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Jenn Frank's Top 10 Games of 2014

Frankly, it's about time we heard what Jenn's favorite games of 2014 were.

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In 2005 Jenn started writing 90- and 120-word game reviews for Electronic Gaming Monthly; from 2006 to 2008 she was dreadful as 1UP.com's CM. Fortunately, she is better remembered for her irregular appearances on Retronauts, a podcast about being an old person. Since 2008 she has written for Kill Screen Magazine (twice), The Guardian (twice), The New York Times (once), and other outlets. She is also the voice of Super Hexagon and, therefore, technically a BAFTA nominee.

Giant Bomb actually asked me to do an end-of-year top-ten list once before, and I flaked on it, and I have been sad about that for literal years now. So it is an honor and a privilege to finally right that old wrong with this, a cameo listicle.

My top-ten games "experiences" of 2014 in no way reflect the actual ten best games of the year; rather, they reflect the top ten times I pooped my pants. This is an important distinction to stress: there are "good" games, just as there are "good" movies, but as much as I might love The English Patient, it is the 2010 film The A-Team that I own on DVD.

Also, I've never seen The English Patient. My point is, pants-shitting is a highly subjective experience, and I can only speak to my own unique skidmarks. They're like fingerprints! Here are ten of them, in no order whatsoever:

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10. Shovel Knight

I'm not gonna say anything audacious like "Shovel Knight is the best game of the year"—it's good to be stingy with designations like "best"—but it's true that this independently-developed cross-platform game really is the best 2014 release on the Nintendo 3DS.

No knock intended on the 3DS, of course. Nintendo's handheld offered its own share of platformers this year (Kirby), some RPGs (Bravely Default), plus "visual novels" out the wazoo. But Shovel Knight is as courageously pure and perfect as a video game can get. It's no-frills in the best possible way, stark and utterly free of gimmickry. The controls themselves are crisp and taut: no slipping, no mushiness. Shovel Knight is mechanically gratifying, a complete pleasure to play.

Now, I'm sure Shovel Knight is every bit as aesthetically charming on larger screens—it'll be available on the PlayStation 4 soon enough, and in the meantime you can play it on any size screen you like—but its intricate little sprites only benefit from being further squished by the 3DS' display. The foreground and background move at different speeds, too (that's called parallax scrolling!), and its effect is all the more appealing in three-dee. Also, fuck this game. It's really hard.

Recommended for fans of: the NES, but I didn't actually have an NES as a kid. I wasn't even allowed to so much as touch one (which is pretty impossible to enforce on a school-aged kid, nice try, Mom [RIP]). So, speaking as a person who played the Game Boy much more frequently than she did the NES, Shovel Knight actually reminds me of every early Wario game. Recommended for fans of: Wario games

9. The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, a browser-based text adventure by the author of my father's long, long legs, is a strange and effective little game (although, of the handful of people I've urged to play, exactly half have been impressed).

Uncle Nintendo filches liberally from other "creepypasta" conventions—most notably, the ol' "haunted Pokémon cartridge" trope—while also transcending, or even breaking, the form. By asking the player to repeat the game (six times in all!), Uncle Nintendo establishes an artificial "familiarity," which it then proceeds to undermine, adding to a pervasive sense of uncanniness and unease. Baudrillard would love it. You might, too!

Recommended for fans of: The Thief of Always; Coraline; Zork, I guess

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8. FOTONICA

I first played FOTONICA at Fantastic Arcade and, at the time—standing in a crowded, noisy bar, playing in split-screen multiplayer mode—I had almost zero idea what was going on. But I must've had a slightly better handle on the game than my husband-to-be Ted did, because I kept slightly beating him.

Having now played both the Steam and iOS versions, I feel only slightly better equipped at attempting to describe it. FOTONICA is a single-button endless runner, where holding down any button—any key on the keyboard, anywhere on an iPad screen—"grips" your runner to the track. Kinda like pressing a gravity button.

If you release the button, you leap up and sail through the air like a hang-glider. Pressing and holding the button again will rapidly plummet you back to street-level and, if you stick the landing, you'll glom onto the track once more. As each stage progresses, your jumps become longer, floatier, and blinder: they eventually become leaps of sheer faith. (And because your hands are off the keyboard for these jumps, the feeling is especially harrowing—there's no sense of control. It's a type of surrender.)

Many reviewers have explained FOTONICA as a cross between Rez and Mirror's Edge, which I think is accurate but maybe inadequate. It is a first-person runner, hence all the Mirror's Edge comparisons, and it does have a Rez vibe—not only because of the wireframe vector art and the electronica soundtrack, but also because FOTONICA is "on rails." And because Rez qualifies as a "rail shooter," I think FOTONICA should, in turn, be called the first-ever "rail jumper."

FOTONICA is best played on a tablet device (the input is snappier), but all versions are good. The iOS version costs less, I think.

