31 December 2008



































 Competition, but no contest.

So everyone's got their lists out for the best games of 2008, and in most cases they make for pretty demoralising reading - the year gone by mostly comprised a great stale lump of tired old genre staples and sequels which half the reviewers admit to not even liking very much.

"Pretty much everyone I've spoken to seems to agree that LBP makes for a fairly boring single-player experience", said Eurogamer's Kristan Reed, by way of example, of their No.1, Little Big Planet, the game of 2008 that was by general consensus the standout figure in an undistinguished crowd. LBP was commonly held by reviews to be not actually very good out of the box, and the selling-point level editor a pain to use, but it took most of the end-of-year accolades anyway on the back of the efforts made by unpaid consumers to (a) struggle with the construction kit's many foibles to build clever and impressive stages, and then (b) get them past Sony's super-zealous IP police, who irretrievably deleted thousands and thousands of hours of users' work without warning for slightly resembling other games.

"A moustache! It's clearly Mario! DELETE!" - a Sony content moderator, yesterday.

Most of the lists, though, are oddly light on representation for the world's most popular and successful videogames machine. The Nintendo DS has gone from strength to strength in 2008, beating off a last-hurrah challenge from Sony's PSP, which suddenly sprang back to life for mostly-non-game-related reasons like new hardware revisions, the advent of the rather splendid Remote Play and Play TV functionality, and a slew of other technological plugins like the Go sat-nav system. (The PSP did also see the occasional release of one of those strange RPG games nobody in the West has ever heard of but that the Japanese go absolutely crazy mental tonto bananas for - Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest, Crisis Core etc - giving the PSP regular chart spikes where sales suddenly rocket by 600% for two weeks before settling back to the usual level of about half of whatever the DS is selling.)

But the DS has just quietly continued streaming off shop shelves all year without ever attracting a lot of headlines for it. (The new DSi model, despite offering nothing much new or different and removing almost as much functionality as it added, was received fairly coolly in the press but still punted over a million units in Japan alone in its first two months, and astonishingly the UK was plagued by another Christmas of DS Lite shortages.) The little console saw not far short of 1,500 game releases in 2008, almost doubling the number seen in its first two-and-a-half years put together. Yet not a single one makes the Edge top 20 despite a 9/10 review in the magazine for Bangai-O Spirits, and just one (a rubbish one at that) scrapes into the Eurogamer top 20, although Bangai-O does limp in at no.45 after scoring 10/10. And IGN doesn't deem the DS worthy of a mention at all.

(If 2008 saw one defining trend in the games business, it was the steady and unmistakeable increase in the marginalisation of the gaming media from the games that the general public care about and buy. In a year when the Wii and DS sold so fast most shop assistants had to wear two jumpers to protect themselves from the constant icy draught howling in from the doorway, one Nintendo magazine folded entirely (n-Revolution) while another (NGamer) sold so few copies the staff could have delivered them to readers in person.)

Ignore us, we're dead.

But we're getting off the point. The DS software catalogue of 2008 wasn't just about quantity, it was about quality (and also variety, innovation and a slew of other characteristics strikingly all but absent from the mainstream arena). The sheer breadth of great titles that arrived on the handheld, despite a dearth of triple-A big names, was dizzying in scale, and to prove it I'm going to start off with a list of games I don't even like.

Japanese-RPG fans were extremely well served on the DS in 2008, with a whole raft of blockbusters ranging from ports and new iterations of well-established hardcore brands (Chrono Trigger, Disgaea DS and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, as well as Harvest Moon: Island Of Happiness for the kids) to newer faces like The World Ends With You and Izuna - Unemployed Ninja 2. Shmup fans saw Cave release a technically-stunning version of their bullet-hell coin-op Ketsui, the boss-rushing Ketsui Death Label. Popular PC racing series Trackmania got a first portable outing, with developers Firebrand also producing a critically-acclaimed port of Race Driver: GRID, and another big franchise made its DS debut when Guitar Hero: On Tour went global in the summer.

