2019.04.01

Video game character collage best

A long while back, J sent me his top ten video games of all time per an ongoing discussion about such matters. It took me some time to furnish my own, but I have at last.

I changed up the format a bit. First, I provided an honorable mention list of games whose playability far exceeded my estimation of their bestness. Then there's the disclaimers of famous titles I haven't had the time or hardware to complete. Iinally, I applied a genre to each game such that most spots on the list are the finest from their genre. Each genre has runners-up, that I, on second look, feel are well place both relative to the category champion and the top list itself.

But really, it's just a list of video games. At the very least it's a brief trip down memory lane, at best there's coffee splashed in my face over slighting Diablo III (which sucked, btw). Without further ado code red:
Fun games

L4D2 is the pinnacle of team survival games. L4D2 gave us the Director AI feature, Jimmy Gibbs Jr., Ellis's buddy Keith, and a massive library of free, excellent community content.

It's hard to consider this a top ten game, but it's impossible to not at least mention it as being as fun as anything on the list.


Sid Meier's Pirates was a brilliant combination of strategy, ship combat tactics, and chess-like land tactics. While Pirates had the fundamentals of a top ten title, it was good for probably just two (very fun) playthroughs.


From a series of well designed racing games, Double Dash added the partner element that both changed the game and made split screen more reasonable.


An unapproachable, frustrating, and buggy game, PUBG made made squad tactics a matter of life and death. And, well, in a game with 90% serious players, madman tactics still sometimes work out or at least good for a laugh.


While it was essentially a handful of mission types on cycle that got harder and harder, SimCopter was an absolute blast.


A sleeper Wolfenstein 3D mod that took the Team Fortress multiplayer formula to WWII before Battlefield or CoD ever did. Progressive objectives, classes, and XP were are rare feature in the Counterstrike days.


The ultimate game for a college kickback. The minigames range in quality, but you're ultimately invested in the final win.


Rock Band took Guitar Hero to the next level with a co-op experience and a closetful of perphipherals. The plastic guitar era has come and gone, but it was a good year.


Rush means rush. In the deathmatch era of online gaming, the teamwork element of CS made for a more interesting shooter experience. Based on a very good Half-Life engine and featuring a variety of excellent maps, CS was the college dorm staple.


Fighter games are just so terrible. SSB changes the formula with very unique character abilities as well as a love-it-or-hate-it smash elimination system. And in the era of couch gaming on 640x480, any multiplayer game that doesn't require split screen is a huge win.


It was Doom, reskinned. For free in a box of cereal that (at that age) was palatable with a modest sugar pour-over. There has never been a better cereal box prize, anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is probably a Flemoid.


Major releases I haven't played


The List

10. Goldeneye

Shooter

Sometimes video games teach valuable life lessons, Goldeneye 64 was one of them. First and foremost, Rare showed everyone that a small and inexperienced team with a deadline that slips years is the key to making a revolutionary game. This has fallen on deaf ears of late, where massive code farms churn out derivative title after derivative title.

Second, the harsh reality is that everyone screenlooks. The only way to beat this is to get better (and know all the maps).

Third, and finally, how do you know if someone is alive or dead? Do you pinch them? Check their eyes? Check their pulse? No, dummy. When you die, you drop your gun. Not before, not after.

Beyond standing as an important mentor, Goldeneye brought a revolutionary gaming experience to the brave new world of single-stick controls. The single player campaign was ample, varied, and replayable. Challenges unlocked substantial new content. And, well, the multiplayer is legendary.

As referenced above, Goldeneye also mainstreamed the head/body/limb shot distinction. It not only provided the ability to stick-aim, it gave you a very good reason to do so. While there would have been "boom headshot" and dual stick without Goldeneye, it absolutely championed the cause.

Runners-up

Goldeneye's follow-on, Perfect Dark, almost unseats it. Perfect Dark brought the same gameplay formula with significant improvements as well as a wall-ignoring sniper rifle and fly by wire rocket launcher.

Halo deserves consideration for this spot because it simply took all that was good in the FPS genre and put it in one game. Like Borderlands 1, they made a good game and then realized they needed a plot if they were going to milk the sequels. But it didn't really matter, there was a very fun campaign that you could co-op, and when that was done you could deathmatch with the roommates.


9. Horizon: Zero Dawn

Open world RPG

There are a lot of strong candidates in the category of action rpg. In some ways it's hard to not make an interesting game when you have an expansive map, rpg elements, a library of sidequests, and an epic story. These types of gmaes games may actually be more distinct for the elements they leave out, e.g. grinding elements for crafting or mashing a bunch of buttons for an annoying third eye vision mode. My favorite game in this category actually does both of those things, but it handles them very well. Third eye mode, for example, isn't simply a way to obscure quest objects that could easily be shown in the main view. Likewise, crafting isn't about collecting a thousand purple herbs.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is strong in all categories: story, combat system, length/size, worldbuilding, visuals, and quests. The story and dialogue comes in a lightweight, steady stream (rather than three hour cutscenes of revelation). The world is beautiful and absorbing. Not everything you find on the road is out to kill you. And as an open-world game you're at liberty to wander if you need to give the quest a break, but even aimless meandering provides material benefit.

