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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
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As a relative newcomer to this site, I doubt that very many people are particularly interested in my personal favorite games of the year – not so much, perhaps, because nobody knows I exist (though that’s certainly true), but because they might actually HAVE read the out-of-left-field stuff I’ve posted so far, and have determined, understandably, to keep as far away from me and my ramblings as possible. Regardless, for anyone brave or bored enough, here comes the Least-Consequential Top Ten List of 2008.
As you read, keep in mind that this compilation, as you’d expect, reflects only games that I a) was interested in enough to try in the first place, so there will be many well-made games that are not on here simply because they didn’t appeal to me for whatever reason, and b) have played to a significant extent, so titles for systems that I do not own or otherwise do not have access to are not included (basically, you’re looking at PS2, PSP, and 360 stuff here – any titles listed which were released for multiple systems, I’ve marked with the system I played it on).
However, in an effort to make up for the aforementioned limitations, I have included some additional condensed batches o’ stuff – namely a secondary listing of Honorable Mentions, as well as a similar Games I Wish I Could Have Played rundown, to indicate that, if nothing else, I’m not completely ignorant of releases I have yet to actually acquire. Oh, and for the heck of it, a quick batch of disappointments and an overview of what I’m most looking forward to next year (so far).
Anyway, without further ado, in no particular order (except alphabetical), my Top Ten games of the past year –
Arcana Heart (Atlus/Examu, PS2)
Now here’s one that I never thought would see daylight outside of its country of origin in a million years – 2D fighters are rare enough these days, in Japan let alone the West, but toss in an all-girl cast with no brand recognition on top of that? Talk about your long odds – somehow, though, Arcana Heart made it, completely intact, and in my mind is one of the more noteworthy late PS2 releases, and games out this year. While the “loli” window dressing will undoubtedly (and understandably) turn some off before the word “go,” it’s nowhere near as exploitative as, say, the Dead or Alive games – despite the schoolgirl outfits and whatnot, the emphasis is very much on the fight at hand. And there’s a good fight to be had, too – while the cast is rather small, any of them can be outfitted with one of a corresponding number of “Arcana,” which are best-compared to the “Grooves” of Capcom vs. SNK, though they alter not only some of the character’s “passive” behaviors but also her available moveset. This gives you plenty of combinations to play around with, and this coupled with the well-tuned core fighting mechanics (perhaps best described as a slightly toned-down Guilty Gear) gives experienced gamers plenty to play around with, while also allowing newcomers to get their feet wet relatively easily. While it’s almost certainly too much to hope (I’m afraid to ask how many copies of this ended up moving), I can’t help but look longingly to the heavens, wishing for the possibility of the sequel following in its (localized) footsteps.
Braid (Jonathan Blow, 360)
This game, the first title that I finally convinced myself to download from XBLA, has received critical praise (and backlash to said praise) up the wazoo, so there’s really not much reason for me to go on about it in that regard – I will say outright, though, that I list this game here as much for what it “represents” to me as what it actually “is.” No, I’m not talking about the much-debated plot/backstory/ending, but the origins of the game itself – while, like any other game, it was intended above all else to make a profit for the creator, it still feels very much, despite its shortcomings, like a labor of love. An exceedingly simple (and less than lengthy) 2D platforming setup at its core, this still turned out, apparently, to be a multi-year project, thanks to its nifty time-bending puzzles, lovely hand-drawn graphics, and the fact that the whole concept, by and large, was birthed and held together by a single person, with an idea for what he wanted to do and the time (and financial) commitment to make it happen. Perhaps it’s a bit unfair for me to factor this sort of thing into how I rate a game, but in an age where so many titles are processed through so much proverbial (and literal) machinery before being allowed to market (and frequently still end up falling short) I can’t help but root for games like this – especially when its core, basic as it is, works as well as it does.
