Best of 2003
It's that time of year where we go over our favorites from the past 12 months and look forward to the next 12. Check out each of our editors' entries below.
D.F. Smith, News Editor:
"In a lot of ways, 2003 was the year that wasn't. First, it was going to be the year of Doom 3...nope, take that back, that's 2004. Then we were sure it was the year of Half-Life 2...nope, scratch that, 2004 sometime. For a while it was even the year of Halo 2...well, actually, I don't think anyone believed that was going to happen."
Click to read D.F. Smith's complete entry.
Nich Maragos, PS2.1UP.COM Editor:
"No lie: it took me about two hours to come up with five things I loved about 2003. Part of that was an inability to concentrate due to the onset of a head cold, but part of that was a generally blase year. What I'm about to say isn't meant as a slight on Prince of Persia, a game I like a whole lot, but its status as potential Game of the Year seemed weird even back when it was gaining steam as Best of E3. It just seemed like everyone was waiting for "the" game, and fell back on PoP as "a" game when it was clear that none would be forthcoming."
Click to read Nich Maragos's complete entry.
Kevin Gifford, XBOX.1UP.COM/POCKET.1UP.COM Editor:
"This time of year is the season for bounenkai in Japan -- drinking bashes between friends set up to help "forget the year" that just passed (as the term literally means). It's a chance to unwind, to be frank with your buddies, to drink enough 100-yen whiskey sours to send you under the table and out like a light for the rest of the evening... Japan's version of the good old office Christmas party, in other words."
Click to read Kevin Gifford's complete entry.
Matt Leone, GC.1UP.COM/CHEATS.1UP.COM Editor:
"It was a good year for games, with many high quality releases ranging from sequels (Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker) to franchise revivals (Prince of Persia, Pac-Man vs.) to surprisingly nice original titles (Metal Arms). There was no one standout game universally seen as the best game of the year -- Prince of Persia comes close -- which I see as a good thing, since the attention stays on a variety of games instead of the one hot "must have" one."
Click to read Matt Leone's complete entry.
Ivan Sulic, PC.1UP.COM Editor:
"I hate doing this so much I'm presently wondering if anyone would actually notice if I just cut and pasted a few paragraphs from the Reverend's piece and slapped them atop some choice offerings from Nich's. Maybe to hide my flagrant plagiarism I could tack on an Oedipus Rex thesis I found buried in a drawer at home? It's from high school and stinks of the arrogant malcontent I used to be, but it does have some cute girl writing on it, no doubt a result of brazen note passing mid-class."
Click to read Ivan Sulic's complete entry.
Jeremy Parish, CLASSIC.1UP.COM Editor:
"I don't know what things were like where you're from, but on my planet this was definitely the year the GameBoy Advance came into its own. Not only did Nintendo see fit to finally provide us with (not one, but) two pieces of hardware that actually make the system's games playable, but the system's games were undeniably worth playing. Between stellar sequels like Castlevania Aria of Sorrow, neo-classics like Ninja Five-O and uncategorizably brilliant inventions such as Wario Ware, no system demanded more playtime this year than the little handheld that keeps Nintendo's boat afloat. Especially when you compare it ounce-for-ounce with, say, Xbox."
Click to read Jeremy Parish's complete entry.
Sam Kennedy, 1UP.COM Editor-in-Chief:
"There is one major game that 2003 ought to be remembered for: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Because it was released so early in the year, the game essentially dropped off the radar. This shouldn't be the case, though – Wind Waker was truly a masterpiece, and one that should be played by all. Hopefully it still fared well this holiday season."
Click to read Sam Kennedy's complete entry.
D. F. Smith
News Editor, 1UP.com
Best of 2003
Need for Speed: Underground
The Strategy-RPG Renaissance
Cave Shooters A-Go-Go
Culdcept Coming Stateside
Sega Bounces Back
Depressed of 2003
Half-Life 2 Gets Delayed
Actually, Everything Gets Delayed
Black Isle Studios Closes
Ridge Racer Dies, Many Mourn Its Passing
The Tokyo Game Show Is Somnolent And Stale
In a lot of ways, 2003 was the year that wasn't. First, it was going to be the year of Doom 3...nope, take that back, that's 2004. Then we were sure it was the year of Half-Life 2...nope, scratch that, 2004 sometime. For a while it was even the year of Halo 2...well, actually, I don't think anyone believed that was going to happen.
The point is, 2003 saw a fistful of big hits slip into the coming year, all of the above plus Ninja Gaiden, Gran Turismo 4 and plenty of others. We're seeing the effect of those delays in the market right now, as analysts stare at their stock tickers and wonder why some sales figures are missing their expectations this holiday. Here's a little hint -- it's the games, stupid.
