Hello! You’ll no doubt be glad to hear that this has a much shorter preamble than yesterday’s part one, as I conclude my daft little awards bit ahead of my Top Five Games of 2012 piece, which will appear on this here site on Monday, if not a little sooner.
Jump cuts! Why did no one think of that before? In around the time it takes to finish a scalding cup of green tea (I checked), Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving takes the player through the preparation for and aftermath of a heist that goes horribly wrong in ways that are never fully explained. It’s a rare game that credits its players with intelligence, asking them to piece its fragmented narrative together. I’d be lying if I said I fully understood everything that was going on, but few games this year felt quite so dizzily exciting. It makes your head spin in the very best way: a rollercoaster you want to hop back on the instant it screeches to a halt.
Best Visual Design
Bad Hotel’s art deco stylings and bright colours lit up iOS (and gave us the year’s coolest app icon); Hotline Miami’s woozy ‘80s stylings plunged us into a violent, drug-fuelled nightmare in a dark alley where Michael Mann and Gaspar Noe endlessly beat the shit out of each other with baseball bats; NintendoLand gave us a hand-stitched Hyrule, a mechanical Pikmin garden, wooden Yoshis and a shower curtain turning day into night. Elsewhere, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed had bluer skies and brighter colours than even the Mushroom Kingdom, while Beat Sneak Bandit’s artful angularity was an oddly perfect match for its squelchy beats before Journey gave us gaming’s greatest sunset. But Asura’s Wrath is my winner, for the best 3D rendition of a 2D art style I’ve ever seen, capturing manga’s jagged extremes in a presentation more vivid than any other. It didn’t always keep your thumbs busy, but nothing else this year gave your eyes such a treat.
Best Worst Business Decision
RocketCat Games’ Punch Quest gave freemium a good name, allowing you to play for hours on end without ever feeling pressured into spending. It was reliant, therefore, on the goodwill of its players, the devs evidently hoping they’d be tossed a few coppers by way of thanks. After three weeks on the App Store, the game had been downloaded 600,000 times, yet had earned RocketCat just $10,000. The lesson: human beings are arseholes.
Best Unofficial OutRun Sequel
Throw a dart at any review of Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit either the word ‘Mario’ or the word ‘Kart’. Nintendo’s seminal series is the obvious touchstone when it comes to a mascot-led racer, but this didn’t deserved to be lumped in with also-rans like LittleBigPlanet Karting (big on charm, short on thrills, and – yes – floaty) and F1 Race Stars (a kart racer without drift? Pfffft). Rather, it’s much closer to Sega’s Ferrari-porn classic in its drift-happy handling and dazzling colour. Its publisher’s money woes might mean we never see another OutRun; this is a more than acceptable substitute.
It’s no surprise that the director of Billy Hatcher should come up with two likeable allies in the form of violinist Marie and faithful mutt Fondue in the upsettingly ignored Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure. Palutena was a welcome foil for Pit in Kid Icarus: Uprising, their playful bickering (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘banter’ in any context these days) enlivening a thoroughly silly story. I very nearly went with French robot Cain in the wonderful Binary Domain, though you can expect to hear more about that game in my top five). So instead I’m going to go with Seren from Fable: The Journey. After Fable 2’s dog, she’s further proof Lionhead is better at making us care about animals than humans; quite the feat given that you spend half the game looking at her backside. She’s expressively animated, and though the little physical interactions you have with her (plucking an apple for her to munch on, brushing muck from her flanks, pulling an arrow – as gently as Kinect will allow – from her side) you genuinely form a connection with her, one you just know the game will exploit for a tear-jerking moment or two later. Better than Agro? Yyyyyyyyno. Maybe. Either way, the fact I’m even asking that question is surely a good thing.
Best Bit in an Otherwise Disappointing Game
The opening half-hour of The Unfinished Swan? The King of Chinatown level in Hitman: Absolution? Both close, but no. Assassin’s Creed III was probably my biggest disappointment of the year, in that it turned out to be merely okay rather than super-wow-amazing as I’d hoped. It had a dull lead, tedious mission objectives, a distinct lack of polish in places, and its reimagining of historic moments was often inadvertently comical, the midnight ride turning poor Paul Revere into a horse-mounted satnav, bellowing directions well within earshot of the redcoats you’re supposed to be avoiding. Then you have the naval battles: slick, exciting, visually incredible, with great controls and a real sense of weight and heft to manoeuvring your ship. Can Ubisoft Singapore make the whole of the next game, please?
NintendoLand gets better and better the more people are involved. The competitive stuff reaches a sweet spot at four players (one more, and the GamePad player tends to be at a disadvantage) but it’s still fun however many friends or family members join in. And the co-operative games are a revelation: I’ve spent several happy hours tackling Pikmin Adventure’s surprisingly tough challenges with my son, while grappling up to Samus’s ship in Metroid Blast to escape a firefight has the same air-punch value as a cheesy last-minute rescue in an Eighties action film. An honourable mention to Tank! Tank! Tank!’s My Kong mode, a game as single-minded as it is hilarious. Seeing your face on a giant gorilla as it farts out an apocalyptic ass laser is one of the highlights of my gaming year.
Best Game that was Ever-So-Slightly Overpraised
Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One is sitting proudly on top of a lot of Game of the Year lists at the moment. I can understand a lot of the praise, but equally many of the hyperbolic comments about its writing can only come from people who don’t play enough games of that ilk. It’s a visual novel cunningly disguised as a survival horror/point-and-click hybrid, a blend which seems to have made such a dialogue-heavy game all the more palatable for a mainstream audience. I think at least part of its success is down to timing: the TV series was going through an extended dip in form around the time the game’s first episodes arrived – many compared its more daring moments favourably to the uneventful AMC show, and those shocks were enough to paper over quite a few mechanical cracks (not to mention the widespread – and often game-breaking – bugs that were scandalously ignored by the developer). Nevertheless, it’s a fine achievement, with the Gary Whitta-penned Episode Four the best of the lot, a masterpiece of pacing with some of the most emotive moments of this initial run. There’s definite room for improvement, but I’m very much looking forward to Season Two.
Most Effective Guilt Trip
Cannon Cat is an unassuming little iOS action game where you tap cannons to fire the eponymous moggy through the air and towards the exit. Along the way you have to catch fish trapped in bubbles, who then head to the portal with you. Fairly standard stuff, right? However! While you can complete a level without getting all the fish, it’s almost impossible to move onto the next thanks to one of the most horribly manipulative level complete screens I’ve ever encountered. Miss even a single fish and the cat looks devastated, a single tear falling down his furry face. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his anxiety is made even more explicit by a tiny thought bubble containing the fish you – yes, you, you monster – have left behind. In the next update, it’ll probably display the legend ‘BASTARD’ should you dare to attempt a new stage.