Monday, January 11, 2010

It's here! My top 15 Games of the Decade

Hey! Everyone's doing it. So why not? The following is my list of the top 15 games of the last ten years. I tried to do a top 11 list but I just couldn't settle on that last one.

Please keep in mind that since I've been a high school student, a starving college student, and now a full time employee, I don't have a ton of different systems to play games on, or the time to try all of them out. This list is limited to the ones that I've played for a significant amount of time and liked a lot. And it's limited to games on systems I own or have ready access to, so that mainly means XBox, Playstation 2, iPod Touch, Gameboy Advance, Mac, and Windows.

One last thing to keep in mind is that the list is for games that I liked the most due to their being unique, groundbreaking, or just plain fun, and those I think are underrated. Obviously it doesn't include games or genres of games that I don't play, so no World of Warcraft.

And so, here are my top 15 games of the decade!

#15: Escape Velocity: Nova (Ambrosia Software, March 2002, Mac/Windows)
This shareware game, which is the third in a series of space adventure/RPGs, can be as much fun as any other commercial release out there. The premise is that you are a lowly space trader just starting out, doing odd jobs in your little corner of the galaxy. Eventually you earn enough money and reputation to join one of many factions in a galactic struggle. With hundreds of unique missions, ships, upgrades, and planets to visit, as well as a fantastic branching storyline, one can play this game through three times and still not come close to seeing everything. You can become the galaxy's premiere trader, the most feared pirate mercenary, or a revered defender of justice, with every action determining your standing in the galactic community. If you haven't tried it, you're missing out, big time.

#14 Cave Story (Doukutsu Monogatari) (Studio Pixel, 2004, Mac/Windows)
I still can't believe that this game was made by a single person. Sure, it probably shows when you're looking at the 8-bit graphics, but they serve their purpose, and when compared to original Nintendo games, Cave Story just looks better. Cave Story can be best described as a Metroid-like platform shooter game. You play as a silent robot protagonist who gets mixed up in a conflict between a mad doctor and a clan of endangered rabbit-like creatures called Mimigas. The dialogue can be very humorous despite the sometimes heavy storyline, and I found myself actually feeling a little bit for these pixelated creatures. The controls are extremely polished, the music is classic chiptune goodness, and it's clear that Pixel paid a lot of attention to the details when creating side quests, a dozen different guns, upgrades such as a jetpack, and easter eggs galore. By the way, did I mention that this game is free? I'd pay money to play this game. It's that good. And you should get it now.

#13 Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 (Square-Enix & Disney, 2002/2006, Playstation 2)
Disney characters mixed with Final Fantasy in an action role-playing game? When I first heard about KH in late 2000, I was interested as a Final Fantasy fan, but very skeptical nonetheless. Final Fantasy has always had fairly adult themes, whereas Disney animation is usually family/child friendly. My fears were averted when I got my hands on the first game. It's still a bit strange how they got the mash up of random Disney characters and locations to come together to form a cohesive storyline, but it works because it's fun. Both Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 follow the story of a kid named Sora, who like many a Japanese hero, is the one destined to wield a weapon of unique power in order to seal away a growing darkness that is engulfing all the Disney licensed properties. Things get weirder in the second game, and the story turns itself upside-down while introducing some new adversaries. But gameplay is smoother, if not more of a button-mash fest. It's no less charming than the first, and how could you not love Mickey Mouse being a Yoda-esque badass, fighting off monsters while wearing a hooded black cloak?

