Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
2008 was….an expected year really. Sure, we got a nice haul of great games (almost rivaling 2007’s surge of titles), but many of this year’s highly anticipated releases were games announced over two years ago while we were still pining over new details on the PS3 (Metal Gear Solid 4) and the Wii (Super Smash Bros Brawl).
But after those long developed titles finally got dumped on us, there wasn’t much else to really get excited over, nor were there any major announcements to make 2009 a year to look forward to (with the exception of Starcraft II for the PC crowd, and hopefully Final Fantasy XIII for the console crowd).
Regardless, 2008 was a stellar gaming year, and I’ve decided to devote my last post of the year to listing my top picks under my self-nominated categories.
Just please keep in mind that my choices are based solely on my own opinions and preferences, and also only reflect the titles that I played this year (so no mention of how supposedly great Fable II is, or how horrible Too Human turned out).
And the winners are…
Game of the Year:
There was a considerable amount of hype over Valkyria Chroncicles’ impending NA release from early importers, but none of the trailers or screenshots convinced me of the game standing out from Sega’s previous (and below average) releases. Once the demo was made available on PSN, however, ten minutes was all I needed to completely reverse my expectations. Lots of next-gen titles this year have focused on pushing the graphical hardware of the current consoles to their limits, often foregoing gameplay in favor of high res visuals. Valkyria Chronicles takes a more simplistic approach that ironically makes it one of the most gorgeous games this year, a cell shaded style that isn’t quite anime nor manga inspired, but more like an illustrated storybook. All other elements, from the realtime strategy gameplay, to the sweeping music, to the wonderful characterization, all come together for my pick of the best game this year.
By comparison, the first ever public unveiling of LBP was enough to sell me right away. It was a concept so simple and rife with potential, it’s surprising Nintendo didn’t come up with it (and reportedly, Reggie was quite steamed when watching the game in action); Create a simple but endearing visual style, set it in a 2D platformer setting for nostalgic veterans like me, and give people absolute control in building their own stages and modifying their own Sackpersons. There really was no chance of this game falling apart as long as there was a creative community interested in it. What may have been surprising was how quickly users came up with unique, fun levels in just under a week of the official release. Whether it’s an undersea adventure, a recreation of someone’s living room, or a recreation of an existing game (from Mario to Sonic, and even Silent Hill), LBP has gotten the community it desired, and with new level items and other DLC to be released on a frequent basis, the user-created levels are only going to get better and more varied as the months roll on to years.
Hero of the Year:
Zack Fair (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII)
Nearly every character in Final Fantasy VII has his or her own dedicated fanbase, but I was always confounded by the large number of fans Zack had, considering that his onscreen time in the original game was around ten minutes, max. It seems people were more attracted to the idea of him, the SOLDIER whom Cloud drew all his inspiration (and fighting skills) from, but who seemed to have a more lighthearted outlook on life than his mentally tortured successor. Well, it only took the opening FMV to Crisis Core to let you know just how different Zack and Cloud were; Recreating the original game’s opening, Crisis Core shows Zack hitch a train and take on an army of guards with more humor, flare, and fun than Cloud ever had, and his upbeat personality just carries on throughout the game, inspiring both future friends (Cloud, Aerith) and foes (Sephiroth). Although he has personal dilemmas and doubts about himself like most FF protagonists, Zack never lets those emotions tie him down, and he bravely faces any challenge, no matter how impossible the odds. I didn’t get the Zack hype ten years ago, but Crisis Core has turned him into one of my favorite Final Fantasy heroes of all time.
Welkin Gunther (Valkyria Chronicles)
Welkin reminds me quite a bit of Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan; A simple country-bred man with aspirations to be a teacher finds himself thrust into an erupting war that seeks to engulf his homeland. Despite appearing strange to his other teammates over his obsessions with nature and insects, Welkin uses the knowledge he understands to win a war he doesn’t. His unshakable belief to always do the right thing in a conflict where no one is entirely evil may label him as ignorant, but this nature lover is the best ally you could possibly hope to have in this war.