Since it is all about the games, though, some titles shone brighter than they might have in other years. If a main-line Final Fantasy had come out in 2003, Disgaea wouldn't have gotten anywhere near as much attention. If it were up against GT4, could Need For Speed Underground hope to compete? Would Prince of Persia be a game of the year contender if it were up against Halo 2? Probably not, so we can thank those key delays for making us dig a little deeper this year. And gamers who habitually seek their thrills in unusual places could still find some hidden gems here and there -- if you haven't played Culdcept yet, you owe it to yourself to try it out.
There was bad news along with the good in 2003, of course. The closure of Black Isle Studios provided a sad punctuation to a year that saw many small developers go out of business, especially in a sagging UK market. The Japanese games industry has seen better years as well -- the biggest news at the Tokyo Game Show was how little news there was to be had. Even Japan's biggest developers and publishers seemed to be retrenching, delivering safe, unambitious projects instead of striking out in new creative directions. Witness Namco's Racing Evolution, a failed attempt to imitate the success of Gran Turismo that seems to have snuffed out any hope of seeing the Ridge Racer legacy revived. Even Sega seems to be in a creative slide, although its drastic reorganization seems to have done wonders for its financial performance.
Fun is where you find it, though. The best time I had with games all year wasn't anything all that complicated -- just an Akihabara arcade, a pocket full of yen, and a long row of every Cave shooter ever made. ESPrade, Guwange, Do Don Pachi, Ketsui Kizuna Jigoku Tachi...nonsense words to you, maybe, but the best arcade games on the market to me. And no matter what ships, what gets delayed, who stays in business, or who bows out, games like that will always be there.
Looking forward to in 2004
Snake Shuts Up
Grand Theft Auto Whatever
Star Ocean, Si! Final Fantasy, No!
King of Fighters + Samurai Spirits = Happy SNK Nerd
Next Stop: Blast City
The first half of 2004 is going to be completely berserk. In theory, at least, we're going to get Ninja Gaiden, Halo 2, Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Fable, Metal Gear Twin Snakes, and goodness knows how many other massive games in the space of something like three months between March and May. The spring release lineup for Xbox and PC may actually wind up dwarfing the holidays, unless some absolutely crazy stuff debuts at E3.
Once that hype wave breaks, though, there's still some games to look forward to. I can't overstate how encouraging what we've seen of Metal Gear Solid 3 has been. There is not one word of genuine in-game dialogue in those trailers. Not a single one. And none of those bloody Codec yack-fest screens, either. After the talking-heads nightmare of Metal Gear Solid 2, I can't wait to just trot off into the jungle and start killing people. It'll be like the Boy Scout outings of my youth, except with no parents and bigger guns.
We're also supposed to get a new Grand Theft Auto next fall, and hopefully Rockstar North will return to form alongside the Metal Gear team. Plenty of gamers loved Manhunt, but I was not one of them -- regardless of what you think of its violence, it's painfully-scripted retrograde step in comparison to the freedom we all loved in GTAIII and Vice City. If the next GTA can spend more time in testing, stomping out the kinds of bugs that made Vice City such a pain in the neck, Rockstar should have a shot at the Game of the Year honors that seem to keep eluding it.
One big franchise it seems like we won't see much of next year is Final Fantasy, though. After Crystal Chronicles hits in February, word is we won't see Final Fantasy XII come to the United States until 2005. That suits me well enough, though, because I'm more stoked to play Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, especially if Square Enix does the courtesy of localizing the full-blown Director's Cut version of the game. I love tri-Ace's realtime battle system, enough that I'm willing to ignore the painfully blah character designs (what's up with that, anyway, after they did such gorgeous work with Valkyrie Profile?). It'll be a nice change to get an RPG that's actually fun to play, not just fun to watch.
Meanwhile, on the nichey nerd games front, SNK will hopefully continue on the comeback trail next year. This one was a bit rocky -- the animation cuts in KOF 2000/2001 are so 1994 it's untrue -- but next year we've presumably got a new Metal Slug, KOF 2002, Samurai Spirits Zero, possibly KOF 2003 (which is looking ultra-swank with the beefed up animation and new character artwork), and other good stuff besides. We might even get to finally play that stupid Game Boy Advance Metal Slug, unless that gets delayed into the next decade two weeks before release.
The faster SNK's games come out on consoles, the better, because it will help me ward off a dangerous impulse I've been feeling these days. I once owned two arcade cabinets, a Neo 29 and a Super Neo Candy 29, back in the days when I had a lot of office space and too much disposable income. They both got sold when I lost my job early this year, but now that I'm back on my feet with money to spend, I'm feeling the itch again -- I'm looking at rigs like Sega's gorgeous Blast City cabinet, or the slick new two-legged Net City sitdowns, and I'm wondering whether it might not be worth it to own my own Naomi board. I could build my own collection of Cave shooters, too -- $400 isn't too much for Do Don Pachi Black Label, right?
Somebody stop me before I do something dangerous.
(Note: A picture of the beautiful Blast City can be found here.)
