A note from the Editor-in-Chief:
Forum posters and bloggers for other, less-exciting websites have been saying that 2011 was one of the best years ever for videogames—and they are absolutely, unconditionally right. Let’s look at the facts:
FACT: 2011 saw direct sequels to not one, not two, not four, but three former GameCola Games of the Year: Batman: Arkham Asylum, LittleBigPlanet, and Lego Star Wars 2: The Original Trilogy. (Yes, Lego Star Wars won a GameCola Game of the Year, and Portal did not. Let that one sink in.)
FACT: The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise finally broke its years-long dry spell by releasing a game that was, as many put it, playable.
FACT: For the first time in a decade, we got to know Jack. We also got the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a new Chrono Trigger, and the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a Final Fantasy VII remake.
FACT: Some popular shooting games were probably released, maybe.
We gather here today to celebrate (and make dumb jokes about) these games. Who are we? Well:
- Matt Jonas, news reporter, reviewer and video-er,
- Kate Jay, author and illustrator of “The Gates of Life,”
- Mark Freedman, reviewer and author of “What the Crap?“,
- Elizabeth “Lizo” Medina-Gray, editor as well as occasional reviewer,
- Vangie Ridgaway, author of “Gamer Girlfriend” and occasional podcaster and reviewer,
- Christian Porter, artist, blogger, news reporter, podcaster, reviewer, video-er and organizer, as well as author of “Poor Player’s Paradise,” Top of the Heap,” and “Power Gloves & Tinfoil Hats,”
- Alex Jedraszczak, the podcast master,
- Jillian Dingwall, reviewer,
- Michael Ridgaway, reviewer, podcaster, and former author of “Quantum Geek,”
- Nathaniel Hoover, editor, reviewer, podcaster, video-er, YouTube administrator, artist of “Sprite Flicker” and author of “Flash Flood” and “Impaired Closed Captioning,”
- Daniel Castro, author of “Don’t Be That Guy,”
- And, finally, me.
So join us today in honoring the best games of 2011, and, as always, be sure to tell us in the comments exactly what we got wrong. Here, I’ll start:
Where the hell is Gunstringer?!
Best Licensed Game
Batman: Arkham City
Christian Porter: The Batman: Arkham (Progressively Larger Geographic Location) series has been full of surprises. Arkham Asylum not only shirked convention by being a good superhero game, but it was actually an amazing game to boot, winning GameCola’s coveted 2009 Game of the Year title. Now Arkham City shirks convention by turning the sequel into a sandbox without making the game seem crammed with filler, and the game is still just as fun as the original. The same high-quality writing and voice acting also return, with tons of Batman villains around every corner, but somehow not feeling like they’ve all been shoehorned in. It’s an amazing adventure and, any other year, would be a shoo-in for Game of the Year.
Honorable Mention: Back to the Future: The Game
Last Year’s Winner: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
Daniel Castro: What else can be said about this game? It’s freaking Ocarina of Time, a game remembered as one of the best games ever made—and now it looks so damn awesome that we won’t feel at all embarrassed showing it off to future generations. It’s not the perfect remake, since there aren’t any new additions besides prettier aesthetics, but I guess not everyone was waiting for newer mechanics or anything else for the game that they cared about and loved so many years ago. And, hey! The 3D effects are gorgeous, it’s portable, and you can aim by tilting your Nintendo 3DS in front of your face, which means I can finally play Ocarina of Time on the bus, drunkenly trying to aim at anything with the slingshot, while other passengers play shitty music on their cell phones. It’s fun!
Honorable Mention: No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise
Last Year’s Winner: Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge
Best Use of Motion Controls
Child of Eden
Jillian Dingwall: Child of Eden is an arcade-style shooter in which you use your hands to target and destroy various enemies. It’s set in space, and the object of the game is to rescue a super-hot fairy girl who has been eaten by what appears to be the Internet.
This game is HARD. It’s quite confusing to begin with, and the enemies come flying at you from all angles resulting in flailing arms, sweaty armpits, unattractive facial expressions and frustratingly continuous failure. As a “game,” it’s not that great; however, you can switch off the super-death mode and play the game in the much less challenging “Feel Eden” mode (Eden being the name of the environment, not the fairy—that game would be called Child of Molestation), and this is where you begin to appreciate the genius of the game’s concept.
Child of Eden combines its surroundings, music and motion controls beautifully, and when you remove the fear of death, the game becomes a highly enjoyable, exciting and ethereal experience. Shooting different enemies produces different effects which blend together seamlessly to create your very own, unique sound. The motion controls are impressively responsive and make you feel as though you really are in control of the celestial surroundings. I agree with those who feel it may not be the best game in the world, but as an experience, it’s definitely a worthy winner. Motion control is still in its infancy, but if Child of Eden is anything to go by, we have a lot to look forward once it hits puberty.
