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games Posted 2005-02-25 22:27:35 by Jim Crawford
Tim brought up the idea of making top 5 lists of favorite PC and console games, with a fairly arbitrary rule set of of only one game per series in each list. Everyone else seems to have thrown out a list and forgotten about it, but I can obsess about these things. I found myself throwing together a list of every game I could think of that I thought was truly great, with the vague intention of making a top 100 list. In the end, I could only think of 60 or so games that I really liked.

I'm still doing the bubble sort, because comparing titles is hard. Is Yoshi's Island better than Anchorhead? They're barely comparable! But I do have enough data sorted to feel fairly confident about my top 5 lists. Hell, I could probably safely go with two top 10 lists. So, um, here they are.

Console countdown:
10. Rocket: Robot on Wheels (Sucker Punch, 1999) - Call me crazy, but I've never tired of the Super Mario 64 method of extending the life of a platformer's content by adding objectives that require no thought to justify, especially when the content is attached to a set of character abilities this quirky and a physics engine this robust. A rigid body dynamics engine isn't that special nowadays, but in the N64 era, playing around with one -- and solving the wonderful puzzles Sucker Punch designed around it -- was quite the formative experience.
9. Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004) - This game is one of the purest possible distillations of one of the most fulfilling aspects of gaming, the level up. If you aren't familiar with the game, the concept is that you are a rolling ball of junk. If you touch anything sufficiently smaller than you, that thing sticks to you and adds to your size. You collect things in order to become bigger so you can collect bigger things, in order to become even bigger, so you can collect even bigger things... leveling up in a nutshell!

Setting the game in a goofy simulacrum of the real world not only gives you a sense of scale to measure your progress against, but a fantastic sense of getting away with tomfoolery. It wouldn't be quite the same if you were picking up abstract blocks with size measurements printed on them rather than thumb tacks, tricycles, people, fences, bulldozers, giant octopuses, buildings, bridges, and mountains.

And the music is gorgeous.

8. Space Station Silicon Valley (DMA Design, 1998) - DMA, recently renamed to Rockstar North, is the same company that developed the Grand Theft Auto series (and the Lemmings series, I feel I should point out) and given this platformer's gimmick, the connection is not very surprising. See, you play a microchip whose rocket ship has just crashed into a space-borne zoo filled with robot animals. You can take control of any robot animal once it's dead, er, disabled, so many of the puzzles have you figuring out how to disable the more powerful robot you need so you can trade up.

For instance, you might use a sheep to lure the rocket-launcher-bearing dog on wheels over to the bear and let them fight it out. Neither is a very good tactical fighter, so whomever wins, you can disable with the corpse of the other. There are dozens of different animals you can possess, and they all have different powers and handle differently. The time taken to tune them all was probably one of the reasons the game came out two years late.

7. Dance Dance Revolution Extreme (Konami, 2004) - I won't lie to you, a lot of the appeal of rhythm games is just how damn impressive they look to inexperienced onlookers. Another embarrassing reason I like the game is that it gives me a physical rush that I don't get elsewhere in my sedentary lifestyle. Hey, do I look like an athlete?

Aside from all that, it really is just fun to play. Getting a complicated rhythm right is tremendously satisfying. It also makes a great party game, because just about everyone can see why it's fun, even if they'd only be willing to try it whilst drunk. DDR games are all roughly equivalent in terms of fun, incidentally; this particular one just happens to beat out all the others I've played in terms of song selection.

6. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (Nintendo, 2003) - A console-style RPG I actually like, and all they had to do is remove the angsty anime teenagers and replace them with beloved childhood memories! The play mechanics are a bit more involved than in the average RPG, which is welcome, and the art and sound design are just fantastic. The voices of the Mario Brothers have never been more welcome in a game (contrast Mario Vs. Donkey Kong), and the art... well... here's all I have to say about the art:
a dancing mario image that you're totally missing out on being blind or whatever

5. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar North, 2002) - I'd played the hell out of GTA and GTA 2 when Rockstar put GTA out for free again as part of the promotion for Vice City. Two weeks later, playing a brand new Vice City on a new-to-me Playstation 2, it occurred to me that their ploy had worked. This game is so remarkably quick to draw you in -- just step on that scooter, and you too can enjoy both probably the most fun scooter simulations you'll ever experience, and some of the best music the 1980s had to offer.

