2012 was a great year for the Xbox Live Arcade. So great, in fact, that for the first time ever we are actually putting together an XBLA Game of the Year list. The XBLA has always been good, but there hasn't been another year like 2012 so full of consistently great games. In the past we would just put the best of the best XBLA titles in our overall Xbox 360 GOTY list, but because there are so many that deserve recognition this year, we thought giving Xbox Live Arcade its own list would be better. The games cost anywhere from 800 ($10) to 1600 Microsoft Points (MSP) ($20) (see tips on earning free Microsoft Points here).
According to Raptr, I have played 160+ hours of Minecraft XBLA this year - most of which was during the Summer as I've been busy with a million other games this Fall. Almost all of that time, I was just mining and building stuff in peaceful mode. I made houses, bridges, castles, evil underwater glass bases, and even a 1-1 model of the University of Idaho's Kibbie Dome (yes, it took tens of thousands of blocks)- what you can build in Minecraft is purely up to your imagination and how much effort you want to put in. What is even crazier is that the state of the game today is vastly different from the Minecraft XBLA I spent 160 hours with. Now there is a creative mode, adventure mode, tons of new items, and more new stuff to do. This is a game I, and millions of other people I'm sure, will be playing for a long time to come. This is unquestionably our 2012 XBLA Game of the Year.
The Walking Dead won't impress you with its simple point-and-click adventure-style gameplay, but it will absolutely win you over with a great story and fantastic characters brought to life with awesome visuals and voice acting. The story is so engrossing and touching, and the choices you make regarding the characters you grow to know and love so heart wrenching, that it is more than enough to make the game a fantastic experience even if the gameplay isn't special. The whole five episode package, as a full 10+ hour story, is one of the greatest story driven experiences videogames have produced yet.
3. Dust: An Elysian Tail - 1200 MSP ($15)
We're always up for a new Metroidvania-style game, and Dust: An Elysian Tail definitely scratches that itch. It stumbles a bit in the loot and exploration and story aspects, but greatly succeeds where it counts - great presentation and a genuinely fun combat system. This is a seriously gorgeous looking game, and the promise of seeing some new beautiful piece of background art is the carrot that keeps you playing. A nicely challenging "oldschool" jump in difficulty in the latter half of the game also helps keep you hooked on the gameplay, even if the anthropomorphic talking animals in the story might have you rolling your eyes. It is still a lengthy, fun, well presented game overall, however, that fans of the genre will enjoy.
4. Trials Evolution - 1200 MSP ($15)
Trials Evolution is basically a modern day Excitebike - you speed off crazy jumps and angle your motorcycle so it safely lands on the other side and you can keep going as fast as possible - but man is it fun in spite of its simple premise. The gameplay is challenging. The presentation is awesome (and we even love the goofy raps when you boot up the game). And it is absolutely packed with content. Lots of levels, plus a level editor. Fun multiplayer. Trials Evolution is addictive and satisfying and absolutely incredible overall.
5. Spelunky - 1200 MSP ($15)
Spelunky is one of the most devilishly addictive and challenging 2D platformers ever. The randomly generated levels are filled with enemies and traps and other perils, and your main objective is just to get to the exit, which isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. Despite having crisp and near-perfect controls, this game is bloody hard. The more you play, however, the more skills you build up that help you overcome the difficulty. At least, until the next level that presents a whole new set of challenges. The feeling of constant improvement, despite the fact that you're failing and dying every 30 seconds or so, keeps you addicted and playing for hours.
6. Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown - 1200 MSP ($15)
For the depth of gameplay, quantity of content, and overall quality of the full package, Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is easily the best fighting game of the year. And it wasn't a full-priced disc release, it was a $15 XBLA download. Sure, the original Virtua Fighter 5 was released on Xbox 360 five years ago, but Final Showdown has the benefit of five years of polish and refinements and additions that make it vastly superior to the original version. Virtua Fighter isn't exactly a pick-up-and-play "button mashy" fighter, but if you put in the effort to learn to play it properly, it is one of the most satisfying fighters you'll ever play, and Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown is easily the best one yet.
7. Mark of the Ninja - 1200 MSP ($15)
Who would have ever predicted that one of the best stealth games of the year would be a 2D sidescrolling platformer. Mark of the Ninja makes sneaking through the shadows amazingly intuitive and fun. Going for a no alert, no kill playtrhough - the holy grail of any stealth game - is actually doable and fun for mere mortals here, unlike most stealth games. Not to say that it is easy, but the gameplay is just so sharp and the levels so well designed that playing the "right way" is a rewarding challenge that stealth vets and casual fans will both enjoy.
8. Rock Band Blitz - 1200 MSP ($15)
Plastic instrument music games have fallen out of favor in recent years (probably due for a comeback in the future, though), so for its new Rock Band release Harmonix dropped the fake instruments and went back to its Amplitude and Frequency rhythm game roots. Instead of trying to make you feel like you're really playing the song, Rock Band Blitz goes back to the oldschool rhythm game days of tapping standard controller buttons, sort of in time with the music, all in the name of racking up high scores. It is addictive and fun and a blast to play. Even better, you probably already have a huge library of Rock Band DLC that you can use in this game, so there is no reason not to give it a try.
9. Fez - 800 MSP ($10)
Fez is certainly the most artsy title on this list, but any possible pretentiousness is excused thanks to its fascinating gameplay. Fez is a 2D platformer at heart, but it is built in a 3D world, and by hitting a trigger button you rotate the world to see another side of it. For example, you might be climbing a tree but run out of branches going up. By rotating to the right, however, you see another side of the tree that has new branches to climb. The whole game is designed around this concept of looking at things from a new angle. The gameplay is purely 2D, but the plaatforming and puzzles are 3D and some require a fair bit of creative and clever thinking on your part to figure out. The game has a unique 8-bit art style that is very appealing as well as a fantastic soundtrack. Fez is fresh and interesting and unique and worth a look.
10. Alan Wake's American Nightmare - 1200 MSP ($15)
Remedy follows up Alan Wake with more of the same action / horror gameplay in a new setting. It doesn't quite match the presentation or story highs of the original Alan Wake, but it does offer unquestionably better gameplay thanks to vastly improved level designs and more interesting weaponry. The horror aspects do take a backseat, unfortunately, but it is still plenty creepy and fun. The visuals are also very nice for an XBLA game, and you do get a decent amount of content, which makes Alan Wake's American Nightmare one of the best XBLA titles of the year.