush that theory: "This is the best action game I've played in 10 years," I said to her. The wideness of my eyes and the fact that I was looking her right in the eyes might have communicated my seriousness. I think she believed me instantly, because she didn't try to make conversation after that.
Yes, I was 34 years old at that precise moment.
That morning I'd viewed internet comments with professional trepidation. I was trepidated because I knew someone (or somemillion) was going to butt into the comments thread on a video of the Super Mario 3D World trailer and express disappointment that it wasn't Super Mario Galaxy 3.
My trepidation engine experienced no letdown.
I had a weird relationship with the Super Mario Galaxy games. I appreciated the creative freedom of setting a game about jumping in space: space, where levels need only be floating bits of junk to be contextually relevant. Yet I disliked the first game's overemphasis on animals reminding you to do the thing that you can do at the place where you can do it in order to get the thing the game needs you to want, because getting that thing results in the materialization of the object you need to interact with in order to proceed. The game was pretty and colorful and creative, yet its level designs were a string of locks and keys: bees telling you that rabbits were looking for something, rabbits telling you that the something they are looking for is near here, the camera panning over to show you a post, the game nudging you: "Remember what you can do to posts? You can hammer them with your butt stomp! TRY IT HERE" and then you hammer the post and a star-gate-piece-thing appears. You do four more things and you make a star-gate and you fly to a little planetoid where you have to chase a rabbit to get a star. Aren't these rabbits supposed to be the good guys, as the frequent story sequences have illustrated numerous times? GRRRRRRRRR
The second Super Mario Galaxy was better.
Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS was a million times better. That game was so good I almost cried.
Remember: Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES is my most-played game of all-time, with easily over 3,000 hours of play time. I've played about 200 hours of Super Mario 64 and less than twenty of either Super Mario Galaxy game. Super Mario 3D Land was the exact sort of 3D Super Mario I wanted.
Super Mario 3D World is also the exact sort of 3D Super Mario I wanted, and it is in HD and I can play it on my 70-inch television with a Wii U Pro Controller—which, surprise, is made of much better plastic than the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 controllers. Such delicious plastic. If a doctor told me I had to subsist on a diet of video game controllers from now on or Literally Die, I'd definitely pick the Wii U Pro Controller.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Super Mario 3D World, even though its worlds only pretended to have themes when they didn't, really—like, there are as many non-ice levels as there are ice levels in the "ice" world. Even as its level designs started to resemble extended Mario Party minigames rebalanced for one player, I carried the social-responsibility-like feeling to remember always to be enjoying myself. This was the reason I bought a Wii U.
When it was over, I liked myself just as much as I had when I started. Then I tried to play the game with friends, and it was awful—all of us bumbling around and bumping into each other—until, all at once, it wasn't. I discovered I could use my friends' genuine interest in the game to explore levels I'd already played, and search out the last of the hidden stars. This quickly became a game we all enjoyed for real. We had some good conversation. We had a lot of fun. We had even more fun than I'd had last year on New Year's Eve with New Super Mario Bros. U.
The best way to play Super Mario 3D World, for me, is alone. The second-best way is with one other friend, looking for stars. The rest of the ways to play it are friendshipicide.
The game continues to itch me; there are stars I haven't gotten and secret levels I likely haven't found. I'm going to go back to it and enjoy it for a few more hours in 2014. However, I can safely decide here, as a Confirmed Adult, that the game is not as good as Super Mario Bros. 3 or even Super Mario World.
One of the primary reasons I can't put Super Mario 3D World into my Library Of Instant Classics would be the music. The music in Super Mario 3D World, at its worst, sounds like a Teletubby sextape. The music in Super Mario 3D World, at its best, sounds like a Brazilian Teletubby sextape. If you're a man and you can experience an erection while this music is playing, please report to the nearest cryogenic freezing facility immediately. The post-apocalypse will need you.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Time Played: ~ 20 hours
A friend of mine told me, in confidence, that he was going to have to unfollow a couple dozen people on Twitter because they were talking about Animal Crossing: New Leaf too much. I used a lot of words to tell him to get over himself.
