My Best and Worst of 2012

In terms of gaming, 2012 was a long, strange year. A year in which the game I spent the most time in was a game that originally came out in Japan two years ago. OK, maybe that's not so strange in my case, but regardless, this year we were introduced to a new console while developers are preparing for two more (presumably coming next year). Kickstarter came along, shook things up, created rumblings that it would create a new industry paradigm, and then proceeded to annoy the hell out of people with an influx of projects asking for funding that may or may not succeed.

So no, it's not been the usual sort of year. But for all of the oddities that this year has brought, there have been a lot of good and bad as well. Here are my best and worst of 2012!

Biggest Disappointment: Games Journalism

In lieu of posting the overplayed Geoff Keighley photo, here's a picture of Missile instead.
In lieu of posting the overplayed Geoff Keighley photo, here's a picture of Missile instead.

There area lot of things that I could have declared the, er, "winner" of this category. The insanity, reactions, and counter-reactions to Mass Effect 3's ending (and subsequent rewrite of those endings. The Cross Assault sexism fiasco. The debate over sexism in games in general. The questionable behavior of game journalists in their relations with publishers.

What it comes down to, however, and what all of these items (and others this year that I may have failed to list) have in common is one thing. The complete and utter bungling behavior of the games press. Now, my expectations for games journalism has never been particularly high, though I'd wish that more in the press would aspire to do better. But if this year didn't showcase a complete and utter joke of what the press was, is, and may always will be, I don't know what else possibly could.

I should not that this award is not specifically for the staff of Giant Bomb, though they certainly share some of the blame for what a mess this year has been in their industry. No, this blame also goes to other major and minor outlets at both the reporter and executive levels. For those looking for some examples of what went wrong:

  • The discussion behind Mass Effect 3's ending: Regardless of your own stance on the ending, and regardless of how insane the Retake Mass Effect movement may have been, members of the press consistently missed the forest for the trees, focusing on the notion that fans just wanted a happy ending and ignored the more reasoned critical analyses. By constantly shifting blame and pegging the debate as a whole as the ravings of idiot fanboys, they failed to recognize the debate for what it was at the time and some still do.
  • Aris and Cross Assault: Man, was this ever a disaster. After the sexist idiocy that Aris put on display at Cross Assault, the event meant to promote Street Fighter X Tekken, there was an attempt at digging into the fighting game scene to determine how deeply entrenched this behavior was. When the fighting game community as a whole elected to turtle and shut out the press, well, that was that. Investigative journalism at its finest.
  • SEXISM IS BAD YOU GUYS: Man, if this wasn't a ridiculous debate. Let me state point blank that yes, there is sexism in the industry, and you're either ignorant or an idiot if you can't recognize that. But the way that the press took up the debate this year in particular by focusing on an ill-worded quote from a Tomb Raider developer about protecting Lara Croft turned it what could have been intelligent discourse into a sideshow, right up until Square Enix revealed that a woman was responsible fro writing the script, at which point all discussion was dropped until attention was clumsily brought to an otherwise well-intentioned Twitter campaign that could have led to more intelligent discourse if journalists hadn't fumbled the ball again.
  • Doritosgate: I'm not going to get into this one too much, other than to say that Eurogamer shouldn't have edited the column that sparked that fire. It was the one bright, shining moment this year when games journalists were forced to take a look at themselves, but that moment seems to have more or less passed in a cloud of razzing tongues and fart noises.
  • Jason Rubin is an asshole and wants to destroy Saints Row!: Except he doesn't. People only thought he did because Brian Crescente couldn't be arsed to write up an interview with him without putting words in Rubin's mouth that led to that confusion in the first place.
  • Medal of Honor trivializes war!: Tom McShea's on-camera interview with a Medal of Honor: Warfighter developer served as my introduction to Tom McShea. It also gave me a staunch reason to stop listening to him as he belligerently and immaturely forced the developer into a circular argument and more or less showing why he isn't qualified to give on-camera interviews. Any salient points that McShea might have had were sabotaged by his own inability to conduct himself in an intelligent, professional manner.

And for as disappointing as this year as been, I just don't see it getting any better. Part of the problem being that even the biggest sites (and some of the smaller ones) are staffed by people that lack even basic backgrounds in journalism. Hell, just look at Giant Bomb; Jeff comes from a time and place where, as far as I can tell, the only reason he's in the position he's in today is because he happened to be a guy that loved writing about video games living in northern California circa 1996, putting him in the perfect place to be hired by a video game website that just happened to be based in the region. This appeared to be the hiring pattern for years, and many of those faces are still active in the profession today, whether they've improved at their craft to a meaningful degree or not. At all levels of the press, from the biggest sites to the smallest, the majority of the people writing about game news aren't journalists; they're people that like games and are capable of stringing sentences together to form coherent thoughts. Are you roughly twenty-four years old, love video games, and can write with a modicum of skill? Congratulations! You too, have the qualifications to work at mid-'90s Gamespot, so long as you can work in an office and conduct yourself in a manner appropriate to the environment. (Oh, also, you have to live in the Bay Area. Tough noogies if you live anywhere else since that's where all the big outlets are located.)