Best of 2003
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando
Nippon Ichi's debut
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Good GBA games
PS2 budget explosion
Depressed of 2003
Decline of Sega
Movies pissing on the industry
Gregory Horror Show cancelled
No SMT III localization
No lie: it took me about two hours to come up with five things I loved about 2003. Part of that was an inability to concentrate due to the onset of a head cold, but part of that was a generally blase year. What I'm about to say isn't meant as a slight on , a game I like a whole lot, but its status as potential Game of the Year seemed weird even back when it was gaining steam as Best of E3. It just seemed like everyone was waiting for "the" game, and fell back on PoP as "a" game when it was clear that none would be forthcoming. (If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned it here, it's because I've already talked to death on the subject.)
And anyway, I like the new Ratchet & Clank so much that it's tied for my GOTY affections with Prince of Persia. The first R&C was a very solid game, but this one really seems like something special. I like adventure games, platformers, and RPGs, and this is some kind of ideal adventure-platformer-RPG fusion. I feel like they made it just for me.
Also pleasing from my point of view: the ascendance (such as it is) of Nippon Ichi, developers of this year's surprise hit Disgaea. Surprise to most people, anyway: I've been a fan of the company since Rhapsody (though I couldn't exactly tell you why), so it was good to see them get another chance in the U.S. with a better game. Doubly good is the way their newfound success over here has led to a scramble to pick up their other projects: La Pucelle, the strategy RPG they made right before Disgaea, already has a distributor, and odds are someone will come forward any day now with the rights to their next one, Phantom Brave. Even their PSone puzzle game, Jigsaw Madness, has gotten a U.S. release... though that was last year, so it doesn't really have to do with anything else.
Unfortunately, for every game I was excited to see come to the US, there were two more we didn't get: specifically, Shin Megami Tensei III and Gregory Horror Show. It was something of a slim hope for both -- I was as confused as anyone when Capcom briefly had plans to release GHS here -- but at the same time, both had some merit and would probably have done respectably in the U.S. marketplace. (It's worth noting that there's still some hope for SMT III; a recent re-release in Japan added both the subtitle "Maniax" and the character of Dante from Devil May Cry. Could be that a more recognizable face will get the game over the approval hump.)
I'm the PS2 editor, but of course I play other things too, and this year my secondary system of choice was a handheld. I'm not sure if it was a sudden spate of good games or just the ability to see what I'm playing that made me break out my GBA so much more this year, but I did. The rewards were many: Wario Ware, Aria of Sorrow, Metroid Fusion, FF Tactics Advance, Mario & Luigi, Mario Advance 4... whether I was playing on my GB Player or my SP, it was a pretty good year for the GBA.
It wasn't all gravy, mind: the GBA Space Channel 5 port left something to be desired (why would you take the style and music out of a game that's all about style and music?), and come to think of it, so did much of Sega's output for 2003. There was a bright spot here and there like Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, but the majority of their titles this year were more like Virtual On Marz. Hopefully, Sonic Heroes in January can kickstart a better 2004 for them, but if the rumors about new partner Sammy's insistence on Atomiswave-powered arcade games is true, I'm a little worried. To be fair, as D.F. Smith pointed out, I'm talking about Sega's quality sliding here -- their financial situation is actually improving, which is why he can talk about them "bouncing back" at the same time I'm lamenting their decline.
That same dichotomy between financial and creative success was obvious to anyone following movie-licensed games this year. Enter the Matrix, widely panned as one of the buggiest ("worst" is debatable in a year with Fugitive Hunter) games to come out in 2003, nevertheless sold millions of copies on the strength of the movie license. Then, too, when the new Tomb Raider movie failed, Paramount shrugged and blamed it on the game -- did anyone actually believe this? There's a lot going around right now about how the gaming industry is more profitable than the movie business, but this year was an uncomfortable reminder that Hollywood can still foist whatever it wants off on games, when it so chooses.
If there's one more thing that characterized 2003, it was the year that the online wars really heated up. (Except for GameCube owners, who might get their second online game in 2004. Maybe.) This could really go down as either a Best or Worst entry; on the one hand, Xbox Live 2.0 made the system a better value than ever with its tight, consistent implementation of online features in concert with the HDD. On the other hand, the open, free-for-all model that Sony has built enticed EA to restrict their online features to their PS2 versions, to say nothing of Activision keeping all the great Tony Hawk's Underground online features for Sony's system.
There are pluses and minuses either way, but in the end, I sort of wish Live didn't exist. MS's proprietary (and probably lucrative) network is cool, but it kills the idea of ever having cross-system online play -- Sonic Team originally considered implementing such a thing between the GC and Xbox versions of Phantasy Star Online, but nixed the idea due to issues with incompatible networks. Final Fantasy XI, on the other hand, will already have a thriving userbase of PC players to interact with when the PS2 version drops, and in my heart I think that's the superior approach.
Looking forward to in 2004
Sega 3D Ages
Return of horror
D.F. Smith is right about all the great games in the works for next year; for me, it's all about Snake Eater (duh) and Psychonauts. Double Fine's Xbox platformer has been delayed a lot now, which can sometimes spell trouble, but I have faith in them to deliver something amazing when they do get around to it.
