Gems of this generation: part 1

GemsHugeFixedThis is the first part of a three-part article detailing, in no particular order, my favorite games of the 360/PS3/Wii console generation. For part two, click here; for part three, click here.

With one next-gen console out and two on their way, players wait breathlessly for a revolution. Who will win the coming war: The PS4, riding popular support and increased graphics capability? The Xbox One, wooing the masses with all-in-one media integration? Or the Wii U, promising new play experiences in fan-favorite franchises?

The answer is who cares. New consoles take time to get going. That shiny newness wears off, leaving players with a lack of games to play.

But take heart! Those black and white boxes you’re stuffing into brown boxes – they have games. Good games. Great games. Exciting, wonderful, spectacular games.

I’d like to celebrate fifteen of my favorite games that came out over the last eight years, games that elevated this generation above shoehorned waggle, red rings, and network hacks. I hope you share some of your favorites with me as well. Or, you know, make an angry post about my glaring omission of your favorite game. That’s cool too.

These are all fantastic games, so be aware that I’m posting them in no particular order. Here’s part one, featuring the first batch of five games. Stay tuned for parts two and three!

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes HD

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I could count on one hand how often I’ve seen a game as daring and brilliant as Clash of Heroes. Combining match-three puzzle games and turn-based strategy with a cute, clean artstyle, Clash of Heroes impresses on every front.

Players pick from a small pool of factions, heroes, units, and special artifacts and then get puzzling, matching three or more same-colored units vertically to form attacks and horizontally to form walls. Once lined up, attacking units count down to their assault.

The game has a dynamism typically lacking from turn-based puzzlers. Instead of just farting out the best move, you’re encouraged to set up plans over multiple movements, and you can gain extra actions through smart play. Players form combos, links, and fusion attacks, potentially all in the same turn.

There are a lot of different strategies involved, all dependent on which faction you play and which units you pick. Sylvan hunters attack quickly, while treants build up slow but leech enemy health. Inferno imps hurl splash damage at enemy units, while readied nightmares all attack simultaneously. And so on. There’s a lot of breadth to the unit selection, which is deepened by game-changing artifacts and hero spells.

Turn-based puzzle games rarely hold my interest – they’re far too simple, choreographed, and just plain dull. Clash of Heroes isn’t like that. It’s incredibly engaging, original, and fun, a game that came seemingly out of nowhere and single-handedly cemented Capybara Games’ reputation as a developer to watch.

Geometry Wars 2

GeoKings

Looking back to Robotron 2084 for inspiration, Geometry Wars 2 marries tight twin-stick control with brilliant, Vectrex-inspired bursts of pyrotechnic color, resulting in a game that feels both completely fresh and completely classic.

Geometry Wars is “have another go” gaming at its best. Losing their last life, players are two quick button presses away from being back in the game. The online leaderboards are brilliant, pitting players against their friends in a battle for supremacy. And the game supports four-player local multiplayer, making for an incredibly well-rounded multiplayer experience.

But Geometry Wars 2 trumps its predecessor with the addictive Pacifism mode, which pares down the entire game into a battle against hordes of single-minded blue diamond drones. The player can’t shoot, but instead takes out enemies by passing through gates, which then explode and destroy nearby enemies. Its reductive design works brilliantly, and Pacifism mode alone has eaten up more of my spare time than most full games.

Once you start playing Geometry Wars 2, the hours die away. After all, you almost beat your high score. Have another go.

Vanquish

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Vanquish seems, at first glance and touch, like Gears of War. The trappings are a little different, with Russian robots and mechs taking the place of Gears’ monstro-humanoid Locust forces. But there’s the same burly space marines, the same assault and sniper rifles, the same waist-high cover to crouch behind.

Spending more time with it, though, Vanquish is pure Platinum, mechanically grounded by Shinji Mikami’s sublime direction. After enough frustration at being put down by enemy after enemy, players naturally experiment with the system.

And that’s when they learn that Vanquish isn’t as much Gears of War as it is a sci-fi Max Payne. With the help of his senses-heightening ARS suit, protagonist Sam Gideon dives out from cover, slows down time, and picks off three enemies a second. He boosts around the map, shotgunning in close-ranged slowdown, tearing enemies apart.