Yet, even more embarrassingly, even those with actual journalism experience aren't necessarily people to look toward, either. The aforementioned Brian Crescente was once a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News, which was an actual newspaper in Colorado. Then he became editor-in-chief of one of the worst game news sites on the internet (Kotaku) before becoming part of the Polygon team, which elected to introduce themselves to the world via a hilariously overwrought documentary series that more or less proclaimed them the saviors of the games press. (Insert Nelson Laugh here.)

We are fucking doomed. Every last one of us is doomed. And I say this as someone that this past year has taken my own stab at the whole games journalism thing. From the inside looking out, I implore you to heed me when I say that we all have a long way to go if games journalism is going to ever be worth more than a bottle of Mountain Dew.

OK, rant over. Moving on!

Worst Game of the Year: Dream Trigger 3D

I have no idea what the fuck is going on.
I have no idea what the fuck is going on.

I haven't really played any bad games this year. At least, none of the games I've played that came out this year have left me clawing at my eyes and screaming for the horrid banshees within the game to take my soul and be done with the torment. The absolute worst game I played this year was actually something that came out last year. Dream Trigger 3D is an example of an early 3DS game that, as far as I can tell, tried to get by on it being in 3D and little else. I say this because there's nothing else for this game to get by on. While it's at least technically competent to the point that it won't crash upon booting up, its abstract graphics are nearly impossible to decipher, leading to numerous quick and early deaths that are almost unavoidable. Despite playing through the tutorial, I honestly couldn't tell you what in the flying hell is going on in that game because it does such a poor job of explaining itself, other than the fact that it's thematically wrapped in the same philosophical dream butterfly motif that defines the Persona series. Only with absolutely no clear reason that I can find other than an excuse to put "Dream" in the game's title.

I bought this game used at a discount because I was both curious and stupid. It was too much, and I have since paid my penance.

Best New Hardware: The Wii U

It has a silly name, sure. And the Wii U's raw power will probably be leapfrogged by whatever it is that Sony and Microsoft are cooking up right now. But none of that detracts from the simple fact that the console's central conceit, a controller with a big touch-screen in the middle, is actually sound and works as advertised. And while the games that make truly innovative use of the touch screen capabilities may be further off, it's no slouch, either, as games like ZombiU do a lot to demonstrate using the touch screen in tandem with the TV.

It also helps that the console's internet functions are enough to make one easily forget the days of having to exchange friend codes. The new Nintendo Network ID system, friends lists, and the Miiverse all stand in stark contrast to the overly simplistic (if far more secure) exchange of alphanumeric codes. There's still room for improvement, that much is certain, but in terms of features and functionality, there's no question that Nintendo has learned their lessons well and have taken steps to implement systems and services that wider audiences can appreciate. Will the quality games follow? Time will tell, but I can certainly see myself playing games on the device for years to come.

Best New Character: Labrys/Best Fighting Game: Persona 4 Arena

Take a bow, Labrys. You deserve it.
Take a bow, Labrys. You deserve it.

This has been a hell of a year for fighting games with seemingly something for everyone. But the best of the year is also the most unlikely; a fighting game set as a sequel to an RPG. But Arc System Works and Atlus pulled through big-time on this one, with elements of ASW's experience working on BlazBlue and incorporating gameplay and aesthetics that perfectly evoke Persona 4. Even more impressive is the way that Persona 4 Arena manages player expectations; there's depth for those tournament-savvy players that want it, but for anyone that just wants to play the game because they're a fan of the RPG and not necessarily a fighting game fan, there are perfectly viable options for them, as well. These elements really come together to make it the best fighting game of the year.

But a major appeal of the game, particularly for Persona fans, is its story mode. And while the game features a number of returning characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4 in its narrative and roster, their importance to the proceedings takes a back seat to Labrys; a mysterious android that serves as the heart and soul of the narrative. And her particular story in the game's story mode is easily the most enthralling of them all, despite the fact that the player is only ever asked to fight once in its entire duration. She's sympathetic, fits in with the existing cast, and is well-written and acted, from her early days as an emotionless test prototype and on through her evolution into an emotive, expressive, sensitive being that has to come to terms with who and what she is even though the truth is agonizing. She's easily the best new character of the year, and just happens to star in the best fighting game of the year, only making it better with her presence.

Best Revived Characters: Pit, Palutena, and Medusa

Kid Icarus: Uprising reintroduces Pit and makes him a full-fledged character.
Kid Icarus: Uprising reintroduces Pit and makes him a full-fledged character.

The core cast of Kid Icarus, the heroic angel Pit, the goddess Palutena, and the villainous Medusa, had not been heard from in a long, long while. Over twenty years had passed since the last Kid Icarus game, and aside from Pit's (and to a lesser extent, Palutena's) appearance in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, not much had been done with them in the meantime. These are characters without much personality, and no history other than being relics from the nearly forgotten depths of Nintendo's NES and Game Boy era.

