Posted on Jan 13, 2010 | 1 comment

For all the time I spent working, I still managed to play a lot of games in 2009. I’m late on the decons, but in the meantime I’ve put together a list of (almost) every game I played this year with a couple thoughts on things that stuck out to me about each of them.

Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney – Capcom, Nintendo DS
I was hesitant about the series ditching Phoenix, but in the end, I still got to yell “OBJECTION” at my handheld and that makes everything in the world OK. The updated investigation phase mechanics weren’t all that compelling even though they made good use of the DS. Maybe I was burnt out from the previous three games, but this one couldn’t keep my attention long enough to make it past the third case. Finished: NO

auditorium-6Auditorium – EA, iPhone
I played it first on PC, so buying the iPhone version was a no-brainer for me. It’s a great mobile game. The puzzles lend themselves well to the touchscreen, and levels can played in two or three minutes while waiting for a bus. I found the gameplay to be addicting enough that I finished it before I had the opportunity to play while waiting for a bus, opting to play it over Thanksgiving when I should have been socializing with family. EA offers more levels, but you have to feed the microtransaction monster to get to them. Finished: YES

Batman: Arkham Asylum – Rocksteady, PS3
As most of the mainstream reviews have already noted, this one was a pleasant surprise. It’s one of the best stealth action games out there, even if the AI is fairly predictable. The combat system was intuitive and fun despite being so repetitive. None of the mechanics would have meant  anything if Rocksteady hadn’t done such an amazing job with the game’s presentation. It truly makes the player feel like Batman, and even the collect-a-thon elements (Riddler trophies) were rewarding with Bioshock-esque tape recordings and backstory that went far beyond the genre’s usual offering. It’s a licensed game, but it’s also fun and innovative. What a concept! Finished: YES

Boom Blox Bash PartyEA, Wii
I’m clearly not biased at all when I say that every Wii owner should drop everything and buy this game right now. It’s a great puzzle game, and even now that I’m home without any obligation to play it daily, I occasionally find myself breaking it out to play around in the level editor or see what other users have created online. Finished: YES

Borderlands Gearbox Software, PC
I was never much of a Diablo fan, but I loved the mission system in Borderlands. You can take on multiple missions at once and work on them in whatever order you choose, even stopping mid-mission to complete objectives from other ones. It’s one of the few open-world games that truly feels free. It’s also remarkably huge. I mostly played it alone, but my bad experience with multiplayer (on public servers) seems to have been one of the few bad ones. I’m looking forward to giving it a try with some friends. Still playing it now.  Finished: NO

brutal legendBrutal Legend Double Fine, Xbox 360
I thought this would be one of the year’s best releases, and it let me down. It’s still a great experience. The first third of the game is a blast, filled with excellent writing and creative gameplay with lots of variation. The rest of it, though, falls short of the quality I expected from Tim Schafer and Double Fine. The RTS segments (“stage battles”) are extremely lengthy, and they happen in rapid succession. It also didn’t seem to scale well in terms of difficulty – there was precisely one strategy for beating each of the stage battles, and although I was laughing throughout, it was more fun to watch than to play. The side quests were extremely repetitive as well. I understand it was originally designed as a multiplayer-only game, but the single-player experience is what was talked up during development, and it didn’t deliver. Finished: YES

Burnout ParadiseCriterion/EA, PS3
I’m late to the party on this one. I downloaded the game when it was released over PlayStation Network, and then slowly played through all the events over the course of a few months. At first I didn’t like the series’ change to open-world gameplay, but  now I can’t go back. Even though all of the events took place in the same world, it didn’t feel repetitive. I actually enjoyed learning the map and remembering landmarks to find shortcuts in each race. Speeding through the streets or across a narrow mountain path is exhilarating, but the crashes are absolutely beautiful too. It’s one of the few games I’ve played where failure is equally as rewarding as success – it’s just fun all around. My biggest complaint would have to be the lack of customization on the vehicles – there’s little reason to return to old cars once you unlock new ones, so the garage gets unnecessarily cluttered by the end.  Finished: YES

Chrono Trigger DS SquareEnix, Nintendo DS
I own this game on Super Nintendo and PS1. It’s my favorite game of all time. I picked up the DS version after seeing one of my friends play it (on my recommendation). I couldn’t resist giving it another go and I have no regrets. There aren’t any graphical upgrades, but it’s a very sleek port. The new translation bothered me a bit, and then I was more upset that I’m enough of a nerd to notice the differences. The stylus controls leave a lot to be desired, but they didn’t mess up the standard controls. Can you ask for much more on a game that’s already great? Finished: YES

