Keep in mind that we aren't game playing machines - all of us have full time jobs, school, or other duties to attend to. It's completely impossible to play everything that came out this year, or to devote enough time to singular games to really make proper judgment. That's why this list doesn't contain the usual GotY contenders as other sites - we certainly don't hate Skyrim, Skyward Sword, Uncharted 3 or anything like that, it's just that we haven't really played them enough to make that call. In other words, it was all done very casually. Give us another three years and maybe you can see a fully comprehensive "Best Games of 2011" from HG101, but for now, please consider this a list of excellent games from the past year we really enjoyed.
Atlus artistry at its finest. Hashino and co better be making Persona 5 one hell of a game to top this. Intense and fast-paced gameplay, intriguing story, wild cast, like nothing else I've ever played. Great for competition, too.
From Software are my #2. I'm glad they do more than dark fantasy, but with games like this, I somehow don't want them to. When I tire of the single player, I just sit around and go to war with others in the Duke's Archives, or PRAISE THE SUN by helping bros out at Anor Londo. This is a purely timeless experience.
Hard Corps: Uprising
Hard Corps: Uprising gets better every time I play it. It's not just a badass Contra game, it's a badass game, period. If you play it alone, if you play it with friends, if you do it with guns, or with a Strider-curved katana, this is pure old-school hardcore bliss. Bonus points for that Ishiwatari metal, and the best damn boss theme in years.
Older Game Pick:
Super Meat Boy
This game made me want to break something. Yet like any good game, when I accomplished, it felt great, and made me want more. SMB is a massive block of sadistic joy.
If Donkey Kong Country Returns had come out this year, it would have been on here, but that's not to knock this game in the slighest. While at first I was a little skeptical at first, since I figured that a 4-platformer would be mostly easy and linear, I've been pleasantly surprised by this game. It's amazing to look at, the game is always throwing new challenges at you.
While the franchise has had some... well, serious ups and downs, this has been pretty much my favorite fighting game this year, if not this entire generation. The story mode was fantastic, there's quite a bit of depth for how easy to learn it is, and compared to the bright art styles of games like BlazBlue or Street Fighter, the blood's a nice change of pace, as excessive as it is. Still can't understand how Freddy Krueger made it in, but oh well.
Super Princess Pitch
Sure, it's not a retail game, but I've had so much fun playing this game that I pretty much HAVE to include it on here. It's fast, fun to play, and gets straight ot the action without slowing down at all. The counter system is a tad finicky, but it's just a great game to pick up and play over and over and OVER again. Plus, Mecha Santa is quite possibly one of my favorite boss fights of this year.
The Binding of Isaac:
Isaac is what I imagine the roguelike might have been like had it started in the arcades. Isaac can best be described as a mash up of Zelda's dungeon crawling and Smash TV's twin stick controls, with the randomized dungeons and permadeath of a roguelike. It's also a game about child abuse that manages to be fun, which is no small feat. As such, it's not a game for everyone, especially if you despise Newgrounds' style humor. I wasn't sure I could put up with the game's frankly depressing aesthetic for very long, either, but I stuck with it long enough to put 68 hours into it. As such, it's grown to be my favorite indie game of the year, which is a testament to its compelling gameplay.
E.Y.E - Divine Cybermancy:
Based on a homegrown table top RPG that the creators played together, E.Y.E is that very special kind of weird that only the French or Japanese could produce. Expect references and mechanics liberally lifted from games and media such as Doom, Warhammer 40K, Deus Ex, Shadowrun, Blade Runner, X-Com and Ghost in the Shell. One minute, you might be brain jacking enemies to turn them against their allies, the next you might be fighting a 30 foot tall cyborg demon. As such, it's a bit of a mess. The mechanics are obtuse and unforgiving, the level design massive and labyrinthine, and the story convoluted and poorly translated. Despite these major shortcomings, I still had a lot of fun trolling its dank, cyberpunk locales. It's not often you see a game this insane in this day and age.
Jamestown is a loving homage to the danmaku genre and a return to form. After writing the genre off entirely, I was happy to see a no nonsense bullet hell game without the moe baggage. That said, outside of the theme - a Jules Verne esque take on the early colonization of the new world, with Mars replacing the Americas - it's not particularly innovative. What it does offer are solid shooting mechanics, interesting enemy design, and lots of bullets to weave through as you try and stop the machinations of an evil conquistador with delusions of grandeur. If you're looking for something that recalls the heyday of early Cave shmups, then this is the game for you.
Older Game Pick:
While I am completely and utterly sick of zombie shooters by now, especially after the disappointment that was L4D, there is still one game in the genre I keep returning to: Killing Floor. Maybe it's the huge arsenal of interesting weapons, the large number of well designed maps to play on, or because there is enough variety to the "specimens" to keep things interesting, but whatever the case, Killing Floor is good old fashioned fun no matter how you slice it. What started off as a mod gone pro has slowly grown into a fully featured game that puts many AAA retail titles to shame. Three years after launch, the creators are still adding content to the game, as well as hosting seasonal events to spice things up. Best of all, each new content update is completely free! The only DLC you have to pay for is purely cosmetic, a model I wish more developers would follow.
