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Gamasutra's Best of 19XX: Brandon Sheffield's Top 5 Video Games
Gamasutra's Best of 19XX: Brandon Sheffield's Top 5 Video Games Exclusive
December 19, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield

December 19, 2013 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

Independent game developer and Gamasutra senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield (@necrosofty) didn't have much time to play new video games this year. But he did still play some great video games in 2013.

I will not pretend to have played a lot of new games in 2013, and most of the ones I did play would not go on my list of best anythings. A big part of this dearth of new game buying in 2013 for me was financial, but another part is I was spending so much time working on and playing my own games, that I didn't feel like taking a chance that this was finally going to be the Battlefield sequel for me, where no prior one ever was. That this stealth action game was finally going to be the one to grab me. Maybe I should finally play Assassin's Creed? Maybe. But not now, when I'm so busy, and want a guaranteed good time, without a lot of fluff.

A lot of the big triple-A games just don't appeal to me, and I think 2013 was the year I stopped trying to find reasons to play them. There were a whole bunch of great indie games that came out this year too, but I didn't have time for them, either. Gone Home is in my Steam queue, I promise! Maybe when this @#$#!% game of mine passes cert I'll get around to it.

I keep hearing from the other editors that 2013 was a fantastic, amazing, astounding year for games. I bet it was, for certain kinds of people! But I think those people are decreasingly similar to me.

All this is not to say I didn't play any games this year. I played a bunch of them! But they were all for 20-year-old consoles (or older), and they didn't take 60 hours to beat. These are all games where you pretty much know what you're getting, 5 minutes in. Games where you can play for an hour, and it gives you something to think about, even if you don't have time to complete it. That kind of game has consistently appealed to me over the years, I've never gotten tired of them, and there are always more games from the back catalog to explore, and learn from.

In that spirit, here are my top 5 retro games of 2013, and what I thought about when playing them.

Gate of Thunder by Hudson Soft and Red Entertainment

Gate of Thunder is a sidescrolling shooter for my favorite console of all time, the PC Engine, known in the States as the Turbo Grafx. (I say it in that pretentious-sounding manner because it really is the PC Engine that's my favorite, not the Turbo, which got ports of less than 1/3 of the games). The game was released as a pack-in with the Turbo Duo (which supported cartridges and CDs both), and it was a wise choice.

The game has fantastic level design. Enemy ships come from places that make a lot of sense - anyone who has played a scrolling shooter before will be able to feel where the enemies are going to come from before it happens. This is partially because with a number of the enemies, the game does a fantastic job of projecting their approach. They will speed in, before slowing down to fire. Or they'll fly through the background first, in a formation they will keep when they turn around and come toward you. It's logical and intelligent game design.

Because the game is so consistent, and leads you through it so well (without holding your hand - the game is a light challenge, but it's no cakewalk), I decided to try to single-credit it. That's the practice of completing the game without continuing. In so doing, I learned a lot more about the level design, and came to imprint it on my memory, as I bashed against the game night after night, getting a little further each time.

What really got me, after that, was trying the game on Devil mode. That's two difficulties higher than the standard. In Devil mode, it's not just that ships are tougher, or shoot more (though they do shoot more), it's that there are more ships coming at you from even cleverer angles. Those ships that flew in a straight line before, now fly straight for a moment then angle toward you. And not only that, there's a group of ships behind you doing the inverse maneuver. Every difficulty level of this game was designed. They didn't just tweak the numbers and call it a day. They made a subtly different experience for the player.

See these comparison longplays (by different players, which makes it a little hard to compare) for some reference. The Devil mode player is some sort of god, I think.



Arcus Odyssey, by Wolf Team

I recently played this co-op isometric Sega Genesis/Mega Drive action game with Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft, and we got totally hooked by its cleverness. The game has responsive controls, lovely music, and a nice precision to it, but more than that, Arcus Odyssey actually plays with you in interesting ways.

In the second stage, you come upon a prison, toward the end of the stage. You release all the prisoners, but each player can choose one of three prisoners to save. I chose a go-getter female warrior, and Kris chose the one who said "oh, just leave me here, I'm useless."

That "useless" character turned out to have a homing attack, which basically took care of everything for us for the rest of the stage, and most of the next (my extra character was no slouch, either). We started blazing through the game - we dispatched the level 2 boss with no trouble. Nothing could touch us, it seemed. But then, halfway through the third stage, we were captured by an enemy force, and our companions were taken away. Suddenly we felt naked - we had been so powerful, but that power was stripped away, and now every movement and every shot mattered all the more.

Kris died during the boss battle, and it was up to me to finish the job - I completed it with a sliver of health remaining, and we knew this was a fantastic game. It had made us complacent, then yanked the rug out from under us. If we hadn't felt so powerful, for a time, we wouldn't have so strongly felt the subsequent loss.

Arcus Odyssey longplay

Super Valis IV by Telenet Japan

Super Valis IV is the final action game in the (not very) popular Valis series. The series as a whole generally stars girls with swords, running on rooftops and through castles and cities, swinging swords and jumping through platforms to defeat a host of evildoers from beyond. Super Valis IV is the Super Nintendo port of the original Valis IV for PC Engine. And a lot of people hate it.

