My Favorite Things – Top 5 Games of 2008

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A few days back, I gave you my list of all the movies I saw in 2008 (that had been released between October 2007 and December 2008) and ended with My Top 5 Favorite Movies. That post has become an annual tradition round these parts. I know, real original, right?!?!?!?

Well, I’m just stealing a page from everyone’s playbook. And these year end lists are all the rave. That said, I specifically segregate these lists as being My Favorite items versus what I would consider the Best. The two can co-exist after all. I just think its more fitting to let you know which films spoke to me or which ones really entertained me versus spotlighting those I may respect but may not revisit again in the future.

As Yin to that Yang, I’m here to give you the list of My Top 5 Favorite Games from 2008. I thought about covering television or music but I realized I don’t watch enough TV or listen to enough new music (aside from what pops on the radio as I’m be-bopping along my day) to have enough of a catalogue to pluck from.

The rules for this set are a little more specific than my movie list. In order to qualify, the game had to be released in the calendar year 2008 and I had to have played and completed the game. What this means is – if the game had a definitive ending, I had to have played through to the credits. If its an open-ended game, I had to sink at least 10 hours in.

Before I hit the Top 5, here’s the list of games that I’ve played, that meet my criteria, in the order I played them.

Lost Winds     (Wii)
Army of Two     (360)
Boom Blox     (Wii)
Iron Man     (360)
Kung Fu Panda     (360)
Lego Indiana Jones     (360)
Ninja Gaiden II     (360)
Metal Gear Solid 4     (PS3)
Aces of the Galaxy     (360)
1942: Joint Strike     (360)
Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3     (360)
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway     (360)
Braid     (360)
Geometry Wars II     (360)
Castle Crashers     (360)
Too Human     (360)
Battlefield: Bad Company     (360)
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed     (360)
Lego Batman     (360)
Dead Space     (360)
Fable II     (360)
Gears of War II     (360)
Tomb Raider Underworld     (360)
Prince of Persia     (360)
Portal: Still Alive     (360)
World of Goo     (Wii)

And now, here are My Top 5 Favorite Games of 2008.

5.   Portal: Still Alive   (360/PC)

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This is a slightly controversial pick as I actually played Portal (a 2007 release) in January. At the time, it was packaged on The Orange Box – a compilation of Half Life 2 related games. Later in the year, the game developers decided to revisit the game and append some new challenge maps to the original game and release it as Portal: Still Alive, making it available for digital distribution over the PC and the Xbox Live Arcade service.

And here’s the mark of a great game. I downloaded the sucker instantly and played through it again (something I almost never do) and then worked my way through the additional 18 fiendishly puzzling challenge maps.

So, despite this being a 2007 release, I am bending my rule slightly to accommodate a game that while repackaged, does feature enough new parts to warrant that second play through.

And the game is too good to not include here.

While I have been a lifelong gamer, always eager to sample from all genres, I’ve found that in the last year, my tastes are starting to gravitate to the puzzle/adventure genre. I think I’ve had my fill of first person shooters which can innovate only so far. Lately, anytime I play a shoot ‘em up, I feel like I’m on autopilot – getting no thrill from the action.

But a game that engages my brain sucks me in every time. There is something wonderfully fulfilling about working through a brain teaser and arriving at that solution that seemed so impossible. It really fills me with a rush.

That’s what I found in Portal – an innovative puzzler that takes the guise of a first person shooter and charges you with working through a series of environmental puzzles in order to progress through a mysterious complex. And while the game is completely stand-alone, it also rewards Half-Life devotees with some surprising ties to that game’s universe.

In Portal, the player awakens in a top-secret research facility by a disembodied, computerized female voice and is told they will be taking part in a series of experiments. These experiments form the basis of the puzzles, with each one acting as a separate level in the game. The goal is to work your way through the level to the exit – utilizing a top secret device that can fire portals at the walls. The device can fire two portals, and once you have two portals in place, you can then use those as exit and entrance points around the map. Proper utilization of the portals will help you navigate the various challenges. And of course, the game designers do their best to work a number of obstacles in your path to really keep you on your toes when trying to work though these brain teasers.

Now, there’s been a billion puzzle games but Portal stands above the rest through the sum of its parts. It creates a compelling fiction, with players striving to pass each challenge to see what awaits and discover more of your fate.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the game the entire time I was working through it and I find that now that I’ve completed it, it stays with me.