I like Animal Crossing. I liked the old ones; I like the new one. Every time they make it and I see or hear about people playing it, I think, "Hey, that's a game I like. I'm glad other people like that game instead of some other games." I like how Animal Crossing is a game for six-year-olds, yet no six-year-olds I know play it. I like seeing that people I follow on Twitter are cool enough to be hip to something for six-year-olds. I also, for the record, have a small and honest collection of vintage Care Bears.
Animal Crossing is a game about working for money and making your corner of the world into a comfortable place. I can respect that, because I have analogous real-world experience and am also addicted to needlessly rearranging my living room furniture. However, the real world is never quite as cute as Animal Crossing. Well, now that I have this massive Isabelle keychain, it almost is:
Unfortunately for all my friends—who would likely delight at the fullest application of my furniture-arrangement skills if deployed into an Animal Crossing—I can never really stick with an Animal Crossing game for too long. My experience with the very first one has planted a seed of cold in my soul, and playing any newer Animal Crossing only brings that cold out: I know what happens if I neglect my town. I know how sad the citizens get. I know how overrun with weeds the ground becomes, and I know how many cockroaches appear in my cold, dead house.
So while I could appreciate the intricacies of the latest Animal Crossing (nice online features! so many items!), I couldn't put my soul into it. I planted enough Perfect Fruit Trees to pull off massively profitable harvests if I committed myself every day, and then, suddenly, before I was even aware I'd had enough, I hadn't touched the game in a week. I'd reached the point where my town would be well off if I did everything right in my relationship with it, and then pressed the "I Get It" button in the back of my brain. I gave up on the game and never looked back. If only all my hobbies vomited such metaphors, I'd be married by now.
The cartridge is sitting in the zippered pocket of my green patent leather Japanese 3DS XL case, ready to, upon reintroduction to the inside of my pink 3DS XL hardware, spawn hundreds of cockroaches and hundreds of weeds, to generate buckets of passive-aggressive shame-language into the mouths of all the cute creatures still living in my town: to tell me that some of the people living in the town got bored without me and left, and will never come back.
I just can't go back to Choomton. Choomton's dream shall fade without me. Choomton is dead; Choomton is forever frozen. What a crying shame that I will never be able to hear Choomton's beautiful soundtrack outside of YouTube.
Here's what I really think about Animal Crossing: I was obese and mute in high school. Once, a kid poured a carton of milk on top of my head during lunch. My mom told me that the kids were jealous of me, and I knew it was a lie, and I felt terrible: who could be jealous of all this fat? Who could be jealous of this Frankenstein hairstyle? Who could be jealous of these sweatpants and this social impediment of a muteness? Who could be jealous of these eyeglasses which could have doubled as shop-class goggles? It took me until my middle twenties—hyper-aware of what people thought of me, hyper-aware of annoying people when in my car or when walking through a train station—to realize that the kid in high school who dumped milk onto my hair (and, on another occasion, threw an apple at the back of my head (and, on another occasion, field-goal-kicked me in the balls)) hadn't been jealous of me and he hadn't hated me: he was just afraid of life in general, and considered any difference from himself to be an obstruction to his ultimate ignorance and comfort.
In senior year of high school, I started running and eating right. I became a weirdo for food. In college, I biked, swam, and ran—I trained for my own private triathlon. I began an experiment with liking myself. It worked well, as far as objective results were concerned: I had six-pack abs and lots of friends. I played basketball on the weekends with guys who called each other "bro". Girls talked to me on purpose. Fitness and wellness were important to me.
In my last year of college, I developed an inguinal hernia which strangulated veins in my groin region. It required emergency surgery. Since then, even thinking about sitting on a bike seat makes me want to throw up. For a couple years, I slipped off the fitness bandwagon.
Before I knew it, I was in Japan, and I had a job at Sony. I was in good enough shape, being in my twenties and all. Then, suddenly, I was diabetic. Oh well! I gained a lot of weight and started feeling tired when I was walking up stairs. I went to the doctor and he told me I should start smoking one cigarette a day to regulate my metabolism. I asked him if that wasn't insane. He shrugged and said I could take niacin (with nicotinic acid) and cinnamon supplements for a similar effect. This intrigued me; I got serious about nutrition again.
