Star Wars PosterAs I’ve been sifting through reactions to Star Wars: The Force Awakens it’s been pretty much a unanimous success. Fans old and new appreciate it as both as standalone film and a soft reboot. It’s apparent their goal was to structure it in a way to feel familiar, almost like a love letter to the childhood of all those 40-somethings. I’m not going to go into any details or spoilers of TFA at this point since I’m sure there are plenty waiting to see it still. All I’ll say is what everyone is openly saying: TFA is A New Hope for this generation. I see all the parallels, understood all the throwbacks, but my reaction is far from everyone else’s that was at that magical age when the original trilogy was released in 1977-1983. Watching reviews I had a realization that I’ve fallen into a weird gap of time where I can’t claim any trilogy as my own.

I was born in 1984. I didn’t watch any form of Star Wars until the Special Editions were on the hype train to rerelease in theaters, so 1996/1997. Even then it was a sub-optimal experience going into it as it was an old hat for everyone else. There was no air of surprise, no mystery, no suspense. All the big story beats and spoilers were public knowledge and it kept them from being great for me. Even my own mother chimed in while I was first watching The Empire Strikes Back with “Did you find out that they’re brother and sister yet?”. Being able to plow through the whole trilogy in an entire weekend eliminated any time to reflect and wonder on where the story might go next. Usually for me those moments allow for the excitement to build with endless possibilities. It was one of the better parts of watching Lost when it was airing versus returning to binge watch it on Netflix or DVD. I still fell in love with the world, it’s lore, and aspects of the story… but it was well past the point where I could connect emotionally with New Hope, Empire, and Return of the Jedi unfortunately.

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The term “ludonarrative dissonance” was an interesting concept when first proposed. The core of the idea is there’s an uncomfortable disconnect between the story being told and the actions of the playable character which then corrupts the experience for the player. A common example is Lara Croft struggling emotionally with her first kill in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, followed by a guilt free murder spree for the next 15 hours of gameplay. What was an intense struggle for her an hour ago in-game has become as easy as changing channels on the remote. It doesn’t throw me off. Games aren’t reality after all, and expecting them to mirror our world is a strange goal to chase.

I understand the knee-jerk reaction to be thrown off by this gaming specific phenomenon. For starters it comes built on the idea of games as a Hollywood-film substitute. You can’t really blame players for expecting that either since it’s been the intent of game publishing bean counters to replicate Hollywood for the potential crossover audience. Hell, it’s not even an oddity in passing years for film directors to become involved with game creation, the most recently notable project being P.T./Silent Hills that was set to be a collaborative effort with Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame. It’s remarkable how much has changed in the relationship between games and film given their start of cheaply made tie-in products meant to turn an easy buck from impulse buyers. The lack of new ideas within Hollywood at the turn of the century now has them knocking on the doors of video game publishers for the rights to create derivative films since games are continuing to outsell films annually.

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PSP-1001 Straight OnI’ve had a long history of spending hours with handheld gaming. Thinking on it I’d have to say it goes all the way back to the original GameBoy. I’m sure for most that’s where it starts in one form or another. Nintendo really put some legs on that machine, stretching it out until 2001 when they finally released a successor in the form of GameBoy Advance. For some perspective on just how incredibly long of a shelf life it had, before transitioning to complete support of the GBA Nintendo had sold the original NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube while selling original GameBoy games. Sure there was a flurry of redesigns with the GameBoy Color, GameBoy Light, and GameBoy Pocket – All of which were spruced up form factors that shared the same gaming library. Nintendo established a firm lock on the handheld market and created a rich legacy of portable experiences. Several other companies tried to jump in with their own offerings, all of which were met with weak sales before eventual abandonment. Atari Lynx, Sega GameGear, Tiger’s Game.Com, Bandai WonderSwan, and the side talking Nokia N-Gage to name a few.

There’s a good reason why Nintendo has held the market as tightly as they did. Personally I have a ton of fond memories with the original GameBoy. Even before Pokemon took the world by storm, I dumped tons of hours into both of the Super Mario Lands, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Tetris. That torch carried into the GBA’s remodel (the GBA SP) as it was the only system I owned for awhile. I remember spending countless nights playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or one of several SNES era ports/spiritual sequels like Metroid Zero Mission or Mario Kart Super Circuit. Nintendo always stacked a potent and varied catalog of games that pulled you into that tiny sub-3″ screen. Speaking of which having a backlit screen and rechargeable lithium-ion battery made it the perfect solution to play in bed. Eventually they had to lose some steam though and the DS released to an eager audience with no new content. Thankfully Nintendo had the foresight to include the ability to play GameBoy and GameBoy Advance cartridges to help carry new owners through that drought. It wasn’t until the DS Lite launched that it really caught fire by it’s own right and eventually grew to become the best selling handheld system of all time at 154m units sold. Between the DS and the Wii, Nintendo was banking enough money to buy an island made of pure gold. Times were good and Nintendo remained untouchable in the handheld space. There’s always another side to every tale though…

