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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Player's Club: Top 10 Video Games of 2008, Part 1

Oh, 2008: some might remember you for your global economic meltdown, or your historical presidential election, but to me, you'll always be the year I struggled with malaria in an anonymous war-torn Sub-Saharan country. You know, in a video game. Overall 2008 didn't see quite as large a crop of great games as 2007, but there was still no lack of high-quality experiences to be found. I'll be counting down my top ten favorite games of the year here today and tomorrow, and here's a look at the first five. For more video game year-in-review nonsense, feel free to take a look at my blog, Hot Fighting History.

10. Bionic Commando Rearmed (Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PC)

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Sure, it’s just a remake, and a surprisingly faithful one at that, but it’s a remake of the greatest NES game ever, so it totally deserves to make this list.

Bionic Commando was an absurd mutt of a game, an open-ended plat-former that omitted that genre’s most basic feature (the jump button) while shoehorning in overhead shooter stages, and uniting it all around an incoherent story with a cyber-zombie Hitler as the main villain. It's the sort of giddy madness that Number 6 on this list pays loving tribute to. Rearmed preserves almost everything about the original but spruces it up with vibrant HD graphics, improved boss battles, and special “challenge rooms” that provide a genuine challenge. There’s nothing innovative about Bionic Commando Rearmed, but no other game in 2008 so perfectly hit what it was aiming for.

9. The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS)

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No genre is as staid as the Japanese role-playing game, and no company is more associated with that genre than Square-Enix. Squenix released their fair share of less-than-stellar traditional RPGs for consoles this year, but successfully modernized the genre with The World Ends With You. The World Ends With You is a contemporary adventure that basically takes place in a big outdoor mall in Tokyo. The game retains core RPG fundamentals like experience points and the gradual leveling up of various statistics, but eschews many standard genre trappings. The crux of the game-play is a unique real-time combat system that utilizes both of the DS’s screens; players simultaneously control two characters with two completely different control schemes. At first it feels really complex and unwieldy, but once you’re accustomed to it the combat is highly invigorating. Between the frenetic fights and a more familiar setting, The World Ends With You is an RPG for RPG-haters.

8. Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

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In a banner year for overwhelming open-world experiences, none were quite as daunting as Fallout 3. In terms of commitment, it’s like Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and the entire discography of Guided By Voices combined into one video game. And when you finally dedicate that time, you find a comparatively buggy and glitch-filled role-playing game with off-putting non-player characters. But if you can make it past those issues, you’ll realize that Fallout 3 registers an emotional, intellectual, and visceral impact rarely seen in video games. Fallout 3’s post-apocalyptic Washington DC is one of the most overwhelming and exhausting game environments in recent memory.

7. Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360, PC)

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Left 4 Dead, Valve’s four-player first-person-shooter homage to zombie movies, is multiplayer gaming at its purest. Without a good internet connection and a group of trustworthy friends to play with, the game is inessential and tiresome. With three real-life partners, Left 4 Dead becomes the most satisfying multiplayer game of the year. Few co-op games rely so heavily upon actual cooperation, and fewer still incorporate that cooperation as naturally and elegantly as Left 4 Dead. With the game’s internal “AI Director” constantly varying the amount and placement of enemies, Left 4 Dead is as unpredictable and replay-able as a sports game.

6. No More Heroes (Nintendo Wii)

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Can we agree that video games are inherently ridiculous, and that this ridiculousness is one reason that games, as a whole, are fully awesome? I think Suda51, the designer of No More Heroes, thoroughly agrees. The irreverent, gleefully violent, and unabashed No More Heroes simultaneously parodies and pays tribute to the past and present of video games, from the occasional flourishes of 8-bit graphics and sound, to the purposefully mundane side-quests and oddly lifeless GTA-style over-world environment. Everything about No More Heroes is resolutely over-the-top, but especially the characters and dialogue, which resemble GTA’s lame South Park-style humor as filtered through the inscrutable sensibilities of a genuinely funny and culturally aware Japanese man. No More Heroes is one of the handful of games worth owning a Wii for.

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