ANTHONY JOHN AGNELLO
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Tom Happ flattered Metroid with the intensity of a freaking sun this year. He is the sole designer of Axiom Verge, an exploration platformer for PS4 and PC that apes Nintendo’s science fiction classic so intensely in its opening moments that it seems to have literally redrawn backgrounds from the NES original. As you explore Axiom Verge’s gross alien world, oozing biological hallway by oozing biological hallway, the game’s truly original identity emerges. Startlingly vast for a game only built by a single person, Verge never stops throwing you into fascinating, dangerous situations with unusual tools. Guns that do nothing but warp reality, little drones for exploring tight spaces that can warp you to their location; Axiom Verge masks itself as a nostalgia act to subvert your expectations about how adventure games are supposed to play. Ultimately the game’s a mess, too big for its own good and stuttering to a flummoxing conclusion, but those imperfections only make it feel more alive.
Yoshi’s Woolly World
Two decades. That’s how long it took for Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island to finally get a worthy sequel. Many attempts have been made - from the pretty decent New Yoshi’s Island to the execrable Yoshi’s Island DS - but none have managed to capture the combination of beauty and challenge of the SNES classic until Woolly World finally landed on Wii U. Most everything you see in the game is pleasurable. The plush fabric of the backgrounds and characters, the deceptively steep challenge in many levels, and the pitch perfect pacing blend to capture that rare Yoshi alchemy. Most impressive of all is how it adjusts difficulty and depth on the fly. If you want a pure, no frills platformer, just flying through the levels is fun on its own. Completionists, though, can spend up to 20 minutes scouring levels for hidden goodies like yarn bundles to craft new Yoshis. After many years and what felt like even more delays during development, Woolly World was well worth the wait.
Yakuza 5 is a game, an absolutely brilliant game with seemingly endless variety and expertly wrought drama, but it often feels more like a nature preserve. Sega is still a hallowed name in video games, but it’s also sadly a historical one; the developer behind Chu Chu Rocket, Space Channel 5, and Outrun 2006 has been replaced by an infrequent publisher of strategy games and moe junk. In Yakuza 5, though, the Sega of old is alive and well. Every ten feet you walk in the game’s bustling cities, some new kind of game pops up. Drift racing in a souped up taxi cab? Sea-side fishing? Hunting? Training to be a pop star, getting in a dance battle, and then playing professional baseball? The whole thing feels like a Sega arcade all on its own, tossing out fast ideas and seeing how much fun they can be before moving on to the next one. Grounding it all is one of the most beautifully acted and written melodramas in the entire medium, peopled with some of the best characters ever. Kazuma Kiryu is the ultimate badass, but he’s also the park ranger on the greatest Sega preserve there is.
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer
While the rest of you are busy planting melons and building fortresses in Fallout 4, I’m carefully arranging festive furniture for rabbits and hippos, and deciding what kind of flooring works best in a school. The best part about Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is that you get to focus on the best parts of Animal Crossing! No, not the trading food part (although I do like persimmons) but finding suitable and loving homes for all the delightful items you’re hoarding. Well, you don’t exactly own anything in this game, but you do have access to what feels like a never-ending IKEA catalogue. Being able to design, craft, and furnish luxurious little homes is relaxing and therapeutic. If only it were this easy to organize and shuffle furniture around in real life.
Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series
It should be fairly obvious by now how a Game of Thrones game is going to play out, especially with Telltale as the developer. I often try to go with my gut and make my decisions quickly, but I almost always immediately regret my choices. It doesn’t matter what I choose, I’ll feel like a bad person and wonder if I should have done that other thing. Two things are for certain in Westeros: winter is coming and people have a tendency to die before I want them to. The story may not change all that much once everything’s said and done, but now I feel responsible for completely ruining these character’s lives. Thanks, Telltale.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
Trying to piece together what happened in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture involves a lot of walking and a lot of…can you really call it eavesdropping if they’re not really there anymore? Set in a beautiful, idyllic, and very deserted British town, you follow a swirling ball of light that guides you through gorgeous, sunny fields and quaint, sleepy neighborhoods. What I enjoyed most about this game is being able to take in the scenic countryside and slowly (you can’t actually run) explore this incredibly detailed world. You have no idea of who you are, or if you’re a ghost, and you can’t help but open every door and peer around every corner to find some hint or trace of what happened.
Vault 237 is full. There are citizens of the Wasteland positively clamouring to get into the Happiest Vault On Earth™. Well, I say clamouring but there’s actually a nice orderly and beautifully British queue outside. Why do they want in? There’s enough food to go around, all the Nuka Cola you could drink and the chat up lines are post-apocalyptic. This tappable vault management sim turned out to be far more than just a Fallout 4 waiting game and it takes all the best bits of Tiny Tower and translates it perfectly to the Commonwealth. Naming vault dwellers, juggling supplies and taking on mole rat invasions is a mobile joy and Bethesda just keeps updating it. I mean, I would play Fallout 4 but they just added dogs and cats...
The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth
I don’t care if it came out on PC and PS4 in 2014. It’s out on Xbox One, 3DS and Wii U and as such is my game of the year once again. Isaac’s basement adventures are disturbingly perfect. Every run of Edmund Mcmillen’s pixelated creation is fully unique and I’m still discovering new items and combinations. The twisted darkness of this roguelike knows no bounds and I’m still horribly, horribly addicted to firing tears at cute moving piles of faeces. If you’re looking for something disgustingly difficult but unnaturally addictive for Christmas, then you couldn’t do any better than your first taste of Isaac. Maybe wait until the family has gone to bed though. It means you won’t have to explain your damaged psyche to your extended family.
Lego Jurassic World
Do Lego games still matter, you ask? You’re damn right they do. Especially when they contain the best Lego adaptation of a movie ever in the shape of Lego Jurassic Park. Cutesy studs be damned, the Raptors in the kitchen and Ellie Sattler’s trip to turn on the park electricity are two of the most atmospheric and enjoyable Danish plastic brick levels I’ve ever experienced. Raptors screeching in the dark and genuine jump scares manage more brick induced tension than most YouTube fear fodder put together. Add in the original voice cast and John Williams score and it was worth the 65 million bricks in the making. Just one note though: just like in real life, ignore Jurassic Park 3 if you don’t want to be sad.
On the next page: the last wave of recommendations from Leon, Dave H., and Dave R.!