First, a warning and a disclaimer.
Warning: This post is highly self-indulgent. For your regularly scheduled film analysis, Academy Awards whining, and ongoing criticisms of Les Misérables and The Artist, please return for the next post.
Disclaimer: Unlike my infallible ratings for 2012’s Best Film, this ranking is flawed. After a careful regression analysis [Editor’s note: Ben didn’t do a regression analysis], I’ve detected a bias toward Nintendo, and a bias against first-person shooters and RPGs. Please submit all complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org*
*copyright Brandon Coakley
Table of Contents
- What Influences a Video Game Ranking
- Great Games I Can’t Stand
- Great Games I Didn’t Play Enough to Include
- Honorable Mention
- The Top 25
What Influences a Video Game Ranking
Video game players come from all sorts of backgrounds, and these early experiences will shape their preferences for years to come. I’ve established seven categories for gamers, appending each with the extent to which it describes me.
The Platform Loyalist (50%)
Platform Loyalists pick a particular hardware brand from an early age and stick with it.
How to Spot: Says he once played 10 minutes of game on rival system, but "didn't like it."
The PC Gamer (5%)
Suspicious of box consoles, PC Gamers much prefer a mouse and keyboard to a gamepad or television screen.
How to Spot: Never buys a mouse under $60. Still plays World of Warcraft.
The Rich Kid (15%)
Spoiled from an early age, The Rich Kid suffers from sensory overload; with access to so many incredible games, he doesn’t have the patience to truly appreciate any individual title.
How to Spot: Has every console and top-selling game since 1995. Plays 20 hours / week but complains of boredom.
The Days Gone By Gamer (5%)
Always nostalgic and only vaguely familiar with modern day games, the Days Gone By Gamer played many years ago, but no longer.
How to Spot: Hasn't touched a gamepad in 13 years. Is weirdly enthusiastic about an obscure game from 1998 largely panned by video game critics.
The Retro Gamer (15%)
The close cousin of the Days Gone By Gamer, The Retro Gamer prefers classic games, but still plays them on a regular basis. She refuses to play modern games.
How to Spot: Complains that today’s games are too easy, too complicated, or both.
The Friends' House Gamer (10%)
A common guest at his buddy’s house, the Friends’ House Gamer has played two dozen games for few hours each, but never played one from start to finish.
How to Spot: Spent every waking hour of middle school down the street at Sean’s house, the neighborhood Rich Kid.
The No-Games Purist (0%)
No-Games Purists refuse to play video games under any circumstances.
How to Spot: Either sanctimoniously dismisses games as "a waste of time" or describes somber home life in which "video games weren't allowed."
Call of Duty
For the 13 people still reading this, chances are I just lost another seven right there. I don’t have much of a case against the first two—I simply believe they’re overrated. I grew up playing all sorts of innovative games, and it’s sad to see that only Wii Sports, iOS apps, and the latest Call of Duty sell enough to make a decent profit.
Meanwhile, I respect Madden, I just don’t like playing it. No matter how many ball speeds, life-like pass trajectories and physics-based tackling systems they include, my fundamental gameplay experience remains the same.
1) Find the 3-4 plays that can be exploited for a big gain
3) Pass to the best receiver
4) 50-yard gain
My apologies to the Madden faithful. This is my fault; not yours.
I have legitimate complaints about Final Fantasy. In fact, I’ve chosen the game as a collective punching bag for all RPGs. For the uninitiated, most RPGs (Role Playing Games) feature turn-based combat, best described as a combination of a chess game, boxing match, and Save As window from Microsoft Word 97. This perplexes me.
Example: I see my “party” of warriors standing opposite an assorted troop of monsters, spirits, and sundry other unspeakables. Each member of my team stands in ready position, shifting weight from foot to foot and holding up fists, ready to do my bidding. A series of textual menus appear (a little like Madden’s play selection, but less visual and with horrible, horrible fonts). I can choose “Attack,” “Magic,” “Heal,” or “Run Away.” I choose Attack. My first warrior runs across the obligatory No Man’s Land space between the two groups, smacks one of the baddies, and trots—backwards—to his original spot. All this time, the victim of my attack has not moved, blinked, flinched, or shown any sign of general annoyance at having been pummeled with a wooden club. I wait for a moment, and then another villain trots over and smacks me back. This carries on until all of the warriors from one side are too wounded to continue attacking.
