The 20 games you shouldn't miss in 2014
By Brandon Boyer
I spent most of 2014 just as I have for many years: wandering the far corners of the internet, searching for and sometimes stumbling upon weird, beautiful, and thoughtful videogames. The best of what I discovered challenged long-held ideas about What Videogames Can Be. I documented my findings at Venus Patrol.
Over the past year I played hundreds of amazing games across a wide spectrum of team sizes, budgets and ambitions. Below are 20 games that exemplify the best that 2014 had to offer: interesting places to explore, important achievements, or just nice ideas executed simply. I hope you'll find them as surprising and delightful as I did.
by Double Fine • Get it: iPad, Windows/Mac/Linux
If you pay attention to the world of games at all, Double Fine's Broken Age will be a familiar name — the modern take on the point and click adventure genre was funded through Kickstarter a few years back--at the time, one of Kickstarter’s first massive successes, and one that served as a gateway for many into the crowd-funding service itself.
One of the reasons the game was so well-funded was a lingering desire by many for this sort of quietly-told adventure--still somewhat a rarity in a landscape of more high-octane action games--a desire for a game that essentially moves at your own pace.
And Broken Age does that beautifully. At the same time, it also modernizes the genre to strip out much of the frustration that went along with early games of its kind, leaving you with a genuinely heartfelt, warm and very funny story, nicely voice-acted, wrapped around a set of super clever puzzles.
Side note: the entire production of the game has been meticulously documented by video production house 2 Player, which has resulted in footage that's perhaps the most valuable and instructive we have about the highs and lows of mid-to-high-budget game development. If you haven't already, spring for that additional footage for what amounts to one of my favorite TV shows of the past few years.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker
by Nintendo • Get it: Wii U
The latest game from Nintendo’s Tokyo studio, Captain Toad is is actually my favorite Wii U game of the year, soundly beating out more traditional fare from the company like Mario Kart & Smash Brothers.
The premise of the game is super clever: this is a Mario game with no jumping. It's a puzzle game entirely centered around the idea of obscured information. Each of its tiny, intricate diorama worlds has to be twisted and flipped endlessly for you to piece together exactly how to find your way deeper into them toward the goal at the end, with additional secondary secret goals that ask you to deconstruct the puzzle-box further.
This is without question one of the most charming things you’ll play all year.
by Captain Games • Get it: iPhone/iPad, Android
A fascinating exercise in austerity, Desert Golfing this is a game called Desert Golfing is, on its face, the absolute simplest expression of a 2D golf game -- what you see above is exactly all the game is. Its cleverness is all hidden behind the curtain -- namely, that there is only one golf course, and it runs, as best as anyone can tell, literally forever.
You don’t play, say, different 'sessions' of Desert Golfing, you play one, for your entire life, and it’s not until about hole 1000--the point at which it adds your score to the global leaderboard for the first time--that you realize that this is it, this is all you get.
You can’t try to better that score. Not without cheating, anyway. All you can do is keep moving forward, forever. There are people who are currently still playing who have progressed into the tens of thousands of holes--a testament to the understated and masterful controls, if not simply the to the stubborn singlemindedness of the players).
Without spoiling too much, it’s this sort of dreadful existential monotony that makes the rare occasions that the game does throw you a curveball almost the stuff of urban legend — you almost can’t believe your eyes.
Earth Defense Force 2025
by Sandlot • Get it: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
This next game, Earth Defense Force 2025 is basically what Space Invaders looks like in the 21st century, and though it's the latest installment in a series that has been kicking around for about a decade now, what's most brilliant about it is how little it’s evolved.
It’s a perfect B-movie of a game: you grab two of your favorite guns, lock and load, and dive into Japanese suburbia, where the game's creators then throw at you about 5000 identical, bargain-basement stock-3D-model spiders, or ants, or giant robots, or UFOs.
That’s basically all it is, and it is totally amazing. There is no attempt at a deeper narrative beyond “there are bad things here and we need them dead”, there are no convoluted mechanics other than “point your gun at these things and shoot them”. It’s just a perfect, pure expression of exactly what it wants to be.
by Kyle Reimergarten • Get it: Windows/Mac
Next up is a game that instantly became one of my favorites of all time, a tiny, mysterious and alluring little adventure called Fjords, created — in his spare time and on daily ferry work-commutes — by a second-grade teacher from Seattle named Kyle Reimergarten.
While it vaguely recalls something like an old Commodore 64 game, and plays pretty similarly, and simply, scattered around its world are computer terminals which give you the power to more or less tear the entire game apart, blunt forcing your way through its walls and floors, and allowing you entrance into parts of the game that feel entirely forbidden and almost outside the creator’s control.
