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Gamasutra's Best Of 2009

Ending out 2009, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from disappointments through game of the year and beyond -- with bonus reader feedback.

Ending out 2009, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from disappointments through game of the year and beyond, with bonus reader feedback from the charts' original posting in the site's news section.

While the year has seen the world slowly recovering from the grip of financial recession, the video games created this year and resulting creative and business trends have been as vital -- if not more so -- than previous years, and we're delighted to present our impressions of 2009 in this format.

You can also compare this year's set of charts against 2008's 'Top 5s' compilation and 2007's similar compendium to see what has changed -- and what overarching trends have ended up staying the same over the years.

Without further ado, here are the charts:

Top 5 PC Games

In more ways than physically, the PC is something of a black box. Gaming's only true open platform can be a tough nut to crack for developers. Its install base is ostensibly enormous (Steam alone, just one of its many communities, numbers over 20 million gamers) but success on the PC can be elusive, and it lacks the plug-and-play simplicity of its console cousins.

Triple-A big-budget action experiences have clearly found their place on consoles, and those games are becoming less common on the PC (although sometimes they're just a few months late). But the platform is increasingly emerging as fertile ground for an astonishingly wide breadth of games that don't fit that particular mold.

This year's best offerings included games that play to the system's strengths -- either by demanding high levels of input precision or by being so accessible that only minimal computational hardware is required, and everything in between.

The PC in 2009 saw a front-loaded schedule. It was the first half of the year that was most densely packed with ambitious and quirky exclusives, bolstered by some notable multiplatform standouts in the fall.

As a result, the PC's year in gaming ranged from Empire: Total War's grand strategy to Dawn of War II's RPG-like strategic micromanagement; from Dragon Age: Origins' epic fantasy to Torchlight's bite-sized lootfest; from The Sims 3's single-player interpersonal relationships to Left 4 Dead 2's online zombie-killing cooperation.

This year, the strongest case yet has been made for the PC as the affordable gaming platform, despite its costly image. Cutthroat competition between digital distribution operators (with more on the way) has resulted in nonstop rotating deep discounts, without the permanent devaluation that comes with retail's bargain bins. At any given moment, the PC gamer has access to amazing deals on a wide array of games, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.

Finally, it's worth pointing out the originality on display this year; of the 15 games highlighted here, more than half hail from newly-created properties. And take heart, PC fans: nearly all had PC as the lead development platform, with the majority exclusive.

Top 5 PC Games of 2009

5. Torchlight (Runic Games)

Torchlight offers proof that a game's pedigree makes a huge difference. When you put the founders of Diablo creator Blizzard North in the same room as the guy responsible for Fate, you get the most fluid and addictive action RPG since the mighty Diablo II itself. (Well, first you apparently get a public beta of another game. Then you get a new studio and Torchlight.)

What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit. And it's certainly not a complete coincidence that neither of them have featured the wonderful music talent of original Diablo composer Matt Uelman until now either.

Impressively, Torchlight succeeds even without a multiplayer component, an omission that was worrisome when first announced but which ended up detracting little from the game's charmingly cocaine-like old-school dungeon-clearing. And its system requirements are soft enough that the game's option screen even includes a "netbook mode"!

4. Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly)

Grandeur is the touchstone in the Total War series, and The Creative Assembly more than lived up to that reputation with its latest entry, Empire. Encompassing a massive geographical scope during a period that was immensely formative in modern civilization, the game's many systems interweave to create an incredible historical narrative -- or a plausible portrayal of what might have been. And as is customary for the series, its extensive automation options mean Empire stays accessible without forcing a reduction in depth. It's a game of uniquely PC scope.

In a creative medium so dominated by fantasy, science fiction, and Rambo-esque combat theatrics, there is something laudable about a developer like The Creative Assembly that pursues an entirely different, and more accountable, kind of wish fulfillment. Such ambitious depictions of vast swathes of history rarely receive such lavish production values.

The game's launch was unfortunately marred by technical issues for many users, some of which have reportedly persisted. But The Creative Assembly hasn't abandoned the game, even after announcing next year's Napoleon: Total War: Empire's long-promised multiplayer campaign enters beta today.

3. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve)

Last year's excellent Left 4 Dead (which ranked #2 on the 2008 list) demonstrated how much room for exploration is left in the multiplayer shooter arena. A genre-defying mashup of round-based multiplayer and cooperative campaigning, it carved out a unique place for itself in the unforgiving marketplace of online gaming.

Left 4 Dead 2, which famously sparked an ultimately short-lived protest against its year-later development cycle, demonstrates the abilities of a team that, having worked through the establishment of a successful subgenre, has been able to explore the space in a deeper, more confident, more fleshed-out way. Its setting reflects a more perceivable geographic progression, its levels house a broader array of inventive gameplay conceits, and its mode and playstyle options are more numerous.

Along with Valve's neverending Team Fortress 2 content and the pseudo-episodic Half-Life 2 series, Left 4 Dead 2 provides yet more evidence that Valve understands the value of iteration better than most.

2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Relic Entertainment)

Real-time strategy doesn't occupy the same headline-grabbing position it once did (except when StarCraft II is delayed again, anyway), but for the past decade, Relic Entertainment has been creating some of the most progressive, fun RTS games around. A few years ago, it received well-deserve acclaim for Company of Heroes, and this year it continued to take liberties with established strategy game design in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which pushes even further away from the base-management norm to great effect.

The single-player campaign, which can be played solo or cooperatively, offers an engaging persistent loot and leveling system informed by Diablo and its ilk, with the map and control mentality of an RTS -- a formula that pays off. And the multiplayer mode is a heavily teamwork-driven action-strategy experience that can seem initially unfamiliar, but whose fast pace and roots in well-established gameplay underpinnings lends it to quick learning.

Like a couple other games on this list, Dawn of War II is an admirable reminder that design risks can pay off, and there's no such thing as permanent standardization for a genre.

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1. Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)

Dragon Age is a game full of compelling contradictions. Its gameplay paradigm is a revival of the kind of systemic, arcane PC RPG that BioWare previously revived in the late 90s with Baldur's Gate -- but its finely-tuned modernization and playability deflect anachronistic impenetrability. At first glance, its setting seems like forgettable boilerplate fantasy -- but that surface level belies a slate of unexpectedly engaging and believable party members, and well-integrated undercurrents examining its world's class and race relations.

These days, not many multiplatform games feel so intrinsically native to the PC as Dragon Age. Some elements play equally well on any system -- characters, dialogue, situations, choices -- but the intended feel of the game is best conveyed with a mouse and keyboard, and the more complete UI. Using the mouse wheel to seamlessly scroll between the modern chase cam and the old-school remove-the-ceiling top-down view is oddly satisfying in its own right, and is endlessly practical as the game flows between exploration and tactical combat. Characters can be direct-controlled, clicked-and-dragged, given automated tactics; as with the narrative situations, player choice is the name of the game.

