Best of 2006 #1: Zelda: Twilight Princess

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

There was some question over whether or not this would even make the list this year, but once I got it the result was never going to be in doubt. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: there’s nothing like a new Zelda.

Admittedly Twilight Princess doesn’t really do anything new to those who’ve played one of the three previous 3D Zeldas, but why mess with a winning formula? It’s ultimately the same classic game with nicer graphics (considering the hardware, at least), a good story, and a nice long quest to work through. If they can deliver a new Zelda every few years with only those tweaks, I’ll be very happy.

But what this game did for me more than anything is that it validated the Wii controller as being usable for more than minigames. This couldn’t be further away from a minigame and yet I find it hard to imagine playing the GameCube version of this game. Some things, I thought, don’t work as well as others (the fishing, for example), while some such as drawing a sword and aiming work seamlessly and intuitively, which is what Nintendo seem to be aiming for with the Wii as a whole.

So, out of the many games to come out in 2006, Zelda gets the nod from me. When the only area that I can really think of any room for improvement is in the graphics, it’s clear that they’ve made something great.

Happy new year, everyone!

Best of 2006 #2: Okami


I suppose that epic adventures featuring wolves with annoying cohorts must be du jour this year. Expect a flood of them in 2007, presumably with cover and blind fire mechanics.

Despite underwhelming sales (I blame the other wolf game) and the culling of the development team, Okami deserves all of the credit it gets. Zelda’s is a formula that remains infrequently copied and more infrequently equalled, but on their first attempt Clover made a game that could easily stand alongside any of Link’s adventures. Not only did it have an extremely lengthy quest to complete, but also took the audacious decision to almost completely break from the ostensible storyline barely 15 hours in. Zelda comparisons may be obvious, but when this is such a good imitation – with, it must be said, some wonderful flourishes of its own – they’re hard to resist.

And those graphics! I can’t extol the game without mentioning those. While Gears of War was comfortably the most technically impressive-looking game of 2006, Okami is almost certainly the best from an artistic perspective. The whole game looks like an animated watercolour painting, even down to the texture of heavy paper that lies underneath everything at all times. It’s stunning, and I just wish I could have seen it in 720p.

For those of you in the UK without the means to play the import, show Capcom the error of its ways by marking 9th February 2007 on your calendar. It demands to be played.

Best of 2006 #3: Gears of War

Gears of War

Of all the games on here, this is the one that, almost above all, had to be good. Despite positive previews it was really an unknown quantity until launch, and without Halo 3 until next year it was the 360’s big gun for its first Christmas with direct competition. And while it wasn’t perfect, Epic did a fabulous job and laid the foundation for Microsoft’s latest big franchise.

Just to get it out of the way, Gears looks amazing. It’s certainly the technically most impressive console game I’ve ever seen, and until Crysis it’s debateable that even the PC has anything to match it. Look at the caverns in Act 3, and I defy you to tell me that it doesn’t look stunning.

While the campaign isn’t the longest in the world, while it doesn’t act on the potential of its story, and while the macho stereotypes are tired (though slightly tongue-in-cheek, which helps), what it does have is a refreshing take on the usual run and gun shooters and some of the most visceral and satisfying combat in any game, that is even better when played online with a friend. The chainsaw bayonet is an obvious and ludicrous example, but it works in this context where even the destroyed opulence around you is larger than life.

I doubt that Gears will have the legs that the Halo games have had, but nonetheless this is a lesson in how to do a next generation game. After this and Rainbow Six Vegas, expect every shooter in the next three years to have some kind of cover mechanic. If you didn’t like it in this game, you’re screwed.

PSP PS1 Emulation

Now isn’t this a sweet sight?

Final Fantasy VII on PSP

The current official version of the PS1 emulator on the PSP is quite limited – it only plays the handful of games available from the PS3 store, it requires a PS3, and it requires you to buy games that you already own at $6 a time – but, wouldn’t you know it, the hackers are well ahead of the curve and the emulator has been hacked to play games that you rip yourself.

If you need a reason to use the PSP, are there any better ones than Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, Symphony of the Night, etc? With any luck you’ll still be on 1.5, 2.71 SE, or another firmware that supports running homebrew, in which case I suggest you obtain 3.02 OE-B and whack it on there poste haste.

Best of 2006 #4: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

I love my immersive, coherent worlds, me. Make a good one of those and you’re halfway onto my top ten of the year list. One of the best ones won last year, in fact. This is also one of the best.

The scale of Oblivion is the amazing thing. As I type this I’m playing Final Fantasy V Advance, originally released in 1992, and it strikes me that what was a large game then can now be done in full 3D, fully voiced with proper actors, and just looking absolutely phenomenal. It had technical issues that were maybe symptomatic of overreaching on current hardware – or possibly unfamiliarity with it – but the magnitude of Bethesda’s vision was just phenomenal.

But give an ambitious and talented team the time and budget (and possibly the Lord of the Rings licence), and this shows what you can get. The moment when you first walk out of the sewers and up the hill – possibly getting held up or attacked by an ogre on the way – to look back at the city you’ve just come from is burnt indelibly into the memories of everyone who saw it, whatever they thought of the game.

Memorable towns and innumerable settlements and landmarks that can be endlessly explored make a great game, marred only by some technical quibbles. It’s unmissable.

Best of 2006 #5: Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

In case I haven’t made this clear, I hated Snake Eater. But what a difference a little camera control can make.

After Sons of Liberty the MGS series lost a lot of goodwill, and so tried something new with MGS3. Now you play only as Snake (not Solid), and you’re not in the near future of infinite battery lives and soliton radar, but in a Soviet jungle at the height of the Cold War. You’re really on your own, with even the need to sustain yourself completely in your hands. It was just too bad that a bit too much digging in menus and a truly terrible camera let it down.

Luckily someone at Konami had played Splinter Cell. That second stick was put to good use and let you move the camera in full 3D (in a 3D game? Whatever next!?), and in doing so completely transformed it. What was game-ruining flaw suddenly become totally transparent to use and allowed the parts that the game does so well to shine through.

What it does well, it does very well. A slick and exciting stealth adventure with a wry sense of humour carries a superb story – all told through cinematics that can stand up with the best blockbusters – right through to an epic and emotional ending (around twenty minutes long) that gives the perfect finale to what had been a top class game. Bring on MGS4.