Another tedious year-end retrospective?
You know it!
BEST THINGS OF
The thing about things in a thing that is a year is that there is too many to play all of them. I didn’t get to many of the triple-A, high-profile titles this year, and I’ve never even heard of the PS3 (whatever that is), so this list is biased towards the things I actually did play. This should be obvious but I feel like it still needs to be said, if only to preempt potential “no stupid Metroid Other-M has the best waggle you stupid!” comments. I wouldn’t know a thing about Other M and waggle, buddy, because there’s no way I’d be caught playing that piece of shit. That said:
Winner: Super Mario Galaxy 2 – 2010 saw Microsoft and Sony desperately grabbing for some of Nintendo’s sweet sweet casual riches (for the second time in Sony’s case; how soon we forget the Sixaxis). But this is a case of the controller wagging the dog. Nintendo’s rivals don’t seem to realize that the prospect of flailing their arms around like morons isn’t what drew the masses to the Wii. Well… not entirely. Yes, Super Mario Galaxy 2 plays identical to its predecessor, but it showcases Nintendo’s motion-revolution at it’s best. Namely, the Wiimote as a virtual cursor. When the ‘mote is used to point and click it’s all blue skies and smooth sailing. Things start to get dicey once flail and gesture are involved. Mario Galaxy pulls it off with as much aplomb as possible. A quick flick of the wrist causes Mario to perform a spin move that can be used to attack enemies or slightly extend the distance and hight of a jump. It’s so smoothly ingrained that flicking the ‘mote is so section nature as to be just another button press. Any more waggle than this and I start to get weary. Remember how hard it was to pull of the shield bash in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? I fear that Skyward Sword is going be forty hours of frustration. Galaxy 2 earns props for being just about the perfect implementation of wacko controls on a weird old system.
Worst Place: Epic Mickey – Epic Mickey apes a lot from Galaxy’s control scheme. Same point & click interface for shooting (star bits in Galaxy, paint and thinner in Mickey) and same waggle to spin. However, something’s wrong with the recognition of the spin move. Where in Galaxy a slight flick of the wrist was enough to send Mario twirling Epic Mickey requires a much more hearty jostle. You practically have to pause and pump the Wiimote back and forth to get Mickey to spin around. Unfortunately, there are tons of destrucables in Mickey’s environments and the only way to break open the crates and barrels is to spin into them. Worse, there’s a delay between shaking the ‘mote and when Mickey starts his spin. So the intent of action doesn’t translate smoothly to the screen. This makes breaking barrels annoying and attacking enemies or getting that little boost to clear a jump frustrating. I know you’re trying to be edgy and dark, Epic Mickey, but I shouldn’t have to slap you around just to pull off basic platforming moves.
Winner: VVVVVV – While Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Sonic Colors both impress and improve on previous series entries, no other game about jumping on things was more fun, had more nail-biting moments, and brought more satisfaction than VVVVVV. Hard as nails, but never punishing, VVVVVV takes a simple concept and explores it fully. Anyone who’s completed the “Doing It The Hard Way” gauntlet knows the pain and pleasure and obsessive focus VVVVVV engineers. If platformers are about moving through space no other game this year did it with more grace and invention. AAAAAA+
Biggest Disappointment: Mega Man 10 – Mega Man 9 took inspiration from Mega Man 2 and 3 and is arguably the best game in the series, for the follow-up Capcom turned to… Mega Man 4? 10 has some high points (Pump Man’s stage is one of the best in all the series’ long run) but coming off of 9 it couldn’t help but feel like a giant misstep. I’m glad it was made and I hope for more retro style Mega Mans in the future, but let’s not forget hard lessons learned so quickly, fellas.
Worst Place: Epic Mickey again – Between Epic Mickey’s wonky camera and sluggo controls the only bad thing about the game is actually playing it.
