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What I Played Over My Winter Break

On December 23rd of 2011, freedom stretched before me with all the vastness of the sea. Here, at last, was time to get sucked in to The Witcher 2, to face the challenges of Dark Souls, and to finally tackle piles of other games that have loomed over me for what seems like ages.

Now, it is the night of January 2nd, 2012. Tomorrow, I return to the office, having enjoyed the company of close friends, some great books and acclaimed films, and not nearly as many games as I'd hoped. It seems that I come out of each passing year with more games I feel I simply must get around to playing someday than I had the year before, and sooner or later I must accept that I will never have enough time to play them all. I know it's a good problem to have, but part of me misses the years when the number of absolute stand-out, must-play games was manageable.

As a way of limbering up that writing muscle that's been enjoying a rest for nearly two weeks, I'm going to start the new year off easy, with a look back at the games I took some time to play during my break.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Finally, some 15 years after its release, I managed to complete this classic. I've long been a huge fan of the Paper Mario games and the Mario & Luigi games, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to tackle the game in which Mario took his first steps as an RPG hero. Those intervening years scarcely matter, though; I couldn't have possibly found this game more charming and enjoyable in 1996 than I did in 2011. I see now that Legend of the Seven Stars, with its terrific cast, humorous dialogue and absorbing battles, set the bar very high for Mario RPGs, and that superb games like Bowser's Inside Story and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door have just been following its example. If my finally completing this game is any indication, you can look for my thoughts on The Witcher 2 and Dark Souls in the year 2026.

Bionic Commando (Game Boy version)

For some people, you can just never have too many versions of Bionic Commando. (The 2D classic, I mean, not the disappointing 3D game from a few years back.) I'm one of those people. The NES version was one of my favorite games on that console. Now, the Game Boy version, which I'd never played before, has been released on the 3DS Virtual Console. The level design is largely similar to that of the NES version, but the visuals have been completely reworked in a more edgy, futuristic style that gives things plenty of personality despite the absence of color. Swinging feels as great here as it ever did on the NES, so even if the leader of the evil army doesn't look like Hitler in this version, I'm going to enjoy delivering sweet explosive justice to his face.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2

Ninja Gaiden Black is one of my favorite games of all time. I tried Ninja Gaiden 2 on the 360 when it was released and it failed to grab me in the same way; it felt too rough around the edges, where the original had felt razor sharp. But I'm excited about the upcoming release of Ninja Gaiden 3and so I opted to give this updated version of Ninja Gaiden 2 a shot. I haven't fallen completely under its spell yet the way I did that of Black, but I think I might be getting there. I've already found myself in a few battles with bosses who at first seemed practically unbeatable, but by trying them again and again, I found myself getting better and discovering more effective techniques until eventually I defeated them. It was that sense of slowly getting better at this lightning-fast combat that made Black so rewarding, and it's making this game a worthwhile struggle, as well.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure

But I was on vacation. I didn't want every game to be a struggle. Skylanders fit the bill nicely when I just wanted something breezy and enjoyable. The gameplay is a simple mix of action and light puzzle-solving, but the variety of enemy types you encounter, and the way your Skylanders can acquire new abilities as you progress, keeps things fun. And I really dig the way the game looks. The levels look like huge playsets for toys, the kind of playsets that only exist in the imagination of children, and that seems perfectly fitting given the collectible figure aspect of the game. I was worried at first that there would be little to Skylanders aside from its gimmicky (but cool) implementation of those figures, but it turns out the underlying game is pleasant and well made. Now if I could just find an air elemental Skylander at a shop somewhere around here...

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

I've enjoyed mobile games from time to time, but I haven't found one that I've really gotten excited about until now. Sword & Sworcery is a game of real style and substance, a game with a sense of identity so strong that you can't help but get swept up in it. It's simultaneously like every Zelda adventure and other hero's quest you've ever experienced, and distinctly its own game. When I'm playing it, I'm transported by its visuals and music to another realm, and the intuitive touch controls let me remain entranced. To top it all off, there's a quirky, humorous philosophical bent to it all that I just find irresistible. As your guide on this remarkable journey, the Archetype, says, "Confused? Excellent. Keep calm & carry on." Words to live by.

Now, I pause to take one last look back at 2011; Here are the ten games that impacted me the most last year.

When I wake up, it will be time to confront the new year head on. I'd best get some sleep.

Well, maybe I'll just play one more stage of Bionic Commando first.