As someone who doesn't own a 360, PS3, or PC capable of running anything cutting edge, I mostly watch and follow the videogame industry from the outside. While I can't give personal accounts for the majority of the big games that came out this year, I can attempt an overview and retrospective.
There was a lot of talk toward the end of 2007 about how it was one of the best years for gaming in history. Certainly it was a strong year, with titles like Super Mario Galaxy, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, BioShock, Mass Effect, the Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Persona 3, and Assassin's Creed all garnering strong sales and interesting critical discourse. Yet 2008 has been equally strong: Grand Theft Auto IV, LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears of War 2, Mirror's Edge, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Fallout 3, Fable 2, Dead Space, Soul Calibur IV, Left 4 Dead, Persona 4, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft, Devil May Cry 4, Resistance 2, Valkyria Chronicles, Prince of Persia, and No More Heroes all came out this year. Now that we're effectively two years into this console cycle, all the big titles are starting to flood in.
The thing that most immediately sticks out in my mind about 2008 is how few of the 'big' titles of the year were original IPs. It's true that this is the case for most years, but 2008 moreso than others. Look how many numbers are in that list. Even Smash Brothers and Prince of Persia, despite lacking numbers, are sequels. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one could argue that if 2007 wasn't a stronger year, it at least had more originality. Portal and BioShock alone were amazing and new, unlike anything we had played before. At the same time, the industry is growing both in terms of breadth and depth. It really is starting to resemble the movie industry with each year, such that you get mass market games, family games, triple AAA blockbusters, and hardcore niche games that resemble the small budget/indie film scene.
Whatever the end of this generation is like, I feel like 2008 was the year the Playstation 3 began to come into its own and the Wii to wane, at least from a hardcore gamer's standpoint. With three excellent exclusive titles--Metal Gear Solid IV, LittleBigPlanet, and Valkyria Chronicles--the PS3 is finally shaping up to be a system worth owning. At the same time, the Wii has hit its peak with the releases of the inevitable Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing sequels. But all of them are barely different from their Gamecube incarnations. Thus the dilemma of Nintendo: they do such a good job of making sure that they release a title from their major franchises on each new platform, but they rarely take any chances with them or establish new IPs. With games/non-games like Wii Fit and Wii Music coming out this year, and Wii Play still being one of the top sellers for the console, one has to wonder why anyone would bother developing for the Wii. Original games aimed at the hardcore like No More Heroes and Zak and Wiki do alright, but looking forward to 2009, there isn't much to devour. MadWorld, sure, but what else??
As for the 360, Microsoft continues to do their best to diversify the lineup. Even if they aren't selling as well as the Wii, you have to hand it to the company for doing much better this time out. Yes, the Red Ring of Death continues to be a problem, and they still ought to make Xbox Live free...but gamewise, they're hitting it out of the park. Starting with the original Xbox they've done fantastic with courting PC developers to focus on the console experience and so a lot of the exclusive titles would, in another lifetime, have been PC only or console ports. Meanwhile, Microsoft has tried to win a foothold in Japan with RPGs of relative quality like Tales of Vesperia and Lost Odyssey. And both the classic and indie titles released on the Live store have been like love letters to the hardcore gamer, from thought provoking original titles like Braid to much-desired ports of classic games like Rez, Ikaruga, Super Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, and the original Soul Calibur. Meanwhile, they're also trying to appeal to the Wii crowd with things like Lips and the New Xbox Experience, with its Mii-aping Avatars and NetFlix. The 360 may suffer at times from this "we need to appeal to everyone at the same time" approach, but that strategy worked pretty well for the PS2.
I don't have much to say about the PC or PS2. I broke down and bought The Orange Box two weeks ago and am loving that, but otherwise I'm out of the loop. The PC as a platform has been going through a strange period of change, with the Steam download service leading the charge into the new era of digital delivery and not using DRM. The PS2 is nearing the end of its life but seems to still get at least one gem per year, with Persona 4 being a surprisingly quick sequel and one of the year's most unsung games. That it is probably the best jRPG of the year says a lot about how slow Japan has been to embrace the 'next gen' consoles.
On the portable front, the PSP is still a dumping place for ports, but 2008, as with the PS3, saw the handheld getting exclusives like God of War: Chains of Olympus, Patapon, and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The DS has an excellent back catalog of great games but spent most of 2008 coasting on good will and excellent ports. Still, it had a slew of either excellent new IPs or sequels, such as Professor Layton and the Curious Village, The World Ends With You, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Space Invaders Extreme, and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. And you can't be mad at a system that had ports of Dragon Quest IV and Chrono Trigger in the same year.
The last thing I want to talk about is the ever evolving arena of games criticism. I don't know that, score-wise, people are getting tougher on games. But overall, critics are doing a better job critiquing both the minute details of games as well as the big picture aspects. It's no longer unacceptable to say you don't like big new titles like Mirror's Edge as long as you can intelligently explain why. Sadly, this is something that most often only comes through on podcasts, personal blogs, and streaming video shows, but at least it comes. Gone are the days where everyone would give every new Final Fantasy or Zelda level title a near perfect or perfect score and no complaints or misgivings would be aired. As the level of an artform increases, so must criticism and a thoughtful response to said art. I not only look forward to 2009 games like Heavy Rain, but I look forward to what critics will have to say. Cheers.
(Note: throughout the remainder of 2008, I'll be posting a handful of retrospective articles like this. They'll all have the tag '2008.' I'll be on vacation for a bit toward the end of the year, so I'll probably just post an article or two looking back on the first year of Whiskey Pie at that point)