The Best, Worst and Most Middling Old Games I Played This Year

Every year I play a lot of old games. We all got backlogs, I have one too and I'm constantly scooping up old games I've always wanted to play to add to it. In fact, I probably fall further behind on my backlog every year. There are simply too many old games, but these, in no real order, are the ones I enjoyed, really enjoyed didn't enjoy, sort of enjoyed and almost enjoyed this... last year.

The Middling

These are the ones I enjoyed, sort of enjoyed or almost enjoyed.

Mortal Kombat I, II and 3 [1992/1993/1995]

Pretend that's me

I’ve played a good deal of Mortal Kombat before. It might even be my favorite fighting game series. I’d not ever tried to actually beat them though, until this year. The fights are downright cheap especially towards the end of the ladder, but I’m happy to say I got through them all. Kintaro, Motaro, Goro, Shang Tsung and even Shao Khan just weren’t quite bullshit enough to stop me.

Metal Slug 1, 2 and 3 [1996/1998/2000]

Cheap hell shooter thrills are abundant in Metal Slug. The action is relentless and the plots of each game become more and more ridiculous in a fun, silly way. The animation and look still holds up. They seem like they were probably difficult games, but the Steam versions of each are easy to complete in a half-hour to an hour. They didn’t really leave much of an impression, but I had a decent enough time spent with them.

Wave Race 64 [1996]

I probably would’ve adored Wave Race 64 had I played it with my friends back when it was released. It’s got a unique feel to it as far as racers go, and I had a good enough time plowing through all the circuits by myself. I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore racing game fan, but I do enjoy a less conventional racer from time to time. Wave Race is exactly that.

Beyond Oasis [1995]

This looks like a boss in a not out game called Crawl

Beyond Oasis is the Sega Genesis’ attempt at a Zelda game. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Sega fans still out there that swear that Beyond Oasis is better than A Link to the Past, they’d be wrong, but that’s because A Link to the Past is pretty outstanding and not because Beyond Oasis is bad. Actually, it’s quite good.

Tron 2.0 [2003]

I honestly haven’t seen either Tron movie. My only experience with Tron up until playing this are the arcade games Tron and Discs of Tron. While I don’t have great endearment to either of those games, I really appreciated how Monolith took the license, and at least to my uninitiated eye, ran with it. It’s not the most impressive game, but at least it’s not just another shooter.

Star Wars: Republic Commando [2005]

Speaking of just another shooter… This game isn’t horrendous, but I didn’t get the same level enjoyment from it that I got out of most of the games even on this middling list. It’s an okay game, but my only thought while playing it was how much better it should be. (my review)

Tribes: Vengeance [2004]

Shit just got real.

The Tribes games are so fun to move around in, but the multiplayer doesn’t really appeal to me. This is largely because if you try to play it now, people are so stupidly good at it to the point where it’s unfair. That’s where Tribes: Vengeance comes in. Ken Levine and the folks at Irrational took a multiplayer game and made a singleplayer game out of it. Towards the end, the ideas you can see that the ideas began to run a little thin and levels get repetitious, but I still enjoyed finding out what a singleplayer multiplayer game might look like.

Metroid Fusion [2002]

Super Metroid immediately became a favorite of mine after playing it for the first time a few years ago, and over the years I’d heard a lot of praise for Fusion, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Needless to say I wasn’t overly impressed. It’s a decent enough Metroid game, but it comes nowhere close, like it’s not even on the same planet as Super Metroid. That’s probably just because Super Metroid is that good though.

The Worst

These are the ones I didn't enjoy.

Call of Juarez [2007]

It’s a western FPS that might have been decent in 2007, but these days, it’s seems pretty garbage. The setting was probably a big selling point then, but we’ve since had Red Dead Redemption and even a fine entry in the Juarez family in Gunslinger. I’ve not played the other two Juarez games, and after playing this one, I’m not sure I will. It’s ultimately pretty bland, and I’m not sure why I committed myself to finishing it. I suppose it was probably the absurdity of blowing people away while reading the Bible to them.

Streets of Rage [1991]

Beat ‘em Ups just don’t feel as good as they used to. I still don’t know what it is, but they were super fun back then, but now they seem really bland. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of Streets of Rage 2, but after playing its predecessor I discovered a pretty massive gap between the two. The first Streets of Rage is pretty basic.

Serious Sam: The First Encounter [2001]

Like, I get that this came out three years before Painkiller, but Painkiller what Serious Sam would be if it was good. I can only take so much “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” when I play a game.

Why do they scream so? They don't even have heads

Aliens versus Predator [1999]

The Aliens campaign is interesting, even if the objectives are a bit hard to interpret. The Marines campaign is god-awful. The Predator campaign is pretty cool. The concept behind this game is great, but seriously, what was up with that marine campaign? Multiplayer was clearly Aliens versus Predator’s bread and butter, but I wasn’t overly impressed when I finally found some people to play with.

Command & Conquer: Renegade [2003]

Without a doubt the most braindead AI in all of video games lies in this one. I still remember half way through the first level when I noticed how bad it was, but I was on such a C&C nostalgia trip that I thought I might be able to let it pass. It's actually so relentlessly bad it ruined the entire rest of the game. I did manage to suffer through it, and I’m still disappointed in myself for doing it. Like AvP, multiplayer was probably where it was at, and it actually seems quite similar to Halo 5’s Warzone mode based on a loading up a map by myself, but sadly the servers are down.

The Best

These are the ones I really enjoyed.

Homeworld [1999]

This rerelease is about the only thing I can claim to appreciate Gearbox for in the past decade. I should really get on playing that sequel.

Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri [1995]

My Old Game of the Year Runner-Up. AHA! You thought I wouldn't arbitrarily rank some games did you? I fooled you. This is the second best old game I played of the games I played over the past year.

