This edition’s question was inspired by a suggestion from reader Rob W.:
While more console games than ever are being re-released and remade for newer machines, most of them will be forever tied to their original hardware. And with a new generation of consoles slowly establishing itself, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 libraries are in the midst of their long slide into obscurity. (So is the Wii’s library, but the Wii U is backward-compatible.) Putting aside the bestsellers that are likely to be re-released, what’s a game from the previous generation that we should try before the consoles inevitably make their way to the attic?
3D Dot Game Heroes goes far beyond the winks and nudges of loving homage and well into the territory of stalker who wears your stolen clothes while making out with a photo of your partner. It would be a pixel-perfect replica of a classic Legend Of Zelda game if not for the clever way the template is adapted for a contemporary console. Its charming look centers on the premise that an 8-bit kingdom, worried over losing tourism to newer, more impressive games, modernizes by going 3-D. But instead of rendering everything in slick polygons, each pixel is plumped up to three dimensions, creating a world of stacked cubes. The play set proportions of its characters and environments, along with glaring, top-down lighting and a camera that emulates a very shallow depth-of-field, invokes the stop-motion staging of an old Gumby episode more than a video game. Cute look aside, the game can be tough as hell. Retro-styled games are a staple and will continue to make appearances on every new system, but 3D Dot Game Heroes is more about the relationship between classic and modern gaming. It’s a unique bridge between the two eras and one that’s not likely to appear again.
As I play this new Lord Of The Rings game, Shadow Of Mordor, in which I gleefully run through Mordor and either make orc heads explode or turn these filthy creatures into my imminently expendable slaves, it occurs that a previous J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation—The Battle For Middle-Earth II—might not be long for this world. The console-bound real-time strategy game was never the most robust of gaming genres, but it might be especially scarce as we enter our head-exploding, orc slaving, super social gaming future. Call me old fashioned, but I think there’s something kind of great about controlling the armies of Gondor from on high and throwing wave after wave of my men against the black tide of Sauron. Granted, there’s also something great about sharing a body with a long-dead, vengeance-obsessed elf-wraith-blacksmith guy, but I like to think there’s room in the world for both.
Whenever Shinji Mikami or Suda 51 make a game on their own, it’s an event worth paying attention to. After all, who could ignore the mad geniuses behind a genre-redefining masterpiece like Resident Evil 4 or a slice of insanity like No More Heroes? And while their sole collaborative effort, Shadows Of The Damned, may not quite reach those heights, this grindhouse game should still be played while there’s time. From Mikami comes the over-the-shoulder shooting action and supernatural, psychological-horror that make up most of the game. Suda contributes flavorful touches like a talking demon-torch/gun/motorcycle sidekick named Johnson and a main character named Garcia Hotspur, or rather, Garcia Fucking Hotspur. The sleazy, occult world they blast through is a perfect amalgamation of both artists’ distinctive personal tastes, and it should come as no surprise that a game filtered through two such specific visions ended up having an audience of no one.
Boxing has greatly diminished as a major sport over the last decade, and as such mixed martial arts games have replaced the sweet science on consoles. That’s unlikely to change in the era of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko’s shrug-inducing dominance, so anyone looking for a boxing fix better go back and play Fight Night Champion. The best part of EA’s 2011 boxing game is a mode that plays like the best boxing movie never made. In it, you play Andre Bishop, an up-and-comer from Philadelphia who must overcome a corrupt fight promoter, an evil rival fighter, and a sibling rivalry. The plot is part Rocky IV, part The Hurricane, and all awesome. The other modes are fun too, including a legacy mode in which you make your own fighter and work your way up the rankings to face real-life fighters like Manny Pacquiao and Muhammad Ali.
Rock Band may or may not reappear one day, but we can rest assured that the already forgotten last game in the series, Rock Band Blitz, will not come along for that hypothetical ride. Now, Rock Band Blitz is an excellent game, one that elegantly compressed the four-player plastic-instrument play of its forebears into a groovy one-man trifle—it turns out just tapping joysticks to keep time can be transportive, if the music is good enough. And the music was good enough, because it used your own Rock Band library, the one you spent all of 2008 playing to death with your friends. That’s why Rock Band Blitz can never return—it’s the flower that grew out of the corpse of Rock Band. It cannot exist without a rotting copy of Rock Band beneath it, nourishing it, offering up its library of dated pop to songs be consumed by a lonely player. That player, in turn, can sit in their empty living room, load up The Acro-Brats, and recall happier days when other people were willing to play Rock Band with them. I suppose it’s possible that Rock Band could come back, blow up, burn out, and collapse all over again, making a Rock Band Blitz revival possible. Until then we should all load up the one we’ve got and start embalming our memories.
After working on two Katamari Damacy games, Keita Takahashi talked about quitting the restrictive goals of video games in favor of designing schoolyard playgrounds. That imaginative sense of play-for-the-sake-of-play is evidenced in Takahashi’s second original game, the PlayStation 3-exclusive Noby Noby Boy. A clear prototype for games like Proteus and Hohokum, Noby Noby Boy asks players to stretch their wacky rainbow worm around random environments just because. As a meta-game, new worlds with new inhabitants and new toys are unlocked based on the cumulative length of everybody in the world playing. The moon was unlocked within a week of its 2009 release and, as of this past March, we’ve gotten as far as Neptune. Stretch around stuff, eat things and fart them out, fly into space, get people to ride on your back, and explore other planets. For only $3 and the promise of never seeing the exact same area twice, there’s no good reason not to try Noby Noby Boy, and as a commercial and critical quagmire, I’m grateful every time I boot it up to find the servers haven’t been shut off yet. Get it now before it disappears forever. (The 2010 iOS version has been unsupported for over three years.)
I’m going with EA’s Skate. Sure, it’s from one of the industry’s biggest ultra-juggernauts, but it’s a series they seem uninterested in continuing or preserving, and the studio that developed them closed down earlier this year. Skateboarding games are going out of fashion, but even at the height of their popularity they were mostly defined by fast-paced wish-fulfillment type games like the Tony Hawk series, while Skate was basically the only game to have a realistic, simulation approach to the sport. There isn’t really any other series out there that takes a sport’s most minute details, makes a realistic game out of them, and still manages to be fun and playable, and games like that don’t look like they’re going to be in high demand any time soon.
Def Jam Rapstar was a casualty of a waning trend. Released nearly three years to the day after the rhythm-game boom reached its apotheosis with Guitar Hero 3, Rapstar was doomed to instant obsolescence, landing on shelves long after most of the subgenre’s diehards had yard-saled or lost their (fully compatible!) Rock Band mics. It was our loss. The perhaps obvious modification from solo-heavy jock-rock to voice-only hip-hop puts this in the realm of the even shorter-lived vocal rhythm party game, but SingStar this ain’t. Think less belt-along karaoke, more impromptu rap battle. Friendships were made and broken on all-night “Throw Some D’s” competitions in my household. What more could you ask for?
I cannot stress this enough to everyone with a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360: Go on your console’s digital store and buy Burnout Paradise before such thing is no longer possible. The disc and the console (or a PC version downloaded from Steam or EA’s Origin) itself may work for years to come, but someday Electronic Arts is going to shut down those servers for good, and the multiplayer components that make up the full Paradise package will be gone. Plenty of racing games have aped its open world style since, but even the excellent Forza Horizon games fail to capture its sense of fun. Paradise takes nothing seriously, save for having a good time, and while it no longer boasts the most graphically or technologically impressive world, it still rules.