the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Top 10 Games That Remember They’re Games

The Top 10 Games That Remember They’re Games

Screw Mortal Kombat.  In a roundabout way, it marks the beginning of the end of videogames as we knew them.  Those of you who are old enough, think back to the ’90s.  What do you remember about this game?  Most likely, it’s something tied to the controversy.  After this game came out, it gradually came to be that if a game didn’t have someone getting disemboweled with a screwdriver in the first 5 minutes of gameplay, it was branded as a kids’ game.  Swimming in a sea of brown and grey, samey first-person shooters aside, it marked the first great problem with the gaming industry today: style over substance.  Yes, in Mortal Kombat you could rip someone’s head off with his or her spine still attached, but the controls were just atrocious.  I was often ridiculed for liking Street Fighter 2 better, but this isn’t about my own angst-ridden youth; it’s about what games have degenerated into.  Let me give an example.  I played God of War and thoroughly enjoyed it.  After beating it, I looked at some of the unlockables.  Many of them were the kind of thing you’d see in the Special Features section of a DVD.  I didn’t really feel like working very hard to unlock them, so I just let them sit.  When I picked up God of War 2, I was shocked to find a second disc with bonus features.  First of all, I don’t even care about them when it’s a movie.  Second of all, it’s a game, not a movie!  Even the way the combat music has a good 5-15 seconds of loud symphony orchestra wailing away after you finish an encounter made me think that Sony forgot what they were making.  Figuring that God of War 3 would degenerate even further, I wasn’t really that upset about not owning a PS3.  Need another example?  I’m a huge Castlevania fan.  The classics were fantastic, from the first Castlevania all the way through Dracula X and Bloodlines.  I’ve absolutely loved all 7 Metrovania-Style titles and I’d buy another 7 more if they came out for systems I had.  I disliked Castlevania 64, but I still picked up copies of Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness and I loved them.  You get the idea.  When I saw the trailer for Lords of Shadow, I was appalled.  Trailer is the most appropriate word for it because the damn thing thinks it’s a movie!  This isn’t the only trailer I’ve seen like this recently, either.  Starcraft 2 (or really, anything by Blizzard) immediately comes to mind.  I also watched my significant other play Final Fantasy X for a bit and it suffers from the same problem: you get about 5 minutes of (tedious) gameplay in before it yanks the controller from your hand to play itself for exhaustively long cutscenes.  Now listen, I’ve had a controller in my hand since I was about 3 years old.  I love video games and I always will.  The problem I have is that no one seems interested in games anymore.  Still, you’re not here to read my long rants (or are you?), you’re here for me to make a point.  Well, never fear; I’ve compiled a list of 10 games from this generation and last that remember what they are and will hopefully be the redeeming factor in the industry I love.  Microsoft, Sony, and even Nintendo, listen up!  If you want me to enter the 8th generation of gaming, you’ll have to earn my money!


#10: Geometry Wars: Galaxies

I really like this game.  I’d love to put it higher on the list, but I felt like it would be cheating.  It started out as XBOX’s answer to Flash games you’d play online (apparently now called Browser Games).  It was just a simple “fly around, shoot stuff, get a high score” game.  Eventually, it became a cult classic.  Soon, that cult grew into a full-blown religion and made its way to other systems.  The Wii and DS both had versions of this game and it still maintained its simple premise.  Now, it had to be more than just what it had been to justify its $50 price tag, so the developers made several different levels, all with their own different challenges.  It added several different drones to help you out, each unique in the way it assisted you.  Now, that’s not to say that this game is all substance and no style.  To describe the graphics, I’d have to say this: take a warehouse full of fireworks, put it next to a neon sign factory, and detonate a small thermonuclear device in between them.  Yeah, it’s really pretty, but the thing doesn’t rely on flashy FMVs or angst-ridden melodrama, or even a symphony orchestrated soundtrack.  It’s like your typical arcade game from the ’80s.  It goes to show that the retro movement is about more than just nostalgia; it’s about a time when gameplay was the most important thing about games. Moving on…


