It seems like every gaming site has their own “Best of the Year” lists, but here at Racketboy, we will be taking a look at the best new games of 2007 that focus either focus on old-school gameplay or are remakes of classic games.
With high-powered portables and game downloading services on all the new consoles, there have been a flurry of excellent retro releases in 2007. Since there were so many, I ran a poll that let Racketboy readers vote on what games should actually be featured. (Check out the original nominees and the voting count) The voting turnout was great, so if you don’t see you favorite game listed here, you can’t blame me. In addition to the top ten selections of the year, I’ve also features three other gems that deserve a bit more attention.
Contra 4 (DS)
One of the most hardcore old-school franchises has returned with a fresh installment that completely lived up to fans expectations. As the name implies, Contra 4 is a direct sequel to Contra III: Alien Wars from the SNES in terms of both storyline and gameplay. This was quite an undertaking considering that Contra III is usually regarded as the best in the series. As usual, the difficulty level in this Contra installment will punish you, but you’ll love every minute of it (There are three difficulty settings, but even “Easy” will challenge most gamers).
Of course there are some changes to the Contra formula in this installment. The most obvious change is using both of the screens on the DS to display the battlefield for gameplay. There are also two new gameplay mechanics as well. The new grappling hook enables your Contra soldier to grab onto power lines on the top screen and pull himself up. There is also a two-tiered weapon system that allows players to combine two weapons into a super weapon. (This reminds me a bit of Gunstar Heroes) This concept puts more of a focus on weapon management and strategy.
After playing the game for a while, it is quite obvious that Contra 4 is essentially a 20th Anniversary gift to fans of the series. There are numerous callbacks to previous Contra games, and the game delivers in practically every way to live up to the high standards set by the 16-bit Contras.
Contra 4 even has unlockable NES versions of the original Contra and the ultra-challenging Super C. With those included, it goes without saying that Contra 4 will keep even the most hardcore shooter fan occupied for quite a while.
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP)
When this Castlevania release was announced, fans couldn’t help but get excited. The Castlevania series is filled with many great installments, but two games stand out above the rest, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night. While Symphony of the Night was widely available on the Playstation, Rondo of Blood, up until now, was only available as a Japan-only release on the relatively obscure PC-Engine Super CD platform.
In this “compilation” you only start out with the modernized remake of Rondo of Blood. However, after completing it, you have access to the original version of the game in addition to an enhanced “hybrid” version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This new version of Symphony of the Night utilizes elements from the Playstation and Sega Saturn versions of the game and combines them with some entirely new additions like some redrawn sprites and a completely new English dub that is more satisfactory than the original.
Much like with Contra 4, Dracula X Chronicles is downright hard. In fact, the remake of Rondo of Blood is actually more difficult that the original release. Although, who ever played a Castlevania game to enjoy a cakewalk?
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (XBLA)
No, you’re not experiencing déjà vu. The XBox Live Arcade release of Castlevania actually followed remarkably close to its PSP sibling in this year’s voting, but who can blame you for liking this game. Its combination of exploration, RPG elements, and vampire slashing makes it a favorite amongst old-school gamers.
The XBox Live Arcade release of this classic was the first game to break the service’s 50MB size limit and set a new standard for the quality of classic games that could be found as XBLA downloads. Symphony of the Night already looked phenomenal on the Playstation, but it received a touch up for the 360 with HD visuals, better sound effects, less pixilation, and reduced slowdowns. Of course, 360 junkies are all about their Achievements and Symphony of the Night has a number of interesting challenges to bring new life to this game for veteran players.
Symphony of the Night was also released as a download on the Playstation Network that could be played on the PS3 or PSP, but it was a straightforward PS1 conversion as opposed to the enhanced port that the 360 was privileged to.
Next to Contra, Metal Slug seems to be the run-and-gun of choice. It mixes intense shooting action with screen-filling bosses in an experience which is intensely thrilling from beginning to end. It’s not quite as intimidating as Contra and has a more fun-loving art style, but it can still give you a challenge as the game progresses.
This SNK franchise has had a long and successful career, and now it is easy and affordable to have the first seven Metal Slug installments on one disc. Yes, Metal Slug Anthology for both the Playstation 2 and the Wii includes Metal Slug, Metal Slug 2, Metal Slug X, Metal Slug 3, Metal Slug 4, Metal Slug 5, and Metal Slug 6.
The Wii version offers a number of [gimmicky] control options that makes various uses of the Wii-mote, but you can still use a Gamecube controller or the Wii Classic Controller for your traditional control scheme.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (Wii Virtual Console)
Even though Super Mario Bros. 3 was an incredible game, I still find it interesting that it beat out newer, high-quality games (including a new Zelda game) in this year’s voting. But I guess you can’t blame Nintendo fans – Super Mario Bros 3 is still one of the best platforming games of all time (especially in 2D).
