Monday, May 9, 2016

My Top Ten Favorite Video Games of All Time...

Tomorrow will see the highly anticipated release of Naughty Dog's fourth Uncharted entry, so I thought now would be an appropriate time to say...

I love video games!
There's not a moment I can remember when I wasn't a gamer. Ever since my early days playing my SNES, I've played through multiple generations of games, played on a great number of shiny new systems, stared in awe at new technological innovations, watched the rise and fall of many prominent developers both mainstream and independent, and I've loved every minute of it.

The medium has come a very long way in its evolution, growing from the bare bones story of a plumber jumping over an ape's barrels, and hostile marketing campaigns where Sega took shots at former competitor Nintendo, mocking the SNES with the "Blast Processing" of the Genesis, and more and more the medium has crafted epic and cinematic tales that rival even Hollywood. It's actually funny how industry insiders and fans across the world try to debate whether cinema or television is the dominant artform, as I feel video games have managed to overtake both. This is largely due to one reason; the choice that games offer, and the further investment. It's one thing to watch a great movie or TV show and feel powerful emotions onscreen, but it's another thing entirely to take those same emotional responses, and enhance them by allowing you control of the situation, letting you experience all of those grand moments right alongside the playable characters.

But even then, the medium still has a long way to go. In recent years, a fierce debate has stirred up over whether video games can be considered high art. While many have embraced them for their powerful innovations and growing emphasis on thematics, others still see them as little more than time wasters. Or there are those who take all of the wrong examples from what the medium can do, and blow it out of proportion. Series like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty in particular have become all too easy targets to attack whenever fierce anti-gaming activists (including disgraced former lawyer Jack Thompson) need an example of how poisonous the medium is, and the violence they instill in youths. Right, because movies or TV or even the actions of older generations wouldn't have the same exact impact, and series like GTA and COD are only small pieces of the medium's bigger picture, which has developed into more thoughtful and powerful directions than those people would give it credit for.

The format may not always be perfect, and much like movies and TV shows, it will always have its share of utter failures and condescending efforts aimed at the lowest common denominator, but just like movies and TV shows, the good of what it can do will always outweigh the bad. The format continues to evolve every day, with more and more games paying greater attention to deep storytelling with great commentary. Whether or not you think video games are high art, take your side because the argument isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

And so, with all that addressed, I'm going to count down my favorite video games of all time. It's quite a hard list to narrow down considering all of the fantastic games that are out there, and some reportedly excellent titles that I sadly haven't gotten around to yet. There's more that I'm likely to discover that may make it on this list someday, but as it is right now, this is as confident as I'll ever be. But before we get to the main event, here are my top 10 honorable mentions.

20: Portal 2
19: Star Fox 64
18: Red Dead Redemption
17. Super Smash Bros.: Melee
16: Perfect Dark
15: Bioshock
14: Metal Gear Solid
13: Journey
12: Banjo-Kazooie
11: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

And with all of those out of the way, without further ado, my top ten favorite video games of all time...

Number 10
Spyro 2: Ripto's Rage
(1999, Insomniac Games)
Nostalgia certainly played a huge part in this game's placement. While many considered Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64 the best 3D platformers of the late 90's, I always found myself gravitating more towards this game for a number of reasons. As one of the few who deeply dislikes the original Spyro the Dragon, this sequel's main victory in comparison was the amount of soul that it possessed, as well as a stronger sense of humor. It features some of the most stylized and varied world building I've seen in a platformer, taking influence from other item collection quests like Banjo, and spreading its many items and rewards out at a lively and quick pace. They all remain highly replayable, and Spyro himself still controls in a very satisfying way. It may not have much of a story to go with the gameplay, but that still doesn't take away from just what great fun it is.

Number 9

Bayonetta 2
(2014, Platinum Games)
The latest inclusion to join the ranks of my all time favorites, Bayonetta 2 took an already satisfying IP and gave it that extra shot of adrenaline it needed while also ironing out the flaws of the original game. A charming, sleek, stylish (much like its own main character in fact) hack and slash combat based game, Bayonetta 2's lightning fast gameplay and hugely satisfying combo system and Witch time mechanics allow for spectacular onscreen spectacle, making great use of using an enemy's own weapons against them, requiring you to dodge attacks at just the right moment to execute powerful counters, and in addition to removing all "Press A to not die" quicktime events that were the most annoying part of the first game, makes more varied use out of its gargantuan finishing moves. It's hilarious, overblown in all of the best ways, and the characters are all terrific. This whole game is THE reason to buy a Wii U.

