While Bejeweled 2 has been around on the iPhone since 2008, it's the recent free update that includes Bejeweled Blitz--the incredibly addictive one-minute minigame that connects to Facebook--that turns PopCap's masterpiece into a diabolical time-eater.
The first of a three-part Atari 2600-inspired series of brand new retro-games for Nintendo's WiiWare, Bit.Trip.Beat combines classic Pong paddle controls with a music rhythm game, adding truly excellent chiptunes. It's a reinvention of old-school arcade gaming.
One of Nintendo's smartest moves on its downloadable DSiWare service was to release a series of Art Style games based on hard-to-find Japanese GBA titles. Digidrive, originally made by Q Games, is a beautifully simple abstract puzzler, as are all the other titles in the Art Style series.
Originally released as a limited-edition cartridge for the Nintendo DS, the Toshiro Iwaii-designed series of biological/musical toys that comprise Electroplankton are digital art, now available on DSiWare for about $2 each. This is a side of Nintendo we'd like to see more of.
Although both Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony are technically DLC add-ons to Grand Theft Auto IV, they are game-changers for the future of downloadables. For about $20 each, both fully realized spinoff games set in Liberty City were nearly as good as the original GTA IV.
Jenova Chen's Thatgamecompany was one of the major pioneers in turning low-cost downloadable games into the equivalent of art-house movies. Simple and emotional, Flower became as celebrated as many disc-based games when it was released in early 2009.
Back in the days of the Dreamcast, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was a shining star of mashup fighting games. Wolverine, Mega Man, and dozens of other fighters were previously available only to eBay hunters, but Capcom's decision to release the rarity as a console downloadable is a promising move for the future of rare retro titles.
Before the PSPGo lost its UMD drive, Sony had already been experimenting with disc-free gaming. Patapon 2, a sequel to the unique rhythm/strategy game for the PSP, was released as a download-only title. Premium games without boxes are now standard for Sony, although we hope the prices will be lowered accordingly in the future.
Originally a PC hit, the pinball-meets-pachinko addictiveness of Peggle spread to XBLA, PSN and the iPhone this year. While the XBLA/PSN versions have superior graphics, the iPhone edition can't be beat for price or portability.
(Platforms: Xbox 360/Xbox Live Arcade, PS3/PSN, iPhone/iPod Touch)
The PSP's online PSN library of downloadable games has gotten some flack for being too expensive, but hopefully more titles will find the small, cheaper groove like Pixeljunk Monsters. An adaptation of the PS3 tower defense game, it's one of the best downloadable PSP titles available.
To everyone's big surprise, the iPhone is a pretty great racing platform even without physical buttons. Firemint's homage to Gran Turismo has great car models and tracks, smooth graphics, and surprisingly tight controls, and proves the iPhone can be a serious game machine.
While a number of competitors have risen to challenge for the title, Ngmoco's Rolando game series might be one of the platformers available on the iPhone. This year's sequel has more 3D effects but the same puzzling play.
When Epic Games, makers of Gears of War, decided to announce a download-only Xbox Live Arcade game as a headline title at this year's E3, we sat up and paid attention. A tribute to Metroid, Contra and 2D games of the past, Shadow Complex would be worth a full-priced disc release--thankfully, it's a much more affordable XBLA download instead.
Call this one of 2009's biggest surprises. Microsoft sent us a download code for this accidentally instead of Shadow Complex, and we discovered a gritty, insane reimagining of ExciteBike. Simple controls and incredible physics show off how casual games can also be hardcore.
First released as a PC game, Trine found its way to the PS3's PlayStation Store. A 2D game with 3D graphics in the style of Shadow Complex for the Xbox 360, Trine's swappable characters add strategic elements while magical environments make for great eye candy.
Believe it or not, Nintendo does take risks: it just does it with its downloadable games. One of several innovative WiiWare games this year, the Japan-import You, Me and the Cubes is nearly indescribable: part balance game, part Boom Blox-esque aim-and-toss, its sound and visual design is odd and completely compelling.
Part of the joy of the iTunes App Store's ridiculously large collection of low-cost games is the likelihood of discovering a rare import. Square Enix and Taito released a Japan-only cellphone game reinvention of Space Invaders, added a mode that generates new levels based on music tracks on your iPod Touch or iPhone, and ended up with one of the best handheld shooters of the year.