Following my top 5 games of the year list, and in the vast expense of holiday 2015 time with room to chill out and actually _think_, I had the opportunity to explore some video games released this year that – maybe – didn’t get the kudos that they deserved.
What does ‘underappreciated’ mean here, in context of the title of this post? For the purposes of this (highly subjective) list, let’s just say: ‘doesn’t appear on a majority of the other Top 10/20 lists, and you might have missed it or just not got around to playing it’.
So, without further ado, here’s the games that I think everyone should have cared a bit more about this year (alphabetical order):
– Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games/Nifflas: Wii U)
That rarest of things, a high quality Wii U third-party exclusive game, Affordable Space Adventures makes impeccable use of dual-screen to put you in charge of a shuttle adrift on an alien planet. (The shuttle’s ‘instruction manual’ that crops up on loading screens is a hoot, too!)
Explaining the game mechanics too much would spoil things. But the game uses the Wii U controller as your shuttle’s instrument panel in progressively more complex ways. This creates some devious puzzles around navigating obstacles by manipulating your powers. The result is clever, smart, and exactly what Nintendo originally envisaged for its hardware, design-wise. And the 2D art – all swirling smoke and odd glowing passageways – completes the effect.
It’s a shame the Wii U’s eShop doesn’t do a better job of showcasing well designed digital-only titles like this. Let alone the fact that the Wii U’s default internal storage makes it difficult to grab lots of downloadable games without buying expansion memory :/ Persevere through these things, and Affordable Space Adventures is up there with Nintendo first-party awesomeness, and should be on more year-end lists.
– Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (The Chinese Room/Sony Santa Monica: PS4)
Probably the game I’ve picked that actually _has_ made it to the most ‘Top X Of The Year’ lists, and therefore a bit of a cheat. But I’ve still seen a lot of folks online say ‘yep, must get round to playing this!’, and haven’t. Well, you should, and I did, and found it one of the most beguiling stories of the year in games.
It’s probably important to get into Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture in the correct state of mind, however. You should know – ideally before you play it – that’s the game is a minimalist interactive story. You’ll be an observer, and a discoverer, but almost entirely a voyeur. This rubs some people up the wrong way, probably those with other expectations, but it worked for me.
Why did it work? Well, the lovingly crafted English rural village setting is one reason – it’s a game you can just gaze at and visually appreciate. And Jessica Curry’s choral soundtrack is over-the-top beautiful. The poignant & mysterious story – and particularly the voice acting – is exceptionally well done. And it’s a complete package. (Yes, I used the ‘R2 to walk a bit faster’ button. But that didn’t make me savor it any less!)
– Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger & The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist (Crows Crows Crows: PC/Mac)
So yes, I’m a bit of a fan of The Stanley Parable co-designer William Pugh – I noted his (alleged) ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’-style art game prank in progress in a blog post last year. So I was delighted to see a weird (free!) first-person game – all of 20 minutes in length – pop up on Steam from him late this year.
I imagine Dr. Langeskov isn’t making game of the year lists because – as advertised – it’s 20 minutes long, and free, and entirely silly. But its high-concept weirdness has definitely caught on, if you check out the, uhh, imaginative Steam reviews. And it’s just a delight to see a game that doesn’t take itself – or the process of game making – seriously at all.
Even more than the previous pick, the game is definitely a bit of a walking simulator-esque ‘theme park ride’ – with the v.funny Simon Amstell acting as the voice of God. But things happen, and by gum, you’re entertained. Plus, there’s all kinds of lovingly crafted in-jokes – both around how you use the interface and ambient objects – that play with the entire ‘what is a game and how does it work?’ concept. More, please.
– The Swindle (Size Five Games: PC/Mac, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, Wii U)
Another entry in the procedural game canon, this laser-sharp designed 2D stealth action gem from Dan Marshall & friends got some moderate attention during the year, but deserves a bunch more.
Some reasons for you: a super-enticing Victorian cyberpunk setting – which can sound passe, but not with Michael Firman‘s adorable stylized art in tow, all ancient ‘bots and clanking computers. And the ‘100 days to complete the whole darn thing’ time limit. This sets a long-term goal that makes the heart race every time you get captured or blown up, and don’t get that moolah.
But most of all, The Swindle has a super-tight game loop. You’ll be hoarding money to gradually upgrade a host of features and open up the game. The range and skills of enemies evolve to counter your new abilities, and the bite-sized repeatable nature of missions keeps the dopamine flowing. It’s Victorian Spelunky meets MGS, innit?
– The Next Penelope (Aurelien Regard, PC/Mac)
Finally, this one-man French 2D racing/combat production (from an Arkedo co-founder) really caught my attention on release earlier this year. Why? Probably a combination of a bright ’90s aesthetic and an intriguing ‘F-Zero vs. Micro Machines’ gameplay mechanic.
And it does a lot with a little. There’s some fun variety in the levels, some interesting Greek mythology stylings going on in the back story, and a fresh, polished console-y feel that’s unlike many games of its type. (BlitWorks is apparently planning to port it to Wii U, which would be a very suitable additional home for the game!)
Unfortunately, French creator Aurelien Regard has a super-detailed postmortem which bemoans the games sub-5,000 sales at the time. That’s something I fear that’s ‘the new normal’ for retro-inspired games like this – ones that don’t necessarily appeal to mainstream Steam buyers. But I want more games like this – and you should too – so please support Aurelien’s efforts if you agree!
Finally, some honorable mentions that had LOTS of redeeming features, but maybe got slept on a bit, attention-wise:
– Noio/Licorice’s Kingdom (ignored in lists, but ‘pure’ design gold & popular on Steam!)
– Mike Bithell’s Volume (clever plot and witty dialogue, a bit antiseptic for its own good)
– Metanet’s N++, (amazing soundtrack and level editor, [but?] so much content it made my head explode).