I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Few years can live up to 2015. It feels like every aspect of video games evolved and were challenged from shockingly different directions. It sometimes felt like the industry was moving in every direction, at once. For every stride forward towards console focused gaming a new game would struggle on the Sony and Microsoft platforms but shine on PC. Then as the PC pulled ahead as the thing to have for the “serious gamer” you’d find a travesty like Arkham Knight’s port.
What I’m trying to suggest is that 2015 was an eclectic and exciting year. What began as a slow, almost boring, release schedule ballooned into one of my favorite years in memory. I couldn’t have chosen a better year to begin writing about video games in earnest.
Here are my top ten games from 2015:
10. Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist
I stumbled back into Yu-Gi-Oh, the trading card game, earlier this year. The on again, off again, obsession throughout the year culminated with the purchase of Legacy of the Duelist. My sample work to audition for Chooch was a write up of my history with Yu-Gi-Oh games, and Legacy only added to that.
The gameplay isn’t spectacular, or even all that improved. However, the framework and added modes, including online play, a lengthy campaign, draft play, and a challenge mode, were incredible boons to the repetitive but strategic card game. As a relapsing collector there was no better time for Legacy of the Duelist to come out.
9. Yakuza 5
Previous to Yakuza 5 I had only dabbled in the series with Yakuza 4. Even with the foreknowledge I didn’t expect, or possibly remember, how zany, bonkers, and absolutely crazy the Yakuza games could be. I can go from driving a taxi, to spending time in a Sega arcade, to cooking ramen, to street racing, to leading a television chef around town, all within a few hours. You can get more enjoyment out of this game and still have the simplistic, but satisfying, combat and self-serious story to digest.
All jokes aside Undertale had its moments. These were rarely the jokes or boss fights but rather the deeper, more emotional, moments that brought me in. I became invested in the world, not the characters. It was hard to take joke-based personalities seriously, but the moments in Toriel’s home, realizing she once had her own child were heart-wrenching.
Through all the jokes and one-liner puns it was the quiet, reflecting moments I adored in Undertale. It’s a shame a fervent fandom could drive so many to irrationally hate such a deep and sweet little game. But for me I don’t think those possibly ruined moments would have hit that hard anyways. Thankfully, though, I’ll always have the quiet ones.
7. Mario Maker
I value a game that makes me think or play differently and Mario Maker does just that. I now look and think about Mario levels like an architect must look at a building. Game design can sometimes seem like a voodoo art akin to snake oil rather than real magic. But slapping together a Mario level is anything but easy. Suddenly I found myself wanting to convey a story while balancing challenge and fun within a level. I was overwhelmed and excited by the series of choices I could make. Which game pallet to choose? Which enemies would be best?
I may not be applying to any game developers soon as a designer but I do have a deeper appreciation for the hard, complex, and artistic work they undertake.
6. Rare Replay
Like most adults at or around my age I grew up staring at the colorful pallet of Rare games. They filled a meaningful gap of the part of my childhood that was spent with an N64 controller in my hand. With Rare Replay I was able to reconnect not only with those old games again but also find another set of games I never knew I could love and enjoy.
I didn’t enjoy every one of the thirty games inside the collection, but I did adore the surrounding menus and aesthetic they gave to everything. It felt as if Rare truly respected and loved their history, even the more odd games.
5. Kerbal Space Program
Half serious space simulator and half rocket explosion simulator, Kerbal Space Program finally came out of pre-release and delivered on its promises. Watching films like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff can give you a respect for the undertaking of exploring space but only Kerbal can help you understand the gravity of the task. Just getting a rocket into orbit might make some people snore when you begin discussing the technical aspects of prograde and retrograde.
Burns, staged separations, boosters, mass and acceleration. All the concerns NASA and space programs like it take into consideration, everyday, multiple times a day. You can take on what you’d like and aim your sights high towards the heavens, or be content with watching everything go boom. Kerbal doesn’t judge or worry itself with how you have fun, it just hopes you learn a thing or two along the way.
