I played so much excellent output on all devices last year that, rather than focus on iPhone games as I did for 2009, I’ve decided this time to ignore platform altogether. Browser games appear alongside desktop games, XBox 360 titles and XBLA downloads in a roundup where excellent design, original mechanics and, most importantly, addictive play win the day. What follows ignores sales, charts and ratings, though many here have done very well.
1. Plants vs Zombies (iPhone / iPad / XBLA / Windows / Mac / browser / Nintendo DS coming soon)
This might have originally been conceived as a tower defence game, but in the hands of Popcap casual games designer George Fan it developed into something simpler and more fun, in his words striking a balance between a “gritty” zombie game and a “sickeningly cute” plant game. Zombies attempt to cross your lawn, whilst muttering “brains” under their breath, and your only defence is an expanding menu of weird and wonderful plants which eat them, shoot them, block them or blow them up.
There is so much content in this game, as the zombies arrive as American footballers, balloon-suspended clowns, pole vaulters, bespectacled old men, Thriller-inspired dancers and, er, dolphins. The action shifts to your pool, your roof, night time and day time; and the vast array of re-playable mini games pile up from level to level. The humour is pitched just right, with witty zombie and plant bios, a jabbering neighbour called Crazy Dave and a theme song (composed by effortlessly amusing singer / songwriter Laura Shigihara) with an accompanying pop video that has had 5m views.
Its hugely addictive and perfectly tuned so that the difficulty ramps up exactly in line with your skills. I can’t fault this game. Its on almost every platform, there is even a version in World of Warcraft, so go get it wherever you are.
2. Game Dev Story (iPhone / iPad / Android)
Its quite rare you gets to play a video game about your own job, but Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story turns the running of a games company into an incredibly addictive and fun management sim. You start as an upstart entrepreneur with an empty office and a few ideas, and in no time you are hiring staff, combining genres (Pirate Memory game anyone?), perfecting your game’s features, doing some press and releasing your masterpiece to the awaiting reviewers and fans.
The game started life in Japan in 1996. It works well when ported to the iPhone, keeping the original cute and minimal style and focusing on pared down, simple but precision-tuned game mechanics. The port could have been a bit more thorough. The interface is occasionally tricky and some screen area wasted, but this is soon forgotten as you become a virtual industry veteran. You can send your staff on inspirational yoga sessions, name your upcoming titles Super Mario Sisters or Grand Theft Auto: East Finchley, launch zany promotions, get panned by journalists, attend the launch of the new Sonny PlayStatus 2, hire mascots for your stall at the annual GameDex convention and see your game nominated at awards ceremonies.
Game Dev Story makes watching your games grow from fledgling ideas into multi-million-selling hits almost as much fun as doing it for real. Look out for Game Dev Story 2 coming soon.
3. Minecraft (Windows / Mac / browser)
Minecraft achieved cult status in 2010 and earned its creator, Markkus “Notch” Persson, a reputed fortune amassing almost 3m registered players and crucially almost 1m paying customers – incredible for an indie game made by just one person. The game is a freeform sandbox, allowing the player to explore, dig, fabricate and build almost anything in its huge, pixelated, randomly generated world. It is such an open ended experience that it almost isn’t a game at all, but more a virtual Lego set. Except for one thing – when night falls the monsters come, and if you haven’t built a shelter they will kill you.
Players talk poetically of the views of the sunset from the mountains and build full size models of the Starship Enterprise or Earth, Art Deco villas, entire rail networks, roller coasters and functioning computers. Some have even hired digital looms to create pixel-perfect fancy dress costumes. The game has a huge fan following and a dedicated Wiki. As Notch sets up his studio and expands his team watch out for more of this phenomenon in 2011.
4. Red Dead Redemption (XBox 360 / PS3)
This digital spaghetti western has been called Rockstar’s cowboy GTA. That may be an accurate description of some of the game mechanics, but it doesn’t do justice to an impressive game, described by The Telegraph as “nothing less than the finest recreation of the Wild West on a console”
Like Fable 2 below, it summons up beautiful scenery – this time the American Midwest – and, like Minecraft above, it has sunsets to die for. Red Dead Redemption manages to bring a 60s movie genre right up to date, creating a believable world of pioneering railways, horseback outlaws and bandits, bar-room brawls and rattling stage coaches. The landscape itself is a powerful presence, populated by realistic wildlife and stretching across a huge area that feels like the familiar scrublands, deserts and canyons of a hundred movies.
Transporting the Rockstar approach from stolen vehicles to rustled horses works brilliantly and the game steers the right course between free exploration and guided missions. This is undoubtedly the most ambitious game of this scale in 2010 and its great to see a studio innovating and trying out new game genres rather than rolling out yet another murder spree.
5. Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (XBLA / PSN)
Usually remixes of arcade classic are awful, but this take on Pac-Man is a fantastic re-design under the new Namco Generations imprint. The title is a mouthful, but the game combines the retro vector bling of classic Rez and more recent Geometry Wars with graphics that are so sweet they seem almost edible. Namco’s game designers have worked hard to introduce a range of carefully considered new features that add to the original gameplay immensely.
