If you ask me, 2009 was a rather exceptional year for video games. Although there was no one, single game that dominated the entire industry, there were so many titles of such stellar quality that players of every persuasion had plenty of things to choose from.
As a critic, I found that the end of the year was especially thick with games that required my attention; I usually have things well in hand by the time December starts, but this year I constantly had three, four, or five top-tier titles (besides all of the B-listers) that I needed to get to, and it was a race against time to make sure that everything that deserved a look got one.
That said, I'm only human.
There is no way any one critic could have covered every single game that came out this year, so I'm sure that in a month's time I'll come across a title or two that will make me rethink the list I've presented here today. Despite that, we've all got to draw a line somewhere and make the call… The ten games I've selected here represent the ten best experiences I had in 2009, and I'm glad for the opportunity to share them with you.
Take a look, and see what I've got to say. If you agree, let me know. If you disagree, I'd like to hear that, too. If I've called out that some titles that you haven't had a chance to spend time with, I hope that this list encourages you to track them down. And now...
The Best of 2009
Flower (PlayStation Network)
There is little left to be said about Flower that hasn't been said already, but I would feel extremely remiss in leaving it off this list after so many years of discussing games as art. This small, emotive title is a fantastic example of the kind of unique synergy that can emerge from a space where audience interactivity and creative suggestion meet.
Starting with controlling a single petal and traveling on the wind to gather more of its kind, selling this abstract project about color, life, and revitalization to the suits must have been a suicide mission. However, I'm extremely glad that someone, somewhere must have recognized the feeling and energy that's bursting through in every regard. I don't feel it's overstating the case to say that thanks to Flower being greenlit, not only were players treated to an unconventional, inspiring experience, but were also spurred to discuss the potential of videogames themselves.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, PC)
Basing its third-person, action-oriented play on the foundation laid by the original film, Ghostbusters places the player in the role of a new rookie who's just joined up with the spook-hunting veterans so well-known to fans. Peter (Bill Murray), Winston (Ernie Hudson), Ray (Aykroyd) and Egon (Ramis) all reprise their screen roles and deliver huge amounts of voice work.
Progressing through the game's haunted locations, it's extremely rare that the player will find themselves alone for more than a moment or two. Thanks to the chatty companions, the plentiful dialogue effectively re-creates the camaraderie and team dynamic from the movies. Rather than the player going solo or spearheading progress with mute NPCs trailing behind, Terminal Reality did an exceptionally brilliant thing in honoring the ensemble nature of the source material, and it's a huge reason why this experience stood out for me.
With extremely solid production values, loads of personality, smartly straightforward design and tons of connections to existing canon, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is well-equipped to please longtime 'buster fans and newcomers alike. This in itself is no small feat, but when held up against the hundreds of failed license-based games that came before it, its achievements are all the more impressive.
Cursed Mountain (Nintendo Wii)
Although the Horror genre has maintained a solid presence over the last few years, there is no doubt that the types of games falling into this category lately have favored action and gore over a more contemplative, quietly terrifying approach. Bucking this trend was Cursed Mountain.
Though the mountainous, alien terrain of the Tibetan landscape—where the game is set—is a character itself, the quality that drives the adventure away from gunfire and into the dark is a constant sense of self-doubt and insanity that dances around the edges of every scene. Thanks to some clever choices in visual presentation and the developers' decisions to often strip away control of the player's perception, this long, slow trek up an unforgiving mountain often feels more like a descent into madness.
Is the player's character sane? Can he believe his eyes? His ears? Is he imagining the events before him, or is reality truly falling apart at the seams? Certain moments capture the very Lovecraftian theme of man struggling against a hostile, malevolent universe, and it was a quality I savored. Although some may claim that it's too linear and narrow in scope, in Cursed Mountain's case, the game is the journey itself.
'Splosion Man (Xbox Live Arcade)
Tuned to run like finely-oiled, precision machine, every stage in 'Splosion Man is a series of gaps, enemies, and huge jumps where a player's most potent weapon will be a great sense of timing. Crafted as a 2D side-scroller using 3D characters, 'Splosion Man employs the classic platforming formula: move your character from left to right while navigating danger along the way. It's one of the core building blocks of early video game design, and it's been done a million times. However, the beauty and brilliance of what Twisted Pixel has done will only be appreciated after spending some time with controller in hand.
