VGBlogger Downloadable Game Buyer’s Guide 2010

The final week before Christmas is well underway, and if you’re still looking for last minute gift ideas, digital download outlets are an ideal source for affordable games that you can purchase from the comfort of your home console or PC.

On the PC side, Steam is your best bet in terms of value and the ability to gift individual games to others. Steam’s final holiday sale kicked off on Monday, and many of the games you’ll find discussed here can be found for a fraction of the price of their console counterparts. On the console side, PSN and XBLA have some incredible holiday discounts going on this week, and while neither service offers gifting of specific games, gift / points cards are readily available (or you can simply add funds to your virtual wallet). Some outlets like GameStop and Amazon even sell download codes for certain games, so do a quick search around and you may just find what you’re looking for. Sony’s budding PlayStation Plus service is also proving to be a tremendous value thanks to monthly free game offers and discounts, so a subscription to that should certainly make any PS3 owner happy.

For the purposes of this guide, I will tell you about some of my top downloadable game picks for 2010 and hopefully help you pick out the perfect game for yourself or gaming loved one. Obviously, there are many great games I may have missed throughout the year. So if you have a personal game recommendation or come across a great holiday deal, we’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments.

Now, to the games!

Quake Arena Arcade (XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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Old-school multiplayer FPS fraggin’ arrives just in time for the holidays in id and BethSoft’s new Quake III: Arena remake for Xbox Live Arcade. Quake Arena Arcade comes fully outfitted with loads of content to keep you busy well into next year, including 16-player online support, 30+ maps, six match types, offline play with bots, and even a brand new single-player ‘campaign’ (don’t get too excited, though, the campaign is really just a glorified series of bot matches). While modern gamers fixated on the latest Halo and Call of Duty titles with all their perks and experience systems and high-end graphics will likely find the singular gameplay focus and simplistic graphics and mechanics to be antiquated, anyone who came up through the mid to late 90s PC FPS scene will find themselves right at home with this game’s fast-twitch, skill-based shooting action, gladiatorial spirit, hyper-speed pacing and silky smooth framerate. Quake Arena’s brand of speedy twitch shooting isn’t as well suited for a console controller as it is a mouse and keyboard, but with some sensitivity tuning and offline practice, you’ll be fraggin’ online with the big boys in no time – and you’ll be enjoying every second of it!

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (PC – $14.99, PSN – $14.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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Who would’ve ever guessed that an isometric action/puzzle game would turn out to be the best Tomb Raider game ever made? OK, so technically Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a spin-off and not a full Tomb Raider game. But it stars Lara Croft, and you are raiding tombs, so…yeah, my point stands. This game is deeply compelling as a single-player affair, with its intense arcade-style action, clever puzzles, sharp graphics, sweeping adventure score, and rewarding scoring system. But as a co-op experience, it is even more brilliant. When a friend picks up a second controller (or you hook up with random players online), the interplay between Lara and her new companion, Totec, is cooperative magic. Each character is equipped with different gear and abilities, and the process of figuring out how to combine their talents to solve puzzles and overcome the treacheries of ancient tombs builds camaraderie and tension unlike any other co-op game I’ve played of late. Regardless of your view of the Tomb Raider franchise as a whole, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is a must play all the way.

Zen Pinball + DLC Tables (PSN – $9.99, $2.49 per DLC table):
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OK, you caught me. Zen Pinball did come out last year, so technically it probably shouldn’t have made this list. But there is a very good reason behind my decision to include it as part of this year’s top downloadable game library. Zen Pinball, Zen Studios’ PSN compliment to Pinball FX on XBLA, may have launched a year ago, but it really came into its own in 2010 thanks to a wealth of DLC tables. The four original tables and the game’s ball physics and flipper feel were already something special from the outset, but the five tables released since – Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, Mars, Excalibur, Earth Defense and Paranormal (plus the Street Fighter II table from last year) – have taken the game to new heights. Whether you spend $10 for the base game or $25 for the whole set (or $2.49 for individual tables of interest), your money is getting you what is inarguably the best pinball suite on the PS3.

