10. Prof. Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain?
DS, Nintendo, Gamepage.
Simon: Sod the mind exercises - I've been playing Tetris for nearly twenty years Kawashima you noob. Where's Brawn Training for these wasted biceps?
Dave: My brain is 20 years old and my best time at 20 calculations is 13.11. Just FYI.
Luke: Nice idea and all but my Brain Age was 20 on day 2. Either its brokenly simple or I'm an actual genius. Kinda killed it for me either way.
Tom: I did this solidly for about two months, and that was without anyone else to play it with. Some of the tasks were rubbish, and the voice recognition was never quite right, but the other stuff was stupidly compulsive. The best "play it every day" game since Polarium Advance.
Alec: After a month of playing this, I still can't spell 'necessary' properly without looking it up. I want my money back.
John: Sorry everyone, but this really isn't that good. It's a collection of very few simplistic puzzles, with an arbitrary score at the end, and some context-sensitive comments from the cartoon man. It's very well made, and writing numbers onto the screen is deeply satisfying. But really it's a bunch of times tables and Kim's game. Can we all get some perspective?
Tom: Surely, given that John clearly doesn't do Brain Training, there's never been a better opportunity to respond thus: Idiot!
James: Kudos to Nintendo for strengthening their conviction that the DS is the only portable gaming tool to bring together the entire family. Apart from Chris Tarrant's, of course.
Kristan: Without doubt my most played handheld game of the year - or of any other year, come to that. At first, the series of arithmetic tests and simple observation/memory assessments seem little more than a novelty, but, sure enough, it suckers you in to daily play. Played with anyone even vaguely completive on the same DS (preferably a partner), it turns into a daily ritual and reminds you what it was like at school when being quick at times tables was a thing you could feel proud of. It's a shame Nintendo didn't cram more tests in there, or I'd probably still be playing it now, but for the month or so that it got its hooks into me, Nintendo deserves warrants huge applause for daring to do something different that, gasp, felt educational. And how many games can you apply that to?
Kieron: On my birthday, I found myself on a (immensely delayed) train journey with a guy who recognised me from my games writing in other places. Between drinking in station bars, I lobbed him my copy of Brain Training for him to have a crack on. I was horrified to see his decade-younger brain effortlessly manage tasks my withered cranium simply wouldn't have any truck with. This confirmed two facts. Firstly, Brain Training is a fascinating and unique game which Nintendo deserve enormous credit for developing. And secondly, I despise young people with their healthy cerebellum.
9. Wii Sports
Wii, Nintendo, Gamepage.
Dave: All the people slagging it off on internet forums for being too simple are wrong because that's why it's astonishingly awesome.
James: I was in Thailand last year where I had my first taste of jackfruit. It was amazing! I couldn't believe something so natural could taste so sweet and succulent. The next day I scoffed down a large bag and spent some considerable time afterwards rolling around in pain with stomach cramps. After that, it lost some of its appeal and it's all been in moderation since then. Now try attaching this misshapen metaphor to the Wii's novelty factor: the first taste is the sweetest, we'll over-indulge this Christmas, but this'll be long gone from our minds by next year. (Er, I'm not quite sure how to fit in the intense pain part, though. Um, Wii elbow, anyone?)
Luke: Why do I even bother? The Wii will spawn a generation of kids with arms like Popeye and that don't know which one is the X button. Which makes them even easier to beat at Pro Evo, so I guess it's not all bad. If this was out a few months ago, you'd all have forgotten about it already. Well, technically, it was. It was called EyeToy Play: Sports then, though.
Tom: I've still not played Zelda much. I'm sure it's wonderful, but I'm saving it for the Christmas week off. This, I couldn't help myself. The most significant game of 2006, I'd argue.
John: Everyone was dying to announce how this was crap. A free game? Let's tear it apart for not being Tiger Woods meets Virtua Tennis! Fortunately Tom has a great deal more sense than that, and in the face of mockery from people like Kotaku, proved about the only right-brained online reviewer on the planet. I've taken my Wii to Christmas gatherings, and the moment the Miis are made, Wii Sports has garnered queues for the Wiimotes, from both those desperate to declare the Wii a failure (yes, you Nick) and those who've never been interested in videogames at all. Certainly baseball is cack, but tennis, boxing, golf and especially bowling are all brilliantly fun, and ideally simplistic for encouraging all-comers to have a go. Not enough recognition has gone to the Training section, with its Virtua-style challenges, my favourite being the ever-increasingly large numbers of pins to knock down in bowling. This is exactly how party games should work, playable by everyone who walks past, unlike the ludicrously fussy Guitar Hero.