Oh yeah. Giant robotic dinosaurs.

Runners-up

Skyrim almost takes this, as it offers more gameplay material than some trilogies. It does struggle under its own weight, with its enormous map, many quests, crafting, and fetching. The Witcher 3 is to Skyrim what Game of Thrones is to Lord of the Rings. It's grittier, it's more grown up. TW3 is another strong contender that maybe catches a bad break because I prefer scifi to fantasy.

Fallout 3 brought grittiness to the genre long before TW3 did. The desolate environment and unique character interactions led gaming into its golden era of free roam rpg.

And before any of these deliberate, fiddly rpgs aborbed gamers' lives, two absolute gems from across the pacific - Wind Waker and Ocarina of time - gave us a sandbox world in which to adventure.


8. Metal Gear Solid

Story-driven action

A few things blew my mind about MGS.

1. The grittiness/realism. Of course it was still a game where you can be shot a few times and then magically bandage yourself, and it culminated in (spoilers) fighting a mech, but outside of that it really led the way for the CoDs and the Rainbow Sixes. At a time when most games were deathmatches between rocket launchers and nail guns, MGS featured real world equipment and a far more serious tone.

2. Stealth. It was the first game to do this well. It wasn't easy (Payday 2), but it wasn't peripheral-destroying (Splinter Cell). The stealth suit playthrough is, of course, very rewarding.

3. The wealth of gameplay tailored to each point in the story. Rather than create a world that's pretty much the same except ramping difficulty, each area has some bespoke feature that's as simple as a funny dialogue that's triggered from a particular action to "why is this boss reading my playstation memory card???"

Runners-up

Snake Eater deserves a mention because while it used the MGS formula, it bought new depth to the character and plot development. TLOU easily has a spot on the top-15 for being unmatched, to this day, on dialogue and character development. There's also quite a bit to be said for a game that doesn't sprawl time- and space-wise. And finally Beyond Good and Evil deserves a mention for its style and variety of gameplay.


7. X-Wing

Action sim

Everyone who's seen Star Wars wants to be a rebel fighter pilot. From the vector graphics Star Wars arcade game to Rogue Squadron to Battlefront, video games have offered the experience. But where Rebel Assault and Jar Jar's Supa Bombad Gungan Brawl totally sucked, the four installments of the X-Wing series were epic.

X-Wing offered a deep combat system with ally/enemy AI that was critical to not giving the feeling of a polygonal Space Invaders. There was a wide variety of missions that had their own story, crescendo, and climax. In the era of platformers and fighting games, the pilot career/first person approach was as immersive as the hardware permitted.

Runners-up

Many will claim that TIE Fighter was truly the best. It probably comes down to political inclination. TIE Fighter carried more story, customizability, and just a touch of sympathy for the devil. Of course, after a few missions it became X-Wing since you were no longer piloting the shieldless mainstays of the Imperial fleet but rather the Advanced, Gunboat, and insanely OP Defender. But I digress.

XvT took the formula to a new level: 56k era online gaming. This, itself, was a novelty and challenge for the developers. Then X-Wing Alliance came in with the story mode that XvT lacked as well as the bells and whistles that late-90s hardware and software offered.

Gran Turismo 2 seems out of place in a category that's heavy on space sims. If I could go to 15, it would dominate its own genre because it's a magnificent game and the apex of the series. I bought a 3000GT because of Gran Turismo, and my second choice was a 2.5RS.


6. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Sandbox action

Long before Fallout 3 brought at 2d rpg to fps-land, Rockstar took its criminal underworld Grand Theft Auto series to a large, living sandbox world. Like the open world rpg games that came after, the new generation GTA games were places to roam around and get into all sorts of trouble.

It would be easy to fete GTA III for being the beginning of it all, but I have to give this spot to its second successor, GTA: San Andreas. But why? Is this some Los Santos-Liberty City beef? Perhaps so. Indeed, GTA:SA was sort of a historical fiction where NWA meets Friday. And so it had character and style that was largely absent from GTA III (Vice City got closer).

As Rockstar tends to make significant improvements to each release in a series, GTA:SA wasn't just a rehash of its predecessors. And while three cities and motorbikes are iterative upgrades, what this San Andreas really did was take a fun but soulless sandbox and put a story into it.

Runners-up

As I mentioned, GTA III started it all and each game in the series has been very good.

Far Cry 4 built the sandbox around a beautiful Himalayan country and brought a multidimensional bad guy as well as a unequaled (for console) map editor. Couple that with co-op mayhem for map unlocks and you have a very good shooter.

The Assassin's Creed series has all the polish of a AAA title, and I'll nominate Black Flag as the series best.

Dying Light: The Following was that sleeper hit that is getting a very hyped sequel. An open world survival shooter with a strong story, Dying Light also oftered full campaign co-op and a DLC that added vehicles.


5. The Legend of Zelda

Open world RPG

I did say that the open world rpg genre has the strongest offerings. And so here is the second one, which is good because I've heard it's dangerous to go alone.

