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No year-end retrospective would be complete without a look back at the top games. Gamasutra staff together selected what we feel were the finest, most groundbreaking and impressive games of 2009.
Our individual staffers also chose honorable mentions, personal picks that didn't fall within our group top ten, but that we nonetheless wanted to single out.
Without further ado, we present our Top 10 Games of the Year:
10. Retro Game Challenge (Namco Bandai, Nintendo DS)
Retro Game Challenge isn't really just one game. It's a compilation of brand new retro games wrapped in a clever metanarrative that traps the player in 1980s Japan, forced to master a slew of cartridges. The games start basic but reach the NES' early '90s peak -- starting out with classic arcade titles and culminating in Haggleman 3, a ninja action game with the complexity (and quality) of later era NES games like Castlevania III or Ninja Gaiden II.
Retro Game Challenge doesn't just ape retro games shamelessly. No, what it does is ape them lovingly, with a real attention to detail and sense of exuberant fun. This is a compilation that can remind you why you once cherished Galaga (via its knock-off, Cosmic Gate) or illustrate why Japanese kids were so crazy for 2D shooters like Star Soldier (thanks to RGC's Star Prince). There's even a full-featured Dragon Quest-style RPG, Guadia Quest, to play through -- in addition to three Haggleman games and racer Rally King.
Each game is enjoyable in its own right. The attention to detail is impressive, the understanding of what made 2D gaming compelling to a generation of kids is apt, and little touches make the games accessible to gamers unwilling to put up with the truly archaic. It's all wrapped into a sly, charming story (based on cult Japanese TV show Game Center CX, though you need not be a fan to play). Retro Game Challenge is always charming and engrossing, has a lot of variety, and is an obvious labor of love on the part of its developers.
9. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II (Relic Entertainment, PC)
Despite the shrinking of the real-time strategy genre since its heyday, Relic Entertainment has consistently turned out some of the most inventive and clever RTS games around. Dawn of War II is one of the studio's riskiest, and that risk paid off.
Relic went full-bore in the direction it's been heading in its recent games, dropping traditional base-building entirely to point a laser focus at squad-level tactics and fast-paced resource management. Even then, the single-player and multiplayer components are almost entirely different games: the campaign shares much in common with the persistent "just one more level" character progression of Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers, while the multiplayer is a lean, stripped-down, team-based action/strategy hybrid that draws from Relic's own Company of Heroes as much as from class-based multiplayer shooters.
It's an unlikely but inspired melting pot of genres and mechanics that speaks to Relic's long-term RTS innovation. And the Vancouver studio has kept support for the game strong, with patches and free additional content this year, and a full expansion in March.
8. Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap, PC)
PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies took the tower defense genre and turned it on its side with its six-row, horizontal gameplay. Like other PopCap games, Plants vs. Zombies became a huge time sink this year -- if you were willing to sacrifice a crop of potatoes to ward off a horde of zombies determined to cross your lawn and invade your home.
Plants vs. Zombies is a success for a few reasons. First, it's a weird, unique premise. People hear "Plants vs. Zombies" and their interest is piqued because they're already wondering how the two things can possibly be at odds. Secondly, the wonderful art style of the game takes something horrifying -- mutated self-aware killer plants and reanimated human corpses -- and turns it into something you would see on a Saturday morning cartoon.
Once players are drawn in, it's hard to escape the game's addictive, accessible gameplay, which takes the staples of real-time strategy games like resource and unit management, and artfully condenses them into something a six-year-old could understand. While it is accessible in that regard, Plants vs. Zombies is still entertaining to a wide range of audiences. PopCap said shortly after the game's release that it estimated over half of all Plants vs. Zombies buyers fell in the "hardcore" category. We guess that's just the magic of zombies at work there.
7. The Beatles: Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV, Xbox 360/PS3/Wii)
It’s not surprising that a music game would make our Top 10 for 2009. But with band-specific music titles sometimes being no more than glorified song packs (sorry, AC/DC, Van Halen), what made this much-awaited Harmonix and The Beatles collaboration shine?
Firstly, the art direction was absolutely supreme – from the wonderfully created intro cinematic through to the subtle stylization given to John, Paul, Ringo, and George. Certain other music games have strayed a little too far into the Uncanny Valley at times, but these characters, featured in carefully dressed sets reflecting particular stages of their careers, just felt right.
