Just over 18 months ago, when a fair few of us were feeling stifled by a climate of stale sequels and tired genre retreads, finding an Actual New Game was a tough task. Looking for something that would "leave us brimming with wonder and excitement" left us with only a polite fistful of games - and one of those was The Last Guardian, which given its state of permanent limbo probably doesn't even count.
At the start of the year there were brighter prospects, but as we've raced through the halfway checkpoint of 2013 something incredible has happened. Compiling a list of what's new and exciting in games has been a pretty wonderful and exciting exercise in itself, and the sheer amount of surprises that have cropped up in the leftfield has surely proven that, in many ways, this is something of a golden age.
So excuse this collection for being a little long-winded - just think of it as a reminder of how fortunate we are to be playing games when there are so many new possibilities being opened, and so many new worlds unfurling and waiting for us to explore.
The Showdown Effect
File under such a shame: The Showdown Effect should be a triumph - a fast-paced arena combat game with glorious 2D design and a context nabbed from every single action movie you ever watched at 2 in the morning on some weird satellite channel while getting Pringles crumbs all over your duvet. In truth, though, iffy controls, lame tutorials and wonky servers conspired to drain much of the fun away. The promise - and the premise - is more entertaining than the reality.
Actual New Game? In principle, yes. In reality, though, the whole thing feels a little elderly.
Throwing Pac-Man together with Ocean's Eleven suggests a game in which the reference points might become a little over-bearing. Ha. No such problems here. This marvelously elegant crime spree is like nothing else around. A top-down panic-engine that sees you looting your way across a luxurious principality while trying to keep your hideous, bickering gang together, Monaco's the perfect revenge fantasy for the age of austerity, while its lengthy gestation is a wonderful testament to design focus. Glorious stuff.
Actual New Game? Absolutely - and please don't let it pass you by.
Back when we were first trying to get our heads round the concept of Dust 514, CCP's brilliantly ambitious first-person shooter window on the world of EVE Online, there was so much promise. A few months after its release and that's all there really is to Dust 514: potential, ambition, but a depressing lack of solid execution. When EVE took the headlines once again with a show-stopping battle earlier this week, it was sadly telling that no Dust 514 players were involved in any way in the spectacle.
Actual New Game? Despite its lofty ambitions what's holding Dust 514 back is that it's a generic and not particularly polished shooter - so sadly, no.
So some of our own selections turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag - sorry! - but there have been plenty of new additions to a fast-increasing list of games that tick the boxes of that loose criteria we set out at the start of 2012. It's a staggering list, frankly, and hopefully you'll find something within that inspires a little awe.
It's a Capybara game, which really should be enough to tell you that this is going to be something pretty special: Might & Magic, Sword & Sorcery and the forthcoming Super Time Force have all established the Toronto-based developer as one of the finest out there right now. Before Microsoft's 180 on the Xbox One this looked set to be one of the few indie offerings on its new console, but it looks a given that this stylish roguelike is going to be the indie game of the next year.
Aside from the headline first-party offerings, the Wii U's software outlook is still looking pretty bleak, which is a shame when you consider games like Dakko Dakko's Scram Kitty. A novel top-down shooter that takes the free-form chaos of Bangai-O, mixes in some pleasing rail-grinding and stretches out imaginatively across the Wii U's two screens, this is the perfect example of what's possible when smart, independent minds get to work on Nintendo's eccentric and fleetingly brilliant console.
Galak-Z could have been invented solely to make people sit up straight during Sony's E3 press conference. That's certainly what it achieved, anyway, as Jake Kazdal's 2D open-world space shooter brought starbursts of disco orange and lurid purple to what had, up to that point, been a rather colourless slate of video games. Asteroids, with its thrust controls and its 360 degree combat, seems to be the central influence, but look closely and you'll see flashes of Rez, which Kazdal once worked on, in the lock-on system, and hints of anime's glorious past in the stylings. Coming from the team behind Skulls of the Shogun, PS4 has its first potential classic here.
To be honest, Supergiant had us at "We made Bastion" with this one, but Transistor looks even more exciting than the lineage suggests. Set in a vibrant, Mucha-styled science fiction universe, featuring a talking sword as a sidekick, and offering a blend of real-time movement and turn-based combat, it's not particularly easy to tell what's going on here from moment to moment, but that just makes the whole thing more exciting. Oh yeah - and the team made Bastion.
The brilliant surprises
There's plenty to look forward to over the next few months, and already 2013's offered up some real gems that weren't really on our radar at all at the outset of the year. Here's a fair selection of them.
If not the smartest game of 2013 so far, Surgeon Simulator's certainly one of the funniest. There's an inherent slapstick in so much of what we play, and developer Bossa's masterstroke was putting that front and centre of a wonderfully macabre take on a stint in the operating theatre. Awkward, grisly and mostly hilarious, it's fair to say there's been nothing quite like Surgeon Simulator ever before.
Actual New Game? It's a slight and somewhat throwaway novelty, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it's new and exciting.
Sometimes the thrill of exploration is enough. In Ed Key's Proteus, the exploration - tinged as it is with surrealism, and painted with a digital impressionism - is enough to induce a hazy reverie. There may still be those who question whether Proteus is a game or not, but that's a petty concern. It's proof positive that a good walk's enough to clear the mind and soul, no matter where it may be.
Actual New Game? Or actual game, for that matter. Who cares - this is heady, refreshing stuff.