Recommended for fans of: Rez; Canabalt; Bit.Trip Runner; Dyad

7. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

The weirdest thing about Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is that this free-to-play money-vacuum is actually semi-biographical, actually based on the real-life career trajectory of Kim Kardashian. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a reasonably accurate Fame Simulation.

Much of the game's fictional Los Angeles revolves around the villainess Willow Pape*, a cardboard Paris Hilton stand-in who nastily drags you, the player, into a public beef—just as the real-life Hilton did to Kimmy. (Contrary to popular misconception, it was Hilton's very ire that inadvertently launched the Kardashian brand, so if you don't like the game's concept, blame Paris.)

"But Jenn," says you, "what could be so pants-shitting about playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood?" Spending $60 on your first day without even noticing, that's what. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is a Zynga wet dream, a paragon of the free-to-play model at its most wicked: a perfectly-constructed Skinner box.

The writing is unexpectedly okay—even devilishly passable!—and the soundtrack is pumpin'.

*Note: If you play as a dude, your same-sex rival is swapped for Willow Pape's boyfriend, "Dirk Diamonds." And if you really wanna make an enemy for life, you can romance Willow, effectively stealing her right out from under Dirk's slim, pretty-boy nose.

Recommended for fans of: FarmVille; slot machines; Ryan Seacrest

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6. Pixel Rift

Pixel Rift doesn't really belong on this list, because it hasn't been released yet—for now it's just a preview, a demo of a single stage—but holy Moses, is it good. Never have I been more thrilled about a work-in-progress. Pixel Rift's demo seats you at the desk of an elementary-school student. And if that's all the demo were—turning when the troublemaker behind you whispers, facing forward again when your dragon-lady of a teacher yells for the class's attention—it would be interesting enough.

But in your hands, hidden just beneath the desk's edge, is a first-generation gray brick Game Boy. And anytime you look down at it (the demo makes full use of the Oculus Rift's positional tracking), you are now playing the sidescrolling platformer Pixel Rift. I'm going to spoil the demo, just a little bit, and I really do apologize: the boss battle. During the boss battle, both the hero's sprite and the Big Bad Boss escape the confines of the Game Boy's screen, and now they are warring right there on the cluttered landscape of your desk. It's magical and daydreamlike, a really powerful expression of what the Oculus can do.

Eventually, the game's designer promises, each stage of Pixel Rift will represent another phase of the main character's life, where these important adolescent phases are demarcated by "console generations." I think video game essayists are notorious for fiddling with that idea—that our autobiographies can be written out as a series of chronological games experiences, that shared memories of Doom or Final Fantasy VII unite our otherwise-disparate childhoods—but I've never seen this idea used as a totally literal and concrete game mechanic before.

In terms of tone and attitude, Pixel Rift's nearest cousin is probably Level-5's Attack of the Friday Monsters (which in turn was designed by the creator of Boku no Natsuyasumi, or "My Summer Vacation," if that helps any). Friday Monsters, like Pixel Rift, pairs pop-culture references—all of which are lost on me, sadly—with a palpable sense of "time" and "place," which, together, fabricates a childhood memory so effective and corporeal, it almost feels like your own.

Pixel Rift is like that, too—except, y'know, you sit in it.

Recommended for fans of: video games; wistfulness; loving life

5. Nidhogg

Nidhogg was released in 2014! In January! I know! I, too, was surprised to learn this, because it feels like the game has been around foreeeeever. (And it has been, apparently! It's been in development for years, evidently!)

I am miserable at Nidhogg—just, really really bad at playing it—but I have won so much more than my share of games because I can be cheap as hell. Nidhogg is anyone's game, always, and the "advantage" can turn on a dime.

Nidhogg isn't only a multiplayer fighting game: it's very much a tug-of-war, too, where fencers are swordfighting back and forth, always gaining or ceding ground. And if you can just make it past the other player and sprint to the finish line (you cheater), you've won.

When you win—when the other player falls for the last time and the audience cheers—the great wyrm, Nidhogg itself, swoops up from the depths and swallows you. That's your reward for winning: getting Nidhogg'd. The audience isn't cheering because you won. They're cheering because they're fickle. They cheer because they're gonna see someone, anyone, get eaten. The game is, uh, very nihilistic in that way.

I could try to say something more significant about this "art game"—about how each stage of Nidhogg "tells a story" and, as you work from either left-to-right or right-to-left through each of the screens in succession, it's very much a sequential narrative. Sure, I could say that; I could Scott-McCloud you all day.

But whatever, right? That's boring, and Nidhogg is not boring. It's fun.

Recommended for fans of: fun

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4. Super Smash Bros. (Wii U)

Readers: Is this you? Picture it. You are having a small post-Thanksgiving get-together at home and everyone's hands are tired and no one feels very competitive anymore, but everyone is still drinking.