Honorable Mentions: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; The Gunstringer
Last Year’s Winner: N/A
Best New Character
Christian Porter: Homer Simpson, Rose Nylund, Jenny McCarthy—everybody likes a lovable moron. In Portal 2, Stephen Merchant fills the moron shoes perfectly. (I mean that in a good way.) Valve really hit the nail on the head by letting Merchant ad lib to his heart’s content, with some of the best comedy in the game coming from standing around and waiting to see what Wheatley will say next. No matter how many awful situations his rampant stupidity gets you into, Wheatley is simply impossible to hate.
Honorable Mention: Cave Johnson (Portal 2)
Last Year’s Winner: Sheep Man (Mega Man 10)
Alex Jedraszczak: To say that Bastion is the most innovative game of 2011 is a little odd. The game itself is a pretty solid action/adventure type game, but that genre has been around long enough to be fairly finely tuned. The innovation is all in exploration and storytelling.
The world literally drops from the sky as you explore. More than a cool visual effect, this leaves you always knowing when you’ve been someplace before. It’s pretty obvious where you’ve been, and this guides you where you need to be without needless exposition.
The game’s main claim to fame, however, is the storytelling. Rather than reading through boring text before getting to play the game, the story is told as you’re playing. The end result is a game that flows very well, and can be pretty entertaining when the narration is tailored to your in-game actions.
Honorable Mentions: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective; Catherine
Last Year’s Winner: Heavy Rain
Jillian Dingwall: When I first played Portal 2, I expected it to tick all the innovative gameplay boxes, but if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the storyline. The first Portal had provided a sufficient enough plot to keep me interested, but it really was a distant second to the game’s unique concept. I was surprised therefore to find myself genuinely taken in by the story this time around.
The writers provided some welcome detail to the original plot, expanding on the mysteries of Aperture and its lemon-loving founder, Cave Johnson. The engaging narrative is made even more impressive by the fact that there are hardly any characters in the game, and, unlike a lot of the successful free-roaming titles, Portal 2 is a platform game, with GLaDOS and Wheatley forcing you from room to room without you having much say in the matter. As a result, the writers really did not have a lot to work with in terms of creating an elaborate storyline, and with the first Portal still a firm favourite, they probably could have gotten away with the bare minimum. Instead, they chose to enhance the original by adding funny dialogue, memorable catchphrases and interesting characters, all set in the aesthetically pleasing ’50s America made fashionable by Bioshock and Fallout. This improvement has shifted the Portal franchise from a simple (but ingenious) puzzle game to a much more absorbing puzzle-RPG which has proven to not only compete with the big-name RPGs, but actually kick their asses.
Honorable Mentions: Bastion; Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Last Year’s Winner: Alan Wake
Duke Nukem Forever
Matt Jonas: Duke Nukem Forever is the longest-running joke in the videogame industry. That should be enough, right?
How do you deliver on 12 years of hype? I remember when the announcement was made that Gearbox had taken over the game’s development, and the first new footage was shown at PAX. I was right there (from the comfort of my living room, thanks to the Internet). I was excited; all the buzz of the crowd and charming disposition of Randy as he stood on stage and gave his spiel were so thick that you could have slapped it in a jar and called it cream.
But that’s the problem—how do you make a bad product sell? The answer is thus: You hype it to the moon and back and throw as much cash as you can at it. Scrooge McDuck would have a heart attack even imagining that much money being wasted. Speaking of wasted money, I honestly wish I had waited before purchasing this pitiful wreck. Poor controls, exacerbating load times, and disgusting washed-out visuals. This isn’t just the most disappointing game this year; it is the most disappointing game of forever.
Honorable Mentions: Dead Island; Kinect: Disneyland Adventures
Last Year’s Winner: Metroid: Other M
Nathaniel Hoover: Hmm…Portal 2, you say? Is it really the funniest game of the year? Absolutely. Unless you’re adopted. Or obese. Or a sympathizer to either demographic, for that matter. However, we here at GameCola are horrible, insensitive people, so we think it’s pretty hysterical. Eminently quotable. From the mad ramblings of Cave Johnson to the moronic assertions of Wheatley to the sarcastic barbs of GLaDOS, there’s no shortage of creativity in the humor. Throw in a prophetic talking turret, legions of its dimwitted cousins, a droll male computer, outrageous personality spheres, a few wonderful sight gags, and all the hilarious situations afforded by portals, springboards, and bouncy goo—especially in (un)co-operative multiplayer—and you’ve got pretty much the only game we could have voted for this year.
