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Going BIG: My favorite games of the 2000s

This is a quick personal reflection on the ten games (well, nine games and one series of games) I found the most meaningful and memorable over the past ten years.

SSX: I start here not because this is the least of all the games on this list, but because it's the first. It was very early indeed in this decade when I stepped into a GameStop...it may even have still been a Software Etc...and saw a PS2 demo kiosk showing off SSX. I was sold. With one glance, it seemed clear that the power of the PlayStation 2 was going to enable games to deliver bigger thrills than any console before it. How apt that the development studio for this game was called EA Sports BIG. The PS2 was the first new console of the decade, and SSX was its glorious herald, a speedy, stylish, adrenaline-drenched snowboarding game for the new era. It's certainly true that SSX 2 and 3 improved on the original in some respects, but when I think of SSX, it's that first glimpse of Snowdream that I remember most, the voice of Rahzel mocking and praising me as I boosted my way down the slopes.

Halo: Some of the very best gaming moments I had this decade were spent with friends crowded around my modest television, the screen split four ways as we assault-rifled and pistol-sniped each other endlessly. Halo 2 and 3 took the multiplayer online in a big way, but the best Halo times of all for me were those early days on Hang 'em High.

Burnout 3: What an exciting innovation this game was, building on existing arcade racing game conventions but making crashing and running your competitors off the road a spectacular, visceral part of the gameplay. I consider this the original Xbox's ultimate Xbox Live title. For several months, some friends and I ritually played this on an almost-daily basis,while games these days are unlikely to see consistent online play from us for more than a few weeks. It was also, for me, the first game in which custom soundtracks were an essential feature. I still can't hear certain Death Cab for Cutie songs without them conjuring up images of Burnout 3's environments.

Ninja Gaiden (Black): My favorite skill-based, challenging action game of the decade. When Ninja Gaiden first came out, I rented it and found it difficult to a fault. It was frustrating, not fun. Then the bargain-priced Black came out and I decided to give it another chance. I hit the same wall I had before but kept pressing on and somehow, at a certain point, something clicked, and I just naturally found myself getting better at the game. That sense of just feeling my skills improve, and the results of it--being able to effortlessly slice enemies to pieces (and look awesome doing it) who had previously made mincemeat out of me--was incredibly rewarding.

Metal Gear Solid 4: It's goofy and messy and totally absurd, and I admire the hell out of it. I think it's an inspired conclusion to this totally crazy series, and for all its flaws, I love the fact that it is so clearly Kojima's uncompromised vision. He may be the first auteur of games, and I think the series would have been far less interesting if it was made by committee and some of Kojima's crazier, more self-indulgent impulses had been reined in. It somehow creates a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that ties up all the loose ends, and it unforgettably pits the hero and villain against each other in a climactic fistfight that's also a brilliant summation of the entire series. Masterful.

Grand Theft Auto IV: I Heart Liberty City. Moral choice was a fun gimmick in a lot of games over the past ten years, but many of those games presented those choices in such extreme black and white terms. Grand Theft Auto IV was the first game in which I felt legitimately troubled by some of the choices I had to make, the first game in which pulling a trigger and taking a life often felt impactful and irrevocable. The writing is far superior to what you find in most games, with complex, damaged characters who, for all their flaws, are often trying their best to make a go of it in this ugly world. The cutscenes feature terrific subtlety and are willing to take their time to just observe the characters. For me, its themes of culture, cIass and consequences really work. It ain't The Wire, but for my money it's far and away the best crime story, and the best story of any kind, I've encountered in a game.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door: Mario has starred in many exceptional RPGs throughout the past ten years. This is the absolute best of the bunch. It's charming, inventive, humorous, and even oddly poignant. An absolute delight from start to finish.

The Rock Band series: When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic air guitarist, desk drummer, and sing-along-er. But these are all private, slightly embarrassing expressions of the emotions a song might conjure up in me. One of the biggest, most important innovations in games of this decade is the way that the music peripheral games have taken those private expressions and made them a shared experience. Performing songs with friends in a game like this is an absolute joy, and a totally valid and new way for people to experience music together. In the Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero battle, the Rock Band games are the clear winner for me. The atmosphere and the song lists deliver just want I want in my fantasy fulfillment, and the Guitar Hero games feel a bit crass and soulless by comparison.

And now, my two favorite games of the decade. I can't choose between them.

