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.

Games of 2014: The Evil Within

Many of The Evil Within’s perceived weaknesses are the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. The limited field-of-vision was a common complaint, but for me the borders only added to the sense of panicky claustrophobia I felt during encounters. Plenty of players moaned that when aiming you can barely see anything of protagonist Sebastian Castellanos beyond his gun and outstretched hand, yet I can’t believe that’s anything but intentional: when you’re facing a lone foe it brings them that much closer, and in crowd-control situations it means you can’t see the entire group. Either way, it ratchets up the intensity because the result is that you feel more vulnerable. That’s quite the feat when you’re wielding a magnum or a crossbow that can fire explosive bolts. And yes, the plot is uneven, but then its disjointed nature means you never quite know what’s coming next, thus allowing director Shinji Mikami to keep surprising you.

Elsewhere, Mikami clearly hasn’t lost his knack of crafting a memorable set-piece, or conjuring some chilling imagery: there’s a masterful moment where you see spider-woman Laura creeping past a window in silhouette that sent a shiver down my spine. And the brilliant sound design – with special mention to Masafumi Takada’s disquieting score – makes it a truly unnerving journey, such that I found it hard to play for more than an hour or two at a time. True, it has its share of awkward moments, and it runs out of steam a little during the final act, but for me this was one of the year’s most underrated games, an exciting, relentless, thoroughly nasty slice of survival horror and a reminder that no one does videogame shotguns quite like Mikami. BOOM! SPLAT! Joy.

Games of 2014: Jazzpunk

Sweeping generalisation time: games aren’t funny. Some are, sure, but that comedy is almost always passive, a character delivering a scripted one-liner or a witticism to you, the audience. Jazzpunk boldly takes a different approach, making you an active participant in its punchlines. Most interactions in the game prompt a surprise of some form, though often it’s the surreal nature of the scenario that jabs at your funny bone. Either way, it can’t fail to make you laugh, whether you’re squirting liquid cheese at the jowls of an old man, playing a wedding-themed FPS or ridding a vase shop of a flea infestation and smashing all its wares in the process.

It’s hard to see many other games following its lead, because comedy by its very nature is inefficient: any core game mechanic produces a specific outcome, and thus that vital element of surprise is lost. Jazzpunk thrives on its ability to deliver unique responses to similar interactions. It subverts expectations at just about every turn.

Not every gag hits home, of course, but it doesn’t just throw joke after joke at the screen in the hope that the odd one will hit. They’re carefully, intelligently spaced, each given room to breathe – even with the player often in control of the timing. It’s a bona fide original, and a stylish, smartly crafted one at that; it may be inefficient, but it’s never undisciplined.

Games of 2014: Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails

Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails is a bundle of contradictions. At times, you’ll wonder if you’ve discovered a lost 16-bit Treasure classic, but it couldn’t really have existed until now, until Wii U. It’s both familiar and different, old-fashioned in the best way yet enchantingly new. It borrows elements from the likes of Bangai-O, Bionic Commando and Kuru Kuru Kururin (among others) and yet it doesn’t quite feel like anything else you’ve played.

It’s a game built around two displays. On the TV, the titular cat alerts you to the position of the space kittens you’re asked to rescue on each stage, while you manoeuvre his friend on the GamePad, grinding and jumping, dodging spikes and shooting enemies. At first, Buddy’s jump (which was apparently refined over the course of a year) feels slightly inelegant, but soon reveals itself to be incredibly flexible, allowing you to slingshot around objects and hazards and therefore getting you to your destination that much quicker. That’s essential when you’re chasing a kitten that floats away whenever you get near, and it’s also useful when you need to beat a retreat from larger opponents. And then there’s the double-jump that turns you into a deadly fireball. With enough practice, you’ll breeze through levels you initially struggled with, and it’s gratifying to feel your skills developing.

During those early stages you might occasionally wonder if it’s just a little too much effort to master something so unorthodox, even if – crucially – defeat always feels like your own fault. But it’s like taming a cat: you merely have to persevere. And, once the hissing and scratching has abated and you understand exactly how to handle it, your relationship will be a happy and rewarding one.

Games of 2014: D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

The games industry needs more Hidetaka Suehiros. This eccentric Kinect-powered detective thriller is further evidence of a singular voice that deserves to be heard by more players. Not that D4 was ever likely to bring SWERY’s brand of weird to a wider audience. It was on a hiding to nothing from the start, really: it’s a game that might have thrived on PC or PS4, but on Xbox One it feels out of place, built for a piece of hardware its maker has quietly shuffled offstage. You can still play it with a controller, but its interface has been designed around Kinect. Microsoft all but buried it, releasing it the day after it was announced at the Tokyo Games Show. With few pre-launch reviews and zero fanfare, it understandably struggled for traction.

