Spoiler alert: Ocarina of Time is #1. If that surprises you, it’s probably because you haven’t played it yet. I’ll gush on that masterpiece later, but there’s still 14 other games to go through in this list. Now, I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. I grew up with an NES controller in my hand and a monthly Nintendo Power issue in my mailbox. I can’t count how many times princesses I’ve saved or how many aliens I’ve killed or haunted houses I’ve survived and the list goes on and on. Yet I never tire of it. Video games are portals to new worlds, new experiences. And in my many years of gaming, these are the best of the best.
15. Earthworm Jim 2
The 90s were a gold rush for platform games. But amongst the slew of shameless movie tie-ins (The Mask), bizarre celebrity endorsements (Shaq Fu), and Bubsy (Bubsy) were many golden games that are still impressive (and challenging) to this day. Classics like Yoshi’s Island, Super Metroid, Sonic the Hedgehog, Gunstar Heroes, and many others creatively pushed the genre forward. And no other platformer captures the spirit of this golden era of platformers than Earthworm Jim 2. The 90s were all about experimenting, sometimes with bizarre results, and Earthworm Jim 2 is about as bizarre as it gets. It took everything that was great about the original and made it weirder and funnier. You encounter falling grannies as you ride up an assisted chair lift, killer goldfish, musket-wielding aliens, and pig chutes—all within the first level. You had an arsenal of awesome weapons, even if some were useless (Bubble Gun), and a backpack with a giant glob of sentient snot that could stick to ceilings or act as a parachute. But backing up the bizarreness were tight controls, gorgeous sprite animation, and a killer soundtrack. It was one of the last games where you would invite your friends over and then drop the controller just to watch the hilarious idle-animations. Amidst a flurry of creative adventures and crappy cash-ins, Earthworm Jim 2 managed to stand on its own and become one of, if not the best, platformers of the 16 bit era.
On A Personal Note: There were three levels called “Puppy Love” which played out like a twisted version of “Fire” from the old Game & Watch games. Basically you had to bounce puppies on a giant marshmallow and guide them across the screen to safety. The song that played in the background was a combination of two Italian folk tunes, “Tarantela Napolitana” and “Funiculi Funicula”. Since I was taking piano lessons at the time, I loved it so much that I learned to play it as a duet with my Mom.
Warcraft practically invented the Real Time Strategy game, but Starcraft blew it wide open. The warring factions of Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss played far differently than just Orcs and Humans, and the gameplay was more balanced than its medieval predecessor. The story was suitably epic, and saturated with sci-fi themes and tropes. But where Starcraft truly shines is in its multiplayer. It was one of the first games to perfect online gaming, creating a community that catered to both the hardcore and the noobs. It’s safe to say that Starcraft was the most influential multiplayer experience of all time. While Call of Duty can rake in the numbers here in North America, Starcraft has become a profession in its own right in countries like South Korea. As with another game later in the list, many hardcore players prefer this original game to its sequel. StarCraft brought the RTS to the masses, and succeeded in being more than just WarCraft In Space.
On A Personal Note: My friend and I used to play this online quite a bit. One battle we remember fondly is what we call the “Helm’s Deep” battle. Both of our secondary bases were wiped out and we were backed up into a corner. We were sharing a base, which I fortified with a ridiculous amount of Photon Cannons. Incredibly, we held off the enemy long enough to build up our forces and launch a counter attack. I used up most of my resources building Carrier units, and we managed to make a glorious comeback.
13. Final Fantasy VII
Fanboys will argue day and night about which Final Fantasy is actually the best one, but there’s no denying the impact that FFVII had on the gaming world. It kicked Japanese RPG’s out of the niche market and into the mainstream. It spawned a franchise of its own, with offshoots and a feature-length movie. Being a staunch Nintendo fan-boy, I only ever played it when I borrowed my cousin’s PlayStation or went to my friend’s place. It wasn’t until I went to University a decade and a half later that I actually played it from start to finish on my PSP. The graphics haven’t exactly aged well, since Cloud and co. have barrel sized arms and ridiculously pointy feet. However, the rest of the game holds up well today. The game is reasonably well paced, and surprisingly takes time to flesh out its characters—even the now-iconic villain, Sephiroth. It’s probably the best introductory RPG I can think of, since the materia system is easy to use and can be mastered with enough dedication, and the amount of grind-time is kept to a minimum. That is, unless you plan on fighting Emerald and Ruby Weapon, in which case my prayers are with you. But before Cloud became a brooding emo in Advent Children, gamers connected with him as a person trying to find his own identity—and likewise with Sephiroth, who gamers came to understand rather than just despise. And, of course, the death of Aerith is probably one of the most shocking and saddening moments in video game history. With Final Fantasy VII, RPG’s finally found their footing in the North American market, and became the defining game of the PlayStation era.
