The Games Of Christmas: December 22nd

By RPS on December 22nd, 2009 at 2:43 pm.

Chriiiiiiiistmas.

There seems little doubt that gardening is the new videogames. Even videogames have accepted this truth, as evidenced by the entry in the latest window of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. That said, no one is going to make the disembodied hand of the one true leader of the Autobots do any pruning, at least not at this time of year…

Plants Versus Zombies!

Jim: I feel like this is one of the outer markers of the casual region of gaming. It, along with a bunch of other notables, represent a point at which the idea of making simple, low budget games start to come back into the arena of significant gaming experiences. We’ve always had those games, of course, but the success of this was down, I think, to the build quality of it. All Popcap’s game tend to have a robust plastic toy solidity to them, and that was really obvious here. Plants Vs Zombies was one of those games that felt complete and whole. It was immediately comprehensible and extremely knowable. While there were stacks of extensions in additional game modes, the story was extremely digestible, and not too much to get through in a couple of sessions. Also – arguably – it was fairly funny.

Celebrating the so-called “casual” games seems to have become routine for lists like this, and I suspect that’s because gamers and developers are starting to realise that games from all tiers of technology and budgetary ambition are actually valuable to the larger scheme of being a gamer. After all, something like PvZ would have been a mainstream monster just a few years earlier in my life, and now it sits at the sort of mid tier: not exactly aspirational, but still something we’re happy to pay money for.

Watching the Lady Rossignol sit and finish this in a single sitting – demanding that I bring her caffeine and sustenance to sustain the planting – was one of the most warming sights of the year. It’s unusual for us to agree on games, especially PC games, but it’s happened twice this year. Once with The Sims 3, and once with Plants Vs Zombies. That alone makes me salute it, and carry on planting.

Kieron: I’d argue Plants Vs Zombies is PopCap’s most – for want of better terminology – hardcore-aimed game ever. Well – except the Half-Life Peggle, of course. Zombies and Tower Defence, with a few Portal-esque tricks – the theme song, for example. This was a game which can most easily be judged just as we’d any normal game. I think the key thing for me was the mass of challenge modes and alternate plays. Frankly, a lot of these challenge games would be enough for the lower-level of webgame content. This was less a game, than a compendium. It offered a lot of – to go back of the box for a second – gameplay.

I loved it, but haven’t gone back to it. Not because I walked away from the game, but because – somewhat oddly – it walked away from me. Playing on the press copy, working my way through the challenges, I found one morning that all the challenges has been completed, presumably unlocked. Problem with that, it suddenly seemed entirely pointless to play and beat them considering I had the badges already. It was like going bird-spotting with a filled in I-Spy book. So I went back to play the real copy… and then I had to go through the whole game unlocking everything to get to the challenges. And this is where it fails as a hardcore crossover game – to get to the most interesting content I had to go through the six-hours of the basic campaign. I tried it a little, but never found the will to go all the way through again. Which is annoying, when you know there’s interesting experiences there you can’t reach. It’s like hearing my friends talk about their WoW raids now. Great stuff. I’d like a crack. But – y’know – how many hours to level a character to play with them? If the journey there isn’t interesting, I’m never getting to that destination.

Which leaves me a little sad when I think of PvZ. But then I recall the dancing Zombie Michael Jackson, and smile again. It was 2009 at its best.

Alec: I’m finding this incredibly hard to write about now. When PvZ came out, it was a moment in gaming-time: Popcap being Valve, masters of marketing, silliness and songs. Now they’re kind of back to being the Bejeweled guys again: but I’m sure they’ll win me back. Because that’s PvZ’s most timeless triumph: proof that this is a truly mighty, progressive developer, and the only reason they’re not consistently this good is because they choose not to be. They’ve got their guaranteed money-spinners, but once in a while they’ll do a Peggle or a PvZ and prove they’re absolutely the masters of the (for lack of a better term) casual art.

