Game Time With Mister Raroo logo[Another 365 days has passed, and in an exclusive GameSetWatch article, regular columnist Mister Raroo takes the opportunity to reflect upon 2008 in terms of not only gaming, but his personal life as well -- and as an added bonus, he includes his top 10 games of the year!]

2008: Challenging But Rewarding

It’s hard to believe that 2008 is already drawing to a close, but looking back it was certainly a full and busy year. Between watching my son Kaz develop and grow on a seemingly daily basis, working full time, and taking courses toward my Master’s of Library and Information Science degree, it’s felt like I’ve barely had time to do much else. That said, I always make an effort to squeeze a little recreation into my days, usually in the form of playing video games. It’s important to step back from things and give yourself a break, even if it’s only 15 minutes here or there.

Financially, 2008 was more than a bit depressing. The economy’s instability led to ongoing budget cuts at work, causing both Missus Raroo and me to worry about our job security. Our home, which we purchased last year, continued to drop in value while, at the same time, we had to pump more money into it to fix a few problems that arose. Our cars both needed to have some costly work done on them while other expenses, such as rising daycare costs, just continued to pile up. We’ve managed to squeak out from under these financial weights and stay in the black, but not by much.

Even in difficult financial times, though, things don’t seem so bad when you have people in your life that make each day feel special. I’m very fortunate to have such a lovely wife and wonderful son, not to mention both sides of our families in town. Holidays and special celebrations are always happy times because we are able spend them with the people we love. As trite as it may sound, I may not be wealthy in terms of money, but I’m a rich man when you consider how much family support and love I have. Family can sometimes be stressful, but the good by far outweighs the bad.

Kaz is Growing Up QuicklyAs a parent, 2008 was a particularly amazing year because I was able to watch Kaz grow from being just a cute little guy we took care of to a bona fide member of the family. It’s pretty incredible to think that at the beginning of the year he didn’t know how to walk or say any real words. These days, he’s running all over the place, helps pick up his toys, uses actual words to talk, and even takes on the chore of feeding our dog Howie his dinner. It sounds funny, but Missus Raroo and I often comment that Kaz has finally become a “real person.”

As a whole, I think 2008 was pretty spectacular. There were far more highs than lows for me, and there isn’t much I’d change given the opportunity. My family was healthy, a lot of great memories were created, and even the presidential candidate I voted for won the election, for once! Yep, 2008 was not a bad year by any stretch of the imagination. And when I think about all the excellent games I played during the year, it just seems even sweeter.

Birthday Gluttony

Seeing that I had not only received a generous amount of games for Christmas last year, but was also given a Playstation 3 by my family, I felt a little guilty about my gaming abundance -- and tried to start 2008 off by limiting the amount of games I purchased. Besides, I was officially beginning my MLIS classes and knew that meant I’d have less time to play games, anyway. And, on top of that, once our bills were paid each month I just didn’t have a lot of spending money left over. Thus, I did my best to avoid acquiring any new games from New Year’s Day until my birthday in February. A month and a half is not very long for most people, but for me it was more than a little difficult to hold out!

Thankfully, my family knows darn well that I love video games, and since I didn’t really have anything else that I wanted or needed, on my birthday I was presented with a healthy stack of games as gifts. I’m very grateful for the generosity of my family members, but sometimes being a 30-something guy unwrapping game after game makes me wonder if they look upon me as if were a gaming Peter Pan! The year was still young in February, but thanks to my family I already had so many new games to play.

No More Heroes is perhaps the standout game from my birthday haul, and I had a lot of fun playing it. Particularly, I enjoyed just how bonkers the game was, with strange and interesting boss battles and neat touches like the Wii Remote being used to receive cell phone calls. There have been legitimate complaints about some aspects of the game, particularly in terms of how desolate the city of Santa Destroy is, but all in all I really found No More Heroes to be very entertaining and satisfying.

