Game of the Year 2009: The Crispies
The year 2009 wasn't so epic. Our perception that the gaming world is built on a strong foundation gave way to a sense that the concrete has yet to set. Last year's boast about the "recession-proof" medium is gone, and as a malaise set in (around mid-summer, according to my Malaise-O-Meter), we started looking forward to 2010.
The big three console makers -- those icons that we pillory even as we look to them for guidance -- showed us they were scared. They resorted to stalling tactics, tinkering around the edges, appending suffixes to their existing creations: PS3 Slim. DSi. PSP Go. (Wii HD? Keep dreaming.) Microsoft already had enough Xbox 360 suffixes to go around, so they rearranged theirs like refrigerator magnets to make it look like they cut prices.
Studios folded, sometimes into each other, sometimes into the ether. Ditto magazines and Web sites. With development teams strained, suddenly the 2009 release schedule looked like a retreat scene from "Braveheart," with game makers stampeding to the solace of 2010's big, round number.
The gray mood only made it all the more surprising when we reflected on 2009 and recalled a ton of memorable moments. Wait a minute, everyone, while we were all flipping our official Onechanbara desk calendars to the next decade, stuff happened! Stuff worthy of awards! So who needs new consoles or earth-shaking releases? We've got the Crispies.
Most Ridiculous Title (Tie)
AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! -- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity
Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This?
One way to get attention is to make an unusual game. The other is to give it an unusual title. Aaaaa! and Badman did both. One is a pupil-dilating simulation of base jumping. The other is a goofy, quick, surprisingly deep sim game that makes you ponder the biological and architectural considerations that shape the construction of an RPG dungeon. I know, it sounds boring -- that's why they called it Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! and not Biological and Architectural Considerations of Dungeon Construction.
Oddest Moment in a Major Press Conference
Nintendo, Rock and Roll Climber
They may be meaningless industry B.S., but we still follow the major trade-show press conferences with delight because of their potential for classic WTF moments. The weirdest, most awkward moment of the year happened at Nintendo's GDC keynote, where Rock and Roll Climber was put through its paces by some poor fellow who never thought he would be asked to demo a terrible WiiWare game before thousands of irritated developers and reporters. The first 10 seconds of the video above capture the spirit of the moment.
This same keynote featured the creepiest picture of Shigero Miyamoto in history (and that's saying something).
Say what you will about Bobby Kotick, at least he's clear about his money-grubbing intentions. With Band Hero's $200 Deluxe bundle, Modern Warfare 2's ludicrous $150 night-vision Prestige Edition, and the $120 DJ Hero and Tony Hawk Ride, "Activision seems determined to make the sub-$100 game a thing of the past," as Kyle Orland put it to me. Of course, that plan only works as long as people keep buying, and there are signs that the populace is tiring of plastic toy tie-ins. Thank goodness. We're running out of room under the couch.
Best Non-Bargain-Bin Bargains
Steam's "Complete" Packs
Here's the trouble with bargain bins. They seem like a nice idea, but once you get to the actual bin, you have to dig through piles of crap like Anubis III: The Anubining and Orvis Presents: Fantasy Canoe '98. So while some of us remain ambivalent about the death of physical media, Steam -- the anti-Activision -- made a good case for download-only bargain bins this year with a fantastic series of Complete Packs. There's very little chaff in these things. Among the best bundles are the THQ Complete Pack, with 18 mostly AAA games for 100 bucks, and the stranded-on-a-desert-island-
Most Controversial Box Art
Kyle Orland thinks that the box art you see above is the best of the year. I think it is the worst. Hence this award for the Most Controversial Box Art of 2009. And hey, even though I hate it, at least it's distinctive. The other day, I brought up my 360 dashboard and it showed me the box art for the three most recent games I'd played. They were Batman: Arkham Asylum, Brutal Legend, and Rock Band 2. Here's what those three boxes look like together.