I decided to join a gym.
A year later, I actually did join a gym. I was working for Grasshopper Manufacture at the time, at a job far more creative than my job at Sony had been. I felt better about myself. I aimed to train for the Tokyo Marathon. My friend Quintin Smith was in town, and we were talking about fitness, and he told me, "You have such big feet that there's no reason you shouldn't be ripped." Apparently, that's a thing. He'd convinced me. We walked over to the Konami Sports Club in Ogikubo, right near my house. We toured the facilities. Quintin Smith told me to get a membership right now, because if I didn't get one right now, I was going to keep putting it off. He was such a cool guy that I took his advice.
The guy who handled my facility tour and membership sign-up was a big, cheery, happy former-high-school-baseball-team-captain looking guy. He was as tall as me and he was so vigorously healthy that even his hairline was impressive: not a centimeter above his eyebrows. He sat me down in front of a white screen and said he was going to take my picture. He told me to smile. I smiled the only way I know how (mouth closed). He showed me the picture. He asked me what I thought. I couldn't believe how awful I looked. My hair was wet with humidity and summer rain and my eyes were glazed over. I looked so dumpy and unhealthy. Being in a gym facility, I was thus deep in a trap of thinking about fitness: I could only remember those abs in the mirror when I was nineteen. Here was my face on an old CRT computer monitor, taken with a low-resolution webcam.
"I look so greasy," I said aloud, in Japanese. "I look like I've just toweled my face off on a pizza. Look at my nose! A dentist could use it as a mirror. I look so greasy."
"Do you? Huh? Really?" The cheerful guy tilted his head left and right with a theatrical grace. He "Hmm"ed. He "Huh"ed. He looked me in the eye. He put his hand on his chin. He made another "Hmm". He was seriously considering my assessment of myself.
"I'd say what you have is more of a glowing," he said. "You see, the oil is coming out of your skin. Wouldn't you rather have it outside of your skin than deep inside?" He smiled. He snapped his fingers. He pointed at me: "You're going to get the results you want so fast. I am not even kidding you!" He printed the card. I joined the gym. I ran three marathons. I accomplished a two-mile sprint time of nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds.
Somewhere equidistant from that guy lauding the oil for being outside my skin and my mom telling me the bullies were jealous sits Animal Crossing.
What I'm saying is: ultimately, conversation is the best entertainment, and compliments are hardly ever lies.
Ridiculous Fishing, Vlambeer / Zach Gage / Greg Wohlwend, iOS
Time Played: ~ 30 hours
Ridiculous Fishing is a mobile game, and it is also a Real Video Game. It is Apple's choice for iOS Game of the Year 2013, though long before it was that, Action Button Dot Net (my website) gave it four out of four stars, so I win.
It's a nested bundle of tiny little brilliantly simple mechanical exercises. You tilt your device to move your fishing lure left and right. The tilt controls are so perfect that I wondered why all other tilt controls were so bad. I asked Zach Gage if this is because it was hard to program tilt controls. He shrugged and said that he put some numbers in and It Just Worked. I imagine he's being a little bit humble, and I also believe he's being a little bit not humble.
Ridiculous Fishing is a game of up and down. On the way down, you want to avoid fish. On the way up, you want to catch fish.
If you touch a fish during the "down" phase, you'll hook the fish, and the "up" phase of reeling the fish in begins.
On the way down, try to remember where the fish are as you dodge them. On the way up, use your short-term memory of fish positions (pofishions) to catch as many fish as you can.
The deeper you go on the "down" phase, the more fish-catching opportunities you create for the "up" phase. It's really a perfect game design, and it's a perfect mobile game design.
When your hook reaches the surface of the water, you throw the fish into the air. Now you tap the screen to shoot the fish.
Of course, there are fish you don't want to catch—jellyfish are worth negative money if you shoot them—so the shooting is more than mindless tapping.
