Throughout December, Gamasutra presented a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.
Now (finally!), we look at this year's top 10 games, collaboratively chosen and ranked by our staff. Each member of our team also highlights his or her own personal picks that didn't make the group list.
10. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (Konami, Nintendo DS)
Order of Ecclesia isn't dramatically different from any of producer Koji Igarashi's other Castlevania titles -- almost every release follows Symphony of the Night's template -- but it adds and changes enough to make this latest refinement of the "Metroidvania" formula an easy addition to our year-end list.
Ecclesia thankfully casts out the juvenile and generic anime character designs that blighted the previous two DS games, in favor of Hirooka Masaki's more fitting "gothic" art direction. The game also replaces Portrait of Ruin's clumsy two-character gameplay with a strong, graceful heroine, Shanoa, who takes on Dracula and his minions just fine without the help of a Vampire Killer whip.
Adding to our enjoyment, Ecclesia is probably the hardest Castlevania title since the franchise's NES years, requiring quick wits and a lot of boss pattern memorization, much to the appreciation of series faithfuls (and the chagrin of softer gamers). As a fan once succinctly described the game's difficulty, "This ain't no Casualvania."
9. Valkyria Chronicles (Sega, Playstation 3)
The Japanese have a reputation for being the most conservative market in game development -- and whether or not it's truly deserved, it's heartening to see an example of a development team starting with a rigid, conventional idea and tossing it aside in favor of a spirited new evolution of a genre.
While Valkyria Chronicles began its development cycle as a top-down strategy title in debt to classics like Final Fantasy Tactics, it was released as a genre-defying, engrossing new blend of realtime and turn-based strategy, with a perspective that has more in common with Gears of War than Square Enix, but retains the pleasingly crunchy tactical depth Japanese games are best known for.
Add in a surprisingly mature story and beautiful watercolor visuals and you get a cult classic that is getting nowhere the attention it deserves from gamers this year, and one of the strongest exclusives on Sony's platform.
8. Braid (Number None, Xbox 360/PC)
Jonathan Blow and David Hellman's Braid is likely one of the most-trumpeted indie games of all time - partly due to it winning an IGF prize all the way back in 2006, before an extensive graphical rehaul and its subsequent debut on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. But try to shut the hype out, and you'll find something special.
Specifically, Braid is a title with carefully thought-out, ingenious puzzles, David Hellman's evocative art, and an underlying story that doesn't lack soul - however many different interpretations you might have of it.
It's a game that makes you think and one that you care about, ultimately - and its rapturous critical reception reflects that.
7. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360)
The simple majesty of Geometry Wars 2 is easy to grok, of course. The first Xbox Live Arcade version of Geometry Wars, itself following up a programmer-created homage to classic '80s twin-stick shooters like Robotron, re-ignited the genre.
It also raised an interesting question. When you've been to 10 already, where is 11 in the world of abstract shooter gymnastics? That would be Geometry Wars 2, then -- particularly to be praised for the ingenious 'side stories' that make clever alternative use of the gameplay.
When you have glorious variants like 'King' and the fiendish 'Pacifism' being, plus robust online score integration and the perfectly thought-out 'Sequence' mode, you end up with an adrenaline-bespattered winner.
6. Persona 4 (Atlus, PS2)
Modern, hip and overtly Japanese, Persona 4 is proof positive that the Japanese RPG can evolve for a broadening audience. The game sheds dated conventions and implausible fantasies in favor of a stylish, immensely thought-provoking and surreal self-discovery story set in a rural-area Japanese high school.
Though many JRPGs hinge on the stories of teenagers, Persona 4's themes focus on the perils of self-denial and the necessity of facing one's inner self, particularly poignant and useful in the context of the characters' believably confusing life stage.
Persona 4 is a game that requires no small measure of patience. The reward, however, is character and story growth via an intriguing system of social and behavioral rewards that perfects the promising formula introduced in Persona 3.
5. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South, Xbox 360/PC)
There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead.
Its AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.
Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, partly due to the group dynamics that the game fosters.
During a given game, emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper" begin to appear.
On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.
4. No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture, Wii)
At first blush, it's a bizarre and comic-bookish send-up of the American otaku. But No More Heroes quickly reveals its charm -- amid the mashed-up game homages and lewd humor is a surprisingly classy and vaguely disturbing allegory for the video game hero.
Travis Touchdown, of the fluorescent-lamp lightsaber and implausible fantasy motorbike, isn't nearly the smooth operator he thinks he is.
This makes his strikeouts in love just as weirdly poignant as his confrontations with unlikely assassins -- including a viciously intoxicated teen queen, a batty old lady with a shopping cart, and a crooner with a handlebar moustache.
Of course, famed director Goichi Suda's savvy act of holding up a mirror to his audience and his industry might just be a bit of forgettable cleverness if not for how brilliantly it uses its controls.
No More Heroes is that rare title that aptly leverages the Wii remote appropriately at every madly joyful, blood-spurting, coin-jangling turn.
3. LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule, PS3)
What is perhaps most surprising about LittleBigPlanet is that it lived up to the creative promise that was initially made (contrast Home, which debuted simultaneously). Anyone really can make whatever they want and share it with the world, and that's crucially important to the appeal, longevity, and landmark status of the game. Anyone can become a designer.
There have been stumbling blocks, but they have mostly been vaulted with finesse: ropey server stability at launch and a black box review process for standards-infringing levels have given way to the free-for-all promised. And while the game has not sold as well in Japan or North America as hoped (we think Europe went better), it has made an impact.
But more importantly, perhaps, and often forgotten when discussing games, is the way LBP so expertly catches the now in the most appealing way. It's a beautiful, inviting, vital, charming land of zeitgeist that defines a new visual, aural, creative language for platformers.