Heroine of the Year:
Isara Gunther (Valkyria Chronicles)
For fans of the game, it might seem strange that I chose Isara over lead heroine Alicia (who was also a strong written heroine), especially since she may at first appear to be no different from previous “Healer” characters (referring to characters that “heal” their teammates with their positive outlook and friendly demeanor, not just anyone who can actually use magic) such as FFVII’s Aerith. The difference here is that while Isara is as innocent and pure as can be, she also never hesitates to speak her mind when her Darcsen race (the game’s fictional foreigners) is persecuted, as well as doing whatever it takes to defend her friends (from shooting enemies in the back to piloting the one sole tank in a village of armed soldiers). Despite the racist insults she endures (including from her own teammates), Isara’s gentle demeanor with her friends, as well as her commitment in battle, never falters, and your admiration of her will only increase as the game’s story moves forward.
Zoey (Left 4 Dead)
Francis, Bill and Louis should count themselves lucky that the sole female survivor is as cute as Zoey. They should be even more fortunate that she’s quite resourceful, dispatching any manner of zombie threat no matter what weapon she’s got on hand. College girls in blue jeans seem to be a popular fetish for fans of zombie settings, but Zoey is one character that online gamers are quick to choose during the lobby screen.
Villain of the Year:
Gongora (Lost Odyssey)
Too many bad guys these days are etched in gray, having motivations that aren’t entirely inhuman or selfish. Since Lost Odyssey was made in part to appeal to nostalgic RPG players, it’s a bit refreshing to face a good old fashioned, maniacal villain like Gongora that you’d have no problem in delivering his comeuppance. An immortal being like protagonist Kaim, Gongora decided to forsake his initial duties and instead decided to spend the next thousand years to systematically screw with his immortal companions while planting the seeds for his plans to rule the world. Unfortunately, he also follows the classic villain blunder by staging his final battle with the heroes in the one place where he can be killed as a mere mortal. Dumbass.
Sephiroth (Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII)
Okay, so it’s a bit of a cheat to nominate an old, celebrated villain like Sephiroth, but Crisis Core proved that the bastard’s still got it, and that it’s still fun to hate him. However, in this FFVII prequel, you actually get to see a semblance of humanity in Sephiroth, as he begins as an initial ally for Zack, even sparing his feelings when forced to engage another ally-turned-enemy. Watching his real-time descent to evil struck the right kind of emotional chords, especially when the story momentarily shifts from Zack’s perspective to a certain up and coming soldier that sparks one of the biggest videogame rivalries of all time….
Graphics of the Year:
There were lots of pretty games this year, but I have to give Dead Space the award for best graphics. You may be stranded in a gore ridden space station, but the setting doesn’t impede EA from showing off some really impressive visuals; The corridors of the ship are full of nice little details such as flashing lights, destroyed furniture, and mountains of torn limbs and leaked intestines decorating the floors, but the graphics truly astonish whenever you’re forced to step outside, with pale blue lighting effects, shooting stars, and a huge moon distracting players from hurrying to the next area before their oxygen runs out.
Metal Gear Solid 4
Much like MGS2’s first unveiling, MGS4’s trailer gave people the first clear look on what next gen systems like the PS3 can do. Lots of skeptics trolled the internet with claims that the footage wasn’t running on PS3 hardware, and that the game would be significantly downgraded once it was finally released. Wrong and wrong; Metal Gear Solid 4 delivers in its graphical splendor and aesthetics (my personal favorite touch is when dirt and grime stain the TV screen when uprooted from a huge explosion), even if other games managed to catch up graphics-wise by the time it finally launched. Regardless, MGS4 stands above those other titles with its remarkable character models and effects, but is just a hair from reaching first place due to some middling textures on buildings and a frame rate that sometimes shifts from 30 to 60 fps while navigating indoor buildings.