On A Personal Note: I watched Advent Children long before I took a decent stab at actually playing the game. I knew the main characters, and that Sephiroth killed Aerith, but that was about it. There were parts of the movie that were hard to follow, and I was also in my “I hate anime” phase which kinda trickled down into why I didn’t like Advent Children. After all, the movie was pretty much CGI anime. A few years later the extended cut of the film, Advent Children Complete, added a much-needed half hour to the film’s run time. Having played the game and gotten more into anime, I enjoyed Complete far more than the original, and now rank it as the best video game movie ever.
Generally I’m not a fan of first person shooters, and I avoid movie tie-in games like a plague. However, Rare’s Goldeneye is a stunning example of both. This was back in the days when tie-in games didn’t have to be released alongside the movie. After all, Goldeneye the game came out in the same year as the movie’s sequel, Tomorrow Never Dies. But for the first time, you actually felt like James Bond as you snuck around missile silos, drove a tank through St. Petersburg, or satiated your gun-rage as you offloaded all of your ammo into a swarm of henchmen. It essentially became the template for every FPS game that followed it, especially with its four-player multiplayer. The campaign was long and varied, and each of the three difficulty levels had their own objectives to complete for each mission. It’s also the first game in which I experienced gamerage, thanks to Xenia Onatopp and her cheap RCP-90/grenade launcher combination, which led to me being grounded from my N64 for a week. But controller smashing aside, Goldeneye offered a huge amount of content for gamers in both single-and-multiplayer. GoldenEye became the go-to game for get-togethers, and its influence is still felt today in every modern FPS.
On A Personal Note: In the first level, on the Dam, if you look across the water with a sniper rifle you can see a small building and a tower with a turret on top of it. It was originally part of the mission, but was scrapped at the last minute. I remember pouring through old Nintendo Power magazines and seeing screenshots of things that never made it into the game (one being the “Spyder” machine gun—which was actually just renamed “Klobb”). It started my fascination with “beta” versions of video games, and features or levels that were eventually scrapped from the final product.
11. Mass Effect 2
Trekkies have been waiting for years for the perfect Star Trek game, but nearly every attempt has resulted in some sort of space-based ship-to-ship combat. What developers have failed to realize is that it’s not the ships that make Star Trek iconic: it’s the crew. Mass Effect 2 got this. Now, I’ll admit my bias: Mass Effect 2 is the only game in the series I finished in its entirety. But as with all BioWare games, story is king here, and ME2 had a fantastic one. It’s rare to find “true sci-fi” these days, which is more about ideas and stories rather than how futuristic your explosions and hairstyles look, but ME2 proved its mettle, especially in its amazing (and disturbing) Overlord mission, which left me with a hanging jaw. The game is more action-oriented than its predecessor, and this works to its advantage. And the Paragon/Renegade system defined not only who your character would become, but also the eventual fate of the galaxy. Whether or not I ever play Mass Effect 3, I’ll always remember Mass Effect 2 as the best Star Trek game ever made.
On A Personal Note: As I played ME2, I didn’t see myself as playing missions, but rather I was playing episodes. Every time I loaded my save file, Commander Sheppard would be standing on the bridge of the Normandy, just as practically every Star Trek episode, ready to tackle the next mission. And the missions were only about half an hour to an hour long anyway—so, yeah, the length of a TV episode. And with the rumours of a Mass Effect movie on the horizon, I say screw that; with no Star Trek series on TV right now, why not serialize Mass Effect into a television show?
