Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Games of the Decade: #40 - #36

#40: WarioWare Inc. (2003)
GameBoy Advance
There's nothing quite like WarioWare Inc. Even the sequels don't manage to quite capture the frenetic charm of the original. Hundreds of three-second games, each requiring only a single action ("Dodge!", "Stab!", "Throw!"), packed back-to-back at eyeball-breaking speed. It's a concept bred from genius and the implementation on its first showing is impeccable. It distills the pick-up-and-play philosophy that made the GameBoy such a hit to its absolute purest and frankly I think Nintendo would be better served by re-releasing the original on new consoles rather than trying to replicate it.

#39: Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002)
The cleverest survival horror game ever made. Not the best - it's covered with edges so raw they'll cut you - but the cleverest. The reason? The sanity system. As your character encounters the supernatural menaces teeming in the game's corners, their sanity begins to slip away, and as it does the game becomes steadily less trustworthy. Doors open into deathtraps, where you watch your character die, only to awaken back outside the door. Mad voices whisper instructions from the speakers. Cockroaches crawl across the inside of your television screen and items you thought you'd acquired turn out to be entirely hallucinatory. In one memorable sequence the game pretends to reset back to the GameCube boot-up icon, purportedly erasing your entire progress since your last save.

#38: Pikmin (2001)
A totally unique game mechanic, a legion of adorable characters, and a compelling dog-eat-dog environment to explore and conquer. It's just one of the many triumphs of living legend Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda, amongst others). Pikmin's originality is matched only by its competence; for many franchises it takes several iterations to refine gameplay to this level but Pikmin achieves it on its first outing. As tiny space explorer Olimar, you use the analogue sticks to sweep your army of plant-like Pikmin around to assault enemies, explore territory, and convey heavy objects back to your ship for transport. It went on to inspire the reasonably decent Overlord games and the less exciting Pikmin 2.

#37: Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
In Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy to Americans), developer Quantic Dream revisited the early 90s concept of the "interactive movie" and by and large got it right. They developed a compelling mystery, interesting characters, and a new, pulse-pounding way of interacting with and experiencing videogaming that is totally unlike anything before or since. The first two scenes, where you play first as a man struggling to hide a dead body and escape a crime scene, and then as the two detectives investigating that same scene, establish a high point that the rest of the game never quite lives up to, but it remains a breathtaking trip through territory rarely explored by mainstream designers.

#36: Zone of the Enders / ZoE: The Second Runner (2001)
PlayStation 2
I'm including the two ZoE games together as they really form a single, epic game stretched over two installments. The first game is so short you can't help but feel it's not complete and the second game is so tough in spots you'll feel like you missed a tutorial. Together they form a single narrative vision. Hideo Kojima's tale of humanity, rebellion, and spacefaring giant robots is a representation of mecha anime unparallelled in gaming history. It flawlessly defeats the problems of 3D-movement and combat that have been the bane of similar games and goes on to tell a powerful, engaging story spread across two planets and two main characters. They're hard to get your hands on these days but if you get the chance they're not to be missed.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Games of the Decade: #45 - 41

#45: Wii Sports (2006)
Wii Sports is one of the most important games ever made, and if it's not higher on this list it's only because despite being important it's not actually that great a game. Bundled with the Nintendo Wii, it's the game that not only introduced the Wii to worldwide audiences (and began an unprecented sales tornado that catapulted Nintendo back to the top of the gaming industry), but it's the game that unlocked a whole new marketplace for Nintendo (and eventually other publishers) to exploit. Ads featuring celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John enjoying tennis in Wii Sports told the world that the Wii was a console not only for gamers, but also for mothers, fathers, families, entertainers, and everyone who doesn't consider themselves "in" on the complex world of videogames.

