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In an industry where hype is the rule rather than the exception, there is much joy to be found when a title slips under the radar and catches us unaware of  its quality and vision. Knowing that a sleeper hit can delight as much – or more – than the latest blockbuster release, it’s worth celebrating those titles from last year that arrived with little fanfare, but left with a bang.

In the information age, a game that is able to surprise us is a rare treasure indeed. Follow me over the jump to look at some of the games that defied our expectations, or blindsided us with win, in 2009!

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3. Batman: Arkham Asylum

It may seem strange at first to categorize Batman: Arkham Asylum as a sleeper hit, given that it has sold nearly 3 million copies since its release in late August. Rocksteady’s brilliant homage to the Dark Knight is in practically every GOTY discussion and for good reason.

With a unique art style, and much of the voice talent from the animated series, Batman: AA did more than any previous Batman game has done to preserve the gritty, graphic novel feel of the caped crusader’s roots. Metroidvania-style level design and an intuitive but deep combat system made gameplay a joy for tacticians and casual button mashers alike. With a great mix of stealth and combat, the title did more than any previous attempt to capture the true look and feel of being the man behind the cowl.

Knowing what we know now, it’s tougher to call Batman: AA a surprise. However, if you think back to the summer doldrums, there was almost no hype surrounding the release. Expectations were chilly for the title, and the lousy track record for licensed superhero games certainly didn’t help the outlook.

Luckily, the latest incarnation of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego shook off the effects of the industry’s scarecrow fear gas, and delivered one of the strongest performances of the year. It’s no riddle why this title makes the list of pleasant surprises of ’09.

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2. Red Faction : Guerrilla

Hindsight is 20/20. It’s tough now to see how a title with some of the most advanced environmental physics ever seen in a game engine could be so unknown. However, with a glut of anticipated open world titles released in ’09, such as Infamous and Prototype, it’s little wonder that Red Faction: Guerrilla showed up on the scene incognito.

As the reviews rolled in, the love that Volition put into crafting their destructible environments became quickly apparent. Despite taking criticism for everything from story to vehicle controls, the game was still scored universally high.

The ability to dynamically destroy a building, as opposed to relying on arbitrary damage limits and canned animation, may not seem like much on the surface. However, once the controller is in your hand and you’re charged with reducing a stronghold to rubble, the realistic physics make the challenge vastly more strategic and visceral.

A truly fun group of weapons ranging from the trusty sledgehammer (so satisfying) to the disintegrating awesomeness of the Nano Rifle made taking down structures one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences of the year. If you haven’t played it yet, check it out now so that when it becomes the standard for destructible environments you can say you saw where it all began.

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1. Flower

For me, this game represents the most pleasant gaming surprise of the past year. Exclusively downloadable titles have been criminally under-marketed since their arrival on the scene. Despite the success of thatgamecompany’s freshman effort, Flow, very few outside of the indie game scene were experiencing true anticipation for Flower. It sure feels good to be sucker punched at times.

Maybe it was the digital distribution platform, or maybe it was the fact that Flower was thrown without its consent into the center of the ballyhooed “games as art” debate, but to this day, the gaming media often neglects to talk about just how much fun the game actually is.

What could have been dismissed as gimmicky motion controls became one of the finest examples of how Sixaxis can and should be implemented. The gorgeous visuals and elegantly minimalistic control scheme made this title accessible to both hardcore and casual markets. No matter what your skill level or engagement in gaming as a hobby, Flower brought “Zen gaming” into homes across the world.

Bold risk taking, masterful implementation, and a price suited for its length, all drive Flower into not only the best surprises of ’09 category, but also a place in the greatest bite-sized gaming experiences of recent years, along with Portal, Castle Crashers, and Braid. I am so glad that I went into Flower expecting nothing, because what I got delighted me that much more for it.

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Honorable Mention

My honorable mention here has to go to Demon’s Souls. As one of the year’s best games (second only to Dragon Age on the RPG front), I would be remiss not to give a nod to this challenging and refreshing title from the minds of From Software. The reason it doesn’t make my top three biggest surprises of ’09 is that hardcore gamers from coast to coast were building buzz about the difficulty level of this game well before it arrived in the US, so it was squarely on my radar by the time it launched here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it did live up to all the hype prior to its release. It is incredibly fun, while at the same time demanding every ounce of my focus and skill in order to achieve success. I guarantee you that this will be the game that gets me through the lean summer months in 2010.

What about you all? What games blindsided you with win over the past year?

  1. @Kevin
    An actual good movie game tie-in? That was legitimately surprising.