Culdcept Saga (Namco/Omiya, 360)
In case you’ve never played Culdcept before (the series has been around in Japan for some time, though it didn’t come Westward until the PS2 era), the stock condensed description of it is “a cross between Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering,” and said blurb does cover the bases rather well. It might sound a bit off-putting, but the combination actually works quite nicely, for the most part – you move around a board and take over territory, but instead of building hotels you battle monsters (and mess with things in myriad other ways). There’s some luck involved, as you’d expect, but smart use of your cards will take you a long way regardless of how any given roll of the dice treats you. There’s relatively little to set this entry apart from its most recent predecessor aside from its full 3-D presentation and a bunch of new cards (and online play, though I wonder how many are still taking advantage of it), but considering that the groundwork is so solid there wasn’t much need to reinvent the wheel in this case. Aside from recommending you try this, I note with mixed feelings that the game’s price has dropped rapidly – while I hope this situation encourages more people to take a chance on it now, I can’t help but frown when I think of how many potential players passed the game up when the bottom line (and the chances of another Culdcept to make it here) was being most closely watched.
Mana Khemia (NIS/Gust, PS2)
Having played, and for the most part enjoyed, the Atelier Iris games, thanks in large part to their signature blend of charming sprite graphics and OCD-inducing item creation, I was a bit worried when I caught wind of the new “school-based” direction Gust’s next game was taking. Fortunately, most of those concerns were unnecessary – while having to pass your classes gives the game some structure, you still get plenty of free time to wander around and do what you please, and can move the story forward pretty much at your own pace. Despite the infusion of a bit more 3D window dressing than usual, the colorful atmosphere and addictive, efficient mechanics are still intact – moreover, this entry, with its new “tag-team” structure, has my favorite battle system of any Gust product thus far (though I will complain about it taking too long to finally open up the full set of tactical options). The English voice acting is also, surprisingly, mostly good, though you can switch to Japanese if you’d rather hear stuff you probably can’t understand – all told, I enjoyed this one at least as much as the Ateliers (that is to say, quite a bit, especially considering how many higher-profile RPGs I’ve failed to finish over the years), and sincerely hope that the recently-released sequel scores a trip to our shores.
Mirror’s Edge (EA/DICE, 360)
Well looky here, a title you might have actually heard of! Anyone who’s read me before has likely noted that I have little innate interest in most first-person games – this one, however, with its emphasis on platforming and immersive atmosphere instead of gunplay, goaded me into snagging it, and I’m glad I did. It’s definitely not for everyone – the short story mode means that most of its potential value is found in improving your Time Trial runs, and the arcade-esque high score chasing mindset of “do it again, until it’s perfect” has been all but banished from the gaming populace at large (and even those who just play through the story have some frustrating trial and error to work through). The game’s problems, however, are largely overshadowed by the unique premise, striking presentation, and well-laid groundwork for growth in future installments, not to mention one of the cooler female leads to land a video game appearance in awhile. Since the title was pretty well-marketed and a demo is available, most players have likely already formed an opinion on it, and I certainly won’t fault anyone for not taking to this unusual and imperfect product – that said, as someone who (in all honesty) can’t recall the last time he purchased a game (new or used) with EA’s label on it, I can only hope that it and other publishers continue to take risks like this one. If they can implement new ideas with as much success as here, they’ve got even this jaded fringe gamer’s undivided attention.
Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2)
At a glance, this might seem like a quick cash-in on the success of Persona 3 – the presentational style is much the same, as is the game’s overall structure, a mix between battling critters, creating more powerful allies for yourself, and getting along with the folks you meet. While many of the bare essentials are indeed the same, nearly everything therein has been carefully tweaked and polished – social links are more varied, dungeons are less tedious to get through, and most importantly your entire party can be directly controlled. Most of the cast has their own distinct and intriguing personalities, as well as reasons why they are who they are, which you’ll sometimes get the opportunity to explore – that said, anyone who prefers relatively unbroken action in their RPGs (or games in general) is forewarned that there’s a lot of story to see and text to read, so if this doesn’t sound appealing you’d probably best spend your money elsewhere. For anyone else, however, who doesn’t mind spending some time immersing oneself in a game’s world as well as slaying all that dwells within, forty bucks gets you one of the best ways to do it (and a soundtrack CD, while you’re at it), and is guaranteed to keep you busy for quite some time.
