Here are my top twenty favorite games of all time. For now. Mostly.
A bit of a preamble…
Okay, so the template I chose for this site had a Top 10 page by default and, well, I like lists. They are torturous for me to create, but I enjoy them. So I left this page and decided to fill it with my ten favorite games. I couldn’t bear eliminating some of my favorite games, though, so I made it a Top 20 list.
This is not an objective list of the twenty best games ever created, but a subjective list of games that I love for one reason or another. It is affected by nostalgia, time spent playing, magical tingly feelings, and other highly technical factors. I’ve also limited myself to one game per series. The order is only semi-rigid, because if you asked me to make this same list in a week and denied me access to this version, I may end up placing them in a different order (or exchange one or two for other games). Such is the sway of time and reflection.
Also, I’m keeping commentary light because I will certainly write about many of these at length at some point. Being my favorites, I revisit them in memory (and reality) often, and can’t help but hold them up as examples of what I want to find in other games, so I’ll have plenty to say about them at some point.
Okay, let me shut up and get out of my own way…
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4, 2013)
This was a lucky surprise. I’d been meaning to get into the Assassin’s Creed series for years, so when I got to choose a free game with my PS4 at launch, I chose Black Flag. I played it over winter break and I was completely obsessed. A hallmark of many games on this list is that I have a hard time putting them down and an equally hard time keeping them off my mind once I do, and I was dreaming of sailing the beautiful Caribbean seas whenever I convinced myself I needed sleep. The story and characters were fine, but the gameplay is really what captured my heart. Setting sail in my own pirate ship, cutting through gorgeous water, blasting a volley of cannonballs at a bigger, more powerful ship before diving overboard to climb up their hull and smoothly take out everyone on board? Absolutely unforgettable.
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies (PS2, 2001)
Shattered Skies made flying an impossibly expensive and equally deadly piece of machinery seem completely natural. The jet graphics and ‘photorealistic’ environments were beautiful to behold way back in 2001, and the balance between ground engagement and dogfighting was just right. I’ve played and beat this game several times, and am disappointed with every successor that attempts to revolutionize the flight mechanics or introduce outrageous enemies. Maybe someday they’ll return to their roots.
SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs (PS2, 2003)
I’m not much of an online gamer. I don’t know why, exactly. Sure, there are plenty of immature, juvenile people to frustrate and annoy me, and the intimidation that comes with jumping into a game that I may not be great at. But there are also funny, supportive people, and I can usually hold my own in most games. I ran into both playing SOCOM II, along with glitchers, griefers, and rank snobs, but I couldn’t stop playing it. Sure, the fact that you only get one life per round meant sitting out if you died, but it also added a different kind of thrill when you went up against someone and won, or got multiple kills in a round. Patience paid off, and kills felt so much more rewarding, whether it was a sniper shot from deep grass that I’d laid in for five minutes, or a carefully placed mine halfway across the map. Reaching the rank of colonel in this game is one of my secret badges of gaming honor.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
I was no saint as a sophomore in high school, but I rarely just skipped class. I did for this game, though. I had it pre-ordered at the Toys “R” Us a couple of blocks from Lane Tech High School, where I went. My friend David and I went in the middle of the day to pick up our special edition, gold-cartridge copies. The game has many high points, but one of the most magical for me was leaving Link’s village and seeing the vast, open world of Hyrule before me. That sense of freedom and adventure has been replicated since, but it was the first of its kind for me.
Perfect Dark (N64, 2000)
There are plenty of games from the N64/PS1 era that have aged poorly. This, unfortunately, is one of them, as is GoldenEye 007. The controls seem completely unintuitive now, and the framerate is so. So. Slow. But at the time of its release, it was a marvel of a multiplayer shooter. The amount of customization that could go into a match was insane, and even playing solo against a horde of bots (each with its own difficulty level, weapon set, and ‘personality’) was exciting and, at times, soothing. I remember playing by myself, late at night and listening to music, when I felt like I needed a distraction from the world (as any normal teenager did). Good times.