My love for Looking Glass studios conquered my doubts about Terra Nova based on its screenshots and reading about it. “Squad based FPS in Power Armor from 1995” might sound like a nightmare, and when you look at a screenshot it definitely looks like one. As it turns out it was one of those pleasant dreams you want to continue so bad you force yourself back to sleep. I was actually so ready for it to be unplayable that it was the driving force to even buy the game. I was quite dumbfounded when it turned out to be quite intuitive and more importantly, fun. I actually had to stop playing for a minute and ask myself if I was crazy. It's got silly FMV cutscenes and a fun mole hunt plot. The power armor can be customized, as in, this game has loadouts. In 1995. Missions take place in wide open environments and there is a hint of what Tribes would become here. There is more depth to the squad mechanics than we'd see in other shooters like Republic Commando a decade later. For a 1995 game Strike Force Centauri is all the more impressive, and it showed me the landmark game it is despite basically no one having talked about it in the twenty years since it came out.

One of the best games you've not heard about

Shogo: Mobile Armor Division [1998]

To me, this feels like the game that brought Monolith into the fold. I played Blood a few years back and I thought it was a trashy Duke Nukem wannabe, and I thought Duke Nukem was a trashy Doom wannabe. Shogo on the other hand is great. As far as shooters go, it had its own thing going for it in 1998. There are your standard intimate missions in doors, on foot and mixing things up are missions where you prowl the streets in towering mechs. Titanfall actually kind of replicated this in a multiplayer format last year. It must’ve really sucked to put this out and then have Half-Life come out a month later. While I do enjoy me some Half-Life I found some things I enjoy about Shogo more. Is Shogo better than Half-Life? No, but just because Half-Life came out a month later doesn’t make Shogo bad.

Thief II: The Metal Age [2000]

I played The Dark Project a few years ago, and I was really impressed by the stealth mechanics of it. Sleuthing around is among my favorite things to do, and after playing The Metal Age I’m not entirely sure Thief I and II don’t remain the best stealth games available. There are certainly some great stealth games out there, but Thief II: The Metal Age and its predecessor still feel like they’re on another level. Thief II also has some of the most ridiculous dialogue exchanges between guards I've ever heard. At one point there was a lot of screaming from across rooftops and that turned into arrows flying across rooftops. I’d probably have liked The Metal Age even more had the straight out of Bioshock villain not sounded like a silly cartoon character, but that is a small gripe in an otherwise fantastic game.

Look, it's not pretty, but it's damn good regardless

Unreal Tournament and Unreal Tournament 2004 [1999/2004]

The bots in both games actually hold up quite well. I wasn’t really able to find much action online, but ploughing through a singleplayer tournament in each game enlightened me on what I missed out on in during that era of shooter.

Target Earth [1990]

Target Earth is a really cool game. It's a bit too hard for its own good, but what this game was dishing out in terms of spectacle is something I can't say I've seen in many games from the era. It’s straight-forward sci-fi with a shot of cinematic space opera. (my review)

Rise of Nations [2003]

I can only wonder why it never got a sequel. It’s as if Age of Empires and Civilization had a baby, and it’s delightful.

The Operative: No One Lives Forever [2000]

My Old Game of the Year. Yes, I will rank No One Lives Forever above the rest for your pleasure or displeasure, however it may suit you.

I’ve wanted to play The Operative for many years, I got caught up in rumors until my dreams were crushed when Warner Bros. denied Night Dive the opportunity to resurrect the series. I decided it was finally time to get a physical copy to work on a modern system myself. I did just that and made it harder on myself than I ought to have, but I got it working. It is far and away, across the sky, etc. etc. the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year. I don’t know that I can explain why or how. I’d like to think the process of installing it tempered my expectations, or that I realized that my growing hype from year to year was probably getting to be a bit overblown, but I was clearly not expecting as good of a game as I got. To most, it might not even be that great. It is a FPS with stealth elements that has fun with its characters and story. Whether it's serious or silly, I love me some espionage. Every mission feels like it was ripped straight out of a Bond film to spectacular effect. I'm not sure I fully believe in how good of time I had, but No One Lives Forever is somehow a fantasy come to life, a marvelous blend of two of the things I love, video games and spy stuff.

Talkin' 'bout Spy Stuff

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Ten Ways to Improve upon Super Mario Maker

Nintendo has grown increasingly more open to the idea of downloadable content over the past few years, with Mario Kart getting more characters to race with and tracks to race on. Super Smash Bros. is bolstering its roster with Ryu from Street Fighter and series veterans like Lucas and Mewtwo as DLC and even allowing the people to vote for Britney Spears as the game’s next addition. They’re even taking part in selling cosmetic DLC, so they clearly seem over that whole “we released finished games” schtick they were all about a few years ago when everyone else was firmly on the DLC train.

Super Mario Maker seems like a prime candidate for them to wade into deeper DLC waters. It’s a game that offers so much in the way of possibilities that to even ask for DLC at this stage is perhaps a bit premature, but for a series as iconic as Mario, it’s hard not to notice what didn’t make the cut.

10. More Aesthetics, desert, snow etc.

A change in scenery could go a longer way than it might seem, and it seems like a natural direction for Nintendo to go with Super Mario Maker. They might consider making them not entirely aesthetic though, and add quick sand pits or alter the physics based on a given tile set, and they might even allow for combinations of different sets. Allowing me to put water and lava wherever I see fit might be cool too.

9. Amiibo’s more than just for show

I don’t personally collect amiibos, nor do I have any, but I might if that meant I could Super Mario Crossover in my Super Mario Maker.

8. Allowing Rule Tweaking

Adding more options would be a cool thing. Allowing for tiers of power ups instead of it’s always a fire flower, it’s always mushroom would be cool. Being able to choose whether you can back track would be cool. These are the main points, but things that a lot of first person shooters see like low gravity or whatever might be neat too.

7. Allowing World Creation

Making my own Mario levels is fun and all, but I want to really test my metal and make my own Mario game, from 1-1 to 8-4, but I could be talked into settling for 1-1 to 1-8. This is a sort of follow up to the previous suggestion. Allowing my Mario and his upgrades to carry on through each level would make my Mario Maker experiences all the more authentic as I plow through something with more pacing than a bunch of random levels coming from dozens of different people of wildly varying level designing skills.

6. Adding the Missed Powerups

Bring on Metal Mario!