Super Mario Galaxy and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Super Mario Galaxy is as close as any game has come to perfection for me this decade. It's an absolutely incredible achievement, feeling both like a natural extension of the series' roots, and a totally fresh, at times exhilaratingly innovative experience. The level designs are nothing short of brilliant, and the music, visuals and gameplay frequently combined to foster a sense of ebullient joy in me akin to what I might feel at the most inspired moments of a great Pixar or Miyazaki film.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by contrast, does not quite approach perfection. Instead, it's a sprawling, audacious, flawed but utterly incredible game. The story is not the serious tale of revenge or forgiveness that you find in GTA IV, but a fever dream of West Coast culture and styIe. The plot lacks focus, but the cast of characters is memorable, and the outstanding voice work (JAMES WOODS!) helps tremendously. And while the story is messy, the setting is unforgettable. I love it all, from the ghetto where CJ begins to the mansions in the hills. I love the small towns and the beaches. I love the huge bridges and the airplane graveyards. It understands Los Angeles hip-hop culture in the mid-90s, and its climax rings true in echoing some of the rage that fueled the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

I can't separate the fact that I've lived in LA for many years from my feelings for this game. Standing in the cul-de-sac where CJ's house is located, I can almost feel the warm Santa Ana winds. But the reason I rank it above GTA IV as one of the absolute best of the decade is not just that its setting is more personally resonant for me. It's also that I simply think it's a bit more fun. For me, this is still the best entry overall in what I consider the definitive game series of the decade.

Natural Police and Other Characters--My Favorite TV of the 2000s

I suppose strong arguments could be made either that this was the best decade of television, with cable TV coming into its own and providing us with richer, more complex dramas than anything we'd seen in the past, or that it was the worst, with reality TV's rise to popularity signifying a low point in our culture. Well, I actually happen to think there's such a thing as good "reality TV," but for now, as the decade comes to a close, I want to take a moment to focus on the earlier argument and look back on what were the standouts for me in TV drama in the 2000s.

1. The Wire—Quite possibly the best television show of all time. This is the poetry of real life in America in the early 21st century. Over the course of five seasons, it turned its piercing gaze on the drug war, labor unions, big city politics, public schools, and the print media, opening our eyes to the world we live in. At the same time, it's a riveting and powerful human drama, with complex characters on both sides of the law that we come to love and to despise, to root for and to fear.

2. The Shield—If The Wire is the television equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Shield is like a modern-day, extended take on a Shakespearian tragedy, about the way one man's gargantuan ambitions can inhale and destroy the lives of many. For my money, it's pound-for-pound the most exciting drama of the decade, rarely taking a false step from its shocking first episode until its pitch-perfect, devastating finale. Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about The Shield is the way it so often made me feel so conflicted. Vic Mackey is absolutely, unquestionably immoral, and yet I often found myself cheering him on as he brought his own brand of justice to the criminals of LA's fictional (but thoroughly believable) Farmington district. Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis) pulls focus with his massive persona and his shiny bald head, but this is absolutely an ensemble show, and although I have much love for Vincent D'Onofrio's enigmatic and disturbed detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, my favorite TV detective is The Shield's slightly awkward, dogged, brilliant Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach.

3. Six Feet Under—Forget Touched by an Angel. This is deeply spiritual television, at least for this agnostic.

4. The West Wing (The Sorkin Years)--I stopped watching when Sorkin was dropped, but in those early years of the Bush presidency, when it all still felt like some sort of bad dream, I know I wasn't alone in taking solace and inspiration in the imaginary presidency of Jed Bartlet. Sorkin's excellent "let's-have-snappy-conversations-while-walking-briskly-down-hallways" writing styIe and the top-notch work by Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and others made this show a delightful entertainment. (Yes, I know, it actually started airing in the final months of the 90s. Sue me.)

5. Law & Order—Because after 20 years, there are still few things on TV as reliably satisfying as an episode of Law & Order.

And in a category of its own:

24--While The Wire is the show people in the future should look at if they want to understand what our world was actually like in this decade, the show they should look at if they want to psychoanalyze us is 24. The pilot was actually delayed and edited because of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, but the entire show almost feels like a reaction to that day. Jack Bauer is absolutely a hero our society gravitated to in the wake of that attack. Like its hero, the show is ruthless and exceptionally effective. It's also the most video-game-like show ever (though the actual 24 game is pretty lousy), and I'm convinced that it has heavily influenced the outstanding campaigns of the Modern Warfare games, which do things with game narrative that previously just weren't done.

Honorable mentions:

Deadwood—Gorgeously vulgar dialogue and towering performances by a great cast.

Battlestar Galactica—I found the last set of episodes deeply disappointing. Still, it had a lot of great moments, and was the best sci-fi that TV of the 00's had to offer.