#12 Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (LucasArts/Raven Software, 2002/2003, Mac/Windows)
My first first-person shooter was Star Wars: Dark Forces, back in the mid-90s. For its time, it was fantastic. I couldn't stop playing it. But I never played its sequel, Dark Forces: Jedi Knight, because it never made its way to the Mac platform. So it was such a treat when I got the opportunity to play Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. This is the story of Kyle Katarn, mercenary-for-hire-turned-Rebellion-hero-turned-Jedi-Knight-turned-mercenary again. Was that too confusing? Good. Kyle Katarn, having hung up his jedi robes "for good," returns to being a normal Rebel agent, alongside his sidekick/pilot/love interest (?) Jan Ors. The two are sent to investigate some powerful crystals that are apparently of interest to the Imperial Remnant, but they run into a renegade fallen Jedi dino guy, who captures and kills Jan. Kyle decides to pick up his lightsaber again and regain his Jedi powers to seek out and destroy the dino guy and find out why he killed Kyle's lady. Yeah, it's actually a pretty good story. Jedi Academy's story is largely forgettable, but both games do so well to fulfill every Star Wars fan's dream of wielding a lightsaber and unloading all kinds of Force powers on his enemies. Evil players will use their Force lightning to electrocute everyone in their path, while Light Siders will use their Jedi Mind Trick to turn enemies against each other. And oh yes, throwing Stormtroopers off ledges into bottomless pits never, ever gets old.

#11 Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2002, XBox/Mac/Windows)
You know, it's hard for me to define why I like this game. I played a bit of split-screen, 4-player Halo deathmatch back in the day, and it was fun. The vehicles were unique, the sticky grenades were fun (or frustrating, depending if you were the recipient or the giver), and pistol-whipping was pretty innovative. But are those enough to make it my #11 game of the decade? I thought the single player story was good, and I'm a fan of decent science fiction. I liked the idea of a world (or worlds, as it were) that exists on the inner surface of a ginormous ring (which I now know was first postulated in Larry Niven's Ringworld). Having the AI construct Cortana around as a Jiminy Cricket/Otacon character was neat. But was that groundbreaking? I don't know. Oh and there's Master Chief, the badass, stoic protagonist who apparently is the only good guy who knows how to stay alive. And he has his regenerating shield thingy. That was pretty cool. So why is this #11? We may never know. Or maybe it's because of the Needler.

#10 Final Fantasy X (Squaresoft, 2001, Playstation 2)
It's not my favorite Final Fantasy game, but it's special for many reasons. It was the first Final Fantasy on the then-brand new Playstation 2. It was the first Final Fantasy game to feature voice acting, and in spite of fan skepticism, it actually turned out pretty darn well. It traded the series' signature Active Time Battle (ATB) system for a custom turn-based one that kept things interesting. And it was also the first Final Fantasy to have fully 3-D environments, rather than having 3-D models moving around against realistic 2-D backdrops as was the case in FFVII-IX. Fans are divided regarding the new Sphere Grid system for allocating stat and skill points, but I thought it was innovative and well-done. Final Fantasy X played smoothly and the visuals, one of Square's special talents, did not disappoint one bit. The game's story and world were unique, vibrant, and engrossing. And apparently Square liked Auron as much as I did, because they gave him a pretty neat role in Kingdom Hearts 2.

#9 Beyond Good and Evil (Ubisoft, 2003, Playstation 2)
It was a bit tough deciding where to put Beyond Good and Evil on this list. It's a pretty short game that does not provide much replay value. But on the other hand, it's by far the most innovative and unique game out of all of them. BG&E stars Jade, a freelance reporter, head of an orphanage, and lover of all things green. I mean just look at that outfit and lipstick! Jade lives in the waterriffic town of Hillys, which comes under attack by lizard-like aliens called DomZ. Jade is hired by a small band of rebels to infiltrate and investigate the enemy and uncover a shocking conspiracy. BG&E is a very well-done third-person action game, with stealth elements, puzzle solving, and fast-paced beat-em-up battles. It would be a pretty decent game if it were just for that, but what makes it special is the sheer amount of variety in the gameplay. There's a hovercraft that allows you to travel all around the surprisingly expansive Hillys and it also happens to be equipped with powerful weapons. I don't want to spoil anything, but there's also an airship of sorts that's totally awesome. Collectibles, mini-games, and secrets are everywhere. The hovercraft races are a heck of a lot of fun. The most unique aspect of BG&E, though, is the "side quest" that runs throughout the whole story, which is photography. Hillys is chock-full of artistically beautiful creatures, whether they be red whales in the sea or flying manta rays, and Jade always has her freaking sweet, wi-fi equipped DSLR ready to take pictures and send them to the Science Museum in exchange for special items. This game is so good, it's a travesty that any bargain bin still has copies of it lying around.

