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Gamasutra's Best Of 2008

Ending out 2008, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from surprises through game of the year and beyond, with bonus reader feedback.

As the end of the year approaches, Gamasutra presents a collection of all of the year-end charts we've published over the last two weeks.

Spanning categories ranging from the year's biggest disappointments to the best surprises, our choices have alternately earned your praise, ire, and disbelief, as you're about to see in selected reader comments.

Just for fun, try comparing this year's winners to last year's. How does this year's crop of winning titles stack up against last year's offerings? Surprisingly, in some cases. Onward to the countdowns:

Top 5 Downloadable Games

First up, we take a look at the top five downloadable games released in 2008, from World Of Goo through PixelJunk Eden and beyond - with ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning both console and PC games. For the purposes of this particular chart, relevant games must be chiefly -- but need not be solely -- digitally distributed.

5. PixelJunk Eden (Q-Games, PlayStation 3)

Dylan Cuthbert and friends at the Kyoto, Japan-based Q-Games made it into last year's charts with the slightly more niche PixelJunk Racers. But this year, both Monsters and Eden debuted on PlayStation Network to both critical and gamer plaudits.

Eden itself is a charming, borderline psychedelic physics-heavy platform game with a beautiful soundtrack and addictive collection mechanics. More to the point, it has a breezy, enticing style that makes it abstract but pointed, all at the same time. It's a great example of a small-team independent game with original thought behind it.

4. N+ (Metanet Software, Slick Entertainment, Xbox 360)

While the original Flash version of N+ was a charming piece of Web-based minimalism, it wasn't entirely clear that a console version would be necessary, let along essential. After all, a vector-style ninja collecting gold worked just as well on your PC, right?

But once the Xbox Live Arcade version debuted, with wonderfully HD-ized visuals, a plethora of online scoreboards (with replays!), a gigantic amount of levels, and the same terribly addictive gameplay, it made sense. Only Microsoft's nervous restrictions on level sharing spoiled the party, but Metanet's cheap and plentiful expansions helped make up for that.

3. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360)

Me, you and everyone we know are fed up of hearing about Jon Blow's time-bending platform game Braid, of course. This is partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.

Number None's Braid

Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul, however many different interpretations you might have of it. It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.

2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)

The original Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself a sequel to a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre. It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics?

While perhaps not as mainstream as some of the other games on this list, Geometry Wars 2 is a perfectly pitched evolution of the franchise. It particularly succeeds in some of the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay -- 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being highlights. Add in robust online score integration for a 'beat your friends' fest, and the perfectly thought out 'Sequence' mode, and you have an adrenaline-bespattered winner.

1. World Of Goo (2D Boy, Wii/PC)

Who would have thought that the best downloadable game of the year would be a practically bizarre strategy game that would have the player building bridges and towers out of... sentient goop? You can feel the amount of careful polish that the two-man 2D Boy put into the Burton-esque dark fantasy setting and ingenious puzzle settings.

The icing on the cake? Intelligent metagame goals such as the World Of Goo Corporation mega-tower, built out of goo saved from your regular levels, and the OCD Flag mode for advanced players. Thsis meant that the game defined the key characteristics of 2008's best downloadable games: short-play, carefully iterated, and cleverly multilayered.

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite downloadable games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Audiosurf, Bionic Commando Rearmed, Castle Crashers, Echochrome, Hinterland, LostWinds, MegaMan 9, Rez HD, Ticket To Ride, and Wipeout HD.

You said:

Oliver Snyders: "It's pretty telling that a majority of the top five downloadable games and honourable mentions are platformers of some description or use a 2D perspective, each bringing something new to their respective genres. Does this mean the 2D platformer *still* isn't dead?"

Bill Boggess: "I think Bionic Commando: Rearmed not being in the top five is ridiculous. It's actually one of the flat out best games released this year, downloadable or otherwise. Super Street FigherII HD Remix has proven to be an incredibly successful endeavor as well, though the hardcore nature of the game makes it a more niche offering."

Tom Newman: "Galaga Legions is hands down the best downloadable game this year. The other choices are great too, but the combination of great play mechanics with lots of HD geometry based eye-candy proved to be the most impressive downloadabe game."