I had foolishly believed what the few reviews on the internet said - this game was too short, and it was a pale imitation of the original. So I waited until this year to play this game for the first time, and I found they were very wrong, at least about it being bad. Sure, it loses most of the cutscenes, and a couple levels are dropped, but it's incredibly interesting to me as a remix of an existing game, like a chopped and screwed version of a popular tune.

You see, where Valis IV had three characters you could switch between on the fly, Super Valis IV streamlines to one. Super ditches the slide move for a dash, and the double jump for a dashing jump. To accommodate this, all the levels were completely redesigned to be more horizontal than vertical, and to place secrets behind horizontal leaps of faith, rather than vertical drops.

The port also completely revamps the magic and attack systems. Where the original used a cooldown-based magic system and an attack that could be powered up to reach far across the screen, the port shortens the attack, while magic now comes from a host of limited-use collectible items. You can store five magic types at a time, and can select between them to use magic whenever you like, so long as you keep an eye on your inventory.

On top of this, the music has been completely redone, and right from the title screen takes a darker tone, even though the original is technically the darker game, with crucified women and severed limbs all over the place. And it plays extremely well. Everything they try to do works. So what if it has fewer levels that have all been remixed? It is a very interesting lesson in game design - how do you take a completed game and make a new version that actually plays differently, using many of the same assets? Modders would figure this out later, but this is an excellent early example.

Valis IV longplay

Super Valis IV longplay

Asuka 120% Burning Fest Limited/Limit Over by Fill-In-Cafe

This Sega Saturn exclusive is my favorite 2D fighting game of all time. There are others that are "better," in terms of technique and execution, but when it comes to ideas, this is far and away the best in my book.

Asuka is a long-running series across multiple consoles, from the FM Towns to the PlayStation. It's an all-female 2D fighter that never hit arcades, with a very simple control system. There are two attack buttons, light, and strong. Hit them both together, and you get special. (On consoles with more than two buttons, they dedicated a button to this.

Every character has similar motions - quarter circle forward and attack, quarter circle back and attack. Double tap forward and attack is usually a slam, double tap down and attack is generally a launcher or uppercut. Once you've learned one character, you can basically play them all. But there's a lot of nuance here.

The other systems are more interesting to me though. If you're getting slammed into the wall or the floor, hit the d-pad twice in the opposite direction to recover. Every character can dash or backstep by double tapping, and every character can double jump. So, if you've been paying attention, you'll note that hitting a direction twice in any cardinal direction does something. I find that significant.

Then there's defense. You can block, of course. But most players of the game would rather parry. Parrying is the simplest thing in the world - simply match an incoming attack with an attack of your own. Characters will continue to clash as they continue to hit, until the player that has strung together the longest combo wins out. But if you misjudge and end your combo with an attack that has a long recover time, now you're the one who's open to attack.

The whole system is incredibly simple, but makes for a very different style of play than many fighters, because in this case offense is defense. If you're always pressing, that's no problem. The "fan-made" unofficial update to Limited, known as Limit Over, adds a sidestep and two characters, which makes the game a bit more tactical. They also added a host of extra effects and modes.

I use quotation marks around fan-made, because while it was released at the fan expo comiket in 1998, there is simply no way some random fans came up and improved upon a Saturn game. That console was notoriously difficult to develop for, and hobby programmers were not quite at that level at the time. I am 99 percent certain the original developers of this game, Fill-In-Cafe, simply wanted to complete this game with their own vision.

While these players flail around a lot more than they should, here's an example of versus play in Asuka 120% Limited, which illustrates some of what I mentioned above.

Ranger X by Gau Entertainment

After praising simplicity, it's time to talk about the glory of complexity! Ranger X is a Genesis/Mega Drive exclusive by Gau Entertainment, which was led by ex-Wolf Team developers. Not only is it a technical marvel on Sega's 16-bit monster, with its wireframes, multitude of colors and blazing framerate, it is an interesting study in control.

The game is meant to be played with a six-button controller. You can play it with a standard three-button Genesis controller, but if you do you're missing out. In six button mode, you fire to the right with C, and to the left with A. You move, including jump/jetpack, with the direction pad. B or Y activate your special weapon. X and Z, meanwhile, move your motorized companion. This is where it gets complicated.

In three-button mode, your companion just follows you around, and shoots when you shoot. But in six-button, you move it independently. This means you can move it into a more dangerous scenario, since it's invincible, and get it to do some recon or wreak some havoc for you. You can ride on top of it, and move just using the X and Z buttons. You can press down and merge with it, having two streams of attack, and also switching out your special weapon. While merged, you hold down to charge up a jump, then release.

It is a bit complex, but once you get used to the controls, it works remarkably well. People discuss button fatigue with newer games, where every button does something different, and new players are pushed out of the experience. That's true! But some games aren't for everybody. Some games are just for pros. Ranger X is such a game. It's a generous and rich action game experience with complex controls that feel so right they imprint themselves on your body. I recalled this button mapping from memory, that's how well it works. Complexity can be a good thing, when you wrap a good game around it.