As far as general trends go, the thing I'm more excited about in 2004 is a spate of interesting new horror games, after a somewhat lackluster year for them. The Suffering should be one of the most aptly-rated Mature games to come down the pike, with loads of profanity and violence all in the services of its atmosphere and chilling story, not just for its own sake. There are rumblings of new entry in my favorite horror series, Silent Hill, on the horizon (one of the voice actors on the project already spilled the beans) and the original Silent Hill creators will have Siren out in the U.S. next year, according to some. Even Resident Evil is interesting again with Outbreak, a game that takes away your superpowered heroes but leaves the zombies, and RE 4, which completely overhauls the series with -- at last! -- full polygonal backgrounds and proper control.
Speaking of horror, the Golden Axe remake is actually coming out here, along with the rest of the Sega 3D Ages games. As someone who never really got into the original Phantasy Star games -- I tried with the PS Collection, but managed to forget where I was and what I was doing after taking a monthlong break -- I'm especially looking forward to a new version of Phantasy Star, with new graphics, a new translation, and (most importantly) new gameplay balance.
Editor, XBOX.1UP.COM, POCKET.1UP.COM
Best of 2003
Spunky small developers
Almost no major release disappointed
Dozens of good reasons to own any console
The GBA SP
A more "movie-like" industry
Depressed of 2003
Dead small developers
Almost no major release launched on time
Depression in Japan
The holiday game glut
A more "movie-like" industry
This time of year is the season for bounenkai in Japan -- drinking bashes between friends set up to help "forget the year" that just passed (as the term literally means). It's a chance to unwind, to be frank with your buddies, to drink enough 100-yen whiskey sours to send you under the table and out like a light for the rest of the evening... Japan's version of the good old office Christmas party, in other words.
There are parts of the game industry right now, I'm sure, that would very much like to forget about 2003 -- wishing it had never happened, or praying for some sort of divine intervention that would give them "do-overs" for the entire year. It's been a brutal one for some companies, but a decent one for others -- EA crowned itself the King of All Third Parties, Microsoft learned how to release good Xbox games, and Sony sat back and watched as consumers bought millions of PS2s all year. To gamers, though, 2003 couldn't have disappointed anyone, console or PC, once all was said and done. Too many great things happened for that.
Really, 2003 seemed like the year when U.S. publishers dropped the politics and simply concentrated on pumping out top titles faster than the government pumps oil out of Alaska. Save for a few standout pieces of crap (I'm looking at you, Enter the Matrix), no top-tier releases completely missed the mark once they hit store shelves. Zelda: The Wind Waker was beautiful and moving, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was vast and addictive, and Prince of Persia forced me to rethink my opinions on movie-inspired presentation in games. Even the no-name titles this year floored me -- games like Disgaea, Metal Arms and Wario Ware that came out of nowhere and kept me engaged for hours. (I'd put Whiplash in there, too, but people look at me funny when I tell them it's a fun platformer. It is, by the way. Really.)
Things were even better on the hardware end. The industry got its Christmas wish early with Nintendo's surprise launch of the Game Boy Advance SP last March -- I can't imagine playing portable games with anything else now. Nearly all of Microsoft's top titles were delayed to next year (again), but the company's Xbox output was still the best seen so far -- with luck, the days of Kung Fu Chaos and Tao Feng are behind us for good. The GameCube found itself with a major street-cred problem as the year wore on, but you still can't deny that Nintendo's lineup -- which began with Zelda and ended with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! -- is worth the $100 outlay on the console all by itself.
So, all in all, a great year for gaming. But was it a great one for the industry? That's what I'm not so sure about -- and that may be why many of the company parties I've attended this month felt less like Christmas bashes and more like bounenkai.
To get an idea of what direction the game business moved in 2003, it might be worth looking at the state of the industry over in Japan, the origin of the console cycle we know and love today. Simply put, it's seen better days. The rise of the PS2 and GameCube forced companies to devote more time and money to every title they release -- and if a title fails in the marketplace, that company could face the risk of extinction. These stakes are too high for small developers, so they either leave the industry or merge into bigger companies. Japan saw this happen no less than three times in 2003: Square and Enix merged, Sammy took control of Sega after an embarrassing takeover drama, and a venture firm called Marvelous Entertainment bought out nearly half a dozen independent console developers.
This consolidation could be seen as natural evolution -- it happens in nearly every industry as it grows and matures. But the Japanese market is actually shrinking: casual gamers are abandoning consoles for other forms of entertainment, and the hardcore base of game fans isn't expanding to cover them. The end result: these merged publishers stick with safe bets like sequels and games based on licensed characters. It creates a poor environment for new games -- nobody, from developers to publishers to retailers, wants to risk their profits on something new.