Top 5 Disappointments

Next, we go in-depth on 2008's top five biggest disappointments, from rampant piracy to the oft-downplayed impact of the economic downturn on the games industry.

5. Wii Software Is Still Weak

Sure, it's a tough sell to assert that the Wii is a disappointment of any stripe. It outsells its fellow consoles handily, has brought gaming into the mainstream family living room, and has done a goodly heap of shiny white image control for an industry that many still want to relegate to the domain of the basement nerd.

But the Wii's banner success seems to do little good overall for anyone other than Nintendo -- its lineup of successful third party titles is still too thin as the console comes up on its third Christmas, while the company's own Wii Fit and Wii Sports remain top sellers.

And while Nintendo has long promised "something for the hardcore," few rejoiced to know that Animal Crossing: City Folk was that something, and barely iterative on its predecessors to boot.

Nintendo can easily keep in riches through the whims of the faddish mainstream trendline -- and that's only sensible, the well-earned fruits of brilliant business savvy and an admirable marketing campaign. But it's disappointing to see that arguably the most successful console of all time has so little to do with the rest of the video game industry.

4. Rampant, Unrepentant Piracy

Piracy has always been a problem for the game industry, and one could even argue that an increase in the variety of copy protection mechanisms and the success of distribution services like Steam has actually lessened the issue in recent years.

But unfortunately, we've got few reliable ways to measure it concretely, so all we know is that whether it's a high-budget, long-lead title like Spore or a wildly innovative indie success story like World of Goo, alarming numbers in the audience still think it's fair to steal en masse.

Some digital rights management methods are controversial, as are the publishers that continue to employ them despite widespread protest, and the industry has yet to offer compelling data that demonstrates the extent to which piracy hurts the business.

But turning a profit on a game is a high-risk proposition already, and any activity that shaves those profits harms innovation and the medium's future health -- and it's disappointing to see continuing volumes of people who believe there's any rationale for that.

3. The Holiday Glut

Last year, we were promised that 2008 would be a breakout year for a maturing medium, and this holiday saw one of the most impressive release slates across the board in terms of quality and differentiation than we have perhaps ever seen.

But did anyone, whether critic, reviewer or consumer, really have time to give any of these titles more than a cursory fifteen minutes of fame? The year-end crunch meant hype-driven flashbangs that dissipated far too fast before cultural pressure demanded attentions turn to the Next Big Thing -- which is a shame, when what we've asked for all along is titles with enough depth for us to savor at length.

And the holiday glut tactic actually turned out to create additional challenges for the industry as the floor fell out from under the economy -- better sales from better titles earlier in the summer might have boosted investor confidence ahead of tough times. Let's hope that next year publishers space their crown jewels out a bit better, for everyone's sake.

2. Lack Of Critical Vocabulary

The critical reception for many of the year's interesting titles often seemed inconsistent and stilted throughout the year. It seemed like many reviewers (among whom this editor includes herself) struggled to find a new language through which to evaluate the offerings of a medium whose complexity -- both technically and creatively -- ramped to new heights in 2008.

Reviewers even argued amongst themselves the merit of the assertion that they might be missing the forest for the trees, as the old "product guide" methodology continues to translate ever more poorly to the modern era.

Discussion and media coverage of games -- which is capable of creating ambassadorship between the culture of games and the culture of more established mainstream media -- would do well in 2009 to embrace the distinction between "review" and "criticism," and to better incorporate the idea that games are now a much more subjective, experiential medium than they were in the days of pixels and bloops.

1. We Are Not Recession-Proof

Former U.S. Presidential candidate John McCain received a widespread backlash when he faced the darkening economic horizon and claimed, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." He later clarified that, in making this assertion, he was referring to the spirit of the American worker, but general consensus held it was still something of a naive statement.

And the fundamentals of the game industry may indeed still be strong -- monthly NPD is still growing, with declines largely due to mitigating factors in year-over-year comparisons. Hardware is still selling, and a raft of analyst opinions and retailer surveys show that even the cash-strapped consumer is still buying video games.

But even the stalwarts among the industry's major publishers feel the pinch when investors -- themselves cash-strapped consumers -- get skittish. And lowered share values, sales declines or profit gaps that might be statistically insignificant to them can be outright punishing to smaller or more challenged companies.