Mario 3 features eight colorful worlds, each of which contained numerous levels. Nearly every level presented a flawless degree of challenge and the adventure itself was long and varied. Nintendo fine-tuned its skill at creating a fun-filled presentation with tons of hidden secrets to be found leaving players with an amazing ride from beginning to end.
Between the high nostalgia factor and killer gameplay, Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of the most desired and affordable games for the Wii’s Virtual Console. Even if you emulate your NES games, Super Mario Bros. 3 is good enough and to pay the low price to have it on your Wii.
Odin Sphere (PS2)
Odin Sphere truly stole the show this year in terms of pure two-dimensional beauty. This spiritual successor to Sega Saturn cult classic, Princess Crown, features hand-drawn artwork and animations that are possibly the best to ever show up in a two-dimensional console game. It really looks like a storybook that is worthy to be framed in a prestigious art gallery. The monsters throughout Odin Sphere are very large and detailed, the animation is fluid, and the backgrounds are epic.
Odin Sphere’s gameplay primarily consists of unique hack-and-slash combat sequences with story bits between levels and before boss fights. The combat is similar to many 2D fighting games, and while it can be played with lots of button mashing, some finesse is required for advanced play. Some of the battles, especially the boss fights, can be very challenging and require the player to use precision control to progress. The player also has a spell system and damage items to supplement the big combo attacks with a melee weapon.
Odin Sphere also features a few subtle gameplay elements that borrow heavily from modern Japanese RPGs. Being able to build up your characters experience, attacks, and health capabilities without feeling like a standard RPG definitely enhances the standard beatemup gameplay.
Vanillaware also came out with a real-time strategy game by the name of Grim Grimoire that has much of the same style and beauty as Odin Sphere, but it didn’t receive nearly as much hype or the number of votes for the Best of 2007.
Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (PSP)
The original Final Fantasy Tactics for the Playstation was one of the most involved and well-rounded strategy RPGs ever conceived. The previous portable Tactics installment on the GBA was a bit disappointing, but it looks like Square Enix got it right with The War of the Lions, which is an enhanced remake of the original.
The classic combat gameplay found in the original Tactics is intact for the most part, but new classes and multiplayer options (for both co-op and versus play) enhance the already-solid package.
As you can expect from a high-profile PSP game, The War of the Lions looks stunning on the handheld’s high-resolution screen. The gameplay artwork is pretty much identical to the original, but has a bit more polish. The cutscenes, however, are now beautifully illustrated with cell-shaded animations to give a modern storybook appearance. The 16:9 aspect ratio on the wide screen is also beneficial when surveying the battlefield in order to plan your next few moves.
When all is said and done, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is one of the best PSP games available for anyone interested in strategy or RPGs. Some may even consider it to be better than the original PS1 version.
Sin and Punishment (Wii Virtual Console)
This gem from Treasure may be one of the best N64 games of all time, but most gamers outside of Japan never got a change to play it. Until now Sin and Punishment was a rare import that was only known to the hardcore gamers that either imported the expensive cartridge or emulated the game. Now this amazing on-rails shooter has been updated for Virtual Console to include English menu and tutorial text, and English subtitles in the ending sequence.
Much like the rest of Treasure’s well-known shooters (such as Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier) Sin and Punishment is filled frenetic, high-energy action that keeps pulling you further into the game. Armed with a gun and a sword, you character continues along a path while you jump, double jump and roll to avoid obstacles and enemy attacks. Much like other on-rails shooters like Rez or Panzer Dragoon, you can manually shoot your weapon in different places or set it to lock on to enemies. The sword is primarily to be used for defense and deflection for those pesky missiles that can be bounced back with a well-timed melee strike.
Sin and Punishment is one of Treasure’s few 3D games, but as usual, the skilled development house pushed the N64 hardware to the max with some impressive visuals, massively detailed levels, intricate character and enemy models and, of course, action that will make you dizzy with excitement.
Phantom Hourglass was welcomed by many Zelda fans as it offered a pleasant balance of familiarity (the game is a direct sequel to Wind Waker) and innovation. You still wander through dungeons in search of keys and other goodies, but Nintendo keeps things interesting with the controls.
Phantom Hourglass depends heavily on the touch screen system as you must maneuver Link by dragging the stylus along the bottom screen, and fight by drawing quick slashes or circling him so he performs a spin attack. If that isn’t gimmicky enough, you can also draw a path for Link’s boomerang to travel and jot down notes on the map to help solve puzzles. Of course, some Zelda veterans may long for the traditional control scheme, but you really can’t make everyone happy.