Best Final Fantasy
Runner Up: Final Fantasy XIII – I went into Final Fantasy XIII not wanting to like it, and walked away not really hating it. The setting’s interesting and the premise had potential. But blegh, the storytelling. When the chapter synopsis are required reading to know what’s going on there’s something majorly wrong. I’m all for dropping in the middle on the narrative and not over-explaining everything to the audience, but clarity should always be a goal of fiction*. A plot can twist as much as it likes, but the immediate action should be easy to follow. Look at The Book of the New Sun. It’s told in obscure language and so myriad in mysteries that multiple readings are needed to work everything out. But even if you don’t piece together who Dorcas is or what that castle in the sky was, the story of Severian’s accent to Autarch is always clear. But FFXIII’s so murky that have ground to stand on. Things make sense with the supplemental material, but it shouldn’t be needed. And the characters? I couldn’t stand a single one the stupid anime-heads animeing all over the place. Even cool-guy Sahz’s schtick got old fast.
I can’t comment on the battle-system or linearity as I didn’t get too far into it. I had fun with what I played but when I got to the white woods with Mopey and Angry and said “yeah that’s about enough of that” and powered-off forever. Like I said, I didn’t really hate it, but there wasn’t enough there to keep me engaged.
Pretty though! The best part was just standing around looking at things.
*Yes, yes, there are always exceptions. I’m looking at you, Finnegans Wake.
Winner: 4 Heroes of Light – A return to basics is just what this series needed. 4 Heroes dumps all the conventions from Final Fantasy VII on and provides one of the best Final Fantasies in years. It’s basically the anti-XIII: a breezy battle system that still has plenty of depth, a story that doesn’t trip all over itself but succeeds because of charm, and characters I don’t want to slap every time they open their mouths. It’s also the most gorgeous game on the DS, a pop-up fairytale world composed of dollops of paint and just enough pixel crunch to give it that retro flavor. I’m a big advocate for long system life-cycles because usually by this time the pure graphical wow has become commonplace and so developers have to turn to style and design to wow. 4 Heroes has both in spades (see also: Final Fantasy XII, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, Shadow of the Colossus). Being a side-game, 4 Heroes can also get away with messing with tradition. What other Final Fantasy would have the balls to put a black mage in a top hat or an Orc in a frilly ascot? The only place the game stumbles is in the boring “hallways-and-right-turns” dungeon design. Otherwise, 4 Heroes is a gem from every angle, and developer Matrix Software’s best work. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
Worst Place: Final Fantasy I and II iOS– Lazy ports of the PSP versions with bad controls and fucked up text. Think Square would release a patch to fix these issues? Of course not. Cash grabs of the worst sort.
Runner Up: Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks – Nintendo hasn’t made a great Zelda in ages. Spirit Tracks doesn’t do anything to buck that trend. I admit it, it’s got problems. The training around, it get’s tedious, and fast; and the music repetition segments are game-stoppers of the worst. sort. But there’s some great dungeons (unlike that lousy Phantom Hourglass) and some real high points (the tracks leading to the water temple, dolphins walking on their tails, the pure joy of blowing that whistle). The majority of the time I spent with Spirit Tracks was with a smile from ear to ear.
Winner: NieR – Who would have though Cavia would make a great game? And sadly, it will be their last. Considering the improvement between NieR and Drakengard I can’t help but wondering how good their next game would have been. If Deadly Premonition is 2010’s sleeper hit, NieR is its cult classic. It’s a very strange, very sad game. Intelligent and daring, and with actual interesting characters who you both like and care about. NieR isn’t afraid to cut out the graphics and just be text for a while or turn a dungeon into a bullet-hell shooter. It let’s you drift around on the back of a giant boar for the hell of it. Striking design and haunting music. Seals on the fucking beach! Also: copious amounts of bullshit fetch-quests.
Runner Up: Just about all of them. 2010 was just stupid with great RPGs, especially on handhelds. This year brought us Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, 4 Heroes of Light, Bowser’s Inside Story, Infinite Space, Mass Effect 2, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, Y’s VII, Y’s Oath in Felghana, and Etrian Odyssey 3, among a slew of others. I can’t pick just one runner up out of a year this good.
Winner: Persona 3 Portable – A handheld, streamlined, improved version of an already mind-bendingly good game. In a year already saturated amazing titles P3P stood heads above the rest. Now Atlus, P4P pleeeeeeeeeeease?
