Here’s the secret of our industry: No one plays enough games each year to proclaim a best-of. Too many games come out every year, demanding too much time and energy, across too many platforms, for any one person to be able to compare them all. 1UP does its best to make up for this by having everyone on staff throw in a vote at the end of the year to come to a shared consensus, but really we’re all either specialists, now, or aimless dilettantes. Most people “specialize” in big-budget, high-profile, well-advertised games, which creates the sort of lopsided results best embodied by the Spike TV Awards—a feedback loop that encourages publishers to pursue visual excellence at the expense of perpetuating safe, expensive, predictable game design.
Not that I’m any better. I “specialized” in portable games in 2010, which just encourages all but the largest Japanese publishers to bury their head in the sand and ignore the existence of HD machines.
Occasionally, we all give lip service to independent productions that catch our eye, like Minecraft and Game Dev Story, but those are ostracized outsiders on the fringes of the industry, and only an impossibly tiny fraction of those productions garner any attention.
So, basically, there’s no winning. Yes, I’m cranky about the games industry’s big picture. But I played a lot of games that were individually very good! This list is probably inconsistent with my previously published list, but I’m entitled to be flaky.
People are quick to dismiss Dragon Quest because it’s so “generic” — never mind that it’s the series that defined console RPGs in the first place, making it “generic” in the same sense that Super Mario Bros. is just a “normal” platformer. The series evolves in an atypical manner, with change coming more around the edges rather than within the core game mechanics. In this case of DQIX, the series tackled the concept of multiplayer in a couple of ways that no other RPG had ever attempted, creating a game that was incredibly traditional yet uniquely inventive. And it was fun, charming, and addictive, too… especially tagging others at PAX.
Here Metal Gear did pretty much the same thing as Dragon Quest IX — namely, try to outfox Monster Hunter — and it pulled it off in absolute style. Peace Walker focused on the great things about Metal Gear (namely, the stealth action) while shuffling the long-winded exposition to the wings and restructuring the core design into small, self-contained missions that were much friendlier to experimenting with play styles. You could alternate between stealth and gunplay and not have to worry about your end-of-game ratings, which was especially nice given the variety of mission styles. The only real shortcoming was that Peace Walker’s bosses were boring and stupid, a real letdown in a series known for its inventive bosses.
BioWare went a little far in simplifying Mass Effect‘s RPG mechanics with its sequel, but remarkably the extreme streamlining at work in ME2 didn’t affect the series’ most important element: its story. And by that, I really mean “the story it allowed me to create.” I enjoyed creating my own Commander Shepard for the first game, but the way my decisions and actions carried over into the second chapter was the most immersive, effective, and impressive narrative technique I’ve in a game in years.
I’m putting two Final Fantasy games here not only because I enjoyed them, but also because I think both suffered from the same affliction: namely, being Final Fantasy games. The name “Final Fantasy” carries major baggage with it, and most of the fanbase has preconceived notions about what that should be (given the demand for a Final Fantasy VII remake, I’m guessing what most people want is basically Final Fantasy VII again). Neither one of these Final Fantasies adhered to this fan-designed template, but both worked quite well on their own terms — the problem, however, is that few people cared to play them on those terms. You know how we keep getting franchise reboots instead of sequels? Yeah, the chilly reception these games received is why.
Another two-fer, simply because they’re both Atlus-designed first-person RPGs for DS. The two games had massive, fundamental differences below the surface. They were, however, both wonderfully deep, enormously huge, and impressively difficult. After years of playing RPGs, it’s still nice to be surprised and challenged.
This probably would have ranked higher, but I didn’t get to play as much of it as I would have liked. Still, I love its brilliant integration of visual design and play mechanics. Entertainment Weekly took Kirby to task as the worst game of the year for having no real challenge, as if every game is obligated to make you sweat blood. If Heavy Rain can earn critical plaudits for gracelessly failing to turn a somewhat pretentious, vaguely misogynistic Hollywood flick into a compelling video game, surely Kirby deserves credit for successfully turning a whimsical children’s storybook into one.
- Ys: The Oath at Falgana: A crisp, compact 16-bit remake done with perfect style.
- Z.H.P.: A bizarre marriage of roguelike mechanics and tactical RPG perspective.
- Shantae: Risky’s Revenge: A beautifully drawn and exquisitely bite-sized non-linear platformer.
- Cave Story: The PC masterpiece was good on Wii, unbeatable on DSiWare.
Wish I’d had time to play:
Vanquish; Fallout: New Vegas; Yakuza 3; Super Mario Galaxy 2; Alpha Protocol; Chaos Rings; Donkey Kong Country Returns; BioShock 2; Halo: Reach; Monster Hunter 3; Persona 3 Portable; Valkyria Chronicles 2; Super Meat Boy; Rocket Knight. Seriously, who has time to play all of these!?
Not as good as they should have been:
- Crackdown 2: Terrible ideas staying afloat entirely on the strength of its predecessor’s excellence.
- Metroid: Other M: Invigorating play undermined by constant (and utterly terrible) glimpses into “Samus’ rich inner life,” which was neither rich, lifelike, or necessary.
- Mega Man 10: A good retro-style platformer lacking its predecessor’s mad inspiration.
- Golden Sun: Dark Dawn: Promising combat mechanics lost in one of the most pointless, long-winded games I’ve ever played. Makes Xenogears look concise and restrained.
Games that wouldn’t shut up. How sad is it that a Metal Gear Solid game was one of the most restrained narratives of the year? Between Metroid Other M’s godawful cutscenes undermining an otherwise excellent action-driven take on a classic series, Ys Seven going on and on for god knows how long about nothing, Z.H.P.’s endless string of dumb jokes and hokey pep talking, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn talking even more than Ys Seven despite having a fraction of the other game’s story content, and so on, and so forth. Game writers, I know you’re in love with the worlds and characters you’ve created, and you have this huge story bible full of details to relay, but editing is good! More words do not intrinsically equal a better story, and I encourage everyone who aspires to write a video game to play through Metroid Other M and then Super Metroid, then compare how many words and cutscenes each game uses, and which has a greater emotional impact.
What I hope to see in 2011:
More publishers realizing games that don’t have top-of-the-line budgets and the corresponding visuals can still be masterpieces. Uncharted is pretty awesome, but watching the entire industry rush to out-Uncharted Uncharted sounds like the most boring form of creative suicide imaginable.