And then something crazy happened. Masahiro Sakurai pulled them all out of storage, dusted them off, gave them a new game to star in in Kid Icarus: Uprising, and then wrote a fantastic script that defines them as characters, as personalities. It gave them full spectra of emotions with a surprising amount of depth. They evolve beyond jokes about the NES game and into complete personalities that don't need to lean on the olden days as a crutch. And the stellar localization and English voice acting go a long way in bringing them to life, from Pit's goofy, innocent charm to Palutena's trollish sense of humor to Medusa being an equally sharp-tongued antagonist. And that's all before the game really kicks into high gear.

Best Story: Kid Icarus: Uprising

No, I'm not joking.

Uprising's story is by far longer, deeper, and better than I imagined it could be.
Uprising's story is by far longer, deeper, and better than I imagined it could be.

Once the game gets through its requisite NES jokes and its first nine chapters, the high gear is kicked in and a new antagonist is revealed. The story grows more complex as new conflicts arise, new characters are introduced, and the plot takes some genuinely surprising, heart-wrenching twists. There's a moment in the game that I like to call the mindfuck, where my expectations were kicked in the head and left bleeding on the curb as the game threw its best curve ball. I was so genuinely stunned and so amazed by this turn that I absolutely couldn't put the game down until I had beaten it. It took me the rest of the evening and into the night. I had to plug my 3DS into the wall as the battery wore down, even as I kept the Circle Pad Pro plugged in, because after that moment, I absolutely had to see that things were set right. And when the game was finally beaten and he credits started to roll, I knew that I had played through one of the best game stories I had quite possibly ever experienced. It was absolutely beautiful, pitched perfectly from start to finish.

Best Graphics: Asura's Wrath

That's a giant finger coming down at him HOLY SHIT.
That's a giant finger coming down at him HOLY SHIT.

Vibrant, otherworldly, colorful, and insane. Asura's Wrath explores a wide range of environments from a mundane, yet still fantastic Earth to the war-torn depths of space. Its characters are beautifully designed and perfectly encapsulate their roles in the story, from Asura himself to his mentor Augus to his daughter Mithra. The fact that the game is running on the Unreal Engine 3, which has often been criminally underused to produce bland game world after bland game world, is put to excellent use here. The cinematic nature of the game's presentation, structured just like a televised, episodic anime complete with commercial bumpers, further emphasizes the artistic work on display, whether it be during one of the game's quieter moments or when Asura is in a full-blown rage.

Best Original Soundtrack: Xenoblade Chronicles

There is no contest here. Xenoblade Chronicles has an absolutely massive soundtrack, and every song is golden. Its pumping battle tracks, its environmental themes (each area in the game has their own individual daytime and nighttime themes), and its cinematic music are all beautifully done and perfectly evoke the mood, whether it be a battle against a mechon enemy, exploring a massive field or city, or doing just about anything else. Even the fanfare that plays when discovering a hidden location is awesome enough to make me raise my fists in triumph when I hear it.

While Xenoblade's graphics may not be as stellar as a game like Asura's Wrath because of the hardware limitations, being on the Wii does nothing to stunt the abilities of the soundtrack's composers and musicians.

Best Game of 2012: Xenoblade Chronicles

The massive scale of the game world is absolutely breathtaking.
The massive scale of the game world is absolutely breathtaking.

There is a lot of game in Xenoblade Chronicles. I mean, really. You can spend over a hundred hours in it and still not be done, just because there's so much to see an do. More importantly, however, is that the game is absolutely fun and well designed in its every aspect, from simple-to-understand gameplay systems and an easy-to-manage quest log to its strategic combat aspects and the different gameplay styles of the primary party members. It might be easy to lean on Shulk for the bulk of the game with his control of the Monado, but there were large sections of the game where I was having fun being in control of the magic-wielding Melia or the goofy fuzzball of death, Riki.

The story and world behind the game are nothing to sneeze at, either. If you're a fan of Tetsuya Takahashi's other Xeno-titles, Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy, you should be right at home here. While Xenoblade Chronicles has nothing to do with his previous games in a narrative sense, it does feature a very rich world and an interesting story that are steeped in gnostic inspirations and influences, as well as characters and events that likewise take inspiration from those earlier games. A friend of mine that considers Xenogears one of her all-time favorites absolutely ate Xenoblade up, and could certainly do more to talk about these influences than I ever could, so don't go asking me for deep analysis (my relative knowledge of gnosticism is amateurish, at best), but if you have the interest, it's there.

But all talk of influences aside, the story and characters are well worth playing the game to see, as well. The story is entertaining, spanning the world (a world comprised of two gigantic titans!) and full of mystery. The characters the game follows are an entertaining bunch, and sometimes throw the old JRPG character tropes for a loop in some surprising ways. They're a group that's well worth journeying with, traveling across and exploring the vast reaches as their adventure takes them further than they could ever possibly dreamed.

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