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Alex Navarro's Top 10 Games of 2014

The wolf is loose, and he's got some video games he'd like to tell you about.

2014 had its moments. Not a great many of them, but some.
2014 had its moments. Not a great many of them, but some.

2014 is probably not a year I'm going to remember very fondly. The reasons for that are manifold and largely very personal, but honestly I can't think of too many years over the course of my life I've so eagerly this is literally the introduction to my list from last year. I hate that I am writing these words again. I hate that they feel so appropriate.

If there's been a prevailing theme in this year's Game of the Year lists, it's a feeling of exhaustion. 2014 took a lot out of people from all corners of the industry. Any discussion of the year's events feels tinged with a palpable level of dread. Even Brad Muir's list starts off with a somber tone. I didn't even know you could bum that guy out, and I wasn't happy when I learned that you could.

If there was another prevailing theme in this year's lists, it was a cautious amount of hope. Some people think that 2015 can be a different story. Of course, us being days from a new year doesn't guarantee an improvement in condition. There are a lot of unpleasant things still happening in this community. The same challenges and problems that have defined 2014 don't just vaporize the second January kicks in. I guess I have a reputation for being a cynic, but deep down, I see reason to hope. I see some amazing games on the horizon. I see some amazing creative voices developing and persevering. I see a lot of wonderful people making wonderful things and advancing both the medium, and the way it's covered. Some, but certainly not all, of those people contributed to our Game of the Year coverage this year, and I'm thankful for their participation.

Anyway, I just wanted to express that before launching into the ol' top 10 list. Hopefully you enjoyed our Game of the Year coverage. Here's to a more uplifting year in 2015.

10. Wolfenstein: The New Order

There was no part of me that was expecting a new Wolfenstein game to entertain me, let alone leave a lasting impression on me. This should have been just another stump-stupid Nazi shooting bloodbath. Franchises like this aren't supposed to grow a brain. They're not supposed to tell you a story that means much of anything. They're not supposed to matter beyond the cheap, ephemeral thrills they're typically built to provide.

All the credit in the world due to MachineGames for surprising the hell out of me. The New Order is still very much a Nazi shooting bloodbath, but underneath all the exploding viscera, the developers installed a soul. The team (which includes ex-Starbreeze devs) brought The New Order's characters to life in an unexpected way, instilling them with enough personality, enough nuance to actually make you care about their plight. For fuck's sake, it turns BJ Blazkowicz, who had up to this point essentially been a ham hock with a gun taped to it, into a character with believable motivations outside of the usual "Nazis are evil, so let's kill them" thing.

The New Order has its issues--its tonal shifts can be awkward, and it does drag in a few places--but its accomplishments are greater. It turns Wolfenstein from another rote FPS into a pulpy, piquant adventure. The shooting's pretty good, too.

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9. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

This year we lost R.A. Montgomery, who most folks who grew up around the same time I did may remember as a prolific writer of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of novels. I loved a number of those books very dearly as a kid. I imagine a lot of kids who played video games growing up probably did. After all, what were those books but text adventure games embedded in pages, instead of software?

A couple of games I loved most this year reminded me a great deal of the kinds of experiences I had reading those books growing up, and The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, by Michael Lutz and Kimberly Parker, was one of them.

A good horror story finds a way to take something mundane and twist it into something unsettling. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo takes an old chestnut--a kid you know claiming to have a family member that works at Nintendo, usually falsely--and turns it into a basis for a terrifying little adventure. It's a short enough game that I think skimping on plot details is permissible (you should just go play it yourself). Really, it's the writing that stuck out for me here (though I dug Parker's illustrations as well). It managed to evoke just enough of what I remember about the video game-fueled sleepovers I had as a kid, while darkening those memories with a compellingly supernatural undercurrent.

8. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

If I'm honest, this game mostly sits on my list by virtue of the Nemesis system. As an open world game, Shadow of Mordor is a very good culmination of mechanics and design tropes cobbled together from other games. Its story is mostly terrible, hamfisted nonsense that often feels out-of-step with Lord of the Rings lore. If it weren't for the Nemesis system, I doubt very highly I'd have delved as far into the game I did.

