And so 2017 starts to disappear into the past like a ship sailing off towards the horizon. It has been, I think it’s fair to say, an amazing year to be a fan of video games, with arguably some of the greatest titles ever made gracing us over the last twelve months. Filled as I am with a sense of recent nostalgia, I have decided to provide a list of my top five favourite games of the last year. These are all titles that I have played and been released since the start of 2017 though please bear in mind that whilst in most cases I own all of the big games of this year, the number that I’ve actually played is much lower due to life and so forth.
So, without further rambling, and in customary reverse order…
5: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
Okay, I realise this is a little bit of a cheat because this is really just a repackaged version of the Wii U game that came out a few years ago, but still, very few titles bring the sheer sense of enjoyment with that Mario Kart evokes. MK8 is, in many ways, emblematic of the modern Nintendo of the last few years, showing that they’ve finally embraced the more hardcore fans who, let’s face it, are about the only ones who bought the Wii U (I’m including myself here), whilst also continuing to make everything utterly accessible. Mario Kart has always been great, and MK8 is the best of them so far. The Deluxe version improves on the original by adding some much-needed proper battle modes, and allowing for two power-ups to be held at once, which adds an extra level of strategy to the game. Plus, the fact that it’s on the Switch means that you can take it wherever you like, which, you know, is a good thing.
4: Mass Effect: Andromeda
I really never understood the hate this got from some people. Sure, at launch some of the character faces were in equal parts ridiculous and terrifying, and, yes, there were an awful lot of Dragon Age Inquisition-esque quests that involved me just flying around to various places checking off lists of items, but ME:A was great. I’ve loved the combat in the ME games since the second instalment, and this is the best it has ever been. The story, though is does take a little while to get started, is deep and involving. So much so, in fact, that it seems such a shame that in all likelihood we’ll never get to see a straight sequel (in game form, at least), and that we will never get to return to the Andromeda galaxy and uncover more of it.
3: Horizon Zero Dawn
I wasn’t expecting this to be any good. I’ve played a couple of the Killzone games that Guerrilla Games were previously known for and, whilst they were technically impressive, they left a lot to be desired i
n terms of fun. As such, whilst I knew Horizon would be pretty, I wasn’t convinced it would actually be any good. How wrong I was.
A distillation of concepts and mechanics from other titles, refined, honed and coupled with a marvellously-well-realised setting featuring a fantastic lead character, Horizon is a masterpiece. Combat is deep, exploration is fun, and the storyline compelling. It is, in short, very difficult to find anything to dislike about this. In any other year, this would probably have come top of the list, but, well…
2: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
What is there to say about Breath of the Wild that hasn’t already been said? I’m not quite convinced that it is the best game of all time, as some have claimed, but it’s pretty damned close. A reinvention of the Zelda formula, taking it more towards the Western RPG form, Breath of the Wild is a masterclass in how to design an open-world title. Not having a great deal of patience, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to a world without markers and points of interest, but I had not reckoned on BotW‘s ability to draw you in, to make it seem as if there is something around every corner just waiting to be discovered. Sure, if you distil it down to its constituent components it seems remarkably light-weight, but the way it has been combined makes it marvellous.
I’m about 60 hours into the game and I’ve still to uncover a good quarter of the map, or complete the main quest-line. The fact that, at this point, I don’t want it to end speaks volumes. What a game.
1: Super Mario Odyssey
I don’t think I’ve been as excited about the release of a game as I was for Super Mario Odyssey in years. It did not disappoint. Pretty much every mainline Mario game (yes, even Sunshine) is a masterpiece, but Odyssey manages to out-do most of them. This really is something that you need to play to understand just what makes it so good. From the controls, with Mario more fun to just move around the screen than I remember in any game, to the settings, to the wry humour, this is just astonishingly good.
I’ll admit that Breath of the Wild is ostensibly the better game, but Odyssey is more fun. It takes everything that was great about the previous 3D Mario games, removes some of the lesser parts, and then adds more greatness to it. One of those rare titles that makes you feel privileged to play it.
