Video Game Awards 2015: Best Content

These days, video games seem to try to cram in as much content as possible to ensure gamers keep coming back for more. Sometimes it all ends up being little more than filler, with some games feeling bloated with additional content. But every now and again, a game seems to throw everything it can at you, and it succeeds in giving players reason to keep coming back again and again.

 

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. Wii U

If there is another game that better represents an “Everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I have yet to play it. Ever since Melee, the Super Smash Bros. games have been filled with bonus content, but none of its predecessors even comes close to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

There are more modes than ever before, with each mode being made more dynamic than ever. There are enough collectibles to make Donkey Kong 64 blush, and a seemingly never ending list of things to do. Play a few rounds of online matches – either For Fun or For Glory – or replay Classic and All-Star Modes a few extra times. Or how about taking on the game’s many Challenges? Or the Stage Builder? Heck, you can even just goof off and take a few screenshots, and then scribble all over them and post them to Miiverse.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the most fully realized Smash Bros. yet (sorry Super Smash Bros. for 3DS), as it represents the series’ love of all things fun better than any of its predecessors. I’m still frequently revisiting it months later!

 Runner-up: Mario Kart 8

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Gameplay Innovation

Not every game dares to do something different. But sometimes, a game comes along that changes things up. Sometimes these are radical, game-changing innovations. Other times they may be smaller, but no less influential, with imitators soon to come by the dozens. Either way, games that dare stretch their imaginations deserve a bit of credit.

 

Winner: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Nemesis System)

Shaow of Mordor

While Shadow of Mordor may not exactly be the most original game in many respect (it’s basically Assasin’s Creed meets Arkham Asylum with a Tolkien makeover), it does have one key attribute that it can boast as its own: The Nemesis System.

The Nemesis System has your enemies – those filthy, filthy Mordor Orcs – gaining in experience and prestige as you play through the game. Should you fall to them in battle, the Orc who felled you will get a promotion. Even the player’s actions have a part to play in how intimidating these Orcs become. Naturally, the more these foes grow in legend, the greater the reward for defeating them.

It’s a simple but deep mechanic that gives Shadow of Mordor a lot more life and replayability than it would otherwise have. And it’s a mechanic that I can see other developers emulating for plenty of other games down the road.

Runner-up: Dark Souls 2 (finite enemy respawns)

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Online Multiplayer

Today, it seems most games give players from all over the world the opportunity to face one another. Online gaming has become a huge part of the gaming community, and it’s hard to argue the addictive nature of battling faceless opponents from around the globe. It was tough deciding which game was the most addictive online experience of the year, but in the end…

 

Winner: Mario Kart 8

Luigi Death Stare

It was a bit of a coin toss which game would get Best Online Multiplayer between Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, as both have taken countless hours of my free time. In the end it boiled down to smoothness. Smash Bros., while mostly a solid online experience, can get really laggy when it wants to. So while they may be equals in terms of their addictive nature, I have never encountered a slow race in Mario Kart 8, so it gets the edge.

But why not one of the more hyped FPSs of 2014? Simple, because Mario Kart 8 represents Mario Kart at its very best, and its online functionality is at the height of the series. There’s no game-breaking mechanics like Mario Kart DS, the items feel less chaotic than Mario Kart Wii, and it allows more players (and better level design) than Mario Kart 7.

In a nutshell, it’s the very best Mario Kart has to offer, for up to twelve players in matches that are as smooth as silk. You can even record your races and upload them directly to YouTube, a feature I hope Nintendo revisits down the road.

The items will fly, the racers will drift, and Luigi will death stare. Be weary though, a ‘few quick rounds might just turn into hours of cursing at your television screen as you get knocked off course repeatedly and lose first place.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Local Multiplayer

Although local multiplayer has been fading away for years now, there are still a few games out there that proudly display the fun of playing games with your friends all being in the same place. There is something to be said about the fun to be had when your opponents are sitting right next to you, and seeing their frustration from their losses first hand.

 

Winner: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Super Smash Bros. has always been among the best party games out there, and the Wii U edition is the best in the series. It does an insurmountably better job at balancing its roster than any previous entry. Better still, it caters to both of Super Smash Bros’ diehard fanbases.

For those who want to experience the party game madness of Super Smash Bros. in all its glory, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has you covered with the best stages yet in the series, a crazy arsenal of items, Pokemon and Assist Trophies, and even some boss monsters thrown in for good measure. And this time, you can have up to eight players join the fray, which represents Smash Bros. at its most insane.

