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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Top 25 Video Games of All Time

Like many in my generation, I grew up with video games. I had seen and fiddled with Pong, the Fairchild Channel F, and various arcade games as early as age 5. But Video Gaming as a lifelong obsession began when my parents got me an Atari 2600. I was never the most athletic kid, and maybe video games had something to do with that (though I played a lot outside, riding my bike, in sandboxes, etc.), but video games provided me, a kid who wasn't going to excel in little league, with a world of excitement and imagination which was a great complement to my books, my legos, and my drawings. It added a technological element to the pursuit of fun which you can't really find otherwise. It was something both a solitary player and a group of friends could do.

My parents bought the family an Apple IIc (the "c" is for compact... hah!) personal computer in about 1984. And while typing and such were things that were pursued, gaming encroached on that machine, too. Then, the waiting began. When, oh when, would my parents finally consent to upgrade us into the true technological marvel of the 1980's, the Nintendo Entertainment System? One of my other backward friends and I clung to our Atari 2600's, jealously espying our more "fortunate" friends who were loading up with the NES greats. It must have been 6th grade before I was finally blessed by the presence of Super Mario, Link, Samus, and the rest. And by then, of course, we also had an IBM PC (as they used to call them) which ran DOS, then Windows 3.1, and eventually (gasp!) Windows 95. I skipped the 16 bit and 32 bit generations of console systems because of the PC, and portables like Gameboy, too. The PC was enough for me. I eventually bought a PS2 for myself in no small part to have a DVD player, and since then, have had a Dreamcast, Xbox, Gamecube, Xbox 360, and PS3.

So my path through video gaming, though by no means outrageously different, is individual, as is anyone else's. When I reminisce over my absolute favorite games, these reminisces are colored by what I had, what I was exposed to. So if I were to compile a list (Of COURSE I will compile a list!), it would have curious gaps and emphases.

So without further ado, here are my personal top 25 games of all time:

25. Microsoft Golf

I played this game to death during my last year of high school and my first year of college. It's a simple little thing, with rudimentary pseudo 3-D representations of golf courses, and what may be the first click interface in a golf game (though NES Open Tournament Golf may have it beat). I would put in a tape (!) of "Pretty Hate Machine" on the stereo in our computer room, and rock out while perfecting my score on Torrey Pines. It was a nice escape from the drudgery and general evil of high school cliques, and my lovelorn first year of college. Apparently, this is a singular obsession. I can't find a good, descriptive link to provide you with!

24. Karateka

This is one of the games that first blew my mind as to what a personal computer could do over and above a home console. I first played it in computer camp (yeah, I know) in 3rd grade. As far as action games go, I had played only Atari games before this one. The graphics, animation, the music, the storyline, it was just leaps and bounds above what I had experienced before. I don't think I had ever experienced that kind of tension in a game, such as when that mother-f$%^&-ing bird killed me over and over, or when I finally exploded the damn beast and beat Akuma. I also don't think I've ever been as shocked as when I approached Princess Mariko in a fighting stance by accident...

23. Missile Command

I experienced this on the Atari 2600, though there is a version with a track ball in the arcades. Nonetheless, I was freaked out by it. I knew what the game represented in the early 80s, when I was mortified by the prospect of nuclear war and scared nightly by the evil, malevolent face of Ronald Reagan on the TV news. Freaked out though I may have been, though, the game kept me coming back for more. It's definitely one of those "in the zone" games, where some part of your brain turns off while others are sharpened to a fine point. The trippy changing color schemes were also nifty, in my book.

22. Wolfenstein 3D

Seeing Karateka for the first time was what seeing Wolf3D was like. Mind blowing. It's charmingly quaint, now, but blasting Nazis in "3-d" corridors, getting attacked facially by evil dogs, exploring rooms, not knowing what lay behind each door, this was a new experience. It laid the groundwork for the whole FPS genre, which I promptly said a big "meh" to. Once you get over that initial rush of the new and different, you see them all as Wolf3D clones. At least I did.

21. Qix

I never played this game in the arcade or on a console. I discovered it in emulation a few years ago. Which, to me, is the best argument for it. The works of artists and craftsmen which otherwise would go forgotten can be enjoyed and appreciated anew by future generations. Damn, this is a fun game. It's so simple, almost like abstract art in a way. Subdivide the field to control it. Kind of like Tron mixed with Go. I can't recommend it enough if you have a MAME emulation program.