Dragon Age's pre-release marketing implied tired, shallow characters and situations. The game itself has an uncommon smartness and genuineness. Rarely have I grown as attached to virtual characters in video games, or developed distaste for them based on something other than poor writing. Even better, they convincingly engage in their own independent banter as you lead them around the world. The game and its setting aren't devoid of cliche, not by a long shot; but few games offer such a volume of well-conceived interaction and observation. (Those driven to the game solely by its current angry-bloodbath television campaign are likely to be confused by the thoughtful experience with which they are presented upon startup.)

Like Fallout 3, last year's winner, Dragon Age promises a life beyond its shipped content with official PC modding tools (and the inevitable paid content). And yet again, it's great to see the characteristically PC-derived traditions of player-driven systemic worlds available in many genres and on multiple systems. But Dragon Age is still best experienced on the platform that gave rise to its kind.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

AAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan Games): Many hours were spent playing this surprisingly compelling BASE jumping simulator, which brilliantly conveys the fun Dejobaan must have had making it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios): It's the first good Batman game possibly ever, and it's supremely playable, setting the template for good multiplatform PC conversions.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward): In the end, Infinity Ward's proprietary online backend isn't ideal in all respects, but it gets the absolutely top-shelf multiplayer across well enough.

Dawn of Discovery/Anno 1404 (Blue Byte/Related Designs): This city builder's preoccupation with economic micromanagement pays off in satisfaction when you get everything running like clockwork.

League of Legends (Riot Games): One of several companies hoping to inherit the Defense of the Ancients crown, Riot has crafted a tight, polished (and free) strategy/RPG effort.

Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games): It turns out turret defense design hadn't been exhausted; PopCap makes a strong, playable argument here for conciseness of design.

Risen (Piranha Bytes): This deep RPG inherits both the ambition and the slight jankiness of its Gothic forbear, still doing cynical roleplaying better than most.

The Sims 3 (Maxis): If you want what The Sims does, the original series is still the only real choice around, and this entry is admirably polished and expanded.

Tales of Monkey Island (Telltale Games): Impressively, Telltale has made one of gaming's most resolutely stagnant genres feel much fresher, while keeping a venerable license largely intact.

Trine (Frozenbyte): This clever single-player-cooperative (or same-screen) sidescroller offers fun platforming innovation, pretty visuals, and a wizard.

Zeno Clash (Ace Team): Don't try to figure out what the hell is going on, just enjoy the imaginative surrealism and brutal first-person face-punching.

- Chris Remo

You said:

Mathieu Marquis Bolduc: "About Empire Total War... I love the Total War series, but I think you understate the scope of the 'technical problems'. It took 4 patches before the AI was functional enough to make the grand campaign playable, and cannons defending a fort still think its a good idea to fire at enemies through their own gates. AI was never the strong point of the series, but its the first time it really broke the game. I hope Creative Assembly rethink their approach to AI in the next game."

Richard Putney: "Trine and Borderlands are my picks for outstanding titles this year. These titles were both incredibly fun to play, quirky, and innovative. DoW II was great fun, but I really dont think their redefinition of RTS did as much for the genre as the original DoW."

Donald McArthur: "Am I the only one who enjoyed Demigod? It was my go to game for two months and I still enjoy going pack for a quick match."


Top 5 Controversies

Generally, video games are fun, touching or sad; the video games business is just business. But there are always more complex news stories that surface from among the daily reports of publisher revenues and franchise sequels -- with such a passionate community of players and creators in the industry, controversies always get a major share of buzz.

Now, let's look back on 2009 to reflect on some of biggest controversies; here are the news stories and sagas that got us really talking and thinking this year.

5. Brutal Legend's Love Triangle

Gamers were saddened when Brutal Legend, the joyous heavy metal opus from fan-favorite designer Tim Schafer, was unceremoniously dropped from Vivendi's publishing slate in its merger with Activision -- it was a creative risk that lacked franchise potential, according to the company.

So when the game found a new publisher in Electronic Arts, everyone cheered it as the de facto avatar of the creative and quirky, creating a narrative that pitted Brutal Legend against the ills of big corporate. And that plot only thickened when Activision sued, ostensibly to hamper the game's release by claiming it still had the rights.

Ultimately, of course, after a countersuit by Schafer's Double Fine and a settlement in court, EA launched the title.

But almost as fun as the success story was the visible show of ill will, albeit good-humored, between the rivals -- EA's comment that Activision was behaving "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy" was nearly as delightful as Schafer's own timely reference to pop star Beyonce's homage to single women: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it."

4. Richard Garriott, Fraud Victim?

Famed Ultima Online forbear Richard Garriott returned from his much-publicized trip to space to find his latest project, NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, had become little more than a heavy drag on the publisher's finances, and declared he would leave NCsoft to pursue other interests inspired by his stint as an astronaut. That was last year.

Early in 2009, Tabula Rasa shut its doors with a bang, and that's when the surprise came: Garriott's claim that his was no peaceful resignation, but a force-out grossly misrepresented by NCsoft. Garriott now claims he'd objected to his dismissal but was forced to leave -- and that the company re-categorized his termination as "voluntary" so as to impact his stock options.

He claims he was forced to choose between exercising his options in "one of the worst equity markets in modern history," or take the risk that the company would refuse to honor them later. Garriott now claims he's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in costs and taxes, and has sacrificed "millions of dollars in value" having lost two-and-a-half years of his options period.

3. The Complex Orson Scott Card Issue

Swaths of gamers couldn't wait for Epic and Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex, a refreshing return to the exploration-driven "Metroidvania" style of gameplay many remembered fondly from a simpler time. That was until some began to take a closer look at the personal philosophies of author Orson Scott Card, friend to Chair lead Donald Mustard and writer of the fiction from which Shadow Complex was derived.

The problem? Card is vocally against gay marriage, and is in fact an active political opponent to it as founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to address "the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures."

Those who believe that same-sex couples should have an equal entitlement to marry as heterosexual couples balked at the idea of allowing such an active opponent to profit even in small share from their purchase of Shadow Complex; game fans on the popular NeoGAF forum discussed and debated the issue, and Gamasutra's own Christian Nutt took a close look at the proposed boycotts.

Political beliefs and causes are highly personal. But as state governments across America begin to consider the issue, passions and polarities are increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and news. More importantly than arriving at a "right-or-wrong" answer for Shadow Complex was the fact that a wider world issue had reached gamers, generally more likely to get up in arms about far more insular issues.

It may or may not be appropriate to politicize video games, but the Shadow Complex controversy got everyone thinking about the places where our entertainment medium of choice and issues of wider relevance can overlap.

2. Who's The Ultimate DJ Hero?

Developer 7 Studios started out with the kind of story that makes small developers everywhere take heart: A rep for publisher Genius Products visited the cash-strapped studio -- still reeling from the Brash Entertainment collapse -- and stumbled upon "a labor of love" tucked away in "this audio engineer's closet of an office," and was swept away.

