2012 Game of the Year Awards: Nick's Honorable Mentions

Somehow, against all odds, I managed to play a lot of different games this year. A bunch of them were pretty great, too. Now, I don’t want to overwhelm you guys with a wordy catalog of all the games I really liked playing this year, so instead I’m gonna focus on five (well, six, but it’ll make sense) games that I think shouldn’t be missed. But just for good measure, I’ll throw in a list of other noteworthy games at the end that I think ought to resonate with at least a few of you.

Sound good? Good. Here we go.

The Zero Escape Series (999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue's Last Reward)

November 2010 (999) & October 2012 (VLR) | Chunsoft | DS (999); 3DS, Vita (VLR)

Like most of us here, I had the strongest emotional attachment out of any game this year to Lee and Clementine and their struggle to survive in The Walking Dead. And Journey was my showpiece game of 2012 – it’s the most laudable demonstration of the power of interactivity in storytelling I’ve seen. But neither one was my absolute favorite game of the year.

That honor goes to one of the most unlikely games I’ve ever come across. It’s a visual novel, of all things, which means it’s about 80% narrative, 10% puzzle-solving and 10% agonizing over choices that affect who lives and who dies. It’s drenched in an exaggerated anime style –- the sort of thing that usually turns me off from games altogether. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s actually impossible to earn the best ending on your first playthrough.

In other words, 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors is the strangest game I’ve ever loved. But man, did I ever love it. I sank a couple dozen hours into it over the course of a week, hopelessly engrossed in the twisting narrative. And after I’d finally solved all the puzzles, seen all the outcomes and obtained the best ending, I felt satisfied in a way I rarely have after finishing any game, book or movie. The game’s final “reveal” is so unexpected and so satisfying that it just need to be experienced.

I’m well into Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, the sequel to 999, and it’s every bit as engrossing. Call me crazy, but I’ve got a new game series to add to my list of all-time favorites.

Fez

April 2012 | Polytron | Xbox Live Arcade

Fez is lovely. It's painstakingly drawn, full of nooks and crannies to explore, and accompanied by a wonderfully synthy soundtrack. It's such a rich and beautiful space that I couldn't help but get lost in it.

If you haven't played Fez, you'll be happy to know it's a fun, low-stress platform game with fun puzzles to solve. If that sounds fun, you should go play Fez. You'll like it.

But Fez is also another game altogether.

I can't say any more than that without ruining what turned out to be one of the most mind-blowing revelations I've ever had while playing a game. But I will say I've never had to think harder to solve all of a game's puzzles in my life, and I've got a few dozens pages of notes scrawled hastily in a notebook to prove it.

Fez made me feel like an idiot, and then it made me feel like a genius. It's an essential experience for anyone who wants to see how games can subversively defy expectations.

Persona 4 Golden

November 2012 | Atlus | PlayStation Vita

As of this writing, I'm 40 hours deep into a Japanese RPG. That hasn't happened since I begrudgingly played through Final Fantasy XII six years ago. The difference here is I can't wait to finish this article up so I can dive back into Persona 4 Golden's story.

I'd describe Persona 4 Golden as a high school social simulator paired with a fast-paced, dungeon-crawling combat RPG. (If there's ever been a weirder premise for a game, I'd love to hear it.) But what makes Persona work is its loving attention to detail in every way. Menus and interface design are immaculate, as are the art direction and environments (nicely updated from the original PlayStation 2 release), and the music...oh man, the music.

I don't listen to any Japanese music outside of games so maybe I'm just out of the loop, but Persona 4 Golden's soundtrack is endlessly enjoyable and utterly infectious. In a combat-heavy RPG, you're gonna hear the same battle music thousands of times, and I'd go so far as to say Persona 4 has the best fight music the genre's ever seen.

All these elements come together around a deep, engrossing story that's both lighthearted and affecting. I may still have half the game to go, but I already know it's gonna be bittersweet when the story comes to an end.

Diablo III

May 2012 | Blizzard Entertainment | Windows, OS X

I love Diablo II like an athlete loves their favorite sport. I spent years poring over stats, experimenting with every play style imaginable, and leveling up dozens of characters through all the game's challenges. To this day, there's definitely no game I've played nearly as much as Diablo II –- and I'm willing to bet that's true for a lot of people who, like me, were eagerly anticipating its sequel.

