Mario Kart 8: every track, ranked (part two)

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  1. Excitebike Arena (Egg Cup)

Would have been a good few places higher until the last batch of DLC arrived. This ostensibly simple track not only pays respectful homage to the titular NES classic, but its randomly-generated ramps ensure it plays out differently each time. You’ll need to weave down the straights to succeed: stay in the same lane and you leave yourself worryingly open to shells, fireballs and boomerangs.

  1. 3DS Piranha Plant Pipeway (Lightning Cup)

While your top speed is dependent on your kart selection, there’s no denying some Mario Kart tracks feel significantly quicker than others. Piranha Plant Pipeway goes by in a blur, from that initial descent to the moment you break the surface of the water and soar through (or, in 200cc, above) the castle ramparts.

  1. Mute City (Egg Cup)

As with Big Blue, this doesn’t quite hit the spot until at least 150cc – it’s telling that the track has so many boost chevrons to pick up the pace. Nonetheless, this captures the essence of F-Zero – fast, winding, narrow tracks where a single nudge or shunt is enough to bounce you into the void. At least here you’ve got someone to fish you out. Bonus marks, too, for the tremendous orchestral remix of the track’s theme.

  1. Wii Wario’s Gold Mine (Triforce Cup)

For all the gravity-defying gimmickry of the new tracks, I’m not sure any other track captures that rollercoaster sensation quite as well as the stomach-lurching dip near the start here. Substantially prettified from the last-gen original, it’s a shame we lose the half-pipes, but getting boosted instead of halted by bumping into the mine carts compensates somewhat. And the alternate route near the end is still great.

  1. SNES Donut Plains 3 (Banana Cup)

An oldie but a goodie, this outwardly simple track requires some careful cornering, and has one of my favourite little visual touches in the entire game – that slick sheen on the damp patches that lead back around to the start. It’s a refreshingly short burst of classic MK action, with one of the best mushroom shortcuts ever.

  1. Water Park (Mushroom Cup)

A beamingly cheerful funfair ride, this is far better than a first cup’s second track has any right to be. It’s a concentrated blast of unpretentiously straightforward fun, and tends to keep the pack nicely bunched together, arguably more so than most tracks. Certainly, it’s been responsible for some of my closest multiplayer finishes ever. Few people would put it in their top five, but it’s a course where you consistently end up having more fun than you expect.

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  1. Bowser’s Castle (Special Cup)

Nestled between two of the most disappointing tracks in the game, Bowser’s Castle naturally looks good by comparison. Yet it’s a fine course in its own right, its sharp corners in the early part redolent of earlier versions before it shifts into something different entirely. Lava, lasers and a giant Bowser statue that either squashes you flat or creates ripples to trick off: what’s not to like?

  1. Thwomp Ruins (Mushroom Cup)

This is probably too low a position for a terrific and unusual course with a wonderfully percussive soundtrack, though the idea of these seething stones crashing down onto the track is hardly a new one. The rolling cogs represent a new kind of hazard, mind, and it’s always fun to play a track where laps two and three look a little different from the first.

  1. Dolphin Shoals (Star Cup)

Widely disliked – perhaps because there’s general ill-will among the Mario Kart community towards underwater sections – but I don’t care. This lifts my spirits every time I play it: tracing the leaps of the dolphins through the golden rings is a lovely flourish, the undulating eel adds a note of unpredictability to the mid-section, and the moment when you emerge, arcing around that rocky spar as the saxophone kicks in is just glorious. Oh, and in 200cc, clever racers can glide all the way over that fiendish final turn. It’s maybe a track of great individual moments rather than a consistently strong design, but I love it.

  1. Wild Woods (Crossing Cup)

In which the Shy Guys become surrogate Ewoks living inside a giant tree, making weirdly cute chanting sounds as you pass. The water slide section that segues into a hop and a skip across those giant floating leaves is great fun, and the only real complaint I have is that you never quite get a sense of where you are in spatial terms – it’s only on viewing the replay that you realise you start by haring up a vertical straight.

  1. Toad Harbour (Flower Cup)

Perhaps it’s mild fatigue with Nintendo’s reliance on familiar elemental themes (fire, ice, water, forest, jungle, desert, etc etc.) but I tend to find myself drawn more and more to the tracks that more closely resemble real world settings. This idealised take on San Francisco is like an injection of Vitamin D. Hit all the boost pads on the downward slope towards the finish and it’s all you can do not to shout “wheeee!”

  1. Hyrule Circuit (Triforce Cup)

It can’t be easy to capture the spirit of a game in an entirely different genre. F-Zero is one thing, but Zelda? Yet it works, brilliantly, from rattling over Hylian cobbles to the mystery jingle playing as you hit an item box and the wonderful moment you trigger the shortcut in the castle to jump past (and  boost off) the Master Sword. Coins become rupees; Piranha Plants are recast as Deku Babas, and that theme tune is as stirring as ever.

