There are always a few games that catch us off guard, either because they got lost in the shuffle or because another Dragon Ball Z game always seems like it should be a bad idea. Fortunately, those games occasionally turn out better than we ever could have hoped. These aren’t the best games of 2015. These are the most surprising, the ones that unexpectedly brought us joy instead of disappointment.
We’re sure we missed a few, so be sure to let us know about your year’s unexpected gaming highlights!
Rocket League – Psyonix
Back in July, I logged onto the PlayStation Network, took a look at the free PS+ games, recognized none of them, and then opted not to download them even though they were free. I spent the next two weeks wondering what the hell was up with this wacky rocket car soccer game everyone was talking about. Needless to say, I was rather surprised to learn that it was one of those free games I had passed up earlier.
I’ve since played Rocket League far more than any other game this year, which is impressive considering I once knew so little about it that I couldn’t be bothered to grab it for free when it first debuted. Rocket League is not the most ambitious idea, but it’s a mechanically perfect version of exactly what it wants to be, a lean game that draws limitless complexity from the sheer variety of interactions that’s ideal for both 20-minute diversions and hour-long gaming binges. Learning to read the angles of the pitch is one of the most intellectually rewarding multiplayer challenges in ages, one that I know will keep me coming back well into 2016. – Eric Weiss
Godzilla: The Game – Bandai Namco Entertainment
Hi, my name is Kait, and I’m a Godzilla fanatic. I love the campy, ridiculous Godzilla that sometimes fights monsters made of smog that get their power by huffing fumes from smoke stacks (Godzilla really hates pollution.) And I hate Godzilla movies that try to glorify the military (both American reboots, I’m looking at you).
Godzilla: The Game is made for someone like me, someone who just wants to see Godzilla stomp on buildings, swing his tail at kaijus, and thwart the military and politicians that try to stop him. In it, you play as Godzilla in all his city-stomping glory. You take down nuclear reactors to grow bigger. Sometimes you fight kaijus who are silly enough to try and challenge your wanton destruction. You grow big. Real big. And then you repeat it all over again! Godzilla: The Game knows exactly what it wants to be, and it does it superbly. As my roommate aptly put it, it’s like a fighting game, and you’re mostly just fighting buildings. It’s not trying to be grand or profound. It’s just trying to be fun, and let me tell you, it really, really is. – Kaitlin Tremblay
Super Mario Maker – Nintendo
“A level maker tool? How lazy can Nintendo be?”
That was my initial knee-jerk reaction when Super Mario Maker was revealed, and the logic seemed insidious. Why bother designing an entirely new game when Nintendo could let the fans do it? Modders have been doing it illegally for years, so Nintendo might as well charge money for it and stamp out Kaizo Mario World ROM hacks while they’re at it.
Thankfully, Nintendo quickly quashed those lukewarm expectations at this year’s E3 when it showed what Super Mario Maker could do at the Nintendo World Championships. We saw levels that broke with everything we knew about Nintendo’s design philosophy, altering decades-old assumptions about how Mario’s fundamental game systems are supposed to work. (You can wear a Spiny as a HAT? Are you fucking kidding me?”) Then Super Mario Maker was unleashed into the wild, where people have been creating completely new, eye-opening, and shocking creations unlike anything I would have ever considered possible in a Mario game. It’s the most surprising game of 2015, and as long as the creator network survives it may very well continue to deliver more surprises for many years to come. – Jon Ore
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Ubisoft
Last year, when I loaded Assassin’s Creed Unity onto my Playstation 4, I was more than a little disappointed. It improved (after a month), but my initial impression was persistent and reviewing it was tough. While the story was good, it was fed to the player in aimless chunks, and the solid graphics and gameplay were not enough to redeem Unity next to other games in the franchise. Unity was almost as much of a grind as the very first Assassin’s Creed.