Number 8

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
(2011, Bethesda Game Studios)
If I measured this list based on the amount of time spent during my first playthrough, then Skyrim would absolutely take the cake. I've already clocked nearly 150 hours into this game, and I've barely scratched the surface on what this game has to offer. Admittedly I'm not one who tends to play many RPG's, but the scale of Skyrim, as well as its addicting amount of side-quests ensures that there's always something new to discover when you place the disc in. Whether it be new caves with treasures, new characters and cities, new weapons, major quests, a multitude of items and lore, powerful enemies, or the game's plentiful amount of DLC,  this is a game that can keep you coming back for months on end. The fact that it features excellent combat and inventive use of magic ultimately becomes icing on the cake, as the game is built firmly around the spirit of adventure and exploration without a boring second going by.

Number 7
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
(2009, Naughty Dog)
Having been previously known for kid friendly platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter (Well, the latter *started out* kid friendly), it was a surprise to all when Naughty Dog decided to take on a globe-trotting blockbuster adventure game next, especially since it turned out to be quite good. However, even Drake's Fortune, as great as it was, didn't hold up when compared to Among Thieves. A loving ode to pulpy treasure adventures such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure, Uncharted 2 combines all of the thrilling adrenaline rush that set-pieces in games can deliver on with the endearing snark of a fun summer blockbuster. It's one of the most stunning video games I've ever played, making great use out of its exotic flavor in its sweeping vistas and some of the most unbelievable action sequences in gaming, from the opening cliffhanging train to a mountainside convoy straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also contributing to the charm are the plentiful and memorable characters, each of them hilarious and entertaining to watch, and each receiving at least one crowd-pleasing moment, none of which are better embodied than by lovable smart-aleck Nathan Drake. The game sets a standard for action that few have ever managed to match quite as well, and hopefully A Thief's End will be able to give this epic series the finale it deserves.

Number 6
Half-Life 2
(2004, Valve)
It's because of my discovery of Valve that I was able to get into the first-person-shooter genre, thanks to games like Left 4 Dead and Portal. While I've yet to experience the original Half-Life, that unfamiliarity still didn't hurt the enjoyment I felt from the sequel. A heavily atmospheric game that feels very akin to Children of Men (or maybe Children of Men feels akin to this), Half-Life 2 manages to transcend the ubiquity of the post-apocalyptic setting with a refreshing originality, always built upon disturbing mystery as you try to piece together your own reason for being thrust into such treacherous circumstances, and thrilling thanks to its expertly established set-pieces and shootouts. At times, it also becomes a terrifying experience as you find yourself trapped in foreboding and dangerous new territory, fending off the gruesome monsters that are attracted to human hosts like xenomorphs. It also acts as a great showcase for Valve's then groundbreaking Source engine, utilizing a wide array of lifelike physics and inventive puzzles, and some of the widest firepower selection since Perfect Dark. Ever since my first playthrough, it has remained my favorite FPS game I've ever played.

Number 5
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
(1995, Rareware)
The most nostalgic of all the games on this list, this sequel to Donkey Kong Country is the very first video game that I can ever remember playing. With then Nintendo-exclusive developer Rare having blown gamers' expectations out of the water with the original DKC, it wasn't long before the same team were hard at work on a follow-up, while also perfecting and refining Rare's signature "collectathon" staples. What's immediately more alluring about Diddy's Kong Quest is its greater variety of level themes, taking the series out of the jungle setting, and appropriately placing the adventure in a swashbuckling pirate setting.  This switch in atmosphere allows the developers a great freedom to go wild with their imagination, taking the player through icy caverns, beached and sunken ships, volcanic  lakes, murky swamps, and many more. All of them are challenging but fair, making great use out of the duo of Diddy and Dixie Kong (whose hair-twirl is a flawless gameplay addition) and the mini-games are given greater depth and value, making the 100% completion bonus feel more rewarding than its predecessor. Also, the soundtrack by David Wise is among the best I've ever heard. Honestly, the more and more it ages, the more I love and appreciate its high quality, to the point that I now regard it as the best game to come from the SNES.