Dexter—Wickedly entertaining. Dexter (the show and the character) is still a work in progress, but it may deserve a place on a list like this in ten years' time.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent—Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren is what has made this show so watchable, though it achieved heights with regularity in the earlier seasons that it has rarely been able to recapture in more recent ones, and I was crushed when Goren's rivalry with archnemesis Nicole Wallace, which was the source of some of the show's best moments, was brought to an end last season in the most unsatisfying way possible. Goren and Eames will be leaving the show at the start of next season as it becomes Monk 2: Jeff Goldblum's Kooky Crime-Solving Hour full-time. But I'll still watch it.

More Russian: Modern Warfare 2 and Games in a Post-24 World (Spoilers)

Much is being said about the campaign for Modern Warfare 2, and in particular, a level called No Russian. Personally, I thought the level was effective and the campaign as a whole was nothing short of spectacular. It's easily earned a place as one of my favorite shooter campaigns of all time.

One of the criticisms I've read levelled at the campaign is that the writing is poor and the story is ludicrous. I agree completely that the story is ludicrous. I think that most video game stories are ludicrous. But so what? The important thing in a game like Modern Warfare 2 is to cram as many intense moments into its five-hour campaign as it can. I can't think of a game that sustained such an unrelenting pace, and since the story does its job of providing a vehicle to string all these things together, in my mind, it's a success. I won't argue that it's great writing for a second. But it's writing with a very specific purpose, and I think it does a great job of accomplishing that purpose.

There may have been a time where I would have enjoyed it less, where I would have spent half my time stepping outside of the absurd action of the story and yelling at the screen, "Oh, come on! That would never happen!" Perhaps it's all that 24 I watched, but at a certain point, my outlook changed, and I realized that I was willing to sacrifice a certain amount of plausibility if, and only if, something succeeds in delivering over-the-top thrills so incredible as to make my suspension of disbelief worthwhile. Most of the time, 24 succeeded here for me. In the end, it's not the overall story of a 24 season that matters, but the moment-to-moment thrills that story allowed the season to deliver, and seriously, if you think Modern Warfare 2 is implausible, watch a season of 24. I don't know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that 24 has been a direct influence on the Modern Warfare games.

24 ushered in an era of television where viewers could no longer be sure, one week to next, that any character (wiith the possible exception of Jack Bauer) was safe. Audience favorites are routinely killed suddenly and unflinchingly. The Modern Warfare games certainly followed in the series' footsteps here. The death of a player character in the first Modern Warfare, like the death of lovable Edgar on 24, was shocking. Perhaps in Modern Warfare 2 they go a tad overboard with this and it starts to lose its impact a bit, but I still found most of the twists and character deaths surprising and impactful.

And then there's No Russian, in which, as an undercover CIA agent embedded in a terrorist cell, you must stand by, or even participate, while your fellow terrorists slaughter hundreds of civilians at an airport. Many of the arguments I've read about this level are rooted in the illusion of choice. There you are, holding a gun, but you must stand idly by as this massacre takes place. You are unable to turn the gun on the terrorists and attempt to stop this atrocity, which is something that any moral person would surely at least consider doing in that situation. Anthony Burch, in this Rev Rant at Destructoid, argues that as the player, your feelings of revulsion about what's happening totally pull you out of the moment. (At least that was what I took away from his argument, but I'm paraphrasing, and I encourage you to watch it for yourself.) And maybe that's true. He contrasts this, though, with the player's relationship with Alyx in Half-Life 2. In Half-Life 2, he says, you like Alyx. Because the game reinforces your positive feelings about the character, Gordon's choice to not just use the gravity gun to fling her into the nearest bunch of headcrabs and run jibes with your own feelings, creating a seamless relationship between you and the character you're playing. But to me, that's an arbitrary distinction. Another player may totally loathe Alyx and actually wish to kill her. In both Modern Warfare 2 and Half-Life 2, you have no choice. Choice is a complete illusion.

Some may feel that games are more enjoyable when we always feel a positive connection with the character we're playing and the actions of that character. I'm fine with that not being the case, with sometimes being cast in an unsavory role. If Modern Warfare 2 were a film, could the actor cast in the role the player plays in the No Russian level say to the director, "You know, if it were really me in this situation, I think I'd say to myself, 'To hell with this undercover thing, I'm turning my gun on these monsters!' So is it okay if I do that in this scene?" Of course not. It's essentially the same thing here. We are cast in this role. We have a part to carry out, and we must carry it out, whether we like it or not. If you're playing Metal Gear Solid, you must stop Liquid Snake. Trying to join forces with him is not an option. If you're playing Ocarina of Time, you cannot shirk your responsibility to defeat Ganon and just go live on a farm somewhere, no matter how much you might rather do that. In games, almost always, choice is an illusion.

