Throughout the week, Joystiq celebrates its tenth anniversary by revealing each writer's favorite - not "best" - games of the last decade. Aside from selecting a number one, each list is unordered.
For his number one selection, Reviews Content Director Richard Mitchell surprises all by picking The Behemoth's multi-player brawler, Castle Crashers, before diving into other games he loved over the last ten years.
Castle Crashers (XBLA)
It's more than just fun, though. Castle Crashers is mechanically brilliant, offering incredible versatility with different weapons, pets, spells and items, and an even further degree of personal customization. I know that my Blue Knight will play completely differently from another person's Blue Knight.
Furthermore, the artwork is splendid and bursting with charm, making Castle Crashers almost as fun to watch as it is to play, with lots of (often hilarious) details to pick out. Sure, there were lots of important "landmark" games released over the last decade – many of them are on this list – but if I'm being honest with myself about my favorite game, Castle Crashers wins my heart.
When Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was first announced, I was convinced it would be terrible. The series, while generally decent, hadn't really been great since Silent Hill 2. And here we had Shattered Memories, a re-imagining of the original Silent Hill, which ditched many of the series traditions and put it all on the Wii, a console known more for family-friendly bowling simulators than riveting psychological horror.
I was wrong though, and Shattered Memories turned out to be not just a good horror game, but one of the best games in the Silent Hill series. By trying something new, developer Climax reminded me that Silent Hill isn't just about rust, gore and despair. It's about deeply personal fears and anxieties. The town molds itself to each of its victims, and the icy gloom of Shattered Memories was just as isolating and alien as the industrial void of previous games.
Shattered Memories also made good use of the Wii's capabilities, culminating in a terrifying moment that saw the protagonist's car sinking into a freezing river as you, from a first-person perspective, frantically try to escape. It was chilling, and I'll remember it forever.
The Stephen King quote that starts Alan Wake has always stuck with me. As it says, there's no fun to be had in explanations, meaning that the mystery is often more entertaining than its resolution, and the nebulous is always more frightening than the definite. The concept of a writer's story coming to life is nothing new, but Alan Wake's elegant structure and perfect noir delivery transcend its foundation. Running down manuscript pages, some of which foretell future events, is addictive. It jogs the mystery along, breadcrumbs to draw you further into Alan's weird world. Meanwhile, the mechanical simplicity of combat keeps things exciting, as Alan burns darkness away with a flashlight before pumping rounds into his enemies (or running them down with a car). Alan Wake is further supported by a wonderful episodic structure, which highlights the important story beats and ensures that they all pack a punch (and a great song).
There are plenty of details to fall in love with, like Alan narrating the game as it happens. Or the ridiculous outfit and endless chatter from Alan's agent, Barry. And then there's the moment when Alan and Barry stave off the darkness with a pyrotechnics show set to a song from the aging rock duo, the Old Gods of Asgard. And, staying true to King's wisdom, all of it concludes with an ending that left me asking "what's next," instead of "is that it?"
I get some dubious looks when I tell people that Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to the Legend of Zelda series. Nowadays, when people think of Zelda, they think of the series as it has been since The Ocarina of Time – prattling fairies, fetch quests, hand-holding tutorials. I remember the original Zelda, which was happy to drop you in the middle of a world without so much as a hint of what to do next.
Dark Souls is much the same, literally dropping you (from the talons of a massive raven) into a massive world that begs to be explored. You are given a few hints, but where you go is up to you, and Dark Souls' punishing difficulty often makes it hard to tell if you're making progress. Did you go the wrong way, or is it really just this hard? The answer is often the latter.
But, like Zelda, it's worth persevering just to see what's around the corner. But instead of a blocky graveyard or a pixelated lizard, you're treated to lovingly-rendered headstones, a rickety underground city and a dragon the size of a house. The locales crafted for Dark Souls are some of the most amazing I've ever seen, be they serene, squalid, majestic or depressing. Dark Souls flits from complete hopelessness to goggle-eyed wonder at the drop of a hat and, if you can stomach its utter disdain for your character's existence, that makes it special.
Fez is a game about entering new dimensions, both literally and figuratively. On the surface, it's a simple 2D platformer with a 3D twist, allowing players to rotate a 3D world while traversing it on a 2D plane. At first, your primary challenge is just to suss out how to get the adorable Gomez from one area to another. Rotate the world to the left, and a once unreachable platform is now within jumping distance. Rotate again, and the platform whizzes next to a climbing wall, which in turn leads to an exit.
But underneath the veneer of spatial reasoning lies a deeper world of secrets, codes and intrigue, buried so well that many players may never even realize it's there. Unearthing these secrets not only reveals a new slate of puzzles, but also a history more complex than the world's lighthearted appearance implies. As these revelations began to emerge, I was absolutely glued to Fez, jotting down notes, translating passages and chipping away at its obtuse puzzles (yes, I did resort to the internet for some of the solutions).