Pinball FX2 (XBLA – Free download plus 200 MS Points per table or 800 MS Points each for Core and Classic table bundles):
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Speaking of Pinball FX, Zen Studios followed up its original XBLA pinball hit with a sequel this year, and what an impressive sequel it turned out to be. The enhancements to the graphics, ball physics, scoring system and community features are all worthy of praise, but my favorite thing about PFX2 is the way it unifies Zen’s XBLA content under a single platform. The core PFX2 interface is completely free to download, and from there you are free to play trial versions of individual tables and then purchase the ones you want. What’s also great is that if you have already purchased the original PFX and any of its DLC offerings, you can import them into PFX2 at no charge and play them anew with all of the extra bells and whistles.

Marvel Pinball (PSN – $9.99, XBLA – 800 MS Points):
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Hey look! Another great pinball game from Zen Studios! And if you’re a fan of comics, this one will surely be your favorite, as you ping that shiny chrome ball around tables themed after Wolverine, Spider-Man, Blade and Iron Man and do battle with their most hated villains. Marvel Pinball combines all the best elements of Zen Pinball and Pinball FX2 into a single pinball package fit for a superhero; so yes, you can fully expect the top of the line ball physics, innovative table designs, flashy lighting effects and robust community features that Zen’s pinball games are known and loved for. What’s more, the XBLA version has released under the Pinball FX2 banner and is playable within that unified platform, whereas the PSN version is a standalone title. This gives the XBLA version a slight edge – and leaves me hoping that Zen will cook up a Zen Pinball 2 and bring a similar unification to its PSN content. Are you listening, Zen? Please, please, pretty please!

X-Men: The Arcade Game (PSN – $9.99, XBLA – 800 MS Points):
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Alright, Marvel fans. If pinball doesn’t float your boat, have a go with X-Men: The Arcade Game, Konami’s port of the arcade beat-‘em-up of the early 90s. X-Men never quite achieved the legendary status of other side-scrolling brawlers like Golden Axe, Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but for many it is still recognized as a classic of that era, and this port treats the game with the care and respect it deserves. Straightforward button mashing is the name of the game here, as you and upwards of three to five other players (the game supports four players locally and six players online) pound through waves of Sentinels and battle super villains like The Blob, Juggernaut, Magneto and Mystique as your favorite X-Men members (Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, Cyclops, Colossus or Dazzler). Konami tossed in widescreen support and HD smoothing, but don’t worry, purists; you can leave the pixilated graphics and aspect ratio as they were and soak in the retro flavor if you so desire. My only concern is with the online play. Early on, the servers are having trouble providing a consistently smooth online experience. Game to game, the lag varies from stable to wildly laggy, to the point of being unplayable at its worst moments. If you plan to rely on Xbox Live / PSN for your multiplayer needs, you may want to hold off for the time being until all the kinks get banged out. But for solo brawling and local superhero co-op, this game is a smashing retro treat.

Hamsterball (PSN – $9.99):
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Marble Madness and Super Monkey Ball meet cute and cuddly hamsters in this delightful platform racing romp. Hours of giggling commence as you guide hamsters along on their journey barreling down tricky obstacle courses safely (or so they thought!) inside their little roller balls in a frantic race to the finish line. A deeper selection of multiplayer modes would’ve made this a rousing party game, but as is, its many single-player levels and split-screen play are perfect for instant pick-up-and-play fun for gamers of all ages.

Rocket Knight (PC – $14.99, PSN – $14.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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Sparkster, everyone’s favorite opossum knight, is back for his first adventure in over a decade, and while he may not have the same iconic stature of platform mascots like Mario, Kirby, Donkey Kong and Sonic, he still puts on a whale of a hop-and-bop show. Konami’s Rocket Knight revival is bursting with inventive 2.5D platforming and vibrant graphics so crisp and so colorful you won’t believe your eyes. Seriously, this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played all year – and thankfully it plays like a dream too!