Command & Conquer Red Alert 3EA, PC
My roommates and I played some skirmishes this summer and it played just like I would expect an RTS to play. The single player campaigns weren’t particularly fun in terms of gameplay – for me, at least, removing the social element of online play kills the genre – but I loved the cutscenes in all their cheesy glory. You can’t go wrong with Tim Curry. It’s a fun game, but every RTS is doomed to being released in the shadow of StarCraft 2. Finished: NO

Critter CrunchCapybara Games, iPhone
If Katamari was crazy for instructing players to roll up the world with a giant snowball, then Critter Crunch deserves equal recognition for featuring a mechanic that equates to eating and vomiting cute little creatures. Feeding little critters to bigger ones is such a simple concept, but the addition of chaining (or “food chaining”) adds a level of strategy just thick enough to make it interesting without overcomplicating the brilliance of its simplicity. The presentation is top-notch, both of the gameplay modes are fun, and there’s enough content to last a good while. Finished: NO

dj-hero2DJ HeroNeversoft/Activision, Xbox 360
At the very least, Neversoft deserves credit for not making this as a complete Guitar Hero clone. The controller is well-made and there isn’t as much carry-over from the guitar as you’d expect. My biggest criticism is the design of the note charts. Whereas Guitar Hero‘s notes are placed on a vertical fret board that moves towards the player, DJ Hero uses a circular turntable. The notes come in from the side and curve down to eventually straighten out. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult to play the game with muscle memory because it means the horizontal positions of the notes are changing as they get closer to the target zone. The game also doesn’t provide enough feedback when the player misses a note – I was often left wondering why my combo broke, and when you don’t know what you did wrong, it’s easy to blame the game and get frustrated. Design issues aside, only a few of the mixes are worth listening to more than once and many of them reuse the same songs. If you can get past that, it’s the most original music game in quite some time and it’s every bit as innovative as the original Guitar Hero. Finished: NO

FarmVilleZynga, Facebook
Check out my decon if you haven’t already. Millions and millions of users can’t be wrong, right? Finished: N/A

flight-control-for-iphone-and-ipod-touchFlight ControlFiremint, iPhone
Another great example of a simple concept made into a fantastic product thanks to high production value. The basic concept is to use your finger to draw paths guiding planes to landing strips without letting them crash into each other. It’s surprisingly difficult, but the player can’t blame the game because it provides such excellent feedback. That makes it challenging and addictive rather than frustrating and passable. Flight Control is the new Snake. Finished: N/A

Flower ThatGameCompany, PS3
I generally aligned with the critics on this one too. It’s the best implementation of motion controls I’ve experienced thus far on any console. When I say “experienced,” I also intend to imply that Flower is more of an “experience” than it is a “game.”  Rather than putting you in the role of a character or the pedals that you ultimately move around, the game puts you in the role of the wind. It’s oddly empowering and creates a sensation of flying unmatched by any other game. I don’t think I can categorize it as “casual” or “hardcore.” That said, it’s not for everyone – there isn’t much in the way of difficulty, and it’s very short-lived. Finished: YES

Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 – Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360
As much as I like Everyday Shooter, I could never get into Geometry Wars. My roommates bought this through my Xbox Live account and it became their nightly addiction for a good while. We have a 60″ DLP 1080p HDTV, a 7.1 surround sound system, and somehow game gets more play time than anything else. I think I enjoy watching people play it more than playing it myself. I’m not particularly bad at it or anything, it’s just that I find playing it to be frustrating in the wrong ways. Losing in the game is an even split between knowing exactly what I did wrong and blaming the game for being cheap with its enemy spawn locations. Finished: N/A

Ghostbusters: The Videogame Terminal Reality, Xbox 360
I found Ghostbusters to be an enjoyable one-time-playthrough sort of game despite its repetitive gameplay mechanics because it does such a good job of making you feel like you’re in one of the movies – sort of like Arkham Asylum. Without the nostalgia, it might have seemed like a rather mediocre Gears of War clone. I got very far in the game but didn’t have the desire to finish after I got distracted by work and other new releases. Terminal Reality shows a lot of promise with this game’s polish and presentation, though – much more than in their previous titles – so I’m actually hoping for a proper sequel. Finished: NO

Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling AdventureEA, Nintendo DS
On paper, Hatsworth shouldn’t work. It asks you to constantly switch screens between a platformer and a puzzle game – neither of which are remarkably innovative or compelling – but somehow, the combination of the two makes it seem like a fresh experience. I had a blast in the game’s first set of levels, but then the difficulty curve went out of control. It was frustrating because it would take 10 or 15 minutes to play through a level and reach a boss, but after running out of lives at the boss, you have to repeat the entire level again. Sometimes that can be a good punishment – take a look at Mega Man for example. But the puzzle aspect of Hatsworth makes it unreasonable because it’s nearly impossible to get the Mega Man focus of precision platforming when your attention is split between two screens. Finished: NO

hook-champ-screenshot-1Hook Champ RocketCat, iPhone
I fell in love with Hook Champ after grabbing it on sale shortly after its launch thanks to a nod from users over at CheapAssGamer. It’s a swinging-adventure game where the goal is to use a grappling hook to swing through underground caves as quickly as possible. The controls are masterfully executed for the touch screen – touching on either side next to the  character makes him move in that direction, and touching on either side above the character makes him fire his hook towards your finger. The developers add a couple twists to the formula like one-time-use rockets that give you an extra boost if you miss a swing and need to try again. There’s a lot of content for the asking price, and everything is extremely polished. It’s everything a good indie game should be. Finished: YES

I Love KatamariNamco, iPhone
The reviews said this was a decent port, but it had a really sluggish framerate on the iPhone 3G that ruined the experience. I have a 3GS, so I thought I’d give it a try because it’s supposed to be a lot faster. It was still  far too slow to be enjoyable after playing through the PS2 and Xbox 360 incarnations of the series once you get past the first level. The tilt controls are a bit awkward as well, making it the only time I’ve found myself cursing while listening to the game’s trademark happy music. Finished: NO

iblastmoki2iBlast Moki Godzilab, iPhone
I picked this up when it was free during the Appvent Calendar promotion, and it ended up being one of the better puzzle games I’ve played for the iPhone. The core mechanic consists of setting time bombs around a level to propel the cute, round little Rolandos Mokis from the start to the goal. The formula gets interesting in each new set of levels where new features are introduced. One world’s levels take place underwater, so bombs also be set to prevent the Mokis from rising to the surface. There isn’t a lot of replay value aside from a basic gold/silver/bronze medal system, but it’s fun while it lasts. Finished: YES

Left 4 Dead 2 Valve, PC
Although it’s not typical for Valve to release a quick sequel, you’d think they do it all the time by looking at Left 4 Dead 2. It’s an improvement over the first game in every way, and there’s more than enough content to warrant the price tag. Scavenge mode has all the fun of the original game’s Versus mode without asking for the huge investment of time to play through a whole campaign. Valve is just one of those companies that doesn’t make bad games even when they set themselves up for high expectations. Finished: N/A

Madden 10EA, Xbox 360
The last Madden game I purchased was Madden 93 for the Sega Genesis. I’ve stuck to the NCAA series since then, but my EA employee discount over the summer tempted me to pick this one up. I ended up playing it a lot more than NCAA 10. It’s extremely polished, the graphics and animations are stunning, and the presentation is unmatched. But that’s why the annual entries of Madden always sell so well, right? Finished: N/A

madworld-20080715114428268_640wMadWorld Platinum Games, Wii
It’s really gory, it’s really stylized, and it’s really repetitive. Most of the time, it fires infinite waves of enemies at  you and lets you kill them with standard attacks or quicktime-event based special attacks. Fun for a few hours, but I lost interest fast. For what it’s worth, it is one of the most graphically impressive games on the Wii. Finished: NO

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames Pandemic/EA , Xbox 360
Mercenaries 2 is one of the few games that delivers on the promise of destructible environments, and it does destruction very well. The first two hours are a blast because the game gives you all the toys at the beginning, but then it gets stuck in the fetch or kill quests that most mission-based games succumb to. Blowing stuff up is so awesome that it makes everything else less interesting in context. Finished: NO

NCAA 10EA, Xbox 360
It’s always fun to create a player and rise to lead my own school’s team to a national championship, but after playing Madden 10 it’s hard to go back. I can understand that the presentation can’t be as sleek when there are hundreds of teams to worry about as opposed to the 32 NFL franchises, but it’s one of the few games where graphics make a huge difference in the gameplay. Madden‘s animation engine is better too – it’s almost as if the NCAA series’ tech is a year behind. Despite my insane levels of school spirit, I see little reason to own both games. Finished: N/A

