It's a rare occurrence nowadays, but every once in a while, a game you’ve never even heard of comes along and absolutely blows you away. Sometimes it's a little indie gem that didn't get enough promotion. Other times, what appears to be a quick cash-in turns out to be an awesome game. These games don't normally sell that well, but those who play them love them. They're like a breath of fresh air in an industry packed with over-hyped blockbusters, and 2009 has seen more than its share of them. Here are some of our favorite surprises so far.
Metacritic score: 86
Turning a puzzle game that began life on mobile phones into a high-def PSN game may not sound like the best idea, but it sure turned out well for developer Capybara Games. Despite being a downloadable title, Critter Crunch has been hailed as one of the best-looking games on the PS3, with an undeniably adorable art style and some great animation, which goes quite well with the incredibly addictive puzzle experience you'll find when you get past its good looks. Not bad for a 2008 iPhone game about eating bugs.
Dead Space Extraction
Metacritic score: 82
Light-gun games have been given some new life on the Wii, but many of them feel regressive, giving players little control over their experience. So it's not surprising that many gamers had written off the Wii-exclusive follow up to last year's excellent Dead Space as a cheap cash-in before it was even released. But despite the limitations of the genre, Dead Space Extraction turned out to be an engaging and terrifying – albeit brief – experience worthy of the franchise name. Be sure to play with the lights on.
Metacritic score: 89
In an age when games seem to be getting easier and more accommodating, Demon's Souls stands apart. It's brutally difficult and doles out many, many more punishments than it does rewards. It at times feels archaic, harking back to frustrating 8- and 16-bit classics, but adds enough new stuff that critics have been giving it near-universal praise. Who would've thought that the best-rated RPG of the year would be the one that makes you want to break your controller in half?
Metacritic score: 88
Like Demon's Souls, Shadow Complex is decidedly old-school in its design. But while Souls’ crushing difficulty recalls sadistic arcade quarter-munchers, Shadow Complex is a 2D action platformer in the vein of classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But in spite of its retro leanings, the game was so well crafted that modern gamers embraced it wholeheartedly, bringing the side-scrolling action genre out of its handheld exile and back into the modern day. It goes light on the story, instead focusing on what it does best: delivering a fine-tuned action experience that's at the same time classic and contemporary.
Little King's Story
Metacritic score: 87
There’s no shortage of colorful, cutesy games on the Wii, and for that reason many gamers didn’t give Little King's Story so much as a second thought. And that's a shame, because beneath its kid-friendly veneer lies one of the most in-depth, absorbing games on the console. A blend of real-time strategy, simulation, adventure and role-playing, Little King's Story is a unique and engaging experience that was sadly ignored by most. But be sure you have a lot of spare time before you decide to pick this one up, as it’s a seriously time-consuming epic.
Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
Metacritic score: 82
An odd blend of platformer and puzzle game, Henry Hatsworth is hard to explain, but even harder to put down. With traditional side-scrolling action taking place on the top screen of the DS and an addictive match-three puzzle game on the bottom, Hatsworth is uniquely suited to the platform. And while each element may not be the greatest on its own, together they form one damn fine game. Throw in an absolutely charming main character and game world, and you have one of the best games to hit Nintendo's handheld this year.
Metacritic score: 86
There's just something about incredibly tough challenges that brings out the competitive nature in people. As much a puzzle game as it is a racer, Trials HD features over 50 tracks to frustrate the hell out of gamers attempting to 1) actually finish each stage and 2) rack up the highest score possible. There really is little else like it on the market, and that's a big part of its appeal (though not as much as getting the high-score bragging rights among your friends).
Metacritic score: 84
Action/role-playing fans may be anxiously awaiting the release of Diablo III, but the wait got much easier to bear with Torchlight. Developed by the same team behind the ill-fated Mythos, formerly of Flagship Studios, Torchlight combines the obsessive, loot-gathering gameplay that makes its genre so addictive with a gorgeous art style and character designs. Given the promise and ultimate disappointment that was Hellgate: London, it's understandable that many were skeptical of Torchlight. But the finished product is something that no action-RPG fan should miss, and is one of the most addictive experiences in recent memory.