Now, think about this: Could this same vicious cycle ever occur in America? To some extent, it's already happening. Almost every top-tier game in 2003 was a sequel of some sort, and many of those games already have sequels of their own in the works. There are so many of these sequels, in fact, that original titles -- especially those from smaller publishers -- have trouble getting a chance to excel in the marketplace. In short, the game industry's becoming more like the movie industry than may be good for it -- games are selling on name, not on content.
What can companies do about this? Well, first off, stop releasing all your top-tier games around Thanksgiving -- you're cannibalizing sales from each other. Secondly, don't overly rely on known properties -- for every Madden or Tony Hawk that excels every year, there's a Quarterback Club or GameDay that drove itself into an early grave. Most importantly, though: concentrate on fun, original games. Don't take the easy path. It's the best hope for the industry's future growth.
...I sort of fell into soapbox mode there. My apologies. Another whiskey sour, please.
Looking forward to in 2004
The Xbox breaks free -- we mean it this time
Sequels, sequels, sequels
The next generation, already
The PSP -- and Nokia trying again?
Nintendo still stands alone
As mentioned earlier, 2004 is already starting to look just as sequel-laden as 2003 was -- perhaps even more so. Although we'll have to wait till E3 in May for most of the announcements, it suffices to say that nearly every top property that's ripe for a sequel has one in the making right now. (There are some unexpected sequels in the works, too, which will be great news for fans of certain critically-acclaimed console titles.)
Dave already mentioned Star Ocean and the new GTA, but I'm wondering more about Square Enix's next releases in Japan: Final Fantasy XII and (if we're lucky) Dragon Quest VIII. FFXII looks great, of course, and I'm sure Mr. Matsuno is doing a fine job directing it, but I can't wait to find out more on DQVIII -- now that the series has decent visuals, it may finally be time for Japan's most popular RPG to become a worldwide hit.
2004 will also be noted as the year when the Xbox finally -- finally -- realizes its true potential, and I really really mean it this time. If this year's cavalcade of online addiction machines turned me into an Xbot, then Fable, Ninja Gaiden, Halo 2, Sudeki, Psychonauts, and maybe that new Oddworld game will turn me into a red crusader for the Church of Ed Fries. Assuming they all don't get shunted to 2005, of course. You never know.
Microsoft's lineup better not be delayed any more, though, because it's already time for the next generation. Didn't you hear? The subtle signs are already there -- you just need to peer into help-wanted ads for development companies hard enough. I sincerely doubt we'll see any truly new console before November 2005, but the specs could start leaking out as early as next spring. Then there's that new "device" from Nintendo, which could be a console, or a cell phone, or a holographic game system, or an ice cream maker, or any of a thousand things -- either way, it'll be at E3, and no sooner.
The single device I'm most psyched up for next year, though, is the PSP. I know it will probably be expensive and eat batteries like my cousin Billy eats cookies, but it will finally bring the portable scene kicking and screaming into the 21st century -- whether Nintendo likes it or not. Nokia claims that their N-Gage is in a different market from Sony's device, but who are they kidding? Nokia's market is nobody right now -- if they put out a new N-Gage that was actually designed with games in mind, I think they could turn their fortunes around quicker than many gamers would think. It could become the most heated hardware competition since the good ol' days of PlayStation versus Saturn. I can't wait.
I also can't wait for Whiplash 2, but 25 years of living has taught me that the world isn't fair sometimes. It's really good! I swear! At least try it when it's $20, okay?
Best of 2003
Prince of Persia
Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Depressed of 2003
Limited GameCube Online
Third Parties Drop GC Ports
Enter The Matrix
Metal Slug 5
It was a good year for games, with many high quality releases ranging from sequels (Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, Zelda: The Wind Waker) to franchise revivals (Prince of Persia, Pac-Man vs.) to surprisingly nice original titles (Metal Arms). There was no one standout game universally seen as the best game of the year -- Prince of Persia comes close -- which I see as a good thing, since the attention stays on a variety of games instead of the one hot "must have" one.
Nintendo and Namco managed to sneak in a great music game in Japan with Donkey Konga that I hope makes its way over to the U.S. soon. What other game lets you play music alongside a dancing ape? Besides Samba de Amigo...
When SNK announced their take on the crossover fighting game series for arcades with SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, I was excited, and with a character roster including the likes of Earthquake from the early Samurai Shodown games, it seemed like a dream come true. Then I played the game, and found it to be...boring. Who would've thought a game where you can play as the Mars People from Metal Slug as hidden fighters would be boring? Not me.
In the news, I was most disappointed by the lack of GameCube online games and the worsening third party support for the system. Nintendo's company line is that they don't support online games because they are not profitable -- that statement essentially concedes that online games are creatively a good place to go, but Nintendo is too cheap to make it happen. Microsoft may be losing money, but as an end user, I appreciate that. On the third party side, I don't mind GC owners missing out on junk like Celebrity Deathmatch, but with games like Driv3r skipping the system, it's disappointing.
Finally, I need to be clear on the Metal Slug choice -- I don't hate the game, but I have to be hard on it since I love the series so much. It feels too much like a rush job with recycled backgrounds and a lack of creativity, and is thus a disappointment.
