Tuesday, April 10, 2018

David's Personal Top Ten Video Games

This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It is a personal list, reflecting the games that have stuck with me the most over the years. I'm not enough of a gamer to claim it is anything comprehensive, and it has a strong bias to the sorts of genres that I like. Nonetheless, I'd stack these games against any that have been made in my lifetime.

Anyway, without further adieu ....

Honorable Mentions:

Portal 2: How can a game with virtually no “dialogue” (if that means conversations between two characters) have some of the best spoken lines in all video game history? I have both the original and a capella versions of the Turret Opera on my iTunes (yes, I have “Still Alive” as well).

Railroad Tycoon II: A brilliant simulator that makes you actually feel like a turn-of-the-century robber baron (by far, the game is most fun to play when set in the late 19th century). If every man goes through his “trains!” phase, this was mine. As in real life, I am not good at playing the stock market.

Horizon: Zero Dawn: Robot dinosaurs! Incredibly, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes a core concept that sounds like word association from an over-caffeinated twelve-year boy and makes an entirely serious game about it—and it works. It works so well, in fact, that I loved it despite the fact that the plot and entire world-building background centers around my single greatest phobia (no, not that—being alive for the extinction of humanity).

10. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg: I find it odd that very few games have sought to replicate Gettysburg’s spin on an RTS—focusing combat around regiments rather than individual units and prioritizing morale over raw numbers. But the thing I like best about Gettysburg—and sadly it’s mostly unique too—is in how it concentrates on controlling territory (and terrain). Many RTS games, for me, might as well have a blank screen over 80% of the map between my base and my opponent’s base. You build up your force, and then try to swarm your opponent before he or she swarms you. But in Gettysburg, the goal of missions is not “wipe out your opposition”. It’s to capture and hold a ridge, or dig in and hold an exposed farmhouse.

My only critiques are that I want this game to be bigger. I want it to encompass dozens of map spanning the entirety of the Civil War. I want to be able memorize even more obscure Union and Confederate generals and wonder if they really were “mediocre” or if that was just a game balance decision. The random battle generator is okay, but this game screams for user-created expansions which I’ve never been able to find.

9. Crimson Skies: A pulpy fun flight simulator taking place in an alternate history 1930s where America has fractured and Zeppelin travel rules the day. The game doesn’t hesitate to lean into its concept (phrases like “broad” and “floozy” abound), and it does a great job world-building in a relatively short period of time. Somehow, I could meet an enemy “ace” for the first time in the middle of a mission and yet still feel like we had a history of epic dogfights together of which this was only the latest. Meanwhile, each of the locations the game takes you to (Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, Hollywood, the Rocky Mountains, and New York City) are a blast and a half.

A sequel, High Road to Revenge, was released on Xbox and leaned a little too hard into the arcade-y elements (power-ups, automatic evasive maneuvers with the press of a button, and so on). But the original PC game was just right—planes flew exactly like how someone who knows nothing about planes thinks planes fly, which is just perfect. You felt like an ace pilot because of your skill (even though behind the hood the game is really holding your hand). Piloting a gyrocopter through half-built New York City skyscrapers, or a prototype single-engine through the Hollywood "O", is great. Doing it to evade local security, then doing a loop and turning both guns on them -- well, that's the cat's meow.

8. Mass Effect (Trilogy and Andromeda): As far as I’m concerned, the definitive space opera (even muscling out Halo). Fabulous voice acting (listening to Martin Sheen play evil Jed Bartlett is one of the great joys of my life) and memorable plot lines pair with a morality system that at least inches away from “basically decent person or utter asshole.” The universe feels genuinely alive, like there’s an ecosystem and civilization that you’re very much apart, but also moves in your absence.

I can’t really separate out the core trilogy games from one another (each sequel seemed to simultaneously step slightly forward and back), which is not I think an uncommon position. What may be more uncommon is that I think Andromeda stands right in there with the core series. Yes, it was disappointing that it took us to a brand new galaxy and only gave us two new species (while eliminating many of the more backgrounded Milky Way aliens). But I was much more disappointed that there will be no DLC or sequels to continue the story and tie up loose ends.

7. N and N++: There can’t be any serious controversy that N is the greatest Flash game ever made. While Flash demands simplicity, N is not so much simple as it is elegant. It is the perfect balance of speed and control, thoughtfulness and twitch-trigger reflexes, serene relaxation and butt-clenching tension. Once you master the floaty physics and the unique enemy styles, you will truly feel like a ninja—stripped to its core essence and deprived of all the usual but unnecessary bells and whistles. A virtually unlimited supply of levels guarantees you endless gameplay.

And so it is unsurprising that N was one of the rare flash games that made a successful jump to a full true game (in the form of N++), one that has a strong claim on being the greatest platformer ever made. The developers were wise not to disturb the basic formula: run, jump, and slide around a level, dodge obstacles and traps that will kill you instantly, reach the exit. Repeat ad infinitum. But N++ adds just a splash of additional flavors and spices into the mix. A perfect trip-trance soundtrack that sets the mood perfectly (and may single-handedly stave off keyboard-smashing frustration). A few new enemy types that deepen the game without ruining its austere grace. And perhaps most importantly, it adds a bunch of extra, semi-secret challenges (which can be used to unlock still more levels) waiting for the very best-of-best players.

