The Sound Summer of PSN

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Remember when the summer lull signaled a blissful break from the year's onslaught of new games? July was the perfect pitstop, where you'd catch up on that bloated backlog and shake off that vague, gnawing stress that comes from wanting to play everything and knowing you never will. There used to be a gap, right over here.

If things felt lethargic to you in August, you must not have been too keen on the downloadable games finding their way to the PlayStation Store – or the ones getting horribly lost and asking for directions to some nested nightmare in the current Xbox 360 dashboard.

Sony's efforts this year have been especially strong, with several standout games forming a loose alliance around music. The PlayStation Network hosted the debut of Dyad, a tumultuous, trippy shooter that puts your brain in a slingshot and fires it straight down a LED-lined tunnel. It's a product of Toronto's indie game scene and designer Shawn McGrath, who says it was relatively easy to gain Sony's stamp of approval.

Sony has also made somewhat of a Vita showpiece out of Sound Shapes, a vibrant musical platformer from another Toronto talent, Jonathan Mak. The game, which can be downloaded for Vita and PS3 after a single purchase, has been a hit with industry pundits ever since it was first shown off, and has only grown in profile with the addition of musical celebrities like Beck and Deadmau5.

The informal musical trio on PSN gained its third member in Retro/Grade, an ingenious side-scrolling shooter that begins with your victory and then plays entirely in reverse. You attempt to rhythmically repeat your actions and catch all your bullets, lest you create a temporal paradox. It's just like Memento, except Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss are spaceships.

This thematic lineup of PSN games has further distinguished Sony's store from Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, and cemented it as a playground for unique, experimental and creative games. That isn't to say PSN has become the exclusive domain for such gems (both platforms just got Rock Band Blitz), but it's a reassuring occurrence that's easy to take for granted and not often seen outside of the more indie-friendly PC. Only on the PlayStation Store will you find Papo & Yo, a surreal adventure derived from the designer's troubled relationship with his father, and Journey, one of the year's best and most elegant, expressive games.

The summer doldrums – rather, the period formerly known as the summer doldrums – are an ideal time to showcase all the work Sony has done to curate its store, which feels more and more like an eye-catching boutique next to Xbox Live Arcade's reliable but cluttered mega-mart. It also doesn't help that the latest Summer of Arcade, Microsoft's annual show of promotional favoritism to a month's worth of games, fizzled more often than it inspired.

The XBLA lineup just didn't elicit the positive reception it has in the past, starting with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, a wobbly remake that couldn't draw a concurring set of memories from reviewers. Deadlight impressed with its style but left many cold with its cumbersome take on the zombie apocalypse; Wreckateer had its compliments hinged on Kinect's "when it works" clause; and 5th Cell's shooter, Hybrid, had a rough launch that got it temporarily pulled from the Xbox Live Marketplace. The only game that made it through mostly unscathed was Dust: An Elysian Tale, a gorgeous side-scrolling action game in the vein of Super Metroid.

Crowning the PSN as the victor in this instance is not as important as highlighting the ongoing battle for your time during retail's pre-holiday break. Downloadable console games are increasing in scale, scope and weirdness, and the two biggest digital stores are formulating distinct personalities and predilections. There's a welcome to-and-fro, even if it means the end of our annual summer respite.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.