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  1. Animal Crossing (Crossing Cup)

It can’t be easy to capture the spirit of a game in an entirely different genre. F-Zero is one thing, but Animal Crossing? You get the picture. The four seasonal variants don’t radically change the track or anything, but each is a treat for the eyes – though the course design is fairly straightforward, it would be wrong to dismiss the sheer aesthetic pleasure of the thing. Gorgeous.

  1. Electrodrome (Star Cup)

Another tricksy one with diverging routes, though Electrodrome gets away with it – not just because you’re zipping around winding fretboards, but because they’re both wide enough to accommodate multiple karts but narrow enough to keep things tight and tense. And the unique visual signature and pulsing disco theme make for a delightfully distinctive track: no other course looks or sounds like this.

  1. Wii Moo Moo Meadows (Shell Cup)

Imagine a Zelda game where Lon Lon Ranch looked like this. Proof that simple courses can still be thoroughly entertaining, Moo Moo Meadows is the sort of track you’re always pleased to see among the four available for selection: nothing too taxing, just a fun and consistently competitive course that happens to be set in a pastoral idyll, tinged with a pink-orange glow from the low-hanging late afternoon sun. It passes by with a happy, wistful sigh: you’ll wish you could climb out of your kart, lie down on the grass and simply gaze up at the fluffy clouds as they glide lazily by.

  1. Mario Circuit (Flower Cup)

Talking of simple courses, here’s a simple Moebius strip elevated to greatness by subtle refinements, fine details and deceptive hazards: those Goombas and Piranha Plants should be so easy to avoid, and yet… Mario Circuit is one of the few tracks to make you properly aware of the fact that you’re racing upside-down, it’s blindingly good in 200cc, and the CLANG as you glide into the sign at the end of each lap is the game’s most satisfying sound effect.

  1. Super Bell Subway (Bell Cup)

A real grower. When I started compiling this list, this was hovering around the 20 mark, but it just kept climbing. It’s a combination, I think, of a really well-designed track and a frankly unnecessary attention to trackside detail that most players will never see (the graffiti mural is a sublime touch). It’s a course packed with miniature delights: the World 1-1 riff working its way into the music; that tricky kink before the final turn which has you turning left and immediately left again; the barriers that open just as you think you’re about to smash through them. Next week it might just be top five material.

  1. GBA Ribbon Road (Bell Cup)

The look of this completely slays me. We’ve seen the Toy Story thing done numerous times before, but never has it been realised so expertly. If Pixar made racing games, etc. Beyond that, it’s a course that looks much more straightforward than it is: the ribbon’s undulations are tempting to trick off, but given the absence of barriers you could easily end up skidding off the sides. So beautiful it even gets away with a none-too-subtle advert for Yoshi’s Woolly World.

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  1. Cloudtop Cruise (Special Cup)

Gusty Garden Galaxy x Mario Kart. Enough said.

  1. Shy Guy Falls (Flower Cup)

So quickly do you acclimatise to anti-gravity that it’s easy to take a track like Shy Guy Falls for granted. Not so much on your first couple of goes, admittedly, where you think the novelty of racing up a waterfall might never wear off. It’s never quite as much of an eye-opener thereafter – or so I thought. Up, round and back down in 200cc is an exhilarating rush – or a cascade of excitement, if you will.

  1. GCN Yoshi Circuit (Egg Cup)

Setting aside for a moment my annoyance at the inexplicable abbreviation of GameCube to GCN, Yoshi Circuit can consider itself unfortunate not to be even higher. No one at Nintendo could possibly have conceived Mario’s dino/dragon pal with a view to one day turning his outline into a race track, but it fits so perfectly you begin to wonder. It’s a very technical track, which means it’s unpopular in some quarters – and admittedly it’s best played with people accustomed to its nuances. But you’ll struggle to find a better time trial course in Mario Kart’s entire history than this. Superb.

  1. GCN Baby Park (Crossing Cup)

No, you shut up. Listen: this isn’t simply fond memories of Double Dash!! talking. You will never convince me that Baby Park is anything less than excellent, and here’s why. It’s perhaps the purest expression of the series’ shift towards weaponised racing, a manic game of dodgems where fortune favours the fortunate, and chaos reigns. It’s not, as some would tell you, NASCAR for toddlers – not least because staying ahead of the pack involves some sharp cornering and intelligent use of defensive items. Of course, more often than not it descends into outright madness, a demolition derby where you spend half your time at full pelt and half the time getting hit. But give me a track that makes you rage as much as laugh over a bland, forgettable procession. Baby Park offers the rare sensation of peril when you’re way out in front, and an opportunity for back markers to remain involved throughout, even if it’s simply taking out your frustrations on the leader with a cathartic red shell. It’s the only track where there’s a good chance you’ll either lap or be lapped, or both. It stands apart, proud of its capacity to captivate and irritate all at once. A classic.

