I tried not to push Kid Icarus Uprising on my coworkers, despite enjoying it more than anything else I played this year. It's ... not the friendliest game, and requires an investment to enjoy that maybe I wouldn't have put in, had I not reviewed the game. I hated it until I loved it.
The insane, uncomfortable control scheme is a massive turnoff for the first few hours of gameplay, though I swear it clicks later (and is deeply customizable). The script is goofy to the point of being embarrassing, though it also swung to "hilarious" as the game went on. And the multiplayer takes a lot of "training," being based on the same weird control scheme as the ground battles from the single-player game – and it became the only online multiplayer game I cared to put hours of my own time into in 2012.
Kid Icarus Uprising's high barrier to entry makes it very un-Nintendo-like, and the kind of game I usually wouldn't deem worthy of a second look. I'm the kind of person who doesn't want to play a game if I have to wait for it to get fun. But Uprising's payoff is so worth it.
SCE Japan Studio built a world worth close investigation, full of lovely old-world architecture, signage in a fictional language, and flying vehicles attending to their daily rounds, and then gave players the best possible means to investigate it.
The story in Gravity Rush is sweet and intriguingly ambiguous, and protagonist Kat is an upbeat, genuinely nice person I found it easy to root for. The combat is exciting and makes good use of your gravity-twisting flight powers. But the real draw in this game is simply shooting around, above, under, and through every part of town, grabbing gems to upgrade your abilities and because they are there.
To me, Gravity Rush feels like what it would be like to be Superman, if Superman was an interesting person and Metropolis was an interesting place.
Spelunky somehow manages to be less frustrating because of its extreme difficulty. It's impossible to master a level – because the game is really hard, yes, but also because you'll never play the same level twice – and as a result, I don't feel ashamed or upset when I fail. Failure is inevitable, and that allows me to simply enjoy it.
I have gotten better at the game as I replayed it, building skill rather than memorizing levels and, most importantly, learning how all the elements of each level interact with each other. Everything in a level is part of a system that affects everything else: a trap will spring when you're nearby, hitting a giant frog, who then explodes, breaking the rocks underneath, and inevitably enraging the shopkeeper, who flies into a rage and chases you with a shotgun, only to run into spikes on his way. These interactions are both the basis of the challenge, and the basis of all the hilarious stories you'll take out of the game.
I don't know when I'll ever have time to do this, but I long to make my own "album" of levels in Sound Shapes' editor. Playing through each stage on my Vita, I saw wildly different visual styles and music styles. I saw interestingly designed, challenging platforming segments that simultaneously served to make musical grooves.
I don't think it's possible to play through Sound Shapes and not feel a little inspired to take the simple design tools and make your own levels, and in turn your own music. It's an album that teaches you how to play the instruments used in making it.
Tokyo Jungle hit the spot for me in many of the same ways as Spelunky. It's absurdly difficult, for one thing, and it has unpredictably random elements that are both hopeless and hilarious. Suddenly a neighborhood will be overrun by chimpanzees, or I'll be racing to find a "boss" animal (which unlocks that creature as playable when defeated), starving, poisoned by toxic rain, and near death, and then, just when I've crossed into what I think is a safe part of town ... raptors?
I'm a cat in this scenario, by the way.
Tokyo Jungle is such a simple game, made endlessly replayable by randomness and character choice. All you do, essentially, is eat and mate to survive as long as possible, but your choice of animal, whether you're big or small, herbivore or carnivore, fast or slow, all change the experience of trying to stay alive in post-human Tokyo. It's always different, and it's always exquisitely tense.
The usual combat in an RPG is pretty abstract, basically menu selections as fighting. Select the same options repeatedly, and a number goes up. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy subtly draws attention to this abstraction by swapping the text menus for a rhythm game. Instead of selecting "fight" to damage a boss, you're hitting notes in a classic Final Fantasy theme. It's brilliant even if the metaphor isn't taken far enough in this game.
But it's not even necessary to think that deeply about Theatrhythm. The music is, as expected, sweeping and gorgeous, and the characters are absolutely adorable.
New Super Mario Bros. U
New Super Mario Bros. U was a bit of a slow burn. For the first couple of worlds, it was "this again?" The look, the level design, and especially the music present NSMBU as yet another New Super Mario Bros. game, which interested me very little after the disappointing New Super Mario Bros. 2.
But as I progressed, the levels started getting more joyfully inventive. By the time I was jumping from giant beetle to giant beetle (above), I was a convert. New Super Mario Bros. U transcends its New Super Mario Bros. trappings and approaches, well, Mario.
I played the first Persona briefly when it came out on the PlayStation, but it was a bit too obtuse, and my interest in RPGs too casual, for it to make any sense. As a result, the whole series carried a Not For Me stigma, until I finally succumbed to peer pressure and checked out the Vita port of Persona 4. (So, not really a 2012 game for awards purposes, and thus not submitted for consideration.)
I am now a nascent Persona fan, eager to go back and replay everything. I have since purchased Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game, for the story.
You don't even really have to be an RPG person to have a meaningful experience with this game. In fact, the whole dungeon RPG thing, which is ostensibly the reason you do everything in the other parts of the game, feels ancillary. Living the normal life of a high schooler in a small Japanese town, getting to know your friends (nominally in order to build "Social Links" that make you more powerful in battle), joining clubs in school and taking on after-school jobs (to raise personality stats) are all more rewarding than fighting monsters.
And that's why I played on Very Easy difficulty.