Friday, January 6, 2012

The Best Games I Played in 2011

This was a bargain bin year for my gametime as I just don't have the funds to purchase every new must-have game, and therefor can't honestly give you a best games of 2011 list. I just didn't play many new releases, so instead I'll recount my favorite games I played this year that were new to me, regardless of their release dates. Maybe you'll find a few here you missed:


Pure joy - that's the acute way to describe the experience of Chibi-Robo. All great games elicit joy of a sort, but this is the only such game I know that's also about joy. As the titular miniature robot, your one and only purpose in life is to make those around you happy. Being the newest object in a household packed with Japanese absurdities (an egg army, an egomaniac action figure, a tiny pirate, etc.), you earn happy points by assisting the Sanderson family with their myriad problems, among them a lazy dad trying to be a better husband, a daughter who only speaks frog, and a mom trying to hold the family together. The genius of Chibi-Robo is it's an adventure game taking place entirely within one house from Chibi's 4-inch-tall viewpoint.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Link's Awakening DX, Four Swords Special Edition, & Minish Cap

I played a lot of Zelda this year! I have my 3DS to thank for that (thanks 3DS!) as it offered remakes of two games I've played and loved, and two portable Zeldas I somehow missed before. Ocarina as you know by now is the twinkle in my eye, and this 3D portable version makes it shine brighter. Four Swords was fun when included in the GBA Link to the Past cart years ago and it's even more fun now with its new solo mode. Minish Cap, though I'm only an hour or so into it, appears to retain the Zelda charm. And finally the first ever portable Zelda, Link's Awakening (as offered in its GBC DX form on the eShop) - as someone who jumped into the series late with Ocarina, it strikes me just how much the series already found its footing by this, only its third entry.

(Note: please remember I've yet to play the copy of Skyward Sword nestled safely in my sock drawer as I don't presently own a TV, though I've attempted to produce an image by spinning the disc on my finger without significant results)

Mario Kart Arcade GP 2

Two weeks ago I was at Dave & Buster's settling for enjoyable 10 year-old cabinets I'd played before when I turned a corner and found this:

I thought this was only in Japan! I'd longed resigned myself to having two missing stamps on my Mario Kart license as the arcade games weren't available in the states. But there it was! I immediately called my buddy Trey to brag, but apparently he'd played it already and they did bring the sequel here officially to a few hundred locations (without telling me? The nerve!). So how did it play? Exactly as a Mario Kart arcade game should: classic Mario Kart but faster and optimized for a quick thrill. MK staples like Rainbow Road and the starting-line boost trick are all in place, but this Namco-produced game controls looser than its predecessors and more like Ridge Racer (which isn't bad, just takes getting used to). Plus Pac-Man and a roster of Namco characters come along for the ride, though I would never get in a car with them, Luigi. Playa 2 4 lyfe.

Red Dead Redemption

Why o why are there so few western games? Red Dead Redemption sets an impressive standard for the scarcely-populated genre, easily shedding any pretense of simply being Grand Theft Auto on a horse by providing a fully-realized picture of history that lives and breathes with a character entirely unique from Rockstar's other open-world blockbuster.

NBA Jam (iPhone edition)

In fifth grade I mowed a lot of lawns for the right to take home NBA Jam; now most of my fifth grade memories involve boomshakalaking. When NBA Jam's return was announced for Wii, I instinctively mowed fifty lawns before remembering I now have a real job. When the surprise iPhone version dropped earlier this year for only five dollars, I purchased it. Enthusiastically, but with just the amount of hesitation required when buying an iPhone port of a console game. Touch controls are historically butt compared to buttons, especially for fast-paced jams like The Jam. Yet here, somehow, someway, they almost excel. Flicking your fingers to and fro adds to the illusion that you're working b-ball magic. For a measley five bucks it certainly stacks up to the $50 console versions. It's the best iPhone game I've ever played, and worth many lawn mows.

Metroid Fusion

Another missed classic I finally got to play via 3DS. I never got the original Metroid as a kid, and I criminally missed not just Super Metroid but the SNES altogether, so in the last few years I've really enjoyed getting caught up with Nintendo's redheaded stepchild (seriously, they altogether forgot Metroid's 25th birthday this year while giving Zelda a fucking worldwide symphony tour). Metroid Fusion is so damn good that when the free GBA games were released I sidelined Minish Cap, a Zelda I'd anticipated playing since 2004, after one hour to play Fusion for four. The graphics are some of the prettiest I've seen on the GBA, mixing splashes of neon into Metroid's dark palette with memorable effect. The sound design is appropriately dreary and expertly makes me forget I'm playing an emulation of a 16-bit handheld. And the well-paced story makes me want to marathon through all the Metroids in one unblinking sitting.

