Do you remember the launch of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360 back in 2005? On offer, it hosted games like Gauntlet, Joust, Smash TV and Bejeweled 2 -- titles that most of us had played before and all limited to their 50MB file size.
But there was a little gem stuck in there called Geometry Wars, and that addictive little top-down shooter has shaped what the Xbox Live Arcade -- and digitally downloaded console games -- have become today.
Four years later, PlayStation Network and WiiWare have joined the mix -- as well as DSiWare and PSP Minis. We’ve got games hitting 2GB in size, we’ve got a digital-only Battlefield game that has sold well over a million copies, and we’ve got individual indie guys like James Silva (Dishwasher: Dead Samurai). The industry has certainly changed its perspective.
And just the leaps in quality are amazing. Just try to go back and play Jewel Quest on Xbox Live Arcade – it’s a mess of an interface, limited by the ideas of the time and the file size. We’ve come a long way. Just for consoles, we’ve seen over 250 games this year for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare.
And 2009 has been a testing ground of sorts. Xbox Live Arcade began the year with a test of player’s wallets with the rise of the $15 game -- producing variable results. The PlayStation Network showcased many stylish games, with Flower and Noby Noby Boy headlining the world of the strange, while WiiWare’s arguably best tactic was mining our childhood memories with Contra Rebirth and Excitebike: World Rally.
Now, as the year comes to an end, we're choosing five favorites. Every person will have a different experience, but these 5 titles were the ones we had the most fun with.
5. Defense Grid: The Awakening (Hidden Path Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)
Sure, Defense Grid first came out on the PC late last year, but it’s still one of the best 'tower defense' games that has been released, and its XBLA conversion is excellent. The mixture of strict placement levels and levels with path creation were a ton of fun. It becomes a puzzle game in some respects, but can also be played in all kinds of ways, depending on what you're in the mood for.
I’ve played many Tower Defense games this year – South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play! for XBLA, Ninjatown on DS, Defender Chronicles, 7 Cities, Star Defense, geoDefense Swarm and The Creeps on my iPhone, and I still feel Defense Grid beats them all.
Even though you don’t control a guy on the field like PixelJunk Monsters, the controls for Defense Grid fit great with a console controller. The stages were challenging without feeling unfair, and the game is filled with plenty of modes to keep me interested.
And I haven’t even mentioned the raspberries.
4. Peggle and Peggle Nights (PopCap Games, Xbox Live Arcade / PlayStation Network)
Yes, Peggle came out back in 2007, but the Peggle spirit lives on, and made a perfect transition to consoles this year.
What makes the XBLA and PSN versions even better is online Leaderboards. People have been addicted to besting scores on the PC by trading YouTube videos, but nothing beats the simple Leaderboard structure that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 allows.
Another huge addition was Peg Party mode, a four-player variant of Peggle which again makes you think more about hitting those pegs as best as you can -- something not usually supported in PC games of this style.
3. ‘Splosion Man (Twisted Pixel, Xbox Live Arcade)
A simple platformer is exactly what I’ve wanted for the longest time on Xbox Live Arcade, and Twisted Pixel delivered. The keep-it-simple-stupid mentality of Sonic The Hedgehog has long been lost on Sega, but indie darling Twisted Pixel was able to find that magic with ‘Splosion Man.
‘Splosion Man is just what an Xbox Live Arcade title should be – it makes no attempts to emulate a retail title within a smaller package, has a simple and interesting control scheme -- and of course, is just really fun.
2. Shadow Complex (Chair Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)
Chair Entertainment’s Undertow on XBLA was a bit of a downer – a simple underwater shooter that wasn’t really that entertaining for me. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come with the release of Shadow Complex.
A game that harks back to the days of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night but with a next-generation twist, Shadow Complex delivered in spades, and it was a lot of fun along the way.
It's just little things that keep you going -– like showing how well your friends are doing at booting robots across the room, or seeing that rocket canister in the background that you know you’ll be back for later.
1. Trials HD (Redlynx, Xbox Live Arcade)
Before Trials HD came out, I was tester at a video game company. I had access to pre-release games on Xbox Live Arcade via a test system, and one of those games was Trials HD. When we stayed back late to test a build, we would bide our time by playing Trials. When our game was basically finished, the artists had a brief quiet period, so they started playing Trials HD. All day.
RedLynx has created one of the most addictive, fun and frustrating games ever, and you don’t get bored of it. You may press that restart button 300 times, but that’s not going to stop you from beating that level.
