Last week, the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) showered gamers with an deluge of news and announcements highlighting the newest games in store for us this season and beyond. In addition, we saw a potential game-changing move with Microsoft’s unveiling of their self-aware Project Natal. One step closer to Judgment Day with that one.
Anyway, I covered the Microsoft and Nintendo conferences in two separate Blog posts, which is becoming an annual tradition now that I’ve done two of them. Those pieces were focused on my reactions to the news coming from the console manufacturers, not necessarily about the games themselves (although it would be impossible to overlook that piece). This week, I intend to give you my Top 5 most anticipated games of 2009.
And therein lies the rub. We saw some amazing looking titles last week but a fair share of them are slated for 2010 and beyond. So, in order to make this list, a game has to release between now and December 31st.
My Top 5 are the ones that rep Must Have status – at least from this far away vantage point. Let’s hope they live up to it. (After all – last year I had Too Human on my list and while it wasn’t bad it also wasn’t Top 5 material either).
5. Bioshock 2 (Xbox 360 – November 3rd)
Following the 2 year rule of franchise development, it appears that every big title from the Fall 2007 is primed to see a subsequent release this Fall – including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo: ODST. While those titles make my honorable mention list, it was the original Bioshock that ignited my imagination when it made a splash at the tail end of Summer 2007.
Now, I debated tossing this title on the list. Due to my love for the first game, it seems like a no-brainer. That said, I felt the first title was so successful primarily because it was so different. The developers at Irrational Games (now 2K Boston) did a masterful job creating a unique undersea dystopia and then immersing the player in its decay. It was a perfect haunted house environment that really tickled the adventure gamer in me as I tread cautiously into each new area, peering around every corner in hopes to find it vacant of a lumbering Big Daddy or creepy Little Sister and scouring the area for those audio tapes that told of Rapture’s tragic demise.
The tale also featured a fantastic twist that in the perfect Sixth Sense tradition, sent your mind spinning back through past events as you realized the truth was in front of you the entire time. The innocuous refrain, “Would you kindly”, suddenly took on such deeper meaning.
So, while a return trip to Rapture has me packing my bags, I do so cautiously. This game is being billed as a prologue, which given the story in the first title, is really the only way direction they could go. That said, I feel that too much explanation sometimes ruins the experience. The mystery is where the fun is at.
That said, I’ve got my hopes high that the developers at 2K Marin will top the first title and produce another unique gaming experience.
4. Shadow Complex (Xbox 360/XBLA – July)
In the midst of Microsoft’s blistering blitzkrieg of E3, they dropped a salvo of jaw-dropping Arcade announcements. Billed as The Summer of Arcade 2009, Microsoft has decided to follow-up their successful promotion from last year – which saw the one-two-three punch of Bionic Commando Rearmed, Braid and Castle Crashers – with a new installment boasting some heavy hitters in small packages.
Shadow Complex is one of those titles. Here’s a 2D adventure title – its roots firmly entrenched in the Super Metroid vein of game play – that boasts stunning graphics and animation and really looks like it could be a full retail release.
The formula perfected by Super Metroid and embraced by the contemporary Castlevania series of games positions players in 2D adventures where they are confronted with a sprawling swatch of real-estate which they must work their way through, battling enemies and massive bosses while seeking out new abilities that will help them remedy previously encountered dead-ends in order to press further on the map. It’s an addictive formula that works like the carrot at the end of the stick – you see the new area, know that somehow you can get to it, and that sends your brain scouring the area for the item that will help gain passage deeper into the adventure.
The Developer, Chair (an offshoot of Epic), used their proprietary Unreal 3 engine to lovingly craft these gorgeous 2D backdrops and then set their Metal Gear-esque futuristic espionage tale against it.
Again, I’d pay top dollar for this title. The Metroid/Zelda/Castlevania formula gets me every time and the fact that the lead developer told anyone who would listen that he has made the new Super Metroid is music to my ears.
3. Tales of Monkey Island (Wii – Summer) The Secret of Monkey Island remake (360 – July)
While these two titles are completely independent, they were announced within a day of each other and are both primed to hit this summer. My cousin Jason said it best. We’ve had a decade plus of nothing Monkey Island and then suddenly Guybrush Threepwood is back with a vengeance. Like him, I think my brain is going to explode.