  1. Sunshine Airport (Star Cup)

Try not to smile. It’s impossible. A summer holiday in race form, it mirrors the airport experience perfectly. The countdown is the wait for your flight to be called; there’s the excitement as you approach your gate; and whether you’re racing through the fuselage or around the wheels of the grounded plane, you’ll recall the fiddly process of queuing to board and finding your seat. Finally, you’re off! Racing down the runway before lifting your front wheels off the tarmac until you’re up, up and away. Then, as you circle around and begin your descent, you witness another group of holidaymakers taking off, as you pass beneath the undercarriage of a Jumbo jet mid-flight. And all the while, you’re accompanied by an uplifting earworm of a tune – so breezy and happy it might as well be called “we’re going abroad for a week, isn’t life amazing?” 45 seconds of undiluted joy, times three, and a squeak shy of top spot.

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  1. Mount Wario (Star Cup)

A predictable pick, sure, but how could this not be number one? You immediately know you’re in for a treat from the brassy sting as you set off, a fanfare that could only possibly herald something amazing. What follows is by turns breathless and breathtaking, and strangely akin to a multi-event winter sports discipline. The icy start is basically speed skating, luge and bobsleigh rolled into one, then later you’re weaving in and out of trees like a skilled snowboarder, before donning invisible skis for a thrilling slalom and finally accelerating downhill for take-off like a practised ski jumper. What else? The skid past the line as you turn around to greet the runners-up losers behind you; that tiny ramp around the icy bend into the water section that cuts the corner if you can land it; the hidden shortcut through the snow that marks a middle route between the left and right forks. If it comes up a little too often when you’re playing online, that’s only because it’s too good to turn down. And why choose anything else when one of the options is quite possibly the best Mario Kart course ever?

Mario Kart 8: every track, ranked (part one)

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  1. GCN Dry Dry Desert (Banana Cup)

Dire Dire Desert, more like. So bad they named it twice, this somnolent sandy circuit was one of the worst tracks of the much-maligned Double Dash!!, and hasn’t been improved any by Nintendo chucking a giant puddle in the middle of it. If anyone votes for this online they’re either an idiot or a troll. Or both.

  1. GCN Sherbet Land (Leaf Cup)

Making it a Double Dash!! double-whammy in the bottom two, this tediously slow and visually dull course is somehow equally monotonous in 200cc mode. The best you can say about it is that the handful of design adjustments make it marginally more interesting here than its original form.

  1. N64 Toad’s Turnpike (Shell Cup)

A track which manages the impressive feat of being both boring and fantastically irritating all at once. I’d wager that this is almost certainly the track that prompts the most rage-quits in online multiplayer matches – and probably local ones for that matter. Less awful in 200cc, I suppose, but still bobbins.

  1. 3DS DK Jungle (Banana Cup)

Absolutely no one’s favourite track. Has one half-decent shortcut, but otherwise almost entirely uninteresting. Not hateful, exactly, but would anyone miss it if Nintendo quietly removed it from online rotation? Would anyone even notice?

  1. Bone Dry Dunes (Special Cup)

The Special Cup is supposed to be home to the best and/or most challenging Mario Kart tracks. Cloudtop Cruise proves to be a tough act to follow, but there’s no real excuse to dump this duffer immediately after it. Its hazards are irksome rather than devious (the corner immediately after the glider section is horrible) and it only avoids a bottom-three place because its brick-coloured sand and magic-hour lighting make it at least attractively annoying.

  1. Ice Ice Outpost (Triforce Cup)

I feel slightly sorry for whoever designed Ice Ice Outpost, because conceptually it’s quite an inventive course. It’s just not a lot of fun to play. It’s never quite clear which of the two intertwining tracks you should be on, and they’re both so narrow that you’ll invariably come to a grinding halt simply by bumping against the sides where the paths diverge. A good idea in theory; not so much in practice.

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  1. Wii Grumble Volcano (Lightning Cup)

In one of the brightest, most vibrantly colourful games money can buy, Grumble Volcano distinguishes itself with its sheer brownness. Bowser’s Castle does the fiery lava thing much better, and even noisy background eruptions fail to invigorate a track that prompts eye-rolling and weary sighs every time it’s picked online.

  1. Sweet Sweet Canyon (Mushroom Cup)

So sugary you can almost feel your teeth rotting with each lap, this Wreck-It Ralph rip-off has that neat doughnut shortcut on the final bend, a lemonade lake that looks like carbonated piss and not much else. The scenery looks good enough to eat, mind.

