3D OR NOT 3D: Super Mario 3D Land
The 3DS seemed like a shoe-in for greatest handheld ever following its E3 2010 premiere, but once it launched this March, doubts set in. Most of the launch games were substandard at best, and the lack of an eShop was a disappointment (and arguably became a bigger one once it materialized). Worst of all, the 3D had gone from an industry-redefining feature to a poorly integrated gimmick. It seemed like the third dimension would never be more than a cute trick. Then Mario came along and proved everyone wrong.
Super Mario 3D Land was made from the ground up with 3D in mind, with each stage built with the idea of portraying depth, distance, and environments in a whole new way. Taking a concept everyone knew, the developers used each level as a way to introduce players to eye-catching features. Top-down stages had Mario jumping upwards at the player, Cheep-Cheeps flew out of the water toward you, and Bowser’s fireballs never seemed more menacing. Beyond those obvious examples were all the subtle ways the stages were designed to incorporate the third dimension. Just as Mario did on every system before the 3DS, his newest game showcased everything that’s special about the handheld while still being one of the most fun games of the year.
Runner-up: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection
MOST MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER GAME: Rift
In a genre filled with massive heavy-hitters towing popular licenses and pre-established fan bases, Rift was an anomaly. When it released earlier this year, it was doubtlessly one of the most stable MMORPGs to launch in some time, and had more content than a majority of MMOs that had already been out for a few years. On top of that, the developers found ways to not just emulate – as is often the case with MMOs – but to innovate, by adding dynamic content in the form of both Rifts and Invasions, both of which provided us with some of the most thrilling, exhilarating experiences we’d ever had in an MMO.
Even more important is the post-release coverage, which Trion hit out of the park. Every month has seen a slew of new quests for high- and low-level players, adding new instances, new quests, new game mechanics, and an entire zone that would be considered a paid expansion in any other game. Rift surprised us, and did a good job at proving that while the industry might be moving toward more games supporting the free-to-play model, there’s absolutely room for premium, subscription-based games as well. And if they’re this good, we’ll gladly pay for them.
Runner-up: DC Universe Online
BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Nintendo’s 3DS Ambassador Program
Usually, people are happy to hear about price cuts. But when Nintendo announced that the retail price for the 3DS would be dropping from $249.99 to $169.99 just four months after the system’s release, it risked angering early adopters who paid full price to support the console at launch. To sweeten the price-slash slap in the face, Nintendo pulled some impressive sleight of hand by pairing the announcement with the unveiling of its 3DS Ambassador Program, which offered early adopters, for free, 10 NES classics and 10 Game Boy Advance games via the Nintendo eShop.
By banking on the nostalgia factor with free treats like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, what might’ve seemed like a desperate attempt to boost sluggish 3DS sales became compelling reason for many to purchase a 3DS at full price. Here’s a big, blocky 8-bit pat on the back for understanding your fanbase, Nintendo.
Runner-up: Sony’s Welcome Back initiative
FAT LADY SINGS: Portal 2
It ain’t over ‘til the… well, you get the idea. To be clear, this isn’t our Game of the Year Award – that’s coming just a little later. Instead, it’s an award for the best ending song in a game, and if you suspect we invented the category simply so we could turn around and immediately hand it to “Want You Gone” in Portal 2, you’re as clever as the artists behind the music. Jonathan Coulton didn’t just write lyrics. He formed the soul of the sequel into words, both summarizing what had happened in this game and already hinting at what could happen in the next. Ellen McLain didn’t just sing. She broke your heart – somehow transforming an emotionless computer voice into a thing of haunting beauty. We still get chills every time the [REDACTED]
“Want You Gone” is the official winner here, but we can’t move on without also honoring “Exile, Vilify” (a track so damn pretty that Valve must have decided we couldn’t handle it, hiding it as an Easter egg) and the Turret Opera (warning: translating the Italian lyrics will lead you down an inescapable wormhole of mind-blowing Portal 2 secrets and possibilities).