Once again it's time to dig through the massive amounts of amazing video games released this year to pick a celebrated few that would make fantastic gifts for friends, family, or that special person in your life (or even yourself — tis the season, right?). This year we have selection of games to consider featuring famous fighting mascots, swinging gorillas, plumbers in fast cars, white hat hackers, a trio of criminals back for an encore, a pink puffball with a bottomless stomach, a gallant knight armed with a shovel, a collection of 8-bit classics reworked into microgame form, and so much more. You won't go wrong with these picks.
Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, includes the original Bayonetta)
Once upon a time there was a game published by Sega starring a scantily-clad witch with awesome powers who fought her way through some bizarre action sequences. The game, Bayonetta, was a critical darling for the PS3 and X360, but it didn't sell well enough to warrant a sequel. Nintendo saw potential though and bankrolled the sequel as a Wii U exclusive as well as a revised edition of the original game that ironed out some of the technical snags from the other versions and adds new exclusive features. Now both are available in a $60 single package. Bayonetta 2 follows on from the original game with more action, larger set pieces, crazier boss battles, and a loopy story that doesn't make sense (but just roll with it; you'll be happier that way). Rated M for a very good reason thanks to sexual innuendos and adult references, the Bayonetta games may appear out of place in the Wii U library, but they are very welcome there.
The story of how two Japanese video game hardware manufacturers clashed in the marketplace during the 1990s has become the stuff of legend and is the topic of Blake J. Harris's acclaimed Console Wars. Detailing the amazing story of how Sega and Nintendo battled it out for gaming supremacy in the era that brought us Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, blast processing, and Mode 7, Harris crafts an engaging narrative culled from interviews with the major power players in charge of both companies. It's very much inside baseball about an era that many of us remember fondly, but it should be required reading for anyone interested in the video gaming industry and how the sausage is made. Don't wait for the movie. Read the book. For more on Console Wars, don't miss our interview with the author on Episode 134 of the Power Button podcast.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Wii U)
Donkey Kong and his clan are in good hands with developer Retro Studios who are back with the sequel to 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns. Adding Cranky Kong to the mix as a playable character for the first time alongside the returning Diddy and (finally!) Dixie Kong to serve as sidekicks to DK himself, the Kongs are on a quest to retake DK Isle from an invading band of viking animals from the cold north including walruses, penguins, and sea lions. Tropical Freeze packs in just as much challenge as its predecessor, demanding perfect performance and hop 'n' nop repetition until players master each level. Don't expect to just coast through this one. You'll lose just as often as you win if not more so. It's well worth the frustration though. DK Isle wasn't retaken in a day!
Grand Theft Auto V (PS4 / X1)
It's rare that a game makes a repeat appearance on this list (the PS3 and X360 versions were featured last year), but the updated edition of Grand Theft Auto V for the PS4 and X1 deserves a look. In addition to all of the mayhem from last year's editions, this new release includes additional side missions, new weapons & vehicles, enhanced visuals, new music on the on-game radio stations (this may be the first game to include music from the Ghostbusters II soundtrack since 1989), and a head-turning optional first-person camera perspective. Those who played the game last generation can unlock bonus extras such as a blimp and new weapons, plus progress from the multiplayer GTA Online side of the game transfers to this new version as well. Shooting around Blaine County has never been so much fun.
Kirby: Triple Deluxe (3DS)
You can always count on Kirby's platforming titles for some simple but fulfilling fun and the character's latest adventure is no exception. When a magical dreamstalk lifts key Dream Land locations high up into the sky realm of Floralia, Kirby must climb the stalk and get to the bottom of the mystery of the lifted landmarks. It's traditional side-scrolling platforming with a 3D twist as obstacles and hazard assault Kirby from different background layers. Grab the new hypernova ability to truly become an unstoppable eating machine! As an added bonus, the game includes two mini-games: Kirby Fighters and Dedede's Drum Dash. The former is a Smash Bros.-type challenge featuring all of Kirby's powers while the latter is a rhythm platformer starring Dream Land's self-appointed monarch. Neither are very deep, but they provide an added distraction. The main quest is where the real action waits.
Hyrule Warriors (Wii U)
Mixing The Legend of Zelda with Dynasty Warriors sounds like it shouldn't work at all, but this Tecmo-Koei/Nintendo co-production is one of the year's most surprising releases and is a must-play for fans of the Zelda franchise. When evil rises up once again in Hyrule, the heroic Link and Princess Zelda form a superteam of the heroes from past Zelda games including Midna from Twilight Princess, Impa from Ocarina of Time, Fi from Skyward Sword, and many more. Even Ganon and his minions get some time in the spotlight as playable characters (and as a Zelda fan, you haven't lived until you've seen Ganon open a treasure chest, pull out an item, and hold it over his head with a big smile on his face). Optional downloadable expansions add even more to the experience, but there's plenty in the base package to justify a purchase. This one will keep the Zelda fan in your life busy for quite a while.