And so, there you go: my favourite games of the last twelve months. Many thanks for taking the time to read this, and my best wishes to you for a very happy new year. See you at some point in 2018!
I wasn’t kidding before when I said I’d forget to do this regularly. Hey-ho.
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD: I’m enjoying Twilight Princess a lot more than I remember from before, I think mainly because I’m taking it in small doses rather than just playing straight through it. More so than other Zeldas, TP seems to suffer a fair bit from ‘dungeon fatigue’, where the game just keeps on giving you dungeon after dungeon at the end. I don’t think it helps that the standard of dungeons is a little inconsistent either. Last week I’d made it through the fantastic Snow Peak Ruins, easily one of the best dungeons if the game if not the series as a whole. This week I was dumped into the rather drab City in the Sky, which has so much potential but turns out to be a slightly dull slog involving lots of hanging on grates with with the claw-hooks waiting for another grate to turn around. Still, I’m being picky here: even at it’s worst, Twilight Princess is a fantastic game.
Ni No Kuni: I’m not really sure why I’ve started playing this again, but it probably has something do with the trailers of the sequel I keep seeing. I never made it all that far into the game back when it first came out; hopefully I’ll manage a bit more this time around. Man, this is a lovely game. Level 5 stuff normally looks great anyway, and the Studio Ghibli input here just adds an extra layer of loveliness to it. Everything is beautiful, from the cartoon graphics, to the animations, to the interface and the music. Especially the music. Performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the soundtrack is some of the best original music I’ve heard in a game for ages. Gameplay-wise, Ni No Kuni isn’t perhaps quite as good as its presentation. The combat is decent enough, though perhaps could have done without as much emphasis on the Pokemon-esque familiar system. It’s a very gentle tale, as well, which does have the slight negative effect that it can seems a little on the slow side, at least in the bit I’ve played. As JRPGs go, though, this is up there with the very best of them.
In another one of those moments which seem designed to make people of my generation feel old, The Legend of Zelda turns thirty this year. Thirty. Three zero. That’s a whole three decades worth of people getting Zelda and Link mixed up, during which we’ve seen some eight main console titles, eight handheld games, four remasters, a number of weird spin-offs (Link’s Crossbow Training, anyone?) and a handful of hideous CD-i games that Nintendo and the world in general would rather forget.
I was a little late getting into Zelda games, with the first one I ever owned being Link’s Awakening on the gloriously monochrome Game Boy. Since then I’ve owned and played pretty much every single main title. But – I hear you shout from across the blackened void of fibre-optics and tubing that constitutes the Internet – please, Gareth, tell us what are your favourites.
Okay, then. Have a list, I know the web likes those kind of things. In reverse order, my favourite five are…
5: Twilight Princess
In many ways, Twilight Princess always seemed to me a reaction to Wind Waker. Thanks to all the whingeing about the art style of WW, the world of Twilight Princess is a thoroughly more sombre one. This is a Zelda for people accustomed to the ‘realism’ (in relative terms) of the fantasy worlds presented in the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Link is now most definitely an adult, and the world around him is one where forgotten ghosts shiver in abandoned homes. On paper, TP should be the perfect Zelda game: there’s a huge overworld, tons of items, a heap of dungeons. In reality, alas, it isn’t. Why it isn’t is rather a hard question to answer. It seems utterly tripe to say it, but what TP seems to lack is a bit of magic.
Compared to Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time, TP seems like Nintendo playing it a little safe and adding things for the sake of adding them. Yes, there’s a big overworld, but it’s empty. Yes, there are loads of items, but most of them are ones you’ve seen before. Yes, there are a lot of dungeons but, frankly, to me it was a game that outstayed its welcome. By the time I had got to the end I was wishing it had finished two dungeons ago.
All of which sounds horribly negative when, really, TP is a brilliant game. Sadly it’s like a Booker prizewinner in a family of Nobel literature laureates: in any other context they would be stellar, but in such illustrious company they don’t shine quite as bright.
Obviously I’m still getting the HD remaster, though.
