The Christmas Blog Series (XII) – Games of the Year 2012 (Part 1)

 Today’s article is five video games from 2012 that stood out to me; in no particular order, these games were the ones that caught my interest the best, did interesting things with their medium or otherwise had some kind of lasting appeal that may not simply be looking flashy and having a weight of marketing behind them. The variety of games released in 2012 was quite refreshing and the existence of cult hits from unlikely directions such as Crusader Kings 2, FTL and Spaceteam show that concerns about the unwillingness of gaming fans to experiment are less significant than perhaps initially thought.

Super Hexagon: Almost all video games, once the themes are stripped out, are tests of reactions, of logic or of chance. Space Invaders is about avoiding hazards while hitting targets. So is Call of Duty. Angry Birds is about identifying the solution to a problem logically and then overcoming chance elements to solve it. Super Hexagon is a reaction-test stripped down to the simplest it can possibly be and for that reason it is immensely compelling. The basic concept is immediately understandable – press one side of the screen to move your cursor one way and press the other to move it in the opposite direction. With this fixed capacity for movement, the player is expected to avoid constantly approaching random obstacles. Yet what makes Super Hexagon compelling is that it sets up a premise that sounds inanely easy and then uses the theming inherent to games to make it difficult. A lot of video games use theme to and aesthetics to become more relatable; by framing you as a soldier and the hazards as enemy soldiers a reaction-test becomes a simulacrum of war. Super Hexagon has an abstract aesthetic that actively fights familiarity; the background and cursor spin and pulsate, the music is loud and the colours bright. As a result, an easy task becomes difficult owing to the number of distractions thrown in the player’s way.

Mark of the Ninja: The best part of the immensely successful Batman games was the way in which they handled stealth sections; Batman hid in the rooftops, picked fights carefully and the game emphasised a predatory play-style rather than an all-out brawl. Mark of the Ninja was an entire game of these sections – every level was simply a procession of mazes populated with enemies with known capabilities that the player had to negotiate. Because of this, it was immensely satisfying and had a degree of thoughtfulness that many 2D platform games do not have – the game was almost entirely about planning and repeating segments of the level to try and find the “best” route through. A particular strength was the amount of variability in the difficulty of a particular playthrough without recourse to changing the difficulty level; it was possible (but harder) to get high scores and good ranks on a mission without playing perfectly, and there were a series of optional tasks in each mission that could be attempted for additional challenge.

Punch Quest: Games like Jetpack Joyride and Canabalt are simple pleasures; much like Super Hexagon they are the purest sort of reaction-test in which the player has to avoid obstacles and progress as far as possible on a linear track. Punch Quest adds to this formula by turning it into a pastiche of Golden Axe or Streets of Rage; the player continually moves forward through gauntlets of enemies automatically, with the only control being when and how to attack them. Immediately this adds a new depth to the genre; the player now has speed control as jumping attacks slow them down while ground attacks speed them up. This simple change – the addition of vast numbers of differently-behaving hazards both on the landscape itself and from enemies of different types, and the capacity to change speed and attack them – makes Punch Quest an enduring challenge. Each playthrough sets the player three tasks to attempt, providing focus to a session and encouraging experimentation with the wide range of upgrades available through continued play, and the large amount of items and moves to unlock provides continued incentives to play more.

Journey: I wrote at great length about Journey nearer to its release, but a look back at it so much later allows a second perspective. It remains one of the few games to have the intuitive design required for anyone to play it even if they are not familiar with video games, the craft and attention to design to set it apart from most games as something worth recommending with no caveats or concerns and some genuine innovation in its use of cameras and level design as aspects of the plot and theme. It may be short and a largely unchanging experience between playthroughs, but I do not think this counts against it; it is a game that in its short length and completely dialogue-free nature becomes more filmic than most blockbuster titles which actively remove player agency to tell their stories. This level of immersion is difficult to match but should be the standard to which games aspire; more Journey would not in itself be a good thing, but more games learning from it would be.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: This game should have really been a lazy attempt to wring money from a franchise increasingly losing its way. However, it proved to be, like Punch Quest above it in this list, a strong attempt to revitalise the music-game genre by adding to it pastiche of other genres. In this case, to fit its theme as a retrospective of the Final Fantasy franchise, it added elements of RPGs to its theming of the basic mechanics of touchscreen rhythm games. The result was a game which was heavily nostalgic and based around recognition of references, but also stood up as a strong game in its own right. Even without the nostalgic appeal of the music selected, the songs were pleasant enough to listen to and provided simple and clear rhythms for the core gameplay mechanics to build around. The success of Theatrhythm – arguably a spiritual successor in some ways to the cult hit Elite Beat Agents – and the existence of Evangelion 3nd (San-d) Impact suggests there is a market for crossover rhythm games using the music of a franchise, so there may be more attempts at this with other franchises in the future.

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