Portal – Still Alive (Valve, 360)
Yeah, I know, I’m majorly late to the party here, but what else is new? In any event, having little interest in Half-Life or Team Fortress, I passed on The Orange Box and this game’s debut, though the buzz I glimpsed about it made me second-guess my decision – however, once Portal was released on its own, including the extra DLC levels, I made sure to atone for any doubts I might have had. In similar fashion to Braid it’s an exceedingly simple setup – it can be summed up as “get from here to there”, only you can, conveniently, create your own doors. The atmosphere, while not entirely unique, is still great at pulling you in (I’m honestly surprised that Aperture Laboratories hasn’t been given a government contract of some sort, and that GLaDOS hasn’t been appointed to a secretary position – at least not yet), and the puzzles are fun both to figure out initially and to speed-run through later on. While I have no immediate plans to further expand my extremely limited collection of first-person games, the few I have, like this one, are sure to keep me satisfied quite capably, en-TIRE-ly-on-THEIR-ooown.
Raiden Fighters Aces (Success/Gulti, 360)
In an age where scrolling shooter fans like myself are frequently forced to grin, bear it, and be grateful that we got anything at all when a sloppy, sub-par port of an arcade favorite shows up on our home consoles (paging Giga Wing Generations), it’s nice to see that at least someone out there still cares enough to put together an outstanding compilation like this. After the disappointment of hearing that the Raiden Fighters collection planned for the original Xbox had been cancelled, seeing it resurface on the 360 (with Raiden Fighters Jet now along for the ride, to boot) was invigorating enough – in the aftermath, having received not only about as good a conversion as can be done on the system, not to mention boatloads of options (for everything from display tweaks to extra modes) via a handful of updates, it’s hard to think of anything that’s been left out. Of course, the games themselves are great, fast-paced fun (if a little bit generic, presentation-wise) on their own, and for people who aren’t regularly involved with the genre it’s probably hard to imagine how happy I am to see them finally come home in such fine form. My only real complaints concern a selection of bugs, which are being (slowly) patched and fixed.
Space Invaders Extreme (Square/Taito, PSP)
Let me get this off my chest right now – despite my ever-evident shooter fandom I’ve simply never been a fan of Space Invaders in general. Yeah, yeah, it helped birth the genre and all that, but honestly, considering all the remakes and rehashes it’s gotten over the years it really hasn’t evolved all that much over its long lifespan, and most of its reappearances have felt as dated as the original…note that I said “most,” as this one certainly doesn’t fit into that category. Retaining several of the gameplay elements introduced in the PS1’s Space Invaders X (one of the few other true “advances” in the formula), and refining them, players are required to strike a balance between speed and precision to best succeed, though you can also just blast away and not worry about the fancy stuff if you prefer. While the basic idea is still not far from the original, nearly everything therein has been modernized, to make the experience flow better than it ever has – the pesky barriers are completely gone, the fire rate has been increased, and there’s a nice variety of enemies to blast, stage paths to take, and scoring tricks to pull. Top it off with a Rez-esque presentation and a twenty-buck price tag and you’ve got the best Invaders ever, and an unlikely favorite of mine for the year.
Yggdra Union (Atlus/Sting, PSP)
Despite a chunk of forgettable output over its lifetime, in recent years Sting, at least in my opinion, has very much begun to come into its own, creating titles that deviate just a bit from the norm yet come together enough to exist as part of a distinctive, intriguing style for the company. While Yggdra was first conceived as a late GBA offering, I’m willing to name the more recent PSP remake as a favorite for this year, not only because I like the game itself, but because I like seeing niche titles of this ilk receiving enough care and attention to warrant enhancements (for both the game itself and its potential audience) of this type. As a strategy title, the game primarily spices things up a bit via a slight “card” element (“cards” are basically turns – i.e. if you want to close a distance during this turn, choose a card with high movement, etc.) and the titular “unions,” which allow units within a certain proximity to battle enemies in succession and wear them down. There are a handful of other departures from convention, some more successful than others, but for the most part I’m glad to see someone willing to drift farther away from Tactics Ogre than usual (seriously, it’s time). On a completely personal note, I’m also a sucker for the art style, though like anything else it’s not to everyone’s tastes – if you’re feeling a little adventurous, however, you might just want to pop this into your PSP and see where it takes you.