#9: Mega Man ZX

I could have also put the sequel here, but I felt this one better emphasized my point.  I could probably have added a Metrovania title just as easily, but I just had to give credit to the Mega Man franchise that actually managed to do what many think is impossible: add story elements and not sacrifice great gameplay.  Yeah, say what you want about Mega Man being the same game over and over, but they stuck to something by which I live: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  With many in the gaming community whining that they want more and about what they feel the game companies owe them, Capcom said, “No!  We’re going to make another Mega Man game that follows the same basic formula and it’s still going to work.”  They were right; this game is great.  Sure, it was a little pretentious and possibly trying to appeal to the 15-year-old anime fanboy/girl crowd (and before you send me any backlash, just keep in mind that I taught high school for 4 years and some of the best memories I have are of teaching freshmen) a bit much at times, but the game was solid.  I think the point this game emphasizes most is the music.  You know what ruins a musical score in most games?  A soft, bland orchestral soundtrack.  A game is about playing.  A good musical score shouldn’t sound like a night at the opera; it should keep you pumped about getting to the end of the stage or blasting that big, nasty boss into a grease spot.  Don’t get me wrong, I love classical music.  I just don’t think it belongs in an action scene in a video game.  You want CD-quality music in a game?  Try using techno (which I’m pretty sure the Mega Man franchise invented) or hard-driving rock.  Don’t believe me?  Dust off your old console and pop in Streets of Rage or Final Fight (or whatever your favorite brawler is), then crank up the old stereo (or your newfangled electronic equivalent) and toss in some Dragon Force.  Try the same with your favorite space shooter (horizontally- or vertically-scrolling).  You’re welcome.


#8: Metroid Prime

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally down on First-Person Shooters; I like the concept.  It can work very well if done properly.  This is an example of that.  One thing I liked is that it’s one I can actually play.  Even spazzes like me that typically rely on the spray-and-pray tactic (or melee-and-pray, in my case) to get anywhere in this type of game can play through it and pretend like they actually know what they’re doing.  I was apprehensive about this game, but I love the Metroid series and since I found this for four and a half bucks, I picked it up.  That which adds this game to my list is both the storytelling style and the way the game was constructed.  The storytelling style was great; you scan objects to learn from them, but only if you wanted.  So, if you wanted a great, fairly deep story that brings you further into the world of Metroid than ever before, you can go around scanning everything in sight, but if you choose not to be encumbered by story elements and just want to blast your way through the game, you could do that too.  The game was challenging physically and mentally, but you don’t have to be a god(dess) at Halo to be able to beat this game.  You also were never forced to use a melee weapon against enemies that had arm-mounted nuclear bombs, since your beam weapons had unlimited ammunition.  The controls were fluid and while parts were very challenging, they were never insurmountable.  Most importantly, this game had color.  Yes, it focused more on exploration than anything, but what made it work was that it was actually a pleasure to do so!  I guess it’s no real surprise that most of this game’s developers also worked on the Turok games, which were the true FPS gems on the N64 (no, I didn’t like Goldeneye).


#7: Super Monkey Ball

This game combines action, puzzle, and even a little bit of racing into a neat little package.  See, you’re a monkey and you’re in a ball.  A big plastic hamster ball.  You roll around and navigate mazes, overcoming obstacles to reach the goal within the time limit.  Yes, it’s strange, but it’s truly addicting.  It’s simple and fun, and no matter what skill level you play at, you can still earn the points needed to unlock the 3 hidden sub-games.  All 6 sub-games are interesting takes on the same physics engine and gameplay mechanics and they’re all well thought out.  The game has an easy course, a challenging course, and even a thumb-blazingly difficult course, but you’re never required to beat all of them to unlock everything.  You can complete the game at any pace.  Sure, with games that require you to beat impossible difficulty levels to unlock everything, you don’t technically have to do so, but then you have the game quietly mocking you from the shelf.  “Yeah, you beat me, but you didn’t finish me,” it seems to say.  I know, any sane person would ignore it, but we completion freaks can’t help but say, “Oh yeah!?” and drive ourselves to frustration trying to unlock that tiny reward of a picture of every character posing by putting ourselves through a controller-throwing, disc-snapping, table flipping, refrigerator-hurling, NERD SMAAAAAAASH! marathon of punishingly difficult hurdles.  They should totally make a rehab center for us.