Of course, the gameplay works, even with only incremental additions, and the multi-part harmonies were a good technical addition – and vital for a band like The Beatles. And overall, the game was a fully formed, lovingly crafted experience, with the 'dreamscapes' filling out the otherwise drab studio visuals a particularly nice touch.
Perhaps it helps that The Beatles have such diverse – and now mythologized - set of audiovisual shifts. Playing through them felt like a mystical, magical journey. And, last but not least – well, it’s about the music, dummy.
6. Flower (ThatGameCompany/Sony, PlayStation 3)
A lot has been said about Flower over the last year – perhaps too much, at times. But the game, created by ThatGameCompany, took a different approach to games, and to game development, and made it work. The company is very iterative and prototype-based in its approach, and the dynamic duo of designer Jenova Chen and president Kellee Santiago have emerged from indie obscurity and into the media spotlight, while still retaining a different view on what games should be.
Flower exemplifies this view – its non-violent, non-competitive gameplay remains attractive and compelling (if linear), and the integration of sight, motion, and sound make for a cohesive product. Indeed, for a time Flower (a PlayStation Network exclusive) was one of the PlayStation 3’s major selling points, discussed alongside Metal Gear Solid 4. The game made motion control work on the PS3’s Sixaxis controller in ways that no other really did (you could make an argument for Warhawk, I suppose).
The game has received numerous awards and accolades since its early 2009 release, and we feel they are deserved. Though some might argue that the premise is pretentious, it makes you feel good to tell those who decry video games for their violence about a title that allows you to play through the dream of a flower – and that they might actually enjoy it, too.
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only the best Batman game to date, but to many, it's the best superhero video game of all time. Developed by UK-based Rocksteady, Batman: Arkham Asylum went beyond Batman's penchant for butt-kicking and batarangs (both of which are implemented masterfully, by the way) and explored the disturbing -- and sometimes moving -- pieces of his psychological makeup.
The game is essentially built around a very solid core fighting mechanic that allowed for perhaps the most intuitive and effective 3D beat-em-up we've ever seen. A simple system made up of one-button counters and attacks, combined with directional input, let players feel like they were part of a Batman comic or film, or even a kung fu movie, in which a highly-skilled martial artist is able to incapacitate waves and waves of thugs using only his well-trained body.
The feeling of improvisation during fight sequences added to the experience -- you could master the timing of the controls, as evidenced by challenge room high scores on the game's leaderboards, but button-mashing is also extremely satisfying for more casual players. Throw in some unlockable moves and gadgets that make you feel like an ever-evolving human weapon, and you have a solid base upon which to build several layers of badassery.
Among those layers are villains like the maniacal Joker, hulking Bane, spunky Harley Quinn, sexy Poison Ivy and the enigmatic Riddler. And of course, there's Scarecrow, who acts as a means to uncover Batman's background in some amazing ways, portraying a vulnerable side to the incorruptible crime fighter. With Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 confirmed, we're anxious to see just how Rocksteady, with its focused approach to game design, can improve upon the original.
4. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve, Xbox 360/PC)
Left 4 Dead 2 is perhaps not the "best" game released in 2009, but it is unquestionably the game many people will be playing well into 2010. Left 4 Dead’s multiplayer co-op game set a new standard for the cooperative first person experience, and L4D2 takes it a step further. Though the systems are slightly more complicated, they are layered in such a way that they really work – and inspire greater teamwork than ever before.
The game wants you to combine its tools in clever ways to stay alive, and makes you feel clever for doing it (even if some hints are given in the form of achievements). On top of that, new modes like Realism, which takes away your superhuman ability to see your teammates (and health, and weapons) through walls, changes the dynamic even further. And on top of the more cerebral interworkings of the various poultices and weapons upgrades, you’ve got melee weapons, which allow you to slice and dice your way to freedom – you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
On top of the systems, the game is simply more fun to play than ever, and looks completely gorgeous (especially when not in split-screen). The lighting, the set pieces, and even the enemies are rendered superbly, even if zombies to get a rather unfair free ticket out of the Uncanny Valley. The AI feels even sharper than before, and the game simply throws you into a hostile world with a bunch of interesting tools, and sees how you’ll work it out. Giving the player agency is something we're all in favor of.
