Awards season is always a very interesting time of year, no matter which medium you’re a particular fan of. For a few weeks in December and January, we all take a collective look back over the last twelve months worth of great works and notable releases and then, more often than not, we proceed to dish out all the awards to games or movies that only released within the last few months. It’s no secret that “Oscar bait” movies tend to come out late in the year specifically so they will be fresh in the minds of Oscar voters. Most of the biggest video games of the year also tend to release around that November window — albeit for the entirely differing reason of cashing in on all those lucrative holiday season sales — and it’s only natural that the best games from the first half of the year, which are up to eleven months old at this point, can be somewhat overshadowed by the current hot properties.
It was with this in mind that I decided it might be nice to round up some of the other Nintendo Enthusiast staff to take stock at this halfway stage and honour some of 2014’s best games that might not make the final cut in five months’ time. Please note that, in this article, we will be focusing purely on Wii U games.
Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition
Release: July 2, 2014
The original version of this game was released on PS3 and Vita last April, but this is the definitive edition, featuring the original game plus additional levels, bosses, and DLC. And what an incredible game it is. Easily the best 2D Metroidvania I’ve played in years, this game has it all: a consistently beautiful art style that combines great character animation with some of the best use of colour in any game this year, particularly in the “dark world,” which eschews tradition by frequently being at least as bright and colourful as the game’s “light world”; a great soundtrack that confidently melds traditional mariachi music with driving electronic beats and produces something that, however improbably, just works; and an enjoyable and unique setting that draws on staples of Mexican folklore and tradition, such as luchadores, charros, mariachi bands, and Día de los Muertos.
The combat system is a real highlight: you can play it as deeply or as shallowly as you want, but on hard mode in particular, the game really rewards you for experimenting with and perfecting your lengthy free-form combos. With new moves being unlocked at a consistent rate throughout the game and tons of variety in enemies, the combat stays fresh all the way to the end. The absolute stand-out element of this game for me, though, is the level design. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get that right in a game like this, where your character starts off with very limited options for traversal and just keeps getting more and more powered up until you’re literally running up walls and even flying, but the developers absolutely nailed it, giving the player an incredible sense of progression and empowerment, and for that, Guacamelee is my pick for Wii U Game of the Year — so far.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Jonathan Harrington)
Release: February 21, 2014
What Retro Studios did with Donkey Kong Country‘s explosive return in 2010 was extraordinary. The visuals were stunning and the music enjoyable, but what really made the game stand out was its extraordinary level design. Every platform and every enemy was placed with exquisite care, and it made for one of the arguably best 2D platformers of all time. With Tropical Freeze, they topped it in every way. The brilliance of the level design somehow topped what came before it and the bosses were given a revamp. Though not hugely challenging, it did offer a solid difficulty. Some of the bonus levels were truly devious, yet it was always fair. If you died, it was your fault.
Everything else was improved upon as well. Characters, both friends and foes, have an incredible amount of personality, with the Snowmads being an absolute joy to stomp on. Visually, it’s unbelievable. The backgrounds are remarkably detailed and every area feels like a living, breathing, unique world. The dynamic camera leads to some stunning views.
Most importantly was the fact that David Wise made his triumphant return to the DKC series, and oh, what a return it was! As great as Returns‘ soundtrack was, it was comprised almost completely of remixes. Tropical Freeze brought back the magic, with new tunes that truly felt like they belonged in DK’s world. From “Wing Ding” to “Amiss Abyss” to “Seashore War,” the soundtrack was a shining part of a near perfect game and helped Tropical Freeze to become what is, as of now, my Wii U Game of the Year for 2014.
Child of Light (Ryan C.)
Release: April 29, 2014
Of all the games in 2014 so far, none of them can quite match the particular charm of Child of Light. It may come in a small downloadable package, but the mark left on some gamers is astronomical. From the beautiful opening song on the title screen to the gorgeous visuals, this game builds a solid atmosphere that’s almost impossible to escape from and the great characters make it a great experience overall.
Story and visuals can only take a game so far, though, but fortunately, Child of Light also engages with a refreshingly simple take on turn-based RPG mechanics while also introducing a unique mechanic as well. Gamers who have played SNES RPG’s will feel right at home, as characters level up, earn stat boosts, and learn new abilities by navigating a simple skill tree. Enemies are often elemental-based, so applying different elements to different characters is essential. A side character, Igniculus, can help out by healing party members or slowing down enemies and is controlled by the touch screen, left analog stick, or a second player with a Wii Remote. The cherry on top of the cake is the selection of breath-taking bosses.
