2009 was a weird one for games. There were no real monolithic standouts in my mind, unlike 07 (Portal, BioShock, Super Mario Galaxy,) or 08 (Fallout 3, GTA4.) So it wasn't easy, but I fought through the pain to bring you this, my favorite games of 2009. In no particular order.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories: I wrote this one up as a long-form critique just now, so I'll refer you to that post for details. But suffice to say, immersion in the world of Silent Hill was clearly one of the highest goals of Climax in creating Shattered Memories, and they succeeded to an impressive degree. Features graphical technology I was surprised to find on the Wii, and a design which ignores genre boundaries. Cold outside? It's colder in Silent Hill. Play it!

Zeno Clash & The Path: I also wrote these up earlier this year, so I won't go on about them here. I love the scope of these games, and the strange new worlds they give the player access to. Personal to the authors in completely different ways, these outstanding single-A games shouldn't be missed. They'll only ask a few hours of your time each. A small price to pay for such unique experiences.

Batman Arkham Asylum: Everybody loves this one, mostly just for "nailing it" on every front. The visuals, the combat, the collectibles and puzzles and exploration, all top-notch. But I think the game should be lauded for more than just polished execution: both the existing systems chosen and recombined in intriguing ways, and the new ones created from scratch, imply a kind of insight and economy that only comes from a deep literacy with game systems. Similar in ways to another remarkable licensed game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, the team at Rocksteady used all their knowledge of disparate game mechanics to fully express the experience of being Batman, not just through aesthetics but through exploration and play. A real achievement.

GTA4 Episodes: I have a lot of respect for Rockstar's approach to GTA4 and its episodes: they spent an enormous amount of time building Liberty City to tell Niko Bellic's story, and then for each expansion they picked a new protagonist and told his story in that same vibrant city. It's an economical reuse of existing content that allows the player to see the familiar city from new perspectives. It expands the idea of Liberty City as a place, showing you new facets with each episode, giving you the feeling that there really are a million stories in the naked city, and you've been lucky enough to experience a few. The tone of the episodes diverge wildly from the main game, especially The Lost & Damned, which is dark, grim, and sober in a way that few games can claim. The Lost's leader, Billy, is one of the most unique and convincing characters I've met in a game, a testament to the chops that Dan Houser and his writing partner Rupert Humphries have developed since GTA3. If you forgot about the monumental accomplishment that was GTA4's Liberty City, diving back into the episodes is a worthwhile reminder.

Retro Game Challenge: This DS game caught me by surprise. While the updated remakes of classic 8-bit games are fun (and thankfully leverage a number of usability advances discovered over the last 20 years,) what really hooked me was the loving simulation of childhood spent on the carpet with a Nintendo controller in hand. Sitting next to your friend in front of the TV, chatting in hushed tones about secrets and cheat codes, gleefully poring over the newest issue of your favorite video game magazine, yelps of excitement or disappointment at the ups and downs of each game... it'll strike a chord with any lifelong gamer, and it all felt warm, real and genuine. I think one mark of a mature medium is its ability to create entertainment about itself (see the flourishing of movies about making and watching movies in the mid-20th-century.) Retro Game Challenge is only a tiny, tiny step, but a heartfelt and inspiring one.

Brutal Legend: For me, Brutal Legend was all about the world. I'm a sucker for driving a vehicle around a height map (see my total lack of hatred for the Mass Effect side-missions) and the world of Brutal Legend is an amazing place to do so. Both in concept and execution, the craggy mountains and twisted forests populated by outsized icons of classic heavy metal were amazing to behold. You owe it to yourself to drive Eddie Riggs' hot rod, "The Deuce," through Brutal Legend's stunningly-imagined vistas.