The other criticism I've heard about No Russian is that some feel such a horrific scene of violence is inappropriate in something that's essentially just trying to be a piece of pure entertainment, that it's exploitative to use something so terrible in the context of something that, let's face it, doesn't really deal with the consequences in a serious, meaningful way. Maybe I'm just callous, but I didn't mind. Again, perhaps it's all that 24, which doesn't shy away from crashing commuter jets, releasing chemical weapons in hotels, and detonating nukes in densely populated areas, killing anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands at a time. Nor is it reluctant to try to make you feel the loss of a single human life.

And always, not long after one of these moments transpires, Jack Bauer is back to kicking ass and walking away from unsurvivable situations unscathed, all in the name of delivering pure entertainment.

On Greatness

At this point, it seems likely that Gordon Freeman is going to win GameSpot's All Time Greatest Game Hero contest.

This is the wrong choice. There is only one right answer to the question, "Who is the all-time greatest game hero?" That answer is Mario.

You may think that this is a matter of opinion. I am not so sure. To quote Roger Ebert, "There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact." Whether the original Star Wars trilogy or the Lord of the Rings trilogy is better is a question of opinion. Whether Citizen Kane or Boat Trip is better is a question of fact. You might enjoy Boat Trip more, that's fine. But if you think that Boat Trip is the better film, you're simply wrong, in the same way that you're wrong if you think a painting of dogs playing poker is a better work of art than the Mona Lisa.

I am not saying that Mario is the greatest game hero of all time because I'm a slavish fan of all things Mario. I am not. I've barely played Super Mario 64, for instance, and didn't care for Sunshine much at all.

But from a historical perspective, I don't see how any other answer can stand up.

Mario has been there from almost the earliest days of video games. He was Jumpman, for crying out loud, in 1981's seminal Donkey Kong. Since then, the number of excellent, important, and innovative games in which he has starred outstrips the number featuring any other hero by a tremendous margin. I'm not going to start listing them. I think they are already very well-known to most people who will read this blog.

This is not to take anything away from Gordon Freeman. I'm a huge fan of the Half-Life games. But Mario he is not. You can certainly have enjoyed the Half-Life games more than all of the Mario games put together. But the Half-Life games, while certainly important and influential, have not had the same degree of impact on gaming's history as games starring Mario. No other hero's games have.

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As long as I'm on the topic of greatness, let me also address a recent argument, made on ABC News, that Metroid Prime is the Citizen Kane of games.

Here is an actual sentence from the text version of that argument, which achieves a kind of zen-like beauty in its perfect absurdity:

"In the same way that Citizen Kane harnessed every technical component in film to express its post-mortem reassembly of an irrepressible and heartbroken man, Metroid Prime uses all of its technology to recreate the experience of a woman abandoned on an alien world inhabited by the ghosts of its prelapsarian inhabitants."

To see the ABC News piece, complete with a reaction that sums up my own feelings pretty well, check out this Rev Rant at Destructoid. (Warning: contains adult language.) For a skillful textual destruction of the Metroid Prime = Citizen Kane argument, I highly recommend this piece by Anthony Burch.

I'm all for games being viewed with more legitimacy by the mainstream press. Making absurd claims like this one, though, is not the way to go about it. In fact, as someone who wants games to be taken more seriously, I find arguments like this embarrassing. When people go on ABC News of all places and make patently ridiculous arguments like this one, it makes me want to scream, "Dude, YOU'RE NOT HELPING!"

Let games be great on their own terms. Don't try to compare a game about a space bounty hunter who goes around shooting things to one of the richest, most influential and complex films of all time. Please, just don't.

Fave games of the decade 1: Wakka wakka

It may seem a tad early to start talking about the best games of the decade, but I went in to Starbucks today and they're already serving the damn pumpkin spice latte, which is the official sign for me that this decade is on its way out.

Over the next few months, my plan is to write a new entry about my favorite games of the decade, whenever the heck I feel like it. To kick things off, I'm going to write about my favorite downloadable game.

I'm old enough to remember the heyday of arcades. In the early 1980s, games were all about proving yourself, about seeing how you stack up against the competition, people like JIM and AAA and the fabled ASS. And no one separated the wheat from the chaff quite like Pac-Man.

I'm painting in pretty broad strokes here, but it seemed to me that over time, gaming in general became less about testing your skills and measuring yourself against the competition, and more about experiences that nearly everyone could enjoy and complete, if they put in the time and effort. Oh, you beat A Link to the Past? Well, I beat it better than you did! Oh yeah? Prove it. It's certainly true that the competitive spirit flourished in arcades as fighting games rose to prominence, but I always found this genre intimidating and inaccessible. I preferred the simplicity and anonymity of games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. (Interestingly, my appreciation for fighting games has developed quite a bit in recent years, and Street Fighter IV is one of my favorite games of this year. But I digress.)