Pity, as it’s enormously entertaining. It has much in common with Deadly Premonition – comically exaggerated animation, offbeat dialogue, a fascination with mundane detail – but it’s much more polished. As a result it loses some of that ramshackle charm, but it compensates with the energetic invention and slapstick comedy of its quick-time action sequences. With Kinect, you’re cast as both puppeteer and stuntman: the point-and-grab interface works well, voice functionality is immaculate, and it’s forgiving of clumsy attempts to mimic the gesture commands, seemingly rewarding you for effort.

D4 needed decent sales to earn a second season. The knowledge that its silly cliffhanger climax will probably never be resolved lends it a strange poignancy: a bittersweet end to a magnificently odd drama. I’ve played games this year that are already fading from memory; it says much about D4 that I remember it as if I finished it yesterday.

Games of 2014: Pro Evolution Soccer 2015

Undoubtedly the best football game of the year, PES 2015 has more than enough substance to support Konami’s ‘the pitch is ours’ boast. It demonstrates a deeper understanding of the nuances of the beautiful game than FIFA; though it lacks the razzmatazz that makes EA Sports’ game an accurate recreation of a Sky Sports broadcast, it more than compensates elsewhere. You feel more in control of your fate here, with fewer sweet spots and scripted moments. You’ll rarely score two identical goals, and you’ll regularly need to adjust your tactical approach, because each team feels distinctively different. Some will relish the space a La Liga encounter affords you; others will delight in finally cracking a Serie A side’s catenaccio defence. The biggest players are instantly recognisable, not just by their animation but the intelligence of their movement.

It would be wrong to dismiss the lack of licences and presentational finesse, of course. There’s no doubt that many players find FIFA plays a good enough game of football, and the wider array of modes and options, and the atmosphere it generates around a big match, make it a more attractive proposition than PES. But if you can ignore having to play as Man Blue or Merseyside Red, the awful commentary, the matte-look graphics and the clunky menus, Konami’s game is the clear winner where it really matters.

Games of 2014: The Walking Dead, Season Two Episode Five – No Going Back

The tremendous finale to Telltale’s second season might well be the strongest Walking Dead episode to date; almost certainly so from a narrative standpoint. Despite one or two contrivances, it was an expertly scripted piece of drama that brought to the boil a plotline that had been simmering for quite a while.

In truth, it wasn’t really until the second half of No Going Back that it became clear what this season was really about. There had been hints in the previous episode, but otherwise the drama seemed to lack a well-defined arc. Then, as the divisions in the group widened, you realised that Clem was going to have to make some tough decisions involving Kenny, though even then it was impossible to fully prepare for the ultimate one.

It was perhaps the toughest choice I’ve made in a game to date, one where both options felt equally wrong and which, in its own way, was as devastating as the closing act of the debut season. I’d argue Melissa Hutchison was more convincing as an older, wiser Clem than her award-winning efforts during the first run, and she was more than matched by Gavin Hammon’s moving performance as a man on the verge of being consumed by darkness. Not everything in the second season worked, but Telltale stuck the landing and then some.

Games of 2014: 80 Days

Most games condition us to win at all costs. So it says much for 80 Days that in the end, I was more than happy to lose Phileas Fogg’s £20,000 wager. Rarely has that old cliché ‘it’s not about the destination, but the journey’ fit a game better than this. As Fogg’s trusty valet Passepartout, I was enjoying seeing the world, visiting new cities, experiencing the local customs and enjoying the company of fascinating strangers to worry too much about getting back to London in time.

On a single trip you might see around one-seventh of the possible destinations, and even if you were to take the same journey on your next attempt, you’d likely have a very different experience. Your choices aren’t just about where to go next, when and how to get there, and what items to pack in Fogg’s luggage. It’s not simply about picking the destination for your nightly excursions, nor choosing responses in conversation. Crucially, you get to determine Passepartout’s emotional response to events: you can be curious or worldly-wise, open or guarded, trusting or suspicious. You can reminisce about the past, focus on the present or ruminate on the future. It’s a role-playing game in the true sense of the term, in that you assume a role. It’s one I enjoyed playing immensely.

Games of 2014: Sticky Candy Puzzle Saga

This year, Alan Hazelden has been busy quietly making some of the year’s best puzzle games, using Stephen Lavelle’s clever, accessible HTML5 engine PuzzleScript. They’re mostly variants on the classic Sokoban template, but each of Hazelden’s efforts has been crafted with flair and wit. There’s a terrific demake of Michael Brough’s 868-HACK, while the challenging, inventive Mirror Isles is clearly excellent, albeit too much for my feeble brain to handle.

Fittingly, Sticky Candy Puzzle Saga was the one game I couldn’t quite let go of, even after my umpteenth retry of the same level. The twist here is that the giant sweets you’re manouevring into position will adhere to one another if pushed together, an idea that leads to some fiendishly complex levels. As with all the best puzzlers, its conundrums look straightforward at first glance and yet take a great deal of thought and careful planning to solve. It made my head hurt in the best possible way.