Many other sites have put up their favorite, "best of", and award lists for 2011. I am no jury of peers, but instead one person, so all I can do is contribute my own take on how the year 2011 went for me in the realm of video games.
What follows are my own special awards according to my own opinion and preferences, but hopefully explained such that people can see where disagreement might have stemmed from. Because I'm sure people will look at my list with alarm and disdain when they see I've excluded particular games for which they have a burning passion, I want to offer up the following list of significant games I did not play--and for that reason alone did not qualify for any of my awards:
Big Games of 2011 I Did Not Play:
Marvel vs Capcom 3
Dragon Age II
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
Batman: Arkham City
Saints Row: The Third
And many more I'm forgetting
So now, my awards. If a game seems interesting, check out the linked game's site or one of the purhcase links for potential trailers. I'll try to provide a link to each developer's site if I have one.
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This is my Game of the Year by a mile. The art work is great, gradually filling in the vibrant colorful world around your character as you walk. The animation is smooth and emotive. The action is tight and responsive, giving you the feeling that every failing is simply because you messed--no task ever feeling forever out of your reach. The story is extremely good--having real depth without becoming so philosophical as to become overwrought. Most significant is how the story is told: As the story progresses in a world being constructed from scratch around you, you learn how the world ended and if it will continue via one of the best narrators in any medium--certainly in any video game--I've ever heard.
The narration is all done in response to your actions and the events on screen. When you start the game and the narrator says, "The Kid woke up", nothing happens until you continue onward. If you start wailing on random items, the narrator will have some clever quip about it--just as he will if you fall off the edge of the world. The game somehow feels organic despite the lack of a world before you build it, helped by a stellar soundtrack which always fits the on-screen action but is still a joy to listen to alone afterward--and has proven enjoyable to people who had no idea they were listening to a soundtrack at all.
The thing that truly makes this game great, though, is that it doesn't fall into the trap that so many otherwise great games (as well as movies and books) do. I can not think of the last time I've played a plot heavy action game or RPG that didn't have at least some parts of the game which were nothing more than a chore. Games these days too often feel as if there are substantial mandatory sections which could be pulled out and through their absence make for a better game. This is not a knock against optional functions or game play segments which a player can simply choose not to play, but rather against the parts which are meant to do nothing more than make the game longer in order to satisfy gamers' irrational and misguided desires for more value through game length even at the expense of quality. Bastion feels like a game that is the very essence of the best ideas the developers could come up with. It feels like every time the developers at Supergiant thought of something that would be neat, but lower quality than what they already had, they simply crossed it out on a whiteboard and decided the game would be better off short but with a consistent level of impeccable quality.
The very highest compliment I can give to Bastion is that it does not waste your time but invites you to play it longer if you so desire--and you probably will.
Other Awards: Best Narrator, Game That Doesn't Waste Your Time, Game That Does Nothing Wrong (And Everything It Attempts Right)
Another game that doesn't waste your time at all, it might actually be a bit generous to call To the Moon a game. Really, it's more an interactive novel, with an intricate and delicately woven story revealing itself as you go through some simple motions. There is no difficulty to speak of. You simply use the right and left mouse buttons to get through the defined story with a few brief puzzles between sub-chapters. At a developer-estimated 4.5 hours (taking me 4 hours 25 minutes) the game is barely greater an undertaking than sitting down to watch a movie--and it is an undertaking you should pursue if you have a Windows PC of any caliber at your disposal (really, anything can play this--it uses pixel graphics of the variety you would see on the old Super Nintendo).
With a story and presentation that is a cross between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Chrono Trigger (my favorite game of all time), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this is an experience that will tug at your heart strings and really should be played through in as few sittings as possible in as short a time as possible. Because the gameplay is not especially active, it's easily a game that can be played in the company of one or two others in order to experience the story together. While the story is significant, the presentation would be incomplete without its soundtrack--very reminiscent of Chrono Trigger's--which is likely my favorite soundtrack of the year from any game or film. The confluence of strings and piano pieces are strong independent of the game and will be certain to be revisited by me for years to come [Side note: I just realized, while working on this post, that I accidentally listened to the game's main track on loop 14 times without getting even remotely tired of it]. Considering the absolutely tiny team which assembled this game--largely controlled by one guy--To the Moon is an artistic achievement it would be a shame to miss out on.