Fast forward one year, and my love of the Assassin’s Creed universe was rekindled with Syndicate. The game was expected to be good, but just how good was more surprising. Syndicate had all of the visual splendor of Unity and the ease of control of Black Flag, and the combination made the new game better than both. Other mainstream games were more disappointing – I’m looking at you, Dragon Age: Inquisition – but Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a welcome return to form for the franchise. – Jorge Figueiredo
Nuclear Throne – Vlambeer
Although not the game I spent the most time playing in 2015 (that’s a three-way race between Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and DayZ that nobody wins), I was surprised, shocked even, by just how many hours I’d put into Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne.
Nuclear Throne puts players in the role of various gun-toting mutants, and the only clear goal is to slaughter your way through a seemingly endless procedurally generated wasteland. In true roguelike fashion, if you die, you have to start all over again, and that particular aspect induced a few more rage quits than I’d care to admit. But I knew I liked the game, and I discovered just how much while reviewing my Steam stats a few days ago. I’d put close to a dozen hours into Nuclear Throne, a game I’d played exclusively in short, five to ten minute spurts at best once a day since buying it in Early Access last spring.
How had this little action game described by its developers as “a post-apocalyptic roguelike-like top-down shooter” eaten up so much of my time without me realizing it? Nuclear Throne was my game of choice whenever I had something more important to do. That is to say, I’d usually play it to procrastinate. Writer’s block? Play some Nuclear Throne. Looming deadline? Better fire up Nuclear Throne. Killing time while waiting for the Uber to arrive? Why hello, Nuclear Throne. Go to the gym? Nah, I’d much rather play a few minutes of Nuclear Throne. Hell, I even played it while trying to avoid writing this!
With quick, tight gameplay, an insane array of weapons and characters, and nearly infinite replayability, Nuclear Throne is a perfect storm of fun that’s nearly as rewarding as it is frustrating. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bullet hell or cloud of exploding maggots to go die in before I write something else. – Will Perkins
Dragon Ball Xenoverse – Bandai Namco Entertainment
Every time a new Dragon Ball video game is announced, I promise myself I won’t succumb to my garbage instincts and throw another eighty dollars at the franchise that consistently gives me mediocre fighting games instead of the full DBZ experience I have craved for well over a decade. Sadly, the pull of the operatic world of Goku and his friends is simply too strong for me, the former 15-year-old admin of a Dragon Ball Z online role playing forum. That’s why I bought Dragon Ball Xenoverse when it came out last winter even though every lucid faculty in my body told me to do otherwise.
Fortunately, Dragon Ball Xenoverse demolished my expectations with the power of a legendary Super Saiyan. While it is in no way perfect as a game, Xenoverse contains everything that makes the DBZ universe appealing to me as a fan. Thanks to a time travel plot contrivance, Xenoverse allowed me to make my own character and self-insert into the main plot points of the anime and its more recent sequel films. I trained under the likes of Vegeta, Krillin, Frieza and Goku. I learned new and powerful techniques. I made friends while saving the world from obliteration. Playing Dragon Ball Xenoverse felt like reliving the year I spent typing out training routines and text-fighting other lonely teens on that old message board. The only difference is that Xenoverse was a little less embarrassing, and that’s a rare experience for me where Dragon Ball fandom is concerned. – Peter Counter
Her Story – Sam Barlow
With Her Story, developer Sam Barlow was able to leverage his experience on the Silent Hill franchise to craft a tense thriller with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. But that’s not what made the game surprising. Her Story is downright revolutionary thanks to its format, a cold case murder mystery that breaks with all narrative convention and splits a linear narrative into non-linear parts to amplify the suspense. With help from a phenomenal performance from Viva Seifert, the game successfully turns the search bar into a thrilling game mechanic, largely because you never know what dark secrets your next entry is going to uncover.
Even more surprising? Her Story somehow managed to revive Full Motion Video without ever falling into the trap of campy nostalgia. That’s why other developers will struggle to replicate Barlow’s unique formula. His execution is nearly flawless, making Her Story an astonishingly forward-thinking game that belies the retro stylings. – Eric Weiss