That little one-man experiment, or so the story goes, was a turntable controller, and from that discovery was birthed the project that would become Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, an inventive concept that sought to leverage the tide of the music game boom in the direction of DJ music with the help of legendary musician-producer Quincy Jones.

No sooner had the team announced their project, however, than things got ugly very quickly. Activision, monarch of the music genre with Guitar Hero, wanted to put out a turntable-equipped video game too. Claiming it was helping out a cash-strapped studio -- and indeed, Activision had given 7 Studios staff contract work in the past to help them stay afloat -- the publisher purchased the developer.

Genius Products and partner Numark didn't quite buy the charity act and found the timing a little too coincidental, and it wasn't long before the pair slapped Activision -- along with its former collaborators 7 Studios -- with a lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and claiming 7 Studios was making it hard for Genius to get its assets back. According to Genius, there was a plot afoot to keep Scratch from launching before Activision's own DJ Hero.

There was a restraining order, and a countersuit from 7 Studios claiming it was Genius' "unsavory business practices" that caused Scratch's delay, and the costs kept ramping up: Activision reportedly shelled out at least $350,000 in legal fees, while Genius and Numark had to put up a $2 million bond to have Scratch's source code returned.

Genius and Numark say they still haven't gotten back everything that's theirs, but plan to finish the game anyway with a new developer, Commotion Interactive, for release in the year to come. Just before the release of DJ Hero, Activision gave some 30 developers at 7 Studios their walking papers, saying it wanted to focus the studio more on music games. Unfortunately for all involved, most analysts think the music game heyday has passed; although DJ Hero generally received a strong critical reception, its sales were only modest.

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1. Modern Warfare 2

Where popularity goes, scrutiny follows, so perhaps it's to be expected that the biggest game of 2009 was also the most controversial -- not just one, but three of 2009's scandals emerged from this title alone, and that's excluding the silly back-and-forth over whether to put the "Call of Duty" branding on it or not. First, there was the revelation that PC gamers would have no dedicated servers for the game's multiplayer -- and PC gamers can always be relied upon to sound their displeasure the loudest when they end up with the short end of the stick. Just one of several online petitions received 234,351 signatures.

Infinity Ward revealed details of IWnet, the matchmaking service unveiled in place of dedicated servers, but they still weren't enough to please vocal PC fans, many of whom permanently soured on the game. Then, fresh on the heels of the dedicated-server debacle came F.A.G.S, an unbelievably ill-conceived marketing video designed as a fake PSA warning against grenade spam -- but offending many for its frathouse-homophobia brand of humor.

And if that weren't enough, there was, of course, "No Russian," the game's much-buzzed sequence wherein the player must accompany his enemy in an airport terrorist attack on civilians. Certainly the implications were offensive to Russians, but the critical consensus, encapsulated here by Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen, was that the scene -- heavy-handed and inappropriately following an adrenaline-fueled snowmobile chase -- missed the mark so badly that it was offensive to gamers.

Of course, none of it seemed to hurt the game's record-breaking, 4.7 million-unit day one launch; probably, the most likely damage was done to the blood pressure of Infinity Ward community manager Robert "FourZeroTwo" Bowling, the one who had to field all the drama (and who incidentally appeared among 2008's top controversies, too).

Other controversies this year: Gamers decry EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes price restructure, possibly indicative of just how EA plans to shift to a primarily-digital revenue model; Tim Langdell angers the development community with his vigilant ownership of the word 'Edge' in game-related trademark form; WoW goes dark in China as it battles government regulators; Steam rivals call Steamworks a 'Trojan Horse'; 3D Realms and Take-Two brawl over Duke Nukem

- Leigh Alexander

You said:

Leonardo Ferreira: "The 'No Russian' so-called 'controversy' is so cynical that it angers me profoundly; this sequence must have gone throught contless focus groups, in orders to measure the right amount of 'controversy' it could generate. Apparently, instead of creating a meaningful discussion, the guys at Infinity Ward just put together a flashy and misguided marketing act that is just going to do more harm than good to the industry as a whole."

Jeffrey Parsons: "It's utterly hilarious that a person believing in traditional marriage constitutes a 'controversy', particularly when this didn't have anything resembling a big impact on the games scene."

Adam Bishop: "Whether or not anyone happens to agree or disagree with the [Shadow Complex] controversy, it certainly was one, as the massive comment threads in numerous articles here and elsewhere would attest to."


Top 5 iPhone Games

Since opening last year, the iTunes App Store -- the mobile storefront for iPhone and iPod Touch games and applications -- has grown exponentially in size. The App Store boasted more than 10,000 available apps at the end of 2008. One year later, as of this writing, that number has risen to more than 112,000.

Developers rushed to the platform after witnessing its potential as a gaming device. Some indies became overnight success stories, generating thousands of dollars in daily revenue. Soon, even big-name industry publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision turned their attention to the platform, eager to capitalize on its growing market.

App Store developers now face tougher competition than ever before. In addition to competing against high-quality offerings from established publishers, many independent developers now wage a race to the bottom among themselves, pricing their offerings at cutthroat rates in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on Apple's daily sales charts.

In this highly competitive market, it takes a truly exceptional game to stand out from the crowd and earn the recognition it deserves. These are the five best titles released for the iPhone and iPod Touch this year.

5. Skee-Ball [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Freeverse)

Throw a wooden ball up a ramp. With skill, you'll land it in one of the cups at the end of the lane, earning points. After throwing nine balls up the ramp, the game ends. Get a high score and you'll earn tickets, which you can redeem for pointless prizes.

So what's the big deal, here? Why was such a simple game charting as one of the App Store's top sellers for months on end? Skee-Ball isn't innovative by any means, but it manages to so effectively translate an arcade mainstay to the iPhone's touch screen that you'll find yourself hopelessly addicted, very quickly.

Everything here is rich with authenticity. The physics are spot-on. The sound effects are unmistakable. The touch-and-drag controls are satisfying, and redeeming tickets to add to your collection of cheesy prizes never gets old, even after months of playtime. You'll boot it up with the intent of only playing a round or two, only to find yourself playing it several minutes later with no intent of stopping -- a hallmark of any great mobile game.

4. Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid [App Store link, Apptism web link] (ngmoco/Hand Circus)

The original Rolando debuted at the tail end of 2008, introducing iPhone owners to a new take on the puzzle-platforming genre. Rolando 2 improves upon the first game in every way, adding a smooth 3D graphics engine, more levels of play, and several new gameplay mechanics.

Rolando 2 makes heavy use of the iPhone's hardware features for control input, yet it does so in a way that seems neither gimmicky nor half-baked. The little Rolandos roll and slide in precise response to tilting the iPhone, and all touch screen input is simple and satisfying.

Perhaps moreso than any other game on the platform, Rolando 2 aptly demonstrates the iPhone's unique properties as a gaming platform. There's also a great amount of gameplay variety to be found here, so even after the initial novelty wears off, players will want to see the lengthy quest through to the end.