Because of that Nemesis system, I found myself having a wealth of intense, sometimes hilarious, usually blood-soaked experiences in Shadow of Mordor. It's one thing to have a powerful character in a game defeat you time and time again, but it's quite another to have that character remember that event, to rub their superiority in your face. Early on, I was quite bad at surviving encounters with the game's tougher orcs, and so I found myself in that position quite a bit, listening to various orcs talk surprisingly creative smack about me time and time again. Once I got my bearings and gained a few abilities, I started crafting elaborate revenge scenarios, stalking the guys who had killed me most often, looking for ways to infiltrate their territory and slay them once and for all. As someone who typically likes to run at things while mashing the stab/shoot button, that Shadow of Mordor was able to inspire me to think carefully about each enemy encounter is something of a minor miracle. This is a concept I can't wait to see applied to other games in the future.

7. Shovel Knight

I think just about every write-up of Shovel Knight this year has commented on how done-to-death retro aesthetics in indie games have become, and how Shovel Knight manages to transcend that feeling of retro fatigue. I absolutely agree with this sentiment, but more than its value as a painstaking tribute to the likes of and Mega Man and DuckTales, I think Shovel Knight is just a really well-designed platformer. Yacht Club Games not only nailed the NES-style visuals, audio, and storytelling, they also managed to design a game that's near-perfect in terms of difficulty balance. It's an exceptionally challenging game that still feels conquerable. It made me angry at times, but in the way the best classic platformers do. You sometimes hate it, but you don't stop playing. That's a difficult line to straddle, and Yacht Club did it brilliantly. I can't wait to see what they do next.

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6. Mario Kart 8

At the outset of the year, no part of me would have expected Mario Kart 8 to find its way onto my top 10 list. Not because I didn't expect this game to be good--I still love Mario Kart more than most people should by this stage of their life--but because I just expected there to be other, better games out there that would shuffle this off the list. After all, it's just more Mario Kart, right?

Sort of, but it also happens to be the best Mario Kart has been in a very long time. The core gameplay is as frenetic and exciting as it's ever been, and the strong online play--frankly shocking for a Nintendo game--has kept me racing long past the game's release date. Also, in a year where the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were supposed to boast a cavalcade of graphical showpieces, Mario Kart 8 still managed to stand out as one of the absolute best looking games of the year. Nintendo makes the games Nintendo is supposed to make very well. Mario Kart 8 is one of the best examples of this you will ever find.

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth

I still watch South Park on a weekly basis. I don't really know why. The worst episodes of modern South Park are often, at the very least, odd. It keeps doing enough to hold my attention week-to-week, occasionally sprinkling in gems like the Game of Thrones-flavored "Black Friday" trilogy to remind you that this show can be really sharp when it puts its mind to it. The Stick of Truth felt close to one of those sharp moments from the series. It felt like the best of South Park, only slightly awkwardly baked into a lightweight RPG. Unlike just about every game that came before it, The Stick of Truth excels at being South Park.

There were a lot of reasons to doubt it. Obsidian's checkered history with the functionality of its games. Original publisher THQ closed shop mid-development. The publisher that picked it up, Ubisoft, delayed the game not long after. And, of course, the show's history with games was poor. South Park games used to be a sad bullet point in the long list of disappointing games based on popular licenses. The Stick of Truth goes a long way toward correcting that standing.

It felt like a game that was a long time coming. I'm glad it finally did.

4. 80 Days

I have to extend thanks to a number of the contributors to our guest top 10 lists this year. Before I started editing these, 80 Days was completely off my radar. This is why I love that we do these lists. I keep discovering games I'd otherwise be completely oblivious to.

