I promise this will be the last list for a while, but they’re easy to write and usually spark arguments (which means sweet, sweet comments). I’ve listed my top three games (with one or two honorable mentions) in each genre, irrespective of platform. The criteria:
1) One game per franchise, otherwise platformer would be dominated solely by Mario games and JRPGs solely dominated by Final Fantasy.
2) I have to have played and FINISHED the game (unless the concept is unique).
In no particular order:
Real Time Strategy
Honorable mention: Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne (PC) — I limited myself to only one Blizzard RTS. This would probably be #3 if I didn’t.
Honorable Mention: Command and Conquer (PC) — See above. Also has sentimental value, as it was the first RTS I ever played.
3. Rise of Nations (PC) — What RoN did so well was combine a turn-based strategy game with a solid RTS. I think the Real Time Strategy portion is actually superior, and advancing through the ages gives you a real thrill as you see units go from slings to bows and arrows to muskets to eventually automatic rifles.
2. Command and Conquer: Red Alert (PC) — Combine brilliant cutscenes with off-the-wall humor and you’ve got a good start. It’s also a superb strategy game, as, particularly in the first installment, you need to manage land, sea, and air units, something only RoN and Warcraft II also make you do with consistency. My historical preferences probably indicate why I like Red Alert better than the main franchise. Red Alert 2 and Yuri’s Revenge were also solid entrants, but the original remains the best. I never quite finished Red Alert 3 (finished the Allied and Soviet campaigns, but not the Japanese), but they did too much too fast, making too many wholesale changes for my taste, although the hammy acting was as great as ever.
1. Starcraft: Brood War (PC) — I’m counting this as original + expansion. Very few games hold up this long. It’s still hugely popular, even with a sequel finally being released, even though Brood War is more than ten years old. The campaigns are very well done, if a bit unfair (hello, last three Zerg missions in Brood War!) at times, and it’s the best multi-player RTS I’ve ever played. Brood War in particular is a little too serious at times, but Starcraft as a franchise has always been a bit less goofy than other RTS games. If you haven’t played this, you seriously should.
Honorable Mention: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (PC) — A unique unit creation system, the first appearance of the civics, and the awesome voting procedures that let you use global warming as a weapon (what, no pressure domes? too bad). Only very superficially a Civilization type game — really deserves to be treated separately on its own merits.
Honorable Mention: Medieval II: Total War (PC) — This is properly turn based strategy, since the turn-to-turn stuff matters more, in the long run, than the battles. You can also skip the battles, which further convinces me it belongs here. I still think this is the best of the franchise, although Rome: TW comes close. What I can’t stand is not being able to pick whatever power you want.
3. Lords of the Realm II (PC) — The great grand-daddy of the Total War series, but gets more points for the simplicity that relies more on strategy than technology. Sieges are a thrill to play, and set piece battles can be even better, although they are far less frequent. The music was awesome. I really disliked what they did with the sequel — I never played it because they changed too much. I’ve also found the problem with the TW series is it is too complex to be readily accessible to a new player quickly, but too simple to be as deep as the next two entries on this list.
2. Civilization IV (plus expansions) (PC) — Many purists still think Civ II is the best — and I can’t say I argue much with them. However, Civ IV does add just enough to help it leapfrog it’s ancestors, including the strategic resource system, religion, the civics and voting systems (stolen from Alpha Centauri), and Great Leaders. Civ III was broken — a nice attempt but it ultimately fell short (resources were too critical to success, rather than a comparative advantage). Haven’t played Civ V yet — that’ll wait until my desktop is fixed and I have some spare cash.
1. Europa Universalis III (plus expansions) (PC) — I wrote a whole column just on this game, but it’s better than Civilization at simulating history, while giving you more to do on each turn so you aren’t just sitting there clicking “End Turn.” I will say it is VERY difficult to pick it up without a thorough reading of the manual, since the tutorials are buggy as hell. I also recommend the excellent Paradox Interactive Forums. If you are willing to invest two or three hours into the game, you’ll be surprised how much time it’ll suck up.
