OK, you jackals, here are the rest of my You-Like-What-You-Like picks for 2010. Feel free to chime in with your personal picks, recommendations, and/or hate mail below. [Missed the first entry? Too lazy today to scroll down a few pages? Click here to view my 10 through six picks.]
One more point I'd like to make before I continue: These games are not necessarily perfect 10's. In fact, every game in my like-what-I-like list is flawed in some significant way. Perfection isn't a part of the like list. The like list is simply about the games that I wound up investing the most time into in 2010.
Anyway, let the grousing begin!
5. Rage of the Gladiator (WiiWare, Ghostfire Games, Wii)
The only thing I love more than Nintendo's Punch-Out!! series is a good Punch-Out!! clone. Which is exactly what Rage of the Gladiator is. Instead of the spunky Little Mac, the game stars an up-and-coming warrior named Prince Gracius. There are some cutscenes that explain exactly who Prince Gracius is and why he is fighting. But I usually can't skip through them fast enough. All I want to do is return to the arena/ring and dole out more ass-beatings.
The game features 10 opponents of various sizes and shapes. Once you've defeated all 10 enemies, Challenge Mode is unlocked in which you re-fight everyone a second time, only this time each opponent has new powers. There is a final (final) boss who you battle only after getting all the way through Challenge Mode. It's a pain in the ass to get to him--or should I say "it"?--but trust me when I tell you that it's worth the effort.
You can customize your attacks thanks to an RPG-like skill tree. But what really sells the game for me is the playful spirit of the whole operation. It's even more playful than Next Level's Punch-Out!! do-over was last year, which is really saying something, since that game was pretty playful. Fighting ogres and ninjas and lions who have dual snakes growing out of their backs is fun, but when those creatures transform into--well, let's just say most of your opponents transform into something else after you've knocked them down twice--is the exact moment when Rage of the Gladiator becomes far more than a Punch-Out!! clone.
4. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Nintendo, Nintendo, Wii)
Wondering why you've never played Super Mario 65? The answer is this: Nintendo normally does not do sequels. And it certainly never does sequels on the same console. Here's an exception. The level-design geniuses at Nintendo had obviously worked up a head of steam after finishing the first Super Mario Galaxy. The result: this masterwork, which somehow, some way turns out to be even better than the perfectly awesome first game. Sure, spotlight hog Yoshi is the big selling point for the sequel--he practically takes up the entire box cover for SMG 2. (He's far bigger than Mario is.) But it's the game's crafted platforming that's the real star of the show here.
"Crafted" is the right word. There isn't one element of this game that feels slapped together and hustled out the door. Every jump, every flip switch, every Goomba, every boss fight feels considered, honed, perfected. But this platforming heaven, thanks to the steep difficulty level, occasionally turns into a hell. I say: stick with it. The sense of satisfaction you feel after completing an especially challenging level will stay with you long after you've powered off the Wii.
3. Kirby's Epic Yarn (Nintendo, HAL Laboratory, Wii)
From crafted, we move to craft-y. My mom was a big sewer when I was a kid. She had tins filled with all sorts of odd buttons. The racket of her sewing machine ruined many episodes of The Brady Bunch for me. Which no doubt explains at least some of the primal appeal that Kirby's Epic Yarn has for me.
The game is constructed entirely of different fabrics, yarn, and thread, as if the whole thing was literally woven together. It's that tactile quality--the want-to-touch-it quality--that really drew me into the game, and helped me conquer the semi-rotten first impression the game made on me. Yes, the game makes a terrible first impression, thanks to all the cutesy bullshit I had to endure at the start.
Yin-Yarn, Fluff, and and Metamato--all characters from the game--are overly sweet. But it's the cloying voice work of the narrator that really made me want to throw up on my shoes. Thankfully, he goes away fairly quickly, and I was able to get down to some old-school, two-dimensional platforming goodness.
It's not nearly as challenging, or as satisfying, as Super Mario Galaxy 2. But Kirby's Epic Yarn turns out to be far more charming and addictive. Like the stop-motion Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that airs each year, Kirby's Epic Yarn has the stuff to become an annual holiday staple. There's just something about the game that will always feel like Christmas to me. And for that, HAL Laboratory and Nintendo, I salute you.
2. Dead Rising 2 (Capcom, Capcom Vancouver/Blue Castle Games, 360, PS3)
The first Dead Rising is one of my personal all-time favorites. Yes, it's a well-established fact that I am a complete sucker for zombies. But in addition to awesome zombies, Dead Rising had a terrific sense of place. The Willamette Mall will forever be as real to me as the Shoppingtown Mall, in Syracuse, New York, is.
If you've scanned ahead, then you know that Red Dead Redemption is not on the list. Sorry, RDR, fans. The reason RDR is not on the list is illustrated perfectly by Dead Rising 2. Red Dead Redemption, which also had a terrific sense of place, was too sprawling, too repetitive, and just plain too boring for me. Dead Rising 2 never felt too big, never overwhelmed me with its scope, and never made me do anything that felt like a waste of my time. Everything I did in Dead Rising 2, whether I was saving survivors or finding a store with a steady supply of chainsaws in stock, always felt purposeful, and essential and dramatic.
One more thing: If you're on the fence about committing to the $59.99 full game, download Case Zero first for $5 and see if its for you. Case Zero is the best damn game demo I've ever played, bar none, and it's a great introduction to the rest of the experience.
1. Limbo (Microsoft, Playdead Studios, 360)
No game has gotten under my skin, and stayed there--not ever--the way that Limbo did this year. From the creepy opening screens--which make you feel like you're about to watch a low budget horror movie--to the minimalist art design, this game is the embodiment of the phrase "and now for something completely different."
What makes Limbo so remarkable is how well it adheres to the show-don't-tell adage. It never beats you over the head with exposition, the way that games like Epic Mickey and Red Dead do. It slowly, and confidently, pulls you deeper into this strange world, never over explaining anything, always trusting you--the gamer--to be smart enough, and curious enough, to figure things out on your own.
Best of all, the game generates a sense wonder like no other game I have ever played. Even now, months after I played it, I constantly think about the things I saw in Limbo, and the experiences I had there. No, I can't explain the ending. No, you will not walk away from Limbo feeling satisfied. It never lets you exhale--that final, cathartic exhale--the way that we expected games to let us exhale. That's what makes it so brilliant, and so special, the way that it slyly flouts convention. It's short--you can get through it in a night or two--but not since Portal has a gotten into my subconscious and dwelled there the way that this game has.
Buy it. Play it. Love it.
Anyway, here's to a terrific 2010--one of the best years I can ever remember for gaming. And here's to an even better 2011. As Vic and I often say to each other, "We live in a golden age." Never was it more true than it was this year.