Honorable Mentions –
Baroque (Atlus/Sting, PS2)
Of all the niche titles I cover here and elsewhere on this blog, this has to be one of the “niche-iest” of the whole bunch – originally a first-person macabre adventure/RPG title for the Japanese Saturn and PS1, it was shifted to third-person, “remixed” a bit, ported to the PS2 and Wii, and by some incomprehensible twist of fate saw release in the West. Long story short, this is a dungeon crawler and makes no apologies whatsoever for it – as you wander around your vitality slowly drains, you’re almost totally reliant on random enemy drops, and if you die you’ll lose everything (levels, items, progress, the whole shebang) unless you’ve made specific preparations beforehand. Everything, from the unusual and merciless structure to the grim, somewhat dated presentation to the slightly clumsy timing-based combat, takes some time to get used to – if you stick with it, though, you’ll have an addictive challenge to tackle, one unlike just about anything else on the market these days. Kudos to Atlus for anteing up and bringing this wonk-tastic bit of masochism Stateside.
Battle Fantasia (Aksys/Arc, 360)
While fellow fighter Arcana Heart edged this one out for a spot on the top ten list, Fantasia is still quite worthy of genre fans’ time – again, the cast is on the small side (and, unlike in Arcana, can’t be “tweaked” much), but the graphical style is distinct and attractive, the character designs and setting are a nice change of pace, and the fighting system is easy to get the hang of. Most of the much-ballyhooed “RPG elements” are little more than window dressing, but that doesn’t change the fact that the game is, simply put, fun to play – again, though, I doubt that this one sold very well, especially as a full-priced release. Of course, I’m still very glad to see it arrive at our shores – and as much as I love Guilty Gear, it certainly beats yet another “revision” of XX. Here’s hoping for good things in BlazBlue.
Eternal Poison (Atlus/Flight Plan, PS2)
Okay, show of hands – who would have guessed that a game originally titled “Poison Pink” would ever have been picked up for localization? After reading a few tidbits about its Japanese release I certainly wasn’t holding my breath – then, lo and behold, we’re staring at that creepy-looking witch girl on the cover even as we meander aimlessly through Gamestop. That said, despite its unusual aesthetics the game itself doesn’t do anything all that unusual, but rather mixes a whole bunch of conventions from other series into a single proverbial cauldron – for instance, while you’ve got a fairly standard move/attack grid-based setup going, there are a handful of Disgaea-esque combo possibilities as well as a demon-recruiting mechanic out of Shin Megami Tensei (though now you can sacrifice the buggers for items instead of summoning them if you want). The game isn’t worth selling your soul for, but the foundation is solid, the aforementioned presentation is (mostly) nice (and the included artbook and soundtrack for pre-orders don’t hurt either), so even though this one was largely lost amidst the high-profile titles releasing around the same time, I still recommend giving it a try if you’re into the genre.
Patapon (Sony, PSP)
As has been declared by quite a few others before me, this is the sort of title that the PSP needs more of – unique, cohesive, and memorable. While Patapon, when you get right down to it, is a rhythm game (and a relatively simple one at that), the infusion of a side-scrolling strategy setting puts a whole new spin on pressing buttons in time with the beat, and gives you something that you can’t quite get on any other system. The one complaint I have is the amount of grinding for items and equipment required to get past certain parts, but hopefully this will be fixed for the upcoming sequel – if this turns out to be the case (pretty please!), then both I and my little silhouetted cyclopean compadres will be happy as clams – and being joined by a new LocoRoco to keep us company (and switch things up a bit when I need a break) can only sweeten the deal.
Persona 3 FES (Atlus, PS2)
Despite how much I’ve come to love the games, I’m a relatively late-blooming devotee of the “Megaten” RPGs – looking back a few years, I still kick myself every time I remember that ten-dollar copy of Persona 2 that I passed up when the local Wiz store was closing. In any event, by the time Persona 3 came to pass, I had a very hard time resisting my curiosity to find out what all the fuss was about – FES, however, is the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, and set me on a quest to track down all the stuff I’d missed. Everything from Persona 3 is still here, with a few tweaks, as well as a whole new stand-alone section, “The Answer,” that picks up after the end of the original game, all for 30 measly bucks – about the only things it was missing were the artbook and soundtrack, and apparently they’ve even managed to toss those in by now. “Special” releases like this are rare enough on our shores as it is – thankfully one of the few that did make it was for a game that was excellent in the first place.
