2009 Silicon Sasquatch Game of the Year Awards: #7-5
We're proud to present you with our first-ever Game of the Year awards! Our list of the top ten games of 2009 was derived after hours of debate between all the blog's contributors. It wasn't an easy process, but we are confident that the list we arrived at is the most comprehensive and fair one we could produce.
Today we'll cover numbers 7, 6 and 5. Wednesday will include 4 through 2, and on Thursday we'll finally unveil our unanimous choice for the best game of 2009.
#7. New Super Mario Bros. Wii
November -- Wii
Some might say it was a long time coming; others may denounce it as heresy. But for the first time since 1983, you and your friends can gather 'round to play a Mario game cooperatively.
Twenty-six years is a long time for a series to go between co-operative installments, particularly for what may as well be considered the most famous videogame franchise in history. But once you sit down with a couple of friends and a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you'll quickly understand why Nintendo waited so long. Featuring rich, colorful sprites, expressive characters and cheerful, uptempo music, New Super Mario Bros. Wii looks and plays just like the classics. Any longtime Mario fan will delight at the series' trademark clever and varied level design.
But the game really shines when you throw some friends into the mix and you let the game's unique "co-operative/competitive" multiplayer experience take hold. Is your friend having trouble crossing a series of chasms? Pick her up and carry her across. Conversely, let's say your boyfriend is a jerk who runs off and grabs all the 1ups before anyone else can get to them. Why not just pick him up and throw him into the nearest chasm and grab it for yourself? Alliances can develop just as quickly as they disintegrate, just like a game of Munchkin, and the experience -- provided your friendship/relationship/marriage can survive it -- is an absolute blast.
The game's detractors bemoaned the lack of an online multiplayer mode, but I see its absence as a blessing. Who wants to play a Mario game with four faceless, voiceless players? People like me grew up playing Mario games with friends and family, and that's still the series' greatest strength. The only difference is that this time around, Nintendo was able to let four people get in on the fun at one time. So dust off that Wii, invite some friends over (remember how you used to do that before Xbox Live came along?) and have a blast rediscovering why Mario's still the best at what he does. Just beware that when that struggle for a power-up goes sour, what he does isn't always very nice. — Nick Cummings
#6. Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City
October -- Xbox 360
If I had to pick a trend that truly defined gaming in 2009, it’d be that this year developers finally learned how to do console DLC right. The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony are the best examples of how to create a quality content distribution model gamers can get behind. So it's bittersweet then that both episodes are Xbox 360 exclusives, and the DLC packs haven't met Take-Two’s sales expectations for the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Business aside, the episodes succeed because they encapsulate what Rockstar set out to do with Grand Theft Auto IV in the first place. The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony are rich with interesting characters who are much more empathetic and believable than GTA IV’s parade of stereotypes. By focusing on specific regions of Liberty City -- Alderney in TLaD and Algonquin in TBoGT -- Rockstar can support a more interesting and intimate atmosphere than the base game was capable of offering.
It's Rockstar's newfound insistence on developing the narrative without resorting to a slew of cutscenes to do the dirty work that make these two titles stand out. Characterization occurs in real time throughout the episodes, compared to the slow-paced plot direction of GTA IV. Johnny Klebitz and Luis Lopez are adequate enough avatars, but it’s these protagonists' relationships with Liberty City's denizens that polish their individual stories to a glossy shine. Specifically: the quasi-father/son relationship between Luis and his employer, the titular "Gay Tony" Prince, is possibly one of the most realistic and compelling relationships I’ve ever witnessed in a game. Be it Tony's neurosis or Luis' unwavering dedication to a friend that he loves, it all comes off as plausible.
Even the mission structure finally began to work in conjunction with the story development in each episode, resulting in a lot less plot filler. And although the episodes do things different, each expansion maintains the classic Grand Theft Auto element of freedom by providing excellent side-missions -- turf defending, drug running and triathlon racing (i.e., parachute to a boat then drive to shore, and then race a car to the finish) are great distractions.
The chief complaint leveled against GTA IV was its abandonment of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' ridiculous nature. Luckily the episodes backpedal a bit toward the fun side of living a delinquent lifestyle in a fictitious parallel of New York City, especially TBoGT. GTA is not as serious as The Wire, nor should it try to be. I’m thrilled to fly a solid gold helicopter to steal diamonds for my boss, and I accept that it makes sense in the context of the over-the-top storyline.
Collectively, Episodes from Liberty City restored my lost faith in the Grand Theft Auto franchise after GTA IV. I can only hope Rockstar won't forget the advances the team made in the DLC for its future releases. Now please excuse me while I make Luis go dance the “Bus Stop” once more. — Tyler Martin
#5. Plants vs. Zombies
May -- Windows, Mac, iPhone
Leave it to PopCap to take an established gaming archetype, rebuild it from scratch, pack it to the brim with charm and personality and put the rest of its competition to shame. Plants vs. Zombies is PopCap's most ambitious game to date because it takes the company into uncharted territory: the realm of the hardcore gamer. The tower defense genre has seen countless iterations on virtually every platform imaginable -- including some real stand-outs like Defense Grid: The Awakening and Fieldrunners -- but the majority of these games are directed at the sort of person who's spent plenty of time with games that require deep, intense strategy and management of resources and statistics.
There was never any doubt that PopCap, based on pedigree alone, could succeed in translating tower defense to a more casual audience. But what makes Plants vs. Zombies remarkable is how it appeals to even the most dedicated (dare I say obsessive?) gamer. For $20 (or $10 on Steam), Plants vs. Zombies provides a lengthy adventure mode that is designed to bring anybody up to speed on the basics of tower defense: what to build, when to build it, and how to control resources. But the real meat of the game lies in its dozens of minigames, challenges and survival modes, which all add up to dozens of hours of entertainment. (Want proof? Check my Steam profile. Just...please don't judge me.)
Aside from its rock-solid design, Plants vs. Zombies is bursting at the seams with inspiration. Each member of the full zombie menagerie is endearingly drawn and animated; likewise, your army of plants is cute and charming, even when mowing down hundreds of the encroaching undead. And it would be a shame to ignore the Suburban Almanac -- your guide to surviving the trials of a zombified neighborhood -- which is an impeccably written series of anecdotes, each with a razor-sharp wit.
Plants vs. Zombies has everything you could want in a downloadable game: accessible gameplay for newcomers, a significant challenge for veteran tower defenders, and a downright endearing music video to cap things off. Don't miss it. — Nick Cummings