In the end, nobody likes reporting on layoffs, but we did quite a lot of that as the whispered word "recession" grew into a roar, and the industry indeed felt the impact from the bottom to the top. Companies like Electronic Arts, THQ and NCsoft tightened their belts and terminated projects and staff.

Midway now threatens to buckle under the weight of its backers' credit crunch, and many smaller studios were jettisoned, acquired or shuttered. Those that remain face major challenges -- a credit crisis can spell the end for promising venture-backed startup studios who may now never see their projects get off the ground.

So it'll likely be another successful holiday for the video game industry, even more impressive and positively portentous considering what it's up against. But even when products sell, when people are hurt, "recession-proof" is the wrong word.

Rather than parrot the gratifying refrain, it may be wise to prepare to consider how the displacement of talent and the climate of increasing risk aversion will affect the creative direction of the industry in the coming years.

You said:

Anthony Velli: "As a consumer, I would put holiday glut at #1. It simply makes no sense. I understand that traditional philosophy dictates that people are willing to spend money at this time so it is the best to put product to market, but I think video games subscribe to a different model. A game is a large purchase and takes a while for its value to the consumer to be exhausted. It makes no sense to release all the best games in a two week period while leaving sparse few AAA titles for the rest of the year."

Ephriam Knight: "Yes the Wii software line up is weak. But again another article makes it sound like that is Nintendo's fault. Yes Nintendo games sell well. But they don't have to be the only ones. Third party developers need to stop trying to be Nintendo and be themselves and make games for the Wii."

Stone Bytes: "If anything, the recession may be the push the industry needed to lay off the old ways, and move towards the flexibility granted by intelligent outsourcing, orbiting core studios. While sales numbers would probably continue to grow, the industry's morphing may actually make it healthier than ever within less than two years."


Top 5 Overlooked Games

Next, we'll cover this year's top five overlooked games (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to high quality releases that went mostly ignored by mainstream consumers, the gaming press, and video game communities.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

5. Roogoo (SpiderMonk Entertainment, XBLA/PC)

Though its simple design and cartoonish presentation invited comparisons to Fisher Price's "Baby's First Blocks" toy, Roogoo was praised by reviewers for its fast-paced gameplay, challenging stages, and online multiplayer mode.

The casual title didn't generate as much buzz as some of the other innovative puzzle games released this year, like Electronic Arts' Boom Blox and Void Star Creations' Poker Smash, but Roogoo will have another chance to attract open-minded gamers in 2009 with Nintendo DS and Wii releases.

4. Culdcept Saga (OmiyaSoft/Jamsworks, Xbox 360)

Initially released in Japan in 2006, Culdcept Saga didn't make it stateside until February of this year. This strategy board game series -- often described as a mix of Monopoly and Magic the Gathering -- has never been popular in the U.S., but with its dated visuals and card-based gameplay, this was a particularly hard sell as a disc release to Xbox 360 gamers, even with its budget price.

Those who were able to look past Culdcept Saga's eccentric premise and dowdy 3D cutscenes, however, found an addictive and unique strategy experience with lots of replay value and beautiful card art.

3. Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (FarSight Studios, Wii/PS2/PSP)

While many gamers marked 2008 as a blue-ribbon year for revivals of retro franchises -- MegaMan, Bionic Commando, and Space Invaders -- most quickly dismissed Crave Entertainment's collection of arcade classics, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection.

The game offers ten (mostly) faithful virtual reproductions of Williams pinball tables from the 70s to 90s. Anyone who longs to hear the sound of a small steel ball rolling up an entry lane but doesn't have the time or money to purchase and refurbish a pinball machine, should definitely look into this anthology.

2. Pure (Black Rock Studio, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Without the name recognition that other racing titles enjoyed with their sequels this year, Pure's debut (and Black Rock Studio's debut under Disney's banner) went unnoticed by anyone who wasn't paying attention to reviews. Created by the same studio behind ATV Offroad Fury 3 and 4, naturally, this offroad racing title garnered a slew of top-end ratings.

Pure received near universal acclaim from critics, with many lauding its detailed graphics, exaggerated trick system, and reckless sense of speed. Unfortunately, not many gamers picked this up to enjoy those highlights themselves.

1. Soul Bubbles (Mekensleep, DS)

Soul Bubbles' goofy cover design and limited marketing budget didn't do the game any favors, but its Toys R' Us-exclusive release ensured that almost everyone missed out on this clever, polished title fitted for both casual and core players.