Ghosts sleep soundly until you pass, when they wake to follow you in rapidly lengthening chains. This introduces elements of Snake and highlight moments where, confidence buoyed by a nommed power pill, you turn upon your numerous pursuers in an accelerating whorl of visual candy. Time slows and the screen zooms at crucial moments, reminiscent of level endings in Peggle, allowing the game to keep up its frenetic pace whilst giving players, who are merely human after all, a chance to react. Bombs get you out of tight spots, so the game can throw more tight spots at you without it seeming unfair. Mazes morph as you cross from side to side following the optimum route. Apparently the team designed 100s of new mazes before whittling it down to a small but perfectly formed set to include in the game.
The only odd addition is a set of incomprehensible graphs at the end of each game. We know gamers like stats but this seems one step too far.
6. Fable II (XBox 360)
I feel ever so slightly slightly guilty that I played an RPG in its entirety this year, but Lionhead’s Fable II (and its successor which I haven’t tried yet) is the causal-game-player’s hardcore game. It creates a vast and visceral world that is beautifully rendered down to its blustering autumn leaves, misty forest glades and rainy nights when the rocks glisten in the moonlight.
Beneath the surface this is a deep game with a lengthy good vs evil storyline, a complex trading system, numerous embedded casual game elements and the inclusion of grown up subjects such as home ownership, marriage and parenthood.
Inevitably there are some unfriendly monsters to kill here and there, but they are easily dispatched with a blast of magic or some swordsmanship. The entire experience feels like a day wandering in the countryside in much the same way as a visit to an exhibition of Constable landscapes. Admittedly I should probably go for actual days in the countryside more often, but this is certainly the closest I get whilst playing a console game in a city.
7. Drop7 (iPhone / Android)
This 2009 release from New York studio AreaCode became the cult puzzle game of the year, with high scores being toted as a badge of honour amongst all kinds of gamers. Taking Tetris and Match 3 style games onwards and upwards, in Drop7 the player reveals and matches numbers in a manner that is known to induce a trance-like state and was described by Wired as “derangedly awesome”. I’m aware its controversial to say so, but I believe the game engine could be tuned a little to improve play about 2/3 of the way through most games, where the player is inundated with insolvable walls of 1s and 2s. But that’s just my view.
8. Linkem (browser / coming to iPhone)
Another original Match 3 game, Linkem was created by Preloaded as part of Something Else‘s SuperMe project for Channel 4 Education. Whether or not you find the game on its own “shows how making strong connections in life is a way to a happier future”, it certainly makes for a very good action puzzle game that succeeds in drawing players into the entire SuperMe offering. You shoot rings up from the bottom of the screen to form chains at the top, with special pieces flipping horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Too many linked rings and the chain will break, bringing game pieces tumbling down. It takes thought and planning as you ascend the levels and try to clear the screen.
An iPhone version is currently under development at the Preloaded studio and I look forward to its release in early 2011.
9. Echo Bazaar (browser)
Its rare that an HTML browser game takes my fancy, but Failbetter created something rather special here. Described by creator Alexis Kennedy as the “first ethical social game”, Echo Bazaar summons up the quirky, dark and curious world of Fallen London pretty much entirely through the medium of fantastically written narrative. Its enthralling characters, half-familiar-from-a-dream locations and questionable scenarios make the player a protagonist in a difficult world where they must take responsibility for their decisions. Activision tried something similar with Legends of Zork but didn’t succeed in summoning up a quarter of the mystique of this indie offering.
Its for these reasons that (declaration of interest) we are talking to them right now about writing the script for our International Racing Squirrels game for Channel 4.
10. Angry Birds (iPhone / Nokia)
Unless you are under house arrest, banned from the Internet or on a slow connection for reasons beyond your control you are bound to have heard of this game. I was going to exclude it for that reason, but had to give in – Angry Birds is easily the most popular iPhone game of 2010 and one of the most addictive casual games ever made. With its cute background story (birds angry about pigs stealing their eggs), catchy Eastern-European-influenced theme tune and animated trailer, this game has dominated the device for experienced and novice gamers alike and turned even the most sceptical non-gamers into mobile gaming fans.
The huge number of missions and free update provides great value and the characters have become so popular they have inspired Halloween costumes, a cake (see above) and a live action parody video. Creators Rovio have even launched a range of plush toys which would certainly have been an Xmas hit if they were being shipped before mid Jan 2011.
Thats 10 already, and I didn’t even mention phone-tilting, strange-looks-on-the-tube mayhem in Dark Nebula 2 (iPhone), familiar dice shaking action for all the family in Quordy (iPhone), don’t-play-this-at-night eeriness in Limbo (XBLA) and me finally getting around to the brilliant FPS puzzler Portal (XBox 360 / Windows / Mac). Plus my Xmas shopping list included audio-only spook-fest Papa Sangre (iPhone) and Hide and Seek’s original Boardgame Remix Kit (iPhone / cards / book). Anything else I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.