3. Edge [No App Store link, Apptism web link] (Mobigame)

Edge is one of the best games you can buy for the iPhone...if you can find it. A drawn-out legal battle between Edge developer Mobigame and the supposed trademark owner of the word "edge" ensures that Edge's availability in the App Store -- either under its original name or as the recently retitled "Edgy" -- is sporadic at best, thanks to a seemingly unending cycle of complaint, removal, and reapproval. As of this writing, Edge is not available for purchase in the App Store.

Assuming that you are able to grab a copy while it's available, though, you'll find that Edge is an engaging puzzler requiring fast reflexes. Players guide a multicolored cube through a series of isometric environments, flipping it in one of four directions to progress. Obstacles, traps, and shifting environments fill every level, and the more difficult challenges require the player to delicately balance the cube on its edge in order to progress.

For all its critical acclaim, it's a shame that many iPhone owners are unable to experience Edge for themselves, due to its continuing legal troubles. Here's hoping that a solution arrives soon, so that developer Mobigame can get its due, and so that every App Store user can play one of the best iPhone games of 2009.

2. Eliss [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Steph Thirion)

There's nothing else like Eliss on the iPhone, or on any other platform. In Eliss, players must group together circular planets and drag them to safety in a harsh interstellar environment. Dropping one planet on another results in a single bigger orb, while placing two fingers on a large planet and dragging them apart results in two smaller dwarf planets. It's a very tactile experience -- you'll often find yourself placing multiple fingers from both hands on the screen at once.

Eliss was a very challenging game when it launched in the App Store earlier this year. The difficulty level ramped up very quickly, and it proved to be quite a challenge for new players. Since then, however, developer Steph Thirion has studied player feedback and has bridged the challenge gap by adding new levels that range from easy to moderate difficulty, making the experience much more pleasant and better-paced.

This change -- one that turned a game that was merely good into something truly special -- was made possible thanks to the ease in which App Store developers are able to update their applications after release. By listening to feedback and implementing customer suggestions, iPhone developers are free to polish their applications until they shine.

03_infinity.jpg1. Space Invaders Infinity Gene [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Taito)

Space Invaders Infinity Gene takes the basic gameplay of its 1978 arcade progenitor and evolves it rapidly throughout the course of gameplay. Players start out facing a single wave of invaders marching slowly in predetermined paths. Soon, Infinity Gene transforms into an intense vertically scrolling shooter in which every level adds a new set of challenges.

Infinity Gene's biggest success, however, is its control scheme. While many iPhone shooters released this year suffer from awkward virtual d-pads or imprecise tilt-based controls, Infinity Gene takes a different approach. Your ship autofires. You control it by touching any part of the screen and dragging your finger in the direction you want to go. It's simple. It works.

Infinity Gene is both a fantastic retro revival and a exceptional vertical shooter in its own right. This is high praise on any platform, but to achieve such heights on the iPhone is nothing short of remarkable.

Honorable Mentions: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style), Soosiz (Touch Foo), Tap Tap Revenge 3 (Tapulous), Zen Bound (Secret Exit), and Metal Gear Solid Touch (Konami). 

- Danny Cowan

You said:

Nathan Vella: "Rolando 2, Edge, Eliss & SIIG are not only some of the best iPhone games I played this year, but some of the best games this year overall. The cream of the iPhone crop really proves how awesome the device can be for gaming."

Tom Newman: "I'd personally add Inotia - the only iPhone rpg that feels like it was made just for iPhone (i.e. - the game can be played with one finger instead of the lame virtual joystick). I'd also give a hats off to Orions, a great and addictive card battler with outstanding art direction, and Peggle."

Ron Alpert: "Drop7 - it's got its flaws (the game doesn't sell well at all in screenshots) but this game is so perfectly suited for the device. Perfect for quick plays, bone-simple horrendously addicting. Writing about it makes me want to play it right now!"


Top 5 Game Biz Trends

Every year, new trends arise, and business decisions are made. Some of these decisions set the trends; others reinforce or vainly attempt to catch them. What once seems to be certain becomes deeply difficult to understand -- and new ways of thinking arise.

Looking back, then, at 2009 reveals not just broad trends, but shifting, complicated and evolving situations that can't easily be boiled down.

As we review five of the biggest trends in the market for 2009 -- complicated by the economic cooldown and the explosion of platforms, audiences, and delivery mechanisms -- perhaps we can find patterns that help sort out the randomness of the sprawling world of video games.

5. The Day the Music Died

Music games were the savior of the industry in 2008. Plastic guitars flew off of shelves into the hands of eager gamers -- and unlike many fads in gaming, which come and go cyclically, this one made everybody happy. Who doesn't like to play Rock Band with friends?

Still, sales are down this year. Significantly. Activision says that's not true, or won't be, but it seems hard to believe. The range has expanded beyond Guitar Hero to encompass DJ Hero and Band Hero but sales of the latter have been tepid and DJ Hero just isn't making the right impression, nor is it selling particularly well.

And though The Beatles: Rock Band has done well, how much is it benefiting Viacom when it might not break even? And with ugly stories like the Scratch dust-up (Genius sues Activision), Band Hero shenanigans (No Doubt and Activision sue each other), and the sad and pathetic Kurt Cobain tale (Courtney Love sues Activision) the genre has lost some of its charm.

There may simply already be enough plastic guitars in this world.

4. The Rush of the Engines

This console cycle has been extremely challenging from a technological perspective. Many studios have come to rely on third party engine technology to deliver games to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

The shining star of that space has, of course, been Unreal Engine 3. It is used extremely widely, generally well-regarded, and flexible enough for many implementations. But as technology has matured, other multiplatform engines have arisen. Some are internal (like Square Enix's Crystal Tools, which will make its public debut next week when Final Fantasy XIII ships in Japan.) But many are reaching wider than that.

Terminal Reality (Ghostbusters: The Video Game) has begun licensing its technology, the Infernal Engine to solid results. Vicious Cycle's Vicious Engine was reborn in a PS3/Xbox 360 incarnation this year.

Even Capcom may be getting in on the act, in a shocking turn for Japan, with its powerful MT Framework possibly being used externally. It drove Resident Evil 5, among other titles, so that's hard to argue with. Unity is expanding to service the Xbox 360. Ready At Dawn is moving into the space. And with other players like Emergent, Unity, Crytek, and Trinigy in the space, engine market is exploding.

This is great for developers -- viable choices and competition are great for everyone. And tearing down the technological barriers of development -- even a little -- will only benefit gamers as well, as more ideas can be brought to light faster (and at lower cost.) This is a vital trend, and if the current console cycle is as extended as some think, there is a potential for a real flowering built on the back of these technologies.

3. The Widening Net of Digital Distribution

The same day that EA announced that Playfish acquisition, the company also announced plans to lay off 1500 developers. Within days, Pandemic, fresh from shipping The Saboteur, had been closed, with around 200 losing their jobs at that studio alone. That was no coincidence, says EA SVP and CFO Eric Brown. The market is shifting to direct digital distribution to customers -- and whether it's via Facebook, Steam, or the PlayStation Network (to name just a few possible outlets), it's becoming a focus of all major companies.

