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

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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

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Review

Spongebob

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is absolutely baffling. It takes the surrealistic elements that have grown into the television series, and uses its theatrical budget to push them to the extreme. The end result is something that is often hilarious, and often disjointed, but it is always unmistakably Spongebob.

2004’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie served as a fitting transition from small screen to big screen for Spongebob’s trademark nautical nonsense. It was appropriately bigger, but very much accessible for those unfamiliar with the series. It was ridiculous, but it felt focused, at least considering it was an hour and a half expansion of a normally eleven-minute format.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is much less focused, and unapologetically inaccessible to anyone outside of the Spongebob fanbase. In some instances, it works for its benefit, in others it feels lost in its own weirdness.

Many fans cry foul that Spongebob lost his way after the first movie, and that the series became dumbed-down, relying on gimmicks and an over reliance on surrealism over the clever writing of the older episodes.

One could say that Sponge Out of Water brings with it the good and the bad that has been attributed to the series over the years. It’s well-written and witty when it wants to be, but oftentimes it abandons it own intelligence just to weird-out its audience, which can feel like a cheap and easy way to fill its running time after a while.

SpongebobThe story – or what there is of one – is simple in explanation, but head-scratching in execution. Plankton is once again in the midst of trying to steal the Krabby Patty secret recipe when he gets into a scuffle with Spongebob. As they fight over the recipe, it magically vanishes from sight. Mr. Krabs, and every other Bikini Bottom citizen, suspect Plankton to be behind the recipe’s disappearance. Spongebob, having witnessed the inexplicable occurrence, defends Plankton. This leads to both Plankton and Spongbob being run out of town, and it’s up to them to set things right.

It’s more complicated than that, however. It turns out, a pirate named Burger Beard (portrayed by a live-action Antonio Banderas, who seems to be having a blast in the role) has stolen a magic book – which inexplicably controls the events of Bikini Bottom – and by writing in it, gave himself the Krabby Patty recipe, as well as making the few who knew the secret recipe forget it. Naturally, this sends Bikini Bottom into a Mad Max-inspired apocalypse.

SpongebobBefore all is said and done, events like time-travel, an encounter with a psychic, rapping dolphin from the future, and Plankton’s umpteenth venture into Spongebob’s brain occur. It all culminates with a giant parody of The Avengers, in which Spongebob and company become super-powered CG versions of themselves, travel to the surface and do battle with Burger Beard. Again, this is a weird movie.

On one hand, I applaud Sponge Out of Water for its weirdness. You’ve got to give credit to a movie like this for being itself and not pandering to audiences. When the weirdness works with the plot it’s hilarious (the aforementioned dolphin is involved with Spongebob becoming CG in a moment that feels like pure cinematic insanity).

SpongebobThe problems arise when Sponge Out of Water’s weirdness works against the story. The primary plot seems to get abandoned entirely for a good chunk of the movie, and the partnering of Spongebob and Plankton – which seems to be the movie’s core relationship – kind of disappears in the third act. While the first Spongebob movie kept things simplified and focused, Sponge Out of Water is so determined to prove its weirdness that it forsakes its own story to do so. Because of that, the movie often doesn’t feel like a movie. Instead, Sponge Out of Water feels like a series of small episodic events, with the larger story only taking part in the earlier moments and the very end.

But when it works, it works. Sponge Out of Water makes subtle nods to the show’s early years without forcing them, the movie parodies are clever, and when the writing and weirdness work together it’s close to genius. It’s just a shame it’s all so inconsistent.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is definitely the best Spongebob has been in years, but it still falls victim to some of the problems of the series’ more recent seasons. There are some humorous diamonds in the rough here, but with a little more attention given to the writing, it could have been a comedy goldmine.

 

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