I realize I'm a bit late to the new year's party, but trying to summarize an entire year is hard enough. If I tried to do it before the year actually ended, I'd be doing a disservice to DJ Max Portable: Black Square, which came in the mail December 30th. While one of my favorite games of the year, it's not going to make my "game of the year cut", for reasons I'm not entirely sure of myself. When talking about the best games of the year, how do I measure that? Disregarding that game preference is subjective, what priorities do I give to innovation (successful or otherwise), graphical polish, longevity? At least for me, there's a tendency to consider the ratio of my enjoyment to my expectations, which is why Black Square and others, like Metal Gear Solid 4, don't make the cut. Not unlike information theory, the games that meant the most to me this year are those that surprised me. Even if Black Square is what I'm still playing at the end of 2009, it'll have blurred together into itself and other DJ Max iterations. In reality the games of 2008 are not going to be decided here and now, but sometime in 2011 or 2012 when I say "holy crap, wasn't it awesome when I shot that barrel?" (I hope that never happens.)
There is another tendency which people have noticed, and this list is guilty of. It contains more games released near the end of the year than games from early in it. Pessimists claim it's because these are the games played more recently. I'd like to posit that, just maybe, we're getting better at designing games over time. The alternative is incredibly depressing.
No More Heroes
I cannot praise this game enough. While it's come under fire from many reviewers for its supposedly shallow open world and linear level design, those are exactly what makes it a perfect example of a game's narrative themes being reinforced by its game mechanics (and vice versa). Travis's world is stark and existential. Literally the only things to do in the game are kill, sleep, eat, consume, and (the ultimate goal) fuck. The existential crisis of a Final Fantasy character is shallow, because they will invariably face down their destiny - their purpose - sometime around hour 60. The existential crisis of Travis is very real, and the player faces the same one. Have you found an exit?
And aside from that, or maybe because of it, the game dodges the pretentiousness of MGS2 or Braid and is fun on a visceral level. Whether it's beating down a hundred goons or avoiding a crotch laser, you're enjoying yourself the entire time playing it.
Mega Man 9
For all the handwaving about "nonlinear gameplay", "player-driven narrative", and "immersion", here is a game that does them all with aplomb and no one even realizes it. The choices you make in Mega Man are those that really matter - the ones that affect the game mechanics, not the ones that change some text in a dialogue tree or chance the appearance of an otherwise irrelevant NPC. The Mega Man universe is immediately familiar to anyone over the age of 20 (and many of those under it) and the game leverages that to draw the player in with as much meaning (i.e. none) and far more emotional investment (how many broken contollers?) than most other games this year. As for immersion - do you seriously think about something other than this game while playing it? There's no downtime to rest and no mercy for the distracted.
The marriage of new design ideas to tight and polished old games that we saw in Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Pac-Man: Championship Edition is here as well. Downloadable expansions, time trials and leaderboards, and achievements - many of which acknowledge the game's fundamentally old design (can you imagine Halo 3 having a "beat this game five times in a day" achievement?) - all drive home the fact that we really did have some good ideas back in the 1980s.
I wrote of the ratio of expectations to reality earlier; my expectations for this game were insanely high. Bethesda overdelivered. The game is deeply flawed, from technical and design views. But there's an equally deep satisfaction to be had crossing the D.C. ruins, seeing familiar landmarks, and exploring areas that feel genuinely undiscovered. In a year where level design took a backseat to flashy graphics and writing in so many RPGs, Fallout 3 shows just how much good level design can carry a game just as last year Mass Effect showed how poor level design can destroy one.
A victim of the recent retailer-exclusivity trend, Soul Bubbles is a puzzle-"platformer" with a focus on a slow pace and accessibility. It should be studied by anyone who wants to know how to make a game with a shallow learning curve appease nearly everyone regardless of gaming preferences.
I'm reserving final judgement on Mirror's Edge until the DLC comes out. I think that's the game this really wanted to be, even if the developers didn't know it until after they wrote such a horrible frame story.
Rock Band 2 per se is only an iterative improvement to last year's version. The key this year was that Harmonix showed they knew how to manage a community that now dwarfs most other online games in players and dollars.
LittleBigPlanet is the tip of an enormous iceberg. I think by the end of 2009 I'll know whether it should've been here or not.
Persona 4, Valkyria Chronicles, and World of Goo are simply games I have not played enough yet. They probably belong here.