Other Awards: Best Soundtrack, Most Emotive Piano, You Might Not Cry But You'll Think About It, Best Game To Sit And Play In One Sitting With Someone Else Sitting Alongside You
Let me get this out of the way: Portal 2 is a great game. It is one of my favorites of the year and I was not disappointed by it in the least. It is not, though, perfect. It is hilarious and kept me laughing for long stretches. The quality of the script and the tremendous delivery by the voice actors can not be overstated. The portal puzzles were fun. Its art is good looking and cohesive. The story it tells is exactly the story it needed to tell, focusing on giving us information rather than depriving us of it as the first game did. It is its own experience. Sadly, it is marred by being a sequel. So much of the value of the first Portal experience was how quick, short, and compressed it was--with much of the rest coming from the fact that most of us had never played a game with portals before (no, most of us never touched Narbacular Drop).
While Portal 2 added some new mechanics and an incredible script in order to stave off the fact that it wasn't our first portal-imbued game, the area where it fails is game length--perhaps in order to help justify its release as a full title (which was entirely unnecessary in my book, the first Portal was worth $50 even if it only cost $20). The game doesn't ever get boring or tedious, but not long after the game introduces new mechanics and begins using them in earnest the game starts to cross what I'm going to call the "Bastion line" (see above if you don't understand). Portal 1 was on the right side of this and Portal 2 just barely begins to overstay its welcome in terms of the main story. I am not saying people can't want to play more of the game, but the original Portal added extra optional play via challenge puzzles rather than extending the story for a bit too long--an approach I wish the sequel shared.
Finally, the co-op was executed well enough that even though I only played a few levels of it (I'm not much of an online gamer) I can tell it was extremely well crafted and executed. That Valve constructed an entire second campaign containing new characters with an authentic reason to exist deserves kudos, but unfortunately I'm probably forever going to feel as if I missed a significant portion of the Portal story--as will anyone else who can't easily schedule time to play online with a friend.
Other Awards: Sequel That I'd Definitely Recommend The Original Over But Still Loved, Funniest Script and Delivery, Co-Op I'd Actually Like To Play But Probably Won't
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And now, for some lesser awards:
Best Remake That Finally Enabled Me to Play Classics That Hurt My Head Before
Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection
Developer: Team ICO
Platforms: PS3 (Amazon)
I'm glad I finally got the opportunity to play these games. The low framerate of Shadow of the Colossus gave me very real headaches when I tried it on the PS2, but the up-rezzed version brought enough to the game that I could finally play through both it and its predecessor. When played for the first time now, the games don't hold up in competition to new releases, but glow when considering the time of each title's release and the significant artistic decisions made in terms of presentation and game play.
The first game that finally made the 3DS a system for people who want good games that are out rather than good games that will come out at some point, Super Mario 3D Land blends 3D graphics with 2D sidescrolling. It's most reminiscent of the special levels in Super Mario Sunshine which were unencumbered by the FLUDD water squirting device, being the first straight translation of the old 2D Mario platformers into the realm of 3D platforming. As much as it pains me to say it, the 3D display does in fact prove itself useful here--I find myself missing jumps involving depth from time to time with the 3D off and then making them once I've enabled 3D. Most of all, though, this game gives us an experience that is inherently impossible without tactile buttons, and quality ones at that. The iPhone and competing phones will never be capable of a platformer of this quality without dedicated gaming buttons, and this is the reason there will always be dedicated gaming machines around--even if they don't sell in the numbers they used to. One last note: A Mario game on the iPhone would suck. Badly.
