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Top 10 Games of 2009 - 7. Punch-Out!! (Wii)


My favourite games tend to have simple controls but with a lot of depth. I would much rather play a game with a two-button setup than something like this:

  Fuck this.
 Fuck this.

The original Punch-Out is the posterchild for simplicity mixed with depth. It's basically a d-pad + one button, but the game's "level design" -- the opponents that you fight -- keep the game from being too simple. You have to have good reflexes, a little bit of knowledge of your opponent, and you have to experiment to find the best way to hurt the opponent. You also have to not get nervous because the line between success and failure is pretty damn thin. It's rewarding when you finally do it right and that excitement makes the game really fun.

Punch-Out Wii takes the original's formula and makes it more complex. Now you have to pay attention to how the opponent is trying to hit you instead of just reacting when you see him move. Now there's four times as many attack stances and just as many ways to get stars. Punch-Out Wii is essentially a remake of the original. It keeps the core mechanics but adds so much to the classic formula.

And in this case, I don't like it as much. Punch-Out Wii is focused more on pattern recognition and memorization than the original, which was just sheer reaction time. I liked that a lot more. I'm much better when it's pure reaction time. That's why I can crush Title Defense Soda Popinski, a guy that's really tough but straightforward, while getting beaten to a pulp by Title Defense Glass Joe thanks to his delayed punch. When I play Punch-Out Wii, I often get frazzled trying to concentrate on the visual and audio cues and reacting to them so quickly. It takes me a second to process what's going on and to make the connection to move or wait for a delayed punch. This is a hard game (which is cool), but there's no way to win some of these fights on your first try. That's kind of not cool.

One thing that Punch-Out Wii has over the original is that it's way more rewarding to down an opponent. When you beat an opponent, you absolutely know that you've earned it. You don't get lucky in this game, you get better. That, along with the awesome recreation of the classic Punch-Out boxers, makes this game absolutely worth playing. Too bad most of them don't talk in English anymore. You just have to be prepared for a hell of a lot of trial and error. Fortunately the game eases you into it with a nice difficulty curve and a training mode that lets you explore what you can and cannot do.

More than ever before, Punch-Out is a puzzle game. It's a game where you have to process what's going on and crack the puzzle before time runs out (or in this case, your life runs out). Some puzzles, like the Major Circuit on Title Defense Mode, are awesome. They're punishing but fair. Some, like Bald Bull 2, are just awful. Depending on the day, I can walk away from a session of Punch-Out Wii thinking it's a fantastic game or a frustrating one.

I usually lean towards it being pretty darn good. There are countless ways that they could have messed up a sequel to a franchise that's been dead 20 years. I may not like it as much but it's a damn competent game.

Top 10 Games of 2009 - #8. Katamari Forever (PS3)

I feel kind of weird putting a collection in my top 10 - especially since I snubbed the excellent God of War Collection - but at least this game's got new modes and features and isn't just a straight port with upgraded visuals. Namco did a nice job with Katamari Forever.

After Katamari Forever, there is no reason to play any other version of Katamari again. It has everything from the first three Katamari games. The load times are much improved. The graphics are nicer. There's some minimal online functionality, trophies, all that next-gen crap. The game's new features are nice additions. There's a couple of powerups scattered throughout each level that suck everything within range into your Katamari. There's a jump button now. There's even a couple of new levels.

And yet, I like Katamari Forever a lot less than I liked Katamari in 2004 and 2005. If this was a fresh idea and not the fourth or fifth Katamari game in the last five years, it probably would have been #2 or #3. This series, more than any other that I can think of, is one that suffers from the novelty wearing off. Katamari is an awesome concept, but when the magic goes away and you're left with the gameplay, it loses a lot of its luster. I still do enjoy rolling up the world - and Katamari Forever's got at least half a dozen "big" levels - but there's a lot of "been there, done that" to it.

The new additions to the game are nice, but there's a problem with each one. The jump button is cool, but because the original levels were not designed with a jump button in mind, there's a whole bunch of invisible walls added so you don't completely break the game. This really interferes with the whole open-world aspect of Katamari. There's also an unlockable "drive" mode that lets you move twice as fast as usual - think the race track level from We Love Katamari - but they have all these car sound effects that are completely unnecessary and detract from the crazy soundtrack and sound effects. There's also this absolutely awful level where you have to get to 10,000 degrees and rolling up anything cold is pretty much an instant game over. It's totally not fun - the whole point of Katamari is mindless destruction, not being careful. This is what happens when you try to mix up the formula though: Katamari is all about doing one thing repetitively and adding any new ideas is usually a Bad Idea. Better to make new levels and new objects to roll up than resort to a needless gimmick.

Katamari's still fun though. Maybe it's not exciting or novel anymore, but the feel of rolling through a city and destroying it is so satisfying. The sound effects are perfect. The graphic style is hilarious. I can't play this every day but I have to go back to it at least once a year. Katamari's a great idea with equally great execution.


Top 10 Games of 2009 -- #9. New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii)


I have a lot of complaints about this game -- so many that people like to say that I'm overly critical of this game or view Mario 3/World through rose-tinted glasses -- so I'm going to start with the positives here.

