Coming Attractions: Indie & Esoterica

What's coming out of left-field this year.

Among gaming mags and websites, previews of the year to come are a New Year tradition as inescapable as only going to the gym for the first three weeks of January - and like the annual rush to aerobic renewal, they often fizzle into half-hearted exertion with the cold snap.

In other words, we're not sure we can face another week of name, paragraph, name, paragraph either. So this year, we've decided to be picky.

We've chosen a dozen categories - Shooters, Racing, Action, Adventure, MMOs, RPGs, Sports, Music, Fighting, Strategy, Indie and Esoterica - and divided games among them. In keeping with our Coming Attractions theme, we then give one game Star Billing, and name a Supporting Cast of four of its contemporaries.

Deciding where games belong caused much debate. Sometimes this was because they defy categorisation (does Gearbox's hybridised RPG/FPS Borderlands belong with Shooters, or with RPGs?), and sometimes it was because they have yet to take on tangible form, but still merit inclusion (like Ubisoft's conceptually righteous I Am Alive).

But it turns out this was nothing next to the agony of deciding which game to name as our star, and how to form its supporting cast. Despite the possibility that 2009 will pale in the glow of 2008 - last year's cheeks were flushed by one high-scoring blockbuster and leftfield masterpiece after another - there were friendly, backbreaking arguments for ringleaders Tom and Oli to snuffle their way through.

Many of our choices are entirely personal, and we fight for them; but we also attempt to highlight the under-hyped, provide varied selections, take developers' pedigrees into account, prioritise novelty over known quantities, reward thinking outside the box, and so on. That's why you might not see the latest instalment in yearly franchise X feature, even if it's sure to be just as good as it was in 2008.

To begin with, we have chosen two subjects close to our cold, soon-to-be-pummelled hearts: Indie and Esoterica.

Esoterica

To some extent this is where we've put games that refuse to be classified, or that belong to genres that didn't quite merit an entry of their own. But the essence of esoterica is games whose very strangeness and extremity is what makes them appealing. The circumstances of their creation defy logic, they laugh in the face of received wisdom and they revel in their cultish fringe cool, but they're not necessarily niche; in recent years, you'd have found Rez, Katamari Damacy and LittleBigPlanet here.

Star Attraction

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MadWorld
On: Wii / Developer: PlatinumGames / Publisher: SEGA / Release: Spring

If you ever played the PS2's gloriously deranged brawler God Hand, your first thought won't have been: "hmm, this needs to be more insane and in-your-face." Fortunately, the developers at PlatinumGames - the studio formed from the ashes of Clover, creators of God Hand and Okami - don't think like the rest of us. And they're certainly not planning on being more conservative this time around.

MadWorld dials down the surreal non-sequiturs - this is a fairly standard gladiatorial-gameshow setup, Running Man-style - but dials up everything else. It's one of the most visually exciting games of the year, all stark Sin City monochrome daubed with splashes of crimson gore. The comically extreme violence pokes Manhunt in the eye, and the deadpan, dunderhead voices could almost be a parody of the latest testosterone-buster from the US.

Like No More Heroes (whose sequel we don't expect to see this year, or it would be here), MadWorld marries style and flips substance the finger, and does so on the Wii of all things. But it's the thought of Platinum making its debut, under SEGA's wing, that has us most excited. Clover, the king of esoterica, is dead; long live the king.

Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)

House of the Dead: OVERKILL
On: Wii / Developer: Headstrong / Publisher: SEGA / Release: February

The bizarre lack of top-drawer lightgun games on the Wii - the only console that can do them out of the box - could be answered by SEGA with this sterling splatterhouse mash-up of zombie arcade game and Tarantino genre chic. A quality co-op mode and nifty score mechanics could make all the difference.

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Noby Noby Boy
On: PS3 / Developer: Namco Bandai / Publisher: Namco Bandai / Release: "Early 2009"

Yours for a pittance as a PSN download, this is an adorably barmy non-game toy-thing from playful game artist Keita Takahashi - creator of Katamari, and thus hero of esoterica. Steer the two ends of your stretchy, rubbery "boy" with the two sticks. Interact with farmyard animals. We've played it, and we still have no idea what it is, but we do know it will be joyful.

Portal 2
On: PC and 360, at a guess / Developer: Valve / Release: We think so

It hasn't been officially announced - and certainly hasn't been dated - but we're prepared to bet that the sequel to our 2007 game of the year will be Valve's big 2009 release, Left 4 Dead-style (not quite confident enough to give it top billing, though). We do know that Kim Swift and her fellow warpniks are bending their heads around multiplayer, which can only tie this Gordian knot of puzzle, maze, shooter and 2001-inspired antiseptic AI nightmare into even more twisted shapes.

Sin and Punishment 2
On: Wii / Developer: Treasure / Publisher: Nintendo / Release: 2009

Anything from Treasure, the master artificers of the mind-bending shmup, automatically qualifies for this list. Sin and Punishment 2, sequel to the brilliant but obscure Japanese N64 on-rails shooter, has hardcore credentials like no other game - and as if to prove a point, Nintendo's publishing it. Along with MadWorld, Overkill and Muramasa, this proves that the supposedly mainstream Wii is the format of choice for stylish score-attack craziness in 2009.

Other Players

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Online dragon-smashing arrives on Wii with Monster Hunter Tri (Japan only so far); so does gorgeous 2D hackandslash Muramasa: The Demon Blade; Jeff Minter revives his classic shmup in Gridrunner++ on Xbox Live Arcade; LittleBigPlanet comes to PSP, maybe; Nintendo reworks Pikmin, Mario Tennis, Metroid Prime and the brilliant Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for Wii in the New Play Control! series.

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