So much of the appeal of this game was the music. Don't get me wrong, I loved the original music of GTA and GTA 2, but it was not the best music of a decade distilled into one soundtrack. Not only was the Vice City soundtrack such a distillation, it was distilled from a decade that has been sorely underplayed in my personal experience, so it's like nostalgia I never knew I had.

Incidentally, I only played GTA 3 after Vice City, and I think it was a misstep. Far too difficult, by far the worst music in the series, featuring crappy pop songs licensed from the Scarface soundtrack, crappily recorded classical music and crappy generic dub rather than good original or good licensed music, and just not as fun in general.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) - I saw The Adventure of Link being a weird offshoot that didn't seem much built on, and not having played Link to the Past, never having owned a SNES, the jump from The Legend of Zelda into Ocarina of Time was magnificent. Miyamoto had had over a decade to refine the game world, and it all shows up in the end product. The polish on this game is amazing, just amazing.
3. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubi Soft, 2003) - This game is littered with strokes of genius. The story is actually interesting, and the rewind dagger that it justifies was a true stroke of genius. It solves the same problem that saving and loading does, but in a much more fluid fashion and without breaking the realism of the game world. Taking it away for the final climb up the Tower of Dawn was also brilliant, not to mention gutsy.

The acrobatics are what really makes the game, though. The pole swinging, the wall running, all the moves and sequences of moves your character performs -- and by proxy, you perform -- are fun and look impressive. That the game makes it both easy and immensely satisfying is a tremendous accomplishment.

Excellent gameplay aside, this is one of the few games that have successfully made me care about the protagonists. I can think of five; they're all on these two lists. It is a joy to watch the rapport that develops between the Prince and Farah, and it really adds a lot to the atmosphere that Farah has to use her abilities to get you both through the game world, even though they're not actually adding any gameplay: if Farah hadn't been in the game, the puzzles that she solves wouldn't be there. The companion character didn't have nearly as much impact as me as it might have had if I hadn't seen it first in the next game on the list, though.

2. Ico (Sony, 2002) - In Ico, you play a young boy with horns who has been imprisoned, first in a stone sarcophagus, then after an earthquake lets you out, a gigantic, majestic, mostly uninhabited castle on an island. After some exploration you find a girl, about your age, trapped in a cage. It's not clear who she is or why she's here; you don't speak the same language. The game rapidly makes it clear that you must protect her, though: as soon as you release her from her cage, she is attacked by creatures that appear to be made of shadows. The rest of the game is about how the two of you try to escape from the castle.

One of the most interesting parts of the gameplay is that you often have to find paths through the castle that both you and the girl can navigate. There are two things that keep you from moving on without her: one is that she can open barriers that you can't, the other is that if you leave her behind for too long, the shadow creatures, which normally only appear as you make progress in the game, come for her. There are some nerve-wracking sections of the game where you must leave Yorda behind to solve certain puzzles. It gets more interesting, though. There's a long section of the game in which you are forcibly separated from the girl, and in that section you have an opportunity to escape from island that I bet most players wouldn't even notice. Your goal is no longer to escape, it's to rescue her.

Ico also introduced an idea that's been much duplicated in the gaming world since: light bloom. Ico went much further than simple bloom, though. The effects that they've pulled off to simulate the high dynamic range of sunlight are extraordinarily effective. This is undoubtedly the most beautiful game I've ever played. And the most emotionally affecting. So, you may be asking, why doesn't it top the list? Gameplay!

1. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996) - I've written plenty about Super Mario 64 in the past, so I'll just summarize here: unlike most games, where fun comes from accomplishment, Mario 64 is a constant stream of fun, and it's all due to the controls. You could put Mario in an empty box and the game would still be fun. Sure, there are flaws -- the camera is a big one -- but get rid of the empty box and replace it with the usual Nintendo ingenuity of level and mission design, and you have a big winner.

Hell, that was a lot of writing. I'm going to do the other list later.

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Posted by Anonymous (IC) on 2005-03-16 07:10:36
That "crappy generic dub" is all Scientist.
re: Dub
Posted by Jim Crawford on 2005-03-16 10:36:09
  That "crappy generic dub" is all Scientist.

Huh. Thanks for the heads up. Is Scientist a respected figure in the dub scene?
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