The trademark boss battles are still to be found and can be quite exhilarating. The stylus control is shown off in these situations thanks to fresh attack patterns and ideas from the developers.
Since this is a sequel to Wind Waker, it has much of the same style. We’re almost cheating by including in this list as it has a lot of the same 3D feel, but it’s Zelda and most of your gamplay has an overhead view that is familiar to classic Zelda fans.
For the Zelda fans that are hesitant to change, there is little to fear, but much to look forward to in Phantom Hourglass. Even with the heavy use of DS-specific controls, fans can still feel at home with their beloved franchise.
Pac-Man Championship Edition (XBLA)
With original Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani at the project’s helm (his first time working on a Pac-Man title since the 1980 original), it is no surprise that Championship Edition is one of the most worthwhile installments of Pac-Man in quite a while. In addition to the obvious visual update for the 360’s HD capabilities, the game also offers many gameplay changes and enhancements to make both experts and newbies happy.
The goal is the same as it ever was: score the most points possible, however in PMCE, you gameplay is timed. You also have the tried-and-true formula of balancing risk versus reward. The original Pac-Man had an element of this: should you eat the blue ghosts after getting a power pellet or simply clear the rest of the dots and move to the next board? In PMCE, the answer is: you do both, but you do it by setting up chains of power-pellet-fueled ghost combos over the paths of the dots in the maze.
Unlike the static mazes of old, however, the mazes in PMCE are constantly shifting. The screen is divided into two halves. Clearing one side of dots will bring up a bonus item, which will then open up a new pattern of walls and dots on the other side when eaten. The process repeats with each new side getting more complex, filled with more and more dots and power pellets. Setting up strategies for your paths in real time is essential because every second spent traveling over black space instead of munching dots or ghosts is time wasted.
Hidden Gems of 2007
The Red Star (PS2)
This remarkable game actually received a healthy amount of votes, but I wanted to give some extra amount of attention to this title as it is a wonderful hybrid of genres that most old-school fans hold dear. (Especially since almost didn’t get released after three years of Acclaim’s bankruptcy mess)
The Red Star is a balanced mix of side-scrolling, combo-filled brawling and arcade-style shooting that keeps the action intense and varied throughout your adventure. Touches of RPG elements also give players the opportunity to upgrade their abilities depending on how well they fared in each level.
Considering its low-profile release, The Red Star is a highly-polished game, from the vivid 2.5D visuals to the well-paced difficulty level. Of course, having two-player co-op capabilities makes The Red Star even more enjoyable if you have some friends over. The bottom line is that if you have a PS2 and enjoy old-school games, you need to pick this game up.
Mountain of Faith (Windows)
In the danmaku shooting genre there are very few games are both exceptionally beautiful and a kick in the pants. And of those, there is only one series created solely by one man. Based out of an undisclosed area of Japan, Zun, formally known as Jun’ya Ota, creates masterpiece shmups in his free time – the newest of which is Mountain of Faith.
As you can see from the videos and screenshots, the game is stunningly beautiful, but may challenge the resources of aging PCs. There are a wide array of difficulty levels, from easy to lunatic, but the scoring system is more complicated than most shooters.
You can get through Mountain of Faith just fine by only collecting the red weapon powerups and the occasional blue point item, but the Faith Meter is the meat and potatoes of highscore runs. In short: if you don’t kill an enemy every five seconds your Faith Meter will empty and has to be refilled. In order to achieve the highest scores possible, you will need to chain the entire game without focusing and without using bombs (watch some of the boss fights on lunatic and you will see how this is can be a problem).
Providing a solid and very intense game you would be sorely disappointed shmup fan if you did not at least try the free demo.
This highly-anticipated side-scrolling adventure game was just barely released in 2007 after two years in development, but to many indie game fans, it was worth the wait. Aquaria was the grand prize winner of the Independent Games Festival and for good reason. In addition to the entrancing visuals and audio, Aquaria is filled with an engaging story, plenty of exploration and puzzles to solve, and some interesting role-playing elements added to the mix.
Due to the beautiful underwater environments and some of the gameplay mechanics, old-school Sega fans will find many similarities between Aquaria and the Ecco the Dolphin games on the Genesis/MegaDrive. However, Aquaria is unique in its own right and is innovative in its storytelling and gameplay. I especially enjoyed the exquisite voice narration that still allows you to play as the story unfolds (no more scrolling through text boxes) So far, Aquaria is only available on the PC, but a Mac version will be released shortly.