Number 4
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
(1998, Nintendo)
An unquestionable masterpiece within one of the most beloved franchises of all time, Ocarina of Time is commonly regarded by gamers everywhere as the greatest video game of all time, and to this day is still influential to fantasy adventures everywhere. While it may not have been my personal number one, I can't deny that it's objectively the gold standard for what all games should strive to be. Taking the Zelda series out of its top-down 2D roots, Ocarina of Time successfully adapts all of the series' most iconic staples and gameplay tactics into 3D while adding on to them with new mechanics and touch ups. Key among this was the invention of lock-on targeting, allowing the player to keep enemies in their sights, therefore making combat more manageable as a result. The game also features a slew of terrific side-quests, mini-games, and collectibles to divert your attention when seeking for entertainment value outside the main quest of moving your way through dungeons, collecting new items and treasures, and facing off against intimidating bosses. While slightly dated by today's standards, it's remarkable just how gracefully this game has aged, and how endlessly replayable it is, putting all other adventure games before and since to shame with its pure perfection. Even the infamous Water Temple isn't enough to damage the impact it leaves.

Number 3

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
(2008, Kojima Productions)
Before games became more cinematic in scale, the inimitable Hideo Kojima forever pioneered and revolutionized storytelling in video games, soon taking his 1980's flagship franchise to new heights with 1998's Metal Gear Solid. Ten years after Solid Snake's legendary first step into 3D, Mr. Kojima pulled no punches when it came to concluding his iconic saga. While the stealth gameplay of the original trilogy were here on full display with new bells and whistles to complement them, as well as balancing them out with an even focus on gunplay and weapons customization, as well as featuring some of the greatest boss battles in gaming history, the greatest strength of the series has always been its deep storytelling. Funnily enough, while Kojima has said in the past that he doesn't consider games as art, his games have ironically contributed to the debate in their allegories of the corruption and widespread control of governmental branches, including insiders who see war as a means of continual business revenue, with a setting that doesn't feel too detached or fantastical from our own post 9/11 lifestyle. This is aided by the pitch perfect cast of characters, including  our disillusioned and hard-edged anti-hero Snake. With Kojima's epic direction, a seamlessly assembled voice over cast, and more than a few emotional gut punches, Guns of the Patriots is unrelentingly heavy and bleak for much of its total play time, before concluding with the ultimate feeling of satisfaction in the greatest ending of any video game ever. Here's to you, Solid Snake...

Number 2

Mass Effect 2/Mass Effect 3
(2010/2012, BioWare)
I know I'm cheating, but please do not ask me to choose one or the other. As far as I'm concerned, to separate one from the other would be a great disservice, as they both form one long, continuous story. Both of them have excellent qualities to their merit, as while Mass Effect 2 may be the more technically consistent game, Mass Effect 3 certainly has the higher highs. Essentially a mixture between Star Wars and Seven Samurai, these two sequels to the original Mass Effect (a great game done disservice by its repetitive planet exploration which feels like the same exact map with different color schemes) feature a greater depth of variety in planetary designs, as well as mission objectives to spice things up, balancing effortlessly between RPG elements and cover-based gunplay. But the real draw here is in the story, with the games taking the choice based capabilities with what video games can do to their fullest potential, developing your relationships with the characters in continually new and interesting routes, and each supporting player brimming with fantastic, fully-dimensional personality that ensures that there's never a dull moment speaking with them, including the delightful likes of Tali, Garrus, and Mordin. There's an almost infinite potential of what can be achieved in the game, based on how well you did at collecting necessary items and building loyalty with your shipmates, and while the final choices of Mass Effect 3 feel like a slight retrograde step back, not once does that ever diminish just how satisfying it feels to play through these games again and again.

Number 1
The Last of Us
(2013, Naughty Dog) 
Should this one really come as a surprise? It was difficult enough for Naughty Dog to create a game that would match the epic quality of the Uncharted trilogy let alone try to top it, and a game set within a bleak post-apocalyptic outbreak seemed to be the last thing that we would ever expect to see from a studio that normally specialized in bright and adventurous output. While a big gamble for the studio to bet their chips on, three years and just over 240 Game of the Year awards later, I think we can all say that we're glad they did. I've been on the game's bandwagon from the very beginning, and being one of only two video games I've ever reviewed on my blog, even after replaying the game several times, it has lost none of its initial power that it held for me on my very first playthrough. It's a game that not only proves that video games can be high art, but that they already are.