Blue Toad Murder Files: The Mysteries of Little Riddle (PC – $19.99, PSN – $7.49 per episode, $26.99 holiday bundle):
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Originally an episodic PSN release and recently ported to the PC (Steam currently has it on sale for only $9.99!), Blue Toad Murder Files is a six-episode ‘Whodunnit?’ adventure set in the quaint British town of Little Riddle. As a member of the Blue Toad Detective Agency, it is your duty to solve the murder mysteries running rampant across town, and to do so you must question the village’s colorful citizens, solve logic puzzles to uncover key evidence, and pay attention to every little detail leading to the closing moment of each episode when you must put all the clues together and correctly finger the culprit (or attempt to at least). The puzzle solutions don’t change, so unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of inherent single-player replay value. But up to four players can join forces to solve the crimes or compete to determine who is the slyest sleuth, and the charming story and characters alone make this game worth keeping on your hard drive to revisit at times when you need something lighthearted and uplifting to brighten your mood. Voice actor Tom Dussek gets much of the credit for this, as his performance voicing every single character in the game is one of this year’s greatest and most unsung gaming achievements. Play this game, sharpish!

Qlione Evolve (PSN – $6.99):
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Sony Online Entertainment’s collaboration with Rockin’ Android has already proven to be quite fruitful, and Qlione Evolve is the latest and greatest PSN title to come from the partnership. The gameplay is that of a top-down arcade shooter, playing out like a futuristic battle of microscopic organisms inside a Petrie dish arena. And the objective is to swim around and plant bombs to destroy waves of swarming organisms, using the bouncy of the watery playing field to manipulate your bombs and enemies into deadly mass explosions. Qlione 2 gets even more interesting, introducing a system of evolution by which you collect protein orbs from defeated foes to grow your organism into more powerful forms. For under ten bucks, you get two fun, challenging and unique games in one awesome package, each with eight challenging stages set to pulsing electronica music (or your own custom soundtrack) and neon vector graphics.

Spelunker HD (PSN – $9.99):
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Here’s another one for my fellow ‘retro remake’ admirers. This old-school platformer – a remake of an 8-bit arcade / Atari / NES game of the same name (minus the ‘HD’ of course) – looks so simple and innocuous, but is actually one devilishly difficult little game that will have you cursing and slamming your controller one moment, and then beaming with a teeth-filled grin of satisfaction on your face the next. Basically, you have five lives to travel as deep down into each labyrinthine cave as you can, jumping traps, scaring bats away with flares, zapping ghosts, collecting keys and treasures, running from boulders, swinging from ropes, climbing ladders, blowing up rocks with bombs, and riding mine carts under jets of fire. One false move, and you’re a dead man, so patience, quick fingers and a keen eye are necessary virtues for anyone brave enough to take on this spelunking expedition. And as all good remakes should offer, Spelunker HD sports dual graphics settings for the original 8-bit style and a new ‘HD’ look that lends the game an endearing claymation quality. Multiplayer is another great feature for those too scared to go cave diving alone – support is enabled for four-player split-screen and six-player online. Any gamer with a fondness and respect for the glory days of gaming will absolutely love the challenge and nonstop sense of accomplishment this game provides.

Hoard (PSN – $14.99):
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If Strong Bad were to describe Hoard, he’d likely call it something along the lines of a ‘totally awesome top-down action/strategy/RPG arcade twin-stick village burninating shoot-‘em-up’ (Trogdor!!!). So I’ll just channel his spirit and use that description for myself, as it pretty much sums up what this game is all about. You are a dragon. Dragons love gold. Dragons breathe fire. And dragons like to burn down villages and spread fear across the kingdom. Put those together, and your goal in Hoard becomes crystal clear. You fly your dragon around a table-top fantasy world with the left stick, breathe out streams of fire with the right stick, burn down towns and farms, kidnap princesses for ransom, fend off knights, archers, thieves, mage towers and other rival dragons, and snatch up all the gold resulting from your mass terror and return it to your base to amass a huge stockpile of loot. As simple as that may sound, there are many subtle strategies to master in order to build a majestic hoard and pile up high scores, and there is even a basic RPG element of leveling up and spending points to upgrade your dragon’s flame breath, gold capacity, flying speed and armor. Add all these ingredients together, and you get one of the most compulsively addictive games currently available on the PlayStation Network (PC and PSP versions are also said to be in the works, so hang tight for those if you don’t own a PS3).