Do you know what is a thing you can do with Smash Bros? A thing you can do is, you set all eight computer-players as Little Mac, tweak the players' settings each to a "handicap" of "300%," crank the match's "launch rate" to the max, and then lay bets. The exact effect is akin to a horse race combined with fireworks. High-stakes Little Mac horse-racing enlivens any dying holiday party, guaranteed—especially if you bet with real money!

Recommended for fans of: Super Smash Bros.

3. Super Smash Bros. (3DS)

We leave our 3DSes charging on our respective bedside nightstands. Sometimes we play Smash instead of having sex.

Recommended for fans of: abstinence

2. P.T.

The PlayStation 4 launched a little over a year ago, and the poor thing hasn't quite yet hit its stride: none of the current console generation has. And so it came to pass that the most innovative console-exclusive title of 2014 is a tech demo about walking.

Still, I have never been so addicted to the GameFAQs forum as I was when I was trying to "beat" P.T., you know? I very rarely obsess over anything, but for one weird week I was closely following fan theories, scribbling notes, and outlining my own plan of attack (which mostly involved swearing curses into a microphone).

I hope the guy who "solved" P.T. landed a job with the CIA, Last Starfighter-style. He had it all figured out in like a week.

Most pants-shitting moment: Ted had left the room with P.T. paused, and I was reading a magazine on the couch, when suddenly a demon-voice started speaking out of the TV, and I jumped up and ran out of the room screaming "Teeeeedd!" As one does.

Recommended for fans of: pants-shitting

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1. Elite: Dangerous

When Ted told me he'd like to "start developing games for the Oculus" and "do we have the savings for that," I immediately became suspicious. I'd already purchased a flight stick and corresponding throttle—colloquially, a "HOTAS" setup—and Ted, accordingly, had started playing the Elite: Dangerous beta at his work desk. So let's just say I knew something was up.

Anyway, that's the story of how we came to share an Oculus DK2 (where the word "share" here has the loosest possible meaning). Since the VR headset's arrival, Elite: Dangerous has become Ted's number-one hobby.

In watching Ted play, I have deduced that Elite: Dangerous pairs visceral, dogfighting-in-space gameplay with the more cerebral thrill of micromanaging every single aspect of an import/export business. "So it's Futurama?" I have obnoxiously suggested to Ted more than once.

Then again, Ted's enthusiasm for Elite is contagious and, with only the slightest encouragement, I have been known to hop into the game myself. Elite is optimized for the Oculus so that, when I physically turn my head and look either to my left or right, different UI screens pop up automagically. Because we use a DK2—and because I am extremely nearsighted—I can lean closer to the menus to read them better. It's all very surreal.

More surreal, though, is the way I can look down at my lap and see the avatar's legs. I can look down at myself and see the avatar's chest ("Ted, you play as a woman?" was a real conversation we had). If I peek down through the gap between the VR goggles and my nose, I can line myself up and "fit" my own chest into the female avatar's. One time I tried to lift my forearm to get a better look at something in the cockpit, and the avatar's forearm didn't move, and I started laughing because I'd genuinely forgotten it wasn't my arm.

One time Ted called me over because his new spaceship was "the size of this office!" and I put the headset on and looked around, and I had to agree: the spaceship's interior was, eerily, the size and approximate dimensions of the room I'm sitting in right now.

I was leisurely cruising through space—this is literally called "supercruise"—when suddenly an "interdiction" warning appeared onscreen. Had I not been wearing a VR headset, I might have calmly, casually asked Ted what an "interdiction" is. Instead I experienced life-or-death panic. "Oh, no! Ted!" I called out, just in case Ted were no longer standing right behind me. I don't remember what happened next; it was all such a blur. I vaguely remember Ted coaching as I focused all my attention on steering toward a distant point ahead of me. (Success! I survived. I removed the headset and dabbed at my brow: "No more for today," I whispered asthmatically.)

Elite: Dangerous is, for now, the most complete and finished, most polished experience for the Oculus Rift—although the MMO simulation is nearly just as enjoyable, as Ted will hurry to inform you, even without the special controllers or three-dee goggles. But with? My lord, it's exhilarating. I can fully understand why an Elite hobbyist would spring for all the bells and whistles.

Recommended for fans of: TIE Fighter; Euro Truck Simulator 2 (in space)

Endnotes:

  • I elected to not pick up Alien: Isolation for PC. I almost did, though, because I've read you can very easily unlock the Oculus-supported mode. Uh... it's probably not for me.
  • If I had played through Alien: Isolation, it would probably be on this top-ten list. Sorry, game. I'm saving you for a special day.
  • In 2014 I went from loathing the Oculus Rift to tacitly endorsing it. Look, I can admit when I've been wrong.
  • Another oddball that almost made the cut is Hitman: Go.
  • I actually agree with a lot of entries on this list, I think. If I had it all to do over again, I'd probably include Earth Defense Force 2025, too. I forgot it came out this year! It's good. There are giant bugs in it.