#8 Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (Lucasarts/Pandemic Studios, 2005, XBox)
I was saddened by the news last year that Pandemic Studios had shut its doors late last year, soon after releasing its last game, The Saboteur. The overwhelming success of Star Wars Battlefront II, which was the best game of 2005 in my opinion, almost guaranteed that we'd get another sequel. But who owns the license to the Battlefront franchise if the developer goes under? Hopefully I'll find out in the next few months, but until then I suppose we'll always have this game. And what a game it is. It's honestly nothing incredibly innovative, essentially being "Battlefield 1942" but in the Star Wars universe instead. But you know, World War II as a setting in games is getting really stale, and there's always room for more Star Wars. Anyone who enjoys class-based, team-oriented shooters (a la Team Fortress II) would love Battlefront II. It's Rebels vs Empire or Clones vs Battle Droids in a massive blaster, lightsaber, and X-Wing fest. The game is simple: help your team be the first to either capture all the command posts on the map or eliminate the opposing team. It's not too deep, but it works, especially when you've got a friend (or 5) to play with. I've been playing this game with my brother for almost five years, and it's still hours and hours of fun.

#7 Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Konami, 2001, Playstation 2)
Is it a movie? Or is it a game? Hideo Kojima's cinematic style of video game storytelling was elevated to a fantastic level in the Metal Gear series' PS2 debut. MGS2's predecessor was a breakthrough in storytelling but it was a little limited by the graphical prowess of the original Playstation. While graphics are not most important aspect of a game to me (see Cave Story, #14), Metal Gear Solid's political and social commentary really requires more realistic characters and environments in order to be taken seriously. And MGS2 had all those and more. The only thing that keeps MGS2 from being higher on my list is the somewhat stiff controls. Well, that and Raiden. Geez, why couldn't he have been his MGS4 self from the beginning?

#6 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware, 2003, Mac)
This is the last Star Wars game on the list! I promise! Knights of the Old Republic, or KotOR, as it is commonly called, takes place thousands of years before the movies, and I think because of this Bioware was able to create an entirely new epic that didn't step on the toes of continuity (fans hate that, you know). At the core of this new adventure was an innovative Light/Dark side system, which gave the player a good degree of flexibility in how they want the story to unfold. Helping people out yielded a good reputation and access to Light Side powers, while being deceitful or just downright evil gave the player Dark Side points and Dark Side powers. The decisions also affected how missions unfolded and the main character's relationship with his or her party members. Never has a turn-based role-playing game been more fun. Just to be cliché, I'll say that The Force is with this game.

#5 Half-Life 2/Half-Life 2 Episode 1/Half-Life 2 Episode 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004, Windows)
I'm kind of cheating, putting all three games together in one, but to be honest, Episodes 1 and 2 would have otherwise taken up valuable spots from two other games on this list. Plus Episode 1 is more of an expansion than a full on sequel, and Episode 2 is mostly more of the same stuff that was in HL2. But that's not such a bad thing. Half-Life 2 is the sequel to a game that earned about a bajillion awards and spawned the most popular multiplayer shooter ever, Counter-Strike. I've never played Counter-Strike, but HL2 in my opinion is far superior to its predecessor in every way. But we're not here to talk about the original Half-Life. HL2 takes place somewhere on Earth in and around the fictional "City 17" after a failed science experiment that eventually led to an alien race called the Combine teleporting to our world and enslaving humanity. Gameplay-wise, HL2 is your pretty standard first person shooter. But the dystopian atmosphere, realistic character interactions and models, and freaking awesome physics engine really make this game shine. But if any of those things didn't strike your fancy, I have just two words for you: Gravity Gun.

#4 Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007, Windows)
This was a triumph.
I'm making a note here, "HUGE SUCCESS."
It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.

