The boundless, ALL-CAPS exuberance of The Wonderful 101 may have been misread by its intended audience. Overseen by Mr. Devil May Cry himself, Hideki Kimaya, this vibrant action game conveys cuteness in its army of stout superheroes, but poses creative and razor-sharp challenges without taking a breath. The game's cartoonish antics and enormous bosses are beyond ridiculous, dwarfing the mechanical cleverness that lies beneath it all. The real novelty lies in drawing shapes and having your heroes congeal into corresponding mega-swords and huge hammers (also: puddings). It becomes a practiced analogue shorthand, not unlike your maneuvers in a fighting game, and the hard-earned rewards satisfy in much the same way.
What a wonderful year to get not one, but two brilliant action games from Platinum. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance redeems a long, troubled development, shunning the franchise's stealth focus for an arrogant dash into destruction. A so-so button-masher might have sufficed if it was coming from a less honed developer, but Revengeance raises and chops the bar in two with an inescapable cycle of all-out slashing, followed by zen-like restraint as you cut a man precisely down the middle. If you think that sounds too violent, you don't even want to know what happens to the watermelons.
Few games are bleaker than Metro: Last Light, in which the remaining denizens of an irradiated Russia are driven into the subway network, forced to subsist deep underground. You're pinned down by the game's cloak of toxic air and tainted sunlight, and even shooter basics like ammunition and armor feel like treasures in the wasteland. Yes, Metro: Last Light is "just" a shooter - often constricted in corridors – but its convincing carcass of a world keeps you crouched, cautious and trapped.
As part of Pippin Barr's overly literal batch of "misheard" games in the 'Mumble Indie Bungle,' 30 Flights of Loathing offered a rote, vaguely entertaining and pointless exercise – and that was the point. Type the correct on-screen letters and a blocky man ascends the stairs; get them right quicker and he reaches the top faster. It's more of a joke than a statement, and like gaming's never-ending XP grinds, collectables and progression systems, it's sort of fun to reach the top, I guess?
If it didn't deliver a surprise, Ubisoft Toronto certainly delivered one of the most well-made, slickly paced AAA games of 2013. Splinter Cell Blacklist is perfectly pitched at an audience that plays in different ways, with a scoring system that both rewards and illustrates varying methods of stealth, assault and everything in-between. Moving through the middle felt just right, and Ubisoft's technical expertise made every roll and takedown feel effortless, even as Sam Fisher made his way through a terrorist plot borrowed from John McClane's senior daze.
A vibrant, breezy platformer in one sense and an intense test of reflexes and prediction in another, Guacamelee flits between acrobatics, exploration and combat like few other games can. The Metroid-style unfurling of the world acts as a solid basis for another clever mechanism: leaping between dimensions at the press of a button. Guacamelee's spicy music and endearing sense of humor completes a delicious, downloadable burrito.
A misnomer in practice, Surgeon Simulator 2013 is a surreal, Foddy-esque game of physical convolution. As in QWOP, a straightforward task that's relatively simple to perform with your own body is abstracted to awkward digital controls. Unlike QWOP, however, surgery is also hard to perform in reality, making this a doubly difficult performance of a doctor who can barely figure out how to hold a pencil, let alone a scalpel. What could be more hilarious, or more horrifying?
Always in motion across a mishmash of North American states, Need for Speed Rivals is a thrilling game of pursuit tinged with an addictive gambling component. As a racer, there's a tantalizing arc to your illegal activities, with active head-to-head races, time trials and chases all stacking and colliding the longer you stray from your hideout. As a cop, you have the opportunity to punish a Ferrari's hubris, stealing the points of a player who took on one too many challenges in their lust for a higher payout. The former Criterion developers at Ghost Games haven't simply made a good car game – they've made a good game, period, that taps into modern sensibilities without showing a seam (umm, unless it crashes – Rivals is a tad buggy). The car-smashing spirit of Burnout and Split/Second lives on.
Soul Sacrifice still surprises me with its bite-sized bouts of monster hunting. The Vita-exclusive game never loses sight of its economy, which exacts a toll for every spell, and tempts you with the chance to save or ruthlessly sacrifice your slain enemies in a quest for raw power. The moment-to-moment fighting falls on the rote side, but your overall progress is neatly encapsulated in Librom, a chatty book that narrates your ascent to sorcerer superior.
Easily decipherable, elegant, and way more challenging than you think – that's Hundreds, a mobile game in which you touch numerical circles to inflate them. You win if all on-screen circles add up to 100, and you lose if they touch something while they expand. This rudimentary rule is tweaked and twisted in every level, gradually turning Hundreds into an evil game of spatial judgement and ninja taps amidst bouncing bubbles, spikes, subtraction circles and other nasty things. Play it on an iPhone – not an iPad – if you want to feel true pain.
It's not entirely fair to describe Max: The Curse of Brotherhood only in terms of other games, but said games sure are good: Limbo, Heart of Darkness and another heinously titled sibling story, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. What Max lacks in titular eloquence is made up for in vivid environments and clever, non-repetitive puzzles. Developer Press Play is also good at quickening the pace as you draw vines and water streams to escort Max to safety, infusing a cerebral activity with a feeling of excitement and phew-just-made-it adventure.