Donkey Kong Jungle Beat

This game is surely the result of a drunken bet. Betcha can't make a platformer controlled by bongos, someone said. And they said it foolishly, because obviously you can, duh. But who knew it would work this well? The guys at Nintendo, that's who. With power of the woefully-underutilized DK Bongo controller you slap and clap your way across some of the most resplendent run-n-jump jungle gyms ever conceived, no d-pads or analog sticks necessary. Pound right to go right, left to go left, both to jump, and clap to attack. Simple and fun! Now why couldn't Activision do anything as creative with all those plastic guitars?

Back to the Future: The Game

Part of me always wanted another Back to the Future movie, but my practical side said no, the classic trilogy closed the story definitely and perfectly (nuts to those hatin' on Part 3). Then when Telltale announced they'd acquired the rights to the license and applied their trademark point-and-click adventure formula, it dawned on me there should be another chapter and this was the way to make it. Like it and it works as a Part 4, or hate it and dismiss it as just a game and not a true sequel; either way the legacy of the films remains in tact. I'm satisfied with considering it a Part 4, although some technical errors like a near complete lack of lip-synching and glitchy animation throughout keep it from being the immersive cinematic experience it should be. Still it makes my top of the year list because it gets the BTTF characters and comically playful sci-fi lite just right, the story (co-developed by the series' original screenwriter Bob Gale - good move Telltale!) is inventive and gels with the originals just fine, and because my wife and I played through the entire game together. That's one unique benefit of the point-and-click genre which I love: one person plays but everyone watching can enjoy the game, making not just for a fun time but a great shared memory of an experience you conquered together. Bring on Part 5!

And my favorite game of the year of yesteryear is...

Chibi-Robo! Go ahead, dismiss it for its cutesy style (you're the same guy who still won't watch Toy Story because it's a cartoon) - that just leaves more copies for the true gamers with the emotional security and sense of humor to enjoy a crazy made-only-in-Japan family sitcom adventure with a surprising amount of heart, a lot of Zelda in its soul, and a premise so out there it's practically a celebration of the very escapism which makes games so darn fun in the first place. Let the campaign for a 3DS sequel begin here!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Serviceable Legends of Zelda

My favorite video game series is The Legend of Zelda. Here is how much so: I bought the newest game, Skyward Sword, and I don't even have a TV.

Why buy the game when I don't have a TV? Truthfully I would've waited if not for the limited edition bundle including this sexy Zelda Wiimote:

I might get destroyed for saying this, but Zeldas usually have weak stories. Lovable characters, colorful dialogue, but very rudimentary, cliche fantasy stories. And I'm hoping that's changed with Skyward Sword.

I moved across the country in a mini van a few weeks ago. Rather than occupy precious cargo space with my big boxy TV, I decided the lack of room was a perfect excuse to leave it behind and find myself in need of a huge flat screen (soon...soon...). Of course all my games and systems made the journey, so Skyward Sword (or "Skyward S Word" - Shiiiiiiiiiit!) sits safely in my sock drawer giving me dreams of a richly detailed, twisting and turning Tolkien-worthy fantasy narrative.

I've played every Zelda game save for a few: Oracle of Seasons/Ages, Spirit Tracks, and the crappy CD-i games, and although the gameplay is routinely masterful the stories are always far too simple. Perhaps they're best likened to fairy tales, being good stories efficiently told, only drawing outlines and leaving the player to color them in, and that's fine. After so many years and so many entries in this series just once I'd like to defeat Gannon and feel I finished a mature, intricately-woven literary tome that I would enthusiastically read were it adapted into book form. But even Ocarina of Time is young adult reading at best.

And I say that with Ocarina being my favorite game ever. My brain just swelled with dopamine at the thought of it right then! The older Zeldas had an excuse as they were among the first in the series in a medium so new itself. Now with games passing the forty-year mark the industry has a strong storytelling foothold, and the number of great-read games could fill many bookshelves, but still not one of those books is a Zelda.

I think the closest Zelda's ever come to achieving pageturner status is Majora's Mask, and the reason is they clearly started development with an intersting narrative quagmire - having to relive the same three days saving the world - and not simply an inspired gameplay design a la Ocarina. I once heard that when developing the revolutionary Super Mario 64 Miyamoto's team started with perfecting Mario's control, then built a game around the fun maneuvers they'd developed. It seems to me Zeldas are generally developed the same way: wouldn't it be fun to alternate between worlds (Link to the Past), shrink to ant size (Minish Cap), or slow time (Phantom Hourglass), and the story is then "painted over" the established mechanic. There's nothing narratively compelling about the mechanic itself. Majora's Mask's three day cycle is a gameplay device sure, but it's also in and of itself an intriguing nugget of a story with questions that immediately spring to mind: What happens in those three days? Why does Link repeat them? With such a strong foundation informing the gameplay and the narrative equally, the game as a whole can only get better from there.

I have great hope for Skyward Sword because I think it begins with a similarly promising story and central gameplay mechanic, those being the origin tale of the Master Sword and the 1:1 swordplay controls. For a cohesive end product, story and gameplay must sprout from the same seed and be inseparably codependant. If the gameplay is so spectacular I feel like I'm affecting a virtual world, then I want the narrative depth allowing me to do unforgettable, fantastic things in it.