In an industry built on sequels that play it safe it’s unusual to see a high profile game that is not only a sequel (sort of), but also an original idea of the type that hasn’t been attempted before. It takes one of the seamless worlds which are all the rage at the moment but sets it in a strange and isolated land, all based around the unique idea of taking the enemies, puzzles, and levels and making them one.
The colossi are the biggest (no pun intended) achievement that push the PS2 to its absolute limits, and beyond at certain points as any framerate whore will tell you. Despite technical problems they look stunning, often not actually bothered by your prescence until you start trying to murder them on your selfish quest to bring back your lost love. It really is hard to classify whether they’re simply enemies, puzzles, or whole levels – you have to kill them while they usually try to do the same to you, they’re you’re only real measure of how far through the game you are, and actually getting on top of them and doing the dirty work is rarely straightforward, requiring a cunning mind and a fair amount of platforming acumen.
Not only is Colossus a beautiful game graphically, it’s also absolutely enthralling, with the solitary atmosphere, soundtrack that ranges from haunting to rousing, and the process of figuring out how to bring down each monster combining to create something really great. It’s not very long, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
I own the Japanese version of Lumines (pictured) which came out in 2004, but since it came out everywhere else and I bought it in 2005 it gets in, and deservedly so. It’s one of the few challengers to the Tetris throne that even comes close, and it’s still the best game on the PSP by some way.
Lumines is essentially your common or garden falling block puzzle in which coloured blocks fall from the top of the screen, and by matching up four or more of a single colour they’ll be removed by a bar that sweeps horizontally across the screen at varying speeds. It’s as simple as all the best puzzle games and is maddeningly addictive (even when matching your high score can take a couple of hours of solid play), which is really all you need to make a good puzzle game for a handheld.
That’s not all you get, though. Like Mizuguchi’s last game, Rez, music plays a central role in the game, and every few levels you’ll come to a new “skin”, changing the backgrounds, block colours, speeds, and the music. It’s the same sort of music that you’ve seen in Rez (good thing) and makes headphones a necessity to fully enjoy the hypnotic beauty of the game. Even if saying that that this is the best game on the PSP isn’t really high praise at the moment, saying that this is one of my favourite puzzle games ever made certainly should be.
Metal Gear Solid may have popularised the stealth action genre but I’ve always thought that the Splinter Cell series did it better, with all the post-modernism thrown out and a fully 3D camera, which I find essential to any game requiring the awareness of your surroundings that a stealth game does. The camera was the main reason I gave up on MGS3, as without the radar but with the anachronistic camera I found it frustrating beyond belief to have to keep switching to first person to see beyond the top of the screen.
Pandora Tomorrow expanded on the first game and added that fantastic multiplayer mode, but suffered from annoying difficulty spikes that detracted from things. By handing development back to the original team for Chaos Theory, we got significant improvements to the gameplay as well as some of the best graphics of that generation. The campaign was long and had variety (the Seoul level is a particular standout moment, and its setting in an urban war with you as a neutral shows similarities to MGS4), and the way that you were ranked on your ability to go undetected and avoid killing anyone encouraged perfectionism that’s unusual for me, actually getting me to go back and replay the game when I’d finished it.
When you factor in an improved version of the multiplayer and an entire co-op campaign with online play, this is one of my favourite action games ever made. Splinter Cell Double Agent is going to have a lot to live up to now and I really hope it can manage it.
By far the best game about omniscient trenchcoat-clad male cheerleaders that I’ve ever played. If that doesn’t convince you that this is one of the best games of the year I’ll try to do it now through some more traditional evangelisation.
I first heard of Ouendan from the Edge review a few months back and bought it after seeing a friend play it in Japan, and for a very simple rhythm-action game they do a great job of imbuing it with some quirky humour and a huge amount of personality. Musical games are made on the music they feature, and it’s here that Ouendan also shines by including some absolutely brilliant J-rock from a selection of real Japanese bands. If Nintendo decided to release the soundtrack album I’m sure it would be a big seller based solely on the cult following that this game has amassed online.
The gameplay is fairly basic rhythm-action with the touch screen put to good use to give it a pleasingly tactile interface, but the real stars are the catchy music and hilarious design which never fail to bring a smile to my face and keep me playing a music game over three months since I bought it. Even my perennial favourite, Samba De Amigo, didn’t manage that.
I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that Mario Kart DS is my favourite game in the entire series, and when a series carries a name as big as Mario Kart that’s no small praise. Whereas Mario Kart 64 evolved Super Mario Kart, I felt that Mario Kart Super Circuit was a step backwards and Mario Kart Double Dash felt gimmicky, this one felt like a true step forward.
The focus was brought back to the tight and responsive handling and the weapons which have been tweaked and balanced well over the series, the graphics sit somewhere between Mario Kart 64 and Double Dash, and the power of the DS has been used to add much more interactivity than the last great one, Mario Kart 64. On top of that they were clever enough to throw in a nice selection of classic retro tracks (although some of the choices of “classics” could be debated), fully-featured multiplayer with one copy of the game, and the game’s huge new addition – online play.
Nintendo were slow to adopt online play but they certainly made a good choice of a first game to do it with, and despite teething problems on their first attempt (the overly safety-conscious friends system, the lack of punishment for quitting when losing to protect your record, etc) they did a great job. Not only does this make it one of the best games of the year, it’s also proof positive that the DS is a serious system that isn’t only about touch-screen minigames and half-arsed console ports.
When the 2D Castlevanias achieve near unanimous rave reviews it’s a wonder that they keep pursuing that losing battle of trying to make a decent 3D iteration of the series, and this keeps up the trend by being probably the best new entry to the series since Symphony of the Night on the PS1.
Konami deserve credit for just picking up from their good work on the excellent GBA Castlevanias (they even carry on with the new protagonist, Soma Cruz, introduced in Aria of Sorrow) and, on the whole, resisting the urge to shoehorn in functionality based on the unique functionality of the DS. There are some touch screen functions that work like the breakable blocks and some that don’t like the annoying seal-drawing to deliver the final blow to bosses, but most of the additions use the extra power to make some cool cosmetic touches and, naturally, some bigger and more impressive enemies.
Castlevania games are reliable for being lengthy and addictive action adventures, and this is one of the best in a long time. It therefore happily sits in my best of the year.