Warning: There will be spoilers for games that range in age – some even go back a decade. If you haven’t played these by now, chances are you probably never will.
Look, we all have our personal favourites lists. The games that defined us as gamers, the ones that impacted us in deep ways, the ones that were genres in and of themselves. This is not a way of discrediting any of those ideals – this is simply my attempt to use Gamer Codex’s rating system and my own feelings to determine what games truly do represent the industry’s finest.
Whether they are artistic statements, immensely emotional tales, storytelling masterpieces, or simply damn fun experiences, these games set the bar for what our industry strives to achieve. Here are the games I view as the greatest in history.
#10 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003, BioWare, PC/Xbox)
This game made it onto the list just barely. We’re talking about the action role-playing genre, which is not only host to some of BioWare’s best games, but some of the greatest games of all time period.
However, because of the fact that even today other Star Wars games are compared to it, and because of its unique status in the continuity, it holds a special place in my heart. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic taught me, as it taught many before, of the intricacies of this fictional universe and the potential it could have for engaging, player-controlled storytelling.
Indeed, many of the features present here paved the way for BioWare’s later successes, such as the deep morality system which influenced the game’s events or the implementation of weapon crafting and party customization to match a particular situation. Most of the seven worlds you could explore had collectable items to claim, side quests to undertake, and a wide range of characters and locales to interact with. The combat also had a unique appeal: you could combat enemies in real-time, or you could pause the battle and strategically determine your next move.
And then there was the story. Hands down one of the best in Star Wars continuity, Knights of the Old Republic put you in the shoes of a Force-sensitive amnesiac of player-decided appearance and gender, fighting for either selfless or selfish purposes. The game did a good job of fleshing out each world and making the entire experience feel important, especially when the reveal of who exactly the player was came up. The twist, the revelation based on well-written hints, that your character was indeed a reformed Dark Lord of the Sith was so awesome and shocking at the same time – not to mention it set up the desperation and stress of the final hours, where you made the final choice between light and darkness.
You see now why this sticks in my mind? Knights of the Old Republic shocked, entertained and intrigued us, and it deserves to be remembered as such.
#9 – Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo EAD Tokyo, Wii)
Alright, perhaps this got onto the list out of popular opinion, but I stand by my belief: no other Mario game has been quite as grand and masterful as this (save, perhaps, for the eternal SMB3 which I have never played and cannot speak for). Super Mario Galaxy‘s sense of scale, uplifting art style and refined gameplay set it apart from other platformers, and even from other Mario games (even, sadly, Super Mario 64).
Galaxy‘s premise is no different from most other Mario games: Bowser kidnapped Peach, go rescue Peach. The catch is that right from the outset, the experience will be defined by the presence of motion-based controls and interesting uses of gravity. While Mario still moves via the Control Stick, the classic “Spin” move is now linked to shaking the Wiimote. There’s a certain joy to be had at making Goombas spin like tops and soaring through Launch Stars.
More important is the level design. From ghost-infested landmasses to desert plains, from asteroid fields to floating water slides, Galaxy knows how to be inventive with the whole “Mario in Space” angle. It’s amazing to see these new enemies, power-ups, and environments coalesce into a seamless adventure full of hopping on enemies’ heads, flying through space to distant worlds and narrowly avoiding death (or not – again, I point you to the “floating water slides”).
It’s also the little things, like exploring a thriving hub full of sentient star-beings called Lumas and exiled Toads, or discovering hidden Power Stars and secret worlds, or competing against a doppelganger when a Prankster Comet arrives. It’s listening to the enchanting Rosalina tell her thinly-veiled but all-too-touching backstory, or being able to unlock Luigi as a playable character. It’s even the fully orchestrated soundtrack, which is as endearing and energetic as the classics.
Super Mario Galaxy is the culmination of years of careful design and hard work, and it truly shines as an example of fine platforming gameplay.
#8 – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008, Kojima Productions, PS3)
I covered this in my original review, and there’s not much more I can add that I didn’t say there. Metal Gear Solid 4 wrapped up the series beautifully, called back to every major instalment with finesse and focus, and even shook up the formula in meaningful ways.
Some may consider the Drebin market system a detriment to the series’ stealth roots, the interactive cutscenes distracting from the story, the OctoCamo a simplified version of Snake Eater‘s Camoflage system. However, please ask yourself the following: How long has the series been around? How badly do you want to see Snake continue to suffer? How much more of this convoluted storyline do you think you can handle?
Metal Gear Solid 4 gave the series one last jolt of energy to finish what it started, and it passed with flying colours. Bringing us back to Shadow Moses, letting us pilot a Metal Gear, reuniting us with classic characters like EVA and Meryl, and finally giving Solid Snake a proper retirement – add some of the series’ best boss battles, its finest balance of action and stealth yet, and the return of classic themes complemented with high-class visual design, and you have a game for the ages.