I don’t think I could play PvZ again now – the need to begin over, in those now-tedious early levels, due to reinstalls and – but in May it was pretty much all I could think about. The majesty of Tall-Nut (whose baleful glare is still my Twitter icon), everyone sharing their zombified avatars, cheery discussion of the best plant combos and how to beat the climatic challenges, and the prevalence of That Song. A moment in time. Not many games achieve so grand a takeover. Popcap can be so good that they actively frighten me.

John: I find my brain does not differentiate between “casual” and “mainstream” games. It thinks in terms of “good” or “bad” games. Plants Vs. Zombies is a good game.

I’ve never clicked with the Tower Defence genre. But PvZ did straight away. Certainly because it was far simpler, but also because it was more immediately about enjoying myself. My big criticism of the game remains that it was too easy, that it never escalated its difficulty to the point where I faced any serious challenge, and that’s still true. But despite this I was always enjoying myself. Sometimes it’s a pleasure to play a game that’s quite easy, so long as it’s consistently interesting, and here this was definitely the case.

Jim alludes to this, but I think there’s something disingenuous about filing a game like Plants Vs. Zombies in the high-walled segment of the Great Gaming Venn Diagram marked “Casual”. If this were released in 1993 it would have been called a “Puzzle game” or similar. And it absolutely could have been released in 1993, albeit less pretty. The concept behind it is so very basic, but compellingly fun. Hmm, well, I say “compellingly”, but I’ve not gone back to it. And I think, like Kieron, this is in a large part because I don’t fancy playing through the first half of the game a second time. (I too played it on review code that expired once it was out.) That’s problematic, I suppose. But then that first play through brought me much happiness.

I love that PopCap were willing to make a game like this. The temptation must be there to just churn out more Bejeweleds and Chuzzles. Well, the temptation is there to do that, and they do, a lot. And presumably these are downloaded millions more times as a result. But there’s also room for a Bookworm Adventures and a Plants Vs. Zombies. I’m sure they’re still highly profitable, but I’m convinced they’re not nearly as monstrously popular as the straight lunchtime puzzle games. And I love that the extra mile is gone. The song, the animation for the song, the ludicrous notes from the zombies, the vast number of minigames and extras. So once more, the song:

, .

47 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    I thought this would be behind #24.

    FAILED.

    • CMaster says:

      I don’t see anything other than Dragon Age being no.24

    • Wooly says:

      Well of course! It’s the RPS of the decade!

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      They still have Dragon Age and TF2 to go…

    • Meat Circus says:

      TF2 was not a 2009 game, smelly boy.

      Much as I adored the 60 hours I sunk into DA:O, I knew Plants vs Zombies, Senator, and it was no Plants Vs. Zombies.

    • Jad says:

      TF2 didn’t come out this year.

      I’m trying to think of what the last two games would be. Dragon Age I’m sure will be in there, but are there any more big name releases that RPS loved? I can’t imagine that they’ll do Modern Warfare 2, they already got Batman and DOW II and …

      Oh, maybe it’ll be Braid. That was a 2009 release for PC. Did RPS like that game? I don’t remember lots of coverage of it. Kieron liked it, but not as much as World of Goo, and there wasn’t much talk about it after those impressions.

      Its my 2009 game of the year, anyway.

    • bookwormat says:

      Hmm, is this a ranked best-of list, where the game at #24 is supposed to be better than the game at #22? I would be very disappointed if that was the case.

    • CMaster says:

      @Bookwormat

      According to KG in one of the earlier comment threads, the 24 games featured here are the Hivemind’s favourite games of the year in no particular order. The final one revealed however is the RPS GOTY

  2. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    According to Steam, this was my most played singleplayer game in 2009. And I loved every minute of it.

  3. Clovis says:

    Tall-nut is tall

  4. Wazzle says:

    Oh man, this was undoubtedly my favorite game that came out in 2009. Everything about it was just…incredible.