Soundtrack of the Year:
Mega Man 9
Nobody preaches as much as I do on how current games should be using real instruments to compose their soundtracks over outdated synthesizers and MIDI tools. That said, Capcom should still be commended for not only sticking to an 8 bit sound board for its retro sequel to Mega Man, but for perfectly capturing the nostalgic feel of oldschool NES music. It can’t be an easy task to create new music that takes players back to their childhood, but MM9 pulled it off beautifully. It also made for some great fan-made remixes, such as the guitar medley above. You can grab the mp3 (made by me) here.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lost Odyssey features a soundtrack that is almost completely performed by a live orchestra by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, who not only delivers an emotional selection of songs for the game, but also conjures up nostalgic feelings of his previous works on the Final Fantasy series. It’s just unfortunate that only two discs worth of music was created for a 50 hour game, resulting in several songs repeating over and over throughout the game. As wonderful as some of these orchestral performances are, you’re bound to get tired of it after hearing it over fifty times. I made an mp3 of this recording (from a 1080p avi file) that you can download here.
Online Game of the Year:
Left 4 Dead
It was a concept that’s been attempted several times, but never successfully; Throw players into an online setting where they have to work together to survive a city-wide infestation of zombies and zombie-related monstrosities. Leave it to Valve to finally make it work, although the idea was so simple it’s amazing no other company could make it happen. You and three other players must cooperate to survive wave after wave of zombies, which happen to be closer to the pissed off marathon running zombies from the 28 series than the slow moving kind from Resident Evil. One thing it does copy from the latter game, however, is the variety of “Boss Zombies” that show up at the worst times possible to thin out your group. There’s little else as entertaining as hearing your teammates shout expletives as the music shifts to introduce the Tank zombie, but it also makes for great fun to play with a group that knows what they’re doing and survive all the way to the final area (in which everyone must take up defenses in a house while fighting off an endless horde until the rescue vehicle arrives). It’s one of the most entertaining online games ever made, and that’s just with four areas; Just wait for the eventual updates and mods.
Gears of War 2 (Horde Mode)
Gears of War 2 is full of new multiplayer modes that substantially improve the paltry (but addicting) offerings of the first game, but the new Horde mode stands out as the most fun. Basically a glorified Survival game, players must fend off wave after wave of Locust enemies using whatever skills and weapons they have on hand, and being rewarded with even stronger enemies as they advance in levels. It’s an enjoyable Acrade-like experience that also helps to determine which players in your Xbox friend’s list can be relied upon and which ones make for cannon fodder.
Downloadable Game of the Year:
Bionic Commando Rearmed
Plenty of games have been remade, but few have retained its original gameplay mechanics and perspective like BC:R. The first game has been a cult favorite for years, but I was never a big fan until the remake spruced up the visuals and tightened the gameplay to near perfection. Not just a simple paint job, this was clearly a project made by fans and for fans, and it opens the door to new possibilities of classic NES games that are begging to get similar treatment.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix
Capcom really delivered with the downloadable games this year. Scoffed by angry purists for butchering the classic sprite artstyle, Udon delivered a Spinning Bird Kick to the naysayers by delivering a gorgeous, hi def look to the classic SFII game while retaining the same gameplay that still holds up to today’s fighters. Now the trolls are begging for Marvel vs Capcom or Street Fighter III to get a similar treatment in the future. I don’t see that happening soon, but at least this game’s strong sales won’t immediately dismiss the possibility.
Tearjerker of the Year:
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
Much of the emotional moments of Crisis Core are for fans who are already aware of the fates of these characters in the original game (I won’t be spoiling it for the handful still in the dark), but Square rewards those fans with plenty of moments that are both tender and ominous. But even newbies may find themselves choking back the tears during Zack’s rise to heroism, especially with the fantastically delivered climax (which even makes use of the gameplay mechanic to drive home the emotion).
Even though the cast of characters rush into the battlefield with the sort of enthusiasm only found in anime, it doesn’t mask the fact that war is hell; Many cutscenes feature moments of brutality, such as civilians being shot while fleeing, or young children forced into slavery. When tragedy strikes, these characters drop the superhero facade and weep appropriately, and during a couple of key moments in the story, you might find yourself doing the same.