20. Taipan!

My other great Apple IIc obsession... this game is essentially a number generator with a threadbare story. You are an Asian sea-captain who wants to build a financial empire from your first borrowed ship. The dastardly moneylender Li Yuen will loan you some scratch to do it, but boy, when the debt piles up, he sends fleets of ships after you. Better upgrade those guns, buy some opium low and sell it high to keep the coffers full, and hope you can outrun that fleet of 150 ships! Brain-bustingly addictive, even though it is beyond simplistic.

19. Ikaruga

I think it's fair to say that a lot of boys who spent their formative years in a certain part of the 70's and 80's love space shooters. We grew up on Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (the cheesy one), and The Last Starfighter. So to play a game that captures that sci-fi feeling and mixes in zen-like "in the zone" gameplay is a treat beyond compare. Ikaruga is possibly the greatest refinement of the space shooter formula - you against a horde of enemy spaceships, saving something or other, one hit and you're kablooey. Ikaruga switches things up, literally, by having you change colors to absorb enemy fire. The patterns created are brain-bendingly mesmerizing.

18. Final Fantasy X

Japanese Role Playing Games can be an acquired taste. With their effeminate teenage boy protagonists, bizarre creatures and aesthetics, and sometimes punishing "grinding" style of level-up play, they can be a tough sell to adrenaline-addled American gamers. Final Fantasy X, however, found the right balance between the stylistic tropes of the genre and an engaging story, fun side games (the ballgames), and leveling up. This is still the only game in the series I've finished, though I'm working on 12, which is a great game in its own right.

17. Soul Calibur

Japanese fighting games, on the other hand, have never been very difficult for American gamers to sink their teeth into. The combination of ripped men, busty women, kicking serious ass, and beautiful backdrops, has not been a hard sell. Soul Calibur represents possibly the finest balance between a game which is easy to learn and hard to master, combined with incredibly fluid animation, pretty backgrounds, and great looking characters. When a game released on Dreamcast still looks good compared to today's best, you know you've got a technical marvel.

16. Frogger

I was introduced to this game on the 2600, but have played the arcade and Colecovision versions as well. This was a game which was so addictive, it infiltrated the way my friends and I played in the real world. We had a walkbridge to our elementary school which crossed a freeway. So we'd go to the bridge and "cross" it, having to "avoid" the passing cars. Were we dorks? The answer is... yes. Simple, elegant, arcade brilliance. Immortalized on Seinfeld, no less.

15. Knights of the Old Republic
When you start melding video gaming with other great nerd obsessions, you either create disasters which inspire the vituperative scorn of geeks everywhere, or you induce what is known, scientifically as "nerdgasm." KOTOR (as it is known) falls squarely into the second category. It does the nearly impossible: it created a character, not vehicle-based game out of the Star Wars intellectual property, it avoided the awful prequel plotline altogether even though it came out in 2003, and it kicked f#$%-ing A$$. You play an errant Jedi in the time of the ancient old republic, and you can decide to become good or evil, with portentous consequences for the galaxy. Customizing your costume and lightsaber only adds to the nerd-gastic possibilities.

14. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
If there were a property which might have the potential to incite nerdgasmic reactions if translated to video game that was any where near that of Star Wars, it would be Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, there just hasn't been a truly great LOTR game yet. But our consolation prize is Oblivion, which is LOTR in almost every respect but name. Customize your avatar from among several races, join a guild, and fight, live, learn, love in a hyper-detailed 3-dimensional world. This is one of the best games of the "current generation," whatever that means. Mainly, it means you need 3 ghz of processing power and lots of RAM to play it. Which, frankly, the best way to do in the current marketplace is on a home console like the PS3 or Xbox 360. Anyway, this game kicks some serious tookus. It really raises the bar for an interactive world, and makes the nerds among us salivate at the prospect of a game this powerful set in one of our favored geeky universes (I want Star Trek, myself...)

13. Ms. Pac-Man
Girls do it better. Was Ms. Pac-Man a blow for women's lib in the 1980s? I don't know. If anything, Centipede would be a better candidate. What I do know is that this game wipes the floor with the original Pac-Man any day. Sublimely addictive, with loads of color and variety, yet the same divinely simple gameplay as the original, this may be the ultimate "classic" arcade game out there to introduce a gamer of any taste to. I may have one or two which trump it for me personally, but the utter genius of design here cannot be denied. You go, girl!

