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The following games have a few things in common:

  • None of them expect you to read their manuals. Figuring out how to interact with the game is a natural part of gameplay experience that the designers build the game around, and help tutor you in it interactively. (possible exception: Quest for Glory IV, just because of the number of commands)
  • They've all proven influential in developing a style or genre that's been imitated by others
  • Four of them are PC games, five of them feature silent protagonists, six of them are in a fantasy/sci-fi setting, four are heavy on plot and five are heavy on puzzles
  • They all represent different genres of gaming

What this list does not include:

  • Puzzle games (ala Tetris), racing/sports/fighting games, massively multiplayer games.


The countdown:

#7: Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

Supposedly, by 1990, Mario was already better known than Mickey Mouse. A pixilated plumber with the unusual ability to jump several times his height in a video game was better known than a cartoon icon that had lasted over half a century. Interactive entertainment was in. Games meant competition, challenges, and a sense of adventure where you weren't just watching some character take part in a story, you were taking on that role for yourself. Mario's become iconic for a video game generation as well as a certain style of platform gameplay. But this particular award goes to a sister series to the Mario games that was begun at around the same time, the Zelda games.

The series takes its title from a typically reckless princess who spends most of her time getting kidnapped or otherwise subdued by the forces of evil, thus inspiring our plucky hero to pursue and rescue her by battling through a series of dungeons filled with puzzles and bosses, all leading up to an anti-climactic credit sequence. The plot could be summarized on the back of a B-movie ticket, but it's the gameplay which really makes the series stand out.

This particular game is notable for bringing the series into a 3D environment, losing nothing in the translation and taking full advantage of the additional opportunities that environment affords. Gameplay consists of completing minor sidequests and hunting for hidden objects all over the game's world, battling new types of monsters by discovering some new technique or item in an area, and solving maze-like dungeons by completing puzzles and navigating three-dimensional worlds.

The game is filled with interesting sidequests and allows the player to gradually progress into the role of a hero, gaining new abilities and technique which open up new styles of gameplay. You can keep exploring the world for a long time without finding everything. In short, it roxorz.

#6: Super Mario Galaxy

Nintendo on the whole has had a lot of success transitioning its properties into 3D, from Metroid, to Zelda, to Mario. The Mario series has undergone something of an identity crisis in the process however. The classic 2D Mario games were all obstacle courses, where the challenge was to reach the end of the level and avoid traps and enemies along the way. When Mario made the leap to 3d, his world was re-imagined as being based around non-linear exploration. Rather than a race with a timer, you have an open field where he could run off in any direction and do tasks as he pleased, even being forced to search all the corner's of a level for collectibles in some cases.

Super Mario Galaxy takes Mario platforming back to its roots, and gives us a Mario game based upon the classic platformer style of finding a way to stay alive until you reach your goal. There are bosses, alternate rounds to take, and 3D exploration to be done to be sure, but the basic structure of the game is more about progressing from point to point than unlimited exploration. The game's graphical style currently represents the peak of what's been shown on the Wii, and the game's most entertaining innovations come from the topsy-turvy gameplay involving tricks of gravity, running around underneath planetoids and flinging yourself into brief orbit around them with a long jump.

Why this game gets a mention over the classic Marios is a bit arbitrary: Mario 1 was the most innovative for the genre but has painfully slippery controls today, Mario 3 is an excellent game for what it is although the challenge is so high that it's prone to be skipped with P-Wings and warps, and Super Mario World is a lot of fun but on the easy side. They're all classics, but Super Mario Galaxy accomplishes the feat of making Mario as fun as you would expect it to be in three dimensions.


#5: Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness

This is the oldest game on the list, with its code cranked out in 1993, when two-dimensional graphics were hip and gaming was even more of an obscure hobby than it is today. It also represents the forgotten genre of adventure games, a style of gaming that doesn't require any feats of dexterity with a controller or well-honed twitch reflexes, just a good memory and the ability to gradually work through a series of puzzles. Anyone who knows how to drag and drop icons on Windows can pick up and play an adventure game at their own pace, it's simply a matter of being able to explore its world and work through its challenges on their own terms.

The world explored in this game is extremely small compared to the others, but this game is remarkable due to its depth and detail in its storytelling. The game can played from four different perspectives, with each class of hero having to face the challenges of the world in a different way. The game's style is marked by a quirky sense of humor, with almost every object or interaction in the game lending itself to some witty narration. But the finest aspect of the game is its storytelling--you find yourself transported into a strange valley by forces unknown, and left to find out for yourself who wants you there, what you're supposed to do there, and what everyone living there is so afraid of.

Conversations with other characters, journals and diaries you come across, and bits of gypsy fortune-telling help provide clues to the mystery. The game also operated on a real-time system, with day fading into night and some events happening on specific days. The chief fun in the game comes from exploring the world and unraveling the story, and there are a few different ways events can play out dependent upon your actions.


#4: Starcraft

Every other game on this list is here because it delivers a satisfying, in-depth single-player experience; one that you can return to later and get something fresh out of it. Every other game on this list is a linear sweep through a series of challenges, taken on in isolation and completed for a sense of personal satisfaction. Starcraft is here because it's a game you play with other people.