As it turns out, I didn't play nearly as much of Diablo III as I thought I would. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The one character I raised to the highest level brought me such an incredible amount of satisfaction and joy that I feel like I got more than my money's worth from Blizzard. So what if the end-game item grind is tedious and the in-game auction houses are volatile? Like any Blizzard game, many play styles are expected, and not every feature is for everyone.

I'm not the world's foremost expert on the Diablo series, but I sure know enough to feel like I can speak with some authority. Diablo III made nothing but smart, forward-thinking changes to the series while amplifying the core components that always made the series a blast, and the result is a tighter, better-playing game that somehow still feels definitively like Diablo. The naysayers can complain all they want, but I couldn't have asked for a better sequel.

Spelunky

July 2012 | Mossmouth | Xbox Live Arcade

2012 might be seen in hindsight as the year when the roguelike went mainstream. With outstanding games like Tokyo Jungle and FTL making waves, this tough-as-nails design philosophy seems to have found an audience. I've been a big fan of roguelikes in the past (don't ask me how many dozens of hours I sank into 100 Rogues on my iPhone) but Spelunky might be my new favorite.

Spelunky originally arrived on the PC a few years ago and made a name for itself with its unforgiving-but-fair play environment and randomly generated dungeons. It astutely maintained the delicate balance between ramping up the challenge and granting the player a sense of real progress. Fortunately, the Xbox Live Arcade remake is every bit as polished, but now the game sports an expanded suite of features.

The best part? The four-player co-operative mode. Given the volatility of the game's environments, throwing four independently thinking players onto the same screen is a formula for inevitable backstabbing and accidental catastrophe. It's the same sort of controlled chaos that was riotous fun on New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Like Far Cry 3, you'd be hard pressed to walk away from Spelunky without your own set of outlandish stories to share.

The Other Stuff

Whew. Okay! We’re done with that. If you’re wondering what else caught my fancy this year, here’s a shortlist of the other games that impressed me in some way. If you’ve got the time and they sound appealing, check ‘em out.

Theatrhythm Final Fantasy(Indies zero | Nintendo 3DS) – I’m a sucker for video-game nostalgia, and if you get me drunk enough I’ll confess that Elite Beat Agents is my real favorite game of all time. Combining classic Final Fantasy melodies with a satisfying touch-based rhythm game

Forza Horizon(Playground Games | Xbox 360) – Take a polished racing game that carefully balances simulation-level depth with accessible and forgiving rules. Frame it within the premise of an outdoor music festival and set it to an indie rock and EDM soundtrack. We might as well just call this game Carchella, and I might as well admit how inevitable it was that I’d love everything about this game.

Rock Band Blitz(Harmonix Music Systems | Xbox Live Arcade & PlayStation Network) – How to Take Nick’s Money in Three Easy Steps: 1. Take one massive library of downloaded Rock Band songs; 2. Mix with the addictive, fast-paced gameplay of classic Harmonix games Frequency and Amplitude; 3. Jam out for days.

Dust: An Elysian Tail(Humble Hearts | Xbox Live Arcade) – A deeply personal and highly polished action/exploration game done in a traditional two-dimensional style, filled with color and personality. The character designs were off-putting to me, but the quality of the experience shines through. As a labor of love from a one-man development studio, Dean Dodrill, it’s even more impressive.

Trials Evolution(RedLynx | Xbox Live Arcade) – An exercise in physics-based frustration, Trials Evolution is every bit as brutal and rewarding as its predecessors. This time around, it’s filled with inspired and outrageous tracks as well as an engaging, asynchronous multiplayer system where you’re constantly competing against your friends.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive(Valve/Hidden Path Entertainment | Windows, OS X, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network) – Nothing like a fresh coat of paint and some much-needed rebalancing to breathe new life into one of the greatest competitive shooters ever made.

Mark of the Ninja(Klei Entertainment | Xbox Live Arcade, Windows) – Klei’s always had a flair for stylish art direction in its games, but Mark of the Ninja shows they’ve got the chops to combine it with top-notch gameplay as well.