4. Prison Architect
Another early access game released allowing me to put it on this list. I’ll be the first to admit that a game like Prison Architect was, more or less, made for me. It scratches my itch for city building and simulation but with a unique and wonderful twist, prisons! Finding that perfect balance between security, safety, and humanity might never be found but that isn’t the point. The fun is in the journey.
The escapes and stabbings point out design errors and teach deep lessons you’ll remember with every new prison you build. Prison Architect will be a game I revisit a few times a year for many years to come.
3. Her Story
I maybe didn’t fully buy into the idea that indie gaming would/could be the future of video game development. I did believe that indie games could drive new ideas in design, and in story. They could challenge the stagnation within ‘AAA’ development and prove to big studios that there are alternative ways to accomplish loftier goals.
Only Her Story really proved all that to me. To hear Her Story described, you might think I’m a bit crazy. A search bar and a series of short, out of order, videos. You use the search bar, only inputting short phrases or words, and watch the handful of videos it pops out. Those videos should allude to new search terms and you’re off again. The story is all over the place, requiring you to pay attention and hang onto every detail you can recall.
I sat, at my computer, over the course of two evenings, muttering phrases and names to myself over and over. I was guessing and leaping to conclusions about murder suspects and hidden histories. But the game accounted for my guesswork, revealing no true ending until I said I was ready for it. For being so simplistic, Her Story has deep layers to reveal.
2. Witcher 3
I tried hard to get into Witcher 2, no really, I did. I know that some deeper and lengthy open-world RPGs often times take a while to sink their hooks into me. So I gave Witcher 2 several tries but to no avail. As Witcher 3 came out to rave reviews I knew I’d eventually have to sink myself into it or else be left behind by the series altogether.
Inside was a surreal and real open world. Monsters inhabit this fantasy world, but it’s the humans who are the real tyrants. Overzealous kings, warring clans, backstabbing friends, lover’s quarrels. All surrounding and encircling Geralt, whose journey to find and save “might as well be” his daughter and former pupil Ciri.
The path to find Ciri is trouble, long, and difficult for Geralt but keeping her safe was even tougher, and I never felt bored or slogged down. When I started to think a story or quest line was going on too long it usually ended and revealed a new, fresh, story to embark on. Witcher 3 is the high water mark for open world RPGs. It’ll be hard to live up to this standard.
1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
A few games back I mentioned how I valued games that make me play or think differently about the medium. The Phantom Pain did just that. I’m open to, and agree with, plenty of the criticism this game earned. Quiet is an absolute waste. Her design is shameful and unacceptable and in a game that’s designed around choice and freedom within gameplay, her lack of clothes and creepy portrayal made me actively avoid her as a buddy on missions.
And those missions aren’t all nice. Several are downright terrible, forcing players to suddenly play in a single, distinct, style rather than open itself up to whatever the player choose to do. However it’s that choice, that ability to experience the majority of the game however you wish, that places it at the top of 2015 for me.
No game I can recall has allowed me to circumvent what a level or mission designer intended with my way of doing things. If I wanted to sneak through a base and only tranquilize my enemies, I could do it. If I wanted to distract them all with a cardboard box of an anime lady, I could do it. If I wanted to stop a jeep with my horse’s poop, I could do it.
MGSV wasn’t about forcing a player through the same experience as everyone else. Few people will have the exact same playthroughs as their friends. And maybe that’s why MGS ends up at number one on my list but lower, or non-existent, on others. My experience and my time with the game was superb. While I heard anecdotes of friend’s struggles I would finish them in one or two tries. While people debated how to set up their FOBs for perfect resource gain, I upgraded a few weapons I enjoyed and rarely switched.
I don’t think MGSV is perfect and I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. Clocking in at around 80 hours, I saw everything I wanted in that game. But as we continue to celebrate diversity in design and decry stale old AAA remasters it’s hard to not applaud what Kojima did.