There’s all sorts of power ups that were skipped. Super Mario Bros. 3 had fun power ups like the frog suit and the hammer bros suit. Super Mario World had a number of Yoshi upgrades obtainable in various ways that remain unavailable in Super Mario Maker. The poison mushroom from Lost Levels would be fun to add as an additional hazard. Even the 3D games have power ups they might consider translating to the 2D space, like the pretty standard boomerang suit or the ones with more interesting possibilities like the cat suit or bee suit.

5. Adding the Missed Enemies

Nintendo definitely hit a lot of the important enemies, but it’s hard to not feel a little sad about the ones that missed the cut. The Sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 always made levels a lot scarier. The iconic giant bullet bill from Super Mario World missed the cut, as did the dinosaur looking guys. Plenty of enemies missed the cut, because Mario is just a massive series. They could even add more upgrades like parachutes from Super Mario World in addition to the wings and mushrooms for making enemies more diverse. There is so much potential for growth in this respect alone, and similar to what I suggested earlier, Nintendo could even look to the 3D games for enemies to add.

4. More Bosses

This is a sort of extension of the previous one. Adding all the koopalings would be fun to mess with, especially in regards to making entire worlds rather than just levels. Why stop there though? They could translate 3D bosses into the 2D for something we haven’t even seen before. Throw some of the Mario Galaxy bosses like Kingfin into a 2D space for a grand old experiment.

Why not even go back to the original Jumpman classic and bring in Donkey Kong?

3. ???

I leave #3 up to you. What would you like to see? A specific enemy? Powerup? Mechanic?

2. Add Super Mario Bros. 2

A stretch to be sure, because it's technically a reskinned version of another game, but it would be fun to play with the weirder toys available in Super Mario Bros. 2. At the very least they might consider adding enemies like Birdo, Shy Guys, or that bomb chucking mouse. They might also adding the games unique, but simpler mechanics like keys with the mask that chases you. Although if they did consider a full conversion of all the mechanics, we could even get real crazy and talk about Yoshi’s Island, but let’s not because that one is even weirder.

1. Make it a Castlevania Maker (More Makers)

I got really into Castlevania a few years back, and decided I wanted a Castlevania Maker. A little while later, Super Mario Maker was announced and I can only hope it reaches a level of success culminating in more of these kinds of games being released. Konami is in a bad spot, so Castlevania is probably out of the question, but Nintendo might consider a Metroid Maker or a Zelda Maker. Perhaps Capcom would look at Mega Man. Mario is easily the most obvious choice for such a game, but now that it’s just about out of the way, I believe there is room for some other less likely franchise to get the same treatment whether it is Castlevania or not.

Alright I thought it would be cool, but I realized that it would mean more Medusa Heads...

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The Indomitable Cate Archer

The budding operative, Cate Archer, is one of the most endearing and relevant video game protagonists ever written. It’s a shame she came in 2000 and was gone by 2002, and an even more of a shame that Warner Bros. seems keen on letting her story rot away under their lock and key.

The Operative: No One Lives Forever (also known as “NOLF”) is among the finest first person shooter experiences ever made. Its problem? It’s no longer available. Similar to what they did with other games in limbo such as System Shock 2, Night Dive Studios was closing in on the rights to rerelease the NOLF series to the masses via popular gaming services such as Steam and GOG, until they were stopped dead in their tracks by an unwilling to cooperate Warner Bros. Interactive. And so it remains that the only practical ways to play the NOLF series is by way of used copies purchased through Amazon or Ebay or via that illegal piracy.

For many years I’ve wanted to play NOLF, holding out hope that it might be rereleased. I still hope for that day, because I paid the same sixty dollar price someone would pay for a new game, for a used copy of a game that is fifteen years old, and it’s the best sixty dollars I’ve spent this year.

It’s certainly not as pretty as games today, but it holds up well in every other regard. The levels are a widely varied love letter to James Bond and spy cinema. The exceptional shooting is well accented by its stealth options and gadgets. The writing is what really sets NOLF apart though. It is silly, clever and often funny. By some, NOLF is written off as a James Bond parody starring a lady James Bond, but that would suggest the gender swap was empty.

It’s actually painful how relevant this game that came out fifteen years ago remains. The video game industry is widely viewed as male dominated, and for better or for worse, the mere concept of female protagonists gets people going. Set in the late 60s, Cate Archer is in a spy in a male dominated field. Whenever a mission takes a turn for the worse, it is claimed to be a result of her incompetence due to her being a woman.

“Because you’re a woman…”

“I wasn’t expecting a woman.”

“Never send a woman to do a man’s work.”

“Why her? It’s way too dangerous for a woman.”

“Wolloped by a girl?!”

Miss Archer is constantly underestimated by her peers and enemies. Mr. Smith is the mission coordinator of UNITY, the spy organization Archer works for, and he is particularly cold towards Archer's progress on the basis of her gender. Fellow agent Tom Goodman also shares similar sentiments when things go wrong. Cate shows resolve quickly putting such chauvinistic remarks to rest with her sharp tongue, but what rests is sure to come back again.

Archer isn’t completely disregarded as NOLF provides a pretty good representation of many viewpoints and stances on gender roles with its characters. The head of UNITY, Mr. Jones, is always willing to give Archer the benefit of the doubt, while he remains diplomatic to the others’ sexist remarks, and only once the mission is over does he call Mr. Smith out on it. Bruno is a friend of Archer and offers her his full support. Magnus Armstrong is a Scottish brute with a soft side, who becomes embarrassed when Archer bests him. Dmitri Volkov views Archer as a more intriguing nemesis, because of her gender, and Baron Dumas is the kind of oaf to flirt with any girl that gives him a second glance.

All of these characters offer some interesting insight on the idea of women doing what they want and what they might encounter in their pursuit. No One Lives Forever would be an excellent game without the gender swap, but it has left a mark such that if that weren’t the case, it would feel as if it were missing something. With the swap, it feels whole, and transcends the limits of first person shooting in the early 00s.

It’s a shame that such a relevant and charming story is likely lost to litigation and inaction. Who knows, maybe the silly executives at companies like Warner Bros. will allow us to line their pockets someday. Regardless of how you feel about the whole issue, the mere observation of female characters not getting their due in video games is an intriguing one. To me, the prospect of female leads done as well as Monolith could manage fifteen years ago would be a welcome additional perspective to the games of today and tomorrow.