#44: Sam & Max Save The World (2006)
PC, XBox 360, Wii
One of the defining events of the 1990s in gaming was LucasArts killing the point-n-click adventure genre; one of the defining events of the 2000s was Telltale Games resurrecting it. Through the medium of monthly episodic content, Telltale delivered two "seasons" of excellent Sam & Max games, along with four episodes of Wallace and Gromit, five episodes of Strong Bad, and a final triumphant resurrection of the Monkey Island franchise through the five-part Tales of Monkey Island. Sam & Max Save The World (the first Sam & Max season) stands in for all those accomplishments although it's a thoroughly deserving candidate in and of itself - funny, clever, and fully comfortable with its unique episodic format from the moment it steps out of the gate.

#43: WipeOut Pure (2007)
PlayStation Portable

The whole WipeOut franchise is an exemplary achievement in gaming; WipeOut Pure just happens to be the one I enjoyed most. They're amazing high-speed futuristic racing games but if that was all they were they'd lag behind Criterion's Burnout franchise. What sets WipeOut apart is the mood. WipeOut channels state-of-the-art electronica and trance music and combines it with soothing colour palettes and smooth, eye-pleasing lines to create not so much a game as a mental zone, a meditative state which, above and beyond the finish line, is the real destination of every WipeOut race.

#42: Ico (2001)
PlayStation 2
Ico is a game about holding hands. That's all it's about. It's about journeying from point A, to point B, while holding hands. Point A and point B are both located with an immense, brooding castle that at times is starkly lit and at other times hides in billowing shadows. With no real exposition, with no dialogue to speak of, Ico manages to create a poignantly emotional gaming experience without peer and is a must-play for everyone who aspires to discuss games.

#41: Psychonauts (2005)
PlayStation 2

Psychonauts is a great game, combining witty dialogue, well-crafted humour, and the most original level concepts ever seen in a videogame. But its real significance is in what it's come to stand for. Psychonauts is the game that got nothing but glowing reviews in every publication that reviewed it, and flopped on store shelves. It was a massive financial disaster for publisher Majesco. It's the key argument in the ongoing discussion of the battle between quality gaming and commercial success and as such is one of the most important games of the decade.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Games of the Decade: #50 - #46

#50: Burnout Revenge (2005)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Take Burnout Revenge as exemplary of any or all of Burnout 3, Burnout Revenge, Burnout Legends or Burnout Paradise, all first-class paragons of racing action. (But the less said about Burnout Dominator the better.) The Burnout franchise takes exceptionally well-implemented high-speed racing and combines it with cathartically transcendental devastation. Not only is crashing a car in Burnout both satisfying and (usually) helpful to your progress, the crashes are rendered with loving artistry to make each and every one a ballet of splintered metal worthy of the most aggressively independent film festivals you can think of.

#49: The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (2006)

I've never much liked the 3D Zelda titles. Despite all the praise lavished on Ocarina of Time, it was clunky, filled with tedious busywork, and still struggled with the basics of 3D game design, at that time still an emerging field. Twilight Princess is the finished game for which Ocarina was merely a tech demo. It's an emotive and well-told story wrapped in polished, satisfying game mechanics and to say it's the best Zelda game made to date is one of the highest honours a game can receive.

#48: Vagrant Story (2000)

SquareEnix (or SquareSoft, as it was then known) is a company with a willingness to take risks, and Vagrant Story was a big one. An intelligent, adult story told in an unfriendly gothic world was just the beginning; Square went on to hang the gameplay off a controversial "risk" system that involved lengthy attack chains where each successive blow you landed on an enemy did less damage and raised your vulnerability to reprisals. Together with frustrating box puzzles and an impenetrable crafting system it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. However, the art, story, and mindblowing conclusion were so outstanding that this game deserves to be on any list of first-class games. Sadly for SquareSoft, the risk didn't pay off - Vagrant Story was never a commercial success.

#47: SoulCalibur 2 (2003)
Gamecube, Playstation 2, XBox

It's no secret that SoulCalibur is my fighting franchise of choice, and to be honest I can't understand any alternate viewpoint. The magic of SoulCalibur lies in pacing that is both lightning-fast yet deliberate, a deep range of moves which are simple to execute, and clear visual depictions of the strengths and strike zones of each character that allow both masters and novices to understand the action on screen. SoulCalibur 2 is for my money the best entry in the franchise, although 3 and 4 both have their merits. If SoulCalibur is the decade's best fighting franchise and 2 is its best iteration, that makes SoulCalibur 2 the best fighting game of the decade, right?