4: Link’s Awakening
Aside from a few brief minutes of A Link to the Past on a friend’s SNES, Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda game I ever played. The Game Boy typically played host to ‘side stories’, with the likes of Super Mario Land where the intrepid Italian plumber went around shooting aquatic life in a submarine. The titles were usually good, but they always felt a little ‘cut-down’. LA was different. Whilst the story is most definitely out on the fringes (it follows on from ALttP and follows a ship-wrecked Link exploring a strange island away from Hyrule), the game didn’t feel as if it had been compromised to fit the handheld. There was a huge (well, for the time) overworld, eight main dungeons and a number of side-quests. In short, everything you’d nowadays expect from a Zelda title.
The title is a joy to play, making the most of its host console’s humble graphic and sound capabilities. I must have finished it at least ten times, if not more, and I never got tired of it. It’s a testament to the skill with which it was designed that playing today, over twenty years since its original release, it doesn’t feel particularly dated. Okay, the cut-scenes seem basic and in comparison to modern titles it may seem a little small, but overall it’s as excellent a game today as it was back then.
3: The Wind Waker
Be it the original GameCube version or the remastered Wii U one, The Wind Waker looks glorious. As a child of the 1980s my initial gaming experiences were filled with those titles from the likes of Codemasters that promised ‘cartoon adventures’, though they could never deliver given the limitations of the technology of the time. TWW is that dream made real. Bright, colourful, this presents a world that seems an endless joy to inhabit. Which is a bit odd, really, as Great Ocean we traverse in TWW is essentially the post-apocalyptic remnants of Hyrule, buried beneath the sea after a time when evil rose and the hero did not come to save the day.
The game is not without its faults. Most notably, there are some obvious places where content is just missing, presumably the results of a truncated development time. The end-game hunt for treasure maps also wears thin a lot sooner than it actually ends. These are minor gripes, though, in a game that offers such a fun experience.
When it was released, there was a lot of anger at Nintendo for heading down the cartoon route. I never subscribed to this point-of-view, but I hope that those who did can, in retrospect, see that it has lent the game a timeless quality. The HD remaster in some ways seemed a bit superfluous, as the original version still looks good, even running on a flatscreen TV which are normally unkind to pre-HDMI consoles. The art has lived on, of course, with the now-monikered ‘Toon Link’ appearing in the Super Smash Bros. series, Hyrule Warriors and two follow-up DS titles, The Phantom Hourglass and The Spirit Tracks. But there is more to TWW than the art, the game itself is a typical Zelda masterclass of design. A particular stand-out moment for me was the discovery of the old Hyrulian castle, filled to begin with by stone statues which later come to terrifying life after you retrieve the Master Sword.
2. Skyward Sword
Here’s the weird thing about Skyward Sword: it’s an utterly, utterly brilliant game but, my God, if I never have to play it again as long as I live I’ll be a happy man. It is, in many ways, one of the most astonishingly well-designed games I’ve ever had the fortune to play. The Lanayru Desert, for instance, with its localised time-travelling mechanic, is a work of sheer genius. The switch from a giant overworld with multiple dungeons to a game where you explore several main sections a number of times, uncovering other areas as you can new abilities, at first sounds like a retrograde step, but actually it works brilliantly. The story is one of the best in a Zelda title and, by acting as the earliest chapter in the series’ rather convoluted chronology, is able to shake off a number of tropes while paying homage to the lore in general.
The one big problem with SS is the controls. I don’t want to be one of those people who comes across as hating motion controls or bemoaning the decision Nintendo made. In fairness, the implementation of them is great (probably the best of any Wii game) and it adds a high level of immersion to the combat. That being said, whilst I must admit to never having been a medieval knight, I can imagine that swinging a sword around constantly for hours on end can tire your arm out a bit. This is the problem with SS. I know, I know: I’ve read the safety leaflets and realise I shouldn’t be playing it for ages without a rest, but even just an hour or so was enough to make my joints ache. The final boss fight was a grueling experience, physically as much as anything else. It almost drove me to the point that I was ready to quit and walk away, cradling my poor arm. Only perseverance and sheer bloody mindedness saw me through. Following the post-credit sequence, I stuck the game back in the box and have never taken it out since. For all they add to the game, the motion controls take more away. The fact that the default interface has a good quarter of the screen taken up with a ghostly image of the Wii Remote seems to demonstrate a certain lack of faith by Nintendo in its inclusion, and the ability of others to grasp it.
