Gaming Hotness 2005

The year started out with big expectations, many for the high tech showstopper that was to be Sony’s PSP. By comparison, Nintendo’s DS seemed cobbled together at the last minute in fear of Sony’s offering. Redeye’s 2004 rant sums up the DS (“dual screen”) consensus nicely. Here’s a taste: “Simply by looking looking somewhere else you can see something else. Short of the imagination to actually innovate, they’ve just doubled their components and told you you’ll be doubling your pleasure, and they’re expecting you to buy it.” (Edge 134) Honestly, I thought Nintendo was in serious trouble. We all did.

How times have changed. A year after launch, innovative new titles seem to be popping up every month for DS while the PSP is scraping by with a pile of afterthought PS2 ports. And sales are following fun. Looking back, then, 2005 was the year of the looking-real-smart-in-hindsight DS. And that explains why fully half of my favorite games last year appeared on Nintendo’s keenly underestimated new handheld. Here they are, alphabetically:

Animal Crossing: Wild World – there are lots of little changes, but being able to take your town online is by far the most significant new feature in this incarnation of Animal Crossing. Besides the obvious ability to visit worlds created by others, now artwork, constellations, and npcs spread like viruses online keeping things constantly fresh. To own this game and not play online is a crime.

Electroplankton – more a toy than a game, Toshio Iwai’s newest musical exploration creates an underwater world where the creatures make music. Figuring out the best way to “play” the creatures is what gives plankton depth and a pervasive sense of wonder.

God of War – delivering on the fluid fight mechanics promised by Devil May Cry and Prince of Persia, Jaffe’s bloodspattered epic appears to cater to the lowest common denominator but it surprises with a thoughtful story, a tour-de-force of greek mythology, an amazing score, and wickedly paced action. Add to that remarkable restraint when it comes to boss battles and you’ve got the future of action adventure games.

Guitar Hero – three words: wicked guitar controller. Harmonix uses ideas from Frequency and Guitar Freaks along with a super-accessible controller to make the pick-up-and-play game of the year. Given much love at Barcade, this puppy’s still sold out at most retailers.

Meteos – just when you thought the puzzle game was dead comes the shoot-junk-into-space cleverness of Meteos. And with a game mechanic that is well suited for multiplayer, adding a few friends to the mix extends the game’s life with sweaty palmed punch your buddy in the shoulder fun.

NBA 2K6 – with no NFL game to steal away the best design and dev talent, this year’s NBA game got lots of extra love. With much more intuitive controls in the post, driving, and shooting, and new animations that make the action crystal clear, Visual Concepts once again shows why its NBA franchise is the one to beat.

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan – a Japanese language, jpop infused, stylus-based, handheld music game starring male cheerleaders. Doesn’t exactly sound like the typical US player’s cup of tea but the stories are so universally appealing and the music is so diverse and fun that you can’t see this game and not be drawn into the world it creates.

Resident Evil 4 – no game captures the zombie film better than Resident Evil 4. There, I’ve said it. From lightning flashes that reveal faces in the dark to the dread of hearing a voice but not knowing where it came from to the simple terror of being outnumbered by slow-moving brain-eating parasites, RE4 has the genre down. Having despised every Resident Evil game prior to this, it was shocking to see the fourth get so many game of the year nods. It’s even more shocking, though, that I can’t say I disagree with them.

Wish I’d played: Civilization 4, Dragon Quest 8, Kiler 7, Lumines, Phoenix Wright, Psychonauts, Sprung, Wipeout Pure

For more, see last year’s list

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