This is a game with a Nintendo level of polish. The drift of the hook movement is just gentle enough to not be frustrating and just nuanced enough to encourage slow mastery. The different guns available in the in-game shop are each unique enough to allow varied play styles—more expensive isn't always better.
The game's director, Rami Ismail, says, of the "core loop" and progression of the game, that he and his team "accidentally made a Zynga game." Yet as the game's description says, "no IAP: buy the game, play the game."
It occurred to me while playing through Ridiculous Fishing that "core loop" is a pair of words that only posers and copycats use. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a former paid consultant to any number of venture-capital-funded copycat devil-jerks, I understand that only copycat jerks dig their claws into the math of a game like Ridiculous Fishing. In my interview with the developers for the purpose of my review of Ridiculous Fishing, I learned that my suspicions were correct, and that the actual human people behind this excellent, born-classic game balanced it against itself, and knew it would be successful because they could tell with their own hands and brains that it was fun.
In my review, I called the game "an album of pop songs," though that implies that one needs a lot of money and marketing to make something like this successful. Here at the end of 2013, following a week-long trip to New York City during which I ate many slices of New-York-style pizza, I can say with confidence that Ridiculous Fishing is like a cheese slice of New-York-style pizza: its ingredients are simple (cheese, crust, and sauce), though each is nuanced to a degree which is impossible to copy with perfection. The makers have carved their flavors over time.
Also, like a slice of New York pizza, Ridiculous Fishing can be a light snack or an entire meal.
As a former paid consultant to many venture-capital-funded copycat devil-jerk game developers of the San Francisco Bay Area, I owned two iPads, an iPhone 4, and an iPhone 5s in 2013. I played all the way through Ridiculous Fishing, purchasing every item, on each of these devices, on many vehicles and in many bathrooms (including, most importantly, my own) throughout 2013, and the time never felt wasted. Heck, I even played all the way through it on a rented iPhone 4 when in Japan on a two-week business trip. I'm buying an iPad Mini tomorrow (for work, you see—it's a business expense, okay), and I'm sure I'll play through Ridiculous Fishing on it as well.
I played Ridiculous Fishing so much that I ended up making more than 60 prototypes in Unity in a furious attempt to make something almost as good. I didn't succeed, though I'm sure I'll enjoy continuing the quest throughout 2014.
The Last of Us by Naughty Dog
Time Played: ~ 30 hours
Bioshock Infinite by Irrational Games
Time Played: ~ 15 hours
Gone Home by The Fullbright Company
Time Played: 3 hours
The Last of Us is a dark, hard, depressing game about humans in a desperate future. It's a story about the growing friendship between a man in his forties and a 14-year-old girl. It takes place in a post-apocalypse world imagined with precise logistical creativity. It's a story with "zombies" in it, though like last year's great Walking Dead game, supporters of The Last of Us will tout it to skeptical friends as "more of a story about people".
I liked the essential and spare nature of its narrative. It's about two people crossing a ruined country on foot. It borrows from good fiction and film. It borrows its game design elements from popular games.
It borrows its level designs from common sense and from the games of the future.
I tell you what: I went ahead and read all of the negative (by which I mean 7.0 and below) reviews of The Last of Us listed on Metacritic. The primary negative criticism of the game is that it is too easy, or too difficult, while also being too dark, and not "fun". Another criticism is that the whole thing is depressing.
I'm all for blue-skied feel-good games about driving convertibles; however, I won't let that poison my appreciation of The Last of Us as a landmark interactive entertainment achievement.
Another curious criticism is that the game would have been better with no action whatsoever.
This is a new criticism of games as interactive entertainment, and I personally am super-happy it exists. The makers of the The Walking Dead game strongly considered ways to make the game shooting-free. A heap of critics dogpiled atop Bioshock Infinite in a desperate wish for a game with as dense an atmosphere and no technical gunshooting skill-barrier to entry.
