Backlog: Game of the Year Is Near Edition

A scene from 2012's Sasquatch GOTY Awards | courtesy ImagineCup

A scene from 2012's Sasquatch GOTY Awards | courtesy ImagineCup

The 5th Annual Silicon Sasquatch Game of the Year Awards are nigh! This week Doug and Nick join me to elaborate on our last-ditch efforts to finish (or at least get past the first level of) 2013's myriad releases. It's difficult to play every great game before deciding which ones are the best.

We'll have more information on our GOTY schedule next week, but familiar readers can expect our normal 1-10 rankings alongside our individual "honorable mentions." New to 2013 is a mega-podcast which will capture, for the very first time in our history, the arduous decision process that's now become a tradition over Skype. That will be posted in January once the dust has settled, and our wounds have healed.

Find out what's been going on this week after the break!  — Aaron Thayer

Aaron

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December is here, believe it or not. My second-favorite time of the year, winter provides incessantly poor weather, which leads to a lot of time indoors spent on reflection as a new year approaches. I like that about this month. It forces retrospection on you.

Another constant of December is our Game of the Year awards ceremony. This year marks our fifth ever. Wow.

By next Sunday we'll have made our decisions for the 10 best software releases of 2013. Transparency is a virtue of mine, yet not something we've emphasized during the awards. To change things up, and to happily demystify the process, here are our agreed-upon stipulations before the group deliberates:

  • Compilation releases or HD remakes aren't valid entries.
  • The same applies to "episodic" content, unless it ends in the considered year. (Sorry, The Walking Dead: Season 2 -- better luck in 2014?)
  • At least one staff member has to have completed the majority of the game to justify its inclusion.
  • Full disclosure: No one on-staff owns or will own an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 by the time of our tribunal. That means no next-gen exclusives will be on the table. Perhaps unfair, but the critical masses seem to indicate that games like Ryse: Son of Rome and Knack aren't exactly system sellers. If Sony or Microsoft are willing to rectify our lack of new consoles at Sasquatch HQ, you can reach us me at my staff email.
  • Zelda games always win.

I'm only half-joking about the Zelda thing. In 2011 I caught some legendary flak when, thanks to my silver tongue, I pushed Skyward Sword to a #2 spot -- a game I hadn't finished before voting. Sadly we've never recorded our abusive, hours-long deliberation session. Not until this year, that is.

Yes, as mentioned before the break we decided to record the entire dramatic bout of verbal pugilism, which includes insults, name-calling and a lot of curse words. It's all in good fun, but the fact is shit gets real during these things.

Just ask Nick about Minecraft sometime.

Nick

That Tektite just doesn’t know what to believe anymore

That Tektite just doesn’t know what to believe anymore

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With our Game of the Year feature just a few days out from now, you'd think I'd be laser-focused on playing through the games I'd overlooked earlier in the year that might be major contenders for top honors — games like Shadowrun Returns; Tearaway; Papers, Please; and Device 6, to name a few.

Instead, I keep sinking all my time into a game that I'm fiendishly attached to: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I grew up cutting my teeth on the original NES Zelda games and have played through A Link to the Past at least four or five times by now, so it's probably not surprising to hear that old-school, top-down Zelda is pretty much my jam.

I've had my ups and downs the previous touch-screen Zelda games on the original Nintendo DS, so I wasn't sure what exactly to expect with the series' first outing on the 3DS. Fortunately, the gameplay here is strictly traditional with no touchscreen combat whatsoever. Instead, you've got what feels like the tightest, best-controlling and most-refined game the series has seen since...well, A Link to the Past. Toss in some brilliant dungeon designs, a wonderfully expressive art and animation style and one of the richest musical scores the series has ever seen and you've got an absolutely essential game on your hands — one that's certain to be a high-water mark in the series for years to come.

Anyway, now that I'm just hours away from reaching 100% completion, I can say with certainty that A Link Between Worlds was the most fun I've had with a game all year. The closest runner-up in that regard, incidentally, would have to be Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo's other top-flight release from a few weeks ago.

And when I'm not grinding my way through A Link Between Worlds' endgame, I'm spending a good deal of time on the high seas with Captain Kenway's fleet in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. I'm at about the halfway point in the game, with six of the game's 13 sequences down, and I'm finding myself in a weird position.

As a fan of what this series is capable of and a die-hard defender of the original game's ambition, it's wonderful to see this series is back on track after two significant missteps in Assassin's Creed Revelations and Assassin's Creed III. The game's clunky, slow, tutorial-laden interface has been stripped down and designed to give the player a strong sense of freedom within the first five minutes. Exploration on the high seas feels rich, deep and rewarding in a way that the nautical missions of the previous game failed to deliver, and the process behind upgrading your flagship, the Jackdaw, is a surprisingly gratifying and well-paced one. It's hard to say where they're going with the plot at this point, but after a short cameo sequence with some familiar faces in the modern-day era I'll admit I'm eager to see this thing through to the end.

As a critic, however, things get murkier. This is a series that attempted to push gameplay forward in a way that wasn't possible on earlier consoles. Before InFamous, Uncharted and countless other series brought their traversal systems to the mainstream, 2007's Assassin's Creed delivered an intuitive and technically impressive free-running system in a richly realized open-world setting. That, along with the series' painstaking attention to historical detail, drew me in like few games ever have.

Unfortunately, it's been a mixed bag ever since then. As great as the advancements were between the first and second games, the series was padded out with a couple of unnecessary sequels within Ezio's storyline before culminating in the overwrought, inextricably dull mess that Assassin's Creed III wound up being.

So if Assassin's Creed IV successfully strips a lot of the excess away from the series' enduring formula and enables the fun of the core gameplay to shine through like it used to, is that something worth celebrating on its own? With ACIV, Ubisoft has righted the ship and set the series back on the path to greatness — but there's a long and difficult journey ahead of the crew to reach the next great milestone.

Doug

Not pictured: About a billion elementary school-aged Japanese children

Not pictured: About a billion elementary school-aged Japanese children

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Gaming has taken a bit of a backseat to other real-life issues the last few weeks. But in that time my companion has remained Pokémon Y. I can't believe I'm a 28-year-old man putting so much time and mind into a game designed for little kids; I can't believe I was able to visit the Pokémon Center in nearby Fukuoka, too. At the same time, given just how much fun the game is, the argument makes itself. Who can argue against fun?

That really seems to be a good question. At a time and in a generation where so many of the other marquee games are so serious -- warfare, crime, zombie apocalypses, steampunk jingoism -- it's nice to kick back and enjoy something that is so lite. That's not to say it's airy and missing any gravity; Pokémon Y remains a coming-of-age story above all. But it's not worried about life-and-death, simply the bond between you and your cute caged monsters. The other two main arms of Nintendo's Christmas attack -- The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario 3D World -- are just as focused on accessible fun. Hell, Super Mario 3D World's new gimmick is dressing Mario up in a quite-functional nyan-tastic cat suit. A CAT SUIT! I'm not planning on getting a Wii U soon but the new Mario and TheLegend of Zelda: The Wind Waker remake make an awfully good argument for the system. The games are arriving; hopefully the system won't die out before it's viable.

Because I have a Japanese 3DS, I have to wait for A Link Between Worlds. It's the rare case where a Japanese game comes out in America before it's released in Japan. I've never been a Zelda superfan -- I avoided catching that particular illness in my childhood -- and while I've spent time with A Link to the Past I've never finished one proper. But all the noise about A Link Between Worlds makes it sound like a worthwhile investment soon. Maybe after I track down a cheap copy of last year's Super Mario 3D Land, but soon enough.