Top Ten of 2009 - Gravity Crash

Okay look, if you know me and you know videogames, you know this is on the list. I've gone over my love for this type of game many times before, and Gravity Crash is basically what happens if developers look into my head and pull out a blueprint for the kind of game I most like to play.

Perfunctory description: You carefully pilot a spacecraft through treacherous cave systems collecting gems and picking up fuel and stranded comrades, while fighting against enemy ships, gun emplacements and the occasional boss, and taking out specific targets in the environment.

Check: Glowing vectors. Chippy soundtrack. Smooth and precise control.

If this seems like I'm willing to give a free pass to any game of this type... it's true. However, Gravity Crash happily sits among the best examples of the genre. Its only omission is some kind of tractoring mechanic as in Thrust or Solar Jetman - that kind of interplay tends to engage me the most. Still, there is plenty of variety in the challenges as it is, and the built-in level editor ensures an unlimited amount of new ones.

This game tussled with the two fighters below it, but in the end it's not even a fair fight. The judge is biased.

Top Ten of 2009 - The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match

I was never lucky/crazy enough to own a Neo Geo AES, so the King of Fighters series mainly existed in a parallel universe I didn't have access to, not until I started dabbling in MAME anyway. Even then, a lack of human opponents and a fearsome hardcore reputation ensured that my occasional forays into it were brief and baffling. It's no fun learning a fighter on your lonesome.

Fate intervened, and a friend steeped in KoF gave me a thorough introduction to the series, explaining characters, chunks of storyline, and most importantly playing techniques. A couple of marathon sessions on '98 and 2002 layed the groundwork, but the release of 2002UM early in the year sealed the deal.

Without passing myself off as someone who knows a great deal about the series - I certainly don't - I can say that 2002UM is basically the best version of KoF out there. Call it a greatest hits, a distillation of everything that works. It's another 'dream match' type of game, like '98. No storyline to speak of, just a whole bunch of characters spoiling for a fight (a mammoth roster ensures that everyone's favourites are accounted for).

To a pixel art fan, the AES-based KoF sprites and artwork still look great and move with enough fluidity to stand alongside their polygonal rivals, and the new splash art strikes a nice balance between classic SNK stylings and a more modern Anime look. I've found the character art to be very hit-and-miss from this series, with some truly scary years in there. With XI, XII and this instalment they seems to have finally hit a stride.

And the gameplay? As you might expect from a fighter that places above SFIV in this list, the action is responsive, crunchy, absolutely rock solid. One thing I really like about these games is the weight behind the hits and the physical feel of the characters on the screen. A lot of fighting game wannabes fail in delivering that very fundamental aspect.

Once again, the two-player arcade experience triumphs. It caters for a quick fix but it can also consume your entire day. It doesn't matter if it's not the most visually flashy kid on the block either, because - hoary cliché be damned - great gameplay is ageless.

Top Ten of 2009 - Street Fighter IV

Or, The Cammy and Rose Show

After years of speculation Capcom kicked off an initially promising 'Year of the fighter' with this astonishingly assured piece of work. Since Street Fighter 2 took the world by storm nearly two decades ago the series has branched and evolved into multiple iterations, becoming somewhat arcane for the fighting fan who likes his games quite straightforward: Me. Counters, elaborate combos and -isms were jettisoned in favour of bringing the scrapping back to the accessible immediacy that sunk its teeth into millions of gamers in the early 90s.

The buzz built slowly but surely around the title, positive word-of-mouth spread from preview builds, and lapsed gamers were stirred into enthusiasm once more, fuelled by the memories of mis-spent youth. This was a game you could put in front of someone who hadn't given videogames a second thought since the SNES days, and they'd play through the night.

A few new characters make an appearance, but when it comes to fighters I'm the kind of guy that latches onto a couple of favourites and doesn't budge. I learn a character and pretty much exclusively use them, and in this case it's Cammy. Light, fast, and rangy. Perfect for my in-out playing style. I also have no interest whatsoever in playing strangers online, so all my competitive gaming is done the way it should be: Two players, two sticks, one console, one TV. Favourite characters locked into epic sessions. Rematch rematch rematch. Much punching of shoulders and swearing. Occasional congratulations on particularly admirable wins.