  1. GBA Cheese Land (Crossing Cup)

Essentially a desert track masquerading as something more interesting, Cheese Land is a more comfortably off man’s Dry Dry Desert. Less annoying than Bone Dry Dunes, and you can trick off the cheese craters, but if you had to choose which of the DLC tracks you could happily live without, this would be in most people’s top one.

  1. Rainbow Road (Special Cup)

I’m not angry, Rainbow Road, I’m just disappointed. Nintendo promised something extra-special; what we got was an admittedly pretty intergalactic jaunt around a twisty, turny, strangely forgettable ribbon of track, with a bizarrely clunky interruption from a passing satellite. After the invention of MK7’s similarly space-set climax, this was a real let-down.

  1. N64 Rainbow Road (Lightning Cup)

The original was remarkable mostly for being ludicrously over-extended, maybe the most insipid finale in Mario Kart history. The main thing it has going for it now is its brevity: one of the longest tracks is now one of the shortest. But oh, that music! The remixed theme is a joy, making you weirdly nostalgic for a track you never actually liked.

  1. DS Tick-Tock Clock (Lightning Cup)

Into the realms of the ‘not bad, but…’, Tick-Tock Clock is a fittingly mechanical offering: all the nuts and bolts are in place, but it’s lacking a bit of soul. There are many potentially better choices from the DS game’s very decent roster, yet Nintendo opted to update a course that consistently threatens to be more interesting than it actually is.

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  1. N64 Royal Raceway (Banana Cup)

A Peach-centric track, and as we all know, Peach is rubbish. Other than looking quite nice – and that’s something you could say of most tracks – the twee Royal Raceway doesn’t really have a defining feature. There’s a few sharp corners, a gliding section, a light sprinkling of sakura blossoms and three stupid birds who keep landing near the start line. It’s okay.

  1. 3DS Melody Motorway (Leaf Cup)

Its central gimmick – that you’re racing around and generating sounds from a bunch of musical instruments – is fun on the first few goes, but once the novelty has worn off you’re left with a track that doesn’t really do much else of note. Of note! Because…oh, never mind.

  1. Twisted Mansion (Flower Cup)

A Boo House as a Mario Kart track is an idea with potential for mischief and spooky trickery, but it’s wasted on a lavish but fairly generic haunted house setting. Beyond that, it’s an exercise in box-ticking. Anti-grav wall driving? Check. Gliding section? Check. Underwater bit? Check. Boost pads? Yawn.

  1. N64 Yoshi Valley (Leaf Cup)

Like Ice Ice Outpost, Yoshi Valley is a better idea on paper. Multiple routes just end up splitting the pack, and it’s only once the paths converge that things get exciting again. And let’s face it: as obstacles go, the giant Yoshi egg that occasionally blocks off the wooden bridge is pretty crappy.

  1. DS Cheep Cheep Beach (Shell Cup)

I’m a sucker for tropical settings, and this gorgeous, sun-baked circuit makes me yearn for a Wii U update of Super Mario Sunshine. You can almost feel the oppressive heat, which perhaps helps explain the languid pace. Slow and flat, Cheep Cheep Beach is far from top-tier Mario Kart, but it’s not bad.

  1. 3DS Koopa City (Bell Cup)

An HD makeover has done wonders for a track I always found thuddingly dull on 3DS. Neon lights and slippery asphalt are a surprisingly attractive combo, and light drizzle has rarely looked quite so appealing. A reasonable opener for the Bell Cup, but there’s better to come.

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  1. DS Wario Stadium (Leaf Cup)

The clear highlight of Mario Kart 8’s least enjoyable grand prix, Wario Stadium has its ups and downs – quite literally in the case of its new elevated anti-grav section, which smacks a little of change for change’s sake. Then again, bumping an opponent off the top edge is an undoubted pleasure. It’s the Crystal Palace of tracks: comfortably mid-table without ever looking like troubling the big guns.

  1. Big Blue (Bell Cup)

Slap an F-Zero theme on a flat, featureless strip of track and some people would put it in their top ten. Big Blue is basically a sci-fi waterslide that only really comes to life in 200cc. It’s fine, but its popularity is almost entirely down to rose-tinted memories of a series Nintendo has all but left behind. Great music, though.

  1. SNES Rainbow Road (Triforce Cup)

Pick of the Rainbow Roads, this can’t have the impact the original did back in ’92, but it’s a solid update. It’s a great time-trial track, but can be infuriating in multiplayer, and in 200cc you’ll either enjoy a terrifying white-knuckle ride or end up funding Lakitu’s kids through university.

  1. Mario Kart Stadium (Mushroom Cup)

The first track of any Mario Kart is traditionally fairly safe and pedestrian, but this is one of the series’ strongest starts. It offers a fine introduction to anti-grav, and is ideally suited to 12-player races. Put it this way: if it’s randomly selected in an online lobby, you probably won’t be too unhappy.

