The Boing Boing 20, pt. 1: the best console and handheld games of 2009


Assassin's Creed 2, The Beatles: Rock Band, Borderlands, Brutal Legend, Dragon Age: Origins, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Left 4 Dead 2, Modern Warfare 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. There, are we done? For the majority of top 10 of 2009 lists spreading fungally across every site covering games, probably, and they're not at all particularly wrong.

But 2009 was about a lot more than that handful that we knew would top their respective Metacritic charts (and retail sales lists) six to nine months before their release date, and — as I did with last year's Offworld 20 list (with a near-identical intro, I've just re-discovered, woops!) — this list for Boing Boing will instead focus on the games that left their own strong mark on the year, just, sadly, a mark that in most cases went mostly overlooked.

Split into two sections, the first part of the Boing Boing 20 list will focus on console and handheld releases, while next week's will round up the ten best indie and iPhone games, organized alphabetically rather than by any arbitrary ranking, with plenty of room in the comments for your own additions to your top gaming moments of the year.

Without further ado, then, the best collection of pre-adolescent royalty, retro revivalism, at least two kinds of rhythm, stretchers, scribblers, and succulents the year had to offer, and one bona-fide blockbuster that managed to rise above the rest (it's the one not listed above, can you guess before you reach the end?):

Little King's Story [Marvelous, Wii]

Little King's Story was a true left field surprise this year: a game about managing a township unwittingly put under your control, about protecting them and conquering the things they fear, a game about expanding your reign through exploration and field conquests, and a game that managed to do a better job of the mini-micro-management of your troops than even Nintendo's re-released Wii-control Pikmin that must have inspired it.

Its crayon and pastel fantasy surely didn't help curry any favor with the gaming hardcore, which is a shame mostly because it a.) belies the surprisingly challenging and strategic game underneath and 2.) be honest, lends the game an undeniable storybook charm. Truly one of the year's best adventures that too few have played.

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes [Capy, DS]

Coming in as the year's best 11th-hour surprise, Toronto indie Capy's puzzle/strategy/RPG take on the Might & Magic universe was just covered here on Boing Boing, so I'll reiterate that here:

Like Puzzle Quest — Infinite Interactive's similarly dangerously time-devouring puzzler — before it, Clash overlays its fantasy RPG tale with battles that play out via color-matching vertical lines of troops to create, fuse and link attacks launched against your enemies, and doing the same horizontally to put together defensive lines to guard against theirs.

Its ruleset is so intricately devised and delicately balanced that it'd take an article in itself to explain them fully, but for all its richness and complexity, it's a system that takes only minutes of practice to mentally snap together, and all your remaining hours of the day to happily master. If you have any proclivity toward brainy puzzling, do not hesitate to pick this up: it's got all the trappings of being one of the handheld's underdog classics.

Noby Noby Boy [Namco, PS3]

Those that said that Noby Noby Boy — the Katamari Damacy follow-up from creator Keita Takahashi — had no point themselves missed the point. While it's true that the design of each individual play session is as lackadaisical and boundless as the BOY himself, its overarching goal is an achievement in itself as gaming's most massive massively-multiplayer undertaking.

Underneath the surface is a story of, ideally, countless BOYs (as of this writing we're just ten players shy of 100,000) all vying to impress the universe's only GIRL by doing the only thing they were put on Earth to do: swallow and stretch their coiled bodies as far as they can. By converting those impressive and hard-earned meters into the love that propels her own body further into the solar system, in real-time, she unlocks the planets she reaches for all the players in the world.

So, yes, there is a goal, and there is an end-game, which we'll only see if and when our PlayStation 3s (or, very soon, iPhones) are still functioning in the time it takes to push her the remaining ponderous distance from Jupiter to Pluto.

Is it a willfully and near-recklessly devised design, particularly for thrusting hugely delayed gratification on a generation of players accustomed to instant/constant feedback and reward? Absolutely, and that's exactly what makes it one of the year's best.

Plants Vs. Zombies [PopCap, PC/Mac]

It would be easy, and cynical — and more importantly, wrong — to assume that casual powerhouse PopCap simply rode the crest of tower-defense and zombie-lust that defined much of gaming in 2009. Instead, it appears to have brilliantly anticipated it, having started and been in production nearly two years ahead, and could be instead seen as instrumental in propelling both memes into wider consciousness.

Going viral by nature of its basic premise alone, and then again by Laura Shigihara's perfectly ludicrous music video, it would have been disastrous if the resulting game couldn't fulfill expectations. Thankfully, it did, giving the tower defense genre a much-needed shot in the arm of accessibility without uprooting the core entirely, and the imminent move to iPhone — letting us finally take the game away from our desktops — is still one of our most anticipated.

Retro Game Challenge [Namco, DS]

Publisher XSEED had an unenviable task on their hands in bringing Retro Game Challenge to the West: taking a game that's inextricably derived from Japan's best games-related TV show that the rest of the world has never seen (Game Center CX), and is soaked through with references to Famicom nostalgia rather than the U.S.'s own NES nostalgia, and somehow making it relevant to us.

So we'll forgive them in going a half-step too far in shoe-horning in the 80s of Max Headroom and Valley Girl, and for working in 90s era U.S. game magazine references that flew over the heads of all but about ten people outside journalist-circles, because in the end none of that really mattered.

Well, the nostalgia does, because that's precisely what Retro Game Challenge is a game about: that once-every-three-months-a-new-game past of our collective youth, that afterschool poring over cheat codes past, a time when developers were inventing genres as often as games themselves.