#6: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Never before has a game lived up to so much hype.  It’s all died down and I still pop this bad boy in when we have friends over.  Sure, any game in the series could fit here, but I picked Brawl because it made a statement: the controls are so simple that you can turn the Wiimote on its side and play it like an NES game (which, unsurprisingly, is my preferred method of play).  I’ve had friends who were greener than an emerald come over and school me with Pikachu.  In the same respect, I’ve made hardcore players weep in defeat by owning them with Jigglypuff.  See, that’s the thing about this game: anyone can pick it up and get relatively good at it within an hour or 2.  It’s always fun to play and if you totally master a character and get bored with him/her (Lucas is my guy), you can pick up another character keep going (like I did with Wolf).  There are tons of characters and stages, and there’s even a campaign mode that you can play cooperatively.  I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll find hundreds of hours of entertainment on this disc and nearly anyone can enjoy it.  Remember when you were a kid and you’d play board games with a whole bunch of people and even the ones who never played before could have fun?  This is that in electronic form.


#5: No More Heroes 2

This game doesn’t just remember it’s a game, it makes sure to remind you of that as often as possible.  It’s just an indescribable experience.  There’s the off-the-wall humor, which doesn’t even know what the 4th wall is.  There’s also the foul language, which somehow adds to the experience.  I use foul (sometimes filthy) language on a daily basis, but when I hear it in this game, it just adds to its impact (maybe it makes me feel at home).  The main game plays like your typical great, mindless Hack & Slash title.  There’s even the 8-bit minigames that make any child of the ’80s feel like he or she is back in the arcade, surrounded by the comforting sonata of bleeps and bloops.  Yeah, the first game remembered it was a game, but this one ironed it out.  They removed the sandbox, which just felt like an unnecessary addition to please Grand Theft Auto fans and try to fit in with the rest of the games at the time, deciding to go with menu-based navigation.  Now, it might seem like that and the 8-bit minigames (friggin’ mini-masterpieces that they are) are hollow reasons to cite as this still being a game, but even the story was a spoof on modern gaming itself.  First of all, just try to convince me that the Bizarre Jelly game wasn’t a spoof of Castle of Shikigami.  Second of all, just look at the plot; it’s got gritty realism, lots of obligatory plot twists, pseudo-depth, moral ambiguity, and if you think they were trying to be serious about that speech Travis made after he killed Alice Moonlight, I suggest you take another look.  Yes, my friends, satire is still alive, but many of us are too jaded to see it.


#4: Mega Man X8

Yes, I know I’ve already talked about Mega Man, but I couldn’t leave out my favorite game bearing his name.  The X series is known for being darker, more serious, and more story-heavy, but it’s never interfered with the intense action.  Mega Man always presents a good challenge and never yanks the controller from your grasp for long.  Sure the X series had its share of cutscenes, but none of them were tacked on and they all did their job, then let you get back to blasting robots.  This entry is on the list because it not only keeps the classic 2D action, it also incorporates many modern gaming elements without the bloat.  For example, you collect currency and use it to buy upgrades.  Zero has a wide variety of weapons and can use all of his techniques with them.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, like Devil May Cry 3 familiar.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Devil May Cry 3, but it could have used fewer cutscenes that served no purpose other than Dante being a jackass.  This game has 4 that I can think of, unless you count the brief dialogues between missions.  Now, despite how I probably come off, I’m not completely averse to adding new ideas to games.  I think that there have been a lot of great advances in gameplay elements in the past few years that have been spectacular.  What I’d really like to see more of, though is developers attempting to apply these new ideas (where applicable) to older genres without encumbering them with unnecessary “enhancements”.  Mega Man X8 mixes the best of the old with the best of the new, and that’s what I’m talking about.


