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Christopher Grant's Top 10 Games of 2015

Speedrunning magnate and Yellow Russian enthusiast Chris Grant hastily runs us through his favorite games of the year.

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Chris Grant was formerly on staff for Games Done Quick, a charity speedrun organization. Chris has previously appeared at numerous GDQs and gaming websites to promote speedruns and show off Cool Stuff. Chris considers drinking the “Yellow Russian” at the Big Live Live Show Live 3 to be the lowest point of his life.

So I have to be honest: I don’t actually play a lot of new games. I have way too much time concentrated in Dota and speedrunning to dive headfirst into a ton of the new stuff. Add in graduation, working as staff for the past three Games Done Quick events, and gaming time gets heavily limited. That said, I did find a few moments to play, and even my limited 2015 kicked some ass. While I’m ready to play Witcher 3 and Undertale next month, right now I’m focused on grinding out Iji and Alpha Zylon for Awesome Games Done Quick 2016. I’m still excited to share what I loved about this year, both in terms of speedrunning and non-speed-based gaming.

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10. Wings of Vi

The side-scrolling action platformer Wings of Vi barely snuck into tenth place because it wasn’t released in 2015. It came out late 2014, but didn’t receive a whole lot of fanfare--limited promotion and too close to GotY. I was super excited for the game though because of its fairly unique lineage. Wings of Vi is from the maker of I Wanna be the Boshy, which was a souped up version of the already difficult I Wanna be the Guy, which was based off the super hard Owata. While Boshy had multiple bosses that regularly took players ten hours to beat, Wings of Vi tried to bridge the gap between “Difficult Game” and “Game Non-masochists Will Play” (though the final boss can take ten hours. He’s an ass).

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What makes Wings of Vi fun is the controls--the game is sharp as hell. Matched with these controls are incredibly difficult but generally fair challenges with limited “bullshit”. Even the very difficult bosses tend to telegraph their attacks regularly and reward players for learning. I would often screw up, die, and come back having learned something new. The difficulty and necessity to improves makes it a pretty fun speedrun as well. It just looks really hard, and even casual spectators clench up during some of the scarier challenges. My biggest gripe is that the art just isn’t my thing, both the overall palette and character design.

9. Super Mario Maker

If Wings of Vi was sneaky by coming in from the wrong year, Super Mario Maker is a damn ninja--I’ve never played the game. However, Super Mario Maker manages to encapsulate routing, a unique aspect of speedrunning that isn’t obviously seen in a speedrun. In a brief summation, routing involves learning the ins and outs of a game to produce an optimized route so players actually know what they’re doing.

In Super Mario Maker, both map makers and players find themselves spending a ridiculous amount of time finding solutions to difficult problems. The Ryckening levels weren’t automatically hard to beat, they required experimentation, knowledge, and a huge time investment to create. The routing in speedrunning can be similar to both creating or playing an interesting level. It’s difficult, requires a ton of wizardry, and often exploits game mechanics to the fullest degree.

I have interacted indirectly with the game, usually in a call with friends playing the game and tossing out suggestions for puzzles. It really can be a communal effort to play through some of these levels, and my favorite example of this was a playthrough a friend of mine did of a difficult Super Mario Maker level. It took four days, a ton of trial and error, and he had to learn new glitches to complete individual challenges in the level. I feel that both the creation and playing of interesting levels consists of really cool routing from both sides. It’s awesome in and concept and seemingly well-executed.

8. Downwell

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Downwell, an indie roguelite platformer, was a very odd game for me. It’s a roguelite with a hard mode, random generation, and a formula that other games (Isaac/Risk of Rain/Spelunky) have for replayability. Those are games people spend hundreds or thousands of hours on. I finished Downwell in three hours, and I was satisfied. Depending on perspective, this game is either super shallow or just really well-timed. For me it was the latter.

That’s because it’s really simple. I went through the different kinds of exploration and progression most players have with roguelikes, but at a hyper-accelerated rate. The gameplay itself is unique since I was constantly contrasting falling versus the need to slow down and deal with current threats. It’s a pretty good compact game, especially with how challenging most enemies become due to one-directional style of the game. Even a simple bat can become a huge threat. The speedrun itself can be interesting due to the perpetual freefalling and avoidance, but it can be awful to run due to the randomness.

Also I played it and it came out this year.

7. Grand Theft Auto V (PC)

The single-player for GTA V has been talked to death, so I’ll say that it’s fun, but the gameplay feels shallow towards the end (just like the characters). And that’s okay; GTAs are usually about cool moments and interesting dialogue (even if it’s coming from shallow characters).

However, the GTA Online heists are awesome. I loved Payday 2 for the objective-focused gameplay with differing roles, everyone constantly learning, and there’s a good deal of challenge. GTA V’s heists fill a similar role, but the vehicles and combat systems are different enough to make it really exciting. The speedruns for the various heists are all pretty interesting too, where the challenges tend to be really unique when players need to go fast. These speed tests include: landing a plane in front of a narrow strip of prison road, driving well, or using vehicle and ground combat in conjunction with each other from halfway across a prison. The heists took forever to come out, but damn did they hit the mark for me.

6. RONIN

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RONIN, a violent Gunpointlike, is amazing. I don’t use that descriptor lightly (usually only on sandwiches), but there’s something about this game that just causes a rush I wouldn’t normally expect from turn-based strategy. Part of the game’s success is tied to the constant aggression and violence required to do well. I needed to stay on the offensive or risk dying in a corner, and RONIN required deep though and planning at a constant rate. Then the actual turn-based combat gave so many options (many of which get you murdered), that it was dynamic and fun to play.