But 2009 does feel like the year it really arrived, in a sense. Sure, Steam has been around for several years. But it's become increasingly clear that shrewd marketing and competition from services like Direct2Drive and Impulse, as well as a highly savvy audience, is making digital the delivery mechanism of choice for PC gamers.

Xbox Live Arcade has around for some time, too -- but Shadow Complex broke records this year. It wasn't just for downloads; it was also that intangible relevance that Shadow Complex had to gamers. There was no question that everyone was playing it when it arrived. It simply was the game of the moment.

And, of course, though success has been limited at best, Sony released a direct-digital only device this year -- the PSP Go. Say what you will about the execution, but the system is an important marker: it's the first time a device in the console market has been purely digital, and following on from 2008's echochrome, it also marks the release of digital-only games (such as underground hit Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!) for a device that was intended to rely on proprietary discs upon its release.

Digital took a number of important steps this year. There is still much progress to be made. But in 2009, it shifted to a completely normal means of delivery for all gaming markets, and that makes it a watershed moment for the movement.

2. The Rise of Social Games

At the beginning of the year, many game developers, to speak broadly, were suspicious of Facebook games and running to the iPhone with arms open. Well, we know the difficulties that lie Apple-ward, and we are now duly shocked by the size of the opportunities that have appeared in the social gaming space.

The market grew beyond predictability. Zynga, its leader, is now flush with enough cash from successes like number one and number two games FarmVille and Cafe World to rent a huge "we're hiring!" billboard on the San Francisco Bay Area 101 freeway during a recession. The other major player is Playfish, whose Pet Society and other hits led to a massive acquisition by Electronic Arts. Big numbers: big possibilities.

Just like the iPhone, however, what it takes is talent and execution to break through -- a simple concept done right and tweaked obsessively. And with revenue possibilities that are tremendous, thanks to a huge audience -- over 350 million users on Facebook alone -- it's an alluring place.

Appealing enough to lure big traditional develpoment names like Brian Reynolds -- who went to Zynga not just for the cash, but the opportunity to serve such a huge audience and to rapidly iterate on games. Says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza, "A standard console game developer, if he has a 30-year life cycle, he's going to get out maybe 15 titles, and that's it. You've got 15 shots to make your decisions correct." Facebook offers opportunity for quicker bursts of creativity and instant user feedback.

Of course, we can't ignore that the growing pains have lead to some unseemly situations where monetization is concerned (and let's not even go into the whole cloning issue, or the annoyingness of viral wall post spam.)

These difficulties just help highlight that it's a tough market to get right -- and with the rapid increase in sophistication and resources of the big players, it's getting tougher to break in. Still -- small, dedicated teams with the right ideas can hit the ground running. The rules are still being written. The opportunity is there to make your mark -- and your money.

And with so many developers laid off by EA and the various studios that closed in 2009, you have to just wonder if many will find their way into the world of social gaming. Even doubters may be forced, as demand shrinks for packaged triple-A goods, as the console download services, PC, and iPhone are glutted with choices, to confront the future of a large segment of games and gamers.

04_iphone.jpg1. The Wicked Way of the iPhone

When the App Store launched in the back half of 2008, there was an instant gold rush mentality. Developers scrambled to deliver novel and exciting games and applications to a seductively large and savvy userbase. As the iPhone became the number one mobile phone in the U.S., dollar signs started appearing in more and more peoples' eyes. Lured by success stories like that of Steve Demeter of Trism fame, strong hardware capabilities, ease of development, and a receptive user base, development soared.

In November, Apple announced that the App Store had exceeded 100,000 applications, including over 18,000 games. There's a lot of competition out there -- a lot of noise, too; it's tough to stand out from the crowd. Suddenly a grassroots movement became acquainted with clones, and independent developers -- hoping for a more egalitarian platform -- were forced to learn the value of marketing.

And the phrase "race to the bottom" became an endless refrain at conferences like GDC Austin's iPhone Summit. Some developers, like Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) don't think it's necessary to rush to 99 cents -- something still hotly debated as of this writing. And with Apple adding in-app purchases for free titles, the landscape is even more complicated.

The trend is not that the iPhone is hot. That's last year's trend. The trend is not that the iPhone is a wasteland. That's clearly not true. The handset and its brother, the iPod Touch -- now supported by gamer-targeted marketing -- are still immensely popular, and despite tremendous piracy, there's money to be made from an audience that huge. The truth is that the iPhone is complicated. Creating a game that stands out, and is good enough, and simple enough, and engaging enough, and priced right, and people know about is a nail-bitingly tough thing to hit on.

The trend is: people woke up to both the possibilities and the challenges of the iPhone this year, and it's provoked some of the most interesting, exciting, and disheartening discussions of the year.

- Christian Nutt

You said:

Bob Stevens: "Both the Stone Loops controversy and the ongoing Langdell/Mobigame saga should serve as a cautionary tale to iphone developers: Apple will be more than happy to remove your game if anyone complains about it, regardless of the strength or weakness of their legal argument. It's a bad precedent and could seriously harm iphone gaming in the future if more people choose to exploit Apple's apparent policy."

Kevin Reilly: "Bob, Apple's takedown policy is consistent with the takedown policy of other sites such as Youtube and Facebook. They take down allegedly infringing content in order to preserve their safe harbor from claims of infringement under the DMCA. Whether or not the takedown notice is bogus is not really Apple's problem unless the developer responds that the takedown notice was improper or sent in mistake, which of course may prompt a lawsuit by the company sending the notice in the first place. I don't see Apple changing this policy because there are just too many Apps to police on iTunes."


Top 5 Handheld Games

This was an interesting year for handheld games, maybe even more for hardware than for software. Two new console iterations were released –- the DSi and the PSP Go, from Nintendo and Sony respectively -- and Nintendo announced a third DS model, the larger-screened DSi LL.

On the software end, despite many strong releases it was hardly a banner year. The luster of the new consoles has worn off, and developers are settling into their niches.

It’s at times like these when the more dedicated or core-oriented titles rise to the fore, and by and large, that’s what we celebrate here in our top 5 handheld games (which for our purposes does not include iPhone games, discussed in a separate Top 5).

Here are Brandon's picks for the top five handheld games of the year:

5. Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This? (Acquire/Nippon Ichi, PSP)

Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! is a weird little game. It turns the classic RPG model on its head, and makes you the lord of the underworld. You create a dungeonous path through which heroes will venture, trying to capture your demonic Boss Character and drag him back to the surface.

To stop him, you essentially manage a delicate ecosystem, created through your digging. Lower level monsters spread nutrients through the dungeon, growing larger monsters, who in turn consume the lower level monsters. It’s almost Sim Ant RPG, and the chunky graphics, irreverent humor, and thwarting of would-be heroes is an addictive and maddening construct.