Need for Speed UndergroundEA, iPhone
When I got my iPhone, I heard that this was the best racing game on the platform. It sports great graphics, fully rendered cutscenes, and intuitive controls. In terms of gameplay, it feels stripped down from what I’ve come to expect out of the Need for Speed name, likely due to the smaller screen. It’s still a competent racer, but it lacks all the adrenaline of its console counterpart – and that’s a huge part of the genre for me. Finished: NO

Noby Noby BoyNamco, PS3
It’s even stranger than Katamari, which I suppose is an achievement. There isn’t really any “game” here, it’s just a playground. I ended up wasting enough time with it to justify the $5 price tag. Finished: N/A

edenwide580gdcPixelJunk EdenQ Games, PS3
I became bored with this game because I didn’t really understand how to play it. One of my roommates fooled around with it, and after hours of watching him play through it I wanted to pick it up and try again. It has a great visual style and the sound design is absolutely fantastic. I don’t like how the game makes you re-play each level multiple times without changing the scenarios – imagine being forced to re-earn each star in Super Mario 64 before getting the next – but it’s a great overall experience that’s worth checking out. Finished: NO

Plants vs. Zombies PopCap Games, PC
My first day at EA, my co-workers told me to go home and buy this game. I obliged, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great spin on the tower defense formula with tons of character. The Zen Garden was an awesome idea that encouraged me to finish the extra challenges after completing the adventure mode. Once I finally finished everything the game had to offer, I cleared my profile and started all over again to see if I could do it faster. I’ll probably do it again when it comes out for iPhone later this month. Finished: YES

Prince of PersiaUbisoft, Xbox 360
I was a fan of the last generation’s Prince of Persia games, but this entry was a massive disappointment. The art style and presentation were great, but taking away the ability to die totally ruins the series’ formula of adventure. There’s never any danger or sense of urgency because you can die as many times as necessary to complete an area. There’s no reward for doing something correctly on the first try. For me, this meant progressing in the game wasn’t rewarding either, which translated to it not being fun. Finished: NO

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in TimeInsomniac, PS3
I’ve been loyal to the Ratchet series since the second game hit the PS2. Tools of Destruction was its enjoyable next-gen debut, and Quest for Booty was a decent downloadable distraction. A Crack in Time is a fairly standard sequel. The best thing it brings to the series is the moon exploration system. I went through the entire game and found every last collectible item because I actually enjoyed doing it – each sidequest is on a different moon, so it always feels fresh. Aside from that, I actually missed not having Clank for the majority of the game. The constant banter between the two protagonists gives the series a lot of character, and this game felt a little empty without it. Finished: YES

Rhythm_Heaven_Moai_Doo-Wop-screenshotRhythm HeavenNintendo, Nintendo DS
Everyone who attended Iwata’s keynote at GDC 2009 received a copy of this game for free. I played it on the trip home and long after. Unlike Rock Band which tests muscle memory, Rhythm Heaven actually challenges players with real rhythm puzzles. The controls are limited to tapping or swiping the stylus across the screen. It’s frustrating at times because it seems like it should be simple, but it’s quite difficult and the game isn’t very kind with its feedback – about as different as you can get from other recent Nintendo games – but it’s designed in a way that makes it hard to “blame the game.” It does allow the player to skip levels and come back later after failing three or four times. The amount of content they packed into the cartridge was a lot more than standard Nintendo fare as well. I still haven’t unlocked a handful of the mini games because I’m trying to get perfect scores on some of the other ones first. Finished: NO

Scramble 2Zynga, iPhone
Scramble is available for just about every social networking platform, and the free iPhone version is everything it should be. Online multiplayer, easy touch screen controls, accelerometer support, and slick Facebook integration make it a no-brainer for the low, low price of free. It might not have the fancy 3D graphics of EA’s Boggle, but the gameplay is identical between the two. Finished: N/A

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark BrotherhoodBioware/Sega, Nintendo DS
At a recruiting event, I joked with a Bioware rep that this could be the worst game they ever made but it would still be the best Sonic game in at least a decade. It’s not terrible, but it’s a letdown for anyone who expected a Paper Mario quality adventure. The plot is weak, the graphics look rushed (it sparingly uses 3D models on a pre-rendered 2D environment, Final Fantasy VII style), and the gameplay is extremely repetitive. The Elite Beat Agents-inspired battle system is decent, but it takes too long to get through each fight. That problem is maximized by the game’s affinity for backtracking. Every part of the game shows promise, but no single piece is polished enough to warrant a recommendation. I invested about 7 hours into it before getting out the old Mario & Luigi game for GBA for a second playthrough instead. Finished: NO