3. Demon's Souls (From Software/Atlus, PS3)
A focus on accessibility and intuitiveness in game design has helped make gaming friendlier to a much wider audience... and then there's Demon's Souls, mercifully there to remind us that not all challenge is bad.
So detailed is the steeply difficult melee combat design and so logical are the worlds and their enemies that in discovering their way through the game -- even through repeated deaths -- players have the rare and deeply satisfying experience of meaningful learning.
The game also deserves major props for its creative approach to death, which tasks players with reclaiming their bodies. It implements an inventive multiplayer system, too, by which anonymous ghosts can help one another through battle assistance or simple messages scrawled in eerie runes.
The most addictive game experience of the year reminds us not to be so quick in ditching tradition in favor of one-touch inputs and gesture-controlled simplicity, as there's still much joy to be found in detailed, complex gameplay.
2. New Super Mario Bros Wii (Nintendo, Wii)
Almost since the beginning of the Wii generation, Nintendo took hard knocks from core fans for "abandoning" them. Thanks to New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo deserves credit for addressing, even if slightly imperfectly, several of the major criticisms against it in one joyful, faithful swoop.
The game design essentially makes the difficulty level malleable for each player, depending on how many players who join and what kind of challenges they take on -- attacking the perception that Mario's gone too easy for single-players.
At the same time, the multiplayer is expressly designed to make players talk and interact, which in practice can give the dominant paradigm -- remote interaction over Xbox Live or PSN -- something of a run for it. These brilliant little victories abound, and the impressive result is a current-gen Mario that truly is for anyone and everyone.
1. Dragon Age (BioWare, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
BioWare once reinvigorated the Dungeon & Dragons-inspired line of PC fantasy RPGs with Baldur's Gate. After a decade of evolutions, the studio has attempted to bridge the gap between that early milestone and its modern refinements.
Dragon Age: Origins succeeds both in that goal and as a masterful, ambitious roleplaying game in its own right. On its surface, it seems full of the same dwarves-and-mages-and-elves dynamic that's been so thoroughly mined, with stock visuals to match. But as you explore the game's considerable volume of content, its fascinating subtleties begin to reveal themselves -- class, gender, and race roles form the underpinnings of a compelling world without becoming too heavy-handed.
On the personal scale, Dragon Age features some of the most affecting and entertaining character interactions in gaming, implemented dynamically and seamlessly. Party members idly chat amongst themselves -- affably, dourly, indifferently -- and comment on the player's own choices. The game's overarching story is nothing special; it's the context and the personal moments that count, and they count for a lot. Rarely are virtual characters so believable.
The game itself demonstrates an impressive RPG design fluency born of hard experience, particularly on the PC where it fluidly shifts between a modern third-person RPG and an old-school top-down dungeon crawler at the player's whim. It strikes a satisfying balance between intricacy and intuitiveness, rewarding player investment but not becoming overbearing.
The remarkably diverse origin stories that serve as the subtitle's namesake just add further personality and depth to one of the most surprisingly unique RPGs in recent memory. With Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has succeeded in reprising its own revival.
In addition to our team top ten, each member of our core staff has chosen honorable mentions, personal favorites that didn't make the final aggregate list:
Simon Carless, Global Brand Director, Think Services Game Group
Uncharted 2 (Naughty Dog, PlayStation 3)
Ratchets up from its predecessor on every level, and brings carefully-plotted filmic narrative into games without feeling trite or overly guided to me. Multiple thumbs up.
Trials HD (RedLynx, Xbox 360 Live Arcade)
Perhaps my most-played title this year, it improves the genre of physics-based motorbike trick/race games with an awesome cacophany of microchallenges and mini-games. This is how fast, sharp play for a new millenium should be.
Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
That craziest of things -- a carefully reverent freeform romp through Renaissance Italy with practically transcendent art and carefully iterated gameplay.
Brandon Sheffield, EIC, Game Developer Magazine
Street Fighter IV (Capcom, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC)
Capcom’s reinventing of the franchise, alongside developer Dimps, took 2D fighting back to the masses, proving that it can – and should – be popular again.
