I cannot help but look at this year with mixed emotions. On the one hand, for me as a European who enjoys arcade games, this has been an absolutely stellar year with Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu, Deathsmiles, The King of Fighters XIII and Arcana Heart 3 getting localized, Muchi Muchi Pork! and Pink Sweets being released in a region-free port compilation, and the excellent Hard Corps: Uprising coming out via Xbox Live Arcade. On the other hand, the list of games that failed to live up to my expectations is long, including Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Dead Space 2, Shadows of the Damned, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Bulletstorm in addition to many more that I'm not going to bother mentioning here. No year is free of letdowns, of course, but it's very rare for this many releases to disappoint me in a single year.
Anyhow, let's forget about the bummers for now. Here are my ten favourite 2011 releases, my five favourite pre-2011 releases I didn't end up checking out until this year, and the ten upcoming 2012 releases I'm most excited for. If you're American and some of the releases seem off it's probably because, as mentioned earlier, I'm European.
This fantastic shoot ‘em up package features several excellent modes with loads of challenging bullet patterns and fun scoring systems that mix and match elements from a variety of games in the genre (I especially enjoy the scoring in Arrange A, which combines Daioujou and Daifukkatsu 1.5 and ends up being more fun than both). It also provides an incomparable audiovisual experience with superb music – the Black Label soundtrack in particular is just out of this world – and some of the best 2D graphics in the business (colourful, well-animated and extremely detailed, with countless dazzling special effects and beautifully rendered enemy sprites dominating the screen at virtually all times – the visual experience is second only to Vanillaware’s stuff in terms of overall quality, and unmatched in terms of intensity). Espgaluda II and Mushihime-sama Futari 1.5 remain my favourite games from Cave, but this has taken Daioujou’s place as my favourite Donpachi title, and it’s easily my favourite release of the year.
Muchi Muchi Pork! is well-paced, very challenging and has great boss battles, but more importantly, it's got what is without question my favourite shoot ‘em up scoring system. Collecting pigs released by destroyed enemies, unleashing powerful lard attacks to fill the screen with giant, golden pig-head medals and then sucking them all up is incredibly addicting and immensely satisfying. Pink Sweets with its crazy rank system and unique bomb mechanic is pretty fun as well, but I honestly haven’t played much of it – whenever I pop this port collection in I inevitably end up spending most of my time playing Pork, even if my initial intention is to practice Sweets. The only real complaint I have is that the games didn’t get the graphical upgrade included in most of Cave’s other Xbox 360 ports. They would have looked great with hi-res sprites.
Hard Corps: Uprising builds on the foundation laid by the Contra games of old with a plethora of new special moves, and the result is the fastest run ‘n gun I have ever played. By mastering the dash, the vault, the dodge et al. one can zoom through the stages at lightning speed, breezing through enemies and other obstacles like they’re nothing, and it feels absolutely incredible. The presentation might be underwhelming (the playable characters and many of the enemies are represented by hand-drawn, nicely animated sprites, but most everything else is polygonal, primitive and just doesn’t look very good – it's especially disappointing when you consider that Arc System Works have produced stunning 2D games in the past), but even so, this is an excellent arcade-style run 'n gun and one of the finest games released this year.
4. DiRT 3
This is the first Colin McRae game I’ve bought since Colin McRae Rally 2.0 for the PlayStation, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed. It looks and sounds amazing, the handling feels perfect (it has just the degree of realism I want from a game like this: it’s no Burnout, but it’s no hardcore racing simulator either) and the tracks, with their different surfaces and weather effects, are great: there are sunny desert courses, rainy forest roads, nighttime snow tracks and more, and drifting around corners is spectacular fun in all of them. The one thing I don’t love is the addition of Gymkhana challenges, where the goal isn’t to race but to jump, spin and drift for points, but thankfully that aspect of the game can for the most part be ignored.
This game’s puzzles, while conceptually brilliant, are a bit simpler than I’d have liked, but the detailed 2D environments look gorgeous, the exaggerated character animations are wonderfully fluid, the soundtrack – a mix of jazz, rock and electronic music – is excellent, and the complex supernatural mystery story, which keeps you hooked by constantly introducing new shocking twists and wacky characters, is extremely well-thought-out. It's also one of this year's funniest games. Ghost Trick surprised me with its quality and has left me very excited for Shu Takumi’s next project, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney.
I generally dislike horizontal shoot ‘em ups, but amongst the few I enjoy, Deathsmiles is probably my favourite. The Halloween theme is great, the music is terrific, and it’s really nice to have the ability to shoot both forward and backward. The scoring system never clicked with me and the game doesn’t feel as well-paced or exciting as Cave’s finest (mainly because of the way it’s structured: the player is given a lot of freedom when it comes to the order of the stages and the level of challenge, which is nice in a way, but as a result progression doesn’t feel as natural as in Cave’s other games), but dodging dense bullet patterns and blowing up enemies left and right is nevertheless a lot of fun.
This fighting game has fun characters designs (my personal favourite is Eko, a little girl who has a crudely drawn imaginary friend do all the fighting for her), an arcana system that effectively gives you hundreds of different fighters to choose from, and a unique homing mechanic that allows for exciting, fast-paced battles in which the characters go from exchanging blows on the ground one second to flying around high up in the air the next. The spritework is a bit rough and could use some improvement, but aside from that Arcana Heart 3 is terrific fun, and it’s one of my favourite fighting games.
With its elaborate, richly animated backgrounds and gorgeous character sprites, this is a stunning game (as expected from SNK – they have always been masters of 2D, and their Metal Slug and The Last Blade titles remain some of the best-looking 2D games in existence) and hands down the most beautiful in the genre. It’s also a blast to play even for a low-level player like me: it’s fast, fluid and has a great selection of characters (though some of my favourites from past installments, like Vanessa and Jenet, are missing). If only SNK had the finances to give some of their other franchises the treatment they’ve given King of Fighters…
9. Dark Souls
Dark Souls brings an array of little changes, both good (the world, Lordran, feels larger and more naturally structured than Demon’s Souls’ Boletaria, and the dark fantasy aesthetic is more well-realized than before, with improved monster design and a larger variety of beautiful, somber environments) and bad (technical issues involving for example control responsiveness and framerate are considerably more frequent than in the previous game, and getting around is more tedious as you can’t warp between all the checkpoints), but more than anything else it’s more of what was in Demon’s Souls: an action game that offers a lot of freedom, a unique online system, level and enemy design that requires you to stay on your toes at all times, and an overall experience that is, despite a number of technical and mechanical issues, a very enjoyable one.
10. Gears of War 3
For much of its campaign, Gears of War 3 abandons the dark, gloomy look of its predecessors for a brighter, more colourful aesthetic that for the most part disappointed me. As technologically impressive as it is (the special effects and the lighting are at times jaw-dropping) it offers nothing on the level of, say, traversing the dark, deadly streets of Ephyra in the unforgettable second act of Gears of War, or journeying into the Locust Horde’s magnificent capital, the Nexus, in the fourth act of Gears of War 2. The combat feels like a step down, too: the Lambent are less varied and easier to deal with than the Locust they often replace, and the three AI comrades you always have with you do a bit too good of a job fighting enemies. It says a lot about the quality of the previous games, then, that Gears of War 3 is – despite its shortcomings – a gorgeous game that’s a lot of fun to play, and one of the very best cover-based third-person shooters currently on the market.
Top Five Pre-2011 Games I Didn't Play Until 2011
- Sid Meier's Civilization V
- Rupupu Cube: Lup Salad Portable Matatabi
- Lost Planet 2
- The Adventures of Alundra