Meanwhile, Gone Home, a game from The Fullbright Company, delivers the promise of action-free exploration-based narrative storytelling. The scientific verdict is: it works. My prediction as a Very Serious Videogame Industry Professional is that we're bound to see a million more games just like Gone Home in the next five years, and some of them will have budgets as big as Bioshock Infinite, so let's everybody be getting ready for that.
In the meantime, here's the comparison no one asked for: The Last of Us is a better game than Bioshock Infinite by almost every mathematical method of analysis. Where Bioshock Infinite is bloated with systems (press a button to open a dresser drawer and pillage a dozen unique objects with one-tenth of a purpose to divide among all of them), The Last of Us is cut and trim (there are only six kinds of crafting pick-ups). Where Bioshock Infinite's level designs are winding Disneyland Tunnels of chaos and noise, The Last of Us presents us a happy marriage of Gears of War and Pac-Man. Where Bioshock Infinite is loopy and ropy and balloon-animally in its all-too-juicy attack-animation-filled gun-shooting struggles, The Last of Us is hard and direct, with only a handful of enemy types arranged with genuine poetic attention to geometry. Where Bioshock Infinite lets you equip a lightning bolt or a crow-murder to your left hand so as to create a crow trap that pecks your enemies with crows if you can bother said enemy to walk over the place where you created the crow-swarm-trap, paralyzing them so you can shoot them a bunch with your machinegun, The Last of Us has blind enemies who will kill you if they touch you, and they will only touch you if you make a loud sound and then don't shoot them in the head before they can sprint to your location. The Last of Us is, quietly, a strategy contest with real-time shooting mechanical metaphors, in which the psychology of your in-game artificial-intelligent partners factors into your planning: "If I'm over here and I do this, will she snipe that guy before he can shoot me?" The Last of Us is simultaneously Valkyria Chronicles, Fire Emblem, Resident Evil, Pac-Man, and Metal Gear Solid. Bioshock Infinite is Disneyland full of racists.
Both games narrate the friendship between a hard older gentleman and a young lady he swears to protect. Heck, the same actor voices the gentleman in both games. Both games feature a young lady who can't be shot or killed by any of the game's thousands of violent oppressors. However, the girl in Bioshock Infinite has a Barbie-doll expression on her face even as she sprints back and forth helplessly and invincibly across a battlefield chucking ammunition at our hero, so The Last of Us wins.
For what it's worth, I did play all of Bioshock Infinite, and I have never laughed with such a screaming volume as I did at the end of that game.
However, I played all the way through The Last of Us twice, so it wins in that ultimate category as well.
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Time Played: ~ 40 hours
I said that 868-HACK was like playing poker-chess with a personable jerk. Sid Meier says that a game is a "collection of interesting decisions." A dozen and a half sociopaths chasing venture capital in a San Francisco coffee shop will tell you that conversation is a game.
Shin Megami Tensei IV is all of these things. It's also got a quaintly interesting setting, rocking music, and ladles of hard weirdness poured all over the top of it. It's math and irreverence and randomness shaking hands with level design and plot. It's kooky occult stuff and stupid anime stuff and a little bit of Pokémon with rabies. Why the heck not, huh? If you play it while taking a dump, there's a fifty-fifty chance it will ruin the dump. I like those odds: I eat more fiber than all of your eccentric aunts combined.
A central feature of the Shin Megami Tensei games is that you can talk to your enemies to avoid fighting them, or possibly to get them to join your party. They'll say something, and then you have to look at the demon and consider its possible personalities, and choose the canned response that you think fits. A demon will say he wants money, and you'll offer him some money, and he'll thankfully take it and join your party. Or maybe he'll say thanks and then attack you. You never really know. The best way to play this game is to care deeply about success and to care not too deeply at all about failure. Demon conversation is like throwing a balled-up piece of paper at a wastebasket across the room. There's a reason I allude to San Francisco venture-capital-chasing coffee shop psychos a couple of paragraphs up: this game feels like talking to them, except with better music than those guys ever seem to like.
This isn't to say skill doesn't slip into this game. It's sometimes checkers and sometimes chess. It's full of decisions which are sometimes small and sometimes large, and always interesting. I can't recommend it enough to people who, like me, bought Persona on the PlayStation the day it was released—by which I mean old-growing people with the unlucky habit of liking stuff before it's cool.
