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Saturday, December 30, 2006


Games of the Year (Games Released in 2006 that I Played Edition)

In 2006, two new consoles came out, one to massive fanfare and ridiculous lawsuits, and the other an exclusive eBay release, overpriced and undersupported.

I didn't play either of those consoles. I also have yet to play a single Xbox 360 game, aside from the one time I played some WWII game in Toys R Us until I got blown up. I should also mention that I didn't play any PSP games this year, but that's a given since I'm not sure any PSP games even came out this year.

Despite all those launches, as this list reflects, this was the year of the Nintendo DS. What was, last year, a dumb-looking, underpowered console with gimmicky games is now the top gaming platform in the US and Japan. The massive surge in DS popularity affected even my weird-ass gaming habits, because no matter what, whichever system is #1 in Japan is going to be the one that gets the cutesy music games and niche stuff that I love.

Here are the top ten games that I played this year that were actually released this year. Come back tomorrow for the best games this year that I didn't play, and on Monday (hopefully) the best games that I played for the first time this year that didn't come out in 2006! I think that covers all the lists!

As usual, click the pictures for larger screenshots.
10. Phantasy Star Universe

To be honest, I didn't enjoy PSU very much when I rented it. But then, I was playing the single-player game, which I can only describe as "Phantasy Star Online with more cutscenes." I hear the multiplayer is an excellent evolution of the original PSO gameplay, with new levels, enemies, weapons, and all kinds of items that not only require you to kill way too many enemies waiting for a random drop, but then require you to luck out at an item synthesis shop! I'm actually afraid to buy this and try the online game, because I lost a lot of my life to PSO on the Dreamcast, and this sounds even more engaging.

9-7. Big Bumpin', PocketBike Racer, Sneak King

Arriving mere seconds before the world got tired of Burger King's creepy mascot, these three advertising games hearken back to a simpler time when food advertising mascots starred in video games (Kool-Aid Man, California Raisins, Yo! Noid)
I felt sort of subversive by purchasing and enjoying these games, seeing them as kind of a "fuck you" to the other big releases of November, including the Sony Playstation 3. I paid $4 each for these at Burger King, I didn't have to wait in line, and I didn't even need an HDTV.
Plus, none of them included copies of Talladega Nights, which I count as a positive.
Did I mention that they cost $4 each? Because they do. They are the first games to include both Xbox and 360 versions on the same disc, they include multiplayer, and online and achievements and all that (on the 360), plus they're kind of fun, and they cost four damn dollars.

6. Brain Age

I almost didn't want to put this on the list, because it's just barely a game. In fact, if not for the time limits and the score tracking, Brain Age would just be shitty brain exercises. Nintendo brilliantly grafted just enough game into it to make it addictive, challenging players to increase their "brain age" by doing math problems and memory exercises faster every day. This is one of those insidious products designed for Nintendo fans to buy and give to their parents. I don't know exactly why it has sold as well as it has (especially in Japan, where it is one of the best-selling games ever,) although I suspect that people saw the dubious brain performance benefit as a reasonable excuse for playing video games. I enjoyed it for a while (and so did Mary!) but when I tried to play it again previous to writing this, I found that the magic had kind of dissipated, leaving only a vaguely irritating set of activities presented by a condescending head. If you haven't played it enough to get tired of it, it's great! And did I mention there are charts?

5. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin

It's a 2D Castlevania game. It's automatically better than just about anything else that comes out. A lot of people are getting tired of Koji Igarashi's nonlinear Metroidvanias, and they have a point-- the earlier Castlevanias were some of the best-designed, most stylish action games ever, and it would be great to have more of them. But we don't really get much of a choice in side-scrolling action anymore, and really the only bad thing about these modern Castlevanias is that they block the possible development of one of those old-style ones.

4. Gyakuten Saiban 2

I hardly ever import games, but I couldn't wait for the US release of this, the sequel to Phoenix Wright. I didn't really play text adventures, graphical or otherwise, when they were popular. But now that they're basically extinct, I'm a huge fan of console graphical text adventures. The cases are clever, the dialogue is well-written and hilarious, and the gameplay-- which consists of alternating "investigation" periods of detective work, and "courtroom" periods of cross-examining witnesses to find contradictions-- is enthralling. Playing Gyakuten Saiban games is like reading a good novel.

3. New Super Mario Bros.

Of all the weird tricks Nintendo has pulled out in the last year or two to (successfully!) coerce everyone in the universe to purchase a DS, New Super Mario Brothers is the most surprising: a real Mario sequel? They haven't done that since Yoshi's Island in 1994, and even that wasn't quite a traditional Mario game. And it's not just a token effort, either: the levels are some of the most carefully designed and well-thought-out of the series, and the genre! Too bad about the ugly 3D graphics, though. I guess they had to make a concession to the gaming environment in 2006.

2. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

The original release of Metal Gear Solid 3 was the best release of 2004, and two years later, MGS3 is still good enough to make the list. I am not a double-dip kind of person, generally only having enough money to buy some of the games I want, and then only following a price reduction, and only once! I made an exception for this game, however, because the extras were irresistable: a movie made of recut versions of all the game's cutscenes, a 30-minute Metal Gear retrospective, and ports of the unreleased-in-the-US MSX versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. The main MGS3 game got a new controllable camera and an amazing online multiplayer mode for which my sauce is unfortunately too weak.

1. Elite Beat Agents

It's taken me longer than I wanted to write this post because I keep stopping to play EBA. Whenever I get tired of gaming, or sick of all the shitty treatment fans get from game companies, I invariably find solace in music games. There is much more gaming joy and less bullshit in music games than in any other genre, and playing a great one makes me feel good about what I choose to do with my time. And this one is outstanding: easy-to-learn gameplay that makes perfect use of the DS touch screen, vivid hand-drawn graphics (and some 3D), fun and inspired storylines, a perfect difficulty curve (ending at "screen-piercingly hard"), and, uh, some music too. The music (all bad soundalike covers of pop songs) ranges from guilty pleasures ("YMCA") to dog shit (Sum 41's "Without a Fight"?) The game manages to overcome its musical handicap to become one of the best story-based music games ever released. That much is unsurprising from the developers of the greatest music game ever, Gitaroo Man.


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