It's not perfect. There are the usual balance issues associated with almost all fighters, and a hair-tearingly cheap end boss. I have issues with the art direction, specifically the character designs. While the ladies manage to escape any serious transgressions, the male characters aren't so lucky. Everyone's had a good thrashing from the ugly stick, particularly a distinctly un-Japanese Ryu. Seriously, this is Capcom we're talking about. Capcom effortlessly spits out iconic, stylish and beautiful character design... so what went wrong here?

Luckily everything else delivers. The stages are bold, colourful and filled with wonderful incidental details that complement the foreground action, and the music is uniformly excellent, particularly the theme for new character C. Viper and the 'Beautiful Bay' location.

My personal tastes in visuals aside, Street Fighter IV turned out to be not only one of the best games of the year, but a truly exemplary arcade fighting game and a damn near perfect two-player experience.

Top Ten of 2009 - PixelJunk Shooter

I'm writing less than a week after the launch of this game, which - knee-jerk reaction or not (time will tell) - has thundered into the upper tier of this list.

It's a goddamn twin-stick-cave-flying shooter.

Only it's not.

OK, if you've heard anything about this game you'll probably have heard how woefully inappropriate and almost misleading the name is. The decision on a title was thrown open to a competition, and for better or worse Shooter was chosen by the winner. You'll also probably hear that a more fitting title would be PixelJunk Fluid, or Elements. The reasoning being that this is more about manipulation of fluid-based physics than taking on hordes of enemies with white-hot laser death.

Physics done well in games can be a joy to play around with. Anyone who's played Half-Life 2 probably spent a good deal of time just messing about with the Gravity Gun, and LittleBigPlanet - while deeply flawed as a platform game - provided an incredibly fun and inventive play set. There's a feel to perfectly-pitched physical movements that is immensely satisfying, and PixelJunk Shooter nails it. So we have water, lava, ice, and magnetic liquid metal to manipulate in the service of rescuing stranded miners, solving puzzles, and dealing with hazards and enemies. Lava melts ice, water cools and hardens lava, and so on. There's a definite sequence of progression through each (rather small-scale) level, and it's the solving of this sequence in the most efficient way that makes the game so compulsive.

PixelJunk Shooter employs the very popular flat-coloured Flash style of visual, which I fully admit I'm not much of a fan of. Flash animation almost invariably makes me think of Monty Python, and my head equates that with a kind of half-arsed cheap 'n' cheerful effect. I can get over it with this game though, because the other elements are done so artfully. The music is lovely and the control of the craft is very intuitive and smooth.

Relatively short and very forgiving in its handling of failure, PixelJunk Shooter provides a wonderfully chilled and enjoyable meshing of old-school concepts and modern technology.

Top Ten of 2009 - Ion Assault

Preview footage of Ion Assault suggested it would be a fairly traditional twin-stick shooter akin to... well... every other twin-stick shooter out there. When it proved to be something different it critically suffered somewhat for it. Damned if you do, etc.

Whilst it does sometimes get very hectic, Ion Assault is more a game of precise movements and carefully though-out routes. The right stick is used for orientation and aiming rather than simply firing directionally, and the player has to absorb particles to charge their main weapon which can then be released to destroy rocks and enemies in the enclosed arena that each level presents. The movement of the particles forces the player to maneuver a lot - and sometimes put themselves in heightened danger in order to gather enough power to fight with. Destructible pods drop bonus weapons - homing drones, time-stoppers, boosts to the absorbtion power of the ship to name a few - and each set of stages in a level is capped off with a technical and exhausting boss fight.

Now, I'll play any twin-stick shooter. Alongside cave-flying gravity games it's my go-to genre for zone gaming thrills. Still, I was more than pleasantly relieved when Ion Assault confounded my expectations. Aesthetically it completely does it for me - spaceships, funky colours, chippy music, particle effects. Gameplay-wise I find it tough and satisfying. I quickly grew to appreciate and enjoy what it set out to be, rather than disparaging it for not being what I expected.

Top Ten of 2009 - Shatter

I'm partial to the odd Breakout clone every now and again, but to be honest if someone makes a really good one there's not much else to do with the basic concept. Thus Batty on the Spectrum sits in my top 100 pretty much unchallenged.