10. Super Smash Bros. Melee
The crossover fighter has been a strange genre, with some genuine successes (Marvel VS Capcom 2) and some obscurities (Tatsunoko VS Capcom). Melee, however, was instantly accessible with everyone, since the majority of its characters are well-known. While its sequel, Brawl, added more characters, more stages, and more items, it was still unable to break the same ground the Melee did. To this day, there are still tournaments that prefer Melee to Brawl, and even mods you can download that tweak Brawl’s gameplay to resemble its predecessor. Melee is a treasure trove of content, with five single-player modes, vicious multiplayer, unlockable characters and stages, and collectible trophies—but let’s face it, sometimes it’s just satisfying to watch Mario fling Link into oblivion. The unique fighting style is what has made the Smash Bros. series so fun; instead of health bars, you have percentages, and the higher your damage percent, the more likely you’ll be smashed off a stage. Super Smash Bros is The Avengers of the video game world, but instead of cross-franchise characters banding together to save the world, they’re meeting up to kick the crap out of each other. Quite frankly, I can’t tell which is more awesome.
On A Personal Note: Melee probably spent the most time in my Gamecube than any other game. My friends would gather at my house every morning before school, and for three years we played it before walking to school. One of our favourite things to do was in the Hyrule Castle stage. We would set it on Super Sudden Death so everyone was at 300% health, then go into the lower cavernous area of the stage and start smashing each other around. Characters would bounce around the walls, floor, and ceiling like they were in a pinball machine. It was the absolute epitome of chaos.
Sometimes the English language falls short in its descriptive adjectives. Such is the case with Earthbound, which is often described as “quirky”. It’s quirky in the same way that the ocean is big; it’s a description that sounds about right, but doesn’t do it justice. Earthbound is a hyper-exaggerated version of how Japan viewed American culture. Your enemies include Mad Taxis and New Age Retro Hippies, instead of health tonics you eat burgers and fries, your weapons are baseball bats and frying pans, and you save your game by calling your Dad—who also manages your earnings from defeated enemies. However, beneath the cultural sub-text was a rather solid RPG with some pretty unique gameplay mechanics. One example is that in EB you can purchase a new weapon, equip it, and sell your old one all at the same time instead of trudging through menus, something that Final Fantasy has yet to do. Your character can get homesick which affects their ability in battle and can be fixed with a call home. The slot-style HP counters ensures that if an enemy lands a killer blow you may have enough time to heal yourself before the counter reaches zero. The story is your typical “chosen one prophecy” but Earthbound manages to make it feel fresh. While its graphics may not impress, Earthbound is a unique and humorous RPG experience—up until the final boss anyway.
On A Personal Note: There’s this great little joke in the game where you come across a sign that says “Planning Meeting for Earthbound 2” and when you try and enter the house, someone tells you “Come back in the year 20XX” or something. Well, a sequel to Earthbound was planned for the N64DD system but was cancelled when they realized the system, well, sucked. The game was finally made as a Game Boy Advance game—and was never released outside of Japan. However, a dedicated group of fans translated the entire game and turned it into a patch you can apply to the game’s ROM file. So why is this a personal story? Well, I played it. It was awesome.
8. Pokemon Crystal Version
It’s hard not to understate how huge of an impact Pokemon had on the video game world and pop culture at large. “Gotta catch ‘em all” was the phrase of my childhood, and the majority of my entertainment focused on the cute catchable critters that adorned my Game Boy, television, toy collection, card binder, and plush animal collection, to name a few. Of course, once the second generation of Pokemon began to be revealed I and my friends lost our minds. Pokemon was at the height of its popularity in the Gold and Silver (GS) generation. After all, the first four Pokemon movies all featured GS generation Pokemon, and three based their plots on them. It’s also worth mentioning that the GS games were massive. In addition to 100 new Pokemon, you could still catch or trade Pokemon from the original games, for a total of 251 Pokemon. Upon completing the eight gym leaders and Pokemon League of the new Johto region, you then got to back to Kanto, the region from the first game, and complete the original eight gym leaders and Pokemon League there; no other Pokemon game has done this ”second quest” style of game since. Also, the game had a clock and calendar that ran in real time, and so some events would only occur on specific days of the week, and some Pokemon only came out at night. So why did I choose the Crystal version specifically? Well, Crystal did everything that Gold and Silver did, but added cosmetic touches, such as being able to play as a girl and sprite animations for Pokemon in battle. There were a few subplots added in involving the Unown and Suicune, but the bulk of the gameplay remained the same. Even though Silver was my version of choice, Crystal was the final game of the GS generation and, essentially, the last perfect Pokemon game.
