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Jeff Gerstmann's Top 10 Games of 2015

America's Favorite Sweetheart weighs in with his 10 or so favorite games of 2015.

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Jeff Gerstmann is the Editor-in-chief of this very website, unless someone stole this article and posted it on Medium. I don't run Medium. Medium probably doesn't even have an Editor-in-chief. People just post whatever they want on Medium and then post a link to it on Twitter and say "hey buddy, why don't you check out this here looooongreeeeead, cool?" Pssh. Medium. Looking all fancy over there with your clean look and user contributions from commitment-phobes too flighty to start a full-on blog. I'm an Editor-in-chief! They force me to drink at my desk! Because EICs are supposed to be grizzled and 115% "over it" at all times! Why don't you go write a longread about that, Mister Medium? Jeff Gerstmann can be found on Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Ello, Linkedin, App.Net, MySpace, Mixlr, About.Me, Vine, Last.Fm, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Facebook, Twitch, YouTube, Super Mario Maker, RapGenius, and Plurk.

Here we are, poised on the edge of 2016. It's the second Christmas season with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The Wii U is now three years in. This is supposed to be the point in the cycle when the consoles hit their stride and start shipping a ton of games, right? I'd say that's more or less what it feels like to me, though it's all coming from different places. All the consoles are now seeing a level of indie developer support that seemed almost unthinkable just a few short years prior. The gaming industry has changed. Developers big and small have multiple ways to get you their games, from smaller downloadables being available everywhere to big games that you could probably get faster by driving to your nearest store than you could by turning on your console, buying it there, and waiting for the download.

Bandwidth, now, starts to seem like the big limiting factor that will keep physical games alive. Honestly, I sort of figured we'd be moving away from this whole "discs" thing a bit faster. But even though I've got more bandwidth than most American homes, some of those PS4 and Xbox One downloads seem to take forever. The PC continues to feel plenty attractive, even if Valve's attempts to put Linux under your television set are way less impressive than its ability to saturate your internet connection to get you games as quickly as possible.

On top of all that, we're on the cusp of the Next Big Thing. By the time we get to this time next year, consumer grade virtual reality will be available to us on both consoles and PC. It's got a shot at changing everything. But it still seems like the sort of thing that could flounder and fizzle as a gaming peripheral, even if giant tech companies like Facebook can afford to lose money just to get their devilgoggles wrapped around your eyeballs.

That's sort of how I like it. I want the future to feel a little uncertain. I already know that I want to own some VR devices. But I have no idea how the general public will take to it. I know that Nintendo will announce the plans for its next device, but will the NX be the right device, at the right time, for the right price? It feels like all of this stuff is up in the air and potentially shaky. Yet gaming as a medium feels incredibly strong, with genres that continue to widen and allow everyone, from the dexterous fans of high-action gaming to the people who just want to interact with a place and a story, to get their needs met in a variety of ways. It's always cool when people are out there experimenting and pushing different facets of video games in different ways.

To generalize for a bit, I think there were more good games in 2015. That doesn't mean I feel incredibly strongly about every single one of them, but once you get past the handful of games I passionately enjoyed this year, there are a lot of things out there worth your time. It's nice to see. Last year didn't feel nearly as strong, even if it still had a few high points of its own. Anyway, enough preamble. After narrowing down a much longer list, these are my top 11 games for 2015. This was originally a Top 10 list, but then Nuclear Throne came out and "qualified" for 2015. Rather than bump Bloodborne off completely, I figured I'd just leave it on. Cool?

11. Bloodborne

Having tried and been subsequently rebuffed by Namco's Dark Souls games, I wasn't exactly expecting to get much out of Bloodborne. But this kinder, gentler, more action-y take on those games ended up pulling me in. Sounds like at least some of the people who really, really like those Souls games are put off by Bloodborne's relative ease and inflexibility, but that... didn't bother me. I don't think this game has converted me into a fan of FromSoftware's work, but it's certainly the first From game I've enjoyed since 3D Dot Game Heroes.