The single-player missions have you waging a military campaign on behalf of each of three races (two alien and one human), battling it out for interstellar bragging rights. You see the same set of events unfold from a variety of different perspectives and play host to a series of shaky alliances and backstabbing plots that make war the charming spectator sport it has been for centuries. But the reason this game is still being played eight years later, despite countless quantum leaps in technology, is because of the open-ended and complex multiplayer experience it offers.

Starcraft is a game of strategy. You build armies, pursue resources, and invest in the technology available to help your troops fight. It's lasted this long for a variety of reasons, chief among which is that its gameplay is designed so there is no one dominant strategy to winning. The game is played with three highly disparate races with unique units and skills, but none of them can be argued to dominate. Despite a wide variety of tactics and strategies available to you, if you know what strategy your opponent is going to use, you can beat them. Winning becomes a question of out-thinking and out-smarting your opponent rather than just gaming the system, and the sheer variety in the gameplay makes it unpredictable to all but the nerdiest of players.


#3: Max Payne 2: The fall of Max Payne

"They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led up to this point. I released my finger from the trigger. And then it was all over."

The previous quote is exactly the sort of hard-hitting, gritty melodrama fans of the Max Payne series have come to expect from their eternally angsty protagonist. Bursts of frenzied gameplay are merged with sardonically narrated graphic novel scenes to create something that I think is way cool. The game has a film noir feel to it with femme fatales, tortured anti-heroes, and clever quips throughout. The story is gradually conveyed to the user through stylish graphic novel scenes, all with the helpful narration of our hero to put things in perspective.

"The cops arrived, sirens singing in the off-key harmony of a manic-depressive choir..... The men in blue had come and gone. They had decorated the place with chalk outlines and tied it together with yellow tape."

How can you not love that stuff? The game is worth playing for the story itself and the gradual revelations it entails. The action features a matrix-inspired bullet-time where our plucky hero can slow down the flow of time to dodge bullets and gain the edge in otherwise impossible situations. The enemies and incidental characters in the game can be found conversing and joking when you're not around, discussing action movies or commenting on the main characters of the story. It's a short but intense game, and moves quickly enough to avoid being repetitive. With one final quote:

"Firing a gun is a binary choice. You either pull the trigger or you don't. As surely as the bullet rips through the victim's flesh, organ and bone, it shatters the image of the man who presses the trigger."

#2: Chrono Trigger

With the exception of Starcraft, you'll notice that most of the other games on this list are suffixed by numerals, numbers, and subtitles indicating their placement in a franchise of games. Most of the other games were developed in an established style by an experienced team, taking their best ideas from their previous work and putting everything into the title they didn't get a chance to do before. And while, like Starcraft, this game was made by an established company with a lot of experience in the genre, Chrono Trigger represents a unique fusion of developers and artists in different fields coming together to make what is still one of the best games ever.

The game's story is a mix of science fiction and fantasy. A teleportation experiment sends you into the past where one of your friends is mistaken for a queen, and after you've straightened out that whole mess and stood trial on a kidnapping charge, your party travels through time again to find itself in an apocalyptic future. The focus of the game is tracking down exactly what caused that dismal fate, and finding a way to prevent it, skipping up and down the timestream while recruiting allies and setting events into motion.

Chrono Trigger was developed with music from the composer of the final fantasy series, character design from the creator of the dragonball anime, and a game and scenario design from some more veterans in the field. One of the most unique features about it which adds to the replayability is that the characters you control are technically capable of doing what it takes to save the world at almost any point in the game's storyline, and there are thirteen different endings with variations depending upon when you choose to step in. Multiple "what-if" scenarios help round out the game's story by showing what could have happened if things had progressed a different way.

With a rich plot, enjoyable characters, and a gameplay experience designed for simple fun rather than competitiveness, this game is everything an RPG should be. If you play one video game this lifetime, make it this one. 


#1: Half-Life 2

Like its predecessor, Half-Life 2 is responsible not only for creating one of the most critically well-received games of all time, but developing an engine that has created countless spin-off titles and mods that have shown the potential of its unique brand of physics. The ur-Source title takes the cake for amazing gameplay, and the finest example of immersive storytelling I've seen. The game never breaks away for a cutscene or forces you to sit idly by while some narrator explains the story to you. Every part of the game's story you're allowed to experience and participate in for yourself. At one point in the game you have to outrun a helicopter on an airboat that you have no way of fighting off, until you reach the point where you acquire a new weapon which will allow you to turn around and fight. You have to figure out how to organize a bunch of alien critters into attacking a base, and lead an army in fighting off a bunch of three story tall armored robots.

The story doesn't needed to be narrated to you at any point, since it all happens to you. The game starts with you as an unwilling passenger on a combine train, then as a hunted man on the run, to a resistance leader by the end. The game is amazingly immersive, detailed, and open--people can be interacted with, and news broadcasts are periodically put out by the game's villains. The gameplay is all fast-paced, and just feels like a tech demo of all the coolest things they could figure out to do with their technologies. You race vehicles up ramps and crash them through glass windows, get a gun which can pick up and lift chairs, boxes, and saw blades and throw them as weapons, and every confrontation in the game has a few different ways you can tackle it, if you're looking for a smart way to deal with the obstacle.

This game is a step up in a lot of ways, and it really demonstrates how all the cool things you can do graphically with a game's engine can translate into impressive gameplay and a cool storytelling experience. It's accomplished a lot, and it just shows that there's a lot more that can still be done.