On A Personal Note: I was a total Poke-geek. Cards, toys, books, games, posters, blankets, you name it and I had it. Though not directly related to Pokemon Crystal, this story is related to the GS generation of Pokemon. I had a pretty decent collection of cards that I shared with my friends. I made a few decks and participated in a small competition at the local Toys R Us. One of my most prized cards was a super-rare Venusaur that only came with the Player’s Guide to the Pokemon Card Game video game (yes, there was a video game of a card game based on a video game). One of my opponents had a card with a Pokemon that wasn’t even named in North America. The card was all in Japanese and had a glossy finish to it. I traded my Venusaur for this Japanese card, thinking it was rare and collectible. Less than a year later, the GS generation of cards came out. The card I traded it for was a Hoppip. A Hoppip which could be found in practically every booster pack.
7. Fallout 3
It’s not very often that a video game inspires you, but that’s exactly what happened here. Fallout 3 was my first foray into a post-apocalyptic world, and I haven’t left it since. Gameplay-wise, Fallout: New Vegas is far superior, but the atmosphere and story belong entirely to Fallout 3. Fallout 3’s Wasteland is lonely, gray, and deadly, and I was engrossed in every minute I spent in it. The various Wasteland locales, citizens, factions, and creatures were really unlike anything I had ever seen before (having never played any of the previous Fallout games). But unlike many post-apocalyptic settings, this one wasn’t completely bleak. The story was about restoring hope to the Wasteland, and your character’s actions reflected whether or not they were successful in doing so. And there was a surprising amount of humour to the Wasteland, even down to weapons such as a railway rifle, which shot rail spikes and gave a cheerful little “toot” each time you pulled the trigger. The VATS targeting system was a clever little mechanic, which would pause the action and let you target specific areas of your opponents body, lending strategy to an otherwise guns-blazing firefight. And sometimes it was just fun to wander the lonely roads and see what you could come across. As far as open-world games go, none have immersed me as much as Fallout 3 did.
On A Personal Note: Fallout 3 revived my love of writing, and from that game I became more and more absorbed in post-apocalyptic fiction, to the point that it has become my genre of choice. I actually wrote three large stories set in the Fallout 3 world. The game was so rich in details that I was able to craft these long, detailed stories and drop little hints of events or characters in the game. They were originally meant to be parts of a larger story, but I never finished it. Instead, I moved on to craft my own post-apocalyptic stories. So don’t let anyone tell you that video games can’t inspire your creativity.
6. The Curse of Monkey Island
A long time ago LucasArts wasn’t just cranking out adventures of a galaxy far, far away. During the early 90s, the Adventure game genre experienced a boom of brilliant and engrossing games that, to this day, are still revered in the hallowed halls of video game lore. One such series (and, arguable, the most iconic) was Monkey Island. The first two games were filled with clever brain teasers, witty dialogue, and sharp humour. All of those reached their apex with the third and best entry in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island. The game even included a “Mega Monkey” (or hardcore) mode for puzzle lovers. But what struck me most about COMI is that for the first time in my life, I actually felt like I was playing a cartoon. It was the first Monkey Island game to include voice-acting, and was one of the few adventure games to use hand-drawn animation and backgrounds. The voice acting is still superb and the dialogue still surpasses most actual cartoons and the score by series veteran Michael Land is still the best in the series. It’s sad that the proposed Monkey Island movie never came to fruition, and we’ll probably never see a proper Monkey Island 5. But the combination of perfect voice acting, sharp humor, and gorgeous animation makes Curse of Monkey Island an adventure worth repeating.
On A Personal Note: Curse of Monkey Island is as much fun to watch as it is to play. During High School, my friends would actually sit down and watch me play. For a brief period of time “insult sword-fighting” became an inside-joke with our group, and a few one-liner’s from the game have still stuck with us (“That’s a duck!”).
5. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
“Genesis does what Nintendon’t”. Ah, 90s marketing slogans; you tried so hard. But in this case, it was actually true. While Nintendo was (and still is) all about family friendly entertainment, Sega was (and no longer is) all about attitude. And none captured the attitude of the 90s generation of kids better than Sonic the Hedgehog. It was all about speeding through levels and timing your jumps to avoid pitfalls or enemies. If you stopped moving, Sonic looked at you and started tapping his foot, as if to say “what are you doing? Start moving.” While the original Sonic the Hedgehog introduced him, it was the second game that truly cemented his place as Mario’s biggest rival. It can all be attributed to a single iconic move that Sonic added to his repertoire: the spindash. By holding down and pressing the jump button, Sonic began spinning in place like a car doing a burnout. I actually still feel a slight adrenaline rush when I rap on the button, hearing the screech of spinning hedgehog increase in pitch with each button press. And then you let go, and Sonic becomes an unstoppable spinning ball of death, impervious to almost any enemy that gets in his way. But adrenaline kicks aside, Sonic 2 also introduced Sonic’s sidekick, Tails, who could be controlled with a second controller. And also, it replaced that asinine bonus game from the first one with a pseudo-3D halfpipe run where you collect collecting rings. Though Sonic’s reputation has dwindled since he made the transition to 3D, his original 2D games still remain as fun and exciting to play as they were on the original Sega Genesis.
On A Personal Note: Like most games of the 16-bit era, Sonic 2 included a debug menu. It was basically the ultimate cheat code, where you could access any level in the game or give yourself unlimited lives, etc. I could never do it properly so, believe it or not, I actually had to get my Mom to input the code for me, since she was the only one that could do it properly.
4. Resident Evil 4
It’s weird how the game that revolutionized the survival-horror genre is still better than any of the games its revolution produced. RE4 still remains king of what I call the “new-age survival horror”. After several games of zombies, “tank controls”, fixed camera angles, and hammy dialogue, RE4 gave the Resident Evil franchise a breath of fresh air with new enemies, a modern third-person control scheme, a revolutionary over-the-shoulder camera, and hammy dialogue—well, some things never change. Considering its long, troubled development history, it’s a surprise that RE4 ended up the way it did. It paved the way for the entire next generation of survival horror games (Dead Space) and action games (Gears of War). Unlike its action-oriented co-op sequel, RE4 managed to balance the action and horror elements perfectly. The sound design is one of the game’s greatest achievements: the enemies all speak Spanish, and hearing them communicate with each other or chant in a foreign language is oddly creepy; the music is the right mix of heart-pumping action and heart-pumping horror; and the rip and roar of your weapons as they blast through it all is extremely satisfying. The upcoming Resident Evil 6 appears to be a return to a balance of action and suspense, but it has a long way to go if it wants to even come close to the benchmark set by Resident Evil 4.
On A Personal Note: Regenerators. Good God, Regenerators. Those things gave me nightmares for weeks. They’re vicious, hungry, and unstoppable. Shoot off their limbs and they just grow right back. In a brilliant move on the developers, the only way to kill these things was to stand still and snipe off several small parasites off its body as it walked towards you. No other video game creature scared me—legitimately scared me—as much as Regenerators did. Especially the twitchy “Iron Maiden” versions. But on the same note, no other video game creature was more satisfying to kill. Once the final parasite is shot off—or you just pump an obscene amount of ammo into it—it pops like squeezing a cherry tomato.
3. Super Mario Bros.
The great granddaddy of video games. If this game failed, it’s quite possible that video games would have failed too. After the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 it seemed as though video games would just be a passing fad. The release of the Nintendo Entertainment System was a huge gamble, but thankfully it had its killer-app: Super Mario Bros.. The game became so popular that since its original release, Nintendo has ported it to all of its consoles (except Virtual Boy, but who cares about that). The combination of whimsical music, bright colourful settings, and simple controls help make this game infinitely replayable, even to this day. Its famous secret, the Warp Zone, was one of the first examples of developers hiding a game-changing cheat within the game. And what’s surprising is that this game could have been very, very different; yes, the beloved mustachioed plumber could have been packing heat. But Super Mario Bros. defined video games for an entire generation. Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Goomba, Nintendo, all of these have since become household names. It’s not very often that every single element of a video game, from sprites to sounds to music, becomes iconic, but Super Mario Bros. has certainly earned this status, reputation, and legacy.