It’s a game where everything is permitted, and there is no real wrong way to go, and it’s just when you finally get a hold on how you can master your surroundings that you realize that, actually, this whole time, it’s just been a game about collecting and delivering pizza.
i am now the proud owner of the world's first & only FJORDS shower curtain (i didn't tell @mooonmagic i made this) pic.twitter.com/VslSi1miD3
— Brandon Boyer (@brandonnn) January 30, 2014
Side note: this is definitely the first videogame I’ve ever played where I’ve been compelled to create my own one-off shower curtain from one of the areas in the game, just to have a little piece of it actually exist in my own world. That’s just a tiny taste of how nuts I am for this game.
by Phosfiend Systems • Get it: Windows, Mac
Next up is a game of special note to any music or particularly synthesizers nerd out there.
The premise of FRACT is that you’re tossed--head-first and cruelly--into a cold, dead, abstract and nearly entirely silent alien world. Right from the start, it can be a bit impossible to know where you’re meant to go, or even if you’re pointed in the right direction. With dedicated exploring you’ll realize that you’re suddenly standing in the middle of a puzzle, and that puzzle--and in fact the entire game--is all about the process of programming synthesizers.
The entire game is modeled on and controlled by a soft synth, so that as you progress further into bringing the world back to life, it pulses with its own music. By the end of the game, it teaches you more than you might have ever thought you’d know about creating electronic music.
This is absolutely one of the most challenging games on the list, less for the mechanics of its movement, but more just in how cold and opaque it can be. It also means that when you actually solve one of its puzzles, you feel like an absolute super-genius who’s just cracked an alien code.
by Boneloaf • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Still in the active process of being developed, but currently available for you to buy now, Gang Beasts has quickly become the star of the show at any live, public play event forward thinking enough to exhibit it throughout 2014.
It’s essentially one of the most realistic fighting games of all time, by which I mean that as opposed to, say, something like Street Fighter, where players pull off almost magical ballets of beautiful moves, the majority of Gang Beasts battles consist of awkwardly grappling, hugging, and rolling around on the floor with your opponents, with a healthy dash of the more death-defying moves that you can see above.
This is one of the best games this year which have turned combat into an amazing, slapstick spectator sport. It’s incredibly funny to play, and just as funny to simply watch other people play.
by Honeyslug & Richard Hogg • Get it: PS3/PS4/PS Vita
Just as engaging, but for entirely different reasons, is Hohokum, one of the most zen-like game experiences of the year. Your only goal is to control this snake-like creature you see above, zipping around several handfuls of different worlds, and enjoying nothing more than the ideas of color, and shape, and beautiful music.
It’s also a game about tiny ecologies: places that have a sort of stasis of their own, most of which have been thrown ever so slightly out of balance, and it’s up to you to correct that balance just through the act of moving and exploring and touching.
If you’ve ever thought videogames were too noisy, too stressful or too chaotic: Hohokum is your antidote, and is undoubtedly one of the best relaxation games of the year.
Sidenote: created in collaboration with electronic music label Ghostly, Hohokum also sported one of the best soundtracks of the year, available here digitally and on amazing rainbow-spattered vinyl, and also spawned this incredible all-ages art-book Almanac featuring the work of the game’s lead visual artist, Richard Hogg. Both are essential artifacts if you find yourself taken with the game.
How Do You Do It
by Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka & Deckman Coss • Play it: Here
Next up is a game from one of 2014's brightest up-and-coming names, Nina Freeman, a designer from New York City who more traditionally was schooled in poetry, studying especially vignettes from people like Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes and Elizabeth Bishop.
Nina’s work now is centered on applying that same vignette sensibility to videogames, with tiny, one-off interactive scenes, and How Do You Do It (created with frequent collaborators Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka and Deckman Coss) is, so far, her best achievement. In it, a pre-adolescent girl works to wrap her head around the mysteries of adult sex before her mom returns home. This naïvely honest scene and vantage point have gone nearly entirely unexplored by all videogames that have come before it.
What you see above is almost the entirety of the game, and that is exactly all it needs to be.
Kentucky Route Zero
by Cardboard Computer • Get it: Windows/Mac/Linux
Like Broken Age, it’s another softly-spoken point and click adventure, but here, it’s so aesthetically brazen--especially as their own confidence in their methods has increased from release to release--that it's accompanied by this sense that its developers are from a far-future, and have time travelled back to now, dropped this on our laps, and humbly said “this is how storytelling in videogames will eventually work in a few centuries”.
It’s at heart a magical realist game that is--so far!--about art, and aging, and bureaucracy, and the broken promise of America, about finding beauty in the mundane and the romance of the open road, and about the ancient technology of the '80s and how early pioneers tried to express themselves with videogames.
If you only play one game I mention here, please make it this one.