Resident Evil 2 (PS1, 1998)
My choice of favorite Resident Evil game changes with the weather. I love the atmospheric mansion of the first game, the Nemesis from the third game is terrifying (in a good way), and the fourth game is a masterpiece. But Resident Evil 2 was magical in that it retained the same haunted, abandoned feeling that the first game had, but amped it up in every aspect. Where I felt alone in a creepy old house in the first game, I felt alone in an evacuated city in the second. The zombie genre has exploded in recent years, but in 1998 exploring a police station that had been ravaged by an outbreak felt fresh. I was glad to hear that they’ve gone ahead with plans to remaster this classic like they did with its predecessor. I’ll be picking that up and playing the hell out of it (again, sort of) when it comes out.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, 2003)
I don’t hate the Star Wars prequels as much as some fans do. There are painful parts, sure, but they gave us Star Wars in a time that otherwise would have been devoid of it. Still, it was this game that rekindled my love of the lore more than the newly released movies. It was my first BioWare game, and I was taken by the idea of being able to woo your party members (Bastila is bae). More than that, though, the game made me feel like a Jedi. It was hours before I got my lightsaber, one that I built with my own hands, and it felt like a real accomplishment. Before that, I fully went into the game expecting to be a Sith and embracing the Dark Side. Like many, I love Darth Vader, so I was going to follow in his footsteps. So I spent the first couple of hours of my first playthrough scowling about, looking for trouble. I found it in a janitor who was a little short with me but not a bad guy, really. I had to kill him to get Dark Side points and I felt terrible about it. I rerolled immediately and followed the path of the Jedi. Being a Sith is hard, man.
Suikoden II (PS1, 1999)
I didn’t have much money growing up, so when I wanted to experiment with a new game I’d go to a local movie rental place and see what kinds of games they had. As a fan of RPGs (if this list doesn’t make that too obvious), the cover to Suikoden II called to me. The artwork was beautiful and the expansive cast of characters was intriguing. I didn’t regret taking a chance on it, as the story of brotherly betrayal was unique, the sprite work was charming, and the tactical overworld battles were exciting. Having your own castle to fill with dozens of recruited characters was fun and exciting, too. I’m not capturing the magic that Suikoden II has very well, but it had it in abundance.
Fallout 3 (360, 2008)
Like the previously mentioned moment of stepping out into Hyrule as Link for the first time, exiting Vault 101 and setting my sights on an expansive, irradiated wasteland felt exciting and a little overwhelming. Where do I go? What do I do? I didn’t know, but I also didn’t really care. I just started walking and I made my own path, different from the path of others, which is what makes Bethesda RPGs so interesting to me. Because I’m not forced to do much of what I end up doing, events feel natural and unique to my experience, even if they’re not, prompting a great urge to share my stories with friends. One such story is my trek into Vault 108. I stumbled across it, as I did with many things in the Wasteland, and when the eerie darkness was repeatedly broken with cries of “Gary,” I knew some weird shit was going on. And it was. And it was great. And when I excitedly relayed the story to my friend Ron, he laughed and shared a similar story. I wasn’t disappointed that my story wasn’t unique to me, though. It’s fun to share those stories, unique or not. That’s the magic of Fallout.
Animal Crossing (GC, 2002)
Oh, Animal Crossing. You beautiful, sadistic soul sucker. I don’t know what makes these games so addictive. Designing my own Batman shirt? Collecting expensive fish in my basement? Sending disturbing letters to friends and townspeople? Finally, finally, finally paying off my debt to Tom Nook? Probably all of these and more, but whatever it is, almost every version of this game wriggles its way into my brain and forces me to play it every day for too many days. Same routine, too. Wake up, pull weeds, shake trees, talk to each townsperson, dig up fossils, answer letters, and on and on. The thing is, just writing about it makes me want to play it. Like, now. Someone help me. I was disappointed at Nintendo’s decision to release a party game for the Wii U rather than a proper entry to the series, but maybe the extra development time means that the next one will have some real innovation and drastic change, as opposed to the minor, incremental changes of the other sequels.
Grand Theft Auto V (360, 2013)
I was tempted to choose Grand Theft Auto III here, for how new and exciting it was, and I do tend to like the silent protagonist, but there is so much (more) you can do in GTA V, and it’s so damn pretty while you’re doing it. You can’t even think about water in III without drowning, but in V there is an expansive, organic world that you can dive a submarine through, swim around, and boat over. It doesn’t matter which entry I choose, though, because any of the 3D GTA games are memorable for their open worlds and the many odd encounters that I’ve had in them. I recall fondly trying to ‘fly’ a tank in III, my first actual flight, in a crop duster, in San Andreas, or Ron and I ‘working’ (just getting in front loaders and pushing cars over… that’s it) in V. Rockstar makes worlds that are believable and fun, where anything can and does happen. I greatly await the next world they craft for us.