Shark!On the other end of the spectrum, I was also given Endless Ocean, and I thought it was simply delightful. More of a stress reliever than anything else, Endless Ocean’s beauty is not just in its underwater setting, but in the ability it grants for players to take the experience at their own pace and freely explore on their own. There are small missions and objectives to fulfill, but essentially, all you need to worry about is swimming around and discovering the world that awaits you below the water line.

I have a fear of sharks to the point that I have regular nightmares about them, but in Endless Ocean there is no danger of being attacked by any sea creatures, and sharks will harmlessly cruise right by you. You can even swim up close to snap photos of them, too! With such a laid back atmosphere, Endless Ocean is an ideal game for me to enjoy after an exhausting day.

Not Part of the In-Crowd

For the most part, I tended to hold off on playing most of the year’s blockbuster releases. Bestsellers like Gears of War 2, Fable II, and Fallout 3 will be substantially less expensive in but a few months’ time, so I’ve decided to wait until I see them appear in discount aisles and bargain bins. It’s sometimes tough to know that so many other people are playing a much-anticipated game while I’m not, but it’s also sweet to pick up a copy for a portion of its original price.

Rather than focusing on the chartbusters, I tried to steer toward games that were a little under the radar. I have a soft spot for oddities and underdogs, anyway, and 2008 saw no shortage of strange or overlooked gems. The best part of these types of games is that they’re often released at a lower price point to begin with, so it’s not as much of a demand on my budget to pick up some of the low-profile releases.

Blast WorksEveryone’s eyes were on LittleBigPlanet’s passing of content creation to players, but I thought Blast Works had some pretty amazing player-generated ships, enemies, and stages. One of the nicest features of the game is that it bypassed the Wii’s usual Friend Code route and instead let players select and queue up content to download via an outside website, Blast Works Depot.

I tried my hand at crafting a ship and some enemies, but my meager creations seriously paled in comparison to what some other gamers came up with. It was a series of stages lovingly built by a user named Gryzor that were the most impressive. Gryzor designed the levels with title screens, ship selection, and much more. Thinking of the amount of work that must’ve gone into those stages, my mind is officially boggled.

Bangai-O Spirits was another game that featured a workaround for sharing content without Friend Codes. Utilizing a unique sound load system, the game literally used sound as encryption for data, and plenty of user-generated levels could be found online and uploaded simply by playing the sound into the DS microphone. Holding an headphone ear bud up to the microphone seemed to work best, and before long one could easily enjoy the hard work of clever and creative Bangai-O Spirits players from around the world.

Many of the other games I spent a great deal of time with may not have been massive sellers that reached the mainstream audience to the extent of a game like Grand Theft Auto 4, but they received plenty of acclaim from critics and gamers alike. For example, titles like Patapon and Space Invaders Extreme were both extremely satisfying, not to mention released at a $20 price point, which is certainly a perfect combination as far as I’m concerned!

As a higher number of games are released upon the market, it can get increasingly difficult to keep abreast of all the smaller titles that may not be lucky enough to find shelf space in stores, but the popularity of video games means more developers and publishers have the freedom to release titles that prove to be profitable without having to sell a million copies. There are a lot of niche games such as Prey the Stars and Princess Debut that the average gamer may not even realize exist, but it makes me happy that they do!

Home Delivery

More than games purchased at retail, perhaps the largest chunk of my new games came in downloadable form. From Pixeljunk: Eden and The Last Guy on Playstation Network to WiiWare’s Pit Crew Panic! and My Aquarium, there were a diverse and extensive amount of interesting games to purchase and download, usually for $10 or less per game. Even the costlier downloadable games, such as the $20 WipeOut HD or the $15 Braid, proved well worth the price of admission, not to mention likely cheaper than if they’d been pressed on disc and sent to retail.

