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One of my favorite things about this generation of consoles has been the explosion of downloadable games. Services like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare and Virtual Console provide unique, quality games at a (usually) great price point. Every now and then, a real gem arises and reminds people that you don’t have to have a AAA development budget to create a great game. There are an absolute ton of great games on XBLA right now, but I’ve whittled it down to the Top 10.
10. Limbo: One of the great things about XBLA is discovering a gem that may not have made it as a full retail release. PlayDead Studio’s haunting puzzle game Limbo was just such a game. The previously unknown developer delivered a smart, evocative and gripping title that instantly became a critical darling. With its clever puzzles, nightmarish visuals and interesting secrets, Limbo’s quality shocked us all, and now we eagerly await PlayDead’s follow-up. One thing for sure, it won’t be easy to match Limbo’s special magic, as it is a game that sticks with you long after you’ve beaten it.
9. Fez: There are smart puzzle games, and there is Fez. What starts off as an adorable perspective-swapping adventure quickly spirals into one of the most deviously well-constructed game worlds out there. Things are rarely what they seem in the world of Fez, with most people passing full puzzles by without even realizing they were there. Before you can find every last cube and anti-cube you will have had to decipher an entire language, crack a sophisticated in-game cipher and even pay some extra attention to the way your controller is vibrating. Good luck
8. Shadow Complex: If there is one genre that has sadly been left in the dust in the current generation, it’s the 2D platformer. Harkening back to the Metroidvania classics of old, Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex successfully combined the awesome elements of those games with a healthy dose of modern design and Nolan North. Hidden secrets requiring extensive exploration abound, puzzles and enemies are around every corner, and a variety of upgrades are available to help you in both combat and traversal. While the heyday of the 2D platformer may be over, Chair’s love letter to the genre is a reminder of why we loved them in the first place.
7. Mark of the Ninja: Another surprisingly good title from an unheralded developer, Mark of the Ninja blew mine (and apparently everyone else’s) mind with its incredible stealth gameplay, extensive customization options and intriguing story. Before the credits roll, you will have hidden numerous bodies, bypassed dozens of luckier henchmen, upgraded a number of abilities and made some very difficult choices in the narrative, a facet of the game that has not gotten enough recognition. If you are a fan of stealth games and have been lamenting the lack of quality titles in the genre lately, Mark of the Ninja is for you.
6. Bastion: Sometimes all it takes is a single idea to form the basis for a masterpiece. With Bastion, that idea was the dynamic narrator. Throughout your time with Bastion, a gravel-voiced storyteller narrates your entire experience, explaining what’s happening on-screen while filling in various story and background details. Thankfully, Bastion backs up this interesting concept with stellar visuals and top-notch gameplay chops. Numerous upgrades, weapons, magics, modifiers and passive bonuses are there to assist you in your journey, all of which culminates in one of the tougher decisions you’ll make in a game.
5. Portal: I often wonder if, in the days before Portals release, Valve had any idea how insanely popular the quirky little puzzle game on their hands would become. Obviously nobody could have known, but I want to know if anybody even had inkling. Antagonist GLaDOS obviously stole the show, but basically every element of the game, from turrets to cake, spawned some sort of internet meme, and it generated a cult following like few games before it, as well as a wildly popular sequel. While it was originally released in the excellent Orange Box compilation, the XBLA version has moved a massive amount of units, and is one of the highest rated games on the service.
4. Braid: I find it hard to say enough good things about Braid. It is one of those rare games that manage to be more than the sum of its parts, which is pretty impressive because its parts are uniformly awesome. A vibrant art style, devilishly clever puzzles, a thought-provoking story and stellar music; Braid pretty much has it all. A mind-blowing plot twist near the end may be the water cooler moment that everybody loves to talk about, but it’s the metaphorical implications of the purposefully vague narrative, and the revealing secret ending, that really deserve a discussion.
3. Castle Crashers: One of the highest-rated and best-selling XBLA games ever, Castle Crashers is one of those games that just works. Everything combines to form a complete package. Crisp graphics, easily digestible RPG elements, perfect gameplay controls and more secrets than you can shake a chainsaw at are just a few bullet points the game provides, and it presents it all with the zany humor of The Behemoth, the people behind the popular flash website Newgrounds. Pure fun from beginning to end, there are few games that match up with Castle Crashers in sheer entertainment value, especially after grabbing three other players to join in the nonsense.
2. Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition: You pretty much have to be living underneath a rock not to have heard of Minecraft at this point. The indie darling-turned-blockbuster has completely pervaded the gaming industry, and propelled creator Notch into the limelight of game developers. While purists may scoff at the lack of features compared to its PC counterpoint, the XBLA version provides up to four-player splitscreen play on one of the best coop experiences in gaming. A number of patches and updates have already added a huge amount of content to the console version in its short lifespan, and it has been rewarded by completely crushing any and all previous XBLA sales numbers. Simply put, the Minecraft juggernaut cannot be stopped, and this is just another reason why.
1. The Walking Dead: Who said there wasn’t room for innovation in zombie games? Our industry has had no lack of flesh-eating cadavers throughout its history, but Telltale’s masterpiece is one of the best and most unique game experiences ever. Building off their experience with adventure games, Telltale penned a fascinating tale sprinkled with the human drama that has made The Walking Dead one of the most successful IPs of the last couple of years. Lee and Clementine’s journey tugs at the heartstrings in a way not many forms of media can contend with, and utilizes the sense of immersion that only video games can provide to do so in an emotional and thrilling way. There isn’t a person out there I wouldn’t recommend playing it to, and wins our award as the best XBLA game available right now.