In no particular order.
Despite releasing late in the year, Spaceteam has made it made it on my GOTY list. Because of its simple, unique, and wrinkly design I considered it for a runner-up. But after playing the game with my dad, smash brother friends, and anyone else I know who has an iphone, I knew Spaceteam had earned a place of my GOTY list.
In a nutshell, Spaceteam is a starship theme co-operative Wario Ware style action game where scifi-sounding commands are randomly divided between the participating players. Every round each player gets a random set of buttons, switches, and knobs with random labels. When the action starts, each player gets a command that runs on a time limit. Since there are no duplicate of commands or controls, players have to coordinate between themselves via callouts. Miss too many commands and your ship explodes. Operate as a well oiled spaceteam and you'll zoom off into the next level.
The genius of Spaceteam lies in its clever phrases and gameplay wrinkles. First, all the controls have funny names that can be tongue twisters in themselves. You'll never get something like "activate thrusters" or "full power to shields." Rather you'll get commands like "set newtonian photomist to maximum" or "soak ferrous holospectrum".... whatever that means. You'll either stumble and mumble your way through the syllables or you'll blast away your fears by boldly barking out orders to your team. Design wise, there's a lot of variation between the command inputs, the labels, their arrangement on the screen, and what the command asks. And with a different touch inputs to manipulate the buttons, switches, knobs, and panels even the most straightforward challenges are fairly engaging.
Like in the movies where space travel get really interesting under the stress of impending destruction, Spaceteam tends toward chaos rather than order. The screen will smoke obscuring view. Panels will swing out of their sockets requiring players to carefully put them back into place. And green ooze will eek through the cracks. Add on top of these annoyances, sometimes the labels for the player controls are displayed in an alien language or other symbols. You never know how your spaceluck will turn out when you play. I've found it extremely valuable to have a game that so effectively stresses team skill without a high DKART skill barrier. Being a free download helps me spread the experience around. I'll be sure to throw some cash toward the developer.
There's nothing else to do in Super Hexagon but build your skill at maneuvering around simple shapes; this and be painfully aware of how much more skill you need. (Note: I played the PC version with arrow key controls, which I found to be far superior than iOS touch controls.) The reason Super Hexagon is one of my GOTY of 2012 is because it's a refined version of the Super Gravitron from VVVVVV.
Super Hexagon is more elegant than the Super Gravitron, getting the job done without looping sides, without little white warning arrows, and without the horizontal white rebounding lines as boundaries. Instead Super Hexagon is played on a hexagon, a circular shape that loops organically. Instead of warning arrows, the obstacles start on the very outside of the screen and collapse in on the middle. Instead of finding the holes that Commander Viridian can squeeze through with his odd rectangular shape, the safe paths in Super Hexagon are as clean, cut out of sharp geometric sections. Like Dyad, the tunnel like design of Super Hexagon is a stronger visual space to focus the eyes and the mind. Simply move left, right, or not at all. And survive.
Though the game is straightforward and looks sparse on complexity, there's just the right amount of wrinkles here to make a unique and challenging experience. The game tempo increases as you play, a design feature that puts a unique kind of stress on the skill specturm of a game. The colors dance to the music making the visuals just a bit harder to concentrate on. The play field not only pulsates, but it rotates and even switches direction randomly to throw off the player. All of these features greatly shake concentrate and scramble perception. The effect is so strong that Super Hexagon is quite a challenging game even on its easiest level from the first few seconds of play.
You might think that the wrinkles I described above are cheap or that they needlessly interfere with the player's ability to complete a simple objective. Design elements like this aren't a matter of "need." They're in the game because they are the kind of arbitrary things that the creator Terry Cavanaugh likes. As far as being cheap, I can say with confidence that, like the Super Gravitron, the game is finely tune to be fair giving players enough warning and ability to make informed decisions. Essentially, to play well you have to memorize the different formations and your strategy to get through them. While they may seem like an extreme measure to play a game, it's really no different from learning the rules and strategies of any other game. All of the "distracting" wrinkles to Super Hexagon's design merely focus the gameplay experience on a high level of play rather than letting players get by with less. The squeeze of challenge is important to Cavanaugh and to pure gameplay games like Super Hexagon.
