Dan Ryckert is a Senior Editor at Giant Bomb, a veteran professional wrestling manager, a noted author, a two-time Guinness World Record holder, and a skilled Mario Party player. He lives in Lenexa, Kansas with his wife and three children. If you are a popular fast food chain, you should definitely follow him on Twitter.
At the outset of 2015, I felt that it was bound to be a good year based on the high-profile names that were on the release schedule. My two favorite franchises ever (Metal Gear Solid and Mario) were set for big entries, several planned holiday 2014 releases had been pushed to 2015, and I looked forward to promising sequels from Batman, Mortal Kombat, Just Cause, and more. What I didn’t expect was an influx of awesome titles that weren’t prominent on my radar, a new IP from Nintendo that exceeded everyone’s expectations, and several other surprises. If I were to predict my top ten list on January 1st of this year, I wouldn’t have predicted eight of the ten entries that you see below. It’s been a fantastic year across many genres and consoles, and whittling it down to ten entries proved to be no easy task.
Honorable Mention: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
This ambitious title took me by surprise earlier in the year, as I never enjoyed my time with its predecessors. While the third entry doesn’t completely remedy the stiff combat and unchallenging gameplay that irked me about earlier Witcher titles, I found it to be improved enough to really spend some time with it instead of ditching it after a few hours as I had done before. As it turns out, CD Projekt Red only managed to delay my tiring of their game this time around. Instead of two or three hours, Wild Hunt kept me going for over 50. I adored the game at first, joining the chorus that praised the excellent writing seen in the Bloody Baron quest. After that section of the story reached its conclusion, I looked forward to continuing my quest to find Ciri and explore the game’s massive world. Even after several quests failed to deliver on anything noteworthy, I held out hope that the game would find its footing again and hook me. It never did. A combination of unremarkable gameplay and a story that spun its wheels for way too long sapped the enthusiasm out of me until I had no desire to finish Geralt’s third adventure. It’s a shame that The Witcher 3 went from a surefire top five candidate to not even making my list, but I can’t justify putting it in front of any of the ten here that kept me entertained the whole way through.
10. Grow Home
In the span of one week, I learned of this game’s existence via a surprise press release, heard Brad rave about it on the Bombcast, and played through the entirety of it immediately afterwards. I’m a fan of platforming games no matter the era, so I got excited when Brad mentioned that it felt like a throwback to early 3D attempts at the genre. Sure enough, Grow Home is simple, beautiful, and filled with the “scour this area for collectibles” gameplay that we saw so much back in the mid-to-late 90s. It’s not purely a throwback, as the nature of Grow Home’s largely vertical world and the method in which you climb with B.U.D. lend the game a unique feel. It’s a short experience that never overstays its welcome, and it’s one I can see myself returning to whenever I want to play a breezy and charming 3D platformer.
Speaking of games that seemed to come out of nowhere, here’s another that I’d never have predicted would catch my attention. With little nostalgia for the JRPGs of the 16-bit era, I went into Undertale wary of its clear inspiration. What I found wasn’t the derivative love letter to Earthbound that I expected, but rather a tremendously weird title that’s hard to compare to anything else. It made me laugh out loud several times, and I looked forward to each enemy encounter to see what odd quirks it added to the battle system. While I didn’t complete a second playthrough, I appreciate the different ways you can approach combat and how radically those decisions can change the game’s ending. Undertale does a masterful job of presenting itself as one thing and challenging your expectations in many ways, and my lack of experience with old JRPGs wound up having zero effect on my enjoyment of the game as a whole.
8. Pac-Man 256
This iOS title from Crossy Road developer Hipster Whale had a little bit of buzz in the week or two surrounding its release, but it didn’t seem to get its hooks into most of the people I’ve talked to that downloaded it. The reason it makes it onto my personal list is wholly thanks to an ongoing score competition I’ve had with my girlfriend, and it’s caused me to put several dozen hours into Pac-Man 256. To give some context to how much we’ve played this, most of my Game Center friends list has scores peaking in the 10,000s or so (the highest score behind my girlfriend and I is 27,342). I thought I earned myself a rest from the game with a score of 136,000, only for my girlfriend to come back within a day or so with 138,524. While I think the game itself is very well made and great for my daily commute, it’s definitely the excitement of this heated score battle that earns Pac-Man 256 a spot on my list.
7. Fallout 4
I had a tough time determining where to place this one. On one hand, Fallout 3 was one of my favorite games of last generation and I loved returning to that familiar world for Fallout 4. That said, I’m definitely not alone in feeling that the world was far too familiar. I enjoyed myself as I formed alliances, met new characters, and wandered around Boston looking for random side-quests, but I can’t deny that it felt like it was 2008 all over again. It helps that I expected this sense of familiarity after the pre-release media showed little in the way of big changes, but part of me can’t help but be bummed that I’ll have to wait even longer now for a Bethesda game that really feels new. That said, the studio is still unrivaled in terms of creating massive open worlds that are ripe for exploration, and Fallout 4 keeps that tradition alive.
Fans of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls scared me off with their initial descriptions of the FromSoftware titles. These games sounded like they were filled with purposely unexplained mechanics and intentionally unfair difficulty, and neither of these elements sounded appealing to me. I decided to try Dark Souls II when it released, and despite not finishing it, I put a lot of time into the game and the franchise’s appeal finally started to click with me. Since Bloodborne is technically a new series, I figured it was as good of a starting point as any to jump in and commit to beating it. What I found was less about artificially inflated difficulty and trial and error, and more an exercise in patience, memory, and experimentation. I did dozens of runs over the same areas to accumulate blood echoes and level up, methodically stockpiled blood vials, and died repeatedly to the game’s variety of bosses. Throughout all of this, I didn’t mind any of it. I relished the chance to slowly power up until I could confront a boss that had previously decimated me, and the feeling of victory when I inevitably took them down was immensely satisfying. Bloodborne is the first Souls game that I’ve fully completed, but my enjoyment of it ensures that it won’t be the last.