This is a game I heard quite a bit about toward the end of the year but somehow missed earlier when it was released. I picked it up and played it in a few sittings and I have to say, I was disappointed. I kept hearing it heralded as a truly great game regardless of platform and I simply can't say I agree. The music is good, but I don't understand all the fuss (perhaps being spoiled by the soundtracks of Bastion and To the Moon doesn't help). The Pixel art, on the other hand, is to be applauded--not because of the static art itself (which is nothing special) but because of the immense quality of the battle animations--the main character's pixelated hair flowing behind her dodging motion was a pleasure every time I saw it. The mechanics of the game were immensely clunky in navigation, nearly screaming for a d-pad or analog stick for control--or even competent touch controls. For some reason touch targets seemed iffy when navigating. While there were few times where this caused misfortune, it was still a frustrating experience. The story, then, was interesting in fun, but blemished by the puzzles--some of which I struggle to even qualify as puzzles. Some of the puzzles were unlocked by tapping mystery tap targets in an area in the proper order--but there seems to be no discernable way to actually know the proper order aside from trial and error.
The one area of the game for which I have no criticism, though, is the battle interface. It is here where the game shines. Along with the aforementioned pixel animation, the developers smartly chose to focus on the one element of games touch-based devices do truly well: timing-based swipes and taps. The battles, especially the boss battles, are small puzzles in and of themselves and feel as if they were made by a separate team. Largely reminiscent of Zelda boss battles (especially the obligatory Ganondorf/Link tennis matches with balls of energy), the battles in this game are fun enough that I wish the game had simply forgone any of the parts that weren't dialog or battles.
All in all, the game is short enough that it's worth an experience. It's good and does some interesting things, but it's not great, and I can't help but feel people have overblown it because they've been so glad to see something that was an accomplishment for an iOS game much in the same way Wii owners overhyped mediocre shooters simply because they were good for a shooter on the Wii.
There really isn't much to say here. As much criticism as I have for gaming on touch screen devices without buttons, there are some things they can do exceptionally well--and Halfbrick Studios (Fruit Ninja, Monster Dash) has proven time and time again that it knows how to capitalize on it with only one slight misstep (Age of Zombies is definitely a game that would be better suited on platforms with real buttons).
Jetpack Joyride takes one small upgrade from their previous hit Monster Dash--The Machine Gun Jetpack--and makes an entire game out of it! The main character of all their games, Barry Steakfries, blasts into a facility and steals the jetpack from scientists and just starts running! The game play is simple: Touch the screen to rise, release the screen to fall. When rising, machine gun bullets spew out of the bottom of the jetpack killing scientists in your wake. As you travel, dodge missiles and electric shock obstacles on your way to the farthest distance you can get. The game is addicting, each round is quick, and the abundance of temporary vehicle upgrades (The "Bad As (sic) Hog" and "Cuddles" the giant metal dragon are just two) make for fun and different runs on every attempt. Finally, the game has a great way of doling out 3 missions for you to accomplish as you go in order to keep you entertained (High Five 10 scientists! Have 3 close calls with missiles!) as well as the now common array of achievements addicted players will feel compelled to earn.
I can not begin to guess how many times this game has staved off my boredom and is an easy recommendation (especially as it's a universal app for the iPad and iPhone--but it once, play it on both!).
Another game from Halfbrick, this movie tie-in added a new dynamic of mission-based game play to a game I already loved. Definitely recommended to anyone who loves the original Fruit Ninja but has played it to death and wants a slight fruit-slicing change of pace.
This game was fun and moody. It's a bit darkly stylized with a sort of Limbo meets Samurai Jack feel to it (if those mean anything at all to you). It's a bit of an odd egg, though, somehow being a Metroidvania style exploratory adventure game starring--rather than a jumping bounty hunger / vampire hunter / other jumpy person--a small (on screen) spaceship that controls a bit like the PS3's PixelJunk Shooter. The tools you earn are fun and quick to learn how to use, enabling you to back track across the entire world to unlock extra items and upgrades you couldn't reach before. The boss battles are fun puzzles to figure out and the mechanics are such that once you've figured out the puzzle of a battle you can probably manage to beat it within your first try or two. It's short, too (some complained it was too short, but I was satisfied). Worth a play if it sounds interesting to you.
This game was the swan song of the best selling video game console of all time, the Nintendo DS. Kirby has become the experimental do-everything mascot with whom Nintendo tests new gameplay and presentation ideas (look up Kirby's Epic Yarn if you want to see another cool experiment). It's fitting that Kirby got to see the DS off as its last major first party release. The first great game to prove what game play experiences Nintendo's then-new DS system could provide was Kirby's Canvas Curse--a game that eschewed Kirby's traditional inhale-the-bad-guys game play for something wholly different involving quick and precise stylus action and was a joy to play in the process. The last great game to show why other platforms--even those with multitouch like the iPhone and Sony's upcoming Vita--can't do all the types of games the DS can.