  5. Sacred_flame101 says:

    it is a great game but i never had the drive to go through it once more, which is a shame i might have to go back over these holidays

  6. FunkyB says:

    I’m holding off playing again until it comes out on the iPhone, at which point I will lose another few weeks in that damn Zen garden…

  7. Gnoupi says:

    On Keiron’s point about this game being the most targetted to hardcore gamers from all Popcap games, I would add that even pricing has obviously been made in this direction.

    From the official site, PvZ is at a regular PopCap price, 20$.
    From Steam, the exact same game is at 10$.

    To me, this was a move to match the hardcore gamer audience, which is much less likely to spend more than 10 dollars in what looks like a “small game” to them (and much more likely to complain like “this is not worth such price§§§§§§”).

    • jsutcliffe says:

      That’s interesting — I think the Steam price is more likely to be a way for Valve to attract a different demographic to their service, but your hypothesis sounds reasonable too.

  8. jsutcliffe says:

    PvZ is my PC game of the year, which kind of weirds me out — I don’t think of myself as a casual gamer by any stretch and I don’t even like tower defence games, but this game oozed so much charm, and was clearly assembled with love, that it completely won me over.

    edited to add in response to Alec and John’s allusions to PopCap being a Bejeweled factory: PopCap recently filed a trademark for “Robo Dojo” — who’s not excited to see what that ends up being, eh?

  9. Arathain says:

    I played this a lot, but my wife really went (tall) nuts over it. It’s actually been a fantastic weapon in my insidious attempt to turn her into a gamer (which is going very well, although I feel the Facebook games are really a retrograde step for her).

    I don’t think you can successfully talk about the game without highlighting how much charm it exudes. Not just the song, but the facial expressions on the plants (a whole article on Tall Nut!), the little descriptions for every plant and zombie, Crazy Dave’s babblings, the PvZ versions of PopCap classics… on and on.

    That it was a really good, enjoyable, spectacular (as in, full of spectacle) game helped a lot.

  10. teo says:

    Bought it but haven’t played it yet.
    Like most games on this list =(

  11. BooleanBob says:

    Proud inductee of the Captain Pugwash “How’d They Sneak That Past The Censors?!” In Your Endo Hall of Fame (go on, re-read the almanac entry for Garlic. You’ll never think of PopCap the same way again).

    Consistenly hilarious and ridiculously enjoyable. If this is casual gaming, and casual gaming is the future, then it is a future we need not fear.

  12. AbyssUK says:

    My GOTY too, man I even grew my knowledge tree to 100ft! and I still haven’t seen the yetti zombie!

  13. Max says:

    I liked Plants Vs. Zombies a lot, but I hate that it has little to no replay value (unlike other Popcap games). Once you figure out your optimal strategy it becomes a lot more boring since you’re just following the same plan over and over again.

  14. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    I had fun playing this game but it all felt too simple and without a challenge to me.

  15. gulag says:

    Did Dwarf Fortress get a revamp/release/update this year?

    Could be DF.

    Could be.

    Just sayin’…

    • PleasingFungus says:

      Sorry, Gulag! DF has gotten no update for the past 15 months. Looks like the next release will come out within a month or so, but almost certainly not in the next four days!

      DF’s a great game, but it’s not a 2009 one.

  16. Premium User Badge

    oceanclub says:

    As mentioned, the problem with PvZ is that, if you lose your save games – or don’t have access to them on another machine – it’s really disheartening having to play through the early levels again. It’s a game absolutely crying out for Steam Cloud functionality.

    P.

  17. RagingLion says:

    Oh wow, you’re totally right. I think I must have read over that description without noticing. I did love the descriptions in general, somehow every single one of them got a chuckle out of me.

  18. Nova says:

    Was pretty underwhelmed by this maybe because of the countless WarCraft III Tower Wars and Tower Defence maps I played.
    After the long demo I had more than enough of that game.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Lambchops says:

    Yay for Plants Vs Zombies and yay for Bookworm Adventures 2. I’m happy with Popcap releasing shite every week if they can release two such enjoyable addictive games in a year.

