As I write this, mere days removed from Christmas, I look ahead to the bounty of games that Santa packed in that sack while looking back upon the year that was. And this year provided especially fertile ground for my personal picking, as it was the year in which I augmented my Wii60 household with one more shiny bauble; the PS3 finally descended to a price point that I could manage without listing yet another kidney on eBay. With Sony’s new slim sweetness nestled in my home entertainment center, the Holy Trinity was complete, allowing me to genuflect before the God of War for granting me the opportunity to finally guide Drake towards his fortune while scoping out a littlebigplanet of my own.
I know this time of year typically brings forth a plethora of “Best Of” lists. It seems the second the snow hits the ground and the rum hits the egg nog, writers rattle their brain pans in a bid to extract one final post before calling it a night on the year. As the publishers shutter their studios for a brief winter spell, content that their product has made it to market and is therefore the retailers’ problem now, there’s not much left to cover but the year that came before. Well, I’m a sucker for these lists. Nothing gets me in the holiday mood more than reading someone’s idea of what the Best Game or Movie of 2009 was and then getting ready to Throwdown in Thunderdome when I learn that they chose Modern Warfare 2 over my top pick (I think it’s in the Bratz or Horsez series – whatever all the cool kidz are playing these dayz).
All kidding aside, with three consoles to choose from and a ton of games played, I’m ready to make my selection. That said, we need a little build up, so I’m going to give you my Top 5 in order, culminating with my absolute favorite gameplay experience of 2009. So stoke that fire, spike that nog and enjoy the show.
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum
A couple of years back, Game Informer used this game as their feature cover story, and even at that early stage cited Bioshock as a prime influence. Two years ago, when Bioshock made its big splash, I dove in and loved every second of that adventure, with the prime draw being the expertly crafted environments of Rapture that did what we wish all games (and entertainments) would do: melt away the real world and transport us to some new fantasyland where we can while away a few hours and truly role-play.
Game Informer had it exactly right. Through developer Rocksteady’s focus on building up the towering edifice of Arkham Asylum, they put the spotlight on the crooked correctional hall, making it an omnipresent character throughout the entire game. Arkham was this year’s Rapture, and although the game draws from numerous sources (including drinking deeply from the Metroidvania well), all of the elements coalesced to put us in Batman’s suit and really made us feel like the dark, brooding badass he can be. Best of all, they remembered that The Dark Knight is also The World’s Greatest Detective. The little vignettes interspersed throughout the game, during which Batman uses his intellect (you plug in your input) to solve the myriad of riddles sprinkled throughout the surroundings by the unseen Edward Nygma, is just the icing on the cake.
This was a great tribute to the Dark Knight and one of the more enthralling games I played in 2009.
4. Brutal Legend
When this year began, I was absolutely positive that Brutal Legend would be my game of the year. For starters, I am an unabashed Tim Schafer fan, having followed his career from the first Monkey Island adventure through his first fledgling steps in the console waters with the woefully under-noticed Psychonauts. Schafer is a master world builder, cut from the same cloth as Tim Burton, with an innate ability to create unique, dark, yet quirky fantasy worlds. The fact that Schafer is a writer capable of busting your gut while teasing the eyes makes him a gaming god.
Therefore, I was sold on Brutal Legend’s killer concept of a rock n’ roll roadie set loose in a metal-themed fantasy land, the mystical realm that served as inspiration for all of those gloriously cheesy metal albums of the last 30 years. Schafer filled the lead role with the no-brainer choice, Jack Black, and then populated the supporting cast with a Who’s Who of metal, including Lemmy from Motorhead, Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford, and the game just got better and better.
So what keeps this from ascending to the same lofty heights that Eddie Riggs climbed? While I loved every second of the adventure, I wasn’t as thrilled with the gameplay. That’s a weird statement, but stick with me. While the actual adventure and world that Schafer crafted sucked me in, the RTS elements, which gradually become the main focus of the game as the Stage Battles erupted with more frequency, just sent me out of the zone. I’m an RTS idiot; no matter how many games or genres I dabble in, I can never get my head wrapped around all that micromanagement. Even when it’s dumbed down as much as Schafer does here to make it appeal to the mainstream, I still struggle with keeping all my plates spinning.
So, while this was one of my favorite gameplay experiences of 2009, it’s not my favorite game of the year, as it’s unlikely I’ll revisit it.