Street Fighter 4: Simply put, I haven't laughed so much at probably any game as I have playing SF4 in the conference room over lunches at 2K Marin. The fact that humor in games is "hard to do" comes up fairly often-- only because people think of "humor" as "jokes," which lose their power after their first telling. But humor is when something funny happens, and games are the only entertainment medium capable of making funny things happen in completely unplanned and unexpected ways. In the right company, Street Fighter 4, with its cartoonish brutality, over-the-top animations, and always-surprising reversals of fortune is a consistent laugh riot. Thank you, Capcom.

House of the Dead Overkill: It's a totally good lightgun shooter for the Wii, doing what House of the Dead does right: zombie dismemberment, split-second bonus coins to hit, relentless bosses. It adds buyable weapon unlocks and upgrades as well as a host of extras. But what sets it apart is the Planet Terror-"inspired" aesthetic, painting the game in a decidedly 21st-century mis-remembering of classic 70's grindhouse cinema. The yellowed, scratched celluloid filters, the skipping soundtrack, the overwrought narrator and super-sensationalist plot points give the whole production a unique twist. The humor is hit-or-miss: the intentional (but still aggravating) overuse of the F-bomb is sometimes funny, but mostly falls flat. But the ending-- god, the shocking, Freudian, scatological, insane ending makes it all worthwhile. Play it with a friend.

Might & Magic Clash of Heroes: I haven't generally been big into DS games. It's just not a format I want to spend time hunched over for long. But Clash of Heroes kept me absolutely hooked for the entirety of a cross-country flight, and for that I'm grateful. It's a really clever system wherein Bejeweled-style color matching puzzles cross with turn-based combat, special abilities and experience points. It's addictive on multiple fronts, but not in a way that feels cheap or exploitative. Quite the opposite: it's clever and lighthearted, and rewards you for the investment and skill you must exhibit to defeat enemies that are high above your own level. Novel, satisfying, and well worth playing.

Flower: I covered Flower earlier this year when I played it on a friend's PS3. It's one of those experiences that makes me grateful to whomever greenlights downloadable games at Sony. Flower connects the player's unconscious manipulation of Sixaxis motion controls so directly to its lush and fluid visuals that I felt closer to the sensation of floating on the wind than in any piece of media I've ever experienced. It's a real accomplishment, and helps answer the question: what else can video games do?

Saira: I also covered Saira at length earlier this month. I love everything about it: its big explorable galaxy and the way each planet feels unique and different; its open-endedness and faith in the player to explore it all and find their own way; its incredible variety of clever and unique puzzles, challenges and world layouts; its broad feature set, with everything from a starmap to a working PDA to interstellar radio stations to unique protagonist outfits for each different environment. It has that unmistakable Nifflas charm to it (the adorable ambient creatures being maybe the most obvious trademark) but in a new and stunning high-res style that mixes photography with pixel art, paper cutouts, and animation that's so smooth it almost looks rotoscoped. My favorite thing about Saira is that it constantly makes you think, and think hard. Every moment you're making and retaining connections, both spatial and logical. "Ah, I found the clue for this puzzle on that last planet, I'll need to open up my PDA and find the photo I took." "Ah, I can see an adjacent cavern and the entrance is through the top, I'll have to climb up there to make my way in." "Ah, the pool that lets me fly is here, I bet if I fly and use my momentum I can get up there." "Ah, this machine is deactivated and the wire leads to it from the east, I'll have to head that way to turn it on." Constant, meaningful mental investment is the trademark of the experience, all wrapped up in a unique and fanciful set of worlds like you've never seen. I couldn't love it more.

You owe it to yourself to play these games. Hope you had a great year and that 2010 is even better.


Mr. Zurkon said...

I'd say Demon's Souls was this year's standout. I haven't played a more atmospheric and challenging game in years. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes a video games comes a long and gives me this immersive adventurous feeling, a feeling of awe and wonder.

If you haven't played it...well, then you should do so right away.

Jamey Stevenson said...

Thanks for recommending Saira, both here and on the BG podcast. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the games I have played so far by Nifflas (especially Knytt) but his one had somehow slipped under my radar until you mentioned it.