It’s been an interesting GOTY exploration period for me. I didn’t play a lot released in 2015, and out of curiosity, I went back to look at my previous GOTY entries. It’s fascinating how much the lists from 2013 and 2014 would change if I wrote them today. The irony of drafting a Game of the Year list is that it can take a year to write the list properly. I can’t keep up with all of the games being released, and I certainly can’t afford to play them all, so my selection year-upon-year seems stays the same, at a handful of games released. 2013 was the last year that I had a decent selection to choose from, and even then, I didn’t get to Bioshock Infinite, Brothers, The Stanley Parable, or The Last of Us until much later in 2014/2015. I still haven’t played Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider, or Lego City Undercover. So, it’s quite possible that a lot of this list will change by this time next year.

I also haven’t played The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid V, Bloodborne, Splatoon, Tales from the Borderlands, Super Mario Maker, Dying Light, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, or Cities: Skylines.

Anyway, here goes.

Best indie game (smaller priced games that we loved (i.e. no more than $20):

Given our weak Canadian dollar, $20 CAD is $14 USD. I don’t know what games were priced around that price point, so I’m going to skip out on it and go with $20 USD as the benchmark.

As such, the clear winner is Axiom Verge*. It was designed and developed entirely by one person (Thomas Happ) and it is just a love story to Super Metroid. It’s not a perfect game, and certainly Happ invites comparison to Super Metroid, which will almost never work in his favour, but it’s a wonderful game of exploration, and the soundtrack is phenomenal.

*It’s the clear winner because I haven’t played some of the highly-touted indie games that are currently sitting in my Steam inventory, including Cibele, Her Story, and Life is Strange, and the incredibly-well touted Undertale is something I’ve yet to acquire. It’s possible that one of those could take over the top Indie spot here (though that would be difficult, because I really liked Axiom Verge)

Runner-up: Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald.  Yes, it’s short, but as a concept, it’s brilliant.

Best game that’s available through early access (games that are not quite finished but are fun so far):

lol early access

Most Interesting Gaming Moment:

I struggle to think of something that happened in a 2015 game that rivals moments like landing in Columbia in Bioshock Infinite, or the “big reveal” in The Last of Us or something like that. I think I need to abstain from this category, as no specific, non-esoteric moment stands out as being particularly interesting. There have been plenty of times in other games where I go “whoa, that was neat”, but nothing that really jumps out as being something I’d give an award to.

Maybe the inclusion of “mellow mode” in Yoshi’s Woolly World would count. In recent memory, Nintendo has opted towards a more user-friendly approach for their challenging platforming games by way of power-ups that make you invincible (Super Mario 3D Land/World), or guides that show you how to beat the level (Donkey Kong Country Returns/Tropical Freeze). In YWW, you can switch on the fly between regular mode and mellow mode, which gives you more health at checkpoints and lets you float indefinitely, which is VERY forgiving, as the tough part of YWW is the jumping. The game’s difficulty curve is pretty shallow – it’s quite an easy game – EXCEPT for when you try to find the power-ups, which can be a nightmare. The ability to float lets you experiment, lets you not worry about having to bounce off enemies to make it over certain gaps, etc.

There’s always sort of a “you CAN do this, but you’re not as good for doing it” sentiment around Nintendo’s other helper tactics, but this one feels like it was just there to be used by anyone. It feels less judgmental.

Clearly I am easily intrigued.

Best Character:

I should probably abstain from this category, given that I mostly played character-light stuff, with the story-heavy character-heavy stuff like King’s Quest, Her Story and Life is Strange still to come in 2016. It’s difficult to pick any of the characters from the games I played because they’re mostly shallow vessels, but if you put a gun to my head and made me pick, I guess it would be a tie between Elsinova from Axiom Verge, with whom you have a handful of interactions throughout the game, and The Narrator from Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald, who is omnipresent, but that game is only about 20 minutes long, so it doesn’t seem particularly wise to pick that, in much the same way that I wouldn’t pick a chocolate bar I grabbed on my way home from work as the best meal I ate that year.  It was a good chocolate bar, but let’s be realistic here.

Best Art Style/Graphics/Prettiest/Nicest Looking:

Unquestionably, my pick is Yoshi’s Woolly World. The dedication to the theme is incredible. I have not yet encountered a single instance of the world not being crafted by fabric, and I’ve been paying a lot of attention. It’s bright and colourful and fresh (yes, I know about Kirby’s Epic Yarn), and attention to detail is phenomenal. Ground was broken in 1995 when Yoshi’s Island went full-on pastel, so it’s nice to see them continuing the theme of originality, or at least difference.

Runner-up: Star Wars: Battlefront.  That game is very pretty.

Funniest Gaming Moment:

Abstaining. Nothing I played was particularly funny, and I haven’t played the games with funny emergent moments, like Rocket League.

