1999 – Ready 2 Rumble – I graduated high school in 1999, so this was a huge transition year for me. I left my parents’ quiet house in the suburbs for the sprawling, gorgeous Michigan State campus in East Lansing. I met literally thousands of new people, and got a fresh start on the rest of my life.
Sega had spent my high school years pissing away all the good mojo they had garnered in the Genesis days by releasing unnecessary hardware like the Sega CD, 32X, and the Saturn in rapid succession. They had also cast off surly dick Bernie Stolar, and were ready for a fresh start themselves. So when the Dreamcast launched on September 9, 1999 (“where were you?”) it was like we just instantly understood each other. Kind of like that part where two characters stay up all night talking in… some Cameron Crowe movie, I think.
The Dreamcast had its quirks: weird controllers, a proprietary disc format, and a hefty Windows CE operating system under the hood. It was ahead of its time. To be fair, I was struggling through Japanese 101 and slowly learning that I was pursuing the wrong degree. So no one’s perfect.
The eventual nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin was the absence of EA Sports games. But it still managed to sneak in a few really, really solid sports games like launch title Ready 2 Rumble.
About halfway through freshmen year, this game transformed my dorm room into an extended hours arcade. Its hilarious cast was a throwback to Punch Out!!, and quick pick-up-and-play controls made it a natural weapon of choice for our assembly of amateur drunks college freshmen from all over the Midwest.
2000 – Chu Chu Rocket – Another Dreamcast gem, Chu Chu Rocket was the first game to take advantage of the system’s built in modem. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to believe just how addictive a puzzle game about getting lots and lots of mice into a rocket ship can be. And I understand that. But once you got the hang of this game, its dark sense of humor and frenetic pace combine for an itch that you just can’t help but scratch. The online play was laggy, but totally worth it. After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than sending a cat into your opponent’s rocket at the last second before launch.
2001 – Ico – There are two types of gamers in this world: those that have never played Ico, and those that LOVE it. But you shouldn’t be ashamed to be in the former group. After all, this masterpiece really struggled to find its audience in the US, was woefully short printed, and (just to complete the trifecta of nerd Spanish Fly), was eclipsed by the much higher profile Grand Theft Auto 3 at release.
I didn’t track down a copy until years later, towards the end of my PlayStation 2 days. I was hooked immediately. This was clearly a game that took itself very seriously, and that was ok. The team behind Ico created a work of art, and they wanted us to think about, explore, and feel the game just like any legitimate artist in any other medium.
They dispatched with some very essential game-y trappings: all the characters speak in a made up language, and there’s no onscreen HUD or gauges of any kind. The story was gripping, and even heartbreaking at times. We would only refer to this game as ‘the hauntingly beautiful Ico‘ (never just ‘Ico’) around my bachelor apartment Queens. Play it for a few minutes and you’ll see why.
2002 – SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals – The first game to take advantage of the PlayStation 2′s add-on broadband adapter, SOCOM promised to deliver to consoles the same fast paced, multiplayer squad-based combat that PC gamers had been enjoying for years. It even came with a nifty USB headset so you could bark orders (or dirty jokes, depending on your squad) in the heat of battle.
My college roommates and I never really got that deep into the online component, though. The headset worked in single player too, so you could order around the dumb-as-posts AI squad mates, Boomer, Jester and Specter. This is way more entertaining than it sounds.
2003 – Evil Dead: a Fistfull of Boomstick – This wasn’t the best game of 2003 by a longshot. ’03 was a banner year for the industry with Call of Duty, Mario Kart Double Dash, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time all hitting shelves. Boomstick was flawed by comparison, but I had spent much of my senior year of college interning with a small ad/sound production studio, and had the great pleasure of working with Ash himself, Bruce Campbell.
It was the first time someone that I had actually met was the star of a video game, and that really made me appreciate the fact that this game tried so hard to capture the feeling of the Evil Dead movies. It may not have succeeded 100% of the time as a game, but it’s still one of the best games out there based on a movie property. It doesn’t hurt that I happen to LOVE this particular trilogy, too.
I bought Boomstick about a month before I moved from Michigan to New York, so it was the last game that I played in the basement of my parents’ house, passing around the controller with my friends. For that reason alone, I’ll always have a soft spot for this game.
2004 – NFL Street – When I think of my first apartment in New York, 3 things immediately come to mind: hideous linoleum, Oh My God’s Interrogations and Confessions record, and long sessions of NFL Street. I barely knew my roommate, Geoff, when we first moved in to that bachelor pad in Astoria, but we became fast friends by happy accident, hanging out way too late in dive bars, commiserating over our entry-level peon jobs, and spending entire Sundays shaking off hangovers and passing the controller back and forth.
Neither of us made very much money, so after the cable bill and Coors Light expenses, we couldn’t buy a ton of new games. Around the same time as I picked up NFL Street, we saw indie rock superband Oh My God at a bar in the Village, and their latest record went on infinite loop in the apartment stereo. For the next few months we played that game and record to death simultaneously. Whenever I hear a song from that record, to this day, I just see visuals from NFL Street in my head.
EA had 3 iterations of the NBA Street series to hone the pro-sport-meets-the-sandlot formula, and they absolutely nailed it with this game. The character creation system was robust, with endless possibilities for player looks, clothes, and attributes. I’ve found recent entries in the Madden series to be a little intimidating, with enormous playbooks and all those audible options on both sides of the ball. The EA Sports BIG team stripped away all the nonessential bullshit for Street, leaving us with the most fun, eminently playable football game since Mutant League Football.