I’ve never done the speedrun myself, but there’s some interesting bugs that question the existence of walls. This was actually an evolving process, where early runners discovered how to jump through walls--handy, but not ridiculously fast. So the natural follow up was to levitate through walls and use ziplines to reattach into reality. It’s a neat little run for a neat little game.

5. Heroes of the Storm

So I have spent way too much time on MOBAs. I’ve played in the past two Rektreationals, I believe I’ve shown up in a Daily Dota at one point, and I used to cast League of Legends on a near-daily basis. Heroes of the Storm fills an odd role to me, it’s not as complex as most other MOBAs, but the short game length and constant teamfighting keep it fun.

I’m going to keep on with the Dota connection, and while a normal Dota game involves a lot of laning, maneuvering, posturing, it can also involve quite a bit of downtime. In contrast, Heroes of the Storm tends to involve a tiny bit of laning in the early game, then turns into constantly screaming “FUCK ‘EM UP” into a microphone until a match finishes. While the posturing is there, it’s much more condensed. It’s a bite-sized MOBA, which can be a huge plus or a major letdown. That said, the game is significantly more fun with friends, and this doesn’t change at the higher ranked leagues (including Rank 1).

HotS has one of my favorite gimmicky speedruns, which would be crushing the AI as quickly as possible. I’ve never actually done it, but this is one of those runs that takes way too much math for what actually pays out (I should try it in January).

4. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Hotline Miami 2 received a fairly mixed reception, especially with the faster pace and visceral feel of the original seemingly dulled. There are a ton of ways to die to off-screen enemies, death is more punishing, and most first play-throughs involve a ridiculous amount of hiding around corners to bait enemies. Frankly, the speedrun for this game is pretty awful to do, it’s incredibly random and rarely consistent. Still, once you get past the early muck that clouds the game, it becomes possible to recreate a lot of those Hotline Miami moments.

It’s not really a stellar endorsement of the game to say “It sucks, but if you get used to the sucking it’s fine,” but that’s how it’s been for me. I hated my first play-through by the end, and realized I was spending most of my time hiding around corners instead of being the “Fucker Upper” I wanted to be. Then I beat hard mode, which turned Hotline Miami 2 into an incredibly stressful puzzle game. Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but by the time I finished playing through the game a second time I was suddenly down with Hotline Miami 2 again. I was comfortable enough with the controls to play on the extreme offense, and that’s when the fast-violence really kicks into gear. It’s not a perfect game, but if you can handle the inconsistencies the rush of action is still there, and still pretty damn good.

Also the soundtrack is hot.

3. Fallout 4

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I’m a New Vegas guy, but Fallout 4 managed to scratch an itch I’d been feeling for years. While the game is nowhere near perfect, especially in terms of UI, very few games offer the same exploration and feeling of discovery that the Fallout series thrusts into players. I loved wandering through Washington D.C., I was enamored with the Vegas cities I recognized, and Boston was a war zone that still had me captured. The plot isn’t great, I think Synths are insanely boring, and the Railroad makes absolutely no sense, but the smaller intricacies and overall wasteland really make the game. Though I will lambast the game for not letting me romance Nick Valentine. Come on Bethesda, come on.

Fallout 4, like most Bethesda games, abuses a ridiculous amount of bugs to go fast. Early runs started with playing everything really quickly, which was a bit too long to be fun. Then runners were able to climb up walls or zone out of bounds and the run was cut to a couple of hours. After a while, the scripting was destroyed and runners could skip the second half of plotline. Last time I checked, players were able to abuse teleportation (wrong warping) by wreaking havoc on the game engine, and taking under 70 minutes of in-game time to complete. It’s weird as hell, super technical, and fascinating to see in action.

But you still can’t romance Nick Valentine.

2. Bloodborne

I had a lot of mixed feelings about Bloodborne at release, and at first I considered it the weakest Souls series game on the market. However, the more I played the game, the more I ended up enjoying it and finding nuances. A lot of the exploration went through this odd pattern for me. I’d find an area, be fascinated, then progressively get annoyed by the high-damage nature of the game. Subsequent playthroughs would turn this around though, and being able to blaze through Central Yharnam without killing everything is pretty great! Despite the difficulty of Bloodborne enemies, once I resigned myself to balancing evasion and combat (like the other Souls games), it was a lot more interesting.

The speedruns for Bloodborne are also pretty cool: that’s why I did one for the Big Live Live Show Live! Most runs are based off the key idea that runners should charge head first into a boss until they’re dead, which is a pretty enjoyable way to play. I went through a more glitched run that skips a huge chunk of game content, while the most commonly run categories use fewer skips and glitches, and fight more bosses as a result.

1. Nuclear Throne

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Nuclear Throne is a game with such a strong opening that I can’t listen to the desert theme without starting a run. Which is really how the game felt to me, within the first ten seconds the need to move aggressively and quickly takes hold and grips until I die to something stupid. The game ramps up quickly, the weapons are incredibly fun, and after the first few playthroughs I didn’t feel like I was getting hit by “Roguelite bullshit.” Part of that seems to be the heavy focus on action rather than item collecting (though it is important), and the built-in character abilities help immensely.

This all gets more fun after beating the game, where players are prompted to either end a run or “loop” and start the game over on a harder difficulty. I don’t want to spoil too much of the loop mechanics, but there’s such a high tilt in action that it causes an almost non-stop rush. And that’s what Nuclear Throne is to me, it’s a rush in almost every playthrough. The blend of music, visually simple art, and fast-paced combat hit me at first sight and have never really let go. It’s just good.