Now (finally!), we look at this year's top 10 games, collaboratively chosen and ranked by our staff. Each member of our team also highlights his or her own personal picks that didn't make the group list.
10. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, Nintendo DS)
Order of Ecclesia isn't dramatically different from any of producer Koji Igarashi's other Castlevania titles -- almost every release follows Symphony of the Night's template -- but it adds and changes enough to make this latest refinement of the "Metroidvania" formula an easy addition to our year-end list.
Ecclesia thankfully casts out the juvenile and generic anime character designs that blighted the previous two DS games, in favor of Hirooka Masaki's more fitting "gothic" art direction. The game also replaces Portrait of Ruin's clumsy two-character gameplay with a strong, graceful heroine, Shanoa, who takes on Dracula and his minions just fine without the help of a Vampire Killer whip.
Adding to our enjoyment, Ecclesia is probably the hardest Castlevania title since the franchise's NES years, requiring quick wits and a lot of boss pattern memorization, much to the appreciation of series faithfuls (and the chagrin of softer gamers). As a fan once succinctly described the game's difficulty, "This ain't no Casualvania."
9. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, Playstation 3)
The Japanese have a reputation for being the most conservative market in game development -- and whether or not it's truly deserved, it's heartening to see an example of a development team starting with a rigid, conventional idea and tossing it aside in favor of a spirited new evolution of a genre.
Sega's Valkyria Chronicles
While Valkyria Chronicles began its development cycle as a top-down strategy title in debt to classics like Final Fantasy Tactics, it was released as a genre-defying, engrossing new blend of realtime and turn-based strategy, with a perspective that has more in common with Gears of War than Square Enix, but retains the pleasingly crunchy tactical depth Japanese games are best known for.
Add in a surprisingly mature story and beautiful watercolor visuals and you get a cult classic that is getting nowhere the attention it deserves from gamers this year, and one of the strongest exclusives on Sony's platform.
8. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360/PC)
Jonathan Blow and David Hellman's Braid is likely one of the most-trumpeted indie games of all time - partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.
Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul - however many different interpretations you might have of it.
It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.
7. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)
The simple majesty of Geometry Wars 2 is easy to grok, of course. The first Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself following up a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre.
It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics? That would be Geometry Wars 2, then -- particularly to be praised for the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay.
When you have glorious variants like 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being, plus robust online score integration and the perfectly thought-out 'Sequence' mode, you end up with an adrenaline-bespattered winner.