Looking forward to in 2004
Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Plus
Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow
Sammy vs. Capcom
The GameCube version of Four Swords may not be a full new Zelda game (graphically, at least), but I can't see myself not enjoying it. I'll force those three annoying kids who live downstairs from me to help play through it, and it will be great. Even if it's just a slightly altered version of the GBA game, I'll enjoy it.
Killer 7 is a more risky game to anticipate since we really don't know much about it and aren't sure if it will even come out in 2004 (though my guess is it will), but a game that looks distinct and original is a good sign, and the story of playing through different personalities offers plenty of possibilities.
Pandora Tomorrow would probably be on my list if there weren't even any multiplayer modes -- but there are and they look amazing. I can't wait to try out the spies and mercenaries as they battle each other with incredibly detailed tactics. I was a sucker for the story of the original game, as well, so I want to see where they take that and what situations Sam Fisher has to get himself out of this time around.
Halo 2 is almost too obvious a choice to even deserve mentioning, but I won't let that stop me. With a gun in each hand and the ability to hijack vehicles, this one has the potential to be as popular as the first one continues to be.
Given my fondness for both the Street Fighter and Guilty Gear series', I can't help but toss Sammy vs. Capcom in here, despite not knowing much about the game besides that it might offer Street Fighter characters drawn in high resolution. For a 2D graphics nut, that's enough.
Best of 2003
Combination of Wario Ware and booze
The Sands of Time was anything but The Sands of Suck
Half-Life 2 didn't come out, so I still have a primitive social life
Underground created a renewed appreciation for Hot Pursuit 2
Xbox Live was neat
Depressed of 2003
The watching of two Matrix films and the playing of one Matrix game
My Xboxes are now incapable of running anything, ever
Still no Poker RPGs of note
Deus Ex: An Average Console Game on PC
Writing depressing year-end articles no one will read
I hate doing this so much I'm presently wondering if anyone would actually notice if I just cut and pasted a few paragraphs from the Reverend's piece and slapped them atop some choice offerings from Nich's. Maybe to hide my flagrant plagiarism I could tack on an Oedipus Rex thesis I found buried in a drawer at home? It's from high school and stinks of the arrogant malcontent I used to be, but it does have some cute girl writing on it, no doubt a result of brazen note passing mid-class.
Man, those were the days. One note with one elaborate heart in place of a dotted "I" was all I needed to endure the rest of the week. Now I read through the submissions of my colleagues and a flood of illegible user spam and I feel a little sad.
Most people I know seem aptly focused on single products, pieces of hardware, or news stories of note. I don't care about any of that crap. When asked to look back on 2003 and expound, the first thing I thought of was the experience of the year... I thought of the joy of importing and unwrapping Soul Calibur II, even though it turned out to be just Soul Calibur I. I remembered the thrill of slamming a door in the face of my ex-boss and friend Peer in a heated Rainbow Six 3 match and then laying down forty high caliber rounds right into his chest. I recalled seeing Prince of Persia pre-E3 with friends over drinks and knowing with absolute certainty that it was why I loved games in the first place. I also remembered not caring one bit about inevitable Half-Life delays and other such things. It's the experience I love, the experience I look back on.
These moments, more than any one single product or announcement were what made 2003 such a tolerable year for me. I thought about submitting an arbitrary list of games, but who really cares?
Looking forward to in 2004
Given the sad state of my forward looking best of, I'm obviously not the optimist I perhaps should be. As I see it, every year in gaming is nearly identical to the last. Maybe if we're lucky some stupid piece of hardware will come out that developers have no idea how to take advantage of till five years down the line and then some more unsurprising games can come out after that. Yay.
Strangely enough, 2004 should prove to be even worse than the norm. Instead of actual hardware being released or exploited, the industry will be flooded with a mass of perfunctory paper launches filled with all the choice hype those bulletin board infesting morons you always hear us speak so ill of long for. Ooh, and PS3 will drive my car and neutralize potential threats to my homestead, eh? Yeah right. I'm still reeling from the fact that my N64 was not the Silicon Graphics Onyx it was promised to be.
It's going to be awful. Giddy fanboys will jump and holler and throw out collective chants of murderous rage like soccer hooligans at a losing Manchester United match when Sony and Microsoft both proudly announce that they can render 18 more polygons at a higher fillrate. No one should care, yet everyone will. These useless specification sheets at GDC, E3, or later are going to give me a real headache. After that I can already see every one of my meetings ending with, "Yeah, and we're also looking at developing this turn-based strategy / economic management sim on the PS3." Just shut up.