Let's get the most important thing out of the way: Mario Wii (worst name ever, by the way) (crap, I'm being negative again) is a single player game. Yeah, you can play it multiplayer and that's the big advertising draw. And yeah, multiplayer is fun -- or at least, it *can* be fun unless you're trying to actually play it seriously. That's a whole other matter that will likely frustrate you. But anyway, multiplayer is a fun little diversion and an interesting twist on the definition of classic games, Mario. That said, this game is clearly designed to be played a single-player Mario game. This isn't a cheap party game, there's a real honest-to-god Mario game underneath, and it's pretty good. The level design stands out bigtime here. Each level is unique and you can tell that people that really like Mario made it. It's probably the most 'atmospheric' Mario game in that the game can trip you out or make you jump or laugh or whatever it's going for. It does a great job of immersing you into the game, probably moreso than any other Mario game. From a design standpoint, this game stands with some of the best 2d pure platformers ever.

Now comes a "but", and it's a pretty big one. The physics on this game are all jacked up. I was listening to a game designer give an interview some time ago and he had this to say about Mario: "Mario has the perfect jump. the trajectory just feels perfect. You run at just the right speed, you jump at just the right angle. It just feels so good to jump."

Mario Wii doesn't feel good to jump. It's slippery as all hell and the whole game is slowed down. You can outrun turtle shells!!! I can understand why they did this -- multiplayer and whatnot -- but I love just flying through a level at warp speed in old Mario games. I love jumping off a high platform and just flying blindly, hoping to adjust in mid-air, not really knowing what's coming. The level design, while good, is more focused on precise jumping than momentum.

The powerups are completely mediocre. The propeller suit is the best of the bunch, but that's because the rest are completely pointless. You've got a fire flower, an ice flower (kinda cool, but not really all that great), and a Penguin Suit that is just an ice flower + a slide. The penguin suit only exists in like one world too, it's like the frog suit in Mario 3. There's Yoshi, but he's only in like 6 or 7 levels total. What a ripoff. I think my biggest complaint with the powerups, though, is the way the game implements them. In previous games, you could choose to use the frog suit or you could swim through the level small. You could fly with the cape or shoot enemies with fireballs. In Mario Wii, the game forces certain powerups down your throat. You'll get to a level where you need to freeze enemies and you'll get an ice flower every two steps. It allows the designers to make more specific challenges, but ultimately I feel like I'm being led around by the developers without having the freedom to do it the way I want. You can still be unconventional, but it feels more like you're being stubborn than doing anything legitimately exciting.

And that leads me to probably the biggest complaint I have -- it's just uninspired at times. It borrows so heavily from Mario 3 that it forgets to be its own thing. It doesn't feel like it has any new ideas outside of the multiplayer. It sometimes feels more like a tribute album than an exciting new game.

So yeah, despite all that, this game is pretty good. A solid 2d Mario game is something that's actually pretty rare these days, and because of that, it feels refreshing. Too bad it also feels kind of.. complacent, for lack of a better word.
Kind of a negative review for the #9 game of the year, huh?

Top 10 games of 2009 -- #10. Retro Game Challenge (DS)


I'm not sure if you have to be a child of the 80s to appreciate Retro Game Challenge, but it probably helps. If you grew up during the NES era, this game is practically a must-have.

Retro Game Challenge is a collection of eight tribute games. On their own, they're really not all that special, but they come together so well. Cosmic Gate is a Galaga clone that's better than Galaga; Robot Ninja Haggle Man is a three-part series that evolves from being a simple platformer into a kickass Ninja Gaiden/Metroid hybrid. Star Prince is a sweet as hell vertical shooter a la Astro Warrior or Star Force.

The highlight of the game, though, is Guadia Quest, a full 5-10 hour RPG that's ripping off Dragon Quest so hard that you can't help but laugh. This sounds kind of lame, but it's actually pretty awesome - you get party members, explore huge dungeons and can acquire a whole bunch of pets named Guadias. It's got all of the charm that your standard DQ game has, only without the endless grind of early DQ games. It's really fun.

The games are cool, but it's the presentation that sells Retro Game Challenge. The game is basically set in the 80s - from 1983 to 1988 or so - and every month you get a new gaming magazine. It's basically Nintendo Power. Every issue, you get new cheat codes, a top 5 of what games are hot, people writing to the editors, and tons of inside jokes. These are particularly awesome if you were around back when. Every game has four challenges that you have to complete to move on to the next game, and if you don't like the game or if it's too hard you can just use cheat codes to blast your way through the game. Just like old times.

The biggest problem with RGC is the order in which you unlock games. Because the game is chronological, you have to beat all four challenges before advancing the plot enough to move on to the next game. This can get a little repetitive, especially if you don't like a game. Rally King, an RC Pro Am ripoff, is definitely the worst of the bunch and having to play it over and over is not so fun. Fortunately there's cheat codes so you can zip through it no problem, but still, sometimes you just want to play the RPG or the shooter.

This is a great game though. It has pretty low replay value because the main appeal of the game is the nostalgia and the charm, but it's fun as hell. Too bad it sold so poorly - RGC2 is probably never going to come out here. I bet that game is even better than this one because they're mimicking the SNES instead of the NES. Those games are probably even more fun than the ones in here. It's not exactly surprising that it sold so bad since this game is pretty much the definition of niche, but it's still disappointing. This game has more heart than a lot of big-name games.

worst game I've played this year...

is Noby Noby Boy. I love Katamari to death, but I played 20 minutes of Noby Noby Boy and have utterly no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. All I knew was that I wanted to be doing something other than whatever I was doing. God bless you, Keita Takahashi. Your brain managed to shit out a game that actually hurts my brain.
Noby Noby Boy probably isn't actually a bad game, but fucked if there's any reason to play it.

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