My RPG-inclined friends assure me that this sort of combat becomes more compelling as one gains new abilities, spells, and warriors. “You just have to get past the first five hours.” Sounds like a treat.
Great Games I Didn’t Play Enough to Include
Conker's Bad Fur Day
Little Big Plannet
Each of these titles hooked me immediately, but I just haven’t played them enough to properly rank them.
Starcraft balances races better than any other real-time strategy game. Blizzard (developer) wisely focused on optimizing the three groups—Protoss, Zerg, Terran—instead of trying to design twenty tribes with only minute differences (see: Empires, Age of).
Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a late N64 release, began as a cuddly kid’s game about a squirrel and a bunch of teddy bears. Somewhere along the line, Rare (developer) got fed up with all the cutesiness and turned Conker the squirrel into a chainsaw-wielding, cigarette-smoking monster. The results are phenomenal, if a little disturbing.
Little Big Planet may just be the Playstation’s best asset, an extremely creative physics-based platformer where a community of video game fans can build whole levels on their own, without any technical programming knowledge. It’s reason enough to purchase a PS3.
Half-Life remains the one first-person shooter that immediately drew me in. I’ve only played a few hours, but the intriguing story, devilish puzzles, and wry humor provide a holistic experience rarely seen in modern games.
A variety of games I considered, but ultimately left off my final list.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Take classic Mario and let 4 people play at once. You’ll be shocked how delightfully difficult routine jumps and run-of-the-mill goombas become with three other players shoving, jostling, and hopping for position.
Thrasher: Skate and Destroy
Quirky and rebellious, Thrasher takes the skateboarder-as-public-nuisance narrative to comic heights, with each 2-minute play ending in a foot chase from a taser-wielding, donut-eating cop. Bonus! Try pressing all four shoulder buttons at once to go ragdoll limp at any time, even in midair. Amusingly, the game tracks the number of bones broken with each fall.
Super Mario Bros. 3
With raccoon tails, warp whistles, and frog suits, Super Mario Bros. 3 boasts the most eclectic, most hysterical power-ups of any game in the series. Mario 3 may also have the very best jump-by-jump level design of any 2D game ever.
Weirdly addicting and sometimes sadistically entertaining, The Sims gives players complete control over a household of human beings. Fun activity: light the house on fire and take bets on who’s smart enough to escape first. [Editor’s note: For legal reasons, our official stance is that Ben never actually played out this scenario.]
Classic, simple, and (marginally) historical, what’s not to like? My favorite part was the hunting message. “You shot 16 animals for a total of 8,741 lbs of meat. But you could only fit 7 lbs of meat into your wagon.”
Like I said, I’m biased against first-person shooters, but Goldeneye gets an honorable mention: it might just be the best movie-based game of all time.
Short for Crash Team Racing, CTR takes Crash Bandicoot characters and attempts to recreate Mario Kart. The game does so with surprising success, but in a few cases, a little too much success. Crash Bandicoot’s laugh sounds exactly like the Italian plumber’s.
Mario Party 4
The first of the Mario Parties I owned, Mario Party 4 featured a satisfying blend of skill-based mini-games and chaotic game boards. Unfortunately, like recent episodes of How I Met Your Mother, subsequent installments have become a bit too wacky and unpredictable. (Though Mario Party 5 features my all time favorite mini-game, Pushy Penguins.)
For its style, Mario Tennis plays remarkably similar to actual tennis, with believable court differences and various effective play styles (ex: lobbing vs. serve-and-volley vs. offensive). Shout out to Baby Mario.
Soul Calibur II
The one fighting game I played extensively, Soul Calibur II is the best, most intense game of rock-paper-scissor you’ve ever played. Its unique block-sidestep-strike gameplay provides hours of reflex-sharpening attacks and tricky mind games. Bonus! The comic suspension of disbelief required to believe that a petite, dagger-wielding woman can casually block an ogre swinging a 500-lb ax.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Devilishly difficult, The Lost Levels turns the cheerful, rolling-hills Mario Bros. on its head, adding poisonous mushrooms, backward warps, and dozens and dozens more Hammer Bros. Classic. Maddening.
