[Originally posted on 1Up.com]
Another year has passed, and we've been graced with lots of great games. What did I think? Read on:
Although I spent most of the year playing the first Guitar Hero game, GH2 goes above and beyond its predecessor. I'll agree with those that say the tracks list is much more uneven in GH2, but it does have some real heavy hitters like Sweet Child of Mine and War Pigs that just can't be overlooked. The amazingly surreal (and difficult to comprehend) feeling of playing the songs without actually knowing how to, that physical embodiment of the classic air-guitar is just such a fantastic experience. When you get "in the zone" while playing a game, the experience is magnified and you get that payoff which makes any doubt you had about your hobby just evaporate, but when you get in the zone with Guitar Hero... well it's almost orgasmic, visions of rock gods wriggling on stage with their guitars screeching out an extended solo take on a whole new meaning, when this happens while playing co-op with a friend... just be sure there's no confusion as to your sexual preferences. Speaking of co-op, GH2:s biggest improvement to the series is the addition of this mode, where you and a friend play Lead guitar and Rhythm \ Bass respectively. Harmonix insightfully let you do this on your own terms so that your fingers can dance over the fret-buttons in whirlwind speed on Expert, while your buddy painstakingly learns to use his pinky on Medium and you still rock together.
If Guitar Hero was the game that pushed me over the edge to finally buy a PS2, Okami was the title that made me realize I would one day have to get that second console. At the core Okami is a Zelda-clone. You travel around an ever expanding country-side, gaining access to new areas with the help of new abilities \ tools that you gain by beating the dungeons \ temples \ et al and, their bosses. Along the way you talk to people which you help by running errands, finding lost items and clearing paths. You play as Amaterasu the re-embodied sun goddess who must once again beat an evil spirit of legend, who has been dormant these past 100 years...bla bla... What makes Okami different is partly it's visual style - cell-shading made to look like classic Japanese oil-paintings on canvas brought to life with the addition of the third and fourth dimensions. Hand in hand with the art-style though is the drawing-mechanic, known as the Celestial Brush. At (almost) anytime, Ammy (as she is lovingly referred to by her tiny side-kick Issun) can freeze time, and using the analog stick you draw symbols on the screen to manipulate reality. For instance, draw a stylized bomb (a circle with a vertical line crossing it's top border) and a "real" bomb appears to demolish rocks and cracked walls, draw a swirl to create a gust of wind, or a quick horizontal line to slash a foe or brush \ tree \ rock. This extra level of interaction lifts Okami from being a pretty but still essentially a me-too game to being one of this years most innovative titles, and will remain one of the systems greatest games.
Ever since before it was released, the PSP has suffered from being a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none". Sure it will play music, video, browse the web and display your photos as well as play games, but it doesn't really do anything better than competing products. This is nothing unusual, combi products have always suffered from this. How may people have owned a combined TV-VCR that they preferred over the stand-alone versions, or a clock-radio that replaced their hi-fi system? Enough about the PSP though, I'm here to talk about it's greatest gaming achievement of '06, but considering the above, it may be no surprise that I gave the winner no more than an 8/10 and a fairly weak 8 at that. However an 8 still signifies a great game, and although the game play is very simplistic, Loco Roco's art-style, animation and music does such an excellent job of entertaining you that it takes most of the game before you actually get bored of the repetitive game play. It is also quite unique on the system, as most games are bad attempts at porting existing console games to the handheld, and very few among them are as colorful and happy. The system is dominated by dark and dreary shooters, sole-less hack-n-slashes and rehashed driving games. Many are enjoyable, but few are worth getting the system for, you'll find them all done better somewhere else. Loco Roco, on the other hand is (so far) to be found nowhere else.
Like Loco Roco, Exit is a rare commodity on the system, an original IP designed for the PSP that doesn't try to be a PS2-game-in-your-pocket. With a wonderful Dick Tracy-comic \ art nouveau art direction and classic puzzle game premiss, akin to The Lost Vikings, Exit is a solid game that is challenging and will last for quite some time (there are 100 missions to complete!), and with a high-score system that begs for replay-sessions. Exit, like Lumines or even BeJeweled is the kind of game you can either play for days on end or pick up every few months and just dab with, this accessibility and flexibility as well as it's timeless graphics makes it one of those games that will be played for many years to come, I have no doubt I'll keep going back to it.
This was tough. There's been a struggle of power going on inside me between the fan-boy and the objective critic when it comes to the DS. The fan-boy in me wants to love it with all my heart, while the subconscious nagging of the critic keeps asking me: "If you like the DS so much, how come you hardly ever play it? Why does it almost feel like a chore to play some games? Why don't these games compel you to continue as soon as you can?" The year started with 2005:s hits getting old, I was done with Mario Kart DS, Advance Wars: Dual Strike and Ouendan. Time passed as I eagerly awaited the release of MPH. The DS Lite was announced and so I decided to sell my DS Phat. More months passed and summer came. I bought a DS Lite, MPH and Brain Training. While impressed with the machine itself, both MPH and Brain Training where short lived, as the months passed I tried other titles old and new, but nothing really wowed me. So although the nostalgic fan-boy in me says New Super Mario Bros "R0xx0rz!" It really is just a platformer (albeit a well-made one) that rides on the fact that it's a Super Mario game drenched in nostalgia. That said, it is the game I've had the most fun with on the system in 2006 and that surely earns it the right of this title.