Using the act of self-explosion to both attack and jump, the geniuses in that studio have polished and refined this element to a near-perfect sheen, demonstrating absolute understanding of quality platforming and a superb sense of balance. Whether it's 'sploding off a wall to reach a higher ledge or bursting at just the right second to get a boost after flying hundreds of virtual feet through the air, the game will demand that players master the deconstructed mechanics and practice their use until flying over toxic waste and bursting between rotating platforms is second nature.
Deceptively cute and colorful, 'Splosion Man is a fantastic example of old-school design updated and refreshed for modern players who aren't afraid of a little challenge.
Dragon Age: Origins (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
To be honest, I would've been very surprised if BioWare's latest hadn't made this list. I'm certainly an unabashed fan, but this game would've earned a spot whether I was a fan of their work or not.
More than anything else, Dragon Age: Origins' strength is its unparalleled characterization, deep conversations and degree of role-playing that makes it so successful. Handled by any other studio, the attempt to save the fantasy world of Ferelden could have been a completely forgettable, by-the-numbers adventure lost in the overstuffed fourth-quarter release shuffle. Instead, players will (much like BioWare's other games) be treated to a twisting, turning plot and an incredibly engaging cast, each with fully-formed personalities, backstories, and endearing (or not so endearing) quirks that showcase the talents of the game's superb writing staff.
Enhancing the appeal of this already-rich content are the ways in which so many of the player's decisions have far-reaching and significant ramifications. Although some are not immediately apparent, the way the player charts their course through the adventure will influence nearly every aspect of their own personalized experience. Avoiding the simplistic good/evil dichotomy that seems to be popping up everywhere these days, the choices in Dragon Age: Origins are sure to have many gamers agonizing over their options. Frankly, there just aren't very many clear-cut decisions here; each crossroads in the truly epic-length quest has its own rewards and pitfalls, and such morally gray quandaries aren't something players get the chance to experience very often.
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (Nintendo DS)
With all of the clones and minor iterations in gaming today, it's becoming harder and harder to find something that feels especially inspired—especially in the Puzzle genre. You can't take a step in a game store without stumbling over something that wants you to match three objects of the same color, so something that as boldly original as Henry Hatsworth is definitely worth one of the top spots.
Although it doesn't create a new style per se, it becomes far more than the sum of its parts by taking advantage of the unique DS hardware. By combining Tetris-style block-dropping on the bottom screen with 2D Platforming on the top, Hatsworth asks the player to constantly shift not only between the screens, but also between two completely different skill-sets. With a demanding level of challenge and clever implementation of mechanics that supplement both halves of the game, this adventurous English gentleman game kicks players into mental overdrive with fast-paced, tightly-tuned play that feels entirely unlike anything else out there.
Half-Minute Hero (PlayStation Portable)
A brilliant idea executed brilliantly, Opus's Half-Minute Hero is unquestionably a traditional Japanese Role-Playing Game. All of the expected elements are here: a lone hero that gathers a ragtag group of friends to save the world, random battles and leveling up, buying items and equipment, talking to townsfolk, taking on side quests. There is essentially nothing different between this game and every other JRPG that's come before it, except for one thing: Rather than taking forty, sixty, eighty hours or more to go from the first quiet village to the evil overlord's imposing castle, you do it all here in 30 seconds. Yes, thirty seconds. Half-Minute Hero eliminates every ounce of fat from the playtime and boils the JRPG formula down to its absolute core. The strangest part? It absolutely succeeds.
Intellectually, the developers are quite cognizant of all the bad habits and tropes that these games are made up of, and while they still partake of them in greatly miniaturized fashion, it's from a squarely tongue-in-cheek perspective. Characters often reference the absurdity of the hoops JRPGs make their fans jump through, and the writers have absolutely no qualms about staying away from historically sacred cows. Half-Minute Hero would still be a great game without the sarcasm and humor, but with it, it's superb. Factor in the unprecedented approach towards running time, and you've got something that tosses one of the most tired, stale genres squarely on its ear and plays great while doing it.
Bionic Commando (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Although many reviewers maligned this update to the seminal Bionic Commando, when all was said and done, I have nothing but praise for it. The attention and effort put into this game is evident in all respects, and the central "grapple-arm" concept introduced so many years ago still holds up to this day; in fact, I'd say GRIN's work is actually superior to that which inspired it.