Game I want to see a sequel to:

This is a tough choice. I think the beauty of Yoshi’s Woolly World is that it ISN’T annualized and that they haven’t pumped that well dry. By taking such time between Yoshi releases, they can mine the depths of creativity for new methods of expression. The idea that they could come up with another fascinating art style is amazing to me. Maybe a hand-drawn approach, like the upcoming Cuphead, or a scribbled approach, like the video for Take On Me by A-ha.

So, by default, I suppose I’ll say Axiom Verge. There are more things that can be done with that world/environment, and provided they dial it in as appropriate and don’t just rest on their laurels, I think that an equally fascinating game could be created, along the lines of Metroid Prime 1 and Metroid Prime Echoes (not to suggest that 3D is the right path – just that it’s possible to follow up an amazing game with one that is also compelling).

Game I never want to see again:

I fortunately didn’t play anything that I hated to the point that I want it banished.

Best Audio:

Star Wars: Battlefront wins this in a very big way. DICE is top of the pops regarding video game sound, and Battlefront is no exception. The sound in a Star Wars property is as integral to that property as the visuals. So many sounds that we would consider conventional (weapon fire, items, music) are unique to the Star Wars universe, and for DICE to capture it the way that they did is terrific.  If you close your eyes while playing, you’ll swear you’re in The Force Awakens.  You will also die, but that’s neither here nor there.

Runner-up: Axiom Verge. The soundtrack is absolutely incredible. It really did capture a lot of the conventional Metroid stereotypes, and that’s a good thing. Tom Happ mentioned in a Q&A that he sampled some Hindi language singing in one of the songs, and it just works so well because it isn’t overused.  I’ll just sit at my desk and listen to the soundtrack.  

Biggest disappointment:

It pains me to say it, but The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3DS. I had never played it during its heyday, so I only got the opportunity to give it a crack once it was re-released. It’s quite possible/likely that I didn’t enjoy it simply because I was suffering from Zelda fatigue, but try as I might, I just couldn’t engage with this game. The omnipresent timer added a theoretical level of stress that removed enjoyment from the game, and the typical Zelda tropes just wore extremely thin. I had such little patience for this game that it’s possible that I didn’t give a fair shake, but my life is replete with Zelda titles – I don’t know to what extent I need another, and that makes me feel sad for the upcoming Zelda U. I still want to play it, but I’m not as anxious for it as I think some others are.

Biggest surprise (in games in general or a specific game):

I think my biggest surprise this year was the popularity (not quality) of The Witcher 3. I didn’t play it as CD Projekt Red has heavily advised that my sad laptop can’t handle it, but I expected it to be a title that was well-received, but didn’t dominate gaming media cycles. the way that something like Grand Theft Auto V did. And yet, it absolutely crushed the media attention received by other big titles like Star Wars: Battlefront, Fallout 4, or Metal Gear Solid V. About the title in 2015 that got as much attention as this was Destiny, and a not-insignificant amount of that attention was bad.

Game I’m most looking forward to in 2016:

2016 is an absolute embarrassment of riches. It’s unbelievable how many substantial games are coming out this year. My top pick is Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but I’d be lying if I said that it was a runaway victory, given these runners up, which are substantial enough to not be included as an italicized afterthought:

– Mass Effect: Andromeda
– The Legend of Zelda for Wii U, which is a terrible working title, so I’m calling it The Legend of Zelda: Liquid Swords
– Firewatch
– Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

And then there’s the list of games that I’m excited to see released but not necessarily going to buy:

– Tom Clancy’s The Division
– Cuphead
– Quantum Break

I always said that I’d jump on a current-generation console when there are five games that I really want to play that are confirmed to run better on the console than on my laptop, and we are dangerously close to that, especially if it turns out that I like Tomb Raider and really want to play Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Best co-op game:

This one depends entirely on my mood, but I have more of an investment in Helldivers than any other co-op game right now. It’s a top-down shoot-em-up developed by Arrowhead Studios, the team behind Magicka. You engage in missions, either solo or cooperatively, which are objective-based. You then evacuate by calling a shuttle and waiting it to arrive while the horde attacks. The final sequence of each mission has a very Left 4 Dead appeal to it.

Your character upgrades as you progress, and you unlock new weapons, items, and power-ups accordingly. Very conventional progression to the game.

It’s very easy for me to forget that this game exists because I don’t play it except with a few specific people. It’s not going to win any Game of the Year awards for me, but it is fun enough to be included here.

Runner-up, and it’s a close one: Star Wars: Battlefront

Best multi-player game:

See above, for basically the same reason.

Most addictive game:

I found that of all the games that I played in 2015, the one that I was most addicted to was Axiom Verge. I played and beat it over the course of about three days. I’m a little embarrassed by how much I played it in a short span – I came home from work, took off my shoes and played until about 1:00am. It’s a game that didn’t frustrate me as I was playing it and when I failed at a task, it was easy for me to get back into it and try again. It didn’t feel like a chore; it’s been less than three weeks and I could probably start the game up again and play it through. The whole “gotta replay it right away” thing hasn’t happened to me in a very long time.