Stuff I Wish I’d Been Able to Play (Domestic) –
Castlevania – Order of Ecclesia (Konami, DS)
Despite the yearning (not entirely unwarranted, I’d say) of some fans for a return to the “classic” (i.e. pre-Symphony) Castlevania style, I have enjoyed the expansions on the latter for what they are – supposedly this entry is about as close as Konami has come to “bridging the gap” between the two, re-injecting some more straightforward sections and a higher level of challenge into the predominant “Metroid-vania” formula. Oh, and another butt-whooping female lead with a load of attacks and magic to play with never hurts. Whenever I get around to surrendering to the DS, this and its pair of predecessors will definitely be among the first titles I pick up.
Disgaea 3 (NIS, PS3)
Apparently this entry in the series doesn’t change a whole heck of a lot, but considering its pedigree I’m not too surprised – though yeah, I certainly wouldn’t protest a graphical upgrade. In any event, assuming that the trademark quirkiness, depth, and art style are still present, I see no reason not to look forward to the day when I’m once again able to step into the shoes of a maniacal jerk with supernatural abilities (after all, being an average-imbued maniacal jerk the rest of the time has its limits).
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo/Game Arts, Wii)
I suppose that for anyone who doesn’t own a Wii this one would be a pretty obvious candidate for a “want” list, but considering how much fun I had with the previous two Smash games, warts and all, I had to mention it. Of course, the idea of a bunch of Nintendo’s cuddliest mascots beating the stuffing out of each other is genius on its own, and the ability to adjust things to make a match either a pure test of skill, a party-atmosphere exercise in mayhem, or anything in between makes it palatable for most any situation. I do wish they’d make a more concerted effort to ditch the clones on the roster, but I still can’t wait to try this, even if almost everyone else has moved on by then.
Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, PS3)
Of all the titles on this mini-list, this sucker is probably the one that stings the most – not only does it look gorgeous and put a bit of a new twist on the strategy genre, but it’s some of Sega’s best output in…well, quite a while. One of the most inexcusable shames that the world of gaming continues to bear is the fact that the company gets more attention for and sells more copies of continually-misguided Sonic releases than truly noteworthy titles like this one – I guess it’s a more or less inevitable state of affairs, and always has been, but I can still complain about it. And for the moment, unfortunately, that’s about all I can do.
The World Ends With You (Square-Enix, DS)
As my evident fondness for the Shin Megami Tensei series probably indicates, I like RPGs, but rarely love them unless they’re brave enough to offer something a bit different from the norm – this Squaresoft release, which focuses on a bunch of modern-day Japanese fashion victims and employs a real-time battle system which requires you to utilize both DS screens at once, certainly looks to fit that bill. I also dig the art style, sort of a mix of Kingdom Hearts and inner-city graffiti – considering how much flack Square-Enix gets for making things ever-so-much shinier but no more stylish or substantial underneath, I’m glad to see them take a bit of a risk with this title. That said, I haven’t enjoyed every “experiment” of theirs (or anyone’s for that matter), but am still eager to get to this one of these days.
Stuff I Wish I’d Been Able to Play (Import) –
Fate: Unlimited Codes (Capcom/Eighting, PS2)
Though technically this is an import that I have the resources to play (along with Thunder Force VI, Raiden IV, Otomedius and a few others), I just didn’t know enough about it to fork over the dollars for the reserve – of course, by now most buyers’ impressions of the game are quite good (especially considering how poor it looked earlier in development), and my gaming budget for the moment is all but vaporized, so for now all that’s left to do is watch from a distance, and wonder what exactly inspires developers to turn eroge visual novels into (usually) quality fighting games (seriously, I can only imagine the thought process at work here). In any event, hopefully I’ll get around to this one (and maybe a few of those shooters) before too long, though by then they’ll be too old to put on next year’s Top Ten list. Feel free to cue the Homer Simpson “Oh Cruel Fate” clip.