Punch Quest is a high score chasing brawler that looks and plays like an auto-runner. Sure, PQ can be played slowly with the tactic approaching each enemy and obstacle with caution. But with high scores as the goal the primary tactic is to build the combo multiplier by punching forward quickly. And the combo combat is where the gameplay shines.
With just two on screen buttons, Punch Quest features a good variety of mechanics. The left button uppercuts which doubles as a jump; do it again before landing for a fast-falling slam punch. The right button jabs and doubles as a run. Press both buttons to block which stops the character's forward momentum. You have a surprizing amount of control over the spacing of your character and PQ does a great job of stressing timing/spacing skills.
The level design is layered much like Super Mario Brothers. There are level hazards, platforms, coin like treasures, branching paths, powerups, simple enemies that layer together well, simple bosses, and bonus rooms. These design feature are gameplay gold. They worked wonders for Spelunky, and they work wonders for Punch Quest. The best part is that neither of these games feels like Super Mario Bros. Game developers should be more bold in learning from and directly borrowing design elements from great games like Mario.
Punch Quest has a strong gameplay core, but it wouldn't come across well without its clean presentation. The visual feedback is good with hit sparks and hit pauses for connecting attacks. Nearly every gameplay element has a clear form that indicates its function. Plus, the hitboxes are accurate which is always a plus for form-fits-function. I'm more impressed by how the sound design is surprisingly detailed featuring various sound effects to indicate different powerup states and to foretell specific enemy attacks and types.
My biggest concern with the game was with the free-to-play model and the upgrade shop. Punch Quest has a lot of solid design in it, but excessive, undermining, overpowering upgrades can easily throw off the balance. While you can buy temporarily boosts or permanent upgrades by paying real money for punch currency, this buying power doesn't throw off the balance of the gameplay significantly. Aside from the boost, players are limited to equipping one skill of each of the three categories. Furthermore, these skills are activated by skillful, aggressive play rather than defensive cautious play, which is a good balance. You may have to drop some cash on this game to unlock enough options to be competitively viable, but there's nothing wrong with that in my book. If you're going for high scores, then you like the game enough to pay a few bucks.
The game is a blast. And the mini goals/quest/achievement system encourages players to experiment with different skills, playstyles and strategies to better understand the depth of the gameplay system.
New Super Mario Bros 2
NSBM2 is a fantastic Mario platformer. And true to the name, it brings a lot of newness to the long running franchise. The theme of gold and collecting a million coins colors the entire game's design. Nearly every type of element in the game has a golden alternative. Coin Bricks can turn into golden brick hats. Enemies turn into golden versions of themselves returning even more coinage. Pickups have alternate versions like the Golden Fire Flower and the Golden Mushroom. Along with the new golden theme and goal, NSMB2 continues to find new types of platforming gameplay on a level that only Mario has reached.
Many of secrets in New Super Mario Bros 2 are cleverly hidden. Of course, many of the star coins and secret exits aren't hard to find. But, even after studying the secret design of most 2D Mario platformers, I was still stumped by a handful of the secret exits. The sound design is expertly balanced between gameplay sound effects and the background music. After listening to the sound of Mario's footsteps move from across the screen via in stereo sound and even "above" and "below" the screen using some basic binaural audio manipulation, NSMB2 sets a new high level of sound design. The game keeps players well informed of hazards and other obstacles despite how zoomed in the camera view is
The way the 3D stereoscopic visuals blur the background and sharpen the interactive elements in the foreground is a boost to NSMB2's cleanness. It also makes NSMB2 the best looking 2D Mario platformer in terms of visual style. NSMB2 is the best interpretation of the Mario's world featuring detailed textures and animations combined with a soft focus background resulting in a next-gen yet minimalist NES Mario aesthetic. Everything is perfectly tuned and polished. After playing so many "next-gen" games with their graphical glitches and other issues, it's good to be reminded that quality design goes only as far as quality execution.
Back in 2007 I played a lot of New Super Mario Bros. By repeatedly playing the levels and experimenting with different powerups I dug into the depth of the level design. Like Mega Man 9 vs 10, I enjoy the design of NSMB2 better than NSMB because it features Coin Rush, a mode that helps me delve deeper into its design. The random set of 3 levels in Coin Rush is a genius way of exposing player to levels they may not intentionally go back and play again, or if players are looking for a quick burst of Mario gameplay. Coin Rush is designed for repeated play and refinement as players chase high coin scores. And it's through this repetition that the greatness of NSMB2's design becomes evident. To be clear, NSMB2's level design is deep with layers, it's just that some of these layers are harder to appreciate outside of Coin Rush.