The game, directed by Samurai Western stalwart Haruyuki Ohashi, was available on a download-only basis in North America, making it a good PSP Go candidate if ever there were one. This genre-spinning title makes it on our list for its weird premise, solid execution, and for flying in the face of convention.

4. Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, Nintendo DS)

Henry Hatsworth represents the efforts of an indie sensibility (Kyle Gray of Experimental Gameplay Project fame) in a corporate world (EA Tiburon), and for that alone it should get some applause. The game is decidedly oldschool, and makes clever use of both screens in a frenetic action/puzzle hybrid.

Players control the mustachioed explorer Hatsworth on the top screen, in classic action-platforming fashion, while defeated enemies appear on the bottom screen in the “puzzle world,” threatening to bleed back into the top screen to take revenge. Player switched between the action-platforming world and the puzzle world in a constant tug-of-rope of enemy elimination and stage progression.

The 2D graphics were detailed and sublime (thanks Jay Epperson), the humor was irreverent, and the excellent music by Gene M. Rozenberg and Peter Lehman et al is still available for free download via the Hatsworth site. It was too hard, and nobody really bought it, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best!

3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS/PSP)

Chinatown Wars shows that Western developers can take the handheld market seriously. As the DS and PSP have aged, it feels as though many developers have skewed their efforts to the younger set. Rockstar Leeds has taken it the other way, making a very large, very well put together game for older audiences.

Though sales haven’t matched the blockbuster status of GTA on consoles, the game received near-universal critical acclaim for returning the series to its top-down roots, and bringing a new, core experience to the PSP and DS.

On the PSP, the game is accompanied by a huge score of over 200 songs, including, surprisingly, traditional Chinese music alongside the usual hip-hop fare. The chunky 3D graphics (led by art director Ian Bowden) are appealing and scaled properly for the console, and for the GTA fan, there’s lots to like here. It’s as though Rockstar Leeds took the innovations of the III-and-up GTAs and squeezed them into an oldschool top-down package, bringing together the best of both worlds.

That fans didn’t support the game as much as they might have is distressing, but that does no damage to the quality of the game itself, which is well-deserving of a place on our list.

2. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)

You might not have heard of this one yet, but for my money, it’s the best DS game this year. The game fits into the Might and Magic universe, but really goes off in its own direction. The art style, driven by art director Nathan Vella, is pixel-based and very nice looking, straddling the line between Japanese and European pixel art styles, with elves, demons, and knights aplenty. But the real attraction is the battle system, devised by creative director Kris Piotrowski.

Players move their characters across a map grid ala Puzzle Quest et al, and battles are fought in traditional puzzle-style wells. Friendly units drop on the bottom screen, enemies on the top. You arrange your units into vertical formations for attacks, horizontal for defensive walls. The game gets a bit more complex than that, with larger units requiring more supports, but that’s the base of it – your units must fight through the enemy ranks to get at the opposing player at the other end of the screen.

Clash of Heroes switches it up by taking you through multiple characters, each with different native powers and units, including devastating attacks unique to each, while also giving you game-changing items to collect and the occasional gameplay switch (such as hitting buttons on the opposite screen in certain orders, escort missions, etc). This is Capy Games’ first boxed product, my personal favorite handheld game this year, and number two on our list.

05_devilsurvivor.jpg1. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)

This was only a Shin Megami Tensei game in the U.S., but fans flocked to it nonetheless. The game had an interesting premise – the main downtown areas of Tokyo have been sealed off, and within 7 days, everyone inside the sealed area will die. It’s up to you, and your devil-summoning pals, to survive the incident in this branching-path, non-linear storyline.

Though the art was by Atlus’ second-tier team (with less Kazuma Kaneko and more Suzuhito Yasuda), and the music was lackluster, the tactics-meets-dragonquest battle interface felt fresh (thanks to designer Shinjiro Takada), and the story kept users engaged. Like Persona 4 before it, the game set message boards ablaze with strategies, tactics/story comparisons, and general JRPG love.

Atlus has continued to prove that it’s one of the only companies trying to push the JRPG genre forward, and is doing so much to the delight and expansion of nascent Western audiences. SMT: Devil Survivor was one of the best, most complex, and most interesting core experiences on the DS, and for that it makes our number one.

Honorable mentions:

Scribblenauts (5th Cell, Nintendo DS) – The truest sandbox game on handhelds.

Crimson Gem Saga (IRONNOS Software, PSP) – Very nice high res 2D RPG.

Half-Minute Hero (Marvelous Entertainment, PSP) – Very nice low res 2D RPG.

Peggle Dual Shot (PopCap Games, Nintendo DS) – Horrifyingly addictive game that should not be allowed near anyone. Not on the main list only because it’s largely a port.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (Capcom, PSP) – Millions of Japanese fans can’t be wrong!

Little Big Planet PSP (Media Molecule/SCE Studios Cambridge, PSP) - It’s LBP on the PSP, innit?

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level 5, Nintendo DS) - Puzzles n’ such. Diabolical indeed.

Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Push the buttons, get de riddims.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Good game, but iterative. 

- Brandon Sheffield

You said:

Paul McGee: "Good list, but I must disagree with the Zelda dismissal. Personally, I hated Phantom Hourglass, where it wasn't poorly designed, clunky or insulting simple, it felt like Zelda sleep walking. However, a game I feared to be even worse, Spirit Tracks, is easily the most vibrant, and imaginative incarnation since Wind Waker. The game is a real joy to play."

Russell Carroll: "I was surprised to see Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story not make either the list or the Honorable mentions. It was the 2nd highest rated game (by Metacritic) for the year, and that high review score seems well deserved."

Tom Newman: "Retro Game Challenge is the #1 handheld GOTY imo."


Top 5 Major Industry Events

2009 was another year full of notable events in the games industry, some more unexpected than others. It's the evolving landscape of the games industry that facilitates the most interesting developments -- expanding markets, new ways to deliver games, the rise of social networks, and new packaged good strategies will provide new opportunities for more big events in the years ahead.

But here are five of the most notable events of 2009, chosen because of their potential or immediate impact on the parties involved or on the industry as a whole:

5. Doom and Fallout In The Same House

When Bethesda Softworks parent Zenimax announced in June that it would acquire fiercely independent Doom and Quake creator id Software, pretty much everybody was caught off guard. Even id's resident programming maverick John Carmack couldn't have predicted the acquisition: "I would've been shocked too, if a year ago you said Zenimax would acquire id Software," he told Gamasutra shortly after the deal. "First of all, I would've said, 'Who?'"

But once the initial surprise of the deal wore off, the synergies made sense: Bethesda had recently ramped up full-scale publishing of its own titles, meaning it could save 18-year-old id the trouble of striking publishing deals on a per game basis. With Doom 4 in development, Carmack thinks that Bethesda can "change the world" with the game, if Bethesda's resurrection of Fallout is any indication.