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Directing and Acting in your Video Game Experiences

Quick saving, or the having the ability to save a game at any point in time, has only recently dawned on me as a powerful tool for games. Obviously, quick save is a feature generally looked at as something that makes it easier to “cheese” through harder sections of a game. You might also use it in games with player choice when you’re forced to make a difficult decision and would like to see both results before you truly proceed. It might sound silly, but I’ve actually been using it to perfect gameplay execution.

In my case, I think this idea is best exemplified in stealth games, or at the very least, games with stealth elements. Dishonored is a more recent example. It’s a game that allows the player to play through the game without killing anyone, but you can also kill just about everyone. A lot of people probably had to load saves a lot of the time if they were going for a zero kills run, whether for achievements or fun.

In many games there might be something really cool you think you can do, because the game has given you the tools to do so, but you mess it up. In Dishonored, someone might spot you, raise the alarm and force you to start killing people. This might not have been the way you intended the scene to play out. You wanted to take an air duct and drop down into the river where you could infiltrate the facility with no one any-the-wiser. An ability to save anywhere makes it easier for you to try again.

Checkpoints are pretty common now days and serve a similar purpose to a save anywhere feature. It’s just an automatic way of doing it. However, in regards to what I’m referring to, the difference between a checkpoint and saves I’ve made myself is the difference taking a scene from the top and wherever the director tells you to start. It makes it less of a task to execute any given scene how you intend.

While I know I've done similar things in the past I've never really looked at it this way until now. Recently I played through Thief II: The Metal Age and spent a lot of time saving and loading. I wasn’t doing it to make the game easier. Sometimes I was challenging myself to do things more efficiently, and sometimes I was experimenting. In some cases I’d make it through a section of a level and upon further exploration I would notice a hidden path I missed. More often than not I would load up the save and take that hidden path instead of how I did it the first time.

The Thief series has a sort of a reputation for being really difficult should you get caught, but it’s a bit overstated. You can easily take on a few guys here and there and be fine in most cases. I could kill five or six guards and the whole situation within the game would be fine, but I would still load and do it over, until I achieved a result that felt right. After all it was called Thief not Murderer. It made playing the game take a whole lot longer, but by the end I could rest easy knowing I got more out of Thief II than I could have wanted to.

I’ve started noticing this quirky behavior more and more while I play games, and the notion occurred to me; I’m the leading actor and director of a movie who was blindfolded until I reached the set, and now the script is in the process of being translated and handed to me as I go. If I don’t like the how something happened or I fumble with my lines, I cut, and do another take. It’s a silly way to look at my newfound compulsion, but now that compulsion is fun and rewarding, instead of strange and maddening.

There were scenarios in which my cover would be blown when it was just a short run to the exit. It wouldn’t take me more than ten seconds to reach it, but I would load and do it over, because the real Garrett wouldn’t have been seen at all. Instead of beating myself up about being that much of a perfectionist, I can now rationalize it by saying I’m a sophisticated artist quite devoted to my art.

This approach to playing games works well alongside my general play a game once and never again policy. It’s rare that I pursue multiple playthroughs of a game, but doing this serves the same basic purpose. By perfecting my initial playthrough I’m less inclined to be dissatisfied with how my playthrough went, so I won’t get hung up with a desire to play a game for a second time that I don’t have time nor truly want to.

I’m not saying every game under the sun needs a save anywhere feature, but there are plenty of games that would likely benefit from it if the feature was looked at in this way. More cinematic experiences like Uncharted or Last of Us spring to mind, but even in a simple platformer like Super Mario Bros., you might see an opportunity to make a really cool jump that requires more finesse than you can muster on your first few attempts, but you’re forced to replay the entire level over several times to the point where it’s probably not going to be worth it, but with a save anywhere feature, it might be.

This oddball approach to utilizing saves is just something I’ve noticed about my gaming playstyle lately. It probably sounds insane, but since I’ve noticed and rationalized it I’m more inclined to get more enjoyment out of it. We all have to be weird about something right? So we might as well try to enjoy that something.

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Do developers get trapped?

There is this idea I've been toying with lately. This idea of a lot of developers being stuck making the same games over and over. Perhaps they're under pressure from publishers. Maybe the fans are being aggressively demanding of sequels. If you go any game related site on the web, you're probably not going to struggle to find a "they should make a X sequel." thread or article. There are probably a lot of reasons I have yet to think of. I'm not making an uncommon observation when I say the video game industry is very sequel-oriented. It's always been that way. I'm speaking to more than that. I've noticed there are quite a few developers out there that continue to make games that are very similar to their past work, some for many years, regardless of them being sequels.

Hidetaka Miyazaki quickly became a game designer I knew I had to keep tabs on when I first popped in Demon’s Souls back in 2009. He knocked it out of the park again with his follow up, Dark Souls. Stepping down from lead design to supervise while he presumably went on to bigger and better things with Bloodborne, Dark Souls II kept up the tradition of being another sensational game in a sensational series.

Bloodborne is precisely what I wanted it to be. It might have a new setting, it might have a new name, it might be a new IP, but it’s still another Souls game. Having already completed Bloodborne twice, I’m already itching for some DLC, or you know, a whole new game. I want Miyazaki to continue cranking these games out, and I’m growing wary of that want.

I look at so many franchises, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, the Call of Duty, that apart from one or two key games in each series, seem quite reiterative from one game to the next. If you want to be really hardcore about all of these games every sequel is generally mixing it up just enough to be a fresh experience. The same is true for Demon’s Souls moving to Dark Souls, and Dark Souls moving to Dark Souls II, and now with Bloodborne, and presumably with the forthcoming Dark Souls III. There is plenty different in each for my being a hardcore fan to make the most of.

A more casual (if that’s a thing) Souls player is less likely to find the nuances of each game and dismiss it as more of the same, just as I am when it comes to a new Call of Duty or Pokemon game. A big reason these games keep getting made is because of the public demand for them, and publishers liking money. Activision has been known to run a few series into the ground, as have other publishers. Call of Duty has somehow continued to survive Activision's publishing ways, but it is a good example of publishers keeping devs on one type of game.