Snake, you were always a legendary soldier. Now you have the game to prove it.
#7 – Pokemon Red and Blue (1996, Game Freak, Game Boy)
This defined my childhood, back in the day. What may have started as a simple journey to become the Region Champion soon turned into a multi-million dollar franchise with numerous instalments, remakes and spin-offs… and it’s all thanks to you, Blue.
Pokemon Red and Blue‘s appeal comes from both its originality and its nostalgic appeal. Gathering the right team of six creatures from across the Kanto region, training them to evolve and become the strongest fighting force in the land, that is what high-grade role-playing is all about. And it doesn’t hurt that the original 151 Pokemon were some of the coolest – with badass names like Charizard, Mewtwo, Magmar, and Gyarados standing out among some cute creatures like Pikachu, Clefairy and Squirtle.
It really got the “Hero’s Quest” formula right: a young hero goes out into the world, fights against numerous erratic gym leaders and even a secret Pokemon-enslaving organization, all for the sake of personal triumph. As you learn more about this world and as you experience more battles, you begin to form a bond with your Pokemon – a bond only shattered by then-unique trading mechanics that were impressive to behold.
Personally, I couldn’t see myself gaming without the help of Pikachu and company. This game, with all its aged pixelated graphics and admittedly alienating creature sounds, still holds a place in my heart for all of the good memories and of the adventures it inspired. For instance, in no other game would taking advantage of a glitch to capture Mew make sense.
Thank you, Nintendo, for helping us to cheat the right way.
#6 – Deus Ex (2000, Ion Storm, PC/PS2)
Back in 2000, if you owned this game, you were the sh*t. Seriously, Deus Ex‘s importance to me stems somewhat from its stylish atmosphere, but mostly from how f**king innovative it was, and still is. So many genres profited from it: action role-playing, stealth, first-person shooter, even adventure.
Deus Ex let you tackle scenarios in a variety of ways, for one. You could spend a hour scoping out every inch of a complex, shadow guards as they moved about, and quietly head through air shafts to your objective. Or you could hack your way past laser gates, turn automated sentries and turrets against their masters and let chaos ensue. Or you could simply create chaos – go in with a pistol, shoot up anything that moves and march right to your objective, alarms be damned. It’s fun to choose your path.
For another, this game really was the master of narrative balance. On the one hand, Deus Ex is very much a focused tale of conspiracy and mystery, propelling the player into increasingly uncomfortable odds and forcing them to question what they know about the world. When you met a character once, chances are they will come to play some role later on, be it as friend or foe.
On the other hand, this game knew that it was, in fact, a game. From the aforementioned non-linear levels to dialogue where people’s lives and actions could be determined just from what you say, player choice is ever-present and accounted for. This level of choice also extends to the vast range of ways to upgrade and equip your nanotech-augmented hero, JC Denton, though with a twist: your choices in equipment and upgrades will affect what you can do in-game, blocking you off from certain pathways in levels if you lack the necessary tools.
Ah, if only you ran on Human Revolution‘s engine instead of Unreal‘s leftovers. Regardless, this action-RPG continues to shine as a golden child of 21st century PC gaming, and our memories will forever be haunted by that awesome techno-beat theme.
#5 – Mass Effect 2 (2010, BioWare, PC/Xbox 360/PS3)
Now, as we reach the latter half of the list, we get to more typical choices for “Best Games”. BioWare has a reputation for making games that lure me in, but none quite match the emotional appeal and finesse that Mass Effect 2 basks in. Especially not Mass Effect 3 – despite its attempts to incorporate more cinematic gameplay and role-playing elements, I was thoroughly turned off by the controversial ending.
Mass Effect 2, though… now there’s a game with a great hook. Not many games can claim to have quite an exciting opening scene as having your main character spaced, killed and resurrected within the course of ten minutes. From there, the mystery behind the Collectors and their abduction of human colonies mostly takes a backseat as the game presents its greatest strengths – its characters, its locales and its side missions.
Building a crew – similar in nature to Knights of the Old Republic and in principle to Pokemon – is as entertaining as it is essential, since it all plays into the “improving the odds of surviving the Suicide Mission” angle that Mass Effect 2 continually emphasizes. Each crew member has their own quirks, deeply fleshed-out dialogue and even a loyalty mission which doubles as a focused character study. For me, bonding with the fast-talking Mordin and the hard-headed Grunt made this game worthwhile.
Not to say anything else in the game doesn’t work. The wide range of places your Commander Shepard will visit is astounding, and each location feels rich with detail and collectables. You can easily double your mission time by trying to locate all of the safes, computers and crates to pillage in-between the intense firefights.