GRID isn't nearly as exciting as this highly-misrepresentative screenshot suggests.

The DS was also the place for fans of point-and-click adventures to be in 2008, with the likes of Syberia and the quirky Flower, Sun And Rain leading a parade of narrative-led games that also (broadly) encompassed things like another Ace Attorney sequel and also arguably Professor Cutscene And The Village Full Of Annoying Twats, as well as a whole host of lesser-known titles and overdue PC ports in the genre.

Would-be power-mad empire-builders finally got their hands on the long-awaited Civilisation Revolution and Sim City: Creator, itchy-fingered scalpel jockeys got to slice and dice in Trauma Center: Under The Knife 2, another PC staple (this time tower-defence) made the leap across with the cute Ninjatown, and the gigastrange Duck Amuck made a very commendable stab at being as original, inventive and fourth-wall-breaking as the 1953 cartoon original, albeit at the expense of being much fun to play as a game. There was even Geometry Wars: Galaxies for twin-stick shooter fans without any sticks.

Now, that'd be a pretty respectable critics' top 20 right there (even leaving aside popular but less-acclaimed genres like brain training and pet- and doll-based games aimed at girls, of which there were hundreds). But those are just the DS games of 2008 that, while objectively appreciating and acknowledging their unarguable merits and appeal to their respective target audiences, I didn't actually personally enjoy. We haven't even started on the truly great DS games of the year, so we should probably do that sometime around now.

Calling this a relatively quiet moment in Bangai-O Spirits wouldn't even be a lie.

Measured in terms of number of hours spent playing it, or indeed by any other criteria, the WoS Game Of The Year 2008 is a one-horse race. What's more, that horse is in an F-14 jet with the afterburners on full, and all the other horses are heavily sedated and chained together at the bottom of a coal mine in lead diving boots. Bangai-O Spirits has a better, friendlier level editor than Little Big Planet, the hundreds of custom user stages that have been made for it aren't censored by anyone (thanks to the utter genius that is the Sound Record system), and it's still a colossally brilliant game even if you only ever play the 160 or so levels that are factory-shipped with it. In fact, it's so good it's getting another screenshot.

This hair-tearing puzzle stage shows that the Bangai-O horse isn't a one-trick pony, either.

But even though it's about five fantastic games (arcade mayhem, strategy, puzzle, maze, even rhythm action) all fused into one by some dribbling-mad evil scientific genius, and a whole year's worth of gaming crammed into a single cart (if you only play for two hours a night five days a week, say, then beating Spirits could easily occupy you by itself for the full 12 months, especially if it's accompanied by a couple of WoS Subscriber Level Packs), Bangai-O is only the start of the DS's glittering cavalcade of Stars Of 2008.

Bangai-O pays tribute to the joint WoS Game Of The Year 2007, the majestic EDF2017.

Intelligent, attractive and alert WoS Subscribers will already have read in detail about some of the year's other finest releases, of course. Metal Slug 7 is far and away the best-ever game in the series, and the glorious Looney Tunes Cartoon Conductor out-Ouendans Ouendan, as well as being possibly the first genuinely brilliant Looney Tunes game, after a long history of extremely undistinguished (or worse) licences. The superb three-in-one Pic Pic (which got a European release this year, so no excuses) is the second-greatest puzzle game of all time after the immortal Slitherlink, and the exotically named Loopop Cube - Loop Salad isn't too far behind it, with its clever splicing of Sokoban and Puzznic into a whole that's far better than either of its component parts. And you read about them all first here on WoS.

Left: Looney Tunes Cartoon Conductor. Right: a couple of Loopop Cube levels.

But there's also a mountain of awesomeness that didn't get written about on WoS, thanks to the twin inconveniences of real life and pesky linear time. The inexplicably pink-tinted Advance Wars - Days Of Ruin was equally mysteriously ignored in all the end-of-year write-ups, despite being an interesting and balanced evolution of one of the greatest game series ever, and there was a similarly odd critical blindspot hiding Castlevania - Order Of Ecclesia from the praise it was due. The lovely Lemmings-derived strategy puzzler Exit DS suited the little Nintendo machine ten times better than the PSP it originated on, eliminating all the interface awkwardness and letting the tremendous game within shine through.