The Monkey Island games hold a spot on that lofty perch that I reserve for my most beloved game play experiences. Mario, Zelda and Metroid sit up there too. And not many more. This is elite company for sure and it’s a testament to the talent employed by LucasArts in the early-to-mid 90’s that these titles linger long in memory. I understand why the art form died, (once 3D gaming came along, there wasn’t much call for 2D point-and-click adventures) but it’s a shame that the caliber of storytelling and puzzle construction also seemed to go softly into the night.
For my money, there’s nothing better than tearing your hair out all night over a killer brain teaser only to finally hit that Eureka moment and have the solution click into place. It’s a wonderfully euphoric sensation that the LucasArts games mastered. LucasArts also went one step further than their prime competitor Sierra by making their games open-ended enough that there was no way you could completely fail out. In the Sierra games, a wrong step could lead to death and sometimes, a complete end to the game. If you didn’t have a back-up save, you were done. With the LucasArts games, you might run around stuck for ages but you would never do something that couldn’t be undone. That they carefully populated their crazy worlds with numerous in-jokes, references and colorful characters meant you were always entertained as you ran through an entire gamut of trial-and-error solutions.
This summer, Guybrush and the zombie pirate LeChuck, return with a vengeance. First up is the Xbox 360 high-def remake of the original The Secret of Monkey Island. I recall playing this game in all its pixilated glory on some archaic IBM Desktop sometime around 1991 and know for a fact that I never solved the title. This was in the days before GameFAQS meaning if you hit a brick wall and didn’t have a friend who had surmounted the challenge, you were stuck forever. For the remake, the original game has been improved with a lush hand-drawn look. A click of the button will call up the original code but aside from a good laugh, I’m sticking with the pretty pictures. Also, I’m making it my mission to play this from Start to Finish without consulting a strategy guide or FAQ doc.
Over on the Wii (and PC), the masters at Telltale Games are releasing a brand new episodic series chronicling the Tales of Monkey Island. Telltale is made up of LucasArts refugees who have worked tirelessly over the past few years to resurrect this lost art form. To date, they’ve built episodic adventure games set in the Sam & Max, Strongbad and Wallace & Gromit universes. Their Holy Grail is this newfound alliance with LucasArts – who has given them the blessing to appease a hungry fan base and begin telling some new tales.
The series kicks off in July and I’ve got my Wii Points ready to burn.
2. New Super Mario Brothers.Wii (Wii – November 2nd)
As I write this, I find myself in a bit of a funk. It seems to be an annual event that usually nails me in the late innings of winter but for some reason decided to whack me just as the summer air comes blowing in.
On the professional front, I’ve been flat out busy, feverishly working to decouple myself from my responsibilities as my end of days approaches and then on the home front, I have the assortment of familial and home improvement responsibilities to attend to as well as the urgent need to secure gainful reemployment. What I’ve found is that beyond those important tasks, I can’t really focus on anything too complex. Hell, sitting down to write this article brought on a nasty (yet temporary) spell of Writer’s Block. Right now, I desire to “keep it simple stupid.”
Which is why when some of the gaming press sniffed at New Super Mario Brothers.Wii as their big holiday release, I grinned and desperately wanted that game now. Running from Left to Right and jumping on turtle heads seems right up my alley all of a sudden.
And that got me in the nostalgic frame of mind. With everything I’ve got going, trying to dive into a behemoth like Fallout 3 seems like so much work. That said, gaming is both my hobby and my relaxation. It’s what I do for fun and as a tension release when my day ends. And Nintendo has seemingly always possessed that magic to take simple game concepts and divine the core entertainment from them. There is a reason why their titles are indelible and remain fun to play decades after their original release. I can’t even look at the original Resident Evil without feeling my eyes bleed yet I find Super Mario Brothers 3 to be a work of art – and that title is approaching it’s 20th anniversary.
