Friday 26 July 2013

Top 10 Games of my life

Every year I enjoy making (and reading) top game lists. In fact I like any kind of "top X" list when it comes to gaming. Provokes discussion. Memories. Introduces you to games/ideas you didn't know. Great stuff.

I am feeling particularly nostalgic of late, so I wanted to take a break from my regular routine and write a list of the Top 10 Games I enjoyed playing most throughout my life. There will be a few modern titles, and a few older ones. You have to be very careful when thinking about past games because time can easily change opinions. We forget negative experiences quicker than positive and it's easy to be left with a rose-tinted view of older games.

What I am trying to recapture is how I felt whilst I was playing. Which games were I eager to keep playing for the experience alone. This will be a very personal list so feel free to agree, disagree or just have a good old think.

Anyway, let's give this a go:

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1. Dead Space 2
PC (2011)

There is no doubt in my mind that this game takes the crown. None at all. I purchased Dead Space for cheap along with some new computer parts a few years ago. It was just a random purchase of an unfamiliar, cheap horror game and boy was I surprised. Yes, it was a crappy PC port and yes, the story wasn't the most original; but I loved it. And so I waited for Dead Space 2 with great anticipation.

Damn did it deliver! It had lost a few of the horror elements, but it still roughly had the same tone. The new focus on story, interesting levels and voicing of the main character turned a great first game into a fantastic sequel. Dead Space 3 was unfortunately a bit of a step back but till the day I die I will recommend Dead Space 1 & 2. I know there are better horror games. Better story telling games. Better action games. This just does it for me and until it is unseated, my number one game.

2. Sonic 3 & Knuckles
Mega-Drive (1994)

This game originally required a highly novel method to play. The Sonic 3 cartridge was slotted into the top of the Sonic & Knuckles game, using its specially designed entry port (not kidding - picture). This then combined the two games into a single, mega-game. Not only did this mean a playable Tails in Sonic & Knuckles and a playable Knuckles in Sonic 3, but it also brought some level changes and new areas/secrets were revealed. The story carried across and 100% completion (chaos emeralds into super emeralds) unlocked a 'Hyper' Sonic/Tails/Knuckles form and also a new, final boss fight.

This concept alone should have made it memorable, but it was a fantastic platformer as well. Great and varied level designs, good boss fights, chaos levels, music, power-ups, Knuckles... it had it all! I honestly feel this should go down in history as one of the best ideas and games so far. The Sonic franchise has unfortunately really lost its way since, but that does not undo the sheer greatness that Sega pulled off with this game. I've purchased and re-purchased this game over the years more times than any other. Under my bed still is a Sega Saturn purchased off eBay exclusively to play this title (through Sonic Jam).

3. Doom 3
PC (2004)

As I write this, I know there will be 'better' games further down my list - at least, games generally considered to be better. Valve's more acclaimed Half-Life 2 was released a few months after and has generally eclipsed Id's shooter.  But for me Doom 3 provided enjoyment few shooters have since matched. Even though not especially scary, this game was great

The key was the focus on story. The combat-less introduction wasn't boring and set up atmosphere perfectly. The finding of PDA audiologs/emails was a great addition and one that encouraged so much exploration. The way the new Id Tech 4 engine allowed the interaction of objects with the mouse was a nice new addition. The horror 'surprises' in the game did become a little predictable, but there were still some great scary moments. It got the ammunition/health conservation aspect more or less perfect, and I definitely remember more than once backtracking for health on the harder difficulties. The icing on the cake for me was the choice between holding a flashlight or holding a gun, creating some very tense moments in the dark areas.

4. World of Warcraft
PC (2004)

I feel a little embarrassed to put this title here. Why is that? There is this general feeling that people who play World of Warcraft are the nerdiest of the nerds. I can sort of see where that comes from, but let's be honest most of the world thinks that of gamers in general... so why further segment ourselves? 

WoW is the online game. Sure, other games have/will have more 'active players' (whatever that means), but World of Warcraft defined an entire genre. It is hard to call WoW unique because almost every MMORPG has similar elements, but it definitely feels the king. It's vast, well put together, and has consistently created varied and interesting content that kept people coming back week after week.