#46: LocoRoco (2006)
PlayStation Portable

You can hate the PSP, but you can't hate LocoRoco. It's a unique fusion of music, art, and gameplay to create an addictive, compelling platforming adventure that will stay with you long after you put it down. The conceit of the game is that to guide your small army of singing, blob-like LocoRocos through a level, you don't control the Locos directly but rather tilt the entire world, to send them tumbling down ramps and flying around curves. There's nothing else quite like it - except, of course, for its sequels.

Games of the Decade: 2000 - 2009

It seems everyone is making "Games of the Decade" lists, and it seems they're doing it wrong. They're recentist, they're genre-centric, and dammit, they're not the list that I would make.

So I'm doing my top 50 games of the decade. They're the games I deem most significant, most iconic, and most downright good over the period between January 2000 and December 2009.

Here's my biases: I regard the PC and PSP as broken platforms; a good game on either platform is struggling against technical incompatibilities and bugs on the PC side, and horrible controls and loading times on the PSP end. There's PC games and PSP games on the list but it's worth noting they're not starting from an even footing.

There's also only two Flash games on the list. There've been a hell of a lot of good Flash games in the last 10 years but it's simply hard to put the majority of them side by side with the 50 best retail games of the decade and say that it's better.

The NGage never existed and the iPhone isn't a gaming platform. There have been some indubitably excellent games for the PlayStation 3 but with the exception of PixelJunk Eden, Flower and Linger In Shadows (none of which make the list... just) I haven't played them so you won't see them here.

50 seems like a lot but it's a hard cut to make. I wanted to include one of THQ's wrestling games on the list both for their massive commercial success and the often overlooked quality of the early-2000s titles - but they just didn't make the list. I wanted to include often-neglected gems like DefJam: Fight For NY or Amped 3 - but they're just not in the best 50 games of the decade. So just because a game's missing from the list doesn't mean it isn't high in my regard.

The list will be counting upwards from 50. Games are in order, with #1 being the Game of the Decade. Updates are every Tuesday and Friday at 10 pm Canberra time until the list is done.

Have fun, and Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Halo Wars (Multiplayer)

From my perspective, the only difference between an AI and a 14-year-old American is that the AI is polite.

I think this is what impressed me about Halo Wars. This is a game, like all of the Halo titles, that is clearly built for multiplayer. Around half of the game's achievements are multiplayer-only achievements. And yet, when I firmly informed the game that the "multi" part of the phrase "multiplayer" would be performed entirely by the game's artificial intelligence, it shrugged, started the game, and began duly handing out achievements.

I prefer playing bots. I really do. Not just because on average the XBox Live community is a cesspit of pre-pubescent homophobia and racism which Halo enthusiastically scrapes the bottom of, but because bots offer a more meaningful experience. They play at a level of skill determined by me and they make decisions based on fixed rules, which means that I learn faster by dint of being able to try different things in similar situations, and I can accurately judge my skill gain as while I am getting better they are verifiably remaining the same.

When I say that I want to play multiplayer, sometimes I genuinely mean I want to play with other humans. This is the case with most every co-operative game, and also with rare competitive exceptions like Soul Calibur and Call of Duty 4. But mostly it means that I want to experience the multiplayer content. I want to capture a flag; I want to get a killstreak; I want to narrowly win a hotly contested deathmatch. Experiencing the content is different from experiencing the competition. I don't need to feel like I won teh internetz. I don't need to beat any other real people. I could be the world's worst player and still enjoy beating some bots.

