First with the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and later with the Xbox 360, 2005 ushered in the next generation of video games, but the year's best games didn't need the fancy new platforms to seem fresh and inventive. Here, The A.V. Club recounts the games that inspired us to neglect our loved ones and put a permanent sag in our couches.
God Of War (PlayStation 2)
Basing an action-adventure game around Greek mythology turns out to be a masterstroke, if only for the epic confrontations with some of the biggest Big Bosses in storytelling history. On a mission to kill the wrathful god Ares, you first have to slash through armies of hellish creatures: A three-headed hydra that towers out of the Aegean Sea, medusas that can freeze you in your tracks and shatter you like glass, minotaurs wielding giant meat-cleavers, and even a few bare-breasted sirens thrown in for good measure. With the Greek myths to carry the story along, the cutscenes are considerably more dramatic and purposeful than the disposable norm, but the main draw is gameplay that crosses several genres at once: a platformer that requires agility and timing, an incredibly gory fight game with a sophisticated and ever-changing array of special attacks, and a strategy game that requires a little thought if you want to outwit your adversaries. On every level, God Of War pushes an aging console to maximum capacity.
Mercenaries: Playground Of Destruction (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
The subtitle says it all: The unchecked freedom to roam through the bleak sprawl of a North Korean war zone, destroying everything in your path, is the chief draw of this deep third-person shooter, which plays like Grand Theft Auto with hardware upgrades courtesy of Lockheed Martin. As one of three strapped mercenaries playing for all sides (save for the North Koreans—you do have some standards), you have certain long-term goals, like apprehending the outlaw officials in the "Deck Of 52," but you also have to carry out assignments through rival parties (the Russian mob, the South Koreans, the Chinese government, etc.) without pissing off any one of them too much. And if all else fails, you can always just blow shit up for no reason. For gamers who don't like to have their hands held—and those who like operating without political allegiance are probably prime among them—it doesn't get any better than this.
Psychonauts (PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox)
No instrument is more complex and mysterious than the human mind, and its cobwebs and catacombs are the inspiration for Psychonauts, a gleefully eccentric platform game that reinvents itself for each new level. As the star pupil at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, you navigate through one bruised psyche after another until you arrive at an insane asylum, where the brains get considerably more twisted. What makes the game so compulsive, outside the splashy graphic design and darkly witty Nickelodeon-isms, is that each head promises a completely original experience: In one level, you're King Kong doing battle against the citizens of Lungfishopolis (a city located inside a giant lungfish); in another, you're skulking around a suburban landscape laid out like an Escher painting.
Resident Evil 4 (GameCube, PlayStation 2)
The GameCube got a boost from this temporary exclusive, which isn't just the best title for the little console that (barely) could, it's one of the most exciting video-gaming experiences ever. Now that it's available on PS2, the rest of the world can experience the wonder of this creepy, engaging, and surprisingly replayable shooter. Resident Evil 4 amps up the best elements of the prior RE games—spooky sound effects, great graphics, compelling baddies, continuing surprises. Zombies are replaced by "ganados"—living people who can run fast, throw dynamite, and even wield chainsaws. (The first time that fella shows up, there isn't a dry seat on the couch.) Sure, the plot is a little silly—you're a small-town cop sent to rescue the president's daughter—but the boss enemies, puzzles, and arsenal of weapons, not to mention the butter-smooth gameplay, make RE4 the game to match in the horror-adventure arena.
The Warriors (PlayStation 2, Xbox)
Movie-to-game adaptations are generally bottom-of-the-barrel (Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, anyone?), but the colorful gangland turf wars in Walter Hill's 1979 cult classic are structured like gaming levels already, and the amoral, apolitical button-pushers at Rockstar Games were born to make that game. Using Hill's music and much of his cast, The Warriors perfectly captures the film's eerie ambience and bold comic-book textures while expanding and deepening its story of a Coney Island gang wrongly pegged for the assassination of a charismatic underground leader. Fleeing through New York City boroughs and neighborhoods is still the chief goal, but the game takes nearly a dozen chapters just to get to where the movie begins: The rest is like a sprawling piece of fan fiction, filled with wholesome tasks like participating in a blackout looting riot or muscling local businesses for protection money.
We Love Katamari (PlayStation 2)
Hard to believe a cartoony Japanese game about ball-rolling could cause such a sensation, but there's something about rolling "katamari"—balls of earthy matter that accumulate into a brilliant star suitable for the heavens—that's addictive, even therapeutic. Perhaps getting approval from the loveably unpredictable King Of All Cosmos makes you feel closer to God. Better yet, creating whole worlds and universes out of pencil erasers, inanimate deer, basketball hoops, screaming kids, and other random detritus makes you feel like a god. Either way, this sequel to Katamari Damacy provides an immense diversity of environments for your rolling pleasure, including a sojourn under the sea and a mission to pick up food for a hungry sumo wrestler. And bonus points for the hummable theme song, courtesy of the Japanese Tom Jones.