It's been a very good year for gamers, with AAA titles hitting nearly every console, and only about half of them were sequels. Crusades-era assassins, art deco genetic misfits, physics-bending lab rats and futuristic soldiers have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the standard plumbers, elves, and bounty hunters we've seen every year, and these fresh faces have kept my consoles warm and spinning. I could just plop all of those games up on an ordered list and call it a day, but I'm taking a different tack in summarizing this year in gaming.
Welcome to the first Jaded Fanboy Awards. The JFAs are completely unofficial awards (read: I am completely making these up without any sort of procedure or votes or other such nonsense) that don't look at the best or worst games of the year, but instead unique or noteworthy in their own ways. These aren't "Best ofs," "Tops," or "Must-buys," but instead games that simply stick out.
And the winners are...
The "It's All Been Done, But Not Like This" Award:
Grand Theft Auto had you roaming around huge cities, Prince of Persia had you climbing, hopping, and swinging your way between precarious platforms, and Hitman had you sneaking up on your target, killing them, and stealing away with nobody the wiser. Assassin's Creed combines all of these things into a single experience that, while repetitive, feels surprisingly fresh. You've run around cities, climbed walls, and stabbed people in the back before, but you've never done it before in 12th-century Jerusalem.
Runner-up: Rock Band
Rock Band might seem revolutionary with its guitar/bass/drums/vocals rock-out-itude, but it's really an amalgam of three established games. Guitar Hero (and before that, Guitar Freaks) gave us the strumming, DrumMania/Precussion Freaks gave us drumming (albeit in arcades only), and Karaoke Revolution gave us the singing. Red Octane might have polished and combined the game types, but Konami's the company that got the ball rolling.
The "This Feels Familiar" Award:
Bioshock also takes a lot of great aspects from great games. Of course, every one of those great games are "System Shock 2," and all those great aspects are "everything." The settings are different, but at the end of the day you're still a confused, amnesiac man in a ruined facility avoiding security systems and fighting deranged mutants at the behest of a mysterious voice who clearly isn't what he/she seems. Of course, System Shock 2 was a great game, so I didn't really mind playing it all over again in a 1950s underwater dystopia.
Runner-up: Mass Effect
Mass Effect is basically Knights of the Old Republic, only without lightsabers and with even better gameplay. The new conversation system feels great and the action works much better, but everything else from the technology to the character development feels like it was lifted straight from KOTOR. Blue alien girl? Check. Gruff mercenary without a home? Check. A hunt for clues that (Spoilers, so I'll stop here)? Big check. Heck, if you make Shepard a Vangard or Adept, he gets Force Push!
The "This was on TV/in a Theater, Why Doesn't it Suck?" Award:
The Simpsons Game
Licensed games are almost always horrible. When you see a game named after a movie or TV show, you can reliably expect a major stinkfest. The Simpsons Game bucked the trend with great humor and graphics that genuinely looked like the show. Okay, the gameplay itself was pretty bland, but still fun enough to justify a rental. Besides, you have to appreciate a game so self-aware that you can actively collect video game cliches for a bonus.
Runner-up: Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Disqualified):
Lego Star Wars surprised everyone by turning out to be a really fun series with a great sense of humor. A few years ago, if you were told me that gamers everywhere were waiting with bated breath for Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones games, I would have laughed at you and stolen your wallet. Now even I'm looking forward to seeing Lego Indy snap his Lego whip at Lego Nazis (Please let there be Lego Nazis). Unfortunately, since Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga is basically a compilation of the two previous Lego Star Wars games, it doesn't count as a new game for this year.
The "I Waited Two Decades For This?" Award:
Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games
Since I was but a lad I imagined pitting Mario against Sonic. Back then, Nintendo fans and Sega fans were bitter enemies who would constantly fight about who would win. After almost 20 years, Sonic and Mario finally faced off...at the Olympics. Instead of the knock-down, drag-out fight we all imagined, we have Mario beating Sonic in a foot race because you flailed your arms really fast. Hopefully next year's Super Smash Bros. Brawl will give us the real plumber/hedgehog conflict we've been craving.
The "Most Painful Game Delay" Award:
Metal Gear Solid 4/Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Tie)
Call it Snake's revenge, but two of the most highly anticipated games this year both 1: feature gamings' favorite super-spy and 2: were delayed until next year. Whether you want to see Geezer Snake fight giant robots with his high school science teacher mustache or Regular Snake beat Link into a bloody pulp, you're going to have to wait a few more months.
The "Greatest Contribution to the Gaming Zeitgeist (Yes, I Said Zeitgeist)" Award:
I honestly can't explain it, but Steam's trippy but well-crafted physics demo has spawned an unbelievable level of adulation from gamers everywhere. Even weirder, most of said adulation is directed toward an inanimate cube with a heart on it. The Weighted Companion Cube has made its way into countless game nerds, and has spawned cakes, pillows, and even
cries for help Halloween costumes.
The "Broken Controller" Award:
Super Mario Galaxy
Yes, you read that right. Super Mario Galaxy is one of the hardest games this year, or at least presents some of the most frustrating situations you'll encounter. "Beating" the game is easy, since most of the 60 stars you need to fight Bowser can be found with a minimum amount of fuss. If you want to collect all 120 stars and unlock the game's big secret, though, you need to endure some of the most sadistic challenges I've seen in years. If Sweet Sweet Galaxy was enough to make you feel vaguely frustrated, then some of the game's bonus stars will reduce you into a gibbering wreck.
The "I Remember This Genre!" Award:
Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Take rock. Use rock on plant. Open box. Take key from box. Use key on turtle. Years ago, puzzle-adventure games like this were huge. Zack & Wiki combines your standard Wiimote-jiggling minigames with item-hunting brainteasers that remind me of LucasArts' and Sierra's heydays. It's a good game in its own right, and it gives you a sweet reminder of what "adventure games" used to be.