  2. I have to throw Silent Hill: Shattered Memories in there. It ended up being easily my favorite Wii game of the year, and one of the games that stuck with me the most into the new year. After Homecoming, I really didn’t have a lot of hope for the game, but while it has some pretty big flaws, what the game did right far outweighs what it did wrong. And I still think about the story almost every day.

    And 100% agree on Flower. Hell, you’re the guy who finally got me to play it–so thanks for that. I went into it expecting a lot, and I got plenty enough to satisfy my expectations.

  3. avatar Bomba

    For me it’s Dragon Age all the way, the hype was huge, and when i finally got down to playing it i wasnt sure. But after five minutes and i felt the same Baldurs Gate-esk headrush come to me and the shiver up my spine that i was playing something truly monumental, i loved it. What a game.

    • avatar Daniel

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  4. avatar caddy

    Since when did Batman need hype?

    He’s Batman!

  5. avatar walkyourpath

    @caddy — I love Batman. Batman movies don’t need hype. Batman cartoons don’t need hype.

    But Batman games up until Arkham Asylum were a steaming pile of Killer Croc turds. No-one expected Batman : AA to be any good. But now you’re totally right. The next Batman game that Rocksteady puts out will need no hype at all! I know I can’t wait for it.

  6. My biggest surprise was learning of how good Batman AA was, The sheer awesomeness (and difficulty) of Devil Survivor and SMT in general, and how impressed I was that Uncharted 2 improved upon its predecessor in every way ( aka better gunplay, less annoying puzzles, and a better twist that didn’t blindside you )

    Here’s hoping 2010 can top it

  7. Biggest surprise? I’d have to go with Shadow Complex. Sure, it always looked good before it came out, but who thought an XBLA title could be put out with such quality.

    • avatar Mustafaa

      I just finished lennitisg to your 1939 Year-in-Review episode and I absolutely loved it. Wrapping up the year in Batman and incorporating real-life events, entertainment highlights, and music of the era was a brilliant idea. As someone with an interest in history, particularly the mid-20th century, I may be a little biased, but regardless, I’m looking forward to many more Years-in-Review . Along with your regular episodes, of course. Keep up the great work. It’s been motivating me to open up my Golden Age Batman books again.

    • avatar Yulie

      Excelente como sempre!Adoro o Batman, meu fairovto. *_*Esperto vocea ale9m de agradar aproveitou para intimar os alunos para as aulas do ano que vem hahahaBjss

  8. i think the biggest suprise was just how good 09 wass for games, ther was a period when everything was being pushed back that it seemed 09 was going to be a lot of nothing and MW2 but when you look back 09 had some truly awesome titles.

  9. avatar Jordan Garski

    @ Chris
    The rarest of rare, the movie tie-in game was actually more entertaining than the real movie

  10. It’s just a true shame that Shadow Complex is not on this list. Who could have thought that a $15 downloadable game would end up being the best Xbox 360 game of the year. That in itself is probably the biggest shocker of the whole year.

  11. @Shawn — really enjoyed Shadow Complex, and if it was a Top 5 it would have been there without a doubt. The Epic pedigree made it a little less of a surprise to me, but there’s no denying that no-one expected for it to be as successful as it was. Definitely hoping that more devs give us games like it in the future!

  12. My favorite sleeper hit would be Sword of the Berserk. Capcoms Devil May Cry came off as an imitation of this game to me.

    It’s rather inaccurate to suggest that by playing Red Faction: Guerilla you can claim that you were there when the “standard for destructible environments” began. The original Red Faction already set that standard.

  13. @Ferahtsu — The original Red Faction did do a great deal to push environmental physics forward, good call! But there’s also no denying that RF:G set the bar even higher. Maybe “the next evolution of destructible environments” would have been a better turn of phrase? I’m going to pretend I said that to begin with.

    • avatar Iman

      I have finished seniwg seven of them so far. I had to stop because not only does my back ache terribly, but I am tired and starting to make stupid mistakes. And I am desperate for a shower.

  14. avatar Shelly

    All in a piece with being disconnected from the land, from our fameiils and cultures and selves, and so not knowing that beef steak is a cow, that life is real and has different facets and stages to it. Integration too and self awareness. Going within like the tarot reading on sunday. Kung fu with David Carradine, Ged and co in the earthsea books different darknesses embraced, mapped, birthed from, endured, translated: the art of transition. Going towards wholeness and integration not technically but as real people. So many of our films and books dwell in the darkness, as tho there is no story if it isn’t dark. No success if it is not a victory.Again Claire de luna if each of us begins with our own enlightenment (again not a technical thing but real) it is like the monkeys in the Japanese Isalnds where only one washed her potato in the seaI’ve been to hell (or paradise) but I’ve never been to me

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