Mister Raroo's Top Five Year of the Ox Games[And you thought the Games of the Year lists were over! Surprise! Regular GameSetWatch columnist Mister Raroo drops in to visit us with a look at the top five games that mattered to him during the Year of the Ox, from awesome iPhone games to funky DS titles and beyond.]

Falling Behind

I'll admit it: I'm late. That seems to be how I've been operating lately. Between a promotion at work, continuing with graduate school, and trying to spend as much time with my family as possible, I constantly feel like I'm a step or two behind. For GameSetWatch, I had a master plan to write something about my favorite games of 2009, but before I knew it January had come and gone, and now here we are in February.

Things are about to get even crazier. This month my wife and I will be welcoming a new addition to our family in the form of a baby girl. We're really looking forward to what a second child will bring to our little family, though we know we will be exhausted. That's all the more reason why I was disappointed I didn't get around to writing about my favorite games of 2009. I don't necessarily think anyone was waiting on pins and needles for what I personally enjoyed playing this past year, but I love year-end retrospectives and was sad I didn't write something up, if only for myself.

Leave it to my wife to be resourceful and think up a solution. She pointed out that the Chinese New Year doesn't actually start until Valentine's Day this year, and thus the brilliant idea was born to reflect upon games that stood out during the Year of the Ox, which began last year on January 26. So, here we are. The fact that I managed to find a moment to squeeze in this article seems like a small miracle to me.

Lots of Good Ox Year Games!My gaming habits have definitely changed as a result of being so busy, and I'm sure they'll probably evolve again after the baby arrives. No longer do I have the freedom to spend hours at a time on any given game. Rather, the bulk of my gameplaying has come in bits and pieces, and the games that I enjoyed the most are simply those that I was able to find the time to play. But, in some ways this has been a good thing, as it has prompted me to investigate many "casual" games that I would've probably not given a second thought to in the past.

All things considered, it was a pretty amazing year for video games. Honestly, the video game market seems like it's becoming so flooded that there is no way to play everything that looks interesting, but that's not necessarily a complaint. I'd rather have too many games to choose from than too few.

I was a busy bee with the likes of LocoRoco 2, Boku no Natsuyasumi 4, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Game Center CX 2, Phantasy Star 0, Space Invaders Extreme 2, Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, and plenty more. But it is the following five games that stand out to me as the ultimate highlights from the Year of the Ox.

Best of the Year: Flipnote Studio (Nintendo, Nintendo DSi)

Best of the Year: Flipnote StudioFlipnote Studio was my favorite title from the Year of the Ox. Not a proper "game," Flipnote Studio is a simple yet powerful animation application that holds great potential for users who put their imaginations to work. It doesn't hurt that it was released for free, too.

Nintendo partnered up with Japanese Internet services company Hatena to create an online community where users could post and rate Flipnotes. As with any outlet for user-generated content, there are a handful of excellent submissions swimming in a sea of mediocrity, but the true gems usually find a way to float to the top.

Personally, my favorite use of Flipnote Studio is using it as an outlet for creating fabricated trailers of games on my imaginary game console, the Raroo Fun System.

The Bottom Line: Flipnote Studio is easy to use yet allows for a tremendous amount of flexibility, making it an ideal choice for anyone with the slightest bit of interest in drawing and animation.

Most Heart: Big Bang Mini (Arkedo/SouthPeak, Nintendo DS)

Most Heart: Big Bang MiniNow, I'm cheating here a little bit. Big Bang Mini was released a little less than a week before the Year of the Ox officially began, but I received the game as a Valentine's Day gift from my wife, so I'll let the technicality of its release date slide.

The Year of the Ox was kind of Arkedo's year, in my opinion. At least, it was for those of us who appreciate quirky, colorful, and charming games. Recently, Arkedo have started unleashing their wonderful Arkedo Series of games on the XBox Live Indie marketplace, but it was Big Bang Mini that captured my interest the most.

Calling Big Bang Mini a top down horizontal shoot-em-up would be a disservice, though it wouldn't be incorrect. It's what Arkedo did with the shooter formula that makes the game so intriguing. You use the stylus to not only lobby shots at waves of enemies, but you also use it to guide your "ship" around as well. Easier said than done.

There is also a neat risk/reward system worked into the amount of firepower you dispense. Hit your opponents with your projectiles and it's all good. Miss, however, and the result will be showers of your own ammunition coming back your way, meaning you have that much more danger to avoid. Restraint is key, but it is also difficult when things get frantic.

As with Arkedo's previous DS offering, Nervous Brickdown, Big Bang Mini is broken up in to multiple sets of levels, each with their own unique feeling. The various stages sport drastically different yet always appealing graphical designs, and the soundtrack is a standout the entire game through. It's obvious a lot of love went into the game's creation.

The Bottom Line: Arkedo took the classic shoot-em-up formula and threw in a new dimension with stylus control that, when bundled with the lovely production values and obvious love of the development craft, make Big Bang Mini an engaging experience from start to finish.

Best Sense of Humor: Excitebots: Trick Racing (Monster Games/Nintendo, Nintendo Wii)

Best Sense of Humor: ExcitebotsThere must be some really weird people working at Monster Games. Excitetrucks was one of my favorite Wii launch games, though even I'll admit it was a little on the generic side in terms of overall art direction. Perhaps the folks at Monster Games felt the same way, too, because their follow-up to Excitetruck is anything but pedestrian.