Kirby's Mass Attack puts you in control of not one, not two, but up to ten simultaneous Kirby's in an individual level. The cuteness of presentation of up to 10 bouncing pink and/or blue Kirbys is as fun as you'd expect. The game does a great job of slowly ramping up so that you can follow what's going on without getting overwhelmed early on, but further in to the game it gets hard. All game play is done by tapping and drawing on the screen with the stylus... sometimes calmly and sometimes downright furiously. After playing the game for just a few levels it becomes evident that this particular game would be wholly unplayable with a finger rather than a stylus for one simple reason: fingers are fat. The ability to easily see all the chaos on screen--and this game does get chaotic--while tapping and drawing away is essential. With the immense difficulty of some later stages of this game anything less than the precision and exactness of control offered by the stylus would make the game nigh impossible. It's a real challenege.
Aside from the main game play "story", Mass Attack offers many unlockable mini-games--some of which could almost be entire downloadable iPhone games in and of themselves. The value is here, and it's quality. The only downside I can say is that the game lost my interest once I progressed far enough because I had other games to play and there was no significant story to keep me tied to the game--but really I enjoyed everything I played of the game and felt I got my money's worth without even completing it.
Most Anticipated Game That I've Only Played Some Of And Am Beginning To Think I Might Get Disappointed By But Hope I'm Wrong
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Developer: Nintendo EAD and Monolith Soft
Platform: Wii (Amazon)
I've been looking forward to this game excitedly since it was announced. There was no other game in 2011 for which I was more excited. This was the first Zelda with an orchestral sound track and the first Zelda truly made for the Wii (Twilight Princess was really a GameCube game ported forward to the Wii). This is the game that was finally going to show people that this entire time you could make a serious game with motion control.
Reviews started coming out... and they were mostly stellar! Some declared this the best Zelda of all time. Some declared it really did finally show what the Wii should have been doing all along. I got more excited. And now I'm playing it.
My thoughts? I'm only about 5 or 6 hours in, but honestly... I'm a little disappointed. The game is gorgeous. It sounds great with the orchestral soundtrack being phenomenal. The story is already much more fleshed out than the beginning of any Zelda game before it. What I'm disappointed in thus far, though, is the controls. I know I have a long way to go, which is why I can still hope I'm wrong and things will turn around, but the controls just aren't clicking with me. While I can appreciate the challenge of making me think in every battle in order to slash in the right direction against enemies, there have been very few enemies I've defeated that I felt was out of any sort of competence. I can understand what I'm supposed to do, but then don't really understand why my motions--which get recognized properly--don't translate into winning. There's a chance I'm doing something wrong and will figure this out, but the small amount of frustration in this area keeps this from being anything more than just another Zelda game to me.
Still, I want to point out that just another Zelda game still equates to better than 95% of games that get made. I was just hoping that this would definitively and quickly become my favorite in the series--and therefore one of my favorite games of all time. Skyward Sword still has a chance, but my prediction is now that it won't quite get there.
There really isn't much to say here. The game is one of the greatest games of all time and I've played it several times. The 3DS version looks as good as you remember the original to look--which is to say it looks much better than the N64 original actually looks. The added 3D support isn't really significant to me, though it works as well as any 3D on the system does (which is to say far better than I'd have originally guessed). It's a classic, but it's also something that didn't hold my interest because I've already played it multiple times.
The same goes for Star Fox 64. I played this game obsessively on the original platform, and then again on the Wii Virtual Console. I really didn't need to buy it again--but it was perhaps my most played game on the N64 and a significant part of my childhood.
Best Game That PS3 Owners No Longer Have An Excuse Not To Play
Mass Effect 2
Platform: PS3 (Amazon)
Ok, this is a cheat. Mass Effect 2 was my favorite game of 2010 (despite a January 26 launch of that year) and is my favorite game of this generation so far by a long shot. The fact that PS3 owners can finally play it is great because, frankly, the Mass Effect trilogy (assuming BioWare doesn't botch the third) is probably the best science fiction trilogy of the decade in any medium. While PS3 owners can't play the first entry in the series without borrowing a gaming PC or Xbox 360, supposedly the PS3 release of Mass Effect 2 contains a short interactive primer comic that walks you through the story of the first game after the game's introduction.