My only relief, oddly enough, likely won't come from our DOOMs and Half-Lifes and Far Crys and Relic developed Warhammer RTS games. Instead, I see solace in Fable and Jade Empire, assuming they launch in a timely fashion. Fable I look forward to simply because I'm one to fall prone to the many trappings of real-time fantasy medieval combat, especially since my choices can effect the outcome of a world or a farm or some such nonsense. And Jade Empire I long for because BioWare has never disappointed. Any RPG that company makes is assured a place in my library. The fact that it too will incorporate a more developed real-time 3D combat system analogous to a cross between Dead or Alive, Deadly Alliance and Buffy, makes me super happy. Still, I imagine I'll have to crank the headphones pretty loud to keep myself from hearing the latest in obscure Japanese news and releases I care absolutely nothing about and the way Snake Eater is so totally rad now that his sequel is coming to PS3.
Ah well, I suppose next year can't be worse than this one. At least there will be far less Matrix crap for me to want to punch people in the face over.
I don't know what things were like where you're from, but on my planet this was definitely the year the GameBoy Advance came into its own. Not only did Nintendo see fit to finally provide us with (not one, but) two pieces of hardware that actually make the system's games playable, but the system's games were undeniably worth playing. Between stellar sequels like Castlevania Aria of Sorrow, neo-classics like Ninja Five-O and uncategorizably brilliant inventions such as Wario Ware, no system demanded more playtime this year than the little handheld that keeps Nintendo's boat afloat. Especially when you compare it ounce-for-ounce with, say, Xbox.
It's a shame, then, that the GBA wasn't accorded much respect by the general gaming media. I can understand the N-Gage being reamed by the press, since it was the mostly poorly-conceived and designed system since Virtual Boy, but the GBA deserved more love than it got. It wasn't hated, mind you, simply ignored (Splinter Cell as "best handheld game" on the Spike TV awards being a shining example of the media's remarkable retardation on the matter). This neglect was a real tragedy, especially when you consider that GBA was the system this year for RPGs and tactical RPGs. Not to mention side-scrolling platformers and Poke-clones.
PS2 had its fair share of top-notch RPGs, too. Although the genre was pretty thin this year, the few games we received really pushed the boundaries of conformity. It was nice to see the latest chapters in two rather stagnant series -- Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter and Final Fantasy X-2 -- completely disregard things like "precedent" and "fan expectations" and rise above the rest by virtue of being completely different takes on old ideas. What was really nice was that they worked.
I'm just sad that Xenosaga Episode One sold well enough to justify a sequel. I suppose I bear some responsibility for that, as I bought a copy. I apologize.
Come to think of it, 2003 was just as much the year of the sequel as it was the year of the handheld. I can only think of a handful of worthwhile games to be released this year that weren't somehow affiliated with established franchises, and that worries me a bit. But I suppose as long as the games continue to display as much originality as Prince of Persia or the sheer quality of Wind Waker, it's hard to be too cynical. And that handful of quality original titles -- Disgaea, for instance -- helps keep things fresh.
If I were to pick my five favorite games of 2003, my selections would be:
Wario Ware: Mega Microgame$
Time Crisis 3
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The Simpsons Hit & Run (no, really)
Unfortunately, math isn't my forte, so it's probably just as well that I don't have to choose.
My outlook for 2004 is a little grim, since it seems networked gaming will be the big deal. Kicking and screaming will we antisocial types be dragged into the future. But in the short term, Metroid: Zero Mission and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes look promising. Granted, they're both remakes, but sometimes living in the past isn't so bad. Besides, publishers don't trot out their big guns until E3 or thereabouts, so until then it's all vague and nebulous anyway.
In the longer term, I'm eager to see Final Fantasy XII in action, seeing as director Yasumi Matsuno is a complete genius who I believe may well be genetically incapable of creating a bad game; and I'm dying to learn more about Sony's PSP. The fact that their portable PlayStation will focus on optical technology rather than maximizing the potential of Sony's incredibly Memory Stick technology is disappointing (if played right, Memory Stick media could conceivably make Nintendo's efforts at promoting connectivity look
like fumbling amaterism). Even so, for a handheld gaming junkie like me, the PSP is still incredibly promising. Plus, it will undoubtedly goad Nintendo into pushing forward with their own handheld efforts. Maybe they could start by giving us a completely original handheld Mario game...?
Best of 2003
Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter
Soul Calibur II
Lara Croft comes to America
Depressed of 2003
Major game delays
Medal of Honor: Rising Sun
Decline of Sega
Enter The Matrix
Game industry depression in Japan
As Dave already so succinctly wrote, 2003 was a rather odd year, what with all the major game delays. Half-Life 2, Halo 2, Ninja Gaiden, Gran Turismo 4 -- all were originally slated to do their part in making 2003 one of gaming's greatest years ever. Instead, each one eventually got bumped to 2004 and we were left with a year with no clear, massive hit (you know, in the realm of a Halo or Grand Theft Auto).
Or so it would seem. There is one major game that 2003 ought to be remembered for: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Because it was released so early in the year, the game essentially dropped off the radar. This shouldn't be the case, though – Wind Waker was truly a masterpiece, and one that should be played by all. Hopefully it still fared well this holiday season.