It’s perhaps a testament to how great a game SS is that it still ranks so highly despite the difficulties I had with it. It could do with – and undoubtedly at some point will get – an HD remaster where they strip out the motion controls and replace them with something more traditional.
1: Ocarina of Time
What is there to be said about Ocarina that hasn’t been said a lot better many times before. Since its release on the N64 in 1998, the game has consistently appeared at the very top of ‘best game ever’ lists. Playing it today is still a wonderful experience, especially if you’re using the 3DS remaster which sharpens the graphics. In part, though, I think to understand how remarkable a game OoT is you need to have an awareness of the context of the industry it was released into. In 1998, 3D gaming was still in its infancy especially on console. Super Mario 64 had revolutionised console gaming along with the N64’s analogue stick, but there were still questions to be answered about other elements of the control system and how players interacted with an environment that had an extra dimension than they had grown up with.
When OoT cam along it introduced what-was-then-termed ‘Z-targeting’ (because of the controller button it mapped to) that allowed you to focus in on enemies and objects. It seems so obvious now, of course, but that’s the smugness hindsight leaves you with (“Oh, yes, obviously the wheel should be round.”). Then there’s the overworld. Once you’ve left the starting area, you’re thrown into Hyrule Field which stretches out as far as the draw distance can show. By modern open world standards it’s tiny and empty, but it still looks beautiful and there’s still a sense of wonder to be had as you gaze at Death Mountain with its sinister cloud halo, knowing that you can climb right to the very top of it.
There are so many things that OoT does right and better than its peers or, indeed, most of the games that have come since. The movement to the 3D world allowed Nintendo to experiment with puzzles that made you think in terms of height, width and depth. This wasn’t just a 2D game made to work in 3D, it was a game revelled in its extra space. Even the Water Temple – which is now infamous in the frustrations it caused dues to its layout – is a triumph of design.
If Wind Waker is a cartoon and Twilight Princess a high fantasy epic, then Ocarina is a fairy tale. The majority of Zelda games have typically followed the route of an everyman (or, rather, everykid) plucked from obscurity rising to become a great hero. OoT very much follows this line, but it does it better than its successors or predecessors. There’s just the right level of sparsity in its story-telling, just the right amount of charm and humour in its characters. Link is always a silent hero; in OoT this feeds into the feeling of the story as you are both a participant in the world and a separated observer. Like all fairy tales, the route is predefined, your destiny is written and you just need to follow it through to the end.
OoT presents a world that isn’t believable: characters stand around doing nothing other than waiting for your arrival; the towns and areas are obviously designed for you to play in rather than for people to live in. It doesn’t matter. Ocarina isn’t trying to give you reality, it’s trying to give you a myth, a story that you follow and a journey that you make. The transformation part-way through from a child to an adult is a masterstroke: in one movement it both provides new game mechanics and a new way to see the environments, whilst also giving you impetus to play on. As we move from childhood to adulthood, we slowly but surely realise that the world that at one time seemed so safe is actually anything but. Transported through time, Link sees an abrupt version of this: the twisted, corrupted Hyrule of the future is in stark contrast to what has come before. Who amongst us would not, if we could, wish to change things so that the world forever seemed as safe and assured as it did when we were young?
If you have never played Ocarina then you really should. It is the template by which all later Zelda games are judged. It is such an important milestone in the development of games as a medium that, honestly, it seems a privilege to have been there when it was new. You can compare it to the influence of the Beatles, or the release of Star Wars. It remains in all ways magnificent.
Title: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Format: Nintendo GameCube Release date: 2006 Obtained: 2006 Place of purchase: Gameplay.co.uk Price: Unknown (probably around £30) Completed?: Yes
Warning: Spoilers contained not just for this game, but also Skyward Sword!
