Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008: A Glance in the Cash-Strapped Rearview

I consider myself a "budget gamer," if there is such a term. I don't own a next current-gen console, and my three year old laptop stands with both feet in its shallow grave. I subsist mainly on a diet of bargain bin PS2 games and inexpensive Steam downloads. I think I may have even made it through 2008 without paying more than $20 for a single game. With my gaming habits the way they are, I figured I would eschew a conventional "Best of 2008" retrospective and instead simply look back at a few of the games that ate up my time this year.

Favorite Game Actually Released in 2008 - Audiosurf
As evidenced by This Week in Audiosurf Radio, I'm a huge fan of this game. As a musician, I've always enjoyed music/rhythm games, from Vib Ribbon to Gitaroo Man and Guitar Hero and, yes, even the occasional Dance Dance Revolution. Audiosurf represents an ingenius yet logical evolution of the genre: the ability to play whatever music you want. Prior games have tried to do this with generally lackluster results. Not every song's a winner - Debussy may not make for the most entertaining ride - but the regularity with which Audiosurf delivers a quality experience is astounding. Plus, the online leaderboards give the game a great competitive flair. My quest to be the Pro Champion of "Jukebox Hero" resulted in at least 50 plays and my near-memorization of the guitar solo, but no first place. And the Steam Community functionality takes the leaderboards one step further. Not only did I take great pride in beating my friend's high score on a Girl Talk track, I took great joy in knowing that Steam sent him an email about it.

Favorite Game I ODed On and Now Can't Play for More than Two Minutes at a Time - Peggle
This Plinko/Bust-a-Move hybrid is a few years old, but I only got my hands on it this fall. It smacks of PopCap, with vibrant artwork (by this I mean large-eyed colorful animals) and simple yet addictive gameplay (by this I mean stuff that can addict those ages six through sixty). I spent the better part of two days plowing through the adventure mode. Still jonesing for a fix, I took a crack at the Master levels, but hit a wall a few levels in and haven't recovered since. That was months ago. Steam recently released its Orange Box themed Peggle Extreme for free, so I downloaded it, hoping the new levels would renew my interest. Nope. Not even a headcrab humping a unicorn can get me to play more than one level at a time.

Favorite Game for a System I Don't Own - Super Smash Bros. Brawl
As most of us at Charge Shot!!! have experienced, Brawl's gameplay is fast-paced, irrational, at times hilarious, and often maddening. Many hours were spent torturing roommates with the Pikmin-chucking Olimar and his broken Final Smash. Not owning a Wii myself, I've been spared Brawl's atrocious online match-making, and I had a companion for my journey through the abysmal Subspace Enema Emissary. These flaws aside, it was a great evolution of the franchise's solid, accessible gameplay. Considering the plethora of game modes and overwhelming amounts of fan service, I can't help but wonder what the hell's left for the next one.

A Few Games I Spent Way Too Much Time Playing - Front Mission 4 and La Pucelle Tactics
Traditionally, Japanese strategy RPGs are lengthy affairs. These two games were no exception. La Pucelle was a game I started four years ago, when it was released after the success of Disgaea. It's actually Disgaea's predecessor, with a slightly simpler combat system and fewer bizarre quotables. The cutscenes are plodding and the story's predictable and moralizing, but all of the main characters are delightfully distinct and the customization system is remarkably open. Unfortunately, if you spent any time appreciating the depth of customization (aka leveling), the game's final bosses collapse like so many wet cardboard boxes, leaving the ending pretty anticlimactic.
As for Front Mission 4...well, I still don't know how I sunk over thirty hours into that thing. The story's a mess, with two meandering plotlines connected by the thinnest of threads. Battles regularly took up to an hour to complete, and navigating the menu system is liking finding your way through an Escher painting. I was probably distracted by the mech customization options, and the fact that success in battle regularly depended on actual strategy instead of brute force. The five dollar price tag probably helped. And I appreciated that this giant robot experience didn't involve perverted penguins.

Favorite Decade Old Predecessor to a 2008 AAA-title - Fallout
Let's get things straight - Fallout is old. It's isometric, hex-based, and the combat is turn-based. But it's also a nuclear sandbox with a myriad of amoral decisions to make. There's humor without a lot of camp. There's challenging combat that provides options without unnecessary complexity. And it features a go-your-own-way plot that does its best to keep you distrusting of everyone until the later missions when it becomes clear that mutants have been the problem all along. If you'd rather spend $6 instead of $60 on admission into a nuclear wasteland and a well-crafted franchise, pick this one up from GoodOldGames.

All in all, 2008 was a fine year. I'd like to finally catch up hardware-wise so that I might make my way through some of the finer games published this year. But for the time being, I'm satisfied with whatever stands the test of time.