Seriously, Excitebots is bananas. In the course of any given race you'll have the opportunity to engage in such weird acts as throwing a pie in a giant clown face, knocking down bowling pins, going fishing for a great catch, or even making a "super sandwich." All the while, you are driving transforming vehicles modeled after all kinds of creepy crawlies like insects, spiders, rodents, bats, and more.

Even without the sense of humor, Excitebots would be a blast to play because it's smooth, fast, and controls well. Though some gamers might scoff at the Wii and the Wii Wheel accessory, Monster Games implemented the control in such a way that it feels very natural... or as natural as zipping along in a giant robot centipede can feel, anyway.

It also doesn't hurt that my son adores Excitebots and has spent many an hour on my lap as we've tried our best to win online matches and score big points in the game's surprisingly well-implemented betting system. Before each online match you can bet some of your overall points and, depending on how well you place, enjoy the fruits of your racing labor. The more points you nab, the quicker it is to unlock more vehicles in the games... something well worth the effort.

The Bottom Line: Excitebots: Trick Racing may not have set the world on fire at retail, but for anyone who feels the racing genre has at times become too stagnant, consider this game a blazing rainbow cutting through the grey skies of monotony.

Best Game World: Little King's Story (Town Factory/Cing/Marvelous/XSeed, Nintendo Wii)

Best Game World: Little King's StoryMy wife gave me Little King's Story as a congratulatory gift when I promoted to my Youth Services Librarian position. It seems rather fitting, I think, as the game takes place in a whimsical and weird world that seems as if it were pulled straight from the pages of a some strange, long-forgotten children's book.

That said, it's worth pointing out that while Little King's Story's world is built of bright colors and beautiful backdrops, there is an unsettling quality to it as well. You play the titular role of the Little King, and the overreaching goal of the game is to expand your kingdom, even at the cost of the lives of some of the townspeople you elect to serve you.

While death in video games is something I've become desensitized to over the years, Little King's Story somehow makes the demise of characters feel fresh, and a little traumatizing. For instance, every now and then the townspeople will mourn the passing of one of their comrades, and they will be dressed in black or even attend a funeral, which always made me feel even more remorseful when I'd command them to ditch their mourning and follow me into battle.

There are no duplicate characters in Little King's Story, so once any of them die, they are gone for good. Sure, your population will grow over time, especially as you expand your kingdom, but when you see one of your loyal subjects fall in the line of duty, it holds actual significance knowing that you'll never see that particular character again.

The Bottom Line: Though Little King's Story may initially attract gamers with its gorgeous production values or its engaging gameplay, it is the emotional impact of feeling like your actions actually affect a living little world that holds the most value.

Biggest Surprise: Donut Games (iPhone, iPod Touch)

Biggest Surprise: Donut Games(Okay, I'm totally cheating here by lumping all of the releases by Donut Games into one big mix, but I'm the one calling the shots with this list so I can do whatever I darn well please!)

It wasn't until this past Christmas that I jumped onto Apple's App Store train, and I can thank my dad for that. On Christmas morning I opened a suspicious box and lo and behold there was an iPod Touch looking up for me. It was unexpected, but it turned out to be the perfect gift.

However, at first I wasn't sure if I even really wanted an iPod Touch. Really, I thought the iPhone was a joke as a gaming platform, but I quickly changed my tune. In fact, as a result of being so busy, my iPod Touch has been my go-to gaming platform for the past couple of months. I love that even if I only have a few spare minutes, I can quickly enjoy some bite-sized gaming at a moment's notice.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that Apple's App Store is overrun with a great deal of underwhelming software, but that's not to say there aren't plenty of quality titles available as well. Games like Hook Champ, Canabalt, Drop7, Space Invaders Infinity Gene, and Skullpogo are all standouts that have had heavy rotation on my iPod Touch. Indeed, I was pleased to discover there exist so many exceptional games for little to no cost.

Of all the iPhone games I've played, the ones that have caught me the most off guard are those developed by Donut Games. Working in a public library, I see kids and adults alike spending hours at a time on the computers as they play cheap-looking Flash video games that I would snootily hold my nose up at. At first glance, Donut Games' titles seem to be in the same boat, and in fact all of them can be played on the company's website. Yet, there is something so inviting about their games that makes playing them an absolute joy.

I first got wind of Donut Games when I tried their free release of Jungle Crash Land, a game where you have to drop bombs to clear a landing ship for your aircraft. From there I checked out their other free games, and it was directing cars though an intersection in Traffic Rush that sealed the deal. I then went on a spending spree (which amounted to less than $20) and purchased every single one of the company's games on the App Store.

I particularly am a fan of Castle Smasher, Lucky Coins, and Sunday Lawn, though pretty much anything Donut Games has published has me hooked. Really, I'm shocked. I never would've pegged myself as someone who'd like these types of "casual" games, but they have proven to be some of the best gaming experiences I've had in a long time. In the end, it is the enjoyment of playing a game that matters most, and kudos to Donut Games for creating a catalog of software that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Bottom Line: A developer that truly lives up to its name, Donut Games creates light and delicious software that is easy to get into and genuinely enjoyable to play, qualities missing far too often in the offerings from many higher profile game developers.

[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. In addition to writing for GameSetWatch, Mister Raroo forgets to write new content for his blog, Moments. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]