Thinking back over all the games I've played and reviewed this year, the titles which stand out most are those at the extremes of the spectrum. At one end there's the likes of Velvet Assassin and Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, two games so bad that if someone said I had to play them again I'd staplegun my own fingers to my eyes just to make it impossible. And who could forget Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad? Not anyone who was contractually obliged to play it for more than 12 minutes, that's for sure.
But my favourite game of the year was one I didn't get to review at all - Plants vs. Zombies. Now available for PC and in the works for iPhone and XBLA, it's a new take on the tower defence genre from PopCap Games. As Christian explained in his review, your mission is to fight hordes of comical mutants as they try to make their way from one side of the screen to the other. You do this by collecting sunlight and using it to buy a wide variety of plants with useful properties. These include pea plants which fire projectile missiles, potatoes which double as booby traps, chillies which burn out entire rows of zombies and so on.
And that's about it. Like all the best PopCap titles, Plants vs. Zombies is instantly playable thanks to the fact it's built around simple rules and accessible gameplay. Even those new to the tower defence genre will have no trouble grasping the basic principles. However, they may have a problem letting go. Like all the best PopCap titles, Plants vs. Zombies is more addictive than Pringles dipped in heroin.
This is partly down to the game's neat reward system. Each time you complete a level, you receive a new plant with different properties to add to your arsenal. You're also regularly presented with new types of enemies to deal with, such as pole vaulters who can leap over obstacles and hot air balloon pilots who attack from above.
In this way, layers of depth are added to the game gradually and subtly. You're forced to experiment with different weapons, trying out different combos and layouts. It feels like you're being given new toys to play with when really you're naturally being led to think up ever more complex strategies.
It helps that the difficulty curve is so finely tuned. There's a sweet spot between fun and frustrating, between providing the player with a sense of achievement and leaving them bored because it's all too easy or too hard. Plants vs. Zombies hits it perfectly.
On top of all that the game is beautifully presented. The visuals manage to be jolly and gruesome at the same time. There are some great jokes, such as the Thriller zombies, and the animations are superb. The sound effects are excellent, too - the groans of dying zombies are just as satisfying as the chink of the gems in Bejeweled. And despite all this polish and professionalism, the game manages to retain a sense of personality.
But I also like Plants vs. Zombies for the things it doesn't have. There are no shaven-headed musclemen, no post-apocalyptic American cities, no gritty free-roaming environments. There are no silly plotlines about time travel or mysterious viruses. There are no daft cut-scenes where people say stupid things without moving their lips properly, and no wisecracking female characters who put the ass in sassy.
There are no health kits to collect, map fragments to find, fuse boxes to disable or missing keys to locate. There are no sections where you have to wiggle a controller around when it would be a lot easier just to press a button. There are no plastic skateboards, wireless drum kits, motion-sensing cameras or electronic bathroom scales.
There is a time and a place for all of the above, and those who want to seek those things out don't have to look far. More often, however, I'm most interested in what Plants vs. Zombies has to offer - quietly absorbing, addictive gameplay, low-key but polished presentation and a difficulty level tuned to offer a challenge while still delivering a sense of satisfaction.
The games I've played most this year have those qualities. I lost an entire weekend to Diner Dash on the DS, for example. Out of work hours, I've spent most of my time not with the PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii but the iPhone. I've had actual rows about the amount of time and level of focus I've devoted to Farm Frenzy. I've passed hour-long train journeys with Flight Control. I've spent days trying to get all the gold medals in Cooking Dash, even though it's just Diner Dash with frying pans. Then there's Word Fu, UNO, Doodle Jump, Critter Crunch...
What does this tell you? That my taste in games is pathetically limited and immature, obviously. But also that there's still an appetite (and not just mine, judging by the App Store top 10) for games with relatively basic gameplay and graphics. Games like Plants vs. Zombies, in fact.
If you're more into the fancier stuff, great. There's been plenty to keep you occupied this year in the form of new Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, Left 4 Dead, Modern Warfare, Forza, FIFA 10 and many more, and three cheers for all those.
But if you missed out on Plants vs. Zombies, why not give it a go over at PlantsvsZombies.com? This is one of those games so good it sticks in your memory. And not just when you're laying in bed after a four-hour session, still semi-consciously playing it in your head. It's a game you'll remember and want to come back to months later. For that reason, it gets my vote for game of the year.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.