Vanquish enters that rare space where the action is so intensely pure that, for short periods of time, players blink out and become one with everything onscreen: Sam Gideon, his weapon, the bullet, the enemy.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

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I don’t even like Pac-Man. It’s ancient design by now, more like a set of motions than a game. You push in a quarter, fiddle the joystick a bit, and maybe some time passes. You dodged some ghosts. Fantastic.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, though, I love. The mazes glow pulsing neon, changing shape every time the player collects fruit. Ghosts are more flighty, dodging out of Pac-Man’s way instead of hounding him relentlessly. They conga up behind him, forming a snake trail that can be just as deadly, impeding players as they work their way around mazes at ever-increasing speeds.

They’re also consumables, of course, lining up for the slaughter. The trail of ghosts winds through the maze, a glowing, raving rainbow that encumbers Pac-Man’s every move – until he eats a power pellet, turns on his pursuers, and chomps the whole damned line. It’s one of the most innately satisfying mechanics in any game. The sound and feel of it are perfect.

The workmanship that went into this game is incredible. DX feels less like the grandfather of arcade gaming and more like the inspired successor to everything since. Its hints of arcade legacy go beyond maze running, channeling top-down racers and scrolling shooters alike with tight race lines, time trials, screen-clearing bombs, and a skillfully designed scoring system.

But it never loses its focus. At the heart of everything, this is pure Pac-Man. Yet there’s a spark of originality here that’s rarely found even in newer games, from a series almost as old as gaming itself. Pac-Man CE DX is a perfect iteration on a classic series, impressive on every level of its design. And unlike vanilla Pac-Man, it’s fun as all hell.

Rhythm Heaven Fever

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Videogames, as a rule, aren’t a humorous medium. There’s an inherent severity that comes with games trying to prove they’re cinematic art, and when they do mess about, their jokes feel set into place by outside hands.

Which is why Rhythm Heaven Fever is so refreshing: I had a goofy-assed grin on my face for the game’s entire duration, as each musical scenario layered on more and more charm. They’re not really ha-ha funny, exactly; rather, there’s a feeling of playfulness throughout, a sort of surrealistic vision that’s incredibly infectious.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Two fighter pilots, a cat named Forthington and a dog named Baxter, are flying WWI fighter planes, when Forthington suggests that they play a game of aerial badminton. Or how about this one: A golfer, seeking to improve his swing at the driving range, runs into a monkey and mandrill who both decide to get in on that golf-training action.

These stories fall flat on paper, of course, but in-game they shine. And there’s more to Rhythm Heaven than a charming exterior. Underneath lies an engaging and uniquely simple rhythm game that ramps up steadily throughout its duration.

Rhythm Heaven Fever stands as one of the most surprising games I played all generation. It’s the sort of game that, even if you watch videos of it being played, you’re not entirely sure what the player’s doing offscreen. But I can tell you what they’re doing: they’re having a hell of a time, and they’re smiling like an idiot.

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4 Responses to “Gems of this generation: part 1”

  1. Stephanie Carmichael Says:

    These are really great picks. I should give Pac-Man and Geometry Wars in particular more of a chance. Can’t wait for part two!

  2. GFoppy Says:

    Clash of Heroes is not a balanced game (some abilities and units are just simply too powerful) but I still greatly enjoyed it, far more than Puzzle Quest. There is a greater breadth of tactics available and the different characters and races keeps things fresh, preventing the gameplay from ever getting repetitive or stale.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Thanks for commenting, GFoppy!

      I absolutely agree, the game’s broken in a number of places, which is strange since they had the DS game to use as a template for refining. But I only play it in local multiplayer, and we house rule anything that needs house ruled. It’s an incredibly fun game, so I don’t let balance issues bother me when they can be sussed out.

      Puzzle Quest has some really cool ideas, but imo the main action of the game is incredibly dull. There’s very little strategy or thought, you kind of just look for the best move and hopefully find it. But also, the way they’ve set the game up means that trying to get a two-player game going is impossible. Everything’s going to lean toward the player who’s spent more time on the game, and that’s bunk.

      So yeah, I agree that it’s definitely a lot better than Puzzle Quest. Balance issues aside, my only real complaint is the way the campaign works. I hated that you had to earn more troops, because it makes the opening segments with any hero feel restricted and boring. But I mostly play puzzle games for multiplayer anyhow, so it wasn’t so big an issue. And it’s a pretty good single player mode anyhow.

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