Honorable Mention: Duke Nukem (PC) — Unlike the other games on this list, a bit more adult and a great sense of humor. It’s been very dated over the years, but I for one am THRILLED we’re getting a Duke Nukem Forever (finally).
Honorable Mention: Commander Keen (PC) — Absolutely bizarre. You have a football helmet and a pogo stick, and that’s it. Kind of unwieldy — you never quite know what you’re doing or why.
3. Mega Man X (PC) — I’m a big fan of the non-X series of Mega Man games, but this game actually had a plot, and a somewhat poignant one at that. His new abilities make the game feel more fluid and add unique challenges. Also, for once, it’s not Dr. Wily!!! I should note I never got a chance to play any of the later Mega Man X titles, since I never had an SNES and emulators handled them badly. By the time Mega Man X collection came out, I had a non-backwards compatible PS 3. Damn and blast!
2. Donkey Kong Land (GameBoy) — I did play Donkey Kong Country, but never had a chance to finish it because I didn’t have an SNES, and once again, it emulated poorly. In most Nintendo platformers (looking at you, Mario), the character is kind of a wimp and can’t take or dish out much punishment. Not DK. The different creatures add more spice, and Diddy and DK play very differently.
1. Super Mario World (SNES) — Super Mario Bros. 3 would probably 1a, but I limited myself to one game per franchise, and SMW is just a hair better, much deeper, and Yoshi is awesome.
Sandbox (Open World) games
Honorable Mention: Gun (PC) — Sure, nobody remembers it (or liked it), but I thought it was very smooth and had some great voice actors. A bit too easy, and not much to do once you finished the game, but very solid.
Honorable Mention: Grand Theft Auto IV (and expansions) — What? GTA isn’t in the top three? Look, I loved Grand Theft Auto and have played all of them multiple times (except GTA I, GTA: London, and the ones for PSP), but they’ve just been surpassed by better games later on (and one earlier). GTA IV of the bunch is the best at giving you non-mission stuff to do, but I HATE races and too much of GTA is based on that. Other versions are better at some things (San Andreas had more character development and a bigger world, the side missions in Vice City were better, GTA III… well, it was good at the time), but the replayability is only there if you missed something or you like the story (which I do, no question).
3. Freelancer (PC) — Probably the only real open world game that takes place in space. We were promised more, but what we got was pretty damn sweet. The galaxy is huge, and you can go anywhere you want. Don’t like fighting? Trade supplies from one planet to another with a freighter. You can be a bounty hunter, attack enemy installations. You can even fight the police and gain respect from criminals. The RPG element (buying, customizing, and upgrading your ship) really adds a lot to this. Most planets do seem eerily similar, but the planets are kind of just there to buy new stuff and advance the story.
2. InFamous (PS 3) — If I were going to do another top 10 PS 3 list, this would now make my top five. That’s how awesome it is. A really solid story line with almost complete freedom. Each power makes the game that much more exciting — looking forward to the “evil” playthrough.
1. Red Dead Redemption (PS 3) — Here’s why I couldn’t justify adding GTA to this list. Red Dead Redemption was the first game I played that distracted me with fun side missions, not like finding stupid hidden packages. I played poker alone for three hours as soon as I could. The story is awesome, and I’m looking forward to the Undead Nightmare DLC. Should be a hoot.
JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) — If you have no control over your character apart from leveling him and possibly naming him, it’s a JRPG.
Honorable Mention — Super Mario RPG (SNES) — An awesome game that combines humor and quality story telling. Many games of this style take themselves WAY too seriously (hello, Final Fantasy X-2). Really good stuff.
Honorable Mention — Dragon Warrior (NES) — The first one I ever played — I can’t stand it now, because you have to waste so much time leveling, but this game drew me to the genre, so I have to give it some credit.
