the artistry and psychology of gaming

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David “BGH” Kempe’s Top 12 Greatest Games

David “BGH” Kempe’s Top 12 Greatest Games

It all started back in April, when Ali Nazifpour posted his list of 12 games he felt were the greatest of all time, calling for other authors to do the same. Since then, Alice Kojiro has also joined in, offering her own take based on her unique play experiences. I enjoyed reading each of these, and have been fortunate enough to play many of the games mentioned, so I ultimately decided to do one myself.

Like my fellow authors, I will not claim to believe that my choices are anything but my own, as I believe that an objective list of the “Greatest Games of all Time” is simply impossible. I have also received a great level of personal enjoyment from each of the games below, and they all have in one way or another shaped my understanding of what gaming can and arguably should be like (again, in my ever so subjective opinion). I do feel as though my choices may hold several points of contention from readers and my fellow writers, as they are not always on the same scale of “artistic merit,” so to offer a quick clarification, I appreciate a good story and value extraneous philosophical connotations and psychological depth as much as anyone, yet in regards to video games, I feel these areas are not the only ways to evoke an emotional and resonating response. The real beauty that I see in video games, the real artistic merit that I value, is the creativity in design both outward and inward, the consideration towards balance and psychological appeal at play, the guidance (and non-guidance!) of player choice, and the ability to punish and reward for those choices.

With that said, I will now relay my choices. Again, some of these may come off as downright insane when compared to games that are commonly considered among “the greatest,” so I will do my best to explain why I value these games so highly.

#12: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Starting off my list is what will likely be my least controversial choice, as it has already appeared in Nazifpour’s list, and fairly high up at that. Readers may recall that back in March, Ali and I debated our in-game choices within Skyrim, and while we couldn’t come to terms on the civil war, we were both well in agreement that the fact we couldn’t come to terms was a feature unto itself. While the game is already impressive for it’s immense breadth of content and for the allowance of player choice, perhaps equally impressive is how the game does not exist in static through it all, but enforces and validates these choices as you make them. Siding with the Stormcloaks will yield a number of of philosophical and actionable reasons why secession is a good thing, while the Imperial side of the coin is not without its own practical implications and additional supporting sources. Neither of these sides are incorrect, and in fact are able coexist without logical inconsistencies, giving a very worldly take on the conflict without playing favorites. No matter what path you take, and no matter how you play through them, Skyrim is ready to adapt to support and reward (and occasionally punish!) your decisions in a variety of ways, offering an intense web of logic that demands appreciation.

To speak more about the game itself, I wanted to elaborate a bit more on one of Ali’s points from his list, and that’s playing the game as you intend. I can tell you through my own experience that many games will feature hack n’ slash gameplay as the ultimate trump card for any situation, to which other plans for completing actions will still benefit from leveling up your swordsmanship anyway. All too often in games surrounding player choice I’ve aimed to complete actions using magic, but have had to resort to a backup weapon in the process. This was not the case in Skyrim; as through the appropriate combination of spell variance, item enchantment, the perk system, and Skyrim‘s glorious dual-hand battle system, I was able to proceed through the game flinging spells left and right as much as I wanted. Equally, I have played through as a thief, and while Ali is correct that some fights are inevitable, you can still achieve great success through your use of sneak, special poisons created through alchemy, special perk multipliers for daggers and bows, and even using the world around you (you can totally put pots on people’s heads!) to win the day without ever needing to slap on some heavy armor and a broad sword to get out of a tough spot. Playing through the game as a warrior, a thief, a mage, an archer, an assassin, a beastly werewolf or vampire, an all out murderous villain who cares nothing for his crime rate; all are achievable without needing to dip into opposing skill trees, and each offer very different approaches to completing the game.

The final point I’d like to make about Skyrim is in regards to story; not necessarily the stories that get told (although some of them are pretty great), but the way in which stories are told. Anyone who’s ever played an RPG will know that the love of “fetch quests” is dwindling these days. Skyrim has these in spades, however in quite a few cases offers a new method of storytelling, one that video games would do well to see furthered, as it is a method of storytelling that can not be achieved by any other artistic medium; storytelling through interactive progression. One may investigate the Frostflow Lighthouse, attempt to reforge the Galdur Amulet, or travel through Labyrinthian in the footsteps of Savos Aren to see that storytelling in gaming is continuing to evolve as we play onward.

