Friday, October 15, 2010

Videogame Best Hits List

This is probably the best viral facebook survey I've seen in years.

The rules:  Don't take too long to think about it.  List fifteen video games that will always stick with you.  List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.  Tag fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what games my friends choose.  (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.)

1.  Earthbound is and will always be my favorite video game of all time.  It's not the first game I played or the first one I enjoyed, and I won't even make the claim that it's the best video game ever made, but it's the first one I "discovered" (this sort of thing is important to a quasi-hipster), and it's the only one that's ever made a real impact on my life.  From 1995 until 2001, Earthbound transcended being a video game for me, and it became a way of life.  Where today, most of my creative output happens in my blog, during those years, it happened through Earthbound: making websites, writing fan fiction, discussing the game on various fansites like  Earthbound has a particular culture about it--its quirky, almost trippy, aesthetic; its hilarious understated humor; its brilliant leitmotifs on its John Lennon-inspired soundtrack--all of these things make Earthbound an absolute masterpiece of a video game.

2.  The defining feature of Chrono Trigger is that it tells a linear story through a nonlinear timeline--sometimes you need to go forward in time to learn more; sometimes you need to go backwards.  And the true genius of the game doesn't reveal itself until you've already played through it once, when you can play through a second time and skip to the ending at any point to see how it changes.  It's one the few RPGs with legitimate replay value, and its reasonable approach time travel was well ahead of its time.

3.  Final Fantasy X is one of the only games that I characterize more by the number of things I didn't do (exactly two) than the number of things I did.  It is the crowning achievement in the Final Fantasy series.  VI was fantastic (and on this list), VII was truly revolutionary (and on this list), but there is no (and may never be a) better Final Fantasy game than X.  Sure, it introduced voice acting, had some innovative mechanics, and looked absolutely beautiful for its time... but the reason that X was so good was because its setting was impeccable.  It's the best example I've ever seen of a game where every detail--the game mechanics, the plot, the locations, and even the clothes the characters wear--reinforce the setting and make playing in it incredibly rewarding.

4.  Morrowind/Oblivion (/Tribunal/Bloodmoon/Knights of the Nine/Shivering Isles) are all grouped together on my list.  I know that they're technically at least two games, but they're similar in that they're set in the same universe, they're incredibly open-ended, they have a collective soundtrack that is one of the best of any video game ever, their style and tone are similar... and I sunk at least 120 hours into both of them.  They succeeded on different accounts--Oblivion was more balanced, more polished ("better produced" to use a music analogy), and better looking; Morrowind had slightly more to do and had a better story.  They're both among the greatest PC games ever, and well worth playing if you don't mind being antisocial for an entire month.

5.  The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was the definitive game for the Nintendo 64.  I'll argue that Twilight Princess was actually the superior Zelda game, but Ocarina of Time did so much for the series and for 3D gaming in general that it's tough to pass up.

6.  Final Fantasy VI was the first Final Fantasy game I played, and it got me hooked, not only on the series, but also on JRPGs as a subgenre.  It's easily the most nonlinear of the Final Fantasy games, which makes it a lot of fun, and it probably features the best soundtrack in the series as well.

7.  I expect some resistance on this one, but I think Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is the best Grand Theft Auto game.  (Full disclosure: I haven't finished IV yet, but a few hours in, it's quite good.)  It was the first to feature voice acting from the player character and the first to include real-world music from well-known bands.  It was entirely better than GTA III, because it took everything good about it and improved it, but it avoided the trap of overextending like San Andreas.

8.  I'm not by and large a strategy fan, but I'd be remiss not to include Rise of Nations on this list.  I first played it in spring 2003, after I'd taken World History in high school (pretty much my favorite class ever), so I was on a real history kick around that time.  It implemented lots of innovative features like permanent cities and territory, it had enormous success in merging conventional RTS battles and world-domination grand strategy, and the expansion added some both fun and detailed re-interpretations of historical campaigns.

9.  Super Metroid is an absolutely classic platformer, most notable to me for being part of my friend Nicholas's self-proclaimed "best day ever".  My best friend through elementary and middle school, Nicholas's best day ever included seeing Good Burger in the theater and getting a Tamagotchi.  (Hello 1997.)  And it was the first time either of us completed Super Metroid in under the three hours necessary to see the "best ending".  (It was a team effort--I planned a course, and Nick executed it.)  Prior to that day, the goal had seemed nearly insurmountable to our ten-year-old selves.

10. Super Mario World was the very first video game I ever played and was therefore responsible for spawning one of my biggest hobbies over the past fifteen-plus years.  It helped to forge my friendship with Nicholas, and a decade later I remember playing through it as being one of the most fun things I did with my high school girlfriend Jenny (except for maybe discovering Curb Your Enthusiasm).

11.  Even though none of us had ever touched a skateboard in our lives, my friends and I spend an irrational amount of time playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 circa 2001.  (The game did spawn a short skateboard career for Nicholas, which was sadly cut short by injury.)  The soundtrack is atrocious (except in a hipster-ironic sense) and the skate culture is probably the furthest thing imaginable from my personal aesthetic, but how could you not love spelling inappropriate things in "horse" mode and pulling off the 900?

12.  GoldenEye 007 was basically the de facto go-to party game in the late 1990s.  It (along with its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark) was probably the only shooter I've ever truly enjoyed... and man, was it fun karate chopping, Moonraker lasering, and throwing-knifing all your friends.

13.  There is at least a plurality consensus among JRPG fans that Final Fantasy VII is the best in the series, and despite my mentions of X's beautiful story and setting (or VI's free-wheeling self-determination), I haven't won too many people over.  They have a point--VII pioneered 3D for console RPGs, plus it has some iconic characters and settings, the single best piece of music on any video game soundtrack ("One Winged Angel," of course), and enough secrets and side quests to occupy you for quite a while.  To add a personal note, this game is what convinced me to but a Playstation.

14.  Donkey Kong Country might not have made to this list had I not watched my friend Tom play about a quarter of it a few months ago.  I realized that, fifteen years after I'd played the game for the first time, I still instinctively know the first twelve or so stages backwards and forwards: optimal paths, locations of extra lives, how to get to secret areas.  That brought a flood of nostalgia, and I remembered just how much I'd enjoyed it back in the day.

15.  Admit it: you played Pokemon.  You only started playing because it was a fad, and you stopped playing when it became passe, but for the year or two when it was socially encouraged to play Pokemon, you had a hell of a good time.  To this day, I can't name a game that has taken such a creative spin on the RPG idea, nor one that has combined single-player and multiplayer modes so effectively.  In fact, looking back on it, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Pokemon was not one of the great achievements in video game design history--it was a social gaming experience five years before we knew what social media was.

Currently listening: "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk", the New Pornographers

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