New Super Mario Brothers.Wii solidifies the reason why I own a Wii. Not only was my purchase made to entertain the family and allow us to share that great bonding experience – I also bought a Wii for those times when I need a respite from the run-n-gun hysteria of the 360. Now, I’m a dude, which means I feel the bloodlust as well as my common man, but sometimes you just want to slow things down to their core element and remind yourself why you play these diversions in the first place. To unplug from reality and have fun.
And New Super Mario Brothers.Wii looks to be just what Dr. Mario ordered.
1. Brutal Legend (Xbox 360 – October 13th)
In my number 3 selection, I praised the virtues of vintage LucasArts. This title is sitting pretty at number one for one main reason, Tim Schafer, inarguably The Man when it comes to game development.
Schafer is a LucasArts vet who single-handedly crafted some of the most unique game play experiences I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying – including Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle and Psychonauts. Those titles he built from scratch but prior to that he helped craft the Monkey Island games, thus earning him the right to build his own dreams. This is the guy who furthers the argument of Games as Art. When Tim Schafer speaks there is no debate. Games can be Art.
Schafer’s genius is two-fold. He comes up with a great idea and then he fully builds a cohesive, compelling universe around it. Look at Manny Calaveras, Travel Agent for the Dead, in Grim Fandango. Schafer’s genius planted Manny’s agency in a Mexican Land of the Dead we’d yet to ever experience, not even in dreams. That’s Schafer’s job – dreaming new dreams.
In Brutal Legend, Schafer begins with a great hook and then composes a metal symphony around it. The title takes a roadie (played by Jack Black) who is thrust into a fantasy land drawn from all those heavy metal album covers that plastered 8th Grade Trapper Keepers and Dodge RAM vans alike. It’s a world where heavy metal co-exists with harpies, goblins and elves – essentially a RUSH fever dream. Then to underscore his genius, Schafer cast such rock luminaries as Rob Halford, Lita Ford and Ozzie Osbourne as… a goth prince of darkness.
I implore everyone to support this title. Schafer’s cross to bear, thus far, has been unanimous critical acclaim, feverish fan support and weak retail sales. Psychonauts died hard at retail when it first released for the Xbox a few years back – and its death ended up being a big slap at creative development. Studios are less likely to bankroll something new when they know they can just churn out the next Call of Duty and call it a day.
I chose Call of Duty for a reason. Brutal Legend has had a long, strange trip to retail – which should hopefully end this Rocktober. The title, which was under development at Schafer’s Double Fine Productions, was originally set to be published by Vivendi. When that company folded, Activision picked up their properties and then began to jettison anything that didn’t have repeat commercial appeal. Essentially, if it didn’t look like it could be milked for sequels, it was dropped.
That led Schafer to beat his feet in hopes of landing a new publisher. Without a publisher, all of his work would be for naught.
EA swooped in and picked the title up, handing Double Fine additional money and time to further polish the title into a AAA release. And for months, there wasn’t a word from Activision about the title. They dropped it. EA picked it up. All seemed right with the world.
Then, at last week’s E3, Brutal Legend started scoring big press with many journalists declaring it one of the Fall’s most anticipated releases. And suddenly, Activision comes roaring back with a lawsuit (aimed not at EA but the little guy, Double Fine) threatening to block the game’s release and sue for damages citing their hand in developing the property. Apparently, they’re not too happy that the ugly duckling has blossomed into a beautiful swan.
The irony to all of this is EA has historically been treated as the villain in gamer circles – they hold the same “corporate” stature as Microsoft in their eyes. Sure, they play the games but they love to rip on the companies. Now this same fan base is rallying in support of EA and calling for boycotts of Activision titles – most prominently, Call of Duty. While, I don’t think it will make a dent, it is entertaining to see EA cast in the role of white knight and I do have to give the company credit. They realize that they make so much money on their established properties, that they don’t mind taking a gamble on niche titles. Activision could learn from them.
Hopefully Activision will do the right thing and drop this frivolous lawsuit. Seriously, this is making them look real bad. If they believed in this title all along, why didn’t they sell it (versus dropping it completely). This smacks of meddlesome suits making dumb business decisions and they deserve to get whacked for it.
And for once, Schafer deserves a little respect from the industry he’s given so much to.