Finally, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a great example of quality DLC. Nintendo has been slow to join the paid DLC movement. It's good to see that their first effort was so well implemented. Not only does the main game come with tons of content, but the fairly priced add-on levels are designed with themes outside the scope of the main game. The Gold Classics Pack that borrow and twist on levels from SMB and SMB3 are fantastic. Similarly, the Nerve-Wrack Pack's difficulty level show us how incredibly challenging levels can be in a Mario game are still very polished and well designed unlike many indie mods of Mario.
Like Wii Sports at the launch of the Wii, Nintendo Land is a shining example of how to design gameplay systems for the Wii U. Each game in Nintendo Land is unique, polished, and focused on a clean gameplay experience. Each game is well fleshed out adding wrinkles and challenge for players of a wide range of skill levels. Anyone can enjoy the quality games within Nintendo Land, but it takes a game designer with a critical-eye to see how these games are designed to address long running game design problems.
Outside of the games themselves Nintendo Land integrates Miiverse and achievement like awards well into an asynchronous living amusement park populated by players from around the world. The Nintendo Land Plaza alone wins awards for design. Moving around is simple. Camera control is direct and intuitive with the gamepad control and the option to manipulate the camera with the right analog stick. This design gives players the freedom to play in first person, over the shoulder, side scrolling, and even top down. Yet, at the same time, players can interact with elements in the world simply by touching them on the gamepad. This simple feature combined with the camera control, pushes the design over the top. If you want to activate a musical jukebox in the plaza, simply push one of the music buttons. If you want to ascend to the top of the Nintendo Land tower, simply position it within view and touch it to warp there.
I'll be sure to detail the excellence in design of Nintendo Land soon. For now, I'll say that between playing solo and in groups of up to five people with gamers of a wide range of experience, I've had a great time playing Nintendo Land. I just hope that I won't have to wait as long as the gap between Wii Sports and Zelda: Skyward Sword to see these design feature implemented into the core of a major game.
At GDC 2012, I played 3 notable games on the show floor; Dyad, Spelunky, and Kid Icarus Uprising. Dyad and Kid Icarus Uprising were my games of the show, and it turns out they were good enough to make it on my GOTY list. I've already written reviews of all three of these games, so check out the links if you're curious. I'll only give small statements about each here.
Dyad was an adventure in gameplay and getting to know the creator Shawn McGrath. Dyad is also the subject of my first Critical-Casts podcast. Dyad is certainty one of a kind and it stretched my understanding of game design. But Dyad wouldn't be on this list if the game wasn't solid. Master the game. Beat the game. Or if nothing else, get your hands on it.
I missed my chance to give Spelunky a GOTY award back when the free PC version was released. I told myself I wouldn't make that mistake twice. The attention to detail and dynamic core gameplay is what makes dying and retrying over and over so enjoyable. Yes, the game is hard, but it's also short and concentrated. There are many ways to play (single player, co-op, deathmatch), many strategies to try, and many secrets to uncover. Even if you can't beat the game "the hard way" there's much to value in the pursuit. Put in the cash, put in the work, and you'll get a fair trade for some gold.
My overall game of the year goes to Kid Icarus Uprising. It's the game I've played the most, had the most to say about, learned the most from, and the game that has already influenced how I design my own games, particularly in the way that I've co-designed the combat in BaraBariBall. Kid Icarus Uprising brought me great highs and great low in its multiplayer combat. It helped me see what kind of developer Sakurai is and what kind I hope to be.
For the record, New Super Mario Bros. U would have probably made it on my GOTY list if I had enough time to play it. But because Apex2013 drew near, I put aside NSMBU, ZombiU and other games to practice. Instead of doing a part 3 for most disappointing games I'll just list them here and move on. Resident Evil 6. Borderlands 2. Sword & Sworcery EP. Halo 4. Bit.Trip Runner. Sound Shapes. Journey. Fez.
Here's to 2013!