Most importantly, Media Molecule's game finally follows up the Mario aesthetic and ethos with something as aesthetically, conceptually, and socially compelling.
2. World of Goo (2D Boy, Wii Ware/PC)
After leaving their jobs at Electronic Arts, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel founded development studio 2D Boy (it's just them, and there's not really a physical studio) and spent two years making World of Goo, a physics-driven puzzle game for PC and WiiWare.
The risk paid off -- World of Goo was adored by gamers and the press, and was seen as an inspiring indie success story in a year that has not wanted for inspiring indie success stories.
World of Goo works by marrying gameplay that is outwardly simple in scope with an underlying physics system that allows for solutions to challenges that are neither random nor overly restrictive in approach -- a rarity in the puzzle genre. And it's all wrapped in a clean, coherent visual theme and accompanied by a lovingly handmade score that is epic and nutty in equal measure.
1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
Perhaps the greatest argument to date that games are about more than wish fulfillment -- for who'd wish to be a vault exile in an expansive, exhausting wasteland? And yet Bethesda's vision of the American dream languishing in nuclear post-apocalypse is as compelling as it is haunting.
The bar was high for Bethesda after the much-vaunted Oblivion, lauded for its freedom of choice -- and Fallout 3 topped it, offering an unprecedentedly exhausting array of options and a rarely-seen level of subtlety.
There's just so much to do and see that Fallout 3 becomes that rare game that asks the player to wonder what life would feel like in such ruthless circumstances, offering an impressive level of immersion and placing the burden of careful thought -- and, sometimes, emotion -- behind every tactical selection and progression decision.
Despite its flaws, the larger swath of experiences to be had throughout dwarfs the main storyline, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.
The individual staff of Gamasutra and its sister publication, Game Developer magazine, each chose our personal favorite titles that didn't make our team top 10.
Leigh Alexander (News Director, Gamasutra)
Metal Gear Solid 4 (Konami, PS3) Tying up all those loose ends was a feat in and of itself, while so many moments of gameplay brilliance went overlooked because of the format.
Chrono Trigger DS (Square Enix, DS) The RPG genre's most venerated installment gets perhaps the best remake ever seen on DS.
Eric Caoili (Associate News Editor, Gamasutra)
Space Invaders Extreme (Taito/Gulti, DS/PSP) An arcade classic with new mechanics, new audio and visuals, and new life breathed into it.
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer (Chunsoft, DS) Only for gamers who love a challenge, Shiren the Wanderer is the finest Eastern-developed roguelike, finally brought to the West after 13 years of dungeon crawling in Japan.
I Wish I Were The Moon (Daniel Benmergui, Flash) "I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her..." from Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon," the short story that inspired I Wish I Were The Moon.
Simon Carless (Publisher, Gamasutra)
Fable II (Lionhead, Xbox 360) A wonderfully realized living game world, with plenty of quirks, but even more heart.
N+ (Metanet/Slick, Xbox 360) Delightfully pixel-perfect retro action, with super-addictive online scoreboards.
Pure (Black Rock, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Marauding into the ATV-drivin' genre and showing its predecessors the super-addictive gameplay they missed.
Jeffrey Fleming (Production Editor, Game Developer magazine)
Korg DS-10 Synthesizer (AQ Interactive, DS) Cheaper and more powerful than the original all-analog Korg MS-10 (circa 1978) and thankfully free from any "gameplay".
Lost Odyssey (Mistwalker, Xbox 360) Delivers the same shivering intermingling of wonderment and melancholy that we remember from the old days without pandering to childish nostalgia.
Siren: Blood Curse (SCE Japan, PS3) The reduced difficulty level and Americanized presentation of Blood Curse makes it easier for the uninitiated to discover what the rest of us already know: Siren is the raw horror of seeing our own tangled neural pathways externalized.
Christian Nutt (Features Editor, Gamasutra):
Yakuza 2 (Sega, PS2) The underrated and overlooked gem of Sega's current development efforts returns with another compellingly adult and sophisticated tale -- with visceral punchy-kicky and unmatched verisimilitude, particularly for a PS2 title.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (Square Enix, PSP) You say fan service, we say "brand extension done right" -- a compelling prelude to the original game, and, perhaps more importantly, gameplay design that's perfectly tailored to the PSP platform.
Gears of War 2 (Epic, Xbox 360) More of the same? More or less. Expanded in scope, and with expert polish and great gusto, boldly reminding us the value of dialing in your focus and embellishing only what you know you can get right.
Chris Remo (Editor At Large, Gamasutra)
Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) Its gameplay can be unfriendly at times, but Far Cry 2's design is appealingly risky, and the experience pays off player investment in spades.
Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North, Xbox 360/PS3/PC) It's not revolutionary after its last-gen predecessors, but Rockstar North's latest provided plenty of sandbox fun, a compelling plot, and heroic attention to detail.
Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games, PC) With its debut effort, Ironclad successfully balanced RTS and 4X gameplay to make a game that is both of massive scale and eminently playable -- no mean feat.
Brandon Sheffield (Editor-in-Chief, Game Developer magazine)
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin (Nintendo, DS) Slickly presented, this iteration finally took its audience into account, aged up a few years and maintained the same precise gameplay -- with a hint of luck -- that the series is known for.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (Backbone, Xbox 360/PS3) Unattractive looks aside, the heart of SSFIIT is beating stronger than ever.
Mortal Kombat Vs DC Universe (Midway, Xbox 360/PS3) I never considered Mortal Kombat a "real" fighting series, but the system differentiates from existing 2D-oriented fighter -- and this game in particular emphasizes arcade-style fun over everything else.
[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]