In considering the inevitable online and journalistic discussion of 2009's Game of the Year candidates, I went back and listened to one of my favorite Bombcasts: the nearly 3 hour epic discussion/battle royale between Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto 4 for that honor last year. It always is interesting (at least for me) to look back and see what was the best, especially in a yearly model. Thus I started thinking to my self, "Hey, Self, you've been around for 25 of those year and three months of another. What were the best games of those respective 365-day cycles?"
So here I attempt to give my nominees for that honor: Game of the Year, for every year I've been alive, starting with 1984 and resulting in my decision for 2009. Before I begin, a few ground rules:
1. I have played any game I name as the best; I can't just assume all the good things I've heard are true
2. There can be only one. No ties, no matter how amazing a year was. I'm looking at you, 98.
3. The release dates are based on the North American release; this will become mostly important in the NES years, when there were years that seperated some of the best titles coming out in the US. I refer to Giant Bomb and Wikipedia for accurate release dates.
4. All of these are of course my subjective (if I'd like to think informed) opinion. Feel free to discuss and disagree in comments. That's what this is for, really.
So without further ado, lets start off with:
In many ways, 1984 represents the nadir of video game history. The crash has occured and the industry was unsure where it was going to exist for another year. So it would be easy to disregard Marble Madness as simply the best of the worst. But that would undermine the simple genius of the game. The Escher-inspired surreal visuals and ambiant soundtrack create a sensory experience, but what really draws the game to a new level is the tactial marble-shaped controller. By physically moving an object in digital space, it provides a certain mind-turning physicalness to the gameplay. Add the fact that halfway through the game begins to break its own rules, with levels that move upwards, and you have a deceptively heavy, artful arcade classic.
There seem to be two sets of gamers: those that have never heard of the Alternate Reality series and those that speak of it in hushed reverance. Even by modern standards, the scope and ambition of the games are staggering, a six-game epic that would allow you to transfer character data from one game to the next. The opening scene of the City alone is worth induction into a fictional game museum, especially considering the generation and hardware it was released on. Earth's inhabitants are all abducted, along with the player character, and transported to some vaguely alien other location. It then becomes your mission to determine where you are, why everyone seems to know you and how you can get back home. The game's titular city was a defined place to wander in, with set characters and items to encounter. Allegiances and relationships could be formed and broken; in fact, a hidden alignment unknown to the player but randomly generated in character creation would effect how NPCs would react to you initially. Sadly, Philip Price's opus was left incomplete with Datasoft went belly up after only two releases. Alternate Reality is a unsung masterpiece of games and an inspiring example of ambition and innovation. To say it was ahead of its time is a disgusting understatement.
And thus begins the Nintendomination. Honestly, I'm having a hard time finding something to say about Super Mario Bros. that hasn't been said already a million times. While it didn't really "invent" platformers, it certain perfected the genre early on and offered a vision of what gaming was to be for the next 10 years and beyond. The amount of detailed attention that goes into level design, the varied enemies you encounter, the relative graphical detail, the responsive controls, the unforgetable digital honky tonk, the amount of devious secrets to uncover and enjoy. Every individual piece of the game is so finely crafted that it in one instant rewrote the history of games. 25 years later, the firm foundations of the game still prove valid, as Nintendo releases another 2D Mario platformer. While there is no way to guess where gaming would be today without Mario, it is undeniable that it would be decidely different.
The remarkable thing about the original Zelda isn't only that it was developed and designed simoltaniously with Super Mario Bros. Nor is it that both projects were headed by the same mind in Shigeru Miyamoto. The remarkable thing is that both games are so remarkably different, despite that similar origin. Yes, there is something about the art direction and graphical layout that give away that the same developers worked on the game, but the head space experience of the games is completely different. While Mario is about precise movement and jumping in a linear path, Link's adventure is based on exploration and puzzle solving. The opening screen, which dumps you in what looks like a vast wasteland with no clear direction of where to go next, is both daunting and exhilerating. While Mario ultimately would have more influence over time, the first Zelda game shows an amount of sophistication both exhibited by the developers and expected of the players. For anyone who was paying attention, it could be taken as a sign that Nintendo was serious about making games for everyone.
The arcade title Bionic Commando is a competent but unremarkable shooter, pitched as a spirtual successor to Commando with a grappling hook mechanic and super deformed graphic. The Nintendo title Bionic Commando is a sci-fi shooter/RPG hybrid about a group of terrorist Nazis attempting to ressurect Hit-...um, "Master-D". Either way, this is clearly an improvement and was another sign that Capcom (along with Konami and of course Nintendo) was one of the big shot developers in this budding new age of video games. The swinging mechanic which replaces jumping creates both an obstacle and a sense of freedom, allowing you to jettison upward and take care of "Badds" that much more easily. The bullet collection mechanic and the ability to earn in-game clues as to what awaits ahead of you just adds layer of depth. And to be true to the name, Commando style top-down shooter levels are included to break up the pacing a bit. While the name has been somewhat tarnished with GRIN's sub-par stab at retooling the series, the original still remains among the prime NES titles, despite having a somewhat lower profile to some other Capcom brethren.
And that will do it for now. Tune in next week when I cover year 1989-1993. Here's a hint: there's more Nintendo.