I didn’t play enough games last year to proclaim a “best of”

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.

1. Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Sky

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.

2. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

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.

3. Mass Effect 2

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.

4. Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

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.

5. Etrian Odyssey III and Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey

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.

6. Kirby’s Epic Yarn

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.

Also good:

  • 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.

Worst trend:

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.

21 thoughts on “I didn’t play enough games last year to proclaim a “best of”

  1. My backlog got more out of hand this year but the nice thing is that I don’t ever waste time playing something I don’t like. I think this was a pretty great year for indie games (both in terms of quality and their success). Tigsource’s top 20 has some great lo-fi 2D games that probably flew under most people’s radar (Streemerz and Hydorah being my personal standouts).

  2. The move toward more safely designed, expensive games could possibly be slowed by the industry’s desire to thwart second-hand sales with download-only games since downloadable games’ file sizes and prices are limited.

  3. I really don’t get the hate for Other M’s story. I thought
    it was absolutely fantastic. I enjoyed the cutscenes so much, that
    I actively looked forward to each and every one of them. And I’ve
    been a huge fan of the series ever since the original NES game
    launched. : /

    • Man, I don’t even know what to say. I think there’s an interesting story to be told with Metroid, but Other M’s story wasn’t it.

  4. I’m not sure if I can buy the “generic” excuse with overlooking Dragon Quest, with all the attention Pokemon gets. Yeah, yeah, collect ’em all, metagame cakes. Still the same battle system, and on top of that, it’s been largely the same every time out. Not to mention that evidently many players frequently start new files on old Pokemon games they’ve put hundreds of hours into. I’m not telling you what to like here, but seriously guys, there are hundreds of other games waiting to be played!

    Speaking of which, look at the GameFAQs Best DS game of the year poll and the results. Not a pretty sight.

  5. This can’t continue. The industry requires too much blood, sweat, tears, and money to create a AAA-experience. I think it’s one of the reasons JRPGs have largely flocked to the DS, as games are much, much cheaper to make there.

    Between indie games and downloadable content, I hope there is a paradigm shift coming. I think a lot of publishers are hopefully starting to realize that competing with the big dogs is almost certainly a suicidal move. Either that, or they go full-stupid and kill themselves off, which will lead to someone else taking their place.

    • As an addendum, though, I’m not a big fan of not having physical media, but it seems that many projects only see the light of day through XBLA or WiiWare. I’ll take what I can get.

  6. I’ve surprised you didn’t mention Nier, at least in the “Wish I’d had time to play” section.

    Anyone who writes that he wants, “[m]ore publishers realizing games that don’t have top-of-the-line budgets and the corresponding visuals can still be masterpieces,” is required to play Nier.


    • Agreed. You can’t complain about the lack of interesting games lately without trying one of the most unique games in years.

      • From a publisher not exactly known to always take such risks, no less.

        For good reason. I’m pretty sure it didn’t sell well.

        I’m fine with the games industry, seeing as it’s just a hobby of mine and there are plenty of games already available that will keep me busy for years to come. The only thing that worries me is that the new handheld systems (3DS and ‘PSP2’) are pretty beefy, which means higher development costs. Right now, the DS and PSP are the only places to turn for traditional (and sometimes not so traditional) RPGs.

        For no particular reason, I hate the thought of Apple gaining any major share in the market, but OS X-enabled handhelds could eventually be the next destination for the cheaply-produced RPG. I mean that in a good way, the way the DS is now that same place.

        As for my GOTY, well, Marvel Pinball has already taken far too many hours of my life. That works.

      • I’m allso worried about the new handhelds. Typically, the low power of handheld made them feel like they were basically Reborn 16/32 bit systems. The DS & PSP might hold the last bastion of 2D sprite artwork that isn’t made as a “self aware retro” motif or as a conscious artistic statement that one of the bullet points of a game but is just because 3D doesn’t look as good as 2D and because you can be more flexible with 2D than the limited analog-less 3D.

  7. Great list. I too would have Dragon Quest IX, Metal Gear
    Solid Peace Walker and Mass Effect 2 as my 1,2, 3. I’d Yakuza 3 and
    Super Mario Galaxy 2 completing my top five.

  8. Seriously? Did Entertainment Weekly really rate Kirby as the worst game of the year? WTF were they smoking? Yes, it was easy. It was also so phenomenally GOOD that it didn’t matter. Even in the later levels they were still finding new and interesting uses for the fabric art style which is just amazing to me.

    • One writer did; I wouldn’t attribute that opinion to the magazine as a whole. The magazine as a whole is likely unaware that video games exist.

      • They’re just not very clearsighted about it, that’s for sure. The two writers who do most of the gaming articles mainly do other articles. (Jeff Jensen, the person who picked Epic Yarn as worst, is known for his Lost articles.) An article last year made an offhand jab on “that TurboGrafx-16 and Sega Saturn sitting in your attic”, and the review of New Super Mario Bros Wii gave it a B+, not a bad score, I guess, but the reasoning? Aside from the four way multiplayer, there was nothing new going on. I guess it really is true that the mainstream media only cares about 2d games that have some sort of gimmick or post-modernism going on.

  9. What’s so special about Kirby’s Epic Yarn? Seems like a collectathon with a nice art style, but considering that a lot of next gen games have nice art styles, that’s not exactly something that makes me want to buy the game.

    • Well, it’s got Nintendo’s (platforming) seal of quality, so it’s fun enhanced by the art style. You could kind of say the same with DKCR. It’s hard and that’s about it besides involving Donkey Kong.

  10. Yep. I know it’s sad when I have 4 out of the 6(8) games in your list and I haven’t beaten any of them yet. Plus I keep getting PSOne Classics for my new PSP. One day I’ll get endless free time again and start beating some of these games. Someday.

  11. No time to play Mario Galaxy 2 or DKCR? Troll post? :P

    I can only tell you that DKCR is a love letter to platformer fans. It’s a thing of beauty. Make some time, man!

    And I’m glad to see some FFXIII love. Good game, that one. I’d rank it near the bottom of the series, but good nonetheless.

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