But as Dave also mentioned, there was a plus side to all of these delays. Without Half-Life 2 or Gran Turismo 4 on everyone's mind, games like Prince of Persia, Metal Arms and Need for Speed: Underground got the attention they deserved. Though in the case of Prince, sales have yet to reflect this, unfortunately. Let's hope word continues to spread on the game, as it's truly something special.
Even with game delays, this holiday season was still too crowded, and certain games naturally got lost in the shuffle. Beyond Good & Evil was a prime example. Great game. One of my favorites of this year. But with everything else released this holiday season, would it top my list? Probably not. And when you're not one of the top games in a given month, it's easy to get forgotten. I can't help but wonder if the game could have benefited from being held until February or March (this was actually an idea Ubisoft apparently toyed with -- too bad it didn't happen).
I was glad to see the EyeToy released, even if it's something I personally haven't felt the need to play yet. It's a pretty cool gadget, and props to Sony for innovating. I'm curious to see what Sony will do with it next, though. In my mind, the next step to really get American gamers to pick the thing up is just to get some licenses behind it. A Star Wars light saber battle game makes all kinds of sense; so does a Harry Potter magic spells game. I'm more curious about Sony's long term vision for it, though. Word has it PS3 may have something like the EyeToy built right in -- wouldn't that be interesting?
If there was one game that I was most disappointed with this year, it had to have been Medal of Honor: Rising Sun. It's not that the game is horrible -- far from it, actually (I enjoyed it far more than most of the other Ziff Davis crew). But it was quite obvious that Rising Sun was a total rush job -- the first time I played it (a production copy on a production PS2, mind you), it crashed three minutes in. That's totally unacceptable, especially for EA. And in general, the whole thing was filled with bugs, levels were all over the place, and the AI was lacking.
I am anxiously awaiting Rising Sun 2, though. Having spent the day with the MOH crew earlier this year, I was told that Rising Sun 1 was actually just training ground for part 2; that part 2 was actually the real game they were trying to make. (This was said before Rising Sun 1 was released, so you don't have to dismiss this as blatant PR fluff). In fact, the best story elements and action sequences (aside from Pearl Harbor) were actually saved for part 2. I'm excited.
Oh, and some of the best news all year had to have been the passing of the Lara Croft torch from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics. After years of watching the franchise slowly disintegrate, this is the best thing Eidos could have done. Say what you will about the original Tomb Raider, it was genre-defining and it was an amazing experience (in its time). I'd love to see the franchise return to greatness.
Looking forward to in 2004
Console Call of Duty
Metroid Prime 2
I can already feel it: 2004 is going to rock. In the first few months alone we're going to see Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and Gran Turismo 4. What a great way to kick things off.
But believe it or not, I'm actually more excited about the new hardware than the games in 2004. PSP has me especially psyched. As long as it's not insanely priced, this could be something truly revolutionary for the industry. I love my GBA, but I think it's time for a more mature handheld -- something that also employs many of the other technologies of today. I can't wait to see what sort of games are on display at E3. I've heard Sony has just as many internal teams working on PSP games as PS2 titles. SCEE is especially all over it. Heard the rumors of a Wipeout for PSP? I'd bet on it. Lots of other publishers are excited, too. EA is fully behind PSP, so expect the regulars (Madden, Need for Speed, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.) to be ready for next fall. And even though other companies like Square have yet to officially announce development, you better believe they have things in the works.
Then there's Nintendo, who will also be revealing something or other at E3. Will it be a new console? A new handheld system? Who knows? I'm definitely intrigued, though. Whatever it ends up being, I'd still love to see Nintendo release a handheld GameCube at some point. Think about it: the GC's media is already perfectly suited for a handheld. And the hardware is now cheap enough for something like this. With a massive library already built up, this could be the perfect way for Nintendo to breathe new life into the GameCube platform as well as to combat Sony's PSP. I'd sure buy one.
As for Microsoft, I wouldn't be surprised if they start talking about Xbox 2 at E3. There's no doubt about it, Microsoft wants to beat Sony to the punch in the next console race, so it might kick things off in May. The interesting thing is, Nintendo and Sony are also apparently ready to start talking, should one of the others jump the gun. Who will be first is the question, I guess.
Getting back to games, though, I'm really interested to see Call of Duty on the consoles. If you remember, a good chunk of the Medal of Honor team (23 members, to be exact) left to go work on this game. After seeing the incredible PC title, I have complete faith the console iteration.
Another game I'm excited about is Bond: Everything or Nothing. EA's recent titles have really impressed me with their production values, but this one really takes things to a new level. Having all of the real-life stars providing voice-overs and likenesses adds so much, and once you hear Mya's new Bond theme song, you'll be convinced.
Finally, I'm really, really looking forward to Metroid Prime 2. We haven't heard much on the sequel lately (hopefully it's all on schedule still), so I can't wait for Nintendo to start showing it off. Metroid Prime 1 just blew me away – I really didn't think Retro could pull it off. But they did, and it went down as one of my favorite games of all time. Here's hoping Retro can surprise me once again.
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in 1UP.