Raroo Awards logo[As the end of 2010 draws near, regular GSW columnist Mister Raroo details his picks for top games of the year in this special article.]

The Most Prestigious Award Ceremony of All

The end of any calendar year brings about a buzz amongst gaming publications and websites as they select the standout games from the past twelve months.

Indeed, many a developer and publisher alike wait with bated breath to see if the fruits of their labor make such lists. To many video game fanatics, the presentation of video game awards is a spectacle that eclipses the likes of the Grammys, Emmys, and even Oscars.

Of the countless accolades and prizes handed out by the multitude of magazines, websites, and blogs, there is only one award that is considered to truly “matter.” Those not familiar with the video game industry may understandably assume that the awards presented by high-profile outlets like IGN, 1UP, and GameSpot represent the pinnacle of importance.

True, most developers and publishers would hardly turn their nose at receiving such praise. That said, it is widely accepted that no one has truthfully made a name for themselves unless they’ve won a Raroo Award.

And so, dear readers, we present you with the 2010 Raroo Awards, highlighting games that stood out to our columnist Mister Raroo in some interesting and noteworthy way. 2010 was a year filled with an incredible amount of quality game releases across all genres and platforms.

Limiting the awards to ten video games proved difficult, and outstanding titles such as Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, Hydro Thunder Hurricane, Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, and even the astounding Super Mario Galaxy 2 were not able to make the cut. Such is the nature of the Raroo Awards. Congratulations to this year’s award recipients!

Castlevania: Harmony of DespairCastlevania: Harmony of Despair (Konami, Xbox 360)

Wow, what a rad game. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I had a chance to try the game, and I honestly feared the worst. Harmony of Despair’s assets are almost completely lifted from previous games in the series, and its gameplay focus shifted to online cooperative multiplayer. In short, Harmony of Despair sounded like a recipe for disaster, but instead it turned out to be the freshest Castlevania in years.

Each of the game’s stages can be zoomed out and viewed as a whole, making Harmony of Despair feels something akin to playing with a giant Castlevania dollhouse. The design of each map is intricate and ripe for replay, especially when traversed with friends online. The last online game that I really got this much of a kick out of was Phantasy Star Online during the Dreamcast’s heyday, and Harmony of Despair’s plays structure is very similar. That is, play the same stages over and over to acquire new loot that in turn makes it easier to move on to higher difficulty levels.

In my opinion, Konami hit a homerun with Harmony of Despair. The core game experience is awesome, and as long as new characters, stages, and items continue to be added via downloadable content, I’ll stay happy. Harmony of Despair is a true testament to the fact that a development studio doesn’t need a big budget to create a winning formula. Instead, it’s what they do with the resources they’re given that matters most.

Costume QuestCostume Quest (Double Fine, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3)

If you’ve read any of the previous Game Time With Mister Raroo columns, you know full well that our family loves Halloween. We usually come up with costumes that tie into a central theme, and this past year was no exception. Our son Kaz dressed as a firefighter, our daughter Yoshie was his Dalmatian, Missus Raroo was the fire, and I was a fire truck. We received a lot of compliments when we were out trick-or-treating!

Costume Quest’s central motif is Halloween, so it’s a no-brainer that the game would have immediate appeal to me. It doesn’t hurt that Kaz absolutely adores Costume Quest and would sit by my side, intently watching me play through what he calls “The Halloween Game.” When you can share a fun experience with your children, it is all the better.

I never found Costume Quest’s humor to be as laugh-out-loud funny as many others seemed to. Rather, what I loved about the game is that is perfectly captured the magical experience of trick-or-treating from a child’s perspective. Working the chance of random battles into the trick-or-treating gameplay was a stroke of genius. The small moment of suspense that plays out when you knock on a door and are unsure if there will be a monster or a hearty serving of candy on the other end never gets dull. Costume Quest is a title I’ll likely revisit annually whenever Halloween rolls around.