Fan-Made Project of the Year:
The diligent translators of Starmen.net deserve all the praise gamers can offer, because without their release of their fan-translated patch, they may never get to experience one of the greatest Nintendo titles of all time, an excellent game that remains a Japanese exclusive. There isn’t enough room here to describe how wonderful Mother 3 is, so do yourselves a favor and get patchin’.
Import Game of the Year:
Dissidia: Final Fantasy
Impatient importers unable to wait until Mid ’09 for the english version of this game won’t have much trouble playing it in its native language. While it may prove impossible to equip items and accessories with a guide, it’s still a cinch to jump into a fight and engage the onscreen commands for some good Final Fantasy brawlin’. I can only hope the NA version adds a few improvements and additions, including a much needed tweak for Ex-Death (aka Slowpoke).
Biggest Disappointment of the Year:
Gears of War 2
The sequel to Gears of War is an improvement in almost every conceivable way; Better graphics, a more engaging (but not better written) story, a slew of new multiplayer mode and tweaks to overpowered weapons and exploits. So why is it my biggest disappointment of the year? The horribly slow Matchmaking system. For a company that should have online play down to a science, Epic has somehow made it worse to join an online game than the original Gears ever did. With frequent timeouts and restarts, players hoping for a weekend of multiplayer mayhem will have to spend half the night just waiting to join a game. To make matters worse, it’s been nearly three months since its release and the issue still hasn’t been dealt with. It’s utterly inexcusable for such a highly anticipated online game to perform as badly as Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros Brawl. They didn’t do much to fix the shoddy A.I. partners in Story Mode, either, as Dom tends to shoot Locusts with the accuracy of a Stormtrooper while ignoring your cries for revival.
Metal Gear Solid 4
Considering the ridiculous expectations this game was carrying (“This will be the game that sells me a PS3!”), it shouldn’t be surprising that MGS4 couldn’t deliver all the hype. Make no mistake, it’s a fantastic finale (?) to the Metal Gear series, but it was also the first time where I felt there were too many cutscenes. With a souped up graphics engine and all sorts of new gameplay tricks and weapons, I found myself tapping my foot to the endless dialog and exposition and just explore the war torn terrain. I later learned the sad truth that there’s only at least 1/4 of actual gameplay, while the other 3/4 is dedicated to wrapping up this crazy story. The final area of the game consists of maybe twenty minutes of actual gameplay, followed by over two hours of story. And there weren’t even that many Codec contacts this time around, which I’m usually quite fond of. The online portion also suffers from many, many problems (a ridiculously sized text window along with numerous lagging exploits), but at least you can jump into a game much quicker than in Gears of War 2.
Biggest Douchebag of the Year:
Edward (Infinite Undiscovery)
My biggest regret this year was buying this game on launch, just because I had a 10% coupon at Best Buy; In nearly a month, the game dropped down to $30, and I’ve barely devoted three hours to it. It’s not a bad RPG, mind you, but it wasn’t a must have either. None of the characters are terribly likeable either, but none of them compare to Edward here, who introduces himself by screaming his head off at new recruit Capell (the protagonist). At first it would seem he was just playing the cliche role of the hardened soldier who doesn’t trust the new guy in the group, but you soon learn that he even treats his longtime companions like shit. The only person he’s nice to is leader and legendary hero Sigmund, but his obsession over Sigmund borders on a Wayland Smithers level of devotion. Douche.
The A.I. Director (Left 4 Dead)
While not an actual character in the game (at least I don’t think so), the A.I. in charge of placing zombies, ammo, and boss zombies randomly in L4D has had his name cursed by players on their deathbeds from a Tank attack. I can’t entirely call the A.I. Director a douche, though, because while he makes things challenging and oftentimes unfair, he also guarantees that each session in L4D’s campaign is never boring. He also punishes unsporting teammates who think they can reach the Safe House all on their own by sicking Hunters and Smokers on the cocky bastard’s ass.