#3: New Super Mario Bros.

Ah, a revival of a classic series.  Remember when Mario games could be good without being in 3D?  Remember when you didn’t have to collect 120 objects by performing ridiculous, obnoxious, nearly impossible tasks to get them?  In the middle of my lament that 3D had ruined the Mario franchise forever, this little gem came out.  Now, Super Mario World will likely always be my favorite Mario Platformer of all time, but this game brought the series back to its roots and expanded upon them.  Remember the wall jump from previous Mario games?  Well, in this one, it actually felt less like a programming bug and more like something you were actually supposed to be able to do.  The gameplay was just fantastic, but I think what impressed me most was the music.  You know what gripe I have with a lot of game music these days (other than the symphony thing)?  NO NEW MUSIC!  It’s all arranged and remixed from previous hits in the series.  Sure, the original Super Mario Bros. had some great music, and remixes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but aren’t you getting tired of hearing the same 4 or 5 songs just remixed over and over again and being called a new sountrack?  It’s like when you hear a new band on the radio and they’re getting famous off a song that they didn’t even write.  It’s seriously messed up, but this game has (mostly) new music.  Now, there aren’t any real masterpieces in the score, but if you ask me, the music in Mario games (the Mario RPGs excluded) has never really been among the greatest out there.  You can argue the point that your 98-year-old great great grandmother can whistle the music from the original Super Mario Bros. until you’re blue in the face, but fame and quality aren’t necessarily interchangeable; just tune in to your local pop station and try to tell me otherwise.  In fact, I’d like to be so bold as to suggest that the reason everyone knows the music isn’t its inherent quality, but that of the game it accompanies, but, as usual, I digress.  Most importantly (for the purpose of this list), New Super Mario Bros. is simple, straightforward, and lots of fun.  It’s not Mario’s greatest adventure, but it’s his best in a long time, at least in the main series.


#2: Kirby Squeak Squad

Yes, I know this largely contradicts what I just said about remixes, since I think the Squeak Squad Theme is the only original piece in the entire game, but Kirby does it yet again with a classic platformer.  This is his first new straightforward platformer in a long time.  The Gameboy Advance had Nightmare in Dreamland, which was a (damn good) remake (that other video game companies looking to make a remake should study very closely before doing so) and Amazing Mirror was so non-linear that you couldn’t play the stages in order.  Now, they were both stellar games, but one wasn’t new and the other broke from the old style ever so slightly with its non-linearity.  Squeak Squad took the treasure element from Amazing Mirror and brought it into this fun little Map-based Platformer and it worked really well.  This game takes ideas from elsewhere in the series and puts them together and uses the DS hardware to make it a very cohesive package.  There’s something to be said for a series that keeps the basic formula, but experiments with other elements to make a whole new experience (now where have I heard that before?).  No 2 Kirby games (remakes aside) are completely the same, even the Platformers. Kirby’s Adventure brought in the abilities, Kirby’s Dreamland 2 brought in the animals and 3 brought in the tasks to complete, while Kirby 64 brought in ability fusion, and the list goes on.  My only critique would be that the fusion system in Squeak Squad could have been fleshed out a little better, since there are really only 5 new abilities you can make with it.  On top of everything, the story is that Kirby is chasing down cake.  It’s not going to be a text-heavy game with unnecessary melodrama, though that would probably be the greatest spoof plot of all time.