Twilight Princess spent longer languishing in my ‘must complete’ pile than any other Zelda game apart from Majora’s Mask (which, to date, I still haven’t got around to finishing). I finally this year made a concerted effort to get through it, and did actually manage it. TP is pretty much everything you’d expect from a modern Zelda game; in many ways it seems a kind of ‘greatest hits’ compilation, with modern redressings of settings from Ocarina of Time with a darker edge to the story and graphics that are reminiscent of Majora.
It is a brilliant game, as you might expect from its pedigree. There are wonderfully tricksy puzzles, a combat system that is really the pinnacle of the non-motion-controlled Zeldas (I’m talking about the GameCube version here, of course), and one of the best supporting characters ever in the shape of Midna. But there is a problem: it’s too long. It took me around forty hours to complete, and I didn’t really do an awful lot of the side-quests as they mostly seemed likely rather tedious collect-a-thons. For some titles, forty hours isn’t an issue, but in the case of TP it seemed rather as if the last few hours were rather tedious. Unfortunately for me I’d reached the point of ‘oh-not-another-dungeon’ around three of them before the end. It doesn’t help that the last couple of levels don’t really add anything new to the game other than some locations which occasionally lapse into exercises in frustration when you mis a jump by pixels because of the 3D camera. The final boss fight is also dragged out by virtue of taking place over four separate phases, the last of which features a Ganondorf with more hit points than you can shake a Deku stick at. It’s not hard to beat him (certainly a lot easier than Demise at the end of Skyward Sword), just rather tedious because it lasts that long.
This all sounds rather negative, though, which is unfair because for the vast majority of the game the typical Zelda excellence shines through. There are a few brilliant stand-out moments, like the battle on horseback on the Eldin Bridge against the Moblin boss, and searching for the tears of light, but it’s the general high-quality of the game that’s most noticeable. I’m glad I went back to complete it, though I don’t think I’ll be attempting it again for quite some time.
Title: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker Format: Nintendo GameCube Release date: 2003 Obtained: 2003 Place of purchase: GAME Price: (Included with hardware) Completed?: Yes
I guess like a fair few people, Wind Waker was the game I bought a GameCube for. I remember quite vividly going to GAME and purchasing the special silver console hardware bundle. I mainly remember it because, on the way home my second Ford Escort (colour: Pepper Red (burgundy, basically), engine size: 1.6, 0-60 in: geological timescales only) got written off by a guy who was apparently driving to get some insurance at the time, rather coincidentally. This was rendered even more of a crappy day by the fact that, after driving my car to the local garage for a quick assessment, due to the now-misshapen back-end I managed to scrape the side of the car next to me in the car park on the way out. Of course, the car just happened to be owned by the assessor for my insurance company, so really it couldn’t have gone any worse if a hole in the ground had opened up and dragged me into the ninth circle of Hell (reserved for traitors and bad parkers).
The main thing everybody remembers about Wind Waker are the graphics, and the huge controversy they caused. At the time, lots of people were a bit miffed that Nintendo hadn’t gone with the more ‘grown-up’ style of Ocarina of Time that had been previewed when the GameCube was in development. Those people were, of course, wrong as the art style of WW still looks incredible today, oddly much more so than the later Twilight Princess (which did have the more ‘mature’ look). The game is pretty much the interactive cartoon that had been promised to us for years, albeit one with a bit of a dodgy camera that can cause immense frustration at times.
I’ve replayed it over the last couple of weeks as part of a Zelda ‘marathon’ inspired by my recent completion of Skyward Sword, and the older title still stands up. Perhaps the main problems with it nowadays are that it is perhaps a little too easy in parts, albeit with a couple of frustrating difficulty spikes, and that the final section of the game involves a bit too much sailing around and not really doing much of interest. Nintendo really should have abandoned the whole ‘find the eight pieces of the Triforce’ business that forces you to find maps and then go treasure-hunting (once for the rupees to decipher the maps at the hands of the ever-annoying-and-slightly-creepy Tingle, and again to actually find the things. At the least, it would have been better to cut this down to a shorter segment and just add in an extra dungeon or something. Also, the Great Sea is perhaps too much sea and not enough stuff in it; most of the small islands are uninhabited or have little of any interest on them.
