Monday, March 12, 2012

Zrbo's Favorite Small Games of 2011

Yes, I realize it's already March, but I still haven't gotten around to talking about my favorite games of 2011. Since there's so many good ones I want to talk about I've decided to split my favorites into two groups: the small games (usually by an 'indie' developer) and the big AAA titles (usually by large gaming studios). The following are my favorite small games of 2011.

Terraria (Re-Logic game studio)
This is a fantastic little game I bought during a Steam sale for $2.50, and it was well worth 10x that much. Have you heard of Minecraft? Well, Terraria is like a 2-D version of Minecraft, though that doesn't quite do it enough justice. Terraria is part of this new movement of crafting games, basically games in which you are given a large world to run around in in which you create (or craft, if you will) items, weapons, and buildings out of various materials found in the world. You start off in a randomly generated world with only an axe for chopping wood and a pickaxe for mining brick, and from there, well, you can do anything you want. You probably want to begin by chopping down trees to build a house so you can survive the denizens which come out during the night. From there you'll want to start mining underground to get materials to upgrade your pickaxe, and then explore a little bit further to find some new items, then explore a little bit farther to see what's over that nearby hill, then return and make your house bigger, then talk to that NPC who moved into your house, then start spelunking into the depths below... and around this time you realize you've become addicted to this little gem of a game.

For a solid month I was addicted to my little Terraria world. What makes it work are the mild RPG elements they've added in, so there's always some newer, better armor or weapon that you can find or craft if you play just a little longer. The art style, with it's retro-16 bit sprite characters, combined with the quirky music, really makes the game shine. It's really amazing to look around online to see some of the structures people have built, which must have taken days, if not weeks, to complete (after spending hours just to construct my rinky-dink house I realize how much incredible effort must go into these). Check out some of these creations here. A great little game all around.

Bastion (Supergiant Games)

Bastion is the main reason this post got held up, I picked it up over Christmas but just recently got around to finishing it. The first game from Supergiant Games studio (developed by my old favorite Gamespot editor-in-chief Greg Kasavin), Bastion has already walked away with a slew of game awards, and it's easy to see why.

The game tells the story of 'the Kid' who wanders a sort of post-cataclysmic world looking for meaning. There are three aspects which make the game shine: the outstanding art design, the music, and most importantly, the narrator. The entire game is narrated, every action you do, every thing you see, it's all being narrated as if this were a story being told, and the narrator is brilliant. He sounds like an aging black man from Louisiana, speaking with a mild drawl. Combined with the hand drawn world and the way the land "rises up" as you walk around, Supergiant Games created something really special here. The best way to describe it is to show it, so watch the trailer here and some gameplay here to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

I mentioned the music, which is also worth checking out. The musical score itself is neat, with many of the tunes combining twangy acoustic guitars with electro-clash (there's a great article here with some snippets worth listening to), but what really takes the cake are the songs "Build that Wall (Zia's theme)", "Mother, I'm Here (Zulf's theme)", and "Setting Sail (Coming Home)" which is a fantastic mashup of those first two songs and which even brought a tear to my eye as it played over the final credits. This is a must play game (and like Terraria is also available on Steam for those PC players out there).

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (Namco Bandai)

Could the best small game of 2011 be a successor to a thirty-plus year old ur-videogame? It just may be. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, a follow up to 2007's Pac-Man Championship Edition, is truly a marvel, a perfect example of how to update an aging concept and make it completely fresh. In this version of the iconic franchise, Pac-Man roams the board gobbling pellets as usual, but this time there are many, many ghosts on the board, and they're all asleep. As Pac-Man goes by each sleeping ghost, those ghosts wake up and begin pursuing Pac-Man. You can keep accruing a following of ghosts, I've had more than a hundred at once, before eating the big yellow pellet and turning around and eating all those delicious purple ghosts. It's so terribly satisfying.

What makes the game work is the way the board keeps changing. Whenever you've cleared one side of the board (left or right) a bit of fruit appears on the other side. Eating this fruit causes the cleared side to 'warp' and change into a new configuration, complete with new ghosts and pellets. Each successive transformation causes the speed to ratchet up a notch, which can eventually lead to Pac-Man moving faster than you've ever seen him move before (at top speed it's ludicrously fast). To top if off, they've given Pac-Man some electro/club music accompaniment which gives the whole game a terrific sense of style. Combined with a flashy Tron-like color saturation and it feels like you're playing Pac-Man in some exclusive nightclub.

As with Bastion, the best way to highlight how the game works is to watch some gameplay video (skip to late in the video to see how stupidly fast it gets). The game gives you a smorgasbord of different levels/maps to play on and a ton of different game types, all or which are constantly being doled out to the player as they complete levels, thus giving the game a nearly endless amount of replayability. While the game technically came out in 2010 I didn't have the chance to play it until last summer. Regardless, it just may be my favorite small game of 2011 (though Bastion is a very close second).

That's it! Stay tuned as I'll be putting up my list of favorite big games sometime soon.