This got a LOT of play out of me around the beginning of the year. Adding three new characters to the mix was just the sort of innovation Yakuza needed to stay fresh, and expanding Kamurocho was a keen move as well. I'd declare it the best game in the series over Yakuza 2 if it had better villains and the plot didn't totally fall off the rails, but it's at least the meatiest and most easily accessible game in the series thus far.
I was more than surprised to see that the MK revival actually turned out to be an excellent fighter. I had always been an MK fan but often willing to admit that it was never really good in gameplay terms. That's changed with the most surprising comeback I've ever seen in fighter history, and MK is now my current favorite fighter of choice. Bonus points for not only completely re-doing the character of Smoke to make him not just another Scorpion clone, but actually making him my favorite character in the game!
Batman: Arkham City
I've only just recently acquired this, but it's everything I wanted to be and more. I loved Arkham Asylum enough to get every single trophy ever in it, and that's not something I normally do in most modern games. AC's certainly going to take longer to acquire everything, but... hey, it just might be worth it. This game is the most Batman-ish Batman media I've ever beheld, and I'd go so far as to say it's even better than AA, if not just because the bosses are ACTUAL BOSS FIGHTS. Nothing like the dreaded Killer Croc stealth maze from the last game, at least I don't think so. I'm too sidetracked by Riddler sidequests to progress the main story, but I hope to beat it soon!
I also must give honorable mention to Ghost Trick, which I'm increasingly convinced is going to be the last truly original title Capcom will have ever made. Its mechanics are fun and interesting, but as with Shu Takumi's Ace Attorney series, the main draw here are the characters and plot. I regret leaving it off my top three, but only due to its relative lack of content and replay value do I do so. Didn't stop me from replaying it the instant I beat it to catch up on the myriad of foreshadowed plot details that made GT all the more clever.
Wonderful game from Double Fine which restored my faith in the industry. Featuring the excellent premise of men and woman sliding in and out of each other to take control of their bodies and their own unique powers, you need to make small boys vomit cookies, elderly gentlemen break wind and salacious harlots entice away guards in a whimsical faux-Victorian setting. If you aren't charmed by both the gameplay and style, this you have no soul.
Ys I&II Chronicles
Very traditional and very good. Ahh hell, I'm just a sucker for anything Ys.
Eric Chahi returns from exile to create a wonderous sandbox game involving... literally a giant sandbox, filled with lava, jellied water, trees and little people in loincloths. A mish-mash of various other God-sims, this has both a decent main campaign mode, plus a series of puzzle-like challenges to complete post game. Plus there's a free-form mode where you have literally limitless power.
Older Game Pick:
Discovered February 2011, and despite numerous subsequent games played over the year, this East European survival game from around 2005 proved the most compelling. It's not about having fun, or enjoying tactile play, it's about facing difficult odds and surviving a plague. If you save some others along the way great, but mostly you'll be hiding in rain lashed alleys treating gunshot wounds with bandages and choking down antibiotics to stave off fever, wondering which dustbin you can raid for garbage to sell so you don't die of starvation. Grim, relentless and brutal. it's not about fun, it's about not dying.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
While yes, there were some rather harebrained decisions on part of the design staff (the outsourced boss fights, the Typhoon becoming an "I Win" button), Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of those games that, while not groundbreaking on its own, represents one of those rare instances in which a team of developers has quite obviously been examining other games and genuinely learned and applied their knowledge of what works and what doesn't. The story and characters are generally well done, with very few of the cast members being 100% "good" or "evil." The entire game centers around conflicts of interest, in a way that is far better realized than any game that dares include a sliding karma scale. Even combat with guns shows more mechanical prowess than other cover-based games. At the risk of sounding too pretentious, I would say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not just a great game in its own right, I'd dare add that it is an important game.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
When Shu Takumi announced he was no longer working on Ace Attorney games, fans were understandably worried. But when the first trailer for Ghost Trick hit the Internet from Tokyo Game Show, all doubts were cast aside. Although the interface and presentation are unique, the puzzles you must solve in order to solve your own mystery all follow intuitive rules. Despite the obvious supernatural element, the game never once strays from its rather strict limitations on your ghostly abilities, not even for some last-minute deus ex machina. And then there's those character animations. Despite their relative lack of detail, each individual character sprite sports more personality than the entire cast of Call of Duty: Black Ops. I cannot help but recommend this game to anybody that owns a DS - perhaps I'd even recommend purchasing a DS for this game (and others, naturally).
