Several big games made their debut in 2004; the year will likely go down in gaming history as one punctuated with the releases of Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. But beneath the radar, it also was a big year for smaller game developers with big aspirations and overactive imaginations. It seems 2004 may come to be known as the year of really weird games.
This year, games broke new ground in concept, sound effects and music, graphics, gameplay, and storyline like few games have since the mid-1980s, when genres were just being defined. These games feature wildly different characters, many of them not human. For example, your protagonist may be anything from a roach to a bowling bowl, or even a puddle of gelatinous goo.
What follows are just five of my favorite new PC games this year. By no means is this a complete list, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Orbz: Imagine you control a shooter marble, and have the super strength to launch it high up into the air. Your mission: to thunk that marble into as many of the hovering targets as possible. Throw in a few surprises that will come your way, and you've got the basic gist of 21-6's Orbz.
Your mission is made more difficult by the ballistic physics you have to master. But once you have aiming and firing down, Orbz is a frenetic, mad dash to beat the clock and your own high score.
Orbz costs $20 and runs on PCs running Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. A free demo is available for download.
You control a bowling ball in a large, open area similar to a golf course. As in traditional bowling, you're given two tries to knock down all your pins. But RocketBowl's course is so strewn with racked-up pins, you're almost certain to knock down pins if you aim in almost any direction away from your set of pins. Sometimes your view will be obscured by hills or other objects, and some shots are a lot harder to make than those in Orbz. But RocketBowl is a pleasantly subversive take on bowling.
RocketBowl, which is a PC-based game, costs $20. A free demo is available for download.
Gish: Classic platformer games, like Donkey Kong, presume a certain expectation of normalcy. We're able to suspend our disbelief that a giant ape would have the wherewithal to roll barrels down a construction site as a weapon, but we understand that Mario has to follow the normal laws of physics, and not fall off a ledge, or he'll be killed.
Not so with Gish. You control a semi-gelatinous black blob which has the power to roll across surfaces, and fling itself at (and stick to) objects. You maneuver your blobby self through increasingly difficult levels where you're required to climb slopes and use your momentum and sticky powers to roll or bounce to the goal.
Gish costs $20 and runs on PCs running Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. A free demo is available for download.
You control a roach as it navigates what the company's marketing materials refer to as "the eerie and intricate world of a dilapidated San Francisco building." Eerie? Hardly. Intricate? Most definitely. You quickly learn to notice things you might normally take for granted, like when a small puddle becomes an uncrossable moat. Controlling a bug still creeps me out, even eight years later.
Bad Mojo costs $20 and is available for both PCs and Macs. You can order it (in a boxed version only) from BadMojoRedux.com.
Katamari Damacy: Okay, here's a hypothetical situation: You're the king of the cosmos, and you've accidentally destroyed every star in the night sky. Do you (a) make new stars, or (b) send your tiny prince down to Earth, armed with a super-sticky ball called a "katamari," and instruct him to roll the sticky ball over things? If you were one of the creators of this acid trip of a game, your answer would invariably be the latter.
The name, translated from the Japanese, means "clump of souls," and once you start playing the game, you'll know why--you start out small, clumping up thumbtacks and erasers by rolling over them, slowly accumulating enough volume to increase the overall diameter of your katamari. Every full katamari helps the king restore one more star to the sky. And you don't want to see an unhappy king!
With a fanstastic soundtrack and a Yellow Submarine sense of fashion and style, Katamari Damacy easily wins this year's award for most thoroughly bizarre, and funny, game.
Katamari Damacy costs $30 and runs on PlayStation2. More information is available online.