Most Absurdly Proportioned/Dressed Female of the Year:
Ivy Valentine (Soul Calibur IV)
Someone should teach Japan the meaning of the word “Restraint”, because they clearly don’t have it when it comes to the breastification of their female characters. Whether or not this is a criticicm is entirely up to you, but make no mistake, Ivy easily takes the top-heavy cake this year with an impossible pair of mammaries supported together by bits of string that she calls an “outfit”. Ivy’s curves are so monstrously large, she’s even taken prying eyes away from previously stacked spandex queen Taki.
Sonia (Ninja Gaiden II)
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Itadaki would toss in a new addition to his “beloved daughters” at his newest (and possibly final) Team Ninja game. Despite wearing attire highly inappropriate for a CIA agent, Sonia’s outfit isn’t as fetish fueled as Rachel’s, but she still finds herself kidnapped and tied up in provocative poses that accent her massive, infinitely bouncing orbs. To her credit, she at least manages to be far more useful in Ryu’s quest for dismemberment and slaughter, and manages to get kidnapped one time less than Rachel. Even Ryu seems interested enough to stick around after the credits for some under the cover, undercover action.
Goriest Game of the Year:
As I mentioned before, Dead Space has some very pretty visuals, which also result in some very ugly moments of gore. I’m by no means the squeamish type, but even I’ve been unsettled by the copious chunks of meat plastered around the room after blasting a Zombalien (my word, not theirs) to bits. The crunching noise as you plant your massive space boots into a creature’s head is especially gut wrenching, but that’s not mentioning areas where the walls are covered in gore (“looks like someone threw up their intestines all over the wall”, says one of your teammates), or the obese Zombaliens attached to walls that scream in pain as they continuously give birth to monstrous babies that you must also smash to bits with your space boots. That’s right, there’s also monster babies.
In the post-nuclear world of Fallout 3, it’s survival of the fittest, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun with the VATS system to blast any ganglander stupid enough to attack you to meat chunks. Unlike Dead Space, Fallout 3’s gore can be almost comical, as you watch chunks of brain matter and severed eyeballs flying in every direction in Matrix-style slow motion. This can also result in some very evil acts depending on the player, such as randomly visiting a neighboring house at night and blowing the head off the wife sleeping soundly next to her husband; Not that I would know anything about that (or at least, I didn’t save afterwards).
The “I hope it’s good” Prediction of 2009:
Batman: Arkham Asylum
The only good Batman games I ever played were the NES sidescroller by Sunsoft, and the Final Fight ripoff Batman Returns on the SNES. Regardless, I’ve got high hopes for Arkham Asylum due to three primary names: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamil, and Bruce Timm. Wisely taking the three most important veterans from the Animated Series, it’s my sincere hope that AA ends up as a stellar game that plays out like a mature episode of the DCAU cartoon. Either way, I can’t wait to hear Hamil adding a bit of Heath Ledger’s touch into his already famous Joker voice.
The “I hope this comes out” Prediction of 2009:
Final Fantasy XIII
According to Square, FFXIII is a lot closer to completion than we think, and should very well be released by 2009. That’s well and good for Japanese players, but there’s always a 3-6 month wait for NA fans, so even if they were to get the game by Winter 2009, that doesn’t bode well for us Americans hoping not to wait until 2010. It would be great if Square NA actually worked to get the game translated and dubbed simultaneously worldwide, but they seem only interested in putting that kind of effort to Kingdom Hearts titles.
The “No chance of being released in 2009, but I’ll hope anyway” Prediction of 2009:
Final Fantasy Versus XIII
It’s been stated before that Versus won’t be released until after FFXIII, but even if we do manage to get the game out by 2009, I’ll continue to anticipate Nomura’s dark entry into the Final Fantasy series, which could end up the best of the FFXIII titles.
The “I hope this gets announced at E3, TGS, or Whatever” Prediction of 2009:
Final Fantasy VII Remake
It’s become a tradition this gen to await each yearly game conference and hope that Final Fantasy VII is finally announced for the PS3 (or Xbox 360, which doesn’t seem so impossible anymore, or the Nintendo Wii, for people just trolling). Regardless, I’ll continue to refresh my screen during each conference in the hopes that the game will finally be made official. The day that happens (and it will happen, it’s not a question of if) will be a glorious one, indeed.