Tom Francis' story has been well disseminated by now, though it's thankfully never in danger of overshadowing what he's achieved with Gunpoint. You could note the superficial similarities to Bonanza Bros., but so rich are the layers piled on top, from the pixel perfect artwork to the lattice of systems that are a joy to unlock, that Gunpoint ends up feeling like something very fresh indeed.
Actual New Game? Gunpoint's genius is in how it takes inspiration from older games and spins them into something new. So yes.
The Last of Us
When it came to compiling a list of Actual New Games earlier this year, it didn't seem quite right to have The Last of Us there. After all, this was just going to be Naughty Dog's formula transposed to a post-apocalyptic world, right? Well, that's partly true, but in doing so the Uncharted developer found new layers of sophistication with its gameplay, and ended up chancing upon something that's almost entirely new: a blockbuster that's as smart as it is polished, and hopefully a sign of even greater things to come.
Actual New Game? Yes, it still boils down to ultraviolence, but it's contextualised in a way that's rare in mainstream games - so this just about qualifies.
State of Decay
The undead aren't dead yet. It turns out after years of abuse and overuse there are still new ideas to be found within the most tired of fictions. Telltale proved that much last year with The Walking Dead, and this year it's been Undead Labs' turn with State of Decay, an engagingly emergent open world action game that's been the finest thing on Xbox Live Arcade this year. It's arguably been the finest thing on Xbox 360 full stop, which bodes well for Undead Labs' inevitable Xbox One follow-up.
Actual New Game? Open world games aren't new, and zombie ones most definitely aren't, but to have both delivered with this much imagination over XBLA is novel indeed.
The world is filled with pretty, atmospheric puzzle games, but The Swapper pulls off a rare trick indeed - a synthesis of its themes and its central mechanics that will leave you befuddled, elated, and occasionally a little creeped out. All of the apex emotions, in other words. Set in a rambling deserted space hulk and hinging on a fancy device that allows you to create multiple clones of yourself and then ping your consciousness from one warm body to the next, this could so easily have been a chilly master class in pressure plate challenges. Instead, the Claymation visuals give the whole thing a forlorn human heat, while the slow-burning plot ensures that you'll actually end up looking forward to the next text log you come across.
Actual New Game? You Betzler! The individual pieces might be familiar, but they come together to create something distinct.
Ride to Hell: Retribution
If a game gets a 3/10, it's probably worth skipping. If it gets a 1/10 , though, it becomes a thing of mystery: a gaping black hole of baffled wonderment. How many people ended up drawn to this pea-brained biker game because it promised to be hopelessly, hilariously, compromised? Regardless of the numbers, sadness awaits those pulled into its horrible orbit, however: the only thing worse than Ride to Hell's driving sections are all the sections where you aren't driving. This guy was briefly cancelled back in 2008. If only, eh? If only.
Actual New Game? Yes! That said, much like germ warfare and that VW Beetle redesign from a few years back (topical!), Drive to Hell is proof that new things aren't automatically good things.
Got five minutes spare? How about spending it on a little iOS puzzle game about entropy? Be warned, though, beneath the candied surface of Stickets lurks a compulsive brain-teaser that will eat up months of your life with ease. The rules are straightforward - a point for every piece you can place on an empty grid, and when things start to fill up, you can clear new space for yourself by matching colours - but the implications of these rules tumble outwards at astonishing speed. You may become good at Stickets, but will you ever stop learning about how you could be even better?
Actual New Game? Yes, and so good that we've had to delete it for a few months to get on with our lives.
Catch fish, and then blast them to pieces: the stage is set for a wonderfully characterful action game, but Ridiculous Fishing turns out to be something far, um, deeper . These waters are filled with strange life and dark secrets, and as the colour scheme grows increasingly lurid, the narrative takes a turn for the melancholy.
Few games make collection and exploration such a reliable thrill, in other words - and even fewer of those are, superficially at least, something that amounts to a simple variation on the endless runner.
Actual New Game? Yes! Technically, it's a remake, but when it comes to atmosphere, there's nothing else like it.
Where did Year Walk come from? There's so little to hint at its depths, at its carefully-arranged absences, in the perfectly satisfactory high-colour treats that Simogo made before it.
Whatever its origins, it's a true video game original - a horror inquest that draws real frights from its gorgeous Christmas card setting, and a game of lonely exploration that nonetheless seems full of vivid human life. There are puzzles to tackle, but they steadily creep outwards until the entire game has become a mystery. Don't read too much about Year Walk, then - just play it.
Actual New Game? Cripes, yes. This is genuinely unprecedented stuff.
Roguelikes are the new Metroidvanias - that is, every indie developer wants to get in on the procedurally-generated action, and we're no doubt a few months away from permadeath becoming a staple of big budget titles, too. All of which makes Rogue Legacy's sense of airy freshness such a surprise .
A game of genuine wit and personality awaits as you venture into an ever-shifting castle, collect loot, fight monsters, and then do it all over again once you're dropped into the shoes of one of your ancestors - many of whom come with their own delightful genetic problems.
Actual New Game? Yes. It builds on the classics, but it does so with elegance and imagination.
Skulls of the Shogun
Few developers would invite comparisons to the Advance Wars series - and even fewer would then go on to solve some of Advance Wars' lingering problems. 17-Bit did just that, though, with this tactical battler that places a premium on arcade pacing as it limits your moves per-turn and slices the unit count back to the bone. This is high-wire game design without a net, in other words, and its success can be measured by the sheer amount of time you'll pour into it. We gave it 9/10 on XBLA and Windows 8, and the new Bone-a-Fide Steam version is even better.
Actual New Game? Just about - but who cares in this case? This is genre gaming at its best.