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In Play

The year in gaming

By James Renovitch, Fri., Jan. 7, 2011

1) 'LIMBO' How does a relatively short downloadable game for Xbox 360 get top rank over such deep gaming experiences like Mass Effect 2? Simple: It understands the tools that make video games unique from other art forms. Dumped into a grayscale world that reveals its dangers gradually and unnervingly, players quickly identify with the young, faceless protagonist in their charge. This makes the grisly (but not gory) deaths and macabre tasks even more unsettling for those behind the controllers. The desire to get to your destination weighed against the reticence to use a child's body as a flotation device never felt like such a hard decision. Limbo's numerous visceral moments will have the big boys drooling for a while.

2) 'RED DEAD REDEMPTION' Speaking of the big boys: Rockstar Games took its open-world sensibility to the Old West and made the best Western video game to date. The sprawling desert, majestic ravines, and sunsets that stop cowboys in their tracks were finally realized in a way that does the genre justice. The barren landscape belies the density of the world, with enough side-quests and random encounters to make a completist's trousers damp. Toss in a few well-placed cinematic moments and Rockstar has perfected the Grand Theft Auto template that it created so many years ago.

In Play

3) 'SUPER MEAT BOY' Indie game-makers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes know platform games. They know that what really made the original Super Mario Bros. great was the satisfying feeling players got from a well-timed jump that landed the player exactly where intended. Super Meat Boy takes that recipe and throws in some steroids for good measure. If Refenes' controls weren't note-perfect, the insane difficulty of the game would crush even hardcore spirits within a few levels. The barrage of vintage game references and absurdist humor are nice bonuses, but I still can't get the sound of meat hitting buzz saws out of my head.

4) 'SUPER MARIO GALAXY 2' I don't give sequels much space on my Top 10 lists because even decent follow-ups rarely have the impact of the original. What makes Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and so many of the flagship Nintendo titles) a cut above is the always-playful level design. It seems every world has a new way of exploiting what Mario can or can't do. So, while SMG2 may not have an overall impact, it's the small effects of each lovingly created level that yields what makes every Nintendo title great: pure joy.

5) 'MINECRAFT' The gameplay is simple: Create shelter by digging for materials by day, and survive monster attacks by night. What people did with the tools available to them in the game couldn't have been foreseen. You could rightfully describe Minecraft as a game designer's game, but it was also a YouTube sensation, an indie success story, and a testament to the addictive fun of a game with simple goals and elegant, open design.

MOST OVERRATED GAME

Heavy Rain was not only boring to play, it didn't nearly live up to the hype as a cinematic experience. With mediocre voice acting and an even worse script, this was the worst film I controlled all year. Kudos to Quantic Dream for shooting for the stars, but, boy, did they miss.

MOST UNDERRATED GAME

Lionhead Studios' Peter Molyneux oversold his stripped-down third installment of the Fable series, and may have doomed it. Hardcore gamers were disappointed by the dumbed-down controls and lack of difficulty, while casual players never knew that the game was as much Sims as it was Elder Scrolls. Turns out that both groups missed out on a rip-roarin' romp through the land of Albion.

TREND OF THE YEAR

Super Meat Boy wasn't the only hard-as-nails gaming experience this year. Despite the continued rise of casual gaming, there was a hardcore backlash of platform games that were ruthlessly difficult. Bit.Trip Runner and Mega Man 10 caused controllers to be thrown around the room, but even the benign-sounding Donkey Kong Country Returns offered levels that likely had Wii-acolytes ejecting the disc in frustration.

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