Intense-looking dude front and center: check. Bright lights: check. Dude's holding some vaguely phallic thing: check. Misty blue background: check. And so on. Give the Borderlands box a few points for being different. (Take away a lot more points for being stomach-turningly awful, but still. Different.)
Gus Mastrapa-est Game
Noby Noby Boy
"When Boy eats and farts certain objects out, an in-game voice will pronounce that item in Japanese. Players are able to adjust the volume of these farts." --Noby Noby Boy Wikipedia entry
Regular readers of this publication know that Gus Mastrapa is among the most beloved members of the Game Trust. When I walk into a room, people sharpen their knives. When Gus walks into a room, people sharpen their knives to cut him a slice of imported cheese that they have been saving for just such a special occasion. That's because Gus, while a discriminating critic, is generally full of joy, bliss, and kind-hearted thoughts.
Noby Noby Boy was made for people like Gus (and he does indeed like the game, by the way). Keita Takahashi's PSN game was criticized for being a lesser work than Katamari Damacy -- a gripe that could be leveled at a great many games -- but there's a purity to its calm, meandering play. I mean, just look at that Wikipedia quote above. If that's not a game worth having around, we're in the wrong business.
The "Pull It Out of the Sky" Award for Most Annoying Gameplay Sequence
The Beginning of Demon's Souls
This award is named in honor of the infamous Star Destroyer sequence that single-handedly shaved a good 10 points off the Metacritic score for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. That level was miserable, yet annoyance isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes a game like Demon's Souls means to get under your skin. A surprise hit at the end of 2009, Demon's Souls was hailed by old-schoolers like me who admired a game that had the guts to be really freaking difficult.
In all honesty, we could give the Most Annoying Gameplay Sequence award to practically any part of Demon's Souls, but given that many people didn't make it past the first 15 minutes, that seems to be the appropriate point of focus.
The Conker Award for Best LOLs (tie)
Overlord II and New Super Mario Bros. Wii
There's more than one way to make a gamer laugh. In Overlord II, Rhianna Pratchett did it with sharp writing. She livened up this young series by weaving quick gags and clever snippets throughout the lord-and-minions action of this quirky game. Some of the jokes go by so quickly that players might miss them, which is laudable. Less confident writers hit you over the head with their wit; Pratchett is self-assured enough to respect our intelligence.
Then you have New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which has no writing to speak of but may be the most popular comedy game of the year. Cramming four characters into one screen is a recipe for slapstick farce that harkens back to film's silent era. It may not be the gold standard of the Mario series, but the laughs and howls coming from Crispy's game room the week after New SMB Wii were infectious nonetheless.
The Duke Nukem Forever Memorial Award for Most Perpetually Delayed Game That Nobody Cares About Anymore
Alan Wake is about a writer. We are writers. It follows that we would be interested in Alan Wake. And we were, when it was announced at E3 in 2005. Yes, two-thousand-freaking-five. More than four years later, we have reached our saturation point with this game. We have seen the trailers, heard the excuses, and written the many previews. It's all felt like an unending game of hide-and-go-seek. Well, olly olly oxen free, Alan Wake. Coming out in Q2 2010, you say? Believe it when we see it.
The "SEGA!" Award for Most Unexpectedly Good Ad Campaign
Sony, "It Only Does Everything"
Sony's PR gaffes this decade would have been bad enough -- rootkits, the fake PSP blog, Kaz Hirai's "$599" press conference, etc. -- but they were made worse by the fact that Sony put on a public face like nothing was wrong.
Late this year, that attitude suddenly changed. The "It Only Does Everything" tagline in Sony's current advertising reads as a direct response to every smart-ass blogger, myself included, who ever kicked the PS3 while it was down (an intent made somewhat less subtle by the ad above). Sony took dead aim. And even my most jaded colleagues have admitted in hushed tones that it's an effective pitch. It prompts that moment of realization: Hey, the PS3 really is quite a capable rig. Sony may not be No. 1 anymore, but these ads make us remember why they once were.
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