Whelp, another year has come and gone for our illustrious hobby, and I think some celebrations are in order. It’s time for the most prestigious event in all of gaming: Tyler Johnson’s List of Top Five Best Surprises in Gaming! Woo! Yeah! Right on!

Awards? Pssh, no one gets awards here. Just a firm-but-reassuring pat on the shoulder, a sharp slap on the ass, and a “Ya did good out there, kid”.

Let’s not dilly-dally, because we have a lot to get through and you have many pointless and self-indulgent “Best of” lists to read. Just remember, these are the things that weren’t necessarily the best, but shattered all expectations or just came out of nowhere and were insanely awesome.

Ridiculous Fishing

iOS, Android

Look! A mobile game made the list!

I’d already liked Vlambeer before I played this game, so the very second I saw “Ridiculous Fishing” and learned the premise, it was something I just had to play. It took long enough for it to come to Android, but I finally did get my mitts on it and it was a spectacular experience.

I often talk of how mobile games need to stop trying to emulate traditional gaming experiences with a touchscreen. It’s pointless… and I hate it. Virtual buttons are horrible things and they need to die a death. Just one. That’s all it takes.

However, games like “Ridiculous Fishing” are prime examples that when you design something specifically meant for the unique way mobile devices are built, then you CAN make a great game, without leaving the player wishing they were playing it on a different platform.

The controls aren’t the only thing that Vlambeer nailed, however. “Ridiculous Fishing” has some brilliant game design, diving your lure into the depths of the ocean, attempting to avoid everything in a pseudo-bullet hell. Once your lure finally snags one very unfortunate creature, you you yank him back up (along with any other aquatic bastard you can). When your catch(es) hit the surface, they fly out of the water. Now you have to shoot them all and shower the ocean with their blood.

What, you’ve never fished before? That’s how it’s done. That’s why whalers are always being protested by Green Peace. It’s a messy and destructive business. I heard there is an island of whale blubber the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. It’s just all going to waste.

The game is clever, responsive, and rewards you just often enough that coming back for more is probably the easiest decision you’ll make all day.

Rogue Legacy

Windows, Mac, Linux

While roguelikes are still a fairly niche sub-genre of RPGs that even the most hardcore of RPG fans still don’t seem to enjoy that much (myself included), games with roguelike elements are in fashion on the indie gaming scene. “Rogue Legacy” is the best example of this in 2013.

Imagine “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” if the castle were different every time you entered and every time you started, you played with a different character. This is how I picture “Rogue Legacy” in my mind.

The player character’s heroic quest is to vanquish an evil residing within the castle… a resident evil, if you will.  Once that hero dies (and he will), you pick right up as his descendent, ala “Infinity Blade”. When he dies, you then play as HIS descendent. Then her descendent. Then his. Then his. Then hers and hers and his and his and hers and forever onto infinity.

It’s a suicidal family, way too heroic for their own good. Must be the Wheaties.

What makes “Rogue Legacy” special is that it offers permanence, which is a new concept for roguelikes. Yes, it goes against everything the genre stands for, but it doesn’t make “Rogue Legacy” any easier. It just offers progression and gives you a sense that you’re working towards a goal. As your skills improve, your characters will improve with it, eventually able to tackle all of the challenges the castle presents.

Any levels you gain, any equipment you purchase, any upgrades or enhancements you make will go from one character to the next. This gives you a fighting chance because you’re going to die… a lot. The game also lets you lock down a castle’s map, so if you encounter one of the bosses, die, and want to immediately get back to that fight, you can. These luxuries make things feel less futile than most roguelikes, which keeps you from getting too frustrated and – most importantly – keeps you coming back.

“Rogue Legacy” is fantastic. It plays smooth, has a good sense of humor, and lets you experiment in carefree ways, because when you’re always expecting to die, it’s far less painful than if you weren’t expecting it.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Shanties

All Platforms (excluding Mac and Linux)

Okay, I didn’t like  “Assassin’s Creed 3”. I made that clear last year. So, when “ACIV” was announced, the only emotion I held for it was apathy. I didn’t care. I didn’t watch trailers. I didn’t watch gameplay. I didn’t read any previews. I knew that the franchise had finally hit it’s limit and I wasn’t going to buy it anymore.