Throughout the latter part of this decade, though, as online services became more sophisticated and leaderboards more commonplace, there has been a renaissance of straightforward, challenging games where the focus is on scoring more points than everyone else. There have been a slew of excellent titles that fit this bill; the Geometry Wars games would probably be the first choice for most people, and my favorite from this year's offerings is the captivating Shatter. My personal pick for best in category for the 2000s, though, would be Pac-Man: Championship Edition.

Pac-Man: CE takes everything that made Pac-Man one of the most compulsively playable games of all time, and makes it better. It's faster, moving at a speed that just feels right, and it makes the original feel stiff in comparison. The clock is always ticking, creating a new sense of pressure to cram as many points as possible into each moment. The field of play is constantly evolving. The trance-like music is a perfect accompaniment to the zen-like sense of focus one feels when fully engrossed in the action. (Oh, how I love that sense of focus.) And the visuals are stunning; everything is infused with a neon glow that somehow makes the game more reflective of my memories of playing the original in dimly-lit, cacophonous arcades than the original itself.

Of course, it helped immensely that I had a few terrific players to test my skills against. Aaron Thomas, Carrie Gouskos and I engaged in a friendly but very hard-fought battle on the leaderboards, giving me more incentive than I might have otherwise felt to really get good at the game, making victory all the sweeter and defeat all the more crushing. Few experiences I've had with games can match the exhilaration I felt when pulling ahead in the final few seconds, or the sinking feeling when a single slip-up several minutes into a game turned a shot at triumph into a wasted opportunity.

I'm at a respectable 579 on the global leaderboards, and I don't think I have it in me to ever go back and try for better. I lived and breathed this game for a little while. I gave it everything I had. It tested me, and it punished me, and there were times when I hated it, but even when I hated it, I loved it. I can't go back, but I'll never forget the experience.

The high score battle is back, hopefully to stay. There could have been no one better to lead its triumphant return than the Man who helped kick it off in the first place.

Orson's Game

I just tossed up some quick thoughts on the whole "Should we boycott Shadow Complex?" question. Given the topic's political nature, I felt my personal blog was a more appropriate place to post it. If interested, you can check out my thoughts here.

EDIT: If you are going to comment here, please do me the courtesy of reading my blog entry first. I welcome comments here but only if they are actually in response to my entry on this issue. Thanks.

Greetings from Big Surf Island!

I've been off from work this past week, taking a mandatory furlough, like many people are having to do in these harsh economic times. While I am hoping to go on an exciting trip or two in the not-too-distant future, as I wasn't being paid this week, I didn'twant tospend too much money, so I stayed in town. That doesn't mean I didn't have a kind of vacation, though. I've visited the following exotic and exciting destinations during my time off:

Big Surf Island:I was absolutely mad about Burnout Paradisewhen it first came out, and Big Surf Island has gotten me pumped about it all over again. The island is a bit smaller than I imagined it would be, but it's positively packed with outrageous jumps and all the other stuff that makes Paradise such an exhilarating game. The dune buggies you find there are a blast to drive, too, with a great rough-and-ready feel to their handling. I've already completed 40/45 billboards, 13/15 mega jumps and 74/75 smashes. I just know that finding that last one is going to be a real pain. I also have just one event left to complete: a stunt run. Those are the bane of my existence. I'm not generally a completionist, but Paradise compelled me to get 100%, and I know I won't stop until I've jumped every jump, smashed every smash and every billboard, won every event and ruled every road on Big Surf Island, in both the Time Road Rules and Showtime (AKA Katamari CarCrashy AKA Michael Bay Directs a Car Wreck) modes. It's good to be back in Paradise.

The Ring: When I was a kid, I could beat Mike Tyson without breaking a sweat. It seems my reflexes aren't what they used to be. My current record in Punch-Out!!is an embarrassing 20-67, and I'm currently facing Don Flamenco in the title defense section of the game. But I don't mind. On the contrary, I'm very pleased that the game is so challenging. It goes easy on you for a while, but once you get to defending your belt, Punch-Out!! is no joke. At this point, the bouts are tough enough to quite literally get my pulse racing, and each victory feels like an accomplishment. It's hard in much the same way that the NES game was hard,but I think it's harder, thanks to more complex attack patterns from your opponents, which you need to learn during the first phase of your career and then completely re-learn during title defense. If the game had ended when I'd won the world championship, I would have felt like I could have better spent that $50, as fun as the experience was up to that point. But this game has proven to have lasting value and to keep the excitement comin'. I'm thrilled to see this franchise get reinvigorated like this. If only the game shouted "BODY BLOW! BODY BLOW!" like the arcade games did, it would be just about perfect.

