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Sunday
Dec242006

Sirlin's 2006 Game Awards

Giving out truly unbiased and thoughtful awards is a lot of work and requires a lot of research. It also yields pretty predictable, boring results, so that's why my awards are totally biased and generally unfair. Also, don't you hate it when award stuff starts counting up from like the top 100 when you just want to know the #1 winner? Me too, let's start with that.

Best Game of 2006

Tie: World of Warcraft TCG and Magic: The Gathering

World of Warcraft TCG is a design masterpiece as far as I'm concerned. I tried for years to design a card game with a system as good as MTG, but with streamlined design choices and reduced chance of "mana screw." I was on a very similar track to what WoW TCG turned out to be. They made good choices, have good art, good flavor, and good card layout. The concept of special multi-player-only addons like the Onyxia Raid Deck is also great. The only thing WoW TCG really lacks right now is card pool deep enough to support really interesting decks, but that will come with time.

Magic: The Gathering has probably been the best designed game around for many years. Back in 2005, players had to contend with the overpowered Affinity decks and that damned Scullclamp card, but Ravincia and this year's Timespiral are a refreshing change. I especially like the idea of a block where each of the three sets are "past, present, and future," and the idea of reprinting 121 "timeshifted" (aka, greatest hits cards from the past) was an excellent one. Thank Mark Rosewater for that, great job.

It's kind of ironic that MTG is hitting a high-point by printing a block with so many old cards. This practice is an attempt to make a "good game, rather than a new game," but the ironic part is that the "oldness" of the set is the newness. Wrap your mind around that.

It's also interesting to note that neither of this year's winning games is a video game (yes, I know about mtg online, but that's not the point). It goes to show that while card games are focusing on excellent rule design, so many video games are focusing on boring mechanics like testing your ability to aim a cross-hair on a 2d plane. What a joke. (A pretty version of the "aim the cross-hairs game," Gears of War, does not appear anywhere in these awards.)

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend that you play either of the two winning games. Both are "trading card games" which means they use the rip-off scheme of selling you cards in random packs to limit your ability to make whatever deck you want. If you want a constructed, tournament-quality deck in either game, the market value is about $300. Yes, it's possible to somehow play a specific or semi-weird deck that's cheaper, but $300 is about the cost of most tournament-level decks in both games. This is absolutely ludicrous, and you should not support this system. You should instead support my upcoming card game (not to be confused with my upcoming Street Fighter-type card game or my upcoming Pokemon-style card game for Kongregate.com). This new card game will take me a year or two to get anywhere with, but it will NOT use the same rip-off marketing scheme of TCGs and yet it will contain the fun style of mechanics that those games offer.

2nd Best Game of 2006: Resident Evil 4 (PlayStation 2)

You might be saying, "Hey, RE4 didn't even come out in 2006, so it shouldn't be able to win this award," and you'd have a good point. But consider a few things. First, RE4 did not win the Game Developer Conference's award for best game of 2005. In fact, it wasn't even NOMINATED for any award. Instead, Shadow of the Colossus swept just about everything. (Shadow of the Framerate, I call it.)

Shadow of the Colossus should have won these awards:

  • Best Brave Attempt at Something that Didn't Pan Out
  • Worst Framerate of the Year
  • Worst Controls of a Horse, Ever

I usually give the Game Developer's Choice Awards a special significance because awards by game developers for game developers tend to be a little more thoughtful and less political than the rest, but the lack of RE4 to even be nominated last year really took credibility away from the entire affair. Tommy Tallarico's immature jokes while hosting the event didn't help either (why is he allowed to represent the game industry again?)

I remember seeing David Jaffe accept an award somewhere last year (I forget from where) for God of War winning game of the year. God of War is totally awesome and is my second favorite game last year after RE4, but even Jaffe mentioned that he probably only won because RE4 was not allowed into that award process due to a technicality. Well, it just so happens that a reverse-technicality made RE4 eligible for my awards this year, so it wins the #2 spot.

I would tell you about why this game deserves this spot, but I've gone on too long about all this other hoopla, so you'll just have to play it yourself to find out.

3rd Best Game of 2006: Metroid Pinball (Nintendo DS)

I've threatened all year to give this game my #1 game of the year award, but I guess it ended up in 3rd place. This is the most underrated game of the year. It's basically the best possible game of pinball I could even imagine. You fight bosses, you get weapon upgrades, and you play several mini-games that even let you transform into Sammus and shoot alien bugs. Best of all, your mission is to collect 12 artifact pieces as you teleport back and forth between 4 or 5 different pinball boards, plus a final-boss board. How cool is that? It even has a neat little multiplayer mode where you race get a certain score, and if you lose your ball, your points are reduced to equal your enemy's points, if you were winning (that keeps things close, usually!).