Speaking of Call of Duty and its developers, Vince Zampella and Jason West used to work at a studio known as 2015 inc. At that studio they led the design on Medal of Honor: Allied Assault which released in 2002. They left, formed Infinity Ward and released Call of Duty the following year, which as most of us know, spawned a lot of sequels. Since the whole debacle between Activision and these two guys, they formed Respawn Entertainment (West left in 2012) and Titanfall has since been released. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault opened with a sequence straight out of the film, Saving Private Ryan, and the original Call of Duty opened with one from Enemy at the Gates. The Call of Duty series moved to the modern era, and Titanfall shows the future. While the settings change, these are all games maintaining a distinct overall feel with their gameplay. It probably shouldn't surprise anyone to know these games were all made by a lot of the same people. Even though Activision might have been pushing for more Call of Duty with Zampella and West, they made a game like them before, and Respawn is set to keep making games like them in the future.

There are some other well-known developers out there that fuel this idea. Keiji Inafune is making Might No. 9, which blatantly takes after Mega Man, a series Inafune had worked on for a long time and helped create. Koji Igarashi is credited with putting the "vania" in metroidvania, for his work on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Throughout the 00's he continued his work on the series on Nintendo handhelds with more Symphony of the Night style Castlevania experiences. He hasn't done much since his work with the series concluded with Harmony of Despair in 2011, but recently he came out of hiding to follow in Inafune's footsteps and revealing Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on kickstarter, a game that, based on the pitch, is very closely following the Symphony of the Night tradition.

There is one particularly striking example showcasing this observation of developer's reiterating on their original ideas. Ken Levine's first game since founding Irrational Studios, System Shock 2, was released in 1999. It was critically adored, and despite its poor sales, it became a cult hit. Bioshock released in 2007, also critically adored, but it was a commercial success. What makes this example interesting isn't just the gameplay similarities, but the story similarities as well. Bioshock seems like more than just a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. It's like Ken Levine felt like he had something there, but didn't quite get it right, but with Bioshock, he perfected the original idea and narrative he put out in 1999.

The shock example, as well as Inafune and Igarashi's kickstarter campaigns has give rise to an idea that maybe these developers aren't trapped, but are just a bunch of perfectionists. That maybe, they just don't feel they quite said what they needed to. They got close, but need another chance. There are probably cases in which developers are trapped, stuck making one kind of game repeatedly, whether it's the fans or publishers pressuring them. Perhaps the devs get nostalgic just like everyone else and just want to make the same game. There are probably also cases in which all of these factors and others are relevant. One developer might create the “same” game over and over, but there are a lot of developers, so it's not the biggest issue. It would be if every developer was making the same game as everyone else. Good thing that's not the case (except maybe at Ubisoft).

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Some thoughts on the Big 3 Conferences

The Big 3 didn't exactly wow me, but they all came out with some solid stuff. Microsoft and Sony seem to be trading personas and Nintendo is off doing their own Nintendo thing. I had a good time, but I think next year will be a bigger year for the event.

Microsoft as usual is the first of the Big 3 to strut their stuff. The backwards compatibility announcement seems like it was the most crazy thing they announced, but really there weren't that many great exclusive 360 games in the first place, and it sounds like its support they have to roll out gradually. They showed some solid footage of Halo 5 and Gears 4. The Rare collection is a pretty thorough collection of their catalog, and wouldn't you know it, they're making an actual game, with Pirates! Sea of Thieves is looking rather nice, but it appears to have that Ubisoft style connectivity going on with it that I'm not so sure about. ReCore has promise as one of the other few new IPs of the show. With what they showed, Microsoft seems to be finally turning over a new leaf with their games division. They are showing more Windows support instead of taking it for granted, working with more indie developers, VR and even Valve again. Hololens is also pretty mindblowing. Kinect was pretty impressive too though, and we know how it turned out, so take that as you will. It's not a crazy good lineup, but I came away pleased with the direction Microsoft seems to be heading.

Grade: B

Sony's conference was crazy. The Last Guardian is back, and I'm happy to see it in playable form. Final Fantasy VII Remake is something a lot of people have been pining for, and it's pretty amazing to see Shenmue back. BUT, but... these things don't seem to serve Sony other than them associating themselves with these things to give people the illusion that they are the good guys. Really, it seems like Sony has turned into Microsoft of yesteryear. They're bringing back all the stuff you wanted like 8 years ago. They got all the exclusive content for all these multiplatform games that I'm just going to play on PC anyway. Meanwhile, they lack actual games as exclusives. While Microsoft seems to be evolving, Sony seems to be devolving. Uncharted 4 looks great, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. No Man's Sky still seems like the technical marvel it has looked like in the past, but as expected the gameplay part beyond the exploration that they showed isn't the game's strength or draw. It's basically the biggest game they have going for them this year, and I'm still going to play it on PC. As for the new stuff, Dreams was a rather intriguing thing, but it's tough to see how it'll translate. Horizon: Zero Dawn looks really cool, with its unique uber-retro future setting and robot dinosaurs. Besides those two things, their conference didn't seem to carry much weight. I did however, enjoy it while it was happening, but when I sit down to think about it, Sony doesn't actually have much going for them at all. Solid show for gamers as a whole, but not for PS4 owners or Sony fans. I guess this means next year is going to be jam packed full of great stuff, right?

Grade: C

Nintendo's conference had charm and little of note. Mario Maker is looking more rad than ever. Star Fox looks good, and a new one is a bit overdue. And... that's pretty much it as far as exciting stuff goes. We got a weird Metroid spin-off, a party Animal Crossing game. Granted there is some interesting 3DS stuff on the way like Fire Emblem: Fates, and Mario and Luigi Paper Jam, a cooperative Zelda, and a more proper Animal Crossing. None of this stuff looks mind-blowing the way A Link Between Worlds was a couple of years ago. They said going in that the Zelda game wasn't going to be there, but their showing lacked the punch it might have provided. I'm struggling to find a reason to support Nintendo, and at this point I hope that they're just saving the good stuff for the NX they will unveil next year at this point, and maybe that will include the next Zelda game similar to the Twilight Princess situation.