These are all minor flaws, though, and the game remains a gem of a title. Shame, really, that my purchase of it is intermingled with memories of my car being smashed up, and my replay of it is meshed with that of my wife moving out. Must be cursed.
Title: Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Format: Wii Release date: 2011 Obtained: Christmas 2011 Place of purchase: Gift Price: N/A Completed?: Yes
I finished Skyward Sword just the other day, and thought I’d try to put some thoughts down about it. It was, in turns, one of the most amazing and one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played. Let’s deal with the frustrations first… A big part of my problems lies with the motion controls. I won’t lie, I have a problem with such controls in general that problem stems back to my extreme idleness. Swiping the Wii Remote to launch an attack is fun most of the time, but becomes very tiring after a while in a way that traditionally-controlled games don’t. And whilst it’s a credit to Nintendo’s developers that Link’s actions so closely mirror your own physical ones, sometimes your movements result in the wrong attack, or just aren’t picked up quickly enough, and there are a few battles in the game where this becomes quite important.
The game also suffers from a level of hand-holding that is quite often over-the-top, but weirdly at some times irritatingly non-existent when you need it the most. I’ve read a few comments elsewhere about the stating-the-bleeding-obvious nature of Fi, your sort-of robotic sword-based companion, and depressingly it’s all fairly accurate. A typical exchange involving Fi goes like this:
Random other character: Well, in order to get through here you’re going to need to find a way past this door.
Fi: Master, I estimate with a 90% probability that in order to proceed you will need to find a way past the door.
There are other bits in the game as well where the exposition and frilliness of the game gets in the way of actually playing it. Towards the end of the game I kept wanting to buy some heart potions, which isn’t a difficult task but does involve a fair amount of tedium. To whit:
Find a bird statue;
Return to the sky;
Flap your arm about like an idiot to move your bird towards Skyloft where the only potion shop in the world is located;
Land in Skyloft;
Traipse towards the bazaar;
Move towards the potion store and twiddle the analogue stick until the context arrow hovers over the red potion (which isn’t always easy to tell given the camera perspective);
Press the A button to examine it and have to sit through the same two-page explanation of what it is from the store owner (even though she’s sold it to me fifty times before);
Move the remote across to the ‘Okay’ button to confirm that I want to purchase it;
Watch Link scoop up some of the potion;
Watch Link do a little ‘ta-da!’ pose with his newly-purchased item and read a description of what it does (again) and how to use it;
Read some more dialogue from the shop owner who tells you that you can get your potion infused if you scoot down to her husband at the end of the shop;
Repeat ad nauseum.
Really – is all of that necessary? Surely at some point during play-testing somebody must have mentioned that maybe, just maybe, this was all utterly monotonous after you’ve watched it for the umpteenth time? Apparently not.
But, you know what, it’s still a phenomenally good game. The puzzles in the game are as cunning as ever, and are usually a joy to figure out. There’s relatively little moving of blocks from one place to another, and more using items and the environment in clever ways. The puzzles in the Lanayru Desert region, involving timeshift stones that change the environment, are a particular highlight and it’s a lot of fun to make your way through the game in general.
The storyline – often something I’ve found to be pretty weak in Zelda titles – is also pretty good. Yeah, it’s the usual ‘Zelda gets kidnapped’ business, but as a prequel to the other Zelda games it works well, and there’s even a fair bit of character development going on. Sure, it’s not going to win any Booker prizes and there’s a few too many MacGuffins around, but by the end you’ll find yourself caring about the characters and wanting to know more about their lives (maybe a handheld sequel is a good idea, Nintendo?).
I’d perhaps grown a little disillusioned with Zelda after Twilight Princess, which I felt was just a little too similar to previous titles, but Skyward Sword has reignited my passion for what is surely one of the best game series around.