Of all the games on this list, I might be in absolute terms “best” at N++ (there are a non-trivial number of levels in the game where I have a top 100 or even top 10 score on the global leaderboards). And yet there is not the slightest chance that I will ever perfect this game, or even come close to it. Nor is there any chance I will become permanently sick of it. A simple concept, executed brilliantly. The perfect N++ level is also the perfect description of the game.

6. Final Fantasy IX: The question was never whether a Final Fantasy game would make this list, only which one. I’ve long had a soft-spot for FFIX, which I feel is often overlooked inside the series (in part because even on release it seemed players were already looking ahead to the Playstation 2). Yet it’s hard to find fault in Final Fantasy IX as an emblem of a straight-forward JRPG. It has a moving story, fun gameplay, beautiful music, loads of quests to do and places to explore, a fabulous supporting cast (Vivi might be my favorite Final Fantasy character ever written), and a lead character you don’t want to punch (*cough* Final Fantasy X).

Final Fantasy IX is often described as “nostalgic”, and despite the fact that it was only the second game in the series I had ever played, I got that feeling instantly. Try listening to the soundtrack for “Frontier Village Dali” without feeling a little melancholic. You don’t even have to have played. But I recommend that you do.

For the record, my ranking of Final Fantasy games that I’ve played goes: IX, VII, XII, XV, X, XIII.

5. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood: One difficulty in judging games within a series is how to compare an earlier game which still had some rough edges but represented a quantum leap forward versus a later game which didn’t do anything super-novel but tweaked the formula to perfection. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Now, for me, this is an easy call for idiosyncratic reasons—I played AC:B before AC II, and so I experienced the former as both the perfected model and the quantum leap forward as compared to the original game. But I respect that for those who played the series in order, this is a harder call.

What should be easy for anyone is to agree that together, Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood represented the AC series reaching its full potential. Ezio continues to be the best protagonist the series has seen to date. Renaissance Italy likewise is the ideal setting for both AC’s vertical and horizontal platforming elements and its shadowy-conspiracy/secret-history plotline. As a franchise, Assassin’s Creed really launched the parkour/open-world exploration genre, and Brotherhood was the first game where every single element of what that genre could be came together. Other more recent games have been tons of fun (Black Flag and Syndicate are I think highlights), but these two games are the reason this series is so iconic.

4. Might and Magic VI: The same problem posed by AC2 versus Brotherhood emerges with Might and Magic VI and VII—except here, I did play them in order. Like the previous entry, I do think that VII ultimately improves upon the formula set out in Might and Magic VI. It’s more versatile, has more replay value, a touch more balanced (and that’s not getting into ArcoMage) … all in all, probably a better technical game.

But Might and Magic VI is for me iconic—it may well be the first RPG I’ve ever truly loved (and given the way this list is stacked in that direction, that’s saying a lot). Virtually all the things that characterize what I love in games today, it had in at least skeletal form. Open world exploration? Check: It was the first game where I felt like I was a true pathfinder—meticulously crawling over every corner of the map to find each obscure bandit’s cave and goblin fortress. To this day I still have the lay of the land in Enroth basically memorized. Overly detailed worldbuilding text to read? Absolutely: my obsessive-streak came out in reading every single artifact description, conversational option, and quest backgrounder (it is canon that Enroth, and the entire planet it resides upon, was blown up in a magical explosion—a fact I’m still resentful towards 3DO for long after it disappeared into bankruptcy). Slight genre-bending? The splash of Sci-Fi onto the fantasy setting was delightful to discover for someone who had never played any of the prior entries in the series. And some of the music—well, the White Cap theme is a thing of beauty, and on my computer “Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ” is still listed as “Church Dungeon Music.”

3. Heroes of Might and Magic III: If comparing earlier, more revolutionary games against newer more polished ones presents a problem in the Assassin’s Creed and Might and Magic series, it presents no trouble at all in Heroes of Might & Magic. That’s because the third installation in the series both represented a huge jump forward from what came before and is unquestionably the best entry in the overall sequence.

Sure, some of the expansions are a bit goofy, but they still work—sharpshooters and enchanters are massively overpowered, but they’re generally used in missions that would otherwise be impossible. But the main campaign is fabulous—a surprisingly intricate and interwoven plot that bridges Might and Magic VI and VII compliments outstanding strategy gameplay. And that doesn’t even get into the acre of standalone maps provided, plus countless more available on the web thanks to a map editor so intuitive, even I can use it (I’m terrible with map editors).

As a result of all of this, Heroes III is maybe the only game on this list that can compete with N++ regarding infinite replayability. This is fortunate, because—given the fact that Heroes III was a full-budget release and was not supposed to be “simple”—it ages incredibly well. Even the graphics hold up (no need for that remastered remake—which doesn’t even include the expansions!).