#1: Super Paper Mario

A departure from the normal formula in the series makes this unique entry to the Mario RPG sub-series, this game is a non-linear 2D platformer with RPG elements.  You can walk around and explore the two towns, which act as hub areas.  You can also flip to 3D with Mario, which isn’t nearly as gimmicky or overused as you’d initially think.  You beat enemies by jumping on them, just like a classic Mario game, but there are other methods of attack and there’s certainly no shortage of situations that you have to think your way out of.  What makes this a great “game” is that it focuses far more heavily on the action and exploration than trying to wedge a complicated story into it.  Sure, it has its share of twists, but it’s pretty light overall.  What places this game at the top of the list is that it takes the major elements of every entry on this list and wraps them up in a neat little package.  It’s humble (and, heh, geometric), like Geometry Wars: Galaxies; has decent story with no sacrifice to gameplay, like Mega Man ZX; has a vast world that was a pleasure to explore, like Metroid Prime; doesn’t require anything cruel or unusual to unlock everything, like Super Monkey Ball; is easy to pick up and play, like Smash Bros. Brawl; has some self-aware, 4th-wall-breaking humor, like No More Heroes 2; mixes great elements of old and new, like Mega Man X8; has great new music, like New Super Mario Bros.; builds on itself from the rest of the series, like Kirby Squeak Squad; and doesn’t needlessly run on and on, like this sentence.  It knew right when to end and has some decent post-game challenges, which were challenging, but not terrifying.  Most importantly of all, though, in each of my several playthroughs, it was incredibly fun, which is what games are for, isn’t it?



I apologize if I ranted a bit much for your tastes, but I think a quote from Grandpa from the Simpsons can sum my point up pretty well: “I used to be with it; then, they changed what it was.  What it became was new and scary to me.  It’ll happen to you!”  Please, don’t misunderstand me.  I like a good story in a game; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing for GamingSymmetry.  In fact, my favorite game of all time (Live-A-Live) has one of the greatest stories (within or outside of a video game) I have ever heard.  I just don’t think games should be about the story.  Gameplay first, then story.  There’s no reason that both can’t be good.  I’m not the first person to say it and I sincerely hope that I won’t be the last, but substance over spectacle: that’s the lesson to be learned here.  A bad game shouldn’t be excused because it has a good story.  It’s a game first and a story second.  You want something that emphasizes story above all else?  Read a book.  Don’t like reading?  Write a book; I’m working on my second.  I’m not trying to criticize anyone (I gave up my right to do that long ago), and I’m not trying to get into the middle of any debacle.  All I’m trying to do is create a massive revolution in the gaming industry to bring back fun.  You know, nothing extraordinary (ha ha).  I hope you’ve enjoyed this list and I hope you’ve taken more away from it that just a list of 10 great games, even if it is just a good laugh at my recalcitrance toward adapting to the culture of the 21st Century.  Thank you all for reading and have a great day!

One Comment

  1. I love the concept of this list and I think you’ve got some really great stuff on here.

    For the most part I agree with the Mortal Kombat thing, but it’s a little funny since this year’s MK overhauled the series and gave it good controls, turning it into a decent fighting game instead of just a gorefest. (Yes, I know that this list was written long before Mortal Kombat 2011 was released.) In fact, this marks the first year that I’ve liked a Mortal Kombat game more than a Capcom fighter.

    I personally don’t think that 3D has ruined the Mario series. I don’t know if I’d say that it’s improved it, but the series at least stayed at the same level of quality when it jumped into the third dimension. For the longest time, Super Mario 64 was my favorite game in the series, and that only recently changed with Super Mario Galaxy 2. Granted, this is obviously just a difference of opinion. For instance, the maddeningly difficult (but fair) bonus stars are actually part of the reason I love Galaxy 2. There’s also the fact that the level design and controls are superlative (water levels notwithstanding).

    Like I said though, there’s a lot of good stuff in this list, and I agree wholeheartedly that a game does not need to sacrifice gameplay to have a great story. In fact, part of the reason BioShock is my favorite game of all time is that, while the story is brilliant, I can still have a lot of fun playing it even if I ignore the narrative. Also, I know this is probably the forty-second time I’ve mentioned this game to you, but I think you might like Painkiller, despite it being a first-person shooter.

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