(GameNerd Sam Machkovech will conclude this local gaming year-end look with Seattle's Top 5 Gaming Successes, followed by his list of the best games released this year. Spoiler: He really liked a game called Flower.)
If you're looking for a common theme in my local gaming failure list below, you'll find it: Companies that failed to advance the form (and the locals who contentedly sell and promote the form as a toy). Tsk.
5) ODST: Oh Drat, Sell This
Microsoft needed a holiday gaming hit this year, but they had nothing in the can. No major, years-in-the-making blockbusters; no brilliant, artistic experiments. Whoops.
When I played the company's obligatory September release, Halo 3: ODST, I assumed that MS turned to the guys who make Halo and blurted, "We fucked up. Quick, make somethin' shiny!" And indeed, the junior-sized shooting game was thrust into the blinding spotlight as MS's biggest game of the year by default.
Though not a terrible game, some of ODST was quite stupid, from the ho-hum script to its pervasive, hard-to-see-in darkness. Most glaring was the meager length for a full-priced game; it only took me two days to complete, on "hard" mode no less, and I'm not that good at Halo.
MS did what they could to mask their blunder, but the tacked-on bonuses weren't much: a complete multiplayer mode that was mostly already on the original Halo 3 disc, and an invite to a beta preview of the next Halo game. I'm paying you to be your game tester, and you're calling that a bonus? That's rich.
4) Sloppy WHAT?!
Heard this one before? Join a team of medieval warriors—swordsmen, magicians, and everything in between—to capture the enemy team's flag in an online video game. The idea isn't novel, so Seattle game makers Titan Studios added a twist: Why not replace the flag with a princess, then make her harder to capture by fattening her up?
Thus, the game Fat Princess was born. The resulting game is a pretty solid, easy-to-play twist on Internet team battling, and I'd otherwise recommend it for its frantic fun. Too bad its major hook is needlessly demeaning.
I can't stand the damsel in distress archetype. It's a boring literary device, even without the ridiculous gender stereotyping. But Fat Princess (literally) takes the cake by putting players on an all-male warrior squad, complete with customizable beards, that fattens its dress-wearing prisoner with collectible pieces of pink cake. Her squeaky voice repeats, again and again, "Cake, please!" and "I'm hunnnngry."
The game drew ire from blogs when it was first previewed in 2008. Upon its release this summer, the game proved to be just like everybody called it. Fat Princess relies on a cheap conceit to get smiles out of the gaming boys' club. This game wouldn't have been released if it'd been named "Sloppy Negro," complete with a softshoe-dancin' prisoner who eats collectible pieces of fried chicken and watermelon. But when the victimization revolves around stuffing cake into the mouths of captive, dress-wearing princesses, no biggie. Ugh.
3) The Other App Stores
Most of my favorite games of the past few years have come from services like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare. These releases do not come in boxes. You have to log online with the systems, enter payment info, then pick out cheap, fun games at $5-15 a pop. Like the Apple App Store.
Chances are, you've heard of the App Store. Well, where there's an app, there's a game for that, too, but Microsoft and Nintendo have been alarmingly silent in the mainstream about their services. Avid gamers know about these downloadable titles, and casual players will probably notice ads for the stores on their TV screen menus. But these junior-sized gems need the promotional push of a Nintendo or a Microsoft not just to sell but to spread the gospel. Micro-gaming is the last vestige of gaming innovation these days (see #2 below). Microsoft's Splosion Man, Nintendo's ArtStyle series, and Sony's Flower are all brilliant and all meant to attract a whole new audience of players. You can sound the alarm any day now, people.
2) Wii Fit? More like Wii Lazy
What did Nintendo release for the Wii this year? A not-so-new Mario. A not-so-improved Wii Sports. An upgrade to Wii Fit that didn't address the original's faulty adherence to BMI as a fitness standard. A number of years-old games, re-released with motion controls added after the fact.
In short, Nintendo has given up. Gone to the beach. Their library has become an iterative snoozefest. Why? Because Nintendo can't stop selling Wiis. Their home system has become gaming's treadmill, selling in droves based on Wii Sports' reputation and then getting pushed under the bed after months of dusty non-use. Nintendo talks a lot about pulling a new audience into gaming, but if that audience is satisfied with the hype of Wii Sports and Wii Fit, then Nintendo hasn't attracted new gamers. Just new Snuggie customers.
1) The whole damned city of Seattle
Local game companies would wield nearly limitless leverage as a combined entity. Nintendo, Microsoft, Valve, PopCap, Wizards of the Coast... what's to stop them—and others—from allying and raising awareness for the local gaming scene?
I'm not sure, but so far, there's no such movement on any front. My debut feature at PubliCola talked at length about the rich local game industry and its frustrating lack of combined activity. There's no time like the poverty-stricken present for Seattle to rise up on behalf of our region's still-growing gaming sector—especially as smaller firms bubble up to develop for devices like the iPhone and Droid.