Bethesda is also a well-capitalized company -- a good thing for the security of an independent loner like id Software, which by itself could find itself in serious trouble if one of its high-budget games were to underperform. With Bethesda and Zenimax backing id, we should keep a closer eye on the Doom house, which is already ramping up its growth, at the same time promising it will maintain its creative identity under the umbrella of Zenimax.

4. OnLive, Gaikai Promise To Change Distribution

The announcements of remote server-based game services OnLive and Gaikai brought the buzz-term "Cloud Computing" to the games industry in a major way in 2009. And if the services work as advertised once they launch, they could change the way that we get our video games.

While they differ in important ways, the idea is the same: a game's audio and visual processing is done on a remote server, which then streams that to a user's computer. Control input from the user is sent to those remote servers, which purportedly relay information fast enough to reflect that input in-game in real time on a user's screen.

That kind of technology would mean that a user wouldn't need high-powered local PC hardware that is capable of running high-definition 3D games, because the remote server would be handling all of the processing.

The business model for OnLive, expected to launch yet this winter, will be subscription-based. OnLive already and support from several major game makers including EA, Epic Games, Take-Two, Ubisoft, THQ and others.

Gaikai is a cloud-based service fronted by industry stalwart David Perry. While it also uses remote servers, the business strategy is different -- game publishers would use Gaikai's tech so that users can go directly to a publisher's website, click on a game, and play it within a web browser.

The implications of such services could be huge: publishers could deal more directly with their consumers, used game sales going forward would be non-existent and there would be no more need for expensive PC hardware and game consoles. All you'd theoretically need is a broadband connection and willingness to pay for and receive games in a non-traditional manner.

And while there is definitely skepticism on whether or not such services will work as advertised -- cost and lag are two important issues -- the basics of the services do work. It's just a matter of seeing how they perform under real-world circumstances.

3. Electronic Arts' $300 Million Playfish Buy

Electronic Arts' $300 million acquisition of social network gaming studio Playfish is a deal that marks a major change for one of the industry's publishing giants -- perhaps the biggest change in EA's 27-year history.

The November buy represents megapublisher EA's gradual yet deliberate shift from packaged goods to service-based digital products. Playfish is a key part of that shift, as the London-based studio is responsible for the popular Pet Society and other games that are playable on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. EA is already talking about using Playfish's know-how to bring popular EA franchises over to the social space.

Unfortunately, this shift from a packaged goods focus to online comes at a price. The same day that EA announced the acquisition of Playfish, it also announced it would be cutting 1,500 jobs. These cuts -- about a year after EA announced 1,000 previous layoffs -- included the shutdown of Mercenaries house Pandemic, a studio that EA acquired in fall of 2007.

Just days after the Playfish and layoffs announcement, EA CFO Eric Brown was candid about the publisher's motives behind the moves. "It's no coincidence that we simultaneously announced a cost reduction in connection with the acquisition of PlayFish, because that represents, in our mind, a very important shift to digital direct," he said.

Moving forward, EA will still be a major player in the packaged goods market with games like Mass Effect 2 and Dante's Inferno coming up, but EA hopes to significantly bolster that business with Playfish-related initiatives and other digital-direct opportunities such as downloadable content, digital distribution and subscriptions. And with BioWare's upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic on the way, we'll likely see another important step in EA's efforts in the online arena.

2. Modern Warfare 2 Deploys, Delivers Big Sales

Anybody who keeps tabs on the games industry knew that Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would be a big commercial success once it released on November 10. But the true commercial impact of the game didn't begin to sink in until the sales reports started pouring in.

First there was the report out of the UK that claimed Modern Warfare 2 sold 1.23 million units on day one in the UK alone. Then Activision said that the game raked in $550 million in its first five days worldwide, as Activision CEO Bobby Kotick boasted that the game is "largest entertainment launch in history and a pop culture phenomenon." The game drove Call of Duty franchise sales to over $3 billion, Activision later said.

When November sales numbers from NPD Group came in, we saw the impact the game had on the U.S. market -- between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions Modern Warfare 2, the title sold over 6 million copies in its opening month

By comparison, Infinity Ward's last hit, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released on November 6, 2007, and sold around 2 million units in the U.S. during its opening month. That game has sold over 13 million units to date, a milestone that its proper sequel is on pace to pass, despite a little controversy.

06_natal.jpg

1. The Motion Controller Announcements

We knew about them in advance thanks to the leaks, but when Microsoft's Project Natal for Xbox 360 and Sony's motion controller for PlayStation 3 emerged with concrete details at E3 in June, we got a glimpse of where the console makers want to take gaming.

The controllers are an acknowledgment that improvements to video game hardware need to be more than just a boost in horsepower every five years. It's also an acknowledgment that Nintendo had the right idea with the Wii.

But these new controllers have potential to capture new audiences with an approach different to Nintendo's. Like the Wii, Microsoft's strategy is also aimed squarely at the mass market, but Project Natal will incorporate a 3D camera with a built-in mic in an effort to make gaming more accessible for the average person. With the release of Project Natal, Microsoft hopes to redefine the Xbox 360 experience by offering high-definition controller-less gaming.

Sony's to-be-named motion controller is more akin to the Wii's setup -- it incorporates a wand-like pointer combined with a camera that enables depth-sensing. But Sony isn't positioning the motion controller as a mass market grab, but an alternative means of control that can get more core gamers to accept motion control.

Game publishers are counting on the two control solutions to act as re-energizers for the current console cycle, helping push the Xbox 360 and PS3 beyond the typical five-year console lifecycle. An extended console cycle is a scenario that would have the most immediate, widest-reaching impact on the games industry, and the new motion controllers are poised to be the impetus behind such a scenario.

But the proof will be in the software, and 2010 will paint a clearer picture about whether the new motion controllers are boom or bust.

Other notable industry events of 2009 include:

World of Warcraft's rocky transition between Chinese operators

Musicians object to Band Hero

Disney Buys Marvel, Wideload

Epic Mickey Revealed

Warner buys Midway for $33 million

Square Enix acquires Eidos

Mark Jacobs leaves Mythic

- Kris Graft

You said:

Adam Coate: "Cloud computing is such a joke. My download rate is capped at around 23kbs, and so even though the game may be running at 60fps on their remote server, you better believe that I won't be able to download even 20 frames per second. It'll work great in Japan where everyone has a T1 line, but it won't even work in the US, the world's primary market."

Derek Saclolo: "If the EyeToy wasn't able to revolutionize motion-controlled gaming before the Wii came out, then Natal will have an even tougher chance with their camera-based system. The EyeToy was pretty darn revolutionary back in the PS2/GameCube/XBox era. Even if it wasn't a 3D-cam, it provided controller-free 2D gaming for living-room-worthy family entertainment.

"Why didn't Sony capitalize on this opportunity to appeal to casual gamers? The PS2 was also a DVD player that could easily be part of the living room, which would've been a perfect position for the EyeToy. What happened?"