Super Mario Kart
The game that began the legendary series, Super Mario Kart also invented the modern kart racing genre, and remains the series’ most difficult entry.
Metal Gear Solid
A game of stealth, gadgets, and espionage, Metal Gear Solid features some of the most precise level design and beguiling boss fights in video game history. Later entries in the series remain excellent, but spend a bit too much time in cut-scenes, developing good (but not that good) storylines.
Grand Theft Auto IV
The one GTA I played all the way through, Grand Theft Auto IV might get bad press, but Rockstar has created some of the most expansive, interactive video game worlds, only outclassed by the Elder Scrolls series.
Like Starcraft, Total Annihilation offers a futuristic, real-time strategy war game that pits “the Arm” (race #1) against “the Core” (race #2). Within the genre, only Starcraft beats it (though the Red Alert series comes close).
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings
The real-time strategy game I played most, Age of Empires: Age of King’s features a “regicide” mode, where the players can win simply by killing the opponent’s king (as opposed to her whole army). The chess overtones hooked me immediately.
With the latest facial recognition technology and a host of professional actors, LA Noire boasts the most realistic visages of any video game to date. Players, tasked with cracking devious murder mysteries, must determine whether witnesses are telling the truth, based on pursed lips, grimaces, and shifty eyes. The game’s interrogations are truly remarkable; sadly, the rest of experience is both repetitive and derivative.
Red Dead Redemption
Like Grand Theft Auto above, this western-style, horse-riding, rifle-toting Rockstar game deserves credit for its free-form, engrossing world. The gameplay itself may not be anything novel, but the story, graphics, and artwork are as polished as a sheriff’s silver badge.
World of Goo
The lone iOS entry on my list, World of Goo for iPad fulfills all the promises of what gaming could be on a tablet. It’s darkly humorous, wonderfully intuitive, and incredibly addicting.
Donkey Kong Country Returns
In a splendidly challenging homage to the classic SNES series, Retro (developer) crams hundreds of barrels, thousands of bananas, and eight cleverly-rendered worlds into a worthy Wii sequel. You’ll go bananas.
Super Mario Galaxy
Gorgeous, playful, and bursting with Mario charm, Galaxy provides the best Mario experience since Super Mario 64.
While Madden couldn’t sell me, Blitz won me over after a single snap of the football. Featuring absurd tackling, ridiculously huge players and unbelievable personality, Blitz sets aside realism for raw football fun.
The Top 25
25. Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Cuddly and carefree, I didn’t expect to like Kirby’s Epic Yarn. But with its enchanting design—a rich pastel color-scheme and intricately rendered creatures—and a surprisingly competitive two-player game mode—who can collect the most gems?—Kirby convinced me. As he always does.
24. Super Mario 64
This revolutionary platformer launched the plumber’s 3-dimensional career, and he’s been collecting serious coin ever since. My personal favorite element: the giant castle, filled with hidden doors and secret passage ways.
23. Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
The closest thing to a Role Playing Game I’ve truly enjoyed, Paper Mario was made for gamers who distrust the RPG. The game includes a wildly funny script (rare for Nintendo), and dares to play with standard gaming conventions (one level pretends to end, then mocks the player for falling for the trick).
22. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
A mature, puzzle-oriented platformer, Sands of Time features acrobatic jumps, meticulous puzzles, and fairly innovative swordplay. What truly distinguishes the game, however, is the “rewind” button. Miss a jump or lose a battle? Just hit the left-trigger to see all your mistakes reverse in slow-motion. If you’ve ever felt cheated by cheap deaths or mistimed maneuvers, you’ll love Sands of Time the very first time you hit that rewind trigger.
21. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
A game often heralded as the best of all time, #21 might seem surprisingly low, especially for a man with a stated Nintendo bias. The biggest issue? I played the game five years late, and after I had played through Wind Waker. I found helper-fairy Navi incredibly irritating, and a few of the simple game mechanics (jumping at an angle, alternating sword and shield) to be a bit buggy and imprecise.
So if anything, my #21 ranking is to the game’s credit, having held up years later to steal a slot in the top 25. The game’s imaginative temples, sprawling over-world, and devious puzzles have rarely been replicated.
