By Ian Boone. The end of 2014 may have came and went, but the fiscal year of 2014 goes right on ahead until the end of January. This month is generally a cold, empty void for new video game releases, aside from oddball indies and the perennial Dragonball grift. There are beans being counted by top men, and reports are being made to surrender to shareholders eager to know whether they ought to dump or crow.

Now sober since the intoxicating rush of Q4’s releases, I have finally found the time in which to tabulate just how many grunts I gave for last year’s gaming offerings, and for which games I gave the most grunts to. It was a year of standout franchise updates and mostly decent enhanced ports. But it was also a year of bitter, grimy disappointments.

Since awards get doled out so dubiously, I figured it was time to throw mine into the mix. These awards are based on nothing but my own sage opinion, which you’re totally entitled to disagree with, even if you are utterly wrong in doing so. I’ve broken things up by genres, and I’ll throw in my runner-ups for consideration because they are all equally worthy of play or mention.

(If my list seems sparse with PC titles, it is because I currently lack a Windows rig to play on. If someone wants to send me a tower to review, I’d whinny like a unicorn with glee.)

And now, without further disclaimer, I give you the LOAD FILE Choice Awards: 

FIGHTING

SUPER SMASH BROS (Nintendo 3DS consoles and Wii U)

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This is by far the most fun I’ve had in being thrashed by a fighter in a long time. A vast roster of Nintendo’s all-star characters (and some new guests like Pac-Man and Mega Man) can be your chosen avatar of destruction and despair. Pick a level inspired by Nintendo history and clobber the crap out of your friends or computer opponents. Simple fun fan-service on the surface hides a hidden jungle of character nuance and gameplay to master, containing combos, recovery denials, and evasion timing. It’s the details that kill you, but the fun keeps you coming back.

HONORABLE MENTION:

NIDHOGG (PC, PS4, and PS Vita consoles)

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Oh Nidhogg, how I want to set the world on fire and choose you first. A 2D sidescroller that looks like it was hewn straight out of an Atari-inspired nightmare pits players in a fencing duel to gain ground. Once thine adversary is dispatched in gory manner, advance onwards… but beware! Respawns are infinite, so there’ll almost always be a foil in your face. Press through enough rooms and be sacrificed to the serpent Nidhogg. Easy to play, difficult to master, and as addicting/enraging as bath salts.

STRATEGY

HEARTHSTONE: HEROES OF WARCRAFT for PC, Mac OS, Android

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This was obviously a calculated effort by Blizzard to play on my past addictions of World of Warcraft and collectible card games. I was so sure I would end in ruin, wallet flushed into a free-to-play (just like every Riot Point junkie I’ve ever snickered over). What I actually found was a manageable and engaging title that spun my notion of what card games could be in a virtual space. Complicated effects and gameplay outcomes – that aren’t possible with a physical collectible card game – make Hearthstone unique. So many other CCG’s just adapt directly to a video game without taking advantage of what is possible in electronic gaming. Almost any card can be crafted or won from random packs, so a single dime doesn’t have to be spent on building up a collection. It’s a classic struggle to control the board with your cards while denying your opponent any of theirs, and a great tutorial in gameplay fundamentals to follow.

HONORABLE MENTION:

THE BANNER SAGA  (PC, Mac OS)

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Beautiful Nordic-inspired visual style and character design bring this turn-based game of small-scale battle to life. Mechanics are easy to understand, and units will upgrade and grow stronger while the tactical side of things set in. There’s a free-to-play multiplayer version to try out, and the single player campaign is the first part of a projected trilogy. 

HORROR

ALIEN: ISOLATION (Xbox 360, XBox, PS3, PS4, PC)

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It should be no surprise that the first video game to effectively convey Ridley Scott’s vision in Alien is the best horror game of the year. Minimally armed, alone, and unable to trust anyone, the player must outwit and survive a xenomorph that’s murdering anything with a pulse. The sound and authenticity is perfect, and close calls with the xeno will leave one’s pulse almost impossible to slow down.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

P.T. (XBox, PS4

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A bonafide mystery for a few hours after it appeared online, P.T. turned out to be a playable teaser for a new Silent Hill game coming from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro (hence, “Playable Trailer”). P.T. unnerves by building an increasingly disturbed repetition and then shattering all expectations when unexpected.

FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S for PC

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Five Nights at Freddy’s has the player starting a new job as night watchman at a pizzeria…but the place is watching back. Survive till payday by managing your attention and the power levels of the facility, and maybe some of the creepier underlying story might start to sink in.

ACTION

HYRULE WARRIORS (Wii U)

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I had reservations going into this game despite my love for both the Legend of Zelda and Dynasty Warriors elements of the game. Nintendo doesn’t always get the best results back when handing beloved franchises to outside help (like Ninja Theory’s bungling with Metroid: Other M), but Hyrule Warriors has great fusion, giving us enemy hordes and battlefield action while we fight it out as Link, Zelda, Ganondorf, and many others.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

SHADOWS OF MORDOR (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC)

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The breathing, reactive nightmare land of Mordor and its terrible residents are yours to slog through in this open-world original story set between The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. (Borrowing a lot of the gameplay from the solid Batman: Arkham series didn’t hurt.)

DIABLO III: REAPER OF SOULS ULTIMATE EVIL EDITION (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4)

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Okay, I may just have a soft spot for Blizzard titles. But that doesn’t stop this latest version of Diablo III from being one of the best couch co-op games ever made. It plays better than ever with a controller, and the challenge and loot gets ever shinier.