3. Anachronox (PC) — A game with an awesome sense of humor that was surprisingly fun. I bought this game solely because it was on the back of the Deus Ex box — I have yet to regret it. Really, really mad there was never a sequel. Not hugely challenging, for the most part, but a great score.
2. Final Fantasy VII (PC) — Very tricky to pick just one. Final Fantasy VI is an absolutely awesome experience, but I’ve never gotten through it more than once. I hate having to take time out from the story to level, and levels don’t seem to be a big deal as far as getting new powers. Final Fantasy I technically doesn’t qualify, since you make all your own characters (if predefined). Final Fantasy IV and V had their moments, but were overall not all that great. Final Fantasy VIII had the god-awful draw system, which was a thousand times WORSE than leveling, Final Fantasy IX, while good, was not terribly memorable, and Final Fantasy X was mediocre apart from Blitzball. Never finished Final Fantasy X-2 and haven’t played any since then. Still, credit where credit is due. Good franchise overall, none I actively hated apart from X-2.
1. Chrono Trigger (SNES) — Absolutely amazing game. Really thought about picking Chrono Cross — I bought the soundtrack and the ending made me weep like a small child, but Chrono Trigger is better from start to finish. You can avoid enemies (although you probably shouldn’t), and the dual attacks are really well done. Another great sound track. The New Game + makes it a joy to replay.
Honorable Mention — NBA Jam: Tournament Edition (Genesis) — Killed an entire weekend playing this game. Still my favorite basketball game of all time, thrilled there’s a PS 3 version coming out.
Honorable Mention — Mega Man Soccer (SNES) — I hate metric football with the passion of a thousand suns — but this game was fun as hell, particularly building your team. Good stuff.
3. WWE Smackdown vs RAW 2010 (PS 3)– I’m a huge wrestling fan and a huge video game fan, what’s not to love? You could put NHL 2001 in this spot as well, since that was the last entry in the NHL series I played a lot of, but not only is this a great wrestling game, it’s really accessible, and there’s never a bad time to crack a chair over a person’s head.
2. High Heat 2001 (PC) — Other baseball games have better graphics, some have more developed financial models. This game was the perfect combination of generating great stats, gameplay, and a ridiculously deep farm system (down to rookie ball!!) The franchise completely tanked after this. MLB: The Show is nice, but it just takes too long to get through a season.
1. Madden NFL 11 (PS 3) — My all-time record is still 20+ seasons of Madden 2004 for PS 2, but I’m a big enough man to admit that this game blows that one out of the water. I enjoyed Blitz: The League and (especially) Mutant League Football, but Madden has been getting better every year.
Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG — The difference, again, is that you need to create a main character, choose a class, and the game is different depending on which one you choose. Other party members typically are pre-generated, but you may even have some say over which members learn which skills.
Honorable Mention — Neverwinter Nights (PC) — I’ve never felt like I had more choices, all of which worked really well, in an RPG. The story was not particularly compelling, but just watching your character (and party) grow was a thrill.
Honorable Mention — Baldur’s Gate (PC) — This game took me six months to complete. When I did win, I had a huge sense of accomplishment — the ending was a huge surprise. However, what I didn’t like was the sequel (or the awful expansion packs — Hey look, EVERYBODY is a werewolf!!), because they don’t build on the original, which was great.
3. Fable (PC) — I’m always a fan of interesting ideas, and Fable is an interesting idea. Your character grows as a person, gets older, and the world changes because of decisions you make. The combat is a bit simple, and little of the game is challenging, particularly as you gain more spells. However, there is a lot to do, and the story is very fair, if not superb.
2. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC) — Absolutely awesome game. The characters are all very interesting (gotta love HK-47), and each planet feels different. The story is typical Star Wars, that is to say brilliant, and making it even more interesting is the HUGE twist that occurs at the ending. Some Star Wars games are underwhelming (hello, Dark Forces), some are awful (Battlefield Commander), but this one is perfect. The sequel is good, but it’s not as good. Not as many of the characters are memorable, and the story, while still solid, isn’t as brilliant.
