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Editorial | Cliff’s Favorite Games of 2014

To reflect on the past year in video games, 2014 has been…to put it lightly, kind of a disappointment. As the first full year for the “new-gen” PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, I feel like both Sony and Microsoft could have come out a bit stronger.

XB1 and PS4

Nintendo’s hardware sales are still nothing to brag about – there were plenty of great Wii U releases this year, and the 3DS came around after a slow start, but not even Mario Kart, Pokemon or Super Smash Bros. could manage to attract the spotlight away from all the grouchy Internet buzz about things like day-one issues on brand-new PS4 & XB1 games, pre-loaded copies not working properly, online multiplayer problems, and so on.

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On the other hand, there were several new games that kept me entertained throughout a year full of so many last-gen re-makes and new-gen disappointments. Actually, some of my favorites include re-makes, but only the cream of the 2014 crop – at least the stuff I managed to play.

Before diving into my list of favorites from 2014, I want to admit that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with certain games that I feel like could have been included here. Examples include Dark Souls II, Hyrule Warriors, Last of Us Remastered, Grand Theft Auto V (PS4/XB1), Sunset Overdrive, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Yes – I really liked the latest Call of Duty, but I haven’t put quite enough time into it.

With that out of the way, here are my top picks for 2014…

Mario Kart 8 | Wii U; Released 5/29/2014

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The Mario Kart franchise finally debuted on Wii U this year, and its eighth installment was definitely one of the better ones. The gravity-defying tracks were excellent – in fact, for the first time in a while, I liked the new tracks more than the “classic” ones featured in Mario Kart 8. The HD graphics were stunning, and the replay editor offered one of the year’s most bizarre memes – the “Luigi Death Stare,” as I am sure you have seen countless times on social media.

Like past games, MK8 offered the series’ “couch multiplayer” experience and went a long way to improve its online component. Additional DLC released after launch introduced characters, vehicles and themes from other franchises (such as Legend of Zelda). Some of the new Amiibo figures even work with the game. I do not think it was the greatest Mario Kart of all time, but certainly the best on consoles since Mario Kart 64.

South Park: The Stick of Truth | PC, PS3 & 360; Released 3/4/2014

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Stick of Truth was absolutely the ultimate South Park video game. Although its initial release version was plagued with bugs that made it almost unplayable, patches were quickly released, and hilarity ensued. As a self-described “superfan” of the show, I can say that the game was truly filled to the brim with references, in-jokes, and the series’ brand of satire. The plot focused on you, the “new kid” in town, and your misadventures alongside countless characters and figures in the South Park universe. The plot in this role-playing quest would fit alongside any of the show’s 18 seasons.

The battle system was a lot of fun, and aside from offering a ton of depth with all the “add-ons” and upgrades, it was very creative and imaginative. I thought it was very clever that many of the weapons were objects that kids would actually use as pretend weapons – aside from the X-rated stuff that you’d expect from the creators of South Park. Looking back, Stick of Truth was one of the most offensively amusing games I have played, and certainly one of the top last-gen releases of 2014. Naturally, it is best-suited for die-hard South Park fans: if you watch the show, you will not want to miss this game.

Bravely Default | 3DS; Released 2/7/2014

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Square-Enix’s Bravely Default brought classic role-playing design back to life in so many ways when it finally launched in North America in early 2014. It was easily one of the best 3DS releases of the year; I would go as far as one of the handheld’s best third-party games to date. The story was based on four young heroes’ quest to restore four magic crystals across the land, in hopes to drive away the evil forces that quite literally created a rift in the world. If it sounds familiar, it’s because the developers intentionally went back to the basic fundamentals of traditional RPGs.

Bravely Default kept things fresh with its battle system, which is also where the series got its name: by using the “Brave” and “Default” abilities to manage your “Battle Points” (BP), you could mix up the actions and commands for your party to unleash a wide variety of attacks, cause status effects, or “de-buff” the stats of your foes. The wide range of classes included all kinds of special perks, from varying stats to unique support abilities and special attacks. You could even mix and match the battle commands and support abilities from multiple classes to really capitalize on the depth featured in the game. Bravely Default was lengthy, and both looked and sounded absolutely fantastic on the 3DS – indeed, it was one of the finest games on the system for the entire year. Now, bring on the sequel – Bravely Second!

Halo: The Master Chief Collection | XB1; Released 11/11/2014

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I said before that I thought there were a few too many re-makes and re-hashes in 2014, but there are always exceptions to any rule. Case in point: 343 Industries’ Halo: Master Chief Collection ended up being the first Xbox One release that made me feel like I wanted to own the console. Granted, I have always been a big fan of the Halo games, particularly Halo 2 & 3 – it was the focused attention on the tenth anniversary of Halo 2 that ended up catching my interest.

I still haven’t played the campaigns on any of the re-makes; I ended up spending most of my time with my true love for the series – Halo 3’s online multiplayer. I picked it up immediately, and felt right at home with the familiar maps, the same controls I always played with…and it just looked so much more amazing on the Xbox One. The Master Chief Collection may have been plagued with day-one problems and matchmaking issues – but it properly pulled off the “remaster” treatment of Microsoft’s most important franchise, and ultimately ended up as my favorite Xbox One game of the year.

Pokemon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire | 3DS; Released 11/21/2014

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The original Pokemon Ruby, Sapphire & Emerald games for Game Boy Advance were pivotal installments in the series, but they never really left the same impact on players seen in previous (and later) generations. On the other hand, the 3DS re-makes Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire were absolutely stunning. The 3D graphics engine from 2013’s Pokemon X & Y brought the Hoenn region to life like never before. Newer features such as the Mega Evolutions, Player Search System, Pokemon Amie and Super Training stuck around from X & Y. The Contests and PokeBlocks from the original Ruby, Sapphire & Emerald games were brought back in style.

To be honest, I was not nearly as excited about the launch of Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire as some of the past Pokemon titles: for most of 2014, my attention was solely focused on Super Smash Bros., and not much more. In the end, these third-gen re-makes were some of my favorite installments from the franchise. Aside from blending in all the newer features and graphics engine, the 3DS games helped me to reconnect with an era of the franchise that I really didn’t appreciate enough in the past. The Mega Evolutions of several Hoenn-based Pokemon (Sharpedo, Camerupt, Sabeleye, etc.) really helped bring some extra “oomph” to the region’s admittedly under-powered and underwhelming selection. Improvements to the “DexNav” app on the bottom screen made it much easier to navigate the world, locate planted Berries and Secret Bases, and even track down specific Pokemon with hidden moves and Abilities. Never mind calling them “re-makes” – these games totally remastered the original GBA versions.

Shovel Knight | Nintendo eShop & Steam; Released 6/26/2014

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Yacht Club Games’ debut title Shovel Knight was simply one of the best indie games of 2014 – in retrospect, it might be one of my favorite indie-developed games to date. What made this one so special was how it pulled off its various old-school mechanics, which were clearly inspired by some beloved games. Shovel Knight was clever, and it used all of its borrowed ideas in such a way that it ultimately felt very fresh. The plot was irresistibly charming – Shovel Knight himself would definitely claim my pick for “Best New Character” in 2014. The quest to save Shield Knight was simple but very endearing. I was particularly drawn to the NPC dialogue and the interactions with the game’s eight boss characters, “The Order of No Quarter.”

Shovel Knight had some depth hidden beneath the nostalgic visual style, 8-bit sound effects, and surprisingly incredible “chiptune” music. Exploring the levels, purchasing upgrades and finding hidden goodies was addicting and rewarding, especially after finding some of the nifty “Relic” items. Some of the Relics were offensive weapons, some were support items, some were helpful for platforming. Perhaps my favorite was also the most bizarre – there was a fishing pole that you could use at the edge of platforms to reel in health items or gold treasure. I could gush about Shovel Knight for ages – if you have not played it yet, you absolutely should.

Super Smash Bros. | 3DS & Wii U; Released 10/3 & 11/21/2014

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The latest Super Smash Bros. games – both the 3DS & Wii U versions – took full advantage of their respective hardware and offered a plethora of content, all with a level of polish that left me speechless. The first time I picked up the 3DS version was when I downloaded the special demo version, and I ended up playing it for dozens of hours in the couple of weeks before the full game released. After putting dozens more into Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, I was not only blown away by what Masahiro Sakurai’s team was able to accomplish on the handheld – I was thoroughly impressed with all the new characters, the stages, new modes, the list goes on. Perhaps most of all, I was ultimately satisfied that the newest installment of Super Smash Bros. held up and delivered on the hype – and the Wii U version looked even more amazing.

As it turns out, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U definitely was even more amazing – it looked so incredible on the big screen, in glorious HD. Just like the handheld game, the Wii U version had so much content that it was almost difficult to choose what to play next. I really enjoyed the mindless chaos of the new Eight-Man Melee, and I was quite happy to see the return of Special Rules for multiplayer matches. The online component held up well; I really enjoyed playing 2-versus-2 matches with my friends, and I found myself having more fun with the unranked modes in the console game than on 3DS. Finally, the new Amiibo figures really surprised me, and I ended up enjoying them more than I ever thought I would. In addition to the Mario Amiibo that was sent alongside my review copy of SSB Wii U, I purchased Link, and used it to create my own customized character. Overall, there was no question in my mind throughout 2014 that Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U were my most-anticipated releases, and they both delivered. Together, they stand as my choice for “Best Game of 2014.” Separately, they definitely take the spot for their respective platforms.