“Is it fun?” It’s been a while since I’ve heard that question in game shops. But this year it stealthily slid in, replacing more familiar fare like “How are the graphics?” or “Which has the best processor?” The fact that it seems increasingly trite to point out games matter more than technology only highlights how far we’ve come in one year. And, honestly, much of the thanks goes to Nintendo for refusing to join the pec-flexing hardware race and, hell, refusing to even release specs. Whether this trend will continue is another question but, for now, the success of games like Guitar Hero II and the triumph of DS over PSP have proven that reaching beyond the hardcore can be rewarding indeed.
So, while not all of my favorite games of the year are games “for the rest of us,” I certainly hope to see many more of them on this list in years to come. Diversity matters. And so does fun. Here’s what I loved in 2006…
Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime – Typically, when you see “heroes” or “legends” or “stories” in a game’s title, you know you’re in for some warmed-over mess meant to keep accounting happy while the next real installment is readied. But, while Dragon Quest Heroes certainly ain’t Dragon Quest 8, it is shockingly addictive stuff that mixes old school Zelda and Pokémon. And it feels every bit as true to its Dragon Quest lineage as the numbered games. Those who were dismayed when Dragon Quest 9 went DS-exclusive take heart.
Excite Truck – As much as you want to dislike it for its heavy metal soundtrack and redneck aesthetic, Excite Truck just won’t let you. That’s because its combination of Bump-n-Jump (not Excite Bike!) and Burnout and Smuggler’s Run is pure barreling-down-the-hill-in-an-uncontrollable-ball-of-flame love. And it’s surprisingly intelligent, too. Hate to admit it, but Chick was right.
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – What can you say? Everything you love about Zelda with none of the filler. That’s good and bad to be sure, as this installment takes fewer risks than any Zelda in recent memory, but when it’s done this well it’s hard to imagine anybody caring. Of particular note is the lovingly detailed character design (a first for Zelda).
NBA 2K7 – This year’s edition presents as a roster-updated disappointment — early play reads identical to 2K6 and there’s zero visual upgrade (and wtf happened to Smush Parker’s hair?). Give it a few hours, though, and it becomes clear that Visual Concepts invested its funds where they count most: tightening gameplay. From the silky smooth passing game to AI teammates that know how to collapse and switch at just the right instant to a shooting game that finds the sweet spot, 2k7 proves that San Rafael still owns the NBA.
Okami – You spend the first hour of Okami with your mouth hanging open. Its gorgeous sumi-e-inspired art style makes it by far the most visually arresting game of the year. And, thankfully, the gameplay follows. From the stunning brushwork magic system to characters you can’t forget, Okami is an adventure tour-de-force. It’s sad, then, that this is Clover’s final game, but it’s hard to imagine a more fitting farewell.
Rayman Raving Rabbids – Without the Rabbids, Rayman’s latest wouldn’t be much more than a pile of minigames, 3/4 of which bring fun. With the Rabbids, though, it becomes the most hysterical trip of the year. Who would have thought that deranged bunnies would be the first stand-out characters of the testosterone-fueled next generation? Here’s hoping the title’s ample sales enable Ubisoft Montpellier to make that full Rayman adventure you know they’re dying to.
Wii Sports – Expectations for pack-in titles are typically low and, even with the Wii hype, Sports looked to be a little more than minigames meant to showcase the new controller. It takes waking up at 3am two months in with the crack-addicted urge to bowl that perfect game to make it clear that Sports is for real. Pick-up-and-play game of the year and quite possibly the best bundled game ever.
Yakuza – F*ck! Sh*t! The first thing you notice about Yakuza is its every other word (at least!) profanity. That’s particularly strange for Sega, a company whose prior forays into the obscene topped out with the wholly tame Virtua Fighter series. At the same time, I’ll be damned if Yakuza isn’t the purest reminder of Sega’s glory days we’ve had in ages. Despite an unwieldy camera, it creates a world you want to come back to over and over — and the rocking sax solos don’t hurt, either. Yakuza shows Nagoshi and Sakamoto (F-Zero, Monkey Ball) may be the only ones who still wield the Sega magic convincingly.
For more, see last year’s list