Space Invaders Extreme at least managed to pick up some coverage for its reinvention and revitalisation of the pondersome arcade classic into something exploding with energy and verve (and explosions). And another coin-op veteran came back in triumph, though Contra 4 sent most gamers running for their mothers from the shock of a ludicrously brutal opening level that concealed something a smidgen more accessible than it first appeared. 

(Also in the niche field of dementedly-hard arcade games, the accomplished Metal Slug imitator Commando - Steel Disaster offered an infuriating but powerfully addictive bout of mercilessly uncompromising running'n'gunning for the best of the best, and The Incredible Hulk turned out to be a surprisingly fine effort in the 2D-platforms-and-violence arena too.)

You've probably seen lots of pics of the others, so enjoy four Commando - Steel Disaster shots.

The DS knocked balls out of the park in genre after genre in 2008. Rhythm Tengoku Gold followed up one of the greatest GBA games ever with a very worthy sequel. The touch screen made the DS version of Pipe Mania the first one that's ever actually been any fun, helped along by a plethora of well-conceived new gameplay modes.

Subbuteo walked away effortlessly with the "unlikeliest successful implementation of an improbable videogame licence of the year" prize, in an absolutely fantastic zero-budget release that played like a cross between pool and chess, with minor elements of football somewhere on the sidelines, and after scores of really dismal efforts in past years the DS finally hosted a decent poker game, with World Series Of Poker 2008 - Battle For The Bracelets putting up a proper fight for your pretend money, including the realisation of your correspondent's lifetime dream when he sat down for a heads-up with Jennifer Tilly. Sigh.

(While we're on the subject of table games, viewers should also watch out for this month's Snappy Gamer column, featuring an extensive review of the heart-warmingly wonderful DS version of classic boardgame Scotland Yard. An extended WoS feature will follow.)

Two of the best games of the year, that you've probably never even heard of.

And finally, a game you couldn't find (or implement) anywhere but on the DS. For some reason the Japanese - alone in the gaming world - go wild for fruit-machine simulators, or pachislot as they're known in the Orient. There are already several on the DS (including the mental Cool 104 Joker & Setline, which was the 10th game ever released on the machine), most of which are incomprehensible, but November's Juggler DS offered a special little nugget of joy for those of us idiot Westerners who don't read the language.

While most of the game is taken up by three unfathomable one-armed bandits, the icon at the bottom right of the main menu screen conceals perhaps the most addictive DS game of the year. For some reason, you see, the arcade and surrounding areas where Juggler's fruit machines are located are all infested with orange rhinoceroses.

I know. It's a plotline we're all sick of.

In the bonus game, a jaunty yet somehow menacing carnival tune blares out as you visit a circus, arcade, baseball field and street party, rounding up the rhinos by simply touching them with the stylus as they swarm out across five screens of increasingly-frantic formations. It's a sort of mash-up of Ouendan, Point Blank and Gradius, and with a game only lasting about three minutes even if you get to the end, you'll replay it over and over and over and over in search of a new high-score, an "A" rating or even the hyper-elusive "S". But those three minutes pack more fun than the entirety of most of the "mainstream" top 50 put together. You can shove Metal Gear Solid 4 up your arse, frankly, and you know you want to.

No other console played host in 2008 to either such a breadth or such a depth of fantastic gaming. Everywhere you look in the DS release schedules, whatever your tastes, there's something brilliant there for you. And that's over and above all the perfectly respectable cross-platform stuff that you find on every format - the Call Of Dutys, the FIFA 09s, the Lego Batmans, the Mario And Sonic At The Olympicses - and the vast raft of Disney rubbish that someone somewhere must like, because it keeps getting made by the shipload.

If your most-played gaming device this year was anything other than a DS, the plain fact of the matter is that you're a wanker. It's the WoS Console Of The Year 2008!

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