Unnamed Middle Eastern Country:In the past I've never really been one to spend much time with online shooters, but I've gotten back into Modern Warfare's online multiplayer in a big way this week. I don't consider myself to be all that great at shooters so I generally shy away from exclusively team-based games like Gears of War 2's multiplayer (that way I can't let any other players down) but free-for-all deathmatch in CoD4 is so exceptional, I keep coming back to it again and again.It's easily the online shooter I've enjoyed the most. Here's a question for anyone here who might play this game online: If I play exclusively free-for-all deathmatch, is it worth it for me to spring for the map pack that contains Creek, Broadcast, Chinatown and Killhouse?

Temeria: This compelling land is the setting of The Witcher, which I downloaded off of Steam this week. I'm utterly taken with the setting, which is rather unlike the setting of any other fantasy RPG I've played, It feels rougher, more lived-in and worn, bleaker, and more believable. I haven't yet been able to spend as much time as I would like with the mysterious Geralt of Rivia, but you can bet I'm eager to do so.

The Sprint Studio: Lastly, I've been enjoying the beta season of 1 vs. 100on Xbox Live. The game itself couldn't be simpler, but I'm excited about the way it's being implemented. I think the opportunity to join a live game that's being played by tens of thousands of other players, that involves answering trivia questions rather than, say,killing orcs and earning loot, is really exciting. (It helps that I am a huge sucker for trivia questions.) I also like the fact that up to four people can play from a single console, as it just feels like a party game that would be way more fun when shared with friend. In fact, I think I'm gonna invite some friends over for some pizza and beer and 1 vs. 100 one of these weekends.

I also want to say just a few things about E3.

When I was a kid, it really bothered me if someone abused a stuffed animal, even though I was well aware that the thing had no feelings of its own. Apparently there's still part of me that harbors that irrational perspective, as the first thing I imagined after seeing the Milo demonstration was thousands of people unleashing verbal abuse at their Milos. It made me sad. Apparently Milo won't respond to abuse, though, so that's good. Maybe if it's utterly pointless, people won't bother to engage in it. Of course, I'm assuming that Milo is actually going to be as amazing as it appeared in the demo, but then, I have no reason to doubt that it will be. After all, it was presented by Peter Molyneux of all people. ;)

There are too many games I'm excited about to mention, but one annoucement I'm particularly intrigued by is Metroid Other M. As a huge fan of most of the 2D Metroid games, I always felt that theMetroid Prime games really missed one hugely important aspect of what makes Samus so much fun to play: she's quick and agile. Metroid Other M looks primed to rectify this issue in a big way, so I'll be keeping my eyes on that one.

So, how 'bout you? What are you playin'? Any E3 announcements strike you as particularly promising or exciting?

Gamers in a Dangerous Time

One day you're waiting for the sky to fall
And next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
--Bruce Cockburn, Lovers in a Dangerous Time

And make no mistake, these are dangerous times we're living in. Economically, things are already pretty bad. There's a good chance you or someone you know has lost his or her job as a result of cutbacks, and things will, according to many people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do, get worse before they get better. I'm very thankful for my job and fully aware that at any point, someone could decide that my company could save a whole lot of money by paying people in Mexico or India or elsewhere to do my job. This is a time for belt-tightening and saving, not for spending.

Beyond our economic woes, long-simmering tensions in other parts of the world are building up to dangerous levels, and it's possible that the human race may blow itself to hell in the relatively near future. Is ths really a time when we should be playing games?

Heck yeah, it is. Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight, and being able to relax and enjoy life is absolutely worth having. Here are the things I'm playing in these precarious days.

Prince of Persia--It's beautiful, I'll give it that. The visual design is striking, evoking ancient Persia not as it ever was but as it is in our imaginations. But the gameplay all feels a bit rote to me, and not very engaging. This one may be on the next GameFlight back home.

Fallout 3--I know I said that these are not times for spending, and GameFly seems like a good way to save money and still play the games I want to play, but after a certain point having a game from GameFly must stop being cost-effective. I think I might be reaching that point with Fallout 3. I play it in fits and starts, and I like it well enough, but more often than not there's something I'd rather be playing. Still, I have to play it through to the end. I think it might just be in very small pieces over the course of the coming months.

Lumines Supernova--Ohh, how I love/hate Lumines! Its design is so flawless, so compelling, and I want so badly to be really good at it. But Lumines greatness eludes me. Still, I keep trying. Maybe someday I'll get past the sixth skin in the basic challenge mode.