Ranger X longplay<

Back to the Future

To sum up, there's a heck of a lot to be learned from older games, and I am surprised how much I keep learning from every imperfect experiment of a game I play through. The simpler the game, the more bare its mechanics, and the more you can glean from it. I highly recommend that those of you who have the resources to do so go through these games, and others, to see what you can learn about your own game design/programming/art work. As a fun exercise, try playing Super Mario Bros 3, then Bonk's Revenge, then Sonic the Hedgehog 2. These games are incredibly different, but are all trying to do similar things, and wound up being the mascots of their respective consoles in the process.

With that I bid a happy 2013 - and a happy 1993 to you all!

Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, blog director Christian Nutt's list here, contributing editor Kris Ligman's list here, UK editor Mike Rose's here, contributing editor Leigh Alexander's here, and news editor Alex Wawro's here.

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Sjors Jansen
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Best list EVAR!1!!

Well no. But very useful explanations.
In light of the mario 3 / bonk / sonic play test, I can also recommend: Ranger X / Cybernator / Turrican.

And if you crave more, look here:

@Brandon: Good luck with your game and certs.

Brandon Sheffield
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I passed this morning, in fact!! heck yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Martin Petersen
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How refreshing! Already got tired of top something, something of 2013 lists!

Jeremy Helgevold
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I need to learn to read articles completely prior to responding

Ted Brown
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Awesome, thank you! It's always great to pull up old games for the first time (or after decades) and discover great design choices. They're much easier to locate when the play cycle is shorter, and it's great inspiration for jams.

I'll make sure to play these before the end of the year.

Kyle Redd
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I've been in the same boat as Sheffield lately when it comes to revisiting older games, largely because I've been repeatedly burned by more recent titles that were widely praised by critics, yet turned out to be wholly mediocre when I finally got around to playing them. This has always been an issue with triple-A games from big publishers (though it is still getting worse, especially when discussing narrative quality), but as indie games have been getting wider exposure, the problem of effusive praise has extended to them as well. Hotline Miami, Proteus, and Divekick are recent examples of this, to me anyway.

My personal GOTY is almost certainly "One Finger Death Punch," which is worthy not only for offering great, original gameplay, but also for not trying to present itself as being anything more than it is - a fun game and nothing more, and doubly for being one of the only indie titles that is actually a bargain at its retail price - just $2 on Desura (price inflation is another problem in the indie scene of late, including all three games I mentioned earlier, but that's another topic).

Tom Davies
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I'd say that considering $2 to be a bargain and $8 to be "inflation" is a bit of an exaggeration.

Kyle Redd
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Those three games I mentioned area all $10, not $8. My complaint is simply that they are overpriced for what they are offering. The prevailing wisdom among most indie developers seems to be that you should not price your game below $10 under any circumstances, regardless of its content or how much it cost to develop.

As I understand it, the mentality is that the bulk of the revenue will come from special sales (such as the current Steam holiday sale), so you should inflate the retail price to give yourself room to go down. Lars Doucett of Level Up Labs even admitted to raising the price of their game Defender's Quest solely for this reason, here on Gamasutra ( So yes, I think "Inflation" is the right term to use.

(No disrespect to Mr. Doucett, btw. He's a very forthcoming individual, having published many open and informative articles about game development, from which I have learned a great deal.)

There's also the matter of mobile ports that come with massive, ridiculous markups upon their release for PC and console platforms, something that RPS called attention to very recently:

Eric Salmon
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Inflation isn't a problem of the indie scene, though. It's a problem of human psychology. (Consider JCPenney's honest pricing fiasco as a prime example of what happens when you don't do this).

Lars himself said that in a perfect world, he'd be pricing the game at the average sale price--but people just don't work like that. $2.99 looks much better when it's "80% off of $15" rather than just "$2.99," especially when it's for a limited time. The pricing system in itself becomes a kind of game where we feel accomplished and smart for winning a deal.

Eric Salmon
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Nobuo Uematsu once commented “When I began composing, games could only play three notes at once. I think, in many ways, this made for better music than now, when there are so few restrictions.”

I think the same is often true of gameplay, as well. Even indie developers have so much technical power available that it's hard to keep the simple focus that these old games have.

Wyatt Epp
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I could gush about this list. I'm holding back. Let me just say you have impeccable taste. (Also, now I'm even more sad that my Shuttle can't play CD games.)

Christian Nutt
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PC Engine without CD is... not a good plan

Wyatt Epp
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Yeah, I wasn't exactly planning on getting into PCE stuff; I just happened to win the system and a copy of Final Soldier at a caravan STG tournament. The temptation to dive deep is... not insubstantial. ;)

Theresa Catalano
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When it comes to best lists of 2013, I think you won!

I'm a fan of Super Valis IV for SNES as well. I think it's very underrated, especially it's soundtrack which I think is pretty incredible. It's dark, moody, but still relentlessly catchy. I miss game soundtracks like this. One of the problems with AAA games is that modern game soundtracks usually try to emulate Hollywood style music, and Hollywood style music is usually awful. There are still modern games with good soundtracks, but they seem a lot rarer than before, especially in the AAA area.