Grade: C

I'm fairly satisfied with the Big 3's showing. This year goes to Microsoft who didn't appear to be holding anything back. I'm not sure they can rest easy though, because I think Sony and Nintendo were. Sony has plenty of studios that didn't make it and Naughty Dog presumably has another team working on something not Uncharted related. Nintendo is going to straight up unveil some new hardware next year, so who knows what that means. Hopefully it means some high quality F-Zero. If nothing else, at least E3 succeeded in getting me riled for the next E3.

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E3 and the Surprises that Will and Already Be

E3. It's an exciting time for the people who care about video games. Some pretty major announcements have already happened and the leaks just keep on coming. While it certainly makes easier to not feel a bit of information overload on one day, these things do take away from some of that excitement. However, this flow of information leading up to E3 might point to a show with some real weight behind it.

Fallout 4's announcement wasn't necessarily unexpected, but it was a big potentially show-stealing announcement for a lot of people, and it occurred well before the main event. The Dark Souls III leak is a bit more unexpected so soon after Bloodborne, and with that series' loyal fanbase it might have packed a similar punch come the main event. Platinum Games is always making crazy stuff, so a even a licensed game like Transformers would generate a lot of buzz with an on-stage reveal. A letter from the Mirror's Edge Catalyst devs was put out there so we wouldn't forget it existed. So, with all these leaks and ahead of the curve announcements, what can we expect from E3 this year?

Gameplay. In the past there has been a lot of focus on showing pre-rendered trailers to accompany major reveals, leaving us without any substance. This year, a lot of the pre-E3 information seems indicative of substance as hype rather than name-dropping as hype. Bethesda putting Doom and Fallout trailers well ahead of the main event tells me that they want to show those games off in depth. Microsoft saying Quantum Break and a few other games won't make it tells me that those games aren't ready and that they got a bunch of games that are. EA saying Star Wars: Battlefront will be playable and Mirror's Edge will be shown off ahead of the conference tells me, they are poised to follow suit. Square Enix alongside Bethesda saying they're having conferences in the first place gives me the same vibe.

Nintendo has consistently been about showing gameplay with reveals, especially since they're adoption of their Nintendo Direct format. This year they will be back on stage, and that says to me they are looking to have more of a presence, because they have plenty of stuff they are ready to show off in full. Sony and Ubisoft have played it a lot closer to the chest leading up to E3, so it's hard to say if they're poised to follow the trend, but considering all the other companies seem to be catching on, it's not out of the question.

Of course, maybe no one is catching on. Maybe this forward-thinking communication and announcements are all coming from backward-thinking suits. I'm concerned that all this information will mean there isn't going to much to generate a fuss about come the main event. Part of me really wants to be cynical about it, but for whatever reason, I'm remaining optimistic that this E3 will be a show of substance over flair and that these pre-show reveals and leaks won't take away from it in the slightest. It won't be much longer until we find out.

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The Never Ending Balancing Act

Video game balance is a never ending struggle for developers. There are few (if any) examples of games that have just the right balance between all of their factors. Every type of game struggles with getting everything just right, and I think that’s great.

Video game balance is not something I thought much of before getting really into Dota 2. Now it’s something I think about frequently. In the past I’d occasionally dismiss things that destroyed me in multiplayer games as overpowered and bullshit, but now I try to figure out why the strong things are strong. Naturally I always tried to play around it, but now I actively make an effort to figure out how to play around the metagames that develop in my multiplayer experiences.

Balance updates reinvigorate games, promoting experimentation and keep them from going stale. Without balance changes games will eventually fall into a stagnant metagame with only one way to play. What’s the use in settling on that, when a simple buff here or a nerf there every once in a while can lead to sweeping changes across a game’s meta?

In Blizzard’s real-time strategy game StarCraft II, Protoss players almost never used the “Immortal” unit until a balance patch granted them 1 more range. A buildup known as the Immortal All-In became the Protoss race’s most prominent and talked about build out of nowhere for a long time.

Blizzard’s card game, Hearthstone also sees occasionally balance updates. A particular “Undertaker” card recently got nerfed, creating a healthier metagame that didn’t revolve around one card of hundreds. Blizzard’s approach to balancing Hearthstone seems to be mostly nerfing strong cards rather than buffing weak cards. It’s this approach that seems most common among developers.

From a time investment standpoint, it is much easier to identify what’s overpowered and do something about it, but some developers do find time to buff the underpowered things. How developers approach balance puts them on a spectrum, between nerfs and buffs. Most developers lay towards the nerf side, but with Dota, Icefrog and Valve are on the other side of that spectrum, and to me buffing the underpowered stuff makes for a far more interesting game overall. Players who enjoy the overpowered stuff won’t be alienated, but more subliminally come to realize the thing they enjoyed isn’t as overpowered anymore, because everything around it has gotten better. There are always going to be cases in which overpowered things are so blatant that they will require a nerf, but if developers can get away with it, I think buffs are generally going to be the best option.

An older example of why nerfing overpowered things isn’t always best would come from my time with the shooter Modern Warfare 2, one of my favorite multiplayer experiences. I enjoyed doing several things in Modern Warfare 2. I loved running around with akimbo model 1887s, care package speed and commando, and using the one man army perk with grenade launchers (noob tubes). The first two of those were destroyed by nerfs, and this resulted in a widespread adoption of the one man army, noob tube combo. It became the only thing anyone did. The combo was a best kept secret sort of thing because of other things, and it was more ridiculous than either. Once those other things were nerfed, the game lost any balance it had and was ruined. Infinity Ward even tried to nerf the one man army perk after its rise to no avail. In hindsight I think the whole nosedive that game took could have been avoided with buffs to the stuff no one was using rather than nerfs to what was good. Conceptually Modern Warfare 2 was already outrageous. It featured a tactical nuke killstreak that ended the game and a chopper gunner that basically secured 10 kills without fail. How outrageous would it really have been to buff something no one used like the scrambler perk?