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10. Rocket League

Rocket League works because simply controlling the car is fun all by itself. It's very easy to understand how you can move when you're behind the wheel. When you connect that movement to the scads of ways you can flip around and "kick" a giant ball around, everything lines up in a way that makes for one of the best multiplayer experiences of the year. I wouldn't say I got hooked on this in a lasting way--I still haven't gone back to see what the various mutators that were patched in actually do to that game, and the average skill of the playerbase has probably gotten away from me by now--but my hot and heavy time with it left a lasting impression. But don't go thinking that this is somehow going to lead to me being interested in soccer. No cars, no deal, got it?

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9. Assassin's Creed Syndicate

I'm actually a little surprised that another Assassin's Creed game was able to hold my attention for a meaningful length of time. The franchise has been so hit and miss as of late that it's hard to put much faith into each annual release. But Assassin's Creed Syndicate assembles its pieces in a very inviting way, with satisfying combat that leads to some brutally violent animation, some story hooks that go beyond the last few games' tossed-off tie-in to the universe at large, and a world that feels like it's worth exploring. It also looks really great, which always helps. I'll still never feel invested in this set of games the way I was back when AC Brotherhood came out, but I could see myself popping back into it every couple of years and having a good time. Even if a significant part of the draw for me this year is watching that lady bash the shit out of idiots with her murdercane.

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8. Splatoon

If we had some kind of "video game world I'd most like to live in" award, I'd probably push for Splatoon this year. The whole thing just looks and feels fresh. Also? I kinda like the smell of paint. Between the bright-colored paint splashes and the variety of updates unlocked since release, Splatoon's been a surprising little game. Plays really well (though you'll never get me to start using tilt controls, you monsters).

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7. Rise of the Tomb Raider

The previous Tomb Raider pushed me away in every way imaginable, from its out-of-place Lara Croft murderporn death animations to opening with sequences that felt more like barely interactive cutscenes than actual gameplay. Rise of the Tomb Raider distills the game down into what worked and then adds a lot more of that to the mix. I ended up liking this a lot more than I thought I would, which was a pleasant little surprise. That now makes two Tomb Raider games that I'd say that I liked. Can you guess the other?

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6. Cities: Skylines

It's the Sim City game you wanted Sim City to be. That's not to say it's some slice of perfection, either, but Skylines filled a gap in my life left behind by EA's 2013 attempt to revive Sim City. Yes, it's a little rough around the edges and the simulation wasn't the most robust at launch, but Skylines has heart... and a zillion cool add-ons in the Steam workshop that let you tailor large parts of the experience to your liking. Cities: Skylines is a great and weirdly relaxing game.

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5. Hacknet

Fake-hacking! I got my first taste of it when I took control of a weird magma robot in Activision's Hacker for the Atari 800 and was hooked. Hacknet distills some of the other ideas you might have seen in games like Uplink or Hacker Evolution and, with some exceptions, feels a bit more light-hearted and "Hollywood" than some of those other games. Its use of a real-feeling file system and some great moments that unfold along the way made this one stand out in a way I certainly didn't expect, even as someone who has a certain fondness for these kinds of games.

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4. Nuclear Throne

It feels like Nuclear Throne has always been in development, and the notion that we now live in a post-Nuclear Throne world is weird! The game was officially released in December of 2015, making it "out" and "done," despite some talk from the folks at Vlambeer about some additional clean-up work. I guess old habits die hard. I love a great dual-joystick shooter and Nuclear Throne's roguelike-like-lite-lite structure creates a great push and pull between wanting to blaze your way through the enemies to collect as much XP as possible and hanging back to protect your precious health meter, which always seems to go from full to empty at an impressive speed. I'm glad I largely held off on getting serious about Nuclear Throne while it was being updated every single week... waiting for something more "complete" makes this feel like an all-new game compared to the early days of Early Access.

