We got some significant games in 2003, perhaps most notably Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Call of Duty, and WarioWare. KOTOR put all of Bioware's famed skill at RPGs at the service of the Star Wars universe, with highly-lauded results. Since it was based on the d20 system and an existing franchise, I don't feel it broke ground creatively, but was an excellent title all the same. Call of Duty made the player feel that he was actually part of a battle beside his comrades, even in single-player mode -- an important step forward, as most shooters take the lone wolf approach. WarioWare was just sheer mayhem: dozens of "micro-games" that each took only a few seconds to play. It was gameplay reduced to its barest essentials, but in colossal variety.
Viewtiful Joe took the classic side-scroller and reinvented it with a twist: using Matrix-like visual effects to take out enemies. Instead of block moves, Joe can use VFX (visual effects) tricks: slow, mach speed, and zoom in, which can be combined for more powerful attacks. Also, at a time when most developers were concentrating on photorealism, Viewtiful Joe went for a comic-book look that was both attractive and entirely in keeping with its style of gameplay. It gets my vote for pure imagination.
Like The Longest Journey in 2000, Silent Hill 3 deserves a special mention for the depth of its female protagonist, Heather. The whole Silent Hill series has been unusually good about portraying real-looking women, but Heather is particularly distinctive. Moody, temperamental, and not conventionally attractive, Heather doesn't fit neatly into any of the traditional gaming stereotypes for female characters.
Two significant industry events took place in 2004. Electronic Arts signed an exclusive 5-year deal with the NFL, thus freezing everyone else out of the serious football market -- a thoroughly practical, if ruthless and much-hated, decision. The same year, Acclaim finally declared bankruptcy and closed its doors, and the only surprise was that it took so long. I hate to see honest, hardworking developers lose their jobs on account of managerial incompetence.
2004 gave us World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Katamari Damacy, The Chronicles of Riddick as well as numerous successful sequels such as Half-Life 2 and Halo 2. The Chronicles of Riddick broke ground by actually being better than the movie that it's based on. Games based on movies are not reliably good and many are distinctly poor, so this was an improvement of sorts. The other big thing that happened in 2004 was the release of the Nintendo DS, which broke just about every rule in the book. Two screens? A stylus? Wireless? What do people think this is, a Pocket PC? But it was hugely successful, opening up whole new markets for handheld gaming.
I don't there there's any question that the legacy crown for 2004 goes to World of Warcraft. You simply can't have a success that huge without it affecting everything that comes later. For the foreseeable future, WoW is the MMOG to beat -- or to avoid competing with directly, a much safer strategy. WoW didn't invent all the various improvements necessary to attract casual players (opportunities to play solo, instanced dungeons, consensual PvP play) but it did put them all together well.
Katamari Damacy only did one thing -- but that one thing was something gamers hadn't ever seen before, so I note it for its imagination. We had rolled balls around in games like Marble Madness, but in Katamari they picked up anything they touched like a snowball. The result was bizarre and hilarious.
Myst IV: Revelation made a number of innovations that unfortunately went unnoticed by much of the game community. The most important one was auditory. In most games the majority of the world is silent, except for a few ambient sounds from specific noisemakers. In Myst IV, you could click almost any surface in the game and hear what it sounds like when tapped.
There isn't a lot of gameplay need for this feature, but it represents a major step forward in making a virtual world truly alive. You could also take pictures of any in-game location, then type notes next to them for future reference; and you could access the memories of NPCs through a special amulet -- a new way to bring narration to the player.
2005 was notable for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii controller announcements, and for the Xbox 360 beating the others to market in time for Christmas. We also got a black eye this year: in a major industry gaffe, Rockstar lied about the notorious Hot Coffee mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, thus calling the whole rating system into question and bringing down yet more opprobrium on our heads. Take-Two lost over $20 million as a result.
On the other hand, Shadow of the Colossus came out! And so did God of War, Psychonauts, Nintendogs, and Guitar Hero. My nod for pure imagination goes to Psychonauts, which unsurprisingly was created by Tim Schafer, the man responsible for Grim Fandango. The game was a combination of platformer, comedy adventure, and just plain lunacy. Unfortunately -- again like Grim Fandango -- it didn't sell as well as it deserved to.
For important innovations, the hands-down winner in 2005 is Guitar Hero. No driving, no shooting, no jumping -- just rocking out to a variety of tunes using the special guitar-like controller. Guitar Hero did something no game had really managed to do successfully before -- make a player feel like a musician, even if he wasn't one. Music games are not new, but until Guitar Hero they were a niche. Now they're a genre in their own right.
So far as legacy is concerned, my prediction for 2005's crop is Nintendogs. Artificial pets have been around for quite a while, but Nintendogs was the first to make them seem real. It made excellent use of the Nintendo DS's stylus interface, and was a big hit with girls. I think we'll see a lot more such games in the future, and they'll borrow from Nintendogs's gentle, imaginative design.