Everyone else, though: until just this second I didn't consider what it would be like trying to convince my mother to buy a 3DS and this game, under threat of death if I failed in my persuasion. Now, however, I sense a strong incoming nightmare.
868-HACK, Michael Brough, iOS
Time Played: ~ 40 hours
I will tell you up front that Michael Brough is a friend of mine, and that I first played 868-HACK when it was still in beta and had a much less memorable title. However, here's me being honest: I only became friends with Michael Brough because I already liked his games a great deal when he wrote a blog post about how much he liked my game ZiGGURAT, so I saw that as an opening and we became friends. One side effect of being friends with Michael Brough is that you get to play his innumerable brilliant games before anyone else.
868-HACK wasn't always as perfect as it is now (how perfect is it now? "So Perfect"), though right from the beginning the elegance of it made me scream. It's a "roguelike," which is a word that five years ago only people like me ever used. That means it's a turn-based game on a grid-based map with random level design, random enemy placement, and strict penalties for death. A game's design can be quite convoluted and baroque yet still fit the definition of "roguelike." Michael Brough views the convolution of many modern roguelike games as disingenuity (I am in agreement). 868-HACK is not bloated. Rather than present "exploration" as a mechanic, rather than have a map that scrolls in all directions, 868-HACK plays on one one-screen six-by-six grid at a time.
Rather than bloat its design with elements such as "hit points" or "magic points" or physical / magical / technical attacks or defense numbers or what have you, 868-HACK's protagonist is its own lifebar. Its lifebar is a happy face. Take a hit, and you become a neutral face. Take a second hit, and you become a sad face. Take one more hit, and you die. I like this. 868-HACK is much in the spirit of "Glengarry Glen Ross"'s sales contest: first prize is a brand-new Cadillac; second prize is a set of steak knives; third prize is you're fired.
As in many roguelikes, enemies appear randomly and attack randomly. Enemies move when you move. Some enemies can move two squares for your every one square. You can attack an enemy if your character has a line of sight on it. (Your character cannot see through walls.) However, if you have a clear line of sight on the enemy, you can't move in its direction (you execute attacks with the same swipe motion you'd otherwise use to move). Your character has one standard attack—a laser beam of sorts that can span the entire field.
About the playing field, you'll find "data siphons" which let you obtain "programs." You obtain programs by using a data siphon next to a wall. You can usually tell what program you are going to get, because it's written on the wall. Also written on the wall is a numeral. This numeral shows the number of enemies who will spawn on the map if you hack that wall.
The positions of walls, and the programs inside them, and the positions of the data siphons to unlock the walls are all random, much like the spawn locations and quantities of enemies.
Programs come in a range of usefulnesses. I like the luck of the draw element of the game. At its most sublime, I like the way the game becomes other games simply through its randomness. In many roguelikes, you can execute an attack against no opponent while standing in place in order to spend a turn without moving. You do this if, say, you want an enemy to come closer. Brough realizes this is silly, hence his razor-sharp refinement of the attack action and laser-honed perfection of 868-HACK's random maps. However, that doesn't stop him from adding a "Wait" program to the plump list of programs.
I can hardly even begin writing about this game without choking on the urge to write Way Too Much. It is a great steak of beautiful mathematics, with just the right number of elements to generate endlessly fascinating and challenging variety. If Gordon Ramsay reviewed video games, he would declare this one "Simple" and "Rustic." At its best (and worst) the game is like playing chess-poker against a personable jerk. Thanks to 868-HACK, I have canceled my ongoing search for friends who can beat me in chess or poker.
Kokuga, G.rev for the Nintendo 3DS eShop
Time Played: ~ 50 hours
Well, here's my most-played game of the year. It's an abstract, simplistic shooting game about a tank. If I had to describe it for a mainstream game publication, I'd say it's "like a first-person shooter which takes place entirely underwater." Lord, that sounds boring. "It's a strategy game that's slightly too fast to actually be a strategy game." That sounds idiotic.