  1. GBA Mario Circuit (Shell Cup)

There’s something wonderfully artless about the way anti-grav is shoehorned in here, not least because you get to witness the section of track being lifted on a hydraulic jack in the introduction. And once you’re at its apex, you get one of the game’s best views: not just the track below, but a glimpse of the world beyond it. Nothing else quite lives up to that moment, but that’s enough.

  1. Dragon Driftway (Egg Cup)

Barely enjoyable at 200cc, this is otherwise a hugely undervalued track with an unusual theme, some devilishly difficult sections and a terrific soundtrack. The grass verge on the home stretch is a bit of a dick move, but any circuit that pays tribute to a Mario Galaxy boss (SMG2’s Gobblegut) is all right by me.

2014: Ten of the best

I wrote a whole bunch of stuff this year, though as ever it was mostly reviews and previews and list features of various forms. Ideally, I’d like to produce more longreads in 2015 – not least because that’s the kind of stuff that tends to get people actually reading your work, as opposed to scrolling to the bottom, looking at a number and violently disagreeing in the comments – but this year I’ve rarely had the time or space to do so. Nature of the beast when you’ve got debts to pay off and ongoing illnesses to worry about, I guess, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

In fact, it’s been a pretty crappy year from both a personal and a professional standpoint, with a few things (particularly in the past few weeks) making me realise that I have a long, long way to go as a writer. Still, there were highlights – I was nominated for two Games Media Awards and had a brilliant time at the event despite losing in both categories, I was proud of the work I contributed to the Virgin Media/EGX website (42 features in three months) and I spent most of the year writing for the best games magazine in the world, including my first ever cover feature.

Though I think most of my best work this year was in print, here are ten online pieces I wrote in 2014 that I thought were pretty good:

The Making Of: Tearaway – I visited Media Molecule in Guildford to talk to them about their charming papercraft adventure. The feature is better in print – not least because it’s supported by several rare or unseen assets – but it still reads pretty well online.

The Last of Us: Left Behind is a masterful, affectionate and poignant farewell – It really is, you know. Here I talk about how a two-hour slice of downloadable content became one of my games of 2014.

Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails review – Edge-Online all but ceased operation this year, which brought an enjoyable semi-regular freelance gig to a close. For a while a small group of freelancers got to pitch reviews to the website that might not necessarily make it into the print version. There was no room in the mag for this review of DakkoDakko’s inventive Wii U shooter/platformer, but it was a fun one to write.

The Making Of: Super Mario 3D World – bridging the gap between Mario’s past and present – I was never going to pass up the opportunity to pick the brains of some of Nintendo’s finest designers. Though this was only published online in May, the interview was conducted in early Feb, during which I all but implored Hayashida and co. to make a game based on 3D World’s Captain Toad levels. “If enough fans express such enthusiasm, we’d consider doing something with this feature in future,” he replied. Ten months on…

The story of Hello Games and how it coped when disaster struck – I’ve visited Hello Games twice now to write about No Man’s Sky, including this year’s Edge cover feature, though this feature about the studio’s background and its response to the infamous flooding came somewhere in between. I was struck in particular by Sean Murray’s optimism and undying enthusiasm for the project, despite such an awful setback. Its recent appearance at PSX was a testament to the indefatigable spirit of the Guildford studio.

Monument Valley review – In which I attempt to capture the reasons I like ustwo’s celebrated smartphone puzzler and also why I think it’s been slightly overpraised. I think I made a decent fist of it.

Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile review – I had little choice but to give both barrels to Atari’s godawful freemium ‘reboot’, though when a game is this bad, there’s a certain cathartic pleasure in putting the boot in. A couple of people told me this was one of the funniest reviews they’d read in a while, which is always a nice thing to hear. Our job as critics is to entertain as well as inform, after all.

How Sega is Rejuvenating its Classic Games – I’m hoping I’ll get more chances to write for Kotaku in 2015 because it’s the kind of site that allows you a little more leeway to cover more obscure stuff. This interview-feature I wrote, in which I spoke to Yosuke Okunari about how he and Sega’s M2 studio went about porting a range of arcade favourites to the 3DS, was one of my most enjoyable projects of 2014.

Melodious Motoring: The Music of Mario Kart 8 – Earlier this year I took my first full week off in six years. Or at least that was the plan. In the event, our holiday was curtailed when we returned to attend a funeral, and I spent the best part of the second day there writing up this piece about Mario Kart 8’s fantastic soundtrack. I didn’t get much of a break, then, but at least I got a decent feature out of it.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U review – I’m not the best judge of my own work, but a very well respected games writer emailed me out of the blue to say how much he enjoyed reading this, so I’ll take his word for it. Needless to say, not everyone in the comments agreed, but there you go.

