Compiling my rough list of memorable games of 2012, I made it to 15 before including a single big-studio release. This is not some sort of statement against triple-A releases – in fact, Dishonored and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are two very honorable mentions – but the year's big hits like Mass Effect 3, Assassin's Creed 3, and other numbered games were technically impressive, but left me cold. Small teams and individual developers increasingly found outlets for their finished products this year and flooded PCs, consoles, phones, and browsers with interesting and unique systems to explore and enjoy.
1) Journey (downloadable to PS3) A lot has been made about the visuals and soundtrack to the nameless and speechless character's desert trek, and rightly so, but it's the unique cooperative aspect of the proverbial journey that puts Journey above the rest.
2) FEZ (downloadable to Xbox) By the time Polytron finished their infamous five-year development of FEZ, the 2D/3D gameplay had lost its wow factor. But the developers had an ace up their sleeve: The world is littered with secrets and codes that players piece together slowly. Most impressive perhaps are the environments and soundtrack, which are so inviting that players are more than happy to spend the time necessary to discover every hidden cube.
3) Proteus (PC) No princess to save. No zombies to shoot. Just an 8-bit island and a generative soundtrack to explore. Seasons change, storms pass overhead, and somehow, magic happens.
4) Spelunky (downloadable to Xbox) This insider favorite from Mossmouth finally got the release it deserved when it hit the Xbox Live Arcade this year. Now everyone can revel in the brilliant design that offers a unique level with every life. Surefire winner for the Most Interesting Ways to Die award.
5) Super Hexagon (iOS, PC) I was apparently not alone in making this my smartphone obsession. The task of avoiding encroaching walls that spin, pulsate, and downright hypnotize seems impossible at first, but developer Terry Cavanagh knows exactly how to guide you to geometric nirvana.
6) Waking Mars (iOS) Local development team Tiger Style Games made the best action-puzzle-exploration-pseudoeducational game of the year. Tasked with discovering and growing the ecosystem below the surface of Mars, players find the Red Planet to be inviting and inhospitable in turn, but always engrossing.
7) Spaceteam (iOS) This free app pretty much necessitates shouting at friends, inverting your phone, and mispronouncing made-up words. Get two to four folks with iProducts together and prepare to experience one of the worst spaceship-flight simulators on the market – and one of the most raucous multiplayer experiences of the year.
8) Hotline Miami (PC) Hyperviolence was not an easy sell in 2012, but the duo at Dennaton Games created a pixilated blood fest that didn't offer justification or motivation for the countless deaths at your hands. Instead, the soundtrack and seasick visuals left players feeling woozy, dirty, and strangely addicted.
9) Sound Shapes (downloadable to PS3 and PlayStation Vita) Queasy Games got some of the best artists and musicians from within and without the industry to make a rhythm game that offers music- and level-creation tools that are surprisingly robust without losing their user-friendliness.
10) Frog Fractions (web browser) It starts as an off-kilter educational game but goes from zero to bat-shit crazy in about 798/83 seconds.
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