3. Shadow Complex
While I love all kinds of games, I’ve long called the Super Mario, Metroid and Zelda series my Holy Trinity. The latter two rank neck and neck at the top, and for good reason; despite major differences in scenery, they share one indelible gameplay trait that just tickles that part of me that yearns for a good puzzle. Both games are notorious for showing you an area or item that is just out of reach and then sending you on an adventure to find the one magic item that will help you reach that carrot, before doing it all over again. I love a good puzzle and a grand adventure, and both series are masterful in the way they mesh the two.
The makers of Shadow Complex were not shy in revealing their inspiration, going so far as to claim that their XBLA game was the spiritual successor to fanboy favorite Super Metroid. When they grafted the Metroidvania gameplay onto a sci-fi espionage tale on loan from Orson Scott Card, they created one of the year’s most gripping games, one that stands as a testament to the strengths of that classic Metroid design.
Not only did Shadow Complex nudge my nostalgia bone, it also applied a shiny coat of paint to that classic structure, making one of the better looking games of the year and an absolute steal on the XBLA service. XBLA, in addition to the other digital distribution streams such as PSN and WiiWare, has proven to be an oasis for those gamers looking for satisfying gameplay experiences in which the core gameplay is the focus when stripped of a 400-member development team. Some great games have come from the indie and small sectors, including my Game of 2008, Braid. That said, Shadow Complex raised the bar further by providing a retail-quality release at a budget price.
I’d even go so far as to say this is a system seller, which is high praise indeed.
2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
This game is the reason I purchased a PS3, and it almost secured the top slot. In fact, it really is neck and neck with my number-one choice, but I gave the other one the edge for reasons I’ll make clear in a moment.
That said, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is an important piece of software that further blurs the already hazy line separating games and cinema. While the original Uncharted was itself a cinematic blend of Tomb Raider-esque platforming and Gears of War gunplay, Uncharted 2 leaps above its excellent predecessor in becoming one of the best pieces of entertainment I’ve experienced this year. In fact, this handily bests all of the summer movie blockbusters my eyes experienced, including the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot.
There are some major action beats in Uncharted 2 that topped most Hollywood set pieces and left me in awe at what I had just played. Looking at the cat-and-mouse tank battle, the helicopter hunt through a war-torn village or the big train sequence that stands as a major turning point in the game, these are all sequences that would have been a cut scene or quick-time event a year ago. Yet here we were given the controls and told to play through these exciting and ever-changing scenarios. Where the original Uncharted suffered from some minor pacing issues, they were obliterated in the sequel, a game that provides a steadily increasing series of adrenaline boosts, while also courageously slowing things down for a nice, slow walk through a picturesque Nepalese village.
Naughty Dog has proven they are great game developers, and in Uncharted 2 they furthered the narrative by showcasing their storytelling chops. This is one of the best times you’ll have in any entertainment medium.
1. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
There were some major spectacles this year, with the aforementioned Uncharted 2 and Modern Warfare 2 doing wonders to take gamers closer to the action than we’d ever been before, with near photorealistic visuals to augment the action histrionics. And as an action-loving dude, those titles as well as earlier releases such as Resident Evil 5 really allowed me to get my gun on.
But it took a game that looks like it could have been released in the heyday of the 16-bit era to make me fall in love with gaming all over again. Normally I’d chalk this up to nostalgia pangs, but after playing countless hours of New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s solo campaign through the night, then joining three fellow adventurers for a chaotic free-for-all in which I saw this game’s mad genius in a different light, I decided that this was easily the most fun I’d had in this hobby all year. Gone was the nebulous quest for Achievements or experience points. All of that synthetic sound and fury muted to the background as I jacked into an entertainment experience that brought gaming back to its core principles and reminded us why we do this in the first place: to melt stress and have fun.
While I’ve seen a number of reviewers cite the four-player onscreen action as a great improvement, albeit one that comes a little too late, it can’t be said enough how greatly this improves upon the classic gameplay. A fantastic single-player game is transformed into an awesome party game. While the lack of online play continues to underscore Nintendo’s reputation as being out of touch with contemporary game-play desires, this really does feel like a game that is best enjoyed surrounded by friends and family – the perfect title to bust out after all the gifts are unwrapped.
It took a game as traditional as New Super Mario Bros. Wii to break me from the doldrums that typically settle in when I’ve played game upon game in which the graphics shine and the bells and whistles scream, but they all start to feel like technological achievements and less like pure fun. This game might look 20 years old, but like the best of entertainments, its quality and craftsmanship is timeless.
And watching my 4-year-old daughter toss her 6-year-old brother into a piranha plant is… as they say on TV… Priceless.