Kokuga is a dead-simple top-down shooting action game in which you pilot a tank with the 3DS analog pad. You use the right and left shoulder buttons to rotate your cannon clockwise and counterclockwise. Some comments on a YouTube video I terrified myself by looking at wished the game had been on PlayStation Vita, because "it'd be better as a twin stick game." These are the people whose comments literally ruin everything in the world. Kokuga would not be better as a twin stick game.
In Kokuga, understanding the slowness with which your tank turret rotates is an integral part of the strategy. Man: here I am using the phrase "understanding the slowness" in an attempt to sell you an action game.
It's true, though: the slowness is delicious. If Call of Duty is a garbage bag full of Ho-hos and Ding-Dongs and Twinkies, Kokuga is a 46-inch-thick single-layer chocolate wedding cake of Styrofoam density. If you want to play Kokuga, you have to buckle up. You have to say "OK: I'll be a part of this world."
Your turret is slow. You're going to want to learn how slow it is. You press the Y button to fire bullets. The layout of the playfield is spare: every object communicates with clear visuals. Some objects you can't drive over, though you can fire shots over. Some objects you can't drive over or fire shots over. Some walls move. Enemies move. Some enemies blow up and destroy other enemies in the process. Enemies move in complex patterns. Shoot the right enemy at the right time. Move beautifully to dodge shots. Feel the dread of losing creep toward you. Battle bosses the way a conductor conducts an orchestra. Play every level 10 or more times. Get higher scores. Clear in faster times. Feel smarter and stronger every time you play.
The director of Kokuga is Hiroshi Iuchi, game designer and director of the critically beloved, mechanically inventive top-down-scrolling shooting games Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga. Kokuga is no less significant a work than those games. Iuchi has absorbed the various beautiful feelings of the whole history of action games into his DNA, and he has—and recently—evidently studied mobile games, pulling away from them only the kindest parts of their engagement loops: Kokuga is full of unlockable stages and sincerely sweet little replay-enhancing mechanics. For example, every play session the game awards you a variety of cards. You can see your cards on the bottom screen. Touch one to activate it. Maybe the card will speed you up. Maybe it'll make your bullets fire faster. Every time you play a level, it can be a little different. If you like the game even a little bit, you're going to love it if you keep playing it.
Since I'm a guy who called Gears of War "the game of the decade" and also as a person who played Shin Megami Tensei IV for 40 hours this year, Kokuga scratched every game itch I had this year. Its level design geometry blew me away over and over—even upon replaying one of the dozens of stages for the 10th time—and I savored every moment of the struggle to understand why I can't play this game perfectly, why its beautiful chaos never bends to the foresight of my brain. Earlier in this massive word-slab I dragged out the tired Sid Meier quote about games being series of "interesting decisions." Kokuga turns "rotate the turret clockwise right now or counterclockwise two seconds from now" into one of the more enthralling decisions you'll ever make in an electronic animated picture contest.
Kokuga is a humble, beautiful, intelligent action game.
It's of note that Kokuga director Hiroshi Iuchi moved from his home of many years, Treasure, to G.rev, a company I'd always thought of as Treasure's younger rival. Last year at this time, I reviewed the PlayStation 3 HD release of G.rev's Under Defeat for Paste, and I described the game as like a Burberry scarf: visually similar to a wide variety of astronomically cheaper alternatives, though monstrously valuable to the true connoisseur. Kokuga, too, is a Burberry scarf of a video game. Dozens of similar games for iOS or Android might cost a dollar where Kokuga costs 15, though Kokuga is worth, even to the casual newcomer who should give it a chance, at least 16 of these similar games.
Here's where I have to blush a little bit: I'm insinuating that I'm a connoisseur of action games, and that Kokuga is worth a thousand cheaper games for me.
Imagine if, like, a Ferrari were $15 more expensive than a used 2005 Mazda 3.
It even has a multiplayer mode, if you have friends who are cool enough to buy the game.