1. Dragon Age: Origins (PC) — In any other world, KOTOR would be #1 in this category, but Dragon Age does everything better. Four different major endings (plus dozens of minor differences), and the game is winnable with any class. The characters are extremely well developed, particularly Morrigan and Alistair, but the other characters have their own challenges. They all feel human (or dwarven or elven) and the conversation is wonderful. The only character that feels really out of place and badly developed is (spoiler alert) Loghain [mouse over to see the name], who just seemed like a last-minute add on. Brilliant from top to bottom, minus a couple of technical problems (that really should be patched — DO NOT PATCH THIS GAME IF YOU BUY IT, since it adds a whole lot of bugs that make the game crash — unless 1.04 is available).
First Person Shooter
Honorable Mention — Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold (PC) — The first shooter after Wolfenstein 3D I ever played, and it was different enough to really stand out, in my view. New and different weapons, really solid visuals.
Honorable Mention — Every id Software First Person Shooter (PC) — They’re all dated, but among my favorites were Doom and Doom II, Quake and Quake II, Heretic, and Hexen. Only the latter two were truly different, and Hexen in particular was memorable, but they’ve also all been surpassed.
3. BioShock (PS 3) and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (PC) — Both excellent games I like for different reasons. Both are about avoiding combat and conserving ammunition. Both have a great atmosphere (if I were farther along in it, Dead Space would also be a candidate for this spot). Each has a unique mechanic — BioShock has the plasmids and CoC has the entire insanity system. I don’t like ties in lists, but I really had a hard time choosing one over the other.
2. Thief: The Dark Project (PC) — No, it’s not a shooter. However, it’s so unique and different that it needs to be recognized. At this point, few other games rewarded the player for stealth and avoiding confrontation. The game was hard, but not unreasonably so (except the stupid zombies). Absolute pure genius by Looking Glass Software.
1. Deus Ex (PC) — Seriously, anybody who has been on this site for a couple of years knew this game would find its way here. For a short period, it was my favorite PC game of all time (after StarCraft). There’s so many ways to accomplish your goals and the story, although not necessarily shocking, is very well executed. Like Thief, you could theoretically play the entire game and only kill a handful of people, or go in guns blazing and take down everyone that gets in your way. Seriously, if you own a computer and haven’t played it, you have denied yourself one of the greatest games of all time.
Third Person Shooter(ish)
Honorable Mention — Star Wars: Jedi Knight (the expansion for the first one, the second and third one) (PC) — Terrific games that only get better with replays. The lightsabers work perfectly, and force powers get more creative as time goes on. The only reason I hate the first one is because the pre-light saber levels are borderline retarded — the only reason the second one gets mentioned is because when you do get your saber, it’s a truly awesome experience.
Honorable Mention — Hitman: Codename 47 (PC) — A unique concept that didn’t quite reach its maximum potential. The levels were short, but frustrating, with no way to save during a game. I never finished this game (or Thief, for that matter), but I recognize great concepts when I see them.
3. Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS 3) — Rarely have games felt so fluid. You have no superpowers, just sweet gadgets and detective mode (which is kind of a superpower, but not really). The plot is typical Batman fare, which is all to the good — this Batman is a little bit lighter than the Frank Miller Batman (Batman Begins and the Dark Knight), but not by much, and they do a great job of capturing the main villains. Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill, is absolutely perfect, and the rest of the cast is nearly as good. In a just world, all three of these games would be about equal.
2. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS 3) — I never thought much of the NES Metal Gear games, but I’ve loved every entry in the Metal Gear Solid series. Although the gameplay is terrific, it doesn’t feel quite as smooth as either Batman or the #1 game in this genre — there are occasional control problems that can really be frustrating. However, the story is poignant and epic, even if the “real” ending is confusing as all hell. It has been reported this will be the final game for the Solid Snake character — if so, he had a hell of a run.