My alternative game awards 2014

Or! An excuse to mention a bunch of games I forgot didn’t get around to talking about in my Games of 2014 posts.

Best 6/10 game: Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved

I think Music Evolved has problems with its structure, its presentation and, well, Kinect, but it is a game I’ve returned to on a number of occasions since reviewing it. I think I like the idea more than the execution, but if you can switch off the desire to beat your best scores, it’s actually a lot of fun. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of DJ Hero, though it’s less rigid, giving you more creative control in how you remix each song.

Best old game that isn’t actually an old game: Shovel Knight

It’s as if a supergroup of developers from Capcom and Nintendo were sent back to the 8-bit era to make a game, and then returned to the present day to hand it over. It’s not slavishly retro in the sense that it looks too good to be a NES or Master System game and that it borrows a few contemporary design ideas, nor is it needlessly punitive like a lot of these old-school platformers can be. It’s challenging but rigorously fair, and buzzes with character and humour. Lovely.

Best remake: Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty!

Just Add Water’s lovingly crafted tribute to the original Abe’s Oddysee was built with a clear-eyed affection for its source material, but an awareness of how things have changed since, with a series of small but smart tweaks that made it more palatable for modern audiences. Looks fabulous, too.

Best remaster: 3D OutRun

It’s OutRun. In 3D. I needn’t say any more, really, beyond inviting you to read >>this<< piece I wrote about how Yosuke Okunari and his team at M2 spruced up a clutch of Sega’s arcade classics for 3DS.

Best game that didn’t get released over here: Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball

This, perhaps more than any of the other games featured here, is the reason for these awards. It’s a succession of really simple, really addictive baseball-themed twitch arcade challenges framed by a darkly sad story about a middle-aged store owner struggling to provide for his 12 kids. You get the first game for free, and can try before you buy the others, but you can also haggle the prices down by completing objectives within the ones you own (though you’ll feel guilty for doing so). Yes, Nintendo’s idiosyncratic approach to freemium turns the process of paying into an oddly compelling meta-game. Pity it didn’t bother to tell anyone about one of the most distinctive and inventive games it’s released in years.

Best football game not made by Konami: Soccer Physics

PES 2015 was the best football game of the year, but for pure entertainment value, Otto Ojala’s one-button slapstick iOS kickabout was hard to beat. I honestly can’t remember any game that has made me, my son or my wife laugh as hard as this. It is monumentally stupid and all the better for it.

Best half of a game: Broken Age: Act One

Cor, this was a treat. Three or so hours of classic point-and-click fun with sparkling dialogue, lovely art, terrific voice work, strong characterisation, great gags and an intriguing story. Sure, the puzzles were pretty rudimentary, but it feels churlish to grumble when so few other games in 2014 gave me the warm and fuzzies like this did. It’s a bit like finding a beloved old jumper at the back of a cupboard and finding out it’s even softer and cosier than you remember. Roll on Act Two!

Best game I stopped playing as soon as I’d finished reviewing it: Titanfall

I played Titanfall for two solid days at a review event and had a whale of a time. The guns are fun, the maps are great, the controls are wonderfully tight, and it has the best first-person jump in any game since Metroid Prime. And you get to stomp around in a giant mech suit! What’s not to love? And yet I’ve never felt any strong desire to go back to it since. Is it that immediate gratification that means it lacks long-term appeal? Despite its new ideas is it just a bit too close to the traditional online multiplayer formula to have the stickability of, say, a Destiny? I honestly don’t know. Answers on a postcard.

Best bit of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z:

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The love machine: thoughts on Simogo’s Sensational Christmas gift

Today, Simogo released The Sensational December Machine, an interactive short story about an inventor and her surprising new creation, which the studio describes as a Christmas gift “for our dear fans”. It’s about five minutes long, and it’s completely free – you can download it from >>here<< for Windows and Mac, and I recommend you do so before you read any further.

As we’ve come to expect from the studio, it’s quite lovely to look at: attractive hand-drawn 2D art and handwritten text is layered expertly to produce a convincing 3D effect, and the chiming soundtrack from Daniel Olsen subtly changes as you move through the story.

It’ll mean more to you if you’re familiar with Simogo’s work because it’s a continuation of ideas and themes explored in its last three games. There’s the dark, wintry setting of Year Walk, while the way it makes you feel part of the story by allowing you to move between the words is very Device 6. Its story, meanwhile, has the bittersweet tone of The Sailor’s Dream – it’s a rather sad tale, but one which ends on a quietly optimistic note.