I can't recommend the game strongly enough. I mean, I really can't: I wish I could find excellent gameplay videos on YouTube. There are barely any. What videos there are make the game look slow and dull. It's not that: it's enthralling. You have to believe me. People are going to be screaming about this game five years from now. Join the club today.
Runner-up Game of the Year: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Time Played: ~ 3 hours—though I've been playing it in my head for 20 years
I saw four seconds of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds in motion during E3 2013. I was watching it over a player's shoulder. The player had the 3D turned off. I looked at it and made a Judge Dredd face so intense my neck was sore for an hour afterward. The Judge Dredd face was re: my being in stupid Los Angeles in stupid June instead of locked in my apartment in Oakland in November when The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds would be in my hands, inside a 3DS I didn't own yet.
I bought a 3DS so that I could later buy Zelda.
I was busy with work when the new Zelda came out. Also, the new Zelda came out on the same day as the new Mario. What the heck is up with that? The only way that day could have been more excellent is if a sweet new video game console hardware had also been released on the same day.
I got that Mario, and I played it a bunch. I put Zelda on my desk, shrink-wrapped, behind my keyboard, so that I had to stare at it for a month as I worked. Why the heck did I do that to myself?
I knew I was going to enjoy the game. I had wanted to be the first person to enjoy it. I knew it was for real. I had only seen four seconds of footage of it, and I knew that its creators understood Zelda perfectly.
Over the course of several weeks, everyone I know on the internet raved about the beauty of the new Zelda.
I was waiting for my plane ride back to Indiana to visit my parents for Christmas.
I worked all night before my flight. When I got on the plane to Las Vegas, I was dead tired. I slept for an hour. I boarded my flight for Indianapolis in Vegas, dead tired, certain I was going to pass out, throw up, or both.
I cracked open the new Zelda. Not 20 minutes in—I have no shame about this—I almost cried. The game feels stupidly perfect. Someone working on this game loved their job with their entire body. Maybe everyone working on the game did.
In 20 minutes, I was in the first dungeon. The first dungeon—the Eastern Palace—is flat-out Perfect Action Game Level Design.
That's the centerpiece of the Zelda series: action. It's unfair how well-kept a secret this is: the very first Zelda game was as nuanced about action as was Super Mario Bros. The second Zelda game is one of the tightest and fiercest action games ever made. The third Zelda game—to which Link Between Worlds is a sequel—is a love letter to all the games of the 1980s. In its first 10 minutes, players experience a thrilling dungeon battle on walkways over deadly pits, where knights in blue suits of armor dash with swords, knock the player back when swords clash, and spring off of bumpers in tricky locations. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is bathed in razor-sharp physical action nuances. The action never leaves that game. Every button press results in a thing which feels good.
With the The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Nintendo went a different direction. The game became about a sense of wonder and adventure. These things were always present in earlier Zelda games, though in earlier Zelda games the action was far more integral. Ocarina of Time backseated the action so as to make the game more accessible—and, some would argue, better. Ocarina of Time is a classic, landmark video game. People will talk about it for 20 more years.
I just like Link to the Past better.
Link to the Past is one of the best holistic mainstream game designs to ever exist—in my opinion, this is because its makers understood that action was the central instrument with which players experienced the adventure.
With Link Between Worlds, someone at Nintendo saw fit to tinker with the particulars of Link to the Past's action mechanics. It's tighter and snappier now. The special weapons use magic from a meter which regenerates at a brisk pace. You're not afraid to use the bow and arrow or bombs anymore. The game is so free and action-packed.
And that first dungeon is amazing. The action is so fast-paced; the puzzles massage the brain in just the right measure. This is as good as I've ever seen a game like this, and I've played Landstalker all the way through at least 20 times. I'm genuinely scared of how much I like this game.
Since closing my 3DS as that plane began to land, I've been thinking over every second of that first dungeon. You could write an action game level design textbook about that level. It's that tight.
I want to get my 3DS out of my bag and start playing it again right now. Instead, I decided to keep working, and save it for Christmas. That's how much I like this game: I scheduled my continuance of play for Christmas day. I guess I'm sort of a strange person, though there you have it. Let's go ahead and leave it there.