If you want to get technical, wouldn’t these have been wyverns?

#11: San Francisco Rush: 2049

While there may be no captivating narrative, this minor shortcoming is mere peanuts compared to the master class in level design, player anticipation, objective variance, and technical balance demonstrated throughout San Francisco Rush: 2049. No other racing game, (and with few exceptions, any game on the market) can dare to match 2049‘s scope of innovative content, taking the basic control mechanics of a racer, and succeeding to pull them in every possible direction at high speed, pushing the series’ exaggerated physics engine to the next level.

Midway gave the cars wings; adding a level of control to the anticipated aerial antics. They built elaborate secret pathways into each of the levels that were not only visual spectacles, but if executed correctly would shave seconds off your time. To encourage venturing off the tracks as provided, they added coins that could only be grabbed through careful maneuvering and through hitting the right ramp at just the right speed and angle (many were just hanging out in mid-air!). That last addition may prove to be the most insightful as to describing the game’s genius, as not only did the coins allow for the game’s race mode to transcend beyond its genre guidelines into a form of skill-based adventure platformer, it offered a true testament to the level of measurement and attention to minute detail given to every inch of the sprawling tracks by the designers, and the comprehensive understanding of the game’s mechanics required to set up!

Perhaps equally important is that 2049 chose not to stop at just being a competent and innovative racer, but also featured a host of extra modes, each of which prove to be equally as engaging as the core experience. Stunt mode (first introduced in Rush 2) returned, but with the added power of the wings was able to be propelled to the nth degree, using roll, pitch, and yaw controls to pull off massive angular acrobatics. The game’s battle mode (perhaps best played as a 1-on-1) featured one of the most balanced set of weapons to ever grace any video game, each of which offered situational benefits through an understanding of track layouts and your car’s drift mechanics (There’s something magical about being tailed, only to skid off a ramp into a 180 to launch a rocket back at your gaining opponent). As an all-encompassing recapitulation, the game provides an obstacle course, where rapid fire situations call for on-the-fly decisions to be made, requiring a mastery of the game’s unique control set-ups. The game featured replay value that was through the roof, essentially formed a sturdy tripod of successful game modes, allowed for fierce competition, was a visual spectacle with elaborate creations and structures, and was built from the ground up with fun and excitement coded in. This game was level design at it’s finest.

Attempting a barrel roll mid-race yields no benefits and is considered wreckless behavior… and yet…

#10: Resident Evil 4

To start with the RE4‘s fanbase-dividing elements, I think it’s important to focus on their benefits to the overall experience rather than their differences from past RE games.  Many longtime fans have criticized the game for its more action-oriented focus with more frequent ammo pickups, the attache case for items, and its omission of ink cartridges for saving, which supposedly added an extra level of tension to progressing through the original’s game world. While I can’t deny a bit of truth to those criticisms myself (you sure learn to value your shotgun shells in the first few games), I can also look past each of them for seeing what they truly were; simple ways to extend the play clock. Truly, how many hours were ultimately added through backtracking to the nearest magical item chest, or through walking a bit slower knowing that your ammo was low and you last saved 3 hours ago because you didn’t want to waste a ribbon? RE4 took these thoughts out of the equation to have you focus on the challenges they built for you, all the while putting together a game that was longer than any of the ones before it. This was not just a leap forward for the RE franchise, but an admirable achievement to gaming culture as a whole, developing a lengthy (your first play can be roughly 15-20 hours) experience without resorting to cheap tricks in order to do it.

I could go on about the game’s many merits (how the attache case and its organizational metagame was a stroke of brilliance, or how the available weapon types factored into the level design and overall progression), but what I see as the game’s biggest strength was how finely tuned the game was towards anticipating the player’s actions. Capcom knew some players would try to shoot down the weapons being thrown at us, despite how superhuman such a feat would be in real life. They knew that from past experience players may have a tendency to rely on headshots, and incorporated benefits and drawbacks to making them. They knew that some players may end up foxed in by multiple enemies and devised an order to their attacking patterns and applied physics setups that would interact with each other (really, kicking enemies into others is a bigger deal than it may seem like). They knew Dr. Salvador might back some players up against a wall, so gave poor Leon an alternate death sequence different than if he were being chainsawed without any obstructions!

Many of the game’s developmental achievements are often left under-discussed, as despite their complexities, their results are just so logical and natural to the player that they are executed without ever believing they wouldn’t work exactly as they did. For a game to feature so little psychology in its actual story (other than inciting a few jump scares every now and then), it truly featured a great deal of it behind the scenes!