20. Animal Crossing
Take Hello Kitty, throw in an assortment of forest creatures, and add a dash of Sims-style time management. The result? Animal Crossing, a bizarrely engrossing, let’s-play-house game for Gamecube. Perhaps more than any other game on this list, I can’t properly explain its charm. Every one of my neighborhood friends—including a Varsity basketball player and USC Film School applicant—ended up playing for hours, even after they had left most of their video game days behind.
19. Mario Kart: Double Dash!!
The tailpipe of jokes among many Mario Kart fans, Double Dash hasn’t gotten nearly the respect it deserves. With a clever two-rider system, elegant tracks (reminiscent of the original Mario Kart), and superb (not cheap!) AI, Double Dash deserves to be played and cherished.
A launch title for the PS2, SSX disrupted the snowboarding game market (and subsequently, inspired a deluge of underdeveloped copycats) with its giant mountains and wonderfully polished presentation. More impressive than anything, however, was the game’s incredibly sneaky shortcuts. Putting even Mario Kart’s alternate routes to shame, you’ll still find hidden pathways after playing the same track dozens of times.
19. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
While snowboarding might make sense for a video game, skateboarding presents a particular challenge. The culture? More niche. The activity itself? More disjointed. Still, developer Neversoft embraces the challenges and produces a sports title unlike quite anything we’ve seen. With level objectives ranging from standard (pull off a 360 heelflip) to zany (grind at least 50 feet along a telephone wire), Tony Hawk offers a little something for skaters and video game players alike.
16. Portal 2
From the wonderfully inventive Valve Corporation (Half-Life) Portal 2 combines eye-wateringly funny dialogue with challenging, sometimes conniving, puzzles. The concept is simultaneously simple and genius. Shoot at a wall: create an entrance portal. Shoot at another wall: create an exit portal. Before long, you’ll be climbing to heights and traversing gaps you never thought possible, as you play with momentum, angles, and trajectories. It’s stunning how straightforward a concept can become so wildly (and delightfully) complicated.
15. Ape Escape
A cult-classic for the Playstation, Ape Escape features your standard video game plot: catch a troop of deranged, evil-genius monkeys in a “Time Net” to prevent them from taking over the world. Smartly, Sony Japan gave each individual monkey a distinct personality and skillset, making each capture a puzzle in and of itself. Players could choose to charge straight at the simian troublemakers, or sneak around and net each one-by-one. A classic to this day.
14. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
My top-rated Zelda, I immediately loved every controversial thing about it. Some criticize the cartoony art style; I find it all the more artful and fluid. Others lament the constant sailing; I savor every seafaring journey. Even the music (playful, upbeat) and story (surprisingly ominous) remain my favorites in the series.
13. Rock Band 2
The best party game in years, I spent countless evenings drumming to Eye of the Tiger (Survivor; I killed it) and singing You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette; I butchered it every time). I place myself firmly in Rock Band’s camp when compared to Guitar Hero. Unlike Guitar Hero, with its desperate appeal to trendy rock culture, Rock Band is cleaner, more accessible, and sensibly, plays to its strengths.
12. Resident Evil 4
Spooky and terrifying, Resident Evil 4 provided the best mix of run-and-gun gameplay with step-by-step anxiety. While I don’t normally pick horror games, Capcom executes RE4 with a distinct precision and professionalism. The first time you hear the starting kick of a chainsaw just behind you, you will wet your pants, you will change your underwear, and you will continue playing, pretending nothing just happened.
11. Halo 2
I may be inclined against first-person shooters, but Halo 2’s multiplayer is mesmerizing and impossibly absorbing. Planning your 16th straight capture the flag offensive on Zanzibar at 3 am becomes the most important, most responsible task in the world. I remember engaging in heated debates over combat roles. You carry the flag, you take the gun, I’ll drive. No: YOU don’t understand!
10. Parappa the Rapper
A complete surprise and rapping revelation, Parappa the Rapper was the button-based Rock Band or Dance Dance Revolution before rhythm games became truly popular. As an added, creative bonus, every character appears to be made of paper, which may not make any sense, but simply adds to the game’s zany delightfulness.
9. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back
The best of the Crash games, this second installment was the closest Sony came to bringing a Mario-quality platformer to the Playstation. The two-and-a-half dimensional style leverages the power of Sony’s first console perfectly, creating a game that looks fantastic and offers a nothing-quite-like-it play style. Props to Naughty Dog (developer) for daring to include a few wacky secret levels that take time (and a bit of clever guess work) to find.
8. Metroid Prime
Disguised as a first-person shooter, Metroid Prime captured gamers by surprise in late 2002, offering an immensely compelling adventure replete with puzzles, special items, and legendary boss fights. Prime immediately perfects what Zelda games have always done well: tantalize players with the mystery of the unknown, yet reward them, piece by piece, with exceptionally satisfying discoveries.
7. Roller Coaster Tycoon
At some point, nearly every kid dreams of designing roller coasters, only to learn the career requires years of engineering school, a solid grasp of theme park economics, and even a bit of legal protection (should something on the coaster go wrong). Roller Coaster Tycoon—my top rated PC game—allows players to fulfill these dreams, without the impending threat of a lawsuit. In particular, the game deserves praise for its wonderfully intuitive coaster-building interface.
6. Mario Kart 64
The best of the Mario Kart series, Mario Kart 64 featured a marvelous blend of skill and luck, sporting crazy items and sprawling, imaginative tracks. But its clear advantage lies in Battle Mode, where levels like Double Deck and Block Fort provide hours of shell-slinging mayhem. Subsequent releases (regretfully, even Double Dash) have never captured quite the same charm.
5. Donkey Kong Country 2
While my nostalgia may be getting the best of me here, I submit that Donky Kong Country 2 contains the best “hidden item” of any game, ever. Rare (developer) hides the fabled DK Coins diabolically, and the search for each shiny piece of banana-branded gold marks one of the greatest quests of my childhood. Recently, I played a few levels again for the memories, the clandestine coinage as difficult to collect as ever.
Captivating, oddly adorable, and filled with charming pandemonium, Pikmin presents an entire ecosystem of imaginary creatures, all while fusing the best elements of an adventure and real-time strategy game. If Animal Crossing drew my high school friends in by surprise, Pikmin hypnotized them. You’d never know it by the look—at a glance, it’s a cross between Teletubbies and Gardening Magazine—but the latest masterpiece by Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda) deserves its place among the greatest video games of all time.
3. Super Monkey Ball
Top-selling games these days tend to focus on everything but their primary gameplay mechanic. The graphics will be cutting-edge, the voice-overs sharp, the presentation polished and even the menu fonts pleasing. With Monkey Ball, gameplay comes first. The concept is simple: tilt the stage such that the ball reaches the finish line without falling off. It starts quite easy, but quickly becomes infernally challenging. Marble Madness executed the basic version of the concept back in 1984, but Sega’s addition of monkeys—granted, a tad odd—ends up adding just the right amount of amusing appeal.
2. Super Mario World
My all-time favorite Mario, Super Mario World introduced the world-famous Yoshi, added the iconic feather power-up, and packed in 96 total level exits, complete with secret doors, hidden rooms, and clandestine keys. While Mario 3 has nearly all the same strengths, I found World more fluid in its pacing and progression. Mario 3 turned away some players before they could complete the adventure. Super Mario World offers something for all skill-levels, with an incredible variety of paths and play styles for completing the game.
1. Super Smash Bros. Melee
Super Smash Bros. Melee combines accessibility and depth for a challenging, satisfying gaming experience that continues to reward players years after their first match. While the uninitiated may find Melee chaotic and overly fast-paced, the game quickly rewards just a bit of practice. Melee strikes the ideal balance between its predecessor and successor. Unlike the original Smash Bros., Melee adds a layer of Mario-worthy polish and an expanded moveset that significantly deepens tactical play. And in contrast to Brawl, Melee can be exploited in subtle—though ultimately profound—ways, as players learn to new, challenging techniques for besting the competition. I can play Melee absolutely anywhere—with my girlfriend, at a casual party, among old-school gaming friends or even at a tournament—and I learn a little something new every time. As such, Super Smash Bros. Melee has earned its title as (my) Greatest Game of All Time.