Saturday, January 23, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In Videogames

We're well into 2010, and yet, it's been so busy these last few weeks that I never got to finish up my BEST OF 2009 series. Okay, I'll admit, between my BEST OF THE 00's posts and my usual year-end wrap-ups, I did *a lot* of listmaking throughout the month of December. So much so that the thought of doing any more sort of gave me a headache. But now that some time has passed and I've given myself some space, I wanted to come back and finish up what I started several weeks back. I've already posted my Best of '09 lists for movies and TV - so check 'em out if you haven't already - but here, finally, is a look at the past year's best in GAMES. Enjoy reading, and stay tuned for a couple final installments in the Best of 2009.


- Videogames had another fine year in '09, and I think we are in the midst of the best part of every console generation - the period in which we can really sit back and enjoy games that really begin to push the hardware to new heights. When consoles are new, you get some great software, sure, but it's often in the middle period of a console's lifespan that you get the truly defining games. The developers have grown more comfortable with the hardware, the big name franchises have gotten new installments, and the new IP that launched alongside the new consoles have become bonafide franchises, with bigger and better sequels that really push the limits.

As someone who's been a big PS3 supporter, it's been awesome seeing the console really hit its stride this past year. This past holiday season, sales of the PS3 really spiked, and with good reason - the system saw an unbelievable software lineup that, to me, really established Sony's wonder-machine as the must-own system of the moment. For a while, the PS3 had only a handful of bigtime exclusives. But this year alone, Sony released titles like Infamous, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time, and Uncharted 2. Triple-A titles that you won't find on the XBOX. I'm not saying that Microsoft didn't also have a good year. I'm just saying that, in my mind, the PS3 was where the action was in '09.

Honestly though, it's hard to think of many big exclusives that were released on the XBOX 360 in '09. Halo ODST, sure, but if you weren't already a Halo fan (like me, for instance) it wasn't that huge of a deal. Now, Microsoft does have a huge title in early 2010 with Mass Effect 2, but so does Sony - God of War III. That said, I give MS credit. They have made great strides to turn the XBOX into a legitimate multimedia powerhouse. Their machine may not be able to play blu-ray discs, but it is still the king of online connectivity and digital distribution. Overall though, both of the big consoles made strides in that area. Great downloadable games were released - games that wouldn't have been possible without the niche online marketplaces of the consoles. I mean, look at Shadow Complex on the XBOX - an awesome, old-school 2D adventure that can be downloaded directly to your console. I love that digital distribution has made such games feasible in the modern era. Plus, both consoles now integrate with Facebook, Netflix, etc. Pretty crazy, yet also cool. At the end of the day though, as any hardcore gamer knows, it's all about the games.

And this brings me to Nintendo. To me, 2009 was a pretty dismal year for the Big N. The Wii was basically a black hole for quality releases. Third parties have all but given up on releasing real games for the platform, and with good reason. Games like Madworld and Dead Space: Extraction were poor sellers on the Wii. Nintendo might be making lots of bank from their console, but other publishers are not. A couple of games this year piqued my interest on the Wii, but I don't think there was a single new game that made me regret not owning one. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, maybe, but hey, I own New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, and to be honest this one looked like simply more of the same, albeit with multiplayer. Nintendo has a new Mario Galaxy, a new Zelda, and a Team Ninja-developed Metroid title in development. That's cool. But Nintendo needs to realize that a couple new token franchise releases aren't enough. It's sad to think that the company that turned a generation of kids into loyal gamers has now mostly abandoned those same consumers. At the same time, it's hard to worry too much about Nintendo's current sad state. There are too many great games out there to play - no use dwelling on what might have been.

About those great games ... man, if only I had time to play them all. I still have several games I purchased in 2009 that I've yet to even dive into. I'm still waiting to play games like Brutal Legend and Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. Even Resident Evil 5 ... I've just barely scratched the surface ... unfortunately, I had to put that one on the backburner for a while. And yet, even as time gets tighter, I still love the feeling of getting immersed in a game. It's a little easier, I think, to write here on the blog about movies and TV. The language of those mediums is still more universal and well-known. Games are harder to talk about without alienating those who aren't gamers themselves. And yet, when I look at a game like Uncharted 2, I want to yell at people who dismiss games to just sit down and play it. I've talked about how, to me, the first Uncharted game was *the* blockbuster adventure story of the year when it came out. Even as people came away from the new Indiana Jones flick disappointed and underwhelmed, here was Uncharted, which was the better in every way, plus ... you controlled the action! For gamers, that rush of adrenaline that comes with guiding a hero dafely through a perilous journey, well, it's nothing new. But now, a game like Uncharted 2 is so aesthetically similar to a movie, that its advantages are hard to ignore. Or look at Batman: Arkham Asylum. It's so good, that it's right up there in the all-time cannon of awesome Batman stories. If you're a Bat-fan, then of course you've got to watch The Dark Knight and the classic Animated Series. You've got to read the classic comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and The Killing Joke. And now, you've got to play Arkham Asylum. It's a definitive experience.

