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It was a hot summer for video games

The dog days of summer tend to dry the flow of game launches to a trickle. But this summer has been ... different. The recent weeks and months have offered up a surprising number of gaming gems. You just have to know where to look.
Image: The Behemoth
Used to be that summertime was the worst time for new games. But a crop of downloadable titles, including the new "Castle Crashers," proves that hot temperatures don't have to equal lukewarm games. The Behemoth

Be warned: You’re about to be bombarded.

Fall is nearly here and that means that video game companies the world over have already begun aiming their big guns in your direction. In the coming weeks and months, these guns will rain down flashy advertisements followed by a barrage of the companies’ most polished and promising games.

Incoming: “Spore!” “Gears of War 2!” “Fallout 3!” “LittleBigPlanet!” 

And the shelling will only increase as the holiday season looms larger on the horizon and until you’re pinned in by more games than your wallet can possibly support.

Of course, this is usually a time of joy and celebration for game enthusiasts. The dog days of summer tend to dry the flow of game launches to a trickle as, yes, even we game players venture out into the bright sun, desperately hoping to catch up on our Vitamin D. Meanwhile, those few titles that do get released tend to suffer from a disease known as crapola mediocritus.

But this summer has been … different. The recent weeks and months have offered up a surprising number of gaming gems. In fact, I’d bet good money that a few of the titles launched during these warmest days of the year will wind up on a good many Best Game of the Year lists.

But you have to know where to look. That is, if you’re used to walking into a store to pick up the latest and greatest games, forget it. If you want to find the gaming goodness, you’ll have to download it straight to your console or PC.

Downloadable games – particularly those available through Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network – have been especially outstanding during these not-so-dog-days of summer. In fact, there have been so many superb games recently it would be a real shame to let the looming fall season steal the summer thunder.

So before you start hoarding all your money for the coming onslaught of games, here’s a look at some recent top-notch offerings that deserve your attention and your dollars too.

Crashing castles … and sales records
Independent game developers have been the shining stars of recent months, offering up games that have been inventive, intelligent and utterly fun to play. I’ve already gushed at length about indie games “Braid” and “ .” And “Castle Crashers,” which launched last week through Xbox Live Arcade, keeps things rolling with yet another dose of indie-driven inspiration.

Created by independent outfit The Behemoth, this much-anticipated beat-em-up/hack-n-slash-everything-in-sight game is an irreverent good time that packages some old-school, side-scrolling gameplay with some zany hand-drawn art and a huge helping of humor.

Here you play as a diminutive knight (or other unlockable character) who must help a king,

save some princesses and clobber the stuffing out of a bunch of bad guys (to give you an idea of the humor: one of the aforementioned bad guys is a water-dwelling cat that spits giant hair balls).

Some role-playing elements have been tossed into the mix, allowing you to tweak your character’s various strengths (a nice touch for added depth). You’ll also pick up an assortment of animal sidekicks who can assist your wee warrior in various ways. And, most importantly, this game lets you crash castles with up to three of your pals.

While “Castle Crashers” has been dogged by technical difficulties (much woe has met those trying to take advantage of the game’s online multiplayer mode), the developers promise that a fix is on the way.

Meanwhile, “Castle Crashers” has still managed to break XBLA sales records. The folks who keep track of such things over at are reporting that “Castle Crashers” was purchased and downloaded 78,545 times and pulled in more than $1 million in gross revenues … all within its first three days online.

“There really aren't many words to describe what ‘Castle Crashers’ did this week, with over 78,000 units,” writes analyst Benjamin Schlichter. “I knew that 'Crashers' was going to be big, but the market provided ‘Crashers’ with a very robust opening, rivaling many boxed titles.”

Braaaains…and maps too
Speaking of great downloadable games…

“The Last Guy” is a zombie game unlike any zombie game I’ve seen. This bizarro little title – which can be downloaded to the PS3 through the PlayStation Network – uses real aerial maps of real cities (Los Angeles, Tokyo and London among them) to set the stage for a game in which you must save hordes of terrified citizens from marauding zombies and mutant monsters.

Looking down on the world below from way up above, you maneuver a caped crusader through

the streets of the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or the National Mall in Washington DC, collecting throngs of people hiding in buildings, cars or beneath trees. These throngs will follow you wherever you go and it’s your job to lead as many of them as you can to the Escape Zone while avoiding the various oversized zombie critters that stalk the streets.

Believe it or not, “The Last Guy” has far more in common with “Pac-Man” than it does with the usual zombie-fighting or horror games. And that’s a good thing. Its clever use of aerial maps and some madcap music makes the whole thing a genuinely quirky and original package…not to mention an oddly addictive one.

The game starts to get freakishly fun as the crowd of people following your character grows longer and longer, eventually trailing him down the streets and around buildings. And it’s a laugh-out-loud treat to hear them all cheer with glee when you finally lead them to safety.

“The Last Guy” is priced at a very reasonable $10. And that’s one of the great things about downloadable games – they’re proving to be innovative and entertaining as well as affordable. While “Castle Crashers” is priced slightly higher at $15, that’s chicken scratch when you consider that many of the upcoming holiday titles will set you back $50 to $70 – and may not be as much fun.

Rearmed and dangerous
There are a couple more tasty downloadable games that deserve mention. Capcom has given the 20-year-old “Bionic Commando” game (from way back in the good old 8-bit NES days) a truly excellent modern remake with “Bionic Commando Rearmed,” which you can download to your PS3 or Xbox 360. Shiny new graphics provide the game with some serious visual bling and a tastefully executed overhaul means our hero with the cyber arm has new areas to swing through and new weapons to wield.

And if you’re a Wii owner, it’s worth checking out “Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People.” This episodic point-and-click adventure game is all kinds of wacky weird, just like the “Homestar Runner” Internet cartoon it’s based on. The first episode – called “Homestar Ruiner” – can be downloaded through the WiiWare service and also to your PC.

Generally speaking though, the Wii has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to downloadable games. Admittedly, Nintendo only launched its WiiWare service in May, well behind Microsoft and Sony. But I have yet to be blown away by what I’ve seen and, instead, have been underwhelmed by much of what’s launched there recently.

For example – whatever you do, don't spend your money on the just-launched virtual fish tank game "My Aquarium." If you thought raising fish was a tranquil pastime, this underwater pet simulator packed with ho-hum standard-definition visuals makes it seem downright sleep-inducing. Even at a mere $5, “My Aquarium” is a good example of the kind of game that should fade away with the summer heat.