LittleBigPlanet
--When I wrote up my favorite games of 2008, I called this my odd game out, because the perplexing moderation of so many wonderful user-created levels just seemed to fly in the face of the game's good-natured, Fun shall overcome philosophy. But things seem to have recovered nicely, and I still regularly encounter user-created levels that charm, thrill, and genuinely surprise me with their inventiveness.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts--I spent about an hour and a half playing Nuts & Bolts tonight, and my first impressions of the game are extremely positive. It's very funny in a way that both mocks video game conventions in general and the Banjo-Kazooie games in particular. It's gorgeous. And the gameplay is purely, tremendously fun. I haven't yet had to design any of my own vehicles, which is a good thing. The game has an excellent learning curve that lets you use pre-designed vehicles successfully in many early challenges. And the challenges themselves are varied and fun. I'm already hooked and can't wait to collect more jiggies.

Chrono Trigger--I'd never played Chrono Trigger before. I was in college when it hit the SNES and I didn't make much time for games during those four years. It's probably for the best. Without my degree in theater with a minor in English, it's doubtful I'd have the lucrative career in tech support and customer service that I have today. But I'm making up for lost time by playing it now.

Life with PlayStation--Folding molecules for the benefit of humankind. Gee, that planet of ours sure is pretty, isn't it?

Yeah, that's the thing, isn't it? Even as things get uncertain and scary, there's still so much to be hopeful for and so much to be thankful for. Play what you love and do what you love, and when things get tough, remember that nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Or, as the late, great Harvey Milk said, "There is hope for a better world. There is hope for a better tomorrow."

(This is where I would embed this video if I could.)

Happy 2009, everyone!

Mis juegos favoritos de 2008!

Greetings from Tijuana, Mexico, where the thing to do on a Saturday night is stay in your room writing entries in your blog! This is not a list in which I'm arguing that these are the very best games of the year. There were too many games I didn't get to play for me to make those kinds of arguments (I've barely scratched the surface in Fallout 3--PUN INTENDED!) and anyway I'm not interested in making them. This is a quick and dirty, off-the-top-of-my-head celebration of the games I personally enjoyed the most.

For me, the area where games saw the most dramatic advancement in 2008 was narrative. My two favorite games each, in their own way, set a new standard for the kinds of stories games can tell, and how those stories can be told, while also delivering outstanding gameplay.

My favorite game of the year is Grand Theft Auto IV. Games have faced me with choices before, but never have the choices been so difficult, troubling and impactful as they are in Rockstar's masterpiece. In its stylized, thrillingly alive depiction of contemporary New York City, complex protagonist Niko Bellic's journey is not just a shootout-filled crime epic, though it certainly is that. It's also a story about class, culture, loss, revenge, forgiveness, and that most elusive of all concepts: the American dream. I'm not saying this game is The Wire. I am saying it cuts deeper and truer than any other game into the America we live in now, and I was mesmerized from start to finish by nearly every aspect of the game, and how they all came together to create an experience that was as thought-provoking and emotionally affecting as it was viscerally thrilling.

In my number two spot is a game that tells an altogether different kind of story. While one could imagine the tale of GTA IV working as a novel or film--albeit without those difficult, all-important choices, the Metal Gear Solid games, and MGS4 in particular, are uniquely gamey in the tales they tell and the techniques they employ to tell them. MGS 4 is such a monumental success, such a powerhouse conclusion to this series that for me it redeems even the weakest moments of the previous MGS games. MGS 4 is somewhat accessible to even first-time players of the series, but it really shines as a tremendous piece of fan service for those who have been fascinated with every aspect of Solid Snake's long, labyrinthine odyssey. My favorite example of both the gamey storytelling and the deeply interwoven fan service are the X-button flashbacks that frequently pop up during the game's cutscenes. I was frequently surprised and even oddly moved by the connections that were woven throughout this game to past games in the series in the form of brief visual and aural flashbacks. It gave the storytelling a rather stream-of-consciousness feel, as if we were inside Snake's mind, remembering aspects of the past along with him as his journey draws toward what he knows, as his body starts to give out on him, are his final days. Of course, all of this virtuosic storytelling would be for naught if the gameplay wasn't any good, but it is absolutely excellent. Unforgettable setpieces abound, and the final brutal fistfight is a near-perfect sendoff of one of the greatest heroes and one of the greatest villains in video game history, that brilliantly evokes all of the games in this landmark series.

Of course, games are still, first and foremost, about the gameplay, and one of my favorite games of the year has no narrative at all to speak of, save what my imagination conjures up. Rock Band 2 is an endlessly exhilarating fantasy fulfillment machine. I understand that it's not a huge advancement over its predecessor, but the whole Rock Band experience was new to me the day I brought home my RB2 bundle. I've already spent many hours getting lost in the music while playing drums for The Intellivisions, and I hope to spend many more. The people behind this game really understand the culture of rock, and everything about it feels right, from the ambiance of the gigs to the iconic images on loading screens of your band, and your band's name on lunchboxes, bumper stickers and the like.