Biggest Disappointment: Dragon Quest IX – A lot of people have been naming DQIX their game of the year. Hundreds of hours of enjoyment certainly seems worthy of the title. But I couldn’t get into it. At all. I toughed it out for 20 hours but eventually had to be honest with myself, I wasn’t having fun. In fact, I was board. Aggressively and profoundly board. I’m a big Dragon Quest fan and VII, generally agreed to be the most tedious game in the series, is my favorite. So why didn’t IX hit that pleasure center? Part of it was the aesthetics were so grating. The clunky 3D models did no favors to Toriyama’s designs. The charm was completely destroyed. I am grateful that the DS remakes of IV, V, and VI keep the clean 2D. The music annoyed, I was surprised I had to turn down the volume in a Dragon Quest. Often cited as the best song, The Observatory, get’s old fast, and everything else is worse. The town theme has to be worst in the series, and thanks to the slow pace of the game, you’ll be hearing it a lot. I could go on to complain about the boring battles and inane quests but I think I’ll end here and save face.
Worst Place: Deathspank – I’m sorry Ron Gilbert, your game isn’t fun or funny. Things like demon chickens and bacon aren’t inherently hilarious. Deathspank is the tired “lol pirate ninjas” joke of RPGs.
Runner Up: These games aren’t necessarily the best, or even “good,” but they’re the one’s I though the most about, and ones that had something to say worth listening to.
NieR: Meta-crazy genre smash-up with a generally good story and characters miles beyond what we’re used to in games? I tried NieR on a whim and was slapped-silly with what I found. A game that comments on games without being all stupid and obvious with it? That alone makes NieR an anomaly. But then you put seals on the beach and the game just sky-rockets.
Mystic Ark: Yeah, yeah. The game’s from 1996 and the translations were released in 2009. I don’t care. I found out about it this year, so it count’s. Mystic Ark doesn’t so much push against the boundaries of JRPG design so much as lazy lean against them. Looking at it today it’s not that special, but as an artifact of 1996 Mystic Ark it’s crazy innovative. A stunning departure from the genre standard.
Winner: Epic Mickey – When was the last time a game had something to say about something real? Not just “war is bad” or “sad things happen in stories,” but something tangible in the real world? I can’t think of any other time (though I’m sure I’m just not thinking hard enough). Epic Mickey is the most subversive game I’ve ever played. Disney is a presence in our every day lives and Epic Mickey is both a loving tribute to what it was and scathing critique of what it has become. What’s more, it’s a Disney product. Epic Mickey shouldn’t exist. I can’t even comprehend how it got made. Don’t believe me? The player can make Mickey do bad things: be a jerk just for the sake of it, erase characters from existence. Mickey. The face and mascot of one of the most powerful corporations in the world. And not only can the player mess with Mickey’s image, but he’s the reason for everything bad that happens in the game. It’s all his fault. Epic Mickey rescues him from corporate death and makes him a character again. It’s quite the trick.
Biggest disappointment: Super Scribblenauts – By all accounts Super Scribblenauts is a better game than its predecessor. Better controls, bigger vocabulary, less obscure puzzles. But the original tended to put you in a situation and then you had to use your ingenuity to get the Starite. If you found something that worked, it was all fair game. It was messy but I liked it. Super Scribblenauts is more of a simple word game. Puzzles ask you to give a hair stylus something they would use in their job or wear something a cowboy would. Gone are the crazy situations and emergent solutions. Instead, you’re just naming things. It can be fun, but it’s very route.
Winner: Minecraft – Classic’s been kicking around since 2009, but this year saw the release of Alpha and Minecraft explode onto the scene. How could I not name one of the best games ever made Game of the Year? Intimate and expansive. Simple tools lead to unlimited possibilities. Straightforward design creates unending awe. Minecraft is the realization of the potential that all the sandbox games promised. And what could be more appropriate? I mean, what do you do with a real sandbox besides dig and build? That Minecraft is the work of a single vision is all the more amazing. Minecraft is one of the best and most important games of the decade. It’s place as GotY is only right.