Of course, you can’t forget to mention the firefights – that’s what you’ll be doing for most of the time. The Power and Weapon Wheels – which pause the game to accommodate strategic play – are quite nice, and you can easily command your teammates. The rest of the game consists of conversations with BioWare’s patented Paragon/Renegade morality system, which gives the player more than a few options for key decisions in the game.
I wish that the main story were better fleshed out, since the coolest scenes appear near the end of the game. Still, with the strength of the numerous side-missions and ample character development combined with this game’s impressive sound design and near-flawless visuals, Mass Effect 2 truly makes a case for gaming to be considered an art. That alone makes it worth loving.
#4 – Half-Life 2 (2004, Valve, PC/Xbox)
Speaking of loving, boy does this one bring back memories. Half-Life 2 was one of the first truly mature games I ever played, and it still stands as one of the few games I’ve played that is rarely outshone. It’s truly hard to criticize without feeling like an idiot by comparison.
Seriously, remember the game’s disorienting intro, in which our old pal Doctor Freeman is teleported back into reality aboard a train? That initial scene, conveyed completely from the first-person, set up an adventure of epic preportions: escaping the confines of City 17, fleeing via river boat, travelling across the European countryside, combating both Xen creatures and Combine soldiers, leading a cinematic charge into the heart of the alien Citadel. All of this and more, and we never left the eyes of Gordon Freeman – amazing.
Not only is the game well-structured, but virtually every detail about it works. The story: it’s complicated enough to dig into for backstory, but not so as to be hard to follow. The characters: some are likeable, some are necessary for exposition, but all are believable. The enemies: they’re varied, they’re intelligent and they’re strategic. The weapons: also varied, balanced and appropriately weighted – particularly the revolutionary Gravity Gun.
Add to that list an effectively timeless Source Engine and quality voice work, and now we’re talking masterful artwork here. Some will bellyache about the length of the vehicle segments, the lack of non-Counter Strike multiplayer or the game’s open ending; personally, it doesn’t phase my love for the game, or my appreciation for the fact that it is essentially a blueprint for successful shooter design.
#3 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009, Naughty Dog, PS3)
Calling this a crowd-pleaser would be a mistake; it’s the crowd-pleaser. Uncharted 2 ups the ante from the original in every way, with better action, better pacing, better characters, and better gameplay to boot.
As always, Naughty Dog knows how to make a stunning game – you’ll take Nathan Drake through dense swamp-invested jungles, crumbling villas, frigid mountaintops and ancient ruins. Drake moves in a realistic manner, reacting with the environments in subtle ways – brushing up against close objects and shifting his body, cringing at explosions.
The shooting mechanics also got a leg up – no more motion-controlled aiming of grenades, and plenty of balanced weapons. The game features fewer puzzles than the original, but they’re more evenly spread out and they seem to have been designed in a smarter fashion – tilting the arms of a Tibetan deity’s statue never seemed so doable without clever hints from the journal and a helpful partner.
That’s not even talking about the setpieces. As always, the one to talk about is the train sequence, which takes up the course of two levels and provides some of the most tense encounters in the game. How many games do you know have firefights in collapsing buildings, climbing across train cars and struggling up the side of a cliff within the first half of the story?
And that is to say nothing of the main cast or the writing. Sure, Among Thieves is a fairly standard Hollywood tale of international adventure and intrigue, but Nolan North and company absolutely sell it as something deeper and emotionally satisfying. The way that Drake plays off of his friends and rivals is charming, and it really sells the game’s universal appeal.
My one wish for the game? It should have had more of Sully.
#2 – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998, Nintendo EAD, Nintendo 64)
I bet you expected this to be number 1, didn’t you? I mean, predicting that Uncharted 2, Half-Life 2 and Mass Effect 2 would be in my top 5 couldn’t have been difficult, and this game manages to outshine those in many ways.
For one, though it is very much a “Hero’s Quest” story, the narrative still stands out as something unique because of what it does. Having our legendary hero Link jump from the past to the future, eventually splitting the timeline of the entire franchise, so as to fight Ganondorf’s rule in the future was an interesting decision, but one that played out well. It created dramatic tension, a sense of responsibility in the player, that few games can impart.
It’s also gone on record as being a “walking patent office” for how it innovated action-adventure games in the present. Target lock-on, context-sensitive buttons, day/night cycle, even the idea of an immersive 3D open-world game came to life with Ocarina of Time. The way that Nintendo developed and implemented these ideas in-game, even attaching them to various side-activities and tasks, really set the stage for other series.
Considering that this game also represented Nintendo’s then-highest quality of graphics, sound design and writing, Ocarina of Time would make the top of many a gamer’s list. So why didn’t it reach the top of mine? Well, besides its aged visuals (which I can easily overcome), its emotional value somewhat depends on your investment in the franchise and on how charmed you are by the world.