No Memory Left!I was pleased to see Nintendo decided to bring over the previously Japan-only game series bit generations in a new form, namely the Art Style games for WiiWare. The games proved to be perfect for my tastes, especially considering they were $5 each and took up little space on the Wii’s internal memory. I ran out of available “blocks” to download new content months ago and having to juggle what’s available on my Wii at any given moment has been more than a little frustrating.

More than WiiWare, though, I spent the most time and money on Xbox Live Arcade games because there were just so many fun and interesting titles. The high-profile releases like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and Castle Crashers proved to live up to my hopes, but it was the more humble gems such as N+ and Golf: Tee it Up! that turned out to be my favorites. I also finally got around to enjoying Portal via its XBLA release, and I stayed up well past my bedtime finishing it.

However, as much as I am a fan of downloadable games, the distribution process still has plenty of room for improvement. As much as I’ve come to anticipate Nintendo Mondays, Xbox Wednesdays, and Playstation Thursdays, there is an air of mystery that surrounds each week’s releases, so much so that sometimes nobody has any clue as to what will become available until the online stores are updated. I assume this is related to the nature of digital distribution, but sometimes I wonder if the game companies themselves have no idea what’s going to be released until they randomly select a handful of titles at go-time.

Stuck in the Past

The past year wasn’t all about new game releases for me, and in fact I had a lot of fun picking up some titles that I’d never had the opportunity to play. I’m always on the lookout for any place selling used games, and it’s so satisfying to happen across a great find. Missus Raroo and I regularly frequent the local thrift stores, and I’ve found quite a few winners for a great price.

The Gremlin StoreOne of our favorite thrift stores is one we call “The Gremlin Store” because its mysterious and eclectic mix of merchandise makes it feel like finding a box containing a mogwai wouldn’t be at all out of the question. Unfortunately, I’m not good at haggling prices, and the owners of the establishment often don’t put price tags on their items, so I’ve usually left empty-handed because I don’t want to argue that Batman for the NES should be cheaper than the $13 price they’re asking. Nevertheless, it’s fun to visit from time to time to see what newly-acquired items they’ve got for sale.

Of course, if there’s a certain game you’re interested in, purchasing it online is probably the best way to go, and around the time of the Dreamcast’s ninth anniversary since its North American launch date of 9/9/99, I purchased a couple games to celebrate. One of these was Pen Pen Tricelon, a game I’d always been curious about but never got around to adding to my collection. Colorful, simple, cute, and jam-packed with wackiness, Pen Pen is a basic but thoroughly engaging racing game that is still a blast almost 10 years after its release.

I also really had a great time with Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge for the Nintendo DS, which is a loving tribute the Famicom/NES-era of games. Even though all of the games in the collection are new, their vintage design truly makes them feel like they could’ve come straight from the 1980s. However, the pseudo-retro games were developed with some modern sensibilities in mind, so attributes like screen flicker that plagued many 8-bit games are nowhere to be seen. Anyone who grew up during the 8-bit days will feel their hearts warm when they play Game Center CX.

The Next Gamer Generation

Perhaps one of my biggest joys from this past year has been introducing games to Kaz. His original interest in games was more in terms of the playing with the physical boxes and discs than anything else. In fact, his interest in playing with my game collection quickly prompted me to put them out of his little hands’ reach so as to keep him from damaging them.

Kaz is at the point now, though, where he’s very interested in everything Missus Raroo and I do, and he does his best to mimic it. He likes to pretend he’s talking on the phone, tries to change channels with the television remote, and presses keys on our computer keyboard. In fact, he somehow managed to conduct a Google search, although the results were a little nonsensical because his search term was just a bunch of random characters and symbols.

Kaz and Dad Enjoy Mario Kart WiiRecently, Kaz has discovered Mario Kart Wii, and he and I have spent some fun evenings racing through the game’s courses. Kaz sits in my lap and grips the Wii Wheel firmly in his hands, but he doesn’t yet understand that you have to press a button to accelerate and turn the wheel to steer. That’s where I come in. I help Kaz navigate the courses while his eyes are glued to the screen in amazement. Sometimes, when we manage to win a race, he’ll stand up and gleefully dance, copying our character’s post-victory celebration animation.