Seems as good a time as any for that infinite rocket launcher

#9: Kings Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow

Creative partnerships can be a powerful thing for video games, often leading to projects that become greater than the sum of its creative parts. The King’s Quest series has long been tied to its brilliant designer Roberta Williams (who, by the way, is the correct answer for “who is the most influential woman in gaming?,” not Lara Croft), but it was not until King’s Quest VI that she brought on a co-designer; one Jane Jensen, who would later come into her own with Sierra’s Gabriel Knight series. I don’t wish to harp on name recognition here, but rather would suggest that it’s through the work  of these two women that the game is able to maintain its footing even in today’s gaming landscape, for in King’s Quest VI, the two writers were able to give us what was perhaps the best take on the “save the princess” storyline that continues to pervade video games to this day.

Williams and Jensen understood the folly of a hero slaying a villain only to be embraced by the woman right at the end, despite that it occurs so often in fairy tales. Assuredly, in KQVI Prince Alexander does make his way through the Green Isles driven by his love for the Princess Cassima, and the story does conclude in their wedding, but not before each of the two characters come to terms with that conclusion. The characters grow together each time they converse indirectly (either through Cassima’s pet nightingale, or through the castle walls), and even at the very end, Alexander assumes nothing from his adventure, and has the decency to ask Cassima to marry him. It’s these little inclusions that truly served to flesh out the game’s leading pair to craft a love story that was both touching, believeable, and captivating to see unfold on screen.

Still, while the driving love story rests at the very heart of KQVI, the game’s brilliant writing and design can be seen in every panel, coupled with an incredible dose of beauty, wit, and charm. The game’s islands each have their own visual appeal, and exhibit an incredible number of literary ties, from the Lewis Carrol inspired Isle of Wonder, to the mythology-focused Isle of the Sacred Mountain, and despite an item-based order to correctly traversing them standard to adventure games, four of the five islands can be accessed at any given time, opening up the world to a greater experience beyond the typical check-list approach to adventure games. The world also comes to life with its multiple paths (with varying levels of completion), enjoyable death scenes, and a host of memorable characters; my personal favorite being a Bookworm who tells you not to mind his minions Oxymoron and Diphthong, as “they’re fairly limited grammatical principles.”

KQVI is everything an adventure game should strive to be; offering a multi-layered adventure that plays with its use of writing and imagery while at the same time captivating the player with its emotionally resonating plot. Alexander’s quest takes him on a journey through literature, through language, and through life (and the afterlife!) itself. All in all, it’s a game about good writing and design as much as it is an example.

I’m a sucker for happy endings

#8. The Guardian Legend

Most everyone understands that not all gamers are alike; some gamers like first-person shooters, some like fighting games, some like farming simulators; this is all pretty standard. A footnote to this rule is that while nobody will prefer every type of game out there, chances are high that most everybody will still like more than one. Hybrid games (which I’ve written about in the past) have long served the purpose of reminding everyone that genres do not necessarily need to exist in silos. Instead of putting all your game ideas into one box, you can put some ideas into several boxes (Rampart, Sakura Taisen), or perhaps take some ideas from one box and put them into another (Portal, Rez). If those analogies made sense to any of you, The Guardian Legend is basically what you get when you tape two full boxes together and punch a hole in the middle.

The secret to TGL‘s success is in the quality and scope of its content. Not only does it choose to pair off two gaming genres that would otherwise have little to do with each other (top-down action-adventure and vertically-scrolling shooter), but does so without sacrificing any content or detail to either of them. Often hybrid games can come off as watered down with the goal of parts A and B combining to make a full release, but the two components of TGL could likely have functioned outright as their own games. The action adventure portion of the game consists of 370 unique panels, just shy of the original Legend of Zelda (excluding the 2nd quest, it’s somewhere in the 380’s), and is spread across 11 different locations based on 6 unique landscapes with enemies, boss fights, and light puzzle-solving throughout. The shooting stages of the game are not only plentiful (22 levels), but throw a barrage of enemies, bullet types, and bosses at you, and even self-proove their worth with the bonus “TGL Mode” that eliminates the overworld entirely! The connection between the two modes is well augmented by the weapons inventory you receive through completing corridors and through exploration, allowing for the true hybridization to occur; the overall action of a shooter coupled with the pacing and leveling of an action adventure spilling into both forms of play.