Metroid Prime pinball is, for me, the perfect pick-up-and-play DS game. I don't have to remember where I was in some huge story or map, or how this or that mechanic worked. I can just play for a few minutes, or for an hour if I want to try to get all 12 artifacts. Oh, and once you do that, you unlock a harder difficulty for the whole game. What's not to like about this?

4th Best Game of the Year: Wii Sports

My sister and my *mom* play this. Dear Nintendo: mission accomplished, you win.

5th Best Game of the Year:

This is a close one, but I'll say Cooking Mama (Nintendo DS). Lots of DS games are some form of "here's a bunch of touch screen activities" but Cooking Mama manages to give a coherent wrapper to whole deal. It's easy to get into, yet offers some challenge if you want the gold medals, and there's lots of different stuff to cook. I'm sure this is an overlooked game, but it's great.

Let's mix things up a bit.

Best Game Consoles of the Year:

1. Nintendo DS
2. Nintendo Wii
3. No console was good enough for #3.
4. Microsoft Xbox 360


The Nintendo DS has like 20 amazing games right now and easily takes the top spot for consoles this year. Remember when everyone hated the DS when it first came out? Two screens, who needs that? Touch screen is a gimmick. Yeah, everyone was wrong.

The Nintendo Wii is fun and great so far and very consistent with Nintendo's goals. Because it doesn't have that many good games yet, it doesn't quite deserve #1. Thank you Nintendo for supporting innovation over graphics and for keeping the costs of game development low so developers can take risks rather than just making more cookie-cutter games.

The Xbox 360 is solid and good. Good graphics, good processing power, and a pretty good game library at this point. The real high-point of the console is, of course, Xbox Live. This online service blows the rivals out of the water. It's so easy to play any Xbox 360 game online (and to voice chat) thanks to the fairly standard interface and online features Microsoft enforces on all online games.

Xbox Live Arcade is also an amazing, awesome thing for our industry. I totally love it and have personally bought and enjoyed several Live Arcade games. I really hope Microsoft continues to open the doors for amateur game developers to create game games for it using the XNA platform. Current game companies are certainly not where all of tomorrow's innovations will come from. I see MS's first steps toward cultivating the hobbyists and I'm very happy.

HOWEVER, you'll notice that the Xbox 360 somehow managed to lose out the #3 spot this year to, well, a blank entry. That's because the 360 was supposed to usher in the "HD era" and the damn thing doesn't have DVI or HDMI support at all. What an absolute embarrassing joke that is. Do you know WHY it doesn't have these things? It's because of DRM bullshit. Media companies are so paranoid that you will pirate their content that we're mired in this mess of next-gen video connections having DHCP to make sure you're watching a licensed signal. If content creators turn on the ICT bit, then you have to watch the signal at 1/4th the resolution through component cables or any non-DRM's interface. You can read this for more info.

The fake "good news" is that apparently Microsoft and other big companies have made deals so that the ICT bit will not be turned on by content providers for at least a few years. So you will be able to watch HD content through (crappy) component cables without getting the 1/4th resolution thing happening. But what you won't get is a DVI or HDMI cable for you Xbox 360 because Microsoft is too afraid of piracy. DRM politics yet again make a piece of technology Defective By Design.

Speaking of Microsoft and products that are Defective By Design because of DRm, check out Leo Laporte's, um, passionate rant about how the Microsoft Zune is the straw that broke the camel's back. It's a device so cripled by DRM issues that he thinks the music industry will finally lose this battle.

Hey, music and movie industries, I have a sidenote for you. In 2007, I am going to go full gear into pirating your content because your bullshit about DRM has caused so many crippling problems that I can't take you seriously anymore. If you want me to buy stuff again, it's really simple, I'll tell you exactly how. When a new movie or tv show comes out, give me the ability to buy it legally from you. When I buy it, give me unlimited download rights forever to download that show in any resolution I want, with no DRM. If you do this, I will gladly stop all pirating activities. I won't have to worry about torrents being seeded, about getting viruses, or about DRM. I will have no reason left to get content from anyone other than you. Offering a better product (the one I just described) is a better solution than gimping your own product and threatening legal action if people want the ungimped version. Figure it out.

Sony is such a DRM-obsessed dinosaur, I don't even know where to begin with them.

How about some more awards?