Top 10 Overlooked Games

This was a tough one. Usually I'd come up with a list like this with a snap of my fingers, but the changing face of journalism, coupled with better PR and more avenues of release meant that most games that deserved recognition got it.

Who would imagine that I’d be living in a world where Demon’s Souls was one of the most talked-about games of the year, at least in games journalism? With sales to boot?

But not everything decent made it through the cracks. Here, we present 10 titles that deserved more recognition than they got (I avoided indies, as choosing just a few to add to a list of 10 would’ve been completely unfair to all the rest).

These include some titles from larger publishers that should’ve known better – and niche publishers that should’ve known better to boot. Special thanks to Chris Remo, Kris Graft, and Leigh Alexander for suggestions:

10. UniWar (Javaground - iPhone)

Javaground’s UniWar is a hex-based strategy game for iPhone that didn’t get nearly enough play. While Hudson was providing inferior ports of Military Madness to XBLA (and a decent port to Android), UniWar took the tried-and-true formula to the next state, with simple tweaks and clever unit pairings.

This was one of my favorite iPhone games of the year – it wasn’t amazing, but it provided a solid tactics experience in a year where that was really difficult to find on a handheld. Unfortunately it didn’t really get picked up by the masses.

9. House of the Dead: Overkill (Headstrong Games/Sega - Wii)

With more swearing than an American porno, HotD: Overkill rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Its over-the-top exploitation film love, married with the classic light gun gameplay was too much for some people. But it was not too much for Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, who loved this game to pieces and put this on our list.

I do welcome the return of the light gun genre, and Headstrong did an excellent job of recognizing what was good about the genre from a gameplay perspective. Shame the “hardcore” Wii userbase doesn’t really seem to dig the old lightgun thing.

8. Raiden Fighters Aces (Seibu Kaihatsu/Gulti/Valcon – Xbox 360)

This was one of my personal surprises of the year. With Raiden, you pretty much figure you know what you’re getting, and to some extent I did. But there was so much more there under the surface. Raiden Fighters Aces got me to fall in love with scores again, through its perfect implementation of arcade fun. Big explosions, chunky pixely graphics, and ridiculously responsive controls, it’s the best I could hope from a shooter, in this day and age, or any previous.

I found myself going back to attempt single credit playthroughs, because the game essentially teaches you itself. Far from the bullet-hell shooters of the current era, RFA winds up being more accessible and more inclusive than even modern indie shooting games. Well worth a spin, especially given the value price in the West.

7. Alive4Ever (Meridian - iPhone)

Chinese developer Meridian hit it out of the park with Alive4Ever, but it was understandably somewhat glossed over. It’s one of many twinstick Smash TV-style shooting games on the iPhone, so is easily dismissed. But the responsive controls, and more importantly the different missions - from rescuing survivors, to defeating enemies in specific ways, to harvesting gold - kept the missions fresh.

The game is plain fun, and when you layer on a level system with various upgradable weapons, accessories, and attributes, you’ve got a game that really caters to the “just one more” voice in all of us.

6. The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match (SNK Playmore – Xbox Live Arcade)

This is another one that I totally understand people skipping over. The fighting genre is niche to begin with, and SNK releases so many KOF variants and ports that nobody but the hardest of the hardcore can keep up. But KOF 98 UM is a rebalanced version of the most popular KOF ever, with new characters to boot.

The game feels more kinetic and more explosive than ever, and the balances really help make the game work much better in versus mode. But in the shadow of the arguably regressive KOF 12, 98 UM really didn’t get the chance to shine. If you like fighting games and have ever wondered what KOF was all about, this is the game to start with. It showcases almost everything that is good about the series.

5. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax/Konami – Wii)

The Silent Hill series has taken some serious knocks, after the third. Most recently development shifted to the West, and for better or for worse, it seems here to stay. Double Helix dropped the ball on Homecoming, and Climax’s Origins didn’t fare much better – but the latter developer got a second chance with Shattered Memories, a reimagining of the original, and it works quite well. Though it doesn’t have the scares of the PSX game, it does have thoughtful puzzling and a very well developed UI.

I’ve argued about this with the developers in person, but the blue iced environments just don’t have the scare factor of the original rust-colored chainlinked worlds of Silent Hill for PlayStation – but the newest entry is the best Silent Hill in years, and it seems most have written off the series entirely at this point.

Shattered Memories is worth a shot for fans of the adventure genre more than the survival horror genre. Fans and critics alike will discount the game based on the downturn in the legacy - but if you can get past the arguable lack of horror, you’ll have a nice game experience on your hands.

4. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Spike/Atlus – PSP)

Here’s a protip if you want to get on the overlooked list – release a good, but very niche handheld game for $40. That will assure almost nobody will play it in spite of its quality, as is the case with Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble, the third in Spike’s awesomely irreverent look at the world of highschool delinquents, released for $10 too much by Atlus in the U.S. (and not at all in Europe, so far).

This third person action game has you starring as an ambitious young gangster (bancho) who lacks street cred. As you progress, you use your eye beams to stare down other gangsters, (unfortunately staring at peoples’ butts and crotches has been severely de-emphasized in this, the third entry in the series. It was rather hilarious.)

Crouch on the ground like a hooligan to regain your power, and engage in smack talking battles to raise in ranks and achieve dominance without fighting (of course, you do wind up fighting an awful lot). The ridiculous humor, fun action, and B-level nature of this game would have you singing this game’s praises to your pals – if only it weren’t priced out of most people’s “sure, I’ll try that” range.

3. Little King’s Story (Cing/Marvelous/XSEED – Wii)

There have been many theories as to why this game didn’t get the popular reception it should have, in spite of overwhelming critical approval. Marvelous blames its own lack of brand appeal. The development lead, producer Yoshiro Kimura worries that the game might appear too kiddy for more sophisticated audiences. But the fact is, this bizarre Pikmin-like game had way more to offer than most people realized.

It came from the mind of the creator of Chulip (Kimura), a game in which you must kiss people of all genders in order to make the world a happier place. In Little King’s Story, you play as an unintentional king who must unite the land, in an increasingly bizarre adventure full of game and culture references, both obvious and obscure, which charmed the pants off of journalists, but they got it for free.

Those who had to pay kept their pants firmly affixed to their belts, and didn’t shell out for the title. Which is a shame, because if any third party Wii game was trying to make something to fit the core audience while pleasing the casual, this was it.

2. The Saboteur (Pandemic/EA – 360/PS3/PC)

It sure feels odd to put an EA game on the overlooked list, but here I go. This is the final release from a whole Pandemic Studios, and in my opinion, their best game. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the studio’s last work, but this one hits the right chords. It’s a GTA-like in which you throw Nazis to their doom (that’s fun), while liberating Paris (well, Paris is awesome), and driving sports cars and running around on rooftops (I’ll admit, I have a mild videogame rooftop fetish).

Like Infamous, Prototype, and Assassin’s Creed before it, The Saboteur features parkour as a main method of getting around (it

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