Infamous: Second Son and Infamous: First Light (PS4)
Debuting earlier this year as the first PS4 exclusive title really worth owning, this latest installment in the Infamous series introduces new protagonist Delsin Rowe as he explores a post-Cole MacGrath world of Conduits and the government force dispatched to keep the superpowered citizenry in line by any means necessary. Second Son is a showcase piece for developer Sucker Punch with its impressive visuals and smooth action. They knew this game would turn heads so much that they added a special photography mode in a post-release patch. There's plenty to explore in the not-too-distant future of Seattle, and armed with superpowers based on smoke, neon, and video, it becomes a true playground. Want more? There's a separate prequel adventure, Infamous: First Light, that builds on the story of the game's most intriguing side characters, Abigail "Fetch" Walker. For more in Infamous: Second Son, check out Episodes 124 and 135 of the Power Button podcast.
Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
The release of a new Mario Kart game is always cause for celebration. This latest installment adds gravity-defying karts to the formula which allows for tracks that bend and wrap upside-down and around themselves. It's a trip! New characters including all seven Koopalings join the fun along with new items such as the Boomerang Flower and the Super Horn. A variety of new courses based on familiar Mushroom Kingdom locations stand alongside familiar retro courses spanning from the original Super NES game through Mario Kart 7 as has become Mario Kart tradition in the past few years, while the optional downloadable expansion adds new tracks based on F-Zero and Excitebike alongside The Legend of Zelda's Link himself has a playable character. Online multiplayer just increases the longevity and replay value. It's hard to go wrong when giving Mario Kart has a gift.
NES Remix (Wii U / 3DS)
Nintendo's massive library of Nintendo Entertainment System classics gets a fresh look in the NES Remix series in which beloved titles like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Kirby's Adventure, and even Ice Climber are sliced up into small microgame challenges. How quickly can you collect coins, defeat moblins, or beat King Dedede? Can you knock out Glass Joe in Punch-Out!! before time runs out? How about clearing all of the viruses in a Dr. Mario stage? Are you up for a Zelda II boss rush? Put your retro skills to the test. In addition to being available as two separate eShop purchases on Wii U, NES Remix is available as a two-in-one Wii U disc and a special Ultimate NES Remix best-of compilation for 3DS. Any flavor is worth playing.
Shovel Knight (Wii U / 3DS / PC / Mac)
Take up the blade — the shovel blade, that is — and smite evil in this debut downloadable title from Yacht Club Games. After losing his beloved Shield Knight in a battle gone wrong, the valiant Shovel Knight returns to action after a mourning period of seclusion to fight back against the evil Empress and her knights of The Order of No Quarter. This inspired take on the retro 2D platformer mixes the best of Mega Man, DuckTales, and Super Mario Bros. and is a must-play for every fan of the genre. For more on Shovel Knight, listen to our development interview on Episode 138 of the Power Button podcast.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (PS4 / X1 / PC)
Here's another great game from the PS3/X360 era given a fresh coat of paint and packed in with all of the downloadable expansion content. Presented this time as the Definitive Edition of Sleeping Dogs, players are invited to go undercover as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American police officer who infiltrates the Sun On Yee Triad organization. Explore the detailed world of Hong Kong as Shen is caught in the middle of gang wars, police in-fighting, and his own personal life. Think of it as Batman: Arkham City meets Grand Theft Auto V by way of Assassin's Creed II in that free-flowing combat meets a detailed, lifelike open world city with a historical backstory in play. Missed it the first time around? Don't let this one pass yet again. Since this version is so definitive, it also includes the Year of the Snake and Nightmare at North Point expansions as well as more than twenty other smaller DLC packages including weapons and items.
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U (3DS / Wii U)
It's always a special occasion when Nintendo's best come together to beat the stuffing out of one another, and this year we're fortunate enough to have two new Super Smash Bros. games to enjoy. Both the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U each host the title with platform-specific features included for each. The 3DS version boasts the special Smash Run platformer mode and StreetPass options while the Wii U edition includes a new party mode and other surprises. New characters such as Bowser Jr., the Duck Hunt dog and duck, and Capcom's beloved Mega Man join the fight alongside returning favorites such as Mario, Link, Kirby, and Sega's poor Sonic the Hedgehog. Track down an optional GameCube controller adapter and you can play using your Super Smash Bros. Melee muscle memory, too. These are the Nintendo games to own this year and will entertain for years to come.
Watch Dogs (PS4 / X1 / PC / PS3 / X360 / Wii U)
Ubisoft's big new franchise for the new generation of video game consoles turned a lot of heads when it was first teased several years ago, and while Watch Dogs landed with a bit of an underwhelming thud when it finally released earlier this year, the game has a lot going for it that many overlooked at first glance. Protagonist Aiden Pierce is a different kind of hero; he's armed with a gun, sure, but his real weapons are based around his computer skills. He's a hacker who is more likely to change city traffic patterns to escape from pursuing police rather than shoot at them. Charging into battle is often a bad idea in the world of Watch Dogs, as this is a thinking player's game in which the game world itself becomes a weapon thanks to the hackable embedded technology that exists just about everywhere. Tap into enemies' wearable cameras to see what they see, disable city power grids to sneak around in the dark, distract foes with a conveniently active piece of equipment, and much more. Don't dismiss this one. It's a rare action game that emphasizes brains over bullets.