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Another year of gaming has come and gone. 2015 was a helluva year for releases too. As per usual I was mostly behind the times catching up with all the big releases of last year so some of the bigger titles escaped me for now… Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Bloodborne at the top of that list. Most of those will make plenty of other’s Game of the Year lists I’m sure so I’ll likely be playing them next year anyways. This year for me was a lot more about reclaiming that feeling that makes gaming so appealing for me. Just enjoying fun experiences, adventuring, falling in love with a world and it’s characters, and having joyous feelings in the process. With the mood I’ve been vibing with all year not many GrimDark titles really caught my eye enough to spend some time on them. I opted to focus on playing what was speaking to me, not necessarily what I was told I needed to be playing because it’s a GotY contender. For the most part it’s been an awesome year of games for me because of it.

Now: The criteria for my list. I’m staying consistent with last year’s requirements but appending them a bit. Games DO NOT have to be released in 2015, they only have to be first played that year. With the rate games release, the way they release, and ports work this day and age it’s silly to discount a game I missed in 2013 because it was PC only if it only became available in 2015 on PS4. Keeping with that spirit I feel my favorite experiences of the year shouldn’t be tied down to the period they were commercially available. I’m sure I’m not alone with only playing a handful of current releases each year either. So for example in 2014 I wasn’t able to get around to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This ended up being a game I played in Spring 2015 for the first time. Simply stated – If the first time I’ve played it falls between January 1st and December 31st of this year, it’s fair game. This includes remakes/remasters as their own entry. After all if I’m making a list of the games I’ve enjoyed the most this year, why not?

Huge shock to me as this year was dominated by episodic series, as three of my top 10 were story-driven series. I think they’re slowly becoming my modern equivalent of RPGs by offering a competent story with characters I’m invested in, but in digestible bites during my adult life. Anyways with 44 games completed this year, here are my favorites of 2015.

Rocket League

Bronze Medal – Rocket League

Kicking off this list for the bronze is the ultra-polished indie hit, Rocket League. Getting a huge boost of players by being offered as a PS+ freebie and allowing cross-play with PC users really helped getting the conversation going around Rocket League. For me it really became the perfect “pick-up and play for 15 minutes” game amidst whatever heavy open-world games I may have been wrapped in at the time. In a nutshell RL has you playing soccer with a team of 1-4 RC cars equipped with nitro boosters and excessively fun physics. As usual with physics driven games the joy really comes from learning exactly how the world’s objects plays against each other. Figuring that out and working with transferring momentum, flying off of the walls, or using a rocket-fueled rush to crush a shot into the back of the net just feels amazing. I got so captivated during my time with this that I ended up writing a guide as I pieced together how to approach it, translating the techniques that worked for me so others would be willing to jump up and have fun. If there was ever a game that really embraced the ridiculous heights you can explore with the medium this would be it. Also a nice rarity these days is it offers the ability to play split-screen so you can couch co-op with a buddy. It’s already available on PC/PS4 and is soon coming to X1 so really you have no excuse not to try this out at some point if you’ve somehow eluded the elated euphoria from this exciting experience.

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Over a decade of excitement leads here.

A bit of history for those that don’t hold this PS1 era JRPG close to their hearts:

  • Back at E3 2005 Square-Enix provided a tech demo for Final Fantasy VII to showcase the PlayStation 3’s power. Then promptly put a boot to the face of every fan by stating it could never be remade to look like that, it was only a tech demo.
  • An epic-tier trolling occurs the first PlayStation Experience event in 2014 where they announced a PS4 port of FF7 no one expected it would be announced. We all thought it was an HD remake being announced, but alas… We’re doomed to suffer Popeye-arms Cloud & crew still.
  • E3 2015 rolled around the usual rumors and speculation were making the rounds that Sony would have a trailer for a Final Fantasy VII Remake.  Then The general consensus at this point was the game would be vaporware or release on PlayStation 5. In their own words, the promise made real as the trailer played. It was finally happening.
  • PlayStation Experience 2015 surprised everyone by opening with intercut gameplay and cinematic trailer rendered in-game of the now officially titled Final Fantasy VII: Remake

So in a nutshell, a full decade has passed of excitement for this. Hype train is in full effect as this is not only becoming a reality, but is expected to come to non-PlayStation platforms as well. Even rumors of Nintendo’s Wii U successor, the NX, are suggesting it will land there as well. PC and X1 are expected to support it too. Everyone gets to experience this massive undertaking so we should all be rejoicing… Then about 32 hours after that trailer Square-Enix drops a bomb on all the excited fans sending my Twitter bubble into either utter disbelief or complete rage.

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