Shatter isn't a threat to that game, because it takes the 'bat and ball' framework and twists it in all kinds of ways, resulting in a quite unique experience. Vertical, horizontal and circular levels - the latter restricting the player to a lower-third section, end-of-stage bosses that require quite a bit of precise and strategic play, and a push/pull mechanic that allows the player to draw in energy from the remains of destroyed blocks or influence the flightpath of their projectiles. Blocks don't simply sit waiting to be taken out either, and once hit entire sections of the formations will fall towards the player, forcing judicious use of every trick at their disposal and making things frequently quite overwhelming.

Thanks to all these extra features Shatter sometimes feels more like a hybrid of shooter and puzzle game. You have to think about much more than simply losing your 'ball', and the busier levels and especially the bosses become a tense back-and-forth of pushing/pulling, dodging, shielding and occasionally unleashing your collected energy in a barrage of destruction. Lives can fall away quickly during particularly chaotic moments - especially if you're enough of a gambler to fire out two or three projectiles at a time (each counting as a life).

Shatter plays wonderfully and is very addictive, but the icing on the cake is the soundtrack. Videogame electronica at its very, very best. In fact the soundtrack is without question my favourite album of this year and is probably responsible for a good 50% of my enjoyment in playing the game. That's not a strike against the gameplay though, as anyone who knows me knows how much importance I place on the music of videogames.

Top Ten of 2009 - Torchlight

From the guys that brought you Diablo - a game just like Diablo.

That might seem a little dismissive were it not for the fact that no-one makes Diablo clones quite as well as the guys that made Diablo. It's what they're good at and they know it. The path to Torchlight has been somewhat torcherous* but fledgling studio Runic Games delivered the goods on a light, fast-moving, loot-heavy action RPG that managed to sate the hunger for Diablo III - at least for a little while.

'Diablo Clone' sums it up more pertinently than would be legally comfortable in other circumstances, but I'm assuming it's all good buddies between Runic and Blizzard. So, we have a structure and layout mashed together from the first two Diablos - one town, one dungeon of many levels, unidentified objects, town portals, health and mana potions, skill trees, sidequests, and an art style heavily reminiscent of Warcraft. Oh, and a soundtrack from the Diablo composer that pretty much is the Diablo soundtrack.

But hey - it's all good because that's kind of what we wanted, and Torchlight kept me entertained for a couple of dozen hours. Not bad at all for a £15 effort from a small studio. It's biggest Achilles' heel in longevity terms is the absence of multiplayer, and after about 20 levels the grind of solo loot gathering does begin to set in quite sharply. However, mod tools were made available shortly after launch and good work is being done by dedicated fans already, so there's ample reason to revisit the town of Torchlight in future.


Top Ten of 2009 - The Beatles: Rock Band

The peripheral-based rhythm action genre burned incredibly brightly for me for a couple of years, and the zenith of it could never be anything less than a title charting the career of one of my favourite bands, featuring songs I'd grown up on and telling an inspiring, irresistable musical story.

Presentation is key here and anything less than total respect for the material simply wouldn't do. Guitar Hero: Metallica showed the world how to churn out a glorified track pack and charge a premium for it, whereas TB:RB feels crafted with care from the outset. It's a bona-fide standalone title that takes the polish of previous Rock Band titles and mixes in a few new elements - most notably a full vocal harmony - resulting in a worthy tribute and a dream come true for fake instrument wielding Beatles fans.

Perhaps the harshest criticism I could level at the game would be the lack of challenge, but even that in a rhythm action title is a moot point. It's all about playing and replaying purely for fun, a couple of hours of euphoric multiplayer here and there. It seemed a sure bet to woo the casual market and storm the charts, but unfortunately EA's woeful marketing put paid to that.

After this it felt like there was nowhere else to go. I'd gotten everything I could out of the genre and it was time to put aside the endless iterations and weekly DLC. Returning to vanilla Rock Band didn't hold the appeal it once did, and I realised the dream was over. But what a beautiful dream it was, and what a note to end on.

Top Ten of 2009 - Blast Off

I hadn't really given much thought to my PSP for most of its life. Mainly it was just something I had, that I occasionally played about with but generally regarded as a bit of a dead-end, games-wise. I'd paid even less attention to the minis lineup of downloadable games, believing some common consensus that they had little to offer and were regarded as something of an afterthought even by Sony itself.

