A Top 50 list. An explanation is almost redundant. We all sit down and work out which games we've played this year and how much we liked them, we then swap lists and argue them into the shape of a Top 50. We then post comments to argue for and against each of them, and you then post comments explaining how very right we are or, far more likely, how very, very wrong and mad we've clearly become. In the hope of avoiding actual death threats this time around, however, we'd like to preface this year's countdown by pointing out that this is entirely a matter of opinion, and that nobody on the staff has in fact played every single game on the list. It's just not possible. This is not a definitive Top 50 Games of 2004. There's no such thing. What this is is a list of our favourite games based on titles released in Europe over the past 12 months. We hope you'll find it interesting, and we hope you'll feel compelled to respond in the New Year by submitting your favourites in time for us to compile the Reader's Top 50. Expect details of that in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here's the first instalment in Eurogamer's Top 50 Games of 2004, dealing with numbers 50 to 41. Tune in every day this week for more.
50 - Final Fantasy X-2 (Square-Enix, PS2)
Kristan: If anyone knows how to mess with numbering conventions, it's Square-Enix with the ludicrously titled Final Fantasy Ten-Two. Imagine the fun possibilities in the movie world: Star Wars Episode 4-2, Terminator 2-2 (oh damn, that was Terminator 3 wasn't it?), etcetera...
Ronan: *BONG* What's that I hear in the distance? *BONG* It sounds rather ominous. *BONG* A bit like... a death knell! *BONG* Has anyone seen a traditional console RPG lately? *BONG* What!? They're dead!!? *BONG* Blimey.
Rob: Look, I liked it. That's why it's here. I know none of you lot did. Sod off. It was fun, and bouncy, and the Kumi Koda song that you all hate made me tap my foot. And it had a surprisingly intelligent heart, under the girl power nonsense, with some genuinely thoughtful explorations of the aftermath of saving a world - answering the "what do we do next?" question that no RPG ever really covers in any depth.
49 - Star Ocean ~Till the End of Time~ (Square-Enix, PS2)
Kristan: At last, Squeenix is starting to listen to the Robs of this world and release stuff other than the FF games in Europe! That's cut our import review coverage in half at a stroke...
Ronan: *DA-DA* What's that I hear in the distance? *DA-DA* It sounds rather triumphant. *DA-DA* A bit like... a heralding! *DA-DA* Oh look, it's a decent if flawed traditional console RPG. *DA-DA* With a hint of exploration, brilliant battle system and somewhat fresh premise! *DA-DA* Blimey.
Rob: What Ronan said, really. Great music, lovely graphics, high production values, fun plot that fused fantasy and sci-fi, interesting characters... Yep, it's a really good Japanese RPG. Somewhat flawed battle system, and overshadowed by the excellent Tales of Symphonia, but if the European release of this a few weeks after the US launch is the Shape Of Things To Come, then hurray!
48 - SEGA SuperStars (SEGA Europe, PS2)
Kristan: Although EyeToy: Play 2 had its moments, SEGA knows how to use brand appeal to make waving your arms around like a loon more appealing to gamers, and although it didn't quite live up to the enormous promise with one too many annoying games (as with every EyeToy package around at the moment) when it did hit the mark it did so with style.
Ronan: I have never actually plugged an EyeToy into my console, despite owning three of the peripherals now. This is due to a story I heard about them breaking PS2s. I have since come to realise that the story is utterly untrue - and also that my friend Moo Moo doesn't really exist - but Superstars looks good enough to tempt me out of superstition.
Tom: Aha! A game I've played! Right. Well. SuperStars is the best EyeToy game I've played for a number of reasons. One of those is that most of the tasks are just versions of the full games they're based on reworked with flappy-arm controls. Another is that they're reworked in style. NiGHTS, for example, involves moving your arms like the wings of a glider to float through the air and change direction. Genius. And Samba de Amigo involves shaking your hands where you would be shaking the maracas peripheral if you were playing the game on the Dreamcast. A couple more reasons: Well over a handful of the SEGA mini-games will last you well into the night, and as a package it's better value and more fun than any of the other EyeToy offerings. Even if it is stupid having to type your initials in every single time you record a score.
47 - TOCA Race Driver 2 (Codemasters, Xbox/PS2/PC)
Kristan: Codemasters' best ever racing game bar none, and probably my favourite racing simulation of the year, managing to straddle the fine line between the fun of action-style racing and full-on simulation. Blessed with a multitude of different car styles and racing modes to deliver almost the complete package that not only looked fantastic, but felt rewarding and challenging. It even had some fairly amusing cut-scenes featuring a dour Scotsman getting increasingly het up as the big money moves in on his patch.