Beyond the fact that the game is even good by today’s standards, TGL has also never been more interesting to explore, although not as originally intended. Here’s where the unofficial “third” genre game comes into play; that of Metroid, or to be more specific: breaking beyond the normal rules of the game! By manipulating the game’s password feature (primarily cited as the game’s biggest drawback at 32 characters long), gamers are able to reconfigure spawn points, to which we’ve discovered the world of Naju is much larger than what was once believed (In fact, it’s larger than the Legend of Zelda‘s first and second quests combined)! Within the last decade, players have been investigating this newly found game world dubbed The Lost Frontier, and the amount of content discovered is amazing. There’s a level of mystery to it all, especially since none of it should exist within the game’s programming. In short, TGL is gaming’s biggest (and most literal!) example of Gilbert Ryle’s “Ghost in the machine” in practice, to which its intriguing premise and assorted controls and behaviors have yet to be fully understood. When you can build something so impressive that even its flaws turn out to be an asset, you know you’ve got something; just ask Street Fighter II!

En route to corridor 127… yes they go that high.

#7. Jet Set Radio

Style. Innovation. Counter-cultural significance. Control. These are the areas in which Jet Set Radio pretty much schooled the entire industry when it launched on the Dreamcast back in 2000, and in many ways the game has yet to be dethroned. No other game has dared to go so far against the grain of not just the gaming industry, but society at large, while at the same time succeeding to entertain and inspire on so many levels. There was nothing mainstream about Jet Set Radio; it shouldn’t have worked…but it did. Oh, it did.

To call out some of it’s counter-cultural tendencies, the most obvious is its embrace of graffiti Art. While the real world and SEGA’s lawyers recognized the criminal vandalism associated with the art form, the game was still able to glorify the activity in a relatable and exciting way that other crime games like GTA never could; heck, they even pulled right from the source, with Bristol artist “Inkie” being appointed as head of creative design. Its visual look, complete with its then-pioneered cell-shading technology splashed its questionable content with color as a vibrant beacon within an industry that was moving more and more towards darkened shadings and earth-tones (a common trope still found today). Its style of play was inconsistent with normal genre guidelines, being similar in part with other extreme sports games, but also pulling from racing, rhythm, and open-world genres all blended together. The game’s track list reads like crazy person, grabbing from funk, jazz, J-pop, techno, whatever the hell Rob Zombie is, rock, hip-hop, electronic, and even latin music at random. On paper, this was a game that frankly, I’m amazed received a green light for production, but all those doubts roll away within seconds of moving through the game’s first level.

In many ways, Jet Set Radio is the embodiment of youth; bringing an ultra-stylistic experience with a rebellious attitude and a liberating level of control that few games can replicate. This summer’s HD rerelease will likely show us that much like the John Hughes films of the 80’s, Jet Set Radio simply has a special way of connecting with teens that is utterly timeless.

Some games were just made for fan art

#6. BurgerTime!

Go ahead and laugh. Take your time; I’ll wait. You might as well get it all out now, because you too are going to fall in love with BurgerTime before I’m done. Well, unless you play the 2600 or NES versions; those are crap. I might recommend the one for Intellivision; I keep it plugged into my closet at all times for quick bursts… and it never gets old.

Looking back to arcade games of the 70’s and 80’s, we can see that they were primarily point driven excursions. In Pac Man you collect dots, in Space Invaders you shoot aliens, and in Donkey Kong you climb ladders, but in every case, your goal is to repeat ad nauseum to rack up as many glorious points as possible relying on twitch gameplay. BurgerTime is a game of points as well, although it carries with it an exceptional twist; one that embraces the concept of risk and reward.

For Golden-Age arcade logic and its mastery, much has been written about the behaviors of the Pac Man Ghosts, however very little has been written on the strategic tendencies of point-based play within BurgerTime. While Power Pellets offer Pac Man’s only offensive maneuver, Peter Pepper has a variety of options: he may sprinkle pepper to stall enemies in their tracks, he may squish them under burger parts, and he may also “drop” the enemies by luring them onto the burger parts and letting them fall. The last option not only is worth a higher point value, but also causes the burger parts to fall an extra level (due to added weight), taking the game beyond the regular setup of point-based arcade play with a tangible reward to be received that aids in level progression. Expert players also learn to no longer just evade the enemy, but manipulate their actions to group them together and lead them to a drop, willingly risking the life of poor Peter in the process; in BurgerTime, enemies are as much an asset as they are a threat! While BurgerTime can still be enjoyed as a classic arcade title for all ages, its strategic metagame is one that incorporates a variety of player choices and tactical planning that are greatly valued in games today!