My dirty little secret game (which game were you most ashamed of liking?):

I suppose that Helldivers has to be that game, as I constantly talk about how much I hate multiplayer games, and yet here I am, with more hours in Helldivers than a lot of other games. But it does adhere to my rule – I only play with people I can punch in real life.  And even if I do play with random internet strangers, it’s at least a cooperative game.

Best handheld / mobile game

Most of the handheld games that I played in 2015 that are worth discussing here were released earlier. The best one that I played this year was Steamworld Dig from 2013, but that wasn’t even the best handheld game I played that year (that honour goes to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds). I played a short amount of Lara Croft GO and I think that that needs to take the top honour. Last year, my pick for this category was Hitman GO, so I guess that Square Enix really knows what they’re doing in this regard!

Runner-up: Puzzles and Dragons Z for 3DS. It’s a fascinating RPG with match-3 combat elements. Weird, but strangely compelling!

The 3rd Annual Wall Punch Award (which game made you so frustrated that you wanted to throw a controller or punch a hole in a wall?):

This one has to go to Axiom Verge. While I was never at risk of damaging my drywall, there were a few moments in this game that drove me absolutely crazy. There are times in the game where it’s not entirely clear that you were supposed to progress in the manner that you did. That gets frustrating later on when you see areas that you can’t reach by regular jumping or movement, and it makes you wonder if you can actually get up there at this point or not.

Axiom Verge is an incredible game, but by creating such an homage to Super Metroid, Tom Happ is also inviting criticism for not being as good as Super Metroid. I don’t want to sound harsh because I did really like the game, but it is rough around the edges and does not flow anywhere near as well as Super Metroid, which is the gold standard not only for this type of game, but all games in general.

Trying to get the second injector power-up in Edin took a lot longer than I wanted it to. Movement wasn’t fluid and it felt almost like I was glitching the game. “Glitching” is a very strong theme in AV, but not being able to tell when you’re doing something right and doing something because you’ve played the game in a way it wasn’t meant to be played is not good game design.

Best Game I played this year (can be a game released from any year, but that you played this year):

A bumper crop this year. I’m looking at the list of games I played for the first time this year that I could consider the “best game I played*”, and there’s some meat to it:

– Yoshi’s Woolly World
– The Last of Us
– Axiom Verge
– Child of Light (a contender for GOTY 2014)
– South Park: The Stick of Truth (also a contender for GOTY 2014)
– Steamworld Dig
– Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Director’s Cut: Colon**

*”Best game I played for the first time”, because I replayed some killer stuff this year, and it seems unfair to include that in this list.

**I’m pretty sure that this one doesn’t count, as the original version already won my GOTY 2011. I just wanted to say how much I really loved this one, and if you have the opportunity to play it on the Wii U, you should – it’s the definitive version of the game.

Anyway, one of those in that list is not like the others. The best game that I played (for the first time) in 2015 was hands-down The Last of Us. All of the other games on that list were very good, but The Last of Us is one of the defining games of the entire generation. The list of things that The Last of Us got right is a) very long, and b) already documented pretty much everywhere on the internet. It was emotionally exhausting in the best way, and I am happy that I was finally able to experience it.

Best 2015 Game:

As I’m sure you have guessed, this one boils down to two games: Yoshi’s Woolly World and Axiom Verge. It’s a very tough choice because they both hit different spots in my gaming persona. The puzzles in Yoshi’s Woolly World are usually pretty simplistic, so solving them isn’t hugely satisfying. Meanwhile, the puzzles in Axiom Verge are often so damn obscure that while solving them is rewarding, there’s a significant undertone of frustration for the existence of the puzzle in the first place.

Emotionally speaking, Yoshi’s Woolly World runs at a consistent 85% for me. There’s room for improvement, but I’m very satisfied with what I got. Axiom Verge hits the high-90s – it really drew me in and always gave me a reason to come back. That said, it wobbles in places. The highs are terrific, but the lows are frustrating*. With Yoshi’s Woolly World, I know what I’m going to get. There are surprises here and there, but they’re pretty superficial. I know that when I play that game, I will be happy and satisfied. I will likely not be shocked or taken aback by anything, but that’s OK – not every game needs to be everything to all people.

*I know that I used this exact same description for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s lazy writing and I get it, but it’s still an apt description.

Axiom Verge is a great game, but its main drawback was that it felt inconsistent. When you want to make a game the effectively apes another game, especially one that is as highly-regarded as Super Metroid, you’d better make sure you’re hitting all of the same notes, because if you don’t, it will be noticeable. Axiom Verge didn’t, and it suffered (a little bit) for it. I would have no trouble recommending it to anyone who enjoys Metroidvania-type games. I loved it and will absolutely play it again. At 10 hours, it was the right length for me, and I’ll probably spend less time in it next time as there were a few points where I spent lots of time just wandering. But sadly, its shortfalls were just enough to knock it out of the top spot.

So, bearing in mind the list of games that I haven’t played this year, my Game of the Year for 2015 is Yoshi’s Woolly World.

Runner-up: Axiom Verge.