Oh – and the song that plays over the end credits was almost enough to push this game on the list. It’s a nice little reward for those who make it through and you’ll find yourself humming it for days. Such a twisted little ditty.

4.   Prince of Persia   (360/PS3) 

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You are going to see a theme developing here. I love using my brain. I also enjoy grand adventures. Prince of Persia combines both into an adventure tale, which thanks to an elegant cel-shaded aesthetic, render this timeless.

With the move to the Next Gen consoles, developer Ubisoft Montreal decided to reboot the series, giving us a new prince to control and a new kingdom to save. Honestly, it’s all just window dressing. At heart, these games live and die on their platforming puzzles.

And in this Prince of Persia, the title hero is an acrobatic wonder – unleashing his parkour skills on a sprawling mythical fantasy land that he is charged with saving. The Prince ends up darting along walls, across ceilings and making death defying leaps that give you pause. And due to an elegant control scheme, players can effortlessly link together some running combos which provide a nice dose of eye-candy.

If there’s a knock, it’s that the game does seem a bit easy due to the inability to die. Well, more to the point, you can die but your companion princess is able to magically resurrect you. Without much penalty to your actions, players will find the challenge is diminished a bit. That said, I found myself leaping to my doom on so many occasions, that had death carried a steep price, I may have found this game impossible. So, there’s a method to their madness.

3.   World of Goo   (Wii)

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My poor Wii sat neglected for much of the year due to Nintendo’s inability to produce their usual holiday AAA in-house developed title. No Zelda. No Metroid. No Mario. Just Animal Crossing and Wii Music. This was the winter that I actually bemoaned owning the little white box.

Then I stumbled upon this gem – a system showcase available for the low price of $15 through the WiiWare download service. And suddenly, I was gripping my Wii real tight. (I hear those snickers).

The back story behind World of Goo is almost as amazing as the actual game. A team of three people (THREE!!!) designed, developed and coded this game – handling everything from the art design, the music composition, the game layout, the programming, etc. The three are former EA employees who were caught up in EA’s mass restructuring. They likely languished on huge development teams. Freed from their corporate shackles, they developed a title that shines brightly, almost in complete opposition of its microscopic budget.

In World of Goo, the player utilizes the Wii Mote to guide little balls of Goo and attach them to each other to build structures in order to solve a series of environmental puzzles. Somewhere on each map is a pipe that the player must build to in order to provide the proper conduit that your remaining, unused Goo balls can travel through to get to the exit pipe. Each level provides a target number of Goo Balls that must escape, so the trick is to be crafty in building your structure while being economical. In addition, they are influenced by real-world physics and gravity so the structures need to be built to accommodate those forces.

Under this rule set, 2D Boy creates some compelling challenges that work to tax the brain. And that alone, would be enough to recommend the game, but what really puts it over the top is the aesthetic. The world of Goo is like something from Tim Burton’s twisted mind. With a bombastic score that pays homage to Danny Elfman’s famous collaborations with Burton, there’s a haunting, surreal vibe to each level.

World of Goo is well worth visiting.

2.   Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)  

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I am a huge Metal Gear fan. Sure, it gets knocked for being more movie than game but that’s exactly what I love about it. This is interactive story-telling at its finest and creator Hideo Kojima has labored hard to blur the lines between movie and game and push the medium into that rarified air of art.

It’s the universe that Kojima has crafted that I really groove to. Kojima is a student of action cinema, comic books and anime and he has taken the base components of those forms to create his own masterwork. The Metal Gear series is a mosaic of so many different influences but they come together so perfectly that it becomes its own work of art.

I  put this title at number 2, in part to celebrate the series. Kojima has expressed his desire to work on other projects. I’ve enjoyed this entire series and if I had to pick a favorite, it would be difficult. Each installment has featured some astonishing gameplay designs, plot twists and experiences. Metal Gear Solid 4 is the absolute pinnacle of this series – a grand achievement in game design that really should change this world of games for the better.

This might have been the best movie I’d seen all year and I mean that as a sincere compliment!!!

1.   Braid   (360)

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Braid is the single most important game released this year.

Ever since technology caught up with our hobby and evolved it from simple beeps and blips and tests of hand-eye coordination into a medium capable of spinning a decent yarn and taking the player away to awe-inspiring worlds of wonder, the argument of ‘Games as Art’ has gathered strength.