Kristan: Proof that the Wii remote isn't the complete waste of time that its detractors want it to be. I was as cynical as the next man about how well Wii Sports would turn out - and then I played it. And played it. And fell in love with it. If you have a partner, they will love it too. You'll play bowling in your living room and feel like there's actual skill involved. You'll play golf and have a relaxing time around the green. You'll want to hit each other over the head with your Wiimotes when the other wins. It's truly one of the only games that delivers on the promise of getting casual/lapsed/non gamers back into gaming, and delivers on EyeToy's social gaming promise in a far more satisfying, playable and, above all, enjoyable way. If this is just a hint of what the Wii is capable of, then it's destined to be every bit as successful as the DS.
Oli: Probably the most important game released this year.
Kieron: IQs appear to have dropped when discussing this baby. Put it like this: There's never been a bowling game which has managed to simulate the key aspects of the sport as much as Wii Sports manages. There's never been a Golf game which has managed to simulate the key aspects of the sport as much as Wii Sports manages. There's never been a Baseball game which has managed to simulate the key aspects of the sport as much as Wii Sports manages. There's never been, oh, you get it. Yes, it's because of the controller. So? Trying to discuss the game without reference to how the controller impacts the experience of playing is like going back to the early nineties and arguing, "Yeah, Doom is pretty good - but if it was a 2D top down game, it'd be nothing special." Technological leaps change everything. Accept it and accept this.
Alec: My girlfriend's better than me at Wii Sports. After five years of desperately hoping she'd start playing videogames, I've now changed my mind.
8. Viva Piñata
Xbox 360, Rare, Gamepage.
Kieron: I like the Romancing.
James: Rare? Are you listening? If you really are getting back in your stride, then heed these words: BLAST CORPS 2! BLAST CORPS 2! BLAST CORPS 2! Thank you.
Dan: These sort of life simulations flourish or die based on their ability to draw you into their virtual world, and keep you entertained once you're there. Sneaking in right at the arse end of the year, Viva Piñata wins on both counts, with the inclusion of (bright and colourful) sacrifice and slaughter making it a bit like Animal Crossing minus the unnerving Japanese furry fetish overtones. Plus, Horstachio. That's still funny.
John: Tom is so incredibly lovely that he bought me this for Christmas. Unfortunately it arrived at the same time as the Wii launched, and Zelda hasn't released me yet. I did play through the tutorial, and I'm wondering if it's ok that all I wanted to do was batter that stupid bleating woman to death with the shovel? However, my housemate jumped on board, and I've sat watching him "romancing" gorgeous creatures in the game's disturbingly incestuous breeding ground, for hours.
Tom: Not the best of the year, but definitely my favourite. Everything flows so beautifully and happily into everything else. The quest to win the interest of one piñata becomes the quest to breed another. This triggers the arrival of new animals. Then you realise you need to be a master breeder of those to get them. Then you realise the crocodile's grumpy so you buy him a hat. All the while you're trying to make the garden beautiful. It's a living thing, constantly in need of reinvention to match the circumstances. And so you toil, and sometimes it's a bit clunky, but throw yourself in and the sores on your thumbs are like calluses from leaning too long on the trowel, with beauty the prize. It's also home to probably the best music all year. It's amazing to find yourself lovingly humming along to stuff that you've been listening to, virtually on loop, for 40 or 50 hours.
It's the game, hopefully, that will stop people banging on about how much Rare cost in 2002. If only by distraction - I've never turned it on and been able to stop playing within three hours.
Simon: Capitalism never looked so freaking cute.
Tom: And I've got a dragon.
Luke: Yes, Rare actually made a good game. Yes, it's their first since Jet Force Gemini. Yes, it's full of funny-looking, colourful creatures, which means that I was guaranteed to love it even if it sucked. But it it didn't. Harvest Moon meets Pokémon meets Dungeon Keeper meets Tamagotchi in the most unique, original and charming 360 title to date.
Tom: And you know what? I like the TV show too. Fergy: best.
7. Gears of War
Xbox 360, Epic Games, Gamepage.
James: Namco? Are you listening? kill.switch 2! kill.switch 2! kill.switch 2! Nah. Doesn't quite work for this one, does it?
Alec: Gives me shoulder-envy. Also: there are far too many very small walls in this game.
Dave: Gears of War? Boring greys and browns of war, more like. I don't understand how people have convinced themselves that this is great. It's not, it's just another boringly gruff shooter that does all the same things that the last one did, except jumping behind cover every so often. Still, it's the most blatantly homoerotic game of all time, so at least it's striking a blow for equality.
Luke: I thought the release of Rainbow Six Vegas made everyone realise they were wrong about GOW in that it was just a bog standard shooter that looked nice. Guess not. WHERE'S THE VEGAS LOVE, PEOPLE?