Indeed, the tale seems to be a direct reaction to the critical performance of Simogo’s last game, which didn’t earn the widespread praise of its previous efforts. Witness the woman’s attempts to touch people’s hearts with her unorthodox new machine and the townsfolks’ confusion and rejection, mirroring the real world response to The Sailor’s Dream. This doesn’t come across as exasperated or bitter; instead, Simogo acknowledges that audiences have become conditioned to expect machines to perform a specific task. It’s essentially a metaphor for the creative endeavour to push the boundaries of what defines a game and what players are prepared to accept and respond to.

The gently melancholy story is tinged with a tiny hint of frustration that perhaps we’re not all as ready to have our conventions challenged as much as we would like to admit. But the very final line of The Sensational December Machine sees Simogo at peace with having put its collective heart and soul into making something, and that no matter the wider response, it will always have the pleasurable memories of its creation. It’s an empowering message to people working in any creative medium who might be struggling to find an audience: building something that touches your own heart can be as important in its own way as something that touches the hearts of others. I hope Simogo keeps trying to do both.

Games of 2014: The Sailor’s Dream

The Sailor’s Dream is my game of the year for mostly very personal reasons, which isn’t to say that it isn’t wonderful in its own right. It’s a moving story about the simultaneous sadness and exciting freedom of solitude, the yearning to escape and the irresistible pull of the unknown. How we all hope to find a place, or a person, to call home; how seemingly insignificant objects can hold important memories; how the past can either set us free or keep us prisoner; how time can both heal and widen emotional scars. Above all, it’s about love. That’s ultimately what it always comes back to. It’s about loss and it’s about regret, sure, but they’re by-products of that love.

It’s a Simogo game, so it goes without saying that it’s a handsome thing to look at, but the art here is secondary to the soundtrack, which even in its happiest moments has a wonderfully elegiac quality. Regular Simogo contributor Jonathan Eng’s songs are beautifully composed and sung in heartfelt fashion by Stephanie Hladowski. There’s something strangely cathartic about the way they’re presented: each day, you discover a bottle, and when you tap it a new song will automatically play, the lyrics emerging as it floats past the islands of this tiny archipelago. By uncorking it, you’re releasing a long-forgotten feeling, and by extension freeing the woman who literally bottled up her most intimate thoughts in musical form. You feel for her, and yet you also feel for the sad, weary old sailor whose on-the-hour radio broadcasts reveal a man broken up by regret, desperate to atone for his past mistakes.

For a variety of reasons, I was at a pretty low ebb when The Sailor’s Dream arrived. There may be a bittersweet taste to its narrative, but it felt like a ray of sunshine in my life, forcefully piercing the gloom. There’s something delightfully, defiantly unfashionable about the way it wears its heart on its sleeve, and I found a deep resonance in its emotional honesty. It’s a game that reminds you of the importance of holding on to the things that mean most to you in life. I hugged my wife and son a little harder and longer when they got home that day.

Games of 2014: Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8 was the most purely enjoyable game I played this year. It’s another reminder from Nintendo that refinement can be almost as exciting as revolution: yes, we’ve played Mario Kart before, but it’s never looked this good, never offered this level of spectacle, never charmed us quite so much with its dazzling attention to detail nor amused us so greatly with the animation of its competitors. It feels great, too, but we’ve come to expect that. Perhaps we shouldn’t take it for granted that Nintendo games control so beautifully, but whether you’re Shy Guy on a twitchy bike or Bowser on a quad with monster-truck wheels, every vehicle handles as it should.

The track design of its new courses is exemplary. Mount Wario is the obvious standout: if it ever comes up as a possible choice in an online game, you’ll always get at least a third of players voting for it. But then there’s the thumping, disco-themed Electrodrome, the cheerily sun-baked San Fran-inspired Toad Harbour, the stomach-flipping thrill of the sheer cascades in Shy Guy Falls. Dolphin Shoals might not be the finest Mario Kart track ever, but it has my all-time favourite Mario Kart moment: where you splash out into the sun and the muted underwater music segues effortlessly into a euphoric improvisational sax solo. Indeed, the music is glorious: happy, lively, brilliantly played tunes that perfectly fit the courses they soundtrack.

And Mario Kart TV was a masterstroke: its selective highlights package occasionally missed the best bits but so often framed the green shell hits, the joyous drift overtakes and the split-second victories with a strong eye for drama and humour. And the ability at any time to go into super-slo-mo was another sublime touch from a team that must surely have known its internet potential: little wonder the Luigi Death Stare became one of 2014’s few genuinely enjoyable memes.

Above all else, Mario Kart 8 is just rollicking good fun. It has no pretensions to high art; its aim (an honourable one, in my book) is simply to entertain its players as much as it possibly can. Mission accomplished.