Yup. My first one. Ok, so I played some of the older ones through less legitimate means. This was the first I purchased, though. I had long waited for any Pokémon game to be released that looked like it departed, at least a bit, from the previous games in terms of presentation. I think I waited for the right generation. The story was more fleshed out than previous entries (according to those in the know) and the graphics got a relatively huge upgrade. Other than that, well, it was Pokémon and that's that.
So this is an interesting one. Take episodic games made for cell phones in Japan about a digitally constructed version of a video game character from a series of games that is about that character's influence on saving a multitude of worlds including many stories you already know (from Disney), then combine all the episodes into a cohesive whole and upgrade them in a remake for a dedicated handheld gaming device. What does that give you? It gives you Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. This is really only a game for people who love Kingdom Hearts, as it has nothing to offer for people who don't. If you think the story of the series is annoyingly convoluted, this won't help its case. If, however, you've stuck to the series and played every entry as it's released and then get the "good" ending to this game you'll be caught up on the now finally not-plot-hole-ridden series just in time for the 3DS entry to set you up for Kingdom Hearts 3.
Like I said... it's really only for people who already like Kingdom Hearts. (And for those people it's quite a bit of fun, but probably the second worst in the series in my eyes--just edging out 358/2 Days, which I also enjoyed). Faint praise, I know, but it's praise that the target audience will understand.
This was a game I really wanted to play. I downloaded the demo as soon as it released and played through it right away. I knew instantly I wanted to purchase and play the game but had sworn not to spend any money on games for another month. By the time I could purchase the game (and did) I had gotten caught up in some other media, but I look forward to playing this soon.
It's basically Ikaruga meets 2D action platformers. You hack and slash your way through an action platformer with one quirk: You can change your character's color from blue to red, thereby changing which attacks you're vulnerable to, which platforms you can stand on, and other similar interactivity. Switching back and forth mid-action becomes a puzzle in itself and will ostensibly demand some adept mastery of the mechanic by the end.
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Older Games I played in 2011:
Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360, PC, PS3: Amazon) - I played this game to death. I got all the achievements on the Xbox 360. I didn't enjoy the game play very much but the compelling story and characters kept me coming back, especially to all the expansions and DLC. I still haven't gotten around to the sequel, which everyone else seemed immensely disappointed in, but honestly I think I'll like it because most of the complaints were because of changes made from things I didn't like about the first.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (Nintendo DS: Amazon) - Like the previous two Mario & Luigi games, this is full of humor and fun action-based RPG game play. Quirky and full of personality, the game takes about 20 hours to get through. The way you switched between controlling the Mario brothers and Bowser helped to avoid monotony, but all in all the original Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga on the GBA is the best in the series by a fair bit. Still, if you've played that one (or can't track it down) and want to play another Mario & Luigi game, this is the one to play. Don't bother with Partners in Time.
Epic Mickey (Nintendo Wii: Amazon) - I only sort of played this game this year, as it overlapped with the end of last year. A fun game, well presented, with a good story. All in all it's worth a play if you're at all interested in distant Disney history and a good game despite its being hamstrung by the worst camera in recent gaming memory.
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn (Nintendo DS: Amazon) - Also overlapped with last year, this was a great game to continue on from the previous two entries, though I do wish it had continued their stories more directly rather than a generation later. It was fun, the story was good, and the game play was just as addicting as its predecessors. The puzzles were neat and the djinni were fun to collect. Definitely recommended to anyone who wants an RPG on the DS.
Machinarium (Windows, Mac: Steam) - A fun little puzzle adventure game, it didn't take very long. There were a couple of puzzles that didn't really make any sense (much like many point and click adventure games of old), but the great artwork and personality more than made up for that.
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I'm absolutely certain I'm missing quite a few games I don't remember playing this year--both old and new. I'm setting out to do a better job of recording what media I get through this year!