And if that doesn't float your boat, you can always just revel in Gomez's pure joy whenever he reassembles a cube.
Lumines is the best thing to happen to puzzle games since Super Puzzle Fighter, and coming from me, that means a lot. There's not much to it, really: Build square shapes of the same color by rotating and dropping pieces composed of two different colors. Rather than disappearing immediately or being manually destroyed by the player, however, square sections only disappear according to the beat of the soundtrack.
In fact, every movement happens in time to the soundtrack – moving, dropping and rotating your pieces, destroying sections, everything – and everything contributes a note or a sound to the music. That might not sound like much, but the effect is profound, with you feeling as though you're not only playing a game, but also composing music. Furthermore, rather than simply increasing the speed and difficulty, clearing levels unlocks new songs with entirely different color schemes and rhythms. It's genuinely rewarding, and it gives an already fast-paced game an extra sense of excitement.
In short, Lumines is one of the best puzzle games ever made. It's great alone, and it's a blast with friends.
I've noted more than once that we all thought 'Splosion Man (announced on April Fools' Day) was a joke, cooked up by the weirdos at Twisted Pixel. A man made of explosions? That explodes his enemies into hunks of meat, including bone-in hams? The concept is pretty funny, but it turned out that 'Splosion Man was anything but a joke.
No, it's an incredible platformer, challenging players with carefully created levels that demand quick reflexes and precision timing. In 'Splosion Man, players have to combine numerous skills, often in rapid succession, to reach the goal. A single level might require triple jumping, wall jumping, triggering switches, launching exploding barrels, landing on moving platforms, avoiding deadly spikes – and you might have to do all of that without stopping once.
On top of that, 'Splosion Man sports a cooperative campaign with entirely different levels and breakneck puzzles designed specifically for multiple players. It's a perfect platformer, and it shouldn't be missed.
No game has ever scared me as much as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In fact, nothing has ever scared me as much as Amnesia: The Dark Descent – game, book, movie, whatever. It actually made me uneasy. It made my heart pound and my chest feel tight. At times, I felt it would be physically unhealthy to keep playing. And yet, I did, drawn into the depths of Brennenburg Castle by my own deadly curiosity.
At the heart of Amnesia's intense fear is the sanity mechanic. Traipsing around in the dark while monsters are about isn't very good for the nerves, a fact that Amnesia gets across by deliberately altering the player's view and the ambient soundtrack. As your sanity wanes, your vision waivers, and horrific sounds begin to creep into your awareness. What makes it particularly brilliant is that your lantern, often your only source of light (and sanity restoration) will attract any nearby monsters. In other words, you have to creep around in the dark if you want to stay safe, but you pay the price in your own sanity.
I'm not sure Amnesia would have the same effect on me now, but it stands as one of my most memorable gaming experiences of the last ten years and, I expect, the rest of my life.
In my opinion, The Last of Us is the best story-driven action game ever made. Reducing it to those terms belies its impact, though. While we're used to seeing developer Naughty Dog cram lots of action between expertly-executed story sequences – hello, Uncharted – The Last of Us introduces us to a world where that makes sense.
You're not a rogue explorer senselessly murdering hundreds of henchmen; you are Joel, a man struggling to survive after humanity has been all but lost. You are Ellie, a young girl who has grown up knowing nothing but death and survival. The two of them aren't murdering "bad guys" just to keep things interesting. There are no deft, acrobatic assassinations just to make sure the game "looks cool." Instead, Joel kills his enemies with desperate, believable savagery.
Between these moments of violent survival, The Last of Us tells a human story, filled with some of the most beautiful, heart-stopping imagery ever to grace the medium. Brutal, poignant and rarely happy, but beautiful.
I was obsessed with Ninja Gaiden, blasting through it in one glorious weekend when my mom had it sent to my college dorm. I played through Team Ninja's masterpiece multiple times, marveling at how incredible it was on every front. It looked fantastic (and still looks pretty good even today), the gameplay was buttery smooth and the enemies were smart and relentless. And the bosses – annoying, ruthless, rage-inducing – but extraordinary. Ninja Gaiden is the perfect action game, and I love it to death.
I even competed in the Master Ninja Tournament, in which I ranked 331 worldwide. For my accomplishments, I got a wristband and a T-shirt. When Microsoft announced it was shutting down Xbox Live servers for the original Xbox, I made sure to fire up Ninja Gaiden so I could record my success for posterity. I'm sure I'll show that photo to my (very confused) kids someday.
Ninja Gaiden is easily one of my favorite games of all time, let alone the last ten years. Just remember: When you're swarmed by skeleton fish, the Vigoorian Flail is your best friend.
[Images: Konami, Remedy, Polytron, Q Entertainment, Naughty Dog, Frictional, Twisted Pixel, Tecmo]