    Like many have said I doubt i’ll ever go back to it (at least not for a year or two when I go hmm what was that game again) but for one month from the instant that trailer was played it became an addiction. ‘Twas silly enjoyable fun.

  20. Chris says:

    ‘Get ready to soil your plants’

    Oh my god.

  21. TooNu says:

    I bought a copy of this for my GF and within 2 hours I had bought a copy for myself aswell. It’s so much fun and it is really cheap so if you haven’t allready go and buy it as a gift because anybody can and will enjoy this game. I love it.

  22. Vinraith says:

    It’s a cute game, but the campaign is too long and too samey and, neat as the puzzle modes and other extras are, they got old pretty fast for me. If i hadn’t been burnt out on the base mechanics by having to slog through the campaign I might have gotten a bit more play out of things like survival mode and the excellent I, Zombie puzzle mode, which are a lot more fun.

    As to 23 and 24, one is obviously Dragon Age (as others have said). I think it’s possible the other will be Trine, which I’m playing at the moment and which I’m surpried to find I really like. I’d thought I was pretty much done with platformers, but Trine is giving me serious second thoughts about that.

  23. illuvatar says:

    It’s the only ‘casual’ game that I actually played until the end. And further.

    Great game. Bring me more, jewel company.

  24. Ian says:

    Loved a bit of Plants vs Zombies. I didn’t get as much play out of it as some did but I really liked it while it lasted but it is a splendid thing.

  25. Deez Nuts says:

    Fun casual game. Not good for long stretches of gaming but in quick bites between other things. And that music video. How could anything about the walking undead be more cute?

  26. Heliosicle says:

    You know, I never even finished it, it just got tiring for me, and I have NO IDEA WHY, I love it, but I have no demand from it to finish it.

  27. Radiant says:

    The thing with PvZ is that you start a game and look up 4 hours later like wtf just happened to my life???

  28. Radiant says:

    Also garlic and massive multi directional gas mushrooms for the win.

  29. Shadowcat says:

    I tried the PvZ demo, and it bored me. Maybe I just didn’t play enough levels to get hooked, but I just couldn’t see the appeal. It all seemed a bit tedious.

    Never mind — one fewer game on my huge pile of games to play isn’t such a bad thing!

  30. malkav11 says:

    This is the third game PopCap has made that I actually like, and it’s easily the best of the bunch. (The others being, in order, Insaniquarium and Bookworm Adventures – probably Bookworm Adventures 2 as well, but that’s barely a separate game and I haven’t played it anyway.)

    I just don’t go in for their super-casual score-chasing games, and Peggle less than any of them. I’ve tried them, of course. Might as well. But they don’t click with me, because scores are not an impetus for me to do things and there’s next to no gameplay meat on them thar bones.

  31. Random says:

    Honestly, I have to say either this or Braid is my game of the year. Although I can’t play this game at all anymore, it completely dominated pretty much the entire end of spring for me. Braid was amazing, but not as obsessive.
    On another note, I feel Trine should be on this list somewhere, but it’s probably not likely seeing as there are only two doors left, one of which I feel will go to DA:O and the other Brutal Legend.
    Second side note, Door 9 appears to have broken, and I forget what was behind it. Anyone remember?

    • Vinraith says:

      @Random

      DA:O’s a given, Brutal Legend didn’t come out on PC so won’t be on this list. I’m hoping Trine gets that remaining spot, personally.

    • Oak says:

      It doesn’t look like they’ve done Anno either.

    • Vinraith says:

      @Oak

      True, but while that would certainly be on MY list, my sense is that Jim was the only one that really dug it of the RPS four.

  32. MastodonFarm says:

    I played the crap out of the PvZ demo, bought the game, then discovered that I had pretty much gotten my fill of the concept by the end of the demo.

    But that video makes me glad I gave Popcap my money anyway. I love it when games companies give their creative people the freedom to do fun pointless stuff like that.