12. Ico
Video games are known to incite certain emotions in players. Fright, tension, exhilaration in victory, ignominy in defeat. But love, caring, empathy? These are harder to come by in a universe of explosions and bludgeoning. Ico breaks the mold however, making your avatar an exiled boy who labors to save a mysterious, ethereal princess. Oh, geez, another princess story? Don't scoff. The subtle mechanisms of the controls, the gorgeous, dreamy graphics, and the way the characters interact will have you feeling for your companion in this game like no other game before. This game is a work of art, pure and simple. It excels visually, but it also creates art in a way that other media cannot, with interaction.

11. Tetris
Probably the most played video game, world wide, in history. Why? Simplicity. The blocks fall. You have to fit them into each other. This game takes a concept so simple that any child, from Albania to Zimbabwe, has experienced it in one way or another, and puts it on a screen. Addictive, infuriating, fun.

10. Crazy Taxi
Even if it were nothing else, this game would have the singular distinction of making the music of The Offspring palatable. But that's not all this driving game gem has to offer. It also has thumb blisters galore to offer. Because it is so soul-rendingly addictive that despite your bleeding, raw digits, pummeled into pulp by the notoriously unforgiving Dreamcast controller, you will still want to play "one... more... game..." You are a taxi driver. You have 60 seconds on your clock. Pick up fares in a pseudo San Fran, take them to Pizza Hut or Tower Records, among other destinations, and collect your fare while recharging your game clock. Simple, yes? Another great in the "easy to learn, difficult to master" category. Thank goodness it's on a home console though, because the quarters this would consume in an arcade would weigh down even the hardiest nerd specimen.

9. The Legend of Zelda
My first memory of this game was its color. Not the colors of the graphics, but of the cartridge. It was gold. GOLD! If there's a way to grab a ten year old's attention, that just might be it. What untold wonders would this bizarre, GOLDEN video game contain within? Well, thank goodness for Nintendo, it contained untold wonders aplenty. The amount of territory to cover, the obscurity of its clues, and the number of items to wield was just about mind-blowing. It controlled well, it looked great for its day, and it had in spades what few other games could compete in: wonder. You control Link, and guide him on his quest to reunite the pieces of the mythical tri-force, in order to destroy the evil Ganon. Shigeru Miyamoto may be best known for Mario, but damn, this dude knows his games. It's like being Shakespeare and Milton rolled into one. Creating two of the most enduring franchises ever is no mean feat, and it is well deserved. Zelda's gameplay stands up to this day, twenty years later.

8. Galaga

While I have a special place in my heart for the hot babe known as Ms. Pac-Man (even if she does have a kid...), this one reigns in my heart as the greatest arcade game ever. Why? Balance, Daniel-san. Namco took Galaxian, a fine game in its own right in the long line of Space Invaders clones, and improved everything about it, creating a supremely tuned top down space shooter which still sucks quarters out of pockets 25 years after its debut. It is faster, more difficult, and has more strategy (with the potential to "sacrifice" a ship only to win it back, creating a double-firing ship) than any other space shooter of its day. I'm of the opinion that this game represents the optimum balance between simplicity and complexity. Ikaruga and Gradius are great games, but Galaga did it both first and arguably did it better. This game created zones of focus and awareness that few other games can match. An absolute classic.

7. Super Mario Bros.

Speaking of absolute classics, how about these chops: a game which rescued an entire industry and whose title character has gone on to sell more games than any other. A game whose theme song will be burned into countless brains until their dying gasps. A game which redefined what was possible in video games. Super Mario Bros. was the game that blew the lid off my preconceptions (formed by the Atari 2600) of what video games could do. Seeing it at a friend's house for the first time, busting that first invisible block, descending down the pipes into the underworld, this was a down-the-rabbit-hole kind of experience. But let us not praise it for its place in history only - it is also a perfectly tuned gameplay masterpiece. The controls seem to melt away as you concentrate on your goal. You never fight the game, you fight the enemies the game presents you, and your own abilities to time jumps and reach goals. Future iterations of the series may have added things which are superior, but stripped down to their essentials, they are still Super Mario Bros. It is a perfect game, simple and deep, boundless in its ability to command attention and induce fun in its players.