Also… burgers!

Grade A gameplay my friends

#5. Chrono Trigger

This entry’s been a long time coming; ever since David “DDJ” Jerebko wrote his article comparing FFVI and Chrono Trigger, I’ve been hoping for a chance to clarify a bit more on where I think Chrono Trigger was a success. Sure, I could cite the many repeat arguments given by reviews over the past 15 years (the rockstar development team, the multiple endings, the time travel, the combination techs, New Game +), but at this point, I feel that these have been over-stated to death, often neglecting other attributes of the game in the process. Instead, I’d like to focus on player motivations, the actions they complete to aid their progress, and the driving forces behind seeing the game through to the end.

Chrono Trigger puts a lot of faith in the hands of its players to get the most out of the game, relying on the player’s will to carry on, and to explore in great detail the worlds they have provided. Terrain exploration, of course, is no stranger to JRPGs, and well presents itself with my other two favorites of the genre (Final Fantasy VI and Phantasy Star IV), however exploration within Chrono Trigger also yields alternate sources of character leveling beyond fighting monsters and acquiring weapons/armor, demonstrated through the various tabs and magic stones to be picked up; an upgrade system typically reserved for action-adventures. On top of that, there’s a level of temporal exploration to be had outside of gathering items in coordinating across the time periods where completing actions in one may have ramifications in another, giving additional depth to the multiple overworlds you traverse while maintaining a level of familiarity and lineage between each of them – this largely presents itself within the optional sidequests towards the end.

Where I think Chrono Trigger difinitively draws a line in the sand is in regards to its ultimate goal, and how it is more or less inconsequential to the lengths at which you progress through the game. Chrono Trigger does not force you to discover every ounce of story or appropriately rationalize why things came to be; Lavos is ready to be encountered as soon as you reach the End of Time; he’s just waiting there, right in that bucket! Level-willing, one could complete the game without ever finding out who Ayla is, or why Frog is a Frog, or when Lavos first came to Earth, or what the hell a Chrono Trigger even is! The game’s narrative only goes as far as you are willing to take it, and even through it all, there is plenty of deviation to be had, from the final inclusion/omission of two valuable characters, to the fight for peace within each of the time periods (Lavos certainly wasn’t the only threat facing the globe), to the fulfillment of Gaspar’s sidequests in any order (several which offer the most rewarding experiences of the game). By  handing over the ending early, Chrono Trigger bestows a tremendous amount of freedom on the player, not only being able to tailor their party and their battle strategies, but to press on with the comfort of knowing that no matter what, there is nothing standing in their way of meeting the end as they see fit.

It is of course in the player’s best interests to continue through the story for the stat gains and leveling it will bring to the final encounter, however fully completing the game also yields its own intangible rewards, completing acts of heroicism and valor that players are 100% aware they technically didn’t have to do. Why defeat the Reptites or Mystics when the Day of Lavos was still at hand, or shut down the Geno Dome knowing their goal will automatically change the future? The game can still be completed in a linear fashion just like other games, but throughout it all, the player is never left without a final say on the matter, and their ultimate choices can speak greatly towards the appeal of the worlds and characters within.

Time travel can be tiresome

#4. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Few would contest the historical value of Ultima IV for its dramatic advances towards computer-based roleplaying, or deny its influences seen in many games to come (including games on this list). It remains a cultural milestone for video games, and a technological marvel for 1985, one that focused on morality-based play, sprawling landscapes, and interactive NPCs in ways that just hadn’t been done before. Excluding the NES version, the game was undeniably great for its time.

But what about today? Could it be true that the now dated graphics and slow-paced action still have a place in the world? Well… I think so, largely in thanks to the game’s subject matter which remains as relevant today as it did way back when. As a response to Ultima III which was being criticised for a message that simply wasn’t there, Richard Garriott chose to incorporate into Ultima IV a meaning that he did intend to be found, something to interpret beyond the normal actions of the game.