Mass Effect (360, 2007)
After Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, I bought Mass Effect on the BioWare name (not to mention the fact that the previews were gorgeous), and I wasn’t disappointed. It had the same mature dialogue, branching, morality-centered paths, and romance (Tali is bae… well, later, anyway). But one of the things I loved most about the game was something other people apparently hated: the Mako landing missions. Most of these were optional, but I sought out every opportunity to land on a strange planet (or, say, our own moon) and drive around, swinging the camera to get the best view of nearby planets, moons, or stars. It made the star systems seem more real, less like points on a map that led to loading screens that led to standard, terrestrial levels. I’d hoped that the sequels might add the ability to leave the Mako and wander about on foot, with different gravity and atmospheric conditions on each celestial body… alas, this gem of a side-mission set gave way to simple scans of simple images. Still, the Mass Effect games still elicit much sci-fi geekery from me, and I can’t wait for Andromeda to drop in 2017.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2, 2004)
Narrowing down a favorite Metal Gear Solid game is always hard for me. Like other games on this list, the first game in the series was so new and different from anything I’d played before it that it will always hold a place in my heart. Even the demo for the second game is better than a lot of games I’ve played, the fourth game had much improved gameplay and controls, and the fifth game’s drop-in, hop-out mission structure was surprisingly addicting. Almost everything about Snake Eater seems maddening, and I was certain it would doom the series before I played it. You have to actually tend to your own wounds with supplies you collect on-site? You have to catch and eat your own food, some of which might poison you or make you sick, which you then have to remedy? You have to constantly change your outfit and face paint to blend into your surrounding better? It all sounds overwhelming, but it worked. I found myself deeply immersed in Snake’s life, vastly more empathetic toward his plight than in previous installments. And the boss fight with The End is one of my favorite gaming memories. It took me two hours to beat him, not because I was dying repeatedly, but because the fight forces you to crawl around, working slowly and quietly to line up a perfect shot that you might miss anyway. The sense of accomplishment after taking him, down, though, made it two hours well spent.
Super Mario 64 (N64, 1996)
Choosing a Mario title as a favorite is also difficult, more so because virtually every major Mario release is a force unto itself. Super Mario 64 wins out, though, because it was the first game to make me feel the magic of free roaming 3D gameplay. Analog sticks are absolutely taken for granted today, but I can remember how amazing it felt tilting the stick forward slightly to see Mario creep forward, then a bit more for a walk, and all the way for a run. I could spin him in circles, jump with pinpoint accuracy, and skid to a stop mid-dash. I will forever associate the leap from 2D gaming to 3D with this title, and I was so excited by it that I would make frequent trips to Toys “R” Us just to play the N64 demo kiosk they had set up weeks before the console’s release. And it still holds up today, which is surprising given that it is the first game on a console known for games that don’t stand the test of time very well.
Final Fantasy III/VI (SNES, 1994)
On a different day I might say Final Fantasy XII is my favorite entry in this series, because the gameplay in that game is easily my favorite in the series, as much as I typically prefer turn-based combat. But Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan — and proper order) has a much more engrossing story with some truly amazing sprite and art work. I had more fun playing XII, but I remember my time with III more vividly, because the characters and situations in the game are so grim but hopeful, dark but full of life. I’d rented the first Final Fantasy for the NES as a kid, but I was too young to grasp how to play it in the three days I had it for, so III was also my first full experience with a FF game. The music, the Moogles, the summons… I fell in love with all of it, and I remain a fan to this day.
Civilization Revolution (360, 2008)
I’ve played this game a lot. Like, a-lot a lot. And I’ve never even played against a person, just the AI. What a sad existence I lead, you might say, but I wouldn’t trade my time playing this game for much else. I’d been intimidated by other strategy games, so when I saw Civ Rev (as the cool kids call it… actually, I don’t know if anyone calls it that) for $20 on the clearance rack at Target (less than a month after it came out, no less), I figured it was worth a shot. As much as I love building cities and strategically screwing over other civilizations, I’m still hesitant to take the dive into the ‘real’ Civilization series. Civ Rev is supposed to be the streamlined, fast-paced version of the game… and it still takes me five hours to play a single game. When I lose after that much game time, it’s painful. If I lost after fifteen or twenty hours? I will either curl up in my bathtub and cry, or kill myself. Not really, but damn. Someday I’ll get around to trying it, though. For now, I’m fine with the bright, cartoony style and ‘fast-paced’ Civ Rev.
Dragon Quest VIII (PS2, 2005)
I bought Dragon Quest VIII on a whim. I’d never played any of the previous games, but this installment came out the day before my birthday, and I was on military leave with spending money burning a hole in my pocket. I casually entered Best Buy, looking for something unrelated, and the bright, vivid display caught my eye. I picked up the game and it was heavy, telling me that an old-fashioned RPG booklet must be inside. The screenshots on the back cover looked colorful and quaint, so I took a chance and plunked $50 down with hopes that it would be worth it. It was. So worth it. The story is fairly basic, but the characters, voice acting, enemies, and graphics were enchanting. I often found myself stopping to enjoy the scenery, wondering how many hours went into crafting such fine detail. The turn-based battles are so old-fashioned and deceptively simple, but that was a welcome change from the ever-complex battle systems in many modern JRPGs. The other installments of this series that I’ve played since have been wonderful as well, but nothing’s matched the spell that DQVIII placed on me. I was genuinely sad when I knew the endgame was coming. I’m still hoping that Level-5 makes a proper console version of a Dragon Quest game again at some point.
Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, 2014)
Mario Kart 64 was my proverbial jam for a very long time, and it holds some of my fondest gaming memories. But it has not aged well, and because of that I find it hard to revisit. Mario Kart 8 plays like I remember 64 playing through the fuzzy haze of memory: fast, smooth, and endlessly enjoyable. Mario Kart Wii had such serious balance issues that I feared an increasingly unbalanced, novice-friendly future for the series. MK8 erased those fears, with impeccable handling, perfectly balanced power sliding/boosts, and a great mix of old and new items. The ability to drag things behind you for defense (once again) can’t be underappreciated, and the graphics are shockingly superb, given Nintendo’s lack of attention to that aspect of games during the Wii’s cycle. I would love to see recreations of the classic battle maps, but I won’t press my luck.
EarthBound (SNES, 1995)
EarthBound was another happy, fateful accident. I’d only just gotten into RPGs, thanks to the next game on this list, so this game was nowhere on my radar. I just happened to be glancing through the game section at Best Buy, wishing I had money to buy a new video game, when I saw the giant game box for EarthBound. Seeing a video game box three times the size of a normal game was intriguing enough, so I picked it up. Turns out it came with the strategy guide, explaining the large size, and it was on clearance for $15. $15 for a Nintendo RPG with a free strategy guide? I didn’t have much money, but I had enough to take a chance on this weird looking game.
And it was weird. Weird and wonderful. The characters were quirky, the writing was witty, and the enemies, locations, and music were odd and endearing. EarthBound is at times conventional and at times anything but, but that’s part of its charm. It was familiar enough to hook me, and alien enough to stand far apart from any other game out there. I played this game again and again, eventually replacing the sounds of the game for No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom and renaming Paula to Gwen. A strange memory to be sure, but it’s just one of many that I have with this game, and I am forever hoping that Nintendo will bring the third game in the series (Mother 3) to the U.S. It may or may not capture the magic of its predecessor, but if it’s even a tenth as great, I’ll take it.
Chrono Trigger (SNES, 1995)
I got Chrono Trigger for my thirteenth birthday, and I was not happy about it. My mom asked me what I wanted and I told her a video game, so she told me to make a list of five games that I wanted so she could pick one. I pored through the pages of recent Nintendo Power magazines, looking for the best, most valuable (in terms of how much I’d get out of it) choice. As I’ve said, we didn’t have a lot of money so new games were relatively few and far between. I had to make it count. There were three games I decided I definitely wanted, and they made up my top three, in order of how badly I wanted them: 1) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, 2) Super Metroid, and 3) Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. They had all been released recently, and I’d either loved their predecessors or Nintendo Power had hyped them to hell (or both). I had two last slots to fill, so I just chose games that had also been released recently and had pretty screenshots in the magazines: 4) Secret of Evermore and 5) Chrono Trigger. They both seemed a bit complicated, but I wasn’t concerned that I’d get them. I was very clear about my list and the specific order I put it in. When the time came, I fully expected to tear back wrapping paper to find a colorful Yoshi with Baby Mario in tow.
Instead, I clearly remember tearing the corner of the wrapping paper and seeing a Squaresoft logo. What was that? I tore more and saw the dull, decidedly Yoshi-free cover of Chrono Trigger. With equal clarity I remember my heart sinking and then faking excitement to cover up my massive disappointment. Why did I even put this game on the list? Would I even get Yoshi’s Island for Christmas? What kind of parent buys the very last thing on a child’s wish list?
Given this game’s place on this list, it’s pretty clear how it all turned out. Having little else to play, I gave Chrono Trigger a shot and fell in love with everything about it. The odd assortment of characters (a frog, a robot, a cavewoman…), the classic rock inspired score, the humor, the turn-based battles, the time-hopping concept, and much more. But like many great games, it was the moments that made the magic. Facing Magus for the first time, Chrono’s sacrifice, Schala’s disappearance (I was so convinced that she was still alive that I called a Nintendo hotline to ask how to find out). And the multiple endings had me playing it again and again, never tiring of any part of it. Part of what made it so replayable was the New Game+ feature, which I’ve named this site after. I had to choose carefully what to craft using the Rainbow Shell on my first playthrough, but with New Game+ I could play it again and use it to craft what I’d missed, and the same on subsequent playthroughs. It was like nothing I’d experienced in gaming, and I’m still spoiled by it.
After some time, I asked my mom why she chose the last game on my list instead of the first one (or the second, or the third…). She said at $80 (Nintendo experimented with higher cost for RPGs) it was easily the most expensive, so she thought it must, therefore, be the best. That logic doesn’t always hold true (see EarthBound), but in this case, $80 seems like a low price to pay for the greatest game in history. Good call, mom