replay racer

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

There is no critical value in hyping any conception of “video game,” traditional or otherwise. The following works simply accomplish their goals, modest or not, better than the numerous other 2014 games that I played.

Note: You can check out my 10 worst video games of 2014 here.

1. Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk’s emphasis on derailing plot, a cue from the Marx Brothers, turns video game campaigns and side missions into farce. (People who pontificate about “narrative” or “gameplay” might be too jaded to laugh, though.) Developer Necrophone Games’ dedication to irreverence outplays Obsidian Entertainment’s adolescent marketing and genre triteness in South Park: The Stick of Truth. Jazzpunk never gets haughty about the artificiality of games and takes joy in the absurd possibilities of the form.

(See full review of Jazzpunk here.)

2. Choice: Texas

Some say “every game is political” and others say “keep politics out of games,” but I often get the sense people are talking more about how game content either massages or insults their partisan egos. The life politics in Choice: Texas reject partisanship to explore practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns. Text-based second guessing conveys how policy, family, religion, school, and work can lead pregnant women to visit and revisit decisions that are as sociological as they are personal.

(See full review of Choice: Texas here.)

3. Talks With My Mom

Unlike Mountain, Talks With My Mom is a masterpiece of minimalism. The game’s focus on mother and daughter confronts the anxiety of raising children and growing up gay, trumping the lack of sociology and dignity in Gone Home’s horror cliches. Even if someone says “not a game” in regard to Talk With My Mom’s ultra-simplistic clicking (which allows the player to punctuate mood and control pacing), developer Vaida’s statement on identity and gender is undeniably mature, non-judgmental (the mother isn’t presented as a mere bigot), and clear.

(See full review of Talks With My Mom here.)

4. The Talos Principle

If it were only a collection of puzzles, The Talos Principle would be impressive and worthwhile. The puzzler further distinguishes itself by addressing the voice of God and the voice of reason. Avoiding propaganda, The Talos Principle magnifies the human vulnerability and intellectual conflict within the Garden of Eden story, an account that is usually analyzed from one-dimensional viewpoints. The smattering of philosophical texts might be tedious, yet this bombardment captures the challenges of thinking in the (Mis)Information Age. The game achieves the most clarity in connecting deity and human as players. The urge to solve puzzles, to be a creator of order, explains more than The Stanley Parable’s smug and obvious design lesson.

(See full review of The Talos Principle here.)

5. Beeswing

One can almost see the human hands that crafted the art and music in Beeswing, but the result still seems magical, particularly during the best video game song of 2014 that dares to express the alienation of the elderly in nursing homes. Beeswing’s checklist of activities represents what a person hopes to accomplish going back home rather than the common attempt in games to glorify content. Even among provocative work like Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History and Will You Ever Return? 2, this is Jack King-Spooner’s masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for Beeswing, but only at the level that allowed me to download the game. Moreover, I do not plan on backing another Kickstarter for a video game. The whole process annoys me.

6. Amazing Princess Sarah

Just ignore how developer Haruneko advertises this game as yet another breast-obsessed adventure on Xbox Live Indie Games. Not satisfied with retro sentimentality like Shovel Knight, Amazing Princess Sarah expands the strategic possibilities and challenges of Super Mario Bros. 2’s enemy throwing. This platformer also gives the “new game plus” concept memorable purpose, outdoing the beat-it-twice legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The rule changes in each version of Amazing Princess Sarah can make difficult sections easy and easy sections difficult, inspiring new appreciation of the game’s five levels.

(See full review of Amazing Princess Sarah here.)

7. Shutshimi

The direction of Shutshimi borders on the avant-garde. The alternating 10-second bursts of shooting and power-up selection defy conventions, especially when you’re forced to choose from power-ups that are almost certain to lead to your death. The narrative of a fish defending his home is punctuated by constant human bicep flexing that recalls the homoerotic overtones of Cho Aniki. Neon Deity Games has created the wildest shooter of our time: a high-score exhibition that celebrates and parodies masculinity.

8. Broken Age Act 1

Tim Schafer’s direction in Broken Age Act 1 is virtuosic. The two stories tie together brilliantly in terms of theme and plot. The voice acting blows away the amateurish efforts of countless bigger-budget games. Although some puzzles might require backtracking, Broken Age is designed to allow a much faster pace than most point-and-click adventures. Broken Age always seems one step ahead with its punchlines, inviting the player to goof off as much as advance.