The Leaderboards integration is fantastic, showing off everyone in your friends list in the corner so you can make sure you’re that little bit ahead of them. It’s addictive to try and beat your own score as well as your friends'. And with the level editor and downloadable content coming, RedLynx is able to pile on the replayability over time -- even more reason to vote it our top console downloadable game of the year.
Battlefield 1943 (DICE / EA Games, XBLA / PSN): For those like me who’ve never tried a Battlefield game before, 1943 is a fantastic way to test the waters, and now has me far more interested in Bad Company than I ever was before.
Banjo Tooie (4J Studios / Rare, XBLA): The Nintendo 64 did its best to make Banjo Tooie playable, but the framerate was so iffy that I didn't want to complete the game. The XBLA version fixes everything and adds more to the game -- and is a blast the whole way through.
Swords & Soldiers (Ronimo Games, WiiWare): Conceptually, real-time strategy games sometimes have issues on consoles, but wonderful, cartoony art direction and a really clever gameplay adaption, this WiiWare title from the original creators of De Blob was decidedly slept on.
Critter Crunch (Capybara Games, PSN): Though not my favorite puzzle game this year, Critter Crunch is notable for making the puzzle genre actually look striking. No “blocks” or “gems” -- you’ve got your bugs and your Biggs and that instantly makes me more interested.
Death Tank (Flat Games, XBLA): I was a huge fan of the original Death Tank on the Sega Saturn, and the new version certainly delivered. Its only problem was the lack of players, likely due to the higher (1200 MSP) price, which is kind of sad.
Bit.Trip series (Gaijin Games, WiiWare): Amazingly, all of the first three titles in this series from the Santa Cruz-based indie were released during 2009, and while they're bite-sized, they're also adorably retro, well-constructed, and a lot of fun to play through.
Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (Ska Studios, XBLA): Proof that one guy can do just as well as a full studio. Solid design and excellent entertainment twinned – can’t wait for what’s next from this guy.
Flower(ThatGameCompany, PSN): Certainly one of the more interesting games this year – you’ll be seeing it in a lot of Top 10 lists in the next couple of weeks. It does what it intended to do, but I feel there were more fun games out there over the last 12 months.
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias (Frontier Developments, WiiWare): While it does simply expand on the mechanics of the original Lost Winds, it’s still one of the few Wii games out there where I really enjoy the Wii remote controls. Plus, it’s also still the best-looking series on WiiWare.
Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (Capcom, XBLA / PSN): My favorite fighting game finally goes online, and was a ton of fun – until you run into a Sentinel / Cable / Storm combo, of course. It’s still as delightful as it was back in the early 2000s.
The Maw (Twisted Pixel Games, XBLA): Twisted Pixel’s debut game brought a solid 3D platformer to the Xbox Live Arcade, and much like ‘Splosion Man, it knows exactly what it is – a well-crafted $10 game.
Mushroom Wars (Creat Studios, PSN): A very simple strategy game which really surprised me. It has a particularly addictive quality to it, and plays like I like my real-time strategy games – rushing the enemy.
Bonsai Barber (Zoonami/Nintendo, WiiWare): Martin Hollis' debut title for WiiWare wasn't what you might expect from the GoldenEye co-creator - but a really interesting 'few minutes per day' play style and time-unlockable elements meant that it was both innovative and beguiling. Good use of Wii controls, too.
Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge (EA Games, XBLA / PSN): Surprisingly ignored by the general populace, Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge is the perfect way to get console players to try RTS controls on their system. For $10, you can get a quick taste. It certainly proved the series on console to me, and I will be eying a copy of Command & Conquer 4 for the Xbox 360 next year.
Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PSN): A fantastic revision of the classic bat-and-ball game that brings it to the next generation from the New Zealand-based dev. Arkanoid Live was a disappointment, but Shatter exceeded my expectations.
Trine (Frozenbyte, PSN): A wizard, a thief and knight must bind together through some beautiful side scrolling action. An evocation of classic gameplay styles with some intelligent updates.
- Ryan Langley
Chad Metrick: "I really thought NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits was a pleasant surprise on WiiWare, and the ability to download the demo was a big factor in my decision to purchase it (hint to Nintendo)."
Eric Adams: "So agree on Defense Grid. But for ‘Splosion Man, gave up mid-way through due to brutal difficulty curve."