Ultima IV remains to this day an anomaly; one that forgoes typical plot points and motivational narratives to focus on the character’s path to enlightenment. There is no prime evil, no day of reckoning, and no princess; there is only the player and their actions within a massive world to explore. The game focuses on the fulfillment of the game’s 8 virtues; assembled by Garriott through a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism, the seven deadly sins, and oddly enough, the Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t incredible enough that Garriott was prepared to ask one of life’s biggest questions in a video game; he chose to answer it as well, and in the same way the series has always functioned in its logic; through mathematics, pseudo-science, and alchemy (my God this game was nerdy)!

Garriott began with Oz, drilling everything down to Dorothy’s companions, and the principles they best represented; the scarecrow represented Truth, the Tin Man represented Love, and the Lion represented Courage. From there we have the immediate first three virtues, of Honesty, Compassion, and Valor. Three more virtues could be achieved by the combination of the three principles; Justice (Truth and Love), Honor (Truth and Courage), and Sacrifice (Love and Courage). The combination of all three results in Spirituality, the seventh virtue, while the omission of all three resulted in Humility. From this, the “Codex of Ultimate Wisdom” was born, and the world of video games received its first major foray into the fields of philosophy, ethics, and a greater sense of purpose.

It goes without saying that I think everyone should experience what Ultima IV has to offer at some point in their gaming careers, and thankfully everyone can, as it has once again been made freely available by EA, and is currently downloadable from GOG.

We appreciate symmetry here at Gaming Symmetry

#3. Gunstar Heroes

Treasure is a company that means a lot to me; and to a lot of people for that matter. Not everyone knows their full history, but they actually began as a group of ex-Konami employees who were tired of putting together sequels. Prior to Gunstar Heroes, members of Treasure’s team had a hand in such classics as Super Castlevania IV, Contra 3, The Simpsons Arcade, and Bucky O’Hare. That’s neither here nor there in relation to the game, but it might give you some idea to the effect Gunstar Heroes had on me, that I would dig around through personal and development histories across two companies to find out who exactly was behind the greatest game I’d ever seen.

Gunstar Heroes is proof positive that a careful attention to control setups and a structured array of options for the player can elevate a game beyond its visible quality. When people refer to the game nowadays, they immediately dive into the level of action it offers, yet in retrospect there have been plenty of action-heavy games that beat Gunstar Heroes for explosions, enemies, and difficulty; arguably even games on the same console, with Konami’s Contra: Hard Corps (which many people incorrectly assume Treasure staff had involvement with) and Treasure’s own Alien Soldier. It was also undeniably a visual marvel for the Genesis, with unprecedented sprite work, scaling, and geometric rotation that made the SNES blush, although this too has been supplanted in style over the years with increases in technology.

Where Gunstar Heroes succeeds is that the action was coupled with a robust moveset that could be tailored to suit the needs of the player(s) without becoming repetitive or overly complex. Fixed or free shot is determined at the outset so as not to keep burdening the player. The four starting gun types can be combined into an additional 10 hybrid weapons, but their exact availability is random, prompting in-level changes only if desired. Your agile characters are always able to resort to hand to hand combat in a pinch and employ a variety of evasive maneuvers (slides, floor hangs, even wall kicks off the side of the TV screen). The four starting levels could be completed in any order, allowing for a wider memory capture to stick with people over time, (many action games suffer from a “level 1 syndrome” which the beginning becomes so well known in comparison to the rest it becomes a frustrating action to repeat). Difficulty settings did more than just add health to enemies and bosses, but also gave them more attacks as well, creating a greater need to revisit them. The co-op system allows for continuous 2-player action, but re-joining after death is done at the expense of half the remaining player’s vitality; a more dynamic setup than relying on a pool of continues. It’s these smart design choices that allow for the game to remain an accessible title all these years later when many other titles of the era were boosted by presentation alone.

Anyone who says we didn’t care about graphics back then is a liar, btw

#2. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

I’ve already given my 5-point analysis on why Majora’s Mask is one of the greatest games of all time, however I will quickly summarize here as well. In terms of gameplay, Majora’s Mask boasts the largest number of unique items and uses within any of the other Zelda games giving Link his most expansive moveset ever (excluding the magic rings of the Oracles games), with dungeons that feature a multitude of items at once. Progression through the game relies solely on the upgrading of your inventory without any invisible walls to counter player expectations. Action is well tailored to utilize the 3D space with enemies that quickly seek out the player in great numbers (largely in thanks to the N64 expansion pak). The game boasts a wide variety of un-required content that can be encountered through exploration and interaction, much of which is rewarding beyond even a standard 100% completion of the game. Lastly, being untied to the series proper, Majora’s Mask remains open to the subject of interpretation, both for in-game events, and beyond, incorporating literary criticism and symbolic association with in-game actions and objects.

