Our 2008 Gaming Moments: Part Two

Earlier this week, we brought you the first half of our best moments in gaming from 2008. Today, the remaining titles are dissected, labeled and turned in late for half-credit to our teacher.

Castle Crashers – Wearing your thumbs down to stumps; absent-mindedly fishing for quarters in your pockets

At the 2006 Penny Arcade Expo, Newgrounds founder Tom Fulp was more than eager to show off the latest game from The Behemoth, the game company that he and artist Dan Paladin founded to bring Alien Hominid to consoles and the Xbox Live Arcade. I was lucky enough to walk by when one of the four controllers was available, and from that moment began an arduous, two-year-long wait for the final retail release.

If you’ve ever played Gauntlet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons arcade game, or Diablo, you’re intimately acquainted with the simple joy of the beat-’em-up genre. Hack away at enemies, eat food, work with your teammates to beat the bosses and then backstab them for the highest score and bragging rights. In 2006, Castle Crashers had all of these elements (plus an abundance of Paladin’s trademark scatological humor) in great shape; two years later, the experience was humming along with an unparalleled level of refinement and polish. At $15, it’s the best bang for your buck on Xbox Live Arcade.

Left 4 Dead – Surviving

Pole dancing

Pole dancing

Initially, I would have considered it lunacy to put Left 4 Dead anywhere near the top of this list. I had been frustrated with how streamlined it was in single player, and online games were full of the prescription amount of brain-dead Xbox Live users.

Then I bought the PC version — where all my friends were playing — and everything changed. In a year where co-op play was ubiquitous across platforms and genres, Left 4 Deadstreamlined and re-invented the concept to the point where the game revolves entirely around how well you and your teammates work together. Where Castle Crashers perfected the time-honored beat-em-up genre for you and three buddies, Left 4 Dead successfully birthed the first true next-generation co-op experience. The endless variety in dialogue, enemy encounters and subsequent tactics are brought to a fever pitch by the game’s relentless pacing and high-adrenaline combat. You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll curse the mother of every Boomer who vomits on you, and — most importantly — you’ll keep coming back for more.

Braid – Rescuing the princess

The first five hours of Braid were an intellectual delight. Rich, warm melodies played atop beautifully realized hand-painted landscapes while the player solves a series of mind-bending, time-traveling puzzles. This is all framed by a concise, poignant narrative that keeps the player directed towards the end goal: saving the princess.

In the last fifteen minutes, everything you know about Braid is irrevocably altered. I was so dumbfounded by the game’s denouement that I stared, mouth agape, for a good few minutes at the screen.

That a game can take convention and make something incredible out of it is praise-worthy. But for a game to whisk away that curtain and display an even higher genius with such dexterity that even the most hardened gamer is left reeling? That’s incredible. That’s why you need to play Braid.

Wrath of the Lich King – Confronting Arthas at the Wrathgate

I’ve played World of Warcraft off and on since its launch in late 2004, but for many reasons — the time commitment, friends quitting/outleveling me, etc. — I never made the push to the level cap. That all changed in the summer of 2008, when Blizzard released a patch that curbed the leveling difficulty for the majority of the game. With the help of a couple friends, I had a good enough time questing all the way up to level 70, just in time for the release of WoW’s second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.

I had no idea what I was in for. Everything that had disappointed me about WoW and its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, was addressed. Each class was given abilities to make them more potent in combat, particularly in managing groups of enemies, which made the last dozen levels or so a joy to play. Each of the regions in the new continent of Northrend was given much more distinction in design than any previous area in WoW, ranging from the towering redwoods and bubbling streams of Grizzly Hills to the frigid heights and baffling architecture of Storm Peaks. The graphical upgrade was complemented by a beautiful, haunting, memorable soundtrack. Dragonblight is characterized by a mournful piano part that goes from somber to schizophrenic; Icecrown’s music features richer instrumentation and music that builds a feeling of restlessness and impending conflict; and Grizzly Hills features string instruments on a score that is majestic and understated, making the environment all the more rich and compelling.

But despite Wrath’s landmark achievements, the most crucial improvement lies in the game’s storytelling ability. Quests are written with greater tact and panache, granting quest-givers greater depth of character and imbuing environments with a greater sense of purpose. Rarely are you just hunting a couple dozen boars because some blank-faced man demands it of you; now, many quests are designed to give a deeper sense of purpose to your character’s actions. And all these dramatic improvements are demonstrated in full force when the player arrives at the Wrathgate, the precipice of the Lich King’s stronghold of Icecrown. My preconceptions of what an MMORPG can be were shattered as the game environment gave way to the first-ever in-game cutscene in World of Warcraft’s history.

It was then that I realized that the first half of Northrend was merely building up to one massive final mission to confront Arthas and end the conflict that began seven years ago in Warcraft III. Blizzard demonstrated it has confidence in the MMO genre as a vehicle for truly groundbreaking storytelling, and I’m more eager than ever to stick around until the end.

Metal Gear Solid 4: The Microwave Tunnel scene

Solid Snake, the protagonist of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series, has been referred to as a “legend” within the games for decades. It’s a title that’s tossed around frequently in gaming; Zelda’s got more than a dozen legends that refer to her, after all. But you don’t become a legend without enduring incredible trials and untold suffering.

Metal Gear Solid 4 was the first game to evoke real feelings of anguish in players for the character they were controlling. No matter how stealthy you are, no matter how deft you are with a handgun, you’re unable to save Snake from his fate. Snake pushes on, fighting his rapidly aging body and enduring incredible pain that’s conveyed through top-level motion captured movement, subtle vibrations in the controller, and David Hayter’s most inspired performance as Snake ever.

But nothing could have prepared me for the scene in the final act of the game where Snake, faced with no alternative, has to travel through a tunnel irradiated with microwaves in order to stop the world from falling under militaristic rule. And this is the game’s most stunning and brilliant moment: You enter the tunnel as Snake, and you have to help him push through to the end, while on the top half of the screen a cutscene plays out showing his allies being skewered, shot, and killed. This is where Kojima presents Snake’s character with total clarity. On the bottom half of the screen, Snake is shown in a close-up view, his face contorting with pain as he is slowly incinerated. His legs begin to give out, and his steps become weaker until all he can do is crawl. Otacon pleads in his ear for him to keep fighting. And all the player can do is press one button as fast as you can while everything in the game falls to pieces.

It’s an experience unlike any other, and it’s my pick for the best moment of 2008.