Gamers looking for an original and creative Nintendo DS title that takes advantage of the system's touchscreen would do well to try out Soul Bubbles. If you're specifically looking for something nonviolent or even more soothing than the typical game, even better!

Finally, honorable mentions for some of our favorite overlooked games in 2008 that didn't quite reach the top five go to: Shiren the Wanderer, Multiwinia, Yakuza 2, Civilization 4: Colonization, Blast Works, Princess Debut, Spin (iPhone), MLB Power Pros 2008, Sega Superstars Tennis, and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (DS).

You said:

Kale Menges: "I don't know how many hours I actually burned on Pinball Hall of Fame: Williams Collection. The first Pinball Hall of Fame was my most played game on the original Xbox, and I'm hoping that the guys at Farsight get the chance to do at least one more collection."

Carl Chavez: "I'm not surprised Culdcept Saga didn't fare well, since it doesn't fit its target audience very well (relatively low-end graphics and sound, best for long-play, social group multiplayer instead of short-play, single-machine multiplayer). Perhaps the next version of Culdcept would be more suitable on Wii?"

Yannick Boucher: "Problem with Pure is that the market has CLEARLY had enough ATV games. Look at Motorstorm Pacific Rift, it suffered the same fate. It's not the quality, it's the subject matter. Forget about ATV racing, it's out for a while."


Top 5 Gameplay Mechanics

Next, we'll cover this year's top five gameplay mechanics (with ten other honorable mentions), calling attention to a number of innovative, novel, or particularly well-executed individual elements of game design from throughout the year.

The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date, with eligible titles spanning home consoles, handhelds, and PC.

For these broad purposes, "gameplay mechanic" can refer to an input method, a character action, rules affecting the game world, and so on.

Generally, features were considered only if they were meaningfully implemented in their franchise for the first time, which in most (but not all) cases excluded sequels. They did not need to represent the first time any such feature has been implemented in a game, if they demonstrated particular excellence or importance.

Games are listed alphabetically; no order of preference is implied.

Braid (Jonathan Blow/Number None; Xbox 360)
Mechanic: time manipulation

Braid is not the first game to incorporate a time manipulation mechanic, but it is surely the first game to integrate one so crucially, permeating every moment and puzzle to a degree usually reserved for basic actions like running and jumping. And each world was treated as a gameplay variation on the theme of time, taking that central mechanic and expanding it in elegant ways.

The pervasiveness of that mechanical theme even extended to the game's narrative and protagonist, putting a gameplay property front and center in the kind of thorough way that remains surprisingly infrequent in game design, which makes it all the more impressive on the part of designer Jon Blow that the mechanic itself is so unusual.

Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South; PC, Xbox 360)
Mechanic: cooperative player assistance, AI director

Cooperative play has been undergoing a welcome renaissance lately, and Valve's recent zombie-themed shooter has reached a new high in the balance between genuinely necessary cooperation and individual agency.

Some games simply drop multiple players into an otherwise single-player campaign, and some become cumbersome in their devotion to constant cooperative acts, but Left 4 Dead's simple player-to-player assistance interactions -- not to mention the inherent benefit of cooperation engendered by the setting -- make group coherence eminently rewarding and manageable, even with random online players.

To cheat another mechanic into this entry, the game's AI director -- which oversees item and enemy spawning based in part on player behavior -- is a brilliantly seamless method by which to not only promote replayability, but to feed into the intrinsically frantic nature of a four-player close-quarters FPS.

And after all, if you start to suspect the game is out to get you, the urge and ability to fight back is all the more intensified by having three comrades-in-arms on the other end of a headset.

LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule; PS3)
Mechanic: real-time level editing

LittleBigPlanet is as much about enabling gamers to participate in level design as anything else, which means its user design experience needed to at least approach the level of accessibility seen in more traditional gameplay.

Certainly, creating a LittleBigPlanet level requires more investment of time and creativity than playing a LittleBigPlanet level, but it is telling that the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred.

It is perhaps even more telling that, thanks to the game's intuitive, real-time nature of level editing, Media Molecule has shipped a creation mechanic that has proved enormously usable for end users while remaining standard issue for the studio's professional designers.

