The notion of "hardcore" and "casual" gamers in 2010 still feels a bit like something PR lackeys invented to arbitrarily split consumers into two different markets, but there's no denying that this year's bounty of iOS, Android, and lucrative browser games—along with the fact that Nintendo's handheld DS often surpassed its big brother the Wii—added legitimacy to titles catered to shorter play sessions. Here are our picks for the 10 casual games that more than earned the hours we invested in them.
10. Endless Ocean: Blue World
Co-op whale riding. Healing and photographing sea creatures. Salvaging underwater jars. These are just three possible ways you can spend time in Endless Ocean: Blue World, which also functions as an interactive white-noise machine. You swim all around the world exploring the natural habitat of 300 different species of aquatic life, and though there is a plot (you discover a thought-to-be-lost castle), Endless Ocean more than lived up to its name in lowering heart rates and just being a great game to chill out and space out to.
9. Ninjatown: Trees Of Doom
Developer/Publisher: Venan Entertainment
Drawing inspiration from the same source material as 2008's sleeper-hit tower-defense game Ninjatown (ie, those adorable plush ninjas and poo-poo dolls), Trees Of Doom offers a refinement on the classic iPhone-game "go as far as you can" formula popularized by iPhone hit Doodle Jump. Savable checkpoints and allowing players to dictate the pace of the game (do you want to go for speed or distance?), along with the adorable look and feel, made this one of the harder ones to put down.
Developer: Zoë Mode
Platforms: XBLA, PC
Mashing up Tetris and Lumines might sound lazy or derivative, but Chime is neither. Another classic example of a simple design yielding the maximum results, in Chime you have to cover an entire grid with clusters of differently shaped blocky pieces, which are locked-in by the game once they're highlighted by a perpetually moving beatline. There's enough challenge here to satisfy more skilled players, but enough approachability for even newbies to get hooked. The hardest part? Stopping.
Say what you will about Facebook games and the "evils" of Zynga, but the numbers don't lie: social city-building sim CityVille snagged 20 million users in its first 11 days since its Dec. 2 launch. Yes, it's essentially FarmVille 2.0, but that game's winning formula and bottomless timesucks of endless resource management and occasionally bugging their non-converted friends with their achievements, have all evolved flawlessly in this new offering. If you're a self-proclaimed hardcore gamer and don't "get" what all the fuss is about, think of it like this: You know how people spend all day away from World Of Warcraft, and think of nothing but getting home, leveling up their characters, and sinking more hours into it? Like FarmVille before it, CityVille possesses that same enchanting magic. And really, is plunking down real-world cash on a Celestial Steed really that different from buying a virtual tractor?
6. Game Dev Story
The Western gaming world has always been obsessed and more than a little jealous of Japan of how the country has revolutionized the medium and then made some of its more amazing offerings import-only or region protected to stave off import purchases. Game Dev Story is perfect proof of the sort of genius the rest of the world has been missing out on for years and years. Originally released as a PC game in 1996, this sublime game-development sim finally got translated and put on the iPhone back in October. On the surface it's very repetitive, but the tongue-in-cheek timeline parodying real-life events and the strategy involved in deciding who to hire and what sort of games your studio should specialize with is deceptively complex and deep. Game Dev Story 2 came out in Japan back in 2000, so hopefully they hurry up in bringing that here.
Developer/Publisher: Matt Rix
Merely stating that this indie puzzle game managed to overthrow perennial best-seller Angry Birds in the iTunes App Store alone should speak volumes about how wildly addictive this puzzler is. The core concept is simple—you draw tracks to guide trains to their color-coded station—and quickly gets excruciatingly thorny. You can easily get stuck on a single puzzle for days on end, and while getting frustrated and cuss about it, never give up. It's a great respite from the overly twitchy or lame dual-stick offerings the App Store has served up, and lends itself perfectly to picking up and putting down whenever, wherever.
4. Hook Worlds
Somehow the world heard the plaintive but nonetheless correct cry of, "Why aren't there more video games with grappling hooks in them?" and set about righting that wrong over the course of the last year or so. We got an underappreciated three-dimensional sequel of Bionic Commando, a two-dimensional reimagining of the original game just before it that fared better, and Rocketcat's hook-swinging/hat-collecting trilogy that just drew to a close this month with Hook Worlds. It's a distillation and massive improvement on its successful predecessors, with smoother play and a greater variety of characters and levels. More importantly, it's also a more grueling test of your tactical and reflex skills—not just about going to the right side of the screen as fast as you can.
3. Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent
Developer/Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: iPhone, Mac, PC
Telltale Games premiered its pilot program, intended to "cultivate fresh creative ideas and foster innovation," with this captivating gem of a puzzle game. It mixed Professor Layton-like brainteasers in a small-town Twin Peaks-meets-Fargo setting, which was funny to boot, with plenty of intentionally sorta-dirty references to eating something called "hot dish." Telltale is no stranger to distilling puzzle games like the Monkey Island or Sam & Max series down to more-digestible episodic chunks, but Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is perfect for the format, and also quite charitably lets you explore other puzzles if one's proving too trying at any given time.
Developer/Publisher: Cat In A Box Games
When was the last time you completed an entire RPG in fewer than five minutes? FASTAR!, or Fight Angry Squares: The Action RPG, both celebrates and satirizes the genre by placing you as the anonymous spiky-haired protagonist on a quest to zip through towns to upgrade your stats and weapons, run to the right side of the screen, and face down nefarious colored squares in battle to collect their precious coins to repeat the process over and over again until you cross the finish line. There's depth there, too, if you want it, with two dozen different modes.
1. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platform: Nintendo DS
Visual novels, a.k.a. Japanese text adventures with branching storylines, haven't really caught on outside of their traditional native land, but 999 could change all that. It was released in Japan last year, but last month the rest of the world got a crack at it, and any Westerners who were fans of the psychological-horror flick Cube will find plenty to like about this quiet hit-in-the-making. Clever puzzles, magnificent pacing, and a great story with multiple endings all come together in a game that has enough legs to appeal to any type of gamer, regardless of the arbitrary "hardcore" or "casual" flag they might sail.