6. Burnout 3: Takedown

This is where the list gets more rarefied, and more personal. How can Burnout 3 beat Super Mario Bros.? Blasphemy? Well, for one thing, the difference between a 7 and a 6 on a list like this is negligible. But also, it comes down to personal taste. I dig deep games with lots of options, that suck you into an altered brain state and addict you hopelessly, inspiring "just one more play..." And in that, Burnout beats Super Mario. This is a game, despite what the folks at Criterion Games would say, which was worlds ahead in quality of both its predecessors and its followers. It has the optimum balance between unlocking new cars, event types, graphics, and appeal for many players. Crash mode in particular is a standout - more a puzzle game than a racing one, Crash mode has you barrel into an intersection looking to cause the most monetary damage. Let me tell you, load up Crash mode in a room of the staunchest non-gamers, and see who can resist it. The racing is also hella-fun, with retina-searing velocities depicted on screen, excellent, twitchy tuning on the controls and on the cars, and a wonderful endorphin high earned upon a win (or a takedown, in which you smash a rival). If it weren't for sucky load times, this game would be perfect. Given its quality, the load times of a disc based system are excused.

5. Tie Fighter

Remember the rules of nerd-gasm? This one follows them all: Star Wars, technology, being awesome. It adds the extra cool element of letting you play for the bad guys, too. While I loved X-Wing, also for the DOS PC, Tie Fighter did everything that game did and did it better. Beyond its tight controls, great (for their day) graphics, interesting storyline, and sweet music, this game had something which could keep you glued to your seat even as you simply inspected enemy vessels or waited five minuted for an enemy ship to show up: atmosphere. It FEELS like being inside Star Wars. Nothing can beat that. As a side note, this game also had an unbelievably kick-butt 3-dimensional map utility which allowed you to see where ships were in 3-D space, and replay a mission from start to finish while analyzing your trajectory, weapons fired, etc. Wow. They don't make them like this any more.

4. Grand Theft Auto 3

After Super Mario Bros., could there ever be another game which so redefined the boundaries of video gaming? It seems unlikely. But quantum leaps happen now and again, and GTA3 represents one fo them. Formerly a top-down game of stealing and racing autos, the folks at Rockstar Games so improved its sequel that one wonders if alien influence is responsible, like Stonehenge, or the Pyramids. Migrating the game to a 3-d world, Rockstar creates an entire city for you to play in. And you don't just drive cars. You also walk around shoot things with dozens of weapons (in the car or out of it), you buy stuff, you pick up hookers, you play crazy taxi, you put out fires, you listen to one of a dozen radio stations with hours of content, you figure out whether you can fly an airplane into a baseball stadium. "Freedom" doesn't begin to describe the feeling a player got when he or she first experienced GTA3. And while its sequels have expanded those freedoms or improved graphics, music, and the like, the original quantum leap still stands as a great game to play on its own merits. Endlessly imitated but never equalled. Is there a higher accolade for a game to receive?

3. Metroid

As much as I think Super Mario and Zelda are spectacular, genre-defining games, Metroid is the one that really got me as a kid. I always liked science fiction, so its setting was perfect as a verdant field for my imaginings. The music, the black background, the persistent world with hidden rooms, out of reach doors, and exploration potential unrivalled at the time, all of these things had a profound effect on a young psyche. This game oozes atmosphere, is technically refined, fills the barest story outline with the imagination of the player, looks great, has amazing music, and is just simply the finest NES game, to my mind, ever. In an era before the Internet, a twisty, seemingly never-ending arrangement of paths defied the ability of a 10 or 11 year old to describe without lapsing into the kid-speak of the day: awesome, radical, cool, the superlatives just keep coming. My friend Joey Zappia and I played this game for untold hours, taking turns trying to reach a seemingly unreachable room, hoping against hope we had enough energy tanks to finally outwit the soul-draining Metroid monsters and take out the dreaded Mother Brain. And then, to top it off, once you beat the game, you realize that your character, Samus Aran, has been a GIRL the whole time? Woah, dude, total mind-f$%#!

