A must-have game on the iPod? Yep. I'm as surprised as anyone. Apple's music player puttered through Tetris remakes, solitaire, and other obvious clones until Phase established some gaming muscle. (And sure, Musika gets some credit for being unique, but it's more visualizer than game.)
Developed by Harmonix, Phase is a simple Guitar Hero-style beat-matching game. Tap a fifth-generation (video) iPod, Classic, or recent Nano's left, center, and right buttons in time with the music and on-screen prompts. Slide a finger around the wheel to catch falling dots. And that's it. The game becomes so much more because of its quirky visuals and ability to sync to your own songs. Nearly any genre works, especially music with a percussive bass line. While the console rhythm games let you buy new track downloads, Phase's unlimited replay with your own songs makes it a no-brainer for a portable music player.
Pick nearly any system that plays Doom, and there's a Puzzle Quest for it. I'm an action-puzzle fanatic, and Puzzle Quest initially bored me with the "quest" part of the title. What's with the lame exposition, spells, and characters? Once I quickly realized that most of those "quest" parts add to the "puzzle" part -- like weapons and magic that act as puzzle power-ups -- I couldn't put it down. Some of the story elements eventually won me over, but the variation-on-Bejeweled gameplay carries the title.
What, another must-have iPod game? This second lightning strike makes me hope that great iPod games become a trend, not a fluke. Nearly the same as our best-of-the year pick, iPod Peggle takes ball-bouncing away from a computer. It feels a little bit slower than the PC's pace, but the same power-ups, campy characters, and addictive strategy-out-of-randomness gameplay applies. Even the two-player battles and challenge levels are included. And while the Peggle background music is great, your own songs can substitute since it's on the iPod.
WordJong is fun especially because its multiplayer is so accessible. My mom, grandmother, and other non-gamer family members liked this solitaire-Mahjong-meets-Scrabble title. Players take turns spelling words from visible tiles, uncovering new letters with each move. It's simple, works online, and includes single-player modes if you can't find an opponent.
A logic puzzler, the best part of Picross is when your jumble of uncovered dots turns into an icon-sized, completed image. These reveals sometimes include animations, like bites being taken out of an apple, as the final reward. Once I worked up to the huge grids, which take more than a few minutes each, I had the most fun making my own simple boards. Game 3.0: Believe.
Super Paper Mario (Wii) I've hated the 3D Mario transition, but this 2.5D gameplay concept was brilliant. So why did the game have to be a light RPG, with so many boring, useless conversations? Nintendo, keep 2D (and 2.5D) Mario alive, but I don't need story beyond "your princess is in another castle."
Trend I want to see in 2008:
I expect that someday, a Guitar Hero-style game will use an actual guitar. This game won't be for those of us who can't contort our hands into knots of fret-holding-fingers. We'll be content with our fake, my-first-Fender plastic controllers. No, those games will be for musicians and those who want to learn to play.
But even sooner -- let's wishfully say "2008" -- I want more options to use "game" or "music" modes in these titles. There's a gray area between fantasy instrument and real instrument that players should be able to choose. I want to pick between on-screen sheet music, that vanishing-point view of flying dots, or the voice-pitch meter. Sure, those game-style elements are quick to learn for non-musicians, but I look forward to more spill-over between fake and real.