Requiring you to be beat real people in order to experience the thrill of beating people is like a driving game that puts you in control of a real car in a real race against real drivers. It's certainly an experience but to a large extent it's redundant. The very attraction of games is their ability to simulate scenarios and experiences that may otherwise be too difficult, improbable or outright impossible for us to enjoy in real life. Defeating Sephrioth in Final Fantasy VII is not any less enjoyable for the knowledge that Sephiroth is not the avatar of a Minnesota high school student.

It's particularly an issue when it can be hard to identify an AI. In Halo Wars, if you have the chat turned off, the only way you could tell a human player from their gameplay is when they make a mistake. The only signs of human intellect to be seen are indecision, ignorance, and poor judgement; without them it's anyone's guess. AIs here are functionally interchangeable at all but the highest and lowest levels of play.

So in short I had a blast with the multiplayer component of Halo Wars. It was exceptional. It turns out that the average denizen of the gaming internet can indeed be replaced by a machine to the benefit of the world in general. For perfect realism I suppose there should have been an "AI will randomly quit mid-match" check box, to be toggled on or off, but in general I can't help but think that an MMO where all the other players were AIs might be something of a hit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crossing The Same Bridge Twice

The period from February through to August this year was a gaming drought of unprecedented proportions. I'm hard pressed to cite anything from that season that made me excited to own gaming hardware. Eventually September unfolded like a wonderful and exotic flower and since then the nectar has flowed with overwhelming sweetness, but in the wasteland that went before I was forced to go back to some old titles and enjoy them that little bit harder.


Theoretically the goal with Crackdown was to take my points for the game from an anemic 620 up to its current height of 1050. But really it was completely rediscovering what I had already considered to be one of the greatest games produced this console generation. Just moving around in Crackdown is a pleasure that plays on the animal parts of one's brain; it's a symphony of acceleration and exhileration that no game before or since has really managed to nail.

On my first trip though Crackdown I'd noted that it was able to stimulate real-life vertigo when I ascended to particularly high locations; this time I was able to realise the role that the excellent environmental sound effects play in that achievement. I also discovered that the game's driving systems, horrible for the majority of the game, suddenly become intensely enjoyable when you level up the protagonists's driving skill to maximum levels, unlocking a wall-climbing SUV, a missile-spewing APC, and a sleek, elegant racer able to devastate vehicles in its path merely by touching them. Rather than grinding completed content to achieve the game's remaining goals, I found myself using the goals as an excuse to keep interacting with the content. Crackdown is a sublime argument enjoyable process making the idea of meaningful rewards irrelevant.

Saint's Row

There are no words for how much I love the single-player portion of the original Saint's Row but it had frustrated me how many of the game's achievements were tied to multiplayer content. On my first interaction with that content I had no fun, and assumed I was simply over the game; too saturated in it to enjoy this online extension. A more recent attempt to go bareknuckle with the online play has corrected me - the multiplayer is hideously designed, inherently terrible, and to the extent that matches can be found at all in the barren wastelands of XBox Live they are dominated by the kind of spawn-camping software-assisted griefers who flourish in such carelessly-created environments. After an hour or so of being farmed for someone else's achievements I gave it up forever as a bad idea. In turns out the same people who created the majesty of the single player game ARE perfectly capable of designing multiplayer that efficiently murders babies.

Left 4 Dead

Every time I say that quality trumps quantity, Left 4 Dead laughs at me. I came back to it to sample the new Crash Course DLC and the Survival mode. Crash Course, naturally, is great. It's only two levels but they're longer than what came on the disc, which makes for an interesting variation to the game's pacing. There's more of the hilarous off-handed dialogue and a couple more memorable set-piece battles. But once you start replaying it (and particularly if you're going for the Littlest Genocide achievement which involves killing 5,395 zombies exclusively within Crash Course's two maps) the deficiencies of the "director AI" once again become clear, and you find yourself learning possible witch and tank spawn points off by heart and slaughtering the same zombie hordes with mind-numbing regularity.