You will be hard pressed to find balanced opinions on this game. It inspires great hatred and derision, and over-zealous defence. People sneer at WoW players in a unique way. But facts are facts. WoW has been said to be "dying" for years now (even in BBC news) but after 9 years World of Warcraft still has over 7.5 million monthly subscribers. No other game has achieved anything like this. Maybe it's time is passing, but it's undeniably an excellent game.

5. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask/Ocarina of Time
Nintendo 64 (1998 & 2000)

Let's be honest, it is expected that one of these titles (usually Ocarina of Time) will feature in a 'best games ever' list. The reason is simple: they were outstanding. Most gamers fortunate enough to play them at the time walked away with positive impressions. There isn't anything left to say about either game that hasn't been said in full somewhere else.

As for me, I am in conflict about which one I consider better. One of the criteria many people use is 'originality' and something was 'first'. This is seen found in all mediums that provoke a critical response. Film remakes/sequels. Games. Music. Books. etc. But I find this criteria is illogical. Ocarina of Time is generally thought to be the better one, but I wonder how much of that is because it was first? I also wonder how many say Majora's Mask was better just to be different or 'edgy'.

I think Ocarina had the better story and integration with gameplay, but Majora was more polished and had some game mechanics that were astounding. Majora had a more complete world and I think I like it more, but they're both exceptional. I sometimes wonder why there are so few 'Zelda' style games, given their success. Maybe developers feel that the formula can't be done better, so why bother. A bit of a shame really.

6. Bioshock
PC (2007)

Anyone familiar with this game and my tastes could predict its presence on my list. First-person shooters with a horror theme are usually games I like very much. Bioshock has a large focus on story, and with it's plasmid gameplay can feel a bit more supernatural than a title such as Doom 3 or F.E.A.R.

Where Bioshock truly triumphed was the world it created. Rapture is an amazing location. The art deco style, the contrast of extravagance and destruction, the surreal but beautiful underwater location all contributed to an environment that was begging to be explored and understood. Even though heavily based in science fiction, Bioshock's story was essentially about humanity. About how a city could start off so bright, yet end up so awful. Add in the enjoyable gameplay and you have a title that was guaranteed to be successful. 

7. Diddy Kong Racing
Nintendo 64 (1997)

Every genre has its paragon; a title that features all great aspects. For some the action-adventure paragon is Ocarina of Time, for others the FPS paragon is Goldeneye or Modern Warfare 2. For me, the paragon of the racing genre is undoubtedly Diddy Kong Racing. I am not a huge player of racing games, but I will never hear a bad word spoken about this game. 

The racing itself was essentially perfect, with fun power-ups and varied racing types: cars, planes and hovercraft. The controls were simple, but the gameplay complex enough to reward skill. There were hidden tricks, secrets to discover, and unlockable characters. The balloon progression system was well tuned and the multiplayer combat zones provided hours of fun. On completion the game had great re-playability by offering every level in reverse.

Even the non-gameplay components were great. It was colourful and vibrant, and the music was outstanding. Maybe I sing its praises too loudly, but for me it is one of the few games that comes close to flawless. The only negative it had: it's only a racing game. 

8. Super Smash Bros
Nintendo 64 (1999)

I have read very few gaming magazines in my life - criminal, I know. I'm not sure why this is. I just never quite had the will when younger to read about games and when I finally did the internet was becoming a 'thing' and that was that. But I vividly remember reading a friend's magazine that described an upcoming game 'Super Smash Bros' and I remember the excitement I had just reading about it.

It isn't necessarily the large ensemble of Nintendo characters, although I do like them very much. Bringing all the familiar characters into one game was a brilliant idea and to be honest, something that only Nintendo could do properly; as they created all of them. But for me, it was the gameplay I really loved.

Nintendo absolutely nailed the mechanics. The concept of having a % damage done that increased your likelihood of being thrown off was great fun. It created so much more opportunity for interesting situations than fighters with static health bars. I have some very fond memories of epic struggles where characters 'just' manage to make it back from seemingly impossible distances. Level design was great with large, open levels with layouts and events that influenced gameplay. The items not only provided nostalgia, but a very interesting twist to combat and created even more varied combat situations.

Although I have definitely played the sequels more than I played the original, I found they were slightly different. Super Smash Bros still stands out in my memory as the superior title and where I had the most fun.