Ronan: It TOCA lot out of me. Then Rallisport Challenge 2 came along and beat it senseless.
Tom: I haven't played this, but watching Kristan chip away at it for several days reminded me of my own dedication to Project Gotham Racing 2 last year. Which has to be a good thing.
46 - FIFA Football 2005 (EA Sports, Xbox/PS2/Cube/PC)
Kieron: Fresh scoop from my sources: EA is working on FIFA 2007. No, really.
Kristan: While PES fans continue to stick their fingers in their ears, cover their eyes and shout 'lalalalalalalalalalalalala' at the very idea that EA might be catching up with their beloved footy game of choice, the rest of the world bought FIFA in bigger quantities than ever before. And why not? EA's uber franchise continued where last year's left off, with a far more balanced play experience that's a world away from the "he shoots he scores" debacles of previous years with a play mechanic that delivers a solid game of footy that will test even advanced PES players. Online (particularly Xbox Live) it was a revelation, proving to be probably my most played Live game of the whole year - plus it punished cheating quitting scum with a 3-0 defeat. Take that. Not quite the finished article yet, but has a ton of things over PES that matter to a lot of people.
Tom: While Kristan continues to stick his fingers in his ears, cover his eyes and shout 'lalalalalalalalalalala' at the very idea that I might have some concept of why I prefer Pro Evo to FIFA, the rest of the world bought PES in bigger quantities than ever before. And why not? EA's uber franchise continues where last year's left off, which means strong defending that's a world away from the "he shoots he scores" debacles of previous years by virtue of a play mechanic that feels slow and clunky for all its solidity with a degree of random turnover that will test the patience of even advanced Buddhists with +4 inner peace and a first-choice midfield. Online (particularly Xbox Live) FIFA was a revelation, and it was good to see it handled so well, but while it'll be relatively easy for Konami to haul PES's online options up to that level in time, the fluidity and flexibility of PES's actual football is something that FIFA can't quite tackle. For all its improvements (and I'm not denying it's a step up compared to FIFA Two-Thousand-And-Poor), it needs to go out on loan somewhere and put a run of games together before it'll graduate from the reserves.
Ronan: I'm a diehard Pro Evo fan. And we all know what that means! It means I hate FIFA, right? It's like United and Man City, yeah? Well, no actually. Unlike City, FIFA has been going from strength to strength in recent years - and let's not forget how fantastic the original games were. I still far prefer Pro Evo, but this year Konami took a step backwards with their series, while FIFA took another step forwards. Different games, but credit to EA for balancing arcade and sim.
45 - Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (EA Games, PC)
Kristan: I thought I'd be dishing out a DRIV3R-style rant having played the awful demo numerous times, and after a fairly spectacularly cinematic but uninspiring beginning the writing appeared to be on the wall. But somehow a mixture of impressive buddy AI antics, a superb engine and excellent atmosphere pulled the game out of the on-rails mire that was threatening to swamp the whole thing.
Kieron: It's lucky that Call of Duty isn't out, so rendering this obsolete. What? It's been out for a year? Oh no! Their wife is going to kill them!
Rob: I can't kill any more Germans or Japanese people. They have a restraining order. Seriously. It just got a bit much when it topped the million mark.
44 - Metroid: Zero Mission (Nintendo, GBA)
Kristan: Oh balls, I haven't even played the first GBA Metroid yet, why can't the world spin slower? Oh, and what's this [NES Classics Metroid on GBA turns up in the post]. Noooooo!
Ronan: I was scared of the original Metroid games. They scared the living crap out of me. You'd think the fact that my crap was living would be more frightening, but no. At the time, I wasn't quite sure why. I put it down to the tense gameplay, but it was only when I played Zero Mission that I realised how well constructed those old games really were: placing you in a dark, scary place with nothing but a sense of alien things around you. With a character who didn't speak, almost alien herself. Zero Mission reminded me of this because it lives up the memory. Brilliant.
Rob: This was magnificent, obviously. More importantly: bring me the head of the man responsible for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's non-appearance on a handheld to date. I shall feast on his eyeballs WHILE HE STILL BREATHES.
Tom: I can't remember the exact set of circumstances that conspired to stop me being the one who reviewed this, but I recall cursing them at the time.