On A Personal Note: I was born in 1988, so my earliest memories of video gaming come from the equally impressive Super Mario Bros. 3. That being said, however, I’ve played the original many more times than SMB3, though I’ve only ever beaten it once. I believe that 20 years from now, people will still be playing Super Mario Bros.; I know I will. And if you’re looking for a fresh take on this iconic game, download Mari0, which finally fulfils Miyamato’s original vision of giving Mario a gun—a Portal gun, that is.
2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
There was a moment, playing through Uncharted 2, that I thought to myself “This is the greatest game ever made.” It wasn’t until the final boss fight that I conceded with myself, “This is the second greatest game ever made.” But apart from a slightly disappointing final battle, everything else about Uncharted 2 is saturated with the makings of a perfect video game. Everything that the first Uncharted did well, Uncharted 2 did better, such as characterization, set pieces, and story; and what the first Uncharted didn’t do so well, the sequel either improved it (hand-to-hand combat) or ditched it entirely (motion-controlled aiming for grenades). With Nathan Drake, the video game world finally found its Indiana Jones. He is an everyman with a knack for history and finding himself in seemingly impossible situations. I mean, the game starts with you escaping a train dangling off a cliff, and it only escalates from there. The game kept me closer to the edge of my seat than any Hollywood blockbuster in recent memory, and there were so many moments where I thought to myself “Ok, that’s just cool.” And the characters surrounding Nate, such as on-again-off-again love interest Elena or wisecracking mentor Sully, are just as important to the story and just as memorable. Developer Naughty Dog pulled out all the stops on this one, crafting a finely tuned and expertly paced adventure that you not only played, but experienced.
On A Personal Note: The multiplayer in Uncharted 2 is surprisingly addicting. I’m not quite as enamoured with online play as many gamers are, but Uncharted 2 had me hooked. My boss actually got hooked on it as well, and so for a while we would both team up and play online, then discuss our battles the next day at work. Neither of us had a working Bluetooth, so we ended up communicating over text messaging, which is exactly as inefficient as it sounds. Which is ironic, considering we work at an electronics store.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
What can be said about this game that hasn’t already been said? Ocarina of Time is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Some will say its overrated, but as of yet, no other Zelda game has had the same impact on the franchise or industry as a whole than Ocarina of Time. It successfully brought Zelda into the 3D world, much like Mario did with Super Mario 64, and took the franchise in a bold, exciting direction. For the first time, we could actually experience the world of Hyrule as it went about its daily life. We could explore its secrets in greater detail, and become more immersed in its history and people than was ever before possible in a video game. The original Zelda on the NES was the first example of an open-world game, and Ocarina of Time was the first truly open-world 3D video game, paving the way for modern games like Skyrim. The time-travelling mechanic was a breakthrough in storytelling, as gamers could see how their actions in the past could affect the future, and the lock-on “Z-targeting” control scheme kept the action focused on one-on-one combat. Every moment I played the game I was smiling (at least on the inside, as is the case with the Water Temple). It’s hard to describe this game without going into superlatives, but even now, even 15 years after its release, I still regard it as the greatest video game ever made.
On A Personal Note: Ocarina of Time is filled with so many ionic moments that it’s hard to describe them all: walking out into the broad expanse of Hyrule Field for the first time; Link saying goodbye to his childhood friend, Saria; pulling out the Master Sword; discovering that Sheikh was actually Zelda the whole time; and the final bittersweet ending. Impressively, the manga series by Akira Himekawa manages to condense the epic story into two standard-sized manga volumes. They are pretty easy to find (Chapters usually has them, as well as most comic book stores), and hits most of the high notes from the video games. I think these would be a good way of introducing someone into the world of Legend of Zelda, since they can be read in a couple hours and follow the story of the game pretty closely.
Also, LEGO Zelda needs to happen.