On the other side of the detective genre, we have L.A. Noire, a game with a development process almost more storied than the plot of any Final Fantasy title. It took almost six years for us to get this game, and it really shows. I could rave on about the MotionScan-powered facial animations, the acting, and the storyline, but I'm honestly far more impressed with how convincing Team Bondi's Los Angeles is. Being something of a film noir nut, L.A. Noire's presentation would make or break this game for me, and thankfully, it's spot-on. The game gives me every feeling of putting me in a classic crime drama like Murder, My Sweet or Out of the Past (it even includes a black-and-white filter option), with almost everything authentic to the time period, from the real 1940's car models, to the dark, jazzy music, and every individual person's manner of speech and choice of clothing. Team Bondi obviously did their research and poured over five years of blood, sweat, and tears into sealing what really makes this game stand out.
Older Game Pick:
It might be two years old by now, but Raven Software's 2009 Wolfenstein sequel really deserves gamers' attention. Though some may feel that the use of regenerating health and aiming down ironsights is an obvious attempt to pander to the Call of Duty crowd, I personally feel that the game just came out at the wrong time and got forgotten amid 2009's fall blockbusters like Modern Warfare 2. Wolfenstein really touches on what more realistic World War 2 titles tend to avoid, with the sci-fi-ish new weapons and occult artifacts serving as the game's primary gimmick. While online multiplayer is pretty much a complete bust (since Activision fired the online portion's development team), the singleplayer campaign is every bit worth tracking down a copy, especially with how sharply the game's price has dropped since its release.
Well, technically Gray Matter was first released in 2010, and I'm even from the country where that release happened. But older Japanese titles are frequently nominated Game of the Year just based on their US release, so why should European games be treated any differently? Contrary to what some may have secretly wished for, Gray Matter is not a Gabriel Knight 4 in disguise and the puzzles take a more accessible approach than the one people were accustomed to in the golden age of graphic adventures, betraying Jane Jensen's experience in "casual" game design. But while there have been quite a few adventure games with decent puzzles over the last couple of years, what the genre was really starving for was a new excellently written game, and the writing is what makes Gray Matter the greatest serious adventure game of the last ten years, not only for the lack of any real competition.
There are few other classic game reimagenings that do such a great job at modernizing a franchise while still capturing the original's spirit as well as Shinobi 3D. It effortlessly plays in the same league as Bionic Commando Rearmed and Contra 4. The graphics and the botched 3D mode spoil the first impression a bit, but it still is one of the best games in the series yet. But even lacking any brand affiliation, viewed simply as a new old-school 2D action platformer, Shinobi 3D is quite excellent.
Akane the Kunoichi
If you're looking for a truly old-fashioned action platformer devoid of any forced ambitions for depth in the form of RPG or puzzle elements, you need to go no further than letter A on the Xbox Live Indie Game Marketplace. With 80 MS points, Akane the Kunoichi is on the cheapest pricing tier, too, which makes it easy to forgive its somewhat short length and lack of replay incentives aside from seven "Trophies", that fill in for achievements.
Older Game Pick:
Portal: Still Alive
I've dodged this for a long time, not despite the endless praise of its story and design, but because of it. I've become rather jaded towards presumably minimalistic and clever stories, cause in video games they more often than not turn out simply pretentious. But wow, this one for once is really, really clever and excellently told, not through exhibition but the uneasy design of the environment and "dialogue" that doesn't have any right to feel as convincing and sympathetic as it does, given the context. The puzzle design is just perfect, for as long as it is mostly about concepts rather than exact physical parameters (some of the seperate challenge rooms in the Still Alive edition really get annoying in that regard) and puts any Zelda dungeon to the deepest shame.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
DX: Human Revolution is one of the rare titles that's so compelling that I can play for like five hours straight without having felt that I've wasted my time, which is a massive compliment given the way I play games nowadays. While lacking the freedom and customization of the first game, the gunplay and stealth just feel infinitely better, and its fantastic score actually supercedes Deus Ex's already launded soundtrack.
People criticize JRPGs for not evolving, but that's not entirely true - they're just evolving in ways lots of people don't care about, ignoring the trends that have grown outside of the Japanese microcosm over the past five years. Xenoblade isn't exactly a JRPG for non-JRPG fans, because it's still beholden to some of its tropes, but it manages to keep the best stuff - namely, the fantastic art design and beautiful soundtracks - while filtering out most of the garbage, making for a game that's extremely playable for anyone who've felt they've outgrown the genre, myself included. Thank God this is coming to the US this year, that way when people complain about the lack of decent JRPGs, people will stop rattling off a list of mediocre DS games.
Super Mario 3D Land
I tend not to say it too loudly at parties, but I've always rather hated Super Mario 64. Beyond its bizarre structure, terrible controls and awful camera, it never really felt like a proper Mario game. Super Mario Land 3D, while technically not as clever as the Galaxy games, nevertheless feels like the game Mario 64 should have been fifteen years ago, integrating the core elements of the series and using the decade-and-a-half of 3D platformer experience to create something that both looks and feels natural.
Older Game Pick:
I wrote a long-ish article about how much I love this game last week - just go read that.