9. Replay Racer

Mario Kart 8 might have helped make 2014 a banner year for Nintendo banality, but that latest entry of an overrated franchise can’t match the innovative fun and challenge of Replay Racer. Developer Chris Johnson turns every completed lap into a juggernaut that you have to avoid and outrace. By the sixth and final lap, you’re competing against five of your own Frankensteins. If arcades were still respected, Replay Racer would be a hit.

(See full review of Replay Racer here.)

10. Temporality/Snot City/The World The Children Made

Cheat Code: Allow Three Choices for One Spot. Down, Up, Down, Up, Enter.

These three games from James Earl Cox III weren’t released as a trio, but they stand out together in 2014. Temporality gives a more respectful and thoughtful tribute to what is lost in war than Ubisoft’s Looney Tunes/Pokemon treatment of World War I in Valiant Hearts. Snot City exposes formulaic item collection as juvenile horror. Finally, The World The Children Made is a timely adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, warning millennials and their offspring of the potential dehumanization of technological convenience and privilege.

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Replay Racer: The Joy of Child’s Play

by Jed Pressgrove

The racing game comes in multiple forms that can carry very different types of significance. Zolani Stewart draws the helpful distinction of racing games that focus on “stylizing and depicting the experience of driving” vs. racing games that emphasize “competitive systems.” Chris Johnson’s Replay Racer manages to do both of these things while evoking the simple times of childhood.

In depicting the experience of racing, Replay Racer doesn’t attempt to dazzle us with visuals. Stewart’s analysis of racing games discusses visual beauty in Wave Race 64, both in terms of camera pans and art design. In another recent article, Brandon Keogh describes how the latest Mario Kart has an unparalleled sense of place (within the franchise) with innumerable “little [visual] details.” Replay Racer clearly can’t compete with such visuals, but more importantly, Replay Racer has a different focus than presentation and place. Its clean, tiny look is reminiscent of a race car toy set that complements the game’s sensual, nostalgic anchor: the music.

With only a single music track, Replay Racer urges you to keep going. Composed by John Oestmann, the tune almost immediately makes Replay Racer into part of a fond memory, subliminally conveying the bliss of childhood. A sense of wonder and adventure allows the music to transcend what’s going on in the game, much like a child’s imagination that transcends the limitations of toys and environments. The neverending quality of Oestmann’s composition encourages you to continue what Stewart affectionately calls a “revolving cycle.”

Of course, the top-down perspective of Replay Racer makes for a different kind of revolving cycle than what you’ll find in Hang-On, Wave Race 64, and the Mario Kart series. Those latter games create more compelling settings, but the old-school perspective in Replay Racer is the best fit for Chris Johnson’s gameplay innovation. The competitive system of Replay Racer revolves around the idea of the time trial mode in Mario Kart: beating your best time on a given track, which can then be compared to other people’s best times. But unlike Mario Kart’s time trial, you’re not racing against the “ghost” of your best time on a track. Every lap you complete represents the pathway of a new physical threat for the next lap(s). By the sixth and final lap of a track, you are making your way around five cars that are taking the exact paths that you took in the previous five laps. The top-down perspective gives you better vision for the resulting bumper car dynamics, though “bumper car” isn’t quite accurate — you can’t alter the paths of the cars in your way. Essentially, you create a juggernaut with each lap.

You’re not just racing around these physical manifestations of your former laps, though. There’s also a timer involved, and the only way you can increase the seconds is by finishing a lap. Thus, getting the best time on a track in Replay Racer requires far more strategic thought than a run-of-the-mill time trial exercise. You have to complete each lap with the knowledge that your position during any part of a lap can slow you down on a subsequent lap and put you in danger of running out of time and having to start back at the first lap.

Of course, you could try to improvise every lap, but when your reflexes and intuition fail, you become at risk of running out of time. The game is challenging enough when you think ahead. Not only do you have to try to remember how you raced each lap, but you have to deal with the fact that the track width can barely contain five cars, much less the six cars during the final and most crucial lap. The lack of space might lead you to little shortcuts in the grass that can work in your favor. There are fewer things more satisfying in a race than being rewarded for going off the main track (I very fondly remember discovering shortcuts in the first Mario Kart). Although having a plan is important in Replay Racer, the improvisational moments within your plan exemplify what Stewart calls the “intense and intimate precision” that characterizes the joy of racing.

It’s important to recognize Replay Racer isn’t a gimmick. Chris Johnson has devised a fresh single-player race where every car is generated by you. This level of player control allows Replay Racer to be closer to the experience of playing with toy race cars. Sure, trying to beat all the top times on Game Jolt’s leaderboard is fun, but Replay Racer does more than scratch a competitive itch. It uplifts in a way that Nintendo’s well-milked Mario Kart franchise no longer can.