Dead Nation (PSN – $14.99):
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For modern gamers, the latest PSN production from Super Stardust HD developer Housemarque can easily be classified as an isometric twin-stick shooter take on Left 4 Dead. But for those with a longer memory, a game like Hunter: The Reckoning is a much more relevant comparison. Dead Nation is a dead-simple arcade style shoot-‘em-up in which you (and preferably a friend) blast through mobs of brain-starved zombies with a host of upgradeable weapons, staying alive for as long as you can in order to build point multipliers and subsequently rack up high scores. Perhaps even more interesting is the metagame behind the game; a ranking system taking the form of a global leaderboard competition comparing each country’s zombie killing performance per each virus cycle. So when you kill a zombie, you are contributing towards your country’s cause — it’s all so patriotic! But in all seriousness, Dead Nation is a tense zombie shooter with incredibly well defined 3D graphics, immersive lighting and sound effects, and an unpredictable, nail-biting atmosphere that keeps you looking over your shoulder, with the cone of your flashlight barely breaking through the surrounding darkness to light your path ahead (the game can almost be TOO dark sometimes, in fact). The ongoing ‘zombie invasion’ of the gaming industry is getting old in a hurry, but if you’re still on the bandwagon, Dead Nation is not to be missed.

Superstars V8 Racing (PSN – $9.99):
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Gran Turismo 5 isn’t the only PS3-exclusive racing sim on the block this year. Superstars V8 Racing is on the scene too, and it is revved up to give Sony’s “Real Driving Simulator” a run for its money. While SV8R may be scaled back from its rivals as far as not having modern features such as dashboard camera views, in-depth car customization options, racing lines and an obscene amount of tracks and cars, the core simulation racing physics are sound and adaptable realism settings (including car damage, steering/braking aids, and point penalties) allow you to tailor the gameplay to your skill level. For a sixth of the price, you also get 12-player online play and a plethora of offline modes, including license challenges and a full Championship season mode licensed after the real Superstar Series. Sim racing fans are sure to be pleased.

Swords & Soldiers (PC – $9.99, PSN – $9.99, WiiWare – 1000 Wii Points):
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If you like real-time strategy games but struggle to keep up with the demanding micro-management the vast majority require, Swords & Soldiers is just the game for you. Its 2D, side-scrolling spin on the RTS genre is both refreshing and accessible, and while hardcore grognards will scoff at its entry level approach, it covers enough of the RTS basics (mining for gold, unit management, base/army upgrades, etc.) and delivers enough small-scale, tower defense-style base command to earn its stripes as a true strategy game. Props to Ronimo for creating such a slick and intuitive interface as well – the point-and-click controls for mouse and keyboard, Wii Remote and PlayStation Move are so easy to grasp, and even playing the PS3 version with a standard DualShock 3 is effortless once you learn the lay of the land.

Shank (PC – $14.99, PSN – $14.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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If film directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino ever decided to collaborate on a video game, it’d probably turn out an awful lot like Shank. This side-scrolling beat-‘em-up is equal parts Saturday morning cartoon, gritty, gory graphic novel, and over-the-top action flick akin to films like Desperado and Machete – and all in all, it is loads of bloody brawling fun. The comic style graphics and fluid animations are a sight to behold, and even though the core gameplay and level designs do nothing to push the genre forward, butchering and maiming enemies with a chainsaw, cleaver or katana and combining melee strikes into brutal combos and aerial juggles with blasts from dual-fisted pistols and other firepower never ceases to satisfy.

Castle Crashers (PSN – $14.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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Long hailed as one of the Xbox Live Arcade’s finest offerings, The Behemoth’s hand-drawn medieval beat-‘em-up made its way onto the PlayStation Network this year, and it did not disappoint. Though not balanced particularly well as a single-player brawler (enemies can gang up on you with cheap tactics when there is no one around to help), Castle Crashers is a cooperative hack-and-slash delight, which makes perfect sense given the game’s subtitle as the ‘4 player adventure.’ There are many great beat-‘em-ups to choose from on the download game front, but if you are limited to just one, Castle Crashers should be your #1 choice. The old XBLA version is currently on sale at half price (600 MS Points) as part of Microsoft’s holiday sale, so if you’ve yet to add it to your Xbox 360 library, be sure to grab it there by the end of the month.