And then there's the chilling Dead Space, which builds on the framework of Resident Evil 4 by adding some uniquely sci-fi elements like vacuums and zero-g environments, and takes place on a ship so richly detailed and haunting, it feels like you've stepped into a really, really good Ridley Scott movie.

I also want to give special recognition to Fable II. It's a thoroughly enjoyable game whose storybook vibe is very charming, and whose various elements--questing, developing your character's combat and magic attributes, shaping your character's moral role in the world, and buying and selling property, come together to make for a surprisingly compelling, addictive experience. On a personal note, I also love the tacit implication in the game that gay people should be treated as equals in society and granted the same freedom to express their commitment to each other with a bond of marriage that straight people enjoy. Ah, what a ridiculous fantasy world Albion is.

My odd game out for the year is Little Big Planet, which I found absolutely enchanting in the days after its release and would not have hesitated to place on this list. Many user-created levels knocked my socks off with their beauty and inventiveness. Then things got unpleasant as many of the very best levels were nuked by Sony, in many cases for no clear reason. This left a pretty nasty taste in my mouth about the whole experience. I've heard that things have improved since then, but I haven't yet found the time to hop back into my pod and see what's new in the LBP.

I'm giving honorable mention to No More Heroes, Suda51's exhilaratingly original, audacious Wii action game. Fascinating characters, stylish lo-fi graphics, a dizzying story, excellent use of the Wii remote, and tons of fun, ludicrously bloody action. Brilliant.

And Gears of War 2 also deserves recognition. As dumb as Cliff Bleszinski's "Bigger, better and more bad-ass" phrase sounds, it's nonetheless accurate. Gears of War 2 improves upon its predecessor in just about every way, featuring action on a larger scale and a story that's nice and ignorable rather than one whose in-your-face stupidity actually hurts the experience of playing the game. Heck, there was even a cutscene in this game I found rather moving. With a slew of terrific cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes, Gears 2 is an outstanding package.

This was also an amazing year for downloadable games, both in terms of remakes of classics and original titles. My favorite update is Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, which improves the visuals of the 14-year-old cIassic so that they look spectacular in high definition, and polishes up the gameplay, but also demonstrates just how well the fundamental game still holds up.

My favorite original downloadable game, and one of my favorite games of the year in any category, is Braid. It's a brilliant, beautiful puzzler that's not quite like anything I've played before. It's challenging but consistently, unfailingly logical, and each time I thought I might have to break down and look at a FAQ, I instead put the game aside for a day, and when I returned to it, looking at the situation with fresh eyes, the solution was immediately apparent. To bring us full circle, it's also one of the most challenging and rewarding narratives I've encountered in a game, dealing with regrets on both a personal and historic scale, with a jaw-dropping climax that gave me goosebumps and left me feeling utterly amazed.

Still Turbo After All These Years

I think it's hard for people who are too young to remember what arcades used to be like, who are too young to remember SFII's heyday, to understand what a massive impact this game had. I remember riding bikes with friends to the local 7-Eleven to crowd around the Street Fighter II machine, just to watch people who hung out there all day test their skills against each other. What a tremendous, exciting phenomenon it was. But as much as I enjoyed watching others play, I hardly ever played it myself. I think I shied away from competition. At that age I had a tendency to beat myself up for not being very good at things, rather than taking it all in stride and trying to get better. I had no problem testing my skill at single-player games--I thrived on it, even--but something about going head-to-head against other people just intimidated me at that age. And of course the depth of its competitive play is what made Street Fighter II so extraordinary.

When the original Street Fighter II was released for the SNES, my friend Scott and I went to the Software, Etc. at the previous incarnation of the Sherman Oaks Galleria so he could pick it up. This would have been around July of 1992, I guess. And they charged some outrageous price for it. I think it may even have been as high as eighty bucks. If I'd known, I could have told him that an even better version of the game would be made available for play on a home console for the much lower price of $15.00, if he would only be patient and wait 16 years, until he was married with a kid and had hardly any time to play games anymore!

Now here we are, in 2008, and the gameplay of Street Fighter II, a bit refined but essentially the same, still totally stands up. Something about that just warms my heart. And I love the way this updated version of the game looks. Truthfully, this updated version of a nearly nineteen-year-old game is one of my favorite games to look at on my spectacular new humongous 32" HDTV! It looks like a comic book in motion. But unlike 19 years ago, I no longer just sit back and watch. I love playing it, too, even though I'm not very good. I certainly won't be fighting Akuma any time soon. But hey, there's only one way to get better.