43 - F-Zero: GP Legend (Nintendo, GBA)
Kristan: I dearly loved the original F-Zero; clearly I need a holiday abroad so I can give my fingers blisters all over again.
Rob: It doesn't work on a handheld. Sorry, it just bloody doesn't. All it does is makes me want to play the stunning Cube version again.
Tom: If I remember correctly, Rob never played the SNES original at the time because he didn't have a SNES, so he didn't get to enjoy the pang of nostalgia that came bundled with both F-Zero: Maximum Velocity and this, GP Legend, which (again we're relying on my fragile memory here) arrived in Europe ahead of the American version's release earlier this year. But the idea that I too would feel it "just bloody doesn't work" if I hadn't grown up with the games that shaped this is inconceivable. It is fast and sometimes frustrating but, in a weird way rather like Amplitude on PS2, is capable of making you feel like you're playing beyond your own limits at times, and is very differently formed when set aside virtually every other futuristic racer. With its mixture of races and F-Zero GX-style racing tasks it's also capable of occupying you far longer than most comparable GBA racers. In fact, there aren't really any comparable GBA racers; far from not bloody working, this is one of the very few racing games that really does bloody work on Nintendo's ageing handheld, and I'm going to dig out the cartridge and play it defiantly on my DS all afternoon to prove it.
42 - Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (Nintendo/Square-Enix, Cube)
Kristan: If it wasn't for our wildly differing tastes at EG, we'd be a pretty boring read. If one thing doesn't work when writing a games publication it's that whole groupthink mentality, which is why I can look at FFCC's appearance here with utter disdain and recall that unless you have three FF mates with GBAs in hand, this is a pretty pointless experience. It's one of Nintendo's great connectivity experiments, but one that - while great in theory - relies on too much hard work to actually make possible.
Ronan: *BONG* Oh. *BONG*
Tom: For me, this is one of those concepts that sounds absolutely brilliant when somebody explains it to you - just as it still gives me second thoughts when I read over enthusiastic explanations like the one Rob's about to offer - but in practice I've never seen it live up to that potential. And, as everyone will point out regularly for the rest of time whenever anybody brings it up in conversation, it's a bit of a logistical nightmare for most people as well.
Rob: I'm biased. I have three mates (arguably more than that, although I'm assured that kidnapping is an unacceptable way of boosting the numbers) and three GBAs on hand. As such, Crystal Chronicles was one of my games of the year - breaking away utterly from the conventions of Final Fantasy, it was entirely built around the principle of co-operation and the ancient art of sitting down with a bunch of mates to play a game, which has sadly been forgotten by some other designers with the advent of online console gaming. We laughed, shouted, got angry, got even, drank beer and ordered pizza - and when a different set of friends were around, they could start new characters while the veterans of the last campaign stuck with their existing ones, without unbalancing the game. The astonishing quality and genius design of the game was, of course, sadly overlooked in favour of bleating about the requirement for human companions to play games. Maybe you all just need to wash more often.
41 - Deus Ex: Invisible War (Eidos/Ion Storm Austin, Xbox/PC)
Kieron: Forgot that this was this year in the UK, or it'd have been on my list. Still misunderstood, still lovely.
Kristan: For some unearthly reason I never seem to get around to playing the DX games; largely because we sit around and think "ah, Gillen's got that one covered", and boot up something else that we have to cover instead. The bizarre thing is, if I wasn't doing this for a living, this is one of those games I'd make a beeline for immediately. Maybe one day I'll get around to it. Someone should make me get around to it.
Ronan: Probably my most disappointing game of the year. Not because the game wasn't any good (I'm sure it is) but because the Xbox port was incredibly shoddy. Shoddy like Mr Shoddy's shoddy shoes... which he bought in a shod shop. Okay, maybe not that bad, but the terrible analogue sensitivity, combined with an unforgivable frame rate, ruined the experience for me. A first-person console game with crap sensitivity and frame rate is essentially a broken game in my view. I'll wait and play it on the PC instead.
Rob: I loved this. I loved the original as well - in fact, I think it was the second game I ever gave a 10/10 to (the first being Ocarina of Time, if you're wondering, for a long-defunct publication) - so it took some getting used to the "new" Deus Ex, but eventually I realised that it had to be considered on its own merits. Within those confines, it emerges as a thoughtful, well implemented and superbly designed game with a wonderfully multi-stranded narrative that poses some real choices for you as you progress - even if the illusion shatters a little on the second play through, when different choices often yield similar results.
Tune in again tomorrow as we look at games 40 through 31...