When asked what new titles are worth buying right now, employees of big chain video game stores can barely muster a sales pitch.
"You like sports games? There's another Madden out. And Mercenaries 2 just launched. It's a . . . first-person shooter. I hear Too Human is kinda good. Nothing's out for the Wii. Wanna pre-order Gears of War 2?"
After listening to this depressing and derivative lineup, it might make sense to save your $60 for exciting, real-life games — such as Adventures in Gas Money and Late Cell Phone Bill 2: The Reckoning. In today's economy, do you want to eat or simulate eating using your Wiimote?
It turns out the best new games on the market are 20 years old — and under $20. And, because they're all downloadable, you don't have to step foot in your gas-guzzling POS to get them.
Before you angrily crumple this article in your hand (not recommended for Web readers), I know what you're thinking: "Here's another die-hard old-school gamer ready to piss on anything made post-Super Nintendo." Well, you're only half-right.
The truth is, processing power and high-definition graphics are fine, but (surprise, surprise) they often sacrifice lasting game play as a result. If I want to drop $60 on something that is pretty to look at and leaves me feeling empty afterwards, I'll hit the Hustler Club down the street.
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Case in point: Ask someone about September's Mega Man 9 (a brand-new sequel programmed on an '80s NES) and watch their smile return from the dead. Despite being the graphics equivalent of Stonehenge, Mega Man's game play, charm and often-enraging challenge hold up with audiences. Give Halo another 10 years, and see how excited you get about it. It'll play like GoldenEye for the N64.
The just launched Galaga Legions does for the old-school shooter what Pac-Man Championship Edition did for the dot-eating glutton. Building upon, but not screwing with, what made the original great (one ship versus hordes of flying space bugs), Legions is a flawless, hyperspeed update for fans of new-school shooters like Ikaruga. Most of us may never pass the second level. Hey, remember when games didn't hold your hand? When even an Internet walkthrough couldn't save your ass?
Bionic Commando: Re-Armed — a next-gen remake of a classic NES game — is another challenging bargain you may never complete but will never put down. Re-Armed is close to a perfect side-scroller as you can get: think Contra, but with a badass robot arm, campy dialogue, and beautifully rendered 2-D backdrops. It will be interesting to see how it fares next to the upcoming 3-D re-launch of the series. In a year's time, will audiences still be playing the gritty, next-gen death matches the sequel offers, or giddily soldiering though Re-Armed's masterful '80s-tinged levels?
Even the brand-new titles worth paying attention to draw heavily from the past while moving game design forward. Melding Super Mario Bros. with the hardest, aneurysm-inducing puzzle elements of Portal and Prince of Persia, the downloadable Braid is both a Game of the Year contender and a nearly criminal $15. Admittedly, it's not always fun to play a game that takes every mental muscle you've got left — even I just want to blow shit up sometimes. But Braid's easily the more rewarding, emotionally engaging, and impressive of the two options. And for 15 bucks, I'll take it over Metal Gear Solid 4 (and its $70 worth of Blu-ray cut scenes) any afternoon.