For those seeking a more competitive fighter, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has you covered with ‘Omega stages,’ which strip the game of its more chaotic elements, and a varied and balanced roster that’s more fleshed-out than any Smash Bros. before.

Whether its two-on-two competitive matches or eight-player free-for-all chaos, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U covers all the bases and guarantees a fun time, every time.

Runner-up: Mario Kart 8

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Sound

The sounds of video games are often taken for granted. Where would Mario be without the boing in his jumps or the glittering chime of collecting a coin? Sounds help shape the games we love in subtle ways. The tiniest sounds can help a game shape its identity, and make a great game all the more great.

Winner: Dark Souls 2

Dark Souls 2

Dark Souls 2 is a game that boasts top-notch sound design. It’s a game that has a sense of dread always looming overhead, and that dread is brought to the forefront largely through its use of sound.

The creaks of dilapidated bridges, the clanking of armor, the echoed snarls of a monster lurking around the corner. Dark Souls 2 uses its sound to keep players constantly on their toes, weary of what inevitable dangers lie just ahead.

Then, of course, are the roaring bosses, whose very footsteps evoke a sense of fear. No matter where you go in Dark Souls 2, the very sound effects somehow manage to reinforce the idea that you’re alone in this dark and dreary world, and that you’re more likely to run across a bloodthirsty monster than another human being.

Be grateful then, for every time you hear the flickers of a bonfire, so that you can save and – for a brief moment – be reprieved of all the gloom and doom around you.

Runner-up: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Video Game Awards 2015: Best Music

Kicking off my video game awards for 2015 (celebrating 2014 video games) is the “Best Music” category. Music has been an integral part of gaming since the beginning, and with all the advancements games have made over the years, music may just be more important to the medium than ever. Let’s face it, if you don’t have a game’s tunes buzzing through your head after playing them, something is definitely wrong.

Winner: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Tropical Freeze

The Donkey Kong Country series has long been lauded for its music, which has created some of the most atmospheric and personality-filled soundtracks in gaming’s history. Tropical Freeze does not disappoint.

While Donkey Kong Country Returns was no slouch in the musical department, it relied too heavily on remixed tracks from the original DKC. But for Tropical Freeze, Retro Studios brought back original series composer David Wise to create the game’s soundtrack. The end result sits proudly alongside the series’ first two entries as one of the best gaming soundtracks.

From the chilling menace of the invading Snowmads in Homecoming Hijinx to the free-spirited fun of Windmill Hills to the anguish and intensity of Scorch ‘N’ Torch, each of Tropical Freeze’s stages are as mesmerizing for their music as they are for their gameplay.

Remixes once again return, but they are given new twists – and are used more strategically – giving us a new appreciation for them as they greatly blend with the original tracks, instead of simply relying on the nostalgia. We even get some remixes from the glorious soundtrack of DKC2 this time!

Whether it’s the lovely, ethereal remix of In a Snow-Bound Land or the heavy metal smackdown against the polar bear boss, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s soundtrack boasts a variety and evokes a sense of place that very few video games can match.

Runner-up: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

Tropical Freeze

Its name might bring to mind a mango-flavored iced tea, but make no mistake about it, Tropical Freeze is an inspired and challenging game that lives up to the Donkey Kong Country legacy.

Tropical Freeze begins on Donkey Kong’s birthday. As he’s about to blow out the candle on his (banana) cake, the Snomads – a gang of viking walruses, penguins and arctic owls – invade Donkey Kong’s island. The Snomads go Elsa on the place and freeze DK Island before banishing Donkey Kong and friends. But DK is not one to simply ‘let it go’ and he, along with Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong, set out to fight their way back to DK Island and kick the invaders out. It’s another simple story that’s present only when it needs to be, but at least it’s not another case of DK’s bananas getting stolen.

But story has never been DK’s strong suit. The artistry of Donkey Kong Country has always been in the game design. DKC is all about fun platforming gameplay, creative level design, high difficulty, great music and eye-popping visuals. In these regards, Tropical Freeze graduates with honors.

Retro Studio’s previous DK outing, Donkey Kong Country Returns, oozed a sense of creativity in its level design that not many platformers can match. But Tropical Freeze takes things to a whole new level. It’s often Mario who gets all the credit for Nintendo’s ability to toy with one new idea after another, but games like Tropical Freeze prove that Nintendo’s other franchises can be equally as rich in the departments of creativity.

Tropical FreezeOne minute Tropical Freeze will be throwing you into a savanna that looks like its decked out for the Broadway production of The Lion King, the next you’ll be making your way through a canyon filled with explosives, then you’ll be bouncing off cubes of jelly. Even the mine cart stages (a staple of the series) see so many new ideas added to the mix that each one of them feels fresh. The levels can get lengthy, but they’re swimming in so many imaginative ideas and details that you’ll enjoy every minute of them.