Illvelo (Milestone, Wii)
While best-known (to use the term loosely) in the West for its first product, the vertically-scrolling shooter Chaos Field, developer Milestone, while still quite involved in producing arcade-style shmups, has all but abandoned the “style” of its initital effort in favor of a distinctive (considering that this particular genre almost never uses it) cel-shaded visual presentation, backed up by frantic melee- and bomb-heavy scoring techniques. Its fourth shooter, Illvelo (short for “Illmatic Envelope,” which doesn’t really make much more sense), scored a late-year release on the Japanese Wii, and this time emphasizes effectively using a pair of detachable gunpods to clear enemies out and reveal bonus “mini-stages” – combined with an even goofier then usual sense of humor, I’m hoping that this one eventually finds its way here (though I can already see the dismissive reviews flashing before my eyes).
Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom (Capcom, Wii)
Yeah, you’ve already heard me and quite a few others gripe about the licensing issues that are likely to keep this title away from our shores, but bear with me one more time, if you’d be so kind. Many of us miss the Marvel vs. fighting games and their particularly over-the-top “interpretation” of hand-to-hand (and lasers…lots of lasers) combat to begin with, and this equally unlikely team-up looks to be something of a spiritual successor, with a varied all-star cast (if you know your games and anime, that is), as well as an ever-so-slightly toned down fighting system, to make for a little less chaos and a bit more emphasis on technical skill, which should appeal to some of those who derided Marvel vs. Capcom 2 in particular as “too bonkers.” And seriously, what nerd doesn’t thrill at the chance to run opponents down with Doronjo’s famous bicycle, or get to see Viewtiful Joe back in action? This is the kind of game that the Wii really needs to see more of to be taken more seriously as a “gamer’s machine” – if Capcom can make a localization happen, they’ve already guaranteed a purchase on my part, and have done Nintendo the same favor in the process.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume (Square-Enix/Tri-Ace, DS)
It would appear that the developers are out to semi-change the inner workings of their next Valkyrie Profile game again – this time, not only do you not actually play as a Valkyrie (instead, you’re actually an embittered warrior who’s out to kill them), but you don’t play a pure RPG either, as some strategy elements have been added to the mix. The battles, however, are instantly recognizable, featuring a party of four and the classic “time your button presses to hurt stuff a lot” system, and along the way you still have to choose which of your teammates to sacrifice in the name of the cause (though in a different, and perhaps even more difficult, manner than before). If I had a DS this would be in my “Looking Forward To” list instead of here, since it’s due to arrive localized in March, but them’s the breaks for the moment – unfortunately, Sting’s own DS offering, Knights in the Nightmare, is not so lucky, at least so far, so just substitute that here if the former choice somehow offends your list-compiling sensibilities.
X Edge (Compile Heart/Everyone Else, PS3)
Okay, I freely admit it – this game is here solely because of the sheer volume of pure dorkiness that it manages to cram onto a single Blu-ray. Seriously – not only have properties from the likes of Nippon Ichi and Gust been crossed over (oh, and…um…eh, the Spectral guys, too…you know, those guys), which would have been a pretty epic strategy title by itself, but they somehow also dig up and toss some Darkstalkers characters in there for good measure, and the whole thing is being duct-taped together by the reborn remnants of old-time shooter company Compile. It’s utterly, ludicrously geekish, but sorry, destiny has decreed it – I must play this. The fate of compilations of this nature is mixed, considering that Namco X Capcom was never picked up outside of Japan, yet somehow the more obscure Chaos Wars made the trip – come on, somebody out of all those companies must want to bring this over!
Disappointments and Semi-Disappointments
Heavenly Guardian (UFO/Starfish, PS2)
For a good while, old-time gamers were following news of a long-overdue entry into the Kiki Kaikai (aka Pocky and Rocky) series of games that was slowly trickling out of Japan – after all, we need more than just The Red Star to tide us over in the non-scrolling shooter department. Unfortunately, though, not only did the developer lose the rights to the license, and the US distributor take forever to get the title to market, but the title just plain didn’t live up to its (former) pedigree – even if you don’t mind the unimpressive presentation, while the levels are large they’re not very intense (this translates to lots of eventless wandering), and the scoring system is mostly a simple memorization affair (i.e., which side of the screen does this huge herd enter from?). It’s a cheap pickup, thankfully, but unless you’re desperate for an overhead shooter you should probably still skip it.