Like any case of a Midwesterner moving out to The Big City, there were definitely some bumps along the way that first year. Our landlord was a dick. The place was drafty. I spent two months unemployed. But when I think back on all the good times we had, watching hilarious movies, exploring the city and playing some great games, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
We eventually moved into classier digs, started listening to other CD’s, and Geoff was the Best Man at my wedding. It’s too bad the NFL Street series didn’t have the same luck, as both sequels ended up unplayable.
2005 – Guitar Hero – It may be hard to believe, but the father of gaming’s new favorite genre started from very humble beginnings. The original Guitar Hero was a PlayStation 2 exclusive, during that system’s twilight years. Required, packed-in peripherals were a huge no-no, and a $75 price point seemed sky-high for any piece of software. Barely anyone had heard of developer Harmonix, and retailers hated the idea of devoting so much floorspace to such an X factor of a game during the holiday rush. Looking back on it, it’s sort of amazing that the game succeeded at all.
I was representing GamePro magazine during Guitar Hero’s launch cycle, and went on a holiday press tour with editor Sid Shuman. He raved about GH in every single interview, and by the end of the tour I just HAD to pick it up. I grabbed a copy in release day, from a huge stack at my local Gamestop. It didn’t seem like they were going to move fast.
Shortly after the game came out, we had a perfect gaming storm in New York. It was the coldest winter in years, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority entered into a lengthy work stoppage. Living in Queens, I wasn’t required to go into my office in Manhattan.
The more I played GH, the more I felt like I had to share it with EVERYONE I knew. I took my PS2 everywhere for the next few months, and I wasn’t alone. GH got a huge bump through word of mouth, and it was a bona fide hit by Christmas.
The music genre’s obviously grown by leaps and bounds since then, and online multiplayer, downloadable content and now full-on authoring modes have opened up music games to a much larger audience. I’m willing to bet there are quite a few Xbox 360 and PS3 owners out there that wouldn’t have bothered with a system if not for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It was nice to be one of the first evangalists.
2006 – Bully – 2006 was the Wii’s big coming out party, and I was just as swept up in it as every other gamer (and kid, soccer mom, and granparent, apparantly). But when I look back at all the releases from ’06, this one jumps out at me.
By the time Bully came out, the Grand Theft Auto series was a well-oiled machine. Vice City and San Andreas expanded the GTA universe beyond Liberty City and established the GTA3 engine as a legitmate multigame cash cow.
That engine didn’t really sing until Bully, if you ask me. Bully’s characters felt new and fresh compared to the endless stream of GTA gangsters, and everyone could relate to its high school setting. The entire game existed well outside of GTA’s recipe for success, which was remarkably ambitious of Rockstar.
I happened to be at Rockstar’s NY headquarters on launch day for an interview. It didn’t work out, but at least I got a newly minted copy of Bully as a parting gift. It was my first real, legitimate brush with a job in video games. Thank God it wasn’t my last.
2007 – Super Mario Galaxy – The Wii launched with an outstanding new Zelda title and the groundbreaking Wii Sports in 2006, but its otherwise scant launch lineup left hardcore Nintendo fans (like yours truly) scratching our heads and wondering, “where’s Mario?” The old, reliable super-plumber had been driving karts, playing golf, basketball, baseball, and even board games – but the last true Mario adventure for a home console was the maligned Gamecube platformer, Super Mario Sunshine*.
Galaxy launched to unbelievable expectations. It had to prove the Wii’s unorthodox “remote + nunchuck” control scheme could really work for a non-sports game. It needed to make a platformer relevant again, in a sea of flashy squad-based shooters on more powerful consoles. And it needed to stand up to the nostalgia and fun of ALL of Mario’s previous adventures, because they were all playable on the Wii’s virtual console by the time Galaxy came out.
My wife (then my fiance) got me Galaxy for my first real Hanukkah, and I can honestly say it lived up to all my expectations. With the exception of a few contrarian critics (who got a lot of traffic for their negative reviews… just sayin’), it was a rousing success. Most importantly, it captured that Mario game feeling.
Galaxy looked better than anything we had seen on the Wii thus far, and it married the separate two-handed control scheme to classic platforming. I couldn’t stand to leave my copy for long, so I brought it back to my Michigan to visit my folks over Christmas – and the Wii to play it on.
* NOTE: It’s recently become cool on forums and blog comment sections to claim that you’ve always LOVED Super Mario Sunshine, and declare that it’s a misunderstood misunderstood work of staggering genius. It was a good game. Just not a fantastic game.
2008 – ? – It’s too early to say just yet. There are tons of worthy candidates going into the fourth quarter, and lots of potentially great games on the horizon. So far:
LittleBigPlanet may be the first game since Super Paper Mario to really capture my wife’s attention. The Sackboy character might just be cute enough to draw a wider audience to the PlayStation 3, and the Tinkertoy aesthetic is tough for anybody to resist. I think it might really grasp the limited-only-by-your imagination paradigm shift that Spore was so close to finally realizing.
Metal Gear Solid 4 lived up to my really high expectations. There was a moment there where I had withered, old Snake crouched for a bit too long, and he groaned and grabbed his back in agony. I had to laugh because I was playing with my headphones on, to keep the ambient gunfire from waking my wife on a weekend morning. A far cry from the plucky 17-year-old that brought back the original MGS demo back from study abroad in Japan. Are we really that old, Snake?
Super Smash Bros Brawl is the only game that I felt was worth going to a midnight launch for this year. I’ve always loved the series, and the promise of online multiplayer, a level designer, and all those characters combined for some kind of record in terms of gameplay value per dollar. I can’t imagine having a game like this available as a 12-year-old with limited means for game purchases. It’s so deep that it’s essentially its own platform.
I couldn’t sleep at all the night before our big wedding weekend. I woke up around 4 am and ended up in the living room. I popped in Brawl, and for a little while before all the craziness and life changing of the weekend ahead, it was just me and Mario. One more time.