This iOS adventure tells its own version of Jules Verne's classic novel Around the World in 80 Days. It coats its story in steampunk conventions--airships and automatons abound--yet tells its story in a way that makes those conventions feel fresh. You play as the ever doting (or not) manservant to an adventurous English gentleman, who takes a wager to try and circumvent the world within the 80 day time frame. The path is plotted by you, and there are a wide variety of paths to choose from. The script by Meg Jayanth is tremendously effective at engrossing you in each step of the journey, painting rich back stories for a great many of the cities and characters you'll encounter along the way. Even the resource management game it tosses in is fun. Who knew babysitting a middle-aged man through constant mortal peril could be such a good time?

If you do decide to try 80 Days, make sure to try out the recently added North Pole route. Maybe not for your first trip, but eventually.

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3. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

If this were a list dictating the games I spent the most hours in this year, Hearthstone would beat everything else by several orders of magnitude. This was not supposed to happen.

I don't play CCGs. I briefly tried to understand Magic: The Gathering in junior high, but it never quite did it for me. I also haven't played World of Warcraft in six years. My level 36 dwarf rogue, Dolemite, is a year away from being declared legally dead. By all manner of reason and history, this was absolutely not supposed to happen.

I don't understand entirely what this game does to my brain. I worry sometimes it might be Blizzard's version of that weird virtual reality disc-cone game from that one Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. You know the one. Ashley Judd was in it. I don't know what Blizzard would command me to do. Maybe buy more Hearthstone cards. I've done that a few times.

All I know is that I've built a deathrattle-focused warlock deck I've grown to enjoy using, and I'm still making at least a couple of arena runs a week. Hearthstone has consumed the vast majority of my free time this year. I'm not great at it, and I absolutely do not care. Some people hate the game's emphasis on luck. I adore it, even when I'm on the wrong end of it, which I often have been.

The recent expansion content has made competition in Hearthstone even more wild and woolly. Some interesting new decks have emerged, but mostly people seem to be just trying all sorts of stuff out, and it's a ton of fun seeing how that experimentation plays out. I never expected to get into card battling in any form, ever. Now I'm poking around wikis reading about paladin strategies and wondering if I should blow up my current, divine-shield focused deck. I spend large chunks of my precious, ever-dwindling life throwing merlocs at people for fun. There is a roughly 100% possibility that I have taken a break from typing this very write-up to play a round or two.

This was not supposed to happen. Oh well.

2. Bayonetta 2

I have been asked several times this year why I didn't finish the original Bayonetta. I don't have a satisfactory answer for this. I remember playing a chunk of it when it first came out, enjoying it, and then setting it aside in favor of other games. It seemed very good, but I did not go back to it. I regret that, especially after playing Bayonetta 2. Holy shit, what a game.

I think Patrick and I share similar feelings on character action games in general. They sometimes feel too much like fighting games to me. You may or may not know this about me, but I am rather poor at fighting games.

Bayonetta 2 is an excellent blend of accessibility and depth. The crazy juggle combos are there if you want them, but you can make do if you're bad at memorization. For my part, I wanted to learn the combos, just to see what increasingly strange animation would come as a result. The action is vibrantly weird, yet immensely satisfying. I never got tired of engaging witch time and just wailing away on one of the game's numerous grotesque enemies, which are uniformly strange and amazing.

Bayonetta 2 is beautiful and insane and exciting in equal measure. It's probably my favorite Wii U game to date.

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1. Jazzpunk

I was absolutely certain something would come along this year and knock Jazzpunk from the top spot on my list. I loved Jazzpunk from beginning to end, but I did not foresee a three-hour long non sequitur-dispenser to be my defining gaming experience of 2014. And yet, here we are.

I get kind of exhausted just trying to write about Jazzpunk. It's why my review of it earlier this year was on the shorter side. It's tough to explain why it's so great without just rattling off jokes, which is just about the worst thing you could do to a potential player. Its comedy holds up upon repeat plays, but it is best experienced first without any idea of what's to come. It's bizarre stuff, seemingly nonsensical but impeccably timed. It feels like very dumb comedy made by very smart people.

I laughed at every single stupid thing Jazzpunk did. I played it again and laughed at all the same bits. Maybe it's not the technically "best" game of the year, but it's the one that brought me the most joy in 2014. I am glad for its existence, and I look forward to playing it many times more.

Alex Navarro on Google+