Off the gamerâ??s beaten path

Gamers have at least one thing in common with music fans — we're both ridiculously snobbish. Our favorite game systems and bands are always better than yours. And there's nothing we love more than being the first or, better yet, the only one to know about the obscure and amazing new band that sounds like the reincarnation of Nirvana, or the indie game that everyone else has yet to discover.

It's in that spirit of Santa-like snobbishness that we approach this year's holiday gaming picks. Sure, you could opt for the obvious A-list games that are rightfully on everyone's holiday lists (and we did, too — see sidebar). Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Left 4 Dead 2 and God of War: Collection deserve your gaming dollars and time. But there's something to be said for zagging when everyone else zigs, and in the process discovering some things you'd otherwise miss.

Here, without further preamble, is a hidden gem for every major system. Think of it as the gaming equivalent of music festival South by Southwest.

PlayStation 3: Demon's Souls

In this world of no-fail modes and ever easier, more forgiving games, Demon's Souls is a major throwback, like A Christmas Carol in a world of Fred Claus. And this baroque role-playing hack-and-slasher doesn't disappoint in that regard at all — it's one of the most difficult games you'll play all year.

But being slashed to ribbons 100-plus times by dragons, demons and flying manta rays isn't the big draw. The truly brilliant part? Once you're logged into the game's online server, your gameplay world is infused with the ghosts of other players' avatars, adding to the spooky ambience — and giving you key clues on how to survive. It's like having your very own ethereal, interactive walk-through.

Part of the joy is laughing uproariously at the poor fool who was dumb enough to fall into the obvious pit trap you easily avoided; better still is touching any of the copious bloodstains on the ground to get a brief snapshot of how other players died. If there's a game feature I'd like to see developers copying in 2010, this is it.

Xbox 360: DJ Hero, Activision

I can already hear the collective Flava Flav-style "Say what?" How can a game bolstered by a major national ad campaign featuring Eminem and Jay-Z be considered "off the beaten path"? Given the game's dreadfully slow sales, it's probably more accurate to say it has been beaten off the path. That's unfortunate; the soundtrack to this unusual twist on the music-game genre is absolutely killer, and the gameplay — involving a cool turntable peripheral that's an easy-to use blend of economy and function — is a blast. Yes, the game's $120 price tag is daunting, particularly for a game that may not spark nearly as much future downloadable content as its guitar-based brethren. But the chance to trance out over a mix that tosses the Killers and Blondie into the same musical blender? Totally worth the price of admission.

Nintendo DS: Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story

Games that involve Nintendo's poster boy also don't seem like the sort of thing you'd overlook, but the Mario and Luigi series on the DS has always hovered in the shadows of bigger titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart. Maybe it's the timing-based combat and RPG elements that scare people off, but both are at their best in this latest iteration.

When the dialect-challenged alien Fawful tricks Bowser into munching a magic mushroom — dude, you should know better by now! — he's compelled to suck everything inside him like a Hoover vacuum set to triple-maximum. And that "everything" includes Mario, Luigi and a bunch of the Mushroom Kingdom gang. The interplay between the upper and lower screens of the DS is where Inside Story really kicks it: Not only is it like playing two games in one, but at various points, the brothers Mario have to complete actions on the lower screen to, say, stimulate Bowser's muscles so he can yank a gigantic carrot out of the ground on the upper screen. Bowser, meanwhile, can suck up enemies and force Mario and Luigi to deal with them. Now that's holiday togetherness.

Sony PSP/PSP Go: LocoRoco 2: Midnight Carnival expansion

You could build a fairly convincing argument that just about everything on Sony's neglected handheld is off the beaten path — so far off, in fact, that it's tucked back into that scary patch of brambles and thorns where not even the most daring kids are willing to venture. Even the recent introduction of the wireless, UMD-free PSP Go hasn't helped matters much.

The obvious choice here is Sackboy's move to the land of mobile goodness — LittleBigPlanet PSP. We're not about obvious this season, so I'm reaching back to nab LocoRoco 2 and its recent wireless expansion, LocoRoco 2: Midnight Carnival. Few games have captured both the PSP's unique functionality (using the shoulder buttons for everything is clutch) and the simple joy of happy, colorful gaming. With Midnight Carnival adding a little ricochet boing! action to the LocoRoco arsenal, you have a package that's not only complete, but sure to generate a big ol' holiday grin.

The middle of the road

Oh, come on. You didn't think we were going to be entirely unconventional, did you? The year 2009 has been packed with excellent games, and we'd be sadly remiss if we didn't mention at least a few of the triple-A titles that deserve space on your favorite gamer's hard drive this year — or your own.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) Slate Magazine called it the most anti-war war game ever made, and I'm inclined to agree. It's also one of the most beautifully designed and soul-scarring titles of the year. You'll never walk through an airport the same way again.

Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) Bioware brings the Baldur's Gate goodness with their first sword-and-sorcery epic for consoles: deep RPG elements, six different introductions to the main story and complex relationships with your party members. Plus, the conversation trees are replaced by cut-scenes. Now that's progress.

Torchlight (PC) Diablo III is nowhere in sight, but for a single Andrew Jackson, you can return to the days of clickety-click loot collection in glorious, cartoony color, as the hours of your life get sucked into the abyss. So what if your pet is obviously skimming off the top of your loot sales? He's cute, dammit.

Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360, PC) Yes, Valve put a boomer-sized crimp in the original L4D mod community by pumping out this sequel way earlier than expected. Five minutes into another zombie blast fest, you won't remember that you cared. Assuming you're still alive, that is.

God of War: Collection (PlayStation 3) It's like an extended reunion with an old friend … if that old friend had ghost-white skin, a really bad temper and huge, deadly blades chained to his wrists. The gameplay, from the epic boss-monster battles to the button-mashing, is all still there, as good as you remember it. Now where the hell is God of War 3?

New Super Mario Bros. (Wii) Mario Kart is finally dethroned as the best Mario-based multiplayer game on Nintendo's motion-sensing console. Plus, finding all the hidden items and universes is so much easier when four people are looking.

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