I was wrong. “ACIV” is great and the best game in the series. However, that’s not what surprised me most.

See, this is a game about pirates and doing pirate things. The “Assassin’s Creed” stuff just gets in the way of something far more exciting. Nothing, and I mean nothing, sells and cements the idea that you’re a pirate better than the shanties sung by your crew. I was taken aback the first time I heard my crew flex their pipes and belt out these rough, yet weirdly pure and beautiful tunes.

Just listen!

The Dead Horse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFcdAyjryjw

Leave Her Johnny: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG-HyUBmYSg

Good Morning Ladies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58G7D4zJ8BI

Randy Dandy O: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtxUyshxWzU

Fish in the Sea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1Phu3PoYNc

If you look in the comments of these videos, every single shanty in the game has people exclaiming, “This is the best song in ACIV!!!!!!!!!!” They’re all SO good.

I’ve listened to these driving around in my car. They make everything more epic and this is absolutely the best original music put into any game this year. And they’re freakin’ sea shanties!

Tomb Raider

Windows, Xbox 360, PS3

Already rebooted once, “Tomb Raider” seemed to never be able to regain its footing after “Angel of Darkness” on PS2. That terrible game pretty much set the tone that the series was never going to enjoy the same fan fervor it once had. The first reboot, “Tomb Raider: Legend” was good, but the designs and ideas were still rooted in the old ways. The game controlled well, but the games themselves still felt aged.

So, when ANOTHER reboot was revealed, my first thought was, “That was quick.” And in relative terms, it was. I guess when the other games didn’t quite set the world ablaze, they figured why not start over… again.

We were shown a game that didn’t look much like the “Tomb Raider” of the past, which probably put off the few remaining fans, but I’m glad they went in an entirely different direction. It turns out that when you throw away almost everything that no longer works, you allow yourself the opportunity to make something really special.

“Tomb Raider” is one of the best games I played all year. It does a fantastic job of genre blending, giving us a great third person shooter, good stealth, and rewarding exploration. This is one of those rare games that tries to be a jack-of-all-trades, but actually succeeds in doing so. It plays sharp and has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in a long time.

Then we have our heroine, Lara, who was finally transformed in a more realistic protagonist. Gone are the massive breasts, gone are the ridiculously tight clothes and short shorts, gone are the insanely pouty lips. Instead, Lara is a fairly attractive young girl with no real special features, who wears cargo pants and a tank top. Pretty much perfect for shooting guys in the face with a flaming arrow and ziplining in the forest.

Oh, right, I forgot about THE INTERNET. *nerd voice* “Tomb Raider” is a prime example of ludonarrative dissonance. In one scene she’s scared to even fire a gun and the very next she’s mowing through legions of men just to save her friends. Myaaahhh!”

I love it when buzzwords like “Ludonarrative Dissonance” get thrown around by people because someone, somewhere, saw a forum post from a guy that read a blurb on a website that mentioned it and that was when it was decided to be the catch phrase for people who wanted to hate on the game.

Look, “Tomb Raider” is a video game about an island with Bermuda Triangle-like effects, with a heavy supernatural element, that involves lots of action, adventuring, and skinning innocent animals. It’s fantasy based in reality, in the same way “Indiana Jones” and “Uncharted” are. Those, too, suffer from “Ludonarrative Dissonance”. So does “Die Hard” and every single action movie and game in existence.

It’s supposed to be fun and the story – which isn’t even that good to begin with – shouldn’t be the focus of what is an astonishly fun game to play.

We’re reaching a point in this hobby where we’re going to have to start differentiating between things we call “Video Games” and things we call “Interactive Fiction”. In “Interactive Fiction”, criticize storytelling all you want. In “Video Games”, please, focus purely on the game and whether it’s fun and well put together.

“Tomb Raider” is a video game, and it’s a damn good one. I never expected for the series to be back and I never expected it to be as good as it is.

Wii U

It’s finally worth buying!

There you have it. The things that did their best jack-in-the-box impression and gave me a great shock… in a good way, of course.

I’m always looking forward to things coming out of nowhere or absolutely defying any and all expectations I have for them. Who doesn’t love surprises? I do, and I want the industry to keep throwing them at me. Good ones, obviously.

Next time, we delve into the depths of dismal disappointments…

View as Pages (2 pages)