DeathsmilesDeathsmiles (Cave/Aksys, Xbox 360)

Cave’s output in 2010 was amazing, particularly in terms of finally reaching more of a Western audience, notably with their three standout iPhone releases, ESPGaluda II, DoDonPachi Resurrection, and the absolutely charming Mushihimesama: Bug Panic. Yet it was the stateside release of their 2007 horizontal shooter, Deathsmiles, that captivated me the most.

Putting aside the variety of game options, selectable characters, and spectacular 2D graphics, Deathsmiles shines because, above all else, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to play. The problem with many shooters is that they become boring on repeated plays, yet for whatever reason Deathsmiles has continued to feel fresh to me. The character control is smooth and responsive, while the spooky stages and memorable bosses are a blast to face time and time again. Deathsmiles is a game where Cave simply got everything right.

Publisher Aksys should be commended for going all-out with their domestic release of Deathsmiles. Not only was the price of the game twenty dollars cheaper than most other 360 releases, but it included all the downloadable content from the Japanese release and even came bundled with a soundtrack CD and an eye-catching faceplate. Good work, Aksys! Too bad more people didn’t flock to buy the game…

Dragon Quest IXDragon Quest IX (Level 5/Square-Enix/Nintendo, Nintendo DS)

While walking around the main floor during this past year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I was obsessed with Dragon Quest IX’s Tag Mode. Every few minutes I’d check my Nintendo DS to see if I had come into range of any other Dragon Quest IX players and, given the high concentration of like-minded people in one spot, it never failed that I had. It was always interesting to see who I had wirelessly exchanged information with and it quickly became clear that people from all walks of life were enjoying Dragon Quest IX. Tag Mode is so cool!

Oh, and the rest of Dragon Quest IX beyond Tag Mode isn’t all that shabby, either! Being the father of two young children, the ability for me to dedicate a significant amount of time to any game is rare, yet that didn’t stop me from putting dozens of hours into Dragon Quest IX. The game caused me to stay up many nights past my bedtime, sacrificing sleep so I could fight monsters so as to level up my characters and equip them with new armor and weapons. Any game that persuades an already sleep-deprived parent to pass up on the chance to catch a few winks is definitely something special!

Game Dev Story<Game Dev Story (Kairosoft, iPhone)

Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been moonlighting on my library career. Whenever my lunch break rolls round, I turn my attention to my other job. Being a librarian is how I pay the bills, but creating groundbreaking video games is where my true passion lies. I am the head of a game development studio called Raroo Games.

I’ve lost track of how many titles my little development team has released. Lately we’ve been experimenting with new ideas and releasing games that mash up genres that wouldn’t otherwise go together. Last week we unveiled Golf Bots upon the market, a Robot Golf game for the Playstatus 2. It has already become our best-selling game, with almost seven million units purchased by consumers.

I’m excited about the future of Raroo Games. We have a Pirate MMO called Booty Bay in the works and I think it could be our best-selling game yet. I’m planning on putting some serious marketing muscle behind Booty Bay by getting the word out on television, sponsoring a card game tournament, and even advertising via blimp. Thank you for playing our games!

Kirby's Epic YarnKirby’s Epic Yarn (Good Feel/Nintendo, Wii)

“I want to play Kirby!” My son has been in love with Kirby’s Epic Yarn since he first laid eyes on it. We’ve been playing a great deal of the game’s two-player mode. Unfortunately, my son is a very terrible Kirby player. I end up having to pick his character up and carry him to the end of every level. But it’s still really nice (if a little frustrating at times) to play together!

Kirby’s Epic Yarn has been called a “baby game” by many sources, and for all intents and purposes, it is. Getting to the end of levels is a relative breeze, and it’s impossible for Kirby to “die” in the game. Still, developer Good Feel put just enough challenge into the game for those players that want it. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is never going to get frustratingly hard for players, but there exists the right amount of depth in the level design to keep things interesting for gamers of all skill levels.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a refreshing, whimsical change of pace from the glut of hardcore, violent games that often get the spotlight from popular media outlets. If Call of Duty: Black Ops is a bloated steak meal, Kirby’s Epic Yarn is a decadent ice cream sundae. Even though it might not test the mettle of veteran players, the game is so sweet and colorful that it’s hard not to smile when you play it.