In the past year, the debate has raged with film critic Roger Ebert famously battling author Clive Barker over the topic. Ebert declared that no game can be considered art since the creator hands over control to the user to craft the experience. Barker countered that exact point – that art is truly defined by the experience we take from our own individual encounters with someone else’s creative endeavor. Ebert’s assertions seem rooted in the past; the Neolithic 8-bit era and earlier (it’s true, gaming lacks a Cave Art period). Many of Ebert’s readers tossed Shadow of the Colossus into the mix as proof positive that this medium can inspire and stir the soul. The jury is still out on whether he agrees.

If the argument for ‘Games as Art’ needed more support, designer Jonathan Blow just delivered the Sistine Chapel with the release of his masterpiece, Braid.

Braid is an easy title to describe but difficult to define. On the surface, it is a 2D-platform puzzler that places the gamer in familiar territory before completely pulling the rug out. In the game, the player takes control of Tim, a hero on a quest for his lost princess – who we are told, Tim lost to a monster after making a dire mistake. That’s the set-up for Tim’s journey through an escalating series of surrealistic dreamscapes as he seeks to set right the things that went so horribly wrong by encountering and besting a number of level specific brain games.

The controls are wonderfully simplistic – harkening back to the 8-bit joys that inspired this title. The A button controls your jumps and the game design accommodates tight, pixel perfect leaps which can be key to some of the more tricky puzzles encountered later in the game. The X button controls time, using a similar mechanic seen in the recent Prince of Persia titles, allowing the player to rewind their actions in order to cheat death or solve the latest conundrum.

Each world is separated into different levels that contain anywhere from one to four puzzle pieces. The puzzle pieces are easy to spot but the trick to obtaining them usually involves solving an environmental puzzle using a combination of your jumping and time manipulation skills as well as the particular logic laid out in each world. For instance, on some levels your actual movements will work to control time. When the player moves right, time moves forward. When the player moves left, time reverses. Proper manipulation of this logic, timed with your own temporal abilities is the key to scoring that elusive puzzle piece.

While players can easily race from one end of a level to the other without picking up a puzzle piece, doing so really ruins the point. Braid is all about the journey. As players solve the individual puzzles, they are rewarded with puzzle pieces that can be fitted into a picture frame. The completed pictures then become part of the overall narrative tapestry – with every image and sound doing its part to tell the story. Tim’s strange plight is eventually revealed through a masterful combination of the completed portraits, snippets of journals that are found before each world and ultimately through the player’s actions as revealed in the game’s stunning (and emotionally shattering) conclusion.

Braid begins innocently enough. After exiting the dark city that heralds this game’s hub world, the player is thrust into a familiar environ. Tim find himself traversing two-dimensional levels from left to right against a scenic, pastoral backdrop, bouncing off the heads of single-minded creatures before ultimately reaching a castle perched at the end of the world where a kindly creature offers our hero a dire statement – “We’re sorry, but the princess is in another castle.”

It’s a great opening that takes the archetypes laid out in the original Super Mario Brothers (the old ‘Save the Princess’ gag) and uses them as blue print for an expert deconstruction of video gaming. At once, Blow is paying homage to a genuine touchstone moment that helped birth modern gaming while twisting our expectations of what should follow. Our avatar Tim, like countless video game heroes before him, is on a quest to save his princess. We’ve been down this path before, countless times, and just at the moment we encounter that first green pipe growing from emerald grass, Braid takes a twist and warps us to the road less traveled.

This is never more evident than in those first fledgling moments. As the gamer falls under the trance of Braid’s Impressionist watercolor backdrops and lush Celtic score, the first clue that we’re in uncharted territory is when the gamer enters their first door into World 2. My first reaction was to exit the door and see if I somehow missed the door to World 1. As I was quick to discover, this is the genius of Braid – everything is a puzzle yet the clues are all around and the big picture will become clear all in good time. The game toys with our expectations giving you World 2 when you expected World 1. And that’s just the beginning.

While Braid presents a brief experience (on average it will take about 6 – 8 hours to puzzle through the adventure), there isn’t a wasted moment here. Each moment of this game has been handcrafted to deliver an interesting and compelling experience. Repetition never sinks in as the game is designed in such a fashion that the moment you get a full grip on the latest temporal power or logic to a level, the game introduces a new concept and later forces the player to combine all of their learned experience into one organic whole just in time to call upon all those skills when your Princess needs you most.

