The best games of 2009 included revivals such as Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros., sequels such as Assassin's Creed 2 and Modern Warfare 2, and hidden gems that were lost in the shuffle of major releases. But the two best were a fresh game that became a massive hit (Batman: Arkham Asylum) and a safe but perfectly made shooter sequel (Uncharted 2).
And there were contenders in every genre.
Long-awaited games such as the PlayStation 3 exclusive Killzone 2 and the Xbox 360 exclusive Halo 3: ODST were standout performers yet lacked new features needed to keep me playing for more than a few days. Borderlands was another noteworthy title; it got less publicity -- releasing in the middle of the holiday shopping season -- but its added role-playing-game mechanics made extended play more enjoyable than the rehashed styles of Halo and Killzone.
Modern Warfare 2 had a strong story, solid controls, and fantastic multiplayer, but it still wasn't enough to beat out the PS3's Uncharted 2. While I am still disappointed that the Uncharted sequel takes no risks in design -- with several borrowed concepts, such as Prince of Persia's platforming and Gears of War's cover system -- it's executed spectacularly well. Add in the best graphics I've ever seen in a game, and Uncharted 2 left me more impressed with a shooter than I have been in years.
The PS3 exclusive Demon's Souls is unmercifully hard to play, with an unusual style of online play in which other players can help or hinder your progress at any time, with or without your consent. Dragon Age: Origins is enormous in size and delivers an epic medieval story, but it requires a lot of dedication micromanaging your characters.
My favorite RPG this year was Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. The third installment continues the series' easy-to-learn, action-based play style, furthers the story established in previous titles, and maintains its great humor.
With online play nearly standard these days, fighting games have returned with a vengeance. It's like being in the arcade back in the early '90s, waiting in line to take on whoever wins a match. Tekken 6 and King of Fighters XII look good and play well, but poor online setups keep them from being great. Street Fighter IV was almost a shoo-in for my choice with great controls and online play, until a sleeper hit knocked my socks off in Blazblue: Calamity Trigger. With fluid controls that are easy to learn and hard to master, online play that has no noticeable flaws, and a lineup of unique characters with entirely different play styles, Blazblue is the new standard for fighting games.
Infamous on PS3 delivers a electrifying narrative with slick superpowers, but the pacing is erratic, and slow travel around the large city makes the game drag at times. Prototype's story didn't make much sense, but the high-octane action made it enjoyable nonetheless. Assassin's Creed 2 is a major advance from its predecessor but has limited replay value. Even New Super Mario Bros. Wii, while incredibly fun, does nothing to further the genre, with its combination of old features in a new shell.
In the end, the best of this category belongs to Batman: Arkham Asylum. Playing as Batman in the infamous mental facility against hundreds of thugs, the combination of Batman's fancy toys and bone-crushing martial arts creates an intense experience. It stands alone as its own great experience, but it also builds a strong foundation for the newly announced sequel.
Since the Nintendo Wii was introduced, developers have redoubled efforts to make simulations for all platforms more accurately mimic real-life activities. The latest games in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises are fun, but they merely add more songs to their respective catalogs. Wii Sports Resort's use of the new MotionPlus accessory made great strides for motion-controlled games, but it branches out into too many fields rather than creating a stand-alone detailed experience.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 for the Wii with the MotionPlus does the best job bringing a near-real-life experience into your living room, and it even goes the extra mile with the most addictive disc golf a video game can offer. Maybe next year's edition will include a mini-game in which you flee from an angry wife.
The DS exclusive Scribblenauts deserves recognition for its amazing imagination-fueled gameplay, but it doesn't earn the top honors because of its frustrating controls. Peggle was recently imported from PC to Xbox Live, and playing quickly becomes compulsive, but because the original game has been available since 2007, I won't count it among this year's best.
Professor Layton & The Diabolical Box on DS takes the cake this year. The game offers hundreds of brain-bending puzzles that all fit in the context of a murder mystery that makes it go so much deeper than your average puzzle game. You don't just play for fun; you play to solve the mystery, and it immerses you.
Games of the Year
Out of more than 50 new games I've played in the past year, I can't recommend two games enough: Uncharted 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Uncharted 2 takes the safe approach in design, but it's because of that safe approach that there is so little to complain about. Batman was a wild card coming into the year, but all the concerns about its quality were knocked out with a batarang and left hanging in downtown Gotham for the police to apprehend. These were the two best games 2009 had to offer.
Luke Hamilton is a buyer, creative designer, and online coordinator for Video Games Etc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.