9. Gauntlet Legends
Nintendo 64 (1998)

The gameplay of Gauntlet Legends was simple: pick your character and hack n'slash your way through millions of enemies. Each character only had one attack, although special moves and potions could be used. A fairly average singleplayer experience.

But Gauntlet Legends truly shined in its co-operative play. I can't say exactly why, perhaps it was just the combination of abilities, characters or the interesting level design. Perhaps it was just the collective enjoyment of the Cathedral background music. Maybe it just fit my personality.

Either way, I think it is this title that set up my long love of playing multiplayer games co-operatively, rather than combatively. No game has ever quite replicated the particular multiplayer enjoyment this game provided. Yellow Wizard is about to die!

10. Halo
Microsoft Xbox (2001)

It would be hard to argue that a console has had a better launch title than Halo for the first Xbox. It went on to spawn one of the most successful and well-known franchises currently in gaming.

Everything was good about this game. The story was good. The location was interesting and highly innovative. The combat was very solid, and the inclusion of vehicles was a noteworthy addition; especially the NPCs that could hop on and help. Although it had few levels, each was long and varied; but a good checkpoint system prevented them becoming tiresome. It even managed to work in rudimentary stealth gameplay at times.

Nowadays it is easy to forget how Halo transformed the first-person shooter genre. Whether it changed it for the better is a different discussion, but it is impossible to deny the impact it had. Two-weapon systems, regenerating health-like resource, the instant mêlée attack, the shift from precision shooting to precision timing. This all came from Halo. Could this change have happened if Halo was a bad game? No. This happened because it was a giant. A shining example of how great console shooters could be.  

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The Honourable Mentions

There is no time to write about every game I have enjoyed over the many years. Also keeping the list short makes it more meaningful. But there were games that I wanted to feature, but didn't make it for whatever reason. Here is a little honourable mention to some favourites that have their fond places in my memory.

Conker's Bad Fur Day (Nintendo 64) - I really, really wanted to include this game. I loved it. It was hilarious and enjoyable. To this day I believe this game did not get the general recognition it thoroughly deserved.

Hybrid Heaven (Nintendo 64) - Not the most well known of games. Wasn't the best mechanically speaking either, but I remember becoming more and more invested as the story continued. Just a solid RPG with a good story that I really liked.

Spec Ops : The Line (PC) - If this game represents the future for story telling and character development in games, then I would consider that a positive. Despite fairly average gameplay, this game managed to penetrate a surprising emotional depth and was an experience I enjoyed immensely.

Yoshi's Story (Nintendo 64) - Loved this game. It was adorable and fun and had a lovely atmosphere throughout its very short gameplay. There is room in this world for 'happy' games, and Yoshi's Story would be king of that world.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert (PC) - One of my childhood favourites. Although I am not a big RTS player any more, I have never found a game in the genre that provided the fun Red Alert did. I also quite liked the next game in the series, the first Tiberian Sun.

Quake 2 (PC) - Quake and Doom were both fun, but this was the first FPS I found amazing. It may have something to do with the fact that they gave it a rudimentary story. I remember watching the intro sequence over and over. Very good times were had with this game.

Metroid Prime (Nintendo Gamecube) - This really was a good game. Gameplay wise, it was an amazing shooter, even though it was a little unconventional. Just lacked a little something for me in the story department.

Mario Tennis (Nintendo 64) - The only sports game I have ever enjoyed. Unless you count racing games. But let's not. So yeah. *cough* The only sports game I have ever truly enjoyed!... that wasn't a racing game.

Bomberman 64 (Nintendo 64) - This was a quaint little game. It had great level design and the multiplayer was a lot of fun as well; with the dynamic levels and interesting power-ups. 

Diablo 2 (PC) - There is no better isometric, mouse-drive RPG for me. Once again Blizzard made a game that defined a whole genre. The story was fantastic, with some cinematics that still hold up to this day. 

F.E.A.R (PC) - A great, horror FPS that I really enjoyed playing. Perhaps if I had played this when it was new I may have appreciated it more. When I finally got around to it, it was a little dated.

Portal (PC) - Perhaps rather childishly this is absent from my list because it's a universally loved game. It's almost impossible to have a personal connection with Portal these days. Everyone knows the Cake is a Lie. It's a phenomenon, and rightly so.


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