Downloadable games have shown flashes of brilliance before. But 2008 was the year the dam burst and a torrent of fresh, solid games rushed out. We would say it swept us away, but the beauty of DLC games is that they can be purchased without even prying one’s ass off the couch.
Don’t misunderstand: We’re not talking about add-ons or expansion packs to full-priced, disc-based games, or even about old-school classics like Ikaruga, Rez and Soulcalibur showing up on 360 (though that was indeed a triple victory).
No, we’re talking about brand new games of stunning quality and/or originality, which came so quickly gamers couldn’t play ‘em all. When offerings as original and well-crafted as Schizoid and Age of Booty can fall through the cracks, you know it’s a helluva year. And with both Nintendo’s WiiWare program and Microsoft’s community games features up and running, 2009 should be even mo’ better.
Here are just the highlights – if we’d name-checked every 2008 DLC game worth playing, we could’ve easily made this list twice as long.
Even with the limitless chasm of storage that is the internet, we simply didn’t have enough space to fawn over the best and brightest games of the year. That’s why we’ve devoted this whole page to very specific awards to each of the living consoles (R.I.P. GameCube and Xbox), so we can tip our hat to achievements that otherwise might go unnoticed. And for all of you mobile gamers out there wondering where our “Best game to halfheartedly play once and then immediately regret paying money for it” award is, you realize there’s no law against owning a DS, right?
“Uncluttered, uncomplicated... and totally unoriginal.” That is how we described Microsoft’s biggest dashboard update to date, back when we got our first glimpse at this year’sE3.
You know what? We were wrong... clever with our use of alliteration, but still wrong. The New Xbox Experience is a definite improvement. The environment is refreshingly open and expansive now, taking full advantage of widescreen televisions and displaying as much information, if not more, without crowding your vision. And the avatars, while clearly stolen from Nintendo’s Wii, are surprisingly fun to play with. Check out our Celebrity Xbox Avatarsfor the proof.
Above: A small sampling of what’s possible with the NXE
Box art for DLC? The inter-game party system? Quickly flipping through all your Achievement icons? The ability to install titles to your hard drive, thereby avoiding the sound of a military-grade paper shredder? We love all these additions, but only one guaranteed the 360 update’s inclusion in our awards – Netflix’s instant and endless queue of near-DVD-quality movies and shows. Your move, competing consoles...
We can’t fess up to a great deal of affection for Wii. Sorry, that’s just the case. The flood of awful gutter software and Nintendo’s preference of releasing Wii This and Wii That over actual video games is distressing, but amidst the junk were a handful of developers who tried to shake Wii’s second-rate stigma, and we’re proud as hell of their efforts.
Grasshopper’s No More Heroes jump started Wii’s 2008 lifespan, and gameplay irks aside, it was a visually distinct, violent, hardcore mess of a game that filled a void Nintendo didn’t even seem to know it had. Boom Blox and de Blob both managed to mix quality gameplay with a clean, crisp presentation and motion controls that, gasp, actually worked.
Nintendo didn’t totally blow it though – Wario Land: Shake It! proves there’s still a chance we could see a new, sprite-based Mario game at some point, and of course there’s no forgetting Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the absolute end all-be all of Nintendo fan service.
Plus a special shout-out to Art Style: ORBIENT and World of Goo, the exact kind of content we want to see on WiiWare.
It’s sorta hard to believe now, but once upon a time (the 1990s), Nintendo was the console king of RPGs. In the bitter faceoffbetween Nintendo and Sega, the former had complete dominance of the genre, only to relinquish it to Sony via Final Fantasy VII in 1997. Every Nintendo platform since has been shockingly devoid of memorable RPGs… until the DS decided to take back the throne with a collection of irresistible titles from the past, present and future.
Past – Final Fantasy IV, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest IV, Rhapsody, Disgaea DS
Present – Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Luminous Arc 2, World Ends With You, Sonic Chronicles
Future – Dragon Quest V, Dragon Quest IX, Sands of Destruction
And that’s just this year. Add in games released between its 2004 launch and today and you have a system that can’t be beat when it comes to RPGs. And after the highly impressive Final Fantasy IV, we can’t imagine Square will go too much longer without porting Final Fantasy VII to the most popular system out right now.
You shouldn’t brush your teeth with a screwdriver. You shouldn’t flip a pancake with a shovel. And you should NEVER play a first-person shooter or real-time strategy with anything but a mouse and keyboard. This year, PC gamers laughed as they scored headshots – in games like Left 4 Dead, CoD:WaW, and Far Cry 2 – with pinpoint accuracy while their console counterparts slowly panned their cameras with clumsy thumbsticks.
Above: Try making that shot with a crusty old controller
And let’s not forget about the poor fools who tried to feed their RTS fix with Supreme Commander on the 360 this year. PC gamers also got to sample great indie hits like Sins of a Solar Empire and big budget blockbusters like Red Alert 3.
Sure, the PC gets its fair share of shoddy console ports. But we couldn’t care less about whether or not Spider-Man: Web of Shadows sucked. When it comes to quality shooters and strategy games that actually matter, the PC is still the only system in town.
For Xbox 360 owners, the opportunity to play a quirky, artsy game like Braid was seen as a bold step forward in indie development. But for PS3 owners, smart, quirky, downloadable games by small developers have become routine. We’ll see your Braid, 360, and we’ll raise you flOw, Everyday Shooter, PixelJunk Eden, The Last Guy, EchoChrome and Linger in Shadows, a title so highbrow and obscure that we’re not even sure it qualifies as a game (Sony insists that it doesn’t). And that’s not even counting the as-yet-unreleased Flower, an outrageously unique and colorful flight through the mind of an oppressed daffodil.
Above: Linger in Shadows, the weirdest thing you'll play all year
True, Braid is great, and we’re not actually trying to diminish that greatness. But if you want to see more games like it, the PS3 is the place to be right now. Leave it to the most expensive, overtly corporate console to be the biggest supporter of weird, high-end games that’d probably never sell at retail.
A full year after we last marveled at its ability to stay alive, the PS2 is not only still around, but it’s (mostly) resisted the backslide into budget-gaming hell that “dead” consoles inevitably fall into. This year, Sony’s eight-year-old console has received a thin but steady trickle of high-profile games, including Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, Persona 3 FES, Persona 4, an underrated port of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and the best-reviewed version of Quantum of Solace. Robust ports of PSP hits like Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and Silent Hill: Origins have also made strong additions to its library, and the console remains a viable destination for the ever-popular LEGO, WWE, Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises.
Above: What?! They're still making games for PS2?
True, it’s also gotten its own awful editions of games like Alone in the Dark and Mercenaries 2, but in the face of all the quality released for the system this year, we’re forced to wonder why the developers behind them thought they could get away with releasing crappy ports. This isn’t the Wii, for God’s sake.
While it doesn’t see releases from quite as many triple-A franchises as its console cousins (or even the Nintendo DS), the PSP began and ended March 2008 with stellar entries in two of videogaming’s most titanic franchises: God of War and Final Fantasy VII. God of War: Chains of Olympus dropped on March 4 in the US, and immediately garnered accolades for pushing the limits of the PSP’s performance and graphics. It was also every inch a full-fledged God of War game, with the action just as tight and Kratos just as brutal as he was in his PS2 appearances.
Above: Only on PSP, suckas
Meanwhile, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII – which hit the US on March 24 – delivered beautiful visuals (most of them in its absurdly lavish cutscenes) while successfully reinventing the series as an action-RPG. Both games deserve recognition not only for delivering top-notch experiences, but for delivering them on a handheld that’s frequently overlooked.