3. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo - Wii)
The thing that makes Super Mario Galaxy special was that Nintendo managed to pull it off at all, in a sense. In a series that carries such high expectations that Super Mario Sunshine is talked about by otherwise rational gamers as if the developers personally ran over their puppy, coming out with a game that's (pretty much) universally adored is an achievement in itself.
But how did Nintendo EAD Tokyo
manage that? The obvious answer lies in stripping away the complexities
that lead to the dislike of Sunshine. More careful examination
reveals that it's the consistent look and feel of the game, the perfect
playability, the consistently doable and enjoyable challenges, that
make it special. It is not possible to say enough good things about
the control. It is crucial to point out that, even offered increased
disc capacity, Nintendo dropped voiced cutscenes.
But maybe what makes Galaxy
great is the abandon with which Nintendo has embraced abstraction. Mario
has mostly taken place in the Mushroom Kingdom -- but even that vague
concept is jettisoned for a string of constructs that only vaguely approximate
real environments, at their absolute most concrete.
This game is wholeheartedly
a game, and doesn't shy away from it -- more, it embraces it. In the
first level of Future, Ratchet may traverse an amazing futuristic
city. Mario traverses challenges -- nothing more, nothing less.
BioShock (2K Boston/Australia - Xbox 360, PC)
Not just the darling of the
mainstream media who were thrilled to finally pack Ayn Rand references
into a video game article, Ken Levine's ambitious vision for the haunting,
richly-realized underwater city of Rapture raised the bar for game worlds.
BioShock showed us a city that lived and by its principles, and
each detailed, decaying remnant tells a piece of the tragedy.
Not only does Rapture illustrate
the consequences of pride and overidealism, but its remaining citizens
do, too, the consequences stamped into the mad eyes of each eerily-masked
face. Most of all, BioShock allows the player to decide how like
them -- or not -- the mysterious protagonist becomes.
1. Portal (Valve - Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
This year's biggest surprise could have easily sidestepped the limelight as "bonus content" on Valve's The Orange Box compilation, but the revolutionary Portal became a cult favorite almost immediately -- and for good reason. The brain-bending, portal-shooting, first-person puzzle gameplay was a feat in both creative innovation and technical grace, and it would be worth a mention on these merits alone.
But what rocketed Portal to the top were all of its peripheral details. Some of the cleverest writing ever seen in a game helped thread sharp -- and often touching -- humor through an environment that could be alternately adorable, hilarious and sinister in turns. Admirably, none of it's forced on you -- Portal treats the player with dignity and without over-instruction, proving that, in a year that saw plenty of overwrought epics, sometimes the most effective storyline doesn't need to try so hard.
Most impressive of all,
Portal achieved victory handily in an area where all titles attempt,
but few attain -- creating emotional engagement with the player. Game
companies aim to coin fan favorite characters and creatures year after
year, and yet the inanimate Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube
-- after appearing in a single scene -- achieved iconic status seemingly
overnight, as did Jonathon Coulton's unforgettable "Still Alive"
ending theme, sung by the equally memorable GLaDOS. The cake may or
may not be a lie, but Portal is truly the year's best.
Andrew Dovichi: "I find it interesting that Guitar Hero III isn't present in the list... It would be interesting to hear the rational as to why it was left off the list, especially considering it was Activision's highest grossing title of all time from what I hear."