6. Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2)
Modern, hip and overtly Japanese, Persona 4 is proof positive that the Japanese RPG can evolve for a broadening audience. The game sheds dated conventions and implausible fantasies in favor of a stylish, immensely thought-provoking and surreal self-discovery story set in a rural-area Japanese high school.
Though many JRPGs hinge on the stories of teenagers, Persona 4's themes focus on the perils of self-denial and the necessity of facing one's inner self, particularly poignant and useful in the context of the characters' believably confusing life stage.
Persona 4 is a game that requires no small measure of patience. The reward, however, is character and story growth via an intriguing system of social and behavioral rewards that perfects the promising formula introduced in Persona 3.
5. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South, Xbox 360/PC)
There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead.
Its AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.
Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, partly due to the group dynamics that the game fosters.
During a given game, emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper" begin to appear.
On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.
4. No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture, Wii)
At first blush, it's a bizarre and comic-bookish send-up of the American otaku. But No More Heroes quickly reveals its charm -- amid the mashed-up game homages and lewd humor is a surprisingly classy and vaguely disturbing allegory for the video game hero.
Travis Touchdown, of the fluorescent-lamp lightsaber and implausible fantasy motorbike, isn't nearly the smooth operator he thinks he is.
This makes his strikeouts in love just as weirdly poignant as his confrontations with unlikely assassins -- including a viciously intoxicated teen queen, a batty old lady with a shopping cart, and a crooner with a handlebar moustache.
Ubisoft/Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes
Of course, famed director Goichi Suda's savvy act of holding up a mirror to his audience and his industry might just be a bit of forgettable cleverness if not for how brilliantly it uses its controls.
No More Heroes is that rare title that aptly leverages the Wii remote appropriately at every madly joyful, blood-spurting, coin-jangling turn.
3. LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, PS3)
What is perhaps most surprising about LittleBigPlanet is that it lived up to the creative promise that was initially made (contrast Home, which debuted simultaneously). Anyone really can make whatever they want and share it with the world, and that's crucially important to the appeal, longevity, and landmark status of the game. Anyone can become a designer.
There have been stumbling blocks, but they have mostly been vaulted with finesse: ropey server stability at launch and a black box review process for standards-infringing levels have given way to the free-for-all promised. And while the game has not sold as well in Japan or North America as hoped (we think Europe went better), it has made an impact.
But more importantly, perhaps, and often forgotten when discussing games, is the way LBP so expertly catches the now in the most appealing way. It's a beautiful, inviting, vital, charming land of zeitgeist that defines a new visual, aural, creative language for platformers.
Most importantly, Media Molecule's game finally follows up the Mario aesthetic and ethos with something as aesthetically, conceptually, and socially compelling.
2. World of Goo (2D Boy, Wii Ware/PC)
After leaving their jobs at Electronic Arts, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel founded development studio 2D Boy (it's just them, and there's not really a physical studio) and spent two years making World of Goo, a physics-driven puzzle game for PC and WiiWare.
The risk paid off -- World of Goo was adored by gamers and the press, and was seen as an inspiring indie success story in a year that has not wanted for inspiring indie success stories.
World of Goo works by marrying gameplay that is outwardly simple in scope with an underlying physics system that allows for solutions to challenges that are neither random nor overly restrictive in approach -- a rarity in the puzzle genre. And it's all wrapped in a clean, coherent visual theme and accompanied by a lovingly handmade score that is epic and nutty in equal measure.