Dota sees major updates every few months. I started playing with Version 6.79, and got my first taste of an update when last year’s New Bloom Festival hit. It brought a myriad of changes to nearly every hero and some items as well as adding two new heroes. Mostly the changes were buffs to the less popular heroes with a few nerfs to some of the more popular ones. Some popular heroes got buffs anyway. This mostly buff approach to balance has intrigued me, and ever I have poured over every update’s changes since. When version 6.82 dropped, Dota felt like a brand new game. The patch included many subtle tweaks to heroes and items I’d come to expect. In addition, the map was altered; two heroes saw overhauls and the gold and experience systems were heavily modified, effectively changing how the game was played.

Similar to how a series like Call of Duty updates every year with a new game that tweaks its perk system and updates weapons, maps and the like, games like Dota are evolving in much the same way. If Call of Duty were a solely multiplayer experience like Dota, the biggest difference between the two would be between their business models.

Regular updates can skyrocket a game’s potential. It can be risky, but bad changes can always be reverted. I’m of the mind that prioritizing buffs to the underutilized is better than nerfs to the overused. Nerfs risk alienation of the players that enjoy those things, and buffs make the players who don’t, feel better about what they do enjoy. Either way, not issuing balance patches is to risk a mass exodus because the metagame became stale. I suppose there is the possibility that a “perfect” metagame be achieved, but until then, I’ll be plenty happy dissecting the patch notes of the games I play.

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Game of the Coming Year Awards

It's a new year and it's bound to be more exciting than last year. Why? Because all the games we wanted last year got pushed to this year, and it's not like that happens every year... or does it? Despite a number of solid games, 2014 didn't quite live up to the indie movement of recent years and was something of a mess on the AAA end of things. There was a lot of disappointment for big new IPs like Watch_Dogs and little innovation from the sequels out there like Far Cry 4. But before I turn this into and Ubisoft is bad rant let's talk about the year ahead.

2015 is gonna be a year. Games are gonna come out. Some games we think are going to come out won't come out. It's gonna be great. I'm excited and you should be too for some of these games that might come out in 2015.

The Will it Come Out Award:

The Witness

Jonathan Blow released Braid in 2008. He announced his follow-up in 2009. I've been expecting The Witness to be released every year for 5 years now. Is this year the year for the surely mind-bending puzzler? I don't know. I do know that I loved Braid, so even if Blow makes me wait another year to see Soulja Boy's mind explode, I will.

Runners Up: Broken Age Part 2, Routine

The Will it Come Out Fo Real Award:

DayZ

I have no interest in DayZ, but it seems like that standalone thing was announced and released on early access ages ago. It seems like ages ago that DayZ was even a thing people were into. Maybe I've lost touch, but DayZ still isn't out fo real yet, and something is telling me it won't be by the end of the year, Bohemia is.

Runners Up: Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program

Game that is most likely Frog Fractions 2:

You think I know? Because I don't.

The Oversaturation Award:

Survival Games

I like Don't Starve and games like it, but when I looked at a list of games coming out this year I saw a stupid number of survival games. It hasn't been that long since the survival genre really came into its own, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before the market capitalized. A few examples can already be seen on Steam's Early Access, The Long Dark, The Forest, Rust, Project Zomboid and others like The Flame in the Flood continue to pop up and look promising, but how many more comers can the genre really sustain before the whole thing becomes a bit stale. Survival elements even seem to be making there way into other games.

Runners Up: Space Sims, Open World Ubisoft Games... Oh wait...

The New Trend:

Big Publishers Believing in Singleplayer Games

The booming trends of recent years have been Indie games, zombies, Rogue-likes, Early Access games, Local multiplayer's resurgence, the aforementioned survival genre. Even space sims seem to be making a comeback. This year the big trend will be big publishers trusting in Singleplayer experiences again. It happens every now and again with certain developers such as Irrational with Bioshock, Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto and Bethesda with Elder Scrolls, but I think last year's Wolfenstein: The New Order caught a lot of people off guard and showed a real demand for the singleplayer game. Will a lot of these games come out this year? Probably not, but I'm hopeful a bunch will be announced. Look, I'm trying to be optimistic here okay.

Runners Up: Game Demos with Announcements a la P.T., E-sports focus on more games

Coolest Art to Preview:

Apotheon

It's the Greek art style and the Greek art style alone that makes me want to play Apotheon. I'm not sold on the rest of the package, but I seriously like looking at it. Seriously, look at it.

Runners Up: Return of the Obra Dinn, Jotun

Franchise Nintendo Will Most Likely Continue to Forget Exists:

F-Zero

Miyamoto said he was unsure where F-Zero could go after GX. F-Zero GX is one of the most thrilling racers out there and we're going on 12 years since it came out, so it came out before online console gaming was even a thing. That'd be a start Nintendo. Give me some online F-Zero so I can fly off the track and lose immediately with witnesses.

Runners Up: Eternal Darkness, Wave Race

Which Series Microsoft Will Most Likely Bring Back to Please Gamers:

Freelancer

Space sims are back. Games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are at the forefront of this recent movement, and it'd only seem natural for a business such as Microsoft to capitalize in some way. Freelancer wasn't the most loved game of its day, but as one of the last Space Sims of its day it garnered quite a cult following. Star Citizen is likely where that cult will end up, as its director, Chris Roberts, also played a role in the development of Freelancer, and a lot of the same ideas are being carried over. I doubt that would dissuade Microsoft from capitalizing on an opportunity to bring back a game from a long dead genre that seems to be on its way to a new golden age.

Runners Up: Crimson Skies, R.C. Pro Am

How Sony will copy Nintendo or Microsoft this year:

I'll leave this one for you to speculate. Sony does a lot of following in the other two of the Big 3's footsteps. They started to embrace indie developers like after a few stories about Microsoft's embrace was revealed to be rough on some of the indie devs. Sony made the Playstation Move to get in on some of that Wii money. The Vita is being integrated to their consoles the way the Wii U controller integrates with its console. They started charging people to play multiplayer like Microsoft. They also introduced voice commands to the PS4 in some sort of attempt to emulate the Kinect voice commands. Sony has even hosted their own Playstation events a la Nintendo Direct. Sony seems to be having a lot more success than either company at retaining the core gamer and it seems to have been accomplished by being a bunch of copycats. Will it be a Sony Kinect? Will they announce a Playstation All-Stars Kart or a Playstation All-Stars Tennis? It could be any of these things or maybe it'll be the year Sony gets copied by Microsoft since they may be a bit more desperate. Time may tell.