To focus in on that last point a little further, I find it fascinating that a summary of Link’s progress throughout the game is representational of life itself, moving from birth (emerging from the central naval of Termina), to childhood (Deku Mask), to adulthood (Goron Mask), to parenthood (Zora Mask), to death (Garo/Gibo Masks). Life, death, and rebirth is very much the backbone of the game’s story, deeper than just the time-traveling mechanic at its core, taking into consideration the many characters Link encounters, the restorations of order amidst chaos that occur throughout the overworld, and the surprisingly vibrant surface of the moon, which from Termina’s perspective is the harbinger of destruction. The game questions what it means to be the hero, and ends with the knowledge that your actions are unable to completely restore happiness in the land to all. The game deals with a variety of emotions with some very real problems underneath the fantasy setting, from Anju’s Mother doubting Kafei’s commitments based on her own failed marriage, to Lulu’s diary reflecting on how nervous she was to reveal to Mikau her pregnancy. And of course, the game allows you to observe the wide range of reactions to be expected by humanity if faced with the end of all things through your interactions with Termina’s inhabitants (yet at the same time, the game never dives too deeply into sorrow or despair without offering its own moments of humor and happiness as well).

The opening text to Majora’s Mask acknowledges that Link was embarking on a “secret and personal journey,” and that statement could not be more accurate. Majora’s Mask is very much a game that you get what you put into it. Explore the world at your own pace (ticking clock be damned), and use your inventory to interact with the world and the people around you, and Majora’s Mask will offer an experience that few games on the market can replicate.

No, I’m not sure how Link got to Termina either.

#1. Shining Force II

Tactical RPGs are pretty consistent for being some of the best games available in my opinion, to which it can be hard to pinpoint a favorite. I’ve gone through a variety of titles within the sub-genre, from ideological darlings like Final Fantasy Tactics, to the interesting rocks/papers/scissors dynamics of Fire Emblem, to the strategic troop moving of Ogre Battle and Langrisser, to the all out war found in Battle for Wesnoth (which, like Ultima IV, is completely free). Every game I enjoy greatly, and every game has something special to offer, but there’s always been only one I’ve ever called my favorite, and that’s Shining Force II. In many ways, it is the differences between these types of games that make them special, and Shining Force II offers a few key areas that I value greatly above the rest.

The world of Shining Force II is not one made of pins on a map, but is one that can be traversed outside of the turn-based battles. Much like regular RPGs, the party can move freely around the world to visit towns, continue the storyline, trade items, recruit party members, and explore at their leisure. Similar to Chrono Trigger, items are peppered around the world that further add to stat increases outside of normal battle-leveling, and also features resources to be used in crafting high-powered weapons later on, emphasizing exploration in a genre where it is often a burden (it can be a chore to waste turns exploring a battle screen for additional secrets). I find that the freely interactive world of Shining Force II better immerses you in the experiences it offers where many similar games take a “just visiting” approach, focusing more on a string of connected experiences.

The actual battles are equally praiseworthy, with your (up to) 12-person party, sprawling battle grids with mobility effects and barriers, and turn order decided on field statistics, rather than phases. Many regulations are in place to keep battles moving forward to maintain an active presence on the field and the characters you work with each have their distinct benefits and drawbacks, not to mention their own talkative personalities. Shining Force II exhibits a tremendous amount of balance in its play, with the availability of crafting the type of party you’d like, and the type of game you’d like to play. Do you gun for the leader to end the battle in as few turns as possible, or should you take out each enemy to pull the additional experience? Will you lure enemies with a high defense character, or should you be primarily on the offensive with powerful attackers? Should you focus on the better characters now, or should you baby particular characters, knowing they might be more helpful later on? Will you promote your character as soon as they are able (lvl. 20) or should you keep going for a supercharged version of that character towards the end? The continued fun in Shining Force II comes from setting your own objectives and using the resources and rule sets provided to you, rather than customizing your party’s abilities at the outset.