While not in combat, players explore a Metroidvania world and soon gain the ability of flight. The challenge isn’t from platforming, but there are sections that require careful maneuvering around dangerous obstacles or avoiding enemies if your health is low. There are plenty of secrets and treasure chests to find, making exploring highly rewarding. Child of Light puts together a package that is something brilliant. It’s a beautiful game with a touching story that has fun gameplay to back it up — the best kind of experience.
Mario Kart 8
Release: May 30, 2014
What can I say about Mario Kart 8 that you don’t already know? Given that more than 2.8 million of you have already got your grubby little hands on this latest Nintendo EAD masterpiece, probably not a lot! The game absolutely deserves its status as the highest rated console Mario Kart on Metacritic, not for the unmatched splendour of its visuals that present the whole of the Mushroom Kingdom with a level of detail and intricacy that no game has even come close to before; not for its note-perfect soundtrack that features stunning new compositions and fantastic covers of a number of Mario Kart classics as well as a different [music] track for every [race] track in the game. Not for its surprisingly deep driving model that affords players a huge learning curve to improve their skills or for the surprisingly full-featured online and social media aspect of the game, but for the effect this game has had on the video game community as a whole.
From the creation of the Luigi Death Stare to the popularity of innumerable regular online tournaments, most of you are probably too busy playing Mario Kart right now to read this. If you are reading this, you’re probably just on a break from playing. I have personally put more than 170 hours into this game in the last two months, but the best story I have recently seen on the Mario Kart effect comes from one of our forum users, Repomech, who explains that his wife “has even had co-workers come over early before they carpool to work so that they can squeeze in a half hour of Mario Kart to kick off the day.” Can there be a better recommendation than that?
Shovel Knight (Elia Pales)
Release: June 26th 2014
The NES was in its prime about ten years before I was born. As a result, I missed out on quite a few “classic” games. Sure, I’ve played some Mario and Zelda, but games like Castlevania, Metroid, and Duck Tales unfortunately received less love. This is why Shovel Knight is so good! Whereas other games have been released and have only become successful as a result of gamer nostalgia, Shovel Knight is an amazing game because it actually has great level design, fun platforming, and excellent item/boss implementation.
It not only appeals to those who grew up on NES games, but it also captures the hearts of (relatively) newer gamers like myself. It strips out everything that has been added to games over the last twenty-five to thirty years that may be superfluous, such as an overdone Triple A presentation or bloated development teams, and is a game that is fun, plain and simple.
Scram Kitty and His Buddy On Rails (Menashe K.)
Release: May 15, 2014
I’m a sucker for simple games that have a mastery in the control departments, are insanely difficult, and do something different enough to give an old formula a fresh feeling. That list is pretty much what Scram Kitty has cornered the market on. While a game like Shovel Knight was very enjoyable to me in a nostalgic way, helping me to reminisce about the good old days of 8-bit platformers, it didn’t really do anything new — and to me, that’s awfully important. I’ve played hundreds of platformers since the NES days and just being a retro platformer isn’t enough.
Then, along comes Scram Kitty and tickles the innovation part of my brain in simple but exciting ways. It’s one part shmup, one part on-rails platformer. You can ride along any part of the rail that weaves across the level, which also controls and limits where you can go and what you can do. As long as you can master the borders of the rails, you can be very effective in your shoot-em-up skills. Sometimes, limitations in a game can be very rewarding for its gameplay. Other times, removing the restrictions are better. There are shmups like R-Type that keep you stuck to a 2D rail or Star Fox that keeps you stuck on a 3D rail. Then, there are shmups that completely remove the rails, like Bandai-O, but that isn’t always a good thing because it can feel more like a flying platformer than a shmup. Scram Kitty is a beautiful marriage of restrictions and giving you more freedom than the standard shmup-on-rails. That’s why, for me, it has been the biggest surprise of the year so far.
And the winner is …
Was there really any doubt? Some of the best indie games and perhaps the absolute best 2D platformers of recent years really gave Mario Kart 8 a run for its money, but in the end, the overwhelming level of support for the latest installment in what is one of Nintendo’s best loved franchises allowed everybody’s favourite plumber to walk away from this competition as its champion. Mario Kart 8 is our best Wii U game of 2014 so far and I would not be at all surprised to see this game take home a number of prizes when the video game industry gets around to doing this GOTY thing for real in about five months’ time.
My thanks to Jonathan, Ryan, Elia, and Menashe for their help with this article.