Challenge is at heart a collection of remade early-days NES classics that never were, and your task (as goes the title) is to work your way through a series of prescribed challenges in each, whether it be finding hidden warps or defeating RPG bosses, and it manages to perfectly evoke that nostalgia that we thought only emulators could manage to do these days.

The sad news is that even as one of the year's most original and rewarding games — a game that overtly celebrated the games culture that made up its target audience — sales don't seem to have been up to snuff for the publisher to consider Westernizing the Japanese sequel, leaving a whole other legacy of first-gen Game Boy and 16-bit era "classics" behind.

Rhythm Heaven [Nintendo, DS]

Rhythm Heaven probably won't be showing up on near as many 2009 lists as it should, not because it's not brilliant — it is — but because it took so long for Nintendo to finally bring it to the West that it feels like ancient history (in digital years, obviously) to its core supporters who had imported and impotently raved about it long before.

Heaven's the truest example of a music game that's purely about rhythm, and not just about Simon Says-ing patterns or following bars down your screen to the tune of your dad's favorite classic rock. It's about rhythm as an unbroken line, or (at its best) an unbroken agreement between performers, about teaching and keeping steady tempo.

It's also one of the year's funniest, and desperately deserves some December love, if nothing else than to prove to Nintendo that a game this non-traditional can still find a wide, appreciative audience.

Rock Band: Unplugged [Harmonix/Backbone, PSP]

Though clearly overshadowed by its big console brothers and their new friends The Beatles, Unplugged — and to a slightly lesser degree the DS version of Lego Rock Band — were semi-shoutouts to the fans that made developer Harmonix the stadium-supergroup headliners they are today.

Take away its hard rock 'performance' and replace it with looping techno rave-up ambiance and you're right back where the developer began: flipping back and forth through lanes of sound, trying to keep each alive in sequence to make the parts a whole song, just as they pioneered in their PS2 originals Frequency and Amplitude.

You didn't need to know this, and you don't need to care, for Unplugged to work its magic: you just need the willingness to escape into music without the fake plastic mediator in between.

Recent news that Harmonix would no longer be converting its massive library of original recordings for Unplugged DLC stung fractionally harder than the bait and switch of offering only a five-song Lite version as the PSPGo's pack-in, with still no full download available on the PlayStation Network (which has to be down to digital publishing rights for particular bands and not willful neglect, right?), but for those still clinging to Sony's UMD-laden past, this is one of the UMDs most worth clinging to.

Scribblenauts [5TH Cell, DS]

Alongside Plants Vs. Zombies, Scribblenauts was the game that carried itself best throughout the year on a tidal wave of viral acclaim solely for its premise alone. But what a premise that was: it promised to let players conjure essentially any object imaginable — krakens, keyboard cats, Gods, time-traveling robot-zombie-smashing T-rexes — to solve puzzles via the furthest-most outer-reaches of our imaginations.

Did it work? Errr… yeah, I mean, mostly: developer 5TH Cell will be (and overtly has been) the first to acknowledge that its very touchy touch-based controls could have used some refinement. But even more surprising (for me, anyway), was in just how limited my own imagination was when it came time to put it to the test.

Need to rescue a cat off a roof, or wave away an angry bee? Much to my disappointment, I found I was just as apt to use, you know, a ladder and a bit of bug repellent, rather than any flights of fantastical fancy.

But its essential magic — even if that 'magic' was simply the fortitude to sprite-sketch their way through untold reams of dictionary entries — remained untouched, and it's still a thrill to try and stump the system and learn that they've got you covered.

Shadow Complex [Chair, Xbox 360]

Shadow Complex was the best retro revival this year that had no predecessor of its own. For once, it wasn't lazy to give the game the comparative nod back to Super Metroid: it was unabashedly right there in front of you, in its color coded barriers, in lead character Jason Flemming's tight crawls through narrow passages (here just crouched, rather than rolled into a morph ball), straight down to a 'Justin Bailey' referencing achievement.

And yet even the ones most prone to cry foul — to call the game out for taking some of Japan's best classic design and running it through a Western mill until its plot and characters were offenders of the worst nameless, faceless, bottom-shelf would-be Tom Clancy degree — had to admit: fair enough to that, but the game turned out completely wicked.

Harnessing the full power of Epic's Unreal Engine 3 for charmingly/ironically yester-year ends, this was exactly where we thought our 16-bit games were headed at the time: recycled but beloved design with drastically improved fidelity. We were wrong then, of course, but Shadow Complex proved maybe we shouldn't have been.

Uncharted 2 [Naughty Dog, PS3]

My pithy one-liner to encapsulate Naughty Dog's blockbuster adventure? It's the finest rollercoaster of the year that makes you climb off the train and rebuild the engine at the bottom of every hill.

Uncharted 2 easily managed to outshine the rest of the year's big-budget bids and managed to make a true believer even out of me, even if what it did best — giving you some of the most hyper-vivid, lush and gargantuan ancient ruins and relics any developer has offered to let you explore — was punctuated by over-technical firefights with your constant trigger-happy pursuers.

That's not to say the shootouts didn't work well on their own — they are, probably, some of gaming's most realistically modeled, with every unwilling and amateur participant pressed firm against or dancing between cover and skittishly hazarding the occasional shot — but the frequent breaks to dispatch another round of guards felt at times at odds against the relentlessly cinematic flow of the exploration.

In the end, you pressed through, though — you had to — guided by the promise of an even greater cliff-hanging thrill than the one you just narrowly scraped through, and the game never left that promise unfulfilled. Just next time, please, Naughty Dog: less of the shoot-shoot-bang-bang and more of the clamber-climb-marvel-amaze.