And look, by no means do I think that all games have to have complex mechanics and state-of-the-art graphics to be great. There's something amazing about the simplicity of logic and purpose to a game like Tetris, for example. That said, there is this category of franchise videogames that I don't think the mainstream can ignore, because again, they look and feel like big-budget movies, but they offer up an experience that's immersive, intense, and interactive. People talk about things like Wii Fit, iPhone games, etc. Those are fun distractions, but most people I've talked to with a Wii Fit spent a couple days playing with it and then quickly through it in the closet. Most iPhone games are good for a couple of hours of amusement but are ultimately not comparable to the average DS or PSP game. The big budget blockbuster games are often labeled as "core" games, but to me that distinction is pointless. So ... any game that requires a time investment and has a learning curve is a "core" game? That's like saying that any movie that requires you to pay attention and think a bit is a "core" movie. What I love about games though is how smart and passionate real game fans are. Luckily, I think that more and more people are going to be forced to "get it" even if they've been slow to jump on the bandwagon until now. I mean, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the biggest entertainment debut EVER, dollars-wise. Personally I'm not a Call of Duty guy, but still, that's amazing. Games are the real deal, and in 2009, nobody could ignore it.

So here are my Top 5 games of 2009, my personal favorite gaming experiences of this past year.


1.) Uncharted 2

- With jaw-dropping graphics, cinematic presentation, and uber-fun gameplay, Uncharted 2 is one of the best games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. Building on everything that made the first game work so well, this awesome sequel ups the ante even further, with a better story, smoother gameplay, and ultra-detailed visuals that somehow improve on the original's bar-setting standards. Again, this game has all the trappings of a blockbuster movie, but it also has the gameplay to go with it. Rarely have style and substance come together so seamlessly. Bottom line: this is one kickass game.

2.) Batman: Arkham Asylum

- Licensed games are rarely good, and Batman games have a long and indistinguished history of mediocrity. But Arkham Asylum stunned me with its quality. The game makes you feel like Batman - there's hi-octane action, detective work / puzzle solving, cool gadgets, a dark and gritty storyline, and all the cool little bits of Bat-lore that have made the character so popular for all these years. Arkham Asylum takes the persistent storytelling of games like Bioshock and adapts it to the Batman universe, with a killer script from Paul Dini, and awesome voicework from the original Animated Series cast, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hammil as The Joker. Amazingly, the gameplay is super-smooth as well - the combination of action and exploration is right up there with classics like Zelda and Tomb Raider. Suffice it to say, bring on the sequel.

3.) Street Fighter 4

Like many, I was skeptical about a new, 3D Street Fighter game, especially given the amount of time that had passed between new SF installments. At the same time, I was really curious to see how Capcom would update the biggest fighting franchise ever for the next generation. And ... wow ... somehow, Capcom pulled off a stunner - a game with awesome, ultra-stylized 3D graphics, but one that retained SFII's classic, tight gameplay and rock-solid fighting mechanics. So many fighting games these days encourage random button presses and huge ultra-combos, so it was great to have a game that went back to basics without skimping on the flash and style that next-gen consoles make possible. Shoryuken!

4.) Shadow Complex

- This was a game that I couldn't wait to play since I saw the demo in action at E3 this past summer. Because, yeah, I am one of those old-school gamers who salivates at the thought of a classic 2D side-scroller created using new-school next-gen graphics and production value. And that's exactly what Shadow Complex is - a 2D adventure in the style of Castlevania or Metroid, except with a sophisticated espionage story and eye-popping graphics to boot. I love that this game, which might have had a tough time selling at retail, was created as an XBOX digital download too. A very cool example of the possibilities of digital distribution on next-gen consoles.

5.) Scribblenauts

- This Nintendo DS game is so original and ambitious. It's basically a puzzle-game, but the twist is that you can use almost any object you can think of to help you get past each challenge. It's pretty amazing - simply use the DS stylus to write a noun - a hammer, a jetpack, a dinosaur, a truck, a time machine - anything - and it's yours to utilize on a given level. The sheer number of objects you can conjure up is mind-blowing - half the fun is seeing how obscure you can get, and then realizing that even the craziest thing you can think of is available in the game. Definitely one of the coolest games yet on the DS, and a game that is one of the most fun and original I've played in a long while.

- Alright, that's it for now. Check back soon for more!

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