Team Joystiq is barging into 2014 with a celebration of last year's best games. Keep reading throughout the week to see our assembly of ingenious indies and triple-A triumphs.
Nintendo is generally a risk-averse company, but with its most recent Pokémon entries it proves that when the normally predictable gaming giant decides to switch things up, it does so in spectacular fashion. Not content to merely increase the number of Pokémon yet again, Nintendo added proper, full-featured online gameplay to Pokémon X and Y alongside gorgeous, colorful 3D graphics. The basic "gotta catch 'em all" gameplay formula still underlies X and Y, but for the first time since the original generation of Pokémon games, catching a Pikachu in the tall grass is complemented by a feeling of modernity and aesthetics superior to anything the franchise has ever seen.
While Nintendo will likely have a very hard time topping the success of X and Y with their inevitable sequels, that's less a knock against the company and more high praise of just how hard Nintendo pushed itself for the franchise's 3DS debut. Whether you're old hat at tossing Pokéballs or just want to add a new vice to your life, Pokémon X and Y are phenomenal games that obsolete everything the series has spawned previously.
When I reviewed Shadowrun Returns in August, I spent a long time figuring out what score to assign. Not because the game's quality is ever in question - it's undoubtedly the best adaptation of the Shadowrun pen and paper game to date - but because on release so much of the game's potential hinged on a creative, passionate community embracing the free mission creation tools included in the package. Happily, players adopted Shadowrun Returns immediately, and new missions started appearing before the game was even available at retail.
These days, you'll find all manner of missions on the game's Steam Community Workshop. From linear assassination missions to complex, multi-tiered campaigns, there's something here for everyone, and what you can't find with a cursory search, you could build yourself after a short tutorial. Shadowrun Returns could have stood on its own as a quality roleplaying adventure, but by offering players the ability to create, developer Harebrained Schemes has guaranteed that the game is almost its own platform on which new stories will continue to be told. If nothing else, that endless font of content makes the game's $20 purchase price seem absurdly low.
As we're still in the early days of the new console generation, the lack of PlayStation 4 games remains palpable. Luckily, indie developer Housemarque has ensured that you'll never be wanting for an arcade-style shooter with the spectacular (and spectacularly simple) Resogun.
Here's a game that, like all the best arcade games, relies on a very basic premise. In sum it reads: "Shoot stuff, save people, score points." While that seems an easy task, the hordes of enemies flying toward your ship and the explosive bursts of particle effects quickly complicate things, and on your first attempt you may only get as far as the second stage. That little exposure though, is all Resogun needs to hook you. Once you've mastered the game's simple controls, you start to work on understanding its more subtle aspects - like the strategic advantages of flinging humans across the screen, instead of politely carrying them - and before you know it, four hours have passed and suddenly you've developed a new addiction.
Resogun doesn't offer a deep, multi-faceted storyline or dozens of hours of campaign to burn through, but it does bring something even more valuable to the table: a classic arcade experience that players will return to time and time again, hoping to eke out just a few more points.
While I still think that Superman could end a fight with Batman by immediately punching his frail human body into the sun, Injustice: Gods Among Us stands as a phenomenal fighting game and the best DC Comics video game adaptation to date. It's obvious that Mortal Kombat developer Netherrealm Studios is as passionate about comics as it is about fatalities, and that affection for the source material shines through both in the game's deeply detailed character roster and its overall balance. Granted, there a few too many Batman characters represented here, and nobody really needed to see that Scorpion cameo, but where else will you find Hawkgirl fighting Doomsday? Or The Joker punching Wonder Woman through a building?
Beyond pure comic book geek spectacle, though, Injustice also proves a very competent fighting game. Most major fighting game tournaments now feature Injustice alongside stalwarts like Super Street Fighter 4 and Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3. While "best fighting game" is a wildly subjective title to attach to anything, Netherrealm has truly hit a home run with Injustice and any fighting game or comic book devotee should own at least one incarnation of the fighter.
You'll see many people argue that Animal Crossing is less a gaming experience and more an addiction, but I see it differently. I see those 20 or 30 minutes I spend each day in my virtual town as a meditative exercise. All day I'm surrounded by video games that thrive on bloody intensity, but for that short period each morning, everything is upbeat, relaxed and cheerful. Frankly, I don't care about any objective measurement of the quality of Animal Crossing: New Leaf because it doesn't exist in my life to be numerically categorized. The fact that it helps me relax and sets the mood for the day is far more crucial than how many stars we awarded it.
On the other hand, New Leaf is the most complete, functional Animal Crossing entry to date. If you're just getting into the series, don't play any of the earlier games. The online functionality of New Leaf by itself makes all predecessors obsolete. Like Pokémon X and Y, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is another example of Nintendo switching things up after maintaining a glacial status quo for years, and here too we see the company over-deliver on everything fans have spent the past decade demanding from the franchise.
Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2013 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups.