2012 Year in Review: Video Games

2012 was sort of a strange year for me with regards to gaming. My return to handheld gaming was triumphant, due in no small part to the latest addition to my console collection, the 3DS. But there were also a number of standard DS games that proved a lot of fun - in fact, most of them were handled better than most of the home console releases I played. I don't mean to say that all of the major 2012 releases were disappointing - Fall of Cybertron satisfied my inner Transformers geek while I was able to look past the hiccups in Resident Evil 6 to find a decent entry into what has quickly become one of my favorite gaming series in recent years. But when these and big-name releases like Halo 4 and Final Fantasy XIII-2 cannot impress me in the way that the fifth generation Pokémon games or the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV do, it's a peculiar scenario to say the least.

Super Mario 3D Land: An entertaining blend of side-scrolling and free-roam Mario games, 3D Land keeps players on their toes with clever level design and tactical approaches to enemies. The boss fights do become a bit redundant after a while, and the story is one very familiar to anyone who has played another Mario title. Still, it's one of the most polished of the early 3DS releases, and is the standard by which all future 3D platformers should be judged. My rating: 9.25

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D: When dealing with a classic like Ocarina of Time, it's generally a good idea not to fix that which isn't broken. The game still plays like a dream, though the menus have been compressed and streamlined to make for easier access to Link's many items. The graphical update is very welcome and the 3D effects immerse you even more in the kingdom of Hyrule. Boss fights can be revisited at your leisure, while the bonus Master Quest mode can only be unlocked following a playthrough of the main story. My rating: 9

Final Fantasy XIII-2: This direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII sees Lightning and company moved to the supporting cast in favor of granting the spotlight to Serah and Noel. The two protagonists travel through time and space, visiting areas both familiar and new, in order to correct the paradoxes caused by main villain Caius. The role of the third party member is filled by your choice of a variety of monsters, while Serah and Noel level up at a much faster rate than the cast of FFXIII. The presentation of the game is graphically gorgeous, while the soundtrack takes a lot of bold gambles. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Square Enix released what is essentially an incomplete game, as the ending feels like a kick to the crotch for anyone who played through both of the main games in the Fabula Nova Crystallis storyline. My rating: 8.25

Sonic CD (XBLA): One of the most difficult-to-find games in the entire series, Sonic CD has earned something of a cult following over the years. Time travel is introduced and players must utilize this new element if they wish to access the game's true 'good' ending. Level design designs avoid slow climbing sections that bogged down Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in favor of the high-speed thrills exhibited in the first two games. Sonic CD is host to one of the most kickin' soundtracks in the series, while the boss fights are less-than-spectacular. My rating: 8.75

Resident Evil Revelations: Perhaps the best release the series has had since Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil Revelations shows the competition the right way to make a handheld release that can do more than just hold its own against console retail releases. The cruise ship setting and host of enemies based off sea creatures makes for a perfect balance of survival-horror and action horror, an element of the Resident Evil series that has been widely criticized in recent years. The bonus Raid Mode is no Mercenaries Mode, but is still a welcome addition to an already fantastic single player experience. My rating: 9

Pokémon Black and White: A wonderful balance of elements new and old, the fifth generation Pokémon games include many a new Pokémon, each and every one of which has some practical use that can be incorporated into different strategies when building teams. The games offer a lot of freedom, but at the same require a decent amount of planning and strategy. That said, there is virtually no time required to spend grinding, assuming players maintain a balanced team. The gyms are a tad easy compared to previous entries in the series, while the Elite Four seen therein is perhaps its best incarnation. The Unova region is gorgeously rendered and though the animated Pokémon battles look rather pixelated, the games' graphics really push the DS to its limits. With N and Team Plasma's presence growing over the course of the game, Pokémon Black and White deliver one of the best stories in any of the core games in the series. My rating: 9.25

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I (XBLA): Though the world of Sonic 4: Episode I looks pretty good, the blue hedgehog's character model is a bit of an eyesore. The levels are hit or miss - though they all favor speed and action over slow-paced puzzle segments, two are very heavily inspired by levels from yesteryear. Lost Labyrinth and Mad Gear Zone are not only more inspired levels, they are also more fun to play through, incorporating gameplay elements that bring some welcome variety to the core mechanics of running, jumping, and lock-on attacks. The boss fights are decently challenging, though the fact that they are repeated at the end of the game seems unnecessary, since none of them are particularly noteworthy. My rating: 7.75

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection: Metal Gear Solid 2 may not have aged as well as other PS2 games, but Metal Gear Solid 3 is still as strong as ever. Meanwhile, Peace Walker's port from handheld to console is a bold undertaking that pays off very well. Through both its brilliant storytelling and engaging gameplay, the standards set forth by the Metal Gear Solid series are matched by few others to this day. This HD collection highlights some of the good moments to many of the greatest, and other companies would be wise to follow its formula when planning other HD collections. My rating: 9

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II (XBLA): Episode II fixes a number of problems that hindered Episode I. For starters, the presentation looks much better, with Sonic and Tails being rendered in new, full 3D models. The levels are more original and inspired, as are the boss fights, which include some gargantuan creations by Dr. Robotnik and a few face-offs against Metal Sonic. The game is largely a throwback to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and this works to its advantage, with the bonus stages being more enjoyable and Sonic and Tails being able to utilize powerful combo moves. There game only lasts about an hour or two, and might fall short of the quality of some of the older side-scrolling Sonic titles, but it's still fun and a significant improvement over its predecessor. My rating: 8.25

- Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode Metal: 5.5

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary: Though it may not look quite as pretty as Halo: Reach, this update gives the original Xbox classic a welcome facelift. The ability to switch back and forth between old school and new school graphics is amusing for a brief while, though a few minutes spent with the original version's poor lighting and it's easy to see that the new visuals are superior in more ways than one. Taking notes from Halo 3, there are collectable skulls that can alter the experience and vague Terminal videos that tie to the events of Halo 4. Some of the multiplayer maps have been reimagined for use in Halo: Reach's multiplayer. Halo: Anniversary is a straightforward reimagining of the original - it doesn't beat around the bush, and plays exactly like it did back in 2001. My rating: 8

Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition: From the outset, players have free reign over the thirty five playable characters in Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition. The main game follows the traditional series of fights around the world, in locales like a snow-laden train yard and a bustling Indian marketplace. Character models look gorgeous, and players can switch between a dynamic over-the-shoulder camera angle or the traditional and far more practical side view. The final boss fight presents a solid challenge, and as a whole the difficulty settings are staggered quite nicely. Aside from completing the figurine collection, there isn't much replay value presented, save for the online mode. My rating: 8

Final Fantasy IV: I haven't played many of the core Final Fantasy games, but my experience with IV is easily the most positive of the bunch thus far. The ATB battle system balances new-school and old-school approaches to JRPG combat, while the overworld is big but not too big. The game is a reasonable length, offering up some sidequests but never really losing sight of the main storyline. The characters are wonderful and provide plentiful variation in your approaches to combat. My rating: 9.25

No More Heroes: A cult classic for the Wii, No More Heroes seamlessly integrates use of the traditional buttons and joystick with the Wiimote's motion controls. Travis Touchdown transforms from socially awkward otaku to champion of his own cause as he progresses from one assassin fight to the next. Travis' one-liners are consistently amusing and the game's atmosphere retains a balance between hardcore bloody action and off-the-wall comedy. The execution of the entire package is darn-near perfect, even with the side missions being necessary to progress to the next assassin, and No More Heroes stands out not just as one of the best Wii games, but as one of the best games of this generation of consoles. My rating: 9.5

Fallout: New Vegas: Offering more freedom in exploration than Fallout 3, New Vegas concerns itself less with good vs. bad karma and more with making allies and enemies. Completing quests aligned with one faction may bar access to quests with another faction, so you will have to choose your battles carefully. The wild west atmosphere and post-apocalyptic setting are a brilliant marriage, and the production value shines thanks to the voice acting talents of Felicia Day, Danny Trejo, and Matthew Perry. My rating: 8.75

- Dead Money: 6
- Honest Hearts: 8
- Old World Blues: 7
- Lonesome Road: 8.75

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron: This follow-up to the sleeper hit that was War for Cybertron continues the story of the Autobots and Decepticons in their most desperate of days as Cybertron is ravaged and depleted of resources. There are plenty of faces familiar to veteran fans of the franchise, though the story is a bit too heavily reliant on Generation 1 throwbacks. The already-great multiplayer experience of War for Cybertron remains largely untouched, and as a whole this is a worthy sequel to one of the most intriguing Transformers stories ever told. My rating: 8.5

Sonic Classic Collection: Perhaps the four most memorable and important Sonic games ever - Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Sonic and Knuckles - are collected onto one cartridge for play anywhere. The screen size is rather limited, though the graphical quality looks decent enough. The second screen is used for nothing other than navigating the main menu, and bonus features are limited to some artwork of Sonic and friends from the early 1990s. As a whole, this is a decent collection of the big four Sonic titles, but it doesn't stack up to the original Genesis cartridge versions or more recent digital releases. My rating: 6.75

Jet Set Radio (XBLA): Originally released for SEGA's Dreamcast, Jet Set Radio is a bold title that combines inline skating, graffiti, cel-shaded graphics, and an eclectic soundtrack of hip-hop, technopop, and metal. The main gang known as the GGs recruit new members as they compete with rival gangs over control of the city of Tokyo-to, and eventually unravel the mystery of a group known as the Golden Rhinos. Emphasis lies primarily on tagging specific areas with graffiti, with tricks and combos being a secondary concern. Though some of the game's designs show its age, the graphical style holds up exceptionally well more than a decade after Jet Set Radio's initial release. Both the gameplay and soundtrack make for a one-of-a-kind experience. My rating: 7.5