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3. Axiom Verge

I really liked the original Metroid, but I've never felt any sort of real reverence for the franchise. Maybe that's why Axiom Verge hits so hard for me. It's fast and loose with its inspirations, eventually going out of its way to pull in a Bionic Commando-style grappling hook that gives the game's already exciting movement some extra impact. But it rarely feels like it's just aping the style of another single game. It takes from a handful of places, mixes them in fresh ways, and brings a lot of good ideas of its own to the table, too. It's weird, I didn't expect to be putting Axiom Verge this high on this list, but as I started totaling up the different games around it like some kind of disgusting video game banker, I came to this realiation: Axiom Verge was awesome fun. I might never play it ever again, but wow, I really enjoyed my time with it. So there.

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2. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

I never really thought I'd be praising the way a Metal Gear Solid game played. My interest in the franchise has usually been about watching whatever cockamamie premise the developers cook up unfold in grand, ridiculous fashion. Any parts that played well felt like a bonus, especially in a franchise that has had some odd cameras and its own ideas about character control and inventory management.

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Phantom Pain feels different. It feels like it was finely tuned to finally let you cash in on all the action-packed potential the franchise has had all along. Even the game's structure--a set of numbered missions that you just kind of pick from a menu--felt like something designed to get you back in there quickly so you can take on the next scenario with whatever variety of tactics you call your own. There's a freedom to Phantom Pain that other open-world games lack, and that kept me involved even when the game's story felt like it was stretched too thin. I ended up appreciating that dumb story and the dumber twists involved, too, making this a fine (and potentially final?) entry in one of gaming's weirdest mainstream sensations.

1. Super Mario Maker

It's hard for me to overstate the amount of enjoyment I'm continuing to get out of Super Mario Maker. I have two modes when it comes to Mario Maker. Most of the time, I'll turn it on for an hour or two every night to just play through some levels in the 100 Mario Challenge. The feed of random levels provides a healthy mix of ideas and levels that range from inventive to abject trash. But even the trash levels end up being interesting to me. Are they being made by some kid somewhere, some kid who is opening his eyes to the possibilities of Super Mario Maker for the first time? I'd at least like to think so. Regardless, I play these levels and try to take everything in. I want to see what people are up to and what types of levels they're making. This, combined with discussing the game around the office or watching video of other people playing the game eventually leads to an idea or two. Once a few of those have built up, I flip over to the course creator and get going.

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I won't just run though every feature and tidbit. I've already written a review of the game. But the course creator is expertly executed with a healthy mix of intuitive fundamentals with enough mystery to make it feel like just about anything is possible. Anyone can successfully put together a simple level and feel reasonably successful doing it. But there's always more.

For me, that sense of "more" led to my levels taking a distinct turn. Originally, I thought I'd use Super Mario Maker to try to make levels that contained some kind of nod to the original Super Mario Bros. levels. Not especially challenging, but just a standard kind of good time. I didn't want to be some kind of knucklehead making my own take on unfair, garbage-filled Syobon Action-like Mario levels. But over time, I wanted to do more with the levels I was making. Super Mario Maker could handle that. I started making more difficult levels, both to test some friends and to sort of set out into the world, to see what kind of clear percentages I'd see. But since you have to clear your own levels before you can upload them, I'm still working within some kind of personal guidelines. I want the levels to look nice. They should feel unpleasant... but not necessarily unfair. I'm not making the most savage levels on the planet, but they're tough! My last few have clear rates that are under 1%. It's been satisfying to see friends play it. It's been neat--and potentially even a little insightful--to watch people bang their heads against different parts of a level and, ultimately, succeed. All of that goes back into the cycle and informs whatever I'll end up making next.

It's been a beautiful cycle that, somehow, manages to make Super Mario Maker the most satisfying multiplayer experience I've had all year, too. Ultimately, this is how I'd recommend you play the game, as well. Play it with at least one friend in mind. Make levels and send them back and forth. Or pass the gamepad back and forth and try to outdo each other. You don't need fancy streaming equipment or social media to make Super Mario Maker work. You just need someone who's willing to go down the rabbit hole with you. One person.

The initial reveal of Mario Maker made it seem like a shaky project, and there are things that have been patched in that should've been there (and done better) on day one. But the end result and ongoing support have made Super Mario Maker not only my favorite game of 2015, but one of the greatest things Nintendo has released in years. For me, nothing else came close to topping this list.

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Jeff Gerstmann on Google+