Continuing the tradition of Runner-up for best DS-game of the year, EBA like Ouendan! before it is a quirky music-rhythm game where you lead a cheerleading squad of men in black to help people with big as well as small problems they face. Ouendan! was a whacky and highly original game the was a lot of fun, because of the whacky stories depicted with over-the-top Anime-storyboards and exotic (for most of us outside of Japan) music. EBA is essentially the same game, but with more western-centric stories\ music and language, despite this or more likely because of this, it is far less entertaining. The recognizable music, although not always bad, makes the game feel too mainstream, so too is the English text and the western "Agents" in suits with hat, afro and elvis-do lessers when compared with the Japanese exclamations and the "trenchcoat-mafia" with bandanas and crazy spiky hair. Despite all this though, EBA still holds up as a great game, and is a solid runner-up.
The new console for this year (besides the upgrade of DS) was the Nintendo Wii. It's late arrival (8th of December here in Europe) meant that there where very few games to pick from when crowning this years winner. Twilight Princess, was originally developed for (and also released on,) the GameCube and it shows. Some complain over the GameCube-ish graphics, but although the Wii is capable of more, it is still early days, and personally I'm fully content with the graphics of the game. No, the graphics is not what makes this an apparent GameCube game, it's the controls. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing really wrong with the controls (although I find it hard to get used to the lack of camera-control). It is just that, as a release title this game does very little to demonstrate the Wii's unique controls, it does however perfectly demonstrate, that a traditional games controls can successfully be mapped to the new controller. But enough about that, what about the game? Twilight Princess does what Zelda-games have always done (with a few exception of course), it takes the best parts of the previous games, improves upon them and then throws in some original content for good measure. While Wind Waker tried (and according to many failed) to hide the fact that it brought so few new ideas to the franchise behind it's cell-shaded re-design of Hyrule - Twilight Princess proves that with enough content, quantity and quality can outweigh originality.
Pack-in games are seldom known for their innovation, but Wii Sports is just that. It perfectly demonstrates the Wii's new features to gamers and non-gamers alike, acting as the perfect tool for us early adopters to evangelize gaming to the uninitiated masses. Parents, siblings, co-workers and friends around the world are slowly but surely warming up to gaming with sore muscles and Wii-elbows as proof.
For me, there was very few PC-gaming sessions during 2006, the only real game I played (I tried some demos but they of course don't qualify) was the first installment in Valve's episodic continuation of the Half-Life 2 story, unimaginatively and largely confusingly named Episode One (I keep wanting to follow up with "The Phantom Menace" every time I say that...). However, even if I had played some other PC-games during the year, I have no doubt Ep1 would still have come out on top. Although short (the game is played trough in about 5 hours) the story and atmosphere is just as engrossing as the full game. Continuing the story with the same engine using the same weapons and art resources would have been fine, but Valve also introduce a new enemy type - the hand-granade tossing, head-crab infested zombie-combines - as well as the AI-controlled Co-op play with Alyx, which works so well that you almost forget she isn't a real person.
Nintendo completely disowned the GameCube this year, I bought no games for the system that where released in 2006. I did buy Battalion Wars, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Metal Gear Sold, Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat and Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, but they where all games from previous years, so instead I bid my sweet Cube adieu. In the words of Vinnie Jones in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels: "It's been emotional".
A though choice, and I was on the fence for quite some time here. On the one hand Twilight Princess may seem like the obvious choice, it's a great game and it's released on a new and exiting platform. However, there is nothing really fantastic about it, and once completed, there is little chance I'll go back to it. The game I played the most this year, the game I've had the most fun with, the game that was the killer-app for it's system, hasn't even been given an award.
Playing Guitar Hero is how I'll mainly remember the gaming year 2006, no game was allotted more time, or provided more enjoyment. Alas, on paper GH2 is a better game and thus received the award for best PS2 game, and I didn't quite se fit to give Guitar Hero the runner-up spot in favor of Okami. And even if the GH-games will out-live Twilight Princess, Zelda really is the superior game quality and quantity wise. Nintendo has poured so much time and resources into this game, that it really deserves this reward. At the time of writing I have played for over 37 hours, and I haven't even gotten halfway (from what I've gathered at least), the game is massive and well done with fantastic atmosphere that no other game can even compare with. There are some minor bugs, and with any game that takes several days worth of playtime to complete, there is a very real risk of boredom striking. But Twilight Princess is the Zelda so many have been hoping and preying for since Ocarina of Time that there is just no denying this feat.
This award feels a little strange. Why, really, should titles be awarded based on the system they where released on or their time of release? After writing this text, it just doesn't quite sit well with me, I mean like I mentioned above, my fondest memory of gaming in 2006 will be the countless Guitar Hero sessions I had. Why shouldn't that be reason enough for an award? Or the fact that most games I played where on the same system, the PS2, so why should there be as few awards allotted for that system as there is for, say the PC, on which I only played one game? Also, most of the games I played during the year where games released in previous years. So then, here's my alternative award, my top ten games enjoyed during 2006:
[EDIT: How could I completely forget Psychonauts!]
10. Fahrenheit 9. 10. SingStar '80
7. God of War
6. Guitar Hero 2
5. Half-Life 2: Episode One
3. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
1. Guitar Hero
Now that's quite a different list, some of the titles are of course the same, but their order is a bit different, and games that were disqualified by the rigid structure of the standard awards system are now eligible, this list is a truer representation of Teboda's gaming 2006, I think I'll stick with this method for next year...