Honorable Mention: No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise
Last Year’s Winner: No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle
Best New Peripheral
3DS Retractable Stylus
Paul Franzen: Oooh. Oh, baby. C’mere, baby. Let me sliiiide this thing in. Sliiiide it back out. Sliiiiide it in; sliiiide it out. Over and over. Doesn’t that feel good? You can touch it, if you’d like. Go on; it won’t bite. Just don’t scratch up the screen—this thing cost me $250 and still doesn’t have any games.
…Wait, what? What did you think I was talking about? I’m talking about the new stylus that comes bundled with the Nintendo 3DS! It’s retractable! That means you can make it whatever length is most comfortable to you! Stop it; there’s nothing sexual about that. And it’s fun to play with, too, while you’re playing with yourself. I mean, playing games! With yourself. Phew. I can’t believe I got through this whole thing without any innuendo.
Honorable Mentions: Wappy Dog; Pop Star Sparkle Gloves
Last Year’s Winner: Pokéwalker
Vangie Ridgaway: In the Portal 2 co-op mode, GLaDOS has finally found a more self-sufficient mode of conducting her scientific testing at Aperture Science. Her latest creations are P-body and ATLAS, a modified turret and personality sphere, respectively, who are now possessed of arms, legs, and portal guns of their own. Together, the two of them explore a completely new set of testing areas, which are specifically designed for two players, and require both guns (meaning a total of four active portals!) to complete. The new puzzles require a fair bit of cooperation on the part of the players, which ironically seems to annoy GLaDOS, as she is constantly trying to set her two new testers against one another through her unique brand of “encouragements.” Expect more cleverly designed puzzles, a fun twist on the original portal gun mechanic, and more of the humor that the Portal series has become famous for.
Honorable Mentions: Trine 2; Gears of War 3
Last Year’s Winner: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
Best Indie Game
Michael Ridgaway: I could go on and on (and have) about Bastion‘s fun Diablo-style gameplay, its beautifully vivid graphics, the poignantly shattered apocalypse it centers around, the amazing use of narration in the storytelling, or the awesome soundtrack that I find myself listening to at least once every few days. I could talk about those things, and they’d all be true, but for the moment I want to focus on how earnest the fans are and how keen Supergiant Games is to return that affection. For instance, one gentleman wrote to them asking for help in making his wedding ceremony extra special, and they delivered. A soldier in Afghanistan was not able to get a digital version of the game, so they specially made and sent him a physical copy of the game. Bastion really is the full package here, folks: an awesome game with awesome people behind it.
Honorable Mention: Orcs Must Die!
Last Year’s Winner: Super Meat Boy
Best PC Game
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Mark Freedman: If someone says the name Elder Scrolls to you, and all you can think of is your grandpa trying to figure out how a mouse wheel works, it’s time to get on the Skyrim bandwagon. I can’t think of any other game where, after playing 60 hours, you can still feel like you’ve only scratched the surface. Compared to other open-ended worlds, this game has the scale of an entire galaxy. Even if you’re not interested in combat, there’s so many beautiful mountains, lakes, caves, and forts to discover. With over 60,000 lines of dialogue and hundreds of hours you can spend playing, you’re definitely getting your money’s worth here. Kill some bears, craft your own armor, learn some spells, betray some townsfolk, or reanimate the dead…it’s all up to you. Despite its many bugs, this is truly a breathtaking adventure.
Specific to the PC version, some really great mods are finally coming out that make it feel more like a PC experience. There haven’t been a whole lot of beards in videogames, but Skyrim majestically integrates the tenacity and allure of beards in to such an epic quest as ever you’ll see.
Honorable Mention: Star Wars: The Old Republic
Last Year’s Winner: Mass Effect 2
Best Console Game
Kate Jay: The original Portal made its mark on the gaming world with its witty dialogue, innovative concept, and fast-paced gameplay. Fans asked for a sequel, and Valve gave us everything we asked for and more: Portal 2 took that theme and ran with it, releasing with a fully-fledged story with actual character development, backstory, and, of course, more snarkiness. Playing through Portal 2, we learn more about the history of Aperture Science and the men and women who made it what is was (before GLaDOS killed everyone, that is). Valve added new Aperture Products, including three types of gel, robots for the multiplayer levels, and defective personality cores. To add more frosting on this delicious, theoretical cake, Valve also provided players with plenty of free—yes, FREE—downloadable content for the multiplayer and single player campaigns. Portal 2 is clever, quirky, and charming, and it most definitely takes the cake.