Isn't it funny how the first three lines of "Still Alive" so perfectly describe the game it was written for? When I think "puzzle game" I think Tetris or Bejeweled. But instead Valve gives us this: the best use of teleportation in a game. Ever. At its core, Portal is a thinking game. You have to use your brain every step of the way to figure out how to make your way through the sterile Aperture Science laboratory rooms in this "first person puzzler". That in itself would be cool, but wrapped around the gameplay in this most innovative game of the decade is a story told through a series of superb visuals and spoken lines of dialogue. The way in which the main character slowly discovers that the facility and its friendly AI overseer GlaDOS is not exactly what it seems is brilliant, subtle, and often terrifying. The simplistic overall look belies the game's hyper attention to detail, such that though you may be tempted to try to rush through things to escape whatever evils may be lurking, you'd be doing yourself a disservice and you'd miss out on a lot.

What are you doing? You haven't escaped, you know.

#3 Mass Effect (Bioware/Demiurge Studios, 2008, Windows)
Oh, what is there to say about Mass Effect, besides the fact that Mass Effect 2 (Jan 26, 2010) could possibly be the best sequel of all time? Perhaps it's unfair that two Bioware RPGs make the top 6 on my list, but if you make good games, you get recognized. Story-wise, it's inspired a little by all the classic science fiction: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5. Gameplay wise, it just simply kicks major arse. The morality system from previous games is back, where you can decide to be an ass (Renegade) or a heroic individual (Paragon). This time your decisions can have major implications on the rest of the story, which provides for a metric cargo hold load of variety. The story is complex enough to be considered good, but not so convoluted that it takes away from the gameplay or characters. And boy, those characters are very well done. Except for that Alenko dude. I've always liked the idea of freedom of choice in games, but most other games that have tried it to date have made too many compromises, giving you a "lack of cohesive storyline" disguised as "openness". Mass Effect has a great story while giving the player the magnificent opportunity to really shape their own Commander Shepard the way they want. Now after having given this game all the superlatives in the world, what could possibly have topped it? Well, read on. And remember: 1/26/2010.

#2 Deus Ex (Eidos/Ion Storm, 2000, Mac)
You've seen Schwarzenegger. You've seen Stallone. You've seen Willis. But unless you've seen Denton, you don't know the meaning of badassery. Yes, in this 40+ Game of the Year award-winning masterpiece, you play as J.C. Denton, United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition Agent who wears sunglasses at night "because his vision is augmented". Yeah, he's that cool. In fact, he's so cool that he can convey every single human emotion with a single monotone voice and half-smirk. Yeah! Even better, he can turn invisible, run as fast as a cheetah, and make grenades explode in his enemies' hands. And he can see through stuff with his augmented vision. You know what that means! .... .... yeah, I don't either. Deus Ex has the perfect blend of conspiracy theory, political philosophy, big guns, super powers, unintentionally hilarious characters, and Raptor Chickens. Oh, how I hate those Raptor Chickens. But killing them is so much fun.

#1 Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008, Windows)
Some Fallout series purists claim that Fallout 3 departed too far from the heart of what the series is about. Other Fallout series purists say it just rehashes the same themes and packages them with an inferior story in a too-easy game. Well, to both camps, I say "THREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWG! AROOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Yeah, never before have I had so much fun walking around a bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland. Seeing what the land surrounding our nation's capital following a horrific, devastating war with China could potentially look like is sobering, haunting, and over a hundred ours of entertainment. Fallout 3 doesn't really take itself seriously, as shown by its kitschy 1950s retro-futuristic overtones. But it's hard not to take this game seriously, because if you look up the word "immersion" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Fallout 3 next to it. The Capital Wasteland is so well put together that out of the 130 hours I spent playing this game, about 20 of them were spent just wandering around, seeing what fantastic surprises I'd run into next. By the way, other words in the dictionary that have a picture of Fallout 3 next to them are "masterpiece," "peerless," and "GameOfTheDecade".

Well, that's all, folks. Post comments below or send your hate mail for missing your favorite games, or for using poor grammar, to I'll leave you with one more thought: If games like Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Final Fantasy VI had been made in the past decade, this list would look very, very different.

Special thanks to my brother for helping me choose the games for this list and for helping me to take three weeks rather than three months to finish it.