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Best of Gaming 2009

Contributor:
Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

I thought I would buck the trend and wait for the year to actually finish before putting together my ’09 retrospective.

While I don’t think I would call it a disappointing year for gaming by any stretch, something about 2009 seemed sort of grey. Perhaps it was the end-of-year glut yielding so many quality blockbusters that no clear winner emerged from the pack, and I don’t think the indie scene had any singular torch barer either. Lots of good stuff nonetheless, so lets get into it, yeah?
I first compiled this list for Gamefreaks Magazine (only $4 wherever good rags are sold,) who then assimilated my picks with the other staffers’, disregarded my radical leanings, and came out with their own ‘Best Of’ catalogue for the year. You ought to check that out for yourself, even though mine is far better.

I’ve decided to eschew the goldfish mentality that characterises most of these year-end lists by controversially including titles that were released prior to the last few months. In doing so I’ve had to rely far more heavily on my shambolic memory that is generally advisable, and as such may have picked games that weren’t even released in ’09. If so I shall pretend I did so on purpose, as '09 was the year I experienced them, which is what really counts, right?

So, without further distraction may I introduce, in no particular order, my ten favourite titles of 2009:

 

Plants vs. Zombies (PC & Mac)

I brought up this lovely little curiosity earlier in the year, and I still stand by it as one of the more irresistible time-eaters of the year.

A version of the evergreen Tower Defence blueprint, Plants vs. Zombies sees you defending a victimised homestead from the shambling undead via nature’s weapoized bounty. 

It’s from PopCap, the peddlers that gave us Bejeweled and Peggle, so you know it’s both horribly addictive and wonderfully constructed.

Go check it out here.

 

Red Faction: Guerrilla (Xbox 360)

Though it’s technically part of the middling Red Faction series, Guerrilla really is its own unique snowflake. Shifting to third-person perspective gives the game the scope it needs to promote the series' destructible environments from window dressing to reason d’etat.

Armed with a mighty space-sledgehammer and a walking-into-the-wind revolutionary spirit, Guerrilla’s pat story takes backseat to the game’s demolition physics, which are chaotically thorough, if not perfect.

As a package it’s not going to go down as one of the greats, but in focusing on doing one thing really, really well the game earns a spot in my destructive little heart, and this here list.

 

Flower (PlayStation Network)

The rise of digital distribution for home consoles has opened the door for indie development on platforms that were once solely the domain of huge dev teams. 2008’s Braid remains the best example of successfully exploiting this new wriggle room, but Flower is a close runner-up.

Released on Sony’s PlayStation Network, the game is among the first to be quoted in any discussion of ‘art games’ (including my own) due to its unashamedly surreal premise, contemplative pace, and emphasis on exploration over conflict.

In the year that the PlayStation 3 finally started to show its real promise, a little game about a slumbering flower was amongst its best achievements.

 

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3)

See, I don’t always have to be contentious and obscure. It earned a place on nearly every list of this ilk for good reason; Uncharted 2 was the most polished example of AAA game development on show this year.

Boasting characters more tolerable than the medium usualy deals in, a knack for interactive storytelling is nuanced as it is straightforward, and gameplay that is both smoothly accessible and instantly gratifying. Among Thieves is that anathema that we cynical critics don’t like to acknowledge exists, an exceptional sequel.    

Another much-needed notch in the PS3’s belt, and proof that there’s always room to move within the confines of big game development.

 

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Nintendo Wii)

For someone as wary of the ‘retro’ gaming trend, as exasperated by endless sequels, and irritated by derivative development as I am this seems like a difficult pick to defend.

In fact, I had to go on at length as to why the game works in the face of all its denigrating factors, and that article could have gone on even longer. But no matter how profusely the game’s praises are sung, a few minutes of play convey everything that need be known; this game deals in pure-grade fun.

 Even those most jaded by the Nintendo formula would crack under the unrelenting charm and vivaciousness of the game’s multiplayer glee, I’m quite certain. In a rough year for the Nintendo Wii New Super Mario Bros. came as a much-appreciated anesthetic.

 

Blueberry Garden (PC)

At this point it should be quite clear that I’m using the pretext of a year-in-review to mask an extended bit of told-you-so gloating. But to be fair, I did tell you so.

Any year’s Independent Games Festival Grand Prize winner is pretty much a gimme, but 2009’s was especially lovely. Blueberry Garden’s ethereal atmosphere and listless pace made for one of the more unique experiments of the year.

A superb conflation of concept, art, and design; Blueberry Garden’s confident idiosyncrasy is one of the year’s most delightful achievements.

Check it out here.


Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

I go back and forward on this one. There’s no denying the innovative, creative energy flowing from the game, but equally obvious are its crippling shortcomings – it’s a real coin toss as to whether the baby is worth the bathwater.

For a humble DS game Scribblenauts certainly did more than is usually possible in capturing the culture’s attention, and that’s a feat that deserves recognition in itself. The E3 buzz that the little title drummed up cemented a place in history as the first handheld game to garner ‘Best of Show’ awards.

When it came to the crunch, however, we all sort of realised the game didn’t really have the stomach to back up its promise. The result was a really nifty toy that lost its appeal after all too brief a time. Though perhaps dwindling attention spans are more to blame than the game itself.

For being sufficiently interesting where few dare to even try, the game gets a spot.

   

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS)

This is the reason (read: convenient excuse) I left this list as late as I have. I was still making my way through the elemental dungeons as the decade was disappearing over the horizon. 

I’m glad I did though, because Spirit Tracks sits easily as the year’s best handheld game, and near the top of the best games for the Nintendo DS, period. Taking the fantastic Phantom Hourglass as a baseline and skilfully working out almost every kink, Spirit Tracks is of the most polished entires to the Zelda canon.

The splendid legacy of convention is upheld by the new title, including whimsical dungeons, epic boss battles, and infectious world travelling, while it makes its own obvious and purposeful breaks along the way.     

All Zelda fans should adore it and newcomers will find it welcomingly accessible and compellingly time consumptive.

Honourable Mention: On my initial Gamefreaks list Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars held this position. The late Zelda entry beat it by a hair, but I still recommend that naughty bit of carnage as heartily as possible.

 

Little King’s Story (Nintendo Wii)

Largely unnoticed by the masses, Little King’s Story was one of the year’s quieter triumphs.

Hiding behind a cute facade of cartoonish merriment lays a deceptively deep Real Time Strategy-cum-Kingdom Simulator. Like the weird bastard child of Civilisation, Pikmin, and Harvest Moon, Little King’s Story manages to blend gameplay elements, rather than simply staple them uneasily together, to forge a memorably unique style of its own.

A true ‘all ages’ title, the game has an endearing charm that will easily ensnare the younger sect while its sneakily complex, ever-expanding world will speak directly to the compulsive strategist that lies at the heart of most hardcore gamers.  

 

Modern Warfare 2 (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

I’ll close with another problematic entry. Sales-wise the game was a phenomena, and with equal parts hype and controversy the game made as grand an entrance into the public consciousness as any this year. Still, it’s a military First-Person Shooter, a bloated genre that is usually the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and soul.

To be honest, I’m pretty much done writing about Modern Warfare 2. But it gets its place for compelling me to write as much as I did. What it gets right is technical wizardry. What it gets wrong is at least more interesting than most in the genre will hazard to try.

 

There you have it, friendly geek massive, the games that made me purr or cheer or choke in the year gone by. As I said before, there aren’t a lot of consensus-builders there, but I can certainly live with that. As it is the seasons of list making, and dictated by almost-tradition, I shall return soon with a look forward to the more exciting titles threatening to arrive this year.

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