I was immediately intrigued by Splatoon when Nintendo announced it at E3 last year, as it’s felt like forever since the publisher really got behind a new first-party IP. Everything about it seemed weird for Nintendo... on top of being a new IP, it was a shooter, and (most surprising of all) its main draw was online multiplayer. I was excited, but tried to maintain some healthy skepticism considering the company’s track record with just about anything that requires an internet connection. To my surprise, they nailed it with Splatoon. The novel paint battles are a blast, and they introduce a great new wrinkle in an online shooter that isn’t based on killing other players or holding/capturing command points. Everything about the presentation is fantastic, from the insane soundtrack to the colorful visuals. Continuing the theme of surprises with this game, Nintendo has even rolled out new (and free) content on a regular basis to keep fans engaged. Splatoon is one of the coolest products Nintendo has put out in years, and I hope there’s plenty more to come from this IP in the future.
4. Axiom Verge
Like anyone else who’s ever been a Metroid fan, I’ve been clamoring for a new 2D entry in the series ever since the fantastic Zero Mission and Fusion on Game Boy Advance (both of which were released over a decade ago). Many games that were inspired by Metroid and Symphony of the Night have been released in the last few years, but few really scratched the itch to a satisfactory degree (Shadow Complex came the closest). One look at Axiom Verge makes it clear where much of its inspiration comes from, but it isn’t until you play through it that you start to notice all the little things that make it more than a nostalgia act. In a sea of “Metroidvanias,” Axiom Verge is the one that comes the closest to replicating the feeling of playing Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night for the first time.
As a PlayStation Plus subscriber, I always download every free game that comes along each month to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth. Sometimes that results in nice little surprises like Resogun and SteamWorld Dig, or other games that I played on PC that Plus gave me an excuse to play through again (Rogue Legacy, The Swapper, etc). No game has ever given me my money’s worth more than Rocket League, however. The fact that a game this fun launched as a free download is awesome, and it ensured a large and active online community from day one (initial server problems notwithstanding). I may not play it as much these days as I did when it first released, but Rocket League gave me months of tense online matches that rank among my favorite multiplayer experiences in years. I’ve never been one to take the time to master online multiplayer games, but Rocket League made me want to hop into the training arena and spend time learning how to perfect things like aerial strikes. Psyonix knocked a simple concept (car soccer) out of the park, filling it with personality and tight controls, and has continued to support the title long after release. I look forward to heading back to Rocket League for more fun once the crazy holiday schedule winds down a bit.
Like a lot of people, I have conflicted feelings about this game, but not in the area that seems to be the most controversial. I won’t go into the details of the ending here (we’ve got an entire Giant Spoiler Snakecast for that), but I loved the twist. Unnecessary? Sure, probably. Cool? Yes, definitely. It was my favorite story moment in a game that sadly didn’t feature much in the way of story. That’s where my conflicted feelings come from... I’ve historically played Metal Gear Solid mostly for the plot. Sure, it was always fun to sneak around and break necks and shoot darts into the skulls of idiot guards, but it’s the bonkers story that turned my Metal Gear fandom into a borderline obsession. I was really disappointed to see how little story there was in The Phantom Pain, but the game is redeemed by the actual game parts.
It’s amazing to me that a team that typically puts out linear, focused environments managed to make a sandbox action experience this awesome on their first shot at the genre. I didn’t spend 100+ hours finishing every side op because I thought it would tip me off to some interesting story nugget, I was doing them all because of how much fun it was to cause trouble in The Phantom Pain’s open world. It kept me interested and engaged more and more as it went on, making it the opposite situation as my time with The Witcher 3. I couldn’t wait to see how crazy my research options would get as I fultoned every soldier in sight and tossed them into R&D, and I loved concocting dumb ways to complete an operation that almost always ended in hilarious failure. There’s no doubt in my mind that The Phantom Pain is the weakest Metal Gear Solid game in terms of story, but head and shoulders above any of the others when it comes to being a video game.
In the years I’ve been putting together Game of the Year lists, my number one choice rarely feels like more than just that... my favorite game of the year. My number one choice in 2015 goes beyond that, as Super Mario Maker is one of my favorite gaming experiences of all time. Considering that my first gaming memories (and some of my earliest memories in general) were of playing Super Mario Bros. on the NES that I received for Christmas when I was four years old, this franchise is the backbone of my love of video games. You’ve probably heard plenty of people talk about how they used to make Mario levels on graph paper and dream about playing them for real, and I was one of those kids. Super Mario Maker lets me make levels in three of my favorite games of all time (plus New Super Mario Bros., which is alright), with almost every classic element available for use. An unexpected joy is the new stuff that never played into the previous games, like wearing a Spiny as a helmet, making Bullet Bill launchers shoot tons of new projectiles, or making P-switches that get activated by Thwomps.
My personal enjoyment of the game has also been helped greatly thanks to a persistent young YouTuber (and Giant Bomb fan) that consistently plays hooky from his junior high classes to beat my levels. Most of my time with the game has been spent creating and uploading my nightmare levels, but I regularly jump into 100-Mario Challenges and make sure to play new event courses as soon as they’re available. Playing the game is a joy, and making my own levels has been something I’ve wanted to do for decades. Super Mario Maker is a dream, and I can see myself playing it regularly for years to come.