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks: A Zelda game that dares to break a number of conventions that the series has long held onto, Spirit Tracks is a decent handheld successor to Wind Waker's formula. Set one hundred years after the events of Phantom Hourglass a new Link and a new Princess Zelda must stop Chancellor Cole from reviving the demon king who was sealed away by the Lokmos people ages ago. The dungeon layouts feel largely uninspired, though a couple of the later ones throw some interesting puzzle elements and creative items into the mix. The essence of the Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass are retained, despite the fact that Link's vehicle of choice is a train and not a boat. My rating: 8.25

Resident Evil 6: Capcom balances horror elements new and old in what is possibly the longest entry into the Resident Evil series to date. Three campaigns make for three distinct play styles that are in keeping with the new-school action horror formula. The gameplay hits a few snags here and there, but is mostly a fluid experience. The writing is some of the strongest in a long while, with the cheesy one-liners kept to a bare minimum. Mercenaries mode suffers from a lack of stages, though the three presented on-disc display nice variation in size and layout. Though the major antagonists in RE6 don't rank anywhere close to the evil nature of past villains, the playable main characters present an entertaining perspective on the threat of a global bioterrorism outbreak. My rating: 8.5

Halo 4: A bold new story explores the ancient history of the Forerunners and Cortana's descent into rampancy, all of which places pressure on Master Chief as he races against time to defend humanity from the evils that lie within the shield world Requiem. The storytelling is great throughout, and for the first time, we get a sense of who John-117 really is beneath the Spartan helmet. Unfortunately, 343 Industries has decided to take the multiplayer down a route akin to Call of Duty, favoring loadouts that require players to gradually unlock better weapons and abilities. Firefight mode has been removed to include the lackluster Spartan Ops missions, while forge mode remains largely the same as it was in Halo: Reach. While the campaign is short, it makes great strides for securing the future of this new trilogy, though it is a shame that 343 Industries tries so hard to fix other elements that are far from broken. My rating: 7.5

Pokémon Black 2 and White 2: The first set of true sequel games in the franchise, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 pick up two years after the end of Pokémon Black and White with a new protagonist and his childhood rival facing down remnants of Team Plasma. The gameplay is largely the same, though the Unova region has been expanded to allow for new areas to explore and for new gyms to challenge. The presence of N and the protagonist of Black/White version is felt throughout, as locals frequently reference their actions from two years prior. There is plenty offered in the post-game, from the option to challenge gym leaders from regions outside of Unova in the World Tournament to the ability to acquire shiny Pokémon in both the Black City and White Forest (depending on which version you are playing). Though legendary Pokémon more or less offer themselves up to be caught in scripted moments in the game, the gym leader battles are more challenging than last time around and the League Champion battle proves one of the most enjoyable in the entire series. My rating: 8.75

Liberation Maiden (3DS eShop): In a future where the evil Dominion forces have turned mainland Japan into a technological wasteland, the resistance fighters of New Japan's flying fortress have turned to their eyes to a young woman named Shoko Ozora and her flying mech suit to liberate the land and return it to its natural state. If the premise sounds a little like a cliché mecha anime, that's sort of the point. Liberation Maiden's presentation is very much that of an anime, with Shoko's Liberator mech suit spamming many a target as she maneuvers through their lines of fire, intent on destroying their giant pillars. The game is short and sweet, and certainly intense - anyone who wants to spend time on a few playthroughs on different difficulty settings can unlock concept art and elaboration of the story at large. My rating: 8

Kirby's Return to Dreamland: Return to Dreamland combines a presentation similar to that of Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards with gameplay akin to SNES-era Kirby. The control scheme is rather simple, with everything mapped to the Wiimote minus the Nunchuk. The stages bear similarities to past entries in the series, but still manage to distinguish themselves as new locales, with the later stages proving decently challenging. There isn't a whole lot new in Return to Dreamland, though the ability for friends to drop in/out on the fly is nice, and at the end of the day Nintendo is smart to adopt the plan of not fixing something that isn't broken. My rating: 9

Black Knight Sword (XBLA): As weird as any Suda51 game, Black Knight Sword is a throwback to old-school adventure platformers that utilizes a play with paper puppets as its means of presentation. The levels start off with heavy medieval and Greek fantasy inspirations, and eventual descend into nonsensical realms like a missile test range in the American West and an amusement park wherein there are giant slices of toast. The challenge factor is significant, and the game steers players to gradually progress through the different difficulty settings. Players are allowed to upgrade their abilities as they see fit, however, and can spend points on health, attack power, and extra lives. My rating: 8

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