There is nothing quite like leaping from the top of a crumbling office building, free falling for what seems like forever, and then grappling onto a nearby streetlight for a last-second reprieve from unyielding pavement. Far from being a crowning set piece, Bionic Commando is absolutely full of heart-stopping moments like this. Aside from the vertically-charged play, the developers took a very unique approach to storytelling, adding nonstandard characterization on top of elements and twists that no one saw coming. Although the plot didn't quite pop everywhere it should have, there's no question that bold risks were taken. In my view, they paid off.
Putting aside expectations of what some uninformed critics may think it should have been, I suggest players take Bionic Commando for what it is—an absolutely faithful re-imagining of an undisputed classic, smartly crafted and brought elegantly into the current generation.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Before playing the game, I must admit that I was hesitant to put any stock in the copious amounts of praise Batman: Arkham Asylum was receiving. It's all too common for the review sphere to greet the latest "big game" with countless accolades, only to recant a month later. However, even with my jaded, pessimistic barriers raised at full strength, I couldn't deny that this was one of the rare times when every bit of praise was rightfully deserved.
Although the graphics are exceptional and the voice work is top-notch, the thing that I admired the most was that everything in the game's design was created in service to the overall experience. There are no choices or mechanics that do not support the greater function of carrying the player along on a fast-paced adventure portraying Batman as no other game has. From start to finish, I never detected anything that felt ill-fitting or out of place—no element was left in just because. For a developer to show such restraint and careful judgment is practically unheard of.
My admiration for its ultra-sleek streamlining aside, it's an undeniable fact that Arkham Asylum is without a doubt the best Batman game ever made—and if you ask me, it's better than all of the films. After so many years of seeing the Dark Knight reduced to a clumsy platformer or some other such simplified abomination, it was immensely rewarding to enjoy the work of developers who genuinely understood not only what the character is about, but how it can best be translated into actual gameplay.
Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3)
Forget everything you may have heard about Demon's Souls being incredibly difficult or unforgiving. Categorizing it with such a narrow view and leaving it at that does the title an incredible injustice. What it actually does is submerge players in its world and asks them to understand the reality of its dark, unforgiving world. Every aspect of its identity is tied to its intent to make the realm of Boletaria totally seamless. From Software hasn't just crafted an absolutely logical, holistic world, but has also gone to great lengths to make it cohere with itself in every way. The result is an experience unlike any other.
Thanks to masterful attention to detail, truly astounding world design, and a revolutionary interpretation of online multiplayer, succumbing to the atmosphere and oppressive aura put out by each of the game's areas is a foregone conclusion. Setting foot at the start of a level feels as though an entire fantasy world is laid out at the player's feet, ripe for exploration and rife with danger. However, in order to truly appreciate the scope of what Demon's Souls offers, the player must have patience and be willing to take the game on its own terms—the expression has been redefined, so how the player receives it must be redefined as well.
For those prepared to leave expectations of traditional Action-RPG design behind, Demon's Souls provides an astonishing, paradigm-shifting experience that's unrivaled by any other.
So there you have it.
As an added bonus, I felt compelled to give some recognition to a game I would have greatly celebrated on last year's Top 10 if I had actually managed to play it during the year in which it was released. (Like I said at the top, I'm only human... ) Unfortunately, I was unable to give it any time until now, so this honorable mention is my way of apologizing to Sega for failing to rally behind this exceptional title at a more appropriate time.
2008 Honorable Mention
Valkyria Chronicles (PlayStation 3)
The Strategy RPG is a genre that hasn't exactly been brimming with entries lately, and of those that did appear, most were staid and unimaginative; content to hew closely to established guidelines and tropes. Breaking away from the pack, Valkyria Chronicles took several risks in an attempt to carve out its own identity. From the tweaks to squad management, to the unconventional art style, to adding real-time elements into the combat system, there were many places where the game could've easily fallen flat on its face. However, there were few titles released recently that were more successful, in my opinion.
Over the length of its campaign, each battle managed to deliver an interesting twist or element that kept the war for Gallian independence tense and engaging. I also had great appreciation for the diverse cast of eccentric characters, many of them unforgettable. Striking a perfect balance between production, design, storytelling, and strategy, Valkyria Chronicles easily ranks near the top of the SRPG genre overall, and certainly deserves a place on every PS3 owner's shelf.