Most Surprising Not Surprise:

Bethesda Game Announcement

In 2011 Skyrim was released. It's been a few years since then. Most of us probably would have thought Fallout 4 would've been out by now. Oblivion was released in 2006 and Fallout 3 in 2008. Based on recent trajectories of Bethesda's releases, last year should have been the year, but it wasn't. We're due for something, whether it's the next Fallout or the next Elder Scrolls game. It'd be surprising and exciting either way, but at the same time, expected.

Runners Up: Red Dead Announcement, Mirror's Edge game delayed/cancelled

Most Anticipated Game:

Bloodborne

It's real close between this and The Witcher 3, but ever since I laid eyes on Demon's Souls the series has been my favorite video game thing. Anything Hidetaka Miyazaki touches I'm sure I will love. So it looks a lot like the Souls games we've already gotten, and a lot of people didn't like Dark Souls II for that reason. Well, I loved Dark Souls II despite Miyazaki not leading on it, so with him leading on Bloodborne, GOTY 2015 is its award to lose in my mind. I might sound hyped or whatever, but hype for a game like this is irrelevant for me. I would say I'm not even excited for it. I just know I will love it.

Runners Up: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, The Witness

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A year and almost 2000 hours later: A Dota 2 Retrospective

So in January in an act of rebellion towards StarCraft II I decided I'd try out the other big competitve online game with a "2" in the title, DotA... 2. I partook in this shit festival of a game for nearly 2000 hours just this year, and it borderline consumed me. It stopped me from pursuing my passion of playing all kinds of games, and you know what? Under the right circumstances I would say it was worth every minute, but every now and then it hits me just how much I hate Dota.

ugh...

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to love about Dota. Endless playmaking potential, team compositions and progressions are just a few of the reasons Dota reeled me in. It was the same story for me with StarCraft II. I got hyper competitive and crawled my way up to diamond league despite severely lacking in mechanical skill. I watched the pros play, learned builds, experimented and watched Day9 tell me what's good and why. I still have my very first ranked match of StarCraft II saved, and it's pretty incredible just how much better I got over the few years I played it.

Old replays of my Dota exploits will tell a similar story, but instead of laughing at it and feeling accomplished, I only cringe at how awful I and the other people in those matches were. That's the kind of person Dota is turning me into. When I started I was determined to be the all forgiving "it's just a game" type, but after logging so many hours I've become very critical of people's decisions, progressions and item choices. Thankfully, I still manage to keep those negative thoughts to myself or at worst, any friends I happen to be playing with.

Playing so much Dota has taught me a lot about myself in that respect. It tries me, putting my patience too the test at all times. It has made me think a lot about people and what all the dirtbags are going through that made them that way. I often wonder if I keep playing will I become like them, or if I'm already one of them? I've certainly seen my likeminded friends fall into that pit.

When I started playing Dota 2 I figured I'd be back to StarCraft after a couple of matches. How wrong I was. It was like I started playing StarCraft II for the first time again. I was learning so much so fast. In StarCraft I had felt that I pretty much peaked with my 60-80 APM (actions per minute). It became apparent that that wasn't going to get me too much further against opponents with two, three or even four times that number, regardless of my game knowledge. Dota was a breath of fresh air in that respect. Instead of control dozens of units at once, now I only had to control one guy (for the most part).

It was exciting to learn about each individual hero and how the dynamic of the game changes based on each team's hero composition and to figure out what items work best in various situations. With a pool of over a hundred heroes and a similar number of items, Dota's potential seems limitless. In addition to teaching me about myself Dota has taught me a lot about the sort of game it is.

It's an everlasting game that thrives on its community, which makes sense since it is a multiplayer game. It has the power to keep large and passionate player base, as evidenced by a crowdfunded prize pool in excess of ten million dollars for The International 4, the biggest such prize pool for a digital sport event. The Steam Workshop is another place to see the communities passion in action. Hundreds of artists are creating cosmetic content at any given time, so Valve can sell it. While I personally haven't seen the merit in purchasing cosmetics, it's a large reason that Dota is so profitable as a free-to-play game. This same passion surely has its downsides, as it's probably what drives so much of the community towards its know-it-all madness.

DOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTAAAAAAA

Another big part of Dota is patches. Balance updates in particular have the potential to make Dota feel new again. I guess I'd equate it to playing a new Call of Duty every year with the obvious plus side that you don't have to buy another copy, and the updates are far more frequent. A multitude of adjustments make it feel like a brand new game, even though ultimately, it's still just Dota.

I went through a similar thing playing StarCraft II, albeit to a smaller degree. Small balance patches would hit every now and again shifting the meta game ever so slightly. One day Immortals are next to useless and the next they're essential to any Protoss army composition, and every matchup had to now consider how best to play around that. I've talked to friends who obsessively play those other League of Legends and World of WarCraft games and they have only echoed my sentiments about patches.

"Turn rate improved from .5 to .7," "Base attack damage increased by 4." These things sound small, because in the grand scheme of things, they are. This year saw several big updates to DotA with hundreds of changes just like those two I mentioned. These things add up and heroes that are deemed overpowered are brought down, different heroes step up to replace them and the whole meta game shifts around. This all happens in a game with practically unlimited possibilities as it is. It's why Dota doesn't seem to ever get old.

They say the first step is to admit you have a problem. Well, I have a DotA problem. I never played a MOBA before this year, and this year DotA 2 was practically the only game I played. I would chalk that up to 2014 being kind of lackluster in the game department, but now that I'm finally getting around to playing some more of this year's games I'm beginning to realize that 2014 wasn't so bad after all. I was too consumed by Dota to notice them. I'm hopeful that I'm just about done with DotA 2, but I'm sure when the next balance patch hits, I'll be reeled right back in.

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