Mirror's Edge (Digital Illusions CE; Xbox 360, PS3)
Mechanic: first-person parkour

The demo for Mirror's Edge generated considerable gamer hype based on the surprising fluidity and elegance of its central hook, first-person freerunning amidst a cleanly-defined urban setting.

EA DICE's Mirror's Edge

Despite taking criticism upon full release for inconsistency and certain presentational elements, developer DICE nonetheless achieved an impressive feat with the implementation of the game's character control.

Combining a simple control setup with the immediacy of the first-person perspective, DICE translated a gameplay idea that had previously been well-explored in other formats into something extremely fresh.

Spore (Maxis; PC)
Mechanic: procedural character creation

Arguably the most significant gameplay feature of Will Wright's latest offering isn't even a direct part of what gamers would traditionally call its core gameplay, but Spore's procedural character creation mechanic can become an entire game unto itself.

Incorporating dynamic skeletal systems, animation, texturing, and more, Maxis achieved astonishingly robust results in an area of game design that in practice often ends up stilted and too-obviously artificial.

The tens of millions of diverse creatures and structures that have been generated demonstrate the diversity of Spore in particular, but the successful implementation of the technology should be encouraging to the development community at large.

Honorable Mentions:

Audiosurf (Dylan Fitterer; PC): dynamic music-based level creation
Bangai-O Spirits
(Treasure; Nintendo DS): auditory level sharing
Dead Space
(EA Redwood Shores; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): enemy limb dismemberment
echochrome
(SCE Japan Studio; PS3): Escher-esque perspective manifestation
Fallout 3
(Bethesda Game Studios; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): VATS combat
Far Cry 2
(Ubisoft Montreal; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): day/night and weather cycle
NHL 09
(EA Canada; PC, Xbox 360, PS3): fully human-controlled teams
PixelJunk Eden
(Q-Games; PS3): swing-based movement
Tom Clancy's EndWar
(Ubisoft Shanghai; Xbox 360, PS3): unit voice control
World of Goo
(2D Boy; PC, Wii): physics-based lattice building

Amusing Gameplay Mechanic Special Mentions

Army of Two (EA Montreal; Xbox 360, PS3): congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers
No More Heroes
(Grasshopper Manufacture; Wii): suggestive waggle-based sword recharging

You said:

Tom Newman: "Great choices! LBP would be my #1. ...and a hats off to the PSN title The Last Guy. I found the mechanics of this game to be both unique and addictive!"

Trent Polack: "I think the in-game interface, despite arguably being a mechanic (I argue at length on my personal site), is just as crucial to Dead Space as the 'strategic dismemberment' gameplay."

Jason Seabaugh: "I feel that Army of Two's co-op design elements deserved a larger nod than just for congratulatory player-to-player maneuvers. Almost every aspect of gameplay is built around co-op, especially the Aggro and Step Jumps. When you compare Left 4 Dead to Army of Two, L4D's co-op feels just like 4 people playing a single-player game at the same time."


Top 5 Indie Games

Now, we're going we take a look at the top five indie games released in 2008, with information from Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com - and ten other 'honorable mentions' also included.

The games picked are the editors' choice, and span PC free-to-play titles released during 2008's calendar year to date, with a mixture of Flash and Windows executable games. (Many other fine pay-to-download games for console and PC that might be considered 'indie' were ranked in the Top 5 Downloadable Games earlier this week.)

5. You Have To Burn The Rope (Kian Bashiri) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "Possibly inspired by Valve's Portal, You Have to Burn the Rope is an extremely short game that features good pixel art and sound production using DrPetter's sfxr tool. There is only one solution to the problem, though the credits will be remembered long after you've managed to beat the final boss."

From the creator of the newer, and equally tart Metro: Rules Of Conduct, You Have To... is a gorgeously cheeky tweak on the nose for games as a medium. It's silly, sure, but if you haven't played it before, it'll make you grin.

4. Rom Check Fail (Farbs) [video]

IndieGames.com's description: "ROM CHECK FAIL is a new action game from the developer of Fishie Fishie and Polychromatic Funk Monkey. Players have to clear the screen of all enemies to complete each level, but the task is made a little more difficult by the random switching of gameplay rules where ideas are recycled and remastered as an odd mix of arcade or console classics from the pas

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