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Published December 30, 2009

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking behind the scenes about our obligatory “Game of the Year” lists, sifting through all of 2009’s big games to let you know just how good hits like Uncharted 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii are. For those of you who are seated on the game industry hype train, I have a feeling that our choices will end up being pretty obvious. But a blog entry on the “Cincies” from Time’s James Poniewozik had me reconsidering my process just a bit.

While I’m a sucker for Triple-A production values and a polished engine, I think we would be better serving our readers if we also took the time to highlight games that took risks and didn’t quite succeed. Just as David Milch’s otherworldly surfer drama, “John from Cincinnati,” couldn’t quite stick its landing, there were many games this year with interesting concepts but questionable execution. The name of this award was inspired by my first entry on the list. Here it goes, in no particular order…

Scribblenauts: That this game worked at all is a near-miracle. This was the ultimate visual dictionary – any written noun would become an in-game object. If you could imagine it, the developers probably drew a sprite for it. But while you could call upon the forces of jet-packs, pterodactyls, vampires, God and black holes to help you solve the game’s many puzzles, none of them could save you from the game’s broken controls. And while it was cool that you could put out fires with water or electrocute sharks with a toaster, other logical incongruities killed the illusion.

Fat Princess: This was a stellar year for the PSN, with high-profile exclusives launching month after month, but none of them looked as enticing as the gory-yet-lovable Fat Princess. Titan Studios’ spin on multiplayer capture-the-flag had multiple classes, RTS resource management and a titular princess that would instantly put on the pounds if the opposing team fed her cake. Despite all of these wrinkles, battles were surprisingly manageable. The game’s only major failing was that it was impossible to avoid the dreaded war of attrition. It’s truly a shame, because this unique blend is only a patch or two (and mandatory headsets) away from greatness.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade: You have to pay your respects to Vanillaware. While other Wii developers are determined to keep dumping fitness trainers and mini-game compilations onto store shelves, the small Japanese house behind Odin Sphere decided to stick with gorgeous, hand-drawn feudal Japan. I commend the team for sticking with 2D. I’ll certainly take Muramasa over the tedious Odin, but the repetitive enemies and shallow combat don’t live up to what may be the most beautifully animated game of this generation.

Halo 3 ODST: This is definitely the most commercially successful game on my list, and I love it for taking us out of the beloved Spartan armor for once. But while the ODSTs are more vulnerable than the Master blaster, the changes were mostly cosmetic. The fractured narrative didn’t quite work either, “Firefly” cast be damned. The hub world didn’t offer many gameplay possibilities, and the new visor ripped from Metroid Prime alerted too many enemies to be of much use. Still, Bungie’s side project offered a few key victories (Firefight), and at least it wasn’t the quick cash-in it could have been.

Borderlands: Here’s my personal heart-breaker. Nicolo first brought this game to my attention on the podcast, likening it to a post-apocalyptic Phantasy Star Online. And for those first few hours, that assessment seemed pretty accurate. But this gritty, cell-shaded world began to fall apart the further we progressed. While the game balances enemy levels to the overall group, we quickly found that they were still way too powerful for low-level Kaz. Limited aesthetic options, clumsy vehicle controls, drab deserts and dumb-as-dirt enemies also killed my buzz. I have high hopes for the inevitable sequel though, and in the meantime, I’ll put my grind-happy faith in Torchlight instead.

Honorable Mentions: Halo Wars (for almost being the RTS console game I’ve been wishing for) and Brütal Legend (I’ve only made it through the first half, so I’d feel guilty including it here.)

What 2009 games do you think deserve Scribbies? Let us know on the boards.

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