I ran right into the game's brick walls again, as well. To tackle Expert difficulty you need four players - no ifs and no buts - as the AIs just aren't up to the task. With no guild play or team persistence, attempting to educate random strangers on how to not play like douchebags is a thankless exercise in frustration, and as far as playing with friends either you have three friends with the game and a Live Gold subscription or you don't, and even then getting them online at the same time can be epic. The other DLC - Survival mode - quickly convinced me it was a waste of time. Nothing's less fun than losing because a team member screws up, and Survival mode, with its "fight until you drop" mentality, makes that an inevitability rather than a possibility.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I am a fan of B-movies. If there is such a thing as a B-game, Wet is it.

When Activision and Blizzard went through their cyclopean merging last year and formed the entity affectionately known as Blactivision there were inevitable casualties. Two were Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters, who found new homes in the diamond-encrusted maws of EA and Sony, respectively. Another was Wet, a much lower profile development, and the fact that it has reached retail at all is due to the unlikely auspices of roleplaying powerhouse Bethesda Interactive.

Wet is a game which is nothing but rough edges. There's not an aspect of the game you can look at without seeing how money, time and polish would have vastly improved it. Travelling through its rather short story involves pinballing from limitation to limitation, and the whole thing eventually sputters out in an unsatisfying finale.

But, you know what? It's a blast.

This is a good game. It's a good game not because it is rough, and not despite being rough, but simply through enabling us to not care about it being rough. You can run on walls, you can slow down time, and you can shoot fools right in the muthafucking head, and beyond that really everything else is window dressing. If you get to the end and feel like you haven't shot enough fools in the head, you start a new game, maybe on a different difficulty setting, and introduce more heads to more bullets. It's not the milestones that are fun here, but the process of reaching them.

Wet knows it's a B-game. It glories in it. The graphics are overlaid with artificial film scratches, loading times are covered by drive-in cinema adcruft, and the plot is ripped straight from a 70s blacksploitation epic with a gravel-voiced Eliza Duskhu shoehorned into the leading role. Characters with improbable names like "Tarantula" abound; the game treats them with a completely straight face but never manages to elevate them to more than a gun-toting freak show.

Other games have gone down this path; House of the Dead: Overkill is a recent example. But Wet is somehow more authentic, because we, the audience, can see that this could have been a different game. All that separates Wet from something like Devil May Cry is six months in development and a budget to match. It's in the finest tradition of B-movies - reaching for the stars but settling for cardboard and glitter, and like B-movies of old it makes the perfect fit for the bottom half of a double bill. Enjoy a week of Brutal Legend, and follow it with a chaser of Wet.

Wet was clearly never destined for preorders and midnight launches, and in that sense it's a got a refreshing freedom of movement. It's firmly in the "stylish action" genre but it's free to borrow tricks from sources that haven't enjoyed Devil May Cry's level of commercial success. A "never stop running, never stop shooting" philosophy is lifted from Bizarre's The Club. Stylised swordplay and dry humour evoke No More Heroes. A kinetic variety of parkour-inspired motion brings to mind Mirror's Edge. But Wet picks and chooses from these very idiosyncratic games and it largely picks wisely.

Largely. It features one level so rage-inducingly-awful as to nearly make me give up in disgust. About halfway through the game, you find yourself exploded out of a plane in mid-air, and forced to dodge burning pieces of that very same plane while in freefall, while shooting at and being shot at by faceless goons who, like you, are also falling out of the plane, all with the intention of catching up to and utilising a mid-air parachute. It should be the game's definingly awesome set-piece but purpose-built mechanics, cheap one-hit kills, an inability to effectively read the environment and a complete lack of checkpoints make it a brick wall in the path of fun. Once you've solved it once it gets easier on replays but that's poor consolation to those struggling the first time around.

Wet is not anyone's Game of the Year. It's not a critical masterpiece or a roadsign along any of the streets that lead to the gaming nirvana. But it doesn't have to be. Even among mediocrity there is the good and the bad, and in that halfway house Wet is some of the best there is. There is room for the B-game, for that mixture of passion and compromise, of vision and clumsiness, and when a game like Wet emerges from the very heart of that territory it is a joy and a treasure that should not quickly be passed by.