2. Sim City 2000

Now we have arrived at the part of the list in which we transition from games which were great, which took up a lot of time, and get into games which sucked up on the order of 200+ hours total due to their sheer addictiveness, and inspired 6-hour at a time binges which last until the morning sun creeps over the horizon. For some people, the Grand Theft Auto series does this, for some it is a sports game like Madden NFL. But for me, it is this genre, the "god game." What does that say about me? I don't know (or don't want to know...). But what I can say with certainty is that these are the two games which I have to hide. There is an everpresent danger of them creeping back into my life and destroying relationships, schoolwork, hygiene, sleep. They're that good. Sim City 2000 places you in the role of city manager - a city manager who can erect or bulldoze any building, move roads, even raise and lower terrain, rechart rivers - as long as the budget permits. Sim City 2000 improved upon its predecessor Sim City Classic, by jazzing up its graphics from a nondescript top down perspective to an isometric faux-3d, by making the commercial model more complex (but not unweildy), and adding types of buildings and utilities that allow you to create truly sprawling megalopolises. You create sports teams and name them, lay zoos and parks and any number of cool structures. If a disaster strikes, and your city is big enough, a tiny superhero will even appear! (Danger... nerd-gasm alert...) So why SC2000 and not its sequels Sim City 3000 and Sim City 4? I've said it before and I'll say it again: balance. This time, not just balance of gameplay, but balance of performance. The other games, though they add some great improvements (and lose some, as well) and improve the graphics, do not truly innovate the formula, and run more unstably on an average PC because of their technological improvements (SC3000 is a close one to SC2K - it was tough to pick one). This game (and series of games) gets you to think on a macroeconomic scale, finely tuning your taxes and public services so that they achieve the best possible results. I think the game relies on a Laffer Curve theory of economics... but that is perhaps beside the point. The point is, this game is digital crack to the nth degree. It is perhaps eclipsed by only one other game in this respect...

1. Civilization 2

If there is a game which combines aspects that trump my love of urban planning, architecture and public policy, it is a game which stimulates my love of history, politics, science, technology, and the sweep of human events. Which is what Sid Meier's Civilization series is all about. Here is a game that starts you off in 6000 BC, at the helm of a group of nomads, founding your first city in the start of a great human project of creating and expanding a culture. Not only that, but the coolest way to "win" is to have your culture, usually around 2000 AD, design and launch a space ship to colonize nearby planets with! You research advances starting with agriculture and proceeding through atomic power, encourage artistic and creative expression, compete with other cultures around the globe to expand and dominate the world scene... it's just everything I wish I could do in real life, distilled into video game form. A humanist like myself is just tickled pink by a game which challenges the player to create the best society for its citizens. An addiction was sure to follow. And so it did... this is one of those games that I can start up, and ... whoops, how did 45 minutes just pass? Oh, no matter... wait, now it's 4 in the morning? It's sort of like delerium tremens for an alcoholic. Lost time, lost sleep, burning obsession. This is what video games can be. Try at your own risk, whether it be Civ 2 or any of its sequels. Civ 2 wins the prize for being the first in the series to add to complexity while keeping it manageable and easy to run on any PC. I've recently purchased Civ 4, though, so we'll just see which game is better in the end...


So there we have it. 25 games, which I estimate I've logged a good 1300 hours with over my lifetime. It gets a little dizzying (and disgusting) when you chart that out. 56 days. 8 weeks. Eek. I'll just have to chalk it up to a recreational activity which lubricates and allows the other 30 odd years of existence to function efficiently and happily. Hmm. Yeah. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


Honorable Mentions

Katamari Damacy

Na na, na na na na na naaaaahh..... Trippy Japanese weirdness at its finest. You are a cosmic prince, who must repopulate the cosmos after your father's drunken bender had destroyed countless stars and planets. How to do this, you ask? Why, by rolling a giant ball of garbage around the neighborhood and picking up thousands of pieces of flotsam, of course! Royal Rainbow!!!


Trippy Japanese weirdness part deux... this on-rails shooter with thumping techno beats features a story about helping a computerized consciousness evolve (or something), and features graphics ripped from Tron.

Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore

Brought boob physics to the forefront of gamer consciousness. But in addition was also a kick-ass fighting game with loads of unlockable costumes, sprawling, multi-tiered fighting stages, and great button-mashing gameplay.


A BSG-style story before BSG was cool again. Married to an awesome 3-D RTS framework. And amazing, ambient music. The manual wasa great read, too, written by real writers and filled with a fun sci-fi story.

Jedi Knight

All the nerdiness of Star Wars, all the back cramping FPS mouse and keyboard gameplay of Wolfenstein!


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