Recently though, I've been finding an awful lot to like in that modestly-produced library (if this weren't strictly a list of new games from this year the sterling conversions of the Amiga classics Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies would be included).

Blast Off presents a simple scenario: Astronauts are stranded in space, and the player has a rocket ready to launch with a limited amount of fuel in which to rescue them. The problem here is the presence of planets, asteroids and black holes - each exerting their various gravitational forces on the ship. Veer too close or choose the wrong angle - or indeed run out of fuel - and it's curtains. Skillful maneuvering and constant correction of thrust is required to navigate the obstacles, often using the pull of gravity to slingshot out to targets before heading for the safety of the warp gate home.

Each level has a minimum number of astronauts to rescue before the gate will open, with anything above that falling into the realm of bonus points. The levels are scored on that, plus remaining fuel and the astronauts' precious air. Beating the game minimally can be done quite quickly, but it's the prospect of those highscores and 100% completions that promise to bring the player back time and again. Things get quite fiendish towards the end, with multiple objects following intertwined orbits. Here the game manages to balance fun and frustration perfectly - in failure you're always certain the next attempt will be a success.

So we're dealing with spaceships, gravity and delicate controls. A simple setup, unfussy front-end and the very essence of one-more-go portable gameplay. It's handheld nirvana, quite frankly.

Blast Off takes me back. Back to the immediate thrills and fun of the arcade, back to the homebrewed sensibility of 8-bit computer games. And it cost about the same as a cup of coffee.

Top Ten of 2009 - Resident Evil 5

"Sheva, I see a list... and we're in it!"

Here's a nice non-controversial choice to kick off my favourite games of 2009. I suppose I should start with the caveat that I give to anyone who asks about it: Play it in co-op with a friend.

I don't like Resident Evil 4. Yes, I'm the person out there that doesn't like it. The controls, the viewpoint, the setting... I've tried many, many times to 'click' with the game and sometimes I've almost convinced myself I've enjoyed it, but it's simply not to be. More than anything I want to like it because it's Resident Evil. I love the series, I love the characters. Unfortunately when it comes down to it I just don't like the way it plays.

Resi 5 looked to be much the same for me. Only the addition of what many considered to be a hindrance - the co-op focus - raised it from being another series footnote I took a pass on, to being one of my most enjoyable modern gaming experiences.

Resident Evil 5 is not a horror game. Sure, there are a few spine-tingly moments but they are more to do with the panic of running low on ammo and being cornered. There is never that sense of foreboding that certainly came with the first two games in the series. No, this is pretty much a straight-up action game. Puzzles are kept to an elementary minimum. There is little to no backtracking. Enemies come in fast-moving hordes and you absolutely must work together to prevail against them.

It's that co-operative element that for me makes the game shine. The moment-to-moment tactics that have to be decided and acted on, watching each other's backs, sharing out resources. Moving through a location with SWAT-like efficiency, covering doors, clearing out rooms. All the time piecing together the convoluted history of Umbrella, Albert Wesker's part in it, and the fate of an old friend. The game is punctuated with some quite impressive boss battles - some erring on the side of frustration as often happens with these things, but as with all good boss battles the way to victory can be worked out piece by piece in the moment, strategies adapting until the eureka moment presents itself.

It's visually very impressive, often stunning. The texture range and quality is enormous, and there are moments that feel truly photorealistic, particularly towards the end with some eye-popping lighting. The character work in particular felt unrivalled at the time. Perhaps only succeeded by the likes of Uncharted 2. These characters feel alive, with totally believable expressions and body language.

I'm currently replaying it on the PC in single-player mode, and yes, some of the downsides to that defiantly co-op focus have reared their heads from time to time - specifically the actions of the now AI-controlled partner, but regardless of this I'm enjoying it again. Perhaps because I'd already been primed to forgive its faults by the multiplayer experience. It's not perfect by any means, but it manages to sit somewhere towards the top end of the pantheon of Resident Evil titles.

Capcom took a risk trying to move the series into fresh territory, and I think for the most part it pays off. Certainly Code: Veronica and "0" proved that the classic concept was outstaying its welcome, and it's highly unlikely that the giddy heights of Resident Evil 2 would be scaled again without a major overhaul.

I think they're stepping in the right direction.