Top 5 for 2008: Sweat The Small Stuff

The dance is as follows: make a blog post about your top games, then wait for a legion of fanboys to try and peg your console bias or dismiss your worth as a human being because Game X isn’t on the list. This is a requirement for anyone who has a blog and plays video games. It’s a good way to increase your readership… in weird kind of way. Sort of like how shooting Ronald Regan is a good way to get a girlfriend.

There are, of course, excuses to be made as to why certain games are not on this list.  I had issues with Braid, found LittleBigPlanet boring, and have refrained from providing in depth commentary on Grand Theft Auto IV due to fear of ostracism. Other games such as Dead Space, Fable II, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid IV and Cabela’s Big Game Hunter I haven’t played at all due to lack of funds. The whole idea behind a definitive “best games” list is somewhat flawed because no individual can play every game from a given calendar year and manage evaluate them all. We rely on filtering services: the best games of what we have been told are the best games, or the best games that we were to access on chance. Same with any other medium. And now, with the world collapsing, being able to afford even a fraction of the big games is becoming quite difficult. “Best Video Games Of 2009” may end up being replaced by “Best Games That Can Be Played At Your Walmart Parking Lot Campsite Using An Incomplete Deck Of Cards For 2009.”

Comparing my top games of 2008 with those of more reputable media outlets (and even the ultimate authority on such things), the truth becomes clear: I must hate video games. How could GTA IV not be the best game ever made? I’m not a real gamer. I might not even be a real person because of this! I’m probably part of an alternate reality game for some upcoming casual title.  Which would be awesome, because then I’d get a paycheck out of this.

So, I present to you the only list you will ever need (from this particular individual on this particular subject at this particular moment).

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5. PixelJunk Eden (PSN)

I ran my mouth on this one already (even awarding it the coveted Cute Baby Seal grade in my Zoo Review) and it’s still a wonderful game. The goals are clear, the mechanics are simple and the presentation is arresting. PixelJunk Eden is the perfect distraction when you need to kill twenty minutes, but becomes damn near enlightening when other players join in for a night of Spectra hunting. This is what I want my console gaming experiences to be like.

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4. The World Ends With You (DS)

Surprise, suckers! A roleplaying game came out of Japan featuring original ideas. Not only that, it was published by–brace yourself!–Square-Enix. The World Ends With You does so many things right that it’s easy to overlook some minor flaws. Yes, the protagonist is still annoying and could impale a moai with his hair. But there’s a difficulty slider! And dual-screen combat! And digestion mechanics! Someone at Square-Enix probably got fired for this one, because they somehow released a game that’s flexible and enjoyable. There’s a lot of great ideas here that RPG developers should take note of. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with The World Ends With You, just go to your favorite gaming blog and look at the entries for the month of May to find more information… I’m sure everyone on the planet has raved about this game by now.

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3. Boom Blox (Wii)

For about two months prior to the release of this game I walked around the house screaming “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM BLOOOOOOOX!” to whomever would listen (confused dachshunds, mainly).The premise alone was enough to get me excited… use the Wii remote to throw virtual balls at virtual blocks. How could that be bad? Answer: it can’t. Simplicity wins again. The visceral thrill of such an act is enough to transform anyone into a wide-eyed child. If Wii Sports is a gateway drug to gaming, Boom Blox is meth-infused supercool dipped in formaldehyde. Except, uh, it probably wouldn’t kill you. Maybe if you smoked the physical disc… I’m sure some sort of deadly dioxin would be release from the plastic as it melted. So don’t do that. I need to make a conscious effort to stay away from analogies in the future.

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2. Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (DS)

This would have been at the top of my list if it weren’t a port of an ancient SNES title. I love Shiren and I’ve written a bit about it in the past. This game is the perfection of a genre (the genre being graphical roguelike); I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re not familiar with roguelikes, Shiren the Wanderer is a wonderful introduction. It’s brutally difficult, as it should be, but contains enough progression to keep your attempts from feeling futile. However, a lot of critics weren’t willing to accept a game that didn’t conform to their expectations; i.e., wasn’t just another JRPG. That’s a shame, because Shiren completely tanked in the US. Japan just got a sequel, and now Sega has no plans to localize it due to poor sales. You can now find Shiren for about ten dollars used, so, please, I urge you: give it a try.

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1. Professor Layton and the Curious Village (DS)

I did not expect this. Professor Layton looked intriguing at best prior to its release. Then I actually tried it and lost ten days to a blur of whimsical mental exercise. There are puzzles in the game, and those puzzles are great. There’s a story in the game, and that story is interesting. So you have great puzzles and an interesting story. That’s good enough for most games, right? Professor Layton takes it to the next level by actually integrating the two, so that the core of the story revolves around why every douchebag in the village presents the player with a brain teaser. That’s the key here: integration. Every element of the title feels so considered, from the music to the setting to the joyful art style. It feels cohesive and complete. And it’s not above making the player feel a bit stupid. So plus one for having some balls.

Looking at this list, it’s quite apparent that I’m some sort of crazed radical that can’t play by the rules. My rampant disregard for overproduced disc-based games is probably going to get me killed (when I’m just two days away from gaming retirement, no less). MTV Multiplayer’s Stephen Totilo posed the question “Can a small game be game of the year?” I don’t know why any game should be excluded from such a category… if it’s good, it’s good. I think 2008 was a wonderful year for gaming because of the small games. While gamers may have been disappointed by the franchises and cash cows that normally receive all the critical accolades, more concentrated efforts have captured my heart. True joy can be experienced while on a coffee break. Game of the year should not mean “best M-rated single player game”… it should mean “game of the year.”

Annotated Honorable Mentions: Burnout Paradise (too unexplored),  Korg DS-10 (too useful), Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon (too Final Fantasy), Blast Works: Build, Trade & Destroy (too expressive), Wii Fit (too big for the controller basket), Baroque (too creepy), Culdcept Saga (too broken), Art Styles: Orbient (too remade), Lost Winds (too short), Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir (too already-on-my-PC), LOL (too underrated), Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (too much of a mouthful), Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (too Mortal Kombat), Persona 4 (too new) and Wipeout HD (too seizurey).