I’m not really a fan of Zelda games, so my number 1 is a little off the beaten path.
#1 – Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team ICO, PS2)
Yes, this is my number 1. Even the great Ocarina of Time, in all its glory, cannot shake my faith in this 2005 classic. Shadow of the Colossus may not have the brand recognition or mainstream success of the other games on this list, but it was the game that was the most emotionally engaging and refined in my eyes.
Again, with many selections on this list, the story has a surface-level simplicity: A man rides into a forbidden land to seek help from a demon, making a deal to slay sixteen beasts called colossi across this land in exchange for the life of a woman he desperately tries to save. However, do not mistake this description: this is the furthest thing from a “Hero’s Quest” story I’ve seen in a very, very long time.
You, as the reluctant warrior Wander, are told right off the bat that your lady may or may not be saved, and that doing this will have terrible consequences. You know that what you are doing is wrong and, as your slaughter of these colossi will soon reveal, even detrimental to your own survival. Still, since this is the road of the damned, you continue forward.
I say slaughter because that is what the gameplay comes down to: climbing atop these creatures made of stone, dirt and grass mixed with organic material and stabbing them in the weak points until they collapse. These sixteen battles, taking place in a truly wide range of locales, carefully mix elements of multiple genres to create a interesting and engaging blend of adventure, puzzle, platforming and action gameplay rarely seen.
What time isn’t spent is these battles will be transit time, as you ride on your loyal horse Agro. The land, despite being vast and incredibly varied in terrain, is also barren and virtually lifeless, adding to the loneliness and despair that progressively builds up between each encounter. A lot of open-world games try to achieve this level of subtle atmosphere, but Shadow of the Colossus shows us that having the illusion of choice while focusing on the objective can make all the difference in the world if you let the player think about it.
All the time spent admiring the depressing beauty of the land, ending the lives of innocent creatures that rarely provoke violence, considering what you’ve done – it all has a point. My love for this game largely stems from how the climax plays out, in all its devastatingly sad poignancy.
From the moment you enter that Final Gate and ride across that stone bridge, you can sense something isn’t quite right… then the bridge collapses, and Agro sacrifices herself to save you. Left alone, the final battle between Wander and the Sixteenth Colossi highlighted just how far down the path of darkness you’d gone, complete with stormy conditions and lightning strikes.
Watching Wander rise from that “victory”, only for him to be used by the demon to attempt to escape this land, was jarring and brutal. That finale, those final scenes, proved many things: that games can be art, that morality can be important to game design, that critically-acclaimed stories don’t have to have happy endings.
This is why Shadow of the Colossus is the greatest game in history to me – because it dared to be different and it wanted to have meaning.
Well, that’s all, folks. Coming up are some of my Notable Mentions – games that had potential to be on the list, but didn’t quite make it for some reason or another.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Do not take this as a lack of taste in games or as a sign of disrespect; I appreciate what Bethesda was doing here, and I certainly enjoy Skyrim‘s scale and wealth of content. As impressive as its design and atmosphere are, and please forgive me for this, it just didn’t have an emotional hook to draw me in. By comparison, Mass Effect 2 feels more lively with the sci-fi setting, and Deus Ex oozes tense atmosphere with every breath.
Also, the combat wasn’t so great… Not bad, just not always great.
Batman: Arkham City
This one was almost where Deus Ex ended up, I’ll admit. It was hard not to fight for this to make the final ten. It has great action, it has high-quality voice acting, it highlights Batman’s skills as a crimefighting badass and as the World’s Greatest Detective. It even threw in a kitchen sink’s worth of Batman’s rogues gallery – props to Rocksteady for including the obscure Hugo Strange as a key antagonist.
However, the kitchen sink approach was ultimately the deciding factor – and it didn’t pass. Having so many villains and not enough development or deep side-missions really weakened the story’s impact, which is a shame considering how weirdly awesome (or awesomely weird) its abrupt Joker-killing ending was.
Super Mario 64
This one really was tough to refuse, once I considered it part of the running. It was certainly more innovative and “revolutionary” than its descendant, Galaxy, and perhaps the nostalgic collectable-obsessed child in me wanted Mario’s first 3D adventure to reign supreme.
However, after mulling it over, I concluded that Galaxy was the better choice, simply because it was much grander in scale, it had a higher production quality and because the camera wasn’t quite as pesky as it was in Super Mario 64. Sorry, 64, I still love you very much… but Wii does what Nintendon’t.
Yeah, that catchphrase is dead.
Okay, feel free to chime in. Do you think I was fair with my decision? Do you agree or disagree with my choices? What do you think should have made the list?