Sidenote: in between each formal episode, Cardboard Computer have released free interstitial mini-chapters, each expanding on the world and experimenting even more boldly with new forms, to the point where the last, Here And There Along The Echo, can be played by picking up a telephone and dialing (270) 301-5797. Do not miss these additional episodes, nor should you miss The Kentucky Route Zero Guide to Film, a key to understanding the series' theatrical and cinematic influences.
by Messhof • Get it: Windows/Mac, PS4/PS Vita
Like Gang Beasts, Messhof's Nidhogg has been a perennial hit at live multiplayer events for the past handful of years now, and was just finally released in early 2014 for wider public consumption. Unlike Gang Beasts, as you can see above, it’s fast, balletic and brutal, but also just slapstick funny. It’s Keystone Cops Do Fencing.
Messhof has spent those past few years honing, sharpening and focusing how players move and parry to make it a true tournament-level type game, but at the same time has also done an amazing job at ensuring that the game is super accessible for first-timers, and ultra-clear even just to spectate.
All you will need is about a minute and a half of playing Nidhogg and you will almost certainly fall in love.
by Ustwo • Get it: iPhone/iPad, Android
Next up is a game that probably a number of you with iPhones out will already have come across, as it's nearly unanimously been regarded as one of the most visually stunning games to be released this year.
This is a perfect little jewel-box of a game — a tiny, impossible MC Escher world, super intricately constructed. Once you pick it up it’ll almost assuredly be over before you’re actually ready to leave — you’ll want this to last forever — but it’s delightful enough that you’ll just be happy you got to spend time in it at all.
by David OReilly • Get it: iPhone/iPad, Android, Windows/Mac/Linux
The reason I called Hohokum above one of the most zen-like experiences of the year is entirely because of Mountain, the actual most zen-like game of the year, and the first from animator David OReilly. If you don't know him from his brilliant shorts Please Say Something & The External World, you likely may recognize him as the designer of the hologram-esque videogame played in Spike Jonze's film Her.
It’s difficult to explain what makes Mountain compelling, or what the act of experiencing Mountain is like, and so it may be best to just say:
You are a mountain. You are born at the beginning, and you spend quite a long time in the middle, alone and mostly just idling, maybe listening to music, or having brief moments of clarity where you delight in the profound beauty of simply existing. At the end, you die.
If that sort of existential reflection on the human condition sounds interesting to you, grab this especially for your PC or Mac, and just let it sit with you as you go about your day.
by Ben Esposito & Bo En • Play it: Here
This next one isn’t so much a game as it is an interactive music video, but I wanted to be sure to include something by Ben Esposito, who, like Nina Freeman, is another up-and-coming name that I think is one of the best and brightest working in games right now. This is the only thing he released this year.
Whatever you call it, this is a great example of why I think he’s one of the best: a tiny series of scenes that are softly surreal expressions of beauty in the mundane, all of which add up to a lonely day-to-day routine, and reflections on and of the lyrics penned by the song's creator, Bo En.
Bo En similarly commissioned a handful of other fantastic independent developers to create interactive works for other tracks off his album (find them linked on the left hand side of this page, and the album itself here), but Pale Machine is where you should definitely start.
Rusty's Real Deal Baseball
by Nintendo • Get it: Nintendo 3DS
Another of Nintendo's top releases this year is Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, a charming collection of little baseball-themed minigames--batting, pitching, calling strikes--for the Nintendo 3DS.
At least, that’s all it is on the surface, and even if that was all it was, it would still be a fantastic little album of games, each of which feel incredible and are full of subtle environmental detail.
But what Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is actually about is this:
A devastating short story about a middle-aged sports-shop dealer whose best years are very well behind him now, and whose wife has left him with a litter of children he can’t even begin to raise himself, especially when he’s busy minding his failing business.
But even that's not entirely what this game is about, because it’s also about this:
It’s a game about Nintendo’s reluctance to enter into the age of “free to play” games, the kind that cajole you out of money by blocking your progress through gates of inconvenience.
The base bit of Rusty’s is actually free to download, and even your first mini-game is free, but in order to unlock the rest, you’ll have to actually support Rusty’s shop to the tune of 4 real-world dollars each. Or! Or:
You can feed Rusty a donut, and be there for him to lean on in his emotional time-of-need, and at that point you can haggle with him relentlessly, until he trusts you enough to give deep discounts to, all against his better judgment.
This is Nintendo at their smartest and most experimental in a way that they aren't able to as much as I think we'd all like, with fantastic writing and a super clever and totally self-aware framework. As a bonus, all the games themselves are fun to play, too.
by Teknopants • Get it: Windows
Next up is another local-multiplayer game, like Gang Beasts and Nidhogg: this is Samurai Gunn, a sort of dizzying feudal-era brawler where, true to its title, each combatant has a sword and a gun with a stock of only three bullets.
This is one of the most stylish fighters of the year, and one where all its efforts have gone into perfecting the feel of all your actions, whether reflecting bullets with sword-strikes, or parrying swipes and sending both players careening backward with outrageous force.