Prince of Persia (Ubisoft, 360)
Here’s the one that’s going to attract the flames – bring ‘em on. Let me get out of the way the required admission that the game looks pretty darn awesome – indeed it does. On top of that, the much-maligned “no death” system is just a very forgiving checkpoint system, nothing worth getting too worked up about. Most notably, despite how certain I was that I’d hate the new “rascally” take on the Prince, I ended up enjoying the snarky dialogue between him and Elika, in spite of myself. One you go any deeper than that, though, I start frowning – while I can understand the game’s simplified approach to acrobatic platforming (after all, there’s not much space to just plain walk or run, and requiring ninja reflexes 90 percent of the time would have drawn criticism of its own), it does, regardless, take a good chunk of the excitement and sense of accomplishment out of the feats you’re pulling off (same goes for the dial-a-combat). Furthermore, once you’ve played through the game’s brief story, there’s nothing else for you to do except grind for Achievements or look at a new costume or two, both of which get old quickly - that said, I did feel compelled to play through to the end, but am now left with the proverbial 60-dollar paperweight. I like some of the things Ubisoft has done here, but the next entry will have to be far more fleshed out to convince me to fork out for it at full price.
R-Type Command (Irem, PSP)
A good amount of my criticisms of this one are probably somewhat unfair, but regardless I just couldn’t get myself to warm up to this unique offering. Granted, I’m glad to see the R-Type name still popping up, and as one of the few shooter series with a background story worth mentioning it makes a good candidate to succeed as a strategy game – I can’t help but feel, however, that Irem strayed a bit too far from what made the shooter games as popular as they were. While one could argue that the series was already headed in this direction in R-Type Final, with its huge stable of ships and accessories for them all, somehow, even if the slow pace doesn’t bother you in and of itself, when you’re dealing with not only this but individual pilot assignments, limited ammunition and fuel, destructible Force units, and the need to scrounge for materials to develop new ships, fighting off the Bydo just isn’t as attractive or immersive a proposition as it once was. Such as it is, perhaps I would have been kinder to the title if it hadn’t tacked the R-Type name onto it – then again, considering that the inner workings of the game are serviceable but nothing spectacular, there’s a good chance that I never would have even noticed it if not for the window dressing. It’s not like a seemingly disagreeable strategy setting can’t work, as Super Robot Taisen has been successful for years – but despite how much I want to like this one, I just don’t feel it.
SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (SNK, PS2)
Man, was I excited to hear about this one at the beginning – a sizable hunk of SNK’s arcade library, including some former arcade exclusives, headed for the good old PS2 for a measly twenty dollars. How could one lose? Unfortunately, as is starting to become the norm with SNK’s Western releases (and after a rather good, if brief, stint, too), not nearly enough care was put into the game selection or port quality – nearly the entire roster is already available on other SNK collections, not to mention that most of the games featured are the first (and frequently most dated) in their respective series (no individual character select for you, KoF fans!). Couple this with some lengthy load times and slowdown in some of the fighters, and you wonder if SNK has forgotten just what kind of fanbase it has – this collection might serve as a decent “sampler pack” to someone who’s never played a Neo-Geo game before, but for those of us who know from whence this package has come, we can only hope they get their act together for Volume 2.
Wild Arms XF (XSeed/Media Vision, PSP)
Say whatever you want, but I’ve rather enjoyed what I’ve played so far of the Wild Arms games – as such, when I got wind of the series taking a step into the strategy realm, I was eager to see how it all turned out – at first, things looked good, as the presentation was nice and the characters remained pretty likable, not to mention that the battle basics worked fine, despite the slight annoyance of your constantly-depleting vitality points (which could be restored with items, essentially extending your time limit). The game built around this framework, however, misses its mark – at the beginning of each battle you’re given advice on how exactly to clear the level, which might sound irritating, but you’d better heed it, because if you don’t (and sometimes if you do) you’ll be taken to the cleaners. This all but eliminates any ability to improvise, or even use one’s preferred playing style, and turns the game into an exercise in following instruction, and trial and error. What’s most tragic is that the game has a nice foundation to build on – I hope Media Vision’s not content to leave things as they are, and releases a sequel which gets Wild Arms back on track.
