I know, I know, it’s February 2011, and here I am with a 2010 retrospective. The truth is that this has been written and ready a while now, but only now have I remembered to post it. Keep in mind that these are my personal favorite games of 2010. If one of your faves isn’t on here, chances are good that I simply didn’t play it.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn
I put Kirby’s Epic Yarn on this list with a few caveats. I find that the game is significantly more interesting with two players, and in my personal experience, is even better when at least one of those players isn’t particularly good at video games. That’s because Epic Yarn is so cleverly built as to be able to accomdate both kinds of players. In one way, the game is very easy. You can’t die, ever, so at the very least you can brute force your way through most levels. And yet the various treasures scattered throughout each level are often guarded via deceptively tricky platforming. Likewise, the controls are incredibly simple, yet by placing the game in a world created by fabric and craft materials, players can interact with the environment in a multitude of ways by using just one button. It will frequently surprise you with challenges, and even when it doesn’t, you will still be eager to see what clever visual tricks and level manipulations you will find next.
Just as important is how well Epic Yarn supports co-operative play. One of the fascinating aspects of New Super Mario Bros. Wii is how introducing just one more player onto the screen caused the game to shift into chaos. With the right crowd it is quite fun, but those who haven’t been bred on twenty plus years of platformers often found themselves frustrated and left out. Kirby avoids this by stripping away the competitive elements of NSMB Wii, and replacing them with a wholly cooperative attitude. The game doesn’t let players venture too far from each other: should one leave the screen for whatever reason, a helpful angel will come along to carry them over to their partner. This feature can be exploited for other benefits as well. If your timing is fast, you can use it to prevent falling into pits. Additionally, each player can grab each other, either to use them as an impromptu weapon, or to give themselves the extra leverage they need to cross a chasm. Even on a purely psychological level, Epic Yarn encourages trust and teamwork. Playing with my fiancée, there were many times in which I helped her navigate a tricky area, but it wasn’t simply a case of the gaming nut hubby constantly saving the day. There were numerous times in which her keen eye caught treasures or secrets which I had overlooked in my attempt to barrel through a stage. And by taking turns collecting gems and treasures, we tended not to miss anything for the sake of efficiency. By combining our skills and approaches to the game, we were able to get more out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn than we would have alone. It is a wonderful marriage of modern, cute, family friendly Nintendo, and old, tough (and still cute) Nintendo. Easily the best couples video game in years.
Here’s a dirty secret – Vanquish is the only Platinum Games release I would ever feel comfortable recommending to anyone. I know that the ex Clover alumni are supposed to be fawned over with their every release, but they haven’t done much for me. MadWorld failed because it built itself around a concept that couldn’t carry an entire game. The case of Bayonetta is much more complex, but suffice to say that Hideki Kamiya used it as his mouthpiece to trash every person or company who had ever wronged him, while making as many winking, nodding in-jokes and shout outs to his fans and industry pals as possible. At the same time, he tried to cram every single idea he has had since Devil May Cry 1 onto a single disc. It is a mess, pure and simple, and it fails the moment you realize that being a fan of a failed studio does not make you a member of secret and special club.
Why, then, does Vanquish succeed where its brethren did not? If you ask me, the difference lies in Shinji Mikami. This is the only Platinum game that bears his fingerprints, and he brings to it the same attitude which made God Hand the best thing that Clover ever made. Whereas Kamiya will throw everything at the wall to see if it sticks, Mikami is apt to take a single idea, and build an entire combat system around it. The results look simple on the surface, but in reality they provide depth, challenge, and replayability that few other games can replicate. In Vanquish, the singular idea is “combat mobility”. As Tim Rogers smartly put it somewhere (I think in an essay on kotaku?), Vanquish takes the now standard cover based third person shooter, and gives the player character a rocket booster. This allows you to essentially move to any part of the battlefield, an interesting wrinkle in a genre that tends to force us to fight for every inch of ground.
But by giving players such a powerful ability, Mikami and his team naturally had to change the way battles play out. Enemies attack with waves of missiles and gunfire, and constantly use elevation to their advantage. They attack with both pesky drones and massive hulking mechs, all at once. In other words, Vanquish doesn’t merely give you the ability to dash around. It REQUIRES it of you in order to stay alive on the harder difficulties.
If Vanquish has any failing, it would be its style. The game fully embraces the generic Space Marine look popularized by Halo and Gears of War, and ups the macho factor for maximum comedic effect. The game is a loving homage to action tropes of the 80’s, full of deliberately exaggerated tough guys and copious swearing. Unfortunately, this intent is not easily conveyed in screenshots videos. At face value, a game which reinterprets the genre looks like an overly generic Gears of War ripoff. I can only hope this didn’t dissuade too many people from buying it, but I’d have to guess that it had some effect.
Mario Galaxy 2
And now for another bit of blasphemy. I didn’t much like Super Mario Galaxy, for two primary reasons. The first is that the planetoid idea wasn’t as well fleshed out as it could have been. It was THERE, and there were some clever levels, but there were other cases in which a “planet” was merely a standard 3d Mario level. The second problem was that Galaxy was emblematic of how Nintendo’s desire to be accessible to gamers of all shapes and sizes had warped into ridiculous, unnecessary hand holding. The game assaulted you with dialogue which was either redundant, or simply overly wordy. A half-assed attempt at a story was also shoved in, presumably in order to give players some sort of motivation. The game was constantly interrupting you or otherwise hindering your progress, and by the end I decided not to go after every star, since I had no desire to play such games in order actually play the game.
Galaxy 2, on the other hand, is the game I had in mind all along, to a frighteningly accurate degree. The story is largely thrown away, and the dialogue is sharply written to convey as much information in as few words as possible. There are a multitude of tutorials, all of which are optional. Galaxy 2 is no less newbie friendly, but the help is implemented transparently. As for the levels, they demonstrate much more creativity, and offer more frequent challenge. There are still planets that serve as traditional stages, but even these feel more like something out of Mario 64, filled with surprises and opportunities for exploration. Best of all, the inclusion of Yoshi, as well as re-arrangements of several classic Mario tracks make Galaxy 2 a classy, perhaps unintentional celebration of the entire franchise. To be fair, Mario games have been making call backs to the old days for a while now, but in instances such as Mario Sunshine and NSMB, the gratuitous use of 8-bit sprites make them feel much more obvious and pandering. On the other hand, when a track from Mario World plays in Galaxy 2, no mention of its origin is made, and yet anyone playing will appreciate it on some level. Just like with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Super Mario Galaxy 2 succeeds in pleasing everyone without compromise. It isn’t an easy task, but it is only within this year that Nintendo has proven to me that not only CAN they do it, but that they WANT to as well. Consider my faith in Nintendo rekindled.