Gamasutra's Best of 2014: Christian Nutt's Top 5 Games

A surprising year for Gamasutra editor Christian Nutt, who ended up loving games he wasn't even anticipating -- all smaller in scope but better in execution than the big guys' titles.
For me, 2014 was a year of unanticipated pleasures. The games I ended up enjoying the most were not the ones I went into the year expecting to love, or even expecting at all. But what really hit home to me is that video gaming is now such a broad church that we now essentially travel in entirely parallel worlds based on what we like. I know I'm not the only one, because it's reflected in every conversation about games that I'm having lately -- and, of course, in the very nature of these lists. That's why we each get one. If there's any one theme running through my list, it's probably that it's a collection of deceptively simple-looking games; they can appear on the surface to be quite basic but show a tremendous attention to detail and craftsmanship that truly sets them apart. In random order:

Fantasy Life by Level-5

Some games seem born in a flash of inspiration. Others are a product of exacting craft. Fantasy Life is definitely one of the latter. The game is a perfectly tuned pocket-sized world that offers tremendous opportunities for exploration and interaction. Over the 15 years since EverQuest launched, I've considered playing this or that MMO, but never succumbed. Fantasy Life is the perfect game for someone who wants a taste of that, but without the intense commitment.
The game works as well in long stints as small doses, and is as enjoyable in single-player as it is in online or local co-op. It's a flexible game set in a vibrant, appealing little world that begs to be explored. It also caters to players who don't have the time or the inclination to devote themselves to one optimal progression path. You can mix and match your tasks and find your own way -- one that's based not on min-maxing but instead on the natural progression you choose simply because it seems interesting. Underneath an unassuming guise lies an ambitious heart -- a game developed with resolute attention to letting the player make their in-game life their own, and that's what won me over. It's the game I'd been hoping for the last decade that Level-5, whose RPGs so often suffer from a crippling lack of focus, would make -- it turns that scattershot approach into a strength.

Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games

Shovel Knight isn't just a love letter to the NES; it's a complete deconstruction and rebirth of the design elements that made so many of the games on the system enduring classics. It's a brand new book written in an ancient tongue.
What makes this game is special is that Yacht Club Games is truly fluent in that language. The developers carefully considered the lessons the old games taught; if the initial thesis statement was that "NES games are still fun" then this game is sound proof. There's a difference between aping what has come before and creating something new. This is a living tribute that succeeds with its own vitality.

TowerFall: Ascension by Matt Makes Games

My multiplayer game of the year didn't turn out to be Super Smash Bros. Don't get me wrong; it's incredibly good. But Towerfall: Ascension is the reason I now own four DualShock 4 controllers, and as I look back on the matches I played this spring, they're my favorite video game memories of the year.
Everything came together with TowerFall: Ascension. From the graphics and the music to the theme and the gameplay, it's all of a piece; but what really makes it stand out is the polish that was fastidiously applied, the careful tuning that turns it from an also-ran indie game to a Bomberman-caliber classic that made inviting friends to my house on weekends a necessity instead of a nice idea. This game reminded me that there are forms of interaction we musn't lose as technology moves forward; but it just as clearly reminds us all that details are everything, and getting a game's feel just right is top priority.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker by Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Talk about surprising -- where did this come from? Nintendo has a reputation for craftsmanship, but this game lays bare all the tools in its toolbox (or is that all the toys in its toybox?) Playing it is like a peek behind the curtain. What started as a mini-game mode in last year's Super Mario 3D World has grown into a game of its own, and the result is as charming and compelling as it gets. If you like puzzles and toys, this game should be at the top of your want-list.
Each level is a miniature world with its own identity, purpose, and play-style -- a universe of handmade challenges. It's a testament to carefully creating every level, and the approach of fully exploring an array of simple ideas. All this is presented with no goal other than to entertain the player. Charm is something our industry doesn't excel at, these days, and charm is something this game exudes -- charm with a purpose. [For more on Captain Toad, read my blog on its design.]

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc by Spike Chunsoft

The absolute dark horse of the list and my undeniable favorite, too. The visual novel genre is starting to get a little respect in the West, and the two Danganronpa games that NIS America put out this year deserve to be a big part of why: They're fresh, surprising, and inventive even as they cling to the sorts of long, linear stories that so many game designers say the medium would be better off without. The series got its start when the developers at Spike Chunsoft considered how a once-popular but now moribund genre could be refreshed; turns out you can do it through a mixture of clever writing and unexpected gameplay ideas.
Putting a bunch of characters into a closed environment and watching them kill each other off is not at all an original way to build a mystery story. Danganronpa, then, is made fresh by its approach to characterization and its writer's willingness to go absolutely anywhere and do anything. The trick is that the game manages to stay on the rails while doing it. Kazutaka Kodaka, the game's scenarist, managed it by breadcrumbing revelations through the entire game. The fact that Danganronpa is so stylized and atypical (look at those characters, that setting) yet so understandable and relatable is an incredibly neat trick. Runners-up: The underappreciated Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze proved that Retro has mastered the series and that there's plenty of gas in the tank; I have yet to sink my teeth into Bayonetta 2 but what I have seen is too good to ignore; Azure Striker Gunvolt was Inti Creates' bold step away from Mega Man franchise yet it still capitalized on all those years of expertise; Super Smash Bros. for 3DS was astoundingly good for a portable game, and the Wii U edition was polished to perfection; Suikoden II is the best game on this entire list, but it's 15 years old, and its rerelease on PlayStation Network probably doesn't qualify it for a full write-up. Don't miss it. Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield's list here, editor Alex Wawro's list here, UK editor Phill Cameron's here and editor-at-large Leigh Alexander's here.

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