Honorable Mention: Batman: Arkham City
Last Year’s Winner: Super Mario Galaxy 2
Best Portable Game
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Elizabeth “Lizo” Medina-Gray: What if you were dead, but you didn’t know how or why you died, and you couldn’t remember who you were? And then what if you found out that you could manipulate objects in the world, and even go back in time and save other peoples’ lives? And what if you learned of a mysterious conspiracy tied somehow to your murder, and you had only until dawn to figure everything out before you disappeared forever? Then you’d be the main character in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective!
Ghost Trick is a new game from the creator of the Ace Attorney series (and we all know how well-loved those games are here at GameCola). Fortunately for all of us Phoenix Wright fans who were hoping for another great portable game, Ghost Trick delivers in full. The characters are quirky and well-developed, the graphics and music are awesome, and the mechanics are unique, challenging, and fun. But, like the Ace Attorney games before, the thing that really made Ghost Trick stand out for me was its story. Many times, I’ve played a game and found myself disappointed because it didn’t surprise me in a big way—sometimes I feel like the ideas I have and the guesses that I make while playing a game are more interesting than what the writers actually do. With Ghost Trick, though, I had the exact opposite experience. I didn’t come close to guessing the ending, but beyond that, the story went places that I never saw coming, and that was a great thing for me. Plus, the story’s just really cool!
With awesome characters, a compelling story, only a couple of annoying puzzles among the many good ones, and probably my favorite graphics on the DS to date, Ghost Trick is definitely a winner.
Honorable Mentions: Pokémon Black/White; Super Mario 3D Land
Last Year’s Winner: Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth
Kate Jay: It’s not often that I download Xbox Live games, but then, it’s not often that games like Bastion come along to entice me. At a glance, this indie games seems like your typical RPG: a young hero sets out to save his world from destruction. However, Bastion takes a different approach to the whole “rebuilding the world” theme—the world literally rebuilds itself around you as you move around the richly colored isometric map. To make the experience even more unique, your adventure is narrated blow-by-blow in the mellow tones of Rucks, an NPC voiced by Logan Cunningham. Gameplay is fast paced, if a little repetitive, but the story moves pretty quickly, keeping the experience fresh. A sensational soundtrack rounds out this refreshing game, making it a must-buy for any RPG fans.
Honorable Mention: Trine 2
Last Year’s Winner: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game
GameCola Staff Member of the Year
Paul Franzen: A lot has changed since Alex (real name: Jeddy) first won this award in 2007. GameCola changed formats, from a monthly e-mail newsletter to an actual Internet website. All of our writers decided to grow magnificent beards. Our site started having actual fans. But while he won last time because he was the only person who consistently submitted his articles in on time, this year, he won because he helped bring GameCola to an all-new level in 2011—and the fact that we have actual fans now is due in no small part to him.
The GameCola Podcast, under the Jedraszczak regime, has way more listeners now than ever it had before. I mean, it has actual listeners now! Listeners who send us e-mails, ask us questions, record covers of our theme song on their saxophones, and draw pictures of us as the cast of Phoenix Wright. (Note: This hasn’t actually happened yet, but here’s hoping.) Kevin Leacock won this award last year for making the site much more accessible to new fans; this year, Jeddy’s winning for drawing those new fans to the site. Whether he’s role-playing as Metroid, singing the theme songs to old Nickelodeon shows, or just sitting back and letting us argue the merits of Ace Attorney Investigations, you can bet that, if you’re listening to a Jedrazcast, your next hour is going to be awesome.
And he still gets everything in on time, too. You can set your calendar by it.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Jonas, Christian Porter
Last Year’s Winner: Kevin Leacock
Game of the Year
Michael Ridgaway: Man, what was it with 2011 and awesome storytelling?
Portal 2 refined and added a lot to the platformer/puzzle elements from the first game for yet another amazing quantum-tunneling exploratory experience, but where it really shined was the story. In addition to the ever delightful GLaDOS, players were introduced to Wheatley and Cave Johnson, voiced by professional actors Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons, respectively. I’m not sure I ever stopped laughing while playing the game, and it very squarely fell into the category of “games I can only play with Vangie around or she will straight up cut me.”
Portal 2 proved that it was possible to tell an exciting, entertaining story in the context of an excellent game, and it raised the bar not just for videogames, but all other forms of media, as well.
Honorable Mention: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Last Year’s Winner: Heavy Rain
For more, check out our podcast on the Top 10 Games of 2011!