Phantasy Star Portable 2Phantasy Star Portable 2 (Alfa System/Sega, PSP)

Phantasy Star Online is one of my favorite games of all time. I logged a substantial amount of hours with the game back when it was released, and I still return to it from time to time. Sega came close to replicating all the elements that made the first game so addicting with Phantasy Star 0 on the Nintendo DS, but I think Phantasy Star Portable 2 is even better. Credit really goes to developer Alfa System, who effectively took the original gameplay and structure from Online and combined them with smart refinements like lock-on and strafing that appeared in Universe.

Phantasy Star Portable 2 includes a wide variety of locations to traverse (including renditions of the stages from Online), a massive amount of weapons and armor to equip, and even the ability to meet up and play with friends online. The only minor downsides are the game’s goofy storyline and the omission of the fan-favorite buddy robots called mags from Online. Really, though, neither factor is enough to detract from Phantasy Star Portable 2’s overall enjoyment level. I hope Alfa System is given the green light to develop a third game in the Portable series because they seem to have a firm handle on things.

SMT: Strange JourneyShin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (Atlus, Nintendo DS)

When compared to the other Raroo Award recipients, Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey might seem a little out of place. I usually am drawn to games that are easy to get into with bright, cheery presentations. In contrast, Strange Journey is almost the polar opposite, yet it is undoubtedly one of the most engrossing games of the year.

It has a dark, brooding storyline matched by an equally somber soundtrack. Its user interface is rather convoluted and its difficulty can be punishing. And, amazingly enough, it is because of these reasons that I love Strange Journey so much. Sometimes it’s refreshing to dig into something out of your comfort zone.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the game comes in recruiting the demons you face in battle to join your side. This mechanic makes Strange Journey almost seems like a dating simulator at times. Choosing the right conversational responses can be tricky, and your choices will determine the difference between winning a demon’s favor or angering it and having it suddenly unleash its fury upon you.

Sonic & Sega All-Stars RacingSonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (Sega, Multiplatform)

Remember when Sega was awesome? Developer Sumo Digital sure seems to. At first glance it would be easy to dismiss Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing as yet another Mario Kart clone, but thankfully the game is so much more. In fact, All-Stars Racing’s buttery controls and flashy courses seem more akin to Sega’s own OutRun than Nintendo’s kart racer.

Though All-Stars racing is jam-packed with plenty of fan service, it would have been nice to have even more Sega references thrown in. The tracks and characters are perhaps a little too Sonic-focused, which I suppose is no surprise given the game’s title. In Sega’s defense, Alex Kidd, Opa-Opa, and Ryo Hazuki are not exactly going to push sales the same way a certain blue hedgehog does. Nevertheless, I demand even more Sega goodness in the sequel, Sumo Digital! You are making a sequel, right? Please?!

Tatsunoko vs. CapcomTatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars (Capcom, Wii)

“Oh snap!” The boy behind me keeps exclaiming it over and over. “Oh snap! Oh snap!” He can’t seem to believe what he’s watching. “This is crazy! Oh snap!” It’s Game Day at my library, and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is proving to be a hit. The other attendees are enjoying the boy’s enthusiasm and starting to take up his cheer. “Oh snap!” they all laughingly begin to echo.

On the screen Jun the Swan and Roll are doing their best to take down the gargantuan Gold Lightan. It’s no easy task. Gold Lightan is massive and Roll is but a fraction of his size. Yet she’s doing amazing things with a broom and bucket of water. After giving her best, she passes off duties to Jun the Swan, who furiously goes to work with her yo-yo.

Jun deftly avoids Gold Ligthan’s onslaught and lands one final hit with her stringed weapon. One last “Oh snap!” escapes from the boy. Who would’ve guessed a yo-yo could do so much damage? “Don’t mistake my Science Ninja-issued yo-yo for a simple toy,” she tells us. Whoops, sorry about that, Jun!

[Mister Raroo had a busy 2010. His daughter Yoshie was born in February, he had his gallbladder removed in April, and he earned his Master's Degree in October. He is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and avid gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com. For all your Game Time With Mister Raroo needs, visit Club Raroo!]