The greatest achievement of this console generation isn't HD graphics or motion control, it's the downloadable game. Why? The experiences are shorter, which just means whatever good ideas the designer had are more concentrated. The games are cheaper to make, which keeps development teams small and gives the games the chance to be something really special and weird without having to answer to anyone--like an independent film. They are also cheaper to buy, a perk which needs no explanation. And, perhaps most importantly, 2D IS BACK!
Here are five games that probably wouldn't exist if they couldn't be distributed digitally, and thank Jah they exist because they're freakin' awesome!
(Note: Only originals on this list... No Virtual Console, no HD remakes. Oh, and no PC only games, that's a whole other article!)
World of Goo (Wii, PC)
This game is a great-looking (I wish it was HD!) puzzler with a really cool, mysterious mood. The majority of the writing is to be found on signs left behind by a mysterious sign painter, and it's all very clever and intriguing stuff. The gameplay mechanic itself, building structures out of goo balls to reach a goal, probably could have made it into a disc game, but the quirky, low key mood of the whole thing would probably be replaced by something bright and kid friendly (*cough*BoomBlox*cough*) in order to sell more. And honestly, as fun as the puzzles are, without the unique voice and style this game wouldn't be nearly as great.
The other four totally radawesome games after the jump...
Strong Bad: Cool Game for Attractive People Series (Wii, PC)
This game is on this list because of it's breaking ground for licensed games based on relatively niche properties (also see Penny Arcade's game), which just doesn't happen with the huge costs and selling requirements of disc based distribution. Plus, it's a resurrection of a genre I care about very much, the adventure game. AHR loves these, and has some good things to say about them: "These days, I like these games better than the show. I don't mean to slam the show, but the game's humor is sharper, a little meaner, and has significantly fewer self-referencing jokes than the toons. The puzzles are easy but still satisfying, and the new episode has a plot that's fun just to think about; all the citizens of Free Country USA decide to claim their own countries, in the same way that StrongBad owns Strongbadia. This leads to tons of political, historical, and geographical gags, perfect for pseudo-intellectual nerds who will laugh at anything said in a 1940s announcer voice."
Braid (Xbox 360, PC)
This game is the brainchild of one man, Jonathan Blow. With just a few collaborators he's made something beautiful, and as far as I'm concerned games in general could benefit from a shrinking of creative input. What you get here is a focused vision with passion oozing out of every pore. The only real fault of the game could be its pretentious writing, but even that is so earnest and embarrassing that it connected me to the gamemaker rather than distancing me from the game. The puzzles Blow constructed are original and maddening and brilliant and oh-so-satisfying to solve. It's somewhat similar in mood to World of Goo--a kind of mysterious, abstract emotional experience accented by deep, pondering music. The last level is an honest-to-goodness work of art that is a very elegant statement about love, loss, and perspective. That level alone is probably the most exciting gaming experience I've had since the last act of Portal, and honestly could have stood alone.
If there's one thing that should scream out to you from this list, it's that downloadable games are turning their collective back on the flashy 3D graphics that have dominated gaming since the N64. Perhaps no game speaks to this as much as Echochrome. This game is technically 3D, but is rendered with no textures in simple black and white lines. The gameplay plays off of the fact that it's a 3D space represented on a 2D plane (your TV screen)--you get a mannequin from point A to point B by rotating the 3D level to make pathways appear to connect from your 2D perspective, like an MC Escher waterfall or whatnot. Elegant game design with a pared-down aesthetic equals a whole lot of win.
Castle Crashers (Xbox 360)
This one seems like it could really be a full release disc game. The basic gameplay is reminiscent of those old arcade beat-em-ups you loved--Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, The Simpsons--with a bunch of RPG-lite features thrown in with upgradable stats and weapons. The visuals are delightfully cartoony 2D with excellent character design (especially in the larger bosses), and it's just a blast to forget about much else than running left and right mashing buttons for a change. It's a great group game that anyone can pick up and play, and there are more unlockables than a... MasterLock factory(?), which gives it a ton of replayability. A welcome throwback to a genre of gaming that has all but expired.