1. Assassin’s Creed II (PS 3) — A brilliant (if convoluted) story and absolute perfection in controls. For some games (like MGS 4), I have to constantly remember which button does what — not here. Every button is totally logical. The original Assassin’s Creed is good, very good — but AC II is so much better in every way that there’s just no contest. The one black mark is difficulty — the AI will always attack you one at a time, unless there are archers.
Action-Adventure — Any game with lots of combat that doesn’t fit into the previous categories.
Honorable Mention — Star Tropics (NES) — Very well designed, combined puzzle solving and combat expertly.
Honorable Mention — Most Disney games for NES — Some are better than others (Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers and Ducktales stand out), but all were playable and most were fun. It’s sad that after the NES, most of these fell flat on their asses (although I’ve heard very good things about Kingdom Hearts).
3. Diablo II (PC) — The easiest interface in the world, but a game with a surprisingly rich back story. Much darker than any other Blizzard game — there’s comic relief, but you have to work REALLY hard for it (Farnham in the first one is absolutely brilliant). With the expansion pack, you have five character classes, and all of them can work, unlike the original game, where you usually had to be good at everything.
2. God of War Collection (PS 3) — I have not yet played the third installment and will not do so until I have completed the second. However, the first two were very good, even in if the puzzles in the first one were mind-numbingly hard (yeah, I mean the spinning column of spikes in Hades…) Like Diablo, not the most complex game in the world, but with a good to great (in places) storyline. The pacing in this game is much better; Diablo feels, oddly enough, too big and empty, and you have to play a level multiple times before you can really dominate.
1. Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past (SNES) — I wouldn’t forget you. Some of these games are harder to pick a genre for than others, but this absolutely needed a spot on this list. Pure genius. Accessible, good puzzles without being too hard, and it’s not pure button mashing (a claim you can make for the two others on this list).
Adventure Games — Must have little to no combat. Point-and-click adventures only! Last category, folks!
Honorable Mention — Simon the Sorcerer (PC) — Absolutely hilarious. You can miss items, which I absolutely hate in any game of this type, but well worth a play through or two for all that. A bit more adult than other games of this genre.
Honorable Mention — The Sierra Online series (PC) and LucasArts series (also PC) — King’s Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, even Space Quest — all of these were terrific games, but only one was worthy to make the top three. I haven’t played every game in every series, but those I have (to date: King’s Quest 5-7, Police Quest 4, Freddy Pharkas, Torin’s Passage) are all brilliant. Same could be said for the Lucas Arts series, including Sam & Max Hit the Road, the Monkey Island Series, Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, and the Dig. This series was more forgiving with items, but the puzzles were often harder. The Dig was particularly thorny in spots. Really, any game with these labels (except King’s Quest 8) is sure to be a winner.
3. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (PC) — I singled out this from the Sierra series as particularly awesome. The story is absolute genius and much more dark (than most of the Sierra games (although not lacking in humor). I think this is Tim Curry’s finest role ever. Seriously. I’m not joking. The lack of Tim Curry kept me from playing the sequels.
2. Myst (PC) — I’m including Riven here, but none of the others because I haven’t played them. I thought after this game that adventure games were saved — I was horribly, horribly wrong. It was so unique that nothing else would ever touch it. The puzzles are very tricky, particularly the bloody [insert billions of expletives] spaceship puzzle. The story is surprisingly rich — I recommend the novels for those who can find them. Few games master the idea of “hey, explore, do what you like” better than this one. Time is almost never an issue, and it looks gorgeous.
1. The Journeyman Project Turbo (PC) — Turbo because it’s faster! When I got my very first computer (of my very own!) this game was included. I was hooked immediately. It has time travel AND dinosaurs AND robots (the robots time travel, but the dinosaurs do not). Gorgeous game, with ingenious puzzles and a wonderful story. Awesome soundtrack. I beat this game at least 25 times — my best time being under two hours — but I kept playing it until I could no longer run it, which was a sad, sad day. The sequels are okay — Buried in Time has some good moments, the third one is kind of stupid.
That’s all! Enjoy!