Puzzle Quest 2 (PC – $9.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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There seems to be some debate amongst fans over whether or not Puzzle Quest 2 is better or worse than its predecessor – some see it as too dumbed down, while others see it as a more well-rounded sequel. But I could really care less either way, as Infinite Interactive’s epic mish-mash of fantasy role-playing and Bejeweled-esque match-3 puzzling is as difficult to pry yourself away from once it gets going as it was the first time around. It’s true, though, that certain RPG elements were trimmed away, and overall the story is hardly inspiring. But other improvements have been made to the core balance of the game that, in my opinion, make it even better, such as new action gems that allow you to deal out greater damage with equipped weapons during puzzle battles and new mini-game puzzles for bashing doors, picking locks and collecting loot. For its ‘just one more game’ puzzle gameplay and addictive RPG character growth, Puzzle Quest 2 is an easy recommendation.

Bejeweled 3 (Mac/PC – $19.99):
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It took over six years, but PopCap’s flagship match-3 puzzler franchise, Bejeweled, has finally returned with a new installment, and the wait was totally worth it. Bejeweled 3 may be viewed as being too safe of a sequel, but I couldn’t disagree more. Matching rows and columns of shiny, brightly-colored gems isn’t anything new or innovative, but it remains a simple, addictive joy nonetheless, and after Bejeweled Twist literally put a twist on the core gameplay, it’s comforting to go back to classic Bejeweled. What’s new in Bejeweled 3 is its sheer volume of modes and content, as it introduces four all-new gem-matching variants to the four existing modes from Bejeweled 2 and incorporates these many different styles into a new Quest mode of clever mini-game puzzle challenges. Bejeweled has never looked (or sounded) better either, with this third outing capable of running at the ‘HD’ resolution of 1920 x 1200.

Super Meat Boy (PC – $14.99, XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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If you like games that pummel you into submission until you think you can’t take any more…and yet you still keep coming back for more, Super Meat Boy is for you! Originally an indie Flash game released on Newgrounds, Super Meat Boy has you running and jumping through over 300 treacherous, hazard-filled platform levels as a raw blob of meat on a mission to rescue Bandage Girl from the dastardly Dr. Fetus (no, I’m not making these names up). Only the patient and strong-willed need apply, though, as this is a game that demands split-second reflexes and deft finger agility. But if you stick it out, you will be rewarded with personal satisfaction like no other – and you’ll even unlock all sorts of fun bonus characters from other indie darlings, including Tim from Braid, The Ninja from N+, a knight from Castle Crashers, Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series, and many more.

Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition (XBLA – 1200 MS Points):
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Looking for something ‘different’ to play? Well, games don’t get much more ‘different’ than this. Zeno Clash is an odd duck indeed, not for its hybrid gameplay fusion of first-person shooting and brawling, but rather for its strange storyline, oddball characters and surreal art design. OK, and the gameplay is certainly different from the norm as well, with its primitive, makeshift tribal weapons providing a completely unique FPS experience compared to modern shooters, and its first-person fisticuffs delivering white-knuckled melee combat with greater immersion and brutality than other games which have attempted to pull off first-person brawling in the past. The controls are somewhat cumbersome, but are ultimately only a minor inconvenience once you lose yourself in the game’s beautifully bizarre universe.

Other Games to Consider (click game title for our full review):
Costume Quest (PS3, Xbox 360)
Section 8 (PS3)
Fret Nice (PS3, Xbox 360)
Settlement: Colossus (PC)
Twisted Lands: Shadow Town (PC)
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (PC, Xbox 360)
Hydrophobia (Xbox 360)
Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley (Xbox 360)
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond (PS3, Xbox 360)
Final Fight: Double Impact (PS3, Xbox 360)
The Red Star (PSP, iPhone)
The Eye of Judgment: Legends (PSP)
Patchwork Heroes (PSP)
Widgets Odyssey (PlayStation Minis)
Widgets Odyssey II (PlayStation Minis)
Young Thor (PlayStation Minis)
echoshift (PSP)
Might & Magic Heroes Kingdoms (PC, Mac, iPad)
Plain Sight (PC)
KrissX (PC, Xbox 360)
Mind’s Eye: Secrets of the Forgotten (PC)
Death by Cube (Xbox 360)
Rock Band Reloaded (iPhone/iPod touch, iPad)
Flight Doodle (iPhone/iPod touch, iPad)
TiKi Toss 3D (iPhone/iPod touch, iPad)
Knights of the Phantom Castle (iPhone/iPod touch, iPad)
Plants vs. Zombies (iPhone/iPod touch, iPad)
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (iPhone/iPod touch)

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!