When looking back over the past twelve months to put together this installment in our Five Favorites 2010 collection, the hard part isn’t recalling what I liked – it’s cutting it down to a mere five. This was actually a pretty great year for games both big and small, and I always feel like I’m leaving something off that deserves to be here. So in years past, I’ve used this space to give my “honorable mentions,” and I won’t buck the trend here.

2010 saw so many awesome games that I really enjoyed, like the new Professor Layton, Civilization V, the new Castlevania and BlazBlue. I was surprised by Madden NFL 11 and Vanquish, I loved the multiplayer of Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I found unexpected brilliance in Snoopy Flying Ace. But in the end, there could be only one.

Er, five.

John Funk’s Five Favorites of 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2

The first Super Mario Galaxy was – and still is – one of the best games in this console generation. Hell, you could say it was one of the best games ever made, if you wanted. It was a brilliant entry into one of gaming’s most storied franchises that pushed the limits of what had ever been imagined in a 3D platformer. It had some of the best level design we’ve ever seen in a Mario game. To put it simply, the game was freakin’ fantastic.

And Super Mario Galaxy 2 managed to top it.

Everything that had been “great” in the first Galaxy was upgraded to “stellar” in the sequel. The world design was just as imaginative and brain-teasing, some of the most frustrating aspects were toned down (hello, random Trickster Comets), and there were plenty of clever new mechanics to work with. When you’re dealing with ghosts that literally eat the stage into nothingness, or with a level that takes place entirely horizontally as you gobble up superspeed peppers that keep your dino pal Yoshi running fast enough to defy gravity, you know you have a special game on your hands.

Is it just more Super Mario Galaxy? Not really; it improved on Galaxy in almost every way. But even if it were, it’d still be phenomenal.

Halo: Reach

Halo is not a series traditionally known for its high-brow sensibilities – it’s more often thought of as the purview for squeaky-voiced 15-year-olds and college frat boys – and yet the ending of Halo: Reach took me by surprise as a masterful weaving of gameplay and narrative. Noble Six’s last stand – your last stand – against unstoppable and innumerable waves of Covenant gave you the chance to die fighting or accept your end gracefully, knowing you’d completed your mission.

It’s probably one of the most memorable and striking moments I’ve had in gaming’s recent years, and it was in a Halo game. What the hell?

Superb finale aside, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Halo games, and Reach is undoubtedly my favorite. After subpar campaigns in Halo 2 and Halo 3, Reach‘s single-player mode is the series’ finest, and it does a nice job of tying things back to how they all began in the original Combat Evolved. The multiplayer is great fun too – once you get past the typical Xbox Live crowd, anyway.

I’ll be sad to see Bungie leave the series, but they couldn’t have left on a higher note.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

On the one hand, including this on my list feels kind of like cheating. It came out what, a week and change ago? On the other, I’ve spent plenty of time checking out the new Azeroth both during the beta and in live events, and it feels safe to say this: Cataclysm has rekindled an affection with World of Warcraft that had long since burned down to a flicker – something I’d enjoyed once in a while, but only on the side.

I thought I’d seen everything there was to see in Azeroth; I thought I’d done everything there was to do. I’d leveled every race and every class at least out of the starting zones, some enough times that I could practically do it with my eyes closed.

And then Cataclysm changed all of that. It made me eager to see what was over the next hill and around the next corner again. Will it go away? Probably eventually, yes – but until then I’m loving it.

It’s also pretty awesome to actually be challenged while running dungeons again. The developers of WoW have changed it forever, and changed it for the better – I wouldn’t ever want to go back.

Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver

The changes wreaked on WoW are huge and dramatic, altering the entire scape of Azeroth. In contrast, Pokemon looks much the same today as it did back in the days of Red & Blue Versions. This isn’t to say that the series hasn’t changed; it certainly has. Those changes, though, are behind the scenes in ways that casual Pokemon fans wouldn’t see.

But the same changes have made a silly little game about collecting weird and fantastic monsters into one of the most hardcore and strategic competitive videogames on the market today. I’ve always been very positive on how the mechanics of Pokemon have only been changing for the better with every successive generation, and this fourth generation is the best yet.

Back in the day, I’d loved Pokemon Gold & Silver; to this day some see them as the best games in the series. I’d also loved Pokemon Diamond, Pearl & Platinum for their imaginative roster of characters (giant steel penguin!) and nigh-perfected gameplay. Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver married the two – how could I not but love it?

As someone who’s loved Pokemon from the outset, HeartGold & SoulSilver are the definitive games in the series. Will that change when Black & White show up? Maybe, but that won’t make these games any less awesome.

StarCraft II

The press room at BlizzCon is always pretty nifty – you have snacks, kiosks for all the games (so you don’t need to go play them down on the floor), and a feed for the pay-per-view showing that covers all the panel and major events. It’s always very busy, with dozens of members of the press and various fan sites running all over the place, from panel to hands-on to interview.

And yet, during the finals for the StarCraft II tournament, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch, enraptured, as two of the best players in the world went head to head. It didn’t matter if they were there to cover StarCraft, Warcraft, or Diablo – or if they weren’t gaming press at all – every single person in that room was transfixed by the match no matter how much they knew about StarCraft.

That to me is the beauty of StarCraft II. Yes, it has a great single-player campaign with stunning mission design (though it could have used a better scriptwriter). It certainly has a tremendously successful and entertaining multiplayer mode that takes the gameplay of its legendary predecessor and smoothly updates it to modern standards while adding its own twists – and yet remaining distinctly StarCraft. It’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever played.

But it’s also one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever watched. Competitive gaming just isn’t accessible to non-gamers: We’ll show non-gamers that one legendary Street Fighter III clip, but anything beyond that and their eyes glaze over as the gamers marvel at the mix-ups and combo strings. Competitive Counter-Strike is incomprehensible if you don’t know what’s going on.

Blizzard hasn’t just created a magnificent RTS with StarCraft II (though it has). It’s also created the best example yet for gaming as a spectator sport. When we’re watching “World Series of StarCraft II” on ESPN six years from now, it’ll be because of this game.

Those are my five favorites for the year – check back tomorrow for Managing Editor Steve Butts’ picks, and keep track of all of our Five Favorites lists here!

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