Of course, story-wise, the plot of Shining Force II remains behind, being little more than a good vs. evil war against devils, and a princess lost to a kingdom. The events of the story are nonetheless well told, and certainly make use of a variety of fiction-writing modes. Many characters and places are introduced along the way that don’t grow in importance until later on, and many inconsequential actions often end up finding their way into the greater picture as holding an eventual importance spreading across 4-5 main story arcs. The game also further pushes their planned narrative by forcing certain variables on occasion within the battles themselves, calling for additional tactics that present a more well-rounded occurrence (it’s not a coincidence that the final boss has only one immediate square for a direct attacker on the ground). Shining Force II simply offers a well-crafted fairy tale, nothing more, but its locations, characters, and many options for playing through make the game a joy to see from start to finish over and over.

Like I said, I’m a sucker for happy endings

Conclusion

So what does this all say about me exactly? Well, of the 12 listed, all games hold a variety of options available to the player, while all excluding #6 and #3 feature worlds that can be explored. Most games feature a combination of action and strategy, while over half successfully incorporate elements from other genres into their own. Of course, there are many more games that I consider among my favorites as well that I was unable to list here, some of which I had a hard time leaving out. Games like Fallout, X-COM, Deus Ex, and Phantasy Star IV have been personal favorites at one point or another, while more recently I’ve greatly enjoyed several games that in a few years time may make their way towards the list as well; games like Cave StoryMax Payne, Portal (1 & 2) and To The Moon. I also can’t help but note that despite not appearing on my list, I think Tetris is the most brilliant and most important game ever made.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge the older slant in generations represented in my list, although as a brief explanation, I’ve often found that time can be one of the best deciders in perceiving a title’s quality. This does not mean that I view the current generation of gaming any less; it’s just that it would benefit from a bit more time to reflect and assess, as I have seen many titles come and go, making a strong initial impact, and casually deteriorate once big and better things come along, while other games manage to come out of the woodwork to start gaining recognition long after they left retail shelves. It’s the games out now that we’re still talking about ten years after that will interest me; I have a few candidates, and look forward to seeing their reputations develop in the future.

But for the time being, I have now made my picks. Thanks to Ali for thinking up this series, and I hope you enjoyed my entry. Be sure to check out the lists from the other authors as well if you haven’t already, and you’re welcome to comment away on any of the above, the series in general, or your own favorites along the way.

4 Comments

  1. Interesting, poignant, and a nice variety of genres represented (unlike mine, which was uncharacteristically RPG-laden). I’m always interested in seeing the top picks of my colleagues, both in enjoyment, and in importance to gaming as a medium. You’ve focused greatly upon the importance of mechanics and how games are put together, which I feel is something important lost in today’s sea of “Cool. So, what’s the story like?”

    While I’ve played less than half of these to completion, I certainly agree with the games with which I am intimately familiar having a place on this list. King’s Quest 6 was quite possibly my favorite in the series (3 is pretty close) for all of the above reasons and its interesting visual style, with cutscenes sometimes vaguely reminiscent of an airbrushed version of works from the Three Stooges era. The Guardian Legend has been one of the biggest disappointments in my life, in that it’s so incredibly good, but there is nothing else like it, so I’m always left wanting more. BurgerTime’s an old classic that I love, no matter how much I suck at it, and its sequel, Peter Pepper’s Ice Cream Factory is almost equally interesting. Chrono Trigger has become one of those irritatingly popular games, but I must admit that I still love it, and played it to death (had enough one-per-playthrough items for each character at least twice over) back in the day. Finally, Gunstar Heroes is one of those games with which I was very unfamiliar when it was out, but having rediscovered it, I’d crown it king of the Run-and-Gun Genre without hesitation.

    So, while the rest of the games on the list do not appeal to me, I appreciate their significance, and hey, difference of opinion is what makes multiple lists like this interesting to read. I’ve enjoyed each one so far, and continue to look forward to the rest.

    • Thanks; I also noticed your RPG slant, but most of the games you’ve mentioned I greatly enjoyed myself so took no issue. In particular I was happy to see Crusader of Centy; like you said I value intriguing game mechanics, and really liked the combination aspect of the game’s animal companions.

  2. YAY! Another list!

    I loved your top 12. Unfortunately, I have not played Shining II, Gunstar Heroes, Jet Set Radio, and Burger Time …. I especially wish to play the third one.

    I want more still!

    • You’ll hopefully get your chance soon; I think the HD version is coming out at the end of this month worldwide.

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