John: Honestly, I'm the girliest man in the universe, and I'm secure enough in my masculinity not to need to play this. There's something very peculiar about seeing this running on a big widescreen hi-def TV: it's one of the ugliest games I've ever seen. It's technically extremely impressive, and I've not seen a console generate graphics like it before. But it just looks awful. A talented artist can create something beautiful using merely crushed petals and an animal hair brush. Take the new Zelda, clearly built for the GameCube, and yet so utterly breathtakingly beautiful. GoW may have the most impressive graphics of any console game ever, but the artists just didn't know what to do with it. Their attempt to create haunting ruins has failed woefully, resulting in a dull and bland world, a land without a soul. And to go back to my Project 8 point, once more any sense of playing the game has been replaced by hitting a button to initiate the next scripted animation. No thanks.
Dan: Just get over it, OK? It's an 8/10, through and through. It may be a gorgeous, visceral shooter that flirts with your eyeballs and hits all the right macho buttons, but the core "duck and shoot" gameplay is never going to be the stuff of legend. It is, however, an exhilarating blast to play - either alone or with friends - and that alone makes it one of the best of this year. How it holds up five years down the line, let's wait and see...
Keza: I'm sorry, but I don't get it. Gears of War is... trashy. It's gratuitous, brash, full of itself and overall a tad unsavoury, but more importantly it seems really, really simple for a game that's supposed to catapult us all into a Microsoft-branded Next Generation of gaming. It's fun, don't get me wrong, and unbelievably pretty, but I don't understand what the enormous furore is all about.
Tom: I actually rather like Gears. It's sort of like Wac-A-Mole, but with strafing.
Mathew: I'm not trying to be controversial, here, but when played solo Gears of War seems irritatingly flawed; with far too many difficulty spikes, instant deaths and frustrating memory tests. Yet somehow, after almost chewing my tongue off with rage while trying to finish off General Raam on Hardcore, the minute I did I instantly started an Insane difficulty campaign because I just wanted to keep playing. Most remarkably, though, the flaws of the game are erased when played in co-op mode. It truly demands you work as a team, much like the superb Xbox Live multiplayer. Online or off, Gears of War is hypnotically addictive.
Tom: (I love this entry in the top ten. What a wonderful example of everyone submitting their first run of comments separately and assuming they were in a minority.)
Kieron: I love it, but wasn't in my own Top 10. With all the macho-overkill, what actually impresses me most about Gears of War has been kind of overlooked. It's just the small details which generally improve the genre (the reloading, for example, which every-one will be ripping off for the next few years. Or its use of cover. Or how they manage to make "Run" mean something more than "Move twice as quick". Or how they manage to integrate a massive skill-set without burying the game alive in a hellish control system). Also, there's the sense that it may be the terminal point for that Wolfenstein derived school of shooters. In which case, it's a beautiful dinosaur wandering around, wondering what all these little furry things are up to.
Kristan: Like Kieron once said, some of his favourite games of the year are 8/10 games, and this - like a lot of my personal top 10 - is a classic example of how you can fall in love with a game while still being more than happy to admit its flaws. It's a like dating a gorgeous model with rancid breath - you can live with it for the good things it offers. Who could fail to be blown away by its cinematic intensity, beautiful visuals and simple, refined duck n' shoot premise? Even though the campaign mode is way shorter than an epic (no pun intended) game like this should be, it had enough inspired moments to make it a game that every serious gamer should play, if not own. Multiplayer gamers, in particular, can have enormous fun with this - though until it lets you set up clan matches it'll never realise its obvious potential. It's so macho it hurts, but I still love it. And it's still an 8.
6. Lego Star Wars 2
Multi, Traveller's Tales, Gamepage.
John: I would recommend a Lego Star Wars game to anyone. But the odd thing is, they're very temporary games. Playing through both you recognise the fantastic brains behind the design, every scene gleefully fun and silly. But once you're done, you're done. It's like a great cartoon you saw and loved, but you wouldn't buy on DVD. However, you would definitely buy it for your friends who haven't seen it. Oddly, this second game doesn't quite manage the depth of daftness the original offered. I guess this is a response to making a game based on films deserving at least some reverence, rather than those that deserve nothing but mockery. It was the irreverence that made LSW brilliant. It's the puzzles and cheerful recreation of classic scenes that makes LSW2 brilliant.
Alec: I thought I'd never manage any affection for Star Wars again after subjecting myself to the dreadful Revenge of the Sith, but LSW2 meant the healing could begin.
Kristan: Superb fun. Sure, pretty much the same as the original with more variety and better settings, but it just works. Travellers' Tales once again shows us what a quality developer it really is when it gets to work, and deserves massive credit for transforming a C-grade Lego licence into an A-title when other developers would have lovelessly churned out a trite platformer. Excellent in co-op, and so very very moreish. Oh, and hilarious at times too. Han Solo, what a hero.
Dan: An absolute breath of fresh air, the Lego Star Wars games have bucked the system by producing great games despite having two licensing masters to placate. Faithful where needed, cheekily irreverent where appropriate, this game was enough to remind a jaded soul such as myself why I used to love the galaxy far, far away. Charming, witty and stuffed full of fun unlockables, this is just as great as the first entry, but without the handicap of shitty prequel nonsense.