Much like its most obvious influence, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, what makes The Last of Us such a meaningful game is that it chooses to focus on the relationship between the two lead characters rather than dwell on the minute details of how the deadly infection that threw the planet into chaos came to be. It's in the relationship between Joel and Ellie where the game gets across most of its desperately needed heart, as the entire story hinges on how well we're able to connect with them. They're two very flawed and very vulnerable people coming from two very different worlds, with the middle-class Joel having been the victim of devastating heartbreak during the infection's initial inception, forced to adapt from holding onto a job and a life in the world that you and I know now, and in the twenty years since has become a violent and desperate fighter looking for something - anything at all - to live for, and yet refuses to let anyone connect with him in fear of experiencing that loss again. On the more upbeat side is Ellie, who unlike Joel knows virtually nothing about the world Joel used to live in, and having been born into this grim and unforgiving world has been forced to adapt and grow up far too soon. Yet in spite of all these things having been thrust onto her shoulders, as well as having adopted the vulgar vocabulary of a sailor, hers is the more initially sympathetic character because of her bright-eyed sense of wonder and innocence, and remaining that one thing that she really is at heart, an eccentric kid who simply doesn't know any better. It's that spirit that often leads to the few fleeting glimpses of joy, making those few laughs and smiles feel all the more meaningful in this harsh world. It's in the interaction between these two where the game is at its most soulful, continually developing the relationship into a powerful connection akin to father and daughter. While I'm sure that either of these characters would be strong enough on their own (especially Ellie), it's in the chemistry they share where both these two and we the players discover, while it's not always easy, these two need each other to survive.

A common theme I've brought up in this countdown has been that of "satisfaction", but what makes The Last of Us stand out amongst the crowd is that, while it does have its equal share of satisfying moments, the other side is a very depressing, but all too real plunge into the most animalistic and vicious sides of humanity. What makes the game such a powerful experience is in how these upsetting sights continually begin to wear down the two leads, and this approach is made very interesting in how Naughty Dog applies it to the two. Whereas Joel is clearly established as a man that has been given very little to actually lose, and having been stripped of most of his honest human morality, it's particularly tough to see Ellie slowly lose her own innocence as the game progresses, and opening up about her fears of those she loves leaving or dying (a trait superbly enhanced by the excellent Left Behind DLC). In one particularly intense moment at the end of the game's Winter segment (which actually made me take an hour long break), even if it's for all of ten seconds, it becomes crushing to witness her  bright-eyed spirit being snuffed by embracing her most basic and animal instincts. It's to writer and creative director Neil Druckmann's credit that the game wisely decides to exclude the concept of clearly defined heroes or villains, and simply paint this world and these characters in grey areas where there is no real right or wrong anymore. It's just a group of desperate people scrounging to live just another day, no matter what the cost.

Gameplay even further enhances the mood of the story, and it makes the emotions of the story feel all the more palpable, as you feel like you're experiencing all these tragic sights right alongside the character rather than playing passive observer. It has some of the most well balanced stealth mechanics I've ever seen, allowing a great fluidity and freedom of choice in how you approach each treacherous new obstacle. With supplies and ammunition being scarce, it's often a big mistake to try and attack your opponents head on, and you're strongly encouraged to find other ways to progress through each group of enemies, whether it be the human hunters or the infected, including the horrifying Clickers. Do you want to try and misdirect all eyes and ears by throwing bottles or bricks into other rooms, and avoid engaging them altogether, or do you prefer to silently take out all enemies by honing in on them with your highly developed hearing, slowly and silently sneaking up on them and eliminating them one by one? The choices are all up to you, and while the game does progress in a very linear fashion, environments are always open and vast enough that no one experimental method is necessarily better than the other.

What else can I really say about the game? The production design is a marvel, the minor stories you can find in each collectible are all engrossing, the sound design is the best I've heard in gaming (God, those Clicker calls still make my skin crawl!), Gustavo Santaolalla's atmospheric guitars and percussion are deeply emotional and unnerving stuff, and Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver two of the greatest performances I've ever seen in gaming, especially thanks to their flawless motion capture. If such a thing as a perfect video game exists, then I would imagine it would look something very much like The Last of Us. it's actually also a rare example of how, while I think the game is perfect enough as a standalone, I'm not ready to say goodbye to these people yet. I want to experience how the rest of their lives turn out, how Joel adapts to being a father figure again, and Ellie learning how to do such simple things as swim or play guitar. For my money, that's a product of the most phenomenal storytelling possible. From the heartbreaking opening sequence to the bittersweet finale that made me feel like I'd been hit by a truck, I was in love with this game, and whether it be the PS3 or remastered PS4 port, the game has richly earned each accolade and word of praise that's been tossed its way.

TL;DR version: Simply put, The Last of Us is a masterpiece.

Whew! That was a long one to get through, but thank you all so much for your time if you stayed with my very lengthy write-ups. But if you didn't, that's fine, and I completely understand. This went on way longer than I thought it would. Hopefully Uncharted 4 will be able to live up to all the hype surrounding it once I finally get my hands on it tomorrow, but until then, I hope you'll continue to follow my blog, and tune in for more thoughts in the future.

"Troll the respawn", guys!

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