2. Witcher III: As you may have noticed, this list has a strong bias towards RPGs. My preference is toward “Western” RPGs (which have a go-anywhere/do-anything exploration mentality) compared to “Japanese” RPGs (which are more linear and story-driven), but Witcher III does an incredible job of synthesizing the best of both. It has a huge open world to explore, one that feels alive and dynamic—but there is also an incredibly rich story filled with deep, well-written characters (of which Geralt—the player character—is but one).

Gameplay-wise, Witcher III really hits the perfect balance. I simultaneously felt like the biggest bad-ass in the room, but also like a single slip in concentration or bit of overconfidence and my corpse would unceremoniously end up at the bottom of whatever cave I was in. But Witcher III particularly stands out in how it subverts certain common RPG tropes. You are a hero, but you’re not particularly well-liked. You’re a powerful warrior, but you’re still ultimately treated as a pawn in larger political machinations. Your interventions do not always save the day, and sometimes don’t even make things better. If a mission starts with a villager worrying that their beloved has gone missing, nine times out of ten that person has been devoured by a monster well before you ever get there. While many games claim to place the hero in difficult moral dilemmas, Witcher III is a rare case of following through (some games might give you the choice to let a trio of witches eat a group of kids whom you recently played hide-and-seek with, but few make it so that might actually be the more moral of the options in front of you). There’s even a quest where you help a knight rescue a lady in distress from a curse, then lecture him that he’s not entitled to her romantic attention as a reward (talk about a timely intervention in the video game genre!). Over and over again, the game reinforces the message that being really powerful and doing “the right thing” isn’t enough to fix a fundamentally broken system.

Most impressive is the emotional impact that Witcher III dishes out. Sometimes this is a result of rich character development that pays off over the course of the entire game (as in “The Last Wish” quest). But sometimes it shows up in even relatively minor sidequests—the epilogue of the “Black Pearl” quest was one of the more brutal emotional gut-punches I’ve experienced in a video game. Ultimately, this was a game where one always felt like each character was a person—they were imperfect, they had their own interests, hopes, dreams, strengths and foibles, and while you were a little better with a sword and gifted with some preternatural abilities, you were still only one player in a much bigger narrative. As a result, Witcher III might well be, in my estimation, the perfect RPG.

Oh, and Gwent is ludicrously addictive. Let’s not forget that.

1. TIE Fighter: I don’t think this list has a particularly “modern” bias. Still, there’s something impressive about the number one game on this list also being the oldest by some measure. TIE Fighter originally came out in 1994, and the definitive Collector’s Edition was released in 1995. It is, to this day, one of the best games ever made. And that’s not a retrospective assessment. Star Wars: Tie Fighter holds up even played right now.

For starters, it is one of the few elements of the Star Wars universe to get the Empire right. I’m not saying that the Empire is the real protagonist of the series. I am saying that they wouldn’t view themselves as evil—as much as naming spacecraft “Executor” and “Death Star” might suggest otherwise. TIE Fighter is quite self-assured in presenting you as being a force for law and order in the galaxy, battling not just seditious rebels but pirates, smugglers, and other anarchic forces that threaten to tear civilized life apart.

Let’s start with something often overlooked in TIE Fighter: the music. It’s probably the only context that the phrase “kick-ass MIDI soundtrack” makes sense. But that’s not even the half of it. The iMuse system dynamically and seamlessly arranges the musical cues to reflect what’s going on around you in the mission—you can literally follow important mission updates (e.g., a wingman being shot down, or reinforcements arriving) simply by the way the melody shifts. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anything quite like it since. To this day, the number that accompanies an incoming enemy capital ship fills me with exhilarated dread.

Gameplay-wise, TIE Fighter is almost shockingly rich. The core mission requirements are challenging, but by no means out of reach. But embedded in each level are a series of secondary and secret bonus objectives. These unlock a parallel plot of the Emperor’s Secret Order—but always present a brutal risk/reward calculus. That’s not unrelated to the fact that you’re often flying, well, TIE fighters (not noted for their durability)—but the challenge extends well beyond physical peril. TIE Fighter actually gives you an “invincibility” option if you want it, and yet even with it on some of the later missions and bonus objectives will strain every piloting skill you’ve ever developed.

Most importantly, the secret objectives usually are more involved than “blow up everything in sight.” They reward initiative and exploration. Maybe your primary mission objective is to destroy a rebel space station. But just before it goes down, you spot an escape shuttle fleeing the station. Take it out? Maybe—but maybe the occupants are VIPs best taken alive. So you switch to ion cannons and disable it for capture. Yet that extra time you just spent has given the rebels enough breathing room to summon reinforcements—now an enemy cruiser is bearing down on you. Take out its missile launchers and clear path for bombers while praying that your own Star Destroyer will arrive soon to back you up. All on the fly. All while dogfighting starfighters, dodging mines, giving your wingmen orders … it’s insanely, beautifully chaotic.

Did I mention this is all happening in 1995? 90% of games released today don’t have that kind of depth or spontaneity. In terms of playability, replayability, and just plain fun, TIE Fighter stands alone, and unchallenged.

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