Wednesday, December 31, 2008

jumping on the retrospective bandwagon

For me, 2008 was the year I had time to play games again. After four years of college, the fourth of which was particularly busy, I could finally play single player games in earnest. What follows is a laundry list of my digital wheelings and dealings.

In high school I had spent most of my time with the Playstation JRPGs from Squaresoft's silver age, and my first instinct was to return to my old stomping grounds. The summer was mostly spent looking for a job outside of Ohio and playing the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV and PSP tactical RPG Jeanne d'Arc, following those up with the DS version of Dragon Quest IV. It felt good to be back, but I found myself getting bored. These games take forever to play, and throw few curveballs - you systematically level up, fighting gradually stronger foes, but it's basically the same gameplay for hours with few diversions. I needed something else.

My job search failed, and so I secured a staff position at my alma mater and settled in for a longer-than-intended stay. With most of my closest friends hundreds of miles away, I tended to get a little bored, and this led to a renaissance for the PS2 which had mostly been collecting dust for the last two years. After beating Dragon Quest VIII, which I had been working on since its 2005 release, I started in on the first God of War, which I believe I already talked about. I started God of War 2, which made me think "whoa you guys this is like a really polished version of your first game nice job." I played some of Ape Escape 3, which made me think "whoa you guys this is like a just above-average platformer and it is sort of boring." Then I started playing Rogue Galaxy, another long JRPG, which made me think "whoa you guys why did I buy all these goddamned JRPGs that I will never have the patience to play all the way through." It was good times with my PS2 for awhile, and then Microsoft saw fit to drop the price of the Xbox 360 and revise the hardware so it wouldn't break all the damn time. It was time for a major purchase, which leads me to my latest gaming love, the Xbox Live Arcade.

XBLA offers downloadable games for budget prices, and the best games on the service hit every single sweet spot for me as a gamer - they're cheap, I get the instant gratification that Amazon can't provide, they're quick, and they offer a streamlined experience you can't always find in the big studio games, which are sometimes padded out to justify the higher price tag.

After buying Mega Man 9 to get my old school NES fix and Banjo Kazooie to get my old school N64 fix, I quickly moved on to newer stuff. I've mentioned Braid several times - for me, it was 2008's most impressive game - it took established mechanics and mixed it up to make a brand new experience topped with a beautiful art style and brooding, introspective story. It's never repetitive, and it makes your brain work like few games do.

My XBLA fixation has sort of rounded out the year in terms of games - Pac Man Championship Edition was a well-done retro refresh, and Geometry Wars 2 was probably the last interesting iteration the series will see. The long-awaited Castle Crashers was everything a co-op beat 'em up should be. Doritos Dash of Destruction reminded us that there is no level to which major corporations will not sink.

So really, for me, 2008 was about reclaiming the time for games, and for reevaluating my preferences for the first time in years. Just as one's taste in music or books or movies changes and evolves as one advances in years, so has my taste in games. Some titles and series remain just as fun as they were when I was twelve, and can indeed be appreciated on different levels now that I'm a little older. Other games, like the bloated and melodramatic JRPGs I used to enjoy, have lost their appeal - I find that the genre has not grown up with me, and I have but a limited patience for it. This is in comparison to my Playstation years in 2002 and 2003, when nearly every game in my library was made by Squaresoft and couldn't be completed in less than 40 hours. I am glad that I am no longer that guy.

That's my 2008. Do I have any hopes for 2009? Not anything in particular, except to hope that my Xbox survives the year, and that studios continue to take chances in the face of the grim economic situation. I'm going to go take a walk or something, you should do the same.