With all the new consoles and the growing popularity of casual and mobile games, it’s been a year where there have been more games on the market for more platforms than I’ve ever seen. This year, I’ve decided to do something different with my Best Games of the Year column. That’s because each year, games that are sequels always enter the list. I’m not saying that these games aren’t popular or good. But I’d rather see creative, striking first efforts on my list. So the first list contains the best ones that aren’t sequels. The second, shorter list deals with the Zeldas and Marios of the world. Ready? Here we go.
1. Okami (Capcom) Okami has everything I’d ever like to see in a game. It features beautiful graphics based in elaborate Japanese myth, decent writing, and brand new gameplay where you get to use your PlayStation 2 controller as a virtual paintbrush. This one’s a candidate for game of the decade.
2. LocoRoco (Sony) I just can’t get enough of this cute game for the PSP which features mercury-like blobs called LocoRoco in crazy environs. It’s a simple game where you use just two buttons on the PSP controller to move through its various fantasy lands. Add Halloween and Christmas upgrades that were free to download, and you’ve got a game well worth the price of admission.
3. Bully (Rockstar) Sure, it was a mature-rated game that was controversial. But you’ll never see a better portrayal of the real emotional issues and angst of going to school and coming of age in a game, not even in a novel.
4. Dead Rising (Capcom) There’s never been this much action in a shopping mall. Arguably, there’s never been this much action in a video game, either. Yes, it’s all about killing zombies. But the Xbox 360 game spans such a large amount of virtual real estate, it rivals the grandeur of other free roaming games like Grand Theft Auto 3.
5. Wii Sports (Nintendo) Yes, everyone talks about Twilight Princess as being the game of the year. But the simplicity of Wii Sports makes it a game that’s friendly to parents and grandparents, too. You’ll mimic rolling a bowling ball like you do in the alleys, and you won’t be able to stop playing. It’s the essential game for the Wii because it’s a game for Every Man (and Woman).
6. Viva Piñata (Microsoft) It turns out that Viva Piñata, the graphically lurid, endlessly creative gardening game starring colorful piñatas, is the swan song for retiring Rare developers Chris and Tim Stamper, who’ve made 60 games. They turned what could have been a toss-away kids’ game into one that adults and kids will remember for years to come.
7. Gears Of War (Microsoft) I’ve never before been scared when playing a shooting game. But this one is creepy from moment one. Add to that online play that never ceases to be compelling and monsters that are as eerie as your most dire nightmares, and you’ve got the best shooter of the year.
8. flOw Most games put you on the edge of your seat. This underwater casual game that’s free online has a zen-like quality which soothes you as you play. Sony saw the beauty of it and will soon make an upgraded version available for download via the PlayStation 3. It’s a nearly perfect game made by a couple of college students who soon may rule the game world.
9. Elite Beat Agents (Nintendo) There were many great music-based games this year—everything from the addictive SingStar Rocks to the innovative Gitaroo Man Lives. But the concept of Elite Beat Agents for the DS keeps me coming back for more. The agents remind me of the Blues Brothers. The cell-shaded art is the kind that’s never been seen on the handheld system, and the rhythm-based gameplay features covers of everything from Bowie to Avril.
10. Orcs & Elves (Electronic Arts) Made by Doom-creator John Carmack, the depth of this role playing game for cell phones makes it feel new and old school at the same time. There are a ton of monsters to defeat, mazes, dragons and crazy, mead-drinking elves, too. What do I mean by depth? You care about the characters here because they’re not one-dimensional. Think you’ve figured out the mazes? Suddenly, you’re transported to a spot that destroys your very sense of direction.
1. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo) It’s the same old story: save the princess. For the Wii, however, everything seems new, from the way you fish to the way you ride your horse. Your parents are not going to play it. But if you’re a gamer, you’ll be floored by the magic, the graphics, and the adventuresome story.
2. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2K/Bethesda) Oblivion for the Xbox 360 was such a rich role playing game that you felt inside of its world, partly because you played from a first person perspective. The depth of story and the 1,000 characters you meet make you feel like the guest of honor at a Knights of the Round Table reunion. Of course, the demons you encounter won’t treat you so nicely.
3. Final Fantasy XII (Square-Enix) In Japan, they have to close down the schools when a Final Fantasy epic is released. This particular version for the PlayStation 2 offers a complex story full of magic and a brand new way of playing the game in which you program the action of a group of characters you deem worthy for your melodramatic trek into fantasy. Then, there are the graphics that inspire awe from the opening movie to the fireworks-filled final moments of gameplay.
4. New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo) Everything old is new again. Sure, it’s a running and jumping platform game for the DS. But like the original from way back in 1985, it’s full of traps and monsters and pure fun. It so good, you wish there were a Disney-like Super Mario Bros. theme park you could travel to that’s based solely on this game.
5. Fight Night Round 3 (Electronic Arts) It doesn’t matter which platform you choose (although I prefer the Xbox 360 version). Fight Night Round 3 lets you feel like a real boxer. Yes, you’ll hate the Burger King ads in the arenas and the BK coach that’s sometimes ringside. But you’ll train and box your way through a lifetime of punches, awards and accolades. Play too long into your 40s and you’ll begin to develop a paunch and slow down. Should you hang up the gloves or keep going? It’s your choice.