I don’t make the ‘Games as Art’ comparison lightly and it goes beyond the surface aesthetics of the title. Yes, this is a beautiful game with lovingly hand painted watercolor backdrops that just shimmer in high definition. You’ll want to frame this. And the aural soundscape will haunt your dreams. So, taken apart, the various components all reflect stellar levels of artisanship. Combined, Braid takes on its own identity as a masterwork.

Like the best of art, what you get out of Braid is equal to what you put in. Those who are simply looking for a game to challenge them will find an escalating series of puzzles that truly tease the brain. At its base level, this is one of the most innovative puzzle games to come out since Portal. But, there are deeper levels at play for those who want to commit further. I knew that when I was replaying the final moments in my head – hours later – I suddenly hit upon the genius of Blow’s game design, that there was much more at play here. Some will look at Braid and see a great puzzle game. Others will find a clever deconstruction of video game clichés. One might intuit a deep meditation on the subjects of obsession and the true meaning of love. But that’s just my interpretation – no more right or wrong than yours.

It’s difficult to tread further without revealing too much. I wouldn’t dream of describing Starry Night to someone, I would just show them and let them draw their own conclusions. What I can say is that as Braid ascends towards its thrilling climax, all of the disparate elements come into place and the player realizes that the whole story was right before their very eyes all along. Jonathan Blow has not only crafted a challenging entertainment, he’s also delivered the medium its own Memento.

It’s games like Braid that renew my enthusiasm for this medium. In an age where every gaming convention has seemingly been repeated and cloned, it’s refreshing to see someone take something so familiar and show it to me in a completely different light. In turn, they take the act of playing a game and make it a brave new world all over again. 

Braid is not only the most important game released this year. It’s also the best.

Comments now closed (5)

  • I read about World of Goo a few months ago. It is also available for the PC and Mac. I might have to try it out on the PC.

    Your criteria that the game have been released and played in the same year seems too limiting to me. This leaves games like Orange Box, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4 and Rainbow Six Vegas out of contention for your list? Yeah, Box and Vegas weren’t that great to crack the list, but would Creed and CoD4 be close? Also, you didn’t get 10 hours in on GTA IV? Your list is also missing Quantum of Solace, not that that would make the 5 either.

    We actually had TWO games slotted in the same spots this year: Braid and Prince of Persia. In reading your summary of Metal Gear I remembered why I ranked it where I did but forgot to say it in my post. While I appreciated the generous cutscenes in the game, sometimes they were just too damn long, particularly when you got to one when you wanted to go to bed and found yourself waiting 45 minutes for it to end. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and sometimes that was the case.

    If anyone is interested, my list is posted on my blog.

    Finally, the world wants to know where you would rank Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball on your list. Or how about Hail to the Chimp?

  • @Sean – First about GTAIV. The game has a defnitive ending which I didn’t come close to hitting so that’s why I didn’t list it. I guess I played enough to list it but being a criminal ain’t my cup of tea.

    As for criteria, perhaps I’ll ammend it next year to include titles from the previous Fall – much like my movie list. As it is, none of those games would make my Top 5. And if I filled out a Top 10, the remaining slots would go as follows:

    6. Fable II
    7. Dead Space
    8. Gears of War II
    9. Lost Winds
    10. Tomb Raider Underworld

  • I’m not a huge gamer to begin with, but sometimes I wish I owned a 360 or a PS3. I own a Wii, but I can go weeks and months without even touching it. Usually I play a video game to completion and don’t touch it again until I’ve got another game to play.

    World of Goo looks interesting, I may have to download that.

    Braid also looks really good. I wish I had a 360 for this!

    -x

  • @prfkttear: World of Goo is awesome. Seriously, 5 – 10 years ago, I could easily see this game being released at full retail price. It’s a full-fledged title that will give you 10 – 15 hours of quality puzzles and the whole Burton-Elfman vibe to it is just icing on the cake. And the fact taht you can get it for $15 is awesome.

    As for Braid, check the wiki page on it. Or better yer, designed Jonathan Blow has his own Braid Blog out there. I believe this is heading to PC for digital distribution.