Every so often on The Couch Co-op Podcast, I make reference to my “list of trusted developers” – devs I have absolute faith in to deliver a product that is, at the very least, well designed, if not outright excellent. These are the developers that have never screwed people over, devs who have made their reputation by putting gamers first, or devs who simply make awesome games. This list has never really existed, of course, but rather has always been theoretical. Until now.
Highlights: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda II, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Maker
This list couldn’t start any other way, could it? While the Nintendo platforms have been home to so many fantastic games and amazing memories, Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development have been responsible for some of the best games in the history of the medium. Starting with Devil World and Excitebike in 1984, before moving onto Super Mario Bros. in 1985, the software development arm of Nintendo is (and continues to be) legendary.
The highlights above only cover a small fraction of Nintendo’s greatest projects, which also include games like F-Zero, Starfox, Pikmin, Splatoon and other fantastic entries into the series mentioned. Nintendo have somehow accomplished the impossible over the course of an amazing 30+ years of game development – they’ve iterated on their core franchises for decades without ever letting them become stale. While not every game in their stable is a surefire classic, you can bet on their games being made with loving care.
Highlights: The Witcher, The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Polish developer CD Projekt Red are, currently, the ultimate good guys in the world of video game development. The way they treat their fans should be written into some kind of manual, passed around the industry for everyone to follow. They’re all about fairness, their policies on DLC should be the norm for the industry, rather than the outlier. Most importantly they’re good people.
And of course, their games are fantastic. Although they’ve only developed The Witcher series thus far in their lifespan, each iteration on the franchise has seen meteoric improvement on what has come before. From the flawed classic of the original Witcher through to the revolutionary Wild Hunt, a game which turned a lot of RPG genre conventions on their heads, CDPR are currently a development studio who deserve your attention as one of the best the industry has to offer.
Highlights: Spyro The Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, Sunset Overdrive
For the longest time Insomniac were exclusively a second-party Sony development studio, creating franchises such as Ratchet & Clank and Resistance for the various iterations of Sony hardware over the years. It’s this history that has built them a solid reputation as a maker of good games, but it’s their future that piques the most interest. It all started at E3 2013, when Microsoft unveiled Sunset Overdrive for the first time, an Xbox exclusive from Insomniac. When it was released, it was excellent, putting a new spin on gameplay they honed during their Ratchet & Clank days.
The Insomniac Games of 2015 & 2016 is a studio that is branching out in a great number of intriguing directions. Last year they released Slow Down, Bull – a small puzzle game whose profits went to charity, and a game completely different to what they’ve made in the past. In 2016 they’re heading back to their roots for the Ratchet & Clank reboot/movie tie-in, as well as creating the 2D Metroidvania Song of the Deep, and are also developing Edge of Nowhere, a 3rd-person action/adventure game exclusively for Oculus Rift. Given their history of solid games, I’m excited to see Insomniac branch out into new areas in the future.
Highlights: Bayonetta, Vanquish, The Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2
Platinum are probably the premier developer of action games right now. The Osaka-based development studio shot to prominence in 2009 with the critically-acclaimed Bayonetta during the last generation, and have proceeded to release a steady stream of excellent action-based games – from cult classic Vanquish to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, The Wonderful 101, Words About Games’ 2014 Game of the Year Bayonetta 2, and last years Transformers: Devastation.
2016, however, seems set to be the year of Platinum Games, with the studio developing Nier: Automata and TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan, as well as co-developing Star Fox Zero and Project Guard with Nintendo. They’re also working on Xbox One exclusive RPG Scalebound, which was recently delayed into 2017. If you’re a fan of action games they don’t come much better than Platinum Games.
Highlights: Max Payne, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, Alan Wake
Despite being around since 1996, Remedy Entertainment have only developed seven games (not including the upcoming Quantum Break), and a couple of them have been mobile games. What Remedy lack in prolificness, they more than make up for in quality. They’re a developer whose games I am always eagerly anticipating, because their games have always been excellent. Coupled with a fantastic history of open and honest communications with their fans, Remedy are absolutely one of my favourite, most trusted developers.