South-Park-Lets-Go-Tower-Defense-Play-ScreenshotSouth Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play!Microsoft, Xbox 360
2009 was the year of the tower defense game. While Plants vs Zombies dominated the PC, South Park dominated Xbox Live. I bought it and played through the entire campaign with my roommates in a single night. Without the multiplayer component, it probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun. It features everything you’d expect from an honest tower defense game – mazing, upgrading, selling, etc. The South Park franchise adds a layer of charm to the formula, but it doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre. It simply does everything well. Finished: YES

‘Splosion ManTwisted Pixel, Xbox 360
Check out my decon for a detailed breakdown of the game. Easily one of my favorite games from 2009. Finished: YES

SudokuEA, iPhone
Sudoku puzzles are a great way to pass the time while waiting for the bus or sitting in an office. EA’s offering can be as simple or fancy as you want it to be. It can fill in all the possible numbers for each square, highlight specific numbers on the board to make it easier to find sequences, or pull in puzzles from the newspaper and solve them instantly. My complaint is that the options to get help – hints or fill ins – are on the main game screen. This means it’s really easy to accidentally hit them from time to time, and there is no “undo” button. I don’t regret picking it up, but it could be better. Finished: N/A

tales_screenTales of Vesperia Namco, Xbox 360
It’s doesn’t say much to call it the definitive JRPG for the Xbox 360, but Vesperia is my personal favorite of the Tales series. The characters are likable, the plot is decent, the graphics are beautiful, and the battle system is fantastic. The main story is also remarkably long with numerous sidequests to spare. I’ve invested about 35 hours into Vesperia, and I still don’t think I’m near the end. I typically can’t sit and play it for long periods of time, but it offers a detailed summary of the plot so far from the pause menu to refresh my memory when I need it. Hopefully I’ll get around to finishing it soon. Finished: NO

The Beatles: Rock Band Harmonix, Xbox 360
It’s an understatement to say that The Beatles: Rock Band is the best version of Rock Band available anywhere. In addition to all the features of Rock Band 2, it offers harmonization support for three vocalists, unique dreamscapes (trippy backgrounds and venues) for most of the 40+ songs, and truly meaningful unlockables. It won’t make anyone like The Beatles’ music, but it’s gaming nirvana for anyone who does. Finished: YES

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special EditionLucasArts, PC
Apart from graphical upgrades and a new hint system, there isn’t anything Monkey Island fans haven’t seen before. I was disappointed that the “HD upgrade” simply replaced art assets. It looks great in screenshots, but the animations are still just as choppy as in the original. This made sense for something like Street Fighter 2‘s HD version, where framecounts matter to players for strategical purposes, but it seemed sloppy in Monkey Island. Still, I can’t complain too much because it gave me an excuse to revisit an excellent game. Finished: YES

uncharted-2-hd-headerUncharted 2: Among ThievesNaughty Dog, PS3
The first Uncharted was a mystery – it was Prince of Persia with gunplay and a decent plot until the last hour or so, when it became Gears of War with zombies and monsters. The sequel outdoes the original in every way. It’s like a Michael Bay movie, except it’s enjoyable. The combat hasn’t changed much, but there’s a bigger emphasis on mixing combat with parkour and acrobatics. Between a lengthy single player campaign and a thriving online multiplayer mode, there isn’t any reason to pass it up if you have a PS3. As a designer, I found myself creating save checkpoints so I could go back and try to figure out how they made certain areas of the levels. For example, one fight takes place in a building that is literally falling over while you’re still inside it. Everything is sliding towards one side of the room, and the outside world is visible through the windows. It turns out they built a physics engine that allows them to do it without any tricks. Hats off, Naughty Dog. Finished: YES

Valkyria ChroniclesSega, PS3
Another game I’m late to the party on, Valkyria Chronicles is an innovative strategy RPG that turned heads last summer. I was addicted to the game for the first seven or eight battles, but when they take over an hour each, it starts to feel more like work than play. It has a great cast of characters, but the developers seem to think the numerous cutscenes are a lot better than they actually are. There are at least six or seven of them between every battle. The difficulty curve is all over the place – each battle is harder than the last, and the game suggests that you re-play older battles to level up. The problem is that replaying the older battles are extremely easy because of the amount of experience you gain for completing them the first time. The battle system doesn’t lend itself well to grinding, and the game wants way too much of it. Finished: NO

That’s it! Keep in mind that these are merely my opinions, and I’m not claiming to be any sort of an expert critic. Looking back is a useful exercise for me to identify trends and mechanics that are working across the entire industry, and hopefully I’ll be able to implement some of them in my own projects.