The irony is that while I’m so excited Kaz is starting to appreciate games now, there will come a time when I’m sure I’ll have to discipline him for playing too much. I’ll have to remember to be a good role model and demonstrate self-control in not playing games when there are other priorities and responsibilities to fulfill first. Still, I’m hoping that Kaz and I have plenty of fun playing games together throughout his childhood and even beyond. Maybe video games will be one of the ways we can stay connected even when he’s an adult and has kids of his own.

Hopes for a New Year

As much as video games are a part of my life, when I think of the upcoming year, it just seems petty to worry about it in terms of gaming. Instead, I’m simply hopeful that my friends and family stay healthy and safe. I always worry too much about everything, but with the instability in everyone’s lives lately, it’s hard not to. However, it’s better to take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture, realizing that it’s important to appreciate the little things in my daily life.

On a more personal note, I’m excited about the joys parenthood will surely bring. Kaz will turn 2 in March, and Missus Raroo and I are definitely thinking about expanding our family. I’m not sure if 2009 will be the year it happens, but I think our family definitely has room for growth. That said, even if we end up never having another child, I feel so lucky for the awesome son I already have. It has been such an honor to be a parent, even during difficult times.
Happy New Year!
I’m also looking forward to continuing my studies towards my MLIS degree. I’m about a third of the way to completion and it’s been very interesting thus far, if at times a little grueling. I do my best to put my family life ahead of my studies, so it can be tricky to find time to dedicate to school work. I’m often up way past my bedtime trying to listen to online lectures or write papers. But my hard work will hopefully pay off and before long I’ll be able to promote to a higher position in the library system I work for.

I’d also like to take a moment to give my best wishes to all GameSetWatch readers for a safe and happy New Year! I’ve appreciated the opportunity to write articles for GameSetWatch and I’ve been grateful for all the kind words I’ve received from readers. It’s been so generous of the GameSetWatch crew to welcome me into their family of amazing columnists and I hope to continue writing more content in the coming year. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

Bonus Round: Mister Raroo’s Top 10 Games of 2008

Alphabetized and adorned with one-sentence summations:

Bangai-O Spirits (DS)
Tons of missles, tons of challenge, tons of fun!

Burnout Paradise (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
Driving over a chasm on rickety train tracks while trying to knock other cars to their doom never gets old.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia (DS)
The challenge is a little to steep at times, but it’s beautiful in looks, sound, and execution.

Endless Ocean (Wii)
Put simply, I can get lost in this game, and that’s the way it should be.

Game Center CX: Arino’s Challenge (DS, import)
Confirmation that my recollection of gaming being better during the 1980s may very well be true.

Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds 2 (PSP)
Creative courses, perfect gameplay pacing, and just the right amount of challenge make it a winner.

Travis TouchdownNo More Heroes (Nintendo Wii)
The slower city-based segments can’t detract from the pure fun found in the speedy combat and brilliant boss battles.

Portal: Still Alive (Xbox 360)
I always wondered what the heck gamers were talking about when they mentioned “The Cake,” but now I finally understand… and believe it’s real!

Rhythm Tengoku Gold (DS, import)
It’s packed to the gills with toe-tapping tunes, charming characters, and countless small touches that made me happy to be a gamer.

Wii Music (Nintendo Wii)
The game to hate in 2008 is seriously fun and endlessly replayable if you take the time to truly understand and appreciate it!

Honorable Mentions: (Not Quite Top 10, But Still Great!)
Blast Works: Build, Trade, Destroy (Wii), The Last Guy (Playstation 3), Mario Kart Wii (Wii), Space Invaders Extreme (DS), The World Ends With You (DS)

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. His only New Year's Resolution is to keep enjoying the small, wonderful moments that come together to create each day. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]