News flash: Despite what you may have heard (e.g. game industry sales are up 54% year-to-date, PlayStation Home will r0x0r your world, etc.), truthfully, it’s been pretty slow lately in the interactive entertainment biz. Or rather, it has at retail, with software publishers loathe to ship next-generation titles which cost $15 million to make and must sell 500,000 copies on average to break even during this period, traditionally a slow one for silicon-happy shoppers. This being the case, exciting as the arrival of long-awaited gems for various systems new and old like Crackdown, MotorStorm and God of War II is, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Some of the most exciting developments in joystick jabbing are happening not at your local GameStop or EB, but rather out in cyberspace, as digital distribution platforms such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Store and Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console finally come into their own. That’s right; for pennies on the dollar – typically $5-$15, to be exact – you can hop online and grab exclusive, first-run outings and enhanced versions of at-home/arcade classics delivered straight to your couch. Accessible any time of day or night, such smash hits aren’t just a great way to enjoy instant gratification, revisit with old favorites and supporting a burgeoning independent game development scene. They’re also, in many cases (e.g. classic card game Uno and psychedelic, thumb-number Boom Boom Rocket, both available for Xbox 360 now), a great way to introduce newcomers to the hobby. With the release of truly eye-opening outings like BioShock and Assassin’s Creed still several months off, now’s the perfect time to catch up on any must-see titles you may have missed, or start saving by investing in bite-sized alternatives to current blockbuster romps. Here are several top contenders we’d recommend for each of today’s hottest consoles, each accessible by its manufacturer’s respective online networking service, and all guaranteed to keep you happily parked in front of that big-screen TV for hours on end: PLAYSTATION 3 Gran Turismo HD Concept – Originally planned to be released as a full retail title as reported in last year’s Tokyo Game Show wrap-up, this high-definition revamp of past, award-winning Gran Turismo racing title is now available exclusively online. Capable of being enjoyed in 1080p, you also can’t beat the price: It’s 100% free. fl0w – Evolve an aquatic organism in this highly surreal outing while enjoying the magic of 1080p visuals and 5.1 surround sound. While we’d never endorse playing under the influence, let’s just say if there’s one title here Jerry Garcia would appreciate most, it’s this puppy. Lemmings – The classic puzzler in which helpless rodents trudge along to their doom, with players frantically attempting to insert stairs, bridge gaps and otherwise prevent them from unwittingly committing suicide. Fresh features include 40 new levels, and the presence of cloning and teleport machines. Crash Bandicoot – Though not an official mascot for Sony, this corny character might as well have been, with his debut run-n-jump romp for the PSOne an all-time favorite. Download then dump to your PSP to see why the button-bashing tale remains playable and exciting as ever. WII Bonk’s Revenge – Few got the chance to play this pleasingly goofy outing – starring a caveman with an oversized head who uses his cranium to crush ditzy dinosaur foes – when it debuted for the TurboGrafx-16 in 1990. We highly recommend you join the ranks of the initiated. Donkey Kong Country – The defining side-scrolling outing for the Super Nintendo system might not be as graphically impressive as it was when first launched in 1994, but it’s still pretty darn enjoyable. Fire it up and watch your family go positively ape over it. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Here’s hoping you’ve got some patience: This awe-inspiring fantasy dungeon crawl, one of the finest ever produced on any platform, will leave longtime fans of swordsman Link and newcomers alike glued to the television set for weeks on end. Super Mario 64 – A defining moment for the Nintendo 64, and the first game to truly show that classic butt-stomping, power-up-snatching fun could translate effectively into the third dimension. Worth admiring if only to see how it’s influenced every 3D adventure since.
XBOX 360 Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – The first game to formally transform this once purely arcade-style, horror-themed franchise (in which you hop around beating the snot out of campy creepy-crawlies) into a sprawling action/role-playing series, it’s also an absolute must-play. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Back in 1989, this side-scrolling animated beat ‘em up, in which the heroes in a half shell combine forces to kick the crap out of Shredder’s goons, was a bowling alley staple. Now, it’s also a surefire living room sensation. Worms – Simple concept, detailed execution: Controlling teams of heavily-armed cartoon annelids, take turns blowing the backsides off opponents using bazookas, grenades and exploding sheep. Up to four can enjoy the zany, yet shockingly strategic fun. Alien Hominid HD – An online favorite, this former Flash diversion – starring a quirky, yet homicidal little yellow extraterrestrial – tasks you with single-handedly slaughtering half the free world. Now comes with 720p HD visuals, multi-player support and four-man mini-games. Scott Steinberg is the author of Videogame Marketing and PR co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual and managing director of Embassy Multimedia Consultants.
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