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D.J.’s Top Games in 2011

9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors

#5: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

Although this actually came out towards the end of 2010, 999 struck such a chord with me that I’m happy to feature it alongside the best games I played this year. I haven’t played many visual novels (the closest maybe being Hotel Dusk: Room 215), but I loved that the game took its time building up an elaborate mystery which, despite the many unexpected twists, all seemed to make sense in the end. The ways the creator managed to incorporate genre tropes and even the DS format into the story and gameplay were nothing short of genius and had me scrambling to play the game over so I could experience it again from a new perspective. It’s like The Prestige of video games—the deception is right under your nose the entire time, but you’d never in a million years suspect it.

Portal 2

#4: Portal 2

I think I’ve said several times that I didn’t need a Portal 2—2007’s short-but-sweet puzzle game was so fresh and succinct that I would have hated to see a sequel tarnish it in even the slightest way. I must have forgotten that the series was in Valve’s very capable hands, because Portal 2 ended up expanding on the original in just about every way with additional puzzle elements, a new, hilarious story, and a lengthy cooperative mode that was so much more than the drop-in, drop-out sidekicking that “co-op” usually amounts to. There’s all that new stuff and it still just uses the same two-portal mechanic that made the original easy for anyone to pick up and understand right away. At this point, if you asked me if I wanted to see a Portal 3, the answer would be a definite “yes.”

Battlefield 3

#3: Battlefield 3

Once again, DICE delivers the world-class, squad-based shooting that they’ve been perfecting since Battlefield 1942. Although it’s not quite the genre-shaping entry that 2005’s Battlefield 2 was, maybe BF3’s most impressive accomplishment is it’s finally taken the four soldier classes and made sure each fills an equally compelling and valuable role on the battlefield. Find a well-coordinated squad and you’ll see some absolutely brilliant teamplay moments emerge that just aren’t possible in most shooters. DICE’s community managers have also been doing an excellent job of taking feedback and keeping an open dialogue with players, which makes me very excited for the game’s future.

Super Mario 3D Land

#2: Super Mario 3D Land

Mario returns to his platforming roots in this game that’s challenging, focused, and just a ton of fun to play. 3D Land‘s levels aren’t the expansive playgrounds of Super Mario 64 and you don’t hop from planet to planet like in Super Mario Galaxy, but they’re expertly designed, with new and treacherous obstacles around every corner. They’re long enough that it’s a relief to make it to the flagpole in one piece, but short enough that you feel like you can squeeze in “just one more,” no matter how long you’ve been playing. It’s Mario at the best he’s been in years, and the perfect reason to have a 3DS.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

#1: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together

Yasumi Matsuno, head designer on Tactics Ogre (and director of the 1995 original), is my all-time favorite game designer. I think I’ve given my Game of the Year to all of his major projects since 1998’s Final Fantasy Tactics, so I’m a little self-conscious at this point giving him one more. But, his games do earn my appreciation for a reason: Like all the others, Tactics Ogre is crammed with hundreds of hours of deep, tactical battles and complex character classes and abilities that—once you spend a little time learning the ropes—you weave together into an army that fights exactly how you’ve designed it to. It’s rare these days for me to find a game that I want to spend copious amounts of time merely studying the ins and outs of the mechanics, but it was a pleasure with Tactics Ogre, especially once my squad actually started shaping up into a real fighting force.

Scenario-wise, the game is set against the backdrop of a rebel uprising that blossoms into a full-blown war, with Matsuno’s characteristic political elements and some truly gut-wrenching story twists, many of which are consequences of the player’s actions both in and out of battle. A few significant plot branches and multiple takes on the ending mean few players will experience the exact same game, but for this remake they’ve added a selective replay mode so you can go back and explore other paths and even pick up characters you might have missed the first time through. Top it off with a remastered soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata, and Hayato Matsuo (including some classic songs from Ogre Battle) and you have one of the most lovingly crafted and robust RPGs in recent memory. It’s a remake of a caliber that most gamers can only dream of, but in this case—for a Matsuno fan who had little opportunity to play the original—it’s a dream come true.

Honorable Mention

(in no particular order)

Magicka – Irreverent humor, an incredibly creative magic mixing system, and the most friendly fire (and lightning… and ice…) in any co-op game made this my favorite downloadable game of last year. Sure, Portal 2 was funny, but the entire game didn’t have a fraction of the laughs from one session of Magicka.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – Is it a game? Is it a movie? It’s hard to say, but I know that Drake’s Deception was one of the most mesmerizing experiences I had on the PS3 last year. Naughty Dog are true masters of their art.

Hard Corps: Uprising – A Contra for a new era. Unapologetically difficult at times, but it wouldn’t be any fun to get through it in one sitting, would it?

PixelJunk Shooter 1 and 2 – The first Shooter is a couple years old at this point, but I finally started it up early in 2011 and it and Shooter 2 make a wonderful pair of simple, yet challenging arcade games with some really fun mechanics and clever puzzles. Hungry Suit!

Ico & Shadow of the Colossus HDShadow of the Colossus was my game of the year back in 2005, despite the dreadful technical issues that it had on the PS2. My biggest hope for the PS3 was that we’d someday see Colossus remastered in the form it deserved, and this is it.

Finally, I had to put Zelda: Skyward Sword into the end-of-year pile of shame. I really wanted to consider it for my list this year, but with its supposed hundred hour length, I really didn’t want to crunch through it and risk souring the experience. I’ll be giving it the attention it deserves this year instead.