Worst Save System of the Year: Dead Rising (Xbox 360)

Dead Rising is great in all sorts of ways, but it's hell-bent on ruining my fun with it's hardcore save system. When you die, you get a confusing message about how if you want to keep your stats, you have to start over. Well, I wanted to keep my stats, so I clicked that one, and I had to start over THE ENTIRE GAME, from the opening movie, on. I was suckered into doing this one or two more times, until I finally decided to just press on. By pressing on, I mean that when I died, I have to "restore game" from my last save point, which might have been hours ago if I forgot to save recently. You can't save anywhere you know, you have to actually go to a save point.

Dead Rising is, on the one hand, a "sand box game" that lets you just explore and do whatever you want (there's plenty to do!) and yet it is also a weak-sauce attempt at some form of Groundhog Day game where I have to keep starting over to get the perfect run, or give up on that but have to keep restoring from save points. What is this, 1980? This excellent game is ruined by overly punishing save system. I have better things to do with my time than put up with that.

2nd Worst Save System of the Year: New Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo DS)

Wow, what were they thinking? You can't save anytime you want, even though this game is on a handheld console. You know, the pick-up-and-play console where you might want to change games often. You have to either get to the next castle or mini-castle to save, or spend some hard-earned special coins to open a mushroom house to save (I totally don't want to spend coins on that).

Here's a thought. Let me save anytime I want. When I save, you don't have to save my exact position in a level (the hardcores would complain there's no challenge). Instead, just save a list of which levels I've completed and which special coins I have, that's it. Then let me turn the DS off so my girlfriend can play Nintendogs or Animal Crossing.

The most insulting thing here is that when you beat the game, you earn THE ABILITY TO SAVE on anytime on the world-map. Wow, so they had the sane-save system the whole time and only give it to me after I beat the entire game, nice. It's not like the save system you unlock makes the game overly easy or anything. The game in general gives you tons of extra lives for no apparent reason anyway.

It is, in my opinion, the highest arrogance of a game designer to think that the precious needs of his game outrank the real-life needs of the player to turn off the game and have some reasonable way to save (most of) his progress immediately.

Two games that did an unusually good job of balancing "always let the player save" with "keep some challenge" are Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (Nintendo DS) and Fire Emblem (GBA). In C:DoS, there are save points scattered around the map, like in many games. So you could keep playing until you reach one, then turn the game off. BUT, you can also pause the game at any time and create a "save marker." If you do, the game goes back to the title screen. The next time you load that save marker, the marker will be destroyed. The result is that anytime you want to stop playing, you can create a save marker instantly, then turn the thing off. You can resume from exactly that point. But saving right before the hard part doesn't help, because you can't go back to that save point more than one time.

Fire Emblem does something similar. You don't need to actively create a save marker though, you can just turn the game off anytime you want, it will automatically resume from exactly that point. I don't mean put it in sleep mode by the way, I mean turn it off and take it out of the console. Again, you can use the in-game system of save check-points, or you can create a save marker automatically turning the game off, but you can't return to that marked point more than once.

These games pass. They thought about accommodating the player, and they made some reasonable design decisions. Dead Rising and N:SMB should stand as examples of exactly what not to do.

Most Overplayed Fighting Games of the Last 10 Years:

Tekken Series and Street Fighter 3 Series

As for Tekken, Virtua Fighter is deeper and Soul Calibur has better, easier controls. Tekken is in a weird middleground that I don't understand. As for SF3:3rd Strike, it's overly floppy animation, total lack of focus on controlling space (parries ruin the positional games common in fighting games), and generally simplistic engine make it a bottom-of-the-barrel offering. Try one of the games below, instead:

Best Fighting Game of the Last 10 Years:

Guilty Gear XX: Slash (Japanese PS2 Import)

Often, retrospective awards take into account how much of a breakthrough a game was at the time. My award is meant this way: If, *today* you have every fighting from the last 10 years in front of you, which should you actually play?

The Guilty Gear series has combined the best features from the genre's history into an excellent overall game. Nice art, most varied set of characters in any fighting game (far more varied than any 3d fighting game), and great, great mechanics. Yeah Ky is too good or whatever, but oh well. This is a masterpiece of fighting game design and deserves your attention if you have any interest in the genre at all.

2nd Best Fighting Game of the Last 10 Years:

Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo (playable on Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 on PS2 and Xbox)

This game is much simpler than Guilty Gear, but there's something about it that holds up. It's still played in tournaments today, including the Evolution Fighting Game Series (www.evo2k.com). You can even check out my 30 minute video tutorial on this game, in the post before this one.

You can seriously still be reading this, so I'll end now. Congratulations to all the winners and losers.

--Sirlin

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