Played at its highest level, this actually feels like cinematic samurai battles, with both opponents holding still, just waiting for the other to strike first and granting an opportunity to move in for the kill. It also works beautifully as a hectic, brutal blur.
The Space Cowboy Game Jam
by Various • Browse them all: Here
Here I'm going to cheat just a bit and lump a ton of games together, and recommend all of the games that were put together for the Space Cowboy Game Jam, an effort I helped lead in order to construct an actual Space Cowboy Arcade in the West Texas desert this summer, alongside the Marfa Film Festival.
We had an open call for anyone to create a game in around two weeks, and got about 60 games back from around the world, almost all of which were tried to do something unique and amazing.
The one you see at top is Lunar Teletext, a game about routing messages between Earth and a moon colony, but you can also find a fantastic corgi simulator, a great game about absent, working fathers by the aforementioned Nina Freeman, there’s one of the best games I’ve ever played about boredom called Always Stuck Minding The Store, and a brilliant procedurally-generated game about bounty hunting outlaws called Expat.
Selfishly, I wanted to put this jam together because I wanted more games that explored that space cowboy vibe--games about 'loneliness, romance, and the void'. Everyone delivered beautifully. I also mention it here because I'd love to see a wider audience grow more comfortable with the idea of playing games like these: pure, raw, tiny gems created sometimes over the course of just a single weekend.
— Brandon Boyer (@brandonnn) July 1, 2014
Even if I hadn't worked on organizing this jam, this would still have been one of my favorite things to happen in games in 2014.
by Die Gute Fabrik • Get it: PS3/PS4, Windows/Mac/Linux
As you might have noticed from a number of the entries above, 2014 was a bit of a banner year for independent developers creating games that you bring friends together to play, swimming against the current of the past decade or so, which has established "multiplayer" to mean playing online, with strangers, alone in a darkened room.
The super-group of developers that put together Sportsfriends have for years been at the vanguard of this idea of creating and championing live events across the globe where people can come together in public and play. All four of the games they've assembled in this collection are some of the best reasons to do so: pole-vaulting team-sport Super Pole Riders, the low-res/high-intensity hockey-esque Hokra, low-gravity ball-brawler BaraBariBall and Johann Sebastian Joust, an extraordinary game about poise and balance.
Super Time Force
by Capy • Get it: Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Next up is a game that is actually every bit as insane to play as it likely looks above.
At heart, Super Time Force is a game along the lines of old run-and-gun games like Contra, which you may recall from when you were young, but the hitch here is that pretty much everyone you see shooting on the screen above isn’t a bunch of different players. They’re all you.
When you die in Super Time Force, or really at any point, at will, you can pause the game to rewind or fast-forward time. You can even rewind all the way back to the beginning of the level and spawn a new version of yourself, which will then fight alongside all of the old versions of yourself that you’ve already played.
So even though the odds are nearly insurmountable, the more you die the easier the game gets, as you stack several handfuls of yourself all moving in formation to take out the same target. This may look like a crazy chaotic action game, and it is. But at the same time it is a puzzle, which you work to solve along with yourself.
Side note: what is harder to convey with screenshots is that Super Time Force is one of the funniest games that’s come out this year. It's a neverending stream of great jokes. And, a disclosure: if you think this guy looks sort of familiar: that's definitely not a coincidence.
by Nintendo • Get it: Nintendo 3DS
And finally, the last in this year's list of 20 great games: this is Tomodachi Life, the third out of an really amazing year of first-party games from Nintendo.
Like Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, this is Nintendo going far out on a super-experimental limb, and creating what amounts to a tiny dollhouse village of people who live in your 3DS. The key here is that ideally, all of the other villagers are cartoon versions of your real-world friends, which you can either create yourself, or trade with your friends who also are playing. You can, for example, add me to your village by scanning this code.
Then, sort of akin to The Sims, they play out amazing and tragicomic little lives. They have insane dreams, they get into raucous fights, they break up and console each other over coffee, and eventually fall in love and having little monstrous babies that you then send out into the world as hitchhiking teenagers.
The caveat here is that this game is only really at its best if you have friends that are playing too, but if you do, the dynamic stories that come out of this are some of the best of the year.
If you'd like to find more even games like the ones above, subscribe to the Venus Patrol Steam Curator page, where you'll find an up-to-date list of all the latest beautiful games added to their store.
To find more mobile, console, and freely downloadable games like these from 2014 and years prior, flip back through a long-running archive of A Fistful of Indies, a monthly top-ten-ish feature I present live here in Austin, Texas, at meetups of our local independent game collective, JUEGOS RANCHEROS.
And if you've discovered or created a game you think would make an ace addition to the collection presented here, don't hesitate to get in touch on Twitter!