Zelda simply defined the genre: an expansive overworld with dungeons, unlockable areas, items, upgrades. All in the eight bit era when nearly all console games would start from level 1 when you turned them on. It was fun and challenging and, well, perfect were it not for those monsters that eat your shield.

Runners-up

The original Zelda had a few good follow-ups. No, not Link: The Faces of Evil, but The Aventures of Link and A Link to the Past.


4. Super Mario 64

Platformer

The platformer genre might miss the top ten list if it weren't for a particular italian plumber and his red-hatted sidekick. Just kidding, Luigi is the sidekick, nobody likes Luigi.

Mario 64 was the bridge between the old school of sidescrollers/fighters and the new school of open world adventures. The game really nailed the risky and difficult 3D cam/movement in a way that was critical to bringing platformers into the third dimension. Mario 64 featured sequentially-unlocked levels like before, but let you run them nonlinearly and with objectives for replay. The game kept your progress, but anyone could pick up your game and go drop some penguins off cliffs.

This game coupled with Christmas break was my first experience with video game-induced insomnia.

Runners-up

While I don't think it was quite the turning point that Mario 64 was, Mario 3 was a massive evolution of the side scroller. And while it wasn't actually a Mario game, Mario 2 (or Doki Doki Panic) played like a Zelda II-Mario hybrid.

Two more easy top-25 titles are Metroid and Super Metroid. These games were, in their day, vast and full of secrets.


3. Civilization II/VI

Strategy/tactics

Having played Civilization II-VI, it's difficult to decide which best represents this legendary series. Civ II was probably the biggest step up (though I only have vague knowledge of the first), but Civ VI benefits from all the polish the series has accrued: hexes, victory options, mods, culture, neighborhoods, social policy, Gandhi friendliness underflow... the series has really evolved almost never regresses.

Whichever installment you choose, Civilization is a cerebral, absorbing experience that is rivaled by none. "Just one more turn..." is the mantra describing the depth and investment in the civilization that you build. Each playthrough is a unique story that leaves you wanting to start anew. At 3:30 in the morning.

Runners-up

And so it's unfair that other games have to be compared to Civilization, given five more slots I would open up a Non-Civ Strat/Tactics category. But we can mention the other candidates in brief. Warcraft II and Command and Conquer: Red Alert jointly defined the golden era of real time tactics games.

On the nonviolent side of things (with enough police stations), Sim City 2000 was like a mini-Civ.

Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance was the most notable of a very good series of chess++ games that continue to get better.


2. Mass Effect

RPG

Mass Effect was born from the success of Knights of the Old Republic, an expansive game whose trademark was interesting storytelling. Bioware carried all of that forward to a universe they build from scratch; one that feels bigger and more complete than was the game can show the player.

While ME didn't have the polish of its sequels, they didn't have the intelligence and the novelty of the original. The characters of Mass Effect - friends and foes - are written with depth and awareness of the lazy storytelling that plagues video games.

The ME story and universe felt easy to become immersed in, in contrast to the weird robo-aliens of Warframe or the high fantasy wizards of Divinity. And that's what you want from a game whose core offerings are story and character interaction.

Runners-up

ME borrowed heavily from Knights of the Old Republic, so the earlier Bioware title definitely deserves a mention. Mass Effect 2 cleaned up a lot of the rough elements of ME1 and did well to be the Empire Strikes Back of the series, but it was ultimately simply the next chapter in a story and universe created by the original.


1. Borderlands 2

Shooter++

The first Borderlands game asked why shooters couldn't have the depth and customizability of an rpg. And while it didn't quite nail every aspect of the emerging genre, its sequel absolutely did.

A shooter must have good mechanics - movement and aim must be natural but challenging and rewarding. BL2 plays every bit as well as the Halos and the Battlefields.

An rpg must have depth and customizability. BL2 has a modest skill tree by RPG standards, and the inventory is predominantly guns. It is a shooter after all. Of course, the gun randomization system makes it very hard to find the same build twice. The real depth comes in with minmaxing builds based on skills, items, and weapons - a process that evolves over the journey from level 1 to OP8.

An rpg must be tactical. A lot of shooters work the flesh/shield/armor triad and have critical points. BL2 doesn't stand alone in this category, but it brings many more factors to the table than simply aiming at a different spot. Bosses, raid bosses, and arena modes add a different tactical dimension that is deepened by each squad member and their special abilities.

BL2 features an interesting and very interactive villain to complement a cast of characters with their one unique and often hilarious style.

Also it has squad co-op for the full duration of the story.

The game is massive and complete, but Gearbox continued to expand the title with quality DLC installments that provide visual variety and new loot to hunt.

Runners-up

Borderlands 1 put down the groundwork for this masterpiece, but had the rough edges of a new series. It had an iconic (Road Warrior meets Tatooine) style but felt inert. The DLC made a hard turn toward the interactive experience of BL2.

Warframe and The Division bring a lot of this chemistry to the table and excel in their own ways, but they aren't remotely as complete an experience as BL2.