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)
It’s a Puzzle/Strategy RPG with far more organized randomness and more strategic head-to-head play. And it was good enough for me to beat twice!
Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)
DS strategy meets Dragon Quest battles, with an interesting branching story. It's the game made just for me! (Well, maybe not the punishing difficulty on the last day...)
Leigh Alexander, News Director, Gamasutra
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS)
Blah blah, who cares whether M-rated content can sell on the DS or how many units Chinatown Wars sold or what Michael Pachter thought about its numbers? It's still one of the most stunningly-designed DS titles I've ever seen, all the more impressive as Rockstar's first.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, Wii)
Shame it was released just a bit too late for the holiday hype window, and often either incorrectly pegged as a simple "Wii-make" of the original old title or overlooked by franchise diehards for its liberties -- this reimagining of Silent Hill is an absolute must-have for every Wii owner, from the rare brilliance in its implementation of Wii controls to the fun and clever little ways it responds to the player's behavior.
Noby Noby Boy (Namco, PlayStation 3)
So you don't really know what you're supposed to "do" besides free-form play -- good. Games need more of this kind of simple, colorful pleasure, and seeing players strive to collectively "reach" the outer planets of the solar system prompts a warm, whimsical twinge we hardly ever get from games anymore.
Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra
Flight Control (Firemint, iPhone)
Instantly accessible, oddly addictive, and thematically neutral -- its inclusive yet appealing theme is probably a big part of its success. It's a snappily-executed, 99 cent hero.
Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, DS)
A great example of synthesis -- it pairs two genres (platforming and puzzling) with cleverness and great success. This is a game that learned from the classics yet still has its own clever personality, and also represents a budding of unique talent in a huge studio.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (Atlus, PSP)
A remake done right: the game's pace was quickened, its interface was brought up to date, the translation was completely reworked, and once-excised content was restored. The result is a highly playable new version of an unfairly overlooked cult classic.
Chris Remo, Editor-At-Large, Gamasutra
Brutal Legend (Double Fine Productions, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
Double Fine's ballsy genre mashup has snappy writing, a bad ass soundtrack, great vocal performances, some of the most breathtaking environments in gaming memory, and Ozzy Osbourne.
Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly, PC)
The latest Total War takes on the period arguably most formative to our own world, depicting the colonial era in grand style. Games can depict history like no other medium can, and The Creative Assembly's work feels important.
Torchlight (Runic Games, PC)
Remember how Diablo insidiously ensnared you, coaxing you yet one floor deeper into its seemingly endless dungeon even though you had to be at work in three hours? Torchlight is like that. With the guy who made Diablo's music.
Kris Graft, Senior Contributing Editor, Gamasutra
Forza Motorsport 3 (Turn 10, Xbox 360)
Sure, it's aimed mainly towards automobile enthusiasts, plays best with an expensive steering wheel controller, and takes the "bigger, better, prettier" route to racer design, but if you're a gearhead gamer, this is a must-have.
Infamous (Sucker Punch Productions, PS3)
An original superhero game, Infamous gives players a great sense of continuous evolution and increasing power. It's a fine departure from the developer who brought us Sly Cooper.
Borderlands (Gearbox, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
This gun-loving loot-fest is tough to put down when playing alone, but is even more magnetic when you have three friends to play with. A great multiplayer game with a vibrant art style.
Matt Diamond: "I didn't think Scribblenauts would be a top 10 game overall, but I'm surprised it didn't make anyone's honorable mentions, just for the sheer chutzpah of it."
Aaron Smith: "I am a little surprised not to see [Modern Warfare 2] or Uncharted 2 on this list. MW2 shouldn't be #1 but I think it should be in the ten."
Russell Carroll: "My personal 3 favs of the year: [1.] Rune Factory: Frontier (Wii)
I love Zelda games, and this mix that is like 1/3 Zelda, 1/3 dating Sim, 1/3 crop-growing is a bizarre combo that really worked for me. [2.] Rhythm Heaven (DS) A totally unique game that has a 'feel' that I can't describe and that I can't find in any other game. [3.] Wii Sports Resort (Wii) Nearly even with Defense Grid: The Awakening (PC/XBLA), I give WSR the nod for multplayer.