ROLEPLAYING

BRAVELY DEFAULT (Nintendo 3DS)

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I’ve long considered the innovation behind Japanese role-playing games to have run dry, but Bravely Default soundly proves there’s some new ideas still going around. Four adventurers are united to restore balance and prevent a war, and along the way they assume dozens of different job classes and slay countless foes. Just when things begin to gel into a mindless, grinding state, Bravely Default hits hard with deep subject matter, chief of which is child slavery. Fans of classic strategic combat like Final Fantasy will feel right at home, but options like being able to gamble your upcoming turns in order to take extra attacks immediately spice things up.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC)

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Dragon Age: Inquisition gives its player the ultimate fantasy head-rush, bringing them from a maligned, generally mistrusted prisoner to the shrewd, respected head of a powerful military coalition in mere hours. Select your allies and quest forth to shut down some mad schemes and restore order. Bioware has repented for Dragon Age 2, and I, for one, accept.

SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC)

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone made the game they always wanted, and the one we always needed. Navigate South Park as “the new kid” and get caught in the insanity of a live action role play that is presently enveloping the whole town. The swords and armor may be cardboard, but the farts are totally real. 

SURVIVAL

DON’T STARVE (PS4, PS Vita consoles, PC)

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Few games can torture as cruelly as Don’t Starve. (My first death came by insects, my latest from overwhelming night terrors.) Players control a character who is trapped in a totally foreign and very hostile dimension with the only objective seeming to be to stave off a certain end as long as possible. Each death costs you all your progress but with each death comes a better understanding: you find a superior way to construct walls, or prepare more adequately for winter by making clothing. The paper cutout style looks whimsical and creepy at the same time, and the macabre charm stems from the music and sound as well. Not a title for those who question their sanity, or the fairness of a giant tree man appearing from out of a grove to attack the player who is blissfully gathering firewood.

SHOOTER

TITANFALL (Xbox 360, Xbox, PC)

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At times, even I can fail to understand general player reception to a title. Titanfall won my choice for the Shooter of 2014 because it strove to deliver an action-packed multiplayer game while addressing a lot of balance issues and complaints about the normative experience… and it succeeded. Play as an agile Pilot while on foot and enjoy normal first-person shooter action with a parkour twist. Periodically you may be able to hop into a Titan that – yup – fell from orbit in order to light up the enemy. Guns, mechs, parkour, and more brought the boys to the yard initially, but they’ve dispersed over time to other pursuits. But many timely updates and new modes have been added, which might make Titanfall some kind of reverse sleeper hit.

HONORABLE MENTION:

WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC)

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Wolfenstein is an old name that gets dredged out of the primordial ooze of gaming to periodically shill some pale replica pretty often, but this entry feels like a great fit to the legacy. The Nazis won in an alternate timeline, and BJ Blascowitz can’t handle all the goose-stepping going on. Brutal and beautiful, Wolfenstein: The New Order is worth the play. 

PUZZLE

OCTODAD: DADLIEST CATCH (PS4, PS Vita consoles, PC, Mac OS)

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Here’s Octodad, an octopus just trying to get by as an undercover human, as both a husband and a father. His mechanic is his disability as an invertebrate; moving him takes constant care in working and straining his floppy tentacles. The most mundane activities become physics puzzles with such a ridiculous control scheme, but the game’s quirky humor and story make sure that nothing stays mundane for long.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

VALIANT HEARTS (Xbox 360, Xbox, PS3, PS4, PC, iOS, Android)

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Ubisoft gave us something rare in this moving World War 1 story. Clever puzzle design and superb narrative make this a memorable title from 2014.

HOHOKUM (PS3, PS4, PS Vita consoles)

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Hohokum is a vibrant, beautiful enigma. The game’s spirit is in embracing play and exploration. The entire soundtrack is from Ghostly International artists, and accompanies the varying surreal art styles encountered in world to world very well. Ride the neon worm!

PLATFORMER

RAYMAN LEGENDS (PS4, Xbox)

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I’ve never trucked with Rayman games before, but feeling a yearning for something like New Super Mario Bros led me to give Rayman Legends a try, and I prefer it now hands down. Level design? Gorgeous. Music? Infectious. The action is challenging and fun in a way that many platformers seem to have forgotten about. (Alert: Not everyone seeks 2D platformers because they want ball-crushing difficulty.) 4 player co-op, hidden characters, and unlockable levels all add up to a delicious smorgasbord of diversion.

HONORABLE MENTION:

DONKEY KONG COUNTRY: TROPICAL FREEZE (Wii U)

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Nintendo kept coming with the hits this year. A whole new game featuring the venerable Cranky Kong as a new character choice, it keeps the high difficulty of Donkey Kong Country Returns without the horrible, mandatory motion controls. Beautiful in almost every detail, this will remind even the most jaded gaming curmudgeon why we play the way we do.

RACING

MARIO KART 8 (Wii U)

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Mario Kart has muscled up in a great way. Gravity-defying tracks have vehicles coasting on magnetic pads. Everything is dripping in Wii U’s high-definition detail. I waffled on my decision for this for so long for no reason other than my hesitance that I would put a Mario Kart over *ahem* more serious racers like last year’s Drive Club and The Crew, but Mario Kart 8 offers everything we would want in a racing game: speed, thrills, good controls, and local multiplayer. The last seems to be missed the most, as the common racing game seems obsessed with building virtual careers for all of us. Mario Kart isn’t trying to build a race team for you or make you obsess over fake cars you don’t really own; it’s trying to get you to take an outing with your friends and actually live some.

So that’s how I’ve called it. A great year for anyone named Nintendo, and more or less pretty bland for everybody else. 2015 is slated for plenty of hot racks full of new releases, so keep coming back for further dissection and dissertation on DoomRocket. Just click LOAD FILE.

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