Games of 2014: The Last of Us: Left Behind

It’s tempting to say Left Behind achieves as much with its storytelling in two hours as the main game does in 15, but I’m convinced that our earlier investment in Ellie has much to do with its emotional potency. It’s daring in ways The Last of Us’ story perhaps isn’t, but then it doesn’t have the burden of needing to justify a $60 outlay. With different expectations on its shoulders, Naughty Dog has a little more wiggle room, more space to experiment within, and it capitalises on that freedom quite brilliantly.

The campaign lays much of the groundwork, with mechanics subtly repurposed: you throw bricks for a bit of escapist vandalism rather than to distract clickers, and pull the trigger to shoot water guns instead of pistols and rifles. With the focus shifted away from combat for the most part (its occasional presence here is a timely reminder of the stakes we’re dealing with) Naughty Dog lets you mooch around at your own pace, packing its environments with more objects to examine and remark upon. Often you’re just pressing triangle to make Ellie talk, but when the dialogue is this good, who cares? It’s essentially an accelerated coming-of-age tale, played out in near real-time, and it’s heart-rending to see these two friends giggling like kids in a world that’s made them grow up before they were really ready to. I struggle to think of a game that has captured the nuances of teenage friendship quite as well – and as efficiently – as this does.

It culminates in a truly wonderful moment, where the capabilities of new technology are responsible for evoking the simpler pleasures of the old. What amounts to an extended quick-time event playing out over a static camera shot is somehow one of the most moving sequences I’ve ever encountered in a game. The disappointment when it subsequently reverts to type is hard to shake, but in its own way, the climactic violence earns its place in the story, too. We need to see how horrible the world has become to truly empathise with Ellie’s plight; to make those fleeting moments of calm – and of companionship – all the more precious.

Games of 2014: Pix The Cat

PastaGames’ blistering arcade game doesn’t quite have the longevity of, say, Pac-Man Championship Edition. There’s a point at which your skills will plateau, and when you’re up against an unyielding timer (with no way to top up the clock) you’ll end up with only tiny variations in your best scores.

Until then, however, you might well become obsessed. In truth, it’s the very design limitations that curb its lasting appeal that make Pix The Cat so giddily exhilarating in the first instance. It demands absolute focus at all times, forcing you to find the perfect racing line through its infinite spiral of mazes.

After those first few head-spinning attempts, you’re no longer simply trying to pick up all the ducks before dropping them off in their nests for the maximum bonus. At the same time you’ll be mentally working out the optimal route while attempting to give yourself split-seconds longer in the maze by getting as many tiny speed boosts as possible from turning at just the right time. For a while, it’s basically a puzzle game conducted at a breathless clip; thereafter it’s all about refining your technique and relying on your twitch reflexes. Either way, whenever you accelerate all the way up to Fever Mode, your heart will begin to race as you attempt to control a character hurtling out of it.

Even when you’re struggling to beat your Arcade mode scores, you can always shift your attention to the puzzle-focused Laboratory levels, and the gorgeous Nostalgia mode, with its Thirties-era cartoon looks and elaborate stage designs. Pix The Cat looks, sounds and plays beautifully, and if it’s a short-term fling rather than a long-lasting relationship, then it’s still an affair to remember.

Games of 2014: Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

“It’s cute” is a pretty rubbish reason to like a game, but Treasure Tracker is so unrelentingly adorable that for once it’s an entirely valid one. Every little bit of it has character and personality, partly thanks to some of the most expressive animation ever seen in a Nintendo game. (Tip: zoom in when Toad is swimming, or Toadette is being pursued by a Mud Trooper.) There’s care and craft evident in every part of the game, from the idle animations to the menus: leave the title screen running for a bonus treat, or keep circling the analogue stick during play and watch what happens. It might even be Wii U’s best-looking game: it’s bright, sharp, gorgeously lit, and has some fine visual details we didn’t see in Super Mario 3D World.

Yes, the difficulty curve is a little shallow, and the level design is never quite as intricate as it could – perhaps should – have been. Though you’ll occasionally marvel at the way it all slots together, the route to the power star is often predictable. And yet at times I began to wonder if that’s such a problem. Easy games tend to get a rougher ride from the press, who might not always consider the audience at which this is aimed. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t feel disappointed that Treasure Tracker isn’t quite up there with EAD Tokyo’s best work (or that there should be more than one save file, and gyro controls should be optional). It’s more that we should acknowledge what a brilliantly constructed game this is for kids, big and small.

Besides, challenge is still there for those determined enough to seek it out: the very final surprise is a real test of skill and nerve, while speedrun times are strict enough to require a few attempts to beat. I’m hopeful that Nintendo might be working on a substantial pack of ultra-challenging stages as DLC, and Amiibo functionality is yet to be patched in, so there’s clearly more to come. But even now I’ve finished it, I still find myself returning on occasion: it’s just a lovely wee thing to look at and play with, and charming enough to warm the cynical heart of even the most jaded player.