Stuff I’m Most Looking Forward to in ‘09
Ar Tonelico II (NIS/Gust, PS2)
Juvenile innuendo and all, I can’t help but admit that I had a good time playing the first Ar Tonelico, and was elated to hear that the sequel had been picked up for release in the West (NIS, you’re one of the reasons I bother to get up in the morning). The main things I enjoyed about the original were the well-realized setting and the unusual battle system, where you controlled your 3 fighters and 1 spell-caster as two separate entities, and needed to “synchronize” their actions to get the full potential out of both – apparently these elements have not only been reprised, but enhanced for the sequel. I could do without the PG-13 anime naughtiness, but it’s thankfully not as in-your-face as you’d think – if the sequel can, as advertised, get the same things right as the first (plus a few minor adjustments), I’m looking forward to my next sojourn into the world of song magic (and yet more item crafting).
DDP DOJ BLX/Ketsui X/Death Smiles (5PB/Cave, 360)
I’m lumping these three shooters together, since all are being published and developed by the same company, and I’m eager to see all three whenever they get around to releasing them (two-thirds of them have been delayed at least once already). The first, in case you don’t visit this space often (that should cover pretty much all of you) is an expansion of the enemy chaining and “hyper” mode found in the first DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou, the second is a point-blank heavy helicopter shooter, and the third is a multi-directional side-scroller with a dollop of goth-loli on top. All offer truckloads of neon bullets to dodge, as well as the choice to play either just to reach the end or while pulling a bunch of wacky, risky tricks to skyrocket your score – as long as the ports are capable, all three will be headed straight for my J360…whenever they finally get around to being released, that is.
Muramasa – The Demon Blade (XSeed/Vanillaware, Wii)
If I haven’t made it sufficiently obvious during my tenure here, I’m a pretty-much-certifiable Vanillaware fanboy – I consider the fact that Princess Crown was never localized (after gaining “Greatest Huts” reissues on two different systems in Japan, for pity’s sake!) to be one of the greatest travesties in all of gaming, though I am still very much grateful that we somehow managed to steal Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire, and now this one. While none of the previous titles were perfect, certainly, the company’s magnificent art style and unique twists on existing genres more than made up for their faults – if those are any indication, then I have reason to pick this title up even if I haven’t yet acquired a Wii. Believe me – thanks to exclusive releases like this, I’ll be sure to get around to it.
Prinny (NIS, PSP)
Here’s one I definitely didn’t see coming – a 2D platformer on the PSP, starring none other than the exploding penguin minions from the Disgaea strategy games. It’s as weird a concept as you could come up with, but early word out of Japan is pretty positive – the game literally gives you a thousand lives to work with, basically granting you infinite retries, but the sucker is apparently tough enough to warrant it. My one worry is that the game could back you against a wall later on, forcing you to replay the game and sacrifice fewer lives in earlier areas to get through the tougher later ones – hopefully N1 managed to foresee and avoid that problem. Otherwise I, and many other PSP owners I’m sure, can’t wait for this game to hit in February.
Street Fighter IV/King of Fighters XII (Capcom/SNK, 360)
Yeah, I’m cheating by lumping multiple games into one entry again. Anyways, as is the case with most genres, my tastes in the fighting arena tend to lean towards more unusual or obscure offerings as opposed to more “mainstream” series (if any 2-D fighter can truly be called “mainstream” these days), but the long-awaited reappearance of the title that started it all (and milked it for all it was worth), as well as arguably its worthiest competitor, boasting two drastically different visual reinventions, has me eager to try both out. Not to mention, of course, that the almighty Dan Hibiki (perhaps my favorite character in all of video game-dom) is slated to make an appearance in the former – if this tournament is Saikyo-sanctioned, then it’d be inexcusable for me not to at least drop by – too bad KoF’s roster doesn’t look as robust at this point, but maybe SNK will surprise us…
Well, I suppose that’s that – hopefully at least something up there caught your eye for a minute or two. If you have any questions as to why a certain game isn’t anywhere up here, or anything of that nature, feel free to leave them here, and I’ll do my best to straighten things out (you deserve that much after reading all of this). Either way, thanks as always for stopping by, and here’s to a hopefully great 2009 for gamers of all stripes.