Highlights: F.E.A.R., Condemned: Criminal Origins, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Ever since F.E.A.R. was launched back in 2005, Monolith Productions (not to be confused with Xenoblade Chronicles developer Monolith Soft) have hardly put a foot wrong. F.E.A.R. still ranks as one of my all-time favourite games, perfectly blending nerve-shredding horror and slick first-person shooting. The developer have continued to produce a steady stream of great games, including the cult-classic Condemned series and 2014’s exceptional Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Rumours abound that Monolith are working on a follow up to Shadow of Mordor, but whatever they are up to next I am confident it’ll be great.
Highlights: Crash Bandicoot, Crash Team Racing, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, The Last of Us
Pretty much everything I’ve ever played of Naughty Dog’s has turned out to be gold. Best known in the 90’s as the makers of Crash Bandicoot, and in the early 00’s as the makers of Jak & Daxter, Naughty Dog’s reputation skyrocketed upon the 2009 release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. While the first Uncharted game was solid, it was the sequel that proved to be amongst the best games of a generation. Among Thieves was a near-perfect blending of likeable characters, excellent storytelling, fun gameplay, bombastic set pieces, and incredible visuals – all of which were carried over into the studio’s previous title The Last of Us.
Highlights: Mark of the Ninja, Don’t Starve, Invisible Inc.
Indie developer Klei Entertainment are quietly proving themselves to be a versatile development studio, already boasting an impressively diverse range of games. They began by developing cult-classic games Eets, a puzzle game, and the Shank games, both side-scrolling beat-em-ups. But their profile was raised considerably by the release of Mark of the Ninja, an excellent 2D stealth game that put them on a lot of people’s radar, including mine. With follow-ups Don’t Starve and Invisible Inc. continuing a trend of both excellence and diversity, Klei have a proven track record for producing excellent games no matter the genre.
Highlights: Bastion, Transistor
Indie devs Supergiant Games’ first project was the critically acclaimed Bastion – a game that was not only one of the best released in 2011, but also a game that routinely ends up being mentioned when discussing the best video games of recent times. Bastion was a fantastic action game that succeeded across the board. Although Supergiant’s follow-up Transistor didn’t quite hit the same highs, it was still a great game in its own right, and further cemented Supergiant as one of the best developers currently operating.
Highlights: Gex, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider
Everyone knows Crystal Dynamics as the Tomb Raider guys, thanks to the critical and commercial success of the 2013 reboot and subsequent follow up. And while these are both outstanding games, with Rise of the Tomb Raider being arguably Crystal Dynamics best game yet, they’ve actually been stewards of the franchise for 10 years – rejuvinating an ailing franchise with the solid Tomb Raider: Legend. Crystal Dynamics actually have a long running legacy of producing solid games, stretching all the way back to the 90’s and early 00’s with series’ such as Legacy of Kain, Pandemonium and Gex.
Highlights: Forza Horizon, Forza Horizon 2
If anyone was going to suck me into a racing game, it’d be a developer who decided to take the whole thing into an open-world. While not the first open-world racer, Forza Horizon presented a world bursting with possibilities and full of interesting things to do, see, and drive across. Coupled with the excellent gameplay mechanics and fun driving of the Forza series, Playground Games struck gold with both the 2012 original and the excellent follow-up that was Forza Horizon 2, and I’m eagerly anticipating the next one, or whatever Playground ends up doing next.
Highlights: Dark Cloud, Rogue Galaxy, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, White Knight Chronicles, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with me knows that I’m a big fan of the Japanese gaming scene, and while my love for their games didn’t start with Level-5, I have a great love for a lot their output stemming back to their first major release; Dark Cloud on PS2. While they’re probably better known for their Professor Layton series on 3DS, I’ve always gone out of my way to play their JRPGs if I can get the chance, confident in the knowledge that they haven’t let me down yet. I’m always looking forward to finding out what Level-5 are working on next, or more accurately what game of theirs is finally being localised for the Western market. And one day we’ll get another Dark Cloud game…