The gameplay isn’t anything radically different from its predecessors, but you probably weren’t expecting it to be. Donkey Kong still jumps, pounds and rolls his way through levels, feeling weightier than Mario but with a similar precision. Though a few additions have been made to the formula. DK can now pluck certain objects out of the ground, and even pick up some enemies and throw them at each other, Super Mario Bros. 2 style. Tropical Freeze also reintroduces swimming-based stages to the mix, after their questionable absence in Returns.

Tropical FreezeDiddy Kong can still be used as a kind of power-up to DK, using his jetpack to give DK a little more distance in the air. Joining Diddy this time around are Dixie and Cranky Kong. Dixie can twirl her ponytail like a helicopter and give DK a boost to his jumps, while Cranky bounces on his cane a la Scrooge McDuck, which allows you to not only jump higher, but also enables you to jump on otherwise dangerous surfaces (like spikes). The kongs all bring some fun to the table, but Dixie is undoubtedly the most useful.

The usual collectibles return, with every stage housing five, seven or nine puzzle pieces that unlock bonus content, and K-O-N-G letters that unlock secret stages. The collectibles will ensure dedicated players will keep coming back to revisit stages long after the game is over.

Tropical FreezeRambi the rhino reappears in a handful of stages, allowing players to break their way through environments and charge through enemies. Unfortunately, no other animal buddies have returned, nor are any new ones introduced. The kongs’ bountiful new abilities may make Animal Buddies seem a tad superfluous, but with water stages returning you can’t help but wish that Enguarde the swordfish could have made a comeback at the very least.

Additional items can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop, which includes bonuses from additional health to temporary invisibility to Squawks the parrot, who helps locate the hidden puzzle pieces. You can even buy viewable character models just for the fun of it. They may sound like small benefits, but Funky’s items will come in handy though, because Tropical Freeze is a hard game. A very hard game.

Tropical FreezeDonkey Kong Country Returns was already a tough-as-nails platformer, but Tropical Freeze ups the ante. Tropical Freeze almost feels tailor-made for the people who claim Nintendo games have become too easy. It pulls pages from the NES playbook, with even a single miscalculation resulting in bitter defeat. It’s punishing, but not unfair. Tropical Freeze asks that its players study every inch of what’s going on on-screen,  keep on their toes and always be ready to change their strategies on the fly. It’s basically Dark Souls with a Nintendo makeover.

Visually speaking, Tropical Freeze is a beautiful game. To say it outdoes Returns is an understatement. Tropical Freeze pops thanks to the upgrade to HD from Wii U, with DK’s fur bringing to mind Sully from Monsters, Inc. Most levels are a barrage of colors and textures, though some of the most beautiful stages take on a silhouette motif. It’s not just how things look that make the visuals stand out, but the presentation as well. Oftentimes there’s as much going on in the background as there is with what’s in DK’s path. The aesthetics might not have changed since Returns, but the difference in the attention to detail is staggering.Tropical Freeze

More beautiful than the visuals is the game’s soundtrack, composed by David Wise, the man behind the soundtracks to the original DKC trilogy on the SNES. The Donkey Kong Country series is beloved for its versatile and atmospheric music, and Tropical Freeze does the series proud. It’s less reliant on remixes than Returns was, but the remixes that are here stand out more, and this time we even get some remixed tracks from the masterful soundtrack of Donkey Kong Country 2. But Tropical Freeze has an identity of its own due to its original tracks, which capture a similar sense of emotion and style as the tunes of the SNES games, but appropriately brought up to date. While most of the better game soundtracks today tend to sound more like replicated film scores, Tropical Freeze succeeds in sounding like a great, modernized video game soundtrack. It’s one of the best gaming soundtracks in years.

If there are any real notable flaws with Tropical Freeze, it’s in its inability to make any meaningful usage of the Wii U hardware itself. You can play the game on the GamePad, which is a plus, but if you’re playing the game on your television set, the screen on the Gamepad is literally pitch black, and has no usage whatsoever. Besides that, the only real things to complain about are some long load times and the lack of variety in the bonus stages (all of which are simple variants of “collect the bananas” as opposed to the wider variety of mini-games found in the DKCs of old).

All things considered, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze not only trumps its predecessor as the best sidescrolling platformer in years, it’s also one of the best games on the Wii U. It can get tough, but for those willing to embrace its challenges, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a modern showcase of classic game design at its best.

 

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