Mario Tennis Aces has a lot more in common with fighting games than anything else. Zone Shots and Special Shots are basically the equivalent of an expertly-executed combo or special move, and consequently, can render a point to feel cheaply won in a flash. With no ranked mode available or cosmetic rewards to earn, there's not much to really keep players coming back to it either. Online Tournament and Free Play are fine and scratch the tennis itch, but fail to incite a competitive spirit. Overall with Mario Tennis Aces' lackluster (though sometimes exciting) Adventure Mode, finally-stable online modes, and the unique characterizations of every character, there's a solid package here, even if it doesn't feel like it has legs for the long term.
Octopath Traveler's attempt to balance new and old JRPG mechanics is impressive, and mostly successful. There's a charming one-of-a-kind title here that opts to talk about eight characters instead of focusing on one team, one world, and one story. Does this unusual method of storytelling work? I think so, but personal preferences will vary. Some over-long boss fights and questionable dedication to certain retro mechanics mar Octopath a bit, but if you own a Switch and love JRPGs, adopt this fluffy, lovely snow leopard of a game for your own.
Treasure Tracker may be relatively budget-priced, but it doesn't feel like a cheap, throwaway creation. Every inch of its nearly 100 stages and bonus levels has been buffed to a spit-shine finish, and the Nintendo content factory has produced dozens of one-of-a-kind stage concepts to explore here. Alternately a test of observation, reflex, planning, and deduction, Captain Toad's first standalone title (of assuredly many) demonstrates that spinoffs don't have to feel phoned in... and that there's room in gaming to give top-class love and attention to family-friendly creations, too. A perfect video game sorbet to finish up 2014.
The Messenger establishes itself as an excellent tribute to old-school platformers, then proceeds to rapidly up the ante with a series of outstanding gameplay twists. I'm deeply impressed by The Messenger's ambition and polish. It's a must-own for any retro enthusiast.
The field of indie roguelike Metroidvanias is littered with competition, but Dead Cells stands out by focusing on movement and combat. None of its peers feel as good in their moment-to-moment play. The controls are tight, the movement is fluid, and the combat has a real weight to it. Once you get into it, Dead Cells is about this unique state of combat flow, where you're moving, dodging, and killing your way to the end at high-speed. The progression system causes the game to stumble a little, since it's less than satisfying to upgrade a chance at better items dropping. But Dead Cells is a winner overall, especially if you're a player who's all about technique and execution.
Platformers, especially those with a retro flair, come along often. But so rarely do they work as well as Celeste does. Celeste is an exercise of excellence in the well-trodden platforming genre. Whether it's the score that kicks up just as busily just as heroine Madeleine does, the mechanics that build and build with each new room you uncover, or its lushly pixelated landscapes: there's a lot to love in Celeste. It's the sort of game that makes you feel strong while playing it; if you can dash-jump through impossible holes between narrow icy spikes to climb that goddamn mountain, you can probably do anything.